Archives for category: rural living

Today was the big day. We’ve been watching the weather and today was possibly the last day. Tonight it will rain buckets. Tomorrow the temperatures begin to fall, and we’ll descend into winter-like weather. Of course, It could warm up again, later in November. But there’s no guarantee. So today was the day that we had to winterize the bees.

This year, we’ve done everything “right.” We kept a lid on our varroa numbers. We fed them through the dearth of autumn. (Though, in reality, they continued to bring in resources well into October and didn’t eat much of what we gave them.) And, because studies show that smaller hives fare better in winter, today we completely took their hives apart and reconfigured them for winter. We also harvested some honey for ourselves–but not that much.

We have two hives this year. One is a ‘pedigreed’ hive–fancy Saskatraz bees from out of Canada. They have a reputation for being especially winter hardy and resistant to the dreaded varroa mites. The other is a swarm hive–local mutts. They came from a swarm hive that our friends have kept, for years now. So we know they can over-winter in Michigan’s cold climate. The swarm bees are pretty mellow. The pedigreed bees have a pedigreed attitude. We paid good money to get bees who think that they are better than we are. We suit up fully when we open that hive.

Or, almost.

Bees are not always organized about how they occupy a hive. It’s their home, their choice. But what you want going into winter, (as a beekeeper) is bees in the bottom, with densely packed honey above them for their winter stores. That isn’t always what they provide. Sometimes the frames will be only partially filled, or only built out on one side, but not the other, or having some of the cells uncapped and “wet,” that is, not fully evaporated down to the 17% moisture level that makes it honey. Capped honey never goes bad. Uncapped wet “honey” can ferment.

So our job today was to tear apart the hives and inspect, frame by frame, and to rebuild the hives with the best, fullest, honeycomb frames above the bottom, deep super, that will start as their home for the winter. As the winter progresses, they’ll eat the honey stored directly above them, and move up in the hive as they eat their way through the winter.

Our work today was a pretty invasive process and the bees were not impressed. We want the total hive (bees plus adequate winter stores) to be as small as possible, because the bees have to heat it, with just their body heat. A cavernous hive with spotty honey resources peppered through it is not a good recipe for  winter survival. As extra insurance, we put hard sugar “candy” up in the very top of the hive, just in case the bees consume more in the winter than we’d estimated.

We started with the pedigreed hive. As anticipated, they were pissy about the invasion, and we had to smoke them aggressively. We were wearing full body bees suits, topped with heavy leather gloves. It was cool, about 54 degrees (F), so most of the bees were home.  We won’t open a hive under 50 degrees–the bees will lose too much needed heat. The air was full of peeved bees. We were covered with bees. When a hive is alarmed the tone changes–the low hum of a happy hive picks up to a loud whine. We tried to work quickly.

At one point, a bee discovered my Achilles heel. I stupidly wore thin socks. The bee stung my ankle, right through that thin sock. There was nothing to do, but press on. It was, after all, the last day. It was my fault, really. I never wear thin socks when working the bees. What was I thinking? Just as we were closing up the Saskatraz hive, another bee found my other ankle. Damn. Well, at least it’s a matched set.

The swarm hive was much calmer. They didn’t like the invasion, but their pitch never ramped up to that warning whine. We’d worked out a system by then, pulling and examining each frame and sorting which ones were best to pack back into the hive for the bees. Those swarm bees made the chore a pleasure. It’s amazing how different two hives, side by side, can be in terms of temperament.

We finished and carted our tools and our harvested honey back down the hill to the house. We had to stop, several times on the way down, to brush bees off of us. It’s best to leave the bees at the hives. You really don’t want angry bees hanging around, or on you when to start to strip down out of your gear. Finally, when everything was put away, I could settle in to tend to my swelling ankles. Now, with the help of a hot cider, with just a touch of Irish whiskey in it, I can put my feet up and reflect on the success of the day. Ready for winter. Nearly perfect. Marred only a little my my failure to dress for the occasion.

(Sorry, no pics, my hands were busy.)

We’ve been looking for a chimney sweep. We’ve been using the woodstove for over a year, and it’s time to clean the chimney before the heating season begins. The guy I intended to use up and retired, just as I was ready to hire him. I suppose we could do it ourselves, but it’s a messy job, and might require working on a ladder, on a steep roof. So, we’ll hire, and watch, and decide later if we’re up to it.

This morning I woke up to some strange noises. I couldn’t tell what it was–until I came downstairs. Then it was clear. A bird had flown down our chimney and become caught in the stovepipe to our wood stove. The pipe’s damper was closed–and the bird was trapped there, at the damper. The sound was frantic.

This happened once before, just after we installed the wood stove, but before we’d really used it. Since we weren’t yet living in the house, we didn’t discover the trapped pair of nesting birds until it was too late and they’d died. We hoped that once the system was in use that the smell of smoke and ash would warn off any other feathered visitors. And it did, until now.

Rick came downstairs, having deduced from the noise, that we were, once again, hosts to an involuntary bird guest. After coffee, we gathered the tools to disassemble the top of the stove, to provide access to the pipe. It seemed simple enough, once we were ready, we’d just flip open the damper, and the bird would fall into a pillowcase that Rick had pressed up around the bottom of the stovepipe. I’d open the door and he’d release the bird. Ha!

Just before we started, he warned me that we had to be in sync, because the last thing we needed was a soot-covered bird flying around inside the house. We assumed our positions and I opened the damper. Suddenly there was a bird, flying around the house!

It was a tidier bird than we’d expected–dropping a few feathers, but not a lot of soot. But a lot of soot, dislogded by the bird’s struggles, emptied into the pillowcase and the top of the stove. With a minimum of bird chase, and several opened windows, the bird found its way to freedom. A young grackle, I think.

It took a little vacuuming, but mostly it went well. Afterwards, Rick commented that we didn’t need a chimney sweep; we just needed a couple more birds.

I don’t know. I think two birds in the bush are worth a lot more than one in the hand.

 

 

 

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Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.

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The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)

rose chafer

It’s the same every year. Except this year. The first week of June brings verdant growth in the garden. And, it brings rose chafers. Rose chafers can be the bane of a gardener’s dreams. My crazy neighbor blamed me and my long vacant property for her rose chafer woes. I thought she was nuts.*

In my first years here, I didn’t know what they were. I had to do research to identify and find defenses to these voracious pests. It’s best to know your enemy. Rose chafers, true to their name, love rose plants–their leaves and their tender, delicious petals. I resolved early to avoid planting roses. (The deer love them, too.) Roses were definitely not worth the headache. Unfortunately for us, rose chafers thrive in sandy grassy meadows and their tastes are not limited to roses. The female digs into the sand to lay her eggs, which hatch into larvae and develop, eating roots. They emerge in June, as adults–ready to chow down on your precious leaves, mate, and start the whole cycle over again.

In my case, the garden plants are not too badly targeted–it’s in the orchard where I see the damage. Initially, I convinced myself that ‘handpicking,’ the organic gardener’s first line of defense, would be adequate. I mean, how bad could it be? They’re just bugs, and their entire life cycle happens in a scant three to four weeks. Left unchecked, rose chafers (who are leaf-suckers) can skeletonize a tree’s leaves. Not good. But moderate predation is not a bad thing…over time, a tree will make its leaves more bitter, to fend off the attackers.

Handpicking could be a full time job. These little buggers have wings–and even if you could kill every one in the orchard, new ones will fly right in to replace them. Not that I didn’t try. I’d go out, several times a day and squish every rose chafer I could reach (another limitation on hand picking.) This could easily average 30 to 50 bugs per tree, with the plum trees being most heavily afflicted. They love those plums. Last year, my sister visited. She was horrified that I was squashing the bugs in my bare hands! Gross! But then she returned home and found them eating the flowers in her garden and promptly stepped up to her full potential as a cold-blooded rose chafer killer.

There are some built-in killing efficiencies, tied to the bugs’ short lifespan and behaviors. In their adult form, rose chafers have only two objectives: breeding and eating. More often than not, they do both, simultaneously. That way, I can kill them in ‘the act,’ which adds the satisfaction that you’re eliminating the next generation at the same time. I’m not sure if it speaks to their biological imperative, or to the males’ ineptitude as lovers, but the females don’t even stop munching when mounted. I can almost hear them, “Whatever…just don’t interrupt my meal.” Since it’s the munching that causes the damage, I wish their romantic efforts were more of a distraction.

There are alternatives–everyone is enamored of pheromone traps. They are non-toxic and draw their victims in with floral and sex attractive fragrances. They certainly are effective on yellow jackets and hornets. But, the downside of pheromone traps in an orchard setting is that they may actually bring the pests in droves. (I suppose it’d be good if you could put the traps in the neighbor’s yard, far from your own precious plants.) I read that sometimes the traps would be so effective, that you’d have difficulty disposing of the buckets of insects attracted. Yuck. I’d read that, in some cases, netting could be necessary. I checked the priced on agricultural netting fabric and balked. Those tree nets could run $60.00 per tree! So I reverted to the organic gardener’s second line of defense, soap spray.

You simply mix a couple of teaspoons of liquid dish detergent and water into a standard hand pump sprayer. To be effective, you need to get the bug pretty drenched. I’ve become an expert marksman with the sprayer. I can blast the little bastards right out of the air, as they try to land on my trees. This method has some of the same disadvantages as handpicking–you have to stay on top of it, several times a day. But it’s much faster, so, in an average situation, you can keep ahead of the chafer damage.

This is not an average year. In desperation, I started checking online to see if others were experiencing similar plights. Rose chafers are also pests to grape farmers. Here in Leelanau County, we have a growing wine industry. The MSU (Michigan’s Ag University)    site indicated that one or two rose chafers per branch was a tolerable level. But this year, Leelanau grape growers have reported up to 200 insects per branch! Not surprisingly, many are reaching for toxic pesticides. Not me.  My poor plum trees are not that infested, but I’m not keeping up with the damage. I’ve already given up on getting an actual crop–at this point my objective is to save the plum trees. (The rose chafers have only a passing interest in the apple trees–and no interest whatsoever in the pears.) There I am, up to four times a day, blasting away with my soap spray.

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It won’t go on forever. Just until the end of the season (three or four weeks), or until the nets arrive…whichever comes first.

 

*Well, she is nuts. But there’s some minimal truth to what she says. Were we to cultivate the entire field, it would disturb the sand–and the eggs and larvae. So, by leaving it natural as habitat, we are contributing to the rose chafer’s success.

 

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.