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By Alex Jones

Recently I took the plunge into the world of beekeeping with a 3lb package of bees from a local store. I got honey bees to help with my fruit tree and vegetable pollination. With poor fruit pollination over the past couple of seasons I thought the bees could be the missing link. And to be honest, I really want the honey! So far it has been a fast pace learning curve with most of my time devoted to keeping my colony healthy.

 3 lbs package of bees from a local store. (photo credit: Garrett Okrasinski)


3 lbs package of bees from a local store. (photo credit: Garrett Okrasinski)

Much of the national media attention has been directed towards honey bee decline with “colony collapse disorder” resulting from pesticides containing neonicotinoids. While honey bees are great pollinators that take care of 80% of plant pollination, they are non-native to North America. The other 20%, the native pollinators are also in decline.

Native pollinators like mason bees, bumble bees, and butterfly populations are declining due to pesticide use, but the main reason is loss of habitat. As our city grows, more and more land is occupied by buildings creating islands that separate pollinators from their homes and pollination sources. Some gardening techniques, like using weed barrier cloth and mulch, can reduce native pollinator’s ability to build hives.

One way to attract native pollinators is to build hives like the currently popular mason bee movement. Mason bee homes can be constructed in various ways to provide holes in which they can lay their eggs.

A Mason Bee heading home with pollen.

A Mason Bee heading home with pollen.

To support bumble bees, you can build nests using 4-inch PVC piping cut in to two-foot lengths. Simply drill 1/8 inch holes at the bottom end of the pipe and drill a large hole in the top side of the PVC.

Bumble Bee Hive without the top on.

Bumble Bee Hive without the top on.

Planting is the best way providing pollinators with a food source (as well as the added benefit of pollinating your plants at the same time). Picking plants that have not been treated with neonicotinoids are best. Native plants are preferable because they tend to be good food source and will be hardy in your garden. Bridging gaps so that pollinators are connected requires a bit more cooperation with your neighbors. Planting in a parking strip along a city block can be a good way to do this. This way our flowers and vegetables and most importantly, native pollinators, can all benefit.

Alex Jones is a geologist by study but a gardener by heart. Loving to be outdoors with his hands dirty, he is constantly learning and experimenting with his backyard in Ballard and his community garden plot. He recently became a “father” of two chickens, and thousands of bees.

Lavender Sachets

Opening up a drawer and smelling lavender always brings me back to visits to my aunt and uncle’s Montana ranch.   Making these sachets is quick and easy and they last for months.
All you need is dried lavender and squares of pretty fabric.  If you want a sachet with a stronger smell then you can add a few drops of essential oil but this isn’t necessary.

Strip dried flower buds from stalks.

Strip dried flower buds from stalks.

Cut fabric to size of sachet desired then turn over edges and sew with the right sides together.

Cut fabric to size of sachet desired then turn over edges and sew with the right sides together.

Turn right side out, fill with dried lavender then stitch or tie the open side.

Turn right side out, fill with dried lavender then stitch or tie the open side.

All set!

 

 

Mason Bee Season Ending

By Garrett Okrasinski

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A friendly Mason bee.

This year many of my friends and I intentionally hosted mason bees in our yards.  We provided a hive with deep holes and placed mason bee cocoons out in the early spring. Buzzing hard at work, they filled my yard with excitement.

However the season has come to an end for our friendly mason bees. If you have a mason bee hive you may notice fewer bees working your yard and their holes are plugged up.

Mason bees are great native pollinators for the Pacific Northwest.  Also known as orchard bees, these friendly bugs are awesome for pollinating fruit trees and other native trees and flowers. Looking like a housefly, mason bees have a dark green metallic body and antennas. Unlike what many people associate with bees, mason bees do not sting and are very docile. I was able to walk up within a foot of their hive and watch them work. They simply flew by and went about their day collecting pollen or mud. They burrow in existing holes, laying eggs and constructing a mud wall between each egg.  These eggs or larvae, will then hatch in the early summer, eat pollen the parent collected for them and spin a cocoon.

Empty nests on left and filled nests on right

Empty nests on left and filled nests on right

In the spring I met Missy Anderson, a well-known local public speaker, educator and advocate for these bees. Referred to as “The Queen Bee”, Missy runs a business renting out kits of mason bees. She will provide you with mason bee cocoons and their hive during the early spring and then collect them in June to protect the new cocoons. She carefully tends to each cocoon by hand, removing them from their masonry and washing them. She will refrigerate them until the next spring when they will get redistributed to new homes. Her passion and dedication reestablishing mason bees is very impressive. Look for her next spring if you are interested in hosting mason bees in your garden!

If you had mason bees in your garden you may notice most of their hive holes are filled up. Behind the little mud end cap are rows of new larva that will spin cocoons and eventually turn into next year’s bees. However, if left outdoors these cocoons will face many obstacles. Mites may burrow into the hive destroying the cocoons. Birds may find them and peck at the holes to snack on the delicate cocoons.  And fungus may take over. Currently another predator is hatching, the Monodontomerus parasitic wasp. The wasp will lay eggs in the mason bee cocoons and once the wasp eggs hatch they will then eat each larva. Yikes!

A wasp!

A wasp! Photo courtesy of Missy Anderson

If you hosted mason bees in your yard, I recommend harvesting the larva to protect them for next year.  Bring your hives inside and store them in the garage (if it stays warm) to let the larva finish spinning their cocoons and to protect them from pests. In September or October you can then fully care for and store the mason bee cocoons.

More nest options.

More nest options.

If your hive has paper tubes or stackable wood blocks, it allow for easy harvest.  If your hive does not allow for cocoons to be exposed (holes drilled into a solid block), you cannot harvest the potential bees. For those that have paper tubes carefully slice the sides of the paper to expose the cocoons. Wood blocks can be untied to expose the cocoons. You may notice small black bits which is the larva excrement that gets pushed out of the cocoon. It is not a pest. Carefully collect the cocoon and gently wash the larva with a very dilute solution of bleach water to kill any mites or fungus. Pat dry with a towel. To keep the larva over the winter in the refrigerator you can use an old yoghurt container with holes poked in the lid. Place the larva in there with a lightly damp paper towel. Label it so that no one cleans the refrigerator out and tosses your bees! Missy recommends occasionally checking on them throughout the seasons to see if any mold or fungus is occurring. If you see any mold growth, simply wash them again and replace them back in the refrigerator for next spring.

More nest options.

If your nest has paper tubes or stackable wood blocks, it allows for easy harvest.  If your nest does not allow for cocoons to be exposed (holes drilled into a solid block), you cannot harvest the bees. For those that have paper tubes carefully slice the sides of the paper to expose the cocoons. Wood blocks can be untied to expose the cocoons. You may notice small black bits which is the larva excrement that gets pushed out of the cocoon. It is not a pest. Carefully collect the cocoon and gently wash the larva with a very dilute solution of bleach water to kill any mites or fungus.  The ratio is 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water.  The temperature of the water should be luke warm so you can manipulate your fingers but not warm up the bees inside the cocoons.  Pat dry with a towel. To keep the cocoons over the winter in the refrigerator you can use an old yoghurt container with holes poked in the lid. Place the larva in there with a lightly damp paper towel. Label it so that no one cleans the refrigerator out and tosses your bees! Missy recommends occasionally checking on them throughout the seasons to see if any mold or fungus is occurring. If you see any mold growth, simply wash them again and replace them back in the refrigerator for next spring.  If the paper towel gets too dry, add a few drops of water so there is moisture in the container again.

 

 

 

 

Cool Chickens

By Garrett Okrasinski

The past few days in the Northwest have been beautiful but unusually warm and dry and my chickens and I are adjusting to the summer weather. The warmth feels great but in the summer months it is important to keep your chickens cool, happy and healthy.

Recently when checked on my chickens mid-day, I saw a few with their mouths open. Initially I was concerned, but after looking into it most chickens do this because they are hot (However, if it is not warm and they are holding their mouths open it could be worms!). I would equate this to the same as dogs panting. Not being able to sweat chickens may also hold their wings away from themselves to cool down.

When I chose the location for the coop, I intentionally picked a place that is shady during the day but receives nice afternoon sun. However in the past few days, the evening sun has been shining intensely on the coop. I have had to make a few summer additions and change my routine a bit for them.  When the sun is baking, I move them to their “play pen” or “chicken tractor” for an  evening out. Their tractor is a simple a-frame that has been made of recycled and scrap materials from around the house. Not the prettiest but it works well to keep them entertained and cooler on hot evenings. They have also been doing a great job edging the yard!

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Chicken play pen with “detachable” roof

In both the coop and the tractor, I keep an abundance of fresh water for them. Sometimes I even will go so far as to put ice-cubes in there. Chickens main way to cool themselves is to drink water. You may notice during warm weather that the chicken’s stool is looser. This is normal if they have been drinking a lot of water to cool themselves.

When the nighttime temperatures have warmed up, I put in an additional outdoor roost for them.  I simply use a thick tree branch about three inches in diameter. This is in their secured coop area allowing them to sleep safe from predators and remain cool.

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Young ladies sitting on their outdoor roost in 2014.

To cool and entertain my chickens, I treat them with frozen berries and grapes (I eat them too!). The berries are a favorite and keep them occupied.

What do you do to keep your hard working ladies cool in the warm summer?

Raspberry Shrub

Ripe and ready

Ripe and ready

Shrub is a drink that is sweet, tart, bubbly and cool; the perfect mixture for a hot summer day. The unusual name comes from sharab the Arabic word for syrup.  This colonial era beverage was much sought after as it both quenched the thirst and preserved the fleeting flavors of summer fruit.  It fell out of favor with the advent of soda pop but is now experiencing a resurgence as it can be enjoyed with bubbly water and ice or blended with alcohol for a unique and refreshing cocktail.

Ingredients

The three basic ingredients in a shrub are sugar, fruit and vinegar.  Almost any type of fruit can be used and it doesn’t have to be in pristine condition.  Most sugars will work but white refined sugar competes the least with the fruit flavors.  Cider or red wine vinegar is usually used but if you have other types on hand give them a try and see how it tastes.

How to Make

Once you have your ingredients together you can either do a cold or hot process.  To do the hot process mash the fruit, mix with the sugar and cook until you have a light syrup.  (A third vinegar, a third fruit and a third sugar is a good blend.)  Strain out the seeds, mix in the vinegar and store in the fridge.

One cup sugar

One cup sugar

One cup red wine vinegar.

One cup red wine vinegar.

Berries ready for mashing.

Berries ready for mashing.

One cup mashed berries.

One cup mashed berries.

To do a cold process mix the sugar and mashed fruit then let sit for a day or two in the fridge until the juices are coming out.  Strain out the seeds, add the vinegar and put back in the fridge.  This makes for a fruitier, fresher tasting drink than the hot process version.

Sugar mixed with berries ready for the fridge to sit and let the juices come out.

Sugar mixed with berries ready for the fridge to sit and let the juices come out.

Strain out the seeds.

Strain out the seeds.

Sugar and berry juice mixed together.

Sugar and berry juice mixed together.

Vinegar, berry juice and sugar all blended together and ready to mellow in the fridge.

Vinegar, berry juice and sugar all blended together and ready to mellow in the fridge.

This delightful blend will be quite concentrated so add in bubbly water or ice cubes before drinking.  Gin pairs nicely with this raspberry version of shrub.

Mixed with ice and bubbly water the shrub is ready to refresh!

Mixed with ice and bubbly water the shrub is ready to refresh!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dried Lavender Bunches

About the simplest thing you can do to preserve your lavender is to cut it, tie it in bunches then hang it to dry.

Bunched lavender tied tightly with string.

Bunched lavender tied tightly with string.

Be sure the bunches aren’t too thick or they might rot in the middle.  Tie the string very tight or use a rubber band as it will shrink as it dries and all the stems will fall out.

Once you have your cut and tied lavender hang it upside down in a dark place with good air circulation to dry; I tie a string between the rafters in our basement for this purpose.

Drying lavender in the basement.

Drying lavender in the basement.

Once the lavender is dried put it in a basket, cover it with a cloth to keep dust off and store in a dark place.

I toss these dried bunches into gift boxes and baskets to fill empty spaces and bring the smells of summer days.

 

Fennel

The herb fennel is so plentiful and grows so well in the Pacific Northwest that some people think of it as a weed and do their best to eradicate it. Horrors!  This plant is useful from its seeds to its roots and should be cherished!

According to Wikipedia this herb was well known to the ancients:

The word “fennel” developed from the Middle English fenel or fenyl. This came from the Old English fenol or finol, which in turn came from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum.  As Old English finule, it is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come.

Florence fennel has a wide bulbous base and is used sliced in salads, Bronze fennel is a decorative garden plant and common fennel is what is commonly found in local gardens.

Bronze fennel

Bronze fennel

Here are my six favorite uses of this versatile herb.

  1. I like to put the tips of the leaves in salads.  If you use too much they can overpower more delicately flavored lettuces but a few sprigs give a nice anise flavor.
  2. The full leaves are good for garnishing dishes; they look especially pretty with salmon.
  3. The fennel flowers or “pollen” can be collected and the bright yellow powder can be dusted on pasta.
  4. The hollow stems can be cut into lengths and used as straws to add a slight licorice flavor to cocktails.
  5. Fennel seeds are a key ingredient in both Chinese Five Spice and in French Herb de Provence.  The seeds should be collected when green then dried and either ground for Five Spice or sprinkled into the Herb de Provence.
  6. I love the flavor of toasted fennel seeds.  To make them gather green seeds and over a slow heat in an iron frying pan roast them until they are fragrant and crisp.  They can be added to granola, eaten to freshen the breath after a garlicky meal or used in cookies.
Seed pods from last year - what a waste!

Seed pods from last year – what a waste!

How do you like to use this wonderful plant?

Fennel with Feverfew in front.

Fennel with Feverfew in front.

Edible Flowers

Many of the flowers that grace our yards are edible.  They can be used as accents in a salad or as garnish on a main dish.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Edible flowers

Chive

I like to use chive flowers in salads to lend a slightly onion flavor.  Here’s a recipe for omelets with chive flowers.

Edible flowers

Lavender

Lavender cookies are fragrant and delicious.

Edible flowers

Rose

Candied rose petals are a sweet my daughter likes to make.

Edible flowers

Calendula 

Have you ever made homemade calendula cream?  It’s easy to make and fun for kids to create.

Edible flowers

Elderberry flowers

These can be dipped in batter and fried to make fritters.

Edible flowers

Sage

Sage flowers can be sprinkled over a dish to give a mild sage flavor.

Edible flowers

Johnny Jump Ups

I like to put these on cakes to decorate them.

Oregano!

Oregano bunched and ready to hang to dry.

Oregano bunched and ready to hang to dry.

My family loves Italian style food so we go through a ton of the herb oregano each year. Luckily it’s very easy to grow; you can start it from seed or buy a plant at most local nurseries.  It does best in full sun and doesn’t like to be water logged but do be aware that it self seeds quite easily.

Right now is a good time to harvest oregano!  This flavorful Mediterranean herb is best harvested on a warm, dry morning right before it blooms. To harvest and dry cut it three inches above the ground then bunch it and hang it in a cool place with good air circulation.  Be careful not to make the bunches too big or the stems in the middle might rot.  Once dry I store it in the basement in mason jars and bring up just enough to last a week or so as the heat and light in the kitchen can make it lose flavor quickly.

In addition to adding oregano to the usual pizza and spaghetti sauces here are some other interesting ways to use this prolific herb.

Oregano Infused Simple Syrup 

Ingredients:

1 C. water
1 C. sugar
2 C. fresh oregano

Directions:

  1. Bring water to a boil. Add the sugar and stir until sugar has dissolved.
  2. Add the oregano to the syrup. Boil for 60 seconds and let it steep for 30 mins as the syrup cools.
  3. Pour the cooled syrup through a strainer into a glass bottle jar.
  4. Store syrup in the refrigerator.  Small amounts can be added to sparkling water or it can be used in cocktails.  I think it pairs well with vodka.
The flowers taste good and can be dried for great bouquets.

The flowers taste good and can be dried for great bouquets.

Oregano Lemon Chicken

Ingredients:

  • Four chicken thighs
  • 1/2 cup fresh oregano, chopped
  • Juice and zest from two lemons
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup green olives with brine
  • Three cloves of garlic
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a frying pan, add chopped garlic and chicken.  Cook until the outside of the chicken begins to brown.  Add the lemon juice, zest and olives and turn down the heat.  Cook slowly until the chicken is almost done.  Add the chopped oregano and finish cooking. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve garnished with a fresh sprig of oregano.

Oregano Herb Butter

Finely chop 1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh oregano mix with one cube softened butter. Roll into a log on wax paper then wrap in the paper, put in a plastic freezer bag and freeze until needed.  Can also be immediately but should be refrigerated if you need to store it.  This butter can be used to baste meat, season veggies or on bread.

Oregano Olive Oil Cubes

Chop fresh oregano and mix it with olive oil.  Pour it into ice cube trays and freeze it.  Once frozen put in freezer bags.  This can be used in salad dressings, to baste meats or veggies or anytime fresh tasting oregano is needed.

Baked Feta with Oregano

Take a block of feta and cover it with 4 cloves crushed garlic and 4 T fresh oregano leaves. Drizzle with 1/4 c olive oil and top with a large tomato.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes until bubbly. Serve with bread or crackers.

Herb Crust for Grilled Meats

Chop fresh oregano and mix it with olive oil and other fresh herbs to taste. Cover meat to be grilled with this mixture then cook over a hot fire.  This will both add a nice flavor to the meat and keep it moist.

Do you have other favorite ways to use oregano?  I’d love to hear them!

 

Pickled Snow Peas

pickled snow peas

So many peas!

Each summer I start off eating the new pea pods thinking there will never be enough, soon it’s time for succulent stir fries with mushrooms and chicken then before I know it there are snow peas everywhere and I don’t know what to do with them.  Last year I tried pickling them and they are absolutely delicious!  They are great as is on a relish tray or add a nice zest to salads.

If you have never canned and are gearing up to start this year or if it’s been a while it’s a good idea to get up to speed on safety issues.  This site from the University of Georgia is very comprehensive.

If you have just a few pods, a lot of pickle eaters and space in your fridge then making refrigerator pickles is a good way to go.  These have a brighter color and flavor but must be kept in the fridge as the water bath canning is not done.

If you have limited space or a ton of produce then most dilly bean recipes work well for pickled peas.  Be sure to follow the recipe exactly as peas are a low acid food and must have vinegar added if they are being water bath canned.

pickled snow peas

Pick and wash peas then strip off strings.

  • 1 pounds pea pods with strings removed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 teaspoons pickling spice, (toasting this before use makes it more potent and aromatic)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 and 1/2 cups white vinegar (5%) use commercial vinegar as homemade vinegars can vary widely and it must be at 5% to prevent bacterial growth
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 1/8 cup pickling salt
pickled snow peas

Pack into jars leaving a half inch of head space at the top.

Instructions

  1. Sterilize your jars while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
  2. Wash and peel the strings off your pea pods
  3. Combine vinegar, water and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Pack your pea pods into the jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace (distance between the tops of the beans and the rim of the jar). To each jar, add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 clove of garlic and 1 teaspoon pickling spice.
Garlic, salt and hot pepper are what I like to use.  Sometimes I add sugar and other spices too.

Garlic, salt and hot pepper are what I like to use. Sometimes I add sugar and other spices too.

  1. Pour the boiling brine over the beans, wipe the rims and apply the lids and rings.
  2. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath (start timing when the pot has come to a roiling boil).
pickled snow peas

Here are the peas with the brine solution. They need to be well packed or will float up. All the peas must be covered by the solution.

These can be put in the fridge and eaten in a week or water bath canned for later.

These can be put in the fridge and eaten in a week or water bath canned for later.