Archive for July, 2015

Consider This Before You Get Backyard Chickens

Author: Meera, July 29, 2015

My bedroom window faces the back of our property where the chicken coop sits. Every morning, I’m awakened by repeated grauwkkkk sounds made by the Silver Laced Wyandottes and the Rhode Island Red hens, the noisiest ones of all my chickens.



I wish I’d read up more on the breeds before making my selections at the feed store. I love keeping chickens and the eggs are fabulous. That said, there are some of the areas I wish I’d known more about. I might have chosen different breeds.




Rhode Island Red hen seems to be at the top of the pecking order

Rhode Island Red hen seems to be at the top of the pecking order in this small flock of backyard chickens



1. Noisemakers–some breeds are noisier than others.  I seldom hear the occasional cluck from my White Leghorns, but the Wyandottes never seem to shut up. Get a bunch of hens together and conversing, and you’ll soon see what I mean.


2. Snacking–chickens love snacks but give them judiciously. If they consume too many treats like blueberries, fresh corn from the cob, and bits of bread or rice, the quality of their eggs may suffer. But as soon as you give them treats, they become your best friends and will follow you around.


3. Pecking–chickens quickly establish a pecking order; they will also peck you . . . some harder and more aggressively than others. My Black Sex Link hen just seems kind of mean and pecks with impatience. But the Rhode Island Red will give an almost loving peck that’s not hard and doesn’t hurt.




These six-month-old hens love treats like greens from the garden

These six-month-old hens love treats like greens from the garden



4. Broodiness–when a hen goes broody (like my Wyandotte and Buff Orpington hens), her hormones have told her she needs to sit on a clutch of eggs until they hatch (about three weeks). But if you do not have a rooster to have fertilized those eggs, the hen will sit on them anyway, tying up a nesting box and hoarding eggs that will have to be tossed out when she finally figures out that she’s engaged in a futile pursuit of baby chicks. Some breeds tend to broodiness more than others.



5. Water and Food–chickens need water, love crumble, and can benefit from a serving of cracked grains and dried worms. To ensure their egg shells are sufficiently rigid, they may also need additional oyster shell calcium. And like all living beings they need fresh water. If they go without water, they can stop laying for weeks. I’ve figured out the cracked grains must be so tasty they are like cotton candy and after them, the hens don’t want their good food.



6. Diminishing Returns–hens begin laying when they are about five months old. After the first year, egg production will fall off about 20 percent in subsequent years. They generally lay eggs for seven or eight years, but can live to be older and produce no eggs.



7. Egg size–when a hen tries to lay too large of an egg, it can cause a condition called cloaca prolapse. It can claim her life–I’ve lost two chickens to this problem. One was an Ameraucana heritage chicken that laid blue-green eggs. I do miss her as she was skittish but quiet.


8. Moving Hens or a Rooster–if you are getting the gift of a chicken from a neighbor or friend, move that chicken into the flock at night. When he or she wakes up in the morning, the whole event will be a fait accompli and will generate less stress for all involved.







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Pulling Honey–A Bee-eautiful Sight to See

Author: Meera, July 28, 2015

Nothing compares to the reward of pulling honey from a hive when you are a beekeeper. Over the last two days, this is what I’ve done with the help of my world-class beekeeper neighbor who knows more about keeping honeybees than anyone I’ve ever met.




Honey bucket with strainer taped on and bits of wax in the honey on top

Pictured is a Henny Penny Farmette honey bucket with strainer taped on and bits of wax in the honey on top



His wife helped me scrape off the bee glue from each frame and then open the capped cells (a must) before draining the honey. We then used their machine that can spin twenty frames at a time. It has an electric motor and a control to increase or decrease the speed. Use slow speed to begin and then when the frames grow lighter, you increase the speed.



In all, I spun four hive boxes full (ten frames each), except for one box that had fewer because we left two frames behind in the apiary. They still had babies in them.



Honey streaming from the spigot of the electric power-driven centrifugal force spinner

Honey streaming from the spigot of the electric power-driven centrifugal force spinner




We taped fine-mesh filters over the tops of several five-gallon buckets. To spin the honey out of the first eighteen frames took many hours, from noon to about ten o’clock at night.  We left the machine spigot open all night to allow the draining to continue into the bucket. The filters caught bits of wax and even the occasional dead bee, ensuring the honey would be perfectly clean and ready to bottle.



I drained honey from the ten frames in each of my hive boxes–two of my hive boxes held the large frames and two held smaller frames. In all, we spun and drained enough honey to fill three five-gallon buckets and about one-fourth of a two and one-half gallon bucket.



Honey drains from the plastic container

Honey drains from the plastic container holding the wax we uncapped from the cells




Not a bad yield for a fairly young hive and during summer in a drought year when pollen-laden flowers are not be as plentiful. It’s a bee-eautiful sight to see!



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Ants in the Freezer . . . Seriously?

Author: Meera, July 23, 2015

Well, this is embarrassing. I found ants, a big pile of them, in the bottom of the freezer side of my double-door  fridge. I thought it was a mound of spilled coffee grounds. But that made no sense. Why would ants venture into the freezer in the first place. Crazy as it seems, I have an idea.



A knife is used to uncap wax cells to allow honey to flow from the frame

A single honey frame with wax and honey . . . right out of the hive box



A few weeks ago, my beekeeper neighbor told me about a little trick to sterilize frames before putting them into the hives. He said after I have drained a frame of honey, I should hang it outside in a tree near the hives for the bees to clean (they will eat the honey but leave the wax).


Then, I should put the frame of wax in a freezer so that any tiny pest like the larva of a wax moth or mites or ants will be killed.



After 24 hours, I can remove the frame from the freezer and store it until I’m ready to put it into a hive box. When I harvest honey, I can easily replace a honey-filled frame with an empty frame that has been sterilized in the freezer and already has beeswax. It’s less work for the honeybees to use that frame for brood or honey. Sounds good, right?



Well . . . I wrapped two frames with aluminum foil before putting them in the freezer. But I got lazy and just inserted one frame into the freezer without first wrapping it. It seemed very clean–just white wax left by the bees after they had devoured all the honey.



The unwrapped frame I put in my kitchen freezer must have leaked a drop or two of honey that I didn’t see. It drew those ants. Serves me right.



Now I have a designated freezer to be used only for honeybee frame sterilization. It will stand outside on my patio. I’m pretty sure the ants won’t be visiting my kitchen again. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.



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Today’s blog is filled with miscellaneous tips and tricks that benefit the garden and also the environment.


1.  Grow a cover crop–also known as green manure crop, planting a cover crop such as grasses or legumes after you’ve harvested your summer bounty can stop weeds from claiming the bed and also prevent soil erosion.



2. Mulch your garden paths–use pine needles, leaves, or old black-and-white newspapers, which are now often printed with soy ink.



3. Save empty jugs of tea, juice, milk–rinse and cut out the bottoms to use the jugs as hot-cap environments for tender seedlings.



Red pomegranates hang like jewels in contrast to the leaves that will soon yellow and drop

Pomegranates don’t need much water once established and gray water works just fine



4. Recycle gently used gray water–pour it on fruit trees and ornamental plants; but do not pour it on acid loving plants (gray water is naturally alkaline) so do not use it on leafy vegetables and root crops that are to be consumed uncooked.



5. Thin vegetable seedlings and hanging fruit–abundance has a down side since crowded plants don’t thrive as well or bulb as big (like onions). When fruit on fruit trees is thinned, the remaining fruit tends to grow larger.



Summer onions have formed large heads and been harvested so need replacing

Onions benefit from thinning; the remaining onion heads then have ample room to grow large



6. Recycle plastic tubs–whether they once held yogurt, margarine, or soup from the health food store, turn them upside down in the garden to keep melons off the ground (prevents them from rotting)



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Increasingly, a growing body of science points to the role of bee-toxic pesticides (specifically neonicotinoids) in the global decline of the honeybee populations.



Healthy bees on a frame

Healthy bees on a frame



Lowe’s Home Improvement stores announced it will begin to phase out neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics are a class of pesticides harmful to bee health) as soon as suitable alternatives become available. The retailer will also provide customers with more educational materials focusing on pollinator health.



Home Depot has pledged to begin labeling plants on which neonicotinoids have been used. Other retailers are responding to consumer concerns as well.



East coast-based BJ’s Wholesale Club intends to require vendors to label plants free of neonicotinoids; otherwise vendors must label plants on which neonics have been used with a “caution around pollenators” tag.



Ten other retailers in states from California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Maryland have plans to limit or eliminate neonics.



A study published in the Journal Environmental Science and Pollination Research revealed that there is clear evidence that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides are a key factor in honeybee decline.






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My neighbor, a world-class beekeeper whose honey sells to many specialty markets and also Whole Foods, told me today honeybees in backyard hives in our East Bay communities are hungry. He has put out two five-gallon cans of sugar water to feed his bees.


I drain two frames at a time in a five-gallon bucket

A frames of honey in a five-gallon bucket



Interestingly, I’ve noted bees at my hummingbird feeders also usurping the sugar water meant for the hummingbirds.



The honeybees do not make honey from sugar water. They just consume it to have energy to forage for pollen and to cool the hives on hot days. The drought means people are watering less; flower gardens and local landscape are dry, and in places the clay soil is cracking open. Bad news for bees.



Weatherwise, it’s been triple-digit hot and then cold and cloudy. I guess the bees will adapt but old timers say, “A swarm in July means bees go bye-bye.” This isn’t the right time for swarming.



My hived bees are loud and energetic.  The bees faked me out with a small swarm about ten days ago and then returned to the hive; and now they are eating sugar water for energy to gather what pollen they can find to make honey. The honey will see the hungry hive through until the star thistle and the fall eucalyptus blooms. I’m torn between letting my bee-loving flowers dry up to conserve water, but I don’t want to lose my bees.



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I unlatched the hen house door to let the birds out for the day. Then I filled water basins for my chickens, honeybees, and farmette wildlife. Finally, with chores done, I returned to the farmhouse to work on my new book.



Rhode Island Red hen in the foreground

Rhode Island Red hen in the foreground




Lost in a tense winter scene for novel number three, I wrote until I heard the chickens cackling as they do when they lay an egg or are frustrated because they can’t get the nesting box already occupied by another hen. And of late, that happens often because one of my Wyandotte chickens has gone broody. She’s sitting on two dozen eggs and it’s futile since we don’t have a rooster. Those eggs will never hatch.



As the cackle grew louder. I stopped typing to peer out the window next to my desk. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but on the off chance that a skunk, fox, chicken hawk, or other predator had invaded the yard or the hen house, I got up. I had to check.



By now the cackle had become deafening. I thought the chicken might be at the back door. As I turned from my computer to walk down the hall past my bedroom, I saw my Rhode Island Red directly in my path. Her cackle could wake the dead. So why was she making such a ruckus.



Then I saw it–a dollop of chicken poop on my new hardwood floor. She must have known I’d be furious. And she’d been trying to tell me something. I swooped her up and carried her outside, making a mental note to always check the door on the farmhouse. My office is no place for a chicken.



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What to Do When Ants Invade the Honey Bucket

Author: Meera, July 6, 2015

My five-gallon honey bucket with the spigot makes it easy for me to fill up a jar of honey for friends or family. For easy access, I keep it on a round table in the kitchen.



A single frame produced eight 16-ounce jars of honey

A single frame produces eight 16-ounce jars of honey




Yesterday morning, I went to refill our own empty jar and noticed ants on the exterior of the bucket. It has a lid on it, but not too tight-fitting, so I held my breath and pulled off the lid.



Removing the lid, I found the ants had infiltrated it and hundreds floated in the honey. Imagine my dismay.



I consulted with my beekeeper neighbor about what to do with the now-unusable honey. Much to my surprise, he said save it. He told me to put it in the freezer (the one specifically used to freeze frames and therefore kill any pests we can’t see on the wax before returning those frames to the hives). So the bucket with the ants went into the freezer I keep on the patio.



My neighbor says the ants will die. The bees can then eat that honey when there isn’t enough pollen around, for example, during the winter. It’s a win-win . . . except for the ants.



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Backyard Gardeners and Farmers Have a Choice

Author: Meera, July 2, 2015


We gardeners and farmers have a choice when putting in our gardens, fields, and orchards. We can choose open-pollinated, heirloom seeds, hybrids seeds, or GMO seeds. I much prefer the old-fashioned way of seed-saving and sharing of open-pollinated, heirloom varieties.



On our farmette, we routinely save seed from plants we grow in one season and use them during another. We have picked apricots from our backyard trees, saved the seeds, and grown new trees that (this year) bore fruit.



We’ve exchanged seeds with our neighbors who also keep organic gardens and prefer open-pollinated seeds. Seeds that are hybrid and/or GMO usually are patented, meaning scientific companies or growers own those patents.



Open-pollinated seeds do not carry patents and remain available to all of us to plant and replant.




Seed packets from circa 1950s
Seed packets from circa 1950s




Gathering seeds from the plants one grows is how our grandparents did it. I go around plucking seed heads from cosmos, purple cone flower, and the hardened seeds of nasturtiums when the flowers have faded. I’ve taken cuttings of all my roses and have been given clips from friends and neighbor’s bushes and now plenty of roses to line walkways and fill a garden.



This year, an apricot tree that we started two years ago after we ate the fruit and planted its seed, bore beautiful cots that I turned into jam. I’ve got a bountiful crop of onions (red and yellow) and garlic and peppers this year from last year’s seed. The cycle goes on.



The acronym GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The phrase means that scientists have used recombinant DNA technology to create the seed. In some cases, the purpose is to create seeds with pesticides spliced into their DNA to repel pests.



Some gardeners see this process by chemists, scientists, and researchers working of large petro-chemical companies as a dangerous venture into biological processes that have a long evolutionary history. Further, the concern encompasses the potential negative ramifications of genetically engineering a plant–what farmer wants to handle seed (much less eat the plant) that has warning labels about pesticides integrated into the seeds?




Young super sweet corn in its third week of growth

Corn is a crop favored for GMO modification



If gardeners stick with open-pollinated seeds and participate in seed saving and sharing, together we can ensure our Earth’s biodiversity continues. The other prospect is scary. Many species and cultivars of plants are no longer available. They  are no longer being grown. Some have become extinct.



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Backyard Fruit Compote

Author: Meera, July 1, 2015

Who feels like eating when the shorts and sandals weather has turned hot enough to warrant wearing bikini bottoms and thin cotton T-shirt for doing your household chores? Bring on the cool summer salads.


When the temperatures hit 105 on the farmette yesterday, we opted for a simple supper of cold chicken, orzo with Italian vinegar and oil dressing, and cold potato salad.


strawberries lg em



With nectarines and peaches ripening now on our trees, blueberries finally sweet enough to eat, and strawberries  available at our local farmers’ market, what could be better for a dessert on a hot summer’s evening than a fruit compote.



Desert Gold peaches are ready to eat in May but buds are swelling and showing color now

Peaches, ready to eat now, are widely available at local farmers’ markets




Recipe for Backyard Fruit Compote


Gather the fruit, including nectarines, peaches, plums, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, and melon.


Wash, and slice the nectarines, peaches, plums, and strawberries.


If including melon in the compote, scoop the melon into ball shapes using a melon baller or cut pieces of  melon into cubes.


Peel and slice the kiwi.


Toss all into a bowl, adding the blueberries.


Sprinkle lightly with a scented sugar, or a super fine sugar, or honey.


Or, make a dressing: mix together 1/4 cup of lime juice, 1/4 cup of honey, 1 teaspoon of orange zest, 1 teaspoon of lime zest, and 1/2 teaspoon finely grated ginger. Pour over the fruit. Chill for about 1 hour and add springs of mint before serving.



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