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Archive for the 'Wildlife, Insects and Pets' Category

September Joys… and Flowers!

September 18th, 2010

I have to ask.  Does September seem like a really busy month to everybody?  For some reason I seem to be running around in circles trying to catch up with myself.   Classes and elbows trying to get things done, if you know what I mean :)  I can hardly contain myself with all the things I’d like to do.   Ah, like writing a little more.  This has been a slow year for the written word, perhaps a year of change.  I’ll get there, and my friends I hope you’ll go with me…  this is the start of such a beautiful season!   

I see change all around, and feel the pace of insects and birds hurrying a bit more, gathering all they can before the fall begins.   Another season of color…

A few days ago I was enjoying watching a few of these Yellow-collared Scape Moths (Cisseps fulvicollis) flying around the goldenrod and this white flower in the Aster family.    The moths were very slow flying, almost like helicopters, and the wings opened up wide just before take-off.

I finally remembered the plant is called White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) and is tremendously abundant at this time of year, along with the goldenrod, which is great for the bees and other pollinators.  So far I’m excited about the season in terms of pollen and nectar for the bees.   We’ve had a few rains, but mostly warm sunny days for the bees to forage, which means a nice fall nectarflow so they can really work to strengthen their hives.  

Last year we had so much rain in autumn that I couldn’t feed the bees enough to carry them through winter.   But now, things are looking up! 

In the picture below a bee is carrying a white colored pollen into the hive (and another one along the bottom-left corner of the picture).  I thought it might have been from the snakeroot flower, but I didn’t see a single bee gathering pollen from that plant- it may only have been something from which they gathered nectar.

Later I realized with a Doh! that the bees were getting the white-colored pollen from our very white Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora), which is growing all over the shed next to the chicken coop.  

Sweet autumn clematis is very easy to grow and has an amazing fragrance with a profusion of white flowers.  I watched the bees fill their tiny pollen baskets with white pollen and fly right back to the hive a hundred yards away.     Each year when the clematis is finished flowering, I cut it back within just a few feet from the ground.  All that growth is just one season!   And I even cut it back a little in July to try and train it around the top of the shed… alas it has a vigorous, wild nature!   It’s covering one window and half the door…

This year I plan to cut it back a little earlier so that I can paint the older shed to match the chicken coop, and fix the rickety old door.   I need to repair and paint our brown garden fence as well.  Some of the cross bars have rotted where they join the posts.  Maybe I can salvage it for a few years more with a little stain/paint and not too much expense?

Sometimes it seems as if everything needs fixed!   Well a lot of them do… and it’s time to get that weedeater out again and really take some of the brush and weeds down, clean up the garden, work on the engines, clean up the barn and garage, organize the desk and downstairs, decorate a little, etc.  

And you know what?   I feel really lucky… really blessed, to be here…  to be able to be in good health, to have so many things to do that need done.   Simply to wake up and watch the sun rise.   Here’s wishing you a great week ahead!

“The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Chrysanthemums.
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.”

John Updike, September

 




Welcome September!

September 1st, 2010

Rain!  A nice day or two drizzle to give us some much needed moisture.  Hopefully it won’t really storm… and I hope too that all you folks on the Eastern seaboard are well prepared before Earl makes an appearance.   That’s going to be a lot of rain… I can’t remember the last time a hurricane came up the east coast?  Hopefully it stays far enough offshore to lessen the winds.

Hard to believe it’s already September, but I’ve been watering the garden to keep everything from totally wilting…  it’s a pretty sad affair.  This was about a week ago, and it just became drier.

Today’s rain should help a little, but the weeds have taken over and there’s very little growing at this point.   What should I be planting now?  Peas? Beans?    I may skip the fall season for planting and go right into spring planning :)

What I do know is that bell peppers grow really well in big containers!   And quite a few other plants I’m sure.  This is a grouping of three pepper plants I picked up for .99 cents each back in late June.

They have grown so well and given back about a dozen green peppers with more coming!  It doesn’t get any easier- and the peppers in the garden didn’t do nearly as well.   Containers do so much better, but I really love the garden rows.  Maybe I should make some really long “row containers” with landscape block or something?

Last week we ran down the road a good bit for some trout fishing.  Just a nice cool morning and a good mess of pan-sized rainbow trout.   This one is actually a pound and a half!   Fun times and so delicious…

We also have critter news!   Meet the new addition… a Calico mouser that looks like she stuck her nose in a coal bin.   Isn’t she a cutie?

She’s 7 weeks old with a great disposition.  Let’s hope it stays that way… and she becomes an expert rodent hunter.  With the chickens around this year I suspect we’ll have a few more mice.    Watch out little rodents, this kitty will grow up quickly.

And the other big news… the chickens gave us 8 eggs today!  One from each of the 8 hens which is very cool.  Usually it has been around 4-5 a day but now they’re all laying.   Now just when I’m getting excited they’ll probably slow down as fall continues.   I don’t think I’ll keep lights on in the coop for winter however, so we’ll just see how the chickens do on their own.

Otherwise you can really see the fall season approaching.  The barn swallows have disappeared I think… perhaps starting their migration south.  I did see a larger flock of nighthawks meandering around the sky and they will continue heading south.  The cicadas are growing quieter, and the fall flowers are in bloom.  I’m glad the rain will promote a little more flowering for the bees as well.    Have a good day!



Home and Checking on the Critters

August 22nd, 2010

Oh my… home again! It was a nice journey around the upper midwest, and after the Iowa State Fair we made our way to Missouri, stopping over one night near Mark Twain Lake to clean things up a bit. It wasn’t all fun on the way home… I picked something up at the fair and spent a few nights with a fever and cough.

I’m getting there but it really knocked me out for a few days. Salmonella anyone? Who knows… I had several eggs at the fair, and a couple of egg breakfasts in Wisconsin and Iowa. It wasn’t a fun way to finish the trip, but hey that’s the price you pay for having fun, huh?  Home again and school starts this week for the boy.

That last night at the fair was really nice, and we rode the Skyride up the hill to the campground.  

On the way home the boy learned how to play dominoes.  He found an old dominoe set at an antique shop at the fair for a reasonable price… nice little wooden pieces.   After playing a game or two he would build things that didn’t stay up very well while driving along.

The chickens must have known we would be home… they gave us five presents for the first time with that many eggs. I was really hungry this morning and had four poached eggs on toast! Of course they were half-size eggs anyway :)

We have one or two chickens that don’t know where to lay their eggs… well, maybe they do, but one likes to put an egg in the corner of the coop. I found four eggs in the nest boxes this morning however, so maybe they’ll adapt.    They’re a cute bunch, and race out to see you whenver you come near the coop and run.  Of course they’re motivated by food… they go crazy for scratch mixings of corn and other seeds.

Hello Chickens!  We’re Home!!!

It was very dry while we were gone and all the grass was going to seed and nearly two feet tall. Weeds everywhere… I can’t believe how much things grow up in such a short time. We missed our Concord grape harvest! They were just ripening when we left and I thought our timing would work out… but the dry weather wilted the vines and all the grapes dropped off.

While cutting the grass I nearly ran over a little turtle scooting through the field. He was heading toward the pond a good hundred yards away. I believe it’s a Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta belli).

Colorful little fellow, and he kept paddling in the air as we looked at him. I took him for a free ride to the pond, and let him go… he swam quickly for the depths.

A quick check of the bees and they’re working away like crazy. There goldenrod is blooming! I watched dozens of bees at one hive bringing bright packs of pollen into the entrance. Three of the four hives appears to be doing well, but I may need to order a new queen for the other.

It’s good to see the bees doing well.  Still not a lot of honey this year, but their populations have increased dramatically.

The garden is surely winding down… the squash bugs got most of the pumpkin and squash vines, and cucumbers too.  But the corn is still growing taller and the carrots are growing bigger.  The tomatoes, not so much… between wilt and hornworms they’ve had a pretty tough summer.  But we probably took more than 30 pounds of tomatoes from the garden this year so we can’t complain. The elderberries have half dropped their fruit as well, so we hope to run around and cut some berry clusters before they’re gone.  Soon it will be time for jelly!

We may have some cooler weather ahead and I need to make the rounds and catch up on all the writings in the blogosphere.    

Sometimes I think of my grandmother on my father’s side.   I last saw her in 1999 when she was in a nursing home and when I asked how she was, she laughed and said “I’m here…” and then, “Time waits for no man…”    She passed away a few months later.   Somehow I’ve been thinking about life in the context of time lately… but (with luck and a little time!) those thoughts will await another day.   Stay well…

Here’s someone who really loves little Brownie the chicken!




Thankful for Goodness Around the Garden

July 29th, 2010

Where has July gone already!?    I’m thankful our garden and other activities are coming along nicely, and I hope our harvest keeps on coming.  Or at least progressing… like my weekly battle with squash bugs and tomato wilt (I’m losing!).  

I will say our tomatoes have produced their largest harvest this summer as compared to others ( The boy loves tomatoes!), but the plants look so ragged and are really struggling. Such is life in an organic garden in the midwest.  So much still to learn… but we’ve had enough tomatoes to make a good bit of salsa and more coming for sauce.

Each year I want to plant more and more… you can never have enough tomatoes! 

And what is the deal with pickles anyway?  Why do we like canning them?   You can buy a huge jar of pickles at the store for a few bucks.  Or you can take time to plant cucumbers, weed the garden, grow and pick them,  buy the jars and ingredients, and then take time to can your own…   Granted their is some raw satisfaction in doing it yourself. And it’s fun to share with kids… somehow pickles have a universal appeal.

These are the home-canned variety with dill mix and garden grown dill and other ingredients inside… like garlic and jalapeno peppers. Then processed for 20-30 minutes in boiling water to keep for long-term storage. 

They are very different from the fermented pickles I made last year… those were pretty tasty and I still have a few in the fridge that are still really good.  But it was hard to achieve consistent, firm pickles when I fermented them naturally.  

And do you have a good cucumber and tomato salad recipe in summer? They go so well together, but there’s so many cucumbers!… so maybe pickles just come from trying to figure out what to do with all the extra ones.  I guess it’s fun trying different recipes too… what’s yours?!

I did come up with a natural concoction to help combat tomato wilt/fungus and for discouraging squash bugs and other critters. Here’s my recipe: In a plastic bottle sprayer, combine 1 cup of milk, 1/4 cup hot/spicy sesame oil, 1 tablespoon tea tree oil soap or shampoo, 1/2 teaspoon dishwashing soap, and the rest with water… shake well and spray away!

It seems to work pretty well, although I found if you put the milk and oil in a blender first with a few drops of dishwasing soap it mixes a lot better. When I spray it the bugs skedaddle away quickly. It may or may not kill them, and is probably just a temporary protectant.  But hey, it doesn’t cost much!  Do you have a special mix or recipe that works?

The carrots are doing pretty well this year, but we came out a few days ago to find a dozen or more caterpillars happily munching away on the leaf tops.   These look like the caterpillar larva of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. The boy loves them, and we kept a few to grow into butterflies- it worked out well, and we released them back outside after they emerged!

There’s no free lunch in this garden, so out the rest went!    Well okay, there are lots of free lunches…  I’m just trying to get the crowd to leave!   But I threw the extra caterpillars up into the grass and weeds at the fenceline, so maybe they’ll still become butterflies too.  

I did find a really neat plant this month.   Kind of funny too because I was the one who planted it.   A fellow beekeeper gave me a small mint plant a couple of years go, supposedly as an aid to natural beekeeping.   I’m all for that, even though I didn’t know what it was, and planted it at the base of an oak tree near my hives…  this year it finally flowered.   This is a Pycnanthemum species of some kind… try saying that five times really fast!  I love the white bracts that look like leaves at the top of the plant, with a little crown of flowers.

How did I find out what it was?   Well, I was enjoying the beautiful sights at Edifice Rex a couple of weeks ago, and Annie shared some photos including a plant called Mountain Mint…   I had never heard of it and thought it was neat.   Lo and behold when this one bloomed I realized it was the same plant!  Pretty neat way to find out something new- thanks Annie!   I’m not sure which species of Pycnanthemum it is, but it looks like albescens

I’ve also found that a particluar species of wasp really loves these little flowers.   The Double-Banded Scoliid wasp (Scolia bicincta) has covered this plant over the past week, with as many as 18 wasps on the tiny flower heads.   I’ve also seen some tiny flies and other insects, but no other bees, moths or butterflies.   It’s fascinating to see how the wasps really love the nectar from these tiny flowers.   These are commonly known as digger wasps.  They burrow into the ground and parasitize grubs and other insects.  I’ve never seen this species except on this plant.

*******

The bees are doing well and still building up their hive populations. About a month ago I took five frames from a really strong hive, and placed them in a small “nuc” hive.  Here’s a picture of that little nuc hive sitting on top of an empty full-size hive at right in this picture.

The little old boat with flowers is our “Burt Dow Boat”… do you remember the story? I wrote about it here a few years ago.   I love to fill it with petunias each year, and planted a wispy river birch behind it…

Anyway, I checked on that small nuc hive yesterday and it was doing so well that I put those bees right into that full-size hive that it was sitting on!  I was excited because the nuc was a “walk-away split” and the bees raised their own queen.   When I opened it up they had two full frames of brood and newly capped larvae… cool beans!    It looks like they’re in the shade, but the hive gets full sun from the middle of the day until sunset.

I wondered a little about moving their entrance lower from that little nuc to the bigger hive… if you move a bee hive any appreciable distance, the bees don’t know where to find it.   Supposedly if you need to, you either move them 6 inches a day, or two miles away!   Moving a good distance away is  fine, as long as you wait until all the bees get home in the evening, and then close them up.   But I only moved my bees down a couple of feet, and they quickly figured out how to get into their new home.

Now that I placed them into a new hive, they have five empty frames to draw out with wax, so I mixed up 10 pounds of cane sugar as a syrup, and put that in a hive-top feeder for them.  They won’t draw wax unless their is a good bloom and nectar-flow going on, or if you feed them to stimulate production of wax and additional bees.

With luck that hive population will increase over the next few months and be strong enough to carry right through winter.  I’m thankful they’re doing well and keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll have four hives next spring.

Our other visitors lately include a couple of Great Blue Herons who visit the pond a few times each week.   I don’t begrudge them a meal or two, but they never tire of an easy catch at the expense of our little fish.    When I see them I usually clap my hands or try to sneak up on them…   then they “Croawwwk!” loudly and fly away.

 

July is coming to an end.  It has been a really warm and humid month, but we also enjoyed a good bit of rain.    Hard to believe how fast summer is going by, but we’re not quite to midsummer’s eve yet!  

The evenings are so beautiful however, and the other night was a pretty one…  the boy just marvels at sunsets and the light on the clouds.

 

I hope your summer is going well too. What are you thankful for today?  See you next time!   :)




Life and Death on a Black-Eyed Susan

July 24th, 2010


The Praying Mantis finds its prey…




July Ramblings

July 20th, 2010

A few days ago the chickens were hanging out in the shade with temperatures in the coop over 100 degrees.   And then rain, sweet rain.   And then more rain.    Two days ago I began to write, “a passing storm and raging winds, and then a gentle breeze, drizzle and clouds.  Just what the garden needs, and a respite from the heat…”

I saw this early before dawn… it was quiet and a beautiful orange light was all around.   I just had to walk further.

Then I saw this, slowly building to the southwest…

The clouds billowed upward and outward, forming a classic thunderstorm, with the rumble of thunder in the distance.

Soon it became this…

The barn swallows have another nest full of three more fledglings, and a dry perch to watch the rain pour over the gutters.  Methinks there’s a clog somewhere down the line… I cleaned the gutters out not long ago, yet heavy rain pours over.

So yesterday it was another huge storm of wind, rain and hail, and then today more heavy rain!  The clouds are nice in terms of cooling things off, but we’ve had quite enough water for the time being thank you very much.

I remember years ago being surprised to realize that a lot of folks have not experienced heavy thunderstorms before.   Of course that’s what I’ve always remembered about Missouri summers.    Brief storms  with thunder, lightning, showers and blessedly cooling weather.   Then back to the humid and hot.

With a little cooler daytime temperatures we  seized the opportunity to catch up on weeding and pruning.

This was a shrub rose gone wild that I’ve been meaning to cut out for weeks.  It had several more branches just like this one,  spreading out more than twenty feet in all directions!   It’ll come back unless I put something on the stump to kill it.  And the flowers?  Inconspicuous little white things.  I’m not sure where this rose came from, but it doesn’t have a place here anymore.

The young boy is really a great help around the place.   Now I understand why farmers of old had such big families…

Later the boy enjoyed a break with his Shiba.  Although that little dog likes to think he owns everything around here…  he’s a funny little guy, and a good watch dog.  He lets us know when anything out of the ordinary happens or someone comes down the gravel drive.  They are cute together…

Here’s a picture of the shiba when he was a puppy…    A few years ago I described how he adopted us from a little Japanese pet store in 2002.   We call him Kuma, which is short for Kuma no nuigurumi  or Teddy Bear in Japanese.

*******

This week it was also time to check on the bees.  I’ve got just three hives and a small nuc (nucleus hive) going. Earlier in the spring I had a hive with a drone-laying queen, and she eventually disappeared. Before the hive was queenless too long I solved that problem with the help of another local beekeeper.

We combined that hive with a nuc and a new queen, using a screened divider between them for a week. That gave the failing hive time to become acquainted with the new queen and other bees, and then after removing the screened divider, the hive became one, joining forces to work together.   Since that time they’ve steadily increased their population and look great now.

Alas I have another hive with a failing queen. This hive started out strong, but then simply languished. I have found no disease or other external problems, but the queen is simply not laying enough eggs to keep the population strong.   I will probably order a new queen to replace her soon, and allow the bees to strengthen the hive before winter.

With all the beekeeping challenges this is not a year for gathering much honey.  That’s okay because I’m really trying to build them up going into winter.  But that middle hive is very strong and may yield a small super of honey, so we’ll see.   Here’s a picture of bees fanning at the top opening on the inner cover.

One reason they fan their wings is as a signal for other bees, blowing scent pheromones from a hive entrance or other location so their hive mates know where to go.  But they also fan to cool and circulate the air through the hive on hot days .  Most importantly, the bees will fan to increase the evaporative cooling effects within the hive to remove moisture from the nectar/honey stored within.

After the bees gather nectar from flowers, it is carried in their honey stomach back to the hive, then often passed to another worker bee to process and store within the hive.  During this process the nectar is converted to various sugars by enzymatic action and deposited into the waxy cells within the hive.  But it is very runny and full of moisture at this point… not even close to being honey yet.   Beekeepers call honey which is too runny green.   It doesn’t really become honey until the moisture level is lowered to about 17%-18%.   Then the bees put a waxy cap on the cell and the honey is stored until needed as food.

Because the bees have lowered the water content of the honey, it is very hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb water moisture from the air.   Good quality honey has a very low water content which is one of the reasons it can be stored almost indefinitely without spoiling.    If you’ve ever had honey ferment at home, it’s either because the container wasn’t sealed tightly over time and it absorbed a lot of moisture, or it was too green or allowed to sit open before it was purchased and fermented later.  Of course you could always make mead or use it for baking!  Runny honey just needs to be used a little more quickly.

Everything else is coming along too.  I harvested around 15 pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers out of the garden this morning.  I think pickles are in our future… and tomato sauce!     Seems like the tomatoes are ripening all at once, and I need them to keep going.

Last week I found this lucky titmouse enjoying a feast on a ripened sunflower.

I also planted more squash, and some beets in the garden- hoping they mature in time for a good harvest.  It was the perfect time too with all the rain.    I also planted collard greens which supposedly improve in taste after the first frost.   I don’t know about that, but I enjoy them when cooked and mixed with seasoning.  Does anybody have good ideas for how to use collard greens in the kitchen?  Well I love greens, but I never made them very often.  Maybe in soup?

The sun is back out this afternoon… 96 degrees and hot! Hard to motivate anyone to do anything, even myself it seems. One small step…

Summer Gardening, Picking Blackberries and Eating Weeds!

July 14th, 2010

Sometimes it seems difficult to keep up with everything, not to mention writing and sharing pictures.   The days pass with so many changes and it’s hard to share them all.   So rather than several shorter posts, I’ll catch up today with a long one!   Yesterday I started making a “to-do” list… that was a mistake! Think I need to make a “Would like to do” list” and a “Whenever I get around to it” list.  Come to think of it, I’ll throw in a “Definitely should not do” list as well!  Somehow my brain keeps these lists as thoughts floating around, crossing some off, adding others.

Some days my thoughts are efficient and organized, stepping with vigor from one to another.  Other days it’s simply managed chaos, flecks of needs interspersed with wants, smiles and muttering and usually enough desire and concentration to get the job accomplished.

Then I take a break, have a cup of coffee or three glasses of water (sometimes both…) and sit out by the barn.  Maybe a Coke now and then!  I might look towards the water and see the wind blowing on the pond, letting thoughts and cares take form and move around like the little waves… and  looking closer I can almost see shapes and movement.   Light dances across the water and the wind makes the waves look like chocolate and reminds me of the richness of my coffee… it looks inviting.

Then I begin again, but not without taking a few pictures along the way.    Near the bee hives I see what looks like the underside of a Black Swallowtail butterfly hanging on a poke plant.   I try to get closer and it flies away…

Later it’s time to make the rounds in the garden.  This is a strange year- the potatoes wilted early and died, but not before yielding a nice bounty of fresh young tubers for the summer.   The tomatoes are all suffering from wilt and black-spot, so I need to cut off the diseased leaves and try to save the plants.  If that wasn’t enough we’ve taken over 20 tomato worms off the plants!  They appear like magic… you pick off a few one day, and the next day there’s more.   They are kind of pretty looking…

Don’t be fooled however, that green worm is a monster!  These little guys can really chomp a tomato plant back in a matter of hours it seems.  Well sometimes they’re little- yesterday I took one off a plant as thick as my thumb and as long as a finger!   Since I really love tomatoes, they’ve just got to go.  I don’t till the garden soil, but that may be something I’ll start next year as a strategy for disrupting the life stages.   This site has a nice description of the life cycle of the tomato hornworm moth and larva.  The moths are beautiful, and even look like hummingbirds when in flight around flowers.   But the green worms are not long for the garden.  Fortunately the chickens really love them… bleck!

Otherwise the garden is coming along okay.  The beans are not as prolific this year- something is munching their leaves too.   We’re trying to keep things natural and organic, but I haven’t stayed ahead of the critters.   How sad is that- beans are a no-brainer!  I may plant some more.    The boy did plant some sweet corn a couple of weeks ago and it’s coming up nicely.  Hopefully we’ll have some for the table in late Septemember…

The cucumbers are doing great however, and they taste wonderful as a fresh salad, especially with tomatoes, and a little vinegar and oil for seasoning.   I saw a recipe I’m going to try that had chopped mint leaves in a cucumber salad… maybe tonight!   And carrots… they look kind of like weeds sometimes (meaning they get picked inadvertently!).  But we packed so many in the row when planting seeds that we’ve been pulling a few to make room for their growth.

After the garden it’s back to work, or a different kind of work anyway.   Cutting and trimming the grass and weeds!   A weekly cycle in the warm season.

Do you use a weedeater or trimmer?   It’s a wonderful invention and a great help around the property,  but they sure are noisy, smelly and finicky.   I know… bad for the environment, they use gas and oil, blah, blah, blah.  I do care about the environment and do the best I can.  It’s often a tradeoff… and unless you know of some really fast automatic scissors to trim acres of weeds that don’t use a mower,  there’s not many options.

Oh, I have a small electric trimmer too.  Works great for about 10 minutes in very light grass- the boy uses that to help out, and goes through several NiCad batteries very quickly, which over the years lose their charge and are also an environmental problem in terms of disposal.   I have a half-dozen cordless electric tools that I love, but they are not for long-term heavy-duty use.   Good for quick, light work and for a city or suburban yard, but not for hours of trimming on a rural property.  It  can literally takes a few days to trim the places that need it around here.

Often I just let the grass and weeds grow in many areas, and then trim them once or twice a season.  The pond’s dam is one example, which is nearly an acre of tall grass and weeds  such as queen anne’s lace right now.  That’s a tradeoff too because the landscape will soon turn to woody shrubs and then trees.

Leaving the grass uncut also fosters erosion in many places because it shades out turf at the lower levels.    A good carpet of grassy turf keeps water from tearing up the ground when running downhill… and we have a lot of hills leading down to the pond.   Like many things in life, unless you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes for a bit, putting thoughts and good intentions into practice is not so simple.

I’ve had a half-dozen different makes and models through the years, and there are few things more frustrating than trying to pull-start a weed trimmer that simply won’t run.    Or getting new line put on the spool… sometimes the line feeds out, and sometimes it’s a mess.  How does it tie itself in knots?!

But they really get the job done pretty well if you need to trim a lot of grass.  One of my favorites in terms of reliability is an inexpensive Bolens brand from Lowe’s.   I found it quite by accident after one that I had for two decades finally stopped working.  Well, the fuel lines are all messed up and I can’t find a part to fit it yet.

That favorite old weed trimmer was an IDC model 500 Supreme (tan casing at left in pictures), and I was never able to find another one like it.  Until last fall.  Turns out that IDC was bought by Ryan… and then Ryan/IDC was bought by Ryobi, which was later bought by TTI out of Asia, and apparently some aspects of the design now have a Bolens brand on them.    Consolidation in the business world, go figure.

The particular design that I like has a combination of light weight and motor/line strength that works very well for most grass and weeds.  And it just keeps on running.   My old IDC model ran for almost twenty years… on the same spark plug!   The funny part is that I remember paying $69 for that IDC model way back in 1989.

How much did I pay for this Bolens model last summer?   Yup…  $69.    From an inflation perspective, the new trimmer is far less expensive.   The build quality is still pretty decent- and as you can see in the pictures, it is nearly the same exact design.   The new one handles about the same and seems just as light and reliable.    Heck, I may even get another one as a spare since I really like this model.

If money were no object, a trimmer with the Stihl brand would be awesome.  I have a Stihl chainsaw that is amazing, but their products are pretty steep in cost.  For the chainsaw, safety is a big factor so I wanted something the industry uses and that would last.   I don’t think you can go wrong with a reliable inexpensive weed trimmer however.   And let’s just say I don’t recommend the brand whose name is synonymous with its purpose of being a weedeater.   I’ve got three of those in the barn that have been finicky and problematic for a lot of folks, not to mention heavy!

Our other activities over the past week included picking more blackberries!  Hooray!  The boy loves to pick them, but isn’t too thrilled with the stickers.  I think you get used to moving around in a briar patch if you take your time.   He’s not convinced… but he likes to eat them!

They are really good though- as long as you get the sweet ones.   I kind of like a mix of sweet and tart, so I don’t mind picking some that aren’t quite ripe yet.  The pinkish one’s will fill our buckets another day…

After a good hour we had nearly two quarts of berries.   We had some fresh for ice cream and the rest go into the freezer.

I have learned that there are cake people, and pie people.  Sure we all eat some of both at times, but honestly?  I’m a pie person… I just love pies of all kinds, especially berry pies.   Something about the juicy, sweet and tart flavors all combined.   We finished this one off last week, but I’m going to make another!

In a month or so we’ll have some grapes maturing, and this year I’d like to make a Concord grape pie.   I’ve made jelly and jam from the grapes, but never a pie, so that’s on the “to do” list.   I did plant some wild plum on the property, and I hope I get to see them bear fruit … I’m always looking for other wild edibles.   Some folks have wild grape or muscadine on their property.  We have them but I’ve never seen any substantial berries, or perhaps the birds get to them first.

So here’s a large muscadine vine I pulled down from a walnut tree this week.  They grow so vigorously that they can tangle a tree in a season or two, and eventually the tree’s growth is impacted.  This one was close to thirty feet up the tree, and had grown for the last few years- so I cut the vines at their base, and towed it en masse across the pond dam to the burn pile.   I looked reeeally closely to make sure there was no poison ivy in the mix!  I keep a pile of branches and dead woody vegetation for burning during the wetter seasons.  Maybe I should plant and cultivate a muscadine vine.

One of those “whenever I get around to it” items on my list is cutting the pond’s dam.   I hope to cut it soon, and as the grass dries out in the summer heat it will become lighter and easier to cut.  It’s not a job I really enjoy because of how steep it is, but it really does help keep the dam in good shape.    We did clear off some cattails near the base of the dam yesterday…  they look nice, but you really don’t want them growing abundantly.

The ground can become too wet and marshy if you let these types of plants grow, and then they attract the types of animals that start burrowing in places you don’t want them too (like a dam!).   Each year we have a few of them, but make sure to take them out.  Water seeps from down from the land bordering the dam, and a little bit near the base.    It’s been that way for at least twenty-five years, but I like to keep it trimmed each year.  Stay tuned…

So this week’s project included spending a few days with weed and brush cutters going around the perimeter of the pond.    First I went around cutting the woody plants and trees that always try to grow, and then I use that weed trimmer to cut down the taller grass and pond weeds.   It helps to keep the banks relatively clean, or else those shrubs and trees really get a foothold.  It’s a lot more work to cut down trees and brush, and I’m not letting a single cattail take root!   Perhaps I just like a more open look… it just seems more relaxing :)

One of these days I’d love to get a used sickle mower… it would hang off the tractor about seven feet or more with a long row of teeth, and then simply cut around anything you wanted it to (like the pond!), or under fence rows, etc.    Of course the only problem with more tools, motors and gadgets is that you have to store them and maintain them… and more junk is not what I need right now :)   Well this was a little longer than I planned… thanks for coming by especially if you’ve read this far.   Now it’s time to head out and fix something.  Have a good week!

The Chicken Coop is Finished!

June 28th, 2010

Finally… the chickens are in their new home. Seven weeks… arrrgghhh! The coop is, for the most part, about finished. It’s been mostly done for a week or so now, but I’m still fiddling with the little things. Remind me not to custom build something ever again.   I’m still deciding where to put the roosts, and need to build nest boxes by the end of August.  Between the measuring, cutting little pieces,  painting and trimming out… it just takes time.   But it’s kind of cute…

I’m soooo glad it’s about done.    Except for the windows and the chicken door (and the roof), it’s totally insulated.  Yesterday I spent the entire day building the little chicken door!  I feel like such a klutz sometimes, because it takes so dang long.   For whatever reason I think I should just be able to zip through it.  But the simplest, smallest things seem to take forever sometimes.

If I had it to do over, I would research more thoroughly and choose some really nice chicken coop plans (like ChickenCoopGuides.com ) and I would plan the details a little more!  But I’ve enjoyed putting this one together.

That little door has nine small pieces of trim and wood all around it.  I thought about making this on the inside, but decided it would keep rain and critters out better if it was built on the outside.   It slides in a wooden track, with the horizontal trim pieces moving up and down.  The bottom has trim in front and behind… when you push on it, it hits a lip on the coop and is blocked from pushing in.

 The top has a trim piece and a cap… the door hangs from that top cap piece so it’s slightly raised and won’t sit on the outer trim and rot when it gets wet.   I’ll put a hook-eye scew in the top to attach the pull cable, which will run to the left and outside the fence.  We (the boy!) will be able to walk up and open and close the door with the cable.

Someday I’d love to install a battery operated, light-sensitive automatic chicken door with a solar charger… there are a few of those for sale on the web, but I’m not inclined to spend $200-$300 on them!   If I learn a little more about electronics maybe I could make one.  Big learning curve for me…  For now, I like the idea of personal involvement with the chickens in terms of responsibility, and helping the boy to learn the same.  Hope that lasts :)

I designed the outer nest box door to open down, and it has spring loaded hinges to help stay closed. But the door is double-wall insulated and weighs about thirty pounds, so it will need a chain to hold it flat after opening it.

 It’s cool though- because you can peek inside and say hello to the chickies.   Maybe even fill their feeder with a little reach.    I’m thinking about putting in 2-3 roosts going across from above and to the side of the big door, across to the back wall…  what do you think?  Any other ideas for roosts?  I’d like to make them removable… easier to clean and get around inside.

They should start laying by the end of August or September, so I’ve got a little time for nest boxes yet.  And I don’t want them roosting in them now.    The windows have 1/4 inch galvanized hardware cloth as screens, and are built open for ventilation. After that tremendous rainstorm last night the inside of the coop stayed dry, hooray! I’ll need to make hinged windows or something by October, so they can stay cozy in the winter.   Any ideas?

I didn’t run electrical wiring into the coop, which I may regret… but an extension cord will reach to the coop from the house if I need to put a light or heated water bowl in there. It wouldn’t be hard to place an outlet box and run some wiring out the bottom and underneath, but we’ll see how it goes this year first.

Overall it should be fine, ’cause it’s the only coop we’re going to have!  At least for keeping less than a dozen chickens. If we had more chickens like a lot of folks, I would definitely build it full size (taller), and a good ways back from the house. As it is, we’ll end up with about eight hens and a rooster- which should work fine to keep within a hose length from the back of the home.   After living in a smaller space in the shed next door, they don’t smell at all.  Just a little dusty normal chicken odor.  I’ve heard the key is keeping them dry, so we’ll see.  But we can easily crawl inside from the two doors, although that skinny one is kinda tight for you-know-who…  But it will make access for the nest boxes easier as well as helping with clean-up.

The doors are heavy… built with 2×4’s and insulated with two walls.  They weigh between 30-60 pounds (14-27 kg), so I used 2 -1/2 inch lag bolts for the hinges into the 2×4 frames, and they swing beautifully.  Again, if I did it over- that left door would be a little wider.  It provides decent access, but I have the laying boxes in there and it’s a tight fit.  The idea was right, but I ran out of room by putting the door in towards the left so far.  Ah well… it is what it is :)

ChickenCoop

One of these days I’ll build the run… I’ve been letting the chickens have “the run” of the garden, which they love… but our plants are suffering a little from their stomping and pecking around.

I like watching them wander around, although the other day they came sauntering up beside our little Shiba dog while he was asleep… He was on a cable, but I didn’t expect them to come out to the front side of the house.   It seems and they wanted to see what I was doing… I froze and waited for them to get past the dog and come to me. Just as they moved out of reach, the dog woke up and stared, eyes wide, as if to say, “Oh man! I could have had one!”    He licked his lips and whined… he would grab one of those chickens in a second if he could.

So I locked the dog in the garage and went back out to herd the chickens into the garden/coop area. The yellow lab is definitely not a herd dog… he thinks it’s great fun to run around with the chickens which is probably why they weren’t afraid of the other dog. Here’s the motley crew…

Oh, and I figured out that Captain Jack the black rooster is an Australorp. He was in a bin mixed with other unknowns from the hatchery. Have to say he’s becoming a pretty decent fellow and is already crowing in the mornings at 12 weeks old. So is Little Red, the other rooster, but he sounds kind of sick when he tries to crow!  We’re going to give one of the roosters away, but haven’t decided which one for sure. They are both beautiful birds… but Jack seems a little more calm than the New Hampshire Red rooster.

It was great to have the boy helping yesterday… and at the end of the day we put the chickens in the coop for the first time. He stayed inside with a little scratch (corn, millet, mixed seeds) which is like candy to chickens. Most of them ran right inside, but I had to catch a few more. Just as we were cleaning up, we heard thunder in the distance… (something Ed has experienced too much of lately!). He said “Dad! Look at the clouds and take a picture!” And he wanted to put it up here to share…

No sooner had we gone inside than a huge storm came through. We really needed the rainfall and it helped cool things off a bit. Good for the chickens because they’re going to stay inside their new home for a couple of days!

Time Flies and Dragons Too

June 6th, 2010

Yesterday was above 93 and so humid you could hang wall paper on on a pot bellied pig.  After a front passed in the night this morning was beautifully cool around 60 degrees F.  My kind of weather…  especially with a t-shirt, embracing that cool tingly feeling.  The days high reached the low 80’s which was a pleasant change, even if just for a day or two.   Hard to believe it’s almost summer.

Just after sunrise I went out and turned on the irrigation for the garden and watched a hummingbird zip over and hang on to a bean leaf while taking a shower! Little sprinkles from one of the drip lines were spraying the leaf, and he would just hang there flipping his little wings all around.  Alas, I didn’t have the camera…

Except for today, the previous three weeks were incredibly hot.  The higher temperatures really brought out the flowers.   Somehow I know summer is just about here when the orange day lilies bloom.

The flowers are nice of course, but that also means the insect populations are really exploding now too.  Especially the mosquitoes!   Goodness they’ve been everywhere, but one of the nice things about having a pond nearby is that it provides a breeding ground for many types of dragonflies.   Thankfully a primary staple of the dragonfly diet is the mosquito. These guys are expert hunters, almost like fighter jets of the insect world.

Reminds me of a story when I was a young high schooler. I remember fishing in Ontario, Canada on a trip with my father and brother.   Beautiful northern lake in early summer with wonderful fishing.   It was a small log cabin camp where you fished everyday together in a little boat, and then returned to the lodge for the lunch or the evening meal with a dozen or so other guests, family style.  

One night a gentleman didn’t return from his day out fishing.  We all finished dinner and sat around the lodge waiting and becoming increasingly worried.   It was well after dark, even with the late sunsets of the north, and the owners were about to call and report him missing.   Finally we heard the distant drone of a small boat motor approaching.

It was the wayward fisherman. He pulled up to the dock, wide-eyed and exhausted looking. He said he was in a little cove and couldn’t get the engine started.  He tried and tried to fix it until it became dark and his boat drifted near a forested shoreline.   He said that before he realized what was happening there were clouds of mosquitoes all around attacking him.  He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and not at all prepared for a night out.   If you’re familiar with the northwoods you know some of those mosquitoes are huge.

He told how he was swatting mosquitoes in all directions, frantic and just about ready to jump in the lake for relief when he heard this amazing thrum of insect wings, with a different, deeper pitch, becoming louder and louder.   All of a sudden he saw an incredible flight of hundreds and hundreds of dragonflies cruising to his rescue and tearing through the clouds of mosquitoes.  He said they flew everywhere, relentlessly returning and circling his boat, and described how the dragonflies decimated the mosquitoes.  

He couldn’t believe it and said he was never so appreciative of an insect until that night.  Siezing the opportunity while the dragonflies attacked,  he put renewed vigor into his efforts to start the boat engine, finally succeeding and eventually making his way back to camp.  He didn’t go out alone again that week… :)



Hear! Hear! Spring is Near! Persevere!

March 5th, 2010

Another beautiful week, and hopefully everyone back east is getting a little warmer weather too.   A strange few weeks this has been for me… but I can hear again! Hence the cheery title for this one. Somehow I came down with an ear infection in mid-February.  It was one of those “hurts a little” things that became a huge pain in less than a day.  Long story short, it ruptured my eardrum and clogged up the ear for weeks.    Finally this week I can hear much better, the ear is clearing up and most of all… that incessant RINGING is finally going away!   

I never gave much thought to tinitis, or how ringing in the ears could be so distracting, but wow!  It’s almost like that emergency broadcast tone on the radio, playing constantly in one side of your head.   I’ve always protected my hearing, and the thought of having to live all the time with a tone like that constantly would be quite debilitating.  I feel for anyone who suffers from that.   

The Doc said it’s usually from nerve damage from long-term loud noises and there’s not much they can do about it.  People must learn to deal with it over time. The solution?  Just like everything else…   Preventative health care!  Wear ear plugs and such when you use loud machinery, and watch the loud music!  Kids especially these days can really mess up their hearing by playing their music too loud all the time with those ear phones and mp3 players.   I’ve always said that when I’m 80 years old I still want to hear the birds singing in the forest and the the kids telling me stories. Think I’m still on track…

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Aside from that I was bummed this week when I faced the fact that my two hives of bees didn’t make it through winter.   I knew something was wrong last month when I should have seen activity on some warmish days.  I had checked on them in December and they seemed okay.  I took a peek in January and I could tell they were weak… it just didn’t look like a strong population in any hive.   

Last September and October were so cool and wet that the bees barely had a chance to gather food.   I fed them like crazy as long as I could, and even wrapped and insulated the hives, but it was simply not enough.    I remember seeing quite a few of the larvae that died in late September being pushed out of the hive.  That indicated they were not able to increase their population fast enough due to lack of food or some other reason.   So finally I went and took apart the hives a couple days ago.

This might look like live bees gathered around the queen or something, but instead it’s a picture of the last stand the bees made for food at some point.  These are all dead…  and aside from a few hundred dead bees on the bottom board, these were all that were left inside one of the hives.    I never noticed a swarm in late summer, but some may have left the hive early.   And there was never any noticeable disease or mites present.   I really think it was just lack of food and the time to build up their population to keep a strong, viable cluster through winter.   Lesson learned for me… start feeding earlier and don’t count on late summer and early fall to help them build up.  

So it’s like starting over…  and a strange feeling.  I didn’t realize how I had become so used to their activity around the place.  I really miss them. Another local beekeeper lost 15 of 25 hives or so for similar reasons, especially the poor autumn weather.   But on a positive note, I should be filling three hives with bees in a little over a month.  With a little luck and a good warm flowering season, they should ramp up and be fairly strong this year.   My education continues… but never fear! We’ll persevere! Okay my title’s a little corny :)

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On the insect theme, I found a strange pupal shell on the bottom of one of the hives.  I’d love to have seen what emerged from this one… any ideas? Maybe our favorite entomologist can help :)

Other than that, I need to write a little more often. Thanks for coming around now and then to say hello. I’m not going anywhere even if I do slow down at times, and somehow I think this will continue to be a really interesting year for all of us… in a good way. Stay well!

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P.S. Jessica Watson rounded the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) over a week ago and is now continuing from the west across the Indian Ocean east towards Australia. She’s made great progress, yet still has a few months of sailing to go. If you like appetizers, she’s got a “tinned and dried version of nachos” that doesn’t look too bad for being nearly five months at sea!



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