Archive for March, 2011

Building the Foundation

Since it still has yet to warm up in these parts, I thought I’d share a little bit more on the beekeeping topic that I brought up in my last post. If you read “A Look Ahead,” then you’ll already know that my friend Eric and I will be starting a small beekeeping hobby/business this Spring; and, that I promised to post a few pictures from our trip up to the site of the future bee-yard. Well, true to my word, here are a few of the shots I took while we transported our hive!

Because our bees won’t be arriving until April 10, we decided to lay down the foundation and leave the hive itself inside for another week or so. In case you’re wondering why we’re not keeping the bees in our own backyards, or if you’re simply thinking of starting your own hive, I thought I’d include a little five-step guide explaining the ins and outs of beehive placement.

How to pick a spot that will keep you, your bees, and your neighbors in perfect harmony

1. Check the laws in your area regarding beekeeping.
For a general overview of where beekeeping is illegal, here’s a list of the “No Buzz” zones in the continental United States: Illegal Beekeeping. There are only about 90 cities left on this list, but it’s always a good idea to check (my city is actually on the list, which is why we’re keeping our bees on another property). Even beyond the city law, check with your township for any regulations that must be followed; some areas require that the hive be kept at a certain distance from your property line, for example.

2. Talk to your neighbors about your new found love for the bees!
Image found at http://www.keeperofthehome.org/2010/11/herbal-honey-a-sweet-holiday-gift.htmlExplain to them that because of the bees’ typical flight pattern (they leave the hive and fly straight up into the sky and then spread out away from their home), the neighborhood isn’t going to be flooded with stinging insects. To increase the bees’ natural inclination to do this, you could plant tall hedges around the hive or erect a 6′ fence in front of your bees.
If you want to really win over your neighborhood, you can always give away some free honey after your first year!

3. Make sure that your backyard/property will give the bees ample space.
A beehive doesn’t take up much space at all, but if you live in a crowded development, the bees might not appreciate the close quarters. Bear in mind that the more unfamiliar people there are in a close vicinity of the hive, the higher the chance of a bee stinging a person that it perceives as a stranger.

4. Find an area that will be ideal for the bees.
In general, a good spot for a hive has three things: moderate shade, a nearby water source, and food.
Placing your hive on the edge of a grove of trees, where the shade provides adequate protection from the sun but does not completely eclipse the hive is ideal.

Like any animal, bees need water to survive (and to make honey!); so, having a source of standing water (like a constantly stocked bird bath or, as you can see in the pictures above, a pond) is essential.

While you certainly don’t need to place your hive in the center of a tulip farm, you will want to make sure that the area around your chosen spot will have enough blooming plant life to feed your bees. Unless you live in an area devoid of vegetation, I wouldn’t worry about this factor too much; but, nonetheless, it is important to consider.

5. Make sure that the perfect spot for your bees is the perfect spot for you, too!

If you are unable to house your bees on your property, but have a satellite location in mind, check the distance between your home and the future site of your bees. If the trek from home to hive is long and inconvenient, you may want to look into finding a new spot. Even if the area is perfect for the bees, you don’t want to dread making the weekly trip to check up on your hive (hating the drive can ruin all of the fun of beekeeping).

Hopefully these pointers will help you pick the ideal home for your bees!
If you’d like to learn more about beekeeping in your area, here are two links that provide the contact information for a plethora of beekeeping associations around the world: Beekeeping Associations in the United States, International Beekeeping Associations.

It’s getting pretty late here, so I’m all out of time!
If you have any questions, as always, please feel free to ask! If you’ve noticed something that I’ve forgotten here, or have some words of beekeeping wisdom to share, I’d love to hear what you have to say!
Until next time, happy gardening!

A Look Ahead

If you live in the northeastern United States, or have had the misfortune of visiting us in the past few days, I’m sure you’ve noticed how deceptively cold it’s been here. By deceptive, I mean that even though it might look bright and sunny and gardening-friendly, venturing outdoors always results in being whisked back inside by a blast of cold air and a mocking snowflake. So, in an attempt to escape from this deep freeze, I thought I’d talk about beekeeping: a new-found hobby of mine that will be picking up in the warm, sunny month of April, a month that seems about as distant as the land of milk and honey…

I was first made aware of this seemingly archaic pastime (I really didn’t think people still kept bees, quite honestly) by the great folks over at GardenFork. For reasons that I can’t explain, I decided that I would don the bee-suit and, after some convincing, I talked Eric, a good friend of mine, into joining me in this venture. By now, I’m sure someone is thinking “Why would someone deliberately place several-thousand stinging insects onto their property?”. And, I’ll admit, I thought the exact same thing the first time I heard of backyard beekeeping. But, after hearing of the incredible benefits of keeping a hive full of bees (and that bees are, for the most part, very gentle creatures), I was sold. Although there are certainly a myriad more justifications for keeping bees, here are a few benefits that helped win me over:

1. Keeping bees increases the growth and output of a vegetable garden. There’s no way around it, gardeners need bees. Without ’em, we’d have to rely solely on the randomness of the winds for the pollination of our plants (and I’m not exactly ready to put all my money on the reliability of the weather!).

2. Bees produce honey. I know, that’s a pretty obvious statement, but when you think of all of honey’s health benefits, having a local supply makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re a fan of getting your produce locally!

3. On a global scale, bees are disappearing. Literally. Because of a phenomena known as Colony Collapse Disorder, entire hives of bees have begun to vanish, leaving nothing but an empty hive and a baffled beekeeper behind. This mysterious occurrence means that new beekeepers are desperately needed to replenish the dwindling number of bees in the world. According to the USDA, bee pollination accounts for $15 billion of crop value (or, to put it another way-one out of every three mouthfuls of food you eat has been beneficially affected {directly or indirectly} by bees), so it’s in everyone’s best interest to help these little guys (or girls) get back on their feet!

Image found at spillehoney.comOnce I was convinced that beekeeping would be good for me, if not the world, I set out to find a few resources that would help me in my quest to single-handedly repopulate the bee community (I might have been a tad over-ambitious at first). In the picture of our hive below, you might notice the book Beekeeping for Dummies, a guide that has proven to be an invaluable resource. If you’re interested in beekeeping, or if you’re a beekeeping pro, this book is bound to teach you something.

Being that I was not only convinced that I must keep bees, but now well-read on the topic, I needed supplies. And, thanks to the advertising on GardenFork’s iTunes videos, I was made aware of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. This bee supplier had everything necessary to get started for this year (plus much, much more). What makes this company even more reputable, I think, is that they raise their own bees; and, if you live around their North Carolinian headquarters, they’ll even ship a package of them to you!

Because I don’t live in North Carolina, a fact which is a bit saddening, especially during this never-ending cold weather, I had to find a local apiary (or bee-farm) in my area. Scouring every online, beekeeping forum we could locate, Eric and I finally settled on Bjorn’s Apiary, run by Mike Thomas. If you live in PA and are interested in beekeeping, Mike is truly a wealth of information (and bees)! He breeds his strains of bees specifically for this area so that each hive will survive the winter. Not unlike an expectant mother, we’ve been rushing around getting everything ready for April 10, the arrival date of our package of Russian bees. The hive has been built, a location has been set, and all that’s left is to set up our hive and install our bees!

If all goes according to plan, Eric and I will be heading to the site of our future apiary to prepare the hive for its future inhabitants. I’ll try to take a few pictures and share them here as soon as I can! As for the pictures of my photo shoot with The Gilded Lily, the landscaping firm I had previously mentioned, I hope to have them up by the middle of next week, once I receive the negatives.

Well, that’s all the news from my frozen patch of ground, hope it’s getting warmer in your neck of the woods!
As always, happy gardening (or beekeeping)!

A Little off the Top

A friend of mine recently asked me a question about when it was best to start thinning vegetable seedlings; and, I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea. I really hadn’t put much thought into my burgeoning seedlings, which are now outgrowing their terrarium-esque container (We had to move the kiwi vines to a new spot-they were getting just a tad too tall). So, I’ve done a little bit of research, and am here to share what I’ve learned about the simple, yet heart-wrenching, process of thinning one’s plants.

First, here are a few reasons why thinning your plot is better for you and the plants.

1. Less plants in one area allows greater root growth for the plants you leave in the ground.

2. More nutrients and water is allotted per plant, meaning a healthier, more bountiful crop.

3. Several early diseases can be prevented because of greater air circulation around your seedlings (just like us, a crowded plant is an unhappy plant).

Now, onto the dreaded task of parting with a few of your young plants…

1. Make sure the plants you plan on thinning have two to three fully formed leaves and are between two and three inches tall-Less than two (leaves or inches), and the plants aren’t ready to be thinned.

2. Before you pull anything, water the soil in which your seeds are planted so that the ground is moist, but not soaked-this will make the process easier on you and the plants.

3. Thin your seedlings in the evening to allow the remaining plants time to recover before being put into direct sunlight.

4. Once you’ve accomplished the first three steps, it’s time to start thinning. For most fruit-bearing plants, gently pulling the seedlings from the dirt is the best technique (feel free to use a spoon to dig ’em out and replant these little guys somewhere else if you have room. Or, you could dice them up and leave them outside for the local critters to munch on-no sense letting a good plant go entirely to waste!)

5. For root vegetables like carrots, onions, and radishes, pulling the plants all haphazard like can play havoc on the roots (read: the edible part) of the plants left behind. To combat this, take a pair of scissors and snip off the plants at the soil level. This will discourage further growth, granting more space for the rest of your garden.

And that’s how it’s done! Now, a moment of silence for all of the seedlings that have been thinned…

*Deep breath* Well! Since it’s night time in my neck of the woods, I’m going to go do a little trimming in my own garden patch.
Good luck with your  thinning ventures, and happy gardening!

A New Day

Walking through the lobby of our campus always presents one with unique opportunities. While passing through, you might be asked to give blood, donate books for African schools, accosted by any number of businesses who want you to join their summer employment roster, or, as was the case yesterday, given free food and an opportunity to embrace an unfamiliar culture.
Image found at http://www.indianpublicholidays.com/2010/08/parsi-new-year-greetings-pateti-greeting-cards-navroz-festival-2010/
Since yesterday was Noruz, the Iranian New Year, which means “New Light” or “New Day,” an area of our school’s foyer was devoted to teaching us about this holiday and the culture from which it comes. Part of this tradition involves the preparation of several specific dishes, one of which being my favorite dessert: baklava. So, in the spirit of Noruz, I thought I’d share my favorite recipe for this light, nutty pastry which looks challenging to make, but is really quite simple!

What You’ll Need

1 9×13 baking dish

1 Basting brush

1 Medium Sauce Pan

1 16 ounce package of phyllo dough (available in the freezer section of most grocery stores)

1 pound of chopped walnuts and pecans  (this is my favorite combination, but any type of chopped nuts will work)

1 stick of butter (I usually get by with only using a half stick, but it all depends on how you apply it to the dough)

1 teaspoon cinnamon or allspice

1 cup water

1 cup white sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup honey

Instructions

1. Preheat your oven to 350° F

2. Butter the bottom and sides of your baking pan

3. Chop your nut mixture – I usually chop the nuts until they’re relatively fine, but having larger chunks will still work just as well

4. Add cinnamon to nut mixture and mix until the cinnamon is evenly distributed.

5. Unroll your package of phyllo dough and cut the stack in half so it matches the size of your pan. In order to keep the phyllo from drying out, I’ve been told to dampen one or two paper towels and place them on top of the dough while you prepare the dish.

6. Now the fun part!
Begin placing sets of two phyllo dough sheets on the bottom of your pan, brushing melted butter onto the top of each set. Repeat this until you have a base of eight sheets of phyllo dough.

7. Now, sprinkle enough of the nut mixture to lightly cover the dough. Cover the mixture with another two-layer set and continue buttering the dough. Repeat this step until you’ve run out of your nut mixture or of room in your pan.

8. Top with six sheets of phyllo dough, buttering the top; and, with a sharp knife, cut the baklava into whatever serving sizes you prefer before placing your pan into the oven for 50 minutes, or until the top layer is crisp and flaky.

9. While the pastry is baking, now is a good time to prepare the sauce. Bring the water to a boil in your sauce pan, and mix in the sugar until it is completely dissolved. Add your vanilla and honey and let simmer for twenty minutes.

10. Once your baklava has finished baking, immediately pour the honey-topping over the pastry and let it cool. To store your baklava, keep the container uncovered, otherwise it has a tendency to get soggy.

And that’s all there is to it! Bear in mind that this is my favorite recipe, not the traditional, Noruz style of Baklava. For a more authentic baklava recipe, here’s a link to CitronandCinnamon’s Lebanese variation: Nutty Baklava.
If you have your own, favorite way of making this dish, or another dessert you love to make, let me know! I’m always looking to try new things!

Happy baking, and happy Noruz!

Of Mice and Men

Looking back over today’s events, I can’t help but sympathize with Robert Burns’
protagonist in “To a Mouse, on Turning up Her Nest with the Plow,” the nameless man
(or woman) who gave our culture the famous sentiment that “the best laid plan of mice and men often go awry.” Image found on http://www.autumn-people.com/?tag=robert-burns

I mention this because early this morning (we’re talking 5 a.m. and up – a time of day that, I’ve decided, should never be seen by human eyes) I was supposed to have a photo shoot with a local landscaping firm for a school project. Being the diligent, student photographer that I like to think I am, I made sure that my film was loaded, my bags were packed, and my destination was plugged into my GPS last night before going to bed; and, this morning I hurried through my morning routine in order to leave extra early. However, despite my careful planning and preparation, it rained. Usually, a little rain wouldn’t bother the hardened, time-worn gardening veterans that I was supposed to photograph; but this wasn’t the usual light, Pennsylvania drizzle that often accompanies an early Spring morn…no, this was a house-shaking, light-flickering sort of storm that sent even the most determined gardener back to bed. So, I was forced to drive dejectedly back home in the middle of a maelstrom without a single picture to hand in to my professor.

The reason that I’m telling you the woes of my morning is because of what I discovered when I arrived home from my unsuccessful venture into the world of photography. Since my morning was now wide open, I decided to do a little indoor gardening and tend to the seedlings that I referenced in “The Breakthrough.” Much to my delight, my plants were all doing wonderfully; all except for the Kiwano melon, the one plant that I had most hoped to grow this year. Upon doing a little digging into the matter, I came upon a startling discovery: somehow, in my grand plans to construct a bountiful garden, I had forgotten to plant the seeds! Once I finished depositing my melon seeds into their respective pods, I reflected on what had just happened. Had my original plans gone as I had hoped, it is quite possible that I would never have noticed my gardening error, thus forcing me to wait another year to plant this crazy-looking fruit. Perhaps plans going awry isn’t the worst thing in the world…

Just so you know, if the weather cooperates, I should be able to complete my photo assignment on Friday the 25th. This means that I’ll hopefully have a bunch of pictures of some of the most well-kept gardens in the area to share with you by the end of the week! And, if you’re interested in the rest of Robert Burns’ poem, I’ll be posting it in its entirety in the “Verse from the Garden” section of the blog.

Well, that’s all the news from my garden, hopefully everyone else remembers to plant their seeds this year!

The Equinox

Although my body yearned to sit down and relax after a grueling morning at work, I knew that not only Spring had arrived today; so too did the start of Spring gardening chores. So, in an attempt to use my Sunday to its fullest, I marched outside, bucket in hand, to weed one of the beds I intend to use for my garden. It didn’t take me long to realize that something besides the usual, green pests was growing in my soon-to-be garden, however. As it turns out, the cloves of garlic I planted last fall had survived the winter and sprung to life!

Coming from an Italian family, I’ve been taught that you can never use too much garlic in a dish, and the fresher the garlic, the better. If you ask me, you can’t get any better than home-grown garlic!

If, like me, you’re interested in growing garlic but aren’t sure how the devil you’re supposed to plant that papery bundle of vegetable matter, here are a few, basic steps I’ve found that will ensure that even the least experienced gardener will have something to harvest this summer. Most of my information is derived from the guide “Growing Garlic.”

1. Acquiring and preparing the cloves.
The easiest method of finding garlic cloves is by purchasing a dehydrated head of garlic at the grocery store, your local farmer’s market, or from a seed vendor such as Johnny’s. It has been recommended to me that choosing garlic from a locally grown source is best, because this will ensure that the type of garlic you grow is suited for your area.
From there, you’ll need to separate each individual clove from the head. I prefer using a sharp knife and piercing the paper-like membrane that surrounds each individual clove before pulling the clove from the base (see below).

2. Planting the Clove

When planting garlic, it is best to find a spot that receives lots of sun and has soil without excessive moisture. Once you have a suitable plot, plant each clove an inch deep with the pointy-side facing up. Probably the most important thing to remember with garlic is that the clove will not grow if it hasn’t first been exposed to cold temperatures. This means that planting in the fall (usually around September 21) is ideal. I do know that refrigerating your cloves will “wake-up” the plant, but I have never tried planting garlic after using this method (if anyone has had success with this technique, I’d love to hear from you!).

3. Harvesting and Storing

Once the green leaves of the plant have turned brown and wilted, it’s time to dig up your garlic. Immediately after harvesting your plants, hang the herbs in a cool, dry place for at least a week to ensure proper drying. After the week has passed, brush the dirt off the cloves and enjoy!

And that’s it! Even with the added steps of preparing the cloves and drying the heads after harvesting, garlic is incredibly easy to grow and enjoy.

Well, it’s time to go back outside; hopefully your first day of Spring isn’t filled with as many weeds as mine!
Until next time, happy gardening!

Continue reading

The Breakthrough

Last Sunday, while procrastinating the completion of a paper on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” I pre-planted three seeds that, according to the very handy information on the back of the seed packets, need a longer growing season: Tam Jalapeños (a very mild, but still flavorful pepper), Kiwano or Horned Melons (a vining melon native to Africa), and Hardy Kiwi Vines (a smaller, fuzz-less version of the Chinese kiwi capable of growing in sub-zero temperatures). After only a week in my rather over-sized Jiffy Seed Starter Greenhouse (available at most department stores or here on Amazon), I was surprised by how quickly these plants had grown! I may have misread the label on my leek seeds, though…so you may notice a few errant Alliums in the fourth column there. Hopefully they last until the final frost in May!  Before I go, I’ll leave another guide in the form of an article from garden-author Ed Hume’s website. “Starting Seeds Indoors” provides excellent information for both flower and vegetable seeds if you’re interested in getting a jump on the growing season!

Until next time, happy gardening!

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