Perennial Herb Garden

Last summer I started a perennial herb garden just on the other side of our orchard.  Although I grew up eating fairly bland food and have cooked that way myself for years, as I get older I realize that I enjoy herbs and spices more than I thought I did!

Perennial herb garden

Here is my Perennial herb garden looking from East to West, with the oregano section in the foreground.  The oregano started out as one small plant, but has spread and will probably fill in the bed this year.

I decided to start a perennial herb garden because I found that buying fresh herbs at the market can be quite expensive.  Even when I find the price reasonable, sometimes I have to buy too much for the recipe I am following and end up wasting some of the herb.  So, I decided to start growing my own.  Of course I will continue to plant basil seeds every year, and red peppers to make my own red pepper flakes, but the perennial herbs seem to take care of themselves.  In fact, it’s rare that they get bugs.  That’s probably because of the aromatic oils in the plants themselves.  My only problem has been with our &%$#(@# vole that insists on tunneling right through my beds!

The rosemary plants look pretty good. They are fairly drought tolerant and have virtually no pests, but our honeybees will absolutely maul the rosemary blooms when they appear later this spring,

I grew rosemary for years at our old house and ended up with huge rosemary bushes that weren’t very well tamed.  Our kitty cat used to sleep under the rosemary during the hot summer afternoons and she would come into the house smelling like heaven!  I am just learning to cook more with rosemary, and made a delicious rosemary sourdough cracker a couple of years ago.

I have also tried growing oregano before and really enjoyed learning to make Italian and Mexican dishes with fresh oregano.  However, I have never grown sage or thyme, which I had heard are fairly easy to grow, especially in my 7B/8A climate. In fact, when our new house is finished being built, there is a hill right behind our covered patio where I will be planting thyme, as it is supposed to be a great ground cover.

I decided to locate the garden right behind the log retaining wall that is terracing our orchard because many herbs are deterrents to deer. In fact, my research reveals that deer detest rosemary!  We haven’t had a real problem with deer in our orchard/garden, but I’m all for double purpose plants!

So, I decided to plant the herb garden with the four basics:  oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. Did I just hear Simon and Garfunkel in my head? 😉  All of these are perennials.  Up in the garden I also have a few other perennial herbs including lemon balm, spearmint and lavender.

Growing lemon balm in a perennial herb gardenThe lemon balm is in a planter right next to the bee hives.  There is an old folk tale that bees will not abandon a hive (swarm) where lemon balm grows, so that is why we planted it there.  We also have another lemon balm plant right next to our bee watering pond, so you can see I put a lot of faith in some folk tales!  We’ll see how it goes this year.  Lemon balm was once called a “poor man’s lemonade” plant, because not very many pioneers had lemon trees, nor could they afford lemons, but lots of people can grow lemon balm!

I am keeping the spearmint plant contained in a large pot.  Spearmint is known to spread willy-nilly and is hard to get rid of once established.  That is why, even though it is crowded, I am keeping it in a pot.  I will find a wider pot for the spearmint later this spring, however, so it can spread it’s roots a bit more. But I must warn you, my plant kept trying to escape this past summer by producing runners down to the ground seemingly overnight!  Of course, these runners are what I snipped and used for my kitchen. I love putting a few bruised spearmint leaves in hot water with a touch of either honey or a few stevia leaves, letting it cool, then drinking it over ice.  Ahhhhh.  So refreshing on a hot summer day! Growing spearmint in a perennial garden

The lavender is located just above the log retaining wall, near the strawberries.  Lavender lavenderinfused water is also yummy, and I just love putting a few dried sprigs in my drawers for a fresh, clean scent.

My dresser drawers, silly.  🙂

When Ray and I went on a farm tour a couple of years ago, we visited a farm that specialized in aromatic herbs including lavender, clary sage and lemon verbena.  In their gift shop they gave away lavender cookies and let me tell you, they were absolutely delicious!  As you can see in the picture to the right, I haven’t cleaned the lavender bed yet, but I will get to that soon.  My husband gave me the beautiful garden armillary for our anniversary several years ago, and my father made the concrete pedestal.  When the lavender is in bloom, this is such a beautiful vignette in the garden. And the armillary actually keeps pretty good time!  Speaking of thyme…

Thyme

This is the thyme, which has spread triple from what I planted last spring.

All of the herbs survived well over the winter, despite all of the wind, rain, hail and snow, and are showing signs of good spring growth.

The sage is  the herb in my garden that looks the most winter worn, but it is showing signs of new spring growth, so I have faith it will do just fine. Ray and I can’t wait to try a new sausage recipe that uses fresh sage. Yummy.

I pinched a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme the other day for one of our new favorite veggie cooking with rosemary and thymedishes:  roasted root vegetables!  All I had on hand this time were potatoes and carrots, which is just fine, but parsnips, rutabaga, even radish works in this dish. Just a couple sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped fine, salt and pepper, drizzled with olive oil, and the vegetables come out browned and caramelized, seasoned to perfection. What temp to set the oven?  Just about anything from 300 to 425, so you can roast meat or bake bread while roasting these healthy and delicious root vegetables – just knowing that they will cook faster at higher temperatures  MMMMMMMMM…

 

And the cute little kitty reclining on a rock that you may have spied near the sage?  That is in memory of my sweet kitty, Missy, who was queen of our neighborhood for 15 years and will remain forever in our hearts.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

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Top Bar Beehive Update

Last spring Ray and I built a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive and installed a package of worker bees and a queen.  Through the spring and summer, we have been reading up on how to

top bar bee hive installation

Here is Ray checking to see that the queen has been released from her cage. Yes! She was free!

take care of our bees (who knew you are supposed to rotate the top bars around?) and we think we have kept them well fed and happy.  Our favorite book, which we refer to often, is “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder.

All summer we have been on the lookout for native and purchased flowering plants that the bees would like, and avoiding plants that are poisonous to bees, such as azaleas and rhododendron.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few buckeye trees around, but there are none on our property.  The Buckeye tree pollen is mildly poisonous to adult honeybees, but it causes fatal wing deformity in the brood.  There isn’t anything we can do about the trees surrounding our property because they are  indigenous to our area, but what we can do is cultivate lots of safe and healthy plants for our bees.  We found a beautiful flowering plant by the side of the road that was completely covered with honeybees, butterflies and bumblebees.  Our son, Matthew, is a Forester and identified it as a  medicinal plant (for humans) called Yerba Santa!  We gathered some of the seed from the plant and hope they will germinate this coming spring so we can plant them in near the beehive.

We also planted a bush called Euonymus japonicus.  We had one at our valley home that was absolutely mauled every spring and summer by honeybees.  We planted the bush about 15 feet behind the hive so the bees will have a short commute.  We also planted two lemon balm plants (Melissa officinalis) because we read somewhere that if you plant lemon balm near a beehive, the bees will never leave.  After all, Melissa means “honeybee” in the Greek language! Even if that’s a wive’s tale, that’s okay, because I found that a sprig of lemon balm, a sprig of basil and a few stevia leaves in a gallon of water makes a wonderfully refreshing drink.  We also planted a pot with spearmint.

Top Bar Beekeeping

You can see the spearmint on the left in the pot and the lemon balm in the planter on the right. The two bushes in green pots behind the beehive are pomegranates.

Of course, next spring there will also be all our fruit and nut trees in bloom, along with the lavender and jasmine we have planted here and there around our new homestead.  We hope to have happy, well fed bees that won’t need much supplemental feeding in the future.

We enjoy showing our bees to our family and friends also.  When my sister visited our homestead, it was time to check on the bees and rotate any top bars that might need, well, rotating!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my sister Deana. Now I think she wants a beehive too!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my dearest sister Deana.

I let her put on my bee outfit and enjoyed watching her reaction as Ray lifted some of the bars for her to see the comb, brood, workers and (of course) the honey! I was truly surprised how brave she was. There she was, right in front of the hive, and she had no fear!  I will admit, however, that sometimes the wonder of it all erases fear.  Our grandchildren were a bit more timid, however, and chose to observe the hive at a fair distance. 🙂

It’s amazing how lucky we have been with our bees.  After reading other blogs about honeybees and several books on backyard beekeeping, it seems we have done a lot of things right, but an equal number of things wrong!  When we first installed our bees, we basically sat back and watched them fly in and out of their hive entrance, and after our second inspection to verify that the queen was laying eggs and comb was being made, we thought our work was pretty much done.  Then we read in Les Crowder’s book that you have to check the hive every other week to make sure the bees weren’t cross-combing.  Cross-combing?  What’s that?

Cross combing is when the bees don’t make straight, vertical comb.  It’s when the comb is rounded or crooked and runs into the next comb.  It’s when your bees have run amuck.

Kenyan top bar beekeeping

Wow! This comb is straight and absolutely full of brood and honey!

After reading this we ran to our hive (well, maybe we didn’t actually run) to pull out some of the top bars and find out if our bees were behaving poorly.  Nope.  Thank goodness, our bees all passed Geometry 101 and their comb was straight, vertical and perfectly shaped. Every single one!  Wahoo!  Of course, that is what lead us to do a bit more reading on what else we were supposed to be doing.

Hmmm…  Chapter 5 in “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder… apparently if the bees think their home is too small, they will swarm in the early spring. Not a total disaster (not all of the workers leave, and usually a new queen has been coronated), but swarming is something most beekeepers like to avoid because the colony that is left after a swarm is usually small and weak.  However it is possible for the hive to build back up, especially if there are still brood in the combs, the new queen is laying, and there is enough honey for back-up.  But, again, it’s not what a beekeeper wants.

How do you avoid a swarm?  Apparently you have to make sure the bees think they have plenty of room left in the hive for expansion.  You do this by moving some of the top bars around, putting empty top bars between full ones, and making sure there are always a few empty top bars in the back.

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn't it beautiful?

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn’t it beautiful?

So, that’s what we did.  We moved some of the bars around, in a pattern suggested in Les Crowder’s book.  But, while moving the bars around, Ray noticed that one bar had come apart and the weight of the honey in the comb had made it drop to the floor of the hive.

Darn.  Shoot.  Bad luck.  Well, I guess all we could do was harvest that one.

Of course, I’m being facetious here.  We were actually more than happy to get a sample of our honey!  Besides, our Beekeeper and Master Gardner friend, Kim, said we should harvest some honey.  Why?  “Because”, she explained, “it’s like deadheading a rosebush. If you keep clipping off the spent roses, the plant will continue to make more roses.  So if you harvest some honey, the bees will be stimulated to make more honey!”

Okay!

Harvesting honey from a top bar beehive

Here is the honey dripping from the crushed honeycomb through the paint strainer into the ice cream bucket. High tech harvest!

My mom had given me some nice ice cream buckets, which I assumed were food grade, so we used a paint strainer and the bucket to separate the honey from the comb.  I had to crush the comb a bit while it was in the paint strainer, but I was lucky that this comb only had raw and ripe honey, no brood.  I would have felt bad if there was brood in it, but apparently there usually is, so I will have to get used to sacrificing a few brood to be able to harvest honey.

Since this comb had raw, unripe honey in it (honey that hasn’t been capped yet and therefore has more water in it), I knew we had to use it right away.  Honey that hasn’t been capped is likely to ferment, which wouldn’t be so bad, because fermented honey is Mead!  Although we do plan to make our own Mead next year, we decided to use our fresh honey instead drizzled on biscuits, French toast, waffles…

I may be prejudiced, but I think our honey was the best tasting ever!  It was dark and fairly thick, and Master Gardner Kim informed us that it probably was cedar honey, which made sense!  We have cedar trees on and around our homestead, and the dark color with a slight hint of “forest” in the honey led us to believe she was probably right.  Although we harvested only one small comb, we got about ¾ pint of honey.  It didn’t last very long 😉

Natural beekeeping

This is our first harvest of beautiful golden, tasty honey. I can’t wait to harvest more next year!

During our observations of the hive, we have noticed the bees coming in with various colors of pollen.  For a while in June, they all carried heavy bags of yellow pollen.  A few weeks later the pollen was a darker orange.  In August, we noticed the bees carrying an almost pure white pollen!

Then, it happened.  While watching the bees coming and going from their hive entrance, observing the color of the pollen they were bringing in, I guess I got too close.  I got stung.  On my eyebrow.

Since I haven’t been stung by a honeybee in years, I didn’t know what my reaction was going to be.  So, I ran into the trailer (screaming like a little girl) and took a Benadryl, an aspirin and put an ice pack on the sting.  The truth is, it hurt.  A lot!  After about an hour, however, I knew I was probably not allergic to bee stings (I was still alive), and the pain started to fade from there.  I think the anxiety of a possible allergic reaction may have exaggerated the pain.  But the next morning, when I looked in the mirror, I saw quite a site!  The entire area around my eye – the eyelid, my cheekbones, the inside of my nose and my crow’s feet – were all a bright pink color.  Not just bright pink… iridescent bright pink!  It looked like a four year old put some hot pink eyeshadow on me in the middle of the night!  Disco Fever anyone? Every time Ray looked at me for the next couple of days, until the color faded, he would chuckle.  So did I.  It was really quite funny.

Keeping Bees Naturally

Aspirin, Benadryl and an ice pack – recommended remedy for bee stings.

Up until I got the bee sting, I was becoming more and more comfortable around the bees.  That’s probably why I got stung.  I had become too complacent.  I was foolishly standing less than two feet from the entrance to the hive without any protective gear on and no smoke.  Also, I was aware that the hive had successfully fended off a few attacks by yellow jackets, and so were probably at high intruder alert.  That bee sting was totally my own fault.  Too bad a bee had to give her life because of my stupidity.  Lesson learned.

So where are we now?  It’s autumn here on the homestead and the days and nights are getting cooler. The bees are still coming and going, bringing back pollen and a deep reddish brackish color of pollen, which I actually think may be propolis.  Propolis is used by the bees as a sort of glue to help shore up any holes in the hive, preparing for the winter cold.

We will probably open the hive only one or two more times before winter actually sets in.  We plan to give them some sugar water during the winter just in case they didn’t get enough honey to last through until the first honey flow in the spring.  So, there isn’t much more we can do at this point but wish them luck and pray that they make it through the winter.0001

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