En Plein Air.

As soon as winter dormancy is over, I spend all of my free time digging, planting, weeding, mulching, fertilizing, pruning, and getting all hot and sweaty and covered in dirt and I don’t come inside until the sun goes down. It’s heaven, but it’s not all that conducive to making art. The garden becomes my canvas, and aside from being creatively fulfilling it also drains me physically. By the time I get dinner on the table (way too late) and get out to my studio I’m beat. So my artistic progress is slower these days, but I’m also more focused having decided to do a whole series of glass. I took a brief diversion to draw some daffodils, but here’s what I’ve been working on for the last couple of months:

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As for what I’ve been working in the garden, I know I have approximately 3 fans of my little video garden tours, so I made another one just for them. But anyone is free to take some dramamine and watch it:

More pastels of glass are in the works, as are more zucchinis and tomatoes and pumpkins and dirt and sunshine. I know we didn’t have a winter and we’re in the middle of a catastrophic drought, but I can’t help but love Spring, warm weather, and DST.

Around the farmlet in March.

Anyone who grows food will tell you that climate change is real. It’s actually really funny to see how this plays out in the ultra-conservative Big Ag media like Western Farm Press, as the mostly-republican growers split with their party on this and immigration. How climate change ever became political is beyond me anyway, but then again I’ve never understood Republicans and I understand Democrats so well that I’m a registered Libertarian. But that’s a different story…

I thought I was on the ball this year when it comes to starting the summer garden, but nope, winter passed us by and spring feels like summer. So, while I’m sprouting kohlrabi, radishes, beets, and lettuce, I also have tomatoes bolting out of their cold frames, Lady Banks roses blooming alarmingly early, and trees that are budding and dropping fall leaves all at the same time. In terms of food production, warm weather is fine as long as we have water (also a different story), but next year I’ll need to start the winter/summer garden rotation even earlier.

Here’s a look at what’s going on around the farmlet this summer-spring we’re calling winter:

Although I haven’t really needed the frost protection, these cold-frame shelves Greg built are doing an awesome job of warming up my seedlings. Astute observers will note ample starts of my favorite tomato.

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The kale looks all fluffy and happy after an application of blood meal, but it sure would taste a lot better if we could just get a little frost or two.

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The bees have done so well since my application of miticide that I was able to split one of my colonies and raise a new queen. That little hive in front will go live with my brother in agricultural paradise (AKA Napa) in a few weeks.

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The strawberry bed we started last fall is paying off. The slugs like it too.

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Tomatoes. In March. I love tomatoes, but seriously WTF.

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Alarmingly early gladiolas.

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Replacement chickens, for the chickens that were stolen out of our garden. Yep, seriously, somebody stole our chickens. We were raising 3 boys for meat, and 3 girls to transfer to the main coop, in a portable coop that I was going to move to a different garden bed every 3 months for weed control and fertilization. They were only about a month away from butcher/transfer, and somebody came in the garden at night, peeled back the fencing, and took off with all of them. Crazy, that we live in a town so safe that kids can play in the streets and run around town unaccompanied until dark and everyone leaves their front doors unlocked like it’s 1950, but people steal produce and chickens. So Greg is building me a “chicken tractor” that we’ll padlock to the garden beds. Personally I’d love to get guinea hens because apparently they shriek when strangers come on your property. They’d fit right in with the incessant barking from all the neighborhood dogs.

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Happy SpringSummerWinterMarch from my beautiful little ghetto paradise.

On participation etiquette, and farm conferencing.

Many years ago I interned with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when they were installing computers in public libraries across the US. The job of the interns was to visit all the libraries in our area which had already received installations, and provide maintenance for the computers and supplemental training to the library staff. Since this was back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the internet, the training we offered was really basic, along the lines of Beginning Microsoft Word. I was really inexperienced as a presenter much less as a trainer, so audience management was a little beyond me at that point. I was about to give a presentation on Intermediate Excel at one library when a librarian approached me and explained that she knew next to nothing about computers but wanted to sit in. She said she would keep her questions to herself since she knew she was in over her head, so I agreed to let her participate.

She did not keep her questions to herself. She monopolized my time for the whole presentation, constantly asking me basic questions on subjects that the rest of the audience was already well versed in. It made the presentation really painful for them, and it wasted their time. It was a nice little lesson in managing your audience, as I started to learn how to politely defer her questions as the session progressed. Encountering people like her makes me wonder about the etiquette of participating in something you know nothing about.

This issue reared its head again recently when I attended the annual California Small Farm Conference. Although I’m not a farmer I am fascinated by the agriculture industry and enjoy learning everything I can about it. This is the third year I’ve attended this conference, and I find the programming to be really valuable. I learn a lot about the industry, and I always come away with some little tidbits I can apply on a very small scale on my farmlet.

The audience at the farm conference varies depending on where it’s held. It seems that anytime it’s held within driving distance of a major metropolis it attracts a zillion wanna-bes both young and old. That’s fine, and everyone needs to start somewhere, but it makes the issue of participation etiquette or lack thereof really noticeable. Some of the questions asked during the farm tours and during the workshop sessions were so far below basic they were almost offensive. Offensive because it wastes everyone’s time, and takes time away from other questions from people who are already at the same level as the presenter and want to move on. In some cases it was pretty clear that the people asking those very basic questions did not do any preliminary research or reading, but expect to absorb all the information they need to start a successful, profitable farm from scratch simply by attending a few workshops and networking with each other. As a librarian I completely understand not knowing where to start in your information-gathering process, but then the questions at that point should be a little different. “What resources should I consult to find the information I need?” is very different than asking the presenter to explain their topic plus everything that precedes it. It’s a little bit like that question every librarian has been asked, from people dubious that we need to know anything more than how to use a barcode scanner and date stamp, about what we learned in library school. And we all say sure, I’ll condense my 2 year Master’s degree and internships for you in 15 minutes, no problem, right?

A session I attended on grafting vegetables was one of the best examples of how the wanna-bes hijack the presentations at this particular conference. The presentation and presenter were amazing. Just two years ago I was at a presentation at the Heirloom Exposition on grafted tomatoes, and the presenter told the audience that we would NEVER be able to graft our own vegetables because unlike the relatively simple, easy, and standard practice used on woody plants like fruit trees, the technique for vegetables was far too complicated for the home gardener to master. In this presentation, the presenter walked us through it step-by-step, and then let us go at it with a flat of Green Zebra scion and Ace rootstock. The presenter allowed questions during her presentation, and about halfway through it all went off the rails, when a newbie asked what rootstock is. Then another newbie asked why the industry throws away the top of the rootstock and couldn’t they just plant it out? Then another newbie asked what verticillium wilt is and another newbie asked what roostock the presenter recommended, for nothing in particular. And yeah I know this might not mean anything to you if you know nothing about agriculture, but we were at a farm conference for goodness sakes. In a session on grafting vegetables. Which you really don’t need to attend if you don’t know what verticillium wilt is. The presenter handled it masterfully, but came away with a very skewed perception of the audience and the conference. She kept repeating over and over “oh wow, I really made a lot of assumptions about your level of knowledge, and I’m sorry about that, let me back up…” while half of us are sitting there wishing she’d go faster. We didn’t attend a session on grafting vegetables to find out what rootstock is.

I’m fascinated in a way, by the people who hijack presentations in this manner. It happens in any industry I’m sure, anytime you bring a group of people together to learn something at an intermediate or advanced level. Watching it from the audience makes me very mindful of controlling it as a presenter, although I don’t often get the opportunity to teach to an intermediate crowd. And it makes me appreciative of presenters and teachers who can handle this situation masterfully, as so many of the presenters and moderators at this conference did. I think they’re getting used to that wanna-be crowd.

All gripes aside, the conference was wonderful. Inspiring and fascinating as usual, and I brought home practical knowledge for my farmlet on native habitat for beetles and lizards, grafted tomatoes, leased land, and food processing. I hardly took any pictures since the farm tour day was cold and gloomy, but I did manage to capture the important things: baby lambs, farm cats, a farm studio, fascinating warning labels, interesting interplantings, and purty flowers.

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January’s redemption.

For those of us who like to spend as much time outside as possible, and as much time growing things as possible, January is a tough month. Even when it’s warm, as it so often is in Southern California, my garden still looks like a barren wasteland. Winter crop seedlings struggle through cold nights and short days, even in the cold-frames. All my favorite hiking spots are devoid of life, and it’s sometimes hard to find the beauty in so much brown. And there isn’t even any baseball, for goodness sakes. It’s a truly depressing time of year.

But there is one bright spot in January, around the middle of the month, when strawberry season begins, and the farm stand just down the road from us starts selling half-flats from the Oxnard fields for just 14 bucks. By April they’re down to 11, but 14 is fine with me, for this little ray of light in an otherwise gloomy month.

With our first half-flat of the year I made my first-ever crepes. All my life I’ve been told by various folks that crepes are SO hard to make, and they take a special pan and a special spatula and special skilz and blah blah blah all that is complete nonsense. I followed this recipe from Alton Brown, and used my little non-stick pan with the wobbly handle that I got from Ikea for like $5, and my same old workhorse of a plastic spatula that I’ve had for the last 8 years or so, and everything was easy-peasy. So, if you’re like me, and everyone you know has been yammering on about how hard crepes are, and you’ve never tried making them because of that, just do it. OK, if you don’t know how to turn your stove on, and you’re not sure what a spatula is, maybe start with bisquick pancakes or something. The rest of you, you got this.

I rolled my easy-peasy crepes around plain sliced strawberries, drizzled honey over the top, and dusted them with powdered sugar, and had the most delicious breakfast on a random Tuesday.

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I also made this wonderful roasted strawberry balsamic sherbet. It’s truly a sherbet, turning out a bit icier than the custard style ice cream I usually prefer to make, but with a buttermilk and sour cream base it’s a treat if you’re a fan of tart frozen yogurt. I wonder though, if it can be made a bit smoother and more creamy. Can you even make a custard base with buttermilk? This one might need a little more experimentation.

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I feel like I should also be presenting a strawberry trio, and maybe I eventually will or maybe I won’t, but for now I’ve been letting my art take me whichever way the wind blows. I’ll see how that all ends up at the end of January and maybe get back to the trios in February. Or maybe not.

Pesticides saved my bees.

I’ve been keeping bees for a little over 3 years now, and every winter I’ve lost my colonies to varroa mites. These little pests are so insidious their official name is varroa destructor and that’s exactly what they do. Some bee scientists theorize that most reported cases of colony collapse disorder are actually cases of colonies overwhelmed by varroa mites. They’re a relatively recent immigrant to the US, having been introduced in the 80’s, and ever since beekeepers and bee scientiests have been struggling to find ways to eradicate them. It’s absolutely crazy that all the current media frenzy about colony collapse disorder and bee extinction almost never mentions varroa, even though any beekeeper will tell you it’s THE most pressing and concerning issue in beekeeping right now.

I’ve been trying to manage my bees without chemicals since the start. There’s a few integrated pest management techniques for varroa, the most common of which is dusting the bees with powdered sugar, and using screened bottom boards and sticky traps. The sugar makes the bees slippery, and it makes them clean themselves, so the mites get knocked off and fall through the screened board to the sticky traps. So I dusted, and I used the screened bottom boards and sticky traps, and I watched my hives crash from the heavy mite loads every winter. This winter I wised up and put in the chemicals. Those chemicals are actually pesticides, engineered to target the mites and not the bees as much as possible. I started with Apistan, but on the advice of a local beekeeper switched to Apivar, a newer pesticide that the mites haven’t become resistant to yet.

Before I put in the Apivar, I was watching my hives collapse again. Every morning I woke up to piles of dead bees at the hive entrances. My mite tests were showing an infestation at 6 times the level at which the Big Ag beekeepers recommend you start chemical treatment. My bees were clearly dying. Again. And now, as we go into January, they’re thriving. I’ve never seen such healthy hives this time of year. Granted, the weather has been amazingly warm, so the rest of winter could still be a struggle. For now, I’m celebrating getting this far.

Capped honey in January is a glorious sight, even though I know that it’s mostly the sugar syrup I’ve been feeding them (in drought conditions, flowers don’t produce the nectar bees need to make honey).
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Still raising brood, in perfect concentric pattern, and there’s still enough bees to keep the brood at the required 95 degrees all through the night. The queen is in this photo, top right, marked with a red dot.
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I wised up to a proper feeding regimen too, now working in gallons rather than cups. They get the sugar syrup out of the bag through two slits I made on top with a razor. The crumbly stuff on the right is a pollen patty from a couple weeks ago that they’re still working on. The white plastic things are the Apivar strips.
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There are some beekeepers who say that bees can take care of themselves just fine in the wild, so we shouldn’t do anything to them when we keep them in our backyards. To that I say we already did something to them by sticking them in a box in our backyards and making their well-being our responsibility, not to mention occasionally taking all their food. It’s an unnatural way for this non-native species to live, so they’re going to need a little help. And besides, varroa is wiping out wild populations too, so the argument that wild bees take care of themselves just fine is a bit of a straw man.

There are other beekeepers who promote capturing the supposedly tougher, more varroa-resistant wild swarms and sticking those in our backyard boxes. Tougher, sure, and they’re also likely Africanized. I like to enjoy a cup of coffee in my backyard without being stung to death, and I’m pretty sure I’d get in trouble with the neighbors if my tough bees killed their dogs. We don’t even have to go that far. Even if the wild swarm is not blood-thirsty, they are more likely to sting, and very unpleasant to tend, especially in a suburban situation. I’ve tended Africanized colonies on rural land and their response to my opening the hive was terrifying even in my full bee suit with my smoker going full blast. I’ve heard the same story over and over about amateur beekeepers being chased into their houses by their wild-caught swarms. They started out so docile for the first few days, they always say, and some old grizzled beekeeper patiently explains to them that all bees act like this when they’re first re-homed. I think the jury is out on whether wild bees are mite resistant, but I don’t think they have any place in anyone’s backyard or bee yard.

My sweet little Italian and Carniolan bees couldn’t care less about having humans or pets around, they’ve never chased me anywhere, and when I open up their hives to tend them they hardly even buzz me. In the last 3 years I’ve been stung just 2 times by my bees even though I open their hives weekly. I think they’re breeds worth saving, and pesticides are going to help us do it.