Thursday, February 18, 2016

Save Money By Starting Seeds For Vegetable and Pollinator Gardens

Why not grow a pollinator garden this summer? 

Save Money By Starting Seeds Indoors

Have you ever wandered into a garden center intending to purchase a few seedlings and ended up with a wallet-busting wagonload of must-have plants? It happens to me all the time. Even when I plan on buying only a few perennials to even out the border, or a few vegetable seedlings to pop into the kitchen garden, the sight of all that eye candy makes my imagination run wild. Suddenly, I feel like I should purchase enough to plant in drifts, achieve four-season interest, and feed the pollinators, as well as the people. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day December 2015

On this weirdly warm day, December 15, 2015, I have an array of blooms that certainly should not be showing their faces. My backyard thermometer reads 65 degrees. The bees are buzzing, and my decidedly indoor cat is napping on the patio, in a ray of sun. Here's what's in bloom:

Lantana, with bees buzzing in the birdbath beyond.
Apricot Drift Rose
Encore Azalea
Camellia Sasanqua

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Cinderella, The Pumpkin, And the Cycle of Life

Like Cinderella the night before the ball, these poor squash
may only have one glorious night to look forward to...unless you save them!
Once Halloween is over, pumpkins lose their appeal. Old Jack-O-Lanterns become flying objects, or die a slow and ugly death, until someone takes pity and tosses them into a compost pile.

Pumpkin degenerates after a long, hard week.
Wait a minute! Didn't you just spend approximately $24 on that behemoth of a squash, because it was Junior's pick of the litter?! Though it's hard to maintain appeal when competing with a bucketful of candy, pumpkins need not litter the earth in a vegetal walk of shame. There are several options for carved and uncharted pumpkins:

Jack-O-Lanterns make wonderful living pots.

  • Plant pansies in carved Jack-O-Lanterns. Simply scoop some soil into the pumpkin and add a pansy or two. Water as you would a potted plant. The pumpkin pot will last at least until frost, when the pansy wilts. While the ground is still soft enough to dig, bury the pumpkin. It will decompose and enrich the soil, resulting in a nice planting space in spring.

  • Open up any uncarved pumpkins and scoop out the seeds. Clean off the pulp, and spread the seeds on a baking tray. Spray with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and roast in a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Make sure the seeds are brown, but not burnt. Sprinkle the delicious, nutritious seeds on salads, or simply snack on them. 

  • To keep things even simpler, remove the top of an uncarved pumpkin, leaving the seeds and goop intact. Fill it with soil, and leave it outdoors. The pumpkin flesh will decompose around the soil, and in spring, the seeds will sprout. Divide the seedlings and plant them in the garden, or give them to other gardeners as gifts. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Get To Work in the Fall Garden To Ensure A Beautiful Spring

Fall is the Best Time to Renew A Garden

Mother Nature is bestowing us with one more week of beautiful, warm weather. Maybe it's global warming, but I'm going to look on the bright side and take advantage of it and get to work in the garden. The word "chore" has such negative connotations, especially when fall clean up is such fun.

Start Small To Accomplish Essentials

Of the many activities that beckon, starting with a few essentials will go a long way toward extending the season and ensuring a beautiful spring landscape. I find that spending just 10 minutes a day doing a little here and there during the week, and then tackling larger tasks on the weekend, allows me to stay on top of the essentials. Here are 10 things we can do to ensure a happy, healthy landscape all year round:

  1. Fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. Cool nights and warm days allow transplants to establish strong root systems before hard frost. Be sure to include fruit-bearing 
    native trees and shrubs, such as winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) and viburnum species, to help sustain wildlife through winter. Water transplants weekly until frost, particularly if the weather is dry. 
  2. Divide perennials that have outgrown their space, such as peonies, lilies, salvia, baptisia and host. 
  3. Replace heat loving annuals with their cool-weather cousins: pansies, flowering kale, johnny-jump-ups (Viola cornuta), and snap dragons (Antirrhimun). 
  4. If a green lawn is important to you, fall is the best time to aerate, fertilize, and seed. I'd rather live with the clover, dandelions, and the bees that rely on them. A "weedy" lawn also means little to no work. The yard will still be relatively green in color, and very "green" environmentally.
  5. Dispose of diseased vegetation, and add the rest to the compost pile. As you clear beds, think about leaving a few dried branches and seed heads, particularly from native plants. They’ll add winter interest and provide shelter and food for birds. 
  6. Take advantage of fallen leaves to add a layer of mulch to your newly cleaned and planted beds. Leaf mulch is high in organic matter, free, and easy to make. It will help moderate soil moisture, temperature, and composition. If you don’t have a leaf shredder, rake your leaves into long, low piles and mow over them. Shredding the leaves helps them break down more quickly. Not enough leaves of your own? Fairfax County offers free, composted leaf mulch ( Take advantage of this wonderful free resource, and your garden will thank you in the spring.
  7. Summer planting, brutal heat, and heavy rain wreak havoc on soil. Replenish nutrients now to ensure healthy spring soil. To figure out exactly what type of soil amendments to add, obtain a soil test kit from your county Extension Office or public library.Soil test kits provide valuable information on soil composition, as well as recommendations on the proper combination of amendments for particular plants.
  8. Plant spring blooming bulbs in late fall, when the ground is cool but not yet frozen. Deer and squirrels dislike daffodils, allium and lycoris. Cover them with sharp chicken grit to deter digging. If you’re preferential to bulbs that critters can’t resist, try interplanting them with a few less appetizing varieties. To achieve an extended bloom period, layer early flowering smaller bulbs, such as glory-of-the-snow, above later blooming narcissus. 
  9. Once the work is done, take time to enjoy late-blooming flowers and foliage. Aster bloomsfrom mid-summer through frost. Native varieties are attractive to butterflies. Japanese anemone is another fall beauty, great for the border, woodland, or rock garden. Native shrubs such as Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) add brilliant fall color between the tree line and the flowers. 
  10. Last but not least, take a long look at your landscape, noting any gaps or failed plants. Take note of color and texture. Now it's time to curl up with a  good garden design book and think about how to fill those gaps next spring!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Kohlrabi Apple Slaw

Kohlrabi shows up at markets in spring. Take advantage of
it before it temperatures heat up.
Farmers markets opened in Fairfax County last week, and there are already so many delicious, local veggies just waiting to be plucked. I'm always looking for new and interesting things to try, and it seems the local vendors are keen to introduce new products. We live in a culturally diverse area, and the vendors themselves often represent far-reaching cultures and countries.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Brenda's Supremely Summery Gazpacho Soup

Ingredients for gazpacho include
whatever is seasonally available.
Some foods are so seasonally dependent that they seem to vanish from our consciousness when the weather turns. Gazpacho, more than any other meal, speaks so quintessentially of summer that it simply evaporates from memory when tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers go out of season. While some restaurants may serve it year-round, it’s hard to appreciate the full impact of cold soup on a wintry day, just as a hearty beef stew eaten under the blazing sun sounds downright painful.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Colony Collapse Disorder and Backyard Beekeeping

About a year ago, I went to the trouble of renaming my blog and website. The former Northern Virginia Gardener morphed into Bee Happy Garden: Gardening in Partnership With Nature. My intention was to broaden the scope of my blogging, as a reflection of my expanding interests and acknowledgement of the symbiotic relationships that permeate the living world. The more I learned to garden with native plants, the more I valued the native fauna they support. I realized my vegetable garden needs pollinators throughout the year in order to produce enough to eat. I was disturbed by the plight of the honeybee and thought I could make a difference for them, and they for me. At the very least, I LOVE honey and drink lots of tea! The learning curve was quite a bit greater than anticipated; I'm still learning, but I finally feel I can share my experiences as a first-year beekeeper.

My daughter inspecting a beehive. Fearless!

Backyard Beekeeping for New Bees

Beekeepers of Northern Virginia offers classes for new "beeks," and I enrolled in the 2014 winter session prior to getting my bees. The following spring, I acquired one "package" of bees, delivered from Georgia, and one "nuc," or small colony, raised locally.While incredibly informative and fascinating, the academic class instruction did little to prepare me for the sight of 10,000 bees, all busily buzzing in one tiny space. It was all I could do to lift of the lid, replace the sugar water that would help the colonies expand, and quickly cover them up again. Sadly, but not surprising, my first set of bees didn't survive winter. It was an expensive and exasperating loss. I spent the next 9 months reading, talking to other beekeepers, getting hands-on experience with a bee mentor, and attending 4-H Bee club meetings. That last bit was ostensibly for my daughter, but has proven to be my greatest resource.

First, I learned that package bees from southern parts of the country are more likely to be Africanized (read: aggressive stingers), and have only a 20% survival rate. Furthermore, locally raised queens have genetic traits that enable them to adapt to our climate and attendant pests. In spring 2015, I acquired two "nucs" - one with a locally reared Russian queen, and one with a Carniolan queen. Russian bees are said to have greater resistance to the Varroa mite, which is one of the major causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Carniolans are another strong breed, with abundant honey production and a gentle temperament. Using locally raised bees, from a beekeeper with a track record of over-wintering successful hives, offers some assurance that even a "new-bee" can keep a hive alive. (I've learned that beekeepers adopt a dialect utilizing the word "bee" as often as possible).
Bees that probably starved to death over the winter.

What is Colony Collapse Disorder and Why Does It Happen?

Until recently, researchers were uncertain why so many honeybee colonies were failing. We pretty much now know that the Varroa "destructor," known colloquially as VD, and use of neonicotinoid pesticides, are the major causes of CCD. Additionally, the majority of honeybees are now raised in captivity. They are not a native species, but are most commonly used for commercial agricultural pollination and honey production. Only recently have researchers begun to focus on the bizarre monoculture we've created for pollination of major U.S. crops. In fact, there are other bees, such as Osmia bees, that may effectively pollinate local crops. Who knows? Maybe we'll soon be raising native species, and the honeybee will succumb to suburban sprawl and Monsanto. NPR's Science Friday recently featured a story on this phenomenon. Nevertheless, backyard beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby or vocation, with much added environmental benefit. It brings us outdoors, draws attention to the fragility of a somewhat maligned and misunderstood species, and demonstrates the power of individuals to make a greater difference. Isn't that enough to keep going?

New Beeginnings

Having fostered 2 hives through spring well enough to split them into 4 strong colonies, I finally feel confident enough to share my experiences. I'm still a neophyte, but this is what I know: raising honeybees is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiments in my little laboratory of a backyard, and I am thoroughly hooked. I've also learned that I have a moderate reaction to bee stings, which involves isolated, but hugely swollen, blistering redness at the site of the sting. I wear the full hazmat get-up, so you won't be seeing any photos of me with a bee beard! Hard work made it all worthwhile when we harvested 2 gallons of honey in early July, which subsequently won a blue-ribbon at the 4-H fair. Now, on to fall management and hopefully, winter survival.

Backyard beekeepers are unlike commercial beekeepers in many ways. We attach sentimental value to our bees, name our queens, and sometimes love them to death by not treating them according to the latest research standards. Since we now know that Varroa is a major cause of CCD, we must decide how to address this. Varroa is ubiquitous in honeybee colonies, and beekeepers must routinely test for infestation levels. Many backyard beekeepers are reluctant to use chemical controls: it doesn't feel organic, it feels bad for the environment, and it's guaranteed to kill some bees. There are ways to address Varroa without chemical controls, but the latest research shows that non-chemical interventions alone have little effect on winter survival. I know of several experienced and admirable beekeepers who overwinter bees without chemical intervention; sadly, I believe they are highly skilled, few and far between.

Until now, I've used the Dowda method to control for Varroa, relying heavily on research by Randy Oliver. This entails sifting powdered sugar on the frames once or twice per week. It is labor intensive and may damage open brood (bees in development). Furthermore, the Honey Bee Health Coalition recently published results that show no effect on winter survival rates over four years when using this method. What does work? An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy that includes a combination of chemical and non-chemical interventions. "Chemical" often sounds like a bad word to organic gardeners and beekeepers alike; however the latest research is pretty convincing in favor of keeping bees alive. In fact, Certified Naturally Grown apiary standards allow for use of some chemical controls, on a limited basis, in support of honeybee health.

Highly recommended is the practice of "reverse splitting" a strong colony in order to break the Varroa life-cycle. This means locating the queen and placing her in a new colony with open brood. The original colony will then begin to rear its own new queen, who will be hopefully have hygienic traits approaching Varroa resistance. This method was presented by Dr. Buddy Marterre at a BANV meeting and literally blew my mind. If only I could do this thing, I'd be one step closer to avoiding chemicals! Splitting and queen-rearing are intermediate, if not advanced, beekeeping practices. I was unsuccessful in my first attempt to locate the old queen and rear a new one in a new hive. I therefore employed Michael Bush's straight split method. Splitting helps avoid swarming, which bees will naturally attempt when the colony grows too large for its container. Splitting is good, all around.

There are many hive management tasks needed for colony survival. What every beginning beekeeper needs to keep in mind is that they will need to monitor the level of Varroa mites in their colonies and take action to address a high level of infestation. There are several ways to determine Varroa level. First, I used the stickyboard method, which involves spraying a cardboard panel with cooking oil and placing it beneath a screened bottom board for 24 hrs to 36 hours.
Preparing a sticky board for mite counts.

An average daily count is then calculated. This method has recently been somewhat discounted, in that it doesn't account for hygienic bee behavior in naturally grooming off mites. Mites may also be carried away by ants, and some mites will just craw back up into the hive. A more accurate method may be attained by scooping 1/2 cup of bees into a screened pint jar, sprinkling them with powdered sugar, and then attempting to shake the mites through a screen into a pan of water. My efforts in this area resulted dusty bees that obscured the mites and bees that were shaken to death. In my opinion, though it is a painful sight, the most accurate method of calculating mite infestation is the alcohol wash. This again involves scooping 300 bees (about 1/2 cup) into a screened pint jar, and then pouring alcohol over them. When the alcohol is strained out, the bees will be dead, but the mite count will be accurate. 300 bees out of 30,000 is a small sacrifice when you're looking at total colony loss due to denial or failure to treat for mites in a timely fashion.

My total mite count was 2.7% in the Russian colony and 3.2% for the Carniolans. According to the Honey Bee Health Coalition's newest publication, this is in the caution zone. I will treat the colonies with formic acid. Some will be lost, but more are likely to survive the winter. It's a hard hobby, but one that has me totally hooked. Stay tuned!

Update: 9/10/2015

After all that, I decided not to treat the bees with formic acid, after all. I spoke to the class instructor, as well as the source of one of my queens. Both noted that they employ higher thresholds for mites and are loathe to introduce treatments unless absolutely necessary. They reminded me that beekeeping is sometimes more art than science, especially for hobbyists. Though I am normally a strict believer in scientific method, my counts are in the caution area, not the danger zone.  Our spat of 90-plus degree weather was also a deterrent. Formic kills too many bees at that temperature. At the same time, if one waits too long to treat into later summer and fall, the hive doesn't have time to recoup lost brood. So, I procrastinated, in the name of art and sentiment. My hives look strong and healthy. I'll keep my fingers crossed and see what's buzzing come spring.