Posts Tagged ‘water’

The Gift of Other

When my sister wrote this post, it got me thinking about a family I haven’t talked to in far too long. She has her own memories of them, and that Thanksgiving food fight was epic, but there was so much more than that. Being reminded of them in the context of a bigger world made me realize that they had given me a gift I think many people never have.

The mother and her son, the one I was friends with at least, were both very proud of their Native American heritage. The son and I met in preschool and remained friends even after they moved to another city before middle school. Part of being friends was spending time at each other’s houses and with each other’s families. It was running around in the back yard and playing by the river and pond. It was playing house and eating what the hosting mother was making for lunch. I distinctly remember launching G.I. Joes off the ceiling fan at his house since we could reach the blades from the stairs.

For me, at least, it was also learning about a world that wasn’t my own. My biggest memories of that were the annual dances at Indian Steps Museum. I was always invited, but I was always invited as a guest. There was no doubt in my mind that they wanted me there, but it was also very clear that there were things that I wouldn’t be able to participate in. I was, as they put it, a white girl, not a red girl. So I would always look at all of the wonderful crafts for sale by the Natives from their own cultures and imaginations and I would join the dances that were open to everyone. Well, I would be coaxed into joining, since I was shy. But I also learned to sit outside the circle and simply observe the dances that weren’t open for everyone. I learned to share in something from a respectful distance.

Native American cultures have always fascinated me, no doubt starting from this early introduction. It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that I realized I might not approach wanting to learn from them in quite the same way as others do.

When I was living in Colorado, I met a woman who was working on convincing the local school to let her teach brain-tanning of hides to elementary students the way she had taught her daughters. I was dearly hoping she would expand this past just the school children because I wanted to learn from her. This wasn’t a wilderness school that took basic information and made it accessible, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This was someone who was teaching what her parents had taught her and their parents had taught them. This was not just a practical skill, but a culturally specific way of doing it that had the weight of generations behind it.

When the protests against DAPL were going strong, I had given some thought to going out to Standing Rock to offer my services. I was willing to be told to peel potatoes, write blog posts, or stand in front of the cops. The leaders would know where I would be of the most use to the people trying to protect a water source. I never went, but I did hear that a lot of white people did show up. No few of them treated this fight for basic rights like it was a Burning Man festival.

When I moved to Colorado and realized I wanted to start growing there, I knew that the best place to go for information were the people that had been there for generations upon generations. (The oldest white family I came across was one whose great-grandfather had been a mountain man.) I was living in a high desert, a place totally unlike the East Coast where my recent family had come from and totally unlike Western Europe where my ancestral roots have been traced to. Water was in my bones, water to excess. Dryness, the ability to thrive when water was limited, that was in the bones of the local Native Americans. I didn’t study them. Somehow, I never really made time for it. I learned how to make raised beds, a very European/East Coast piece of knowledge. I never did try out the lowered beds I saw in the Native exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In a place where water was scarce, I learned what was being taught. That was how to get water out of the area I wanted to plant, not to keep it in. But when you look at who’s teaching the bulk of gardening courses and doing the gardening research, it’s people with water in their bones, not desert. Most of us just never see that as a problem.

What that family gave me all those years ago was the ability to understand that what I know, what I see as normal, is just one way of seeing things. And it’s not a given that it’s the right way. By sitting and watching these other cultures be themselves, I was exposed to other ways of viewing the world. By being asked to sit outside the circle sometimes, I was given the chance to be the outsider, the token, the minority.

I forget this lesson on a regular basis. I get so caught up in just getting by, just being “normal,” that I forget normal is entirely relative. Much of it stemming from your own relatives, at that. There are other normals out there. We’re losing them at a remarkable pace as the Western, white, consumerist culture devours them, picking out the best pieces to keep and destroying the rest. They aren’t dead yet, though, and I think it would benefit all of us to remember/learn that all of those others exist(ed) for a reason. Just because it’s not my culture, not in my bones, doesn’t make it any less valid. It is in someones bones, and they are the people to ask about it.

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Regaining My Power: Choice

What is choice, really? Do we have it? Are we sure?

The other day at work I asked, perhaps a little too loudly, if it was 5:00 yet, or Friday, yet, and someone piped up that we always have a choice. I have the choice to stay, or to act like it was Friday at 5 and make a bee-line for the door. It’s been kind of a long couple of weeks, so option B may or may not have gotten considered almost seriously. But I didn’t do it. I made the choice to finish out the day, to finish out the week. I chose to be there.

Right?

On the surface, yes, I made that choice. But if you really start to think about it, “Everything is a choice” is a rather disingenuous statement. There are about a million different directions to dive with this idea, but I thought I’d try and keep it on the surface. See just how many diverse places in our “Land of the Free” where the choices offered aren’t really choices.

I haven’t been sleeping well for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that heat, humidity, and I are not friends. If I had chosen to walk out of work that afternoon to go home and take a nap- something that would have been a good choice for my mental and physical health- I think it’s pretty safe to say that my employer would have chosen to tell me not to return. I’m sure that I’m not the only American worker who can’t take the chance of an impromptu vacation because we aren’t making enough each week to have built a rainy day fund. So it really wasn’t a choice.

Speaking of choices at work- what about choosing to have an unpopular opinion? If you’re in the rank and file, that choice- even if you’re right and it needs to be said- could have disastrous consequences for your career.

Back to the Land of the Free thing- how about our current choices for President? More of the same vs a young Hitler. What an awesome choice. Love him or loathe him, at least the Democratic Socialist would have offered a genuine choice! Something different than door A or door B that lead into the same building. And as far as I can tell, yes, the young Hitler is a fairly logical place for us to be given the political climate in the last 10 or 15 years.

You have the choice to live in your own home. Your corporate neighbors have the choice to make the air and water around said home poisonous, flammable, or carcinogenic. But you do have the choice to stay there or leave. If you can afford to.

You have the choice to take care of your reproductive health. Don’t let the harassers or the chance of getting shot stand in your way!

You have the choice to grow open-pollinated, wind-pollinated, organic food crops in an area that mostly grows conventional wind-pollinated crops. Just make sure you’re never down wind of your neighbors and you’ll be fine!

You can choose to go to college and get that degree that you’ve been told you need to get a good job. What’s a good job, again?

You chose to grow a beautiful garden full of vegetables instead of non-edible flowers and shrubs? Your home might be your castle, but don’t pretend it’s your pantry!

You can choose to own a tractor (or iPad, or GM vehicle). Well, maybe.

You can choose the perfect home for your land and family. As long as it conforms to everyone else’s views.

You can choose to be seen lending your support (or doing your job) at a peaceful rally or protest- just don’t get shot!

I can’t be facetious about the choices that led to needing those rallies and protests.

I know that I’m presenting more problems than solutions here. And I’ve only scratched the surface of the problems. But this is where I am in finding my power. The more I learn, the more I find out just how little power- just how little choice- I really have. Does a “yes” mean anything when “no” isn’t really an option, given the consequences that will probably or will definitely follow that “no”? No, it doesn’t.

We need to rethink this “choice” thing and whether or not we like the ones we’ve been given. Or perhaps start to figure out how to make our own options to choose between. If we’re given A and B, maybe we should all start choosing C.

(Apologies for the age of many of the linked articles. I have no Google-fu, and I haven’t been collecting all of the most recent examples of the above “choices.” I’m sure you’ve seen as many as I have, though- maybe more as I’m not all that well informed, yet.)

The Season of Water Has Begun

In many places, winter is the season of water. It’s monsoon season, or snow season. Out West, summer is our season of water. Why? Because that’s when we need it and we may not have it. California is at the top of the list at the moment when it comes to lack of water, but they aren’t the only ones that are concerned. All of the states that have lower rainfall than the East Coast are aware that California’s fate may well be ours in the not-too-distant-future.

Fire season has already started here in Colorado. I have a fire about 90 miles south of me that just decided it didn’t want to be contained anymore. While that one isn’t a direct threat to me, it is absolutely something to keep my eye on. My community garden just opened itself back up to us for spring watering, and I did not mulch my garlic bed well enough so the soil is dry as a bone. That’s perfectly normal for poorly covered or bare ground in Colorado. It’s also really bad for the garlic and all of the critters that needed moisture for over-wintering. Despite the silly Kentucky Blue Grass lawns around here, lack of water is simply a fact of life.

Jon Stewart, as usual, brings his wit and sarcasm to the issue of climate change. As he points out, our two most phallic states have totally opposite, yet equally serious, water issues. This is the challenge of climate change, after all. It’s not just that it will increase heat and melt the ice caps, it’s that everything will become more unpredictable. Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get dryer. The fact that we are doing everything in our power to suck water out of the air and water and send it through the sewers really isn’t helping to balance that back out.

One thing that he didn’t bring up was that apparently frackers in California aren’t being subject to any of the restrictions that the citizens are subject to. It is absurd to think that not drinking water in a restaurant will do a thing when the farmers aren’t being told to restrict their water use. I don’t want to make farming any harder than it is, but when the state is out of water, everyone is affected and has to pitch in. What is more absurd is to not restrict the people that take massive amounts of potable water, turn it into poison, and pump it past the groundwater reservoirs to pull out oil. They swear the arsenic and other fun chemicals can’t possibly leak into the groundwater, but I’m not sure how much I can trust that.

After 450 words of bad news, what do we do about it? I think the biggest thing we can do is to buy local, pasture-raised meat. I know, meat’s evil and all that, but what the simplistic headlines don’t bother to do is differentiate between meat sources. Urine and manure from CAFO feedlots are corralled in lagoons as toxic waste. As they should be. They should not be returned to the land. Then there’s all the water that’s used to grow the grains that keep the animals not-dead and very fat up until slaughter time. Meat raised like that is an affront to nature.

When you raise, say, a cow on pasture, you get the opposite result. Grazing animals produce no more methane than the grass would have when it rotted on the ground. More to the point, in a properly managed pasture, the urine and manure they produce soaks directly into the soil, returning both moisture and nutrients to the soil in amounts that the microorganisms can handle. Proper management also encourages the grass to grow to its best advantage, sending carbon-sequestering roots deep into the soil. Between the roots making spaces and the small amounts of moisture added to the surface, a good pasture will help the rain to soak into the ground and back into our groundwater reserves instead of running off the top and right to the ocean.

That’s right. Meat could save us. Alan Savory has dabbled in this a bit.

One really shouldn’t eat meat without vegetables, though. The next biggest step is to grow your own vegetables. If you don’t have a yard, or a patio with decent sunlight, then buy them from small, local, organic farmers that use all of the sensible water-saving techniques that are difficult to impossible to implement on huge, mono-crop farms. If you ask nicely, the farmer will probably be happy to let you come out to see how their land looks and their crops are grown. Just bear in mind that if the sun’s up, you are taking time out of their work day. The best farming, just like the best beef, should actually help refill the groundwater reserves. But good farming will still slow the use of unnecessary water, and shouldn’t be discouraged.

Don’t get me wrong, things like shorter showers and high-efficiency appliances are good. But if we want to do more than just slow the loss of potable water across the world, we need to be proactive about helping the water to go back where it belongs. In the ground, not in the sewers. Preferably without arsenic.

Farm Lesson: 1+1 =/= 2

We live in a very linear world. The only right answer for one plus one is two. Given how our world is constructed, it really has to be that way. If one plus one sometimes equals 11, well, the cogs that make the widgets work might not fit. Farming, however, is not linear. Not even if you’re good enough to be able to plow straight lines. Sometimes it’s a good thing- one doe-goat plus one buck-goat tends to equal one to four kids. On the other hand, one lettuce start plus one lettuce start planted in the same hole will get you, at best, two half-heads of lettuce. Half-heads are fine of you’re just growing for your dining room table, but they don’t sell very well at market. You have the same problem with onions and garlic- only you’ve invested many more months of labor to get two half-bulbs.

What’s the point of this lesson? Farming is as much an art and craft as a science. There is a lot of information out there to be found, and most of it is very, very helpful. However, it’s too easy to rely on someone else’s answers that are presented as “the answer.” If you take a strictly science, linear, only-one-right-answer approach, you might be successful for a while. Maybe. But I am willing to bet that you won’t be making the land entrusted to you the best that that land can be. As a former Girl Scout, I do feel that we should be leaving things better than we found them, not worse. It isn’t until we embrace the art and craft of farming- and really embrace our piece of the land- that we can listen to what the land is asking us to do.

Where it’s wet, the land often asks for lime because the soil is too acidic for a lot of plants to really thrive. Most farming and gardening books are written by people in wet environments. After all, most of the food and ornamental plants we grow originated in Europe and passed through the East Coast to get to Colorado. Taking the books at their word and adding X amount of lime to your soil on an annual basis is, probably, not a terrible thing to do if you live where it rains quite a bit. If you do that in a dry place, like the Eastern Slope of Colorado, you will ruin your land in very short order. There is a reason that it’s almost impossible to grow blueberries around here, but lavender tends to grow like a weed. It is too dry to have the acidic soil blueberries need, but your lavender will almost never be over-watered. Which is a good thing. You can even talk about grass in these circumstances. There is absolutely no reason you can’t have a very pretty green lawn. However, all of the water and chemicals that have to go into keeping a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn green are because the land around here simply cannot support a grass that was bred in and for the well-watered South-East. If you found a local grass (or even better, grass mix) that you found attractive, you could cut your watering in half or better. You would also be promoting healthier soil because you could reduce or eliminate chemical additives.

I really enjoy reading Joel Salatin. I think he’s got a lot of good things to say, and he’s really not afraid to go against convention. However, he lives in Virginia. I was reading one of his writings and he insisted that the water laws out West are ridiculous. There’s no such thing as not enough water. It’s all in how it’s managed. In Virginia, that’s true. It’s about getting rid of excess water more than anything. However, I know people who have what are called “junior water rights,” or newer water rights on their property who have not had access to water some years. Yes, they bought the rights that were available (that’s often a separate transaction than purchasing the land), but the senior water rights in the area had first dibs on what was available. If it’s a dry year, the availability might not trickle down to the junior rights. This is a problem that is specific to dry areas of the country, so it is not really addressed outside of the areas to which it applies. Therefore, the statement that he is so sure about cannot actually be applied to this area.

How the land needs to be managed is more complicated than wet versus dry, north versus south, sea level versus altitude. It comes down to each individual property- and even each area within the property. Did you know that in the Andes, there is a type of potato for each direction a slope can face at each altitude? We’ve forgotten how to think like that in a country that only grows french fry potatoes. However, if we can re-learn that our front yard has different circumstances and therefore different needs than our back yard, we may not have identical landscaping to our neighbors, but we can have landscaping that works with our land instead of against it.

As an aspiring farmer, I am having to nurture my inner artist as well as my inner crafter. It’s the artist that can look at a property and see that with this elevation, that soil type, and so much shading, 1+1= purple. It is the crafter that can take the answer of purple and turn it into the plants and animals that will not just survive, but will potentially improve the piece of land. My land is not the same as your land, so your answer may be mauve, or teal. Or 42. The only thing I can tell you it won’t be, not exactly, is what that book or podcast or YouTube video says it has to be.

Starting Seeds

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it's nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it's snowing outside on a planting day.

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it’s nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it’s snowing outside on a planting day.

On March 11, I started my second round of seeds. I also repotted my first round of young plants. I still have a lot to learn.

I have been interested in the idea of starting my own seeds for a while. It’s less expensive than buying plants, and you can grow more exotic varieties. It’s also the only way to grow things like tomatoes from seeds you have saved. However, it can be a bit pricy to start. There isn’t a single south-facing window in this house, and I’m not sure we’d get good light even if we had one. That means I have to buy and somehow set up grow lights. The house isn’t kept all that warm, since it’s more energy efficient, but that means I really need a warm spot to help the initial germination. I also needed to buy a couple of seed-starter flats along with starting medium and potting soil. The lights in particular add up fast.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

I did decide to start plants this spring for a couple of reasons. I had bought and hung a grow light in my bedroom for my own mental health. The combination of a gentle wake-up, since the light is on a timer, and the guarantee of at least a little full-spectrum light has helped to temper my seasonal issues a bit. Since I had made the first big purchase for the project, why not put it to more complete use? The plant heater is also doubling as a worm heater. My African nightcrawlers are not happy with a cool house, and there just aren’t any warm spots to keep them. I am also hoping to make at least some of my investment back by selling some of the plants that I don’t need for my own garden. (Let me know if you want to buy any . . . )

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don't think all the squash will make it.

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don’t think all the squash will make it.

Pro Tips:

  • Don’t start small perennials and large annuals in the same flat. You have to raise the light too fast for the perennials to keep up as they are slower to germinate and, in my case, just shorter.
  • Water daily. Check on them at least twice a day. Once they flop over, they may not recover.
  • Have enough lights to give even light to all of the plants. More plants means more or bigger lights.
  • If you write out a schedule, mind it.
  • Don’t wait too long to transplant out of the starting medium. It doesn’t have many nutrients.
  • If you live with a dog that eats anything and your potting shed is the living room floor- make sure you don’t have to dash to the store for more potting soil in the middle of the planting project.
  • Make sure you have enough pots for all of the plants.
  • Be willing to thin the herd if some of the plants aren’t up to snuff. (I need to improve on that.)
  • Start more than you need. They won’t all make it.
  • Just because the top of your seed-starter is all fogged over, it doesn’t mean the soil is all evenly moist.
  • Lable! New England Sugar Pie and Watham Butternut look a lot alike until they set their fruit!
Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

I am starting plants on the early side for two reasons. One- we have a short growing season and I want them to have as many productive days as possible. Two- people like to buy bigger plants, so bigger ones should sell better. To set up my schedule, I went by the days to maturity for each variety. It broke them up nicely into a logical progression. The first to go in were squashes. The last will be my peppers. Tomatoes happen in between. Things like herbs and flowers  can be started on a less stringent schedule, so they can be fit in around the food plants.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

My squash  went in right on schedule in early February, sharing the flat with some chives and calendula. I think the chives will be ok, but the calendula are so leggy that I don’t think many, if any, will recover. I’m going to need to just try them again. The round currently sitting on the heater should have been planted around February 25. Being two squash and two tomatoes, they should grow at a similar enough rate to share the flat. The moment they’re well enough sprouted to go under lights, I need to plant the round that should have gone in around March 5. If I’d done them as planned, it would be much less rushed. However, scheduling them as early as I did also gives me some leeway for being slow. The last round will also be a bit behind, as the heater won’t be ready by March 19th. If I get a chance, I also want to do a round of herbs and flowers sooner rather than later to give them a decent head start.

Before my next round of transplanting, I need to do a bit more planning. Specifically, finding a bunch more pots for the 36 seedlings that will need a new home!

Why Grass?

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot.

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot. You won’t get them all, but this will give the grass seed a fighting chance.

Iiiinnnhale. Duuude.

Wait- wrong one. Don’t know all the rules about that one, so it’s on hold. Too bad, too. Hemp happens to be a super useful material as anything from clothing to supplemental animal feed. Selling the buds would really just be a bonus income. However, lawn grass happens to also be good for more than just ornamental purposes.

But who would plant grass during drought conditions? Despite the flooding up in Boulder, most of the state is still under some sort of drought condition. In fact, the drought conditions are part of the reason the flooding was as bad as it was. Water slides right off the surface of baked-hard ground. The reason I am planting grass now is, in part, to do my part to reduce future droughts and flooding. A lot of people assume that xeriscaping and other water- and environmentally-responsible landscaping techniques require scraping off your grass and installing rocks or concrete slabs. At best you get some scrubby-looking native flowers. That’s not necessarily true.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

When you want to fill a bowl with water, you pour water into it from above. If you put a plate over the bowl, you catch a little water in the plate, but the rest of it ends up on the counter, completely bypassing the bowl. If you cover the bowl with a sponge, though, some of the water lands on the counter, but some of it does make it into the bowl. More soaks through if the sponge was damp to start with.

Our bowl is the aquifer that provides the water in our wells. We’re close to the Ogallala Aquifer. By putting in rocks and concrete, we are creating a plate-like surface which shunts the water off into streams rather than giving it a chance to soak into the ground. Water that ends up in the ocean does us as much good as water that lands on the counter. The dirt that is either left totally bare or covered with rocks quickly becomes about as permeable as concrete, so not actually pouring the concrete on it doesn’t give you much advantage. Healthy plant life, on the other hand, has roots that break up the solid soil. They also tend to keep at least some water around their roots, given half a chance, so you don’t just get a sponge over the bowl, you should have a damp sponge. This is the best we can hope for, since we can’t pour rain directly into the aquifer.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay  long enough to soak into the ground.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay long enough to soak into the ground.

Note that I said “healthy plant life.” Putting in a lush, mono-culture of Kentucky Blue Grass will pull more water out of the ground to keep it growing than it could hope to help return. It also tends to demand more fertilizers, herbicides, and maybe pesticides. Those kill off the fauna in the soil that help keep the soil permeable to both water and roots. You don’t necessarily have to plant local flora, though I would suggest it, but you do need to think about what flora will actually do well locally. Colorado is a harsh state. The details of why it’s harsh depends on your location, but all locations have pretty serious problems when it comes to growing plants.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Planting a variety of local grasses in your yard might mean that it’s not as perfect as the Jones’ yard, but it gives you a few advantages over them. For starters, you can spend less time watering, weeding, and fretting about it and more time enjoying it. You won’t have to keep your pets and kids off of it after chemicals are applied. It will also be able to handle more abuse from said kids and pets. When you plant plants that want to be here, they will grow willingly. When you plant a variety, the particular type that does well there will thrive. This means that you might have different grasses in the sun, the shade, and that weird dry spot, but you should have grass in all of them. Healthy grasses also out-compete most weeds. They may need some help in the first year or two, but after that, the grasses should take care of their own weeding.

The stepping-stones are so I don't walk on the new grass. I'm only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don't want to steal too much of the dog's yard at a time.

The stepping-stones are so I don’t walk on the new grass. I’m only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don’t want to steal too much of the dog’s yard at a go.

Possibly the most important reason for planting healthy, non-chemically-grown grass in your yard is that you are creating top soil for future use. Once upon a time, people grew a large percentage of their food right in their own back yard. When Big Ag fails- and it will- we will need to start doing that again. If you start creating a healthy soil now, you’ll have less work to do later to put in a garden. In the meantime, you could also experiment with eating the leaves of any dandelions or lambs-quarters that happen to shoulder their way into your lawn.

Going back to the original question- Who plants grass in the middle of a drought? Maybe you should.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 2: Part 1

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

Day two started with beekeeping. Just FYI, apparently bees will sting you if you wear black near them. Dang it- there goes half my wardrobe. The homestead of Christine Faith and Ben Gleason (ooh- a blog I need to read) had the usual gardens and chickens, but also had ducks, aquaponics, and, of course, their bees.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

Just in case you didn’t know- honey bees are not native to America. They were imported to aid in pollination for agriculture. They do seem to have taken to living here pretty well, though. Well, they were doing well until recently. About 40% of the colonies were lost last year. That was something like 30 million bees. Sadly, even if you are an excellent beekeeper, your colony is still at risk because the drones (male bees) flit from hive to hive sharing both genetics and diseases.

Their land borders an open space, but that's not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

Their land borders an open space, but that’s not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

There are practices that can make you a better bee-keeper. Don’t use HFCS as a supplemental food source. Seriously, that stuff isn’t good for humans who use it as a part of their diet. Think about how much worse it would be if you had to live off of it after you run out of honey for the winter but before the first spring flowers have bloomed? (If you’re going to lose a colony to starvation, that’s when it happens.) Buy only new “deeps” and “supers” or make your own. There are diseases, like foul brood, that can’t be cured and can’t be cleaned from the boxes. If you happen to contract that disease, burn everything and start over. If things are going well, you still want to burn and replace your frames every three to four years and your boxes about every 10 so that any diseases and such that have built up can be cleaned out. Make sure that you have two deeps so that your bees can store enough honey to keep them through our long winters. You get any honey that goes in the “supers” on top of the deeps.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

To get started, their setup was about $1,000. Half of that was the bear fence, a very sturdy metal fence electrified by a solar panel. She said that if you live downtown where you don’t (usually) see bears, you may not need it. However, the bear fence not only keeps out bears, it also keeps out skunks, raccoons, curious children, and anything else that might disrupt your hive. When they bought the bees, they chose a pretty calm breed that is also fairly sturdy when it comes to cold winters. However, that queen bred with a local breed. The resulting offspring ended up potentially hardier, but they’re more wild than the original set. When you do buy your first set of bees, make sure that you don’t release the queen when you release her caretakers. If they don’t have time to meet with a cage between them, they will eat her. If you lose the queen you lose the hive, since she’s the brains of the operation. She’s also the uterus of the operation, so hope for a promiscuous queen. The more often she breeds on her mating flight, the more eggs she will have, and the longer she will live. They also mentioned that bee queens were much like the queens in Tudor England. When it’s time for a new one, the worker bees will nurture several without the current queen’s knowledge. The first to hatch will then sting each of the other queens so that she’s unchallenged.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

After the first year, which gives them time to settle in, you can start harvesting your honey. If you keep it cool (106 degrees will kill the enzymes- you can reach that by leaving it in the sun), then you will have raw honey. Raw honey is antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, and good for outdoor allergies if it’s local. Also, it’s delicious.

The second stop was vegetable gardening with Allison Buckley of Buckley Homestead Supply. I really need to check that place out. It sounds awesome. Her talk was also very practical and applicable.

If you’re starting a new garden plot- dig it over today. The freezing and thawing over the winter will help to break it up in preparation for planting. You can also use cover crops like buckwheat, rye, or clover. Their roots start to break things up and they can be turned under to add organic material to your garden area. (I was talking to someone recently who mentioned that oats have absurdly long roots for loosening/holding soil.)

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn't do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn’t do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

For help with the weeds, she did try laying down black plastic. However, that doesn’t just kill the weeds. That also kills all of the soil microbes that we need for healthy soil and healthy plants. What she’s moved to is the lasagne technique. This layers cardboard or newspapers, straw, and compost. To plant, dig a hole through the layers to the dirt. As the layers decompose, they create organic material for the microbes, but until they decompose, they are an effective block for the weeds.

Don't be intimidated by compost. You're just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won't smell.

Don’t be intimidated by compost. You’re just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won’t smell.

Water is always an issue here. Usually it’s because we don’t have enough, so irrigation is important. I’ve been reluctant to set up an irrigation system because I assumed it was difficult. According to Allison, if you have played with legos, then you’re qualified to build an irrigation system. She offered some tips to make it easier. They’re easier to build if they’re warm, so leave them in the sun for a while, first. Once they’re built, hide them under straw to keep the sun from damaging them, but don’t bury them, since you’ll need to watch for leaks. Use a section of hose before you move to the black sections, since the connector tends to leak a touch. May as well have that leak somewhere useful. Have a section of solid flexible hose before you add the microdrip section. This will give you more flexibility for planting from year to year. Speaking of water- learn the water laws! Water barrels are illegal in town, even if you have them on a drip hose. They may or may not be legal if you live out in the county and are on a well- check first.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

The last part was pest management. For that- shift your thinking. You want to have the least impact possible. Sometimes, that means accepting that you might have to share some with the local creatures. It might mean working a little harder by hand-picking bugs or high-pressure washing trees to remove things without harming the environment. She also suggests rotating your crops and using mini-hoop gardens because the sunshades can be a physical barrier to pests. If you do end up spraying, spray the smallest area possible, even if it’s organic. If what you’re spraying will kill one thing, it will kill other things, too, so be careful.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

Speaking of hoop houses- she explained what went wrong with my peppers this year! Peppers don’t like cool evenings. A hoop house with even a light covering will help hold the warmth a little later in the day. This winter I will be researching and building hoops so that next year I should have a better pepper crop. The tomatoes should enjoy it, too.