Critters and Bunnies and Bugs! (Oh My!)

A.V. Walters–

Welcome to Michigan. Gardening in California was a formulaic cinch, by comparison. There we had concern about water, and gophers—but there aren’t many insects in California’s parched climate. Of course, we had the flies from the dairy, but they didn’t bother the garden.

Gardeners here have to be a hardier lot. There are seasons, with their never-ending uncertainties. We had a late May frost that zapped the blooms, and may cost the region much of its fruit this year. It didn’t affect our garden, because I was too chicken to plant with the night-time temperatures dipping so low. Our starts were safe and snug indoors, by the window. Not that we’ve been without garden trauma. The deer jumped the fence and did all that damage to our fruit trees. The trees are slowly recovering, the pears in the lead and the apples trailing. I think they’ll all survive. Deer are a serious garden hazard. At least we think we’ve ironed out the fence issues with deer.

We have gophers, but so far, they haven’t been seen in the garden. Most everything is in buckets (except lettuce and greens—fingers crossed.) Right now we’re trying to figure out how to amend the fence again to keep out the bunnies. We thought we had the spacing right, but somebunny is sneaking in at night and nibbling away at the peppers. Too bad we always have to learn through losses.

That’s true for the bugs, too. We’ve lost almost half of the tomatoes to insects. I’ve been out of area so long, I don’t even remember the names of all of the voracious 6-legged predators. Some kind of leaf-hopper-thingie is chewing through the tomato stems. One solution seems to be that our starts need to be bigger before we set them out. The larger ones have not been munched by bugs. Alternatively, we are considering floating row covers, which will outwit the bugs, and give us some frost protection, too. We lost some squash to cutworms—not a crisis, but the tomatoes came as a shock. In California, nothing touches the tomatoes. Here, it’s a race between the bugs and the bunnies.

The bugs are after us, too. Black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. We’re sitting ducks out there. The worst are the black flies. Thank God they have a pretty short season and should be gone by July. We mixed up a concoction of vinegar, water and vanilla, which seems to keep most of the bugs at bay. Before we found that, we were swollen and itchy—to the point of under-the-weather.

My father used to shake his head at scant summer clothes. As teens, we ran around in cut-offs and tank tops, oblivious to the hazards. Between the summer sun and the bugs, you were toast. Now, I dress like Dad, long sleeve tees, jeans, a neckerchief and a hat. Sometimes older is wiser.

Even our bees are plagued by bugs! Of our three hives, one has always been a little vulnerable. The ants have discovered the weakness, and are trying to set up shop in the top of their hive. Several times a day, I interrupt their efforts, and squish every single ant that doesn’t move faster than me. There are thousands of them. Rick has a plan for ant-wells*. We’ll get the supplies on our next town run and then we’ll foil those ants!

* hive stand legs in sheltered oil moats. More on that later.

Welcome Homebees!

A.V. Walters/Photos by Rick Edwards–

Bee transport next to new home.

Bee transport next to new home.

Opening up the "nuc" box.

Opening up the “nuc” box.

Checking the frames.

Checking the frames.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

Rethinking Hunting

A.V. Walters

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

It’s been a busy week–construction, completion of the fence, the arrival and installation of the bees, and putting all of the little plant starts into the ground. What a relief when the last yogurt container was empty and we could survey our little garden kingdom without the feeling that something else was needed…immediately. With the fence up, we moved the tomato cages (which had been protecting the new fruit trees) into their positions over the baby tomato plants.

The bees appear to be very happy. Their comings and goings are fun to watch. They have settled in and now they they probably know the neighborhood better than we do. It rained yesterday, and the morning saw a few dead bees on their doorstep. We weren’t alarmed. Bees die everyday. The average worker bee lives no longer than 45 days. By the end of their lives, they’ve done just about every job in the hive, starting with tending the young and moving on to more skill intensive tasks–building comb and maintaining the hive, guarding, foraging and scouting for pollen and nectar, and finally, returning to the hive to again tend to the young (and to teach new bees the ropes.) What was interesting was that we first noticed the dead bees on their doorstep on a rainy day. A rainy day is an opportunity for a little housekeeping. The bees can be crabby when they have to stay inside.

Yesterday was an eye-opener. Rick was up early, anticipating the construction crew. We had a dense and drippy fog–so there was the question of whether or not to start the roof. We’re watching the forecast, hoping for a window of dry, so we can safely pull off all the tarps that have kept the weather out of the house all winter. He wandered over to the garden to get a look at how the bees were handling the fog. Bees are generally early risers.

What he wasn’t expecting was the ravaging of the fruit trees. A deer had come right over our new 5,000 volt electric fence and sampled the leaves of of every single tree! Some she liked better than others. One poor little apple tree was completely denuded. The garden plants were unscathed–probably too small to attract deer attention. Still, we were in shock. Everyone we talked to had said that the deer won’t often jump an electric fence. Once they do, though, they’re trouble. What’s up with our deer? We suspect that the fenced area is so large that it doesn’t post a mental logistics problem for leaping deer. We are reduced to guessing at deer geometry.

We think most of the trees can be saved. I immediately zipped over to our neighboring cherry farmer to buy more small “tree cages.” Now, we have fences within our fences. Today, we’ll have to solve the problem of this deer–who now thinks our garden enclosure is his personal dining room. (Just where are those guard bees when you need them?) We’re debating two options: extend the fence higher with non-electric lines (as Rick pointed out, if they’re not touching the ground, the deer won’t be shocked in the air, even if they touch the fence); or set up a lower, perimeter line to interfere with the “jumping zone.” Maybe we’ll have to do both. (Then we’d have outer fences, to protect our electric fences, which protect our tree fences.) This is getting to be the Fort Knox of gardens.

The day was otherwise so busy that we didn’t have the time to work up a really foul mood about all of this. I did see Rick brooding a bit–asked what it was about. (After all, we have so many fronts on which to fret.) He looked up and said that he might reconsider whether to hunt on the property.

(Sorry, no photos, trouble with internet connection. I don’t have the skills to do pics from an internet cafe!)

Baby Steps

A.V. Walters

Looking deceptively innocent.

Looking deceptively innocent.

The fence is complete. After tonight, the last night on which we expect a frost alert, we can put our garden starts outdoors into their permanent homes. We’ve been hauling them out every day (all seventy or so of them) and then hauling them all back in at night. They’ll join the orchard whips, to be protected from the deer by the new fence. If we had any doubts about whether the fence was needed, in the interim, a few deer stepped in to convince us we’re on the right path. We hope the trees will recover.

The bees arrived today. The same fence protects them from the bears. Today we simply placed their bee transport boxes next to their hives. They were too agitated from the trip to pull the frames and place them into the hive bodies—we’ll do it tomorrow. When we pulled the plug from the boxes, the bees from one of the hives poured out in an angry mob. I was afraid they’d swarm (and I’d fail on my first day of beekeeping!) Within an hour they’d settled down and already some of the bees had found the pin cherry trees, blooming right behind the hives. The autumn olives are in bloom, too; their near-tropical fragrance is the perfect bee balm. The bees wasted no time and got right to work. Tomorrow we’ll do the transfer to their permanent homes.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

The roof framing crew showed up, too! Soon we’ll have a roof and we can settle in to the summer’s rhythm of finishing the house, minding the garden and the bees. We’re all on the same trajectory here. Things are looking up.

The Morel of the Story…

A.V. Walters–

We found another one! So now you see why morel mushrooms are safer to eat than most. They're so distinct looking, it would be hard to pick them wrong.

We found another one! So now you see why morel mushrooms are safer to eat than most. They’re so distinct looking, it would be hard to pick them wrong.

I am a middle child. What pleases me, may not be what pleases others. Middle children learn to like what they have—and not too visibly—or their older siblings will take that, too.

When I picked the property, I knew that it, too, was an odd duck. The “back forty” is too steep to develop or farm. Only the forest holds those steep, glacial sands to the planet. The front “panhandle” is slightly sloping down to the road, which was the reason for including it in the parcel. The property needed road access. Across the road is the swamp. At the low end, the swamp end, the soil won’t perc, so you cannot build there. It’s lovely bottomland, but it’s also the low spot where one can expect killing frosts. A neighbor planted fruit trees down there, and didn’t understand why, after a few years, they all died. Wet feet. The water table is so high that the poor trees literally drowned

The sellers waxed philosophic about the beauty, the views, the “potential.” They were realtors, had any of that been true, they’d have kept it. Not that there aren’t views, especially up on the hills, especially in the winter, when the leaves are gone. But you cannot build to take advantage of those views because the steep hills (and winter conditions) preclude any possibility of a road or driveway. The property is beautiful—it’s just not marketable for development. Oh, and the sellers told us, there were mushrooms.

Until last year, I’d never seen any mushrooms. Morels have a short season and, though I’d been here in May, I never saw them. Last year, I saw a bunch of them. They were in a plastic bag, dangling from the waistband of a mushroom poacher who was walking our south ridge. We ran the poachers off—but the morels went with them. I didn’t have the fortitude or attitude to demand that they surrender their bounty.

This year we’ve been regularly stalking our slopes, eyes glued to the ground. (So much for the view.) It’s been a dry spring, and cool, so much so that the leaf litter has been crunchy underfoot. Morels like warm and wet. We searched and searched to no avail. My sister, 150 miles south of here, went morel hunting several weekends in a row and found hundreds. She told me I just didn’t know how to look. Over and over again, she said, “You have to get low, they’re tough to see.” They are. And, they are especially difficult to see when they aren’t there.

This past week, we’ve had heavy rains. So, despite the fact that the season is technically over, Rick and I went for a last stroll to check for “shrooms.” We also figured we could harvest some wild leeks, “les ramps” to the gourmet crowd. For best flavor, you harvest them late—just as their leaves yellow. We weren’t twenty steps into the forest when Rick found the first mushroom—right in the middle of the path! We spent an hour or so—poking around, digging ramps and collecting beautiful morels. There weren’t many mushrooms, enough for a wonderful dinner. We had sautéed wild leeks and morels over penne—with thyme, and just enough goat yogurt for creaminess and tang. It was a feast for kings—as good as any served in this foodie-snob restaurant capital.

Maybe we’ll get an extended season. This will guarantee a few more hikes into the back forty, even though we’re really busy. Not bad for a couple of middle kids.

Sorry, no pics. We were so excited that we ate the evidence.

Beer Garden Blues

A.V. Walters

IMG_2132

We started our little garden plants in tiny peat pots, some weeks ago. We’d carefully researched our frost-free date, and back-calculated the time for germination. I’m picky about such things because one of my pet peeves is vegetable starts that are root-bound at planting time. The date came, and went, and the weather forecast still warns of possible frost, so we cannot plant. But, our little sprouts are ready to roll. To harden them off, we’ve been carrying them outside on nice days and back in again every night. It’s like babysitting.

Though I’ve never been an advocate of multiple transplanting (too lazy), this year I’m won over, if only to avoid the dreaded tangle of strangled roots in the bottom of the peat pots. Yes, I know that peat pots can supposedly be just dropped into the hole, but I’ve never done that, because even though the roots can grow through them, I’ve still experienced them causing a strangling ganglia of roots. And yes, I know there’s a whole school of thought that advocates multiple transplants for tomatoes—almost as gardening gospel. I don’t buy it. Like I said, I’m picky.

We’re going away for a short trip. Added to my root-bound anxieties is the knowledge that the tiny peat pots would dry out before our return. They desperately need larger pots that can hold enough moisture to cover our four-day absence. Transplanting is not an option; it’s a necessity. Since I wasn’t planning on it, I don’t have pots, one or two sizes up, in which to put these little sprigs. I had planned on going from peat pots, direct to the buckets dug into the garden. We’re not talking about a handful of vegie starts here; there are a lot of them.

After exhausting all of our yogurt and salsa containers, each washed and punctured with drainage holes, I started scrounging through the recycling bin for additional pots. I scavenged some milk cartons, a cocoa tin, and the plastic trays in which my co-op sells mushrooms. Still, we were short. What was I going to do with all those tomato starts?

I ran out to our local hardware store. They understood. Though they didn’t have a solution. (Their vegetable starts are in the same frost-free-limbo.) We all thought that the cold weather was done. Optimists, I tell ya! They suggested a trip across the county to a nursery/hothouse operation. Alternatively, they shrugged, there’s always 18-ounce, plastic beer cups. Sigh.

I’m not a disposable-cup-kind-of-gal. But, in the quest for environmentally sound solutions, one must weigh the impact of the nearby expedient, versus the drive-around-the-whole-damn-county looking for appropriately sized pots solution. The local grocery had a small stack of beer cups for $3.19. So, I went for it.

The plants will not spend long in their beer cups. I’ll save them for plantings in the future (along with all the punctured yogurt and salsa containers.) Next week, I’m sure they’ll all be ready for the final jump into the garden. I’m watching the weather site like a hawk. Next year, I’m gearing up for floating row covers. It’s either that, or it’s back to the beer cups.

Good Fences Make…

A.V. Walters

electric-fence

It’s nearly time to put in the garden, and that means that we need to make fence decisions. Our biggest garden problem is deer. The deer are also a threat to the orchard saplings. We’ve combined the garden location with the orchard to consolidate fencing needs. We’ll also have the bees in the corner of the garden, which complicates things a bit. Locally there is a split on the type of fencing or garden protection needed from the deer. (Oh yeah, and from the bunnies, too.) No matter what you do, it’s expensive.

Some install tall traditional fencing—at least seven feet tall. Others go the electric route and install a multi-strand electric fence. One neighbor has completely foregone fencing. They protect their garden with a motion detector connected to a sprinkler system. We walk by regularly and we laugh when our meanderings, on the road, trigger the sprinkler response. Hey, I guess it works! (If not for the bees, I’d be tempted to go this route.)

The uber-tall solution looks fortress-like and it’s permanent. I’d like a little more flexibility to move the fence, in the future, when the garden expands.

So, I stepped into the vast world of electric fencing. Too many decisions! What’s the power source? Is it close enough to the house for AC power? (Not really, we’d have to underground several hundred feet of wiring for that.) That leaves us with the choice of solar, or DC. Solar sounds so….progressive and green. I was predisposed to that direction. Unfortunately, my research into reliability and power needs revealed that the system that would meet my needs (and have the warranty life I’d want) would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves us with 12 volt, DC batteries.

The pebble in the shoe of all these plans has been the bees. You see, bees attract bears. (The hives down the road were raided by a bear, last summer—it isn’t a hypothetical problem.) An electric fence system strong enough to get a bear’s attention has to be pretty beefy. Fence controllers are rated in several ways, by distance, by ‘joules’, and by the type of hazard (animal) contemplated. Though a “5 mile” fence would be fine for deer, to get the kick you need for bear, a 25 mile fence is needed (even though the fence dimensions themselves don’t change—it’s not the length of the fence that counts, it’s the total length of the wire strands you use.) A bear fence calls for a minimum of four strands. Some contend that seven is required. Not that appearance is the arbiter, but a seven-strand fence looks like a maximum security prison—minus the razor wire. (One beekeeper actually suggested a double fence—with a 30 inch no man’s land between them!) I think we’ll go with four strands. The fence must deliver a minimum of a one joule charge to dissuade a bear. That same power will make our fence pretty unfriendly to incidental human contact. It’s not a ‘leaning on the fence talking to neighbors’ kind of a fence. We worry about the cats.

All of this has been Greek to me. I’ve been researching the fencing on the internet. It’s quite an education. For every fencing option, there are at least three alternate opinions. Unfortunately, our tailored needs will make it near to impossible to pick anything up second-hand. I have about a week to make up my mind. By then, our seedlings will be busting out of their pots, begging for a permanent home in the garden. And right after that, about the first week in June, the bees will arrive. We’ll need to be ready by then.

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