Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tiny Veggies!

Here are photos of our early greens. These were taken last week, after three days or so of rain. These are a sample of what we hope to be growing in somewhat larger quantities next year. All of them were planted in rows about two feet wide and 38.5 feet long. They are respectively Red Oak Leaf lettuce, Russian Red kale, mizuna and spinach.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Power Toyz

Oh yeah! We're havin' fun now!

As you can see we received the Grillo and got it into action. It took me a while to learn how to engage the PTO. This has an automotive-type clutch and transmission. That is, an Italian automotive transmission. Mi parlo en po Italiano (I speak a little Italian), but I don't do it well: learning the ins and outs of an Italian transmission took some time. By the end of an hour, though, I was able to put this bad boy pretty much where I wanted it. The Grillo is a nice machine. It has 4 gears forward and 3 reverse; the forward/reverse control is in the right hand, the clutch in the left. It has independent wheel brakes, so swinging it around at the end of a row is pretty simple. The control column swivels to either side, and reverses 180 degrees entirely if the implement is to be pushed instead of pulled.

The tiller itself is just one of 4 implements we own. In due course we'll bring out the 53" sickle bar cutter, the chipper/shredder, and the rotary plow. I predict more fun will ensue.

We got this machine with a little (8 hp) Lombardini diesel engine. While diesel fuel is more expensive than gasoline these days, a diesel engine burns only half to a third as much fuel as a gasoline engine with the same torque (in our case 8hp diesel = 12 hp gasoline). In two hours of tilling this quarter acre plot into a finished seedbed I burned about 1/3rd of a gallon of fuel. Added benefits are the reduced maintenance of the diesel engine (on average they last twice as long as gasoline engines), and the flexible fuel potential. We're going to plant oil-seed sunflowers so in a real pinch we could use some of that pressed oil as fuel in the tractor, with some minor modifications.

After the tilling fun was over we planted some asparagus crowns, and companion planted some tomatoes and basil. We planted some strawberry crowns, so we'll soon have a bevy of strawberries (we hope). And we also transplanted our pak choi and tat soi which we had started in paper tube planters. Hopefully the deer won't get them before I get the higher electric fence into action. Another concern is that we have frost potential tonight and tomorrow night. I covered the sensitive things with straw this evening, so hopefully we'll weather this cold air without loss and get on to growing in earnest.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Da BeeZ!!

We are now livestock owners! As of a week ago, Edward returned from a business trip to the D.C. area with two packages of bees.

In the interests of general FYI, we did take classes in beekeeping back in 2006 from the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association. Boy, did we learn a lot! Ed has had a long-standing interest in beekeeping, and he found out about the class. When we found out that Yvonne could take the class for less if she came along, we thought, "That's a deal!" Turned out to be an even better deal than we imagined. In addition to the broad range of experiential data we received, beekeepers are some of the most colorful human beings on earth. Attending MCBA classes and meetings were educational in more than one sense of the word.

The important part, however, was how helpful and enthusiastic the club members were to get new beekeepers (the "new-bees") started. In the past 15 years or so, a great number of hives in the U.S. have been decimated by various blights, parasites and other less transparent factors. Knowledge of these issues is important for anyone planning to keep hives. Beekeepers have to know what they are looking for in their colonies to accurately assess the well being of their bees. Seasonal awareness of weather, nectar flow, pollen availability and neighbors' attitudes have all got to be on the beekeeper's radar. This preparation helped us greatly to start our own hives.

Last week, we started out bright and early Sunday morning to introduce our bees to their new homes. We carried the two packages out to the spot we'd selected between our blackberry brambles and the garden. Fortunately, the temperatures were balmy and there was little wind. We carefully pulled the queen cage (along with dedicated attendants) from the first package, quickly covering the opening it left on top of the main package so only a few more bees would fly out. We balanced the queen cage between the hive frames as we had been instructed so that the rest of the bees would be able to find her quickly. The cage holding the queen is often stoppered with a candy plug which the worker bees will chew through to release the queen. This cage had a small cork plug as well, guaranteeing some insurance that the queen would make it to her new home safely.

Later we would assist our workers in getting the queen out by gently pushing in the cork when we discovered her still in the cage a day later. The workers now had greater access to the queen's chamber and could enable her escape.

Then the real fun begins. We have to remove the can of sugar syrup that has been feeding the bees, while one of us (Ed) up ends the cage and dumps the buzzing, excited contents into the hive body. Only our bottom section has frames to get the hive started so there's room for two feeders to give the new occupants a food supply. Ed deftly handled this duty with verve and élan. Then we did it all again for our second hive.

We are happy to relate that few injuries were sustained. We both already possessed beekeeper's jackets and kept our hoods on during the moving operation. A day's inspection later revealed that the bees were starting to build out the wax foundations, gather nectar and generally make themselves at home. There was some burr comb on the floor of the hive bodies and between some of the frames Burr comb= any comb built in a random fashion around the frames.

It's best to scrape this off as soon as it is discovered so that later the hive body doesn't resemble a random mess of labyrinthine combs. In addition, it's best not to let the queen to have time to lay eggs in this stuff so that when it's removed, you are not killing off developing bees at the same time.

Here at the end of Week One, we were happy to see both of our queens busily moving about the hive, attendant bees on duty and eggs clearly present in the comb. There were even a few capped cells with honey! We also had to scrape out a bit of burr comb to abort some extracurricular building projects. One small piece of burr had some capped honey and pollen. So far, the apiculture experiment seems to be well under way.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Signs of Life

Slowly, Spring is catching up to us. Nothing pleases a future farmer more than the sight of young snow peas stretching for the sky. In addition, recent surveys reveal small arugula, kale, and broccoli sprouts are joining the horticultural ranks. The potatoes that we planted last week are just beginning to green. As per tradition, April's farewell gift to us was a few days of cool rain. We felt lucky; most of April was dry (except, of course, on the days we had flurries!).

As the introspection of winter wanes, one welcomes the promise of new discoveries. Part of the fun of living here is that Ken and Linda, the former owners, are avid gardeners. Already established in a neat row behind the workshop are a row of blackberry bushes. Not far away from the blackberries, one of a row of cherry trees is now at the height of a full, snowy blossom.

A neat patch of rhubarb with its leafy-crowned, ruby stems is looking more ready each day for early summer jamming.

Judging from the nightly wossails of the local frogs in Otter Creek and the number of avian visitors that appear, the local ecosystem is in good shape. The cherry trees are attracting buzzing clouds of pollinating insects: bumble bees, honey bees, the smaller orchard bees and wasps. With all the news about declining populations of bees and other helpful garden dwellers, we feel as if our endeavors might stand a chance. Here's looking forward to summer.