Friday, May 22, 2015

Under Attack

It's been a very hard week here in the garden. For one thing, we're dealing with quite an onslaught of winter moths. Have you seen lots of little inchworms hanging from silk threads this spring? They love maples, and are eating their way through the small red Norway maple in the back yard. I haven't noticed a big issue with the sugar maple or fruit trees out front, but it's probably just a matter of time. 

They've been dive bombing out of the evergreen in the back yard also, presumably in search of greener pastures:


And they've found what they're looking for:


That used to be a young cabbage transplant, and almost all of them look like this now. I'd been stumped about what was eating them for a couple weeks: it's not loopers, and the damage to the stems isn't clean like a cutworm. Well, now I know. If we had known this was coming, we'd have put down the row cover as soon as we planted them. By now it might be too late. Bt spray should also help, but the plants  are now so heavily damaged that we may have to start over with new seeds, which means no cabbage until the fall. 

The broccoli has been nibbled, but it's farther from the tree and isn't quite as bad off. Yet.

And then there's this:


Notice all the clever cutworm collars strewn about the garden? When we went to bed last night, they were in neat rows around our newly-planted tomato plants. This morning, Kirk looked out to see a war zone in which every single tomato plant was pulled right out of the ground:


This was done with near surgical-precision: no scratched up digging marks, no tearing of the collars, and no tomato plants spared, even though they aren't all next to each other. The plants immediately next to the tomatoes were untouched. 

What in the ever-loving HELL?

It really felt human, but that's pretty unlikely. If it happened in the dark, I'm betting a raccoon. If it was at dawn (or in the early evening while were we at Tiegan's band concert), it was probably a goddamn squirrel.

Not a single tomato plant was even nibbled on, so Kirk replanted them as quickly as he could. They don't all look so hot this afternoon, but many are fine. Good thing we have some extras waiting in the wings.

The worst part of the phantom animal attack is that it's just a painful reminder that we are without any protection from critters. Cheeky birds and chipmunks know it and are getting bold. More on this sad situation later.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hydrangea Rehab

We've had two brutal winters in a row, and the extreme low temperatures and heavy snow brutalized the hydrangea in the perennial border:


That pile of sticks is pretty typical of how a hydrangea looks in the dead of winter, but the blooming tulips in the background make it clear that it is now May. What we should see in a healthy, happy hydrangea are lots of leaf buds:


And yes, we do have some canes that are clearly still alive. Not many, though. The great majority are definitely dead. I waited a long time to come to that determination, because hydrangeas take a while to wake up in the spring. If you prune carelessly, you can easily lose a season's flowers, so it's best to wait.  (We didn't have any flowers last year, either, and it wasn't due to overzealous pruning so much as an intensely cold winter that killed all the flower buds.)

By now it's clear that most of those canes are lost causes and can be pulled out to make room for some new growth. After a long pruning session, here's whats left:


That's a little depressing, but at least these canes are all alive. Or at least mostly alive--when in doubt, I let iffy ones stay just in case. It is incredibly unlikely that we'll have any flowers again this year, but I'm not ready to give up on this once-proud specimen. I'm hoping that it will have room to breathe now that it's been pruned, and that maybe this winter could be just a shade milder than the past one couple have been.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Getting To Know You

Our new chicks aren't so little anymore. They're a month old now, and most of their feathers have come in. They are getting to that awkward phase for sure:


From left to right are Rachel, Louisa Catherine (the black one pecking at the ground), and Lizzy.  

Today was nice and warm, so we took the opportunity to let them have their first day outside. They are in the chicken run, and they were definitely interested in scratching, taking dust baths, and exploring every inch of their interesting new space. This kept them from pecking at each other, which has gotten a little intense over the past few days--when you hear a wrestling match and find Lizzy's feathers in Rachel's mouth, you know it's time for them to move out.

You can't just throw strange chickens into and existing flock, though. That pecking order stuff is for real, and the little ones could actually be in danger from our grown chickens protecting their turf. To get everyone accustomed to each other, Kirk sectioned off a portion of the run with a little extra framing and some chicken wire:


There's a chicken wire wall about three feet high that separates the chicks from the big girls, and Kirk added another length to make a roof just in case anyone gets curious or extra bold and tries to jump out. All we have to do is bend it back and let it flop open towards us to get to the chicks and their food.


Our big hens came rushing over to see what was going on at first, but most grew bored pretty quickly. Dolley, on the other hand, has been patrolling the perimeter and giving a little peck at the chicks whenever they get close to the wire. This doesn't seem evil so much as part of her general curiosity-driven pecking at everything. Sally came out of the henhouse crowing when she laid today, and went straight down the ramp the crow at the babies for a good 15 minutes to show them who rules the roost. She hasn't glanced at them since.

It's not yet warm enough to leave the chicks out in the run overnight, though. They still need it to be about 70-75 degrees, so we gathered them up and put them back in the brooder under the heat lamp for bedtime. The brooder now resides in the garage, though, because these chicks are just too much to keep indoors anymore. They are much rowdier than the others ever were, and they feel more like farm animals and less like pets. We're definitely glad to get them outside.

On warm days we'll put them back in the run to continue letting everyone get used to each other. By June it should be warm enough--and the chicks should be big enough--to fully integrate them into the flock.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fresh From The Hive: Beeswax And Bee Bread

On Monday when we did our weekly maintenance check of the hive, we had to remove some small pieces of comb that weren't positioned properly on the bar:


Some, like the one above, had a bit of honey in them. Other pieces had big bee larvae, and still others had just tiny, new eggs. It's hard to take pictures once the bees get mad about you messing with their babies, but I'll try harder in the future. 

Different pieces of comb also showed some variation in the color of the beeswax:


The white is brand new wax, and it's quite soft and fragile--you can see it's all crushed around the edges from our hands, despite pretty careful handling. The larger one is more golden. Wax color depends a lot on what kinds of pollen the bees are foraging for--it gets mixed in when they produce the wax. 

We also had a bit of bee bread in the large piece. You can see two pieces here on the edge of the comb, which has been partially torn away:


Bee bread is pollen mixed with a bit of honey and fermented in the comb by the bees. They scrape the pollen off the forager bees' legs and use their heads like little battering rams to pack it in. It's a major source of protein for the bees. This bee bread is probably mostly made up of maple pollen.

Bee bread is eaten as a health food by humans, too. It's supposedly good for allergies (much like raw honey) and has antiseptic properties, nutrients, and all kind of other good stuff. It tastes floral (duh), and not really very sweet, but you can taste that mellow, ferment-y flavor too. I think it tastes like Amish Country smells: it brought back a really specific sense memory for me of old farmers market stalls, maybe in Kutztown.

As for the wax, I'll save it to use next time I need to make more lotion or cold cream. I don't think it will amount to much once I melt it down, but if we keep collecting bits that the bees build wrong, I'll eventually have enough be useful.