Quasimodo’s Lips?

Our fields and berry patches are just brimming with fresh produce! IMG_6238We have such a wide variety of leafy greens to pick from every day! Spinach is a family favorite…I just need to come up with more spinach recipes and perhaps a better way to preserve it so that we can enjoy it year round. photo 4The peas look wonderful and the slim pea pods are quite edible at this stage but I also love eating the fully matured peas, in part because I love shelling the peas. This is a self supporting variety from Burpee called Easy Peasy, and boy, are they ever just that!IMG_6232The green beans are finally perking up and showing off in perfect rows….they really want to see the heat of the summer so it will be several more weeks before we have beans to eat. IMG_6231 The potato patch is really trying to steal the show with the sheer volume of their plants dominating one whole section of one of the fields. IMG_6234The cukes are finally up as well. Dave plants these in hills and then puts a trellis around one half to support the fruits.  IMG_6235This system worked quite well last year and we hope to make plenty of pickles again this year! IMG_6237Last Wednesday’s strawberry harvest was a single day record so far from this patch, weighing in at 25lbs 6oz! I picked again on Friday and the haul was smaller but still significant at 15lbs 10 oz, bringing the total YTD at over 95lbs. I find all sorts of creatures while picking in the patch…can you see how nicely this toad is camouflaged? He sure took me by surprised when he suddenly moved right under my nose!IMG_6208 I know I sound like a broken record since I am constantly telling people that I either have to go out and pick and/or work up that which I just harvested. In fact, I should be washing and hulling more right now but I had to take a break. Here is my favorite strawberry of the year so far….I call it Quasimodo’s Lips…I think it looks like ruby colored lips that are puckering for a sloppy, gross, kiss from himself! IMG_6176 The last blueberry row has finally been thoroughly weeded and mulched so we added the netting today but not before two black snakes, (Romeo and Juliet?) found themselves entangled in the blueberry netting at either end of the same row. Unfortunately, like so many other black snakes before them, they were not able to extricate themselves from the netting. I think they are attracted to the black soaker hoses that we have laid out in the rows. We are sad to have lost two more of these since they do their bit here by helping to keep the small rodent population in check.











The turkeys are making their presence known and although we see lots of them browsing about, this big tom was available for a nice photo as he found himself in a corner against the fence before gathering enough energy to fly up and over the roof of the house to get away. IMG_1189  Of course we are working hard to be ready with lots of flower beds for the wedding and are making sure the bride even has some nice sod underfoot as she steps off the back terrace and down the aisle! IMG_6214It wouldn’t be a Seven Oaks blog with out a bee update! Today I did another tour with Jurgen to inspect his bee hives but we started out the day at my favorite hives, the ones at Seven Oaks. IMG_1220The deep boxes were filling out nicely with lots of brood and honey so as I suspected, Jurgen wanted to add honey supers to each hive today. So we stacked another box on top of the deep boxes and filled it with frames for the bees to draw out. First we sprayed all of the empty frames with sugar water to attract them into that space and encourage them to start working on drawing them out with combs that they will then fill with honey. IMG_1233 After we finished up with these hives, we continued on to his other locations around town and found some good news at one hive in particular where Jurgen had tried a little experiment. He hoped that a queen would develop out of a swarm cell that he had placed in a queen-less hive and he found that he was successful! Not only did he spot the newly laid eggs to indicate that she was laying brood, but he also found the young queen herself which made him very happy! This is how good beekeepers work to expand their colonies. He also decided to add a swarm catcher to one of the locations so we took a break from our bee suits to walk around and find a place to hang the bracket up in a tree. A nuc box with bait for the bees completed the set up. This swarm catcher could attract a wild colony or also one of his own colonies that might decide to swarm. I think Jurgen is smiling because he is taking his beekeeping skills to a new level.    IMG_6217Here he is at one of his favorite bee yards. He has five of his hives here in various stages of development. The bees are easy to work and are being very, very productive. He will most likely get his first honey of the year from these hives in the next week or two. IMG_6223That’s all I have to say about bees today. Onward! IMG_6166


Memorable Anniversaries

Saturday was a very full and interesting day for me in the world of beekeeping. So far my experiences in beekeeping have been limited to reading books, attending workshops and beekeeping meetings, and watching our mentor, Jurgen, as he has worked the two hives he placed here at Seven Oaks in early April. He has generously offered me lots of explanation of what is doing and why and he consistently shares the experience by letting me feel the weight of a frame or points me to important things to observe in the hives. It is good that I’ve had some time to gradually learn what beekeeping is about since there is sooo much to learn. But the tide turned last week when Jurgen called and suggested that I accompany him on his hive inspection route over the weekend. (He supervises 19 hives!) The idea behind this is that I should now take the next step and advance to some hands on learning with his guidance.

So, as he advised, I equipped myself with my own hive tool and brush to go along with my smoker and veil jacket. I still need to get a couple more pieces of equipment but I was basically ready and willing on Saturday morning when I picked him up at 8:30am to start this day long adventure. We loaded Dave’s pickup truck with equipment and off we went to his first hive visit of the day. The skies were overcast and it was only 75 degrees so it was nice weather for working the bees. It was interesting to compare the states of other colonies to the ones at our place since I saw various stages of development. Some were more established than others and some were ones he “inherited” from another beekeeper and was trying to make do with both the hive condition and location. The first 3 stops were relatively easy to deal with – they had one, two, and three hives in each. I took notes in my log on the conditions of each hive which is a good practice but Jurgen also says that you are evaluating the hive each time you inspect it and so you don’t always have to rely on the history to figure out what to do next. Here are hives from one of the locations. IMG_6163Our fourth stop was one where he was caring for someone’s hives who had placed them poorly and had not maintained the equipment over the years so needless to say it was a challenge. These three hives were on a generous amount of land but were cramped together in a space that didn’t allow for a good approach and did not have the adequate space needed to work them properly. The bees were aggressive and difficult to handle so we made sure that we both had our smokers going at full strength. This was my least favorite stop. You want beekeeping to be fun and rewarding, not a pain in the A with miserable conditions that make the bees feisty! We were both happy when we finished up at those hives!

At one point in our day of inspections, Jurgen allowed me to act as the hive inspector and gave me the reins. This was a very kind gesture on his part, something that only a true mentor can generously offer. It is not unlike teaching someone to drive on your fancy, stick shift sports car and letting them grind all the gears and watching as they nearly dent the fenders. (Or perhaps letting a medical student learn to do surgery on a patient!!!) I’m afraid that I surprised myself at my clumsiness…what a novice I was as I tried out a new set of tools while wearing a space suit. I was so afraid of squashing the bees in the hive that I probably squashed a life time of bees that day! Arg! I really felt an abundance of patience from Jurgen as I used my smoker at times in such a fashion that spouted black soot into the honey combs (not good) or marred the honey comb with my hive tool as I tried to separate the frames. It was a great experience for me but he probably has a bunch of extra grey hairs after the day we spent. He continued to instruct with patience during a long, hot day. Thank you, Jurgen!

The outcome of our day of hive inspections came at the end of a long day when he suggested that I work the hives at Seven Oaks the next day by myself! I hope he wasn’t just so tired of me that he could not stand another day of hives with me, but I think he felt like there wasn’t too much I could do wrong on my own and he needed to get a little break too. So, I happily lit my smoker yesterday (it took me several tries to get it right – God, do I wish I had one of those lighters instead of matches!!!) and went out to do the routine inspection of our hives. Dave dutifully took pics from the terrace. Here I am inspecting the first hive using some smoke. IMG_1104This hive was ‘Queen Right’ since I saw evidence of new eggs at all stages, so the queen was actively working. The upper deep super was not drawn out too much so this one will probably continue for a week on feeding before adding honey supers, but I will defer to Jurgen on this. The next hive was doing well and was a bit further along in filling out the upper supper. IMG_1123I was able to close up the last hive after making notes on the progress and will share with Jurgen. Unlike the day before, I was not stung and did not kill nary a bee! IMG_1136So beekeeping was not the only thing happening this weekend. After a diligent search process, we finally located and planted the Crape Myrtles in the new bed against the back terrace. The difficult winter of 2013/2014 left many crape myrtle owners in distress and they all panicked and wanted to replace their old ones that basically just needed a bit more time to come back from the ground this year. But no one has any patience anymore and the nurseries told me that every other buyer this spring was looking for crapes. So, it was with much difficulty that we finally found the variety that we wanted to plant….and they arrived yesterday, full of blooms! IMG_6175 2 We spent the day working on all kinds of plantings both in the fields and flower beds which was tiring to say the least. I worked on preparing and freezing the strawberries all afternoon and intended to pick the next round of strawberries all day, but didn’t go out to the field until 5pm (it is best to pick in the morning after the dew is dry when the sugar is rising into the plant) but found myself picking until after 7pm and brought in another batch that was exactly one ounce short of the previous picking…this time 23lbs, 9.75 oz. Strawberries YTD 53.719 pounds! Lots of strawberry hulling in my future!

We woke today to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. The celebration is a mild one since there was so much to do both indoors and out. We planted vegetables as well as flowers and watered profusely since we wisely didn’t want to depend on the forecast of showers. We entertained my mother with a bit of lunch, followed by some strawberry preparation and a new recipe for a chocolate babka or an egg rich bread that she cut out from a recent newspaper. It is in the oven now, but looks enticing. How can you lose with lots of butter, eggs, sugar and chocolate? IMG_6194It is with great fondness and reverence that we also salute one of our family friends, 1st. Lt. Roz Schulte, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and laid to rest on Memorial Day, five years ago today.  Roz was a childhood and high school friend and team mate of our Kate and we all have such fond memories of her. She decided to enter the Air Force Academy after the 9/11 attacks her senior year of high school and after graduation from the academy, she served in the intelligence division before her untimely death. We honor her service to our nation today and every day.


Strawberry Picking and Spinach Pizza

The weather is delightful here! Bright and sunny with temps in the 80s and no humidity! We are getting lots done! So are the bees who love that the Bay Magnolia is blooming and has lots of pollen available!IMG_6135Yesterday morning I picked in the strawberries patch for about two hours and brought in 23 pounds and 10 ounces of shiny red joy…which when we went back to the previous years’ logs was just short of a single day record of berries! IMG_6156


This is wonderful, but all that work to grow and harvest the berries is all for naught if you don’t preserve what you can’t eat fresh. So, even though we have been stuffing our tummies with fresh strawberries, it is time to freeze some. Luckily, strawberries freeze nicely. I washed and stemmed them and and put them on a terry cloth towel to dry for a bit. IMG_6159Then I put them on half sheet pans and stick them into the freezer to harden. IMG_6160I love the little lipstick kiss mark they leave behind on the towels! IMG_6162  Besides the strawberries, we have had lots and lots of radishes to eat and have started using them in all kinds of daily dishes as well as eating them raw since they are still mild in flavor. These store well fresh and we will certainly plant another round or two since they only take 23 days to mature from seeds. IMG_6143Our other love this time of year is the wonderful spinach and lettuces we have available. We pick spinach for dinner each day and the miracle of miracles is that it seems to grow back over night and is ready to be picked again the next day. We continue to experiment with new ways to serve our three varieties of spinach and last night we came up with a spinach pizza! Goodness knows we make pizza quite often here, but when Dave told me his brother Vic’s favorite pizza had spinach on it, I figured we should try it. I proceeded with our regular dough and sauce and after the Italian cheeses went on, I added spinach that I had quickly wilted in the skillet on the stove top. IMG_6150I added some onion, mushroom, feta cheese and some chicken sausage that the butcher gave Dave to try. Needless to say, it was delicious and we will definitely keep this in the summer repertoire! IMG_6152I’m off to a day of beekeeping with our mentor, Jurgen, so I’m sure I’ll have more to report later today on the status of the bees!

R.I.P Blue Ray the Blue Jay

Alas, our injured blue jay died peacefully in his new bird-cage digs. This did not come as a surprise, given his injuries, but I did wake up thinking about digging some worms to feed to him but I found that he had actually closed his eyes forever. Although we were not particularly sentimentally attached, we gave him a bit of a burial (underneath a shovel full of earth) rather than just flinging his body into the woods. R.I.P.

The pace never slackens here. We have continued to harvest the strawberries and have found them to be quite tasty but perhaps not as overwhelming in numbers as last year but it is still too early to tell. So far, after three picking sessions, we have brought in between 6-7 pounds, the last of which was 4+ pounds, which is just enough to still enjoy fresh berries (at every meal!) without freezing or cooking into jams. The other early harvesting so far consists of spinach and radishes. Dave poses here with a possible wedding bouquet of radishes – what do you think, Kate?!? photo 3We enjoyed another light rain shower today after lots of work in the fields so it was rather ideal to have our new plantings watered in for us. I planted 216 ivy starts ( 6 trays of 36) in the front beds in the last two days and they really appreciated the rain.

We are seeing both pear and cherry fruits for the first time on our young trees. The new orchard is so young that we have been advised to snip off any young fruits and have done this on the apples, nectarines and peaches but it is fun to see first time fruiting on the cherries and pears! We know it won’t amount to a crop, by any means, but it is so fun to see the “fruits of our labor”!

The robin babies have flown the coop without the slightest indication of a farewell. One day they were there with lots of personality and the next day, the nest is empty, with not so much as a fare-thee well! Still no sign of baby barn swallows. The adults are a constant in the nest, so I still have high hopes for little ones to appear but the late cold front may have compromised their eggs. I’ll keep you posted!

I took a moment yesterday to add to my work apparel and finally bought myself some steel toed, waterproof boots, like Dave has. This is the ladies version from Red Wing Shoes, a company from Minnesota that sells all kinds of work boots. They have a very small store front here in town and it was fun to go in and get such special attention there. The gentleman who helped me said that it was very unusual to have had his second female customer in one day since I think they see mostly male buyers. The other gal works for Grant’s Farm with the Clydesdales and apparently that parent company decided to require steel toed boots for all employees. I guess I’m in good company! I will now be able to dig more efficiently with a more stable foundation on the sole of this boot when using a shovel, as well as to protect my toes from all the adversity that sharp blades on the farm can present. It doesn’t hurt to have a bit of distance between my ankles and any of the ever present snakes on site here too. Best of all, these are water proof, which means a lot to us since we work in all conditions possible. Here are my new boots! I’m sure the tan line at my ankles will be quite impressive in my Mother of the Bride Dress!photo 2

Blue Ray the Blue Jay…An Addendem to the Last Posting

Didn’t I just write about the serious interest one of our local blue jays had for our blueberries? Well, his interest got him into serious trouble so I just had to relate the adventures we had today with Blue Ray the Blue Jay.

Dave and I divided our attention today and he worked in back on the last blueberry row while I attacked the ivy in the front. Around 1pm Dave came to me with the news that it looked like a blue jay had gotten seriously caught up on the inside of one of our netted enclosures. He was so tangled that at first Dave was unsure if he was alive or dead. Dave texted me this photo. IMG_6094It turned out that in his struggle to get out of the netting, the jay had gotten one taloned leg entangled and the more he fought the net, the more entangled he became. Goodness knows how long he had been there! So, even tho I don’t like the jays eating my berries, I do love birds and had to try to set this one free, hopefully without cutting my precious netting. I donned my leather gloves and was flooded with the memories of our pet parrot, Merlin, as I attempted to set this guy free. IMG_6102 We worked on the situation for quite some time before it became obvious that we were going to have to either snip the net or the foot of the bird. Dave had my nice scissors at the ready so I gingerly cut the netting away to free him. IMG_6103Unfortunately, it seems that after hanging by the caught leg for such a long time, he must have dislocated it since it is limp and he is quite unable to fend for himself. What to do? If we let him go he would be killed immediately as nature does not provide much shelter for the injured or sick among us. Maybe this would be best? Or maybe I should just wring his neck and put him out of his misery. Do not fault me, but I couldn’t do either. I asked Dave to bring up one of our old bird cages from the basement and we put him inside. He looked pretty forlorn at first. I dribbled some water on his beak and he really liked that and responded. Don’t tell my mother, but yes, that is one of my Port Merion dishes in his cage serving as his water bowl!IMG_6106I thought this was probably pretty silly, and that he would not be with us very long. I was hoping to get him to eat something, so I put the grapes nearby, but then decided to open on up and serve him some dinner and he perked up and ate it from my hand! IMG_6112Needless to say, I’m sure his one leg’s injury will be the end of him but for now, he is fairly happy to have another day to see the light of day. He is now hopping around on his one good leg in his new digs. If this were an injured bald eagle, the wild life bird sanctuary would gladly take him in. Since he is a feisty blue jay, I’m not sure they would care to rehabilitate him, but I plan to call them in the morning if he is still hanging in there. From the looks of him, he just might be. IMG_6113Wouldn’t you know, I went back out with Dave to repair the compromised netting and found another jay inside trying to get out! This one managed to escape without serious injury! I wonder if it is Mrs. Blue Ray, looking in all the obvious places for her errant husband! Look for updates here on the continuing story of Blue Ray the Blue Jay! IMG_6107

Harvest 2014 Begins!

Someone must have been listening to my rant about rain in the last posting since soon after that we had the perfect amounts of ‘farmer’ rain. One night last week we had a prolonged, gentle rain that measured  0.50 inches which continued later that day for another 0.12 inches. During the next day or two we got another 0.50 inches that really gave everything out in the fields a nice drink. For once, we were quite happy despite the cold weather that came with it. Brrr, May isn’t usually this cold…it was 39 degrees one morning! As usual, somethings (peas, radishes, spinach, lettuces, etc.) enjoyed the cool weather and other things (tomatoes, beans, peppers, eggplant) were just marching in place, waiting for some sun and a little more heat.

But I have GREAT NEWS! Seven Oaks Harvest 2014 has begun! It is modest by any measure but so far this week we have been enjoying the radishes – Burpee “Cherry Belle” – which are very sweet and round with a gentle flavor. We have been putting them into our salads but these are so nice we just slice them and eat them next to our sandwiches at lunch. We even put them into the fry pan for dinners…see bottom of blog! IMG_6014We also picked the first of the strawberries in the last two days and have just over two pounds to show for it but there are many, many more in the patch waiting to ripen. We will easily eat this quantity of fresh berries as they come in but I do have memories of last year with as many as 8-10 pounds a day (for 4-6 weeks) when I was challenged to just make jam, jam, jam (90 pints last year) or freeze gallon after gallon bags of whole berries which we enjoyed all the year since. Welcome, fresh strawberries!! IMG_6082The blueberries are not far behind! We have been working to renovate the five rows our 5 varieties: Blue Crop, Blue Ray, Jersey, Patriot and Elliott. Each year we do a thorough weeding and mulching and add agricultural sulpher since the berries like acidic soil. This year, our best producer, Blue Ray, needed a super, duper jump start. The reason for this is a bit embarrassing, but I’ll share the details if it will help anyone else in the same situation. When we first planted our blueberries, we followed all the berry books as well as the advice of Sean, from Stark Brothers, on what to do. We made our rows the width and length he suggested and spaced our plants accordingly. We were advised to put down landscape cloth on either side of the plants in 4 foot wide beds and then add 4″ of mulch on top, adding decomposing saw dust to the mix.  We started this treatment with our very best, strongest looking row, the Blue Rays, but we made our biggest mistake with that most precious row. We bought inferior landscape cloth! We didn’t know the difference, but we do now!!! The cloth we used for this first bed was so flimsy that it started to disintegrate immediately…in fact, it happened so fast that we didn’t buy it for the other rows. This year, we decided to replace the old cloth and re-do this row. So, we weeded extensively since the landscape cloth wasn’t helping much. Then we unfurled the replacement landscape cloth (the type we used in the other beds) and got it ready to cut in half to put on either side of the plants. This cloth says it is warrantied for 20 years of “normal use”. Well, I doubt that, but I’m keeping the paper work just in case!IMG_6051Here it is after we cut it an laid it on either side and started to add the mulch. The white “snow” on top of the mulch is some of the saw dust that we mixed into the mulch as advised. IMG_6059 It is important to note that we pin the landscape cloth into place. You can buy metal pins to secure it, but we have learned to make our own. We take a hanger and a metal cutter and snip the ends and the middle and make 3 pins per hanger. Here is how we make them. IMG_6058Here is how we install them with the help of the “Persuader” that nudges them in through the thick cloth and into the soft ground. IMG_6054After all the cloth is secured with pins and the width of the bed is mulched, we install our soaker hoses for the season which are also secured with hanger pins to keep them in place. At the end of the day, we put on a package of new bird netting and our best row of berries is fully renovated and popping with berries. IMG_6071There is a blue jay watching as work the berry patch. He seems to have a great interest in the blueberries and we joke that he is well matched to the food he most likes to eat? We hope that although we have peaked his interest in the ripening berries, we are also circumventing his access to the crop as we have – in the last week – now weeded, mulched and netted all rows save the one which is the last variety to ripen.  We can’t wait for our best crop yet! The pale purple color is only an indication of the deep blue that is yet to come!IMG_6064In other news about the farm, I’ve been continuing to carefully prune away the evidence from the damage of last year’s harsh winter. As you may recall, we installed a burlap wind break on the front landscaping, in an effort to protect the Portuguese Laurels. It is difficult to tell whether the burlap helped or not, but these laurels look a lot better than others we have seen around town this spring. The good news is that all of the plants survived, are putting out new growth and most even have evidence of buds for future blooms! IMG_6078Time for my favorite topic, the bee report. In am learning that May is a particularly busy time for beekeepers. I attended the local club’s monthly meeting last Wednesday evening and listened to a very interesting program about Nectar management, swarming and finally, the main speaker, Corey Stevens, who spoke on “Raising Queens for Backyard Beekeepers”. It was all very interesting, and I wrote notes in my bee book for two hours straight,  but I’m still a bit over stimulated with massive amounts of information that is all new to me. I gladly attended a workshop at the Monsanto bee yard on Saturday morning for beginning bee keepers. We had two good presenter/demonstrators who made it clear that there are no absolutes to beekeeping since everyone’s methods are unique. So it is good to get information from a variety of beekeepers. Here are the club’s 8 hives which are in the bee yard at the Danforth Center across from the main Monsanto campus. IMG_6032
IMG_6033It was a chilly morning to open the hives but I learned a lot since part of the demonstration was to ‘marking’ the queen. You actually isolate the queen of each hive and put an ink mark on her back to make her more readily identifiable. There are 5 different colors used with this function in mind, with one color assigned to each calendar year in an effort to keep track of the age of your queen. This year is green, so we put a green spot on her back and then put her back into the hive. Now she will be a lot easier to identify since one of the tasks of a beekeeper is to check on the status of the queen in each hive. When you can identify that there are newly laid eggs and/or see the queen herself, you call that hive “Queen Right”. See how easy it is to spot her now?queen-rearing-006

We were also given a tablet of Hive Inspection Sheets that the club produced to encourage good book keeping methods. I keep a composition book where I take notes on all the workshops and meetings I attend as well as the hive visits here, but this form does promote good record keeping so I will include it in my files as well. IMG_6092Jurgen also paid us a visit on Sunday morning for a hive inspection at the farm. He now tends 19 hives and plans to get some more soon so there is a possibility that we might add some more too which is exciting. He decided to use his smoker this time around so he demonstrated his lighting technique. He uses a combination of cedar and wood chips and has an extra large smoker so that he can light it once for a day of hive visits. IMG_6046He was pleased that the bees had started to work on the second deep box that was added last week on hive #10. He put one frame of brood in the upper chamber last week to encourage this activity and we saw evidence that they are drawing out the combs, making honey and also new eggs were present. So although we didn’t see the queen, this hive was ‘Queen Right’ due to the larvae present. When we inspected hive #11, the bees had not really started to work on the upper box of frames so we needed to check down in the first deep box to confirm that the queen was present. Jurgen found the queen right away and isolated her so that he could do some re-organization without the fear of damaging her. Every time you open a hive, there is some degree of bee fatality so you want to work very slowly and gently to insure that above all else, you do not damage your queen. So this time, he played a bit of musical chairs with the frames and made sure that one of the upper frames had brood in it. This will encourage the bees to ‘move to the second floor’ to work on filling out those frames. IMG_1060 2He also did some maintenance and removed wax comb from the edges of the frames so I got a nice little souvenir of the day…fresh beeswax! IMG_6073At the end of the day we rewarded ourselves with a dinner that included 3 types of freshly picked spinach that was sauteed with fresh radishes from the garden. Spinach…IMG_6086Added to the sauteed radish, scallion and bacon bits… IMG_6088Equals yummy with a bit of feta on top!!! This serving of iron will help us have the energy for another day’s work! IMG_6090

The Birds and the Bees…How Appropriate for Mother’s Day!

We spent the last week furiously working in the yard and fields getting ready for what has been a false hope of some rain. I’m starting to think there should be at least two kinds of rain…one for picnickers and another one for farmers. The picnickers will report that it ‘rained’ if they experience a light drizzle under cloudy skies that may have put some dampness on their blanket. That is not rain! We experienced that last week when everyone was complaining about the rain but our rain gauge measured .26 inches after a day of precipitation. Then we were supposed to have a storm on Thursday but got nary a drop. Last night and today we were suppose to have rain but so far, we have had .02 inches and the skies are clearing, much to the delight of the picnickers.  The farmers need an inch a week, preferably not in a 15 minute span of time which also happened not too long ago. Wouldn’t it be lovely to get 1/2 an inch twice a week?

A good rain this time of year would certainly help the allergy sufferers who react to the spring pollens. Luckily, Dave and I are not particularly bothered by the pollens which is a good thing since Seven Oaks has its share of it! When the oak pollen drops there is so much of it that a gentle breeze will gather it in remarkable piles at the driveway’s edges. IMG_5923 The birds are appreciative of a gentle rain as well since it will bring the worms up to the surface and they can quickly bring home a fast food meal to their chicks. We are particularly enamored with the robin babies that hatched about a week ago at the front side entrance. There are three little babies who clamor for food when their parents return from foraging. They are not fully feathered yet and try to behave and hide when their mother is away so it is difficult to get a photo. Here are two of them showing me the backs of their necks with feathers so light on their heads that they look like fur. IMG_5945 The barn swallows at the front door are active too, having built their nest for the second year in a row in the same spot. I have not seen any babies yet but hope there is some activity in that direction soon so that the babies will be old enough to fly away by the time of the wedding which is now only six weeks away!

In preparation for the big day, we have finally gotten some new planting beds in order. Last fall when we were working on the new driveway we had the rear sidewalk reconfigured and it was then that I finally got rid of an expanse of hard-scape that always bugged me. It was no easy task to remove the stones that were laid on a concrete foundation, but at least the heavy machinery did all that work. This ‘opening’ allowed for the plumber and electrician to put in the gas piping and wiring for the outdoor grill area – how convenient! But it left me with all the rock and clay to deal with afterwards. IMG_4681  The setting isn’t that fabulous since the generator, one of the air-conditioners and the electrical meter are all located in the vicinity and require air circulation as well as room for maintenance but I figured I could greatly improve on the look and make a useful little herb garden out of the space. First, my friend Lucy came over and sat in the “hole” with me and we dug out countless buckets of rock and clay while we jabbered away on two recent afternoons. I then filled the space with 50% top soil and 50% compost and made sure it was mounded above grade so that it could settle some. I watered it for a couple of days to encourage the settling since I was eager to plant my herbs. I selected some flat stones from the rock pile (yes, we still have quite a collection of rock on pallets in back of the driveway) to form the design of my Parterre, which is the French word for “a level garden that is planted in sections or patterned compartments”.

I used the stones as a design element as well as a way to step in this carefully prepared soil. I then placed a wrought iron feature in the middle and planted and assortment of herbs and some small, distracting flowers. I’m told the bees will be very attracted to the herbs but I must say I am too! I planted some of the usual suspects: a variety of basil, oregano, parsley, dill, chives, thyme, lavender, but also some plants that are new to me this year such as fennel, horseradish and spearmint. I’m on the look out for garlic which I would like to add and rosemary which the nursery was sold out of at the time I went shopping. IMG_5980     I also managed to plant all the awaiting petunias this week…106 in one day plus many others!  IMG_5921I feed my petunias like crazy so that they bloom their heads off all summer and mound over the pots to the point that you can’t see the pots anymore. This routine is daily and looks like this. I give the petunias two types of specialized food on alternating days. Here are my bottles of food ready to go. IMG_5918I worked on weeding and hilling the potatoes yesterday and they look incredibly healthy! IMG_5960

We also worked on the strawberries which have set on like mad and are waiting for some sun and heat to ripen. I spent one morning weeding out all the wild strawberries. Wild strawberries are not as cute as people think and can just take over like a weed once they get a foot hold. They are a real detriment to the patch and so I was glad to have a chance to pull them along with some other weeds. It looks like it will be a good season for strawberries! Last year we began picking on May 19th and it looks like we might have that same timing this year. I will be interested to see if we get as many fruits this year. It will be hard to top the nearly 160 pounds from last year’s harvest! IMG_5916Here are the berries that are setting on like crazy! IMG_5990I think the bees took their job quite seriously both in the strawberries and the blueberries! I have never seen so many blueberries in this patch, which could be due to the bees as well as the maturity of the plants. If you recall, we have 5 rows with a different variety in each row that ripen progressively so that we are not inundated with blueberries (is there such a concept?) which is why some rows are still flowering…  IMG_5994 While others are already developing nice clusters of fruits! IMG_5991Time for the bee update! It is always a highlight of our day when Jurgen comes to inspect the hives. If you recall, we were waiting to see if the re-queening that took place two weeks ago in hive #10 had worked or not. Jurgen did not want to disturb that hive last week so he was very pleased yesterday to find eggs being laid, meaning there is an active queen working the hive! Yeah! He showed me that the bees are filling out the existing frames quite nicely and had me feel the weight of one of them so that I can imagine how very heavy a box of frames full of honey will be in the fall. IMG_1017With good news about the queen and the nectar ‘running’ (meaning available for foraging), Jurgen came prepared to add more frames to the hives. When he did this, he sprayed the new frames with sugar water to attract the bees into the upper box. He wants them to start to work on developing these frames (making new combs) with the hopes of getting more honey in the fall. The other thing that he did was to take the restriction away from the entrance of the hive. Before this, the opening was just a couple of inches wide and now it is the entire width of the front of the hive. IMG_1022I took advantage of nice weather that morning to mow the area around the hive and Dave used the weed whacker today to further clean up the edges . photo 1Here are the cleaned up hives with the added boxes. IMG_1053Of course any honey that is harvested from these hives will belong to my bee mentors but just in case any comes our way, I am experimenting with some honey recipes.  Today I am making Rolled Honey Spice Cookies using my new cookie cutter which was a Mother’s Day gift from Kate. Can you guess what it is?  IMG_5937


Bee One, Help One

Yesterday I had another interesting adventure in beekeeping. The Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association, EMBA, was having their annual Nuc (nuclear bee family) distribution day. The association trucks in honey bees (this year from Louisiana – the state, not the Missouri town where Stark Brothers Nursery is located!)  so that local beekeepers can replace or add bees to their hives in the spring. I was told by others that this was an extraordinary experience, so when the call for volunteers went out, I signed up to help. We had to be on site at 5:00am in order to work most efficiently in the dark before the bees were overly alert and feisty, so this is when my alarm went off…just after 4am.photo 8

That is not horribly early for us since we are often awakened by the birds chirping and Farley stirring between five and five thirty in the morning but the anticipation of an unknown and possibly challenging task caused me to be sleepless and ready to get moving and so I popped out of bed promptly at four. Farley thought it was wonderful to be up early since it meant he got fed! Dave was sweet to get up and make some coffee so that I was fortified with Java. Off I went to a new experience.

Of course I wore my bee jacket and veil and arrived to find a bunch of other ‘alien equipped’ beekeepers ready for action. I was feeling a bit nervous so I was glad that one of the organizers asked if anyone was new to the experience and my hand shot up quickly. I was in good company since several others had not done this before but the difference in comfort level was obvious to note. We newbies were in our gloves, veils and basically suited for this from head to toe while the old hands could hardly bother to suit up and were handing the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF BEES with great calm and nonchalance without even covering their faces until the light of day. As soon as the sun was up, the bees were a bit more awake and active.

Most of the regulars brought their bee smoker and these were puffing away to calm the bees as well. Each beekeeper seems to have a particular fuel and method for starting their smoker so it was interesting to observe. I plan to practice lighting my smoker today and will use the pine needles from our many pine trees as my fuel. Here is what a typical smoker looks like. The can is filled with the ‘fuel’ of choice and the bellows gives the container air, so that when you work the bellows, it puffs out smoke. I am told that a perfectly fueled can will last all day without refilling, but I’m not sure about that yet. 71P9FLm46zL._SL1500_So, the truck loaded with crates of bees pulled into the parking lot and it had a large, net-like tarp covering box after box of bees that had been transported on the highway all the previous day. The bees were not contained other than the ‘tarp’ and so once the tarp was pulled back, one could see thousands and thousands of bees on the exterior of the boxes trying to hang on.  IMG_5873This is when those in charge started to bark the orders so that we could work quickly and efficiently to unload the bees and get ready for the distribution. I swallowed hard and made the decision that I could do this but as soon as the tarp came off, the bees were as thick around us as rain and I can say it was much different than my previous experience with the hives at the farm! As I told someone later, I was calm on the outside but rather stressed out on the inside. Luckily, the darkness and the crazy outfit I was wearing helped to not betray any of my anxiety during the moment.

As the tarp was slowly pulled back to reveal the crates of bees, my co-workers all came forward with their smokers to calm the bees and try to encourage them to get back into their crates. IMG_5883They unloaded pallet after pallet of bees with a skid loader and after each box was relatively free of clinging bees, we used a hive tool to insert a piece of metal screening into the opening in order to keep the bees inside which was helpful as we unloaded the boxes from the pallets to the pavement. This, however, only meant that there were slightly fewer bees looking for a place to settle.  IMG_5886I was a bit hesitant to jump into the melee of all of this but I witnessed the calm of all the others who were covered with bees and figured I could do this too. The key is not to panic and to move in slow motion and never, never, never swat. It is kind of like snorkeling…easy breaths are best but a panicked gulp just ruins the wonder of the moment! I was very proud that my only real moment of panic occurred when I was carrying one of the boxes of bees and felt a sting on the palm of my hand. I guess I had picked up a box and a bee got between me and the bottom and it was unpleasant for both of us! I did ask a neighboring volunteer if he could take the box from my hand for a moment so I could get the stinger out of my leather glove! He obliged and I took the box back and continued working as it was expected. The glove did a good job of keeping the sting to a minimum and this was my only sting of the day.

It was beautiful as the dawn arrived and we had the tractor trailer entirely unloaded and started to distribute the bee boxes to those who had purchased them and had started to arrive for their pick up. IMG_5889I had transformed quickly from a novice to an “old pro” as I started helping to carry the nucs to the waiting customers’ cars. I had one hilarious experience with another novice who was at least 5 times more nervous than I but who needed help to his car with his newly purchased bees. His brand new bee suit was too big and the veil dropped down over his eyes as we carried his boxes to his waiting mini-van. Here he was, blindly walking towards his car with about 4,000 bees in his shaking hands as he looked to me to tell him how to proceed! Of course, after only two hours of bee-ing entirely covered with bees (they were cold and our bodies were emitting warmth, therefore we were attracting them) it was easy to help guide this fellow on his way. Of course, I can only imagine how his drive home went with a van full of bees!

So this was my morning experience with the bees. The hardest part was figuring out how to get into my car to go home since I was covered with hugging bees but didn’t want to ride home with them. I asked another bee volunteer to brush me off (which is all it takes to get a bee to un-glue from your clothes) and I got into my car feeling relatively accomplished until the car warmed up and I found that there were indeed spare bees with me flying around. Thankfully, I used my new experience to be calm and the bees flew off out an opened window. After arriving home, I realized that the adrenaline from the morning’s experience had taken its toll and even tho I had not overly exerted myself, I was dramatically tired by it all. It was a nice tired tho and I hope to put the entire experience to good use in the future. By the way, the sting on the palm of my hand is insignificant, but we take precautions when mowing the grass right next to the bees. Here is Dave suited up while mowing recently. So far, so good. IMG_1010