Thursday, November 14, 2013

You Have To Dig A Hole If You Want A Pond

I have wanted a backyard pond for a very long time. Some people think of a pond as a 1/4 to a 1/2 of an acre or larger. I plan on putting in a small pond, something around 15 ft wide x 30 ft long x 1-6 ft deep. A small pond that size will hold an amazing amount of water, in this case over 10,000 gallons.

There are many reasons other than aesthetics to put in a water feature on your property. You will increase the bio-diversity of your property instantly. Frogs will start showing up, birds will stop by as well as insects, spiders, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, fish and mammals. By adding a water feature to your landscape you will create an environment that really can't be measured by a metric I know of. Water is truly the catalyst of life. You will have a healthier more diverse property if you create aquatic habitats.

A pond allows you to fish for your dinner as well as grow many water loving plants. I plan on growing many things in my pond. Did you know you can grow water chestnuts in the midwest? You can grow duck-weed to feed your livestock and to support the fish and other life in your pond. I will put in cattails which are almost completely edible, and what you can't eat can be composted. So even if the only thing you can do is put in one of the plastic ponds from your local big box store, I hope you will put some sort of water feature on your property.

One of the first things you should do is locate an area that will best support a pond. Things to consider are drainage areas, soil composition, low lands and proximity to buildings and septic systems. You don't want to locate your pond close to a building or a septic drain field / tank. My pond will be about 20 ft from my garage and 40 ft from the closest drain field. I am sure there are regulations on these distances from your local government overlords so check your local code. 

The area I am locating my pond happens to be the lowest area in my backyard. When it rains a lot this area holds surface water for a couple days. Once you locate the best area on your property for a pond, you will want to dig a test hole. This will let you know what type of subsoil you are dealing with. About one foot down my sub soil turns into a nice clay layer. Clay is good, if you find your sub soil is gravely, you will need to seal your pond with a liner or bentonite clay. I have seen some people use old carpet, it works, but I know what goes into the manufacture of synthetic carpets, so I would pass on that. 

The other purpose of a test hole is to see if your ground will hold water. I dug this hole as deep as I could with a post hole digger. I ended up getting it around 4 ft deep. Next you want to fill the hole up with water. Now you just wait to see how long it takes for the water level to drop. If you walk away to grab a beer and when you come back the hole is empty, then you may have trouble putting in a pond the easy way.

I checked the hole the next day and it had gone down 2 feet. The ground was dry when I did this experiment, so I filled the hole back up and it dropped about two feet in 24 hours. I assume this is because the top 2 feet of the hole allowed more water to seep into the ground than the tighter packed clay on the bottom. After about a week there was only a foot of water in the hole. I am going to ask my neighbor if he sealed his pond, but I don't think he did. 

I am going to plumb the downspouts on the back of my garage into a water catchment system eventually. I will take the overflow from that, and using french drains, have the system drain into the pond. More on that in the future.

One last thing, put something like a board over the test hole you dig in case someone is walking around your backyard and doesn't know it is there. It would be quite a surprise to step in this hole and have your foot go down a couple feet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Feeding Bees In A Top-Bar Hive

We have had bad luck keeping bees these last two seasons. Out of the four colonies we have bought and installed in our hives, we have one colony left. And that colony is not very robust. I believe part of the reason is the bees we buy come from Georgia. Our local bee supplier drives down to Georgia every spring and brings back hundreds of colonies. These bees are acclimated to a southern climate with mild winters. I have yet to get one of these colonies through our more aggressive mid-west winters.

I am planning on trying to capture locally adapted colonies this spring. I have done a lot of research and I feel confident that I can build swarm traps this winter and catch some swarms this spring. I will do a more detailed post on swarm traps and the process of catching swarms after I build the traps.

I have reservations about feeding bees sugar syrup as a general practice. My feeling is if your colony grows accustom to getting some of their food inside the hive they will be less robust foragers and you will breed this trait into them over time. That said, the hive I have left this year has completely eaten through its honey reserves for the winter and if I do not feed them I might as well just empty the hive. I will not buy another colony again. I will try to get this one through the winter, but if they do not make it, they will be the last hive I pay money for.

If you need to feed your hive you can do it very easily. The only equipment you need is a couple mason jars with lids and something to hold them upside down. I bought a couple holders made for this purpose from my local bee supplier, they were cheap and very good at what they do. I took the plastic holders and screwed them to a piece of wood. The mason jar lids need tiny holes in them to let the sugar syrup slowly drip out.

The sugar syrup is pretty simple to make. It is a 2 : 1 ratio of white table sugar to water. This will be thick and will slowly drip out of the holes in the lid when turned upside down. Once the bees find it they will constantly harvest it until it is gone.

The reason I screwed the jar holders to the board is so I could use them in my top-bar hives. The plastic holders are specifically made for Langstroth hives, but with a little modification and they will work in top-bar hives. The bees will find the sugar syrup pretty quickly and start to bring it over to the comb in the hive. I have drilled holes in my follower boards to let the bees come and go through them. However, there is a gap below the follower boards that the bees use instead. That is a design flaw in the way I constructed the follower boards. No big deal in the long run though.

I put one pint of sugar syrup on each side of the main hive. You can't see it in these pictures, but the top-bar next to each of these feeders has a board hanging down similar to the ends of the hive, the follower board. This keeps the center of the hive small making it is easier for the bees to keep themselves warm through the winter. I will have to replace the sugar syrup a couple times throughout the winter if I want the colony to make it. I will only open the hive on the warmest day in the forecast so I do not freeze the bees out. Here is hoping they make it through this winter.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Planting Garlic

After much procrastinating I finally got around to planting the garlic I harvested earlier this year. In any climate zone, garlic should be planted after the first frost when the ground has cooled. If you do not have a first frost, or any frost for that matter, I guess you can plant whenever. The recommendation is to plant in the spring in those climates.


 All of this garlic came from six bulbs originally. On the left are my hard neck varieties and on the right are the soft neck varieties. I am going to have so much garlic at the next harvest!

This is one of the hard neck varieties. If you look at the one on the right you will see a twist in the center stalk. I found the easiest way to get the stalk out was to twist it until it broke. The stalk is very tough. I didn't get a good picture of it but the twist went up the stalk and reminded me of braided twine. I bet you could use them for cordage. I may try to make some and post about it later. 

I missed some hard-neck scapes when I cut them back earlier this year. A bulbil will form if you let the scapes mature. You can grow new garlic plants from these if you want. I opted to plant the actual bulbs. If you want to use the bulbils, you must "chill" them before you plant to pull it out of its dormant state. This is according to my Father and the internet. In fact my dad thinks I am crazy for planting the actual bulbs. Most people will put them in the freezer over night to "chill" them. I have never tried this, so don't yell at the idiot blogging on the interwebz if it doesn't work. 

Here are the viable cloves. Some of the cloves went bad as they were curing. This only happened to a few cloves, so I had a pretty good harvest of usable cloves. Not to mention a bunch of dry tinder to start fires with. It took me about an hour to separate the cloves from the bulbs. Do not peel the cloves, just separate the cloves from the bulbs. The cloves will be perfectly fine planted with the skin on.

This is the bed I grew garlic in last year. Since I had less soft-neck cloves than hard-neck, I decided to use this as the soft-neck bed and build another bed for the hard-neck. I had to fight the oregano in the bed next to this, it decided to expand its borders. So did the creeping charlie I let run wild in the garden area. You can see mint creeping its way in from the bottom right. Nature abhors a vacuum. 

I mulched the bed with a layer of straw then a layer of pine needles. Once the garlic starts to come up I plan on putting a layer of shredded leaves on to prepare the bed for the winter.

This is the beginning of the new bed. I have a ton of these cedar fence post laying around. My local big box store had them on clearance, so I bought them all. They make good borders. I chose a location in the back left corner of the property that gets good sun and doesn't have a water problem.

I put down a couple layers of cardboard I salvaged from work. They seriously just put it in a trash dumpster and send it off to the local dump. I try to get as much as I can. I always seem to have a use for more cardboard.

Whenever I establish a new bed I typically make my own soil mix depending on what I plan on planting. In this case I used a 60 / 40 compost to peat moss mixture. The bed I put in last year for the garlic had the same mix, and the garlic did very well. It was also very easy to harvest because the peat moss makes a loose soil.

I wanted an even distribution so I gridded out the bed and then planted. I am planting a little closer than I did last year. Most instructions say to plant the cloves 4-6 inches apart. I think you can bring that down to 3 inches and still get large bulbs. But, I have not tried this before, so maybe wait until my experiment is over before you plant your garlic this close. I will let you know how it goes in next years harvest post.

Here is the planted bed before I covered the cloves. I have about 4 inches of soil in the bed. You want to plant the clove root side down at least an inch, two is better. This is probably about as shallow as you would want to plant in. If I had more soil, I would have gone another inch at least. I am not worried. The cardboard will get wet and disintegrate over the winter and the roots will be able to access the subsoil.

Here is the finished product. I mulched it with a layer of straw followed by pine needles. I will cover this with a layer of shredded leaves once the garlic gets a couple inches tall. You can probably still get away with planting garlic this year if you are in my climate zone. I planted at the end of October. If you plan on planting and have not done so, do it asap. If you are reading this in the winter sometime, you can grow garlic indoors if you have deep enough pots for proper bulb development.

I will have plenty of garlic next year so if you are anywhere near me, and want some heirloom garlic, just drop me a line next fall.