Leave No Tomato Behind

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A watermelon! A few Moon and Stars variety are on the vine loving this heat. I’ve harvested and enjoyed one so far.

Its been a busy summer and I’ve not been as good about keeping this personal blog up as I’ve been doing a lot for the other blog – agrowingseason – but among many updates due, here is one on my garden.

For starters, its a jungle out there. High temperatures and low rain in late June and early July followed by a massive derecho storm with high winds were pretty harsh on my green friends, with my Scarlet Runner beans being a casualty, drying up and dying, and my Kentucky wonder beans barely producing. Both had good starts, climbing up their tee pee trellises, with the Scarlets producing beautiful coral red flowers early on that the bees loved. But the high temperatures combined with my erratic watering didn’t do them any favors.

A few of the potatoes I dug up. Dirty feet come with this activity.

On a positive note, my potatoes produced and produced. I dug them up three weeks ago and they yielded beautiful finger potatoes just like their original seed ones that I had gotten at a local grocery. The red skinned grocery store bag potatoes and the Kennebunks that my aunt gave me also produced. I have been enjoying these in potato salads, including tiny little round potatoes the size of cherry tomatoes, that have been tender and wonderful.

I have another large box mound of potatoes yet to dig up. I am not sure where I’m going to put them all and am considering doing a root pit in my plot, an underground hole you dig and store your root vegetables in. More on that saga later.

The tomato forest

And now to the tomatoes. The plants I nourished and coddled so carefully from seed to seedling  have become a tomato forest. They survived the high temperatures but have gotten woody and brown in many places. (Again probably from erratic care by moi.)  However, for all my bonanza of seedlings of Sungold Cherry tomatoes, I’ve been gathering in lots of their lovely, tasty yellow orbs, which were first to produce. So tangy and delicious. Still my favorite cherry and glad I  put so much into them.

And yesterday, after ignoring my poor plot for two weeks, I went out and was amazed by the bonanza of tomatoes in my tomato forest. The Old Virginia tomatoes had produced, with medium sized sturdy little guys. The random assortment of other plants had as well – a few beautiful yellow ones from my Old German plant, one from my Cherokee Purple, and a few from the Brandywine. Its such a tangled mess in there its hard to determine who was from what. And my volunteer mystery tomato plants that came up in another row did very well, producing some smaller round tomatoes.

My treasured tomatoes – warts and all

The characteristic of my tomatoes are that they are not very pretty – many of the Old Virginias are a bit ‘sunburned’ with rough patches on their shoulders, some are cracked, and a few have blossom end rot, a disease which has a black round spot on the bottom of each. These are particularly heartbreaking, as you reach for what you see as a beautiful red beauty and once you pick it and turn it over, you see that the bottom is covered by black round rotting splotch. Ugh.

However, I’ve decided that all tomatoes are worthy, despite their circumstances of birth and that all should get a shot at the big leagues of ending up in my salsa, bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich or in a canning jar for next winter.

Old German tomatoes

I picked all of them, leaving only the most yucky and rotten on the garden bed to reseed for next year.  Once I got them home I washed and sorted, saying goodbye to another few too mushy to salvage. The rest, the star characters, are on my counter top, waiting for their debut. A few with the worst spots are in quarantine, and will be cut in half to taste their delicious other half.

The always delicious and well-producing cherry tomatoes

Today I will can many of these, and I’m proud that I’ll be eating something I raised next winter or in the next week.  I think for me its the raising, not the eating that is so fun. But I must follow through and get these friends to their final destiny: my table!

The candidates for canning on my counter top

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The Girls Are Alright

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A frame I pulled about a month ago – I saw bee larvae for the first time and was amazed at all they had done since being installed.

I was concerned about my bees taking hold of their new environment in West Virginia. Its been severely dry here, with a drought persisting since late May.  There’s nary a flower in the pasture since they cut the field for hay, and though there is ample water from nearby ponds, I was concerned that my ladies would not have enough forage to feed themselves, especially in their ‘start up’ phase, going from nucleus to full hive.

When I checked on them a month ago, I was surprised that they had spread throughout the super from their original five frames to all ten, filling them out with comb, honey and brood eggs. Several weeks ago I added a second super on top, (a new bee box with frames on top of the old one) interspersing empty frames with full ones and was wondering how they’d feel about stretching out even further to this added space. This weekend, I opened them up and found they had been busy, busy, busy little bees. They had drawn comb in the new super and were on track to fill that out soon.

Their consumption has been huge. I had been feeding them sugar water since they moved in, but this was a bit sporadic as I was coming to visit the family in West Virginia every two to three weeks. My bee instructor had told me that one half gallon would do them for a week or ten days, so I thought a double external feeder with combined one gallon capacity would hold them until I returned.

Movin’ on up: my ladies have been busy-busy-busy building comb and expanding into the new super – the second bee box I put on top of the first one.

However, this wasn’t nearly enough for them — they would go through a whole gallon of sugar water in about one day in the two external feeders. This kept happening over and over again, and as soon as I would fill them, they’d be down and out. I actually was concerned that the feeders were leaking so I took them out and tested them by filling them with water and letting them sit. They were not leaking. I guess my bees are thirsty and hungry during this dry time. My brother and I joked that maybe they are just lazy bees, waiting for the welfare water to arrive instead of going out and finding work.

In fact whenever I inserted the first full feeder, I could almost hear the bees shouting “‘woo-hoo! party time, the feeder’s full!”  By the time I inserted the second one, every visible bee a the front was quietly slurping down their  nectar.

Belly up to the bar girls: the bees slurping away on the newly installed sugar water.

However, after opening up the hive each time I can clearly see these are no lazy bees.  Each time I find lots of comb, honey and brood in the new frames. They must be putting the sugar water straight into their construction process. I’m thinking their extreme consumption is caused by the combination of drought and their need to build up their operation inside the hives.

I didn’t think there was any way I’d need to put on a honey super before early next spring, as the forage conditions were so slim. But my Aunt Jane, a former beekeeper in West Virginia,  warned I’d need one somewhat soon. So I’ll get on that.

Meanwhile, I’m just happy that the girls are alright, and curious about what they are finding to eat. Its impossible to follow one out of the hive to see where they are going, and I do not see them around the cottage’s yard at all, but clearly they are finding something. And clearly they know more about this bee business than I do!

Bees Along for the Ride

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The day finally came when I received my very own bees: a ‘nucleus’ of bees, which is a small hive of a queen bee and her workers and drones, already set up house on five frames, ready to move into their new digs. It’s the best way to get bees as their house and their children and food, comes with them on the frames they’ve built their life on, so there is no starting over. For a beginning beekeeper such as myself, it provides the best chance for the bees survival against my inexperience. They come with five frames in a box, like a bankers box, with little screens at the bottom for air ventilation. The box is well taped shut.

However, I got the bees in DC, and my hive (or bee yard, as it is properly called) is now in West Virginia, all spruced up and ready for a  move-in. That necessitated me transporting them in my little car on a road trip out there. My bee teacher assured me that they would be fine on the short three hour journey, and that they are tightly wrapped up in their transport box. “And,” he added to assure me, “if any escape, they just crawl up the windows.”  Great.

All taped up and ready to go: the bees in the back of the Mini.

I was more than a bit nervous to take the trip, but knew it had to be done. As I picked the bees up, I couldn’t believe how heavy that little box was. It probably contained 5,000 to 8,000 bees. It literally thrummed and vibrated when I carried it to my car. I could feel the warmth of the bees through the cardboard box.  A construction worker working on a house in the neighborhood offered to carry it for me when he saw me struggling down the sidewalk with its weight, but I declined on his behalf, as I didn’t want to scare the guy if he realized what it was he was carrying.

So in they went into the hatchback area of my Mini cooper. And away we went to West Virginia, me constantly looking at the back window for bees. In short, the trip went well,  with no escapees crawling up the windows.

Here we go: in pink gloves and garb with smoker going

Upon arrival, it was a muggy, overcast day that threatened rain so I knew I had to get the bees into their new home as soon as possible.  I got into my full beekeeper gear for the first time: a tyvek painters suit as a cheap alternative to the proper beekeeper’s whites, a bright pair of pink rubber kitchen gloves with tight fitting sleeves, my trusty veil and an old hat to keep it on my head. I lit my smoker and felt official.

Just after opening the lid: I think the bees are exclaiming: thank God we are out of there!

With my brother as my assistant and photographer who stood further and further away as I progressed, I smoked the box and opened it. It was densely packed with thousands of bees.  I pried up my first frame, covered with bees, and slotted it into the new hive box, clean, yellow and new-wood fresh. I alternated bee-covered frames with brand new frames to give them room to spread out in their new abode. As I closed up the hive, there were still thousands inside the transport box’s cardboard walls, and I placed this close to the hive entrance, hoping they’d find their way inside. The same was true for the lid.

As I wasn’t going to be back for a while and knew they’d need food to to get themselves established while they are looking for local food sources, I put two external feeders of sugar water on the front, and a pan with a gallon of sugar water in a bag on top, to be sure they had enough. The two external feeders at the entrance also served to reduce the entrance size and encourage the bees to stay inside for a bit.

Moving the frames from the transport box to the new hive, with a good view of their new setting with the mountains in the back. I’m still a bit tentative to pick up the frames.

About an hour later it rained heavily, which I knew would keep them inside but wanted to check on them. Most had found their way inside, however there were some last stragglers on the lid of the box that had not, choosing instead to cluster in a survival-we’re-freezing-to-death-let’s-stick-together-ball on the lid. I eventually dumped these slow pokes on top of the hive near the entrance so they’d be forced to mosey down to the entrance.

The bright yellow hive is a beacon on top of a hill in the field grown for hay. Its color should help the bees find their way back in this simple landscape. I’m actually more concerned for their finding new food sources than their getting lost: their posh Georgetown, DC home neighborhood provided them with an abundance of gardens that had a multitude and diversity of flowers and flowering trees within blocks of their home. The West Virginia countryside does not. The irony is, in country and rural areas, there is actually less food for them, fewer nectar-producing flowers, unless you have an orchard nearby.

So, I’ll be holding my breath as my little ladies adjust to their new more spartan lifestyle, where food isn’t just around the corner and work is harder to come by. (Sort of like all life in West Virginia.) I’m hoping they’ll do what all West Virginians do: make do, be creative to carve out a living.  I hope they find the honeysuckle along the road, the sparse wild clover that grows in the pastures, the trees in the nearby woods when they bloom, and West Virginia’s humble wildflowers that dot the landscape.