A visit to Polyface Farm

If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you might remember the author making a trip to rural Viriginia to meet with Joel Salatin. He has been at the forefront of sustainable farming, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and pork, being “beyond organic” for the past thirty years. His farm, Polyface, just outside of Staunton, Virginia, is completely worth a trip if you are interested in sustainably eating, growing, or raising food.

I’ve read a couple of Joel’s self-published books and scoured You Tube and Itunes for podcasts and lectures he’s given. He is featured in the films Food, Inc. and Farmageddon. Did I mention I’m a fan? Luckily, Chris is also a fan and was totally game when I dreamed up a visit to Polyface.

It is a decent distance from us – just over 8 hours in the car – but a nice drive through the Smoky Mountains. We stayed in a beautiful B&B in Staunton and enjoyed the small town’s offerings, but went for a “Lunatic Tour” of Polyface. This is a farm that prides itself on being open-door and completely transparent. The Salatin family believes that in order for people to begin to be reconnected to their food origins, consumers must cultivate relationships with their farmers. There is nothing they do at Polyface that they feel should be hidden, unlike most large scale poultry, beef, and pork operations.

We signed up for a two-hour tour. Joel was out of town speaking at a convention, but we got to meet son Daniel Salatin who led the tour. He is every bit as charming and educated as his dad and was a pleasure to listen to.

It was a rainy Saturday – not quite pouring, but with a steady cool rain. I knew it was going to rain, but had somehow not packed an umbrella or raincoat or anything even remotely weather resistant for us to wear (all I can say it was a crazy week before we left for town and I was quite tired). So, we got rained on, which might account for the limited number of photos. They encouraged us to take photos, video, and ask as many questions as we wanted during the tour.

There was a large group – two large tractors hauled us all over the farm. I was pleased at the number of folks interested and completely engaged in the tour.

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This photo doesn’t begin to capture how lush and beautiful this part of rural Virginia is. Can you see the mountains behind the rain clouds in the distance?

First, we visited the free-ranging laying hens.

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There is as you can see a large coop where the hens lay, and a large area where they are kept in by light electric netting. They get to free-range, enjoying all the grass and bugs they want, and they rotate the layers through their pastures. There is a mixture of breeds of hens, as they are going to start breeding their own layers. Daniel said they’ve found that the hens they’ve been getting in recent years seem less bred to be good free-rangers and they want to cultivate smarter and hardier stock.

Next, we visited the pigs.

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These are kept in wooded areas and rotated every few days, turning where they’ve been into rich compost. We got to get up close and personal with these guys. They were happy and friendly.

Then we visited the pastured broilers, or meat chickens.

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Meat chickens are very different from laying hens. They have been bred selectively over the years to plump up quickly, over about eight weeks, and aren’t interested in ranging too far away from their feed bucket. However, what makes these chickens different from large scale poultry house meat chickens is that they do get to be out in the fresh air and sunshine, scratch in the grass, eat bugs and grass, and live far healthier, happier lives than any chicken raised in a large chicken house. The Salatins have been raising chickens this way for years and Joel has written a book on the topic that I am currently reading. They get moved daily to fresh pasture and the chicken poo feeds the soil by fixing nitrogen into the soil. They are fed non-GMO feed and processed on site after eight weeks.

Finally, we visited the salad bar beef. The way they raise beef is really special.

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As you can see, there are some cows off in the corner of this picture. They just got moved to fresh pasture. The flat grassy area is what they just spent about 24 hours on. Three days later, they move laying hens through this same area. The hens will scratch through the cow patties and pick out the grubs, spreading the manure through the soil which will aerate it and build it up. Once the grass has grown back at just the right height, they will bring the cows back through, and the process will repeat itself throughout the season. This is a model that is established in nature; herds prefer to be close together and move onto fresh pasture daily. They are kept on their pasture with portable, lightweight electric fencing (something this farm highly utilizes). Birds will then follow the herds. This model increases earthworms, thickens the pasture, reduces pathogens, and makes what the cows are eating even more nutritious. Let’s not forget that cows are intended by nature to eat grass – not corn. And let’s keep in mind that if all cattle operations switched to grass-fed models, the amount of green house gasses, erosion, water runoff, etc., would be completely eliminated. It is a sustainable, pro-environment model.

We didn’t check out the forage-based rabbits as we were a bit cold and tired from getting rained on. We did spend a little time visiting with the group and Daniel in one of the hoop houses. We also spent some time in the Farm Store but didn’t buy anything (only because, once again, lack of planning – we didn’t have a cooler to travel back with items that should stay frozen or cold). Chris asked and they do have honeybee hives on the property and harvested honey that had sold out quickly.

It was interesting to hear the response to a question that was posed: “Why haven’t your neighbors and fellow farmers switched to your model?” Daniel laughed and said lots of people in the area, even their next door neighbor that has a pasture separated by a fence, aren’t able to move past the years of doing things the way they have been done. It is pretty obvious when you compare said neighbor’s pasture to the Salatins. This pasture has the greenest, tallest, most varied grass I’ve ever seen. It is truly a sight. A continuously grazed pasture will never have a chance to get like that.

I was truly inspired by our visit. It was good to know that not only does Polyface exist, but its farmer is doing everything possible to “spread the gospel” and open their doors so that anyone can come see for themselves what we should be asking from our food producers.

Now, if I can just find me a pasture or acreage where I can run some broilers, I’d be in business . . .

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Garden and bee update

I can’t even believe summer is over. It certainly flew by, though here in Alabama, September is really a bonus month of summer with earlier sunsets. I can’t quite tell that the seasons are changing yet, except for a bit less daylight and pumpkins and harvest decorations appearing at the grocery store.

Chris was gone for work for most of the month of August, so it was harder to get out to our community garden plot and attempt much work. We definitely had some success this summer.

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Lots of beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, mini bell peppers, and green beans. Our basil is super tall, and it is really time to get out there and harvest it before it is burned by frost in the next month. I’ve frozen lots of tomatoes and mini bell peppers, made some dilly beans and spicy-sweet canned pickles, and got lots of vitamin D this summer. I was hoping for enough tomatoes to really can some, so I’m thinking next summer I will grow some determinate varieties, so I can get a large number of ‘maters at once and make crushed tomatoes and sauce and can them. It was nice to have a steady flow of a pound of tomatoes here and there but it definitely wasn’t enough to turn into a large batch of sauce. Note to self!

However, the garden got completely overrun with weeds. Here are some “keepin’ it real” photos.

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The last time we were out there, I think three weeks ago, we gave up on trying to cut the weeds back and just stepped over and around them (along with several newly sprung fire ant hills) to check the bees and pick some tomatoes.

Speaking of the bees, we think they are doing well. It was a hot summer day and they were calm when we checked on them. A honey super was added the weekend before Chris left for the summer, and they were still working on drawing comb out, but mostly spending their time in the two deep supers. Chris could barely lift the top deep super, which we took as a good sign that there was plenty of honey in there for them. In fact, he couldn’t lift it, so we were not able to check the bottom super for brood pattern. The top deep super was full of capped honey. It was beautiful dribbling off the frame in the sunlight. We also didn’t notice any small hive beetles but switched out the one-time use traps we put in there last (which were full of dead adult beetles) and put in some multi-use beetle jails just in case they were just hidden well.

We have not done much varroa mite monitoring. We don’t think we have a major problem at this point. For those uninitiated, varroa mite is a serious pest that many believe is responsible or at least partially responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder. It is a nasty little vermin that attaches itself and sucks on honeybee larvae and if left unchecked, can decimate an entire colony. It particularly likes drone brood. There are a variety of chemical approaches as well as more organic approaches to managing this pest. The main thing is to get in front of it, which I fear we have not done.

I’ve been sitting on the fence with what to do. Most beekeepers would say to monitor the mite population which is easily done with a screened bottom board and then a piece of particle board slid under it. You can count the number of mites that fall of bees and decide to treat if a certain threshold is met (which is always up for debate). I am not certain I would opt to treat – many of the chemical approaches are harsh, although there are some essential oil treatments that are more organic in nature. There is really no silver bullet or for certain fix for this nasty pest. People on the “natural” beekeeping spectrum might argue for letting the colony “go” if they aren’t strong enough to overcome varroa mites. One way you can boost your colony is to be sure to leave them lots of honey for the winter, which we are planning to do. If your colony is healthy and robust, that is a better defense against any and all pests (If any experienced beekeepers happen to be reading this, please – no hate!).

Time to turn my thoughts toward a fall/winter garden. I am planning to plant some garlic out at the community garden, and we are going to till in everything from this summer in the big plot once things are dying off a bit. Then we want to cover it in a thick layer of mulch and put it to bed for the short winter. Here’s hoping for less weeds and pests in a second year bed next spring and summer!

I’m also (today!) putting in a raised bed (of sorts) at our house. Since we are renting, I’m not wanting to do a permanent structure, but came across these Smart Pots Big Bed Fabric Raised Bed. They are basically round, 50 inch diameter and 12 feet tall (13.5 square feet) felt “beds.” We wouldn’t be able to bring a full one of these anywhere but could remove the soil and fold them up whenever we leave our house. I am hoping it will be sturdy enough once filled with soil. I am excited to put in some winter greens, beets, carrots, and some hardy herbs. I ordered two, but am just starting with one of them for now. As much as I love the freedom and space at the community garden, it is a good 20 minute drive from here along windy bad roads and I much prefer to have a (small) kitchen garden right outside my door. Plus, I think it is just too darn hot here to successfully grow things in pots (although the self water inserts I got last year are majorly helpful, but a bit expensive for what is realistically able to be grown in a container). I’m not good at keeping up with watering several containers and pots and it was too dry in August to rely on the rain. Hopefully, with all my plants in one black felt basket, I can run the hose or watering can over them and be done.

My next post will detail our trip to Polyface Farm last weekend (hint hint: it was amazing).

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Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .

I can’t resist this song.

The past few weeks have been busy, as always, but this year we are happily soaking up the sun, digging our fingers in the red clay soil of Alabama, and making food grow. We’ve spent every single weekend day out at our community garden plot, weeding, mowing, and now, harvesting things. I haven’t taken pictures for a couple weeks, but here is an idea of how things are looking. This is how the garden was looking two weekends ago, on June 8th. Everything is growing beautifully. The tomato plants are loaded with green ‘maters, pepper plants have green peppers, eggplants have blossoms, sunflowers are getting tall with buds, and the beans are growing gangbusters.

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Our bush beans have already given us a two huge harvests, about two pounds of beans each. We harvested one crop last weekend and another today.

bush beans

I decided to make some dilly beans right away while they are were freshly picked. I cut a recipe in half and made four pints. I think I like small batch canning. It feels way less overwhelming and messy.

dilly beans

We’ve got beans coming out of our ears. We also picked a first harvest of pole beans. I think I am going to dry them and use them for soup beans. They are Lazy Housewife beans, and can be used as snap beans, fresh shelling beans, and dried beans too! I’ll update as to how well this works out. Oh, and we got a bunch of basil, and I already made and froze two small batches of pesto. I like to freeze them cup size portions so I can use them for a pasta dish or gnocchi.

We added a second brood super onto the hive two weeks ago, on the 8th.

two brood supers

new brood super

Here Chris is putting an frame with drawn out comb and brood into the second brood super. We put a frame with just foundation in its place in the bottom brood super. The idea is this will draw the bees upwards to continue to expand their hive. We did a check today and it seemed as if not many bees were out foraging yet – they were quite excited and flying around, whereas two weeks ago it seemed much calmer. They are continuing to draw comb out on the new frames in the second brood super, though we did note many small hive beetles. Blech. A bad pest for bees, the small hive beetle. I am hopeful the hive is strong enough for now to deal with them, and a SHB trap is on its way from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. This is an approach that does not involve chemicals, which is going to be our preferred method until circumstances possibly force our hand otherwise.

I’m still getting used to working with the bees. Today I made myself really get in there and manipulate some of the frames. Of course they had to be flying around like crazy today, plus we had the added stress of finding a pest has invaded our hive. I did find that my suit completely protected me, though it was HOT. We are also a little concerned that they just seem to be storing honey so far in the upper brood box. I’ve read about swapping a bottom brood with a top brood to encourage the queen to lay eggs in the second super, as she prefers to lay in the bottom of the hive. When we put in the small hive beetle trap, we may have to consider this.

Hm, what else? Chris and our neighbor who has started gardening out at the community garden with us decided to build a water catchment right out by our plot. After all, we have this awesome rain barrel we built at the workshop we attended back in April and no right to cut our gutter up as renters. We needed to put it to use, and we’ve had a couple dry weeks so far this month. This is what they devised.

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rain barrel catchment

There is some duct tape in there, a bunch of plywood and nails, and corrugated plastic. I was definitely impressed. I started out helping when they built this last weekend, but was worn out by a full morning already out in the sun and heat at my volunteer job and decided to call it a day early. It sort of looks like it is going to take of in flight, but I don’t think it will. We’ve not had much rain since it was put up aside from one good downpour, but it is about a third full. But we at least know it is working!

One more thing. It turns out wild blackberry plants are all over Birmingham. I was excited to discover some a block or so over when I noticed a gentleman picking something off some bushes driving home from work one night. I pulled over the next night and found thousands of unripe blackberries. In talking with my buddy at the community garden, yes – blackberry plants are wild and extremely common throughout Alabama. Its become a fun little I-Spy game for me as I drive around – you can see bushes loaded with red berries peeping out from under the heavy timber that covers much of the area. I’ve been salivating and rubbing my hands, plotting the jam and other delicious things I’ll make with my foraged berries. Then lo and behold, I was in the backyard of our rental property and staring off at where the turf meets natural habitat, and what do you suppose I spied?

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Huge brambles of blackberry plants, not three feet away from my bird feeder! These look to have way more ready to pick than the bushes out on the edge of the neighborhood. I’m beyond excited to get out there are start picking. Blackberries are my absolute favorite summer fruit. And now I have bushels of them if I want them, without any of the work of growing them. I would have gotten right to it this evening but was in the middle of sorting green beans, making dinner, straining iced coffee concentrate, doing dishes, and watching True Blood. I don’t think the birds will be able to get all of them by tomorrow.

Don’t you just love summer?


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Bee update

As I detailed in my last post, we installed our first package of bees on April 30th. After our installation, we weren’t sure whether the queen survived her accidental early release. We did our first nervous check in the late afternoon of May 4th. We just opened the hive long enough to get a peek and take out the empty queen box (the only reason we hung it in between the frames like you would if there was a queen in there was because it was covered with bees at the time). We didn’t remove frames but they were hanging out on the right side of the hive, which was getting the most direct sun, and looked like they were drawing out comb. It was chilly that day with a high of 60 and had been rainy the day before. They were very docile, and didn’t take much notice that we were even there. We closed up the hive quickly and let them do their thing.

The next mini-check was Wednesday, May 8th. I think most beekeepers wouldn’t advocate for frequent checks before two weeks but I was really nervous about checking for any obvious signs of an absent queen. I was not present at this check but my husband and our neighbor examined them and even got some photos for me! (I was on my way to Atlanta for a conference for work).

Bees on May 8th


Bees on first frame

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Chris excitedly texted me “they have honey in there and some dark yellow comb” and said they were “drawing out comb like crazy.” They had continued to move across the hive and were on the first three frames. So that was a good sign.

We did a “two week check” on Tuesday. They’ve drawn comb on about five full frames, and we pulled out the first frame to get a look. I think I saw some larvae and eggs, as did Chris, and there was some capped honey and lots of nectar and pollen! The key to this observation is that if there are larvae and eggs – we have a queen. The bees were rather cranky and defensive and Chris got stung – which I felt bad about, but his protective jacket and gloves that he, in a dubious show of bee-macho-manism, thought he “wouldn’t need” are on their way from the beekeeping supplier. I think we also need to get our smoker really going before we delve in. It had just started smoking and they weren’t really too bothered by it, so next time we are really going to get it going. I noticed the other day it seemed to be working much better when we had set it aside and were done with it. I didn’t get any photos of this because Chris was getting stung and he was wearing my gloves, so I didn’t feel like getting my hands in there unprotected at that moment.

In any case, this was not technically a correct full inspection as we wimped out and just checked the first frame. Most beekeepers would tell you that you need to check each and every frame and look for the queen and larvae, etc. on each frame as well as have a purpose in opening the hive. I don’t expect a ton of eggs or larvae on the recently drawn out comb but who knows, it could be there too. I am pleased that so far, they are using the Duragilt foundation that I wasn’t so sure about (after I’d bought it, of course) and working away. We are still feeding them a 1:1 syrup of sugar water and will keep right on feeding for the next month or so. Every time we’ve been out there at the garden to water or lay down mulch, we’ve seen the bees bringing in bucketfuls of pollen and foraging very busily. Truly amazing creatures.

I hope they like the home we picked out for them.

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There is an amazing diversity of plant species in this community garden space.


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Peach trees!

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Our garden, which is fully planted and thriving, is mulched and about 8 feet away from the hive. I didn’t take any photos of our garden . . . did I mention I am not good at remembering to take photos?

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Growing season is well underway, and the bees arrival

It seems that the past few weekends have absolutely flown by, but have been jam packed with being out of doors and getting things planted. It makes this little gardener’s heart very happy!

In addition to my small raised bed plot at my community garden and the straw bale garden I started, I was also given a very large plot to work with by the garden managers. I would estimate it is roughly about 10 x 25 feet, maybe a little bigger. The community garden had a gentleman that came out to till some areas up and he tilled a little spot towards the tree line, right where we thought the bees could go. So it is just about perfect – close to the bee hive, but not too close.

Chris and I prepped the bed by carrying and wheelbarrowing in 400 pounds of compost that we mixed into the bed. We also carried in pine straw mulch, to create paths in between sections of the plot. AND we carried landscape fabric, patio stones, cinder blocks, and the hive itself. All that trotting back and forth between the truck and our plot took a majority of our day we spent out there on April 21st. The hard work felt amazing, though – the temperature was perfect, the sun was shining, there was a slight breeze. At the end of the day we had laid down landscape fabric around the perimeter, made our paths, planted seeds and pepper and eggplant seedlings. We planted tomato plants last weekend, as one of our kind neighbors gifted us with some transplants from his grandpa’s greenhouse. This is what the garden looked like at the end of the first big planting day, April 21st. The weeds are much taller surrounding the plot, but I’m going to do my best to beat and trample them down.

garden plot

I really don’t care for the landscape fabric look, but it is completely utilitarian right now to try to keep the grass and weeds that are just begging to pop right back up at bay. I want to get some wood mulch or branches or something throughout the summer to make it more of a permaculture plot.

We planted: Lazy Housewife beans, Provider green beans, Russian pickling cucumbers, two types of eggplant plants, two types of bell pepper plants (I can’t remember the varieties as we picked them up at a gardening center on a whim), sunflower seeds and cosmo flower seeds for the bees.

We planted tomato plants and basil plants last weekend. The tomato varieties are Atkinson, Homestead, Mortgage Lifter, and another heirloom variety that I can’t recall but I snatched up in a frenzied trip to Whole Foods with my family that was visiting. Luckily we kept our labels so I am excited to go back and see what I have going. Sort of funny that I am less obsessive about the specific plants I put in this year when I have all this space to try to do whatever I want. I figure I might as well try varieties that are known to do well in Southern climates and see how it goes. I’ve never met a garden fresh tomato I didn’t like, anyways. The majority of the seeds are what I picked out in the winter of 2012 for my garden that didn’t get to happen last summer.

The seedlings I started in late March are still fairly small and rather spindly. I wonder if the garage is not an ideal place to grow these little plants, as the temperature probably varies too much. If I can get these tomato, eggplant, pepper, kale, and basil seedlings through, I will plant them in pots at home – my flower seeds did nothing. Whomp whomp.

I have radishes, chard, arugula, carrots, and lettuce growing beautifully in my containers at home, plus my strawberry plants in their tower are doing well. Time to harvest some arugula for sure.

Oh, back to the garden – the straw bales are composting nicely. The big weekend we planted things, I threw some watermelon, muskmelon, pumpkin, butternut squash, and acorn squash seeds into the bales. Everything has germinated except for the muskmelon and that is because fire ants invaded the bales. I’m going to replant them as I think they have mostly vacated the bale after we attempted to drown them out. Fire ants are basically the worst things ever.

straw bales


I didn’t mean to turn the straw bales into a squash area. But we’ll see how it goes.

Ah, and this brings me to the bees. I had wanted to take tons of pictures of the “installation,” which is what beekeepers call dumping a new package of bees into a hive. However, it was getting a bit late, I was wearing my beekeeping suit and melting, forgot my camera, and we potentially lost the queen in the middle of everything. I’ll back up a little . . .

cricket box of bees

Here is a three pound package of bees, which is anywhere from about 10,000 to 15,000 individual bees, with one queen. Chris got to pick them up from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens where the drop off was. They were packaged yesterday morning in Montgomery, so I think our bees were a little friskier than most packages of bees typically are as they did not have to travel very far for very long. There is a can of syrup in the middle of the container that they can feed from during their trip, but our can was pretty full.

I gowned up, Chris of course didn’t wear anything, even his veil – that is the first and last time he will be getting into the hive without eye protection, but I digress. We headed over to the hive and gave the cricket box a light misting with the sugar water mixture I had made up a couple nights before. This makes their wings sticky and preoccupies them a bit as they lick the sugar off each other. The feeder was already full and ready for them at the hive opening. We carefully opened the box, held onto the queen box so she wouldn’t fall into the box, and pulled the syrup can out. The queen was well marked and alive and had two companion bees in her cage. Now here is the funny part – Chris accidentally pulled the cork on the wrong end out. Imagine a small box with a screen on one side and a cork on each end with a twisty tie on one end. You are supposed to pull out the cork on the end that has a sugar plug which keeps the queen inside the cage for a few days. She is then suspended in between some of the frames so that the colony can get used to her while the bees slowly release her by eating the candy plug. Well, we pulled the cork out, attempted to hang her between the frames, and Chris goes, “Oh, look, there’s the queen. She’s out.”

Since he didn’t do the beekeeping class, he didn’t realize how big of a problem this could really be! I started to panic and told him we had to quickly dump the rest of the bees in and cover it up to keep her in. He is convinced she is in there, but the main concern is that she has already been killed by the worker bees as she is not recognized as “their” queen. But we won’t know for sure unless we can spy her in the hive or wait for them to make comb and then watch for eggs.

I consulted the local experts and one said to go ahead and get a new queen ordered, another said to wait. I’m learning this is typical advice you will receive as a beekeeper – everyone has their own opinions and answer, even regarding seemingly straightforward issues. I am opting to wait though it makes me nervous.

Here are a couple post-installation shots.

installation day

installation day 2


The photos are quite crummy as they were taken with my iPhone and I was standing a short distance away. You can see the large number of bees still in the cricket box, right? Chris went to the garden this evening to water and was able to pick up the empty box as they are all out of the box and in the hive (we assume). He didn’t open the hive but said there were tons of bees coming in and out and crawling around the outside of the hive opening. They will need their syrup replenished tomorrow so I am going to head out there and just do that but not disturb them for another day or two. When I do check them, I am going to bring home the empty deep super sitting on top and also grab the empty medium super sitting off to the side – Chris brought it out there not knowing we wouldn’t need it for awhile.

I would like to intall a package of bees without accidentally releasing the queen and perhaps after they have been in their package for a day or two – makes for less lively bees. The upside is that I don’t think we had any dead bees in the box; apparently, it is typical for a 2-3 day old box of bees to have about a half inch of dead bees along the bottom of the box.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that I have a queen that is alive and has been accepted. Not exactly sure how long I will give them before panicking and ordering a new queen, assuming I can get one. A hive without a queen is not really a hive, and the bees will start to die off or take off without her before too long.

We’ve been eating kale off the plants that I planted way back in November. They are gorgeous and huge. I’ve been pinching off the flowers and they’ve been getting bigger and fuller. I also planted some more arugula, basil and zucchini in the small raised plot.

Isn’t this lovely?



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Prepping and planning

A few weeks ago, I got a big shipment in the mail.

Bee supplies box


It was super fun to check out each and every beekeeping item I had carefully chosen.

entrance feeder


This is a large plastic entrance feeder. New bees need to bed a sugar syrup mixture for the first few weeks or so as they are getting adjusted to their new home. I think I am going to feed them until they won’t take it any more – many beekeepers advocate for feeding aggressively to help the bees become as healthy and resistant to invaders as possible.


This is my beekeeping suit. I tried it on, it doesn’t fit super well and I look pretty creepy but I think it will prevent as many stings as possible and thus give me a confidence booster as I get used to being around bees. I promise a photo of me modeling it here eventually.


This hood zips onto my suit. Only downside is I can’t wear it separately. But I like that it is all one piece and I can hopefully just hop into and zip up and be ready to go.


Here is Chris’s veil, or a veil that anyone can toss on if they want to get up close and personal. I took this with me when I went to see the two packages of bees being installed at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for my class the other week. I paired it with my new gloves with long sleeves and venting.


They don’t fit as well as I would like but will be good for starters, I think. My hands look like Mickey Mouse’s hands in them; a little bit unsettling.



A smoker, along with unpictured smoker fuel. I think working with the smoker has me more nervous than the bees themselves, for some reason. This may be an initial job for my husband, who has no fear.

hive tool


This is a hive tool. It is used to pry the frames out of the boxes when the bees glue them together as well as pry the lid and cover off.



This is an IPM bottom board, or integrated pest management bottom board. There is a screen in the bottom with a foam grid that slides in an out. The screen serves to ventilate the hive and functions to prevent varroe mite, the scourge of beehives. I think the grid allows you to count the number of dead mites that drop through to count them in some way and give an indicator for when to treat with medication. I hope to never use medication, but we’ll see.

I didn’t take any photos of the hive box pieces, foundation, or frame pieces – they aren’t too interesting looking unassembled, which is how I ordered them. I spent a few hours last Saturday in front of a retro “Real World” marathon on MTV building my hive boxes on the living room floor. They are pretty much the easiest thing ever to assemble. I haven’t put together any of the frames and foundation yet – it is a bit tedious, even though I got the Duragilt foundation which is easier to assemble. (I’m a bit nervous about the type of foundation I got – I didn’t do much internet research before settling on it, so let’s hope for the best –more on this later). I also got an inner cover and a shiny aluminum lid to go on top which also aren’t pictured.

painted hives

I painted them bright white, too. I accidentally bought an extra hive body – I had meant to buy just two, with a medium super. To explain what this means – a hive body is the deepest size “box” that sits at the bottom of the hive. This is where the queen lives and her brood live. The worker bees make honey here too. A “super” are subsequent boxes that get added on top of the hive bodies. These are where the honey is taken from. Even though it is unlikely I will get much honey this year – due to my late start and needing to leave all honey in the hive bodies for the bees to get through winter – I thought since I was placing such a large order I would go ahead and get a super. You never know.

My plan was to just start with two hive bodies and possibly adding the super on top, depending on how things look later in the summer. More than likely as we move into winter, I will just end up using the two hive bodies. I am glad to have the extra hive body (a third one, can’t believe I somehow ordered three of these) because next spring, when my bees are going strong, I will need to take a few frames of brood and bees and pollen out – called hive splitting – and put them in a second hive. So I’ll be mostly ready to go, minus some assembling and painting and getting a second bottom board/inner cover/top/feeder.

I also put together my grow light system that we built in the spring of 2011. Pretty slick, hmm? PVC pipe, fittings, chain link, and shop lights. I think we put it together for well under $100 and it comes apart for easy storage. Somehow it made the trip to Alabama and I even found all the pieces, including the timer for the lights and my heat mat.

grow lights


Since I am using this blog as a modern garden journal (just like Thomas Jefferson did), I want to note what I started from seed this year.

two flats


I planted a variety of seeds from my Seed Savers Exchange seed collection; four types of tomato, kale, eggplant, pepper, basil, lavender (almost pointless to try to propagate but oh well), Bells of Ireland flower, Bunny Tails flower, and pansies. I did a flat of veggies and a flat of flowers, just to mix it up a bit and see what I could grow.



I have my mini-greenhouse set up in the garage, and made the mistake of taking the lid off the veggie flat mid-week last week. I think it got too cold or dry for them, and noticed yesterday that some of my basil and tomato sprouts were wilting. Grrr. I replanted them today and put the lid back on. I was trying to avoid “damping off,” or fungus that occurs when wet conditions are left for too long, and instead either froze or dried them out. I’m already feeling like a month behind with my seed starting – but hey, I’m an Iowa girl and we aren’t even dreaming of tomato seedlings at the beginning of March! I am still not used to the seasons here – mostly because it never felt like a winter that I could understand or connect to. Also, this has been the “longest winter ever” here and planting in general has been delayed.

a weekend's work

All in all, I was proud of what I accomplished last weekend.

This weekend, I picked up lemon thyme, stevia, and chocolate mint plants from my favorite gardening place I’ve found here. They were healthy and ready to be potted. I also planted swiss chard, lettuce, Tom Thumb peas, arugula, carrots, and radishes to three of my window box planters. I left these planters out all winter and planted some greens in the very late fall. They didn’t give me too much but kept the soil loose. I mixed in some fresh soil and dragged them out front so I can keep a better eye on them and water them on my way out the door each morning. Again, this is probably considered late to be planting these spring favorites but the weather hasn’t cooperated much, and I was out of town back home a few weekends ago. So, we’ll see what we get.

One final project this weekend that I spontaneously decided to follow through with: straw bale gardening. I got the latest copy of my Acres USA magazine and there was an article about this very topic. Basically, here’s the scoop: get some straw bales. fertilize and heavily water them for a couple weeks. plant things in them. things will grow.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but here is the gardener who created this concept’s website for more information. One thing that is appealing about this method is that it is cheap – we bought three straw bales at Lowe’s for $4 a piece. It is also essentially weedless and easily manageable. You can fertilize them a variety of ways, but basically you want to get in some nitrogen. As you fertilize and water them constantly, they begin to heat up and decompose, and create a nice little warm spot for plants to thrive. At the end of the season, you can spread it out as compost as that is what you are left with. Many, many people all across the interwebs have had great success.

I checked with my buddies that are in charge of the community garden to see if they were cool with me dragging some straw bales and setting them up near my raised bed. They said “YES!” and so that’s what we did. They are wanting to do some different gardening techniques and methods at the garden so this was good timing.

I decided to use some of the incredibly rich, compost-like potting mix I picked up (Happy Frog) and scatter that on the top of the bales. The official way to do it is to use lawn fertilizer or bone meal, but I don’t have any of those things and didn’t want to run out to Lowe’s again. So I am trying it this way. I saturated the bales with about 3-4 gallons of water. I am hoping for some more rain tonight and will try to swing out there after work a couple days this week to continue to drench them.

straw bales


Chris wanted me to “post on your website” his own homesteading project – deer meat smoking. He loves what people call “snack sticks” and decided to make about a thousand today with our neighbor, whose dad has a super nice smoker.

deer meat


Here are some photos of him making a huge mess but having a grand time.

stuffing the sticks


snack sticks


After several hours of stuffing casings, fiddling with the smoker, and cleaning up – we should have enough spicy, smoked deer meat to last us through the zombie apocalypse. Speaking of which, time to get back to the season finale of The Walking Dead! If they kill off any of my favorites (Daryl, Hershel, Glenn, Maggie, Rick, Carl, Carol . . . in no particular order) I will be very upset!

Posted in Beekeeping, Food, Gardening | 2 Comments

Learning to be fearless

Even though I haven’t been posting much, my homesteading/gardening fervor has continued to percolate throughout the winter months. I don’t feel like my first Southern winter in any way compares to winters back home, but I have definitely noticed the additional few minutes of sunlight at the beginning and end of the days the past couple weeks. Spring is definitely just around the corner.

One thing I’ve been up to since October is volunteering and taking horseback riding lessons at a wonderful equestrian center in a small town nearby. I have been doing nearly weekly riding lessons on Wednesday evenings after work and then helping out with a class on Saturdays. The center is designed to accommodate young people and adults with a wide array of cognitive and physical disabilities as well as at-risk youth. It is such a wonderful place, and I am so grateful to have found it. I’m learning so much about handling horses and how to have confidence around large animals. Each horse at this center has their own history with varied difficulties – swayed backs, rescued horses, horses whose families could no longer care for them but weren’t ready to retire. I adore everyone that I get to work with and learn from, both human and equine.

photo (19)


The temperature was pretty nice yesterday so most of the horses opted to pop their heads out of their stalls, saying hello to whomever strolled by.

It is also time to start thinking about gardening. I went through my seed inventory and have so many varieties of veggies to squeeze into whatever space I can get my hands on this year. I am going to grow in containers again this year and out in my little plot at the community garden. I’m mulling over what I want to plant where. I also think I am going to start some seeds this year, even if I only grow 1-2 transplants of each type of tomato and pepper plant I want to try.

I asked for a new composter unit for Christmas from my hubby – and got one!



It looks a bit like R2D2 and in this photo appears huge even though it isn’t really. I wanted something like this so it could be transported where the whim of the Army takes us next. Plus it is really heavy duty, can be spun and thus “turned” as often as I want, and animals are not able to get into it. It feels so good to just toss any non-animal/dairy food waste out in R2D2 instead of the garbage and know that it is going towards something. Even if I accidentally let a bag of herbs go slimy in the fridge, I know it isn’t being completely wasted.

Another little project I am cooking up is beekeeping. I’ve written here before about my admiration for bees. I got to thinking over the winter that even though I can’t have chickens right now, there is another creature out there associated with urban farmers that has an even smaller footprint.



And wouldn’t you know, there was a Beginner’s Beekeeping Class about to start the first week of February at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The class is instructed and held by an active local beekeeping society – the Jefferson County Beekeepers Association. I decided to take the class and even if I decided against keeping bees, I would at least learn something and meet some people. My books and a couple catalogs are pictured above. Three classes in and I am fascinated and on board. I am a little scared to be surrounded by thousands of bees, but am pushing through the fear for the promise of honey and pollinators. I am planning to suit entirely up until I get more comfortable with the process and am not as likely to get stung that way. The experienced beekeepers that run the class are very wise and the first thing they addressed was stings and allergic reactions – their point was that you are not highly likely to die from a bee sting, which I think was reassuring for most of the attendees.

I don’t think my house, though, is where I will “keep” the bees. As I’ve mentioned, we are renting a nice house with a teeny tiny yard with neighbors very close by and do not plan to be here forever; I am still actively campaigning for home buying this spring, but that is another topic. However, I spoke to my friends at the community garden and as it turns out – they would love to have a hive or two of bees! I decided to commit already so I mailed in a check for a package of bees through the Association. Now there are many decisions to make about the type of hive, suit, tools, etc. This purchase goes directly against my “consumption fast” I have been sticking to pretty well since Christmas (no unnecessary purchases – only bills and food). But . . . well, I can’t have chickens right now (maybe this summer) and I can no longer fight the urge to raise animals, grow things, and create!

I’m planning to meet up with my friends at the garden soon to scout out the best location for the hive. I went out there today with Dixie to see what ended up growing after I scattered some seeds out there last November.

photo (18)

photo (17)


The pea plants got frozen and are crumbling but I left them to completely die off so that their roots can release some nitrogen into the soil. I had some carrots that I could pull, and the kale plants are coming along! I am hoping they get really nice and big over this summer. I think when it comes time to put more things in that space, I’ll pull the smaller two or three and just let one or two grow up. I did some weeding as well so never mind those creeping greens along the edge of the photo.

This raised bed is fairly small – I would guess about 4 x 4 feet. As you can see, it was constructed with cinder blocks and I think I’ll use the holes in the blocks to grow things as well. They are about a foot deep, and maybe 5 x 6 inches. I could do one or two carrot plants per block, a couple radishes, a bush bean plant, Tom Thumb pea plants . . . I don’t want things that will get too tall or else they will block the light.

The carrots were crunchy and super sweet. I washed them up, peeled them, and had a little snack once I got home. The carrot tops went into R2D2. I only wish now I had planted an entire bed of carrots last fall.

Posted in Beekeeping, Gardening | 2 Comments