Strawberry Bonanza

In our garden, strawberries were planted in late May and I am waiting for them to become strong enough to allow the plants to flower and set fruit. I planted everbearing/day neutral varieties (San Andreas and Mara des Bois) and they will fruit during planting year, no need to wait a year as you would with June-bearing.

In the meantime, Larriland Farm, which is my go-to for pick your own anything, had strawberries available for picking. My son and I picked 10.5 pounds in very hot temperatures in about 45 minutes. I cannot imagine doing that as my job. We came home to make strawberry sorbet, frozen yogurt, strawberry cream cake (the frosting on this cake is FANTASTIC, highly recommend it) and strawberry liqueur.

DIY strawberry liqueur:

 

To get the berries ready for use, I washed them and then set them outside on a grid to dry. It was VERY windy and that helped dry them within minutes.

 

To have strawberries for future smoothies, I laid some out on wax paper on the cookie sheets, and set the sheets in the freezer. This results in individually frozen berries that can be poured into a freezer bag and stored in the freezer. I can then just pull out how ever many berries I want at a time without having to defrost a whole bag. If you dump all the berries in a bag and THEN freeze, you just get a large mass of frozen berries that is not easy or convenient to use.

Blueberries and raspberries are starting to ripen in our garden…stay tuned.

Garden is done!

This was a labor of love and need: the need for easier weeding, the need for fencing to keep out critters and the love of a pretty (and neat!) garden space.

A month of rain made this a challenge to accomplish given the need for electrified tools. But during the final “push” my husband was fed up with waiting for the rain to stop so he set up a canopy under which he could use the saw to build the final piece of the puzzle, the gate.

We dug the post holes using a two man auger (it alone weighs 75 pounds) and (thankfully!) had the help of some family that were in for the weekend. The amount of effort involved in managing one of these machines cannot be understated–the weight of the auger coupled with the weight of the soil you are pulling up is just so, so, SO much. And you have to do this several times per hole, ugh. The holes that were not obstructed by rocks were drilled very quickly, but when we hit rocks (which was half the holes!) we had to dig them out by hand. The holes took 2-3 hrs to dig out and the vast majority of the time was dedicated to rock excavation.

******There are lots of pictures, click to make larger.

Once the posts were set, they were braced to keep them level and concrete was poured into the holes.

Then the rails went up, hardware cloth was mounted and the bases were attached:

The raised beds were made deeper than our previous ones–these are 10″ and made of 2″ pine, untreated. The beds are 2 foot wide to make weeding easier. The strawberry beds are in front of the garden. The grass has been dug out and weed fabric is next. The middle will have small beds and a hexagonal concrete form on which we would place a bird bath. The garden orients with the slope of the yard, everything slopes away from the house.

Good quality (I hope so given its price) weed fabric is laid down, mulch is loaded on top of the weed fabric and LeafGro is hauled into the beds. We ordered 4 yards each of mulch and LeafGro–about 5 tons each and we hauled it wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. It was purely exhausting work, I need a nap just thinking about it.

In the home stretch! The wood will eventually gray and appear less stark.

Final push: the gate was made, the birdbath went onto the hexagonal form, the strawberries were planted. To keep out birds, chipmunks and squirrels but allow bees, he built strawberry bed covers using the left over hardware cloth. Added copper caps to the posts, did some finishing and voila!

So dang worth it. I love it.

Garden plans

We moved into this house after leaving a townhouse in Crofton. In that home, we tried to grow vegetables but the back yard was shaded and was suitable for the native shade-loving plants I planted. The front was the sunny part and it was a very small terraced garden. We grew our three tomato plants out there and some peonies (I LOVE peonies).

When we came here, we loved the vast possibilities presented by our 3/4 acre plot. We seemed to add garden bed after garden bed every year. I was joking that my husband planned to cover Eldersburg in raised beds. We went from two to 4 to 7 and added a berry patch with a fence to house my raspberries and blueberries. And since the goal was to grow as much as we could, the attractiveness factor of the garden took a back seat. We did try to make it pretty by lining the paths between the raised beds with pea gravel.  It WAS very nice for a short period of time. But without continuous weeding, the pea gravel turned ugly very quickly.

This year, we plan to reconfigure the garden with new garden beds that will be surrounded by an attractive minimalist fence covered with hardware cloth, something similar in design to this:

It would be larger than this but the idea is the same: maximize garden beds by running them along the fence and make the beds more narrow to allow for easier weeding. Normally, raised beds are recommended to be 4′ wide. I don’t know who can weed such a bed, because I certainly can’t. Granted, I’m pretty short, but still, 4′ seems to be just too wide. The beds that would go along the edge of the fence would be 2′ wide.

image

This is what it looks like currently:

Not very charming. Granted, we had pulled up two of the garden beds in the fall, knowing we were going to redesign. Yesterday we pulled up the fencing which involved removing the chicken wire apron that we extended into the grass, that was fun. That pile of leaves next to the new garden bed overwintered there nicely. With the fence down, the chickens had access to it and spent MANY happy hours destroying the pile and spreading it EVERYWHERE.

This is my berry patch: image

This angle is looking up toward the house, the coop and the above garden beds that are being worked on. The tiered square boxes on the left are where I had my strawberries. This berry patch also holds my blueberry bushes and the raspberry plants. I tore out the raspberries last fall as the variety, Heritage, was not as prolific or tasty as the new ones I planted.

The problem with having strawberries so far away from the house is that I would completely forget to harvest them. By the time I remembered, either birds or slugs had ruined them.

Through trial and many errors, I have learned my preferred growing/harvesting style: rather than having a huge bumper crop of one food in a short span of time, I prefer to have the ripening and harvest spread out. It suits our life better. If you get 15 pounds of anything in a week, you better have a plan for it! So June bearing strawberries are off the list. A few years ago I purchased Mara des Bois strawberry plants, the variety is an everbearing type which fruits from spring to the first frost. With the everbearing types, I have been able to harvest approximately a quart of strawberries every week. This is much more manageable.

In the space which previously held the strawberries and the raspberries, there will now be 4 currants and 4 blackberry plants. I mapped out the area to allow 3-4 feet between plants and from the fence.

image

Now to get the holes ready.

 

 

Honey bee pictures

I took some pictures of honey bees in action (click to enlarge!):

Bee approaching flower

Bee approaching flower

This is a fun shot, see the bee approaching you from the upper left?

This is a fun shot, see the bee approaching you from the upper left?

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

This is a Hinnomaki Yellow Gooseberry and the first time there havebeen berries after 2 years! It was a total surprise because grass was covering it and until I trimmed it today I didn't even know it had flowered.

This is a Hinnomaki Yellow Gooseberry and the first time there havebeen berries after 2 years! It was a total surprise because grass was covering it and until I trimmed it today I didn’t even know it had flowered.

Semi-Farm Update

I like to call our space a farmette, but all I have are bees, chickens and a large (large for us) veggie/fruit garden. I think I need goats at least, or a milking cow to call it a farmette. Just some other farm animal other than chickens, I wonder what the code would allow?

I’ve been into the bees several times but have not had the camera with me to take pictures, suffice it to say Melissa has lots of workers, lots of drones, and built out 3 frames of foundationless frames in ONE WEEK!! I added a deep on top of the bottom deep to hopefully keep them in two deeps. They had most of a medium full of drone brood and I moved that into the deep (interspersed with deep frames) and moved frames into the top medium for them to use for honey storage.

Demeter is doing better and better, they finally finished a quart of syrup (took them almost a month! Tells you how few bees were in there). I plan to keep feeding them and will not be harvesting honey from them obviously.

I’ll be checking on them again this weekend and I’ll take pictures; cross my fingers there won’t be swarm prep in Melissa…

Onto the garden! Everything is growing so nicely right now, the temps have been perfect spring numbers which we rarely see in Maryland! The bloom times are OFF though! My blueberries are blooming now which is WAY early, my strawberries have flowers and we normally don’t have strawberries ready for picking until after Memorial Day (end of May). Some of those flowers are already pollinated and I can see tiny strawberries starting!!

Lots of blueberries!

Lots of blueberries!

Unopened blueberry flowers. I wish I had done a better job of keeping the plant labels!

Unopened blueberry flowers. I wish I had done a better job of keeping the plant labels!

You can see the strawberry starting...

You can see the strawberry starting…

I have 3 of these tiered beds, allows 25 mother plants and room for daughters. The bottom tier is 4'x4', the top is 2'x2'.

I have 3 of these, allows 25 mother plants and room for daughters. The bottom tier is 4’x4′, the top is 2’x2′.

I planted these Mara des Bois strawberries last year but they did not do well, I think I smothered them with straw in my effort to protect them from the cold. One week after planting the new batch, they already look better than the ones last year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed because the one plant that survived last year gave berries that tasted like strawberry heaven!!

I planted these Mara des Bois strawberries last year but they did not do well, I think I smothered them with straw in my effort to protect them from the cold. One week after planting the new batch, they already look better than the ones last year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed because the one plant that survived last year gave berries that tasted like strawberry heaven!!

Garlic:

Planted last October and will be harvested this summer.

Planted last October and will be harvested this summer.

Asparagus:

They grow faster than weeds, let them go one day without checking for spears and you'll come back to 14" monsters that are too big. Crazy.

They grow faster than weeds, let them go one day without checking for spears and you’ll come back to 14″ monsters that are too big. Crazy.

Lettuces:

Started under our portable hoop house, they've been exposed for over 2 weeks now.

Started under our portable hoop house, they’ve been exposed for over 2 weeks now.

Purple mizuna:

Asian green

Asian green

Pac Choy:

Another Asian green

Another Asian green

More lettuce:

That large one on the top right survived the winter as an itty bitty thing and kept growing even in the cold.

That large one on the top right survived the winter as an itty bitty thing and kept growing even in the cold.

Happy spring everyone!
I’ll update with bee news after my inspection this weekend.

The bees have decided…

That I apparently, need to have 3 hives. It’s amazing what has happened in the past week: I added the nuc with the VSH queen (Queen Vivienne, do you like the name?) in a newspaper combine on Sunday July 8th with Melissa. On July 8th, I first looked for the old queen (Queen Maria) two times, I finally found her and removed her into my queen marking cage with plunger. I set the cage under the pine tree to help keep her cool, there were about 3-4 attendants in there. I went on to look at Demeter, saw Queen Penelope and the hive looked really good though the bottom deep was essentially empty.

Two deeps, 3 mediums and a shallow. The bottom deep was empty, the shallow had some wonky frames and the mediums were loaded with honey.

We harvested some frames of honey from Demeter on two separate inspections (Demeter is the stronger hive) and can I just tell you that the foundationless frames worked like a DREAM!!! I had a hard plastic spatula and all we did was go around the edges with the spatula and the whole thing dropped into the bucket. We put the empty frame back in the hive. It was perfect. As for the plastic frames, that was a pain. Since you know I don’t really want to use an extractor, I just used the same spatula to scrape off the comb with honey, and that was really messy. We saved several bees that ended up stuck in the honey bucket. By the way, that 4 gallon bucket was free. I called my local grocery store and spoke to the bake shop. I asked them if they had any empty frosting/fondant buckets and I picked it up on the way home from work! It has a handle and a lid and it’s food grade plastic.

Still on July 8th, after harvesting the frames I returned them to Demeter for the bees to clean up. When we were done with Demeter, I went back to Melissa to merge it with the nuc (with the new queen). We opened her up and placed two layers of newspaper on top. Why two? Since they had JUST had their queen and were queenless for a short time (less than an hour) I thought adding extra protection may work better. I cut a tiny-tiny slit in 2 corners of the bottom paper, and then the same thing at opposite corners of the top paper.

The VSH queen with her open brood on top, the old hive below. I used a double layer of newspaper. Just in case

I didn’t see much paper outside on the ground over the subsequent week and figured these bees just did what the bees did last year: made a small hole and just kept going in and out of the small hole. Boy, was I wrong:

On July 13th.

I managed to spot the new queen, big, golden and beautiful: I marked her with the new, non-terrifying queen marking cage and it worked just fine. I managed to mark her again after I freed her because I find the cage doesn’t hold her still, just limits her escape. The one advantage could see to the British queen marking cage is that the spikes go all around and if you use wax as your foundation, you can plunge the spikes down as far as necessary to keep her immobile without squishing.

Queen Vivienne, my VSH queen

But gosh darn it…guess what I saw during the brief inspection on July 13th? Queen cells. Oh so many queen cells. At first I thought they were superceding Queen Vivienne but as we looked on other frames there were other queen cells, probably over a dozen and we didn’t even look at all of the frames. Oiy (I seem to write that a lot). There were also a ton of bees, I mean a TON. I saw only one frame that was undrawn. With many queen cells, essentially no empty frames for them to expand into and loads of bees, they had swarm prep written all over them. You know the adage, “A swarm in May…”

What to do, what to do? I just kept hearing in my head all of the other advice I’ve read: “If I see queen cells, I pull them into a nuc and make a split.” But if they’re swarming I don’t want to lose my new VSH queen, I just got her! Plus I don’t know how long the VSH trait remains expressed through the generations. How many daughters later do I need to replace the queen? I need to ask Adam. So to hopefully prevent a swarm, I pulled out Queen Vivienne, put her into a nuc with 3 frames mixed of pollen, honey and brood. I didn’t worry about getting brood because there is a laying queen in there. I added 2 undrawn foundation frames. I did shake in about 3-4 frames of bees but I couldn’t use the frames that had a good mass of bees because those frames had active queen cells and if you shake a queen cell you can really damage the developing larva. Don’t want to do that! So I got what I could. At least Melissa now has the ability to make a queen, I still have the Queen Vivienne and she’ll keep laying.

Queen Vivienne, back in the nuc. Oh, for heavens sake! I’m moving this  into a deep hive box. I already have all of the trappings for another small hive: screened bottom board, screened top, outer cover. So, three hives it is.

Back to Queen Maria: I went back to her under the tree and found a slew of bees on her cage. Poor things they just wanted their queen. I started to take her toward the house (I planned to keep her in the utility room until I figured out what to do with her) when I noticed the workers LEAVING the mesh. I started thinking “Uh oh” (this is how slow I can be sometimes) “If they’re coming out now, then that means they’ll come out later when they’re in the house…that’s not good.” I also happened to notice at this time that there were many, many more bees in the cage with her than I added originally. Holy crap they had crawled in there with her! There were about 20 workers in there! Could you even imagine what would have happened in the house as they came out? Ugh. So I got a piece of cheese cloth and a rubber band, covered the mesh with the cheese cloth and I think there was adequate air supplied. I gave them a big smear of honey on Sunday and Monday and when I went to check them Wednesday, [sob] I found the queen and one attendant dead. The others were very sluggish. Do you think there wasn’t enough air or food? I felt soooooooooooo horrible. I had planned to go into the hive on Wednesday to pull some frames to make a nuc for Queen Maria because I felt terrible for keeping her from being a queen. But I was too late. Seeing Queen Vivienne so big and beautiful with so many frames of brood and eggs already, I felt a little better. But still.

On to the gardening front, we’ve harvest >60 pounds of tomatoes since Sunday the 8th. And it’s only going to get worse.

Just a drop in the bucket, as of tonight we have 65 pounds harvested in 8 days.

Cherokee purple I believe.

Lovely spring for gardening

We have been very fortunate that our mild winter, coupled with a mild spring have resulted in early harvests. I can’t decide if this bodes well or ill for the overall harvest. For a while we were getting 1/2″ to 1″ rain every week, which is perfect. It would seriously be six days of sun and one day of rain; in my gardening memory I don’t remember a spring like this.

I’ve been picking alpine strawberries for almost 2 months now:

Red Wonder: super intense strawberry flavor.

Yellow Wonder: these are ripe when they are fuller, the skin is a creamy off-white and the seeds have darkened. Also, the berry almost falls off the stem when you go to pick it. They have the most wonderful tropical, pineapple flavor.

Bumblebee on asparagus flowers

Sugar snap peas: this picture was taken a month ago, the plants have easily quadrupled in size.

Sugar snap pea flower

Bee using my moist potting soil to collect water. “Dirty” water also carries salts and minerals necessary for the bees. See her extended proboscis? Click to embiggen.

I’ve picked a quart and a half of blueberries, here are a few:

This is just to show you scale regarding the strawberries. They are small but mighty flavorful! The blueberries are incredible. I expect to pick another quart tomorrow.

Mr. Fox longing for the chickens.

“I wish I could get in there!” He was there for over 30 minutes. He actually laid down and just stared at them for most of the time. He eventually got up and left…I thought, only to circle back around and stare some more. The chickens were on high alert.

Baby meyer lemons!

Beautiful poppies, the bees love them.

We’ve picked several quarts of sugar snap peas, about a dozen rogue potatoes, a cabbage, some broccoli (which was amazingly delicious), black raspberries, a few red raspberries and we just pulled the garlic yesterday. The problem with this early harvest is the plants that only produce one crop: they’re producing it one or more months earlier and once that harvest is done, it’s done. I can think of a few off the top of my head: blueberries, ALL tree fruits, June-bearing strawberries (all DONE in MAY!!!). I’m sure there are more. Normally you wait until July and August to have peaches and nectarines, but this year we should have them in the next week or two. So once those months roll around, I wonder what there will be? The one good thing for us regarding this mild spring is that we’ve actually been able to harvest heads of broccoli, usually the spring is just too warm for broccoli and it bolts before we can even harvest any heads. We shall see what this summer will bring, it will be 97 degrees F on Wednesday and Thursday. Summer in Maryland…hot and muggy, yay.

Bloom!

Tulip poplar is in bloom! That is not my hand or my picture 🙂

At one of the recent bee meetings, the speaker was Wayne Esaias who is the President of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association and also a scientist with NASA. He has been tracking honey bee behavior with climate change and the concurrent shift in nectar flow. Research and satellite imagery has shown that nectar flows have advanced by .58 days per year since 1970. They also found that one degree increase in temperature results in a 1 week earlier bloom.

Several interesting observations:

-Though the nectar flow starts earlier, the bloom period is the same. Plants do not extend their bloom since their bloom period is hard-wired.

-One month advance in spring nectar flows means 2 more months of high consumption rates compared to normal and this results in lower total yield.

-We should be supering our hives mid-March!

-An egg laid after March 15th has little contribution to colony yield

-Africanized Honey Bees rely on 2 nectar flows. Those states with one nectar flow do not have AFB but those states that have 2 nectar flows, do. Isn’t that interesting? So I wonder if climate warming will hasten the spread of AFB?

It was a very interesting talk, he even had satellite pictures of the “greening up” (Spring) and “browning down” (Fall) of the US.

Check out the site on NASA, it has interesting information on honey bee forage: honeybeenet and the scale hives they’re using to track the nectar flow. I found a scale hive right next to me, I wish they had real-time hive weights available then I could really know when the flow was on!

I found this site as well, even if you’re not a beekeeper you can still help: BudBurst

Soil test

My husband and I have been gardening for quite a while, in any possible location. We tried growing tomatoes in the shade! It didn’t work. We’ve grown on balconies, in postage-stamp sized yards. But since moving into this house, we’ve had a substantial food garden.

We grow tomatoes (of course), peppers, onions, potatoes, herbs, kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli, etc. We have our veggie garden in raised beds (6 beds are 4’x8′); one is quite large, maybe 15’x9′? I have raspberries in one bed, strawberries in one small bed and blueberries in flat ground. I have one tree each of peach, nectarine and pear (had 2 of these but one died last summer).

Last year we expanded the raspberry space by building a new bed and loading it with compost and native soil. I ordered a variety of raspberry plants from an online retailer. They arrived fine, with great root systems. I shared this order with a neighbor and a coworker who actually lives not too far away from me. The raspberries did great for them but not me. Only a couple of plants took and I’m being generous even saying that and then everything died by the fall. I couldn’t figure out if it was a disease or something I was doing wrong. I finally decided to email the company a couple of months ago and after discussing it with them, confirmed my decision to get a soil test.

As a gardener, one of the pieces of advice you will hear is to have a soil test. We have lived in this house for almost 6 years and have diligently added compost every year to our raised beds whether our own or a locally produced product called “Leaf-Gro.” Leaf-Gro is just what it sounds like, composted leaves. The garden has done quite well overall, we have our battles with various pests and diseases but still manage to grow quite a bit of food. I try to use organic gardening practices to battle these issues.

There’s a learning curve with all new crops but the most challenging for us were the following: potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, and then battling tomato issues. With potatoes, we got better at fertilizing and covering them–awesome harvest this past year. Broccoli and cauliflower is hard for us as a spring veggie because it gets so hot so soon here. We’re trying to start it early and see if it works. Otherwise they will be fall crops. And then there is blossom end rot on the tomatoes.

I have no problem cutting off the bad part of a damaged tomato and using whatever is left. But when we have to do it for a majority of the tomatoes, it gets old. Enter…the soil test. We have added calcium to the soil in the form of eggshells since getting the chickens. But apparently we don’t need to add anything except nitrogen. All of the beds came back as “very high” in soil nutrients. And apparently, too much potassium can cause blossom end rot as it effects the calcium uptake of the plant.

Another problem identified by the soil test, high pH levels all around. Most veggies, and actually plants, prefer slightly acidic soils and ours are 7.1–>7.5!!!!

Reading about acidifying the soil will lead you to sulfur. But our sulfur reading varied from mid-range to high as well. How can I acidify the soil without using sulfur and thus increasing the sulfur rate in the soil?!?

It turns out that the sulfur used by plants is actually in the sulfate form, meaning ammonium sulfate, potassium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, etc. But the sulfur used to acidify soil is elemental sulfur and takes quite some time to become bioavailable to plants. Good to know.

Regarding the raspberries, the soil pH is way high and they need nitrogen. Go figure. I’ll make adjustments this year and retry next year. I may send in a sample of the strawberry bed now, just to make sure the soil is right for them.