First Things First

I’m checking in quickly via cell phone because my computer is still in pieces on the floor of my new office. Hands down, this was the most disorganized and physically grueling of my household moves. Partially because this is the first time I was moving critters, gardening stuff and a complete garage workshop, but also because we were simultaneously trying to complete home repairs to make sure we were handing off the house to renters in good working condition.
Anyway, by the skin of our teeth, we exited Albuquerque and have started to settle in here in Arvada. The first priority was setting up the beehives. The apiary is a little ad hoc right now, but the bees seem happy. Loading them into our truck camper to get them up here was fun. First off, you’ll notice 3 hives and a nuc box in the above photo. The colony I split sent out 2 swarms with virgin queens the week before the move. Fortunately both swarms clustered nearby, one in my vegetable garden,  the other in my neighbor’s juniper tree. Of course I collected the swarms, so we ended up loading more boxes than we had anticipated. Also, it had been a warm day before the move and the bees bearded on the hive entrances for most of the night. I had to get up in the wee hours of the morning to screen over the entrances, but by the time we loaded the hives, each entrance had collected a small beard of foragers that had been out overnight and were returning first thing. We ended up with quite a large number of loose bees in the camper, which seemed to alarm other motorists. Apparently one passing car passenger held up a sign “bees in truck”.

Unfortunately, I missed that humorous moment as I was driving up with chickens in the back of the Subaru Forester. I was convinced that this was going to be a nightmare, but it ended up being fine. I created a well-lined 3′ x 4′ enclosure in the back of the car complete with the normal feeder and nipple waterer. I draped shade cloth over the whole thing so they’d stay cool and maybe be convinced by the dim light that it was bedtime. Honestly, they were so terrified they just huddled in the corner in a chick pile for most of the 7 hours, although Iris did lay an egg towards the end of the trip. Anyway, the 7 hour, skull-splitting bawking fest I had anticipated did not come to pass. For now, things are still a bit disheveled in chicken-land as I prep to build the predator-proof run. However, the hens are in love with their first lawn-side living experience.

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Frenzied

As predicted, with only ten days to go before we depart LessisMore south for, literally, greener pastures, things are super hectic. To make things even more complicated, I’ve been mining my existing gardens for plants to transplant into the large, mostly grass, yard in my future. I’ve been dividing as many herbs as I can, while also digging out seedlings and extra native perennials and shrubs.

In the meantime, I also have a honeybee split to keep an eye on. Due to my travel plans, I ended up making the split under less than ideal conditions. I didn’t feel like they were quite ready, but also didn’t want to chance losing a swarm while I was gone. So I split, and as it turns out, I think everyone is doing well. I couldn’t find the queen when I did the split, so ended up pulling out 12 combs of mostly capped brood and wet nectar, but also some younger brood, and a couple of combs with queen cups. I pulled 12 bars total, and left 16 in the original hive. I opened that hive when I returned, eleven days later, and was pleased to see uncapped larvae, and then, of course, no surprise, the queen. The split seems content. They’re expanding and the queen still has a nice even laying pattern. In the meantime, I think a new queen has successfully hatched in the old hive – I spotted what looked like the discarded tip of a queen cup dragged out onto the landing board two days ago. I did a very quick partial inspection of that hive when I returned, as well, and saw, three bars from the front, a cluster of capped queen cups, supercedure-style, on the lower edge of a comb. I didn’t inspect past that point, to see if there were more, but I was happy to see at least a few capped cups. Although, given that they were clustered in that one spot confirms my hunch that I was a few days too early with the split, and the preexisting queen cups were not yet occupied. Instead, the bees had to up-size some existing larvae cells when I stole their queen. I’ve been keeping close tabs on the hive to see if they decide to cast out a virgin queen swarm despite the split. The hive is still bustling with activity. Every afternoon the two colonies send out the new foragers on an orientation flight around 2 pm, and there is quite an impressive cloud of bees in the air:

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Ready, Set, Go

Welcome to Spring. My apologies for disappearing again. A few weeks after I last posted in November, I was thrown another curve ball when Non-Gardener came home from a trip to California and asked “How do you feel about moving to Denver?” December was spent answering that question. Even though I love living in Albuquerque, and the timing is not great (it would have been nice to enjoy a full year of living with insulation, good windows and solar power), I am a big fan of change (and projects, I guess), so, we are indeed moving to Colorado, although not Denver proper. Our initial intent was to find a property in Denver similar to what we have now: a house just large enough to accommodate two home offices in a walk-able neighborhood with just enough yard for a small vegetable garden and a beehive or two. Unfortunately, January is not a great time of year to look for property, and it soon became clear we were not going to find the holy grail house during our window of opportunity. Instead, we ended up fixating on a house that was almost the complete opposite of what we thought we wanted. A suburban split-level house on a full acre of land that requires a 5 mile drive to get anywhere. Ugh, I hate having to drive all the time, but, did you catch that? An entire acre of land. And it’s zoned for “country estates”, which means livestock is allowed. The neighbors have alpaca and sheep, there are goats further down the road, and there are enough chickens in the hood that my noisy birds won’t stand out. Yes, as it turns out, the chickens are moving to Colorado too.

 And the honeybees.Yeah, I’m not a big fan of trucking bees around the country, but. . . I want to hit the ground running, and the colony that moved into my empty hive last year is tremendous. They’ve been actively foraging for a month already (in early February they were already returning to the hive with pollen) and when I opened the hive this morning for the first time this year, they were already building comb on the last empty bar before the follower board, which means they are currently occupying 20 bars. Yes, they’ve almost filled the hive in March. Of course, they’re also starting to build queen cells. I will be keeping close tabs on them for the next few weeks, and I’m prepping my empty hives to receive splits. Based on my previous experience, it looks like I’ll be splitting the hive in about 10 to 14 days, so the new queen(s) should be hatched and mated before we move in early April. Yes, I know, this sounds totally insane: splitting my hives, so I have more living creatures to move or re-home. On the other hand, opening the hive today and seeing all those healthy bees spill out was a very welcome sight, particularly in the current environment in which good news is a rare commodity. By the way, there is nothing like the hummmbuzzz of a healthy, active bee yard to buoy the mood.

Anyway, despite being a little overwhelmed sorting out the moving logistics, I will try to be a bit more present here in this space. I thought about shutting down Less is More, but the journal has been an invaluable resource for me, and maybe, occasionally, it helps someone else too. And now with a new project on the horizon, I will have a lot of lessons-learned-the-hard-way to share. I’ve been reading and watching videos, and I’m already sketching ideas for the new place. Did you know that Arvada, CO receives an average of 18″ of annual precipitation? Twice the rainfall almost makes up for losing 60 days of frost free growing.

 

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Today’s Harvest

Even in a not-so-great-garden year, there’s a lot to glean from the garden the day before the first frost. It’s always a little intimidating facing the beautiful pile of veg. Where to begin? 2016-11-16-11-08-29By the way, its kind of awesome the way, no matter what else is happening, a good dirt hole is all that is needed to make my feathered friends super happy:2016-11-04-16-35-02

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Poking My Head Up

Please forgive my long absence. This has been a crazy summer. A few days after my last post in early July, we finally began the final phase of house renovation: new windows and exterior doors, new roof, interior plaster and floor patches, interior paint, exterior insulation, stucco, and solar panels. The project is about 75% complete – the interior work is done, now we’re just waiting for a break in monsoon season so the exterior work can be completed. Fortunately, this time around, the project is not DIY, however, there’s been the chaos that is to be expected when every room of your home is touched by construction. And, to pile on the chaos, in the middle of it all, I underwent a medical procedure and was required to take it easy for the 6 week recovery. We’re just starting to regain a bit of composure and balance, and now that I can lift and dig, I’m starting to work on getting caught up with the garden.

I had to relocate or remove about 25% of my vegetable garden in July, to provide access to the back of our house, so this hasn’t been the most productive year for homegrown vegetables. However, even with the disruption, we’re harvesting a pretty good vegetable supplement every day. Also, this was the first year for a real fruit harvest: 5 pounds of grapes which I converted to raisins, and about 10 pounds of peaches. The last pound or two are still on the tree, but so far I’ve made a small batch of jam, frozen some, baked some into a galette, and eaten quite a few with my morning yogurt and muesli.

As I alluded earlier, we’ve had a somewhat unrelenting monsoon season, which is quite welcome, despite the construction delays. As a result, the yard is quite verdant (a.k.a weedy) and it’s been a good year for spotting garden visitors. This morning, while I worked, there was quite an assortment of birds keeping me company. Besides the usual throng of house sparrows, I spotted a Curved-bill Thrasher: pks_3621A Lesser Goldfinch (his mate was here too):

lesser goldfinch

and, of course, a Roadrunner: pks_3628Oh, and I almost forgot the big news. We have fresh backyard eggs again! Dora started laying a few weeks ago, at the very young age of 20 weeks, and Iris laid her first egg yesterday. Meanwhile, Lemmy is still showing no interest at all in the nest box.

 

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Another Random Recap

Once again, the only thing I have to share is the random collection of photos that have collected on my phone. 2016-06-24 19.25.10As you can see, Dora, Lemmy and Iris have become horribly spoiled. Technically, there’s a no chickens on the table rule, however, somehow, it’s suddenly not being enforced. I really need to rectify that situation. This photo was taken last week, when they were 12 weeks old, and you can see they are looking quite grown up. Their voices are changing- no more peeping and squeaking. Instead, there’s lots of croaking while they hone their grown up cluck.

I’m still enjoying the front yard totem: 2016-07-06 10.04.11This time of year, breakfast and lunch are usually enjoyed on the cool, north-facing, front porch, and the popularity of the totem ensures there’s lots of mealtime entertainment. And finally, it’s truly summer. The first small tomatoes started ripening last week.2016-06-24 18.17.04As is typical for the Less is More garden, the pretty pink Nichols Heirloom tomatoes have been the first to ripen, with the Amy’s Apricot and Punta Banda following close behind.

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It Has Come To This

Over the past 10 weeks, I’ve started dozens and dozens and dozens of bean, cucumber and squash seeds. Every time I transplant my nice big strong seedlings into the garden, they are decapitated overnight. Absolute carnage! Believe it or not, it is the work of the roly-polies/pillbugs. I know, I know, supposedly they only eat decaying matter, and hence, are great to have in the garden. However, they also seem to be quite fond of tender seedling stems, particularly this year. On any number of mornings, I’ve come out in the garden to see a golf-ball-sized mound of crustaceans completely engulfing the stem of what was once a happy bean plant. They even toppled two 12″ tall tomatillo plants. Oh, the woe!  I’ve been trying to install ever more stout barriers around the seedlings to protect them. Encircling the stems with a stockade of tiny twigs worked a little bit –  three bean plants survived, but none of the squash or cucumbers.

PKS_3584

Finally, I have resorted to a technique I saw recommended on the interwebs somewhere:  drinking straws. I found a box of straws in the back of a kitchen drawer and have started slitting them and installing them around seedling stems. So far, this is working. PKS_3589I think because the straws are a little slippery, the pillbugs are not able to crawl up them. I found with the protective stick barriers, the clever crustaceans would scale the barrier and work their way down if they couldn’t mount a direct assault. Hopefully the straws will continue to work, however, I’m a little nervous they’ll devise a new attack in response.

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The Stalk Blooms

The amazing agave stalk started to bloom last week:PKS_3581 It is host to a perpetual cloud of bees – lots of fun to watch from the front porch. I really need to set up the camera on a tripod with a longer lens to capture the action, but for now, here’s a quick snap of the blooms:PKS_3580

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Cracking the Code

The wild yeast and I are becoming fast friends. It has taken a while though. In the three months since I’ve taken on the care and upkeep of a wild yeast starter, I’ve been trying to bake once a week, although in reality it’s probably been more like once every 9 or 10 days. Consistently, the bread and other sourdough treats I’ve been baking,2016-03-06 09.12.00have been the best tasting I’ve ever made. Some of the loaves have been fermented longer, and as a result taste more sour, others have had barely any tang at all. However, it has taken quite a bit of tinkering and trial and error for me to figure out the right timing to get the texture right. Most of my first loaves were a bit denser than ideal, and a couple of bakes ended up over proofed (of note is the supposed focaccia that was christened bread leather). I’ve read that it can take a while to settle in with a starter – each one is different, and of course each kitchen is different too – temperature, humidity, flour, water, all this stuff matters. It’s fun to browse The Fresh Loaf – there are so many different approaches to baking bread, although many of the contributors are a bit more obsessive about achieving very particular crumb and crust styles than I care to be. However, the site is a great resource, and thanks to various tips I’ve picked up here and there, I’ve been quite pleased with my last few loaves (please don’t judge my shaping and scoring skills too harshly).

2016-05-24 14.38.27

My basic methodology and proportions come from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. I like maintaining the 75% hydration starter because the math is easy – Since the starter is the same hydration as the soaker, it is easy to throw together bread dough on the fly, without pulling up a recipe. However, I’ve dropped the amount of starter I use in the final dough from 45 or 50% to about 25%. Although today I almost achieved the holy grail ciabatta 2016-06-11 13.15.40with 40% starter and a faster rise, so I might go back to using a higher percentage. The biggest change I’ve made from the instructions in Reinhart’s book is to allow my starter to ripen for almost twice as long as the suggested time. I find that it takes about 10 hours for my starter to become active and bubbly enough to adequately leaven a loaf of bread. I’ve started assembling my starter and soakers at night, which means both are ready first thing in the morning, and I can assemble the final dough while I drink my second cup of coffee. With the 25% starter formula, it usually takes 5 or 6 hours for the dough to rise before shaping. I’ve been proofing my boules for just over an hour, because I’m paranoid about over proofing, but I think I should experiment with the proofing time to get a slightly more open crumb. I would also like to experiment with retarding the dough in the refrigerator so I’m not held hostage by my bread dough. Except for the few times I’ve made yeasted bagel dough (those have been brilliant!), I’ve had disappointing results with stashing the dough in the refrigerator.  I think I’m ready to give it a try again, though. Anyway, I’ve limited myself to just a couple of standard breads while I work on getting consistent results. My regular bakes are a 100% whole wheat, 70%-ish hydration boule; a 60% whole wheat, 40% whole rye, 65% hydration boule; a 50% whole wheat, 50% white, 75% hydration flatbread or ciabatta and leftover starter is used for English muffins.

Oh, and by the way, prior to have a wild yeast pet, I’ve always been a sporadic bread baker – I go through jags when I bake regularly for a month or two, but then I’ll take a hiatus, which means I’m always relearning everything. I will say, having the pressure to bake regularly because I have a starter that needs to be refreshed, is a great way to improve my skills.

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Rough Week

Unfortunately, rather than getting better, Miss Kitty took a turn for the worse over the weekend. Since her symptoms were similar to Bandit’s, in case I had misjudged the situation, I decided I should get a professional assessment. I definitely did not want something infectious to spread through the flock. I brought her in to the clinic this morning, and the vet determined my original guess was the probable cause of the illness. Given the mass in her lower abdomen, she was likely suffering from the effects of internal laying. Since Miss Kitty was pretty bad off – super skinny from not eating and clearly miserable, I decided to have the vet euthanize her. It was expensive, but worth it. Our household was not really up to that particular task so soon after last week’s adventures. It was difficult handing her over this morning. Miss Kitty was a fun hen to have around. 10930928_975537292464183_7734422620743125639_nIn the summer, she would stay up late with us every evening, hanging out on the patio well past dusk. I think she was nervous the hawks would get the humans if she didn’t stand guard.Anyway, everyone is a little melancholy around here. Well, everyone except for Ezzie, who is looking fairly pleased with herself. Who ever would have guessed that Ezzie would end up being the Grand Dame of the flock?

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