Monday, May 11, 2009

Bees leave home

Back in mid-March we inspected our bees. We knew that one of our two hives we started last year did not make it through the winter. We believe it lacked the population of bees necessary to stay warm. The surviving hive, however, was teaming with bees. Our daughter Rhianna helped me find the queen....without her quick, sharp eyes, I never would have found the queen! Our dilemma was whether to split the hive and make two colonies, or to add hive space and attempt to grow the hive. We opted for growing the hive population in an attempt to get lots of honey this year....

However, the bees had other plans. They had been planning an exit for some time. They completely ignored the upper room addition I made for them in the form of a plush honey super. Yesterday they packed their bags and did something amazingly unique in the insect world...they swarmed. Swarming is where the queen ups and leaves her home with roughly half of the worker bees, who gorge themselves on honey first. They leave the other half of the colony to raise a new queen and carry on in the old home. You can see in the photo, that the swarm of probably 20,000 bees or more left the hive and ended up in a tree...unfortunately the branch was about 40 feet above us and out of reach. We feebly put out an empty hive with frames and wax, and dribbled honey around to try to coax them into one of our empty hive bodies...but alas they flew away. A cool thing was that the next day as I was finishing the raised bed in the previous post I heard a loud swarming sound about 100 feet was our bees! I followed the swarm down the road. The sound was very loud and it was one of those ancient phenomena of nature that you don't witness very often. Despite my attempts to tell them to come back and reside in a nice cozy wooden hive, they sped on over the western ridge and toward the next wooded valley. Hope they make it and pollinate many a flower and tree.

Gardens Everywhere

We've been working on a variety of gardens and ideas for this year. We began by sprucing up the hillside area behind our home with wave petunia's to spread out and co-mingle with the native flowers and shade perennials we've planted the past few years.

A Village Garden

Based on previous years' experience, we just don't seem to get enough direct sunlight into our small quarter acre clearing in the creek valley below our home. Since we tend to travel through Pudue University area to and from work, we decided to rent a garden space at the Purdue Village. This is an incredibly awesome place, with probably 100 families from all over the world planting many varieties of plants using diverse techniques. We rented a 12 x 25 plot and went to work. We use a lot of peppers in our cooking, and knew we wanted to grow a lot of these for freezing for year round use. Peppers in the store are usually pricey. We also like fresh salsa and the grocery store price is usually salty. So, our village garden is being nicknamed, Salsa Garden, and we added plenty of tomato plants, onions, and even a small patch of sweet corn. We planted climbing beans to utilize the fence and vertical space. It was fun to plant, and we are excited about its potential.

Zero $ Raised Bed

Just because we are very stubborn people (at least I am when it comes to growing plants that want sunshine in an area with a dearth of sunlight), I wanted to try out several new ideas this year. I wanted to build a raised bed with very fertile ingredients on the most southern exposed spot to see what will happen. I started by removing topsoil from an 3 x 12 area where I had established native prairie perennials the previous 4 years. I then used a pitch fork to gently open up and aerate the subsoil. I then placed partially rotted sticks, then a layer of partially composted chicken manure from our hens, then a layer of partially composted wood chips from the electric company had dumped the year before, then a layer of nicely composted dead wood that had turned to soil from a large pile of dead branches and wood I piled next to the forest four years ago. I did another layer of each of these items, then Beth and I used some old shelving boards and some redwood 2x4 from a dismantled deck that were here when we moved in for the sides of the bed. We shoveled on the topsoil, an wow....our first ever raised bed. Now we need to plant it with a variety of garden veges and see what happens!

Container Gardens (almost zero $)

Something I had come across in a fun book titled the Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen is a functional porch garden idea known as a self-watering container. The concept is based on the commercially sold Earthbox...commonly sold for $40 or more each. It basically is made of an 18 gallon rubbermaid storage container (that we had on hand and were not using) and a few short sections of pvc pipe. The concept tries to mimic the topsoil, subsoil, and water table found in a natural garden, but contructed into a minaturized version for shallow rooted plants. The advantage over basic containers is that the water is wicked up by the plant roots whenever they need the water....and watering is done only infrequently, because the bottom reservoir is like 6-8 gallons of water. We decided to plant herbs in ours.

We came across something called TatorTires, where by cutting away the side walls of discarded tires you use them for containing potato potato plants grow upward, you need to pile on more soil, straw, etc. The tires are nice because you can utilize vertical space, contain the potato plants, and add old tires to the stack as they grow. The black rubber heats up and creates a warm zone for the plants to get a good start. At harvest time you simply start removing the tires one layer at a time to gather up the spuds! This idea could be used for a number of food plants.

Road Trip

We decided to take a day and drive to covered bridge country earlier this spring. Parke County has always been a favorite destination for us, and we wanted to seriously consider if this might be a place to call home sometime in the future. The picturesque countryside, rolling hills, timbered ravines, and many pastures and creeks seem like the perfect match for our tastes. We drove around and looked at several places for sale. However, the more we looked at what is in our price range, it seemed there were dilapidated buildings, and meth-lab looking neighbors, and/or rebel flag waving strongholds and the fundamentalist religious right. We read the local newspapers, and started to get the feeling that we just don't seem to fit in anywhere very well....not the redneck Indiana and not the intelligentsia city areas either. Yes, we are Hoosiers and can identify with most Hoosiers. We want a sense of community, yet community that both respects the land and values open inquiry, creativity, the arts, and a spritual connection to earth and each other. Is there such a place? We are beginning to think that we must cultivate these qualities in and around us where we are now....but we still look forward to visiting Parke County, and many other Hoosier places.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Frugal Food

It seems to be a sign of the times; everywhere you look someone has an idea for "frugal" this or "budget" that. I've always thought of myself as frugal; I'm wearing a watch I received as a school band award in high school, I have Birkenstocks older than my firstborn son and I just threw away a laundry basket that was my stepfather's before he married my mom sometime in the 1970's. (The cracks that had developed in it were finally pinching the fingers way too much.)

While I have been drawn to books on saving money, cutting costs, and living simply, I often find that there's just not so much I can learn. I can't cut out my Starbucks habit because I don't drink coffee. But I have been drawn to those kinds of books & websites because I have been in search of some magical way to attain nirvana - The Land. Mortgage-free lifestyle. Time.... the list goes on.

Just like everyone else we are starting to feel the pinch of this economy. Friends are losing jobs and we may not be far behind. As the reality of the situation that we are all in starts to be felt closer to home, I'm really glad that we have been working on ways of saving money every month. If our income remains the same, it will allow us to put a little money in the bank; if it goes down, well then maybe it will help us get by while keeping our house or at helping us avoid digging ourselves a very deep hole.

Over the last few months we have drastically changed our food buying habits. I thought we were frugal before; and sometimes we were. We ate good food, often seasonal food, and often from scratch. Except when we didn't. Like when we got home late and found it all too easy to call Papa John's. Or when it was easier to stop for Chinese carryout on the way home. Or when we looked in the cabinet and saw lots of good food but were too tired and hungry to figure out what to do with it.

In the course of my usual quest for money-saving, simple living resources I rediscovered the website whose name scares my children, the Hillbilly Housewife. I promise there's nothing shocking there even if the name is a little scary. The site has two meal plans for either a low cost week of meals or an extremely low cost week of meals. Being brave but only a little bit, we decided to try the $70 meal plan and see if we could learn anything about living a little lower on the hog.

I started by rediscovering Aldi, the no frills, bag your own groceries store that has the bad rap as being just for poor people. In spite of the fact that a lot more of us might BE poor people soon, I found that for basic ingredients, Aldi was full of many money saving items.

When I tried the $70 menu I also rediscovered another concept that I had gotten away from--sticking to the list! It was really hard that first time to walk by the chips, snacks, and packaged things like granola bars. My mind said, "But they're so inexpensive, I could just get a few anway." But I stuck to my guns & stuck to the list. My total was more like $80-something with the increased prices over the last year but all in all I thought it was pretty good. Our family had been spending close to $200/week on groceries and that's not even counting eating out. But could we really stick to it and do it?

What I discovered was that there is a LOT more food in that menu than we usually use. Since most of us are gone during the day I rarely cooked the lunches. Brent and I took leftovers to work with us and we ate well and heartily. I even discovered that the salmon patties were pretty tasty. For someone who doesn't like fish this was a revelation. About a week into this experiment my son said, "We've been eating some REALLY good food lately!" Yes, he really said that!

Since that first week on the $70 menu I have continued to make the Perfect Iced Tea every few days. I rarely bought soda before but I just don't buy it at all now. I didn't know I liked iced tea until I tried this. And I have made her Biscuits with amazing succes more than once! I have never ever been satisfied with any home made biscuits of my creation before; but these seem to work every time.

What I learned that week was that I already knew how to be a wise cook; but I had forgotten the art of menu planning and sticking to the list. Next time I'll share more about our specific "system" and how it's going for us. Also news about another money saving food find and how we are fitting it into the "system" and eating well while saving money!