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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.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In some places, gladiolus can be left in the ground all winter. In colder climates, however, they would freeze and die. Gladiolus can be saved, though, if placed in the root cellar and replanted in the spring. Here’s how.

First, gently dig the entire gladiolus plant and place on newspapers in a shady spot that won’t get frosted. A porch is ideal. Let them sit there for a week or two until the stems easily pull away from the corms.

Next, separate the new corms from the old ones.

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Often, a gladiolus will form two new corms where the old one was. With some wood chips and a bucket, place these new corms on top of the chips not touching one another.

gladiiolas_007.jpg Cover with more wood chips. Continue until the bucket is full. Place more chips on top, cover and place in the root cellar for the winter. In the spring, begin planting the gladiolus about ten days before the last frost. Planting ten or twelve at a time is ideal. Continue planting them every ten to fourteen days until they are all in the ground. This will assure a timely presentation of flowers throughout the summer months.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Consider drying your herbs and late-harvest vegetables to keep them longer. Drying is one of the oldest forms of preservation in the world. Virtually all indigenous tribes used the technique as a way to preserve foods for colder or drier times.

Dry herbs the same way you dry flowers. Some herbs can be spread out in the sunshine but most require a drafty shade to maintain their color and nutrients.

  • Gather stems into small, loose bunches.
  • Secure the ends together with a rubber bands or twine.
  • Hang upside down in a warm, dry, dark, well-ventilated place that’s out of direct sunlight.
  • Cover them with a paper bag to keep the dust off.
  • Herbs with smaller leaves, such as thyme, can be laid out on newspaper or on a rack to dry.
  • For best results herbs should be fully dried within two to three days.

If humidity makes air-drying impossible, dry them in a warm oven or use a food dehydrator.

Drying Basil

This year, I dried my basil in the oven. Mine has a pilot light which is ideal. If yours doesn’t have this option, the lowest setting (with the door slightly ajar) often works well.

It’s relatively thin and can easily be dried by spreading it out on a cookie sheet.

Once dried, I transfer it to glass jars. This basil can then be used in soups, salads, eggs or dips. It does discolor a bit, but it tastes just fine.

Y(ou can even give away dried herbs in glass jars for holiday gifts!)

Drying Tomatoes and Paprika Peppers

Tomatoes and paprika, however, really need a bit more power. I use an electric dehydrator for the vegetables.

With tomatoes, I like to start with a paste variety as there is less water in the flesh. San Marzanos are my favorites. I wash and dry the tomatoes, then cut them into slices. The thinner the slice the quicker they dry. However, I find that if I cut them too thin, they stick to the tray and become difficult to remove. Quarter-inch slices have worked best for me.

I lay them flat on the tray and put the dehydrator on 125 degrees. After a few hours, I lift them up so that they won’t stick and the next day, I turn them over. At the end of a few days, they are nice and dry and ready to use in recipes. I want them to be almost crispy so that I can grind them up and use them in dips.

Paprika needs to come from actual paprika peppers.

I get the plants from some local nurseries and put them in the ground when the danger of frost has passed. I have heard that they like sulphur so I usually place five or six matches in the ground with their roots. They enjoy a bit of support as well so I have some nice cages that I use to give it to them.

As the peppers mature, I cut them from the plants. I carefully wash and dry them and slice them into ribbons discarding the internal seeds (or feeding these bits to the chickens if you have some). These ribbons go onto the trays and I again dry them at about 125 degrees. It takes a few days and you want them to get completely brittle so you can grind them into powder.

This powder makes excellent gifts and is a great addition to quiches, deviled eggs and other egg dishes.

See more on oven-drying tomatoes.

Do you dry your herbs, vegetables, or fruit? Please share any comments or questions below!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A few years ago I was given a beautiful bonsai container and decided to try my hand at growing a compact plant to fit it. I had an old azalea growing in a too-small pot that I thought would be perfect for my experiment. Here’s what I learned about bonsai, a living art form!

I envisioned my pretty pink azalea looking something like this

What Is Bonsai?

Bonsai is said to be one of the oldest horticultural pursuits, originating in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

Many people have a misconception of what bonsai really is. The typical question many people ask is: “Are bonsai their own species of trees?”

No, bonsai is a sort of craft or living art form. Techniques including shallow planting, pruning, defoliation, grafting, and root reduction, along with wiring the trunks and branches into desired shapes, all help to create the look of a mature tree in miniature.

With proper care, a bonsai can last for centuries, but even a relatively young plant can give the illusion of great age. The Lars Anderson Bonsai Collection at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston has some bonsai trees from the 18th century.

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The word “Bonsai” means a pot (bon) that holds a plant or plantings (sai).

Indoor and Outdoor Bonsai

There are indoor and outdoor bonsai plants. Most bonsai should actually be placed outside, where they are exposed to the four seasons just like normal trees are. Outdoor ones are made from hardy evergreens or deciduous plants that need a cold period of dormancy during the winter. They are not meant to be indoors year-round.

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These trees grow outside year-round near my son’s home in Texas.

Only tropical plants can survive in the indoor climate of your house; they don’t need a cold period and are better suited to growing indoors. My azalea was not a hardy species and would blossom in late winter in the house, making it perfect for an indoor bonsai. Jade plants are easy to train as bonsai by pruning and removing new shoots to get the look you want.

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You can use flowering and fruiting shrubs as well as houseplants.

Can Bonsai Be Created From Any Plant?

Almost any tree or shrub can be turned into a bonsai. The key is to prune the roots and the foliage so the plant remains (or is pruned) to be dwarfed.

Specifically, bonsai is created from perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning.

Which Is the Best Bonsai Tree for Beginners?

I admit that my azalea did not respond well to having its roots severely cut back and crammed into that shallow pot and promptly died!

Ficus is probably the easiest to grow for beginners; it’s tolerant of the low humidity indoors.

Here is a short list of good subjects for bonsai:

  • Ficus (many species)
  • Crassula (jade plant)
  • Carmona (tea plant)
  • Schefflera
  • Calamondin
  • Sand pear
  • Bougainvillea
  • Gardenia
  • Jacaranda
  • Jasmine
  • Pomegranate
  • Chinese elm
  • Olive
  • Rosemary

Ancient tradition required you to return to nature to find your potential bonsai, but nowadays, we can just head to the local nursery or greenhouse for a bonsai-worthy plant.

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What a wonderful way to enjoy bougainvillea in a small space!

How Long Does It Take to Grow a Bonsai Tree?

Have patience, it can take 4 to 6 months to create a pleasing appearance. To avoid breaking a branch, clip the wire to remove it rather than trying to unwrap it from the plant.Caring for Bonsai

The shape of your bonsai depends on the material you are using. Some plants such as jade are too soft to wire into shape and will instead need to be pruned appropriately. After deciding on the look you want to achieve, prune branches starting from the base of the tree to expose the trunk. The root mass may need to be reduced to fit into the new container. If the roots are drastically cut back, the top growth will need to be cut way back as well. When the roots are newly cut, the plant will need to be kept out of the sun while it recovers. Branches and pliable trunks can be wrapped with wire to train them into the appropriate shape.

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Hard to believe such a striking plant is growing from such a tiny rootball.

With such a reduced rootball, proper watering is critical to keep your bonsai growing and healthy.

  • Feel the soil and water when it feels dry just below the top.
  • Water with a hose sprayer until the soil is saturated or dunk the whole pot in water up to the rim.
  • Either way, let the excess water drain from the newly watered plant, since sitting in a wet saucer can rot the roots.

Fertilize with a bonsai-specific liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength twice a month during active growth—April through September—and cut back to once a month October through March.

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This little evergreen shrub, native to Puerto Rico, is a popular bonsai subject.

Your established bonsai will eventually need repotting.

  • Each time you repot you will need to cut the roots back.
  • Put the plant in the shade and stop fertilizing until it recovers to avoid burning freshly pruned roots.

The look of your plant will change over time as it matures. You can continue snipping the growing tips back and even removing some of the leaves to keep it in the shape you desire.

Enjoy indoor plant projects! See how to make a terrarium garden under glass.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Good Gourd! What’s with the bumpy, weird-looking decorative squash? We get many questions about growing and curing our gourds. (Did you know that the luffa sponge is a gourd?) Discover the world of “gourdgeous” gourds.

What are Gourds?

Gourds are among the oldest cultivated plants. They were the early water bottles of the Egyptians, and have been used for utensils, storage containers, and dippers for centuries.

Botanically speaking, there’s really no difference between gourds, squash, and pumpkins. They all belong to the family Cucurbitaceae. And they’re all frost-tender. But gourds are the common name for hard-shelled, non-edible cucurbit fruits suitable for decorative ornaments or utensils. Some of the squashes and pumpkins are ornamental, too, but they are soft-shelled so they won’t lat as long.

Types of Gourds

Goards come in so many shapes and colors. There three general types of gourds:

  • Cucurbita pepo are the cute, colorful little ornamental gourds that make good decorations. They are closely related to pumpkins, summer squashes, and some winter squashes such as acorn and delicata. An American native, Cucurbita types come in unusual shapes and textures: smooth, warty, plain, patterned, ridged, striped. There are also many shape and color variations including: the apple, pear, bell, egg, bicolor, or orange. Fruits are not usually useful more than one season.

Image: Cucurbita pepo

  • Lagenaria siceraria is a name that means “drinking vessel” since that is one of the many uses of these large, hard-shelled gourds. Speckled swan gourds, bottle gourds, dipper gourds, penguin or powderhorn gourds, and even one called caveman’s club are all Lagenarias. Hard-shelled gourds will last for several years and have been grown for over five thousand years for use as containers and utensils, and the immature gourds are edible. Even today, these types have many uses, including birdhouses, storage vessels, dippers, or ornaments.

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Image: Bottle gourds, Lagenaria siceraria.

  • Luffa aegyptiaca or L. cylindrical is the well-known bath sponge. Luffas are more closely related to cucumbers than squash. Left to mature and dry, the outer shell is scraped off and the scratchy inner fiber makes a great scrubby!

Check out this ”Grow your own Luffa Sponge” video. It’s about five minutes long but we’ve never seen anything like it. As different and unusual as a luffa gourd!

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Image: Luffa cylindrical. Credit: Aimpol Buranet/Shutterstock

Growing Gourds

We have grown speckled swan gourds in the past. Since they take about 120 days to grow to maturity we started the seeds six weeks ahead indoors and transplanted them outside in the spring after danger of frost had passed.

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We kept the plants covered with floating row covers for as long as we could contain them to protect them from cucumber beetles. They they began to spread. Gourds are notorious space hogs with vines that can extend out forty feet from the center of the plant.

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We pulled the vines off the deer fence daily; they really wanted to climb something. If you want to grow them on a trellis or arbor, make sure it is a rugged one. They are such rampant growers they will overwhelm a flimsy structure and we thought they could easily take down our plastic mesh deer fence.

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Since all gourds belong to the Cucurbit family I was expecting our swan gourds to have squash-like flowers so I was surprised when they produced huge white flowers that are not like a squash blossom at all. It seemed like we had weeks of only male blossoms before we started to see female flowers with their tiny immature fruit at the base. I have learned that if you clip off the growing tip of the vines when they reach about ten feet long it will encourage more female blossoms to form while keeping the plants to a more manageable size.

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Once the fruits are set they begin to grow fast! Dipper gourds with extra-long necks can be trained to grow around a broom handle to make an interesting twisted shape or you can even tie them into a knot!

Harvesting and Curing Gourds

Ornamental gourds can be picked as soon as their stems turn brown and tendrils next to them are dry. Luffas should be left on the vine until the stem is dry and the gourds are turning brown at both ends. The seeds will rattle inside when you shake them. Peel off the outer skin and the inner fiber should be tan and dry.

Hardshell gourds should be left in the garden to dry out. Unfortunately any colorful patterns, like on the speckled swan gourd, will be lost when the gourd is dry.

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The skin will fade and discolor and even show signs of mold. As long as the shell does not rot, it will continue to dry inside. It can take 3 to 6 months for them to dry completely, depending on how thick the shell is. Wait until the gourd is totally dry before you craft it into a birdhouse, dipper, or whatever else you decide to make.

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Our talented friend Camille transformed this gourd using decoupage and paint! The possibilities are endless so next year give gourdgeous gourds a try!