Gettin’ Funky Underground

Every gardening season I like to try out a new crop. We’ve got a big enough plot for our needs so allowing a square yard or two for experimenting with something that might be a bust is no big deal. When I asked the Co-Conspirator what we should grow this year the suggestion was peanuts. I ordered a bag of seeds from an outfit that was having a free shipping sale since I didn’t think I’d find any seeds locally.


Look at that! Peanut seeds look like peanuts! OK, they are peanuts. I will admit I actually spent a minute or two wondering if they should be planted in their shells or taken out. They’re legumes, like beans, and those are shelled before planting so I liberated some and potted them up. I should probably check to see if that was the right thing to do.


Peanuts need a long growing season and the weather has made spring so late here that I wanted to get a jump on things. They’ll be inside for four or five weeks and then, with luck, I’ll be setting out the plants around the end of May.

The other “new to me” addition to the garden this year is a selection of my own. Some time ago I was reading some 19th Century gardening books to satisfy my curiosity about what Victorian Era gardeners grew and to see how different it was from what we commonly plant now. In “The Field and Garden Vegetables of North America” by Fearing Burr (1863) one of the plants sounded particularly interesting, producing sweet, nutty tubers. Re-reading the description I realized it was nutsedge! Cyperus esculentus is a weed most gardeners would rather not turn loose in their plots. I also read about several Oxalis species that also produces tasty tubers. I remembered these when I happened upon a nursery that had some unusual ancient Andean crops including Oxalis tuberosa, also known as oca. I decided to give them a go, ordered a handful of mixed varieties, and was immediately taken with their beauty when they arrived.


On a couple of the tubers I could see the remnants of their three-part leaves that are characteristic of this genus. Some species of Oxalis are sold as “shamrocks” as houseplants.


I left the tubers in a paper bag in the cool part of the basement since it was still a little early to plant them out. When I checked on them the other day it was clear they were starting to grow shoots so I decided to pot them up and let them, like the peanuts, get a head start on the season. Wish I’d remembered to weight them first. They’ll be grown similarly to potatoes, planted and then hilled slightly. Sometime after the Autumn Equinox they should start forming new tubers so I’m crossing my fingers that the frost stays away late this fall.

This is one of the cool things about gardening, no matter how long you’ve been doing it there’s always something different to grow. What exciting, funky, new-to-you crops are you growing this year?

Ready For Guests

I finally, and possibly at the last minute, got around to putting up the nesting tubes I had gathered for solitary bees. As luck would have it I had the roof from a failed birdhouse attempt that a soup can fit into nicely. I jammed the bamboo firmly into the can and wired it to the underside of the roof.


Since the roof is so much wider than the can I took advantage of the extra space and hung a bundle of turtlehead stem sections below and to the side of the bamboo can. Now it’s just a waiting game to see if any bees find these accommodations inviting!

The Bee That Launched a Thousand Eggs…A DAY, and a Mystery Visitor!

Helen's Workers

Say “Hello!” to the workers of Queen Helen. She’s busy at the moment down on the frames laying eggs. I installed a three pound package of bees in this hive about a week-and-a-half ago and have confirmed that they are raising brood like good little troopers. It’s safe now to officially name the queen. This is the first time I’ve actually had drawn comb to install on. I’m reusing what was left from a split we did last fall that died over the winter. When bees are installed on bare foundation or, as I do, on empty frames with guide bars, they have to put a lot of work getting the comb made first before the resource-gathering and brood-rearing can get into full swing for the season. Comb is the structure of the hive that they really can’t function without.

Next door in Bernice’s hive things are off to a slow start but I’m hoping now that the weather is warming up they’ll build up soon. As I was looking into that hive I noticed one of the bees crawling around on my hand wasn’t a honey bee!

Not a Honey Bee

I grabbed my phone and got  a quick picture of it before it crawled down into the hive. I don’t know what it is and I hope it’s not harmful to the honey bees. I doubt it is. Looking around at some resources online and elsewhere I think I have a general idea of what it is but am not ready to say for sure. I will say, however, that my year of paying more attention to native bees got off to an earlier start than I expected in a completely unexpected place.

Finally Working in the Garden!

This afternoon with a nice block of time at my disposal I decided it was time to visit the garden. Naturally, as I left the house it was snowing. Doesn’t even surprise me anymore. Fortunately it was just a brief, dry bout and then it was done. The wind has continued, though.

Garden 4-4-14

When I got to the plot it was looking decidedly better than the last time I shared it. The snow is all gone and the top of the soil has thawed everywhere except under the straw bale I stored on one of the beds.

It was time to start actually gardening, I suppose you could say, though my accomplishments were modest. I started by hauling away the remains of the sunflower border I planted along the main path. Some of the stalks had fallen across the path and were making something of a barrier. I’m going to plant the same kind of barrier this year to discourage uninvited guests but with a shorter variety. Some of last year’s plants exceeded ten feet.

Next I pulled the straw back from my spinach overwintering experiment.

Spinach 1

Green! I actually wasn’t too surprised to see live plants. It took several years of finding surviving spinach plants among the spring crops I was sowing or transplanting to realize I could probably carry a crop over intentionally. Even after the particularly brutal winter we had they seem to be doing just fine.

Spinach 2

The bed where I left two rows of plants looks essentially as it was last fall. I didn’t plan too well so it’s where the onions will need to go in soon. My plan is to transplant the spinach to their correct place in the rotation. They can take it.


Finally, for fun I popped out back just now to get a picture of my first Helleborus to bloom this year. As luck would have it, a dry sleety snow is falling again. Oh, well. It’ll end soon enough and warm up enough for the honeybees to come out and visit the flowers.

Dear Peat, We’re Through

Dear Peat,

We’ve gardened together for years, and I appreciate all you brought to our joint endeavors, but I think it’s time we parted. I can’t kid myself that our relationship is sustainable any more so I’m moving on. I know we’ll be crossing paths if I buy some started plants at the farmers market or garden center, but I believe we can be adult about it and not make a scene.

Also, I feel I owe it to you to be up front about this. I’ve found someone else and we’re going to give it a try and see how it works out. You may have heard of Coco Coir. I picked her up at the garden center. We started some seeds together the same day. Yeah, I know that sounds kind of fast, but despite what’s going on outside, spring is going to come eventually and there’s no time to waste.

Take care of yourself and don’t feel bad. The world’s changing and you just don’t fit in my vision of it any more.

In other words, I’m just not comfortable buying peat-based mixes any more. So, in search of an alternative I’m giving coco coir a try. The coir came densely compressed in a brick wrapped in plastic. I broke it in half to fit it in the tub for soaking. It took up quite a bit of water. Wish I’d measured the volume difference before and after.

1 Soaking

Once it was thoroughly soaked I broke it up and fluffed it some. It nearly filled the container.

2 Fluffed

Just for the heck of it, I worked in some perlite I had laying around. The coir seemed kind of heavy and I thought the perlite might lighten it and improve drainage.

3 with Perlite

The final test was to sow some seeds. I picked out a few things to grow some microgreens and sowed them thickly on the coir. Step one, germination , was successful!

4 Seedlings

A month later I’ve got some nice lettuce…

5 Lettuce

…and some spinach. The seed coats stuck to the tips of a good number of the seed leaves. Any idea how to prevent this? I’m going to just have to pinch them off before harvesting.

7 Spinach

There are beets, too! Mostly golden but there’s obviously a red one in the mix. They suffer from the same persistent seed coat problem.

6 Beets

The biggest disappointment so far is the arugula. It’s small and chlorotic looking. I have fertilized it lightly but that doesn’t seem to have helped.

8 Arugula

I can’t blame the medium since the other greens are doing just fine. Besides, I can’t go back to peat. Not after all the things I said.

Scavenging for Bee Homes

Last year I meant to put up a nesting structure of some kind for solitary bees but never got around to it. This week I remembered I should be getting something ready so it could be in place this spring when the bees are looking for a place to lay their eggs so I got to work. I had been planning on making one that consists of a wooden block or log with holes drilled in it. Then I started seeing different kinds that were bundles of bamboo and decided I would attempt one of those instead. Looking around and doing more reading I also learned that the hollow stems of plants that have died back for the winter can be used, too.* So it was that I found myself wading around in the snow in the yard with my pruners. I hope the neighbors didn’t see me clipping off anything that was still standing, peering at the cut end and dropping it before moving on to the next plant. In the end the only thing I found that might be suitable was the stems of turtlehead (Chelone lyonii.) The pithy hosta stems were especially disappointing because I’ve got so many of them.

Nesting Tubes 1

So far I’ve got, from left to right, some black bamboo, the turtlehead and a golden bamboo—I used to have some bamboo plants and now I’m wishing I’d kept more of the canes! There is quite a range of cavity sizes from the 3/32” minimum I saw one site recommend on up to about 1/4”. The lengths are what they are and may not be ideal as the block-drilling instructions indicate. I just cut everything so it would have a node near the end to block it off. I’m going to try to get out to some other places to forage for appropriate stems before winter is over, too.

Nesting Tubes 2

I’m excited to see if I can attract any little bees to whatever makeshift housing I build for them. Between these, the birdhouse I plan to deploy for bumblebees and the prospect of a honeybee hive surviving the winter it looks like 2014 is going to be an interesting year.

Have you put out nesting sites for bees like this? I’d be interested in hearing about how they worked for you.


* I probably read about it at Honey Bee Suite. Rusty writes about other bees as well as the honeys and if you haven’t already checked out her web site you really should.

Hope Survives

Actually, it’s the hive I’ve named Bernice that is known to be surviving at the moment. I don’t have any named Hope but that’s not a bad idea, now that I think about it. In any case, I checked the two backyard hives yesterday and found the workers of Queen Bernice dining on the sugar that I placed in the hive last fall as insurance. The cluster was already at the top of the hive back then despite having at least one full super of honey below the top super. It looks like they’ve gone through more than half of the ten pounds of sugar and I’ve got some sugar cakes made should they exhaust this before nectar is available this spring. I also gave them a little pollen patty, that brown thing on the right, in case they get a hankering for that.

Live Bees on Sugar

The other backyard hive, a split from the only hive we had survive last winter was dead. The cluster was huddled toward but not in one of the corners of the lower of two medium boxes. The super above them is still full of honey and then there is ten pounds of sugar on top of that so I’m pretty sure they didn’t starve to death. If I had to guess, I’d say they froze because the cluster was too small. We’ve had some unusually long stretches of brutally cold weather without a break and other beekeepers in the area are reporting smaller clusters perishing for no other apparent reason. I’m going to take this as a lesson to make sure hives have a good population going into winter and to take extra precautions with nucs, should I end the season with any.

The 2014 beekeeping season is going to be different for me. My partner and I are going to go more our separate ways as we have different goals and amounts of time we’re willing to allot to the bees. I’m going to have two to three hives in my back yard and let him take over the other hives we’ve started in the other four locations. My idea is that with fewer hives and a convenient location I’ll be able to give them more attention and, I hope, learn more and become a better beekeeper in the process.

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