28 May, 2010

Urban Beekeeping Resource List

Books of Note: 

Beekeeping for Dummies, Blackiston, Howland © 2009 I have the first edition, but I see the second edition is co-authored by Kim Flottum who wrote one of the three books (below) that I feel are the basic top bar hive beekeeper library. I'll buy this and see if I like it.

The following three books comprise my Basic Urban Beekeeping Library.

Natural Beekeeping, Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, Conrad, ross © 2007 Published by Chelsea Green, one of my favorite publishers, with a forward by Gary Paul Nabhan, one of my favorite authors, I was predisposed to love this book. It is informative and does have organic approaches to some of the challenges faced by honey bees in our times. It comprises one of the three books I suggest as the books for becoming a top bar hive, natural, organic, urban beekeeper.

The Backyard Beekeeper, Flottum, Kim © 2010 Sub-titled: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden  I notice that this edition has added information on urban bees, and keeping bees healthy 'naturally,' which means that it isn't his main focus and he felt compelled to add it in. However, he has wonderful drawings of bee and flower anatomy – it is a very comprehensive book.

The Barefoot Beekeeper, Chandler, P.J. © 2009 At the end of the index, this note is written: Due to the vagaries of the application I used in writing this book, some of the index entries above are somewhat eccentric. But then, so am I. And that says a lot about the personal touch of this book. It is the only book in this list – in fact, the only book I know of altogether – that includes a lot of information on top bar hives. Our reading of the book suffers from it's United Kingdom origin and focus, but it is the only book with top bar instructions. It is quirky, eccentric and yet manages to inform. 

Also available is the Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping which I understand is authored by two members of LA's Backwards Beekeepers (see below).  I intend to order it soon, but as I have not yet read it, I can't comment on it, but it should be natural and low impact and, if it is 'as-advertised,' it will be the fourth book added to my library.

Web Resources  

The Everything Guide to Urban Bees is an online series of articles from the New York Times Magazine.  Some lovely reading here, even if it about a world that has seasons different from our own.  And sensibilities different from ours.  

The Backyard Hive is a source of data on top bar hives and sells some very well made equipment.  Very accessible and very clear.  I owe a lot to their well written articles.  

The Barefoot Beekeeper (his book of the same name is listed above) has this site that expands on his book and offers more up to date information and photos.  

The Backwards Beekeepers blog site is their central clearing house of information; they also have a Yahoo Group.  I belong to this Los Angeles group and Kirk Anderson (their 'yoda') gave me my first swarm of bees.  They maintain a bee removal hotline and post all requests for bee removal through the Yahoo group - first one to say "I'll do that one" gets the bees.  All natural, low impact, urban beekeeping, but they use the older Langstroth hives.  My post on getting my swarm from Kirk shows up in their blog. 

I'll be posting my bee experiences on my blog at LAGardenBlog.com - where you can also read this with all the URLS embedded so you can find all the information.  

Little Homestead in the City blog (a product of Path to Freedom in Pasadena) posts often on their beekeeping experience.  They are strictly Langstroth hives.

Coming out of Georgia, Linda's Bees is Linda T's blog of beekeeping experiences.  She is a Langstroth hive woman who is currently in her first year of experimenting with a top bar hive - her experience with bees combined with her surprises she gets with the top bar hives makes this really good reading.

Humorous on occasion, then informative on others, Canaries in a Coal Mine  posts on beekeeping as well.  

An informative blog (that links to my site, thanks, Sam!), Bee Crazy is all about top bar hives and the use of solar heat for melting wax and stuff like that.  Here you can find hive plans and more from Sam Smith in Ontario Canada.  

Products and articles (in fact some of the articles that have set the organic low impact beekeeping movement in motion) can be found at Bee Source.  They have ads from companies that sell top bars and other bee equipment.  

Where To Buy Equipment  

In addition to those sites noted above...

eBay always has listings for things like smokers and hive tools.  I think right now there are something like 200 listings for beekeeping that aren't old books, old magazines or DVD collections of old books etc.  I got my smoker and one of my hive tools there.  

Los Angeles Honey Co. 1559 Fishburn Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90063-2587  323.264.2383 is located just north of I-10, just east of I-5 - not your best 
neighborhood.  If you buy anything that requires fitting, unless you are certain of your size, 
it is better to try it on first.  My bee suit is several sizes larger than I would have 
ordered online.  They have nothing on top bar hives, but gloves, bee suits, veils and stuff
 like that, need to be tried on first.  

For my money, I really like the service and materials I have purchased from Backyard Hive. 

In the lecture, they were the makers of the top bars I thought were the very best.  


14 May, 2010

What's The Buzz...

This is the state of my first hive of bees when I first got it from Kirk.  The outer cardboard box is pretty well shot, the five frames have wax, honey, brood and - gulp - live bees all over them!

I have a little free time to write even if it is painful - I fell yesterday (playing with the dog!) and have either broken or badly strained my left wrist.  I'll know later today, although the prescription is much the same no matter which it is - a strain would heal a lot faster.  I'm already trying to figure out how I'll play with the band.  I could play keyboard with my right hand only, but I'm not going to be fretting anything soon!  

But there is still a lot happening!  Last Sunday, Kirk of the Backwards Beekeepers posted on their listserv that he had a spare swarm of bees available to the first caller.  I called and bingo:  I was the winner.  I drove over to his house and he met me with a bundled up blue tarp tied with a string:  my new bees!  We had put them in the back of my Explorer and talked for a minute about what I would need to do - that's when we noticed bees escaping from the bundle.  Kirk was unperturbed, and I took my cue from him although each turn of the screw was getting me more and more - um - 'excited.'  He tossed an old towel on top and said, "Well, you better leave the back window open - they'll just fly out as you drive!"  OK...  I understand that approach...

Kirk was telling me how to deal with the hive until he asked me what size of hive I would be using.  "I have a top bar hive," I said, proud of my unconventional choice.  Kind though it was, the look in his eyes - and his silence - told me all I needed to know:  "Your on your own, buddy!" I laughed.  I understand that too.

Traffic made me late getting back to my environs and by the time I got back I was late to band rehearsal - this is before the fall, right?, and so the bees stayed put until after rehearsal - it was about 7:00 PM when I got to the undisclosed location of my empty hive (keeping bees is not legal in Los Angeles yet - although I think my location isn't in Los Angeles, I'll just obfuscate for the hell of it).  

I have been a gardener for many years and I know that nature pretty well will take care of herself if we don't mess with her too much, so I set things up in hopes the bees would migrate on their own into my top bar hive (TBH).  I put sugar water and a pheromone scent in the hive, faced the opening towards them, opened the bundle and made sure it was shaded.  I left them there to figure out their new home.  And maybe even move into the hive on their own without any confrontations with me. 

Wednesday was my first day I could come back.  I went over to The Learning Garden where my gear was at.  I had never used any of these before on a bee hive - in fact, I have only been around an open hive once - Kirk had opened a hive at Solano Garden at a Backwards Beekeepers meeting - the only one I ever went to because I work when they have them.  The open hive had scared me.  At least one of the bees had repeatedly flown into my veil which I found really disconcerting and had to move away.  But, fear has not often stood me in good stead - it has often hindered me doing that which I dreamed of doing and I was determined not to let this keep me from my dream of learning self sufficiency.  I wanted to test the smoker - beekeepers use smoke to make bees more manageable and I didn't want to figure out how to use it with a couple hundred bees around me being unmanageable! 

More in Buzz II later this month!  

Have you kept bees?  Do you want to learn how?  I started with this book, The Barefoot Beekeeper.  He's not really barefoot - it's metaphorically a way of saying it's more natural, less chemically and humanly oriented. So far it's the only book I've seen where top bar hives are explained in detail although the editing and writing could really use some higher standards.  He does explain thoroughly and his style is truly worthy of imitation.  It is also very British and he dabbles in Warre hives as well.  

In coming posts, I intend to use my hive, all I've read of this book, learned from other beekeepers I've found on the web and conversations I've had with a variety of experienced beekeepers on top bar hives.  I'll explain why I chose top bar hives, why I feel TBH's are the hives most of us should have and share my experiences working on a bee hive filled with buzzing bees and honey and larvae and more stimulation than a quart of coffee!!!  


03 May, 2010

Victory Gardens LA!

Victory Gardens LA! is now a group on Kitchen Gardeners International.  Please hike on over there and sign up, add yourself to the group (and be my friend while you're there!).  

Also, The Learning Garden and I are both on Facebook - feel free to come by my pages and become friends there too!  

I loved our classes and can't wait for our first meetup on June 6th! 
Thank you for your enthusiasm and joy!


The Garden In May

Tomato cages made of bamboo can keep your tomatoes off the ground and less available to pill bugs (AKA roly-poly bugs). I've always wanted to grow my own tomato cages and bamboo is one way to do it. Saplings of weed trees (like Chinese elm or pepper tree, two of the candidates growing at The Learning Garden) can be used the same way-- tied together with some garden twine. There are a host of tomato cages you can buy, but this way is more environmentally friendly.  Why not try it?

The cool of Spring is likely to be a sweet memory before this month is out. It is time to host  the proverbial summer garden party, sometime later this month. Longer days with a marine layer are nothing like the warmth of Summer and Fall, but the diffuse sunlight through the 'June Gloom' does make it warm enough to get your summer plants surging ahead. This growth time is important for a full harvest. If you can't get things in the ground this month you will not have the harvest you could have had. Besides, working in the garden in May is so much sweeter than doing all that back breaking work in June and July. Save yourself and your plants. Strike while May's picture is still on your wall calendar!
I am planting the following from seed: corn, cucumbers (you can set out cucumber plants, but it is much faster and more certain to sow them directly.
Just keep the snails at bay), squash of all kinds – summer, winter, zucchini, acorn – and beans – and setting out plants of basil, tomatoes, and peppers. I am still putting out lettuce seedlings and still sowing short rows of carrots, beets, radishes and spinach in one small area, with an old screen standing by to shield them from too much sun. Sowing all of those without the screen could be a recipe for disaster; even with the screen, it's a bit of a crapshoot, but then isn't that the essence of gardening?

It is easier to grow cool season crops in the Summer on the coast than it is to do the reverse.
One of my major goals in life is to grow a complete salad, meaning tomatoes with my lettuce. I have an annual tradition of the First BLT of the season, wherein, I grow the T and the L and usually bake my own bread. You can try planting the cool season crops in a shadier part of the garden if you don't have access to a screen and sometimes you'll be lucky, other times, not so much. I've done it both ways and like having my screen on hand.

You may grow all of these in pots as long as you get smaller versions – most nurseries and all the seed companies will help you find plants that will grow in pots.   It is possible to buy tomatoes and cucumbers bred to live in a hanging basket, but in our climate, think of all the attention you'll have to give their watering needs! While you can grow smaller varieties of sweet corn, it is a wind pollinated crop and
important to grow a substantial number of plants to get a viable crop. Still, it sure makes a statement – even a small corn stalk is pretty impressive. It might be fun to do a Native American themed pot with a couple stalks of corn, a sunflower, and pole beans climbing up them. But don’t plan on it for a dinner party; it would be mostly a decorative piece. Pots, of course, do limit the size of a plant's root system, so you get less food.  But if you don't have a choice in the matter, it is one way to add truly fresh food to your diet.  Just keep a very close eye on their water needs.

In addition, try melons, eggplant and okra, if you have room for melons and actually like okra and eggplant. Okra needs the most heat of any vegetable under discussion here. Put it the hottest corner of your garden.
If your eating plans include the likes of borage, chervil, chives, lavender, lemon grass, lovage, marjoram, mint (be certain to get a good culinary one as there are many that are not) Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum NOT O. vulgare, big difference in taste although vulgare is a lot easier to find), parsley, rosemary, sage and tarragon, you could set these plants out into a border convenient to your kitchen. Or plant them in pots. These perennial plants are fine being planted now.  They are hardy in the heat and will take a lot more drought than the annuals.  These are all Mediterranean plants, which is the type of climate we have in LA. They are not as hardy as the California Natives. Our drought is typically nine months long, while  theirs is closer to six, but they run an edible second.

This is the
second big season for planting perennial crops. While in Southern California, Fall is better, many people with East Coast or Midwest “roots” simply cannot prune from themselves this “Spring = planting time” mentality. It can be so pervasive that even nurseries themselves often evidence a better selection of some things at this time of year. Our part of the country seems so divorced from manual labor with the soil that such things are not the strangest occurrences that happen horticulturally here. Adding further confusion, a good number of the chain stores have their plant selections made somewhere back east by someone who has no clue what we should be growing here. You will find roots of artichokes, rhubarb, potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic and asparagus in many store. I'd skip these if you can discipline yourself. It is much better to purchase these from mail order suppliers. You'll get better plants and they will arrive at a better planting time, late fall and early winter, which is where I offer my ideas on planting them. One of my favorite suppliers, and fairly local too, is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. Their website, GrowOrganic.com is not one of the easiest to use, but their paper catalog is fantastic. I have used it to teach organic gardening. Call them at 888.784.1722 and ask for the catalog. The main catalog comes out in January with seeds, tools and general supplies.  The little fall catalog is the one that has these plants for your purchasing joy. Try some heirloom garlic and the Italian Red Torpedo onions for some real wonderful eating! But wait to buy them in Fall.

You may put out deciduous fruit trees and fruiting vines, but they are best planted in Fall like the plants in the last paragraph. In Fall, you will have the chance to plant bare root trees which is easier on the tree and will help you get an established tree sooner (and therefore more fruit sooner!). The only thing you can find in the stores at this time of year are trees potted
in 10 gallon or larger pots, but these are more expensive than the Fall bare-root plants, and they will not establish nearly as quickly as bare-root plants. It is much better to patiently wait until next Fall to plant deciduous trees.

Now is a good time for citrus to go in as well as kiwi and sapote because they are more tropical and will love the coming heat while they get established. These plants do not go dormant so they are always sold in pots. Dig a hole no larger than the pot the tree came in, and do not bother adding all kinds of compost, mulch or other organic matter to the soil you fill in around the rootball. Current research shows that all that effort is pretty much a waste of time. Get the soil all around the roots and press it down with your foot in order to make sure it's firm. Put a garden hose on 'drool' and leave it be for as long as it takes to wet that are thoroughly. Keep citrus trees moist – especially in their first year – and soon you'll have more lemons, limes or tangerines than you know what to do with! Nature is always abundant if we work with Her and not against.

In setting out your tomatoes and other vegetables, you'll want to choose the part of the garden that gets the most sun.
We have all been told that all vegetables must have all day sun, but that isn't necessarily so. Even in dappled sun, or in areas that don't get sun all day long, I have grown tomatoes and peppers. Sometimes the crop yield is somewhat compromised and the fruits mature measurably later, but I've still had good eating from plots others said would not produce at all. One does invite more preying insects because the lack of sun stresses the plants a little more, but with a little vigilance and industry, those shortcomings can be mitigated.

Tomatoes will set roots all along their stem, so setting them into the ground deeper than they were in the pot is a standard practice. However, other transplanted vegetables should be set in the ground no deeper than they were in the container. Allow one foot between peppers and eggplants, 2½' between most tomatoes – unless you know the plants are the short season early tomatoes – like Siletz, Stupice, Early Girl, Prairie Fire or Glacier, to name a few. These tomatoes are almost all determinate tomatoes that give you one crop in about 60 days from setting out and will set fruit in cooler/wetter conditions. They can be 18” apart and usually don't need staking.  The other tomatoes do need something to keep them off the ground.

If you find aphids on your plants, wash them off with a stream of water – at worst, hit them with a little soap solution. Unless one is gardening in deep shade or the plants are stressed some other way, aphids should only pose a minor problem and all one needs to do is to help the beneficial insects keep them in check. Keep a border or some pots of herbs or flowering ornamentals near the vegetable beds – beneficial insects may use their nectar for a food source when aphids aren’t present.

I really try to avoid all pesticides and fertilizers-- even the organic ones. I believe in the old organic maxim to “feed the soil and not the plant.” The addition of all fertilizers and pesticides hurts the flora and fauna of the soil. If the soil has a healthy ecology teeming with bacteria and fungi, then this healthy soil will provide the building blocks for my plants to use in photosynthesis. Pesticides are designed to kill. Organic ones, in some ways, are worse than the chemical kind. Organic pesticides are wide-spectrum killers--killing almost any critter they touch. It is true they don't persist very long in the environment; which is one reason to use them instead of the chemical pesticides. But for any pesticide to be efficient, you have to spray enough to cause it to drip onto the soil and those drops are fatal to soil biota. Don't do it if you can help it.

If you cultivate the ecology of the soil, you won't need fertilizers in your garden. It might take a few years, but with a little patience, you will raise the fertility of your soil. Plants
that aren't thriving are probably not victims of a lack of nutrition (except nitrogen, which plants need in good supply at all times); it's probably a water problem (too much or too little).

Plants in containers are in a different world. Those plants are placed in a most abnormal position. You must fertilize them – especially nitrogen. I use fish emulsion.  It stinks, I know, I know – but it's still my favorite fertilizer. 
Apart from the odor, it is mild. Plants readily take it up and results are visible quite quickly. Even sickly plants can handle fish emulsion, whereas many of the other more powerful fertilizers are too hot for plants that are stressed and can keel right over when hit with the stronger solutions. I use all fertilizers diluted nearly twice as much as suggested on the container, even fish emulsion or other organic fertilizers. I would rather have a weaker solution used more often than a full strength solution recommended by the people that make their living off fertilizer sales.

I mentioned nitrogen as being the one nutrient your plants need all the time. Signs of nitrogen shortages are yellowing older leaves on your plant. Because plants can move nitrogen inside their bodies, they will transfer their limited supplies of nitrogen from the older leaves, which don't work as well as the younger leaves, to their newer leaves in order to maximize the effect of the nitrogen. If your plant has green new leaves and yellowing older leaves, it's probably a lack of nitrogen. You see this frequently in citrus trees in the winter months, because nitrogen moves slowly in the soil and yet it is still needed. Fish emulsion is the answer for this problem.
Summer time is a good time to get nitrogen into your soil Before May is out, I'll have stuck bush bean plants in everywhere I can through-out the garden. They are not large and they will 'make' nitrogen that can be used by subsequent plants. And the wonderful thing about this nitrogen is that it is free! Just like a cheesy mattress ad.

All members of the bean family attract a special kind of soil bacteria to their roots with which they form a symbiotic relationship. The plant photosynthesizes nutrients it shares with the bacteria. The bacteria pierce the roots of the plant and so are able to feed off these nutrients. In return the bacteria can change nitrogen in the air into a form that plants can use. The roots of the bean plants always contain more nitrogen, so harvest your beans and when the plants are ready to give up, cut them off leaving the roots in the soil for the next season's garden.

The only plant in our food gardens that should not be given lots of nitrogen are tomatoes. Left to their own devices, with any additional nitrogen in the soil, tomatoes will refuse to grow tomatoes and invest in making big beautiful plants. You can't eat the plants so it's a bum deal for the gardener. In cooler climates, that is a disaster because the cold weather will come before the plant burns up all that extra nitrogen and you can have tomatoes; in our glorious climate you will get them later and possibly not nearly as many tomatoes. Tomatoes need temperatures around 85º to set fruit and the bigger the fruit, the pickier they are about getting that 85º before fruiting. I usually don't even try big tomatoes this close to the Pacific – that cool ocean air prevents a good crops in most years.

May is the last month to get your summer garden in. It's lovely outside – you want to be outside anyway – get out there and get busy! Waiting will make your job harder and the plants less happy. The time is now!