Tag Archives: organic gardening

Apple Maggot Control Bags: Love and Hate

If you have never looked at your lovingly dwarfed apple tree bursting with fruitlets and thought “Crap. That’s a lot of fruit. Too bad the blight skipped this year.” you have never applied apple maggot control bags. Think tiny pantyhose that must be tied on to each and every fruitlet in order to prevent all manner of winged creatures from using my hard won fruit as a nursery. Might be kind of cute, right? A tree wearing stockings!


No way, man. Indeed they are almost as unattractive as the name implies. Limp, wrinkly apple maggot control bags all over my sweet little fruit trees.


That tree is embarrassed.


They do improve slightly when the contents swell.

I ordered 3 bags of these beauties, 144 count each. I am done with 2 bags and perhaps 60% done with the job. How is that possible?? I have tiny trees, and only 5 are apples or pears of fruit bearing age. This process is mostly satisfying, kind of overwhelming. With Baby R being a primary focus around here these days, every minute with both hands free is precious. I keep reminding myself that it is absolutely worth it to spend an extra 20 seconds on each fruit to ensure a generally worm free harvest. It is! Also, I feel like I’m wrapping myself hundreds of presents, not to be opened until late summer/ fall.

I hope my canning jars like presents, too.


The Bees Are In!

Three generations of our family helped get the homestead ready for our newest arrivals. Here they are completing one of the hive stands.


This is what a box of 10,000 bees looks like! Within that mass lies the queen, protected by a small cage until the new colony becomes familiar with her. The silver disk is the top of a can of sugar syrup that sustains the bees until they are able to forage again.


Here is one of our hives just before the bee release. I am primarily using starter strips, small straight strips attached to the top of each frame to get the bees started building combs in the right place and orientation, but have included one full frame of foundation in order to have an easy place to attach the queen initially. Once you remove the queen from the package you use a rubber band to hold her cage onto the foundation and frame. Most methods of installing packages of bees involve dumping the bees out of the box after the queen is removed and placed in the hive. Yes, the first act of many a new beekeeper is shaking a roiling mass of stinging insects out of a box! Sorta nuts. After viewing many a YouTube video of this procedure and feeling less and less brave all the time, I was happy to find the technique taught by the brilliant folks at Beekind up in Sebastopol, California. You install the queen and then simply place the box of bees in the hive and let them crawl out to be with her in their own. At least it looked simple when I watched it done by the guy who had done thousands of package installations before. My own reenactment of the deed was far less graceful. Fortunately, it did get the job done.


That’s me in a beesuit! I think I look super cool, very beekeeperly. If I was a real beekeeper, however, it seems I would do this procedure in something that displayed an aggressive level of nonchalance- perhaps cutoff jean shorts and a bikini top. This is what I have gleaned from my months of internet research on the art of beekeeping. These boxes of bees are without a home to defend and therefore very docile, I know. Knowing this is great, but I also needed to keep my hand shaking to a level where I still had some semblance of fine motor skills. The bee handler that drops the queen cage into the box of bees while attempting to remove the cage from the package must then insert her hand into the mass of bees to retrieve it. No thank you!


When I went to remove the package boxes and reconfigure the hives after 3 days I felt a little more sure of myself. After opening the first hive and pulling out my first frame of bees most of the nerves dissolved into absolute wonder. The bees were busily engaged in the festooning (how fantastic is that word??) behavior that helps them to make honeycomb. The comb itself was barely visible beneath the moving surface of bees linked together by their tiny bee claws, but the glimpses I got were breathtaking. The comb was pure white and perfectly formed. Such a miraculous design!

Two weeks after installation I will check again to see if my queens are settled in and getting down to the business of building colonies. Knowing how easy it is to fail completely at this hobby, I am trying not to get too attached to the outcome of this first attempt. It’s tough, though. I am already so smitten.

Geranium Revival

This is a picture from last spring of the Geranium maderense in front of Chicken Coop 3.0. This beast is a mutant sibling of all the sweetly sized geraniums that one usually finds in the landscape. It is a biennial that grows with great vigor and little care here in Zone 9. The first year you get a mound of fantastic foliage- a single leaf makes an impressive arrangement in a vase. The second year the leaves are pressed to the ground so that the thick stems can support the absolutely gigantic inflorescence of flowers that springs forth. After the show is over this guy reseeds with enthusiasm and babies pop up all over the place. This particular plant was indeed a volunteer from prior years.

Please excuse the crappy picture. This plant was struck down in its prime, before any good pictures were taken.

That sprinkling of pink flowers above was just the beginning of the huge bouquet that was soon to come. This is a plant that is hard to kill. It loves everything- sun or shade, wet or dry. We found out that it can be be thwarted, however, by the crushing weight of a 5″ diameter redwood limb falling from the heavens upon its head. The bouquet was severed in half and we figured the whole plant was a gonner as it had already begun to set seed.


In a form that befits the spirit of this plant, it came back twice as fiercely. Letting this happen has meant multiple years of having to shimmy our way in to the door of our coop, but you just can’t disturb a plant that takes a death blow just days before it should have died of natural causes and springs back better than ever.

Finally this spring we have the double flower explosion I’ve been waiting for.


Each a little smaller than the daddy, but pretty great all the same.

That little mound to the right, by the way, is a normal sized geranium called ‘Ann Folkard’.


Here’s to meeting the next crushing challenge that lands on our heads with double bouquets of fierceness!  Happy Spring!

Growing 50 Plants From a 6 Pack

Although I will certainly lose some of my street cred as an urban homesteader by revealing that I do not start all my edibles from seed, this info is important stuff for the newer gardeners among us. As a beginner veggie grower I assumed each cell in a 6 pack held one plant and should be plunked right into the dirt. My friend Claire Woods, who also happens to be a propagator at the beloved Annie’s Annuals Nursery and an all around expert plant lady, set me straight on this situation.


In fact, each of these cells holds about 10 viable kale plants.


If you put each cell right into the ground you’ll end up with 10 big plants trying to grow in 1 square inch of dirt- no good! The trick is to tease each seedling apart so they can be planted at a proper distance from one another and mature to normal size. I usually start by pulling out a cell and tapping the side against my palm to loosen the dirt and roots. In cells that are as congested as these, it is then usually necessary to make one drastic tear down the middle to get the untangling process started.


After that, with more gentle tapping, shaking and teasing apart, you can pull out each individual seedling. Go slow and be gentle! Doing this with bare hands helps a lot. I was trying to keep my hands clean to take pictures, so I have gloves on here. Some seedlings will end up without enough roots to support themselves- compost those guys.


Just be sure to pick starts that are not too old or the roots will be so tangled you won’t be able to separate them. These kale starts are about as tangled as I can handle. If you don’t have any choice and are facing a complete snarl of roots, just snip off all but one of the babies at soil level, gently loosen the outside of the snarl and plant. Plants like kale, broccoli and cabbage can be planted deeper than they were in the cells to help support those reachy little stems. I usually put them in so the soil level is just below the cluster of leaves.

This process is terribly satisfying. After a good amount of culling, I ended up with 50 kale plants from this particular 6 pack. Pretty good for a few dollars worth of starts. Doing this also makes me feel far less guilty about not having started my own seeds at the right time. Next year all will be on time and my garden will be perfect! Next year!

A word of caution: don’t do this to baby plants with roots that hate to be disturbed, like melons and squash. They will struggle and pout.

Best Family Tradition Ever

My mother is an excellent seamstress! This gets her in to all sorts of trouble. Like the down jacket she hand stuffed for my sister as she headed off to college in frigid New Hampshire, or the time she agreed to make my wedding dress.


Just a simple little thing to whip up in the midst of throwing a wedding in one’s garden!

But no project can match the hours my mom has spent over the years upholding the best family tradition ever- the quilts! It goes like this: pregnant moms pick a theme for their quilt and make a list of all the most important women in their lives in the months before the birth. Each important woman is sent a square of fabric and batting to embroider for the quilt. The assignment is welcomed by some and dreaded by others, I’m pretty sure. It seems not everyone is drawn to spend hours upon hours coaxing needle and floss into quilt square perfection, but most do it anyhow. Occasionally we find some serious talent hidden among us, but even the simplest squares carry lots of good love and support for the moms to gaze upon with bleary eyes during the inhumane hours newborns like to keep.  Inevitably there is a rush in the final days before the quilt shower to present the quilt- reminders are made, overnight mail packages arrive (or not! panic!). Finally a complete number of squares is pulled together and the arranging begins, weighing all the possible combinations.


There is a lot of careful ironing…


and straight sewing…


… and far fewer exclamations of fury than my sewing machine is used to.

Common themes include children’s songs or nursery rhymes. I, of course, was drawn to more homestead related themes. O’s quilt theme was “Farm Animals and Their Products,” and this babe is to receive a “Beneficial Insects” quilt. Creative license was encouraged! My sister-in-law made a square of grasshoppers on a skewer- not an insect you would necessarily like in your garden, but an excellent protein source. My friend Kate made a City Bug in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with rainbow flag flying in the distance. I made a square of the end-of-summer spiders whose webs booby trap our entire property August through October. They enjoy open spots at just about face level for web-making. Years ago, after a long commute by foot, BART train and Muni from Oakland to San Francisco, I told my nursing school friends about the particularly large specimen I came eyeball to eyeball with just before taking down her extensive web with my face that morning. Halfway through my recounting, one of my ladies began staring intently at my hair and uttered a most ominous “HOLD STILL” as she lunged in to sweep that very creature from my brow. Yeesh. The quilt also included many other beautiful and helpful bugs, each bringing with it a piece of its maker. Makes my mother’s, and gardener’s, heart swell.

In the end, thanks to all my favorite women,  we had this:


Which later proved surprisingly hard to capture well on film. Trust me, this quilt is gorgeous in person. But here’s the idea:




I’m scheduling this post to go out on this baby’s due date. Could be he has already arrived!

Or maybe I’m still waddling about.

Wish us luck!

Grow 23 Fruit Trees On No Acreage

I admire people that landscape well. Follow a plan. Make a plan to begin with! I am far too much of a crazy plant collector to accomplish these tasks. I get so excited about particular plants that I have a hard time adhering to the basic rules of good design. I stuff things in wherever I think they might survive and rarely buy more than one of anything, much less the odd numbers of things that work well for groupings. I sacrifice cohesion for the delight I get from the individuals. This past week I literally gasped to see that one of the bulbs I planted in Fall 2011, that did nothing of note last Spring, is suddenly in sparkly bloom.


Nope, I didn’t plant it in a drift or next to anything that will provide a complementary color or contrasting texture. Totally worth it.

So this never ending desire to collect, combined with our limited sunny space for growing, has spilled over into our edibles and made me a devout follower of Backyard Orchard Culture. Instead of one large fruit tree that will grow too tall to harvest from the ground, make lots of shade, and provide way too much fruit for one household at the time of ripening, you plant perhaps 4 trees in the same space. The key is controlling the size of each tree, ending up with what are essentially large fruit shrubs that can easily be harvested and pruned from the ground. Size control is achieved by severe pruning at the start of the tree’s life, root competition between the trees, and pruning while the tree is in leaf to limit photosynthesis. You can easily extend your harvest by choosing varieties that will ripen at different times in the season.

Late Winter, 2010

Late Winter, 2010

There are many different ways to configure one’s orchard- for more info check out Dave Wilson Nursery’s website. In our space we chose to plant trees about 6 feet apart along a metal pipe fence. We loosely espaliered them to keep them from getting wide and taking over the path beside them. Their roots compete with one another, as well as being limited by the concrete retaining wall of the fence. We have 16 trees along this fence line, 4 citrus trees bordering the veggie beds, and 3 more citrus in pots on a deck. 23 varieties of fruit on our tiny homestead! Miraculous!

Early Summer, 2012

Early Summer, 2012

This year we are replacing six trees that proved to be less fruitful or required extra work to keep healthy. It’s survival of the fittest on this homestead! In our mostly frost free area January is the time to plant for a successful Backyard Orchard Culture. The trees come dormant, with their roots bare of dirt. The first pruning cut is the most important. Whack those buggy whips off at about 18″ to promote the development of very low branches.


Not only does this make sense for all the future development of the above ground part of the tree, but check out what you have to put under the ground:


Ak! The size of the root ball on bare root trees is totally anxiety producing. How can that meager clump support a whole tree? In truth, it can’t do it very well. If you let a tree push new growth all the way up a 6 or 7 foot trunk the first year after it has been dug out in this fashion it will likely be a sad, stressed out tree. That’s why it’s better not to buy the trees later in the year that have been potted up by the nurseries without real pruning. Best to wait until next year. If you get to the nursery very soon, however, whack away and feel good about it! Balance that shoot to the roots.

You’ll be glad to know I had the family members who are not 38 weeks pregnant helping with the digging and heavy lifting. I had one especially enthusiastic helper:


Good times!

It’s Only 20,002 Bees. What Could Go Wrong?

I hear it’s common to have crave strange foods and reorganize every closet in your house when a person is pregnant. Yep, I have been doing those things, but mainly when I am pregnant I want more animals.

If not for B, who likes to remind me that I had one dog when we first met, I think I might already have been featured on one of those reality shows about animal hoarders. I would be the one with features blurred, skittering off the property by horseback and surrounded by a dog pack, crying out in anguish over all those less mobile species I would be leaving behind. Rationally I understand that acquiring more labor intensive mouths to feed and care for just before giving birth to the ultimate variety of labor intensive mouth to feed and care for is not a good idea. But did you know that there are miniature cows? Seriously. Who can resist?!

B, that’s who. After a chat with the 4H cow lady at a harvest festival in the fall, I was sizing up our Redwood tree paddock for the modifications needed for a mama mini cow and her offspring. B, however, thought that daily milking and the eventual slaughtering of 700 pound animals might be beyond our capabilities as urban homesteaders with full time work, family commitments and a newborn human on the way. I admit this did ring somewhat true… but only after B gave a lukewarm thumbs up to starting bee hives this year. Bees! In April I will bring home 2 boxes with round about 10,000 worker bees and one queen each.


Wouldn’t that critter above be even more lovely if there was a chance she was about to return home to one of my very own cozy hives? Indeed!

I have been obsessively researching this new hobby and still feel rather unprepared. Apparently even very good and experienced beekeepers can meet with complete failure, sometimes for no clear reason- hives that bees just abandon or mysterious sudden die offs. But the rewards are so tempting: jars upon jars of honey, better pollination of our garden, beeswax galore, and the chance to observe some bizarre and fascinating insect action. Did you know that bees dance to tell one another where the best foraging spots are, adapting the choreography to account for time elapsed in order to keep the map properly oriented to the sun’s position in the sky? How tremendous is that?? This weekend I will attend an intro to beekeeping class at a place called Beekind in Sebastopol. I will be making my first foray into the purchasing of bee housing and gear, including attempting to try on beekeeper suits 9 months pregnant. Such timing. I can’t wait!