I've moved!

I've moved!

Thanks for stopping by, but it appears you are using a (very) old address for my blog. I've moved to a Wordpress site and you'll need to update your bookmarks for Bees on the Knob

I've moved!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bargain Books and Reviews are moving

In order to let those who are more interested in gardening and beekeeping find the posts for these subjects, I'm moving the Books part of Bees (and Books) on the Knob to it's own blog: Books on the Knob. I'll leave all the book posts here at least thru the end of the year and have already migrated them over to the new site, so nothing will be missing. Make sure to update your bookmarks or RSS feed for the new location, as I'll continue to post my book reviews, info about free and bargain books and book contests around the 'net. Sometime after the first of the year, I'll remove the book only posts (except those that are book on gardening and beekeeping) and will stop dual posting on both sites. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Reading about Beekeepers

Unlike the references books of the past few posts, these are all books I'd love to see available on the Kindle. They are essentially memoirs of those who have raised honeybees for a living or as a hobby.

First, two from Sue Hubbell, the well known A Country Year: Living the Questions, which details her life on a 100 acre farm with 200 beehives, and her followup book A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them that has more about beekeeping tasks and when to do them, interspersed with her prose. Both are an honest look at the real work involved in having so many bees. And there is some manual labor in even one hive -- honey is heavy and so are the boxes and frames used for your hive; even bees add to the weight when a hive is densely populated, with a deep hive body full of honey and bees topping 90 lbs (fear not, there are ways to avoid lifting anything this heavy). By the second book, her farm has expanded to 300 hives, with some scattered about on other properties. All in all, it's a good description of a typical sideliner beekeeper, which is the title for those who have grown beyond the hobbyist level, but are not yet considered commercial beekeepers (who migrate their bees around the nation on a constant basis).

For the story of a commercial beekeeper, check out Bad Beekeeping. A young man from Pennsylvania buys a honey ranch, then ends up herding his bees from Florida in the winter (where he raises 10,000 queens) to the badlands of southern Saskatchewan in summer. Covering a ten year span, this is a look at one of the few people who have kept bees across the US-Canadian border.

For those more interested in the backyard beekeeper, look to Fifty Years Among the Bees. Although many of the practices are now outdated, this is a classic in beekeeping.

And finally, this one isn't about beekeeping at all. It's an English horror film that predates (1967) the scares of Africanized bees in the US. Keep this one on hand for those relatives that are convinced your bees are dangerous: The Deadly Bees. No matter how yours misbehave, they'll be a lot tamer than the bees depicted here. Don't confuse this one with The Birds, although the group of that name does make a cameo appearance.

Advanced Beekeeping References

In yesterday's recommendations, I seem to have skipped over the excellent The Beekeeper's Handbook, Third Edition from Cornell University, one of the nation's top research sites for honeybees and developing new varieties of fruit trees (among other things). A book seldom makes a third edition without a lot of sales and in this case, each edition has been updated with the latest research and status of honeybee diseases and pests.

If you are wanting to get more detailed information about honeybees (or their disease and/or parasites), there are some weighty tomes out there to guide you (as well as excellent conferences each year geared towards both beginning and more advanced beekeepers). Two of the best are The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture: An Encyclopedia Pertaining to the Scientific and Practical Culture of Honey Bees and 21st Century Complete Guide to Bees and Honeybees, Beekeeping, Apiaries, Africanized Honey Bees - USDA Government Research, Parasites, Mites, Pathogens, Threats to Pollination, Food Supply (CD-ROM). The first covers practically every topic you can thing of that pertains to honeybees, while the second specifically deals with the threats your hives.

One that is a little less helpful is A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply. While giving a good overview of what is going on with CCD, which is still being investigated by top researchers around the world, and it's possible consequences, this particular book has a definite political slant. Right now, CCD is a collection of symptoms (a disorder, not a disease); only when the true source has identified will we be able to name the culprit (and find a cure). The prospects of growing food without the european honeybees, an insect that has been cultivated by man for nearly as long as he has farmed, are definitely not all rosy (although roses won't be affected). While rice, wheat and corn (and other grass grains) do not need honeybees to be grown as crops, many other staple foods do: beans (including soybeans), squash, peppers and many more. Alfalfa doesn't need pollination before being feed to cattle, but does use honeybees on fields where seed will be grown for the alfalfa farmers. Canola is another heavily pollinated crop, as are some crops that may not technically need honeybees (the alternate pollinator is in parentheses next to each), but have much higher yields when they are used: tomatoes (wind pollinated, bumblebees in greenhouses), apples (orchard mason bees) and blueberries (some native bees are better suited, but not easily raised in the numbers needed). However, the costs of raising enough of the alternate pollinators (which often have no honey crop to offset costs to the beekeeper) and/or the lower yields of wind pollinated crops will probably mean much higher prices in stores, if the european honeybee were to disappear. It's true that the european honeybee is not native to the US (or many other parts of the world) and that native pollinators do exist (or did) in most areas. The difference is the increased yield that commercial honeybees bring to intensive monocrops and the decline of native pollinators in nearly any area that is commercially farmed (or subject to typical surbuban grass monoculture practices). I'd skip this one for now and instead keep up with the topic in the bee journals (see below) and wait until a treatment is found before worrying too much about laying blame.

An hour long, in depth view of the inner workings of the hive, NOVA: Bees - Tales From the Hive doesn't get into beekeeping, but will provide you and any school age children a fascinating look at what goes on inside the hive.

Last, the second US magazine for beekeepers is the more technical American Bee Journal. Many starting beekeepers skip this one for a while, instead opting for Bee Culture magazine that I mentioned yesterday, but you really can't go wrong with either one (or both - they seldom overlap in their coverage).

Kindle Lotto - Score a Kindle by Christmas!

As previously reported, here and practically everywhere on the internet, Amazon's Kindle is sold out until February of next year, if you want a new one. When I posted about the refurbished Kindles over the weekend, a number of people were able to get one (several have them already in hand) and the stock on those sold out on Monday morning. But, don't give up. First, go ahead and place and order for a new Kindle - you can always cancel it if you manage to either win a Kindle in a contest or luck into one of the refurbished units. And here is where you must play the game to win: there have been several "new" refurbished units sold at Amazon after they "sold out" on Monday. As new refurbished Kindles are released end for sale (cleaned, tested and repackaged to look identical to new stock, at least as reported by those who have received theirs this week), they are added back to the web site. But they don't stay there for very long.

To "win" one of these refurbished Kindles, you must frequently check the status on the web site. To jump directly to the listing for the refurbished units and skip the long download times for the entire Kindle description page, bookmark this blog and use the [Check Availability of Refurbished Kindles at Amazon] at the top of the page (or use this address: http://www.tinyurl.com/RefurbKindle), then quickly order when one is in stock. The best way to do this is to set up one-click buying, as that way your order goes through immediately upon clicking the button - no need to log in, select a method of shipping, pick a credit card, etc. Of course, that may lead to a few inadvertent orders, so use this setting with care and consider turning it back off once you have secured your Kindle.

When's the best time to play? That remains unclear -- Amazon is on the west coast and those who've lucked into a unit so far have posted during the day or late in the evening, at least as far as east coast time. Checking first thing in the morning on the east coast is a good idea, but new stock may be posted at any time during the day (which at this time of year, is practically until midnight on the west cost). It's unlikely many will pop up on the weekends, but Saturday see have some stock now and then.

What if you don't want to play Kindle Lotto, but still want to surprise someone with a Kindle this year? Consider ordering a new Kindle and then putting a copy of the order and a printout of the Kindle description page inside an envelope for Christmas. Then buy a couple of paper books, to tide the lucky recipient over until it arrives, along with an Amazon gift certificate so that he or she can start shopping for bargains and favorites (this can be done anytime after your account recognizes that you have a Kindle, even if it isn't registered yet). You could do all this and throw in a nice evening out for dinner and still spend less than the used Kindles being sold in the Amazon Marketplace or on eBay (even if never opened, if you don't buy it direct from Amazon, I would not expect to receive the same warranty or return policy). Good luck!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Getting Started in Beekeeping through Books

When you search on Beekeeping at Amazon, you will get a wide variety, some very old, several very new and many in between. Some cover only a specific aspect of beekeeping, some are concerned only with "organic" practices and others that use "industry standard" practices. There are self-published books, compilations of articles and books by leading researchers in the field. In other words, the choices can be overwhelming. Although I recommend that every new beekeeper find a local club (they are in practically every state and here every county has one, with annual dues anywhere from free to $12, depending on whether they have a newsletter), a good reference book or two is also essential. Books are no substitute for hands-on-learning, but the better ones will give you a broad overview of the steps you need to take at different times of year in order to get that large honey crop (or just have enough bees to pollinate your orchard and garden). Often, also, local beekeepers are a good source of what they do, but the books will explain why it is done (and perhaps why you should not follow every local practice).

One easy to read book, unavailable when I started, is Beekeeping for Dummies and at $13.59, it's an inexpensive way to get your feet wet. It's fairly detailed and has lots of pictures, but if the cartoons and "for dummies" style isn't for you, there are several other good choices (which I'd recommend in any event). Kim Flottum has worked for the USDA Honey Bee Research Lab, written for and edited Bee Culture magazine, published books on honeybee pests and diseases, marketing, queen production, beekeeping history, beginning beekeeping, and the classic industry reference, The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture: An Encyclopedia Pertaining to the Scientific and Practical Culture of Honey Bees. In 2005, he published The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden, also at that same $13.59 price.

Two that I started with and highly recommend are Hive Management: A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers and Beekeeping: A Practical Guide, both by Richard E. Bonney. The approaches of the two books are different, with the former oriented around when to perform tasks, while the second is organized in a more traditional manner. There is some overlap, but both are excellent references.

Keeping Bees not only covers the basics of beekeeping, but also goes into detail on how to make the hive boxes and frames yourself. Even if you don't want to start from scratch, a basic understanding can make assembling the precut pieces a lot easier, as well as convincing you that you really should both glue and cross nail every single frame. For the more visually oriented and those who cannot find a local club or beekeeper to be a mentor, you may want to pick up Bee Keeper's Educational Series - Hive Splitting/Honey Extracting and Bottling on DVD.

If you want to stay away from using chemicals and insecticides on your bees, that doesn't mean any of the above books are less useful, just that some of the advice on what to use may not work for you, while the when and why remain pertinent. Be warned: not only is there no recognized definition of what it takes to have an organic apiary or create organic honey, many who simply discard traditional chemicals have had large losses even before the current Colony Collapse Disorder crisis amongst commercial beekeepers. There are exceptions: bees kept in areas that are considered fully africanized (Arizona and some surrounding areas) often are doing fine (but can be very temperamental, to say the least), due to the natural resistances of the smaller and fiercer africanized honeybees. Some other areas are also doing well, due to their isolation: most "wild" colonies of european honeybees have disappeared and if all their neighbors have fully treated bees, their organic bees may not be exposed to the various mites that are the reason for most chemical treatments. There is one book out there on organically caring for honeybees: Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. Just don't be surprised if you don't find any local beekeepers following all it's methods and that you local bee inspector advises you not to follow it's advice.

And if you are not in the USA, you may find the calendar portion of many of these books simply doesn't work for you, laws are not the same or that you have country specific crops that are not included. One book geared towards those in the UK is Teach Yourself Beekeeping (Teach Yourself) and for a magazine, look to Bee Craft. The links are for those in the US; as far as I can tell, Amazon doesn't sell magazine subscriptions in the UK, nor do they have a direct link to get this book (although several third party sellers do have it). Either, however, should get you started and cover that uniquely English crop, heather, which can be quite difficult to extract.

Tomorrow: Advanced Beekeeping references.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees

This time of year, our bees are hiding out in the hive, having sealed most of the entrance up to deter skunks and other predators that like to eat them in the winter, and are most likely clustered together keeping warm (especially with the recent snow and cold nights). But, that doesn't mean you can't read about bees. There are plenty of books on both beekeeping and beekeepers out there and some of those are making their way to the Kindle. One that is now available at a bargain price ($4.60) is The Secret Life of Bees, which is now in theaters and will soon be out on DVD. Set on a honeybee "farm", the book is really more about family and relationships, but is a very good read.

For those looking for a winter's read about bees (honeybees or otherwise), there are kid's books with bee themes (The Missing Honey Bees, The Adventures of Maya the Bee and The Bee-Man of Orn and Other Fanciful Tales), books by and about people who keep bees (Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World, Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind, A Keeper of Bees: Notes on Hive and Home), books dedicated to just the products of the hive (The Honey Book: The Many Uses of Honey), philosophical books about bees (The Life of the Bee), a few classics (Langstroth On The Hive And The Honey Bee and A Manual: Or an Easy Method of Managing Bees) and even books that are of a more scientific bent (The Little Book of bees, CHEATING MONKEYS AND CITIZEN BEES and a couple that are definitely not bargain books: Bee Pollination in Agricultural Ecosystems and Honey Bees: Estimating the Environmental Impact of Chemicals).

But when it comes to books you'll reference while actually working your bees or use in the honey room, I recommend old fashioned paper books (even if any of these come out as ebooks - there are not currently any real beekeeping texts out for the Kindle, although there are a couple of very short self-published pamphlets masquerading as such). Not only are the color pictures more useful, you don't want to get any honey or propolis on your Kindle. The honey will come off with water (but you don't want that much water on any electronic device), but propolis will be there to stay, making a sticky mess (much more so than honey) until the bulk is removed and leaving a stain anywhere it has been (keep this in mind when selecting clothes and shoes to wear both in the apiary and in your honey room or when working your empty boxes; they will get stained and the stains will not come out). Tomorrow I'll look at a few recommendations for those just starting out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remember our Veteran's!

and a belated Happy Birthday to all my fellow Marines, whether serving currently or in the past!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


It's nearly the end of the harvest season and the last of the muscadines have now been picked. The only fruit that remain are apples, crabapples and a few stray figs (that will continue until frost).

Unlike European grapes, muscadines must be picked one at a time, rather than in clusters, and the stem separates from the fruit, which reduces shelf life somewhat. One bit, however, and you'll wonder why you waste your money on those flavorless marbles they call grapes at the grocery store. Just as with tomatoes, there is simply no comparison to a vine ripened fruit and the easy to ship, but green and bland varieties you find in the store.

With other nectar sources nearly non-existent due to the lack of rain, however, you have to be doubly careful as you reach into the leaves and grab the ripe ones - some had small holes drilled in and were occupied by honeybees or a small bumblebee (and sometimes both) and have been covered in yellow jackets in some years. Although easy to dislodge by shaking, accidentally grabbing one of these valuable pollinators will invariably mean a nasty sting.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Rain or the lack thereof!

We've been back from South Dakota for a two weeks and the list of chores to finish before winter seems to be getting longer and longer. We've still got trees down in the yard that we are working on sawing up (in summer, the 90+ temps and 90+ humidity means the trees are ignored until fall). At least the brush is disposed of and the smaller limbs piled up now; still the main trunk on two large trees will need to be sawn into lengths and then split before stacking to use next winter. This winter's firewood was split last February and has been drying all summer. We trimmed up runaway seedlings on one slope last weekend (more sun from the missing trees and everything in the world sprouted); still have half the yard to do, though, before the leaves fall and we can't tell keeper trees from the rogues.

The garden is mostly dried up - but rains started today, which means it's time to plant winter greens. And if we had time to work on it (will have to can, as the freezers are stuffed), apples and crabapples are ripe now and black walnuts have started dropping and should be picked up. The muscadines are still ripe (pick-your-own places sell them at 1.50 a lb, so I feel guilty if we don't grab them all) and there are even a few figs (and the rain will help, although they'll all be gone with the first frost).

As long at it was raining, though, all those outdoor chores will have to wait. Instead, I spent a couple of hours cleaning up the seed catalog folder (more than one, in truth). First, duplicates and old versions were purged (although I kept a few old rose and daylily catalogs; I cut out pictures for our paper scrapbook of varieties that are growing). It seems several companies haven't sent catalogs for several years now - the next chore is to track them down and determine if they are even still in business (quite a few went under several years ago). Once the survivors have been identified, I'll need to start requesting new catalogs - prices and varieties change even year to year and most 5 year old catalogs are good for little other than finding a web site.

Update: We ended up getting over 2 inches of rain before it stopped, all of it a steady, gently rain that soaked in rather than ran off. But it hardly makes a dent in the deficit of rainfall in this on-going, multi-year drought. With the fire season just starting in TN, already several counties have full bans on all outdoor burning and the leaves haven't really started dropping yet.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Back from South Dakota

We're back from our trip to South Dakota, where fall is definitely close and it rained nearly every day. Several nights were down in the 40's and we had both the propane and electric heaters running in the camper (good thing, too, as we ran one tank dry in the middle of the night and it would have been quite chilly by morning if that was the only heat source). Our sweaters were out nearly every day, as were rain jackets; neither have seen much use here in TN lately -- rumors are it rained while we were gone, but you can't tell it from the ground in the woods or the garden.

Big trees take a lot of water and the garden sits in full sun. Both seem to be parched, with the heavy clay soil having the basic consistency of baked adobe bricks. The corn here has long since dried up (but hasn't been cut down, as we'll use some of it for fall decoration) and the cucumbers are looking pretty heat blasted. The okra wouldn't look that bad, but a neighbor left a fence open while we were gone and the rabbits have eaten most of the leaves off the plants (they don't like the pods). There are still a few tomatoes (small, from water stress), but the peppers look absolutely great. The plants are not as big as in years past, but the peppers themselves are nearly as numerous and are full size. Most have even been ignored by the 4 legged intruder, so there will be plenty more peppers going into the freezer (sweet) and dryer (hot). Although we seldom use all the hot peppers, the sweet ones disappear each winter, finding their way into various dishes and stews. All the hot peppers left next summer, when new ones are being prepared, will either be ground into a mixed spice blend or marked to use as a hot pepper spray against garden critters the next year, so they seldom go to waste.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Packing Silage

Chopping Corn

The trucks and tractors are running 24 a day, stopping only for downpours of rain, here in South Dakota. We have our camper parked a parking lot in the center of Veblen, one of the many tiny towns in South Dakota with little industry other than farming. We have water and electric hookups, which is equivalent to the local parks (but not so scenic a view as when we've stayed at Roy Lake), at a total cost of $0.00 per night, due to the kindness of my mother-in-law's landlord.

The town has finally fixed their campground (four sites) and mowed the grass, for the first time in the many years we've been making these annual visits, but also raised their price from free to $20.00 a night. That may sound reasonable in some parts of the country, but the very nice park at Roy Lake (and several others throughout South Dakota) only charges $12 per night and includes bathhouses. We paid $21 a night for the only commercial campground we stayed in on the trip up - it had the same full hookups as the town has installed, plus cable TV and free shower facilities. The next town over gives visitors three free nights at their campground, then charges $10 a night; similar rates and free spots are found throughout the mid-west and we often spent under $10 a night for full hookups in city run campgrounds across upper Michigan on our last trip. I didn't check, but suspect the commercial campground in Sisseton doesn't charge much more than Veblen charges for their four mown spots near an unused ballfield.

So, what makes them think that they can get away with such high prices, especially in a town that is many miles off a seldom used interstate, a town that isn't on any road going to or from another major location? A town that has no real grocery store (sure, the co-op gas station has some stock, but not a lot more than many large convenience stores in the eastern states) and is more than 20 miles from even a very small version of a chain grocer (and 80+ from a city of sufficient size to have an actual department store, bookstore or mall).

Two things: first, there is now a commercial dairy operation at each end of the city limits (carefully placed in the county, just in case the city thinks they might get any tax money - apparently, unlike our local city, they haven't heard of strip annexation to extend fingers out roadways and then gobbling up any local industries while ignoring farmers that would use costly services) and, second, the influx of crews that are chopping corn. Dairy cows eat a lot of corn, but not picked field corn, where the ears are separated from the stalks after they have dried, or sweet corn, still on the cob. Instead, cows eat corn as silage - the entire stalk of corn, ears, tassels and all, is chopped up into a green mass and then piled for use later in the year. We arrived just as the chopping season was starting and they were expecting 20 crews to do the chopping. In addition to the actual chopper (photos to come later), there are many trucks used, as the chopper mows down a field without pausing and the trucks jockey into place to grab all the silage that comes out of it's chute, then make the dusty trip over to where they are weighed, dump and then several tractors are used to pile everything up and pack it down so that it will last for a long feeding season. Those chopping crews were the ones they were anticipating filling their campground (we only saw one there for the two weeks we were in town), but most probably ended up staying in motels in other towns nearby (none of those here, either).

So, there we were, with trucks driving thru town from early morning to night, tractors running the entire time as well (at least they shut down around 10pm - one year they went 24 hours a day), kicking up a green dust that covered everything and required washing your windshield every day, even if hadn't been anywhere. The only thing worse - now that there are feedlots and their holding ponds at each end of town, any still day or if the wind comes from either direction means the stench is so bad you can't stand to be outside. At least a northern or southern wind removes the smell, but one of those won't be a fix soon, as there are plans to put in a third dairy. Much of the surrounding areas is reservation land - and the native Americans are now mostly blocking these large feedlot operations. But Minneapolis uses a lot of milk and they have found at least one area in South Dakota that wasn't as aware of the downsides of modern dairies and fell for the promise of increased jobs revitalizing the town. Instead, few locals will work in the dairies (instead, large numbers of mostly illegal hispanics work in them) and much of the money is sent to families in other countries. The local bar has been remodeled (but is now owned by the dairy - as is much of the rental housing) and seems busy at night, but sitting on your porch and enjoying the evening is something that can only be done when the wind is blowing from the right direction. Somehow, it doesn't seem that life in this town has been improved in the several years that these dairies have been in operation.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pears: Two Down, Two to Go!

Final Result

Four trays of hot peppers and one of sweet corn. These can sit on a shelf at room temperature for months, but the corn won't last that long around here. The peppers will probably mostly end up ground and put into spice mixes, but a few will be used whole in stir fries.

Late Tomatoes

Unlike the peppers, the tomatoes have not been so happy. They are on the same soaker hose section and have the same mulch, but just never go enough moisture to keep up production or fruit size. Maybe with the rain last weekend and what is predicted to come our way as Gustav heads north, there will be some late fall fruit to make up for the very poor summer results. The only fruit close to a normal size are the paste tomatoes - others are roughly 1/4 normal size and the heirlooms simply refused to set more than one or two fruit each. It's been enough to keep up in fresh tomatoes for eating and cooking this summer, but no new ones went to the freezer or were canned this year. Luckily, last year was a bountiful one and there are still whole tomatoes frozen and many cans of sauce and "stock" left to tide us over during the winter.

We gave up buying tomatoes at the store several years ago (when even "garden/vine ripened" tomatoes there meant hothouse, mealy, under ripe and tasteless. Instead, in winter we eat was we put away the previous year and look forward to that first fruit of summer. The same decision on asparagus was made about the same time - ours comes in the size of man's thumb, reaching 18" for harvesting and bears for about 6 weeks; it would probably be longer, but by then we are tired of asparagus and just let it leaf out and gain strength for the next year. No more imported, pencil thin asparagus that is so-so in flavor and often tough and stringy even 6 inches from the tip. Instead, we have great big fat spears grilled, steamed, broiled and stir fried nearly every day until we can't stand it any more. None of it goes into the freezer or is canned (ugh!); any tougher trimmings are instead dried and saved until winter, when they are powdered, reconstituted in chicken stock and cooked into cream of asparagus soup. Nothing else is needed, other than a bit of salt, pepper and perhaps a dash of sour cream.

Dehydrated Peppers

One of those trays of peppers, nearly dry and ready to store. These hot peppers form the basis of several spice mixes we use and have much more flavor that those "red pepper flakes" most have in their kitchen, left over from the wedding gift spice rack.

Sweet Corn

Three weeks of hot dry weather took a toll on the late sweet corn. Watering meant there were a few ears to harvest, but the quality wasn't that high for eating fresh. Instead, this is going to the dehydrator and will become cornmeal. Not my first choice to use as meal (usually, fully matured ears that naturally dry on the stalk are used), but they will work as cornmeal. This variety was one of our favorites in early picking - it comes in yellow with a blush of red on the kernels, then matured to a full read ear, which was still perfectly sweet.

Hot Peppers

One garden crop that hasn't minded the heat, dry weather has been the peppers. Hot, sweet or anywhere in between, all have done well, supplemented with once a week watering via soaker hose and heavily mulched. No sigh of disease or insects, they plants hang so heavily with fruit that many seem to be creeping along the ground like vines, with branches in danger of breaking from the weight. This is just one of four trays going into the dehydrator this afternoon, while close to 5 gallons of sweet peppers are destined for the freezer.

There are four 2-gallon buckets overflowing with asian and european pears awaiting processing as well. This year, they'll go the freezer in a light syrup, rather than be canned (although canned asian pears are one of my favorites, we simply don't have the time to do them that way this year).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Rain Continues...

Our first burst of rain looked quite hard - for all of maybe thirty seconds. After that, we had mostly just mist for the rest of the day and a bit of slow rain now and then. All total there was 0.08" of rain yesterday - while less than 25 miles south there was an inch and at the GA/TN border 3 inches fell. But the front has slowly pushed northwards and we have now received and inch of rain today, all from a very slow continuous fall. With any luck, the front will stay stalled (a cold front has pushed down from the north and the moist warm front from the coast, all centered just south of here, but close enough to keep us wet until one of them gives in) until the hurricane Gustav can swing up from the Gulf and bring us even more rain. We still need another 3 inches or more to be "average" for the year and any extra is welcome (of course, we don't live on a flood plain - nor does anyone else that pays attention before purchasing their property, at least anywhere for many, many miles). It'll still take several feet of extra rain to restore the water tables and it doesn't look like we'll be getting that much anytime soon.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rain, rain, glorious rain!

It's Raining!!!

OK, those of you in many parts of the country are probably tired of rain - but here we have been having a drought. It's the driest August in over 60 years (last I checked) and our local rivers are drying up: the French Broad is now at the lowest level ever recorded and the flow rate is less than 1/6 the median at this time of year, while lake levels are 16 feet below normal. After 10 years of severely below average rainfall, estimates are we need more than 3 feet above normal next year to get the water tables back where they belong.

Here, we have had 0.07" of rain this month - barely enough to measure and all of it in the first day or two of the month. The ground is cracking and even when you water a garden area it will be bone dry again in a day unless well mulched and even in mulched areas plants start looking wilted again in a couple of days. Areas that are not watered look much worse - berry vines look scorched and fruit trees are starting to show yellow leaves and are dropping fruit. After the same stress last year, some probably won't make it (joining the mature apple tree that died last year from the same stress). At least the grass has mostly stopped growing, reducing the number of times the fields and paths have to be mowed.

Not everything looks bad, tho - the muscadines continue to shrug off the heat and lack of water, as do the kiwis (which unfortunately have no fruit again this year; even a moderately late frost always does them in). Most nut crops look pretty heavy - it's nearly time for black walnuts to start dropping anyway and they always are the first to shed their leaves (often before it even hints of fall outside). Where watering has been practical (if not always affordable), the harvest isn't completely lost. We are still getting blueberries and a few grapes from one vine near the house (those in the orchard at least don't look dead this year, but are still sulking and have no fruit). And the apples and pears are now ready for harvest (and mostly still quite heavy, due to the early rain and the diligent work of our honeybees). Despite the lack of water, the figs are starting to come in (but are pretty small) and the pawpaw finished ripening it's fruit (4 total, two very large) -- perhaps in a year or two the smaller trees will bloom and join the larger one. The smallest is a year younger (a replacement tree for an early one that failed to make it thru winter), but both are under 4', despite being 7 and 8 years old. They really prefer some shade and wet feet -- instead, they get full sun in a hot, dry field and have been under drought conditions their entire lives, which has no doubt set them back a year or two in what is admittedly always a long maturity cycle (the first couple of years, they only had two leaves each and apparently only grew roots, staying at about 6" tall).

As for the bees themselves - they pass their days fanning on the front stoop and making trips to our (very) small pond and waterfall (which requires water every other day, after no fill-ups at all earlier in the year). I know exactly how they feel -- I've wished we had a pond big enough to cool off in several times this month (and that we had enough rain to keep it filled).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why "The Knob"


Middle English knobbe; akin to Middle Low German knubbe knob
14th century
1 a: a rounded protuberance : lump b: a small rounded ornament or handle
2: a rounded usually isolated hill or mountain
knobbed Listen to the pronunciation of knobbed \ˈnäbd\ adjective
knob·by Listen to the pronunciation of knobby \ˈnä-bē\ adjective
Source: Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary

I don't know when this place became The Knob - in the 50's, my grandfather bought a number of parcels on top of a ridge, some to steep to easily walk on, the others only flat by comparison (perhaps gently graded might suit - although a fair portion is somewhere in between). Some were old home sites (a cistern lasted until the late 80's), the rest possibly part of an old farm (the old barn sort of lasted that long - held up only by the vines that had ripped apart the corners, it fell to the same bulldozer that had to be called when that old cistern fell in). The only flat spot is on the very top of the ridge and was once used as the emergency water tower site by the local water utility (long since gone, now there are air relief valves there, but I suspect the water department has forgotten they exist, since they never use them, even after several incidents where all water pressure was lost due to either large leaks or a crossover to the larger supply lines a few years back.

At the time, he combined the parcels into one "farm" and raised pigs and a garden (but lived in "town" - about 8-10 miles away in the city, this was considered quite far into the country then). Years later, he found a better location 15 miles further out - bordering a lake, it had it's own water source and rich, flat bottom land (ok, sure it flooded out some years - but that little inconvenience just meant a long drive thru a neighbor's farm and taking down a few fences when that occured). Dad purchased the property and rented it out for many years, then we purchased it and moved here in the 80's - fleeing the crowds of southern CA after a stint in the Marine Corps. It was perfect ... almost.

But it was always, from as far back as I can remember, The Knob. A farm on a perhaps not so gently rounded hill. The pigs were long gone by the time I first remember visiting, but not the garden. And on the same road was an old chicken farmer, with a huge brick chicken house. They still candled eggs by hand (and let any kid that stopped by have a try at it) ... and had grapes that they, with my grandfather, turned into wine (and yes, I'll never forget the truly awful taste, in my early teens, when they let me "try" some that was only about half fermented -- something that would cure most teens of even considering alcohol until long after turning a legal drinking age). A commercial apple orchard was next door and several others on this short, less than one mile road, raised cattle. All are now gone (although the apples trees remain, abandoned, it's just a matter of time, it appears, until they too, like the cattle farms, are sold off to become housing developments).

But when we moved in, all that was left were a very few fruit trees, all well past their prime, and a falling down mobile home (ok, it was a trailer) ... from the 50's, a single wide eyesore that we lived in for several years, while clearing that flat spot at the top of the ridge and then building the house we now call home. Since then we've cleared out the old orchard (covered with black locust from seedlings to full grown trees), removed all but one of the old trees as they died (one old apple simply refuses to die - this year it is once again completely covered in fruit, despite being at least 35 and more likely 50 years old) and replacing them with newer ones -- and with a larger selection. Instead of just peaches, apples and sweet cherries (which at 40' high, were unharvestable), there are now figs, nectarines, pluots, apriums, sweet and sour cherries, asian and european pears, several varieties of apples and even pawpaws (only 6 years from seedling to first harvest, these are NOT for the impatient). Grapes dont' do so well in the field (no irrigation), but muscadines are an easy to care for substitute - even the kiwis have a harvest now and then and the organic vegetable garden (in it's second location for the last dozen years) always has something to harvest, even in a dry year. Closer to the house, strawberries (which never survive the wild predators if out of sight) and blueberries (currently under attack by both squirrels and birds) are planted, while in between there are several berries growing wherever nature has planted them: blackberries, red and black raspberries and japanese wineberries (an import gone wild in this area). Rather than compete with tame varieties, we just try to mow these into pickable patches and let them do their thing - in return, they need no fertilizer, spraying or other care, but yield several pints of sweetness every year. There are even a few elderberries here and there - but if you've ever tried to harvest these, you know you really need hundreds of them to make the effort worthwhile.

So, this is The Knob. An organic farm on what is now the outskirts of town (and a fairly large one, at that). On the top of a steep ridge, we have over 450 feet of elevation change from the top to the lowest point (obviously, this isn't Florida, since that entire state has only a 300' feet elevation change and they call that a mountain there). Our house sits right on top of one of the highest points in the county, but the county is in a valley between two mountain ranges - this is definitely only a ridge, not a mountain we live atop. It's also quite a bit louder than when we moved in: a major interstate passes by about 3 miles away as the crow flies and the truck traffic can be heard all night long, while the view away from town now includes numerous houses that light up the night, where at one time you could make believe no one else lived within miles. Compared to those in the city of even nearby subdivisions, it is still quite wild - 20+ acres of mature deciduous forest and the other ten a combination of fields, orchards, garden and homestead. You still can't see those surrounding houses in summer, during the day - but in winter or at night, they are clearly now close by. A small waterfall with tiny pond, home to our amorous bullfrog, helps to cover the noise of nearby roads -- but it doesn't compare with the silence of a truly remote area (such as small town South Dakota, which we visit now and then). Then again, it's a lot less than 25 miles to the nearest store and it's never snowed up to the second story windowsills here, so there are trade-offs to every location.

Oh, and the "Bees" part - they sit in the hives on the border between field and woods. Although there were plenty of wild bees when we moved in, our garden and orchard began to suffer in the 90's due to the die-offs that here hitting wild populations of European Honeybees (at that time, tracheal mites and varroa mites were to blame, rather than the current unknown problems). The trees were often empty of fruit and what was there was misshapen -- even the zucchini didn't have many fruit on them. So, we put in a couple of hives of bees and there they still sit, although the two now there were once up to ten, the two remaining do a more than sufficient job, filling the trees with so much fruit that we often lose branches from the weight.

As to the residents - neither of us are your typical farmers or even true farmers at all (and one only participates under duress). Instead, both of us are from technical backgrounds: electronics and computers. Any work done around here is fitted into spare time and the subject of my posts are as likely to be technical (or about books) as they are to be about outwitting those wily voles that I know are looking for the potatoes again this year.