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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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Home Kitchen Garden Bare Ground

Each time I mow the lawn, I dump the clippings in the garden. The accumulated depth of the fresh clippings might total four feet, but the clippings decay into the soil. By next spring, the soil is bare… though weeds abound.

This past week finally produced the kind of weather that gets me started in my home kitchen garden. While conventional wisdom says to get out there as soon as you can work the soil, I tend to delay a few weeks. There are a few advantages to this strategy:

1. When the soil first thaws, it tends to contain a lot of moisture; working in the mud is unpleasant, and waiting a week or two lets the soil dry out a bit.

2. I’m usually pruning and grafting fruit trees until their buds start to open; I do this in late winter because those days aren’t miserably cold, but it means I’m busy in the trees when my soil thaws.

3. After the soil thaws, it takes a few weeks for the weeds to start growing. Were I to start in my planting bed at this time, I might not spot the dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass that rooted last summer. These grow rapidly, and in a few weeks their new growth will make them easy to spot; I begin spring planting with a ceremonial removal of last year’s weeds.

4. Sure, cold-weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions will withstand cold days likely to hit after the soil thaws, but they won’t do a whole lot of growing. I’ve seen peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator where it’s always about 42F degrees. But after a month at 42 degrees, the peas were still just sprouts. Why not let the soil warm just a bit so the seeds feel cozier when they go in the ground?

A First Look at my Garden Bed

Last week, I finally assessed my garden bed. To put things in context, here’s how I left things in the fall:

I mulch between planting rows with grass clippings from my lawn. I pile these on all growing season. They keep the weeds down except along the plantings—wherever I maintain a gap for vegetables to grow, there is a green oasis of competing weeds.

Home Kitchen Garden Mint Family

If you find a square-stemmed plant with purple blossoms in your home kitchen garden, it may not be a weed. These are members of the mint family, and you may be growing them as herbs. The square-stemmed plants in my kitchen garden are probably catnip. I don’t want them there, so they’re weeds.

I pulled the tomato stakes and threw most of the dead tomato plants in the compost heap, and I swiped a few panels of the garden fence to put around fruit trees I planted in November. Finally, my kids raked the lawn and tossed all the leaves onto the planting bed.

There was little snow over the winter, so there was nothing to compress the leaves and encourage them to decompose.

Here’s what I found in the garden:

The grass-clipping mulch is gone! It has completely rotted away to bare soil. I’m used to finding a thin cap of dry, decomposing grass on the soil at the beginning of a growing season, but there is none.

There are leaves all over the planting bed, though most had gathered at the east end, blown there by the prevailing wind and trapped by the garden fence. The prevalent weed is dandelion, but there’s also a patch of something out of the mint family—I guess catnip because it has no minty scent.

Rhubarb on the left, and oregano on the right are making excellent starts in my home kitchen garden. I reserved about four feet at one end of the raised bed for perennials, and these are the ones that thank me.

Already, rhubarb is pushing up through the leaves, and there’s a lot of green deep under the dried stalks of last year’s oregano. I planted a single pot of oregano four years ago, and it’s now a four-foot diameter circle that laughs at winter chill.

Finally, I found clusters of delphinium leaves in a corner where I planted them when I planted the oregano. I don’t know what came over me that day; it seems a travesty to have given up garden space for something I’m never going to eat.

Just One More Thing

As I scanned the garden bed, imagining where I’d plant each type of vegetable, I noticed a small patch of grass clippings where a tomato plant had stood last summer. I suspiciously (and gently) moved some of the grass aside and made an aggravating discovery: a rabbit had beaten me to my garden. The nest held at least four nearly-naked babies.

This is the third season I’ve found such an obstacle in my planting bed, and I’ve managed to work around rabbit babies in the past. Thankfully, mother rabbit didn’t approve of my meddling, and she carried her babies off to a new nest later that day.

Home Kitchen Garden Rabbit Babies

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What’s Your Favorite Chore?

Please leave a comment identifying the gardening chore that you enjoy above all others.

As spring slowly gets rolling in my home kitchen garden, I’m doing a few gardening tasks that I particularly enjoy. I’ve finished pruning my fruit trees, and have made about three dozen grafts (here, in reverse order, are posts in which I wrote about pruning and grafting apple trees). I love pruning and grafting because it gets me outdoors in trees while most people are still indoors awaiting warmer weather. There are few times when unadulterated sounds of nature are so audible in my yard.

To pollinate squash or pumpkins, I pick a male flower, tear off its petals, and rub the stamen/anther structure around on the pistols of any open fruiting flowers. Since I started doing this, my squash and pumpkins in my home kitchen garden have been reliably prolific.

With the temperature finally climbing, I plan to lay out some rows in my garden, and start peas, spinach, lettuce, and, perhaps, cilantro during the weekend. The prospect of working in the garden has me a little jazzed, but I admit that I don’t care for some spring gardening chores. I don’t till the whole garden; I turn soil directly where I’m planting. However, I also dig out every weed that I ignored through last year’s growing season. I don’t enjoy weeding, so I reserve the job for early spring when I have greatest enthusiasm for gardening.

Chore Anticipation

As I’ve completed my cherished late-winter tasks, and I anticipate the early spring weeding and planting, I realize I’m looking forward to some specific gardening moments that won’t come until later in the season. Harvesting just about anything is right up there on my list of favorites. Even better is cooking with the harvested produce. I especially love to make new potatoes and peas (I meant to share this mid-winter, but now it’ll have to wait until I’m picking peas), and nothing beats this awesome tomato salad.

Still, there’s one gardening chore that I anticipate more than any other: pollinating squash and pumpkins.

Growing Squash and Pumpkins

A pumpkin surrounded by squash and (shudder) gourds from my home kitchen garden. In a moment of weakness, I planted gourds one season and they came back on their own for two more years. My attitude now: if I’m not going to eat it, I’m not planting it.

In my first year growing squash and pumpkins, I felt some despair when I’d notice a female flower blossom and then, a few days later, fall off the plant along with the fruit. Eventually, I guessed that only pollinated squash and pumpkin flowers grow into fruit, so I initiated the morning pollination patrol.

In the cool of each summer morning, I pluck a male squash flower and strip away its petals. Then I wade among the squash plants, and use the stamen/anther of the flower I hold to paint the pistols of any female flowers I find in bloom.

I listen to birds sing, I watch bees work, I enjoy textures and aromas of the vegetable plants, and I bask in the cool that will soon wilt under the rising sun. It takes about three minutes to spot all the squash flowers and pollinate the ones that fruit. Still, it takes about a half-hour for me to return from this gardening chore that I most enjoy.

What’s Yours?

Please share! Leave a comment describing the one garden chore that you enjoy above all others.

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How did a high school student use lemons to research gardening-related issues?

I recently attended a high school science fair that featured student’s experiments in biology. I was pleased to find many exhibits of interest to anyone who grows a home kitchen garden. Here are some things I learned:

The Best Miracle Grow Potting Mix

One exhibit described an experiment involving flowering cabbage growing in three types of Miracle Grow potting mix. Of the three, Miracle Grow Organic Choice produced the tallest seedlings, while Miracle Grow Potting Mix and Miracle Grow With Moisture Control produced shorter seedlings.

It was clear that the seedlings had received too little light during the experiment, but the difference in growth was obvious. If you’re shopping Miracle Grow, go with their Organic Choice product.

Soil Treatments

An exhibit showed the results of sprouting peas in soil that had undergone various treatments. Starting with one type of soil, the experimenter had baked some soil, amended some with soot and ash, amended other soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and amended still other soil with activated coal.

Peas grew best in the soil with added activated coal and worst in the baked soil. Soil amended with soot and ash or with nitrogen-fixing bacteria supported the peas adequately. But were I mixing soil based on the experiment’s results, I’d add activated coal to my potting mix.

The Best Fertilizer for Young Garden Beans

One exhibit described garden beans having been fed with various mixes of fertilizers. Apparently, there were five sets of seeds or young seedlings. Each set received its own fertilizer mix ranging from no additional fertilizer to a 30-10-10 mix, a 12-55-6 mix, a 10-10-10 mix, and an 11-35-15 mix. The experimenter’s conclusion? Fertilizer hinders the growth of a plant.

Save the Lemon Juice for Cooking

To simulate acid rain, one experimenter mixed lemon juice with the water given to bean plants. Some plants received water with a ph of 2, some received water with a ph of 3-to-4, some received water with a ph of 4-to-5, and some received water with a ph of 6. After 10 days of these treatments, the low-ph plants actually shrank while the plants receiving water of neutral ph grew well. What would I conclude? If I use lemon juice on my vegetables, I’ll wait till I’m cooking them.

From a high school science experiment, it’s not clear which artificial lights are best for beans… but whatever type of bulb you use, it’s hard to provide enough.

Artificial Light

In one experiment, some beans grew under halogen lights, others under black light, others under grow lights, and still others under fluorescent lights. Actually, the beans under black light and grow lights didn’t grow; the ones under halogen lights grew very well. But from reading the researcher’s comments, I wouldn’t make decisions about lighting from these results. The plants and their respective lighting were in rooms all over the house—temperature differences may have been a greater factor than lighting differences. Also, apparently there was no control over watering; some plants might simply have dried out while others received adequate water. It’s helpful that the researchers described their methods and highlighted possible flaws.

An Engaging Hour

I spent an hour reviewing the science experiment displays and would have been happy spending more time. I learned about compost, about the effects of filtering light on plant growth, about soil nutrients, about germination rates, about soil types, and about insects (including honey bees).

My favorite exhibit featured a question in bold characters across the display: How do you make flowers last? The experiment had to do with prolonging the health of cut flowers, but I couldn’t help answering that leading question in my own twisted way: If you want to make flowers last, make everything else first.

 

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There are not yet blossoms on my apple trees… and if there were there’d be no bees to pollinate them. This year, my bees will miss the apple blossoms, but next season, they’ll be first in line.

Some weeks ago I started this discussion about getting beehives for your home kitchen garden. Then, I posted a video that describes a starter beekeeping kit and I promised more videos that show fine points about assembling parts of a beehive, and that show how to install a mail-order package of bees in a hive.

If you’re in hardiness zone 6 or below (farther North), plan to start bees in May. Unless there’s a local retailer who sells hives, you should order gear now so you have time to assemble it in April before your bees arrive.

I’ve browsed dozens of videos on YouTube in search of some to help explain beekeeping and show how easy it is to do. There are plenty, each with its own quirks. The two I’ve embedded here show typical steps to starting hives. I’ll be starting at least one hive in May, and will share my experiences as they unfold. But this blog isn’t about beekeeping, so, as the growing season approaches, I’ll present other topics of use to all home kitchen gardeners.

Whether you’re starting bees in May along with me, or visiting to learn more about growing, eating, and preserving your own produce, please visit often, leave comments and questions to move the discussion along, subscribe to my RSS feed, and bookmark to show your support. I’m looking forward to a productive season in my home kitchen garden as I hope you are in yours. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos about beekeeping.

A Frame and Foundation

This video shows a man assembling a frame and installing foundation on it. You’ll see such assembled frames in the next video as the beekeeper there fills a hive body with them.

Low-Impact Installation

I like the installation technique in the following video. Traditional beekeepers often bang the bees around severely and shake them into the hive. This video shows a gentle aternative: putting the shipping container into the hive box and letting the bees emerge from it in their own time. If you use this approach, you’ll need to go in in a week or two, remove the shipping box, and insert frames to fill the space.

If you don’t like to get stung by bees, WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR! There’s no shame in it, despite the daring beekeepers who work without gloves and bonnets. I’ll be dressed heavily when I work my bees!

 

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Bees become active in the spring even as the very earliest flowers blossom. However, in zones 5b and colder, it’s best to wait until May to start new hives. A young colony will grow quickly when there’s plenty of food to gather nearby.

At then end of 2008, I vowed that Your Home Kitchen Garden would become an advocate for honey bees. In a recent post titled Home Kitchen Garden Beekeepers, I shared some of my childhood to encourage gardeners to become beekeepers. Since then, I had a conversation with my dad in which he agreed I could acquire some of his beehives and beekeeping gear.

I want to start a bee colony or two in my home kitchen garden in May. This means acquiring his gear, inspecting it and cleaning whatever is still usable, upgrading some parts to take advantage of improvement in bee culture over the past 30 years, and ordering bees so they arrive in early-to-mid May.

Bee Emboldened

Before my dad decided to raise honey bees, he knew almost nothing about them. He picked up a book or two and read… as did my brother and I, and he got his hands on a catalog from a company called Dadant & Sons. During maple sugar season, he assembled hive bodies and frames from mail-ordered kits, following the directions that came with them. My dad wasn’t a professional carpenter, but he made the assembly look easy.

Nearly all of our beekeeping knowledge came from those books, and from asking questions of neighbors and friends (one of my dad’s work associates was a beekeeper). You have far greater advantages. There are far more books about beekeeping available today, there are more manufacturers and suppliers than ever, and the Internet provides ready access to dozens of useful sources—including enthusiastic beekeepers who are happy to answer questions.

Did you know that an apple will form even from an unpollenated blossom? Unpollenated apples are much smaller than pollinated apples. Interestingly, sometimes a bee pollinates only part of an apple. When that happens, the pollinated lobes grow large while the unpollinated lobes remain small; you get a rather strange-looking apple as a result. If you raise bees, chances are that food-producing plants in your neighborhood will produce better.

Beekeeping References

In my youth, the standout books about beekeeping were The Hive and the Honey Bee written by L.L. Langstroth, and The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture by AI Root and ER Root. Both books have been around long enough to become seriously out of date. However, recent updates make The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture completely relevant (revision 41). For kicks, an old copy of The Hive and the Honey Bee (most recent revision was in 1992) is still a good read, but I’d look to more modern publications for serious guidance.

When you commit to beekeeping, get The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture and consult it often. But to get started, choose a book specifically written for beginners. I’ve added a section on beekeeping to Your Home Kitchen Garden store where you’ll find several appropriate books to help you get started. Also, biggerbooks.com has a decent selection of books about beekeeping.

Beekeeping Really is Easy

I’ve spent several hours in the past few weeks reviewing videos that give a clear understanding of basic beekeeping activities—and that reveal how simple beekeeping really is. I wanted a video that reviews the components of a modern beehive, that explains how to assemble the pieces, and that shows how to install a new package of bees. I couldn’t find one I like.

I did find several videos that, taken together, cover most of these topics reasonably well. The first, embedded here, is more of an advertisement for a beekeeping supply store than it is a robust do-it-yourself tutorial. Still, it shows a beehive unassembled so you have some idea of the parts you’ll need to nail together if you buy a kit through the mail.

Please have a look, and check back soon. In my next post, I’ll include a video showing the finer points of assembling components of a hive, and video in which a beekeeper installs a new shipment of bees into a fully-assembled hive.

 

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I accidentally sprouted roots on a basil sprig, then planted it in a flower pot where it has grown very slowly this winter on a south-facing windowsill.

I’ve reported several times this winter about my answer to cold and snow: I have a small indoor home kitchen garden. That garden consists of two flower pots on a south-facing windowsill, and an occasional canning jar with fresh, young sprouts for salads and breads (I wrote about the sprouts in Your Small Kitchen Garden blog).

In my last post, I reported that I found box elder bugs wintering over in my indoor herb pots. This morning, when I went to water my herbs, I made another unexpected discovery: My basil is in bloom!

Three blossoms have emerged on my basil plant, and it looks as though more are on the way.

Accidental Basil

In October I had put some sprigs of basil in water to hold them after the first killing frost. Those sprigs happened to put out roots. I planted one of the rooted sprigs in a flower pot.

The basil has grown poorly. It got too little light, and the soil was too cool on the windowsill. Oh, and when I took vacation one week, the basil got miserably overwatered, resulting in a massive setback for the plant. Still, this morning I found three tiny basil flowers.

It was a great reminder of the coming springtime. I’m so jonesing to plant vegetables.

 

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I planted cilantro in a pot and set it in a south-facing window. I added a grow light, but did nothing to push back the cold from the window. Outdoors in summer, these plants would be at least shin high. The cold windowsill has slowed their growth; they aren’t even ankle-high.

My home kitchen garden just emerged from the ice pack that has covered it for more than a month. Even with the snow gone, the soil is frozen nearly rock-hard. That’s good, because February shouldn’t be a gardening month in central Pennsylvania… unless you grow things indoors.

In the doldrums of early winter, I grow a few things indoors. This winter, I planted a flower pot with cilantro seeds, and a healthy but small crop of the herb is growing on my basement windowsill. I also planted a sprig of basil that had rooted when I set a bouquet of it in water on my dining room table just before the first frost of autumn (I wrote about it in Your Small Kitchen Garden blog).

My Indoor Home Kitchen Garden is Pathetic

The bottom line: I’ve been a lousy gardener this winter. I put my meager plantings on a south-facing windowsill, which, I’ve explained in other posts (in Your in-Home Kitchen Garden, for example), is a lousy place for plants in the winter—unless you’ve provided extra light and heat. The winter sun isn’t enough for most vegetable plants, and 65 degrees Fahrenheit makes for slow growth; a central Pennsylvania windowsill in winter tends to run much lower than 65 degrees.

I did put a plant light over the herb pots, but the plants must think it’s early spring; they haven’t grown quickly in the cool air on the windowsill. Were I to harvest cilantro now, I’m afraid I’d kill the plants. That’s OK because I know they’ll grow faster as the days warm. In the meantime, my in-home herb garden has taken on new life: several box elder bugs lurk among its leaves.

At Least They’re Not Roaches

Box elder bugs were news to me when I moved to rural Pennsylvania; growing up in upstate New York, I’d never seen nor heard of these critters. However, during my first autumn in Lewisburg, I’d see hundreds of box elder bugs gather on the front of my house where the sun hit in the late afternoon. A few of them got inside each time we opened the door.

The box elder bugs that decided to winter over in my house have found their ways to my cilantro pot. It feels more like a home kitchen garden now that it has bugs.

Living in apartment buildings in Boston, I found cockroaches amazingly unpleasant. However, I quickly became indifferent toward box elder bugs. The few that winter over in my house ignore my food stores, they don’t reproduce in the house, and they don’t scurry into dark spaces whenever I turn on a light. In fact, I rarely see them—and I never see traces of them, though occasionally one flies by or crawls down a lampshade.

I guess the box elder bugs in my house are as fed up with winter as I am. I’m impressed that they’ve found the few food plants I’m growing, and I’m letting them stay. My indoor herb garden feels more like a seasonal outdoor garden now that it has insect critters scurrying about in its leaves.

Please enjoy these other articles about growing herbs:

 

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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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Never mind the turtles in Aiken, South Carolina. There wasn’t ice on the ponds! I’ve bounced golf balls on ponds in central Pennsylvania. Every winter I develop an urge to travel south as an appetizer for the coming spring.

As you might learn from many web-based “tips” for beginning gardeners: you should put your home kitchen garden where it will get sunlight. I’ve yet to see the following tip in any of those beginning gardening articles: Make sure you put your gardener where he or she will get sun.

I’ve no objection to winter, but I enjoy it much more when I get at least a week of respite some time before the spring thaw. Every gardener in northern climes—and especially those who manage massive kitchen gardens—should try to head south for a break in January or February.

Winter Escape from a Home Kitchen Garden

Winter has suspended my own home kitchen garden, and it has slowed me down a bit. Most of that has to do with holidays; the rest of my family lives by the school calendar, and it was a particularly lengthy winter break this year. Thankfully, our break included escape from winter.

My in-laws have recently moved to Aiken, South Carolina, and on the Sunday after Christmas, we piled into the minivan and went for a visit. My mother-in-law, you might recall, introduced me to red pepper relish, one of the many fine foods she has fed me in the years since I met her daughter.

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Aiken is nearly 700 miles south of Lewisburg. That’s plenty far enough to put winter out of reach. Some days ran more than 60F degrees, and all days but one were sunny. Of course, I Googled attractions in Aiken, and picked up brochures. The nearest public garden was just a few blocks from my in-laws. So, on an unscheduled afternoon, we were off to Hopelands Gardens.

No Home Kitchen Garden

Click the photo above to view photos from Hopelands Gardens in Aiken, South Carolina.

Even in winter, the gardens were green and gorgeous. There were squirrels, ducks, and turtles about, and there were spring flowers in bloom. Many of the plants at Hopelands Gardens were unfamiliar to me; I suspect they’re not common in central Pennsylvania. And, clearly, no one planted the garden with a kitchen in mind. In fact, given the same space and resources, a kitchen gardener could provide fresh vegetables and fruit for at least a hundred families.

Hopelands Gardens is a tragic misappropriation of gardening space, but it made for a very pleasant afternoon. The garden walk helped to recharge me so I’ll hold up through the next two months of Pennsylvania’s winter. If you can find a way, get out of the winter for a week, and find a nice garden to visit. Now I’m anticipating some warm days in March, pruning and grafting in my apple trees.

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