And just like that

it’s Autumn.

I went out of town for a week. When I departed, it was still unseasonably hot and dry here. By the way, I think unseasonable is an adjective that I probably need to stop using, because unseasonable is the new climate change norm, right? Anyway, I returned to full-on gloom. We’re in the middle of an entire week of cold drizzle. I’m trying to embrace the change – we certainly need the rain, and the fall roots and greens are drinking it up and growing like mad.

 

However, no matter how many cold-hardy greens I plant, I get anxious when I contemplate the long cold season ahead. I figure we’re about two or so weeks from the first frost, and then it will be mid-May until I can set out the 2018 batch of summer annuals. Seven months. Eeek. I also become nervous when I think about the effect of the long winter on the honeybees. There’s not much in bloom right now, and they’ll need to rely on their stored honey for food, and for hive thermal mass, until March. I’m thinking each colony needs to occupy 18-20 bars going into Winter. My youngest colony was only half that size a month ago, so I gave them two bars of honey from another hive, and I started feeding them sugar water. Additionally, I participated in the Mite-a-thon a few weeks ago and conducted the sugar shake test on my two oldest hives. My mite count came in at 6 and 9 mites/100 bees. Very concerning, but I have not yet decided if I will treat. Most of the treatments seem to succeed primarily in creating treatment-resistant mites. Ideally, I’d really like to work on creating a mite-resistant apiary, which may mean rebuilding with hygienic honeybee genetics through re-queening or capturing new feral survivor swarms. My current colonies seem to contain some Russian honeybee genetics due to their dark coloring, tendency to build up quickly and love of swarming. I’m hoping at least a couple of colonies will successfully overwinter, despite the mites, due to the winter-efficiency of Russian honeybees, and that the long break in the brood cycle (all the colonies but the youngest have already dramatically decreased the amount of brood they are raising) will help lower the mite load. I guess that’s one benefit of the long winter nectar dearth. I’m also considering adding some screened bottoms to the hives to give the bees a hand at eliminating the mites if they already have some grooming instincts. If I do treat, it will be within the next two weeks while it’s still warm enough to open the hives. With very little capped brood in the comb, most of the mites will at least be vulnerable to treatment if I decide to go that route. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile, I’m scrambling to catch up on post-vacation garden chores, and to keep up with preserving giant harvest coming in from the garden right now. I came home to plants laden with ripe tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles and squash.

 

Also, another reminder that soon I will be clearing out my summer vegetable beds: my planting garlic order arrived yesterday. Since I left all my garlic in the ground in Albuquerque, I’m starting from scratch with new varieties this year. I selected a mix of hardneck and softneck varieties that seemed likely to put up with both wet/cold and hot/dry. It will be fun to see which do well here.

 

Terror on the Ground


I had 12 tons of breeze a.k.a. crusher fines delivered yesterday. I know, I never thought I’d be tackling that particular project again. I started installing the stone on the walkway outside the chicken run since that gets the most foot traffic, and with the recent rain, we’ve been tracking mud everywhere. I noticed while I was putting it down, the hens showed no interest in scratching around in it, and instead would give it a wide berth when going to and fro. Now that it goes right up to the door, they’re trapped in the run. They refuse to walk on it. Not even popcorn or watermelon will lure them out. Yes, this is almost the same exact stuff that was on the entire yard in Albuquerque. And yes,  I have carried them out and placed them on the new gravel to show them that it won’t hurt them. Yet, each one has immediately fled back into the safety of the run. At first I was amused, but their terror is so complete I’m starting to feel bad. And also, do they know something that I don’t? Meanwhile, two days ago a hawk swooped down on them, causing them to squawk and scurry under the shrubbery, but within 5 minutes they were roaming again, without a care in the world. I don’t get it.

Flora, Fauna and Fences

Apparently, despite my best intentions, I’m on the once per month posting schedule. Ooops. Fortunately, I have a steady stream of phone photos I can use to catch us up.

Since the last time I checked in, the new vegetable garden has grown by leaps and bounds.

Thanks to several cool (cold?) misty days, the Fall roots and greens are actually looking pretty lush right now. For the first time ever,  I’ve had success getting rutabaga and Daikon radish established mid-summer for Fall harvest.

I’ve already been pulling the Daikon thinnings as super peppery salad radishes. I guess that’s the trade-off for tomatoes that don’t ripen until mid-August. Speaking of tomatoes, I’ve harvested one Glacier tomato so far, with another one ready today. That’s it, but it looks like within the next week, several more varieties should start to ripen.

I finally have all the vegetable beds prepped. The ones that won’t be planted until the Spring get a cover of compost, paper and grass clippings, but the beds that are planted now, I dig in the compost. I have found that I don’t have a deep enough layer of compost on top for the no-dig method to work here when I want to plant immediately. Anyway, the last bed I prepped received the asparagus transplants I started from seed this Spring. They’ve been hanging around in nursery pots, and I wanted to get them into their permanent home in time to get established before the tops are frost killed. They look so fragile, but I’ve found they are surprisingly resilient.

I managed to get 11 plants into the ground which seems to be the right number for us, but I’ll probably start a few more from seed this winter in case I lose some plants over the winter.

Since I’m finally caught up on the most pressing vegetable garden tasks, I’ve been able to tackle the garden infrastructure. Living in a less densely developed area, with water nearby, means there’s a wide variety of critters that visit the garden. Many of them, like this gorgeous toad that passed through the other day,

or the awesome mantis,

 

are always welcome. However, other creatures are welcome on a more provisional basis.

For instance, this super-cute scampering friend, nicknamed Bunz,

 

was starting to make a habit out of helping me weed the vegetable garden every morning. This was the incentive I needed to finally find the time to install the rabbit fencing. Fortunately I had help, so I was able to get all the lodgepole pine posts set and the welded wire rabbit fence installed, in about 2 days worth of work. I trenched along the perimeter so we were able to set the bottom of the fence about three inches below grade. That won’t stop determined digging, but should deter casual attempts at tunneling under.

I sealed all the posts prior to setting them. Also, we used an auxiliary metal post, ratchet strap and two 2×4 scraps bolted together to tension the fencing before attaching it to the posts. That worked pretty well and I’m quite pleased with the results.
I still need to secure the chain link perimeter and build a couple of gates, but for now, Bunz and all the other rabbit friends, have been staying out of the vegetable garden.

With the fencing installed, I began to pay attention to the inner voice nagging me about how quickly Autumn is approaching. Given that the first Fall frost is probably not too far off, I’ve started installing low tunnel hoops.

I was never very fond of the pvc hoops I used in Albuquerque, so this time around, I’m using 1/2″ EMT. I ordered a 4′ pipe bender, as well as some plastic clips, greenhouse plastic and two weights of fabric row cover to get started. Right now, I have hoops and some old shade cloth over the greens that will be under plastic this winter. I will put fabric row cover over the hardier fall greens and roots, and I will also cover the tomatoes and peppers in a few weeks to provide a bit of season extension. I’ve noticed on my walks around the neighborhood, some folks grow the warm weather crops under cover all summer. Even though we have plenty of searing hot summer days, I think the cool nights slow everything down. I might give that a try next year. Also, next year I will also get a lightweight row cover up over all the Brassicas before they get nibbled to a nub by cabbage moth larva. That’s the other benefit to segregating crop families in the new garden. I will be able to cover the leaf crops without worrying about hindering the pollination of fruiting crops. There are so many new experiments to try – I’m already looking forward to next Spring.

 

Microcosm

One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to grab my camera and walk around the yard looking for interesting stuff to photograph. These photographic yard expeditions are a lot more about poking around in the garden and seeing than producing any sort of outcome with merit, however, I think one of the main reasons I started Less is More was to justify the exercise by creating a place to post the resulting images. Unfortunately, while I’ve been spending tons of time outside recently, I haven’t been spending much time hunkered down, looking closely. Its a shame, because there’s always so much to see. Today, I finally took advantage of a cool, cloudy morning, hunted down my macro lens, and started wandering. After checking out the vegetable garden, the beehives and the front flower garden, I spotted the first flower on the self-sown sunflowers along the driveway, and decided to investigate. No bees had found the new bloom yet, but there was an entire world of insect activity on this one small plant. I must have spent 10 minutes watching all the tiny creatures. I tried to snap a photo of each type I spotted:

Insects are so cool. I never understand why folks are so eager to kill all of them.

Almost 10 Weeks

I can’t believe a month has passed (already?) since I last checked in. The weeks are flying by. Most days my schedule devolves into chaos as I bounce between items on my “to do” list:  establish a vegetable garden, build a predator proof chicken run, unpack all the boxes, build new hives for the expanding apiary, and maintain the gardens and pasture that are already here . . .

However, I think I have finally gotten the upper hand (if we ignore the 18″ tall dandelion patch gone to seed in the front pasture/meadow), and can take a bit of a breather before diving in again.

The vegetable garden is planted with the summer vegetables (minus the giant beds of potatoes and New Mexico chiles that I’ll hopefully grow in future years),

so now I can spend some time working on the rest of the yard before prepping the beds that will be planted with the fall crops.  I still have lots of perennials and shrubs looking for a permanent dirt home, so as soon as the record-setting heat wave is over, I plant to start weeding and expanding the ornamental garden beds.

The 8′ x 16′ chicken run is pretty much complete, although I believe someone was talking about tricking it out with some additional roosts, and a dust bathing area.

The next improvement in Chickenland will be a new coop. I’m planning on building a 6′ x 8′ shed, half for chickens, half for supplies and garden tools. My plan is to start building at the end of August, with the goal of completing it by mid/late September (before the first snowstorm).

In the meantime, I’ve been busy in the workshop building new beehives. I thought I was off the hook for the year, as I ended up combining the colony temporarily housed in a nuc box with my other swarm that lost their queen. However, a few weeks ago, the colony that cast off those swarms back in April started building queen cells again. Before I was able to do a divide, they sent out two swarms. The first swarm was a giant swarm with the existing queen, and the second was a much smaller swarm with a virgin queen.

Fortunately I was able to capture both swarms, so now I have 5 colonies on site.

The large swarm is housed in a new hive I hastily built. They’ve already built comb on 12 bars and have filled much of those with brood. The small swarm is rapidly filling the nuc box which holds 7 bars. No signs of egg laying yet, but there is partial comb on all the bars. I’m debating between building another horizontal topbar hive or trying to super the nuc box with a small top bar box. I have about a week to decide and build.

Four Egg Days

For the past three weeks, several times per week, I find three eggs in the hens’ nest box and one up in the coop. Yes, six year old, “Bigfoot” Ezzie is laying eggs regularly. Since becoming sick, she has occasionally laid an egg or two, but never like this. Despite the less-than-ideal living quarters they’re currently inhabiting, all the hens seem to enjoy the new spread, but especially Ezzie. Whenever I open the coop doors, she leaps into my arms to receive an airlift down onto the grass. I’m a little nervous about a hawk snagging her (the hawks here are impressively large) so she doesn’t get out as much as she’d like, but she does get out most days to peck the dirt, nibble on the grass and take a sunbath. This is a fairly common pose:

Since I don’t have a very good setup for the hens right now, against my better judgement, I’ve been allowing them to free range within the fenced backyard when I’m at home. I will say, their feed consumption has decreased dramatically with all the worms and grubs they are able to scratch up. However, three different neighbors have told me stories of losing their entire flock to coyotes or foxes, so I’m working on building a large, secure run to keep them safe.

Its been slow going, as I’ve been trying to fit the work in between other commitments. Digging to bury the perimeter hardware cloth was the slowest part of the construction, but now that I’ve completed that portion, attaching the framing and wire fencing is going more quickly. When the run is complete, I will move the current mobile coop inside, to keep them safer at night, while I work on building a proper, winter-worthy coop. You know, something that keeps out horizontal snow.

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.

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:

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.

 

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.