Category Archives: Gardening

Putting the gardens to bed

Good evening, peeps and rancherinos! The day began wrapped in fog at the ranch today, and slowly burned away the last wisps of it toward noon, turning it into the sort of spectacular day that makes me glad to live here.

The quiet of the fog is different than the quiet of a normal day, but both are welcome – and one of the reasons we moved out here. It’s easy to lose yourself in the silence and allows the mind to wander even while pulling weeds and cutting down asparagus fronds to continue the process of putting the rows to bed as Mother Nature slowly embraces the change of seasons. That runs right up to and includes a scene for a novel unrelated to the one I am currently working on that now needs to be jotted down to have it for that future work.

A pileated woodpecker kept me company this morning, pounding away at the trunk of a tree with which he was obviously familiar, given the various holes in the trunk. I checked on the girls in the beeyard, and they were enjoying their sunshine, darting away in all directions on the hunt for nectar and pollen to collect and return to the hives.

Whatever you did today, folks, I hope you enjoyed it.

“True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” – William Penn

Foggy morning at the ranch

Good morning, peeps and rancherinos! It is Friday – not that any particular day of any particular week has any particular meaning for those of us who generally work every day of every week – but there is still something about reaching the end of another week on the calendar that is satisfying. A bit foggy this morning, but I’m sure it will lift, and the weather has been so warm that one of the single body bee hives I thought wouldn’t amount to much actually needs another brood box on it. I’m of two minds on this, as the temps are supposed to moderate, but I suppose if they don’t build up enough in the second box and don’t have enough bees to stay warm through our short winter, I can always reduce them back to a single box and then make sure they’re first on the list for spring expansion so they don’t get any nutty ideas about swarming.

The key in beekeeping, as in farming, is thinking of it as a game of chess. You’re attempting to stay several moves ahead that span several months, and that are dependent on a huge external factor: weather. Tonight – while watching whatever football I can find, of course – I’ll be starting on plans for spring, both bee-wise, and crop-wise. This past season’s crops were pretty much a lost season for various reasons (primarily extended sickness in the family) but next year is a new year, and thus a chance to begin again. It’s one of the better things about working in the soil: a crop may fail, either due to circumstance after some time, or by never growing in the first place, but you simply note what went wrong, learn a lesson from that wrongness, and endeavor to do better the next time around.

It’s much the same with the bees, of course, although a loss of bees is worse than the loss of a set of plants. They are living creatures, after all, and it’s more time consuming and more expensive to replace them than it is to replace plants or seed. So, it’s imperative to be the best caretaker possible, checking on them often enough to ensure their health, but not so often that they are constantly irritated by your presence. Balance: it is not just for gymnasts.

Whatever you’re up to today, folks, do it well, and do it safely.

“Henceforth I ask not good fortune. I myself am good fortune.” – Walt Whitman

Never ending tasks

This morning in the humidity, I pulled three bags of weeds out of the rear garden. The strangle weed – a vine that grows, well, like a weed – is absolutely everywhere, and it’s important to get it down before it seeds out and then dries. That’s the problem I’m having right now, because last year, some of it went too far along, seeded, dried, and gave me the masses of it now. The weeds in the raised rows themselves are the usual assortment of that vine, plus garden spurge, with its little puffballs of seeds, mimosa weed, with its chamber of seeds on each leaf, nut sedge, and other grasses. It seems each year I get behind although I tell myself I won’t, and each year I wind up with overrun rows toward the end of the season. It isn’t that I mind weeding per se: it’s a great, mindless sort of job to do while thinking over plot points and scenes for whatever I’m writing. I do mind that I can’t quite seem to stay on top of it better. That has to change, and it will be on my mind as I continue my quest to make this month the one where every bed is weeded in a timely enough fashion that by the time I reach the end, the ones done earliest will not once again be completely overrun.

There are some tomatoes still out there, buried under the weeds. We did not have a good tomato (or cuke) season this year, but some of the indeterminate tomatoes are alive and flowering. I’ve no idea which varieties they are, given all that have died or were pulled out. It will be a nice little surprise for us, assuming any of their fruits make it to maturity.

And from here? Well, I make plans for next spring, and make it a mission to keep on top of things better than this year.

Easter egg hunting, ranch style

Not really easter eggs, but what you find sometimes when weeding out and prepping a bed for the new season.

Not really eggs
Not really eggs

This particular bed is one I went through previously, digging potatoes at the end of the season – that month or so that we take a short break. I know I missed a few, but I also intentionally left a few seed bits in place, to see how they would do without any attention.

Answer: not bad at all.

New potatoes March 2015

I collected about five pounds or so of two types of potatoes, all told. About half were of a size and not sprouting to be separated out for us to eat. The other half will go back into the bed tomorrow, and I’ll dig it all up again in just under three months.

Lots of potatoes




Calling it corny

The “official” spring is not here, but after another 90F+ day yesterday, I’m calling winter over. Mother Nature may kick me in the butt for doing so, but it’s time to once again tilt at my personal windmill: I’ll be planting the first round of corn at the ranch this week. We’ve been here since the middle of 2007, and didn’t really plant anything that year. Since then, here are the results for the corn:

2008: planted, but the native soil was too weak, since most of this area used to be pine forest. Poor germination, poor growth.

2009: incorporated manure and topsoil into a plot of the native soil. Better germination, still poor growth that stalled at about the one foot tall mark.

2010: no crops, thanks to another round of cancer to beat back.

2011: good germination, steady growth. Trampled by deer, as it was in an unfenced area.

2012: moved the sowing to raised beds. Zapped by multiple tropical  storms as it was beginning to tassel.

2013: sown again in raised beds. Good germination, good growth, tasseled out, fair pollination, some pushover from storms that caused a good number to lodge. Winter squash and beans sown with the corn (the “three sisters” method). Corn earworms got into a lot of the ears, and total harvest was half a dozen ears. No harvest of the beans or squash, as neither produced.

2014: sown again in raised beds. Good germination, growth, okay pollination. Winter squash sown underneath. Got sick during a visit from relatives, couldn’t keep a close eye on it, as the illness hung on and on for over a month. The corn survived most of the storms, but no harvest.

2015: will sow again in raised beds, but without any complementary planting. I intend to use some stakes and string to create a matrix for the corn to grow through, to try to keep it upright during our summer storms. Since corn is wind pollinated, and here, the wind is often fierce enough to blow the pollen away out of the plot, the plan is to help the pollination by hand. We don’t have a thousand acres of the stuff to capture all the pollen being blown around, which would just leave the perimeter planting as an issue if we did have that much  in the ground.  That means monitoring for the tassels being fully open and anthers to start forming. Once this happens, and I can see the pollen, I’ll start cutting the tassels and brushing them over the silks of the ears that will begin forming at about the same time the tassels are ready. Hopefully, this will be just the thing to get over the Sisyphean hill that has been corn planting at the ranch.

Spring is coming

With all due apology to George R. R. Martin and GoT, spring is on the way. It may already be here, looking at our ten day forecast, with daytime temps bouncing around between the mid-50s and low 80s. Yep, Florida is a weird place during this transition time. The fact that we’ve already see a swarm this early in the season is also a sign, of sorts – it means the queens in the hives have still been laying more or less at the same rate as they always have. In the winter, they generally slow down or stop, so as not to have a ton of bees in the hive that need to be fed and kept warm during the cold. Since Mother Nature is a bit wacky this year, and the winter has been mild, the bees are going full bore. Nothing wrong with that, except chasing down a swarm and trying to stop other hives from swarming.

When the state apiary inspector was here, I noted the two colonies I thought had gone queenless were looking a bit cramped. Checking on them again, it was clear the queen was doing her thing, as the frames in the brood box were full of bees, brood, pollen, and honey – in other words, a very healthy hive. There were also bees bearding on the landing board and front of the hive. In the heat of summer they will do this to relieve the heat within the hive. On milder days, it can be a sign there simply is no room left for expansion. Given that it was also time to check the gear to determine what supplies needed to be ordered, I decided to go ahead and expand both the one looking overcrowded and the one next to it, that was also going strong.

Storing hive bodies, supers, and frames is a necessity. Storing them properly is an even bigger necessity, to ensure critters don’t move in to them and take over, and the ensure wax moths don’t take up residence and destroy the woodenware and any comb that might be on any frames.

Wax moth damage
Wax moth damage

That’s done by stacking them soundly with no entrances available, and using paradichlorobenzene in the stack. What’s that, you say? It’s a kin to traditional mothballs, and smells like them. But regular mothballs you use in your closet are napthalene, and bee folks say use paradichlorobenzenne instead – so that’s what we do. I had put down a couple of sheets of newspaper, sprinkled the crystals on, then stacked the hive bodies on top of them, closed off with an overturned top cover.  That would take care of any wax moths, keep rats/mice from getting in, and also keep Florida wood roaches out. It worked out fairly well, although next time I suspect using a bit more of the crystallized stuff would be better, as it kind of just melts away as time goes by.

Dead wax moth and feces
Dead wax moth and feces

It worked out pretty well,  as you can see from the dead moth on top of that frame (and the poop, but no larvae present). There were some frames I pulled out that had dark comb, as it had been used for brood once and then packed with pollen as the brood hatched. A couple of those had the remnants of wax moth damage, as wax moths lay in dark comb. Those went into a box set out near the shed where I was working. The bees immediately found it and notified a couple thousand of their closest friends to come help gather it and clean.

Cleanup crew
Cleanup crew

There was a bit of fighting going on between bees from different hives as they went about gathering from the frames, but in general, they were well behaved, and completely unconcerned with me – a good thing, as I was not wearing any protective gear.

Eventually, all the gear had been unstacked, examined, cleaned when necessary, or given over to the bees to clear. That left me with an inventory list of what was available, about to be put into use for the two lively colonies, and what needed to be discarded.

Sorting in progress
Sorting in progress

Once this chore was done, it was time to have a look in the hives. That will be a separate post. Stay tuned!



Winter. Spring. Spring. Winter.

This is our weather here. We’re northern enough in the state to get a taste of winter now and again – and by that, it’s highs in the 50s and lows sometimes dropping under freezing down to the teens – but southern enough overall that a lot of days during the winter months are more like spring. Yesterday, and now today (after a front blew through, raining and moving along), we are yet again experiencing a spring-like day: some clouds, but mostly sunny, mid-60s temp, and a fair amount of wind. It is a bit like Groundhog Day – appropriately enough, AMC has a little marathon of that movie going today – as we continue the cycle of getting through the months that the gardens are not fully in production, starting flats, pulling weeds, and in general, waiting for our real season to get underway.



Doing the grunt work

One of the things about the ranch that remains constant is that there is always something to do, either inside or out. This past week, the goal was weeding the back garden area and chopping up the vetch (which, hilariously enough, the autocorrect on my phone wants to correct to “kvetch”) that has regrown, so it can be used both to mulch the transplants when the time comes and so it can compost in place to return itself to the soil for later years. Today: achievement unlocked! The two rows in the foreground need some topping off with fresh soil and manure, and that will be done well before the transplants are ready to go out.

Back Garden Feb 2015

Next target: the front gardens. In addition to the weeding chores, keeping the bees fed and happy during these winter days is also very important, as is keeping a good water supply for them. I do this with a birdbath near the beeyard, with some sticks in it to allow the bees to drink without drowning themselves. Even with this in place, we still have to fish them out of the pool from time to time, but once they dry off, they’re off again back to their hives. I found this one girl hanging out at the edge of the birdbath basin, drinking up.

Bee, drinking Feb 2015

Just another day at the ranch on a beautiful day that felt more like spring than winter.