Category Archives: Agriculture

Victory garden

I’d planned to start seeds indoors this year, but after the growlights I bought from Amazon turned out to be defective, I moved the whole operation outside, with the help of some new tools.

First, I took Mom’s advice and did some winter sowing, which involves turning plastic bottles into miniature cold frames. I’d been saving 96-oz. cider jugs for this purpose all winter. They turned out to be just the right size to slip down into the holes in some cinderblocks I had on hand. The blocks provide thermal mass while keeping the jugs from blowing away. I need to thin the plants, but they’re doing very well.

Tomato plant growing in makeshift cloche
A 96-oz. cider jug just fits inside a cinderblock, creating a mini-greenhouse for sprouting tomatoes.

My little cider-bottle cloches are parked in a raised bed made from a $45 feed-store fire ring and filled with a mix of potting soil and chicken litter — a technique I first used in my juglone-contaminated garden in Cape. Come planting day, I’ll mulch with cedar shavings to discourage bugs.

Raised beds made of fire rings
Note the fence to protect certain beds — necessary because Ramona is obsessed with destroying every plastic bottle she can reach.

I found a bargain I couldn’t pass up at Tractor Supply a couple of weeks ago: $40 walk-in mini-greenhouses.

Small greenhouse
This little greenhouse cost $40 and took less than an hour to assemble and anchor.

To keep it warm and protect it from the wind, I parked mine in a sheltered corner next to my office window and anchored it with cinderblocks and bungee cords.

Greenhouse interior
Cinderblocks anchor the greenhouse in place and provide thermal mass.

The new greenhouse is proving to be a nice place to start herbs:

Chives sprouting in a container
Chives are beginning to come up in a dollar-store pot.
Cilantro sprouting in a container
My cilantro is starting to come up.

Out of an abundance of caution, I decided to grow a Victory Garden this year, focusing on reliably heavy producers: okra, green beans, cucumbers, collards, zucchini, and potatoes. If supply lines get screwed up, we’ll still have plenty to eat; if they don’t, we’ll have plenty to share with people whose incomes have been compromised by the coronavirus-induced drop in tourism.


Duck yeah!

I can’t believe I got away with this.

They already smell weird, and I’m pretty sure they are going to annoy me beyond belief, but don’t act like these aren’t the cutest little things you’ve ever seen.

I hired some help for the garden.
Complaining already. It’s gonna be a long four weeks.

Walter is a bit more curious than I’d like, but I can lock him out of my office easily enough to keep them safe when I can’t supervise.

“Mom! Mom, what is that? Is something alive in that crate? Can I make it dead?”

We’ll see how this goes. The good thing about ducks is that they grow faster than chickens, so they should be big enough to kick out into the backyard in a month or less.



My late buff Orpington hen, Pushy Galore, was one of the funniest animals I have ever owned.

As I do every year at about this time, I’ve gone broody.

I need chickens.

Actually, what I *really* need is quail, but they aren’t available locally. Failing that, I’d like a duckling. Or two. Or six. Whatever. Ron is balking, but I’ve seen a couple of people in town raising them as backyard pets, and they appear to be thriving. Sure, their wading pool will probably add a coupla bucks a month to the water bill, but that’s still cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store. Plus if I ever adopt that Border collie I’ve been thinking about since January, it will have something to herd, so it won’t get bored and spend all day annoying me. And if we end up hating them? Duck is DELICIOUS. I’m not seeing a down side here.

Anyway, one way or the other, it is that magical time of year when a Rubbermaid tub full of shavings and a screen are supposed to appear in my office, and a heat lamp is supposed to hang over them, warming a flock of stinky-yet-adorable balls of fuzz.

My favorite chicken breed, as anybody who’s spent much time on this blog knows, is the buff Orpington. Orps are good layers with great personalities — curious as cats and almost as friendly as dogs. They get along well with other chickens, they’re decent foragers, and they’re entertaining enough that I could probably cancel my Britbox subscription if I had a flock. WIN.

Tractor Supply — the only local source for chicks that I’m aware of at the moment — does not carry buff Orpingtons. Or any other variety of Orpingtons, for that matter. They do, however, have a few barred Rocks, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that Rocks are probably a better choice for our yard than Orpingtons, because they’re much more aggressive foragers, and I’m told this neighborhood is lousy with scorpions in the summer. A flock of feisty barred Rock hens would happily knock down the scorpion population for me.

I think I’ll head out to the shed to take a quick inventory of my chick-rearing equipment, and then I’ll cruise down 66 to Tractor Supply and see what kind of feathered friends I can rustle up.


Eco-Saturday: Leafcutter bees

Left to my own devices, I would have ordered at least one nuc hive and two packages of honeybees this spring, and we’d have a yard full of pollinators tending my garden and entertaining me. Ron, however — frustrated by the departure of yet another colony of notoriously flighty Carniolan-Italian hybrids last year — decided he wasn’t spending another dime on bees this spring and would just put our names on a couple of swarm lists and wait to catch a feral colony.

No one called, so we didn’t get the opportunity to catch our own swarm, and as a direct result, my cucumber crop this year consisted of three fruits. THREE. A typical plant will produce cucumbers faster than I can put them up, but those flowers won’t pollinate themselves, and without several thousand bees living a few feet away, the blossoms just withered away without producing anything.

When I finally realized what was happening, I decided enough was enough and ordered myself a leafcutter bee kit. Leafcutters are a gentle, solitary species that don’t produce honey but do pollinate at least as enthusiastically as honeybees.

The bees arrive as pupae encased in little pouches made of — you guessed it — pieces of leaves their mamas cut from lilac or rose bushes. My kit came with a little bee house consisting of a plastic PVC pipe with a cap on one end, predrilled for easy mounting to a fence or other vertical space, and a wooden block with holes drilled in it for the bees to use as nests.


One bee had already emerged from her little cocoon when she arrived a couple of weeks ago. I peeked in the other day, and it appears the others have emerged, although I haven’t seen any of them in the garden.

I may not. There are no guarantees they’ll like my yard; these are, after all, living creatures with minds of their own. But I planted a rose bush for them before they arrived, and I’m hopeful they’ll find the foliage and flowers in my garden attractive enough to entice them to stay, raise kids, and overwinter with me.

I had a secondary motive in trying leafcutters: I have a mild allergy to bee venom that seems to have gotten worse in recent years. I still prefer A. mellifera to all other bee species, but if the day comes when traditional beekeeping is no longer a safe hobby for me, I’d like a reasonable alternative to ensure I can continue to nurture pollinators in my garden.

We’ll see whether these girls decide to stick around. I’ll keep you posted.



So tonight, I came home from work to find the birds’ water dispenser frozen solid — tray, reservoir, the whole nine yards — and the quail themselves fluffed up in their pile of shavings, looking pathetic.

Because a quail run has to have a low ceiling to keep its intellectually challenged occupants from jumping up and scalping themselves, I can’t use a standard metal water dispenser and a standard water heater like I did for the chickens, and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d trust my silly little birds not to play in it and give themselves hypothermia, so I put on my headlamp and went out in the cold to transfer the flock into a pair of Rubbermaid tubs I’d used as brooders last spring.

The tubs are now serving as a sort of avian FEMA camp in the garage. My little refugees are not pleased about being separated, but they should be much warmer than they were in the yard. I cut their feed half-and-half with freeze-dried mealworms to compensate them a bit for the evening’s indignities. I’ll probably pick up a quarter-sheet of plywood and some 1x2s this weekend and build a little tray to go under their pen so I can bring it into the garage until the weather warms up. I’m sure they’ll be much happier if they’re all together.


Fall chore

Ron picks the meat out of a cracked walnut.
Ron picks the meat out of a cracked walnut.

For the first time in about 30 years, I harvested black walnuts this weekend.

We had a tree in our yard when we were a kid. Mom and I used to go outside in old shoes we didn’t care about and stomp the soft outer hulls off of them so we could bring them in, crack them and pick out the meat. Then the tree died, and I didn’t have access to walnuts again until last year, when we moved here. The tree in the yard next door overhangs our driveway and throws sap and nuts all over our cars.

We didn’t get any walnuts last year, because the squirrels stole them. This year, we gathered the nuts as they fell and kept them in a basket in the garage.

Black walnuts with the outer hulls stripped from them. The nuts you see filled the basket before i removed the hulls.
Black walnuts with the outer hulls stripped from them. The nuts you see above filled that basket before I removed the hulls.
Hulls. Never put these in your compost or garden; they contain a natural herbicide that will kill anything you try to grow.
Hulls. Never put these in your compost or garden; they contain a natural herbicide that will kill anything you try to grow.
Here's all the nut meat we removed from the shells.
Here’s all the nut meat we removed from the shells.

Black walnuts are a pain to process — you have to stomp off the outer hulls, let them dry for a week or two, crack them with a hammer, and pick out all the meat, which takes foreeeeeeever — but the payoff is pretty good, as you know if you’ve ever had black walnut beer or chocolate-chip cookies with black walnuts in them, and it was kind of satisfying to do something I haven’t done since I was a kid. I might pay someone else to process them next time, though. We’ve got another 250 I stomped the other day, and I’m sure another 50 to 100 have fallen from the tree since then. There’s a limit to how long I’m willing to spend processing walnuts in one season.


Eco-Saturday: Bubble-wrap cold frames

This is an easy garden project for a Saturday afternoon.

You will need:

Mulch cloth (optional)
Topsoil, compost, peat moss or some combination of the above
A few bricks or rocks
Duct tape
Heavy-duty bubble wrap (the kind with the big bubbles)

If using mulch cloth, lay it down over the area where you plan to put your raised bed. I have mixed feelings about mulch cloth. It helps with weed control for a while, but it gets in the way when I’m trying to plant seedlings. I skipped it this time.


1. Arrange your cinderblocks to form a bed. I’d recommend designing a rectangular bed, as it will be easier to work with when you create the bubble-wrap blanket for the top. Mine is circular because I planted last year’s garden in a pre-existing fire pit in the backyard, and I didn’t feel like rearranging the blocks. The smaller the bed, the more thermal mass you’ll have for keeping plants warm, so keep that in mind.


2. Fill the bed with a couple of inches of planting medium (topsoil, compost, peat moss, whatever).


3. Plant whatever cool-weather seeds you feel like growing and water them. I used a lettuce mix I found at the Co-op, but spinach, kale, radishes and some herbs are also good choices.


4. Lay strips of bubble wrap, bubble side down, across the top of the bed. Duct-tape the strips together as neatly as possible. For a rectangular bed, you can measure your dimensions and do this step inside on a flat surface, which I’d recommend. Leave enough excess around the edges to be sure all the soil is covered and to have room to weigh down the bubble wrap when you’re done.

5. Lay bricks or rocks around the edges to keep the bubble wrap from blowing away. Trim the edges to make them look neat if you want.

Cold frames work like little greenhouses: The transparent plastic lets in light and traps heat, warming the soil. Cinderblock walls add thermal mass, and bubble wrap provides extra insulation, allowing you to start planting even earlier.

Happy gardening!


Busy, busy, busy

Here are all the things I have done since we got in from Amarillo late Sunday night:

‘Shopped a bunch of photos and posted them; folded five loads of laundry; harvested and extracted honey; cleaned the freezer; rendered beeswax; cleaned the kitchen; picked up the dogs and cat from the vet clinic; cleaned the kitchen again; canned three quarts of salsa; replaced the showerhead in the bathroom; worked on my Lorax mural, which I started several years ago but never finished; packed for vacation; learned some new joint locks in kempo; made quesadillas; ran errands; and started training Walter to walk on a leash. (As you can imagine, Walter did not like that one little bit, but I think he’ll be fine once he gets past his fear of the outdoors.)

Grace tells me that Jamie is very interested in the fact that “Aunt Emmy” is a beekeeper, as he has decided he loves honey and all things related to its production. During a trip to the grocery store, he wanted to know whether Aunt Emmy’s bees knew how to make “bear honey.” I had a few bear jars left from our 2008 harvest, so I fixed up a special bottle for Jamie:

The honey looks dark because it’s been heated — this was part of the leftovers after I rendered beeswax. Heat breaks down the flavor, which is why local honey always tastes better than the storebought kind, but that’s probably a good thing in this case; raw honey is a little intense for a preschooler’s palate. This should taste just fine on a peanut-butter sandwich.

Here are a couple of closer shots of the mural:

And my salsa:

Hope you’re having a productive week, wherever you are.


In my neighbor’s defense …

… I can see how a guy might find this a bit intimidating if he didn’t understand what was going on.

I’m still not willing to excuse his conduct altogether, though. Had he simply come to my front door (which is nowhere near my bee yard) and talked to me, I could have explained to him that this is not evidence of a population explosion or a sudden decision by the bees to go all Hitchcock-movie on him or anything like that. What we have here is a phenomenon known as “bearding,” in which large numbers of bees sit near the hive entrance and fan their wings to try to cool it down. The bees aren’t hurting anything; they’re just trying to cope with the Oklahoma heat and humidity like the rest of us.

I think it’s kind of cool to watch, but if I didn’t know what I was looking at, I guess I might think my neighbor had turned into the crazy Apis mellifera lady.

Some of my girls have found even better ways to beat the heat:

If you have a pond and want to do something nice for the environment, consider growing duckweed. It has three advantages: It multiplies rapidly, providing quick shade to prevent algae bloom; it provides good cover and a supplementary food source for tadpoles; and it gives pollinators such as honeybees and wasps a floating runway that allows them to land, get a drink, and take off again without risk of drowning. Pretty cool.


Folk Tuesday: Time to Get a Gun

I’m sure it’s purely coincidence that this song has been running through my head ever since I found a notice hanging on my front door, telling me I was being cited for “illegal beekeeping” because my back fence is too short and my beehives are too close to our property line.

Illegal beekeeping? Really? Colonies are disappearing all over the country, the survival of the human race more or less depends on the survival of our pollinators, and city governments are going to cite people for illegal beekeeping?

Get off my land.