Thursday, October 23, 2014

It's Raining, It's Pouring, I'm Inside Adoring...

The good news today is that the National Agricultural Library has provided many of its historical files to the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  (Read the announcement here.) 

Why am I recommending you head on over & adore, too?  Well, here are a few watercolors that are now available, for free, on the web, thanks to the high-quality digital scans. See if you agree! 

There are also scanned documents, including historic USDA documents on organic farming (many from before 1942), and a Manual of Gardening for Bengal & Upper India, 1864 (no pictures, unfortunately).  

(It's dry inside by my computer, not so much outside, though our ark is coming right along.) 




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

More on Backyard Bees

Besides deciding we need honey bees in our backyard (the jury is still out, though we are
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continuing to research this project), we also became interested in Mason bees, after reading DIY Del Ray's post on building a Mason bee hive.  My online research led me to Bee Diverse, which has lots of choices, including this Highrise, which comes with easy-to-clean inter-locking wooden tubes.  (The problem if you don't clean out the tubes is that mites take over, not good for the bees.)


Then I was asked if there would be a conflict having both types of bees in our yard. According to a publication from the Extension service at Washington State University, the answer is an emphatic "no!"  Obviously if you don't have many flowers at all, there might not be enough food for all the bees.  But having a bountiful yard (which we are working towards) and a regular water supply (more on that below) should be enough for both sets of pollinators.  

After attending a few lectures & talking with other beekeepers, we've discovered that the months of August-November present a problem because there aren't as many flowers, so not enough food for honeybees (there are many schools of thought on what to feed them instead, but honey is best).  I've been using the Wildflower.org Native Plant Database to find appropriate flowers to fill in this gap.  After selecting Virginia for my state and part-shade for the area, it's also possible to select the months you want the plant to flower in! (You can even
Swamp Leatherflower
select the color, but I don't think the bees care.)  I am trying to find a source for purchasing Clematis Crispa/Swamp Leatherflower, but native plants are sometimes hard to get ahold of, even at native plant sales!  


In terms of water for bees, that is a real problem in our area.  We have 3 bowls which we keep filled for the squirrels & birds.  But mosquitoes are such a problem that we try to empty them out (or let them go dry each week) so there's not a regular supply of standing water, which mosquitoes love.  According to this webpage, if the top of the water is moving, mosquitoes won't lay eggs (a reason to have a drip system).  Also, bees will drown if there's nothing floating in the water, so corks & sticks are recommended!  And apparently they don't like nice, clean water--they like it a bit dirty.  So, we have to work on getting more corks and figuring out a way to ensure water year-round for them.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How Sweet It Is: Bees!

We were lucky to be part of DIY Del Ray's first Urban Farm Tour last Saturday morning. 
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Though we know we probably won't get much to grow in our ever-shady yard, we were inspired by our neighbors' mini- & maxi-farms.  Additionally, we have begun to check into beekeeping, after seeing two separate homes with hives on the tour.  


Beekeeping starts in the spring, so we're using our time until then to do some research before we commit $500+ for the start-up costs.  Also, you don't get any honey the first year (the bees need it for themselves).  So if we start keeping bees in April 2015, we won't see any 'free' honey until August or September of 2016.  A long-term investment, and not exactly cheap, so we've been doing some reading & thinking about it.  Some of the resources we've been checking out are listed below. 

A couple of books from the public library:
Keeping Honey Bees, Sanford & Bonney, 2010
Keeping Bees, Vivian, 1986

We're taking a class in January (beginning bee-keeping) in Remington, at Virginia Beekeeping Supply. That's an in-person class, but there are online classes, and classes a little closer to home listed here.

There's also a local chapter of the Beekeeper's Association for NoVa.  

Finally, the best part is looking at all the lovely hive choices!  A quick search will retrieve many, but here are a few that have enticed us so far.  

Bee Thinking, in Portland, OR - I'm especially partial to their copper-roofed Warre hives!
Valley Bee Supply, a little closer to home in Fishersville, VA
Dadant claims to be the oldest & largest supplier in the US

Of course it's not as easy and buying a cool-looking hive & finding a good spot in your yard.  If you'd like to get a sense of what else you'll need (like a nuc), check out Richmond Honey Bee, which has an unbelievable amount of information and you can easily spend hours reading through all his posts & learning.    

The Fairmont, in downtown DC, has 3 hives for honey and a new "hotel" for non-honey-making (but expert pollinating) bees.  Read all about it in this Post article

We still haven't committed to this enterprise, but if we do, we'll keep you posted!  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Take Cover! Cover Crops Improve & Protect Soil

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I often say that we should start a ceramics industry, as the soil in our yard is essentially clay.  All production materials would be at hand.  

Which means that if we want to get anything other than English Ivy to grow, we have to amend & improve the soil regularly.  

Regular deliveries of mulch, from the Alexandria City Government's program, have helped, but not all the greenery we planted this spring has thrived.  So what to do?  We've had good luck with cover crops.  They grow easily, they are pretty, and when you're ready to plant something else, you just chop up your cover crop with a shovel, work it into the dirt, and it's ready to go.

Cornell has a Cover Crop guide, which includes a Cover Crop Decision Tool, if you'd like further info, or help figuring out what to plant where & when.  

For us, we'll be planting Oats, Peas & Buckwheat from Botanical Interests this weekend.  These seeds come in extra large packets, so cover plenty of ground.  

Mother Earth News has an article on summer cover crops, and notes that cover crops are useful year-round...bare soil is never a good thing!  Mulch it or cover it!  (I have to admit we don't have that taken care of yet.)   

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Espalier! Train a Tree to Lean

Belgian Fence in foreground. Credit
We have a "blank" wall in our garden & a friend suggested trying espalier. (According to Encyclopedia Britannica, "tree or other plant that is trained to grow flat against a support.")

We found a great book, Living Fences, by Ogden Tanner, which has wonderful, inspiring photos (now we wish we had more blank walls!), and great how-to illustrations.  We took the book to our local hardware store & bought all the thingamajigs needed & this is what happened next...look closely, the wires are there, but won't show until our red chokeberry is much bigger! (Note, clicking on photos will display the original size, which is usually much larger.) 
Our espalier project, which is just waiting for the bush to grow.
A few more examples, to inspire you.  I suggest a search for espalier on  pinterest or flickr if you'd like to see more!


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Low-Tech Food Preservation: Kimchi!

Scurvy! Just a horrible disease, which is mostly associated with sailors in the days of yore, but really can afflict anyone who doesn't get enough Vitamin C.  Even someone as notoriously well-fed as Henry VIII might have had scurvy.  An article from History Today (from 1989, subscription only), by Susan Kybett concludes that his symptoms point to a meat-based diet with few or no fruits and vegetables (poor people ate those "dirty" foods).  

King Hank may not have been able to overcome the "dirty" label, but more difficult would be finding fruits and vegetables to eat in northern climes in late winter/early spring.  So what to do?  Preserve those greens the low-tech way by making kimchi.  


After reading an article about raw food activist Sandor Katz in the New Yorker from 2010 (subscription required), we decided to give it a try.  We bought a large glass jar with a special lid that helps keep the kimchi airtight, and began experimenting with different mixes of vegetables, amounts of chile, and fun additions (caraway seeds, lemon or lime slices).  We also got a mandoline, which is a great way to quickly turn whole veggies into uniform slices. 

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For many recipes and a thorough how-to, check out Sandor Katz's website,  Wild Fermentation.  You'll also find links to buy supplies there.  We got our jar from Pickl-It.

We've had very good luck and most of it has been delicious.  (Except the time when I added 2 cups of salt instead of 1!)  It's even been approved by my Vietnamese & Chinese co-workers, both of whom requested I bring them samples whenever we make it.  We've also discovered it's a great addition to soups (beef, turkey, chicken, bean), making them even healthier with a lovely rich taste.
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Though traditional Korean kimchi is HOT HOT HOT (see photo above), it doesn't have to be.  You don't need to add any chiles.  It's just as good with no chiles as with a few or lots.  We've done many different levels and they've all turned out yummy.

Enjoy! 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

No Space? Grow Up!!

Vertical Vegetables & Fruit (Creative Gardening Techniques for Growing Up in Small Spaces), is a 2011 book by Rhonda Massingham Hart about finding a way to grow fresh fruit & vegetables, no matter how small your space is.  

The book is full of ideas, from making the most of what you already own, to using traditional & not so traditional techniques to use your airspace (hanging, stacking, towering, etc.).  

Separate sections on annual vines and perennial fruits help you pick a few items that grow well in this environment and make the most of their traits to ensure an abundant harvest.  

Additionally, there's a great how-to section in the appendices.  Topics include growing your own seedlings and recommended varieties.  

All in all, the book will provide you with some great ideas to make the most of what you've got.  Which sounds like a song for a women's cigarette commercial, but oh well!  

Friday, May 23, 2014

Composting Class for DIYers 6/1/14, or...Compost Pick-Up in Del Ray

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Let's be honest, composting is fairly disgusting.  But you will be amazed at how little trash you have once you start composting & recycling.  Our trash does not fill a small office-sized trash can each week.  

And if the soil at your house leaves a lot to be desired (ours is essentially clay), composting is a great way to amend it so that things will grow, while keeping rotting trash out of landfills. 

If you'd like to give it a try, there's a class coming up at Arcadia Farm next week...

How to Compost, Saturday, June 1, 10am-12pm
Instructor: Stephen Corrigan, Arcadia’s Farm Director


Composting is a cheap way to reduce your household’s contribution to the landfill while creating a natural fertilizer for your garden. Farm Director Stephen Corrigan will discuss the basics of successful backyard composting and talk about a variety of easy home-scale compost systems. This workshop is great for those new to composting as well as those looking to troubleshoot issues with their current composting systems. Separate child-friendly activities are available for an additional fee. Fee: $30. Click here to register. 


The Alexandria City government also has people at the city farmer's markets answering questions about & collecting compost

Another possibility is Veteran Compost, who will pick up your compost every week. 


A recent article from the Washington Post mentioned other compost options for those of us in the DC metro area. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Bird Friendly Yard? Here's How...

Birds are quite important to me (and our indoor cat who enjoys lots of kitty TV), and one
Brown-headed Cowbird from AllAboutBirds.com
way to attract more to your yard is to apply a few of the suggestions from the Audubon at Home (AAH) program.  Right now I've seen over 20 different species (including Red-Shouldered & Cooper's Hawks, 2 types of woodpeckers), and I've only begun following the AAH suggestions in earnest. 

Most important is to plant native species, lots of them, in bunches (multiples of one type of plant).  This gives birds & bees lots of cover & food.  

Second is to remove invasive plant species (Oh, English Ivy, I curse you curse you curse you!).  Livestock for Landscapes rents out small herds of goats, if you have lots of invasives to remove, or have a steep, unreachable area needing cleaning up.  (This really works!  A friend in California has a goatherd & his goats come every spring to clean up the cliff behind her house.)  We have a flat yard, so put down newspaper, wet the newspaper, then applied a few inches of leaf mulch from the City's program (they deliver).  It didn't clean up 100%, but I'd say 80% is long gone, allowing natives some space to become established. 

There are 10 suggestions in all about how your backyard can be friendlier to birds & bees & little animals at Ten Ways to Make A Difference for Migrating Birds. Take a few, or more, to heart & see what happens next. 

And once you've got all those amazing birds hanging out at your place?  If you'd like an online way to identify them, try WhatBird, which lets you search by color, state, size, and other variables. 

And eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, lets you track your bird sightings online.  Not only do you get to use their tools for counting what you've seen where, but your data is used by ornithologists, conservations biologists, land management experts, etc. via the Lab to do research on migration, climate change, bird abundance & distribution.  

Happy native planting & birding! 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Green Springs Native Plant Sale on 5/17/14


This post is not really about vegetable gardening, but if you want to encourage Virginia's native birds & bees, you might want to consider adding some native  plants to your yard.   

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (female)
would sure appreciate a native habitat!
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A great place to find out more about VA native plants is to head over to the Green Spring Garden and the Master Gardeners of NoVa Plant Sale, this Saturday, 5/17 from 9:00 am - 3:00 pm.  

Native plants are low maintenance once they're established.  They don't need to be coddled because they're used to the climate of the Mid-Atlantic.  

More information about the sale is available here (along with a plant list, if you're like me and want to do some research).  

There are plenty of resources online if you'd like to read up on native plants & wildflowers.  Here are a couple that I've found useful. 

The US Fish & Wildlife Service publishes Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping.  It's a small book that should answer most of your questions.

I like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center because their website has a search engine that lets you find recommended plants based on amount of sun & water the plant will get & the state you live in.  

Of course your local public library has plenty of books, too.  Find it by entering your zip code on this page.