Saturday, March 21, 2015

Happy Spring!

The garden at the start of our first work session
Spring has sprung! And with that, the GW Community Garden has welcomed its latest group of members. Some members are veterans from previous years, and some of us (myself included) are new to the garden. It goes without saying that we all welcome spring with open arms and we're ready to get our hands dirty.

Paul, our youngest member of the work session, 
was especially helpful with weeding and turning over the beds!
GWCG was in hibernation mode throughout the winter, so it needed some TLC heading into the new season. Before we can start planting for spring, the first task was to get the garden back in shape with our first work session, which occurred last Saturday. The Del Ray area had beautiful weather leading up to the session, making for the perfect conditions—the soil wasn’t frozen or soggy and the sun was shining. 

Here are some of the jobs we tackled to get the garden in shape:  
  • Put down landscape fabric on the paths between the beds to fight the wiregrass and define the paths
  • Spread bark mulch for paths between the beds
  • Weeding...LOTS of weeding
  • Turned over the beds (we even found a few carrots, beets, and daikon radishes from last season!)
  • Trash removal and general cleanup
  • Redefined the current beds and marked a couple of new beds for extra growing space

The garden looked great at the end of our work session
Our next two work days will be Sunday, March 22 and Sunday, March 28. We’ll be spreading wood chips and planting cold weather greens, including kale, lettuce, and chard. The garden is in great shape for the season, and we excited to see all that it produces. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dude, We Bought a Hive!

Here is a photo of the Roommate, who had just finished putting together a hive.  It's a Warré hive, and we got it from BeeThinking, but they sell all 3 types of hives.  Warré beekeepers will tell you that it's a better hive because it lets bees build comb & stores the way they want to, but really we chose this one because it's made of 1" thick cedar & it's pretty!  Oh, and those are little windows you can see on each of 2 of the hive boxes.  (So, pretty-ness & snoopy-ness won out!)  

We have been trying to prepare our backyard to have plenty of blooming flowers for our new tenants.  I've been using (The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) because you can search their database of native plants by state, height, bloom time, bloom color, plant type, etc.  So I wanted stuff that blooms later (after July/August), because that's when bees start running out of food & unfortunately it's when bees need it most, because they are trying to make enough stores for the winter.  

I also did some searching for bulbs that bees like on the open web (because I planted lots of bulbs this past year).

We have also begun construction on our insect hotel. It will be especially hospitable to Mason bees (more about them here); my big worry is having enough flowers around to keep them all fed.  

If you'd like to know more about natural beekeeping, see The Practical Beekeeper

If you want to know about modifying Warré hives, so they have standard size combs, check out BioBees.  They also provide a link to the full-text PDF of Warré's tome on his style of beekeeping.  

We have ordered our 3 lb. package of bees (about 20,000!) from Virginia Beekeeping Supply, but they won't arrive until late March.  We also recommend the class we took from Jerry at VBS.  However, it won't be his fault if it all comes to naught. Follow this blog to see what happens next!  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Insect Hotels! Who Knew?

If you saw my post from last May, you know I'm interested in birds.  One way to increase birds in your yard is to provide lots of cover for both birds & insects, which birds eat.  We do have some brush & lots of rotting wood around, which help to create a natural habitat.  In other words, neat yards are unnatural and may look nice to us, but they are quite critter-unfriendly.  

As a gardener, you probably want bugs for birds to eat & more native bees to pollinate your yard, meaning you'll need to provide housing (i.e., cover) for those bugs.  What to do?  Well, one way is to build an insect hotel

We have already started one, and we'll keep you posted as it goes along.  But I thought you'd enjoy some photos of absolutely lovely & amazing insect hotels (apparently they're quite a thing in Europe). Sunset magazine refers to them as yard art; they have some nice photos of tiny insect hotels (more like insect inns).  

Also, at the bottom of this post you'll see some links to "how to" pages.

Online how to guides: 
1.'s How To page
2. BBC Wildlife provides a downloadable PDF
3. Pacific Horticulture magazine provides one, too

Note that all have great photos, too.

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
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 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. 
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

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!


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. 

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.
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.


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!