A simple way to keep track of garden changes

My life is hectic. I’m trying hard to cut down on distractions so I can enjoy a few things in my life more fully. One of those priorities is my garden.

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Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) in shades of red and pink, planted among irises, lilies, and daffodils.

This year I had a glorious show of Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus). Sweet William is a biennial plant, meaning it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies over the course of two years, rather than one for annuals.

They’re fading now, and setting seedpods. If I collect the seed, I can sow it and have another batch of plants ready to go for next year. And while I like the mixed-colors look, there are a few places I’d like to add these plants but I want to restrict the color scheme a bit.

As I went outside with brown paper envelopes in hand, I wondered how to differentiate between the different colors of Dianthus. How will I remember what’s what? Then I remembered the bit of genius always at my side: my smartphone.

I snapped photos of each color and immediately labeled them:

 

Then I labeled my paper seed envelopes to match.

I created an album in my iPhone Photos app to keep them organized, so when I’m planning my garden for next year I’ll have a quick reference. (Or I guess I could also come back here.)

How do you keep track of changes in your garden?

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Waiting

I’m not the best at waiting. Like a lot of people, I value efficiency. I want things to happen when I want them to happen (that seldom works as I hope it will).

The one place where I seem to not mind waiting is in the garden. We didn’t actually have much of a winter here; the flowering quince bloomed sporadically from November until now. The hydrangeas leafed out twice and got blown back by freezes. The witch hazel, on the other hand, offered up only about four flowers; I presume it didn’t have enough chilling hours to produce a show. But a few plants wait patiently, and I watch them waiting.

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Fern fronds are curled tightly.

I love curled fern fronds. The idea that this spiral, like those of pinecones or aloes or many other plants, follow the mathematics of the Fibonacci sequence, fills me with wonder. I take as much delight in staring at this lump in the ground and thinking about the mathematics replicated throughout the natural world, as I do in admiring their feathery green fronds after a summer rainstorm.

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I have no idea what this plant is. If you know, please comment.

I acquired this mystery houseplant (yes, yes, it’s not in the garden, technically….) from a friend on a gardening listserv in my area. She didn’t know its name, either. It replicates itself by forming babies on the periphery of the leaves, then the main stem of the plant falls over and dies and the babies root. In the background of the photo, you can see the withering stem of its sister who already reproduced and shuffled off her mortal coil. I’m waiting every day for the big one to do the same. I feel slightly vicious, anticipating this plant’s death (it never did anything to me other than please me), but it’s exciting, a bit like watching a tree fall in slow-motion.

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Primula vulgaris, grown from seed.

I have been waiting for this nickel-sized bloom for two years. I love primulas but never had success growing them from seed. Most instructions advise sowing the seed directly in the garden in early spring.

Following those instructions got me nowhere. Two years ago, I learned to sow the seed in August, in a pot outdoors, and let it overwinter exposed more or less to the elements. I kept mine in a cold frame whose windows are a bit leaky, particularly when I forget from time to time to close them.

Success! I transplanted about a dozen seedlings and kept them watered particularly through the hot summers. A few weeks ago, I saw the first tiny little bud. I squealed like a toddler and frightened the dog.

I tell you, I am absurdly proud of this tiny little flower. I hope its siblings will bloom soon. But if not, that’s okay, too. I will wait.

Introduction to beekeeping

It’s been two months since I started beekeeping, and they’ve kept me busy. Not because they need a great deal of maintenance; they don’t. But like any new beekeeper, I can’t stop myself from peeking into the hive and seeing what they’re up to.

Beekeeping Basics

How does one get started in beekeeping? First, you have to order bees. They can be shipped in the mail but it’s better to pick up a package or nuc (pronounced “nuke,” short for nucleus colony) yourself.

Order the bees in the winter, because they’ll all be spoken for by the time spring comes. I ordered mine from two sources: the first package came from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, in Moravian Falls, NC, about two hours east of where I live. The second package is more local to me, from Bailey Bee Supply.  I ordered from two different suppliers on the theory that the bees would be sourced from different places (Brushy Mountain gets their bees from Georgia, Bailey’s perhaps being more local), thus increasing the genetic diversity in my apiary. The theory is just a theory; the bees may actually be from the same place, but I didn’t know that at the time.

A package of bees looks like this:

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It’s a screened box with three pounds of bees trapped inside, plus a mated queen in a cage. I’ll explain more about installing packages in a future post.

Equipment

I started in April with two hives, comprised of a stand, a screened bottom board (to keep critters out and ventilation moving), two 8-frame medium hive bodies, an inner cover, and a heavy top. The hive bodies are simple boxes, with a ledge on the inside to hold the hanging frames. The frames are lightweight pine, with a black plastic sheet popped inside, just like a picture in a picture frame. The plastic is printed with the pattern of honeycomb. The bees “draw out” comb on top of the foundation.

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One hive body viewed from above, with eight frames and a healthy population of bees.

Here’s a closeup of one of the new frames. The worker bees make wax from their wax glands, and once the cells are drawn the queen lays one egg in each cell. The eggs show up nicely against the black foundation–each one looks like a little grain of rice.

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Worker bees tending the eggs. In the lower left, the cells haven’t been drawn out yet. In the lower right, pollen is stored in one cell.

The other tools I use are a veil, a smoker, a hive tool, a brush, and gloves. I didn’t start out with gloves.

Here’s the answer to the first question everyone asks me: No, I can’t expect to get a honey harvest this first year. The timing of the bees’ delivery is such that they arrive just before the peak of the nectar flow. The workers must use all the carbohydrates in the available nectar to build comb; after all, the queen can’t lay eggs and the workers can’t store pollen or nectar unless there’s comb in which to place those things. The nectar flow drops off in June and is more or less absent throughout the summer. It picks up again with a second flow in the fall as the asters bloom. So this year the bees will work on establishing their hive, I’ll nurse them through the nectar dearth and through the winter, and starting next spring, I hope we’ll start to see some honey.

Next post: Installling a package.

 

Garden log, 5.12.16

Went out in the backyard with the dog this morning intending to pull weeds for 10 minutes. Camellia ‘Midnight Lover’ had a terrible case of leaf hall, so I pruned those out. While I was at it, I struck 12 cuttings of Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Cameo.’ I haven’t had much luck in the past growing camellias from cuttings, but I keep trying.

Louisiana iris ‘Black Gamecock’ is in bloom in the rain garden and looking rather spectacular.

It’s starting to feel real.

Last night the UPS guy arrived during dinner.

  
My daughter thought the boxes actually contained bees and did not want them brought into the house. I assured her the boxes contained no livestock, so she helped me open them.

  
  
I’ll explain it all in a future post. Just wanted to share the excitement.

A new project: Bees

Because I’m not overcommitted, yesterday I ordered 6 pounds of bees and two hives. I’m taking a beekeeping class run by my local beekeeping club. And in about six weeks I’ll drive two hours west to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, pick up my bees, and begin a new adventure.

If you garden much at all, you’re probably aware of the plight of Apis mellifera, the European honeybee. Between varroa mites (Varroa destructor), the mysterious colony collapse disorder, and a charming array of other pests, diseases, and environmental insults, only about 16% of feral bee colonies survive one year (American Bee Journal). Sustainable colony management is essential to helping the species survive.

Yesterday I began preparing my bee yard. I’m resisting calling it an apiary; that seems a rather aspirational term given that I’ve got two hives and no experience.

The ideal spot to locate hives is in full sun, away from well-traveled paths. That place doesn’t exist on my half-acre suburban property. The full-sun locations in my garden are immediately adjacent to my neighbor’s driveway, where a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old play daily. Everywhere else on the property is well shaded by mature oak trees.

I’ve chosen a small spot behind my shed, where the bees will be sheltered but should still get some morning sun. I’ll face the hives towards the southeast, because light stimulates them to start their day. Yesterday I cleared the area of ivy and vinca vines, leveled the ground, and laid a few inches of gravel where the hives will be. Gravel helps suppress small hive beetles, a pest I’m told I will have to accept around here. Chickens are also excellent at helping to suppress the beetles–they adore the larvae–but that’s a project for another day.

I’m also clearing ivy vines that have grown up the trunk of one of the nearby oaks. I won’t be able to reach them at the top, but by getting as much as I can off the trunk, I will permit more light to reach the bee yard.

thicky ivy vine

This English ivy vine (Hedera helix) has gotten way out of hand. It’s nearly the size of my wrist.

I started at ground level, wedging a cat’s paw tool–a wide, flat crowbar/nail puller about 12 inches long–between the trunk’s bark and the vine. I pried it back from the bark, slid it up the trunk as far as I could, and pried again.

Ivy vine pulled back from the trunk.

One vine pulled back from the trunk.

I’ve wedged brick fragments between the trunk and the vine to keep the vines from reattaching until I can complete the project.

I hate to use herbicides in my garden, but this is a desperate case. I’ll pull off as much as I safely can, and paint the remaining vine with brush killer. I will probably also paint the base of the vine with the same, and dig it out once it’s dead. I know from experience that if I don’t use herbicide on something as large as this, I will never eradicate it.

Wish me luck. I’ll post photos of the carnage when I can.

 

 

We are skipping winter.

It’s Christmas Day and it’s 80 degrees. Forecast doesn’t call for anything below about 45 for the next week.

The plants have decided to get on with it. Narcissus cantabricus, which I only planted at Thanksgiving one month ago, started blooming today, a month sooner than expected.

 

Narcissus cantabricus

Narcissus cantabricus

The winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, has started blooming. Its lemon scent is detectable whenever I pass by.

And the Cyclamen coum also have begun to bloom, about six or seven weeks ahead of schedule.



The flowering quince, Chaenomeles sp., has been blooming for a month now. It’s beginning to trade its flowers for new leaves.


And finally, the Daphne is about to show off. When it blooms, no one will notice the Lonicera.


Lots of my friends are enjoying this weather, but it depresses me. While one Christmas data point does not a trend make, I have lived in this area the better part of 30 years and I remember when it was never warm enough to wear sandals and shorts as we took out the holiday trash. I have spent the past ten years working in the garden on New Year’s Day,    needing nothing much warmer than jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Looks like this year will be the same, unless it’s raining.

I guess that any day spent in the garden cannot be too melancholy. Whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope it is a happy one.