Bacon

Sometimes I think that we as a culture are going a little overboard in our glorification of bacon.

And then I eat bacon.

And I realize we’re right on track.

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Lunch today: kale, summer squash, peppers, and basil sauteed with bacon and salt.

 

 

Mite Fight

It’s hot out. So hot that I’ve been afraid to go into the hive. The last thing I need is to pass out face first in a pile of bees.

This morning, before the sun got too high, I went down to the hive to do some much-needed maintenance. Since I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I brought along my boyfriend Ben to do the heavy lifting.

It was his first time going into the hive, and he was a little nervous.

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Our first order of business was to replace the honey super. Last week we’d put a triangle board under the honey super to clear the bees out. The triangle board gives them an easy way out of the super, but an almost impossible way back in. It’s really effective if you want a bee-free honey super, but I was worried that if we left it too long they might get crowded and be in danger of swarming.

They did look tightly packed through the screen of the triangle board, but it may just have been early enough in the morning that the foragers hadn’t left for the day yet.

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We removed the honey super and set it a few hundred feet away so the bees wouldn’t steal it right back from us. Then I removed the triangle board.

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I removed most of it, anyway. The bees sealed it tightly to the frames below with propolis and wax, and a whole side of the triangle pulled free of its nails when I lifted it off. This is coming out of their wages.

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I was determined to do a successful sugar shake mite check this time, since my last attempt… left something to be desired. I shuffled through the top hive body frames for one full of brood. It took me four frames, because the first three were solid capped honey! It’s a good thing we didn’t leave the triangle board any longer – it seems like they’ve really been stocking up.

When I finally found a brood frame, I gave it a good shake over a pot. The bees dropped in, and I knocked them all into one corner and scooped ’em up in my measuring cup. I got a slightly shy half cup, which I dumped into a mason jar and set aside for later.

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Today we went for the slightly unorthodox method of treating for mites before testing to see if we needed to do it. Is this responsible beekeeping? Nope. But the day was getting hot and the bees were getting ornery, and it was a lot easier to test the bees in the shade after closing up the hive. For philosophical musings on why this probably is okay, hold out til the end of this post.

We dug deeper and lifted off the top hive body, because the mite treatment has to be applied to both. A while ago we put a shim between the two, hoping for some cool burr comb. The bees have been playing along, making this very cool structure that’s about the width of the frames but almost perpendicular to them.

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I cleared away the burr comb and applied the Hop Guard. What it is is a pack of foot-long cardboard strips soaked in something with the consistency and messiness of hot molasses. This stuff oozed everywhere. The packaging is covered in warnings about getting on your skin, but by the end of the day I had it all over my hands and legs. (That being said, I washed it right off and seem to be fine. I don’t condone eating a spoonful of the stuff, but the danger may be over-hyped).

The instructions said to apply two strips per 10 frame hive body, draped 4 inches apart over two central frames. There they are!

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We replaced the second hive body and draped two more strips in that one. Then we topped it off with the queen excluder and a fresh honey super to catch the fall honey flow. We closed up the hive and beat it out of there. All that was left was to give those bees in the jar a good shake.

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The round piece of screen I was given at bee school fit perfectly into a wide mouthed canning jar. The mesh in the screen is just the right size to let mites out and keep bees in.

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Even if the bees really want to get out.

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We dumped a few tablespoons of powdered sugar through the screen and shook the jar up for a couple minutes. It was a like a grotesque snow globe.

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Once the bees were good and coated, we turned the jar on its end and shook it hard over a white piece of paper.

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Between the white paper and the white sugar, the dark mites stand out pretty well.

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Reasonably well, at least. Can you spot the one in this picture? Zoomed in this much, he’s actually hard to distinguish from the tiny sugar clumps’ shadows. He’s in the horizontal middle, just south of the vertical middle. If you look very closely you can see his little legs in the air.

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In case you were worried, no bees were killed in the testing of these mites. They were a little dazed, to be sure, but they came out of it okay.

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I dumped them out right next to the hive. Once they got their bearings, they should have flown right back into the hive. They’ll have a wild story to tell their friends as they get licked clean. This day will pass into bee lore, and the powdered sugar will probably be turned into honey.

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So how many mites did we find? 4. From a sample of 300 bees, that’s an infestation rate of 1.33%. For this time of year, that’s actually remarkably low. In all honesty, we probably could have held off a while on treating. Given the way it went, though, I’m glad we did.

The thing is, all hives have mites, and the reasons to delay treatment hold a little less sway over us than usual. A lot of treatments are toxic to humans, meaning it’s a good idea to continually test mite levels while collecting honey, then harvest the honey and treat only when the mites get out of hand. Hop Guard, on the other hand, supposedly does not contaminate the honey, so there’s no need for strategic timing.

Another reason to wait is that mite treatment can be pretty hard on bees. If by some chance your mite levels never get high enough to have to treat, it’s better not to treat. Supposedly Hop Guard is gentler than other products, though, so it should be okay.

We got burned by mites last year, so we want to go in guns blazing this time. Our number one priority is getting these bees through the winter, and hopefully this knocks their mite levels low enough that they stand a fighting chance.

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It was a good and productive day. It was only a little sweltering, and Ben survived his first bee excursion. He says he even had fun.

Burr Comb and a Failed Scoop

I promised we’d be back with the bees soon, and here we are!

When we last left our heroes, we’d given them a honey super and some more time to build burr comb in the shim between the hive bodies.

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They’ve been hard at work since. About seven of the ten honey super frames have been filled up – this one is mostly capped. The honey starts out very moist, and the bees leave it open to evaporation until it’s distilled down to about 18% water. At this point they cap it with wax to stop the evaporation. We don’t want to harvest honey that’s mostly uncapped, since it’s likely to ferment. This frame’s probably alright, though.

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Setting the honey super aside, we tackled the top hive body. Our plan was to cut out some of the burr comb and put it in a jar to display for educational purposes. Unfortunately most of it was full of brood, but in the name of educational purposes you can let your scruples slip a little bit. We lifted a few of the frames, one at a time, and cut away the burr comb from the bottom.

Incidentally, the capped cells all have the larger, bumpier look of drone brood. Varroa mites tend to prefer latching onto drone brood, as their development in the cells takes a few days longer. One very low-impact means of varroa treatment is to give the bees special frames designed for drone brood, wait until it’s all capped, and then destroy it. So we may have inadvertently done a little mite treatment of our own.

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Speaking of mite treatment, I was anxious to try out the sugar shake method for myself. I’d brought a half cup measurer, and I was somehow under the impression that enough bees had fallen into our tub with the burr comb that I’d be able to scoop them in easily.

I was wrong. They were too spread out, and the comb kept getting in the way. I got more bees on me than in my little measuring cup, and they were getting angrier by the minute. I could understand why – I felt like some kind of deranged god shoving them around in their own honey.

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Next time I’ll do it right and knock a whole frame into the tub. Turns out bees in small numbers don’t move as a liquid.

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As we were moving through the top hive body we spotted the queen. It was very good to know we hadn’t knocked her off with the burr comb.

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At the end of the day it was a messier hive dive than we usually have. A little bit of honey spilled on the deck got cleaned up immediately.

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Likewise, a bee who didn’t survive the manhandling got cleaned up immediately by a passing wasp. Wasps can be carnivorous, and this was an easy meal.

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I found another wasp on the outside of the hive. I was worried that the honey spilled while collecting the burr comb might attract invaders. But at the time of writing this, almost a week later, the bees seem fine.

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Even if robbers are about, our colony seems pretty tough and capable of defending itself. Here are two little guys shaking their butts outside the hive to mark their territory with pheromones. They, unlike the happy bee on our sign, mean business.

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We’ll be going back in again soon. I’d like to do a sugar shake that isn’t an embarrassment and, assuming it’s going to show that we have too many mites, we want to get treating. I’ve just ordered a shipment of Hop Guard, a relatively new mite treatment regimen that’s derived from hops. It’s only just legal in Rhode Island this year, but I’ve heard good things from beekeepers just over the Massachusetts line where it’s been available longer. It’s supposed to be gentler on the bees than some other options, but still effective. And it doesn’t contaminate your honey, which is a big plus.

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I’m not advertising for Hop Guard. In fact I’ve already read complaints that its instructions are unclear and it dries out so quickly that you have to apply it three weeks in a row for it to work. But I’m excited to try. If all goes well, maybe this will turn into and advertisement – both for Hop Guard and for its necessary workarounds.

Geraniums in Need

I don’t deserve my houseplants.

In college I bought two geraniums at a plant sale. I’m reasonably sure I’m watering one of them in this short film my friends and I made in 2008.

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I since gave one to my dad. It’s beautiful and lush and is living out its days on the front porch. The other one stayed with me, and I’ve been treating it with an attitude that could very generously be called laissez-faire.

Here it is.

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It’s been wasting away in the window of our living room for a few years. This past spring I finally got it together to give it a dash of fertilizer, which inspired it to grow this long tentacle off to the right.

To its credit, it’s been blooming more or less constantly all this time. I’ve been hoping to collect some seeds, but while I’ve gotten a few fluffy spikes from the spent flowers, no actual seeds have appeared.

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Deciding I owed it to this plant to try and make things right, I took a few simple but decisive steps. First of all, I cut off the tentacle. It was the newest growth, but it was unsustainable. It could barely hold itself up and was only going to get longer.

For curiosity’s sake, I stuck it in a bucket of dirt to see if I could get it to take root.

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I removed all the flowers (and, since, a few of the leaves) to help it focus its energy on root-growing.

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I trimmed up the main plant a bit and gave both containers a big dose of kelp meal and water. I set them in the dappled shade for a few days, then moved them to fuller sun.

Now it’s been a little over a month and, against all odds, both plants are alive and kicking.

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I’m especially impressed with the tentacle which, with four leaves to its name, has produced a big clutch of flowers and buds.

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If I’d known this thing was going to make it, I might’ve taken a little more care planting it – like cutting it down or sticking it in better soil that wasn’t infested with mulberry seeds.

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I’m not about to mess with now, though. I’ll give it some more time either to establish or exhaust itself, and then I’ll take stock.

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The main plant is looking much better, too. It’s still on the spindly side, but it’s a lot greener and blooming more vigorously.

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I’d say Project Geranium was a success. They have another good month or two outside to build up their strength, so hopefully it’s only up from here.

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If they hold on long enough, they just might get to star in another movie.

 

 

 

Tales of Bees Past

A few weeks ago we went into the hive to check on the bees’ progress, but I never got around to writing about it. This means, incidentally, that almost every bee you’re about to see is dead of old age by now.

Even this one.

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This is as spooky as beekeeping blogs get.

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We went in to check on the state of things and, if the state was good, to add a honey super. Until this point we’ve been letting the bees focus on building up their numbers. Once they get established, however, it’s time to start concentrating on honey production.

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We opened up the top hive body and took a look. This frame against the outside wall was still bare.

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A little farther in, though, production was in full swing. We’d put a shim between the two hive bodies, hoping the bees would build some interesting burr comb to fill in the empty space. And they did! Here’s some of it, hanging off the bottom of the frame.

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This next frame has hardly any burr comb – the structures hanging off the bottom are 100% bee. And that white arc across the top is all capped honey.

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Since the bees seemed to be moving right along (and running out of room), we plopped our honey super on top, with the queen excluder (the metal screen in my hands) between it and the hive bodies. This will keep the queen laying in the hive bodies and allow the workers to store honey in the honey super.

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Some beekeepers don’t believe in them, but anything that keeps grubs out of your honey sounds good to me.

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The bees are still happy and healthy. (At least they were last time we checked). Soon we’ll be going back in to scope out the honey and the mite population.

I hope they haven’t gotten too used to us being gone.

Garlic Time

It’s garlic time!

Last fall I bought a whole pile of garlic from the farmer’s market. I stuck the cloves in the ground in November and hoped for the best.

Sure enough, almost all of them sprouted and grew. They stayed a little smaller than my neighbors’ – probably because I got carried away and planted them too close together.

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When I pulled them out, the heads were a little on the small side, too. In spite of that, they were all fully formed and healthy looking.

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I got about 20 heads in all. I brought them up to the house and gently brushed them clean with a paper towel.

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I bundled them together into three bunches that ought to give them ample air circulation.

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And I hung them in the basement from whatever spare nails I could find. It’s starting to look like a colonial storehouse down there. I’ll leave them to dry for a few weeks before I cut off the stalks and roots, brush off the excess dirt, and settle in for the long winter.

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Steeped Grains

It’s beer time again.

My last two batches have been attempts at all-grain without the right equipment. I was trying to Brew in a Bag, which is a legitimate technique, but only if you understand how it works. I didn’t, and wound up diluting my wort and supplementing with leftover dry malt extract to get the sugar content back up. This time I did basically the same thing.

But I did it deliberately. 

So it’s fine.

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For my recipe I’m following a completely unvetted concoction from the American Homebrewers Association, because I’ve lost control of my life. And because the real recipes are behind a paywall.

It’s a steeped grain recipe, which means you soak a small amount of specialty malted grains in hot water for flavor and color, then you make up for the missing sugar with malt extract.

To start I measured out my specialty malts by weight.

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Here we have 8 oz of 20L crystal malt, 4 oz of 80L crystal malt, 4 oz of CaraVienne malt, and 5 oz of wheat malt, stored attractively in fruitcake bowls of Christmases past.

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Up until now I’ve been buying grain from the local brew supply store and milling it on site. This leads to a couple of problems, though. For one, I can only use the grains available in the store. For two, I have to mill it all at once, seriously reducing the shelf life of any grain I have leftover. It’s possible to buy milled grain online, but that only solves the first problem. To make things easier on myself, I invested in a grain mill.

I hope to one day be as rugged as the man on the box.

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This was my mill’s maiden voyage, and unfortunately it showed. The whole thing had a metallic, oily smell. Upon reading the directions, I learned you’re supposed to give it a good scrubbing first.

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So into the sink we went. Only a minor detour.

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With my mill fresh and clean, I got it all assembled (in the living room, where the table was thin enough for the clamp).

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And I got to milling.

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With a nylon sac in a bowl underneath, I ground all my specialty grains into what was probably too fine a powder for what I was doing.

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But what are you gonna do? Next time I’ll try to set it to a coarser grind.

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I tied off my bag and submerged it in 2 gallons of water at 160F for half an hour. Once the time was up, I squeezed the bag dry and set it aside.

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I added 6 pounds of light LME to make up the fermentable sugars the grains couldn’t supply, and I set the whole thing boiling.

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For my hops I used Nugget, Cascade, and Nelson Sauvin, a fancy guy all the way from New Zealand that’s supposed to have a well-defined, citrusy quality. My Cascade hops weren’t quite the recommended AA, so I had to do some serious math on the fly.

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After an hour of boiling I took the wort off the stove and aerated it by sloshing it back and forth between two pots. The real glory of working with specialty grains is that you can start with a small amount of liquid and dilute later. This meant I could pick it up and fling it around the kitchen all by myself.

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With my wort aerated, I pitched the yeast and filled the carboy up to the 5 gallon mark with water. I like to think that this method adds some much needed extra aeration.

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After that I sealed it up and left the yeast to do their thing. By the next morning the fermentation was off to a good start. Nine days later I dry hopped with more Cascade and Nelson Sauvin.

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I plan on bottling as soon as I can get my act together. I just hope the recent heat hasn’t been doing anything untoward in there.

 

 

Bee Shaking School

I’m becoming a bee expert.

Last weekend I went to the intermediate bee class hosted by the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association to learn all the intermediate bee techniques.

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After a couple hours of lecture, we went outside to check out the hives. These hives are managed by Rhode Island College and opened up every now and again for educational purposes. Namely, how to check for mites.

Varroa mites are horrible little guys who suck the life essence out of bees. Bees get along surprisingly well short on life essence, but the wounds where the mites bite through are a prime spot for disease to spread. Since bees literally live in a hot pile of bodies, disease is a serious concern.

Because of this, it’s important to check on your mite population numbers periodically. How do you do this? By scooping them into a jar of powdered sugar.

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The ideal sample size is 300 bees, which is equivalent to exactly half a cup. Bees are more fluid than you’d think – you can scoop them into a measuring cup, level it off, and dump them in a jar just like sugar. We added some actual powdered sugar to the jar and screwed a piece of mesh onto the lid.

We shook ’em up good to get them covered in sugar. Varroa mites hate processed sugar. When they come into contact with it, they let go of their hosts so they can gesticulate better while explaining the benefits of stevia and other natural sweeteners. This means you easily shake them out through the mesh lid.

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We got two! You can see the little legs of the guy on the left as he turtles them in the air.

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We shook up three jars and found 3 mites in each. Out of a 300 bee sample, that means there’s 1 mite to every 100 bees in this colony. That’s a little on the low side for this time of year, which is good. The likelihood that you’ll have to treat for mites at some point is very high, but you never want to treat when you don’t need to, since it’s hard on the bees and there’s always a danger of the mites building up a resistance.

Another popular mite testing method is the alcohol wash. It’s the same deal, except instead of powdered sugar you cover your bees in alcohol. In this case the mites let go of the bees because they’re dead.

And so are the bees.

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There were audible gasps in the audience when we doused the bees in alcohol. I find it helps to remember that I’m already making them work themselves to death for my benefit.

And also that they’re bugs.

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All that aside, the reason we can get bees to work themselves to death for us is because they’d be doing it anyway. They store food they’ll never get to eat. If they get sick they fly away to die so the others don’t get infected. They reproduce by splitting their entire colony in two. In terms we understand, the colony is a single organism made up of constituent parts, and testing a sample of a few hundred bees is more like drawing blood anything else.

Even if we want to think of each bee as an individual, we can’t ignore the fact that they’re very into working for the greater good. Each bee is more than happy to sacrifice itself if it means making the colony better, and paving the way for magic human intervention is a pretty noble way for a bee to die.

These guys are going to Valhalla.

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We didn’t actually find any extra mites from the alcohol wash, so everyone declared it an inferior method and swore never to take a life needlessly again.

And then we all went out for chicken sandwiches.

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No we didn’t, but you get the idea.

We were all given our very own chunks of mesh, so I’m ready to shake some bees of my own.

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Maybe I’ll even let them live.

Rugosa Rose Propagation

I just got back from vacation with my family. I trooped down to the public library for essentials like work and Game of Thrones, but for the most part I’ve been without internet.

Now I’m back with the comforting blanket of pervasive wifi and a fierce desire to grow Rugosa Roses.

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Rugosa Rose, also called Rugged Rose or Beach Rose, grows all over the island my family vacations on. It smells amazing. A few years ago my parents put two small plants in their garden. They’re on course to take over the house in a few years, so my dad had no problem sending me home with a few cuttings.

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I’ve never propagated roses, but after hastily reading a single google result I decided I was good to go.

I read that my cuttings should be 6 to 8 inches long, with a withered flower on the end. As luck would have it, the branches my dad gave me were covered in just-passed flowers, so I clipped off as many 8 inch lengths as I could find.

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I cut off the lower leaves to make a long bare stem of new growth, ending in one or two sets of leaves and single flower.

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These were some productive branches – I ran out of small pots before I ran out of flowers.

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My inadequate research has led me to believe that new growth propagates better than old growth. Since I have so much old growth and don’t really know what I’m doing, though, I’m giving it a go with the big branches, too. I made a new 45 degree cut at the base of each one because of an unfounded belief that this is better.

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I removed the lower growth and stuck each branch in a big pot. It almost looks like I have real, healthy plants and not just branches jammed in the ground.

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Just for the heck of it I planted a couple of those flowerless lower branches, too.

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With everybody planted, I gave them a thorough soaking. Apparently the name of the game now is keeping the cuttings moist. I read that covering them in plastic bags helps, but it’s been so hot recently that I’m worried I’d roast them that way. Instead I’ve been spraying them down daily, never letting the soil dry out.

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In all I have 13 cuttings – some old growth and some new, some deadheaded and some not. (I have to imagine deadheaded is better, since they’re devoting energy to roots instead of seeds, but we’re learning here).

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With this many test subjects, something is bound to take, right?

What’s Growing?

A long long time ago I bought some seeds. When some of them got too unruly, I transplanted them outside and hoped for the best. Now we’re well into June and everybody’s out in the ground.

Or dead.

A week after planting out my tomatoes, I transplanted all the others – the eggplants, peppers, melons, tomatillos, and cabbages. And it did not go well. The next few days were incredibly windy, and the very next night dropped down to 39F. I’d babied the tomatoes, hardening them off gradually and wrapping them in plastic. This second round I did in much more of a rush, and I paid the price. Melons dissolved. Cabbages crumbled.

A couple of the stronger and better sheltered ones, like this tomatillo, have held on. I’ve seen healthier plants, but compared to what he was, he’s in top form.

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The tomatoes, by now old hands at outdoor life, are a mixed bag. Three of my five grow bag plants are the picture of health.

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The other two are… flagging. Those in the garden are in the same boat. I planted three varieties of tomatoes, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to this gross inequality. Two of the giants are Paul Robesons, and the third is a Blue Beauty. Here’s another Blue Beauty looking no bigger than when I planted it out.

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The seeds I started in the ground outside are all seem happy. The Red Orach started slow…

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But now it’s taking off. The leaves taste fine. The best word I can come up with is minerally. So far I’ve only eaten the odd raw leaf, wanting to give the two plants a chance to grow. With the bigger over a foot tall, now, I think I can safely cook some up.

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My Beleah Rose Lettuce is coming in nicely.

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But nowhere near as nicely as my green lettuce, self-sown from last year’s crop. Eating salad has become something of an obligation in my house.

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I have a third variety of lettuce, all on its lonesome with the kale, that’s the lone survivor from a crop I tried to grow in the hoop house in November. All the others froze, but this one must have tucked itself under the plastic just right and is absolutely thriving.

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The Magnolia Blossom Tendril Peas are gangbusters. They’re already taller than the trellis and me, and they’re showing no signs of stopping. The flowers are beautiful, the tendrils are cool, and the peas are… fine. More of a green taste than that nice pea sweetness. I’ve only tired the young whole pods, though – maybe when they mature the peas inside will be a different story.

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My other peas are these snazzy Dwarf Blauwschokkers. They’re a Dutch bush variety that produces deep blue blossoms and even deeper blue pea pods. Just like the tendril peas, though, these guys get high points for presentation and low points for taste. I’d describe the flavor of these as so green they seem unripe. And maybe they are. The name makes me think that they’re meant for shucking and will be better when they’re more mature, but my Dutch is rusty.

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On a strange note, some of my Blauwschokkers have come out as the plainest, greenest, pea-est peas I’ve ever seen. Where did these guys come from? I think there’s been some intermingling…

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The Crapaudine Beets are doing well, though germination has been pretty sparse.

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Likewise with the Pusa Asita Black Carrots, which seem to have been taken down from the site I ordered them from! I hope that’s not a bad sign… The plants that have come up seem to be nice and healthy.

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I planted two kinds of beans: Chinese Red Noodle and Dragon Tongue Bush Bean. I wish I knew which was which. I also wish I hadn’t taken up valuable trellis space with a bush bean, but this is how we learn.

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My Desi Summer Squash is coming in great.

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My Kajari melons were coming in great, until they disintegrated in the cold. I’ve planted some seeds directly in the soil and they’re well on their way. This is supposed to be a fast-producing melon, so with any luck I’ll get some fruit out of it before fall.

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One of my cabbages also fell apart, but I replaced it with another seedling I hadn’t put out yet. This is the state of a lot of my transplants – the scraggly guys who weren’t fit to put out at first are the new stars of the show.

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Some are coming into their own, like this pepper.

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And others, like this adorable little eggplant, have a long way to go.

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Whatever happens, I probably won’t go hungry this summer.