Bees: Shown to the Children

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Homegrown Neighbor lent us this beautiful little book. The author is Ellison Hawks (what a name!) and dates to 1912. This book is part of a series of books for kids on various natural history topics, all titled the same way (i.e. X: Shown to the Children). I’d love to see the whole collection.

Every time I read an old children’s book, I’m struck by the sophistication of the language and themes presented, and wonder why this has been lost, and then try not to despair for civilization. Take this passage about intruders to the hive, from the chapter called Workers in the City (in the book, the hive is conceptualized as a bee city). It’s poetic and morbid and violent fascinating–all things I would have loved as a child:

Sometimes a mouse or a snail enters the hive, and then indeed there is great excitement. Imagine a great elephant-like creature, thirty or forty feet high, with a tail thirty feet long, to come walking into one of our cities, and you will have some idea what it seems like to the bees when a mouse is foolish enough to poke its head in the hive! But the bees are not frightened; the guards are promptly called out, and the poor mouse is soon put to death by hundreds of stings. Having made sure that the intruder is quite dead, the bees leave his body to the scavengers, who are confronted with the problem of disposing of it. If it were left it would cause disease and pestilence throughout the city, and it is too big and heavy for them to move. It is true that they might bite it into tiny pieces and thus carry it outside the hive, but this would take too much of the bees’ valuable time. A better plan is thought of, and the body is soon covered over with a thin coating of wax. It is thus embalmed in a beautiful white tomb, which is made perfectly air tight. If the tomb is near to the door, and interferes with the passing in and out of the workers, tunnels are cut through it. Sometimes when we look inside a hive, we may see two or three of these little mounts of was, and we may be sure that each one is the grave of some intruder who had no right to be there.

Granted, I believe foreign bodies in the hive, such as mouse corpses, are actually covered with propolis, not wax, but I’m not going to hold it against the authors. First, I’m not sure if I’m right or not, and at any rate, the idea is the same, and very well described.

There’s so much good to say about this book. It’s illustrated with early photos, line drawings, and pretty full color illustrations. In somewhat more than 100 pages it covers bee anatomy, behavior, the process of collecting nectar, hive society, beekeeping basics and even includes a chapter on “The Ancients” which addresses the apparently long-lasting ancient supposition that bees are born from the rotting bodies of oxen (?!?). I’m wondering if that was more of a symbolic conceit, because surely the ancients were no dummies and could tell the difference between blowflies and bees. But it makes for colorful reading, and again, as a child, I would have been entranced. Even if I couldn’t understand half the words.

Turns out this book is hard to find in the US because it’s an UK title. There’s only one Amazon listing, and it’s $23, and a couple more expensive at Alibris, but lots of UK listings for less. We may have to begin direct negotiations with Homegrown Neighbor for this copy.

UPDATE: A reader wrote in to tell us the whole book is available online, for free, at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. So if you want you can jump over there and page through it. I’d checked Google books, and it’s not there. I’m glad to learn of Hathi. They’ve got three other books in the series, too, btw.

Build a Worm Tower

Host: Leonnie Shanahan. More info: www.ecofilms.com.au

Mrs. Homegrown here:

One of our commenters on the compost debate, Nick H., offered up a link to a great video about worm towers, so we thought we’d share. A worm tower is a wide (at least 50cm dia.) pipe sunk halfway into the ground, with access holes on the lower half to allow the worms to come and go. Food and bedding is dropped in the top, which is kept capped.

We happen to have worm & compost expert Nancy Klehm staying with us this weekend, and she explained to us that this particular technology makes a lot of sense for hot, dry climates (note the video comes from Australia), because it’s sunken and it allows the worms to distribute themselves in the cool soil during the day. Conversely, I can imagine this wouldn’t be such a great thing in rainy climates as it could easily flood.

Nancy told us the worm holes clog up, so you do have to remove the pipe for cleaning fairly regularly, and perhaps take that opportunity to reposition it. I imagine that’s when the casting harvest would occur, and harvest promises to be a pretty messy process. 

The video speaks of using PVC pipe for the tower. PVC is cheap and easy to work with, but it’s pretty well established that it leaches toxins as it degrades, so you might want to seek out pipe in other materials. As an aside, we used to use PVC pipe in our self-irrigating pots, still still have PVC in some of them, but are phasing it out in favor of metal or bamboo pipe. Yet we still have PVC lines as part of our irrigation system. This is something you have to weigh and decide for yourself. 

Once Erik dragged home a section of ceramic sewer pipe he found in the street. It lingered in our yard for years, and was finally returned to the street. Now we’re singing the pack rat’s lament (See! See what happens when you throw things away!), because it would have been perfect for this.

On first glance I’d characterize this system as a novel idea, one which is worm-friendly, and best suited to hot, dry climates. It looks convenient to set up and use, but probably not the best system to use if you’re primarily interested in the castings.

If we can find another length of sewer pipe we’ll try it out and report back.

Why not plant some Calendula?

Calendula glows like the sun.

Mrs. Homegrown here, leaving the composting controversy behind…

One of my favorite plants in the garden is Calendula officinalis, aka pot marigold. It should not be mistaken for common marigold, or Mexican marigold, both of which are in the genus Tagetes. Tagetes marigolds are popularly used in companion planting (to ward off bugs in the garden), and for combating nemadtodes in the soil. Calendula is for helping people.

I grow Calendula in order to make lotions, balms and salves. I’m a firm believer in its healing power, my belief based on the happy response by family and friends who use my salves. Calendula is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It soothes, heals and helps regenerate skin. You’ll find Calendula extract as an ingredient in expensive beauty products, but you can make your own Calendula salve for pennies. I’m going to come back to how to do that in a later post, but first, I want to talk about planting Calendula so you can get some going in your own yard (or on your balcony) this spring.


Planting Calendula:

Calendula is beautiful and easy to grow, even for beginners. It’s not at all picky and will adapt to various soils and light conditions like a trooper, though–like most things–it does best if planted in rich, loose soil and given full sun. Even if you’ve had bad luck with flowers in the past, try Calendula. I’d be surprised if it let you down.

It’s technically a short lived perennial, so in very mild climates it might be a permanent garden flower, However, it doesn’t live through freezes or extreme heat. Here is southern California it’s a self-seeding annual. It seeds like crazy, so if you don’t want volunteers all over your yard, trim off the spent blooms–”deadhead” them–before they go to seed. (Calendula seed is trippy: big, gnarly crescent shaped pods, each one a little different–very unlike most seed, which is quite conformist.)

It does very well when grown from seed planted directly in the ground. In years past I’ve let Calendula range all over the yard as casual volunteers, all descended from some long forgotten planting, so obviously it’s not particular about planting conditions.

However, when it came time Phan of Pharmacy ™,  I wanted to start fresh, so I bought seeds. And I wanted to start the seeds while I was preparing the ground, so I started the seeds in flats and transplanted the seedlings when they were about three or four inches high. This worked very well. Calendula isn’t particularly pest-prone, but some things will munch on it, particularly when it’s small. Transplanting the seedlings when they were larger may have given them the oomph to withstand attacks. They also didn’t mind the shock of transplanting–I had no losses.

The Rundown on Calendula:

  • When to plant: Almost any time after frost: early spring into early summer. It doesn’t do well in scorching heat, so the earlier the better.
  • Where to plant: As above, it’s not too picky about soil. You want part to full sun. 
  • How deep to plant: About a 1/4″.
  • How far apart:  If planting in flats, seeds can be close, maybe 3 or 4 inches. If you’re planting straight into the ground you need to consider the final size of the plant, and how close you want them together. I like mine close, so in the Phan they are about 8″ apart. I think 8″ to 1 foot is a good range.
  • How big is it? Depends. A foot or so high, maybe more if it’s older or very happy, and probably about a foot across. 
  • Water: Calendula needs regular water. The one thing you have to do is remember to water it.
  • Fertilizer: You don’t really need it, but if you’ve got some nice compost you can spread some around the plants. 
  • Harvest: To save flowers for medicine, pick them when they’re open and at their peak. Don’t worry about picking too much. Picking just forces them to send out more flowers. Not picking is what leads to plants going to seed and closing up shop. Take the heads inside and dry them face down out of direct light. When dry enough to be crunchy, strip the petals and transfer to jar.
  • Pots: Calendula takes well to containerized life. Try it in pots or window boxes. It would do well in self-irrigating container, too.
  • Seeds: Look around for interesting flowers. As long as the seed pack reads “Calendula officinalis” you’ve got the right stuff. This year I planted the “Pacific Beauty Blend” from Botanical Interests and like them quite a lot. They have a wide range of colors, from almost cream to bright yellow to this cool peach color to the classic vibrant orange. Some of them are beautifully double flowered, others have more of the traditional daisy thing going on.
The seeds and some heads brought in from the garden for drying.

One last note: Calendula is edible. It’s not flavorful, but it’s fun to add the petals to salads. Dried calendula leaves look a little like saffron and can also be used in cooking for color. Calendula also can be brought indoors as a cut flower.

The Chihuahua Menace

Gardeners face many threats: drought, flood, frost and the occassional plague of locusts. But no force of nature is more terrible and awe inspiring than a determined Chihuahua.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill sent us this shocking footage of one of these creatures ravaging their pea bed. Note how the Chihuahua seems to draw other creatures into its destructive vortex. Even a cat is inspired, against all natural law, to nibble on peas. This is called The Facilitator Amplification Effect.

Viewer discretion is advised.

Urban Homesteading

UPDATE:

Our super lawyer, Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property Director of the EFF,  has a blog post up on the EFF site: Riding the Fences of the “Urban Homestead”: Trademark Complaints and Misinformation Lead to Improper Takedowns summarizing the situation and the important issues at hand–issues that affect all of us. That post also has links to a letter she sent to the Dervaes Institute on our behalf.

***

This has been such a big flap I suspect most of our readers know this by now, but for those of you who haven’t heard the news, the Dervaes Institute (the operators of the popular website, Path to Freedom) have trademarked the terms urban homestead and urban homesteading, and in the last week or so, have started to enforce their trademarks. Follow this link to Boing Boing for a concise summary of what’s been going on. (ETA 2/23: This two part article at Agrariana seems currently to be the most complete summary available. ETA 3/2: They have a round-up of most writing to date at Seasons in the Soil)

We’ve landed in the middle of all this because in 2008 we wrote a book titled The Urban Homestead. Because they apparently believe this title infringes on their trademark, the Dervaes Institute has interfered with our ability, and the ability of our publisher, Process Media, to promote the book. We are by no means the only people affected by their actions, but we can only speak for ourselves.

We want to take this moment to tell you how grateful for all the the kind and super-supportive comments, emails and conversations we’ve had over this last week. It’s hard to describe, but we’ve received so much love from you all that it’s been like being bundled in a warm blanket. We’ve been busy, and we’ve been taking this seriously, but we haven’t been worried or stressed. Thank you for all your positive energy.

It’s also been wonderful to see how this has all served as a galvanizing action to bring the homesteading community together. We admire how the Take Back Urban Home-steading(s) page on Facebook stepped into the gap and created a place for people to gather. Today it’s hosting a day of action, in which its members (nearly 4000 strong!) are all posting about their own urban homesteads. Check it out if you can. Join in if you can.

But back to business.

The one thing we didn’t know last week was who was going to help us fight for our rights, because unfortunately it seems legal action is necessary. We’ve had good news.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has stepped forward to represent us and our publisher, Process Media. We couldn’t be happier.

Who is the EFF?  They are a leading civil liberty group dedicated to protecting freedom and privacy in the digital domain. They’re the guys and gals on the white horses. When you read about something idiotic going on and you say to yourself, “Someone has to do something about that!” — more often than not, the EFF is that someone.

Just check out this page on their awesome work, and you’ll know why we are honored, amazed and thrilled that they’ve taken us on.

We’ve had many people ask us how they can help. Right now, the very best thing you can do is send a few dollars to the EFF as a gesture of appreciation. Two-thirds of the EFF’s budget comes from donations, so your donations will help them shoulder the costs of taking us on–not to mention all their other excellent work.

Again, thank you so much for your support. We love you all.

Molto bene!

Mallo2011, a reader in Italy, just commented on our how to build a self watering container post. We’re so pleased to hear that he’s happy with his SWC, that we thought we’d move his comment and the pic of his new baby here for you all to see:

Hi from Italy
this is just to thank you for your easy tutorial for a DIY self-watering container.
Actually, at least in my Town, those containers are way too much expensive to buy!

Your SWC looks fantastic Mallo! Congratulations, and happy growing!

How to clean a stained coffee cup

This is what it looked like fresh out the dishwasher. Ugh!

The sink post reminded me about this quick and easy tip. If you’ve got a stained coffee mug, baking soda will take that gunk right off.  Just sprinkle some baking soda in the mug, then wipe down the inside with a damp rag or sponge. The stain will give in on the first pass.

As I described in the sink post, the trick here is to keep the mug on the dry side, because baking soda scrubs best when only slightly damp. Your sponge or rag should be damp, but the mug shouldn’t have water in it.

Just a swipe with the magic powder does it.

I don’t like housework, but this sort of cleaning makes me happy.

My Sooper Seekrit Compost Pile

Welcome to the Lucy and Ricky show!

As some of you know, Erik is a complete and utter compost wonk. A heavy book about the science of decomposition is pleasure reading for him. He has a really, really big thermometer and knows how to use it.

We’ve kept a compost pile for years and years, but only in the last two years has it become an obsession for him. One of his more recent projects has been to make an gigantic bin in our back yard. This is the sort of bin you could use to dispose of bodies. He became so persnickety about the proper usage of the Wonder Bin that I was afraid to take scraps out there. Emptying the compost pail became his duty.

Then, one day, something went wrong in compost nirvana. You’d have to ask him for the details of his crisis, but the upshot was that he didn’t want anything new to go in the bin.

“But…but…” I said, pointing at the full compost pail on the counter.

“I’ll deal with it,” he said.

One day passed, and the next. He put a big mixing bowl on the counter next to the overflowing pail and started throwing his scraps in there. Flies gathered. 10 lbs of rotting scraps on the counter bothers Erik not a whit.

Of course the notion of putting it all in the trash never crossed our minds. At this point, it’s unthinkable, like driving around without a seat belt.

“This can’t go on,” I said, when a second mixing bowl of scraps joined the first, and the fruit flies started passing out party fliers to the whole neighborhood.

“It will have to go in the green bin,” he said with an air of grim decision.

The green bin is the dedicated wheelie bin given us by the city to collect green waste. We use it only for green waste we can’t compost, partially because we need as much compost as we can make, and partially because I hear the city often uses the green bin material as landfill covering.

I just couldn’t put it in the green bin, so I went out in the back yard, collected a couple of the old tires rolling around back there (we’re classy that way), stacked them up under the avocado tree and started my own alternative compost pile.

I did not tell Erik about the AlternoPile because I knew he’d squawk about it. “There’s not enough mass!” he’d protest. Or maybe he’d cry, his face blanching with horror, “Your nitrogen inputs are way too high! For God’s sake, stop this madness!”  

Sometimes things just gotta rot without you thinking about them, you know?

I also was not worried he’d discover my sooper seekrit pile because Erik has a particularly advanced form of man blindness. He couldn’t find a boa constrictor in the fridge. I don’t have to hide his Christmas presents. And I figured a couple of tires under the tree were not going to attract his attention for a long while

To his credit, he did notice it, after a couple of weeks, and asked, “Did you plant something in the tires?” Because I was in the bathroom and didn’t have to look him in the face I was able to say, “No honey, I didn’t plant anything in the tires.”

He investigated no more, and the secret pile continued. Yesterday he finally rebuilt his compost pile, and now it’s accepting scraps again. The game is up.  I’ll let the tires sit and stew. In a few months I can move them and will leave behind nothing but a little pile of compost.

The moral:

If you’ve been thinking you can’t compost because you don’t generate much green waste, or you don’t have space for a big bin, or just don’t want to screw with it,  I’d say try it anyway. My two tires absorbed our green waste for weeks, and would have continued to do so. That’s kitchen waste for two people who cook a lot, but no yard trimmings, obviously.  I’d dump the pail in there, and cover the scraps with handfuls of hay or dry leaves.

Sometimes the level would raise high, but this stuff shrinks fast, so it maintained a level one tire deep most of the time, and would have done so until compost started building up at the bottom. Eventually I would have put the top tire on the ground and shoveled the contents of the bottom tire into the top tire, basically turning everything upside down. This would speed things along a bit, and would reveal any finished compost at the very bottom.

Caveats: This system doesn’t generate heat through mass, so will be much slower than a real compost pile. It is best used when the weather is warmer to help things along. And again, this isn’t what you do if you want compost for your garden. This is just one way to quietly return your kitchen waste to the earth.

When Erik sees this post he’s going scream, “Luuuuuucy!!!!” and proceed to write a rebuttal explaining why a tiny compost pile is a bad idea, but no matter what he says, I believe composting can be as simple as this.

I like my chamomile stressed

This poor, abused little seedling is flowering like crazy.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I made a mistake–I predicted a while ago that this would happen, and here it is. When we remodeled the yard and I set aside space for The Phan of Pharmacy ™ my goal was to maximize the production of herbs and flowers.  I prepped the ground in the fan like a fine flower or veg bed: double dug and richly amended. It was only after I planted my chamomile starts in it that I realized the soil was way too rich for chamomile. Not that it wouldn’t grow, but it wouldn’t grow the way I wanted it to grow.

See, chamomile is a tough, scrappy plant. In our dry climate, it pops up with the winter rains, and lives a fast, hard life, like a beautiful young self-destructive celebrity. It shoots up overnight and throws off blossoms like crazy, its one goal being to spread seed before it dies.

In the past, I’ve harvested chamomile from volunteer plants in my yard. I never planted or tended them, but one or two would get about knee high, and from those one or two plants I’d gather all the flowers I needed by remembering to pick a handful every time I went in the back yard. The thing about chamomile is the more you pick, the more it produces.

But I was greedy–and somewhat lazy, as usual. I thought, why be out there every day milking some scrappy chamomile plant, when you could plant a chamomile crop and harvest a ton of flowers in just a couple of days? So I planted I don’t know how many plants–20, maybe? More? The chamomile thrived in the rich, fertile soil, putting all it’s energy into making lots of feathery green foliage–not flowers. My entire chamomile crop is presently netting me less flowers than one or two abused volunteers would. That sad little plant in the top picture may have to become my harvest plant.

Uh, very pretty. But where are the flowers?

The lesson here is to know your plant, and to pay attention when you’re prepping your garden. I amended that soil on auto-pilot, when I could have left one fan wedge un-turned and un-amended and the chamomile would have flowered all the better for it. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily the case for other herbs and flowers. The calendula I planted in the fan is doing very well, producing huge, hearty blooms. All I’m saying is that you can’t generalize.

My next step is to withhold water from the chamomile and try to stress it into flower production. Of course, we’re heading into another rainy period, so it will be a while before that chamomile is feeling any stress at all.

Our ladies are also well practiced in stressing chamomile

Oops! Sorry!

Thank you for your kind comments, but condolences are not necessary. Chickenzilla passed a few years back.

See, I’m cleaning up the labels or tags on our old posts so that we can have a more effective search system, and somehow I republished 3 old posts as new posts, including one about the sad death of Homegrown Neighbor’s friendly rescued chicken, Chickenzilla. The other two were on figs and bike fashion, respectively. I’ve just taken all those posts down, but those of you reading this on a feed will probably still see them, and I’m sorry about that.