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Home Beekeeping

Few gardening-related hobbies are as fascinating and satisfying as raising honey bees. Contribute to the health of your area's honey bee population. Buy this guide to learning bee culture and start your own bee hives.

Garden Chickens

Raise adoring pets that pay you back with delicious and nutritious fresh eggs. This offer provides all the information you need to get started with your own backyard chickens. Click here today to get started in this rewarding hobby.

Kitchen Garden Store

Learn to preserve the produce you grow in your home kitchen garden. This home canning starter kit includes everything you need to can your first batch using the boiling water bath method for high-acid foods. Find it and other canning supplies at the Home Kitchen Garden Store.

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When a beehive gets crowded, the queen departs with several tens of thousands of workers. We spotted this swarm clumped on the trunk of a young spruce tree and installed it into one of our working hives.

In a recent guest post on the Northwest Garden Show blog, I suggested that if you have a Home Kitchen Garden, perhaps you should take up beekeeping. With our honeybee population beleaguered by Colony Collapse Disorder, foul brood, wax moths, and mites, every gardener should be concerned.

Please at least employ gardening practices that encourage pollinators and that protect them from harm. This means eliminating chemicals from your gardening activity, or learning to apply them so they present the least possible danger to pollinators. It means growing a variety of plants that produce flowers in all seasons. It means going easy on weeds that provide pollen and nectar to bees. It means letting your herbs and vegetables flower even when you’re done with them. It means providing places in your garden that provide shelter from wind and rain. And it means leaving dead spent vegetable plants to die, dry, and winter over in your garden. (I’ll expand on these suggestions in a later post.)

Best of all, Become a Beekeeper

That’s my dad to your left, and me to your right. Yes, those are 1970s-era bell-bottom denim pants. It’s a pain to stuff bell bottoms into your socks. The white box to my dad’s right is a bee hive, probably newly-started with mail-order bees only a few weeks earlier.

Becoming a beekeeper is the most outrageous suggestion I made in that guest post. Honestly, it’s not all that outrageous a suggestion. Preparing for a honeybee colony requires a bit of do-it-yourself savvy, but an active bee hive requires far less attention than a housedog. And, while your bees won’t be nearly as cuddly as a dog, learning about how bees behave and getting to know their idiosyncrasies is both entertaining and satisfying. What’s more, with surprisingly little effort, even one bee hive can return many quarts of honey in a season.

Been There, Done That

When I was in my teens, my brother convinced my dad it would be a good idea to raise bees—though I think we called it raising honey. Being mildly allergic to bee stings, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, and I was kind of detached as my dad received beekeeping equipment via mail-order (close to 20 years before the Internet happened), and assembled bee hives in our living room.

When I learned that bees would arrive in the mail, and somehow end up in the boxes my dad built, I started to take notice. Once his beekeeping operation was in full-swing, I was hooked: those critters were fascinating. I enjoyed working the bees, and I enjoyed reading about bee culture.

We Captured a Honeybee Swarm

In coming months we’ll explore the honey-raising experience. I’ll share some memories, and we’ll look at modern beekeeping methods. Right now I want to tell you about capturing a swarm. The story touches on several details of bee culture that we’ll explore in-depth in upcoming posts.

Once the queen bee finds her way into the bees’ new home, some worker bees face the entrance and jut their rear ends into the air. The swarm flows like liquid into the hive’s entrance. The entrance here is in the middle of the bees, and you see some order in the bees’ alignment.

Bees swarm when their hive gets crowded: they manufacture some new queen bees, and the existing queen leaves the hive along with a whole bunch of worker bees. Oddly, it seems the bees leave the hive before they’ve decided where to go.

This swarm lands somewhere—often not far from the original hive—while various scouts search for a new home. The attentive beekeeper can capture the resting swarm and install it in an empty hive box. Amazingly, you can also install a swarm into a hive that already holds an active colony; the bees will get along (don’t just dump a swarm into an active hive; there are steps to take to ensure a hive’s workers accepts the new bees); the photos in this post are of a swarm that we added to an established hive.

Early in our beekeeping days, we found a swarm on the trunk of a small tree near our hive boxes. Capturing the swarm was simple: we cut the tree off near the ground (we had to run the saw through the ball of bees, but they obligingly moved out of the way), shook the bees off onto the top of an open hive box, and watched the bees move into the box. It was that easy… and watching them was very cool; I saw this phenomenon many times during our beekeeping years. It goes like this:

Honeybee Verse

The farmer who plowed my mom’s home kitchen garden each spring recited a rhyme that expressed the importance of timing for starting bee hives:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,

A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,

A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

So, use the next month to read up on beekeeping and order your first hive. You’ll want it assembled and waiting when your bees arrive for installation in May. Follow this link for a how-to manual that will prepare you for this fascinating adventure, and visit this blog as it evolves for encouragement.

For a few minutes, there’s a blob of bees writhing around on—or in front of—the hive box. (Sometimes we’d stretch a bed sheet in front of the hive and dump the bees on the sheet. The bees found their ways into the front of the hive box.) Naturally, some bees wander into the box. Scan the swarm carefully and you might spot the queen bee; her attendants will eventually usher her inside.

Bees who know where the queen is, stand in place pointing in her direction. Other bees fall into line also pointing toward the queen. (To point, the bees face the Queen and extend their butts upward.)  Soon, the bulk of the swarm is streaming into the hive past several dozen or hundred pointing bees. Finally, even the pointer bees head into the hive.

Seeing a swarm communicate so rapidly and effectively gave me a lot of respect for them. These and other bee behaviors were truly awe-inspiring, and I never got tired of seeing bees in action.

I’ll continue to encourage you to raise bees, and I’m looking forward to the day when I establish hives in my own home kitchen garden. I hope you’ll come back here to share your experiences as you get started with your own hives.

 

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Home Kitchen Garden Chickens

I’m starting to succumb to the backyard chicken movement. Do you have chickens in your garden? I may soon.

When I started blogging about your home kitchen garden, it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be an enthusiastic gardening community well-established on-line. Moreover, chickens were not in my thinking.

Chickens? As I’ve become familiar with on-line gardening resources, I’ve “met” gardeners of nearly every stripe. Some garden primarily to produce food. Others garden to surround themselves with flowers and ornamental plants. I’ve met people whose gardens are metaphors for their lives, some who relate to gardening spiritually, and others who dig in their gardens simply to escape the grind of corporate jobs or the occasional chaff of family life. I’ve also met gardeners who raise chickens.

Chickens in a Home Kitchen Garden

One of my new chicken-loving friends, Robin Wedewer, writes Bumblebee Blog and contributes to www.examiner.com where she recently published an article presenting the benefits of raising chickens. Please check it out; it may start you down a new garden path.

I actually got introduced to the backyard chicken movement a few years ago when a poker buddy built a moveable chicken coop and started several birds in his garage. The coop’s design let him move it into the yard where chicken droppings would fall directly onto the lawn. After several days, he could move the coop and fertilize a different patch of grass. Of course, when I met the chickens, I figured my friend had blown a gasket and I got on with my life.

The on-line garden chicken community is changing my thinking. Because of their enthusiasm, I recently visited with hundreds of chickens at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. There, I came to appreciate the charm of these useful animals. They aren’t as cuddly as dogs, but they certainly develop attachments and genuinely seem to enjoy interactions with their human caretakers. Oh, and they lay eggs you can eat.

Your Garden Chickens

There are many sources of information about backyard chickens. Of course, check out Robin’s articles, and when you decide to set up your own garden chicken operation, go here: Chicken Coop Plan.

In the meantime, I’ve prepared a video in appreciation of all of my on-line chicken gardening enthusiasts. It’s a collection of intimate portraits of chickens at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. It runs just under three and a half minutes, and I call it Sixty Chickens:

 

If you get a chance, check out the site Life in the Lost World for some terrific chicken-related humor and further discussion about backyard chickens. Here are a few other articles to help inform you about backyard chickens:

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If you want to attract a bunch of gardeners to a seminar, promise to send each of them home with a free rain barrel.

Every home kitchen garden with room enough should have a rain barrel. Minimally, a rain barrel catches water as it falls from the sky. More typically, a rain barrel sits under a downspout from your house’s rain gutter system, and runoff from your house fills the barrel.

For seven or so years, I’ve figured to build a large water tank against the side of my house. Of course, each year has passed with no cistern, and every time I’ve run the hose to water the garden I’ve cursed my own sloth. How much water could I save if I collect the runoff from my house?

Happily, I got the answer to that question and more just a few weeks ago when I attended a seminar presented by the local Cooperative Extension office. Newspaper advertisements alerted me to this seminar and promised a take-home rain barrel to the first 25 people to register. The free seminar alone would have been two well-spent hours.

Home Kitchen Garden Bonanza

If you’re new to gardening, or you’re struggling with unsolvable problems, or you simply want some fresh perspectives, find a Cooperative Extension office in your neighborhood. These state-run offices are very much about agriculture… as is a home kitchen garden. Cooperative Extension offices may offer information about lawn care; pest control; vegetable, fruit, nut, flower, and decorative gardening; house plants; and composting. Cooperative Extension offices may sell (or give away) soil-testing services to help solve your growing problems. They may offer free individual consultations. They may offer seminars about useful gardening topics. They may even offer speakers willing to present at your garden club events. Chances are, you can sign up with Cooperative Extension to become a certified master gardener.

Don’t overlook this resource. Every owner of a home kitchen garden can get something useful from Cooperative Extension. Here’s a link to help you locate a Cooperative Extension office in your area.

The Rain Barrel Seminar

I heard some cool stuff at the seminar… but only captured some of it.

  • Of all the water from Pennsylvania that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, 93% of it comes from the Susquehanna river (which runs through Lewisburg, PA where I live).
  • The Susquehanna River delivers 50% of the fresh water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
  • If a sewage-treatment plant can’t handle the volume of sewage running into the plant, the overflow goes directly into our waterways (a situation that arises during heavy rains—especially where people’s downspouts feed into the sewers).
  • One inch of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot house equals about 600 gallons of water.
  • 40% of the water that people use through the spring, summer, and fall goes into such outdoor applications as washing cars and watering lawns and gardens.

There were many other fascinating statistics, but the ones I’ve mentioned paint the picture so clearly: You can save a lot of money and help preserve your area waterways by installing a rain barrel and using the water it collects to maintain your home kitchen garden.

A downspout adapter sits on top of the rain barrel (left). The overflow port on the side of the barrel (right) accepts a standard garden hose to redirect runoff away from your house. Any of my downspouts would deliver a higher inflow than this overflow port could handle; I’ll need to modify the rain barrel when I install it.

The Attendance Bonus

The typical rain barrel has a few limitations. For example, a barrel might hold 60 to 100 gallons. This means one inch of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot roof will produce at least five times more water than a barrel can hold. The typical rain barrel allows for this by including an overflow port near the top of the barrel. If you have space, you can run the overflow into a second rain barrel, and from there to a third, and so on. If you don’t want to manage so many barrels, you run the overflow out to your garden, or well away from your house, or back into the downspout that you redirected into the rain barrel in the first place.

A faucet mounted near the bottom of the rain barrel accepts a standard garden hose. To provide adequate pressure for typical gardening applications, I’ll need to place the barrel on a stand several feet above the ground. Once it’s elevated, I’ll also want to strap it to the side of my house so it doesn’t fall over at an inopportune moment.

The seminar explained how to install a rain barrel, and the presenters assembled a rain barrel so we could see how to make our own. Amazingly, despite having about 90 attendees, the Cooperative Extension speakers had made enough rain barrels for each of us to take one home. A small grant had paid for the materials, and for the Extension-workers’ time.

In future posts, I’ll show how I install my rain barrel (won’t happen until spring), and I’ll explain how you can make your own. If you don’t want to build your own, jump out to the Home Kitchen Garden Store, and order one now so you can reduce your water bills and grow a greener garden in the spring. By all means, get a water barrel and install it.

 

Here are more articles about rain barrels. Please enjoy:

  • Use a Rain Barrel for Easy Greywater Diversion Systems « People … – Oh and…remember if you live up north, your rain barrel parts could freeze (just like hoses) in winter so that is something to consider when designing your greywater system. Southern climates…well lucky you! …

  • Rainy Review of Rain Barrels at Jackie Koerner – You can also build your own rain barrel with instructions from the Maryland Environmental Design Program’s website. Some municipalities sell rain barrels at a discount to assist with the reduction of rain water runoff. …

  • Time to Winterize Your Rain Barrel – Move your rain barrel into a garage or storage shed if you have one. If you do not have the storage space, turn the barrel upside down to prevent water from entering. Cover the spigot opening to prevent water from collecting there as …

  • Head Spring Farm Blogs » Blog Archive » Reclaimed Whiskey Rain … – The rain barrel concept has been around for a very long time and I recall we had a cistern at the farm house where I grew up. Rain water stored in a barrel or cistern is not quite ready for drinking water unless treated, …

  • Back Porch Rain Barrel – This summer we finally constructed a rain barrel. We’ve had a 55-gallon drum sitting in our yard for several years. We finally made the commitment to convert it into a rain collection barrel. It was so simple, I wish we would have done …

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In various seasons, I’ve gathered peas, beans, tomato seeds, dill seeds, and corriander to plant in the succeeding season. This can be a mistake: Often, a commercial variety of vegetable produces seeds whose resulting plants are nothing like the originals… and usually not nearly as appealing.

In my last post, I shared some videos of a home kitchen gardener who used a six foot space along the windows in her sun room to grow salad greens and herbs during the winter. If you’re in a temperate hardiness zone 8, 7, 6, 5, or 4 and you have a sun room to spare, you can have at least a modest kitchen garden all year.

But if you have garden space in your yard, don’t squander all your indoor growing space to produce off-season salad greens. Do some planning now, order up some unusual seeds, and jumpstart next spring’s home kitchen garden inside.

Seeds and Flats

If you’re a novice gardener, your life will be easiest if you take the obvious path: shop locally for seeds and flats (sets of young plants started for you at a nursery) as they become available in the spring. Why flats? Once reason: some seeds are a bit finicky and a nursery might have more luck starting them than you will… by the time they’re on sale in flats, you know they’ve sprout and are healthy.

But there’s another reason that may be more compelling: starting seeds indoors and transplanting them to your home kitchen garden in the spring stretches out your growing season. Plant lettuce seeds in late March, and you may be eating lettuce by early May. But if you plant baby lettuce plants in March, you could have a robust lettuce garden in April.

If you plan to grow cillantro, buy enough seeds to plant every three or four weeks through the season. Unless you’re addicted, only a half dozen plants will supply plenty of seasoning. Seeds you plant in the spring can mature and re-seed themselves by mid-season, and plants that haven’t gone to seed might winter over, depending on how low the temperature goes.

There are plants that might require more than a hundred days to produce their first fruits, but would continue fruiting for another hundred if given the opportunity. At the same time, some plants mature very quickly, and if given a head start they can feed you well and then get out of the way for a second, and even a third planting.

Variety in a Home Kitchen Garden

So, if you buy locally and plant according to directions on the seed packets and the information tabs sticking in the soil of your flats, you should do fine. In fact, if you follow this path for all your years of gardening, you’ll enjoy a lot of great fresh produce with little hassle.

Here’s the rub: most gardening stores and nurseries have somewhat limited offerings. At my local garden store, for example, I find several beefsteak varieties of tomatoes, an Italian plum tomato, a few early varieties, and two or three off-color varieties. When I tour gardening-related web sites, I see dozens of varieties of tomatoes I’d never have guessed existed.

You can do this too. Get your hands on a seed catalogue or two or three and visit some on-line seed suppliers. It’s amazing how desperate you can become to grow something different from the local offerings.

If you’re going to diversify your home kitchen garden, you will quite likely need to start seeds indoors before the growing season begins. The three videos I’ve included with this post provide encouragement and insights that can help you develop a plant nursery in your home. In most cases, you start seeds from three to six weeks before you’ll be able to plant them outside. So, if you live in zones 5 and 6, you need to be ready to plant indoors by late February and into March. You may not be able to order seeds yet—or you might not see them until later if you do order—but if you need to move furniture and build shelves before you can plant indoors, get a little head start in the cold winter months.

Please enjoy the videos:

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Oregano peeks out from under the first significant snow of autumn. When growing things outdoors is no longer an option, it can be very satisfying to plant an in-home kitchen garden.

Snow fell heavy on my home kitchen garden last night. This morning, every vaguely horizontal surface held an inch or more of light powder. I’m glad I’d already put my garden to bed, and that I’d finished a few related projects. Just last weekend, I planted two pear trees, a sour cherry tree, and two pecan trees and documented step-by-step how to plant trees in a blog post titled New Pear Trees in my Small Kitchen Garden. Now I’m kind of depressed.

Depressed? That might be overstating things. But the passing of fresh produce season is a bummer. Sure, I’ll still be able to buy stuff flown in from Peru, California, and other warmer regions, but none will compare to the produce that grows during spring, summer, and early autumn within a few miles of my house in Central Pennsylvania.

What’s a Home Kitchen Gardener to do?

So, I’m turning my attention inside. Depending on your determination and on the space you have available, you too can get gardening inside this winter. To provide encouragement, I’ve dug up some videos that show how one gardening enthusiast used her sun room in the off season to keep the produce going. I’ve included the first two in a series of five videos she produced on the project.

Please appreciate that this woman is very ambitious with her gardening. You don’t need to commit an entire room to your own in-home kitchen garden. What’s more, fancy storage containers, label makers, and other dedicated indoor gardening supplies aren’t necessary to succeed with winter produce.

On the other hand, for most of us, it’s impossible to over-emphasize two fundamental challenges of growing produce while the snow alls:

1. Winter sunlight may not be enough to feed vegetable and fruit plants

2. Many vegetables and fruits grow best in relatively hot weather

Lighting an in-Home Kitchen Garden

Will you need supplemental lighting to grow vegetables in the winter? Even if you have south-facing windows (for those in the northern hemisphere), your vegetable plants may not draw enough energy from the winter sun to plump up tomatoes, peas, beans, or whatever other items you grow. Generally, garden plants thrive when they get six hours of full sunlight each day.

South-facing windows in my basement have an extra-wide sill which is perfect for flower pots. However, the basement is cool, and winter sun isn’t bright enough for plants to produce lots of sugar and starch; I couldn’t grow beans and tomatoes here without supplemental lighting and heat.

Winter sunlight is weaker than summer sunlight. Only plants centered in unobstructed south-facing windows will get the dose they crave. If you add full-spectrum fluorescent lighting, and turn it on from mid-morning to late afternoon, you’ll have much better results than if you rely solely on natural sunlight.

Heat an in-Home Kitchen Garden

Plant biology slows down as the temperature drops. Some plants simply won’t sprout if the soil isn’t warm enough, and having sprouted, they grow very slowly unless the air is warm. Plants growing indoors in the winter may face two temperature challenges: First, we’ve all become very conservation-oriented, so we keep our living spaces in the sixties (Fahrenheit). Second, when we set up a home kitchen garden in front of windows, we expose them to the least cold-proof places in our homes; it might be ten to twenty degrees colder near a window than it is three or four feet away from the window.

You Know the Challenges…

To succeed with an indoor produce garden, provide adequate supplemental lighting and at least some localized heat near your plants. This may mean keeping a single room warmer than the rest of your home, or placing a space heater or several incandescent lights near your in-home kitchen garden.

The first video is three minutes, 20 seconds long. The second video is two minutes 41 seconds. Please enjoy them!

 

Here are links to other articles about growing vegetables indoors:

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