Category Archives: Honey Bees

2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

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An Early Fruit Tree Yield & Stacking Functions

Nanking Cherry Blossoms

We are currently receiving our first yield of the season from our fruit trees and bushes – nectar and pollen much needed by our bees and other pollinators!

In permaculture design we have a concept called “stacking functions.” We ask for multiple benefits from each element added to the system – we want to do more with less. Rather than narrowly specializing, we ask more from everyone, build on the relationships we create this way, and aim to decrease our workload in the process. The system becomes more efficient by way of complexity.

Honey Berry Blossoms

Oftentimes the various functions are already there, we just need to open our minds to seeing them. Once we identify them, we can then work to better use and enhance them or more deeply understand their value.

When I choose plants to bring into our landscape, there are numerous jobs I’m looking to fill, such as insectaries, pest confusers, dynamic accumulators, nitrogen fixers, fodder and, of course, food for us. Fruit trees and bushes are an obvious choice to give us a great yield later in the season, and a huge boost to nectar and pollen eaters in the spring (video: Bees Visit Nanking Cherry Blossoms).

Peach Blossoms

And they really need it. To make one pound of honey, it is estimated that more than 550 worker bees will be needed to visit 2 million flowers. They will fly the equivalent of once around the world to make just that one pound. After the winter, my bees have consumed most of their resources and need the mass blooming of trees and dandelions to get off to a good start. 

Jostaberry Blossoms

Here are other reasons to love trees… like all plants, they are the true producers on our planet, creating the energy that runs the whole food chain. Then, like all long-lived, woody plants they clean pollution from the air, stabilize soil, cycle water, moderate temperatures, sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, and give oxygen in return. They can offer shade and habitat.

Stacking functions is a useful permaculture lens to develop.

In a mechanistic view of a farm, each aspect is reduced to one use. You have pigs for meat, cows for milk, veggies for human consumption, cover crops and fertilizers to feed the soil, machines to manage the land, and waste products to grapple with.

Clove Currant Blossoms

But in nature (meaning in reality) complexity and relationships are what create health and resiliency.

Understanding that animals also make soil-feeding manure, and that their behaviors can be used in healthy land management leads to systems taking them out of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) to go back onto pasture with rotational grazing. Increased soil life, better crops, fewer fertilizer inputs needed, and no waste.

A reductionist mindset is often applied to our lives as well – school is to learn information, work is for making money, home is for raising a family, vacation is for relaxing. But, we’re better off when we realize it’s not that simple.

Red Currant Blossoms

When work is seen as a critical place of social connection, programs strengthening relationships increase satisfaction and performance. Remembering that our homes can also be productive work places can inspire us to develop skills in our gardens, woodworking shops, and sewing rooms. Integrating fun and relaxing activities into our lives rather than just waiting for vacations can make our communities and lives more vibrant.

Meanwhile, I thank my plants for the many ways they feed and support life!

Peach Blossoms

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November at Living Land

The early winter weather that arrived in November justified my hurried working pace this fall. I’d like to claim an ability to feel the storms coming… but, to be honest, I’m pretty sure that I rush around every autumn. Some years I feel silly for it, but not this one.

The harsh month with some serious cold, very little sun, and snow and ice cut short some of the outdoor work I’d hoped to accomplish and made what had to be wrapped up challenging. Here’s the story…

Our Work in November

Outside

Our first priority this month was bringing in the wood we expect to need for the winter. There was also more splitting and stacking to be done. We didn’t quite finish that before the snow made it too tricky to continue.

Garden Under Snow

I didn’t spend much time in the garden. We did create a few new beds and refreshed some of the older ones with seaweed, manure and our moldy hay. I can pick that work up again in the spring.

In many permaculture designs and zone maps I see the garden placed close to the house with animals farther away. This time of year I give thanks that I didn’t follow that pattern. I might only enter the garden a half dozen times between November and March. On the other hand, the animals need the same care now as they did in the peak of summer. Bringing them food and water, opening and closing gates and doors, milking the goats.

In fact, we spent even more time with the goats in November since that is our targeted breeding window. I observed them carefully, attempting to discern who was in heat and pair her with the right buck at the right time. This is not so easy. My first goal was to breed Honey, who didn’t get pregnant last year despite our efforts. She spent much of this month living with Marley just in case I was missing the signs. I put Luna in with them as well when she seemed interested. All of this reshuffling of the herd agitates the girls, who complain about it often.

Stinky Buck, Riding in the Car

Later in the month, we brought home our buck named Pan, who spent a couple of years with fellow goat keepers for their breeding program. Driving around with a stinky buck in the car is not one of my favorite things, but we did it! He has caused a great sensation here. For some reason, the girls find him appealing to the point of jumping fences to reach him. He also smashed through 17 gauge fencing and broke a few gates to reach them. He is only supposed to be servicing one of my does, Cocoa, this year but he may have over-achieved. Time will tell, coupled with the detailed notes in my Goat Sex Journal. (Pan Romances Lily – November 2018)

Pan Romancing Lily

He is an impressive guy, now four years old, with a long beard, gorgeous horns, and emanating a true stench. As far as his personality, he has actually mellowed some. When he was last here at about 2 years old, I was concerned he might be interested in challenging us humans, not just the other goats. He never did anything aggressive – it was more how he was eyeing me at times. But that seems not to have developed after all and he’s quite sweet in disposition now. I was afraid that putting him and our other buck together would be potentially dangerous for them, but in one of his escapes they ended up together for most of a day and no violence ensued, to my great relief. There was a lot of snorting, peeing and flehmening, but even less horn locking than the girls do with each other as a matter of course.

Which reminds me of another job that Steve has been hard at work at, even in the snow: fencing fixes and upgrades. Thanks to Pan, he knew exactly the weak spots in the system.

Most of our animals share our lack of enthusiasm for this early winter: the goats and chickens don’t like stepping on snow and the cats have given up on going outside to hunt. Even our cold-hardy ducks spent a few of the really

Winterized Bee Hive

cold, windy days in their coop!

We also shoveled out chicken and goat bedding, hopefully for the last time until spring since we use the deep litter method. I am still harvesting leeks every few days and we did harvest and process two goats. I finished winterizing the bee hives, with help from some beekeeping students.

Inside

We have been baking and cooking more elaborately. Given our large amounts of stored pumpkins, we have made a lot of pies. Forget dessert, we think they made a fine breakfast – milk, eggs, squash, a little honey… sounds like a good start to the day to me!

I processed goat fat, and started to clean the dry beans.

I started to catch up on correspondence, get back to writing stories and plan for the new year for Seacoast Permaculture.

We also voted and have spent time reading and thinking about the results. One thing I can say I was pleased about was the increase in the diversity of people elected to office. Understanding the importance of diversity in nature leads me to believe diversity in our human-created systems is a positive step.

November’s Harvest

Leeks for Winter Harvesting

We brought in 3/43 kale, 63 (37#) leeks, 1# celery, 1# brussel sprouts, 1/8# spinach, and 1/4# broccoli from the garden. No eggs at all, 6 gallons of milk (milking just two does now), 62# of meat and 8 pints of high quality rendered lard.

I collected 6 5-gallon buckets of seaweed which the goats have been eating right up (Goats Eating Seaweed).

Not Much Sun, But a Beautiful Full Moon in November

We made 175 kwh from the PV solar panels. One of our least productive months since their installation. Wow, we miss the sun!

We found sources for more hay to re-fill the barn. We were able to bring home about two dozen bags of raked leaves from town. We usually bring in a lot more than that, but there was so little dry weather and wet leaves don’t work well for our uses.

The updated list of food from previous seasons that we continue to eat from is now very long and includes: winter squash, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, garlic, honey, canned peaches and blueberries, dried kale, beans and peaches. In the freezer we have: eggplant, broccoli, string beans, salsa, pesto, cheese, various kinds of berries, chicken, duck and goat meat.

Looking Ahead

I hope to complete a few more projects to wrap up the season, like goat breeding, bean cleaning and wood stacking. A summary of this year’s garden would help me in planning for next year. And the seed and plant catalogs have arrived so it is time to assess and choose! I especially look forward to the coming of the winter solstice to mark the growing of the light and maybe even a sunnier year ahead.

Witch Hazel – One of a very few November Blooms

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