Inspiration

Farming and homesteading is inspiring to me. I get so much joy at looking at things running smoothly and properly. I draw a lot of motivation from looking at other people’s goals, aspirations, and the extremely cool things that they do.

Sometimes down the line I loose track of that joy. I loose track of it amidst things like trying to manage animal pedigrees and planting row crops and producing enough to justify that I am a “real” farmer and balancing budgets. It can be easy to loose some of my inspiration in among all of the red tape.

So here’s a little compilation of some nifty things I plan to do this year that are inspiring for me!

Vertical Gardening and Plant Towers

I really like the idea of growing up instead of out. While some vertical gardening (such as hydroponics in a warehouse) strikes me as wildly impractical, a lot of vertical growing can be done in a back yard and drastically increase your growing space. Hanging pots, PVC planters, trellises and the like all make for an increase in growing space without an increase in growing ground. And this year, I intend to do more of that. As the strawberry plants recover, I will thin them and put the new plants in hanging pots. I will also be trying to get some herbs running in a hanging planter made out of re purposed two liters that will hang near my awning at the back of my garage. This year I will be growing UP!

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PVC strawberry planter Photo credit: goodhomedesign

Natural Beekeeping and Honey

This is happening and it’s great! I have my bees on order and my hive is in the basement, just waiting to be assembled! We are going to be keeping bees in a Warre hive. This is a smaller beehive that’s designed with topbars and minimal inspection. Unlike the Langstroth, whose design is based around what bees will tolerate, the Warre hive is based around what bees make when left to their own devices. The size of the boxes are smaller, the empty boxes load onto the bottom of the hive, they build their own comb for the frames, there’s a lot more airflow as well. It mimics a hollow tree more effectively than a Langstroth but gives much lower yields. My hope is that the bees thrive in it!

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Warre bee hive Photo Credit – Thebeespace

Pollinator and Bee Gardening

Pollinators are extremely important to our environment, growing crops, and plant life everywhere. If I’m going to have bees, I better be more aware about providing for these ever important critters. So I will be building bigger, better bee gardens this year with lots of flowers! The goal is going to be to trim up the Magnolia and put some flowers around it out front, as well as re-do some of the landscaping around the house and plant as may bee-friendly and pollinator friendly plants as possible in the next couple of years. It will even include safe water sources for local bees, one of the things they lack (and need) the most. The hope is to provide a pesticide-free buffet for all the local critters who will desperately need it in the coming months and years.

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A bee garden! Photo Credit – helpabee

Purebred Wheaten Ameraucanas

This year, we are going to begin moving out of Easter Eggers and into a purebred flock. Our rooster is a purebred Wheaten Ameraucana and I now have a dozen hatching eggs of the same kind on order. Later in the year (possibly early next year) we will be ordering a dozen more and hatching some of our own. At that point, by next spring we will be running a flock of purebred blue egg laying chickens (possibly with a couple Australorps or Marans for eating-eggs and fun mixes). It will be exciting to finally have purebred birds!

 

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Wheaten Ameraucana Hen (and rooster) Photo Credit – Paradisepoultryandwaterfowl

 

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Quarteracrehome’s “Will” Wheaten Ameraucana rooster

Fully Pedigreed Rex Rabbits

Early this year we invested in a new buck to replace Cassanova, as we have kept two of his daughters (Lady and Sage) and would like to start filling out our pedigrees. So we now have a new buck that came to us through happenstance that is actually Bean’s grandson! We have nicknamed him Porter (as in a Porterhouse steak) and he will be our new herdsire for our rex rabbits, lending his lineage and traceable pedigree to our operation.

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SkinnyAcres Rabitry’s Porter, our new Rex buck

Companion Planting and Interplanting

This year our garden has been planned, planned again, and then planned some more. We are going to have both companion planting and interplanting on the homestead this year. Companion planting is when you plant two plants next to each other (or in alternating rows) that compliment eachother’s growth or deter pests from one another. Interplanting is related and means to grow two plants in the same space that don’t interfere with one-another’s growth. An example of this is growing beans and corn in the same space. The beans fix nitrogen for the corn, and the corn stalk allows the beans to trellis up them. One example that will be in our garden this year is growing radishes pretty much anywhere a slow-growing plant is seeded. Since radishes grow so fast, they can be harvested before they start to compete with their too-close neighbors. We will be growing as many plants this way as possible this year. Gardening is still somewhat a struggle for us, but we’re always trying to get better at it!

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Crops interplanted Photo Credit thrivefarms

And lastly;

Growing Trees!

Quarteracrehome is going to be working with Western Reserve Eco Network (a local grassroots environmental group seeking to promote sustainability, which I happen to be a part of) to grow a whole bunch of trees in empty lots in the city. These will all be either native northeast Ohio trees to help restore native forestland or fruit/nut trees to help feed the low-income urban communities around Cleveland. Some of those trees fruit trees may come tagging along back to the quarter acre. Additionally, I have several branches from my father’s Queen Anne cherry tree attempting to root in my living room. Not to mention that two of the plants that have been on this property for ages are also fruit trees and I just had no idea. So I am excited to be “branch”ing out this year! Ahahah, tree puns.

And that’s about it. Things that are inspiring me to do new stuff this year, and things I’ll be trying out. Fingers crossed that it all works out!

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Garden Layout (Round 1)

This year I did some serious work planning my garden. Usually I just kinda stick things wherever I feel like they’ll do well, but this year I actually made a full-blown honest to goodness map.

I measured my garden bed yesterday and found out it’s much smaller than I thought. I was spot-on with how deep it is (8′) but I thought it spanned nearly 40′ long. In truth it only hit 28′ when including the emergency addition I put in last year, so I called it 26′. That addition worked out sub-par, producing no eggplants and a handful of robust squashes that it took me several months to discover were buttercup squash… Though through no fault of the garden plot, honestly. They just got crowded out.
(Incidentally, those squashes became my go-to vegetarian holiday dish for Yule this year. I stuff them with a stuffing made out of “wild” mushrooms (usually just a mix of shiitake, button, oyster and portabellas), chopped walnuts, onions and basmati rice, all cooked in vegetable stock, butter and wine, seasoned and topped with parmesan. Conveniently, I could sub out the butter and skip the cheese and make it vegan if I wanted… But I’ve never had a need or reason. Still, it’s nice to know that I could prepare something delicious that meets that criteria if I needed to. I like to be accommodating.)

While Yule tides me through the darkest part of the year, I am always thrilled when my seeds come in. And come in they have! They arrived just this morning, right after I finished making my growing chart!

I had some problems last year with my plants. The biggest problem (besides spacing and varieties grown) was the addition of some pests to my garden. I figured they’d crop up eventually but it still sucks. So now crop rotation, companion planting and integrated pest management come into play.

I referenced these pages on companion planting;

http://www.vegetablegardeninglife.com/companion-planting-charts.html
http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/companion-planting-guide-zmaz81mjzraw
http://www.almanac.com/content/companion-planting-chart-plant-list-10-top-vegetables
http://www.ufseeds.com/Vegetable-Companion-Planting-Chart.html

I try not to use one source only when I do research so I referenced all four.

And then I used these pages for pest prevention;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pest-repelling_plants
http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/12-plants-that-repel-unwanted-insects
The wiki list is very good and I generally consider Wiki to be well managed.

And with the additional few feet we want to expand, ultimately, I came up with a yard layout that looks like this;

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I made this in a free open-source art program, similar to photoshop, called GIMP. This shows all the features of the left wall of my lawn, including our trenches for run-off, and the mixed flower bed surrounded by rocks that we’re planning on putting the bees in.

The key is;
Green BB = Beans
pppp = Peas
Pale Green B = broccoli
green LL = lettuce
green SS = spinach
grey H = herbs (various)
yellow D = dill
red RRRR = radish
Yellow C = Corn
Purple P = Purple Beauty bell pepper
Red A = Anahiem
green J = Jalapeno
gold S = acorn squash
pink W = watermelon
red T = tomato (our new tomato variety has smaller plants than last years)
peach O = onion (we’ll be buying onion sets)
dk green/black Z = zucchini
The grid is square feet, and some plants are supposed to grow in the same spots as the corn. Radish is harvested before the corn grows and the squash uses the corn plants as a trellis. Herbs are spread out to help deter bugs on susceptible plants. Dill is separate from herbs because it’s mammoth dill and grows several feet. Clustered letters indicate how many plants we’ll be planting in a specific spot, whereas the big letters show the amount of space those plants are projected to take up. The letters that take up a single space on their own are just that, one plant per square foot.
I would also like to set up 2-4 potato bins for seed potatoes against the fence, between the garden bed and the chicken pen and grow radishes there as well a little later in the year.
Also marked is our shady spot (left) which is shaded by trees in the spring/summer, and unshaded in the winter/early spring, and our ultra-wet spot (bottom) that floods next to the garden bed with 1-3 inches of standing water. East is 1/4 of the way down on the right wall of the bed image.
There’s a few glaringly huge problems with this layout…
1. Crop rotation. It’s hard to do when you only have a few hundred square feet and the same areas of the lawn have the same conditions from year to year. For example, the leftmost garden squares that are shaded. The summer sun scorches us with 90*F+ for a week or two every summer, and that shade is critical to protecting leafy greens, peas and other plants that are easily scorched. Even in spring it can be overwhelming and the ground cracks. On the left, currently it’s marked with “herbs” but last year that’s where we grew kale. Similarly, the leftmost beans are where peas were last year (legumes on legumes). We can’t plant things like peppers or tomatoes in that space because they won’t get enough sun. So plants that have specific requirements for growth like the watermelons, kale, other leafy greens, beans and peas are all in unfortunately similar areas to where they were planted just last year. (And the year before that.) And there’s not much I can do about it.
2. The bottom of the bed is 7′ deep. Now, in theory I can reach in the 3.5′ from each side to weed and harvest… I have long arms and tools. But in reality I suspect that’s too wide for me to manage without stepping on the beds (which as we all know is bad juju). This could be a serious problem, or I could us boards to step on.
3. That’s my working location for the bees… Sunny in the winter, shaded in the summer, protected from rain and wind by trees and a fence line, easy to access but not somewhere I use… But it’s uncomfortably close to the garden beds, and I want to keep the dogs out of it… So I theorized putting a small stick fence around it. It could still be a big problem because bees don’t like things in their flight path. I’m working on that one.
4. Soil erosion at the bottom part of the bed where the standing water is. This has been a consistent problem, yearly, since we moved in. That land needs to be built up with organic materials that can absorb to water and a way for it to drain into the irrigation ditch needs to be considered. Something has to be drastically different soil-wise.
In reality, I might spend much of today retooling this layout. We also may be expanding beyond this point by bringing in manure from local horse farms for free and adding more onto it. But as it stands, this is how I’m growing plants. In addition to this, I have a 4’X4′ bed of everbearing strawberries that overwintered from last year and about a 3’x3′ bed of flowers out front I’ll be trying to plant up a little better this year.
One way or another, in total I will be gardening at least 300 square feet this year, some of which will be vertical (beans and peas on trellises, potatoes in boxes).Not too shabby, but a long way to go still. Hopefully, with a little luck, we’ll be able to expand further than that this year and do a much better job.

Bee Garden

So I have been wanting to keep bees for some time. And every time I speak of this to anyone they think I am crazy. Completely nutsy. You see, I am terrified of bees and have been my whole life. But I love honey and so I have been working hard at getting used to bees so I can keep a beehive. Just a small one that I can harvest one pint of honey from each year, more on good years to give as Christmas gifts or some such.

Recently we have these tiny white daisy-like flowers all over these shrubby plants in my back yard. I don’t mow my back yard or weed much because I want to know and lean about all of the native plants that are growing. These little shrubby things, covered in tiny, dime to quarter sized white flowers, are bee heaven. They are always COVERED in dozens of tiny bumble bees and lots of native, wild honey bees as well. And because I like the idea of feeding and encouraging local pollinators, I have had to work right through them, moving chicken tractors, dishing up feed and delivering water as the swarm around me.

The honey bee in this shot is very hard to see, but it was the best picture I could get with my phone.

All in all this has made me feel much more confident of having a hive of my own. And I have been having this issue of what to do with the whole entirety of my front lawn. That’s over 1000 square feet of space I just haven’t been using because of deer, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, etc. that needs to be mowed every few weeks. Bleh.

So I have decided to plant a bee garden. Over my entire front lawn. The front lawn will be nothing but flowers both beautiful and useful so I will both feed my bees and never have to mow again. I will even be employing clover as a cover crop and native plants so that I won’t have to weed!

The bee garden will be made up of lots of flowers good for bees and butterflies, but many of which may be toxic to other wildlife, such as the local posse of deer that live across the street. In this way the animals SHOULD avoid my lawn in general (seeing as there’s things like delicious daylilies just across the street) and the toxic plants have a chance of protecting the less toxic plants. The result? My front lawn space has a chance of being useful!

My current bee garden list looks like this;

Bearded Iris
Crocus Savitus (Saffron)
Rosemary
Oregano
Sunflowers
Bee Balm
Thyme
Smooth Aster
Shasta Daisy
Goldenrod
Deadnettle
Lonicera caerulea (Blue berried honeysuckle)
Evergreen Azaleas
Goldenseal
Echinachea
Chamomile

Many of these plants have some sort of use on the homestead or are edible. Goldenrod, Deadnettle, Echinachea, chamomile, honeysuckle… All very tasty! Goldenseal is a powerful herbal medicine. Sunflower seeds are an amazing snack for my chickens! Bee balm is a unique spice sometimes used like Oregano. Bearded irises are some of my favorite smelling flowers. My hope is to get some good spices out of my front lawn, some medicinal herbs, some edible seeds, and maybe even some Honeysuckle berries for jams! All the while feeding local bee populations and making my front lawn thick with the sticky sweet smell of flowers.

My bee garden will take some serious tweaking to get flowers blooming in every season all the time, but it will get there! I will work on pairing up plants that do well together and making sure that when one plant dies out, another can take it’s place!

If you have any perennial suggestions of flower, shrubs, bushes or ground cover for my bee garden I’d love to hear them!

In the meantime… It’s time to start finding garden bed edging!

Summer Solstice Beekeeping

I am seeking some input here from beekeeper or just smart/reasonable people. I am not a beekeeper. I don’t know much about bees. As a homesteader, bees are my least section of expertise and I am TERRIFIED of them. However, I also know how important they are and I LOVE honey. So today I went to my mothers church, the Unitarian Universalists, for a seminar on beekeeping (and some less practical bee-y stuff) for the Summer Solstice.

Let me get this out of the way now. If you don’t wanna read about my faith/spiritual issues, please skip ahead.
I’m not Christian or even strongly religious in any way. I am more spiritual, and I keep my beliefs rather private. I don’t like telling people about them. I haven’t even clearly defined them in words, per say, but suffice to say they focus on giving back to that which we take from to aid a cycle and balance of growth and destruction… Be it with people, animals or the earth itself. Also a lot of energy stuff and a goddess is in there somewhere. Yeah, it’s vague. I realized why I never talk about it when I went there and was listening to these (mostly older ladies) people babbling about energy and healing and spiritualism and the Circle and all that…

They sounded NUTS. Completely batty!
When I talk about these things I sound nuts too. And I know it.

Let’s be frank here. You can’t say something like “I love the way the energy flows in the late winter, the way it seeps up through the Mother Earth into my soul! It’s like the spirits of the earth letting us know ‘spring is on it’s way!'” or “My Goddess came to me in a dream one night, when I discovered my true path.” without sounding a little bit off your rocker. Even if you believe it with your whole heart. And when you get this bunch of ladies together babbling something about how bee products have such great healing potential, because the bees collect their resources from the most powerful energy gathering points in the plant; the sexual organs… Well… I felt like the whole room should be in padded cells.

I suppose I should note I feel much the same way when I walk into any organized religious meeting. Especially Christian churches. There are more contradictions in the bible than, well, anything? No, really, google “more contradictions” or “more contradictions than”. I just did so to try to find something that had more contradictions than the bible since I couldn’t think of one, and the whole page both times was about bible contradictions. Religions are crazy! At least I know it unquestionably with mine, I suppose. It keeps me honest.

Back to bees now, all the cray cray aside, the beekeepers in question talked about bees, the uses of the products, where each product comes from in the hive and it’s uses, bee allergies, using bee stings as a medicinal treatment and a dozen other things. It was really interesting, although I feel like some of it was that crazy shining through. I only believe something has medicinal properties if it’s proven to me with facts and scientific testing.

For quite some time I have been pondering the best way to keep bees and researched hives high and low! You know that “bee hive shape”? The one that’s woven cones upside down that people associate with the hive? That’s called a skep and was the first ever bee hive. The skep is possibly the worst way to keep bees. You can’t examine the hive for pests and extraction generally destroys the whole hive. Bad for the bees, especially since honey bees are now endangered. Skeps could also be built with a sort of detachable top, that allowed the bees to keep living when they removed the top. Bees build their comb downward, and they lay eggs in the “newest” comb. This was the first innovation in beekeeping; not killing the whole hive. Every unit in the brood is essential to keep it working. Yes, drones and workers can be replaced but a certain amount of the comb must be left for the queen and her brood or the whole hive is kaput. So keeping that in tact is important. The other problem with the skep was the amount of honey you get as opposed to the amount of wax is pretty low. Skeps have been banned in most of the US.

So somewhere down the line they invented the modern beehive, the Langstroth. This is basically a bunch of boxes, with frames that you can remove individually, that usually have PRE-FORMED wax comb. The boxes lower down are the brood boxes, and the higher up boxes have honey. Somewhere in the middle there is often a “queen excluder” which is just a wire mesh big enough for workers to go through but not the queen. This keeps baby larvae bees out of your honey cells. When you go to harvest the honey there’s no risk of loosing any bees (baby or not) and then you use some expensive equipment to cut just the caps off of the honey comb, letting the honey drip out. The bees will quickly refill the used comb with more honey, instead of having to build whole new comb. There’s a lot of honey and little risk to this, but it is expensive and the big boxes (2’X2’X18″) FILLED with honey are heavy and hard to deal with.

There’s another type of hive called a Top Bar beehive, and typically these are just one layer. They are horizontal rather than vertical and have no frames at all. Instead they just have a little bar that goes across the top, and the bees simply build all their own comb off of these bars. Now, because they build all their own comb they are more resistant to pests that live in the brood comb. In preformed comb there’s enough room for whole families of pests to move in, and in the comb they make for themselves there’s only the room for the brood. The downside is when you go to harvest the honey you have to harvest the comb with it. You just chop it out with a kitchen knife. Then the bees have to build a whole new comb before they can make more honey. Also, because the queen has access to the whole box, she may lay her brood everywhere willy-nilly and you may end up pulling a skep and destroying a lot of the hive when you harvest.

A few top-bar designs also have “boxes” for the comb to grow down into, to segregate the queen and her brood… But most don’t. And that brings up heavy cumbersome boxes again.

I don’t want to be harvesting lots and lots of comb. Sometimes it might be nice if I want to make some candles, but I am more interested in the honey. At the same time I am only looking for a few jars each year. I go through less than a half-pint of honey every year. If I had better access to natural honey I might use more, but I can’t see it going TOO crazy. Still less than a pint a year, and maybe a few half-pints to share at Christmas or store away, and if possible and leftovers to sell… Something not too crazy. I know people who eat WAY more than that in a year.

I find myself frustrated because (online at least) beekeepers seem to be in two ballparks; For the Bees and For the Money. Why on EARTH can’t there be something in between? I would like to extract enough honey each year to meet my needs, with ease of use. But I would also like no risk to the brood in my hive and a more natural solution if possible.

Is there a way, in a horizontal top bar beehive, to exclude the queen to one area? How to TBH owners avoid the brood during extraction? What IS the difference between a Langstroth harvest and a Top Bar harvest in lbs of honey? If I use a top bar, how much does it REALLY stress the bees to be making new wax all the time?

If any beekeepers, especially in colder climates, could chime in, I’d appreciate it… Because I just seem to be at a loss for information.