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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Want to start your first vegetable garden? How hard can it be? Just stick a few seeds in the ground and stand back, right? If only it were that easy! Here are 10 garden planning tips to consider before you dig in:

10 Tips For Starting a Garden

1. Pick the right location—ideally, a sunny site! Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun a day. Some crops such as broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and other greens will grow well in your less sunny spots.

2. Keep it close to home. A location near your house will make it easier for you to tend your plot regularly and will also make it convenient to run out and pick what you need for a meal.

3. Only grow things your family likes to eat. There’s no sense in spending all your time and energy (and money) growing things you won’t enjoy! Here’s a list of common vegetables to get you started.

4. Water needs to be readily available. Nothing burns out a beginning gardener faster than having to lug water to thirsty plants during a heat wave. Consider investing in a quality hose with a sprayer attachment or even a drip irrigation system.

5. Good soil is the key to a successful garden. Plants depend on the soil for nutrients, stability, and drainage. To grow your best garden, start with well-drained, sandy loam and add as much organic matter as possible.

6. Amend your soil. Compost, leaf mold, or well-aged manure will increase the ability of your soil to both drain well and hold moisture—the sponge factor. However, never use fresh manure! It can harbor dangerous pathogens and will burn tender plant roots. Compost it for at least 6 to 12 months.

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7. Seeds or plants? Most garden vegetables can be directly seeded where they are to grow—lettuce, beans, carrots, beets, chard, spinach, peas, cucumbers, and squash. Things that take longer to produce an edible fruit do better with a headstart. Purchase transplants for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and melons or start your own indoors 6 to 8 weeks before planting them outside. See seed-starting dates here.

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8. Choose varieties that will mature in your growing season. See the Almanac Planting Calendar for planting dates based on the first and last frost dates and length of the growing season in your area.

9. Keep your garden productive by staggering plantings of fast-maturing veggies such as beans and lettuce and replanting other areas as they are harvested. Don’t plant all at once!

10. Use raised garden beds or containers if you don’t have much space to work with. If you have impossibly rocky soil or solid clay, consider building some raised beds that you can fill with good soil. Growing vegetables in containers is another option. If you want an instant garden, try grow bags.

Alternatively, lay down large bags of potting soil in your sunniest location, poke drainage holes in the bottom, make some slits in the top and pop in your transplants. I had a friend who lined her driveway with bags every spring since it was the only sunny spot she had. Her tomato plants were beautiful and she grew luscious peppers, too!

Plan Like a Pro

A little planning will go a long way toward making your first garden a successful one!

To make it even easier, check out the Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner: a drag-and-drop planning tool that will help you lay out your garden beds for a more productive harvest. Try it out free free for seven days—ample time to plan the garden of your dreams!

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Learn More

Learn more about getting started with gardening at our Vegetable Gardening for Beginners page.

What are your tips for starting a garden? Share them in the comments below!

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When there is snow on the ground, it is easy to see who has been visiting the garden when we are not looking. This week, we discovered white-tailed deer. Here are tips on identifying your winter visitors and how to co-exist with wildlife.

It is hunting season in these parts and the deer are on the move. The first inkling we had that they were in our yard was when the seven-foot-tall plastic mesh fence surrounding the vegetable garden had been ripped open and one of the thick metal posts holding it had been knocked askew. Only something large moving at a good clip could have done that much damage. Deer or maybe a wayward moose; we didn’t know since no tracks could be found.

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Five inches of snow later and the yard is full of deer tracks, poop, and evidence of munching.

What Deers Eat

The deer have dined on a big hydrangea which is okay by me. It always needs pruning.

Deer will feed on plants at any time during the year, but most damage to ornamental plants occurs during the winter and early spring when food resources are somewhat limited.

Deer browsing can be easily be distinguished from damage caused by rabbits, woodchucks, or squirrels. Since deer lack upper incisors they knaw at vegetation when browsing, leaving ragged ends on browsed branches. Rabbits and rodents, on the other hand, make a clean cut.

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They have dug through the snow to find tender sedums to eat. We have plenty and they’ll grow back in the spring.

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Following the tracks around the yard, we found that behind the greenhouse three deer had recently bedded down for the night. Surprising that they feel safe enough to do that so close to our house.

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We used to have a large herd of deer that made the hemlock forest down the hill from us their home. Since the hemlock wooly adelgid has decimated those trees in recent years, the deer have found new spots to call home in the 1,500 acre state forest that abuts our property. A few sections of the forest were logged a few years ago and have grown up in young new trees that the deer find delicious. Part of the management program at the state forest is to provide habitat for deer and other wildlife.

Coexisting With Deer

Deer were here long before we moved in and they will be here after we are gone so we look for ways to coexist. Deer are creatures of habit. Once they establish a feeding area, it is very difficult to get them to go elsewhere.

  • The deer fence helps a lot in the summer though there is usually enough natural food for them that they rarely bother the plants outside the fence. As I mentioned, we have a plastic mesh fence. This requires tall wooden posts at regular intervals to support the fencing and keep it taut. Since deer are capable of jumping 10 feet high, the height of the fence should be at least 7 to 8 feet. Sturdiness of the fence is important since deer can push down a poorly constructed fence.
  • Not one to tempt fate or deer, I try to grow the plants they find irresistible—like roses, fruit trees, and beans—inside the fence. It only takes one adventurous doe to decimate a row of soybeans.

  • For individual plants or a small group of ornamental plants, you could always place cages of chicken wire or other fencing around plants or wrapping individual plants with burlap is an option for trees.

See more tips on deterring deer from the garden.

There are plants deer like more than others. No plant is 100% deer-resistant if winter is severe, but some plants are picked over others. See our the most deer-resistant plants.

Tough Winters

After a few good mast years, when the acorns were so plentiful we had to shovel them up, this year there are none. It will make for a rough winter for not only the deer but also the squirrels, chipmunks, bears, and other wildlife that depend on them. Other than the birds, we don’t feed wild animals on purpose but after cutting back some overgrown shrubs including our rangy Sargent crabapples we brought the clippings down the hill away from the house to the brush pile so the deer, birds and other critters could dine on the tiny apples and twigs.

In many communities the deer populations have grown exponentially and herds of marauding deer devour everything in sight. Here we have tough winters, hunters, and coyotes to keep things under control and 1,500 acres of woodland gives them lots of room to roam. They will still show up in the yard looking for food as things get tough but it could always be worse.

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Guess I’ll take a few deer over hungry alligators!

Get outside and look for prints around your garden. You may not have deer but you’ll find that you have other winter visitors in your yard.

See the Almanac’s Animal Track Identification for common animal prints.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Whatever you may think of snow (and snow removal!), remember the old saying, “A good winter with snow makes all the plants grow.” If you are a gardener who lives in a winter wonderland, consider the benefits of snow!

I had almost forgotten how pretty the snow can be, hanging in the trees, blanketing the ground, covering up all the outdoor projects left undone. The neighbors will never know you didn’t clean up those old squash vines. Under a covering of snow all gardens become equal.

Snow Insulates the Soil and Plants

Snow is mostly air surrounded by a little frozen water, and despite how cold it feels to the skin, it is an excellent insulator of the soil.

I fear for the perennials when the temperatures drop suddenly before we have enough snow cover to protect the roots. Without snow, very cold temperatures can freeze the soil deeper and deeper. In wintry climates, this could lead to damage of root systems of trees and shrubs. Snow prevents extreme cold temperatures from harming plants.

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Snow Protects Against Temperature Fluctuations

Snow protects against against wide temperature fluctuations in the soil. Under that cozy comforter of white, the roots of perennials, bulbs, ground covers, and strawberry plants are protected from the freeze-thaw cycle that can heave tender roots right out of the ground.

Snow also helps conserve soil moisture over the winter. Without snow, milder temperatures and the sun could warm the soil surface, leading to damage from soil heaving, which can break roots and dry out plant parts.

Snow is Winter Mulch

Snow is a form of mulch! If you have not yet mulched perennial beds, with snow, you may not have to. If little snow is on the beds, however, it would be good to mulch. In most cases, 2 to 4 inches of mulch, such as straw, pine needles, hay or bark chips, give adequate protection. For some plants, such as roses, more elaborate protection is needed.

You can mulch right on top of the snow. It’s better to wait until after temperatures are consistently below freezing to apply the mulch. Applying too early can smother the plant and encourage disease development.

Snow Adds Beauty

Of course, we can all enjoy the beauty of the tree barks and evergreens contrasting against the white backdrop. Everything looks more visible, from ornamental grasses to that bright red cardinal outside your kitchen window.

Dealing with Heavy Snow

Of course, heavy snow can really weigh down branches, especially multi-stemmed shrubs. Otherwise, the weight of the snow can bend branches to the ground, cutting off circulation of food manufactured by the leaves to the roots. If possible, in the fall, bundle stems together using burlap or canvas. In the winter, take a broom and carefully brush heavy snows from branches as soon as possible but don’t try to remove ice. More damage to the bark probably will occur than if the ice is allowed to melt on its own.

With young trees, you may also wish to wrap the trunks with a commercial tree wrap to help prevent bark from splitting from temperature extremes.

Also, as with regular mulch, heavy snow “mulch” against the trunks of trees hides voles, rabbits, and other critters. It be be worthwhile to remove the snow from young trees so their tender bark is not gnawed away. Just be very very careful with a shovel not to cause even the smallest mechanical injury.

Even though snow removal is a back breaking chore, we need the moisture that each snow crystal provides for our gardens. Next time you are out shoveling, remember the benefits of snow and think of butterflies and apple blossoms!

See a guide to snowflake shapes.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Many trees and plants were important to the celebration of the winter solstice (on December 21) both as symbols and as decorations. Find out their meaning …

After the solstice, the days will start to get longer, and as the old adage says,”When the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” Even so, I appreciate seeing a brighter western horizon when I get out of work in the evening. The sun begins its climb toward summer and each day brings us one day closer to spring.

Nearly every ancient culture had myths surrounding the return of light after the winter solstice. As the sun coursed lower in the sky, it seemed to ancient peoples that the sun might be disappearing forever.

To encourage the sun to return, bonfires were built, gifts for the gods were hung from the branches of pine trees, and evergreen plants were brought indoors to symbolize everlasting life. If it sounds a bit like Christmas, many pagan ceremonies were overlaid with Christian holidays.

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Plants of the Winter Solstice

Certain trees and plants were important to the celebration of the solstice both as symbols and as decorations:

  • Evergreens were a symbol of immortality, since they were the only trees to stay green when all the others lost their leaves.
  • Yews represented the death of the old year and were a connection between this world and the next.
  • Oak trees were revered for being long-lived. Even though they were not evergreen, they were symbols of eternal life and considered a source of protection, strength, and endurance. In Celtic tradition, the entire trunk of an oak tree was kept burning for 12 hours on the eve of the solstice. If the fire did not go out, it meant the household would be protected and have an abundant harvest and good health in the coming year. A piece of that log was saved and used to start next year’s fire because, as the old log was consumed by the flames, any problems from the old year were thought to go with it.
  • Rosemary, an evergreen shrub in warm climates, was called the herb of the sun.
  • Birch trees symbolized new beginnings.

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  • Mistletoe stood for peace and happiness. Learn more about mistletoe’s meaning and lore.
  • Holly was used for protection and good luck.
  • Pine symbolized peace, healing, and joy.

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  • Ivy symbolized marriage, faithfulness, and healing and was made into wreaths and garlands to decorate during the winter.

In Celtic tradition, one sacred place to be visited during the solstice time is an open area or hill that affords a view of the horizon in all directions. What better way to celebrate than to bundle up and climb to the top of the tallest hill? This is not a time to be hibernating; get outside and connect with the natural world in all its glorious seasons!

Learn more about the Winter Solstice.

Do you celebrate the solstice? Tell us about your traditions in the comments below.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Of all the plants used as Christmas decorations, none has as long and interesting a history as mistletoe. Discover the meaning of mistletoe and fascinating folklore.

What is Mistletoe?

With evergreen leaves, yellow flowers, and white berries, mistletoe is a parasitic plant usually found high in the canopies of fruit trees, maples, and sometimes oaks.

Mistletoe is most easily seen in winter. Look for ball-shaped green masses on otherwise bare tree branches. How do they get there, you ask? Birds eat the white berries and spread the seeds while sitting on the branches.

Why Do People Kiss Under Mistletoe?

We all know about the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, but do you know how that came about?

In an old Norse legend, Frigga, the goddess of love, had a son named Balder who was the god of innocence and light. To protect him, Frigga demanded that all creatures—and even inanimate objects—swear an oath not to harm him, but she forgot to include mistletoe. Loki, god of evil and destruction, learned of this and made an arrow from a sprig of mistletoe. He then tricked Hoth, Balder’s blind brother, into shooting the mistletoe arrow and guided it to kill Balder. The death of Balder meant the death of sunlight—explaining the long winter nights in the north.

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Frigga’s tears fell onto the mistletoe and turned into white berries. She decreed that it should never cause harm again but should promote love and peace instead. From then on, anyone standing under mistletoe would get a kiss. Even mortal enemies meeting under mistletoe by accident had to put their weapons aside and exchange a kiss of peace, declaring a truce for the day.

Known as “the healing plant,” mistletoe was also used by the ancient Celts and was a big part of their winter solstice celebrations. The plant contains progesterone, the female sex hormone, and perhaps this is another why it became associated with kissing.

Balls of Mistletoe

By the 1700’s, traditional “kissing balls” made of boxwood, holly, and mistletoe were hung in windows and doorways during the holiday season. A young lady caught under the mistletoe could not refuse to give a kiss. This was supposed to increase her chances of marriage, since a girl who wasn’t kissed could still be single next Christmas. According to ancient custom, after each kiss, one berry is removed until they are all gone.

Mistletoe Meaning, Legend, and Folklore

Mistletoe is considered a symbol of life because even when its host is leafless, it is evergreen and bears fruit in the winter. The word mistletoe is from the Saxon word mistl-tan meaning “different twig.”

Druid priests thought mistletoe to be a sacred plant because it didn’t grow from roots in the ground. When they found some growing on an oak—their most sacred tree—they considered it to be the soul of the tree. The high priest would climb the tree on the 6th night of the new Moon after the winter solstice and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Worshippers caught the pieces in their long white robes or on a white cloth spread under the tree because it was bad luck to let even the smallest piece touch the ground. The faithful would wear mistletoe charms for good luck and protection from witches and evil spirits. Sprays of mistletoe hung over the doorway ensured that only happiness could enter the home.

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The Swiss traditionally shot mistletoe out of the trees with an arrow and for good luck they had to catch it in the left hand before it hit the ground. It was also associated with lightning and fire, and subsequently called “thunder-besom.” In some parts of northern Europe, it was used as a divining rod to find treasure and as a master key to open locks.

According to the language of flowers, mistletoe symbolizes overcoming difficulties.

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Can Mistletoe Kill a Tree?

Yes and no. Mistletoe makes most of its own food but depends on the host plant for water and minerals. This can weaken and eventually kill the host tree. A healthy tree won’t have a problem and mistletoe even encourages birds and beneficial insects. However, an infestation of mistletoe can be harmful. To rid your tree of mistletoe, it’s essential to prune the infected branches in wintertime; just pruning off the plant will not destroy the parasite which has now become a harmful pest.

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Is Mistletoe Poisonous?

One caution—raw mistletoe berries are very poisonous and tend to fall off the plant easily. They have been known to cause seizures or death when ingested and can be especially lethal to children and pets. See more about plants that are poisonous to pets.

To be on the safe side, ask your florist to replace the real berries with imitation ones or just use artificial mistletoe in your decorations.

Now, pucker up!

Discover more plants of the winter solstice.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“We’ll know her when we see her!” shouts a friend in greeting, then disappears down the hill. Who she is, he doesn’t tell me, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. She’s on everybody’s mind.

Spring comes late to this particular part of New England, this year especially. March lion and March lamb, April fool and April fury, she’s helter-skelter, everywhere and nowhere. Under the sheltered skirts of houses, daylilies are putting up three green fingerling leaves, but the nights are still frosty. Tomatoes won’t be safely planted for a month or more. And minus a stray Mourning Cloak butterfly, batted about like one of last year’s leaves, you could stand under the hemlocks for miles around and in this last week of April see nary a sign that spring’s arrived.

More and more often, it’s when I hear her that I know her. Even as the last slabs of snow hang on in the winter woods, the irregular tapping of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker brings the hiker to a stop. It’s as if he’d heard a foreign language being spoken through the wall, one apartment over. Even when he can’t make out the words, something about the cadence makes him press his ear up against the tree and listen.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Photo by Len Medlock

The sapsucker’s the Fred Astaire of woodpeckers: tap-ta-ta-tap-ta-tap-t-t-tap… The stutter-step drumming of this bird is quite unlike the metronome machine-gun of other Eastern woodpeckers. When the instrument—a hollow tree, or garage siding, even a metal roof—is resonant, the song can be heard for well over a mile. And make no mistake: it is indeed a “song.” While woodpeckers have a variety of calls (“vocalizations” to the ornithologist), most use a hollow tree as their primary instrument for attracting mates. Contrary to popular belief, such loud drumming doesn't produce the holes bored in search of insects; for this, a considered stab of the bill, powerfully delivered, is the bird’s preferred method of woodworking.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Photo by Len Medlock
(Click here for audio and video of a sapsucker drumming…)

The Ruffed Grouse also says that the times are a-changing, and also with a strange way of singing it. Mounting an old tree stump or a rotten log, the male grouse beats his wings, just once—thump—then again—thump—then again, and faster and faster, until the thumps become one continuous whirr. “The lawn-mower bird,” one friend calls it, and with reason: it sounds like a stubborn engine getting going. The thumping sound does not come, as one might expect, by any actual contact between the bird’s wings and the log, or between the wings and the breast, but is simply the sound of air rushing in to fill a tiny vacuum made when the wings are pulled suddenly outward. The sound is so low-pitched that it often registers as a physical sensation, felt in the body rather than heard in the ear. During the initial drumbeats, one can mistake the sound for one’s own heart racing.


Ruffed Grouse
Photo by Len Medlock
(Click here for audio and video of a grouse drumming…)

Then there are the true vocalists: thrush, grosbeak, vireo. But to many, a warble’s not much different from a twitter, and one chirp sounds just about like another. If that's true for you, here's a pep talk from one 111-year-old book on birdsong, intent on laying that misperception to rest:

“No! never does Nature repeat herself; it is not one vast mediocre chorus, it is an endless variety of soloists whose voices, filled with tone-color…melody…expression…individuality, make up the orchestra which performs every year the glad spring symphony.”

This, written by F. Schuyler Matthews in his 1904 book Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music, serves as preface to one of the oddest and most ambitious undertakings imaginable: to transcribe, onto a standard musical scale, the exact notes each species of North American bird sings. The idea of transposing a robin’s song onto a piano, much less the scrawching of grackles or blackbirds, may seem like lunacy, but Matthews goes to it with a will, and in the arch spirit of a music critic. His descriptions are delicious. The oriole is “doubtful in pitch…even quite out of tune,” and the meadowlark, despite its name, gets panned as “a fraud.” The Hermit Thrush, on the other hand, is “as versatile in melody as a genius, and as pure in his tones as refined silver.” The Song Sparrow sends Matthews over the edge, drawing comparisons to the composers Verdi, Wagner, Chopin, and Beethoven over the course of fifteen rapturous pages.


F. Schuyler Matthews' transcription of the song of the Brown Thrasher
from Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music (1904)

The sapsucker gets no mention as a great percussionist in Matthews’ Field Book, but come April, most New Englanders couldn’t care less for melodic genius or tones of silver, however refined. They care about Her, the new season, whatever form she takes, whatever tune she taps out on the trunk of the crabapple, the bedraggled one with its head hung down, pruned by ice storms and wind storms and months of snow. We don’t need to know who she is, exactly, or when she’s coming—just that she’s coming. A new rhythm? We’ll dance to it. New air thumping in to fill the void? Sounds awfully good.


Ruffed Grouse
Photo by Len Medlock

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A very important part of successful beekeeping deals with honey bee health. Learn about the most common bee pests and diseases and how to manage them in your apiary.

This is the last installment of our Beekeeping 101 series—your hives should be humming along now!

Common Bee Pests, Diseases, and Problems

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

During the winter of 2006, beekeepers began to report much larger than normal losses of bee colonies. These colonies would fail suddenly, with most of the workers disappearing from the hive, leaving the queen and a handful of young bees to fend for themselves. This phenomenon came to be known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

The possible causes of CCD are still being debated today. Researchers agree that the disorder stems from a combination of problems, but continue to search for a definitive answer.

Varroa Mites

Varroa mites attack both adult and larval bees, feeding off the bees. This weakens the bees and ultimately shortens their lifespans. In fact, Varroa mites are the #1 killer of bees worldwide due to their ability to spread bee viruses and diseases.

You can not prevent your colony from Varroa infection, but you can save your colony from failure. There are many approved mite treatments available for use in the war against Varroa. From approved synthetic chemicals to softer organic miticides, several treatment types are available. ApiVar, Api-Life Var, Apiguard, Hopguard, Formic Acid and Oxalic Acid are just a few of the choices.

A Varroa mite on the back of a bee.

Each type of treatment has its pros and cons. Find the best method that fits your climate and your beekeeping philosophy. Then, monitor the mite levels in your colony. If your hive needs treatment, do it as soon as possible to reduce the infestation.

Pesticides

Pesticides are effective at killing insect pests, but bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects are susceptible to many of the pesticides that our culture depends on, too. Unfortunately, these pesticides sometimes end up in our soil and water, and the contamination is having an effect on our pollinators.

Debate continues over the true extent of the impact of pesticides on bees. To protect your colony from harm, avoid using pesticides on flowers and crops that the bees may come into contact with—or, if pesticide use is necessary, avoid using them when plants are in bloom. Also be sure to read the pesticides’ labels and follow the given usage guidelines to avoid unnecessary bee deaths.

American Foulbrood Disease (AFD)

American Foulbrood is caused by the Paenibacillus larvae bacteria, which kills the sealed broods of honey bees. This disease is highly contagious and can easily spread throughout a hive and from one colony to another.

Spores from the bacteria can live in beekeeping equipment, such as frames and supers, for years. For this reason, buying used equipment can be risky.

There is currently no surefire cure for American Foulbrood, though antibiotics have been shown to slow down the disease. However, due to the persistence of the bacteria, this is not a long-term solution. Some states require the destruction of infected colonies outright.

If you suspect that your colony has been infected, contact your state’s Apiary Inspection Service for management advice.

Bee brood
A bee peeks out from a brood cell.

Winterizing Your Bees

The amount of preparation required for winter depends on your climate. A strong, healthy colony with proper winter food stores can survive the season without issue in most regions. Make sure that your colonies are well fed before cold arrives with sufficient food stores for your area. Close off most of the hive entrances to keep out cold drafts and mice.

If you live in a region with bitter cold, you can wrap your hives up for the winter. However, note that ventilation is very important for bees—even during winter.

This is where the local component of beekeeping plays a big role. What type of winter preparations do other beekeepers in your region use? Do they face problems with other diseases or pests? Consulting with them will be a big help in preventing problems with your own colony.

Additional Resources

This Beekeeping 101 series is just a primer—a honey-sweet taste of what beekeeping is all about! If you’d like to learn more, the following resources may be useful reading and research before investing in an apiary.

  • The Hive and The Honey Bee published by Dadant and Sons provides a textbook understanding of honeybees.
  • The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture is an encyclopedia of various beekeeping topics.
  • The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitable
  • The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum
  • The Honey Bee Hobbyist by Norman Gary

Also, contact local beekeeping clubs in your area to find personal advice and like-minded souls. Look online or contact your local cooperative extension services office for advice.

Online Beekeeping Class!

beekeepercharlottelogo.jpgA thank you to Charlotte Anderson, Master Beekeeper from South Carolina, who consulted on our beekeeping series!

Charlotte runs an online beekeeping class! An informed new beekeeper has a much greater chance of beekeeping success.

Check out Charlotte’s class to get off to a Buzzin Start!

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Is there anything tastier than fresh, local honey? Once you’ve got your honey bee colony established, it’s time to start collecting your own supply of honey! Here are some tips and things to consider.

“The only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey… And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it.”
Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A. A. Milne

Collecting Your Own Honey

Having an endless source of honey right in your backyard may sound luxurious, but many new beekeepers have unrealistic expectations regarding honey production.

For example, bees do not make honey year-round in most regions, and for many of us, it won’t be until the second year that the bees have any excess honey to spare. Plus, the amount of honey that your colony produces depends on where they’re located. If you live in an area without access to an abundance of flowers throughout the spring, summer, and fall, honey production may not be great enough for you to take a share.

That being said, once the colony does get going, the honey is well worth the wait!

Through a rather industrious process, honey bees make honey from plant nectar. The resulting honey is stored in the hive and used during cold weather or drought as a food source for the hive. Thankfully, bees work very hard and often make more honey than they need, which allows beekeepers to harvest the excess. On average, a beekeeper can expect to yield about 50 pounds (4.2 gallons) of honey each year from a healthy colony in a fertile area. However, the amount can vary quite a bit from year to year and from location to location.

Before paying a visit to your beehive to harvest honey, be prepared by having the proper clothing and equipment. If possible, go out with an experienced beekeeper a few times first to get the hang of collecting honey. The bees know that their winter survival depends on having a source of food and they will not be particularly eager to give up the harvest!

Remember: NEVER handle bees if there is the potential of you having an allergic reaction. It’s always a good idea to have an epipen on hand, too, just in case.

Honeycomb

Tips for Harvesting Honey

Be prepared and do not try to rush the honey harvesting process. Gentle, calm movements—and not big, exaggerated ones—will help keep the bees calm. Be sure that you are not wearing any perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, etc., as this will entice curious bees to fly toward you, making it harder to work.

Collecting Honeycomb from the Hive

  • For honey production, beekeepers give extra hive boxes called “honey supers” to strong colonies. These boxes contain frames of pre-formed honeycomb. After the bees have filled the honey super and sealed the comb with wax, it is ready to be harvested.
  • Remember not to take all of the honey from the hive—you don’t want your bees to starve over winter! Take only the excess or what’s in the extra honey super.
  • The easiest way to harvest honey from a bee hive is through the use of a fume board. A fume board looks much like a regular telescoping top/outer hive cover, but the inside contains an absorbent material that is sprayed with a non-toxic solution that the bees do not enjoy. Place the fume board on top of the full honey super you wish to harvest. After a few minutes, the bees will move away from the smell and vacate the honey super, which lets you remove the box of honey with minimal disturbance.
  • Beekeepers often use a smoker to pacify the bee colony, but using too much during harvesting can affect the honey’s flavor.

Honeycomb

Extracting the Honey

After removing the honey super from the hive and bringing it to a location protected from bees, you can begin the extraction process:

  • A hot knife is used to cut the wax cappings off the cells of honeycomb. These wax cappings can be used to make candles, so don’t throw them away! Once the cappings have been removed, you can begin to separate the liquid honey from the comb.
  • A honey extractor—either electric or manual—uses centrifugal force to separate the liquid honey from the comb without destroying the comb. This allows the beekeeper to reuse the frame of empty comb in the honey super.
  • Alternatively, the honey-filled comb can be cut out of the frame, crushed, and strained through cheesecloth. The resulting beeswax can be used for candles or other projects.
  • After extraction or straining, the liquid honey is allowed to settle for a few days in a closed container and is then ready to bottle.

If you want your colony to keep producing honey, you need to keep the bees healthy. Next, learn about common bee diseases and how to prevent them.

Online Beekeeping Class!

beekeepercharlottelogo.jpgA thank you to Master Beekeeper Charlotte Anderson from South Carolina who consulted on our beekeeping series!

Charlotte runs an online beekeeping class! An informed new beekeeper has a much greater chance of beekeeping success.

Check out Charlotte’s class to get off to a Buzzin Start!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Before your bees arrive, you must consider where they are going to live. There are three basic types of beehives. Let’s figure out which style is right for you.

In our last post, we discussed beekeeping clothing and equipment. Now let’s talk about a home for your bees …

Most new beekeepers purchase hive components ready to assemble, but it’s certainly possible to build your own hive. If you do, it is very important to follow the exact measurements for the type of hive you desire. Incorrect hive dimensions result in honeycomb being built where it is not wanted—from the beekeeper’s perspective, at least!

3 Best Types of Hives

1. Langstroth Hive:

The Langstroth hive (pictured below) is the most common style in use today and a favorite for new beekeepers. The design was patented by Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth in the mid-19th century and features removable frames that the bees build comb in. Langstroth hives consist of boxes that stack on top of each other.

The anatomy of a Langstroth hive. Credit: Dave Cushman

Parts of a Langstroth Hive

  • Outer/Telescoping Cover — Keeps the whole hive dry from rain. Similar to a roof on a house.
  • Inner Cover — The inner cover fits between the top hive box and the outer cover. It provides insulation and prevents frames from sticking to the outer cover. It can be used with a bee escape when harvesting honey.
  • Shallow/Honey Super — Shallow supers are most the commonly used size for honey production.
  • Queen Excluder — Allows only worker bees to pass through, keeping the queen and drones away from the honey. This is an optional piece of equipment that prevents the queen from laying eggs in the honey collection supers. Not every beekeeper uses an excluder.
  • Frames — Removable frames (wooden or plastic) fit into the hive boxes. Frames come in different sizes to fit the three different sizes of supers. Bees build honeycomb inside the wooden frames (often using beeswax foundation/plastic foundation as a guide.) The comb cells hold young bees, pollen, nectar, and honey.
  • Foundation — Most beekeepers use sheets of beeswax (or plastic) foundation as a guide inside the frames. This helps to encourage the bees to build straight comb inside the frames.
  • Brood Chamber (Also called: deep super or brood box) — The brood box contains larger frames than the shallow super. Here, the queen lays eggs for the next generation of bees. In this maternity ward, nurse bees care for the young.
  • Bottom Board — The base of the hive. Bottom boards are available as a solid bottom or with a screened bottom.

A Langstroth hive can contain any combination of the three sizes of super boxes: deeps/brood, mediums, or shallows.

2. Top Bar Hive

The top bar hive is the oldest hive design in the world. A horizonal top bar hive features wooden bars that are laid along the top of the long box. One-piece bars are used instead of the 4-sided wooden frames of the Langstroth design. The honey bees build comb down from the top bars. No foundation is required, but the hive should be elevated off the ground with some sort of stand.

There are several advantages to a top bar hive. In addition to not needing foundation sheets, there are no wooden frames to assemble. Perhaps the biggest draw of the top bar hive: no heavy lifting. Unlike the Langstroth hive that requires moving several heavy hive boxes, management of a top bar hive is much easier on the beekeeper’s back.

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Top Bar Hive. Credit: Mind Control~bgwiki

Top bar beekeeping does have a few challenges, however. For example, a centrifugal honey extractor can not be used to remove honey from the natural comb, so the comb and honey will both need to be removed from the bar. This results in the honey bees having to make new comb each year. In general, top bar hives also require more frequent inspections to prevent overcrowding/swarming.

This type of hive can produce honey, but it is a favorite for beekeepers wanting hives for pollination alone.

3. Warré Hive

The Warré (war-RAY) hive, created by Émile Warré in the mid-20th century, is another top bar design. Instead of being a long horizontal top bar hive, the Warré hive is referred to as a vertical top bar hive. Identically sized stacked boxes have no frames or foundation sheets. Bees build honeycomb down from top bars placed within each box.

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Warré Hives. Credit: Sweetvalleyhives.com

Beekeepers using the Warré style often “bottom-super” their hive: instead of putting empty boxes on top to give the colony more overhead room, empty boxes are placed at the bottom of the stack. They feel this arrangement better mimics bee life in the wild.

These are the three most popular hive designs, but every style has pros and cons! It is up to you to decide which type of beehive best suits your goals and management style. Closely follow plan directions if you choose to build your own bee hive of any style. Improperly built bee hives result in wayward comb, difficult inspections, and angry bees (and soon, stung beekeepers).

Warre hives
Warré hives painted various colors.

Painting Your Hive

Painting your hive protects the wood and will last longer. Traditionally, most hives are white to reflect the sun. Today, you can find hives in all colors.

Lighter colors are best for hives in Southern climates due to the possibility of over-heating in the sun. Any water-based (Latex) paint will do well. Only paint the outside surfaces of the bee hive.

Now that you’ve got your supplies, set up a beehive, and know what you’re in for, learn where to get your bees.

Online Beekeeping Class!

beekeepercharlottelogo.jpgA thank you to Master Beekeeper Charlotte Anderson from South Carolina who consulted on our beekeeping series!

Charlotte runs an online beekeeping class! An informed new beekeeper has a much greater chance of beekeeping success.

Check out Charlotte’s class to get off to a Buzzin Start!

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is a garden weed that is edible and has many health benefits. Find out the benefits of the purslane plant here, and get a purslane recipe!

Purslane Health Benefits

Like many other weeds, purslane is not only edible but also far more nutritious than many of the crops that we plant! Here’s just a few of the health benefits of purslane:

  • Seven times the beta-carotene of carrots
  • Six times more vitamin E than spinach
  • Fourteen times more Omega 3 fatty acids.

Purslane is also said to be a natural remedy for insomnia. It has many of the same health benefits as other leafy greens. Immigrants from India originally brought it with them to our shores, where it has escaped into gardens and backyards everywhere.

What is Purslane: Crop or Weed?

See the purslane picture below. It’s a plant most of us consider a weed. I have never planted purslane yet it appears every spring in my garden. A succulent, purslane can tolerate drought and the heat of summer. I let it grow in between my rows of carrots and beets and in other places where it isn’t bothering my veggies. Once it is touching my crops, I take it out and eat it.

To harvest purslane, it’s a good idea to pull it up completely, then cut off the stems from the piece attached to the root. Compost the root or feed to your chickens! Some companies are now actually selling the purslane seeds so that it can also be added to a garden on purpose. A delightful, nutritious extra for the enthusiastic gardener.

How to Cook Purslane

How do people eat purslane? Once you’ve cut off the root, the individual stems needs to be washed carefully. Purslane has little crevices to hold the soil, so you really need to use a hose to get ALL the dirt off.

  • Purslane is usually tossed into salads or added to soups in the Mediterranean area
  • In Mexico, it’s a favorite addition to omelettes.
  • Purslane can also be lightly steamed for 4 to 5 minutes, then served with salt and a little butter.
  • Purslane goes very well mixed with cucumber and topped with some oil-and-vinegar dressing.
  • Also try adding purslane to smoothies or juicing it.

Purslane Recipes

Here’s a great purslane salad: Fingerling-Potato and Purslane Salad with Grainy-Mustard Dressing.

Or try adding this nutrient-packed green to any soup. I like to add to my purslane to my bone broth soup which is delicious! (You can also add seasonal lamb’s quarters, dandelions, purslane, nettles, amaranth, and herbs for health.)

Another option is to freeze purslane to add it to soups through the cold winter months! See how to freeze greens.

Are you ready to add purslane to your diet? Let us know below!

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Summer’s a good time to assess what you could use in the garden. Consider the merits of a rain barrel positioned to catch rainfall from downspouts or gutters, especially for plants on dry days or during drought.

We have a large rain barrel that collects all of the rain water that comes off of our wood shed roof. In the spring, we set up a gutter system to gather it into a 50 gallon drum at the bottom. This drum sits up on some wood to get it up off of the ground.

We put some screen at the top of the downspout to catch any leaves or twigs that have landed on the roof. There is a spigot at the bottom of the rain barrel which can either be attached to a hose or used to fill a watering can.

It’s a good idea to clean out the rain barrel periodically with a garden hose. Bits of shingles can sometimes get dislodged and end up there. I don’t use this water for drinking or giving to the chickens for drinking but I do use it for cleaning up messy nest boxes and to water the garden.

If you have an engineering degree, you can build a cistern. Lacking that, think of ways to save water in large containers that can be covered.

Or, consider these:

  • Giving new life to barrels originally designed for importing olives, the Great American Rain Barrel Company sells a polyethylene barrel that collects and stores up to 60 gallons of water. It comes with an overflow fitting, drain plug, screw-on cover, and threaded spigot for a hose positioned 14 inches from ground level. For more water storage, several barrels can be linked together with a garden hose. A diverter allows water to be channeled directly from a downspout into a barrel. For more information, including some on unpainted barrels, contact the Great American Rain Barrel Company, Inc., 1715 Hyde Park Avenue, Hyde Park, MA 02136, go to greatamericanrainbarrel.com, or call 800-251-2352.
  • The Spruce Creek Company creates a 54-gallon rain barrel from a mold reminiscent of an old wooden barrel. Its one-piece construction is formed of durable, nearly ¼-inch-thick, UV-protected, polyethylene plastic and promises ease of setup, safety for children and pets, reduced evaporation, and insect prevention. It comes with a threaded solid brass spigot, automatic overflow, linkability, and two dispensing levels. Check The Spruce Creek Rainsaver for more details or call 800-940-0187.

For more tips on how to keep your garden green while saving water, see our water-wise garden article.

How’s your garden growing? I’m going to include some colorful summer pictures here. Enjoy!

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s harvesttime. Cabbages are available at a deal. Few people know that in the early 1900’s, the biggest crop grown in this country was cabbages. That’s because they last a long time when put in a cool spot and they can be fermented into sauerkraut!

And sauerkraut is loaded with vitamin C and digestive enzymes. Most early ship explorers brought along huge barrels of sauerkraut once scurvy was identified as a vitamin C deficiency. And anybody with digestive problems can also be helped by eating a bit of sauerkraut at the beginning of meals. It stimulates the stomach to produce the all-important stomach acid.

Homemade Sauerkraut Recipe

Ingredients

I bought two 5 pound cabbages from a local, organic farm for $15. Spent a little more on six medium carrots, one large red pepper, a small onion and one garlic. Brought them all home and started making sauerkraut. The carrots, peppers, onions and garlic are not absolutely necessary for sauerkraut, but I like the taste when they are added.

Instructions

1. I sliced up one of the cabbages and put them into a large stainless steel bowl (be sure to pick one that you don’t mind denting).

2. Next, I took two garlic cloves and put them through the garlic press and into a small bowl. Remember, it takes garlic about ten minutes to make its medicine (allicin) after it is crushed or cut.

3. Then I washed and diced half the red pepper and onion and added it to the bowl. Three of the carrots were washed and grated and put on top. The garlic was then added from the bowl.

4. Finally, over it all, I sprinkled about 1 tablespoon of salt (I use sea salt or Himalayan pink salt).

5. Taking a meat pounder and putting on gloves (to avoid blisters), I began to pound the mixture, pulling the mix from the sides and turning it all around. It’s important to release the juices and this takes a bit of time and energy.

6. Once there is a good amount of liquid in the bowl, it’s ready to go into the jars. Put some in and press it down firmly.


The first cabbage filled more than half of a gallon jar.

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7. I repeated the process with the second cabbage and was able to finish filling the gallon jar and also fill a quart leaving an inch of head space or air at the top. Placing a tiny bit of water in a pint Ziploc bag, I placed it on top of the ingredients so that they would all stay under the brine.

This mixture will then have to stay on the counter for three days or more—depending on how you like the taste—before being put into the refrigerator for storage. When I buy good quality sauerkraut from the store, it costs about $8 a pint. This made ten pints for $18.

See more tips on how to make sauerkraut.