Homegrown Winter Salads

homegrown pea shoots

I haven’t posted about it in a while, but I’m still growing shoots and sprouts as part of my Winter Growing Challenge, and I am loving my homegrown winter salads! I’ve modified my methods for growing shoots this year, and─so long as I remember to soak the seed on a regular basis─I’ve been harvesting 1 flat of pea shoots, and 1-2 quarts of sprouts per week. These have been a refreshing addition to our family’s typical winter-fare, and especially great on those days when I’m in the office at Johnny’s all day.

homegrown winter salad
A big bowlful of freshly harvested, homegrown pea-shoots!

These homegrown winter salads are great, because you can keep them simple, or get as elaborate with them as you like; so long as there’s some kind of leafy green forming the foundation of the dish, it’s still classified as salad. I’ve drizzled vinaigrette dressing over a bowlful of pea shoots and called it salad; but typically I like to at least have some shredded carrot and thinly sliced onion in my salads, and some kind of cheese too.

Up until recently, my two boys have always been exceptionally good eaters. William especially has always been fond of vegetables and fruits, and─while he will certainly eat cookies and candies if given the opportunity─he would also just as readily take an apple or even a pepper or raw mushrooms as a snack. Imagine my surprise when I set this big beautiful bowl of homegrown winter salad on the table, only to have William exclaim in dismay, “Salad again!?”

I suppose, at nearly 16 years old, such a reaction from my eldest son is not so unusual…I’ll hope it’s a passing phase and keep growing these greens anyway.

BraeTek and I have enjoyed several homegrown winter salads. He’ll be 12 in a month, and so far the only food he really doesn’t care for is tomatoes.

I’ve even bestowed a few salads upon colleagues in the office─trying to share the love. Love for homegrown winter salads. Love for fresh greens. Love for real food and self-sufficiency. And just love in general; it’s nice to know someone cares, right?

If you recall─last year, due to tight living quarters, I only had a dresser drawer for germination, and a small rack in front of a kitchen window for growing out my shoots. I was using 4×6-inch aluminum loaf pans, and even with 3-5 of those per week, we just didn’t seem to eat as much salad as I had hoped for.

This year, thanks to the spacious, rambling house that came with Runamuk’s #foreverfarm, I’ve been able to significantly step up my efforts to produce fresh leafy greens in the form of shoots and sprouts. I brought the grow-rack that I’d constructed back in 2015 into the house, and set up my grow lights on it. I put my soil in a bin, and in another I put all of my seeds for shoots, sprouting, and microgreens, so they’d be in one central location, and easily accessible for use. To house seeds while they soak, and for storing associated equipment, I’m using this wooden cabinet. It’s a pretty sweet set-up.

winter growing grow station
My winter growing station! Love this set-up!

Instead of the 4×6-inch aluminum loaf pans, I purchased Johnny’s Shallow Black Germination Trays, which are perfect for shoots and micros. Ideally I would have invested in the Hard Plastic Perma-Nest Trays as well, because these trays have drainage slots in them and in order to prevent excess water from going onto my carpet I need to have some way to catch it. Finances are tight though, so I’ve opted to hold off on the perma-nest trays, and I’m making do with an over-turned humidity dome for the time being. It’s not elegant, but it works.

Note: I’m all too familiar with tight financial situations, but don’t let that keep you from growing your own winter greens! Check out “Repurposed Containers for Growing Shoots” for possible alternative tray ideas that won’t eat into your budget.

homegrown winter salads
“Seed weighing station”

I’ve found .3lb of pea shoot seed works very nicely on the 1020 trays, so I just weigh out the seed into a bowl, cover the seed with water and place the bowl in my wooden cabinet overnight. The next day I fill a tray with soil (I keep the soil in my bin pre-moistened), spread the seed even across it, water them in, and cover with a damp cloth. The covered flat of seeds is placed on a shelf on the grow rack, but I don’t turn the lights on until germination has occurred and the seeds begin to sprout. At that point the cloth can be removed, and, with the fixtures positioned just above the trays (you don’t want plants to have to stretch for the light), I flip the switch on the lights.

Note: for more detailed instructions check out this article I wrote last year: How to Grow Shoots for a Supply of Leafy Green Vegetables This Winter.

I usually have to water the trays about every other day. Before germination occurs, I water right through the cloth that covers the seeds. After that, bottom watering would be preferred, but my current set up makes that impossible, so I just gently water from above─just enough to moisten the soil.

After about a week my pea shoots are ready to harvest. 1 of these flats fills a 1 gallon storage bag for me, and will keep very well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

My sprouts are in a cupboard in the kitchen; I like to keep them next to the sink since they require twice daily rinses. These are simply pint-sized mason jars that hang out among my drinking glasses. I have a scrap of linen that I keep near the sink, which I pull out to drain the seeds after a rinse, then the jar goes back into the dark cupboard until the sprouts have their first sets of leaves. Once that happens I’ll take the jar and place it in a sunny window to green the leaves up, and then the sprouts are stored in a Ziploc bag stashed in a drawer of the fridge.

I’ve been crazy busy since I bought the farm, and now that “Busy Season” is upon us in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, I’m spending 4 days a week off the farm. I feel like I’m always running, running, running; there’s so much to be done and I’m just one woman─so I’ve streamlined processes, and set up systems that allow me to perform tasks as efficiently as possible. I like my shoot-and-sprout production systems. I even have a salad-system, because on mornings when I’m getting ready to go to Johnny’s, preparing a salad for lunch is usually asking too much of myself.

On those mornings, by the time I get both boys off to school, feed and water 70 animals, shut down the big old house and make sure I have myself in order, often I’m running late and don’t have time to shred carrots or slice onions. So I’ve taken to keeping shredded carrot and cheese, and a sliced onion in Ziploc baggies in the fridge, which makes it super easy for me to literally throw a salad into a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and head out the door.

These greens seem almost to burst in your mouth when you chew them, so fresh and full of life-giving nutrition. When I’m sitting there in my cubicle at Johnny’s, tethered to their phone, eating my homegrown salad─I feel like I’m spoiling myself a little. Or maybe this is what “taking care of yourself” looks like, lol. Either way, I’m super happy with my homegrown winter salads.

Who else is growing their own fresh, leafy greens this winter? Leave a comment below to share with us what you’re growing! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest from Runamuk directly to your in-box; OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm. Thanks for following along!

13 Reasons to Grow Your Own Shoots This Winter

pea shoots

I am so pumped about this whole Winter Growing Challenge that I want every household to do this with me and I’m going to give you 13 reasons to grow your own shoots. By doing this together we can encourage the people around us to eat healthier too; we can inspire our friends and family to make a conscious choice to eat more fresh vegetables in the form of leafy greens.

grow your own shoots#1.  Fresh greens every day

By growing your own shoots you can effectively provide your household with fresh leafy greens every single day. No need to go to the grocery store to look over their sad selection of bruised and wilty leaves, or to resort to the pre-packaged iceberg salad mix. You can have a leafy green salad any day of the week─even in the depths of winter by growing your own shoots.

#2.  Super healthful and nutritious

We all know we should be eating more fresh vegetables in order to be healthy, and shoots are some of the most nutritious vegetables you could hope for. Typically, about a week after sprouting, the shoots will have the highest concentration of bioavailability of nutrients. These tiny seedlings are jam-packed with important organic compounds, vitamins and minerals that our bodies can utilize.

#3.  Quick

It seriously takes just 15 minutes to set up 5 trays for growing your own shoots to provide a week’s supply of greens. Daily watering takes less than 2 minutes, and you can harvest the shoots with scissors while you’re already in the process of making a meal. The benefits are well worth the time.

#4.  Easy

It’s so easy that you could teach your children to do it and delegate the task to them as a weekly responsibility. This teaches the the whole family about growing your own food, and the intrinsic value of feeding the people we care for.

#5.  Cheap

pea shoots
Pea shoots grown by Moon Valley Farm of Maryland! Check them out online at: https://www.moonvalleyfarm.net/

The primary expense in growing your own shoots is the seed itself, but in 7 days you can more than double the return on your investment simply by growing those seeds out into fresh greens.

In his book “Year Round Indoor Salad Gardening”, Peter Burke shares that a 3 and a half cup jar of peas is enough seed to plant 56 trays. If you sow 5 trays each week, that’s a little over two month’s supply of fresh greens. The cost of the seed is around $6 and 56 trays of shoots will yield approximately 10 and 3/4 pounds of fresh leafy greens. Peter figures the cost of the trays, soil and fertilizer at .17¢ per tray, which comes to $9.52 for all 56 trays. That’s $15.52 for 10 and 3/4 pounds of fresh veg that you would end up paying $269 for if you were to purchase it at the grocery store.

IF you can find them locally.

#6.  Not a lot of equipment

Aside from the seed and some soil, you really don’t need anything special to get started growing your own shoots. You could even cut the bottoms off milk jugs and avoid the cost of trays, and the other supplies you likely already have in your kitchen: measuring cups and spoons, a small sieve for straining seed, and a small watering can─but even a soda bottle could be improvised in a pinch.

#7.  Organic

You are in control when it comes to growing your shoots. You can use a soil mix that is free from synthetic chemical fertilizers, use natural and organic fertilizers, and produce your own organic greens at a fraction of the price that you would pay at the farmers’ market.

#8.  Small space

It requires very little space to grow shoots to supplement your family’s diet. For 5 trays, depending on their size, it might take 2 feet of space. And for the first four days they should be in the dark, so it’s totally cool to stash them in a kitchen cupboard, a dresser drawer or a closet shelf. After that the trays need a sunny window-spot, but if your windowsills are not deep enough to accommodate the trays it’s super easy to fix a shelf in a window, or simply set the trays on an end table near the window.

#9.  Variety

variety of shoots
A mix of shoots grown by Edible Flower Power of New Zealand. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram!

There are so many different kinds of shoots and sprouts to choose from, and so much you can do with them that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get caught eating “the same old thing” ever again.

Grow a myriad of brassicas, grow mustards, legumes like peas, leafy things like buckwheat. Eat salads til they’re coming out your ears, put shoots on a sandwich, use them to make soup stock, add them to ramen or a stir-fry. Get creative with shoots!

Check out the selection of shoots and sprouts available at Johnny’s Selected Seeds!

#10.  Nurturing

Growing your own shoots and sprouts is an act of love and caring. You’re caring for something living, green and growing at a time of the year when cold and snow prohibit plant growth. Largely though, it’s caring for ourselves and the people we share our lives with. By feeding ourselves better food we’re nurturing our bodies and our spirits, and that’s every bit as important as saving money on the grocery bill─maybe even more so.

#11.  Supports a plant-based diet

Health experts agree that a diet consisting primarily of plants can significantly reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. While I’m not here to convert you to vegetarianism, I am an advocate for a diet consisting of less meat, and especially less process foods. I believe that eating more vegetables and fruits is better for my body and my long-term health, as well as for the health of my children and those I care about.

#12.  Better for the environment

Not only is a plant-based diet better for our bodies, it’s better for the planet too! Agricultural production of meat is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as contributing to water and soil pollution. Monocultures are depleting soil nutrients and require the use of pesticides that are in turn killing insects and other wildlife. Growing shoots ourselves offers next to no impact on the planet, while providing our families with superior food.

#13.  Reduces dependence on the industrialized food system

Locally caught bass on a bed of shoots with sourdough bread.

Growing our own food offers us independence from industrialized agriculture. It’s an incredibly powerful way of making a statement. The government is slow to make changes, and many in positions of power have been swayed by the influence of money to believing that this chemically intensive food system is OK. Yet the system is a broken one, causing harm to the planet, the animals─even to ourselves. Industrialized farming is not only destroying the soil required to grow food, it’s polluting our water and air. The resulting production of processed food products are spreading chronic illness throughout the population.

Note: To learn more about the industrialized agricultural system currently in place, how it came to be and how you can help bring about change, read: Vote With Your Fork to Save our Broken Food System.

This is one situation however, where we have the power in our very own hands to change things.

3 times a day we can vote for the kind of food system we want. Simply by making conscious choices when it comes to food─opting to purchase organic food, or local food, and by learning once again to do it ourselves. When we stop spending our hard earned money on those processed products or factory-farmed meats we’re reducing the demand for those products. Imagine if we all just said “No” and no one was buying those things anymore. There would no longer be money to be made that way and the suits profiting from industrial ag would finally be forced to change. Afterall money talks, right?

Be Part of the Winter Growing Challenge!!!

Geez, I guess I got up on my soap-box for a bit there with number 13 huh? I’m not going to apologize though. Food is such an elemental part of our lives─like water, air, a roof and clothing─food is essential to life. And yet, at the same time, food is so much more.

Through food we have cultivated humanity: community, family and tradition all center around food. Food is also our connection to the Earth and the creatures living in coexistence on this planet with us. We don’t need to wait for the government to make the changes we want to see in the food system. We have the power to make those changes in our own lives and to inspire others to follow suit. We can be the change we want to see in our lives. Be the change; grow shoots with me this winter and be a part of the Winter Growing Challenge. Together we can do more.

There are lots of great reasons why you should take up the Winter Growing Challenge with me. I’ve given you 13, if you see another leave a comment below to share with others!

13 reasons to grow your own shoots

What to Do When Your Tree Is Dying: 6 Things You Need To Know

dying tree

The trees and plants in the surroundings are living things that need to be taken care of. The trees and plants provide a lot of benefits not only to mother earth but also to us, human beings. Trees add life as well as color to the environment.

For some, trees can be a great addition to enhance your garden and home facade. Thus, in this article, I am going to share with you six efficient tips on how to save a dying tree in your backyard.

Note: This is a guest-post by Lucy Clark of GardenAmbition.com. Please join me in welcoming her to the Runamuk blog!

Ready? Here are the six things you need to know about how to save a dying tree:

what to do when your tree is dying

what to do when your tree is dying1. IDENTIFY THE SIGNS OF A DYING TREE

Not all people can classify a dying tree from an already dead tree. They are completely two different things. The confusion starts because both look lifeless, dried up, and without any trace of green leaves. So, before you go ahead and save a dying tree, know first if it is dying or already dead. Nourishing a dead tree back to life would be pointless and time-consuming.

dying tree
A dying tree usually has a bent structure, cracks, decay and dried-up.

A dying tree may have the following signs:

  • Bent structure – The tree is not upright because the root is losing its strength.
  • Cracks – There is a continuous crack on the trunk of the tree.
  • Decay – There are fungi or mushrooms on the surface of the tree.
  • Dried Up Wood – Extreme dryness is a sign of a dying tree. The branches look lifeless and can easily crack when you put pressure in it.
  • Light to No Leaves – Dying trees often have fewer leaves than healthy trees. Leaves can be found in a few branches.

2. IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM

cutting dying tree
An arborist has the necessary training and knowledge to analyze and treat any tree problem.

Since you already know the signs of a dying tree, the next thing you need to do is to determine the cause of why it is dying. Determining the exact cause is quite tricky; hence, you might need to consult an arborist for proper guidance. This will increase the chance of saving your tree.

3. CORRECT WATERING ISSUES

watering
Watering can be detrimental to the health of some trees.

Moisture issues are commonly the reasons why a tree is prone to dying. Mature trees can be adversely affected by too much or too little water. Dehydration can kill all living beings – humans, animals, and trees. To ensure your trees grow healthy and sturdy, make sure that they are properly nourished. You have to check and make sure that the area where the tree is located has a good drainage system. Using your garden hose, set it on high stream and water the tree from 0.5 to 2 minutes. Control the nozzle and avoid drowning the soil with too much water. If you do not have enough time to water the tree, setup an automated sprinklers instead.

4. PROPER MULCHING TECHNIQUE

How does using a mulch save a tree? Mulching is one way to nourish the soil surrounding your tree. However, when not done correctly, it can be harmful to the trees. Be sure not to put too much mulch around the base. Just place enough mulch to allow the roots to breathe. Dig the ground so that the mulch has direct contact with the roots. Make it at least 5 inches deep. Using your rake, spread the mulch, only apply 1.5 inches of mulch. In doing so, it helps prevent a host of other tree problems like bacteria and fungi infections.

mulching
Organic Mulch can save dying trees. It contains compost, tree bark chips, wheat straw and others.

5. USE FERTILIZERS ACCORDINGLY

organic fertilizers
Soils with organic fertilizers remain loose and airy which can help a dying tree.

Fertilizers are another item that can help your dilemma on how to save a dying tree. When using fertilizers, avoid sprinkling or spraying it too much to the trees. Before jumping to the conclusion that a sick or dying tree needs fertilizer, test the soil first to make sure you are saving the tree and correcting the problem. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to get the full benefits of the fertilizers. When you are unsure, consult it first with an arborist. Perhaps, it is not the soil nourishment that causes your tree to die. There could be other factors involved like pests or dehydration.

6. PROPER PRUNING TECHNIQUE

If you want to learn about how to save a dying tree, it is helpful if you research on appropriate pruning techniques. Know the kind of tree and the disease because there is a proper pruning for each, and it should be adjusted accordingly. If there are unhealthy areas noticeable on a tree, correctly removing the diseased sections could save a tree’s life. Be sure to get rid of the unhealthy branches to prevent the problem from spreading. Use sanitized shears, knives, or saw to remove unwanted branches.

pruning
Pruning can help your tree retain its nourishment.

GO SAVE SOME TREES!

There are so many ways on how to save a dying tree, but these six steps are the forerunner. In some cases, the reason why a tree is dying could be more than just about nourishment and diseases. Weather conditions and expected lifespan could also play a role. Trees have saved us so many times, and it is now our turn to save them. So, go ahead and look around your garden for some trees to save!

Thank you for reading and don’t hesitate to share your tree-story below! Happy gardening!

Agribon in the Garden

agribon in the runamuk garden

Farmers and gardeners are discovering the benefits of using agribon in the garden. Also known as “row-cover”, this lightweight fabric is the key to extending your growing season and protecting crops from insects. I’ve used it in the past on brassicas to deter the cabbage loopers and had great success. This year I am using row cover on my cucurbit-family crops to protect them from cucumber and squash beetles always seem to devastate my tender young seedlings. I’m hoping the insect barrier will give my vining crops an advantage that results in an increased yield from a crop-family that I’ve had mixed results with in the past.

What is it?

agribon in the gardenAgribon is a non-woven fabric that is ultra light and resistant to exposure to the environment. Made of “spun-bonded” polypropylene fabric. Agribon allows the grower to keep crops inside a tunnel where the environment is warmer inside than the external temperatures. It comes in different grades which offer varying degrees of protection while still permitting light, water and air to pass through. This barrier protects valuable crops against insects, low temperatures and wind.

If you aren't using this amazing garden tool you should be!

Note: This stuff is changing the way farmers today grow food. Check out this excerpt from Eliot Coleman’s book “The Winter Harvest Handbook”. For pricing, sizes and such, check out the “Row Covers & Accessories” page over at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

AG-15 is recommended for insect control. Allowing 90% light transmission.

AG-19 is used for general frost protection. It allows 85% light transmission and is good down to 28°. Many growers use this to extend their growing season on either side, and as overwintering protection for crops like strawberries, spinach and other greens.

AG-30 works well as overwintering protection down to 26°.

How do you use it?

crops under agribon
Spring greens growing beautifully under Agribon row-cover at Rural Roots Farm in Litchfield, ME. Photo courtesy Benjamin Brown.

With a length of pvc, emt, or #9 gauge wire stuck into the ground on either side of the garden bed to effectively create hoops─the fabric can be laid over the hoops and anchored to keep it down. You can use whatever you prefer to anchor it: some growers lay a shovelful of soil along the edges, but that can be a time consuming endeavor whenever you need to check on crops. Many growers have found that a small bag of sand every four or five feet is ideal in keeping the agribon down, but you could also use rocks, bricks, or whatever you can get your hands on to weight down the sides. Just be careful not to tear the fabric as you work with it, the lighter AG-15 is a very gauzy material and tears easily if you’re not mindful.

Pest Control: If you’re using the AG-15 to protect crops from pests you need to be sure to get it on at the same time as planting in order to prevent pests from discovering the crops and getting trapped inside the agribon with them. Don’t wait a  day or a week to put it on the susceptible crops, chances are the pests will have already found it. And you must anchor it on all sides with no gaps in order for it to be effective.

Season Extension: Use the AG-19 to create low-tunnels where you can keep a variety of cold-tolerant crops late into the fall. In this article on the MOFGA website Elliot Coleman overwinters crops in low tunnels using twin beds under hoops, sowing cold-tolerant crops in early October and covering them with hoops and row-cover. Then around Thanksgiving he adds a second covering of greenhouse plastic which protects the crops, allowing them to be overwintered so that they can begin growing in March and are ready to eat in the spring. Elliot says that if you live in areas with heavy snow-load (like here in Maine), use twice as many hoops to support the row-cover and plastic through the winter.

crops under row-cover
Ben Brown at Rural Roots Farm in Litchfield, ME grows a lot of his crops under row-cover. He uses it both for season extension and for pest control. Photo courtesy of Ben Brown.

Agribon Tips

In this article about growing under row cover  in which Paul Gallione─a colleague of mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds─reminds growers that Agribon…

is not a “set it and forget it tool. There is no substitute for human observation. Be aware─especially as the season heats up:

  • Is it hot out, or has it been dry for a period? Rain and sprinkler spray permeate the fabric, but so does up to 90% of sunlight. It’s warmer inside – plants might get thirstier.
  • What crop is it and what stage of development is it at?
  • Does it need your attention? does it need to be vented? does it need supplemental water?

If you’re conscientious with it, you can get a few years from your agribon. The AG-15 for insect control is really lightweight, gauzy material so you need to be especially careful with this one as it’s going to be more prone to tearing. If you avoid pinning them down (creating holes in the fabric to anchor it), and if you fold it carefully and roll it back onto the original roll the stuff came on─you can save it for next year and really get your money’s worth.

rowcover for pest control
Here is row-cover in use at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ research farm in Albion, ME.
row-cover in use at johnny's seeds
You can see the rows sprawling out across the field at Johnny’s, and the extent that growers are using row-cover to protect crops from pests. This allows the grower to grow organically, avoiding pesticides. Agribon is an incredibly valuable tool. Photo courtesy of Randy Cummings and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Note: Special thanks to Benjamin Brown at Rural Roots Farm in Litchfield, Maine (locals: check out his CSA! 10% off!!!) and to Randy Cummings at Johnny’s Selected Seeds for help with photos!

Worth the time & money

agribon in the runamuk garden
Newly plants beds of squash covered with AG-15 at Runamuk. I’m going to beat those cucumber and squash beetles this year!

Using agribon means it takes just a little bit more time and effort to put in your crops or to maintain them throughout their growing period, but the benefits are tremendous. With just a few hoops and a length of the AG-15 you can effectively keep pests off your crops, allowing the gardener to avoid pesticides.

At Runamuk, I’m hoping for an increased yield from these squash plants since they won’t have the pest pressure to set them back. Winter squash is a favorite food of mine, in addition to being a valuable crop because of it’s ability to be stored long into the winter. It was worth the time and expense to me to cover these beds and try for an improved yield from this crop.

Using the same set up and a heavier grade fabric such as the AG-19, you can grow well into the winter. With a little strategic planting you can be harvesting fresh greens for your family in January with 2 feet of snow on the ground─without a high tunnel or hoop-house! That’s pretty amazing if you ask me and sounds like a good way to help feed my family, reducing my food bill and increasing the amount of fresh vegetables we are able to eat in the depths of winter. It’s long overdue for me to try winter growing, so I’ve committed to the idea of setting up a low-tunnel later this year. Check back this fall/winter to read about that upcoming project here at Runamuk!

Have you used Agribon or floating row-covers? Did you love it or loathe it? Feel free to share your comments below so that others may learn from your experiences!

Installing Packaged Bees

packages waiting installation

installing packaged beesThis past Saturday I installed packaged bees into the existing equipment of my recently deceased hives in the Runamuk apiary. In my 7 years of beekeeping, this was a first for me; I’ve always bought locally raised nucleus colonies with hardy overwintered Queens. With so much comb and honey and pollen stores available following winter losses, and the promise of a good deal from a trusted beekeeping acquaintance, I decided to give the packages a shot this year.

What are packaged bees?

For the most part, packaged bees come from the south and are not acclimated to Maine’s conditions; they tend not to survive our winters. However, former Maine State Beekeepers’ Association president Erin McGregor-Forbes of Overland Apiaries in Portland, Maine did a SARE project which ultimately showed that imported packages re-Queened with northern-bred Queens have a dramatically improved survivability rate. Since I plan to raise my own Queens anyway this year I will follow Erin’s example and re-Queen these packages later in the season.

real food challenge

Note: It’s pretty interesting work and worth the read; see more about Erin’s research and the results of that SARE project at: A Comparison of Strength and Survivability of Honeybee Colonies Started with Conventional vs Northern Re-Queened Packages.

Paul and I ordered 5 packages a couple of months ago from Peter Cowin, Maine’s renown “Bee Whisperer” over in Hampden. Peter had come to speak with the Somerset Beekeepers a few years back when I was still president of that group, and I also follow Peter’s beekeeping articles in the Bangor Daily News. Every spring Peter makes the pilgrimage to the south and brings back a truck-full of packages to sell to Maine beekeepers.

Packaged bees consist of 3 pounds of worker bees and a newly laying Queen in a cage. They have no combs or brood, no honey or pollen, only the sugar-syrup in a can to sustain them on their journey. For established beekeepers like me─with plenty of equipment and drawn combs already on hand─packaged bees can be easily inserted to make use of those materials and replace winter-losses.

Road-trip!

Saturday, April 29th was the day for pick up of Peter’s imported packages. Since I normally work weekends I had to leave Johnny’s early that day to drive an hour eastward to Hampden. It was a beautiful day for it and Paul met me at Johnny’s Selected Seeds Call Center so that we could take the road trip together.

When we arrived at his location in Hampden Peter was right out straight. There was one uncertain couple ahead of us, and another guy pulled in right behind us. I already know the spiel on installing packaged bees and how to care for them so we loaded the 5 packages into the back seat and departed in short order, leaving Peter to his other customers.

packaged bees in the car
It’s such an amazing feeling to drive down the road with thousands of bees buzzing in the seat behind you!

It’s always thrilling to drive down the road with bees in the car, but Saturday’s trip was probably the most intimate road-trip I’ve ever experienced with bees. Always before I’ve purchased nucleus colonies, which are entirely contained in a plywood nuc-box with a few entrances that are closed with screen for the trip. Packaged bees however, are fairly open, with the bees housed inside a wooden frame that is screened on 2 sides, so the buzzing sound coming from the 5 packages on the backseat was much louder than anything I’d experienced before.

This Saturday afternoon happened to be only the first or second nice weekend day that our region has experienced yet this season and Mainers were obviously taking advantage of the fair weather to get some outside work done. As we drove across the countryside we saw lots of folks out raking their lawns, mowing, or burning brush in the backyard. What was especially interesting was that every time we drove past a house where someone was burning something in the backyard─where there was the smell of smoke in the air or smoke billowed across the road─the bees became agitated and they would get notably louder. You could hear the difference, and we knew that their ancient instinctive reaction to fire and smoke was at work.

How to Install Packaged Bees

Installing packages later in the afternoon discourages your new bees from absconding, so by the time we arrived at the apiary with the packages it was around 4 and we were able to install them right away. It’s a pretty straight forward process.

packages waiting installation
2 of the 5 hives we installed our packaged bees into.

We had all of our equipment set up and ready to go ahead of time: the bottom board, a deep box filled with combs, the inner cover and the telescoping cover, as well as an extra medium box to house my mason-jar syrup-feeder─and don’t forget an entrance reducer. Since I have lots of combs available, I found 2-3 frames of honey to put in each box, along with 1-2 frames of pollen, and the remaining frames were open combs where the new Queens would be able to immediately begin laying eggs.

I set the inner cover and the telescoping covers aside and removed 1 or 2 of the empty combs from each box before placing a package on top of it in preparation for installation. Then I suited up and with my hive tool pried the square wooden plate off the box to reveal the feeder can.

After opening the first package I realized that packaged bees are angry bees! I suppose if you’d been abducted from your home, unceremoniously dumped into a cage with a Queen Mother you didn’t know and trucked across the country on an epic 2 or 3 day journey, you’d probably be grumpy too! Go figure. But after being dive bombed by angry bees and having one or two persistent girls crawl up under my veil I decided it was best to do the remaining installations as quickly and efficiently as possible!

It was better to remove the staples holding the plastic tab that was attached to the Queen-cage inside the package BEFORE removing the feeder-can. Then use your hive tool to pry the can up so that you can grab hold of and remove it. Be sure to hang onto that plastic tab so as not to lose your Queen down inside the package!

I took the Queen cage out and placed the wooden plate back over the hole to prevent my workers from escaping before I was ready for them and slid the package back a bit on the hive so that I had just enough room to reach down between the frames in the hive-box. Then I removed the cork from the Queen cage and smushed the cage (with the screen parts facing up and down so as not to suffocate the Queen inside!) into the comb of one of the frames in the hive-box. Push that frame with the cage smushed into it up against it’s neighbor to help support the Queen cage so that gravity doesn’t land the cage on the floor of the hive.

Next I took the package with the 3 pounds of worker bees, placed the wooden plate aside and dumped the bees down into the opening where the missing frames should be. Knock the package from side to side a couple of times to get the bees out of the corners of the package, then set the package aside. Replace the 1 or 2 frames you’d set aside earlier and close it up!

I tried to be fairly quick with the installation of the workers. Having everything ready to go allowed me to have them from the package to enclosed within the hive in just 2 or 3 minutes.

how to install packaged bees
Post-installation it took a while for the bees to settle down. You can kind of see the bees in the air around that second hive from the left.

At first it looked as though one of the hives might abscond; while the others seemed to settle right in, there were so many bees in the air around this particular hive that it looked alarmingly like a swarm to me. I waited patiently nearby to see what they would do and after 15 minutes or so they had quieted down enough that I was no longer concerned.

I went back through and added syrup feeders to each hive: a medium box above the inner cover and a mason-jar with a perforated lid filled with 1:1 sugar-syrup, and the telescoping cover on top of all that.

If you are installing your packages onto un-drawn foundation you absolutely must feed your bees to ensure they have the resources they need in order to make wax and build combs so that the Queen can begin to lay eggs. Even with drawn combs like mine, it’s best to feed those bees to stimulate egg-production and ensure the new colony has all the resources it needs to grow.

newly installed packages
I placed the packages in front of their hives when I was finished, so that any stragglers still inside could eventually crawl up into their hives.

And just like that we had new bees at work in the apiary! Yay! #beesrock!

There are many ways to install packaged bees; this was how I did it. Have questions? Sage words of advice? Feel free to leave a comment below!

My Real Food Challenge

Buying and eating real food is a challenge for low-income families like mine; for people who struggle to make ends meet, food isn’t always a priority. Yet I get this sick sense of satisfaction whenever I am able to put before my family a meal made up of real and local foods. Food is just one of the many ways we show that we care, and when I am able to provide a meal that is both nutritious and delicious I feel really good about that.

real food on a low-income budget. runamukacres.comReal food has been a long journey for me, and-honestly─it’s been something of a challenge. Accessing real food has been hard financially, but then knowing how best to prepare those foods was it’s own hurdle. The types of food I prepare now are much different from those I made when I first began cooking 18 years ago; and so different from what I was raised on that I can’t help but marvel at the real-food journey I’ve undertaken to come to where I am today.

real food challenge

The product of one of rural central Maine’s low-income families, I was raised like so many others on a diet that consisted primarily of processed foods and a meat-and-potatoes mentality. Like so many other families living in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck and working to make ends meet, my family received food stamps and medicaid. We shopped once a month, making the trek regularly to Caswell’s in Waterville to load 2 carts with discounted foods: cereals, snack foods, cheeses, canned goods, and enough meats to last the month. Then we went across town to the discount bread store and filled another cart with bread, english muffins, and breakfast pastries. We were a family of 5 and it took a lot of food to sustain us for a whole month.

What’s wrong with processed foods?

As I’ve grown older, and especially since I became a mom, food and how I feed my family have become increasingly important to me. Over the years, I’ve learned more and more about the health issues that stem from a diet of processed food: chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, allergies and asthma can all be linked to what we eat. I’ve learned too about the environmental impacts our food system has on the world around us and how industrialized agriculture is hugely dependent on fossil fuels, which contributes approximately one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Gradually over time it’s become a personal mission of mine to make real and local foods a priority for my family, even on a low-income budget.

According to renowned advocate Michael Pollan:

How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on American’s well being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality, and the federal budget.(Pollan via the Washington Post).

Processed food is typically mass produced; it’s food that’s the same from one batch to the next and from one country to another. Processed foods remain emulsified on the shelf─the fats and water in those foods don’t separate because they’ve been engineered not to, and they tend to have long shelf or freezer lives thanks to the various preservatives added to them. These kinds of foods generally have too little fiber, Omega 3 fatty acids, and micronutrients, while at the same time possessing too much in the way of trans-fats, additives, emulsifiers, and too much salt and sugar.

Our current food system was designed with the intention of feeding millions of people around the world cheaply─providing food security and making sure that we can all afford the most basic of needs. However, the design has had unintended consequences with dramatic long-term costs. Highly processed foods may indeed be cheaper and more convenient, but they’re also more craveable and addictive. Studies show that today two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and that obesity rates in children has tripled in the last 3 decades.

For more info regarding our broken food system and how you can vote with your fork to make a difference!

What is real food?

A lot has changed since I was a child. Most people today are─at the very least─ aware of the dangers of processed foods, and they’re aware of the benefits of buying locally produced vegetables, meats, and other foods. Some things, however, have not changed, such as the fact that rural central Maine is still a region of the state where many families continue to live below the federal poverty level, as well as the fact that 30 years later, I myself am still counted among low-income families. How can low-income households like mine hope to feed their families real and local food when they’re struggling to pay the bills each month? How can I feed my children a diet that will lead them to lead long healthy lives when I’m struggling to keep my bank account in the green? And what is real food anyway?

carrots grow fast
Real food is simply the ingredients used to make food! Photo courtesy Sidehill Farm; Madison, Maine.

Real food is simply food that has not been processed. Vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and meat. They are the ingredients that you use to make food. Believe it or not, I’ve managed to move toward a diet increasingly made up of real and local foods even on my low-income budget, and if I can do it I’m confident that other families can do it too.

There’s no denying that it’s more expensive. Cutting out processed foods can be pricey because grass-fed beef and fresh produce from the local farmers’ markets cost more. That’s the real cost of food. Thanks to our subsidized agricultural crops like corn and soy, Americans spend less on food than any other nation, and that’s not a good thing because the cost of that savings has been at the expense of our health and our environment. If we accept the true cost of food, and if we’re willing to prioritize real food in our lives, then we can change our eating habits for the better.

Fourteen years ago, I became a mom for the first time. Since then my diet has been a gradual progression from that meat-and-potatoes mentality and a diet that was heavy in processed foods, to a dedication to a life of real and local foods that has even turned me to farming and advocating for local foods and agriculture. I’m feeding my family real and local foods even on a reduced income, without the benefit of SNAP funds. If I can do it, you can do it too.

Here’s how we eat real food on a low-income:

#1 Limit processed foods: We don’t buy much pasta anymore, nor do we buy snack-foods like crackers, cookies, or chips; Instead, we buy fruit when it’s on sale or in season. If my boys need a snack, it’s fruit, a carrot or a stick of celery. I figure if they’re not hungry enough for an apple then they’re not really hungry at all and just looking to munch. We avoid buying donuts, pastries, frozen dinners or even cereals anymore. Anything with a long list of ingredients on it’s label is out, especially if I can’t even pronounce it. And yes, I look at labels.

#2 Buy real ingredients: Sticking to the outskirts of the grocery store helps me to avoid the temptation to buy processed foods. We purchase fruits and vegetables that are on sale, with the exception of carrots, potatoes, onions, celery and garlic, which are staples in my pantry as they form the base of so many meals. Sometimes I’ll buy frozen vegetables too. We buy milk and butter at the grocery store, but rarely cheese and yogurt or other dairy products, because they’re just too expensive for the budget right now.

#3 Commitment to cooking: There’s no denying that making meals with real food takes a little more time out of the day and requires a commitment to cooking and working with food that you might not otherwise have. However, with that commitment to cooking, you’re fostering love and community within your family, and participating in a relationship with the world around you in direct support of yourself, in support of your family, and in support of the greater community. That sense of love and community is something that industry just can’t give us.

Michael Pollan in the Netflix series Cooked, says:

The cook stands in a very interesting relationship with the world. On one side he looks toward people and community, family─giving this incredible gift of love which is the meal. But on the other side, you’re looking to nature, working with plants and animals. And you reconnect to the fact that the industry doesn’t feed us. Nature does.

grow your own real food
Gardening allows me to produce quite a lot of my own vegetables to feed my family. This has been the key to my Real Food Challenge and has opened so many doors for me over the last 20 years.

#4 Do-it-yourself: Over the years, I’ve learned an increasing number of skills to aid in my mission to feed my family real and local food. There are many types of food that I no longer need the industry to make for me; I’ve learned to do it myself, and the result is food that is less processed, lower in sugar and salt, containing no preservatives or alien ingredients, and is fresher and healthier for my family. We haven’t completely eliminated the grocery store from our lives, but I’m able to produce enough vegetables to last three-quarters of the year. I haven’t bought eggs in years because I raise my own chickens, which then become stew later in life. I can make my own salad dressings, ketchup, bread, muffins, and cookies among other things. Every bit of processed food I am able to avoid feeding myself and my family garners us all just a little healthier life, and reaffirms my commitment to my role in my relationship with nature.

Take a look at this post I wrote about baking to stretch my food budget!

buy real food at the local farmers market
Buy fresh local foods in-season at the local farmers’ market. Many now accept EBT from SNAP shoppers.

#5 Shop local: Many of Maine’s local farmers’ markets are now accepting SNAP/EBT and participate in the Maine Harvest Bucks program, which offers bonus bucks on fruits and veggies at the market. Personally I don’t qualify for SNAP benefits anymore, but for households relying on that assistance, this program makes it possible for low-income families to be able to access locally produced foods. Even on my reduced income I am able to purchase fresh vegetables in-season from local farmers; most often the pricing is comparable to the grocery store and the quality is superior. Meat has been harder to afford at-market, but the grass-fed meats are so superior to what’s available at the grocery store, with the added bonus that the animals that produced that meat lived the life they were meant to live: on pasture with plenty of space and fresh air. Sticking to the cheaper cuts like ground beef and stew meat, and only occasionally splurging on roasts and steaks allows me to buy meat at the farmers’ market.

#6 Eat less meat: Studies show that consuming meat can lead to some serious health risks; producing meat also consumes more fossil fuels and contributes one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Leaving behind that meat-and-potatoes mentality in favor of an increasingly plant-based diet has been the hardest part of my real food mission. It’s such a change from the attitude I was raised with that it was difficult at first to wrap my head around it─and getting the rest of my family on board was yet another hurdle. But slowly, over time I’ve reduced the amount of meat we eat. 2-3 times a week I add meat to a meal; often meat is added in smaller quantities and mixed in with a larger dish (as in stew or a casserole or stir-fry). Roasts, steaks and entrees featuring meat are reserved for special occasions. This allows me to stretch my budget so that we can afford locally produced and grass-fed meats.

dry beans instead of meat
Dry beans are an affordable protein source and so versatile! If you’re not accustomed to eating beans and other legumes, it might take some time for your family to get used to eating them. I’ve found that persistence pays.

#7 Eat more grains and legumes: To supplement the protein source in meals, we’ve been experimenting more with different grains, dry beans and other legumes. Dry beans and lentils are inexpensive and especially versatile. With the internet I can find recipes that even my picky-eater will accept.

#8 Prioritize real and local food: Cutting processed foods from our lives can be expensive because grass-fed meats and fresh produce from farmers’ markets cost more. Real food costs more because it’s worth more. I’ve become very careful about where and how I spend my money; real food is important to me, so I’m willing to make sacrifices in order to eat this way. It all boils down to priorities.

The real food journey

eat real and local food on a low-incomeChanging the habits and ideas we were raised with takes time; it’s a journey─a progression─and some days you might fall off the wagon. I admit I still have cravings for foods from yesteryear; once in a while I want a frozen pizza, or pork chops which are not available conveniently to me at the local farmers’ market so I buy them at Hannaford’s. I have an addiction to sugar and carbs and, like a recovering alcoholic, I count the days I’ve lived without consuming a Little Debbie Nutty Bar. However, I try not to beat myself up too much because I know full well that my real food mission is a journey and I’ve come a long way from where I started.

My real food challenge is not about any particular diet; it’s about consuming less processed foods, less meat, and more fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. It’s about eating healthier in order to be healthier and instilling healthy habits in my children for their longevity; and it’s about prioritizing food that reflects my own commitment to nature. It’s about family, and it’s about community.

Food has this unique power to bridge our differences and draw us together. That age old institution: “the Meal”─fosters community and love with whomever it is shared. In an age of electronics and social media, when it’s easy to allow social interaction in real life to slip in favor of the more passive interactions of Facebook and the internet, maintaining the concept of the family meal has become more important than ever before. Humans are, by nature, social creatures,─even those of us who are introverts need to know that we have a community of people who love us. Society functions better in general when people care about each other and are actively engaged within their communities. With this in mind, I invite you to join me in bringing back the tradition of real food with real people; let’s bring people back to a healthier life and let’s share those lives with our community.

Fast Growing Garden Vegetables

fast-growing-vegetables

Following the long winter, as my stores of vegetables dwindle and I am once again reduced to buying Olivia’s spinach at the grocery store, cringing over the kale and lettuce there which never compares to the quality of my own home-grown produce─I am all too eager to get seeds in the ground to grow my own vegetables as fast as possible.

fast growing garden vegetablesI’m not just boasting when I say that my own home-grown veggies are in every way superior to the grocery store produce. Studies show that fruits and vegetables from your own garden actually are higher in nutrients than those that are picked before they are ripe and trucked thousands of miles to get to you. Home-grown vegetables have superior flavor, not just because you can pick them when they are perfectly ripe, but also because the varieties found at the supermarket has been strategically adapted for commercial farming─they’ve been bred for increased yield, improved disease resistance and for their ability to withstand being shipped to the consumer. At home we can select varieties according to our own personal preferences; whether that preference is for a particular flavor, a specific use or increased disease resistance.

Growing my own vegetables to feed my family also saves me money, which I can then use to pay my bills (go figure) or invest back into my farm! This spring I assembled this list of crops that I can grow to produce fresh veg for myself and my family in just 30-60 days. These are important crops because they fill that stretch of time while you’re waiting for crops that take longer to mature.

Note: Maturity dates are typically found on seed packets or within the description in the seed catalog. It might say “Days to Maturity” or “Days to Harvest”, which is key information the seed company is providing you about that species. For direct-seeded crops count from the first day it pops up above ground to the projected date of maturity. The maturity dates for transplants may be delayed by a few weeks.

Super fast growing vegetables (5 – 38 days)

Sprouts: These are so easy and simple to grow that─even in the smallest of apartments─it’s just good sense to utilize this source of fresh veg. Check out this article I wrote about growing your own sprouts. (5-7 days)

Shoots: Much like the sprouts, you’re eating the baby greens of select plant varieties to gain a fresh vegetable source that is power-packed with nutrients at this juvenile stage. My favorites are buckwheat, pea shoots, and sunflower shoots. (10-14 days)

Cress: Grow this like shoots, or direct sow a patch in the garden as soon as the soil is exposed in the spring. You’ll be eating fresh greens in a little over a week! (10 days)

Grow Radishes Super Fast
Colorful easter-egg radishes grown by my buddy Crym at Sidehill Farm in Madison!

Radishes: So easy to grow and so versatile. Everyone knows you can eat radishes sliced in a salad, but have you tried sauteing them? or roasting them in the oven? Some varieties, like the Rover radish and the popular D’Avignon (aka – french breakfast radish) mature in just a few weeks (21 days); eat those while you’re waiting for the more exciting red meat radish (aka – watermelon radish) and the increasingly popular Nero Tondo radish (both mature in 50 days).

Greens! There are a whole host of green leafy vegetables that can be grown in just under 30 days. Many lettuce mixes reach maturity by 28 days and work great in raised beds. Select varieties of lettuce mature in 26, 27, and 28 days respectively─as is the case with the red salad bowl, flashy trout back, and the favorite black seeded simpson. Some types of pac choi will mature in 30 days or eat them at the baby stage, and magenta spreen (a spinach-like alternative) is ready in just 30 days too.

Broccoli raab: These look like small florets or shoots of broccoli, but they’re actually related to turnips and you would harvest and eat the stem, leaves, and broccoli-floret. While it’s less popular in the States, broccoli raab is probably the number one vegetable in China. If you like to stir-fry this one is for you. Grow this one to eat while you’re waiting for the later-maturing heading broccoli. (35 days depending on the variety.)

fall hakeuri turnipsTurnips: some varieties mature very quickly─like my absolute favorite: the hakeuri turnip. This small white turnip is sweet and delectable and has been increasingly popular with commercial growers and home gardeners alike. Eat them raw as a snack, on salads, boil them or roast them in the oven with other root-crops. You can even eat the greens! So good and super easy and fast to grow! (38 days)

Still pretty fast-growing vegetables (40 – 60 days)

More greens: if you can wait a little longer the options for green leafy vegetables are almost limitless. Claytonia (40 days), mustards (40 and 45 days depending on the variety), tatsoi─a succulent fleshy spinach-like asian green (43 days). Some lettuce varieties take longer, but some of my favorites are ready to harvest in 45 and 48 days: check out Skyphos and Cherokee. Swiss chard (50 days) is popular in the summertime, but will actually tolerate some cooler temperatures and a light frost; get it in the ground as soon as the soil temperature is 40°. Kale is ready is 50 days and if you select cut-and-come again varieties you can have that plant all through the season and even keep it into the winter. Mache is a simple little green (50 days), but so cold hardy that it’s worth keeping an established patch in the cold frame of high tunnel all through the winter.

Turnips & Radishes: Later maturing varieties from those listed in the “super-fast” grouping. The scarlet queen turnip is newer (43 days), while the purple top turnip (50 days) is a traditional New England root crop. In recent years the watermelon radish (50 days) has gained popularity because of it’s red flesh and green skin, which is a fun culinary delight; and the new Nero tondo radish (50 days) is black with white flesh.

Red Ace beets grow fast!
Looks at these beets from Sidehill Farm! A 2-for-1 vegetable: cut the greens off and eat those, then eat the roots too!

Beets: Are a crop that offers 2 sources of veg─leafy greens and tasty, fleshy beet-roots which can be cooked in a variety of ways. Most people are familiar with the traditional red round beet, like the Red Ace (50 days) or the Merlin (48 days), but the Babybeet matures much faster (just 40 days) and so does the Early Wonder (45 days) which also produces excellent beet-greens. Yellow beets (55 days) like the Boldor and the Touchstone Gold add more visual interest to any dish but seem to take just a few days longer to mature.

Summer Squash: Once things warm up enough, pop zucchini (47 days) and yellow summer squash (50 days) seeds into the ground and in less than 2 months’ time you can have squash coming out your ears! There are lots of different colors and shapes to experiment with too!

Beans: Another warm-weather crop that offers a quick return on your time and efforts, and also easier to grow too. Lots of varieties to choose from. (50 days depending on the variety)

Sugar Ann peas grow fast in the spring and fall
Peas are a fairly quick crop that prefers the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, affording the gardener a chance for a dual-harvest.

Peas: If you have an established garden you can just pop these seeds in the ground as soon as the soil is exposed in the spring. Snap and snow-peas mature fairly quickly and tolerate the cooler temperature of spring and fall, which means you can sow them twice in the growing season. Eat them raw as a snack, steamed, stir-fried, or blanched and frozen for winter-use. (52 – 60 days depending on the variety)

Cucumbers: A classic summer treat, either on it’s own, in salads, or pickled. This warm-weather crop offers opportunity for succession sowing over the course of the summer as they reach maturity in 48 – 52 days depending on the variety.

Okra: Less popular here in the north than it is in the southern states, Okra can be grown to harvest in just 50 days.

Mokum carrots grow fast
Some varieties of carrots mature faster than others. Photo courtesy Sidehill Farm.

Carrots: Some varieties are mature relatively early, like the Mokum (36 days to baby-size, 54 days full-size), and the Adelaide (55 days), referred to as a “true baby carrot” because it matures early and has real carrot flavor in small 3-4″ roots that you don’t normally get in premature carrots.

Scallions: A larger version of the common chive, scallions will be ready long before those onion plants or sets you put in this spring. (60 days)

Grow food fast!

Use this list to create a strategy for your garden to grow your own produce as fast as possible in the spring when the stores in your pantry are depleted. Or go ahead and plan succession sowings of some of your favorite crops─some crops grow so quickly that you can get 6, 7 or 8 harvests over the course of the growing season, which really allows you to make the most of your space. Growing your own vegetables not only saves you money, but ensures a healthier diet and lifestyle for yourself and your family, as well as an increased appreciation for food. Now get outside and get busy!

Do you grow your own veggies? Got any super-fast growing recommendations to share? Feel free to share! Leave a comment below!

3 Reasons To Go Foundationless In Your Langstroth Beehive

foundationless bee-frame

It’s going on 5 years now that I’ve been using foundationless frames in my Langstroth hives, and I’ve come to swear by the method. Mainstream beekeeping dictates the use of foundation in hive frames to provide a structure for the bees to build their combs upon. However, I’ve found 3 reasons to contradict that way of thinking.

foundationless langstroth hives
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. August 2017.

I admit that going foundation-less in the Langstroth hive is somewhat controversial.  Old-school beekeepers believe that using foundation speeds up the comb-building process, or that you won’t be able to extract if you’re not using foundation. You hear people say that you’ll end up with a hive full of drones or that the bees like the foundation better.  Yet beekeepers employing the Top-Bar Hives have been going foundation-less for years with nothing but success, and I myself have been using this method in the Runamuk apiary going on 5 years now.

With all of this in mind, I’ve compiled 3 solid reasons to skip the foundation in your Langstroth hives.

#1. Avoid Contaminated Foundation

foundationless bee-frame
I sometimes run wire through the honey frames to give the comb added support.

Recent studies indicate that high levels of chemical pesticides are stored in the comb and even in the beeswax foundation of honeybee hives.  Since bees are effectively nature’s dust-mops, they pick up any insecticide or herbicide within the foraging radius of their colony.  Even beekeeper applied chemicals will be retained in the wax.

A beekeeper may choose to fore-go treatments in his or her hive, however they cannot control what the bees bring back with them from their foraging.  It is that precise reason that organic certification is so difficult to obtain for honey–unlike other livestock that a farmer can contain within fences, bees will travel between 2 and 4 miles in search of food, and even further if need be.

What’s more, commercial foundations are typically made from recycled wax, which can contain high levels of pesticide contamination as well.

#2. Natural Cell-Size

foundationless comb
This is foundationless comb that my girls are currently building–when they are finished with it, they will have filled the frame completely.

Standard foundation forces the bees to build cells at 5.4mm, in order to produce larger bees.  However bees will naturally build their cells to a size between 4.6mm and 5.1mm depending on what they intend to use it for.

It was about a hundred years ago that beekeepers started installing the larger-celled foundation in order to combat mites. They thought that bigger bees would be beneficial for a variety of reasons─from theoretically stronger immune systems to supposed increased production.  Now beekeepers are experimenting with small-cell foundation─same story, different type of mite.

FYI─small cell does not equal “natural” cell.

There is some speculation about natural cell-sizes aiding beekeepers in the fight against the varroa mite, though to my knowledge that has not been scientifically verified.

There are some who believe that allowing the bees to make their own comb will result in healthier bees, which makes some sense to me, since natural comb naturally means fewer introduced chemical pesticides, which can only mean healthier bees─but again, there is no scientific proof that I am aware of.

What we do know is that bees have been making comb on their own for thousands of years.  They know how to do it, and they will do it however they see fit, so why not let them?

#3. Save Money

foundationless honeybee comb
Every frame is a work of art and a feat in architecture!

I fully admit that money was a driving factor in my switch to foundationless frames. Beekeeping is an expensive venture, and my mission to utilize this niche to build my income from farming required me to consider alternative methods. Reducing expenses by skipping the foundation has allowed me to continue to grow my business, even on a bootstrap budget.

What’s more, sustainable farming methods strive to lower costs by reducing inputs from off site. Buying in, or even using my own wax to make foundation takes a lot of resources, and by skipping the foundation and allowing the bees to build their own combs I am able to save both time and money.

Try It Yourself!

Over the last few years I’ve found that it doesn’t take the bees any longer to construct comb on the foundationless frames than it does for them to build it on the wax or plastic foundations. I also discovered that foundationless frames are not really any more fragile than those bearing foundation. It is still possible to extract honey from them, but you should be especially gentle when extracting from combs less than 1 year old.

For the first couple of years going foundationless, I wired all my frames to give them additional support, but then I stopped wiring the deep frames used in the brood nest since those do not typically go through the extractor anyway. Now I don’t even wire my honey frames and I’ve found that once the bees have filled the entire frame with comb, it’s generally sturdy enough to withstand the extracting process without the extra support.

So much of what honeybees are exposed to is unavoidable that I feel really good about reducing pesticide levels in my hives and creating a healthier environment for my girls, even if it is only on a small level. But you don’t have to take my word for it; try it yourself and see what you think of foundationless frames in your Langstroth hive.

Thanks for stopping by! Remember to subscribe by email using the widget on the left to get updates and new articles from Runamuk directly in your inbox! Follow Runamuk on Facebook, Instagram, or Instagram for a glimpse of real-world farm-life in rural Maine.

Runamuk Apiaries in Maine has 3 solid reasons to consider going foundationless in your Langstroth hives; check it out!

How To Make Pollen Patties

pollen-patties-for-beehives

Not every beekeeper needs to use pollen patties on their hives. Here in Maine there is an abundant supply of pollen in the fall and our bees are able to store enough for the colony’s purposes through the winter, until fresh pollen is again available in the spring. Unless you’re planning to make early season splits or raise your own Queens, or if you’re building up in preparation for commercial pollination─you probably don’t need to use pollen patties at all.

how to make pollen pattiesOn the other hand, if you’re seeking to grow your apiary and make hive increases─then you might be looking to boost bee populations to be able to do that. Feeding bees pollen stimulates brood production: an enriched diet causes nurse bees to secrete lots of royal jelly, which spurs them to prepare cells for eggs and the Queen deposits them. If you time it right you can have a gang-buster colony that you can use to optimize your operation.

Note: For more info on what pollen patties are and why you might want to use them check out this article on the Maine Beekeepers’ website. For the purposes of this article, we will assume the reader is familiar with the pollen-patty and has performed his/her due diligence to learn why and how to use them. Also, take a look at this article by Randy Oliver over at Scientific Beekeeping; he did a comparative test of various pollen supplements compared to real pollen which is pretty informative reading.

Introducing Bee-Pro!

Bee Pro Pollen Substitute
Bee-Pro pollen substitute via Mann Lake.

The Bee-Pro pollen supplement offered by Mann Lake was recommended to me by beekeeping veteran Bob Egan of Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, who was the Maine State Apiarist until he retired some years ago. Bob is a no-nonsense kind of guy─with a stern gaze, long white hair pulled back into a pony-tail that’s always under a ball-cap and a fabulously bushy gray mustache. He swears by the Bee-Pro pollen-sub and made a point to send me home with a sample of it last summer, saying the bees just crave it, they want it, they’re all over it as soon as you put it on the hive.

That’s high praise from one hardened beekeeper and good enough for me! We ordered a 50-pound bag of the stuff and are using it to make our pollen-patties this spring. Beekeepers who are seeking to significantly grow their apiaries can buy pollen-substitute in bulk to make their own patties and save money, since commercially prepared pollen-patties can be expensive. Making your own also means you’ll know exactly what went into the pollen patties that you’re feeding your bees.

Making the pollen patties

Step 1: Make sugar-syrup using a 1:1 ratio. I used a quart of water and a quart of sugar to make 2 quarts of liquid, but you can make smaller or larger batches using the same method. Allow the syrup to cool some before use. Just before using the syrup I added 2 teaspoons of Honey-B Healthy vitamin supplement to it and stirred it well to combine.

Step 2: In a large mixing bowl or a 5 gallon bucket (depending on the size of the batch you’re making) combine your pollen-supplement with the syrup to make a dough-like substance. The mixture should be similar to peanut butter cookie dough, or play-dough. Dry, but doughy.

Make Your Own Pollen Patties
I weighed out my dollops to .5lb each so that I could track each hive’s consumption.

Step 3: Place a large dollop of the dough in the center of a square of freezer paper. Sometimes the moisture from the pollen patties can soak through the waxed paper, causing it to tear easily. It’s a little more expensive than waxed paper, but the freezer paper holds up much better for storage and transport purposes. Place another piece of freezer paper over the dollop and flatten it some with your hand before taking a rolling pin to smooth and roll the patty out between the paper.

diy pollen pattties
For each patty I cut a 6 inch swatch off the roll of freezer paper, then cut that in half to make 2 pieces of paper.

Storage: Pollen patties don’t need to be kept refrigerated, but a cool, dry location is recommended. You can even freeze them for later use.

pollen patties for beehives
Ready for the bees!

Just remember that not every beekeeper needs to feed their colonies pollen supplements, and also that stimulating brood production early may mean you need to also feed more sugar-syrup to a bounding population. However, if you’re planning to make increases or Queens, or if you’re renting hives for pollination services and need strong colonies─then pollen patties might be a good option for you.

Have you ever made your own pollen-patties? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below for others to learn from!

Recommended Reading:

How to Make Pollen Patties – via Mudsongs.org

Feeding Bees Pollen-Patties in Early Spring – on the Maine State Beekeepers’ website.

A Comparative Test of Pollen Subs – from the Scientific Beekeeper, Randy Oliver.

 

Introducing Rootsy!

I’m taking a moment today to introduce Runamuk’s new affiliation with Rootsy. I’m really excited about this because the Rootsy network is made up of some of my very favorite sustainable-lifestyle bloggers and gathers into one place some of the best and most reliable information about homesteading, gardening, livestock, cooking, preparedness, herbalism and simple living that you’ll find on the internet.

Rootsy is a mash-up of new technology and vintage skills; members gain access to a whole library of information, as well as tutorials, online workshops, ecourses and more─all available at rootsy.org. Beginning April 1st they will be accepting members to the Rootsy Network; each month members will have access to expert instruction and inspiring reading that will help you on your journey to a more self-reliant and sustainable life.

Check it out!

Coming up in April the instructors at Rootsy will be talking about Up-Cycling: turning old stuff into new. In May they’re going to be discussing Preparedness, and in June it’s all about taking charge of your family’s health with herbal remedies. This is a fantastic community to be involved with, everyone is super kind, helpful, and supportive. You’ll find a lot of how-to articles, diy blog-posts, and in addition to the ecourses and webinars I already mentioned are the member-only forums where you can reach out to other homesteaders for advise and assistance.

Many of the Rootsy instructors are also members of the Homestead Bloggers Network, of which Runamuk is also associated with. Colleen Codekas is th author of “Grow Forage Cook Ferment“, Meredith Fox─the author of “ImaginAcres“─love that blog name! And Jessica Lane who is the author of the 104Homestead, which is located right here in Maine! Kathie Lapcevic─the author of HomespunSeasonalLiving and Connie Meyer of UrbanOveralls. My friend Teri Page from HomesteadHoney, as well as Angi Schneider at SchneiderPeeps and Shelli Wells over at PreparednessMama.

If you’re not following homestead blogs you’re probably not familiar with those names, but I do follow homestead blogs and podcasts, blogs about sustainable living, podcasts about farming. They give me inspiration, hope that I might be able to do it too, and help me solve problems to the every day issues that pop up on a farm and homestead. These bloggers are out there living the life I want and if I can learn something from them that helps me on my own journey then I want to read about their experiences. As a fellow blogger I’m really excited to be able to work with the ladies even in the reduced capacity as an affiliate member.

For every person who clicks on my affiliated links and then subscribes as a member with Rootsy, Runamuk receives a commission. Afterall, every part of my farm needs to generate an income. We have no free-loaders on a farm. But I enjoy writing─more than enjoy─it’s something I need to do─like breathing. It’s part of who I am and if I don’t get the words out of my head then I get blocked up─constipated lol. Ideally I’d like to earn more from my writing and have my writing take the place of my off-farm income. I’d like to write a book too─several books actually. What you’ve seen on the Runamuk blog with our Johnny’s sponsorship, the ads by Ball, eBay, and Google ads, is my attempt to make the Runamuk blog work for me. So that I can continue to do the work that I love and still pay my bills.

So check out Rootsy and see if they might be able to aid you on your own journey to a more self-reliant and sustainable life. And stop back soon to see what’s new at Runamuk: the growing season is almost upon us!