Gardening in the Orchard

While we wait (and wait) to get our building permit, we have kept ourselves occupied and sane with our garden/orchard.  We made raised boxes in the orchard a few years ago, when the trees were little babies.  Now, as the trees are starting to reach a more mature height and width, many of the planting boxes in my garden don’t get enough sunlight!  So, obviously, this will be the last year I garden in the orchard.

The reason we put the garden in the orchard in the first place was because we needed to water everything automatically, as we were still living 1-1/2 hours away in the valley and coming up to water every other weekend or so.  We set up an automatic watering system with zero pressure timers (hard to find) and small tubes to distribute the water.  Now that we are living here, we can water every day by hand, if needed, and the watering system has been largely dismantled

So, here is my picture heavy post of all the happenings in the garden/orchard.

First up…  Strawberries!  Lots of them.

Next I want to show you the zucchini and yellow crook neck squash.  We put them in a raised bed that we moved to outside of the shade of the larger trees in the orchard between a couple of small peach trees.

The yellow squash has gone absolutely nuts!

Can you see the celery in there?  Ray and I attended a workshop at the Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa last year that taught us a lot about gardening that we didn’t know.  One thing they stressed was the need to plant in every available space – which provides living mulch, companion advantages (one of my favorite books is “Carrots Love Tomatoes”), and actually uses less water.  We also learned a bit about rotation of crops and succession planting.  So, we took our lesson to heart and planted the celery with the squash, peppers with strawberries, and squash with corn.

Speaking of peppers with strawberries:

They seem to be doing well together.  We have already picked off a few red bell peppers, before they got red, because the poor plants were barely big enough to support them yet!

And then there are the beans.  I love black turtle beans and plant them every year.  The first ones I planted were from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and I have been selecting the biggest and best plants to collect seed for the next year’s crop.  This is the third year of saving my own seed.  The black turtle beans are bush beans, which works well for me because I put the kentucky wonder pole beans on the opposite side of the bed, where they can climb up the trellis without shading the black beans.

Of course, I couldn’t have a garden without some tomatoes, garlic and basil… right?  You can barely see them, but there is some spinach seedlings just reaching their first set of leaves up to the sky.  Sounds like a good salad to me!  Oh, and the nasturtium flowers are also edible, and add a colorful spicy note to a salad.  They will be blooming about the same time as I will be able to harvest a few spinach leaves. 

The potatoes are starting to bloom.  I have three of these potato towers in the garden.  If you have never seen this before, it’s a way of growing lots of potatoes in a small space in your garden.  This variety is the Yellow Finn potato.

I was very pleased that Steve made it through the winter.  Oh, you haven’t met Steve? Well, let me introduce you.

This is Steve, my stevia plant!  He is now four years old.

We had to uproot our two artichoke plants last year because the poor dears kept getting nipped on their toes by our &$@#%(& voles and/or gophers.  But, they are doing well nonetheless.  I can’t wait to be able to get them in the ground again, but since our perennial garden is going to be near the house, they will just have to wait.  Once house is built, we will be able to get our permanent perennial beds done.

And then, there is this monster.  It’s a spaghetti squash.  I try to grow something new every year to see if it is something I should keep in my garden.  Last year I tried Fava (broad) beans and Amaranth.

Okay.

So, I thought I would plant two of the three sisters together – corn and squash.  Well, I should have planted the corn first, waited a few weeks, THEN planted the squash.  The poor corn can barely see the light of day because the squash is growing and GROWING! I put a tomato cage around it hoping to contain it, but obviously that’s not gonna happen. Seriously, I think I can hear it growing!  Since I like to name my plants, I think I will call this one Audrey!  Hopefully she won’t be a maneater 😉

To the left of the squash is my lemon balm.  I use that for my tea also, for a refreshing lemony taste without the lemon.  A crushed up stevia leaf and that’s all I need.  Ahhhhhhhhhh

Tucked in here and there are a few marigolds, some sweet pea and the nastirtums.  They are supposed to repel some bad bugs but bring in the good ones.  We’ll see.  Even if they don’t, they will be pretty in the garden anyway.

And the last picture?  Today’s harvest, of course!

 

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Another Top Bar Beehive and DWV

We lost our beehive last winter. Well, we didn’t LOSE the hive itself, it’s just that the colony of bees occupying it died, and their death was probably our fault!  We felt soooooo bad.top bar beehive death in winter

However, since we thoroughly enjoyed being beekeepers, we decided to just go all in, make another hive and order two sets (one queen and 3 pounds of bees in each set) so that we would have two!  Not only would we have more pollinators for our fruit/nut orchard and our vegetable/herb garden, but we would also enjoy more honey and bees wax with another hive.  Besides, it would also double our chances of success getting a hive to survive the winter!

new hive 1This spring, once Ray was up to it and well on his way to healing (that story here), he made another top bar hive box in pretty much the same manner as our last one.  We did change a few things so there would be better ventilation, but the dimensions are pretty much the same so that we can share the top bars with each other.  Making this hive took a lot less time because we knew what we were doing.  We will see how everything goes this year and if the colonies make it through the winter, but we are hoping to make our third hive next spring!  🙂 a new top bar beehive

We bought our bee packages from Oliverez Bees, just as we did last year.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the install.  I could give you some excuses, but the truth is that I was so excited and nervous that I simply forgot!  However, I did get a shot of the bees through the window viewing area just a few short weeks after they were installed.  Holy cow, these gals are building comb like gangbusters!

But then, one day about a month ago I saw this…

new top bar hive

Ugh!  Is that the deformed wing virus caused by the varroa mite?  I did a lot of research and, yes, it was probably the DWV.  UGH! UGH!  What were we going to do?  We wanted to have organic hives and not use miticide.  In fact, one reason we decided to use top bar hives was that the cells are smaller in Top Bar Hives (TBH), which produce smaller bees faster, which reduces the impact of varroa mites!  We knew that, unfortunately, there was probably no way to get around having varroa mites, which can kill a colony, but instead we could try to control them.

new top bar beehive

The California Buckeye, sometimes called Horse Chestnut, has a beautiful bloom and is a gorgeous tree when in full bloom. Unfortunately, the pollen causes Deformed Wing Virus in honeybees!

Another potential cause of the deformed wing virus, however, is pollen collected from the California Buckeye tree, which causes this deformity in brood.  And we have seen some California Buckeye Trees around.  If this was the cause, and all the brood was not effected, then the colony might be okay.

Well, when the bee with DWV was found, we were at the beginning of another honey flow.  There were lots of flowers blooming – especially the blackberries! And the weather report said that we were in for a week or so of 100+ degree weather down in the valley, though thankfully it wouldn’t get that hot here.

In researching miticides, I read that you do not want to apply during either a honey flow or during extreme heat, so even if our hive was being infected with the DWV, we had no choice but to watch it die right in front of our eyes.  The worst part of watching the hive die was knowing that the other hive would probably also be effected.  UGH!

So, the heat came and went!  Let me tell you, it was Hot Hot Hot!

When we checked on the hives a couple of weeks later, it was amazing!  They had literally doubled in size!  They weren’t dying at all, they were thriving!!

new top bar beehive

The colony as seen through the observation window in the side of the hive.

 

So…  how could this be?  I was actually prepared for another funeral!  Time for more research (don’t you just love Google?), and I think I may have found the answer.  I read on an entomologist’s research paper that while honeybees can live in 130-140 degree temperatures in the hive, the varroa mite cannot!  Wow!

So, if the DWV was caused by the varroa mite, the heat may have come at just the right time!  Of course, if the DWV was caused by the California Buckeye tree, then we will probably see some young bees with DWV every year in the future because we cannot cut down all the Buckeye trees within a honeybee’s foraging radius, nor would we want to.

Our tango mandrin in full bloom. The honeybees just maul this tree when it is blooming!

Our tango mandrin in full bloom. The honeybees absolutely maul this tree when it is blooming!

What we can do is plant more flowering fruits and vegetables and ornamentals that are good for bees, to keep them foraging at home.

Right now we have a small vegetable garden where our bees forage, and there are also numerous wildflowers around. In the spring the bees can forage from our fruit and nut orchard. Once our house is built we plan to have grapes, boysenberries and blueberries and will also plant a few more fruit trees here and there.  Furthermore, I want to expand our herb garden, which at this point includes rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender and sage, which I know the honeybees just adore!

Here it is mid-summer, and during a hive inspection I took a picture of some of the comb while Ray was lifting them up.  Although we didn’t plan to harvest any honey, we felt it was necessary to take one comb from the larger hive (the new one) as it was almost full. new top bar beehive The bees already had comb on about 2/3 of the top bars! A full hive is one that will potentially swarm, which is something you definitely do not want!  We also moved a few empty bars in around the center of the hive, to let the bees see that there was still a lot more room in there.

We chose one comb that had mostly capped honey and very little brood.  I extracted the honey by crushing the beeswax comb and hanging it in cheesecloth above a bowl for about twenty-four hours.  Once most of the honey had drained out of the comb, I put the beeswax on a paper plate and set it outside about 20 feet away from the beehives.  The bees clean the honey off the wax in a day or two.  I flipped the wax over and the bees obligingly cleaned up the rest of the honey.  I put the almost clean beeswax into the freezer and will finish cleaning it up later.

new hive 4

We got about a cup of honey from this small harvest.  This honey is very sweet and a bright golden yellow – perfect for cornbread!  Yummmmmm…

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Home-made Kelp Fertilizer

Make your own kelp fertilizer

Our compost pile consists of kitchen and garden wastes. Sometimes the wildlife and at other times the neighborhood dogs spread it around for us. 😉

Ray and I have been composting for several years now.  We throw all of our fruit and vegetable waste into the pile, along with tea bags, coffee grounds and washed egg shells, then turn it once a week or so.  Other than the egg shells, we had to stop putting any type of animal product (old cheese, unwashed egg shells, expired milk, etc.) into our compost pile because the local wildlife and some of the neighborhood dogs were attracted to it, and they would spread the compost from here to there, making a terrible mess.  Even so, we still got good compost!  But, let me explain why we don’t want to rely on our compost as our only soil amendment, and decided to make natural kelp fertilizer.

Before I go any further, here’s a little vocabulary to know:

Macronutrient:  an element required in large amounts for plant growth and development, consisting of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium.

Micronutrient:  an element or substance required in small amounts for normal growth and development of living organisms, including iron, copper, iodine and zinc. There are actually many more micronutrients than macronutrients.

Monoculture:  planting the same crop year after year, usually in large plots of land.

Make Your Own Kelp Fertilizer

Monoculture: where one crop is grown year after year on the same large acreage.

🙂

One of the biggest problems with monoculture  is that many of the micronutrients that we (humans) require are well used up from the soil after just a few years. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, are added back to the soil by farmers, but what about selenium, copper, magnesium and cobalt? Generally, these micronutrients are not added back to the depleted soil, which means the resulting food produced on this land will not have these essential micronutrients.  Soils depleted of micronutrients is one reason why many of our foods available at the supermarket are not as nutritious as foods offered just one hundred, or even fifty years ago!

In the compost pile we can easily take care of a plant’s need for macronutrients.  Nitrogen, which promotes leaf growth, can be provided by chicken manure.  Potassium, which aids in flower and fruit development, can easily be added to the compost in the form of wood ash, which also adds calcium.  Phosphorous stimulates root growth and can be obtained from bone meal or bone char (burned bone meal).

But what about the micronutrients?  Where are they going to come from?  If a lot of the fruits and vegetables you purchase at the grocery store are lacking (monoculture) in micronutrients, therefore throwing your apple cores, squash peels and moldy carrot tops aren’t going to magically add these micronutrients.

Of course, you could always use a fertilizer that you purchase ($$$$$) containing a lot of the micronutrients that may be lacking in your soil.  Or, you can make kelp fertilizer!

Why kelp fertilizer?

Because, unlike soil that generally sits in one place and can be lacking this nutrient or that, our oceans are constantly circulating water (that carries micronutrients) all over our earth, and therefore the plants that grow in the ocean (kelp/seaweed) have more nutrients available for them to take in!

Kelp only has a small percentage of potassium, so it’s not a primary fertilizer of macronutrients, therefore it must be added in conjunction with other fertilizers, such as the aforementioned chicken poop, wood ash and bone meal!  Better yet, the nutrients in kelp are held in organic molecules, which is a form readily available to plants.

Another benefit of Kelp fertilizer is that it contains cytokinins, gibberellins and auxins, all valuable plant hormones. Studies show that cytokinins play a vital roll in cell division and enlargement and gibberellins aid in stem elongation, germination, and flowering.Make Your Own Kelp Fertilizer

So, last September Ray and I vacationed on the Pacific Coast and harvested an ice chest full of kelp.  We got lots of Bull Kelp, Kombu, Porphyra (nori) and Bladderwrack. According to Superfoods for Superhealth, in California we can harvest 17 pounds of seaweed/kelp per day from most public beaches!

DIY Kelp FertilizerOnce home, the seaweed was soaked in fresh water for about an hour, drained, then soaked in more fresh water.  This was to help remove the salt, sand and any little critters from the seaweed.  The seaweed was then placed in a large barrel with more fresh water and left to soak overnight.  Through the process of osmosis, a lot of the salt in the tissues of the seaweed are extracted into the fresh water.  That water was dumped and more fresh water was added – just enough to cover.  Now it was time to brew up some fertilizer!  A screen was placed over the barrel, and it was left in the hot sun to start fermenting.

how to make kelp fertilizer

Our ice chest full of kelp/seaweed.

The brew had to be stirred at least once a day.  Twice is best.

Boy, did it ferment!  The first few days everything seemed to be going well.  When I took the lid off the brew smelled like the beach the seaweed was taken from.  A little sour and musty, but nothing extreme.  There were a few flies trying to get into the brew, but I was able to fend them off.  That was until about the fourth or fifth day…

Peeeeeee yooooouuuuuu!

Let me tell you, this stuff gets stinky!  By two weeks we were wondering if the smell could get any worse!  Every time I went to stir the concoction, my eyes would water because it smelled so bad.  If I could describe it to you, it smelled like, well, hmmmm….

… actually, there really isn’t a description for the smell.  Just take my word for it, it’s stinky smelly!  If you decide to make your own kelp fertilizer, don’t say I didn’t warn you!  I could smell the fermenting sea juice at least 25 feet away.  50 feet if I was down-wind!Diy Kelp fertilizer

After a month, I could see that the kelp was breaking down into a stinky, almost gelatinous brew.  While I was stirring, I would always think of my high school days reading Macbeth…

“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
After a couple of months the brew wasn’t quite as stinky.  Either that or my nose was just starting to get used to it! 😉  Apparently, the fertilizer is ready when it is no longer stinky, but instead smelled like a fresh summer day on the ocean.  So, I wasn’t quite there yet.
Now that we were into November and with the cooler days, the fermentation process was slowing down.  No matter, at least I wasn’t afraid of what the neighbors were thinking anymore!

But then Thanksgiving was just around the corner and Christmas shopping had to be done. Between birthdays and holiday festivities, I forgot to stir the goop every day.

How to make your own seaweed fertilizer

Looking into the barrel, you can see the fermenting, gelatinous and stinky, very stinky kelp!

A few weeks later, when I remembered, I noticed the smell wasn’t noxious anymore!  I’m not sure I could describe it as a fresh summer day on the ocean, more like soured jasmine flowers, but I believe the fertilizer was finally ready for bottling!  Hooray!!  At that point I fished out most of the remaining solid pieces of kelp, and added it to the compost pile, but I thought I should let it sit for another day or so to let any other solids float to the bottom before I used the spigot to bottle my liquid gold.
Then we went away for a week and came back to this:DIY Kelp fertilizer
And this:How to make kelp fertilizer
And this:Make Your Own Kelp Fertilizer
A bear had visited our homestead and tipped over my precious barrel of fertilizer!
Yes.  I did say some “not-very-nice” words such as #$%& and &@$#%!   After all that work! Waaaaaaaa….
Instructions on making your own seaweed fertilizerI was able to save a little more than 1/2 gallon of my precious fertilizer.  The good news is that the kelp fertilizer is to be diluted 15:1, so I actually have quite a bit of fertilizer left to add around my plants.  And as a foliar spray it should be used 20:1.  That was the good news.  The better news?  My dear husband suggested we go for another vacation to the coast to get some more kelp!
Yes, please!

 

 

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My Garden Thief!

Who stole my sunflowers?

You can see one of our Italian honeybees right in the middle of this beautiful sunflower. Sunflowers are so pretty, aren't they?

You can see one of our Italian honeybees right in the middle of this beautiful sunflower. Sunflowers are so pretty, aren’t they?

I had six beautiful large heads of sunflowers growing in my orchard.  The bees were enjoying them, I was enjoying them, and I had the perfect recipe lined up to use the seeds. Then, one night, the largest sunflower disappeared.

Harrumph…  🙁

Well, I never…

Do you see something missing here?

Hmmmm…   something seems to be missing.

Do you see how it looks like the top of the stalk has been chewed off?  That was the first piece of evidence I saw.

who stole my sunflowers 4Then, throughout the orchard in no less than six separate spots, I found piles of cracked seeds. Strange that the thief would move from spot to spot to eat the seeds, but then (of course) there may have been more than one culprit!

It’s a real shame because I have a really neat recipe I couldn’t wait to try out using the sunflower seeds.  I was going to use the honey from my beehive, with ground almond flour from my almond trees, along with chopped toasted almonds, dehydrated apricots and cherries from my orchard.

I was going to use egg whites from my neighbor’s chickens (we will be getting ours next year) and some pine nuts from, well, pine trees!  We are surrounded by Sugar Pines and if we can get to the cones before the squirrels do, the nuts are mighty fine!

I found this recipe many years ago when our homestead was just a dream.   I didn’t write down the name of the book, so I can’t give credit to anyone.  Sorry.  Then, in my shortsightedness I didn’t write down specific amounts either – just ingredients.  What was I thinking? So, this recipe will have to end up as another one of my experiments. Apparently, however, the base of the bar was to be made with frothy egg whites into which almond flour is folded, then poured into the base of a rimmed cookie sheet and baked  for some amount of time. I would assume about 8-10 minutes – just to get it to set.  A mixture of chopped dried fruits, seeds (my missing sunflower seeds), chopped nuts and honey is spread on the base, then baked for another amount of time until done.

Doesn’t that sound good?  The best part is that I will be able to produce every single ingredient called for in these delicious (I think) and nutritious bars!  I may even add pumpkin seeds to the mix.  For a different variety, wouldn’t dried apple and pear chunks be good with toasted walnuts?  Maybe even acorn flour!  Yum.  I can’t wait to try this, but alas, I have no sunflower seeds.

Speaking of squirrels…who stole my sunflowers 8

I think this may have been our thief.  We have lots of them in our trees.  In fact, our neighbor lady (who recently moved) fed them!  I know this isn’t a great picture, but the silly things won’t stay still for a photo!  😉

 

However, this may have been the culprit…

Steller's Jay

Did this Steller’s Jay eat my sunflowers?

The Blue Jays have been hanging around a lot lately.  We have had a terrible drought here in California and it seems our bee waterer may be one of the only sources of water around for all the forest critters to slake their thirst. Sometimes they go through more than a gallon of water every day!

Nonetheless, I would assume the bird would have just landed on the stalk, eaten the seeds and dropped the shells below the plant.  Besides, chewing the entire seed head off the stalk would have been difficult for a Steller’s Jay. Since there are no shells directly below the plant, and Jays don’t have teeth, I don’t think the culprit was the Jay.

Yeah - right outside my window! Sneaky little thief!

Yeah – right outside my window! Sneaky little thief!

The evidence speaks for itself –

Mr and Mrs Squirrel enjoy sunflower seeds!

I am glad that right now I don’t have to feed myself and my family completely on what my dear hubby and I grow and raise here on our fledgling homestead. I would like to be food self-sufficient soon, however, and if TEOTWAWKI happens (as many people think it will) we will need to protect our food sources more carefully.  So, the squirrels gave us a valuable lesson today. (Um – thank you?)  We need to protect our permanent garden much better than we have protected the temporary garden we have set up in our orchard.

If we plan to be self-sufficient when it comes to fruits and vegetables, nuts and herbs, we must build our permanent vegetable garden like a fortress and reinforce our orchard!  The garden will have metal fencing at least 7 feet high (so my tall hubby Ray can walk upright in the garden) with a metal roof (chicken wire?) over the top, and at least 1 foot deep into the ground to prevent tunneling critters.  This should keep out the squirrels and Jays.  It sounds like a lot of work, but I believe at this point it will be an absolute necessity!

Especially after we found jack rabbits in our compost pile!

How do you keep critters out of your vegetables?

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