Fertilizer core

April 23rd, 2016

I have a friend in the Department of Natural Resources who hooked me up with the ultimate sustainable fertilizer:


A particularly nasty invasive species, the Blueback Catfish is so good at killing off native species that the DNR periodically has to round them up and cull their numbers as best they can. Normally they’re just thrown away, but I requested “a few” and ended up with a brimming 60 gallon rubbermaid tub of disgustingness eco-friendly soil enrichment.

I took all the smallest ones and dipped them in woodash as if I were breading them with cornmeal, then wrapped them in little packets made of phone book pages and froze three grocery sacks’ worth. Each of these is going to be planted individually underneath a “hungry” seedling: tomatoes and corn for example. Or at least that was the plan. I may have gotten a bit generous and started giving them to all my cabbages and cole crops (hey, they like nitrogen too right?) and I only have one grocery sack left that I am hoarding for the summer crops. Melons and pumpkins and squash, oh my.

Of course before doing any of that I had to cut them right in half. Their front and dorsal fins have nasty barbed spines on them laced with neurotoxins. Wouldn’t want to accidentally prick yourself on that spindle, for sure. So basically, even more grossness, guts everywhere, extra stink. Ugh. My chicken shears got quite the workout that day.

I still had enough left to dig a 2-spades-deep trench down the middle of two 30-foot-beds and fill the bottoms with necklaces of dead, stinking fish. I sprinkled my remaining ashes on the fish, then piled in heaps of shredded leaves (in the hopes that they might help mask the smell from curious digging raccoons) and replaced the soil on top. I managed to do all the outdoor work in a single day – it was 80* that day and I had no wish to store a rubbermaid tub full of three-day-old fish in my garage. I was quite motivated, you might say. I finished up after dark, but I did get all the fish in the ground with not a thing wasted.

So I don’t know if I’ll have enough fish to do my plan of one small one under each seedling. I’m already feeling greedy for more – but holy crap that job is something I hope to never ever have to do more than once a year. Probably one of the most disgusting things I’ve done, and that’s saying a lot.

BUT! I’m so excited to see if it makes a difference in the plants’ growth this year. I think one of my chronic problems has been underfertilization, and perhaps this will provide that extra boost. I dream of cabbages bigger than watermelons.

Supers installed, colonies limping

April 22nd, 2016

Took advantage of the gorgeous weather this week to go out to the bee yard. Here in Maryland we have a very short, very intense honey flow from April 15th to May 15th, and that’s about it for the year. If honey is going to be made, it’s pretty much got to be made in that window. So I’m anxiously watching the colonies, crossing my fingers that we do get honey this year for the first time in several years.

Colony 1 Lady Grey is just booming and looks utterly fantastic. I’m really glad I “checkerboarded” the brood frames (inserted new, undrawn frames between every two full brood frames) when I was in there back in late March. At the time I was just kicking myself (right after I did it we had a horrible cold snap and I was worried we’d lose all that brood that they couldn’t keep warm because they were too spaced out.) I wrapped the hives in insulation and crossed my fingers, and everything seems to be fine. These frames have already been fully drawn out and are starting to be filled, just like every other frame, so it is possible that I averted swarm pressure there.

Colony 2 Darjeeling has a lot of drone… like frames and frames of it. My first thought when I saw that was “oh crap, a drone layer”... but then I found a few frames of worker brood as well, so that’s not it. Colony 3 Ceylon (last year’s swarm) keeps just barely put-putting along. They haven’t drawn out any more comb – they haven’t even finished drawing out the single deep they’ve been in since last July. I left the second box on top just in case they suddenly start booming, but I’m not betting on it. They’re not taking syrup and the queen seems to be barely laying. What she is laying is worker brood, in a good pattern, just not much of it.

I asked a bee mentor about the second two colonies, wondering if I needed to replace the queens.

  1. Is the excessive drone brood a sign that the queen is getting old and running out of sperm? It certainly isn’t going to help to have all those extra mouths to feed instead of workers during the nectar flow. It takes 21 days for a bee to grow from an egg to a baby bee; another 21 days before it is ready to forage leave the hive and forage for nectar. So in order to have a worker ready to forage by April 15, its egg has to be laid by March 4th. I didn’t see nearly enough capped worker brood in there. Maybe they already emerged (March 25th?) and this drone comb is merely what replaced them.
  2. Why hasn’t the other queen kicked her laying into high gear yet? She’s already missed the critical window for laying workers in time to be ready to work during our very short nectar flow. There will be no surplus honey from this hive this year.

My bee mentor says it’s still very early to decide to requeen. He advised that I wait another brood cycle (21 days) before checking again. I wonder if I should be using those 21 days to try and raise some queens of my own. I could take a frame of eggs and a frame of capped brood from the good colony. Sandwich it with 2 frames of honey/pollen and 1 of capped brood from the poor colony and put them in a little nuc. The nurse bees in the nuc would draw out the good eggs into a queen with better genetics, and once she started laying I would use that nuc to requeen the poor colony. I think I might try.

In the mean time, the supers the girls and I painted sure do look cheerful up there.


A few days later the bees still aren’t using the top entrances at all, but perhaps it will take time for them to change their habits.

Food Forest in a box

April 20th, 2016

I scored an absolutely fantastic deal on a bundle of fruit trees. NewFarmSupply.com was advertising a special bundle through the Survival Podcast (a podcast with which I do not align politically but which is always interesting and has especially enlightening sections on homesteading and permaculture issues). Anyway, these fruit trees were all species I had already wanted, but at such a good price that I just couldn’t resist. So a few days ago…


10 each: Anatovka apples, seedling (new, unnamed cultivars!) apples, pecan, chestnut, persimmon, pawpaw, redbud, and sweet cherry trees. Eighty trees. Oh, and they threw in a few extra just because they’re awesome like that. So did I go immediately plunge them in the ground?

…No, I did not. I am not remotely ready for that yet. I’m still topping the hugel beds with the enormous mound of topsoil I had brought in. I’m not even completely settled on the final spacing.

I’m going to tour a real, working food forest tomorrow night, which should give me a lot of insight. In the mean time I’ve discovered the fantastic nearmaps.com, which gives me a fantastically clear view and lets me do stuff like lay out circles of certain sizes, measure distances, etc.


The biggest circles are the pecans and chestnuts, which have 40′ spans, and then the little 20′ circles all around their edges are the understory trees, apples and cherries etc. Sofía and I went out with little flags and a measuring tape and marked out the circumferences of all the circles. Now I have to take a step back and decide which of the existing trees need to get weeded out and replaced with new ones. I’m having a tree expert come help me decide some time this week and I am not looking forward to the permit process nor the final bill.

In the mean time I have all the dormant saplings heeled in in the cool, dark basement. They haven’t broken dormancy yet, but once they do I’ll have to pot them up. Hopefully I’ll have figured all this stuff out before I have to go find eighty pots!


Super honey supers

April 7th, 2016

I got a sweet deal on a table saw last Fall – a brand-new, in-original-packaging Skilsaw model for $40. Sure, it’s dinky and light and not accurate enough for really fine woodworking, but it gives me so much more freedom to create larger projects. Especially ones from plywood.

With three hives overwintered, my new problem is that I’m running out of equipment. Some people put 6 honey supers on each of their hives – minimum! – in the Spring. I’ve only personally seen 2-4 though, so perhaps it’s different in Maryland.

But I had only enough for one super each. Since two of my hives look like they’re really raring to go, I don’t want them to run out of space by backfilling everything with honey and then decide to swarm away because of lack of space! Clearly, I needed more supers and I needed them fast.

But buying six boxes takes some serious money. Price-wise they’re only about $15 each, but then shipping something so heavy comes to like $75; all told six boxes were going to end up costing me nearly $200. That much money would buy a heck of a lot of honey.

I got some good thick plywood and, thanks to the table saw, easily made my own instead. Rabbets for the resting frames and everything.


I wasn’t confident enough to try to route handles in them (and didn’t want to expose more of the inner surfaces of the plywood to the elements than I absolutely had to) so I nailed on handles instead.

That hole and its pretty little landing pad are very important parts of a honey super, saith Rusty in this article from Honey Bee Suite. The idea is that bees will much more readily draw comb and store honey in supers that make it convenient to do so. That is, they’re more likely to use a honey super that isn’t perched on top of a tower of boxes with a single bottom entrance that forces them to climb all the way up and down the tower each time they want to deposit some nectar. I’ll give it a try.

Then I had my helper prime the boxes with me:


She actually did help quite a bit!

Because I want more color in my bee yard, I invited the girls to help me make these boxes less boring. Using all the little dribs and drabs of paint from cans in the basement, I think we did a pretty darn good job!


I think they’re beautiful and I can’t wait to use them. Just gotta do a clear coat on top and then wait for warmer weather before I open the hives.

Oh yeah hatchlings

April 5th, 2016

Oops! I forgot to tell you what happened with all those eggs!

Well, this:


Despite a couple mishaps, everything went according to plan:


First mistake: the thermometer I was using at first turned out to be 6 degrees too cool. I only found out about three days in (and then immediately Amazon Primed a replacement thermocouple that I adore!) so the hatching was delayed by a day or so (they develop more slowly when it’s cooler).

Second mistake: three or four days before the hatch I actually dropped one of the eggs, spiderwebbing the end and even drawing a tiny bit of blood from the membrane. Damnit, I thought, and then put it back into the incubator just in case. That chick hatched just fine!

Out of 22 eggs, only 5 didn’t make it. The only sad death was a chick that had fully developed, had even “zipped” a crack along the top of the egg, and then just lacked the strength to push its way out.

Those things happen. Never intervene, They say.  Never ever crack open the incubator on hatch day, They say. Well, They can go shove it.  After that pointless death I decided to trust my own instincts and helped a couple others with that one final push after they’d been struggling for hours. And look what we got:




Lots and lots of little fuzzies!

They’re in a huge 4′ long Rubbermaid tub right now, but they’re going to need a bigger brooder very soon. In the mean time, they are just loving their new digs. I’m giving them extra edible plants from the greenhouse to nom on, and a plate full of sand that they love to take dust baths in and peck at. They get so excited when I refill it and put it back in, it’s hilarious!


About half of these will turn out to be dinners roosters; some, I’m raising for a friend; and the remaining 8-10 will become my new layers in about 6 months.

Overwintering sweet potatoes

April 3rd, 2016

Remember last year, how I got that absolutely massive couple of sweet potatoes from my new hugel bed?


They turned out great, sweet and not fibrous at all like I’d feared.

So in case part of their massive growth was due to amazing genetics and not just the pond goop I’d topped the hugel with, I kept the top of the biggest. I decided to try and keep it alive over winter. It sprouted a short little forest from its top and then just sort of sat around politely over the winter months doing very little.

My calendar reminded me back in the middle of March that it was time to start sweet potato slips. Normally I just plunk a sweet potato (organic, so it’s not treated with a sprouting inhibitor) into some water and wait for it to root and start sprouting on its own. It takes a very long time. But since I’d overwintered the potato itself, I had already skipped both those steps. I decided to start one conventionally just for the sake of comparison. I set a sweet potato in a mason jar  with some water and started waiting.

And waiting.

This is what they looked like a week ago:


The overwintered one was still patiently waiting with a head full of slips ready to go, while the standard one had just one measly little rootlet sticking out into the water and no slips at all. Overwintering saves so much time.

I went ahead and plucked off the ready slips from my saved potato and dropped them into the water of my little solar fountain. Each one will become its own separate sweet potato plant.


Two days later they’re already rooting.


I’ve always bemoaned how long it takes to sprout sweet potatoes, and how often I’m not ready by the time the planting window rolls around. Looks like I’ve found a solution, and one that lets me select for the genetics I want, too.

Plus, the sprouted sweet potato looks kind of like an ugly little bonsai, doesn’t it? Pretty cool for a houseplant. :)

Sculpting the woods

April 1st, 2016

I’m finally to the point that I’ve cleared out and colonized all the land left inside the garden. I want more room, specifically more room to grow perennials, and I’ve been eyeing the little strip north of the garden – maybe 1,000 sf or so – between the top of the garden and the road. Right now it’s just a spot where mulch and woodchips get dumped. It’s a problem area because it’s always soggy, wet and squishy; trucks get themselves mired and a few have even had to get towed out of there, the mud is so bad.

BUT. I’ve been studying the water patterns in the woods for a few months now. It’s much easier to do since I’ve cleared out much of the brush – I have a clearer idea of the overall picture of how water gets onto the land and where it wants to go. In this particular corner, the problem isn’t the water table exactly like it is in other places. Located at the bottom of convergent slopes something like half a funnel, as well as the location of the output drain of our basement sump pump, this area is mostly a victim of rainwater runoff. I believe I might be able to channel that water by cutting in a creek or two with an excavator and leading them to a small pond further in from the road.

This area is very young scrub growth/early succession forest, mostly. There are only three to four trees in it large enough that I wouldn’t try to cut them myself; the rest are all young saplings maybe 6″ in diameter and less. Red maple and wild non-fruiting cherry, both trash trees. All of them young enough that I feel no regret chopping them down to plant more useful species of trees, but also old enough and straight enough that I might be able to harvest some genuinely useful poles and such.


The largest trees are so tall that they may not cast smothering shade on a young understory tree – in fact they might be useful as nurse trees to help shield the saplings as they grow. So they might be able to stay. The more diversity there is, the more resilient the soil food web.

I want to use this space to plant a real permaculture food forest.


I spent all weekend out there with a handsaw and a sawzall, cutting down the saplings I could; I managed to make 3 small hugels of branches, detritus, etc. and get them heaped over with a first layer of woodchips before I gave up. These hugels are not going to be huge by any means. They are simply there as a long-term source of fungal-based compost for the young trees and as a breathing space for when that area of soil gets saturated (if my pond idea doesn’t end up working like I think it should.)

They are also there running perpendicular to the slope of the land, to help prevent rainwater runoff from funneling down from the street into the garden. Let all that wasted rainwater soak into these wood compost sponges and nourish my trees and bushes instead.


It doesn’t look like much, but you should have seen the size of the hugels before I topped them with the heavy wood chips. At least it is starting to look a tiny bit more organized. And look how many lovely, straight(ish), useful poles I harvested as well. These are certain to come in handy.

I can’t wait to show it to you once I’ve gotten an actual chain saw – sometime this week, perhaps. While I feel bad chopping down trees – even little ones – I have to keep reminding myself that I’m replacing them with much more productive species. There will be nut trees, berry trees, nitrogen-fixing trees… ten each of 8 different varieties, to be exact. Oh yes. 80 trees. More on that in a later post.

And in between the trees I am going to plant all kinds of woodland plants that thrive in the understory – blueberries, currants, blackberries, mulberries, elderberries; ramps perhaps, or ginseng; oh, the list goes on. There are so very many possibilities for woodland guild plantings.

This little piece of land is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the chickens as a force for tillage, sanitation, and bug control. Chickens can wreak absolute havoc in a vegetable garden as they scratch up delicate annuals and tear them to pieces; but perennials are made of much hardier stuff. Chickens clean up dropped fruit, eat up any insect larvae that fall, preventing further generations, and can scratch in any heaps of mulch or compost that I leave lying about. If my rainwater-runoff-diversion-stream-pond idea works, I’m hoping to have some ducks running around in this paddock as well.

I’m looking forward to staring out at this little piece of land in the Spring and seeing flowers everywhere for the first time.


Sofía’s peach

March 31st, 2016

A few years ago, Sofía found a peach pit in the garden (probably from our own compost.) She begged me if she could plant it and I said sure… thinking of course the thing wasn’t going to grow. I explained to her that even if it did grow and give fruit, that fruit grown from seeds half the time aren’t very good because of the way pollination works. Welllllll…..

For the past 3-5 years it’s just been the scrawniest, skinniest little peach stick you ever saw. Sofía is still posessive of it, still thinks of it as hers. She’ll take tiny little kid shovelfuls of mulch over to it when she sees me mulching around the bigger fruit trees (they’re so cute, her tiny little ineffective teacup-sized mulch heaps, but she’s so proud). If I’m going out with my probiotic spray for the orchard (neem oil, probiotics, kelp extract, etc) she may beg a little spray bottle of her own, just for this tree. She’s more interested in it than her annuals, for sure.

And now this year.


For the first time, two blooms, just as big and pretty as you please. Sofía was squealing with delight.

And now that there’s absolutely no way we could ever get rid of the thing, I’m coming around to the possibilities presented by a seed-grown native peach. It’s proved hardy through all our kinds of weather and hasn’t hardly suffered from any pest damage despite near complete neglect. It’s in one of the wettest spots of the garden and also one of the shadiest, and yet it’s not only survived but is now blooming and seems very healthy, if still very small, with no fertilizer or any of the inputs/protections that the other trees get.

We’ll let it set fruit and see what happens – I’m very excited to taste it if we can get it before the damn squirrels and coons do! Even if it’s not the most tastiest fruit out there, though – a small peach that can produce in shade and doesn’t mind wet feet? Sounds pretty unusual and promising to me!

I’ll tell you what, though: I’ll be paying a lot more attention to it on my mulching and fertilizing schedule from now on.

The bees are back

March 30th, 2016

For the first time since 2009, I’ve overwintered 100% of my 3 bee colonies. (MD has the highest rate in the nation of colony collapse disorder.) As I checked mid-March, they were all three alive and queenright and even had frames of honey left. The two largest were churning out brood so fast I had to stick empty frames between full brood frames (“checkerboarding”) to prevent the bees from swarming because of  perceived lack of space.

The third colony, which was the swarm I rescued last year, is moving very slowly. No signs of disease or pests that I can see visually, but a low brood pattern compared to the others. I’m worried they won’t have enough foragers ready in time for nectar flow (April 15-May 15 in mid-Maryland.) If production hasn’t boomed the next time I inspect, I will have to requeen. Honestly, I should just be proud of them making it through the winter at all. There’s an old saying, “a swarm in July ain’t worth a fly”; it’s probably because a swarm caught in July doesn’t have enough time to build up any sort of stores to survive the winter.


But! They’re all alive, and seem happy, and that’s amazing!

I gave Ceylon an extra deep box to fill with brood anyway, just in case, and I gave Lady Grey an extra medium box too. Darjeeling was doing so fantastially well that I went ahead and added a queen excluder and a honey super.

I’ve started feeding 1:1 sugar water (they use it to make honeycomb, which they need to fill the supers with before they can stuff them with honey.) The syrup will be removed just before nectar flow begins (I don’t want to harvest sugar water instead of honey). If I don’t feed it, they won’t be able to make nearly as much wax comb, which means they wouldn’t be able to store any new honey even if they did bring it in.

I heard an interesting recipe from Michael Jordan (aka. The Bee Whisperer) of “A Bee Friendly Company” on how to make their feed a little more nutritious and palatable for the bees. The process is a lot like making tea, steeping things like chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm etc. into the liquid. He then dissolves honey into his. While most beekeepers agree that honey is better for the bees than sugar, I don’t have a source of extra honey. So I used my standard 1:1 cane sugar syrup instead. I also changed the amounts a little because of what I had and didn’t have.

Jordan’s recipe for biodynamic bee feed: makes 1 qt.
2 cups good water, bring to boil.
Remove from heat, add 2 tbsp each:
chamomile, yarrow, stinging nettle, and peppermint. (Can substitute with 4 drops essential oil each).
Add 1 1/4tsp each:
thyme, lemon balm, sage, echinacea, allspice. (Or 2 drops each essential oils).
Steep 7 minutes and strain.
Add 1 cup cold water and let cool lukewarm.
Add 1 cup good honey (1/2 pound).
My experiment: made 1.5 gallons+
8 cups good water & 16 cups cane sugar, brought to simmer & removed from heat.
To a cheesecloth bag I added 3 tbsp each dry chamomile & yarrow. I didn’t have stinging nettle. I used 16 drops peppermint oil (4 drops/quart) and thought I’d made a huge mistake – it was eye blistering. (Next time I will HALVE the amount of peppermint oil, or use only the dried herb.)
I added 1 tbsp each dried thyme, dry lemon balm, fresh chopped sage & whole allspice berries. Didn’t have echinacea. Wrapped it all up in the cheesecloth and dunked it in the hot syrup & mushed it around for 7 minutes. It became a pretty light yellow.
After steeping, I added in the rest of the (cold) water and let sit til cool. Then I splashed in an extra cup of water because the peppermint still smelled very strong.

As you can see, I wasn’t sure I completely trusted this new recipe so I made a very dilute batch (well, except for the peppermint, and that I wished I had diluted.)

Results? The bees are sucking it down like crazy! They had been taking my simple syrup fairly well before, but this stuff is nearly gone a single day later. Either they suddenly realize they better start making comb right away before nectar flow and they’ll take whatever they can get…. or it’s true that steeping flowers and herbs in the syrup makes it closer to their actual favorite food, flower nectar. Which does make sense.

I plan to get the missing ingredients and serve them this faux-nectar (at half strength until I judge results) instead of the “industry standard” plain syrup from now on. Hats off to you, Mr. Bee Whisperer! Thank you!

Raised beds, or wanna-be hugels

March 28th, 2016

I just finished reading one of my most favorite gardening books to date:

Guys, I almost didn’t buy this book. I saw it and thought “oh, I have enough gardening books,” but then I saw Bonsall speak at this past bionutrient conference and he cracked me up! And then after hearing him speak and feeling bombarded with about ten thousand new ideas within the space of 40 minutes, I just had to have a copy of the book. I almost didn’t get one – they had sold out! But he was nice enough to give me a copy of his own and trust me to send him a check eventually.

This guy is hilarious. And get this – he’s a vegan who’s been growing all his family’s food in a sustainable way for years. So you can trust him to show you the most efficient way of doing things – and beyond that, the reasoning behind his methods and why they work. (Along with – and this was also extremely helpful! – experiments he’d tried in the past and how they did or did not work. Saving me some time.) His practice of scrounging for natural (free) materials anywhere he can (leaves as mulch, weeds as compost), and the innovations he’s come up with to make best use of those materials, really jives with my own modus operandi. I got so many good ideas from this book that I’d buy it again – if I had a friend as into gardening as I am, to buy it for. :)

But I’m not here to talk about this book tonight. I’m just mentioning it because one alllllll of the work I’ve been doing lately originated with a small idea I got from him: making the pathways as narrow as possible. Such a simple concept, but one I’ve never really thought about.

I’ve generally had 4′ wide beds and 2-3′ wide paths. Which is a lot of crop space wasted. Bonsall makes his pathways narrow and his beds wide. In the first years I’d never had to question it, since I hadn’t been able to use all the space I had. But now my garden is practically bursting at the seams and it’s time to rethink some basic layout.

I’m a short person so a 4′ bed is all I can reasonably deal with. And the paths – at least some of them – have to be wide enough to accept a standard wheelbarrow. But what if I shrunk all the pathways down to the minimum – and alternated sizes?  So a 20″ path (all that’s needed for a wheelbarrow) would flank one side of a 4′ bed. But between that bed and its neighbor there would only be a 12″ pathway – enough for me to walk, weed, plant, and not much else. The path on the outside of the second bed, though, would be 20″ again. So while every bed has wheelbarrow access from one side, and people access from both sides, I’ve saved a huge amount of space:

30″ 4′ 30″ 4′ 30″ 186″
20″ 4′ 12″ 4′ 20″ 148″

In just two beds, I’ve saved a little over 3′. Done through the rest of the garden, I can create 2-3 more full, 4′ wide beds, or 200-300 square feet. Enough to grow all the potatoes – half the carb calories! –  that a family of 3-4 would need in a year (Markham, Brett. Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 acre. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.)

It’s not just a simple matter of drawing new lines, though. Even though it kills me, each of these newly created beds has to be raised out of the bog (remember last year all my seedlings drowned in the torrential June we had).


the strange boards on the right are scraps of vinyl shed siding I found a neighbor discarding on the side of the road. The right dimensions, strong, and they’ll never rot – perfect.

Since I don’t have access to a lot of extra soil, I can only raise the beds by removing the topsoil, filling with logs, woodchips, chicken bedding, the boxes of coffee grounds my local Starbucks saves for me, leaves etc., and then replacing the topsoil. It usually takes me about two weeks to do one by myself.


these better grow some damn fine veggies.

By some miracle, an dear old friend came over and volunteered her help for a couple days. I swear, when she got here I could still see the glint of her halo. Together we started and finished an entire new hugel bed in one day. (And then we both went home and were sore for a very long time.) It was just incredible and I am so very grateful for her help. I don’t have a picture of that one, yet, but I’m so glad we’re up to 4.

Four hugels done! And this one of the driest Springs I can remember since 2008. Trust the year I finally put in the raised beds, to be the beginning of a long drought in which I will have to begin irrigating! HA!