The Spice Zee Nectaplum

We just harvested our first Spice Zee Nectaplum and, no exaggeration here, it was just about the tastiest fruit we’ve ever eaten–very sweet, with a indescribably rich taste and aroma. The nectaplum is a complex hybrid developed by Zaiger’s Genetics and sold through the Dave Wilson Nursery. It’s a gorgeous tree, with deep red leaves in the spring that gradually become a dark green by mid-summer.

Hybrid fruit trees are created by applying pollen to seed bearing stock to make a cross. The Zaigers have an innovative movable container system that allows them to cross lots of fruit trees each spring. The nectaplum was the result of years of work and many crosses. It’s not a simple process. From the Dave Wilson website:

At Zaiger’s Genetics, of the 50,000 trees planted per year, only 300 to 400 remain after three years, and even fewer after 10 years. The final trees get six years to see if they are commercial grade. “It isn’t a get-rich-quick deal,” Zaiger says, smiling. “You have to have an understanding wife that will let you go off on a 20-year project with no income.”

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery, so if you’d like to buy a nectaplum you’ll have to ask your local nursery to order one for you or get one online from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply.  If you’ve got the space I’d highly recommend this tree. If I could have only one fruit tree it would be this one.

USDA zones 7-9
Chill requirement: 200 to 300 hours

US Agencies Issue Fatwa on Raw Products

Image by Andres Musta

I have no kind words for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They are, quite simply, a bunch of thugs working for big Central Valley agricultural interests who support their initiatives, enforcement actions and research. I’ve had first hand experience with their rudeness and lies when they sprayed our neighborhood with pesticides in a futile attempt to stop the Asian citrus psyllid. Now they are at it again, this time raiding raw dairy producers and sellers.

Now there are good arguments on both sides of the raw dairy safety debate (see this article at the Ethicurean for the other side) but I think that individuals should be able to make up their own minds. A recent article over at Grist “Raw Deal: Raids are increasing on farms and private food-supply clubs” has the lowdown on a couple of recent outrageous raids that involved not only the CDFA but an alphabet soup of government agencies, including the FBI and FDA who clearly need their priorities readjusted. Whatever happened to that war on terror? The raw dairy and honey raids profiled in the Grist article have one thing in common: government agencies around the US seem to be targeting private buyer’s clubs who distribute farm fresh raw products,

“They seem to stem from increasing concern at both the state and federal level about the spread of private food groups that have sprung up around the country in recent years — food clubs and buying groups to provide specialized local products that are generally unavailable in groceries, like grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, fermented foods, and, in some cases, raw dairy products. Because they are private and limited to consumers who sign up for membership, these groups generally avoid obtaining retail and public health licenses required of retailers that sell to the general public.”

Now that Michael Pollan and many others have turned attention to the miserable practices of mainstream agriculture the big guys are playing dirty. Read the rest of the Grist article for tips on what to do when they come knocking on your door. I’m not the paranoid type, but this is some scary stuff!

Piano Bike

Seen in San Francisco during this past weekend’s street closin’ party Sunday Streets, an upright piano bike. Not only did this guy play while peddling, but he was also a damn good musician. He said it took several years to perfect the bike which, while you might not be able to tell from the photo, was nicely crafted. Not sure about the steering but it seemed to be by pushing the keyboard itself. This may have influenced the choice of a ragtimey repertoire. Also kinda funny to have a musical performance affected by potholes.

It seems that this is an old vaudeville stunt.

Acanthoscelides obtectus- A seed saver’s lament

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Well, I had a rude awakening when I tried to plant my beans a few weeks ago. I have been growing several different types of pole beans for three or four years and saving seeds from them at the end of every summer. I usually grow purple, yellow and green varieties of pole beans for beautiful summer soups, salads and other dishes.

Not this year. When I opened the packet of bean seeds that I had saved last fall, I found all of these little holes in my beans. Turns out the culprit is the bean weevil, Acanthoscelides obtectus.

Their larvae make swiss cheese out of dried beans.

While they can be a pest in the garden apparently they usually are a problem in stored beans. And it turns out they love our mild California winters which allow them to reproduce year round. I also looked them up on the handy dandy University of California Integrated Pest Management site. Turns out not having dried beans around is the best way to control them. I probably am storing too many seeds in my garage. This fall I’m going to use glass jars instead of paper envelopes and see if that keeps some of the critters out.

Taut-line knot

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Knot tying is a skill that’s long been on my to-acquire list. I’ve finally learned how to tie a fancy knot, and it’s pretty exciting. This won’t impress ex-Boy Scouts and hardcore knot wonks, but if your knot skills are pretty much limited to shoelaces (as mine were until today), you might enjoy learning this one.

The taut-line hitch is an adjustable knot. It slides to adjust tension, but stays where you put it. So cool! If you’ve ever struggled to tie a line between two objects–say a laundry line–only to have it sag morosely, you’ll get my excitement. It’s also a useful for staking out tents and tarps.

I’m not going to show you how to do it here, but I’m going to save you the trouble of squinting at lots of poorly drawn diagrams and unclear videos, by sharing the the video that did it for me, one offered by a joint called The Art of Manliness. Official disclaimer: I haven’t read that site, so I don’t know what their program is, but I must say, I do feel rather manly.

It’s actually a very easy knot, though until I found this set of instructions, the procedure baffled me. Apparently there’s a few variations of this knot, but this version does work.

ETA: One of our commenters brought up the advantages of variations of this knot. If you’re new to knots, as I am, I’d recommend you learn one variation of this knot, so you get the general gist of it planted in your brain, and then venture into the Wikipedia page on the Tautline Hitch to look at the variations. The one shown here is #1857. Also important, I learned from Wikipedia that these knots may not be secure when made with slippery synthetic rope.

Vertical Vegetables

Frederick Law Olmstead’s office has a 19th century “vertical garden.” Vines!

I was somewhat dismayed to see a local newspaper article touting a company that sells a $1,000 vertical vegetable garden system to schools. The company has a plan to sell this system nationwide. The problem is that I have serious doubts about the long term viability of vertical garden walls for a number of reasons: irrigation, maintenance and start up costs just to name a few. And I’m not alone. The New York Times did some critical reporting on the subject of vertical garden systems in a recent article, “Gardens That Grow on Walls.”

For certain plants vertical growing might work. I haven’t tried it, but this DIY vertical succulent garden in Sunset Magazine certainly is striking. But vegetables? Their roots need space and you’d need to do a lot of watering to keep a vertical vegetable wall happy.

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!But growing vertically does not have to mean attaching roots to a wall. I can think of two simple vertical vegetable garden strategies where that $1,000 would go a lot further. How about simply favoring fruits and vegetables that either grow vertically naturally, say pole beans, grapes, peas or kiwi or that can be convinced with a bit of pruning to go vertical, such as tomatoes, melons and winter squash? Mel Bartholomew has some nice vertical gardening tips in his classic book Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!. Build some raised beds next to a wall or saw cut out the concrete, plant in the ground and you’re in business.With some slings for the fruit, you can even grow watermelons vertically.

EARTHBOX GARDEN KIT GREENAlternately, buy or make some self irrigating planters (SIPs) and put them next to a wall. See the Green Roof Growers for what can be grown vertically with SIPs made from scavenged five gallon buckets. Or you can buy a commercially made SIP kit from the Earthbox company for around $50. The nice thing about SIPs is that they are fairly idiot proof and easy to maintain. A SIP is as close to “plant and forget about it” as you can get with vegetables. In short, perfect for schools where maintenance is always an issue.

As one of the vertical wall landscape designers admitted in that New York Times article, “in nature, you don’t have vertical dirt.” Why fight nature?

Barefoot Running Update

ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free RunningWhile I was running last week a fellow barefoot runner stopped me to tell me that he thought that I was still heel striking, an error in form that can cause a long list of injuries. I took out a video camera the next day and videotaped myself running. He was right. As it turns out, simply ditching shoes is not enough to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of bad habits.

I turned back to a book by Danny Dreyer, ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running. that was recommended to me when I first went down the barefoot path. Dreyer is a friend of barefoot running guru Ken Bob Saxton, though the book is not about running sans footwear. Instead it covers form, emphasizing a mid-foot strike that minimizes shock to knees and heel.

I’ve been enjoying the audio version of this book, ChiRunning: A Training Program for Effortless, Injury-Free Running, that I checked out from the library. I’ve found it handier than the text since I’ve it’s easier to listen to the exercises rather do them while trying to hold a book.

See my original post for more info on barefoot running. “No Shoes, No Problem.” Funny thing is, even heel striking without shoes, while not good, was still better than heel striking with shoes. I’ve had absolutely no running related pains since I started barefoot running several months ago even with my bad form.

I realize that many of you are not runners, but I bring up this subject on this home economics related blog since I think it begs the question, “what other products in our lives are unnecessary and detrimental?” Cleaning products? Pharmaceuticals? If this blog post by Brooks shoe CEO Jim Weber is any indication, the folks with the money are a bit scared at the thought that we might all wake up some day to the realization that we don’t need their products. Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Yet more reasons not to wear lycra

Towards a more bikable/walkable US on this 4th of July, a nice quote about America’s silly relationship with cycling from bikesnobnyc:

“I may be naive, but I continue to believe that one day humanity will reach a point at which we will no longer need to feel special while we do something normal. Putting on pants will cease to be the subject of a feature article. The notion of a “bike culture” will dissolve like body paint in the rain. Riding a bicycle in street clothes will no longer be “cycle chic.” Best of all, we will no longer need to be cultural aspirants or fashion models to ride to the store, and the simple act of buying something at that store will not need to be a statement about “sustainability.” Instead, we will be regular schlubs doing regular crap, and we will be confident enough to do so without naming it and without baring our inner thigh sideburns in the process.”

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent

With a growing awareness of the plight of honeybees more people are calling on the services of beekeepers rather than exterminators. And, thanks to a crash course in bee removal and relocation from Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson, I’ve managed to help relocate about ten or so hives, giving them new homes with Los Angeles’ hobby beekeepers. Each removal has been different and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But with each experience I’ve learned valuable lessons. Last week I started my first solo “trap-out.”

In a trap-out you make a one way exit for bees that are somewhere they aren’t wanted, in this case a kitchen vent. Foraging bees leave the hive but can’t come back in. Next to the one way exit you place a “nuc” box (a cardboard box that holds five frames) that contains open brood comb, cells with eggs and larvae, from another hive. The workers can’t get back into their old home, adopt the brood comb in the box and use it to create a new queen. The process takes at least four to six weeks since you have to wait for the old queen to stop laying eggs and for all the bees in the wall to make their way out. At then end of the six weeks the beekeeper takes away the nuc box, now hopefully full of bees with a new queen. After I remove the nuc box I’m going to open up the vent and clean out any remaining comb and honey. I’ve heard of opening back up the old hive and letting the bees clean out the honey, but I’d be worried they would move back in. And what happens to the old queen is a mystery to me. Different sources give conflicting information. She either flies off, dies or fights her way into the new colony.

The alternative to a trap-out is to do a “cut-out” opening up the wall and physically removing the bees and their comb. Cut-outs are traumatic for the bees and make an incredible mess of the house. The advantage is that the removal is over in one day at the most. In this case I decided to do a trap-out so that I could save the homeowner, on a fixed income, from the expense of having to replace the kitchen vent the bees are living in.

Her house, cantilevered over a steep hillside in the Hollywood Hills presented a few challenges. I had to work from above, leaning over the edge of the roof to attach the escape cone to the vent. One thing I’ve learned is to have everything fabricated and all tools ready before beginning any structural bee removal. You need to act carefully and decisively when you’ve got thousands of pissed off bees flying around. I made the cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth attached to a rectangular piece of the same material to block off the entire vent. I smoked the bees to calm them down. Next, I leaned over the edge of the roof and quickly hammered the cone in place with roofing nails. It would have been better to attach the cone early in the morning before the bees had left for the day, but logistically this was impossible for me. As soon as nailed the escape in place a large cloud of returning workers started bearding at their former entrance at the base of the cone. Another angry contingent pinged the front of my veil. Using rope, I lowered the nuc box with the open brood in it and secured it to a concrete block I placed on the roof. When I came back the next day the bees had calmed down and were starting to come and go from the nuc box. Some were still “bearding” at their old entrance.

There are two kinds of one way exits. You can make one by creating a cone, at least a foot long out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth with a 3/8 inch opening at the end. This is enough, usually, to throw off the bee’s precise orientation to their old entrance. They leave but can’t come back in. Alternately, you can use a Porter bee escape, a spring loaded device that lets bees out but prevents their re-entry. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the bees figure out how to get back through the cone. In that case you can put another cone around the existing cone. The bees entering the second cone end up back outside. The disadvantage with the Porter bee escape is that its small springs can sometimes fail under the strain of thousands of workers passing through. My neighbor Ray, a beekeeper and airline mechanic, examined the two bee escapes sold by our local supplier. Not surprisingly, the English made escape was superior to a Chinese made model which had a poor connection between the springs and plastic body.

There’s a lot that can go wrong. In a trap-out that I’m helping Ray with underneath a poorly constructed concrete patio, the bees keep finding new ways to chew their way out. This could be interesting if we were dealing with a wall and the bees were to find their way into the house. With the patio it’s simply frustrating. The bees gave up on the brood and now we need to find more and wait another six weeks for the process to end. With my kitchen vent bees I blocked off the grill above the stove with metal screen and aluminum foil. Next time I’ll use sheet metal. The bees have chewed their way underneath the aluminum foil. The screen keeps them out of the house, but the foil is amplifying their buzzing. I’ve created an unintentional acoustic bee amplifier which is disconcerting to the homeowner! I also had to come back and rig up a sheet metal tray underneath the vent to catch the bits of comb, mites and dirt that the bees shed. While my trap-out seems to be working, I still have to keep my fingers crossed that the bees make a new queen and that she mates without getting eaten by a bird or squashed on a windshield. And Kirk is right, the process is more about managing the people than the bees. You have to have a homeowner who is willing to stick with a six week process and tolerate a box of bees strapped to the side of their house.

Still, I really enjoy the process. It combines a few of my favorite things, nature, heights, low-tech gadgets and diplomacy. I wish I could do this more often but we don’t have room in our yard for bees.

For more information on the trap-out process see, Charles Martin Simons’ article “Fundamentals and Finesse of Structural Bee Removal.”

If you’re in LA and have bees you need relocated call the Backwards Beekeepers rescue hotline at (213) 373-1104.

And lastly, while I love bees I would not want them in my house. Prevent what could be an expensive problem by making sure that small cracks on the outside of your house are sealed off.

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