April 30, 2012

Spring Honey, Garden Greens, and a Promising Start to a New Season

Tonight there will be fresh baby greens and sweet little French breakfast radishes with our supper, because even fried egg sandwiches call for some dressing up on the side. The sandwiches, of course, will be way past ordinary courtesy of the chickens I’m watching now through the screened walls of our back room.

Supper fixings from our own land
Except for the bread, which I could have baked but didn’t, the fixings for our meal – even the butter for the skillet – were produced on Shuddering Squirrel Acres. We’re a long way from self-sufficient, but even a longer way from Detroit.

Vicki works hard most of the day, every day, nurturing new plants in her greenhouse, planting those that are ready for our gardens, prettying up unsightly areas out front and behind the house, arguing with the chickens over their choices for taking dust baths – almost invariably on a freshly seeded patch of lawn or in a newly planted flower bed – researching and reading in the ongoing battle with garden pests and blights, keeping our birdfeeders filled, watering, moving kitchen scraps to the compost bins, keeping an eye out for Larry the rooster who has turned completely bad to the bone and attacks us both without provocation, and much more, lovely through it all. The last doesn’t take work on her part, at least not much that I can see. She just is.

Some of Vicki's landscaping
I have nearly as many chores generally related to upkeep of our property; tending the chickens and my honeybee hives; using the tractor in a wide variety of tasks like digging new garden space in ground that is more rock than soil, bringing in the topsoil and compost to fill it, clearing fallen limbs or dead tree trunks from the path in our woods and grinding the smaller stuff into chips for a number of uses, spreading and grading gravel on our always eroding driveway; pounding fence posts and hanging wire to keep critters out of Vicki’s gardens; tending the compost bins; building things that need to be built; fixing the odd broken toilet; this and that.

We both constantly search for materially gainful employment because we’re neither independently wealthy – or any kind of wealthy – nor entirely self-sufficient. I’ve found some work as a substitute teacher, all grades, which allows us to buy minimal health insurance for most of what I earn doing it. After a long dry stretch, I was hired last week to do some writing. The paid kind. I’ve written quite a bit lately, but all without gelt. I’m told there are benefits to this, but they don’t put pork in the pot and this, you see, is how I’ve always made my living.

Plants sprout from the potato tower
So it’s good to find promise in the coming season that was almost entirely unrealized in the last. We’re already eating from the same gardens that, due to drought and pestilence, gave us almost nothing at all last spring, summer, and fall. The potato tower I recently built and seeded is now nearly covered with strong, healthy plants. Our two dwarf peach trees are loaded with nascent fruit, and I’ve already spent hours thinning it out to encourage a healthy crop. Both the black mission fig and Montmorency cherry trees are stronger and healthier than before, as is our small magnolia, planted for its singular beauty and perfume.

And there is honey. I spent an hour or so suited up in yesterday’s unseasonal heat working with my bees and monitoring their progress. There are two hives, and while both colonies made it through the winter, one is very weak.

I blame it on a heavy infestation of the damned small hive beetles that afflict southern beekeepers and against which there is little practical remedy. I refuse to poison the ground around my hives, which is one purported solution. It’s effective against the beetles, they say, but if you catch a bad break will also kill your bees.

Unthinned peaches
The other common remedy is to place oil-filled traps in corners of the hive boxes. But this requires the bees to “herd” the beetles into the traps, where they suffocate, or accidental capture as the beetles wander. Possibly there are some suicides. I have no way of knowing. The hive is suffering and the colony is minimal.

But the other hive has been bursting with action since the first warm weather a few weeks ago. The air in front of its entrance was so often thick with traffic that I was worried a swarm was in the making, and they’d take off for some other home. At that time, when I opened the hive, the honeycomb frames and all space above, below, and between them, were packed with frantic activity. I inspected further and found several cells the workers had built to raise new queens, a big danger sign that a swarm and decampment is coming soon.

Here I took a big gamble, and so far so good.

Beekeeping literature new and old, and beekeepers of the same vintage, are full of advice for swarm prevention. Like most everything else in this pursuit, much of it is conflicting. Some advise a search-and-destroy mission for queen cells, maybe leaving one in case the bees know best and their original queen is weak, ill, dead, or otherwise gone. Some say to split the hive, turning one colony into two, to eliminate overcrowding and eventually double your potential take in honey. But I’m greedy this year, since last season was for building size and strength in my hives and yielded a pittance in excess honey that I could keep. The drought and lack of nectar-laden blossoms foretold that anyway.

So I took a shot – and admittedly the path of least resistance – and simply put an empty “super” on top of the crowded hive. Supers are shallower than the two main boxes in a beehive, and intended to collect the excess honey stored by the bees after the comb in their living and brood-rearing chambers is full. They can be stacked as long as the bees keep filling them, and then removed and drained of honey, although some beekeepers harvest the honey as each super is filled.

Healthy hive with two supers
The gamble was in whether my bees would stick around and find enough new space to give up swarming. So far, it has worked. I put the first super on three weeks ago, and little more than a week later it was near capacity with full, sealed honeycomb. I left it in place and added a second super. During yesterday’s inspection I found it more than half full of honey. Excess honey. Honey that we can harvest, bottle, eat, share, or sell as we see fit. And there is also the beeswax that we can use to our own devices and/or sell.

When the second super is full, I intend to take that honey, put on a new super, and continue that way until the spring harvest ends. If luck holds, we’ll do as well or better in late summer.

Two curiosities remain that I’ll have to explore soon. First, despite watching for a long time, I have yet to spot any bees returning to the hive with pollen in their leg baskets. I don’t know how this can be, and have to find the answer.

The other thing that concerns me is the temperament of my strong colony. They’re Russian honeybees, which I chose because they’re resistant to the scourge of varroa mites, are known to be highly productive, and are generally of good mood and docile. But this year, they’re very aggressive, cover my gloved hands almost immediately after I open their hive, and die in alarming numbers of their ineffective kamikaze stings. I try to work quickly but calmly to minimize their upset.

I recently read reports that Africanized honeybees have been found in East Tennessee, but nothing about them reaching the middle of the state where we live. Their aggression is well documented, though exaggerated in their depiction by over-stimulated media as unstoppable death-dealers when they moved north into the U.S. a decade ago. They crossed first into Texas, and as far as I know it’s still there.

So I’ll be back in the hives soon, trying to solve a couple of mysteries and shooing the bees out of the supers so I can tote them back to the house, slice the wax caps off the combs and draw out the honey.

It’s tangible, sweet reward for toil, which is what all this is about anyway.

April 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Good Men

It may be that, because I was already thinking about my friend Frank, the Reverend Smith is gripping my heart in ways fictional characters rarely do.

Vicki and I have been spending part of most recent evenings in the special pleasure of watching the entire run of a brilliant TV series, as many episodes as we want each night, on DVD. When it first aired, somehow Deadwood got by us.

Based on the true story and real people of Deadwood, an illegal settlement that grew like a poisonous mushroom on Indian land in the Dakota Territories during the Black Hills Gold Rush after the Civil War, the series is a wonder of authenticity and master storytelling. Every other character is your favorite, and nearly all of them get some time in the spotlight.

Reverend Smith, usually just Reverend, is the only Deadwood resident without a lick of self-interest. For the most part he’s ignored by the placer-miners, grifters, opium dealers and addicts, gamblers, whores, murderers, thieves, drunks, sociopaths, psychopaths, pederasts, and others who slog through the blood-, mud-, and shit-filled streets, though none seems willing to risk doing physical harm to a holy man. Reverend is called upon to preside over the shallow burial of those whose bodies aren’t more commonly disposed of as feed for Mr. Wu’s ravenous pigs.

Reverend preaches in the streets with the intensity and joy of the true believer, but mostly as suggestions to the sinners, not force-fed fire and brimstone. He lives the credo of kindness and love in the thick of true hell on earth, and asks not a thing in return except, late in the game, the chance to rest beside a whorehouse piano player to better hear and enjoy his music. He’s denied this simple pleasure and told to leave. He’s bad for business.

Now Reverend has begun to suffer physical torment, which he bears not as a martyr, but as a simple child of God. One eye turns down while the other shows a heart wrenching combination of joy, fear, confusion, intensity, and awe. He still approaches everyone as friend, but asks to be forgiven when he cannot always remember whom they might be, and if in fact they are friends he can no longer recognize. He holds one arm tucked to his side and stoops against his will, dragging one leg that offers increasingly little support. Worst, he confesses in shame, he has spells when he can no longer feel the Divine within him. Deadwood’s equally good but inwardly raging doctor suspects that Reverend is being felled by a brain tumor.

Reverend’s face haunts me, tribute to an actor named Ray McKinnon, who portrays him on Deadwood. It reflects pain I have suffered, but without the grace of this man. In his decline, the Reverend’s face is a study in the beatitude of the doomed believer. It’s all I can do not to weep for him, a character in a TV movie.

It may have something to do with a kind, good man I once knew, my friend Frank. He showed up when I needed him, though he saw it in reverse. I was working in a vipers’ nest, where well-meaning efforts were greeted with treachery and deceit, and not yet recovered from some serious health issues. My father was declining physically, mentally, and with increasing speed following the wholly untelegraphed death of my mother a couple of years before. She simply pitched face forward onto the breakfast table, fell from her chair onto the floor, mumbled something about a terrible headache, and never spoke another word, “the healthiest one in the family” dead three days later.

I had since built, populated, and started tending a honeybee hive in my dad’s backyard, pleasantly distracted and absorbed by these ancient, helpful, and wondrous little creatures. They demonstrated order in a time of chaos, trust as long as I behaved in ways that suggested no threat, and provided me with honey, respite, and peace.

I wrote about the experience several times, getting no response from my urban readers, except Frank. He sent a letter, thanking me for these tales with an urgency that seemed far out of proportion to what they told. He had once been a beekeeper, had quit long before for reasons he didn’t explain, but felt the old feelings and was thinking of starting in again after reading of my own enthusiasm for this gentle husbandry. I emailed him privately, asked for his phone number, gave him mine, and we arranged to meet at his place.

Bucky Fuller's "Dome Home."
Frank's was grander.
He was elderly and a bit frail for reasons he seemed unwilling to share. We talked bees, and writing, and kismet, and gradually he opened up just a little. He was a former priest, and was married to a former nun, who cheerfully moved throughout the large geodesic dome that was their home in a thickly wooded area of a Detroit suburb. Now and then she crabbed a little about Frank’s renewed hobby, but they were loving pokes at the man whose secrets she shared and for whom she subtly feared – something.

Frank had long counseled drunks and addicts, and told me only that some unspecified “doubts” had led him to leave the church. Even when his face was split with a grin, his eyes betrayed a torment he would say nothing else about.

We discussed books, some politics, the human comedy – with for-instances – my parents, our children, his grandchildren, the addictive personality and the relatively infrequent times when it is remediated, plants, birds, the damned insecticide merchants who were contributing to the threatened erasure of wild and domestic honeybee populations, woodworking, the peculiar and undeniable benefits of geodesic dome construction and habitation, life in the woods even at a minimal remove from paved streets and overbuilt lots, comparative religion, and comparative hive design.

Tending a top bar hive in Kenya
We thoroughly discussed the so-called top bar hive, which is more common in developing countries than here in the U.S., where the boxy, carefully configured Langstroth hive predominates. It was invented and patented a decade before the Civil War by a Philadelphia-born Congregational clergyman who started keeping bees to cope with depression.

The top bar hive begins as a simple wooden trough with sloped sides, surmounted under its cover by a series of parallel wooden bars, each smeared or otherwise fitted with some “starter” beeswax. The honeybees construct, or “draw,” their freeform combs from the underside of the bars and working down, much as they do in the wild. Frank and I decided to experiment.

I built two top bar hives, one for each of us, and we placed them in separate clearings on his wooded land. We watched them progress for a time through the glass panes I had fitted on one side of each hive, and were encouraged by how quickly the curvaceous, golden comb began to fill the empty space inside, back to front. The bee populations were thick, in constant motion, and gentle.

Then it stopped. Workers were stumbling around on the landing board at each hive’s front entrance. Even as we watched, distressed, they fell singly and in haphazard groups from the landing onto the ground below, where their corpses piled up. The hives showed no sign of insect or animal invaders, they were visibly clean and watertight, and there seemed to be no problem that we – the beekeepers – could alleviate or eliminate.

Well before the season was over, our hives were dead. We puzzled over the disaster and settled on the beautifully flowered and landscaped condo development nearby as the cause. Several times, Frank had seen the grounds misted with chemical fertilizers and insecticides and it seemed obvious that our honeybees collected nectar and pollen from these toxic blossoms, brought it home, and suffered the consequences of a weedless, pest-free landscape.

We didn’t say the words, but Frank and I seemed to conclude that trying again would be pointless under the circumstances. We corresponded. He was angry at the state of his health. We were both grieving the failure of our mutual beekeeping. We worked by day at our respective jobs and tended to our lives outside of them. He had a new grandchild. My sisters and I took over our father’s life and care. I fell in love the first time I met and spent a couple of mealtime hours with Vicki, and decided we would marry.

Our wedding
When the time approached, we decided – having each been married before – to make it a private occasion. I had a favorite Italian restaurant, upscale and owned by the namesake daughter of the couple who had run the best pizzeria in my childhood stomping grounds. She created a menu for our wedding dinner, including a dessert of zabaglione, with a wink to the fact that I had once written of the airy dish as an aphrodisiac of strong reputation. As kismet provided, Frank and his wife lived just a few miles down the road. We asked him to preside.

Without fail, during every visit during our summer of bees, Frank thanked me with everything in him for reawakening the joy he had once felt in beekeeping. Almost embarrassed, each time I changed direction to my gratitude for finding a kindred soul, and a wise and gentle friend. But when I asked him to perform our marriage, he reacted with something even more profound. It caught his breath as though he wanted to say, “Are you sure?”

We showed up at the restaurant before the Friday evening rush, were shown to a romantic corner in the fireplace pit, and began. Vicki and I had written our vows – some autobiography, solemn promise, and simple words – and sent them to Frank shortly before, asking if he’d read them for us. The restaurant owner and Frank’s wife stood as our witnesses. We all dressed for the occasion, Frank and I in black suits, our ties matching Vicki’s red wedding sheath, which we’d had handmade and custom fitted by Hong Kong seamstresses. My hair was trimmed, gray and thinning. Hers was a golden, glowing whirl. A waiter stood to one side snapping pictures. He did his best.

Frank faced us and recited a brief proem, as personal and warm as anything I’ve heard in any church, on any occasion. When he turned to our vows, first Vicki’s and then mine, he smiled and paused here and there, his breath again catching. We loved him. Then, by the power of the state, we were pronounced two made as one.

Not long after, Frank died. The cause was a vicious cancerous brain tumor that he’d never quite disclosed to me. For a while before he succumbed, it attacked when he tried to speak, and otherwise hectored that good man’s body.

On the day he died, his wife said while informing us of the event, several young deer stepped from the trees and, unprotected and in full daylight, gathered calmly and quietly beside the geodesic dome. They too, I guessed, had lost an important friend.

It’s a loss I continue to feel as sorely as for anyone I knew much longer, before they went wherever we go when our bodies are finished. Hopefully, there is another place where the big questions and the tormenting doubts are answered.

So it’s hard to watch what is, after all, only a television drama, as Reverend stumbles cruelly to his own end, his face, like Frank’s, a study in the beatitude of the doomed believer. Requiescat in pace, both of you good men. One may as well have been the other.

April 1, 2012

Chicken Compost: Thar's Gold in that Thar Dooky

Besides giving us four fresh, deeply flavorful, free-range eggs every day and providing us with endless amusement, our hens are prodigiously productive fertilizer factories.
The first reason we keep chickens

We have four laying hens. Each of them lays one beautiful brown egg every 24 hours. By the end of each week, we’ve put 28 eggs in the fridge. In a single year, that’s 1,456, or 121 dozen eggs. Allowing for inevitable breakage and an occasional off day for each hen, it’s still more than enough to feed Vicki and me, and share the largess with friends and neighbors.
But when it comes to pooping, the numbers dwarf the egg arithmetic.

First, we have to add Larry the rogue rooster into the mix, for a total of five chickens. At this point, it gets a little tricky to figure out their raw fertilizer production in a year. I’ve found various estimates that come pretty close to 45 pounds per chicken per year, for a total 225 pounds. In itself, that’s a pretty impressive statistic. But my back tells me we’re talking about a much bigger number.

Chickens, of course, produce other waste – the urine that combines with their poop to soak the bedding in their coop. (How funkily poetic.) We use well-dried straw, and I’ve found that even with spreading a fresh layer over the soiled, it’s still necessary to clean it all out and replace it about once a week.

The other, less picturesque, reason
Until a couple of weeks ago, that went into a pile inside a rustic dog kennel that was on the property when we bought it. Left to it’s own devices, the pile would eventually decompose into rich, loamy, and valuable compost. But it’s an inefficient way to produce finished fertilizer.

During a recent trip to town to visit our local farm co-op for the fun of picking out vegetable and flower seed for this season’s gardens, I noticed that the boys were busy on the loading dock out back, shuttling around wood pallets stacked high with new merchandise.

A pallet is a wonderfully useful thing, even beyond its original purpose. One of them makes a fine base for a rain barrel. Two neatly handle a rick of firewood. Five can be nailed together to form an open-topped bin for storing potatoes. I’ve seen them assembled into coops, used as the base for honeybee hives, cobbled together for sub roofing on sheds, cleaned up and set on end as farmhouse bedsteads, even stripped down and used as the raw material for chairs and stools.

Wire the corners
They also happen to be just about perfect for compost bins. Set on one end and connected at the edges, the double-layered pallets provide sturdy walls to hold your compost pile neatly in place, while offering necessary ventilation to keep decomposition moving at an efficient pace. Arranged in sequence, they allow you to move the composting material from one bin to the next to continue its transformation while making room for fresh stuff in the first bin, and so on to a third bin. Et voilĂ , a homestead-sized composting facility.

So I asked the boys on the loading dock what they do with their used pallets. We burn them, one said. No, that’s changed, said another, they’re trying to sell them now. I asked if they could spare seven. Why? I’m building a compost bin. OK. Some people come in asking for pallets and go off trying to sell them on their own. Just wanted to make sure. You can have them. They fork-lifted a stack of eight, tossing in a spare, helped me load them into my old pickup, and I was in business. If you’re reasonable, folks around here can be pretty generous. Even to a Yankee.

Keep one thing in mind. All sorts of stuff are moved around on pallets. In my urban youth, when I worked nights moving freight on a Detroit-area loading dock to supplement my subsistence wages as a new reporter, I occasionally had to handle loads of toxic chemicals. Some had leaked, soaking into the pallets. This is bad for dockworkers, and it’s bad for any use that can get poisons into the food chain. Before making a compost bin, check with your source to be certain your pallets are “clean.”
Wired in back

It took only about an hour to assemble my three-section compost rig using heavy nails to hold them in place and coated wire to strengthen the joints. It’s not very refined, but on Shuddering Squirrel Acres refinement is secondary to getting the job done. Next up, the hard work.

It was past time to move my combination coop and chicken run to a new location to give our chickens a fresh patch of weeds to peck at their leisure, and to expose the old patch for mucking out the heavy layers of wet, packed, high-smelling, nutrient-rich straw and waste.
The only way to do it was by hand with a heavy garden fork, but being no fool, I loaded it into the bucket of my tractor to save a couple of dozen wheelbarrow trips to the new composter. My back has been hard-used for several decades, and I rationalize away the small additions to our carbon footprint to save further wear and tear. Mea culpa, but a crippled spine cuts badly into the endless work of running Shuddering Squirrel Acres.
Our three-bin compost facility

Still, cleaning up the old run and moving the pile from the dog kennel to the bin took several hard hours on an 85-degree late-winter (!) day. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

There seems to be general agreement among organic gardeners and veteran homesteaders that chicken manure is just about the richest and best balanced natural fertilizer you can use. But be aware that in its raw state, it’s especially high in nitrogen, making it “hot” enough to burn your plants. It also contains certain non-beneficial microbes that you don’t want on your vegetables. So it must be composted, first to cook out the bad germs, then to cool out the nitrogen.

Of course, we supplement the pile with kitchen scraps – coffee grounds and tea bags, banana peels, potato skins, other fruit and vegetable parings, apple cores – just about everything but meat, fish, grease, and anything else that could go rotten or rancid and attract vermin.

It’s all too raw to use in this season’s garden beds – although we’re fixing to try a little “compost tea” experiment – but next year? Ah, as they say in sports and farming, wait till next year.