Monday, December 29, 2008

Yes, it's time

Here it is, the best time of the gardening year!  New seed catalogs, a warm fire, and greens bravely growing in the (finally) chilly air.  Do you realize it will be time to plant garden peas in only about 5 weeks???

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas

A fake palm tree simply begs for fake fish ornaments, don't you think?  I only wish I had taken a photo of the chickens cleaning the last of the meat off the turkey!  Merry, merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bountiful berries

I went out looking for a different side of the garden that might reflect the holiday season, and I found  . . . berries.   Big black berries on a sabal minor palm that flourishes in my wet feet bed (and is native to our area), bright red berries on a yaupon holly that doesn't mind wind and salt spray (also a native), and glossy berries on a highly adapted indian hawthorne.  Now if only I had even a smidgen of artistic talent to turn some of these berries into holiday decorations! 

The hens love the indian hawthorne berries, and when they were free ranging they often would get so excited eating them from the shed porch that they would step off into mid air over the bush and fall ungracefully through the bush to the ground.  Being hens, they would then hop up and do it all again.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Buzzard head; new status; frosty garden

Here is the promised photo of Lena in molt (when chickens lose their feathers as the hours of sunlight get shorter in the winter).  Her poor naked head is covered only by the "pins" that hold her new feathers.   It appears that the new feathers actually push out the old ones, as she never really was bald:  just went from feathered to pin head.  The others are losing head and tail feathers as well, and the coop looks like someone got eaten and left only feathers behind.  

In other chicken news, Expresso, the rooster, is really starting to shake up the nice, comfortable routine of the hens.  He now insists on roosting on the top bar inside the coop at night, and takes up the space of two hens.  The three who used to roost there (Pauline, Hilda, and Louise) also want to be on that bar.  And, of course, Lena has always roosted beside Expresso, ever since she was 2 days old, so she wants to be up there too.  The roost won't hold them all, so we have a nightly drama.  Last night 4 of them were squeezed onto the roost, with one poor hen (Pauline, surprisingly) left out.  She was trying to spend the night in the nest box, but I can't allow that (don't want those nice, clean nest boxes getting all messy).  Hopefully they will work out some new plan that gives everyone a night time friend.  There just is no room to expand the top roost!

Finally, here are some photos showing how heavy the frost  has been on the garden this week (Arugula, Collards, and Italian Parsley).  So far everything has popped right back, but some of the lettuce will probably be lost soon if I do not come up with a row cover of some sort for the really cold night.  Beautiful salad of mixed lettuce, russian kale, and new carrots last night!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Holiday fruits and flowers are here

While I was out of town for Thanksgiving, my Christmas cactus burst into full flower.  Since it does this like clockwork every November, it now is officially my Thanksgiving cactus.  I wish you could see the hot pink pistil and ring around the mouth of the inner flower.  I leave these cacti outside all spring, summer and fall, and bring them in just as thing start to get really cold.  Apparently that is the secret to getting flowers out of them, because they put on quite a show.  Too much water is the biggest enemy of these plants, so the fact that I tend to forget they exist most of the time actually is a good thing.

Here it is, the first tangerine off my coastal North Carolina tree!  The two we have harvested weighed just under a half a pound each.  The peel just pops off in your hand, they have almost no seeds (0 to 1 seed per segment), they are very sweet and very juicy.  I can't believe that they have grow here, outside, and produced!  Lets hope the winters stay mild, as now I can't imagine not having fresh tangerines to eat and orangequats for eating and cooking (I made orangequat chicken last night for dinner).

This morning the frost is heavy on the vegetable garden.  I have not yet put together any season extenders to protect the plants, so we will see how they hold up.  I will let you know in the next blog.  The hens have started to molt.  Poor Lena looks like a buzzard with nothing but the pins of new feathers on her head.   I'll try and get a photo or two.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Coop roosts; bee clean up

Since the rooster and hens no longer are allowed free range of the yard (due to their love for all things vegetable garden), we are trying to make sure that their coop environment is as interesting and stimulating as possible.  Inside their coop they always had a two level perch for roosting, and outside they had a single branch style roost both for hanging out and to help with getting into and out of the coop itself.  To give them more options, we now have added a second inside perch (and now the three big girls perch on one side of the coop, and Expresso and Lena perch on the new roost on the other side).  The best addition, however, is the new outside branch perch.  It is higher than the existing perch, and can be reached from the ground if they are willing to fly up, or from the other perch with a good hop.  They love it.  Expresso now chooses that as his crowing perch (starting at 4:50 am by the way), and the others hop up and down all day long.  It is a little thing, but I think it goes a long way towards enhancing their quality of life.

We finally extracted the tiny (6 lbs) bit of honey from the last of the super frames, and here you see the bees as they clean up every last drop of honey in the basins we used.  We let them clean up first, then we wash and rinse them.  However, they way the bees clean up, no rinsing would be necessary if you didn't mind little bee footprints.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Yes we can . . . grow citrus

Here it is, just starting to turn wintery and cold, and look, two huge, somewhat cold-hardy, Quanita tangerines just starting to turn color! And in the next bed:  a Nippon orangequat bush just loaded with  .  .  . ORANGQUATS!  They, by the way, are delicious, but fairly tart (that may be because they are not yet ripe, or it may be their nature).  To show you the size, I have placed a cut orangequat next to a dinner fork.  You eat the orangequats skin and all, and I love the taste.  My husband dips them in a little honey first, and that's not bad either.  The other semi-tropical you see here is the fruit of a pineapple guava.  So far I haven't tasted one, but the smell is wonderful.  This weekend I lost about 40 of these: they just fell off the tree and were on the ground each morning.  I'm hoping it was just wind, and that the remaining few mature.

These plants all are in the warmest, most protected part of my yard. Still, I know there is a risk that they will freeze down to the ground if we have a really harsh winter.  They were all seedling plants, however, so I have hopes that they will spring back even if severely winter damaged.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fall flowers

Hard to believe the number of beautiful flowers in bloom in November.  The bees found them all just too appealing to pass up.  I especially love the off-white pollen they are bringing in from the hollyhock and the deep yellow from the mums.  You can see those two pollens on the petals of the red hollyhock and of the peach mums.  Also shown are the white ginger lilies and the tiny toad lilies.

I harvested a few collards last night, just enough for dinner for two. They were wonderful.  I also harvested the remainder of the sweet potatoes.  All this rain has encouraged my delayed fall vegetables, and they are starting to get a little bigger.  I still have high hopes for them.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

We always knew they were special . . .

Pauline, Hilda, and Louise (with moral support from Lena and Expresso) won the blue ribbon for their Large Brown Eggs at the regional agricultural fair.  They are so proud and so am I.  Here they are gazing at their ribbon (OK, and eating the scratch grain I put on the ground under the ribbon).  Lena's eggs could not be entered because they do not qualify as "Large."

We are all embarrassed for the bees, whose last minute honey entry earned only a third place white ribbon.  The hens aren't even being subtle as they taunt the worker bees and flaunt their blue ribbon.  I pulled a very small amount of late honey off the bee hives this week (it is not yet extracted, so I do not know how much for sure), and found that Dolly's hive had completely abandoned their bottom brood box.  I removed the empty box, leaving them with just one box of brood and one of food (honey and pollen) as we go into the winter.  I may need to feed this group to help them survive.  Here you see their new, smaller winter hive.  There were hive beetles in this hive, so I am hoping that the smaller area will be easier for the bees to patrol.  While moving the bees to a new box, I saw the queen!  She looked lovely.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Finally, my fall growth spurt

Finally, the gardens are full of plants and I feel like the universe is as it should be.  Some plants are teeny, tiny, new lettuce and asian green seedlings, but some are big, happy chicken raid survivors.  In this photo you can see the few collard plants and the one broccoli that were protected from Pauline, Lena, Lou, and Hilda, surrounded by the same vegetables that are in recovery mode after being eaten down to stubs.  I actually am looking forward to seeing if I get multiple, small broccoli heads from the ravaged plants.  The collards are almost big enough for me to start picking the outer leaves for dinner.  

You also can see that the chickens had no interest in carrot tops, as this beautiful row of carrots remained untouched when everything else around them was eaten to the ground.  Beside the carrots are three cilantro plants, which thrive here in the cold months.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like salsa made with fresh cilantro Another herb that loves the colder weather is flat leaf parsley.  These beautiful plants were planted last year.  I harvested parsley all spring and summer, and they are now putting on their deep green, shiny fall leaves in hopes of being included in Thanksgiving dinner.  (They made it to last night's pasta sauce.)

A cold front is supposed to swing over us tonight.  I am going to do my best to get out during the warmer part of the day today and get the last honey supers off the hives and put the bees to bed for the rest of the season.  Any more honey they may collect from the fall flowers will help them finish filling their shelves with winter food.  I should have checked the hives earlier to make sure they have put away a full brood nest of honey.  I really hope I don't find any surprises out there.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oh man, shitake mushrooms and local shrimp!

What a day we have for food!  We bought the shrimp you see here from very local waters (almost within sight of our porch). That is a quarter on the plate beside those big guys!  When doused in salt and olive oil and seared on the grill they are just about the best food on earth.  Add to that our first shitake mushrooms from the logs we innoculated in the spring, and I am in foodie heaven.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Native forage for the bees; floral honey

I found a little capped summer honey (8 pounds) on the hives, and we extracted it this week.  It tastes different from any other honey I have harvested from Loretta and Dolly.  It is very, very floral and not at all what I usually call "spicy."  You can't taste it without making some "oh my" exclamation.  I am thrilled by the taste of all my honey, but this one is just so different; I may have to keep this harvest for home use or very special gifts.  

You can see how busy the bees are this weekend.  The entrance to each hive was a flurry of activity.  The long, slow rain on Saturday was a great boost to the native flowers that the bees depend on this time of year, and they are out in full force today to take advantage of the new blossoms.  Here you see bees on the yellow seaside goldenrod and the white flowered groundsel (also known as "mullet bush" down here on the island).  For once the girls are foraging for nectar and pollen right here in their own backyard on these two marsh plants.

Each hive still has one honey super remaining on top of the queen excluder.  Dolly's super is partially filled and capped, so it is likely we will have a late fall honey harvest from those bees.  Loretta's is empty, except for fully drawn comb (wax comb built out to full depth, ready for honey).  It it unlikely there will be honey to harvest there, but they are so busy that I left it on, but only for a couple of weeks.  Both hives have 3 medium brood boxes with honey backfilled for winter, so I do not anticipate they will need any honey they place in the supers.  Last year they had so much honey left over in the spring from the three medium brood boxes that it caused a logjam in the hives; and they swarmed rather than producing spring honey.  I hope that will not be a problem again in spring 2009.  For now they are active and beautiful and a joy to watch.  The marsh was alive with foraging honeybees and native bees and wasps.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Speckled egg, tiny transplant, coop expansion

This is the prettiest egg so far from our hens!  This one was Pauline's, but with wonderful, purple-ish spots.  We are buried in eggs right now.  I just gave away 18, and by the end of today there will be 24 more sitting in the fridge.  No matter how beautiful they are, I can't come up with enough ways to cook eggs.  4 a day is just way too many for two people.  Soon the hens should slow down and maybe even stop laying for the winter.  I need to savor the feast of eggs now, in preparation for the possible egg famine.

We have added an expansion to the chicken coop, another 5 x 3 foot section.  This is necessary because their garden foraging is forcing me to keep them penned most of the time now; at least until we can figure out a way to keep them out of the vegetables.  We had not yet roofed the new pen section this morning, but we figured the 6 foot tall wire and relatively narrow space would be enough to keep them in.  No such luck.  Expresso and Lena were casually walking around the yard when I went to leave the house.  A temporary fish netting roof should hold them in until we buy some roofing.

I worked this weekend on salvaging what I could of the vegetable garden.  The chickens had left the broccoli as mere stumps, without a leaf in sight. There were tiny leaf buds forming, however, so I left the stumps in place to see if the plants actually recover.  My husband had put fencing over one part of the garden, so some tiny new kale plants survived.  I spent the weekend transplanting every other tiny plant to a space in the garden left bare by the hens.  The plants were pretty small, as you can see, so I don't know if they will survive.  

I have high hopes that, despite all the setbacks this fall garden has experienced, we will see some very late greens.  I planted some leftover lettuce seeds on Sunday, and plan to order more.  Part of a row of carrots and a few beets also survived under the hen-proof wire, so they remain as well.  Although the hens had nipped the tops off most of the new arugula and russian kale plants, a few retained their growing points, so I thinned out all the decapitated ones, and hope the others fill in.  With the hens restricted to their new coop, there is some hope for my poor garden at last.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I missed the storm, but the garden didn't

I have been away for a couple of weeks, helping care for my Mom, who is approaching 91.  Like you and most everyone else, there are times that the garden gets left behind while other more pressing things take all our time. Luckily, my husband fed the hens and gathered the eggs, but the rest of the garden had to fend for itself.  So, how is the garden after 2 weeks of neglect?  

Well, first of all, we had rain.  Many plants were pulled back from the brink of dying from drought; this rain came right in time.  Others, like these pink rain lilies, spring from the ground only after a natural rain, from a seemingly blank space in the garden bed.  I love to see them them each time they pop up.   When I see my rain lilies, I know the other plants also received a much needed, deep drink of water.

 The storm that brought the rains also brought days and days of salty wind.  Look at the wind and salt burn on the SW side of my young maple tree!  The salt wind not only blackened leaves, but even killed the tips of some tender branches on trees and other woody ornamentals.  Other plants, especially those with shiny/waxy leaves, showed no effects from the salt.

Finally, that same storm brought the tide way up in the yard, higher than it has been even in hurricanes.  Although you cannot see any signs of it now, the tide was right up under the bee hives, against the cinder block stands you see here.  Apparently the bees where not impressed, and just continued with their day. 

 And the chickens?  Well, despite best efforts, they destroyed a large part of what little had been growing in the fall garden.  This weekend we fence them out of that part of the yard, and assess the final damage.   We are getting 4 eggs most every day, even though Lena's eggs remain tiny.  It looks like she may lay little bitty eggs, even as she matures.  My husband likes to say they have only half the cholesterol of the other eggs!  We will see if the eggs get larger, but, if not, their tiny but perfect shape make a bowl of eggs look even more interesting and beautiful. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The birds (chickens) and the bees

Lena laid her first egg, giving us our first day with 4 eggs in the nest at one time!  It is tiny compared to the others, as you can see, but perfect and beautiful.  Despite my hopes, it is a pale brown egg, not blue or green.  The Barred Rock in her won out over the Ameraucana.   Expresso, the young rooster, still lives with us.  For now he has found a place in our hearts (although this will change quickly if he gets rooster mean).  Poor boy, he has reached the point where he really, really, really wants to . . . well . . . be a rooster.  The hens, however, see it differently.  He has, as a result, developed his own technique; we call it "ambush."  Very, very funny around the backyard these days.

The bees are out working hard on the new fall flowering weeds.  This one is on a late rosemary blossom.  This was a very lucky shot, and I love it.  Notice that her wings are ragged?  This must be an older bee, working hard to the end.  The yard also is full of butterflies, and the one in the photo was particularly pretty.  The underside of the wings is chocolate brown with large white spots!  

Finally, the pitiful gardens.  As you know, my first fall planting died from lack of water.  My second planting was lost to wandering chickens in the vegetable beds earlier this week.  I have just made a third planting of kale, arugula, beets, carrots, and onion seeds.  However, I must be away for almost two weeks, so the chance that they will get enough water to survive is slim.  I will be quite put out if I have no fall garden, but it looks like that may be a possibility.  It will not be too late to put in lettuce when I get back, and I may even be able to find some leftover transplants somewhere for one last, late try.  I do have the 4 brocolli and 4 collard transplants that have survived, so that is a little something.

I love this new, cooler weather, even if we only have it for a week.  The change of seasons into fall has always been my favorite time of year.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Thyme time, big bites, green tangerine

As I went out this morning, my first thought was that I would not find anything worth discussing for this week's blog, as this is the slowest time for my gardens. In fact, however, I had to really weed out the photos I took, as I found moon flowers and balloon flowers, pineapple guava fruit, a half ripe melon on a vine planted by a passing bird, spiny seed pods, and Rose of Sharon flowers in full glory. The photos I chose for you show three types of thyme, two tangerines getting ready to ripen, and a collard plant missing big chunks of leaf where a hungry cabbage moth larvae had dinner.
The thyme is ready to harvest and dry carefully in a low over to use in sauces and on fish. The thyme itself stays green much, if not all of the year, so sometimes I use it fresh and sometimes dried. Note that one variety is short and hugs the ground, another tall and upright. You can choose your thyme for both taste and stature!
The pineapple guava fruit, along with the tangerines and orangequats, are starting to swell, and they all look beautiful. It has been so dry that many of the young fruit have dropped off each of these trees/shrubs, but luckily a few remain. I hope that they are able to ripen this winter, and that the plants themselves continue to survive our colder days. A lemon tree has now been added, and the grapefruit has struggled back again from the roots, and is now about 18 inches tall. It is fun to watch these tropicals thrive in my not so tropical setting. I am hoping that our winters stay mild for awhile, as these get fully established. Older trees sometimes survive winter temperatures that would kill younger trees.
Finally, the brocolli and collard plants have been visited by those lovely yellow butterflies that leave behind eggs to hatch into cabbage moth caterpillars: voracious eaters of all things in the cole crop family (cabbage, collards, brocolli, kale and such). The caterpillars grow quickly, and eat more and more each day. I treat with Bt, a disease of caterpillars, when the chomping begins. You can purchase Bt at many garden stores. It works, and has the added benefit of not harming any other insect.
We had very little wind, and almost no rain, from Hannah. It is dry in all my beds, and I have been waiting to seed the garden until we have some moisture in the soil. If there is no rain this week, I will have to flood the garden from the rain barrels, as time to plant is running out.
The chickens and bees send their regards.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Chicken coup; starting over on fall planting

As you can see, the hens have lost all respect for boundaries, and have taken to strolling up the steps whenever they hear us on the porch or coming out the back door. This IS NOT good. The dog is so disgusted he won't even turn around! Still no eggs from Lena, but I expect one almost any day now. The other girls are slowing down as bit as the light changes and they probably get ready to go into their first molt. We get 2 rather than 3 eggs now at least twice a week.

Remember those lovely collard and kale plants that sprouted immediately from seed a few weeks ago? Well, I ignored them for 10 days while I had company, and in the hot dry weather they all died. I am now amending bed 1 with some extra composted cow manure, as the soil there is too light, and have transplanted some purchased broccoli and collards into place. Kale is my favorite, however, so I need to get some kale plants started, again. The time is now for most all of your fall vegetables! I hope to plant carrots, beets, rutabagas, onions and more greens soon, and at least three types of lettuce in a few weeks when things cool down.

Finally, what is in this week's harvest? Huge beautiful figs and my first sweet potatoes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Passion, bliss . . . and weeds

This is what a passionflower looks like, growing happily on my fence here in Carteret County. On the whole they do well here, coming back stronger each year. I understand that the fruit is edible, but I am sure the flavor is dependent on the variety, and I just grabbed this one on sale early in the summer. It did not have a tag, so I don't know what variety it is. The flowers are probably one of the most spectacular you can find. (Do you recognize this as the basis for the recent cell phone commercial?)

The hens are spending time every day in their spa spot: a hole they dug in the yard where they can dust bathe. The snuggle down, fluff up their feathers, and kick dirt up under their wings and between every single feather shaft. They flatten out like a pancake and burrow with their shoulders (ok, you know what I mean, the tops of their wings). They do it singularly and in groups. You can look in their eyes and just tell they are in complete bliss. The point: to control all types of bird mites. Here is Lou, just getting started on her spa treatment.

Finally: If you feel bad about the weeds in your gardens, look at this. All of my ornamental beds look like this today. I have quite a crop of common bermudagrass and pennywort, and if I don't get it out soon it is going to be a really big battle later. Maybe after this rain I will get out there and pull it out.

Nothing to harvest now or in the immediate future from the vegetable beds. Some of the greens I planted came up, others did not. The squash is up and going strong. I have bush bean seeds to plant, and will be ordering more seeds soon for the full fall garden.