Blessed Compost

A few weeks ago when I was on Spring Break I took about a day and a half to sort out my compost. I meant to write about this as part of my “Make things that bring you Joy” series of posts. But now, on the last day of April, I’ll tell you about it. I do a “compost day” two or three times a year, usually in spring, late summer, and just before winter sets in.

Composting is at the heart of any successful organic garden. Soil is a network of living organisms, and those organisms need to eat. They need an optimal habitat to live. All of that is provided by compost. I’ve tried many types of composting over the years, and, truthfully, I can say that compost is at the heart of my success as a gardener. Composting is, to me, sort of a sacred ritual blessing the soil and ensuring the fertility of the crops. There. I’ve said it. Composting is the ultimate creative process, the “making something out of nothing” I like to talk about in this blog.

This year I’ve made more fine, finished compost than ever before and for the first time in this property, have not purchased any additional topsoil or seed starting medium or fertilizer. I’ve saved myself well over $100 in compost and fertilizer products. And, this year when I spent a day and a half sifting all that compost and preparing my containers for planting, I experienced the “gardener’s high” referred to in this article. Go read it, it’s fascinating.

The amazing thing is this task should make me very sick. I’m asthmatic and allergic to mold. I usually do breathing treatments, take lots of meds and wear a mask when I’m going to be working with compost. This time I took half the meds and wore one of these and…no reaction. Amazing. Could it be the allergy shots are working? The nose filters? a large quantity of M. vaccae, in my compost? Whatever. I’m happy.

But I digress. Here’s how I make my various kinds of compost. I use many ingredients:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, chopped up
  • coffee grounds and filter paper from work. We have a big Starbuck’s machine in the office and they let me take home as many grounds as I want. This stuff is gold in the garden, and I have a huge supply of it. Bonus – it seems to retain the some of the coffee smell in the final compost and that smells, well, great.
  • weeds and grass clippings
  • shredded paper
  • wood chips from the city
  • leaves and small branches that I shred up with the lawn mower.

I have several  compost zones. Under my tables I store the “brown” compost, leaves and chopped branches, until I’m ready to combine them. In the big black composter by the fence I make a pile of leaves and coffee grounds over the winter, but I plant it full of potatoes in the spring and keep layering more finished compost on as my potatoes grow.

Indoors over the winter I keep redworms in a homemade worm bin using 5 gallon buckets. You can find instructions online to make these with a spigot on the bottom to drain off the liquid for compost tea, but I never got around to adding the spigot and I just dump the bucket in the garden when it gets full enough. The rest of the buckets have worm-sized holes drilled in the bottom, and as I add food and the worms eat their way through the food and bedding, I add a new bucket on top. The kitchen scraps I put in here have to be pretty well chopped up or better yet blended in my Vitamix when possible. By the time the worms reach the top bucket the bottom bucket is close to done, and unfinished compost gets stored in the garage until spring.

I also have a big covered black plastic composter that I won at a Family Farmed event a few years ago. It can really hold a lot. I leave it alone over winter and then in the spring, like magic, there’s black dirt at the bottom. This bin takes the bulk of the food scraps from the garden. It can handle coarser chunks, since it holds a lot and animals can’t get into its sealed lid. For example, I usually toss whole jack-o-lanterns in there after Halloween, and by spring they are pretty close to being dirt.

I usually move my vermicomposting outside in the spring, but this year I expanded my efforts. Truth is, you may hear more about my beehives because that’s a more sexy topic, but I’ve raised far more worms over the past 20 years than I have bees in the last 3. Worms are way easier and cheaper, to be sure. I realized this spring that I have a knack for raising bugs and critters and I might as well embrace that. Instead of one outdoor bin for worms, I put five bins directly across from my beehives, in the shady side up against my neighbor’s garage. This seems to be an ideal place for them and they do really well.

One of the reasons why it took me the better part of two days to set up my composters is because I sifted it all through 1/4″ hardware cloth. I just took a role of hardwarcloth and placed it over my wheelbarrow, and with gloved hands and a shovel, I pushed the compost through the sieve. This resulted in perfect, fine compost that must have had a ton of M. vaccae, because I experienced my “gardener’s high” after sifting compost for a few hours.

In any case, any chunks left over from the sifting process became the bedding for my 5 outdoor worm bins. I took about half of the worms from the indoor bin and populated the outdoor bins. My process is to take my kitchen scraps, mix them with some brown leaves and shredded branches, and fill one worm bin at a time over the course of a month or so. I just filled one worm box and by the time I fill all of them, I’ll sift out the first box and start all over again.

I spend far more time composting than I do weeding, but the soil I’m working with is amazing.



How to Deal with Disappointment…Look for Swarms

dead queen bee

I got a box today with LIVE QUEEN BEE written all over it in black marker. Only, there wasn’t. Everything in the box was DEAD, the queen and all her attendants. Right before I opened the box I put it to my ear and heard silence. I blamed it on my bad ear but that made no sense since I put the box to my good ear. When I opened it up my heart sank. The most frustrating thing about it, was I had made the decision to combine my failing hive with my brother’s hive and I tried to cancel the queen bee order, but they had shipped my order out already. So now I still have a (probably) queenless hive, AND I am out $40. Because in order to get a refund you have to inspect the box in the presence of the delivery person and get it in writing from them that the order was indeed Dead On Arrival. Which of course the person receiving the shipment for me didn’t do. I sent pictures of the dead bees and requested a refund, but since I don’t have the required documentation, they don’t have to give me the refund *SIGH*.

I don’t seem to have good luck with queens through the mail. For the record, I’ve ordered two queens through the mail and, for different reasons, neither of them took. Compared to about 4 queens I easily raised myself last summer without really knowing what the heck I was doing, I think there’s an argument for learning how to raise and bank enough queens over the winter to replace my own winter losses. It would certainly save some money.

From now on, if I have to replace bees though, I’m going to buy nucs and/or buy queens someplace local where I can more easily pick them up in person. Which of course is tricky since most bees around here are shipped up from Southern states each spring, but it is getting easier to find. The Chicago Honey Co-Op has website has some leads and the Illinois Queen Initiative looks promising. But most of all, I would like to try my hand at catching swarms. That sounds like fun to me!

The Queen Is???

So, I am almost embarrassed to write this. I apologize for being like a bad soap opera. At the last hive inspection, I could not locate the queen and my bees were acting “depressed” and overly docile. They weren’t flying much even though it was the first warm day (I was in short sleeves and I get cold easily). There was no brood or eggs that I could find. Although there was a population bump after I moved them to a dry hive which means there was recently a queen, I do not think she is there anymore. My brother has suggested that since it has been a cold spring and there may not be enough worker bees to keep brood warm, the queen has stopped laying for a while. And while that is a great theory, I think I would have seen the queen. I scoured the hive. I went over each frame like 3 times and there are not a whole lotta bees in there for her to hide behind. The only good sign I saw was that there are no dead bees in the hive, which means they are doing their housecleaning. So…queenless? You can take bets now. I’m thinking of combining this hive with my brother’s hive that could use a boost of worker bees.  I can place a queen excluder between boxes on the outside chance that there is still a queen in my hive, but I’ll bet you five dollars there isn’t. I have the feeling that unless I am lucky and catch a swarm later in the spring, or some kind beekeeper gifts me with a split, I am out of the bee business this season. Fingers Crossed.

April 8 – Mind Your Own Beeswax

I have collected beeswax since I started beekeeping. Some of it I’ve already used in lip gloss and hand lotion, in my artwork or as seasoning for my cast iron pots (got that tip from my Father-in-law, Tom). Since I don’t have a lot of hives, I don’t have enough to make a large amount of anything, but I finally got enough to make a few candles. I’ve done a bit of research about how to melt down and purify wax from your beehives. This YouTube video gives you an idea how the process works.

Since a lot of what I harvested was brood comb from my dead-out hives, it is going to take a bit of doing to purify it enough for craft uses. unlike the white wax cappings removed from new honey combs in the extracting process, the old dark brood comb contains the dried cocoons of earlier generations of bee larvae. All that must be separated from the pure wax to be useful, but I had so much of it I decided it was worth the extra effort.

I melted the combs down in a big pot with water and skimmed off as much debris as I could, but there’s a lot of pollen and other stuff still in it. From the videos I’ve watched, it can take a few cycles of melting/cooling/trimming the debris off the bottom before the wax is ready for use. I think I’m going to order a 5 micron polyester mesh bag like they used in the video above so I can cut down on the number of steps it will take. But, for now, here’s some of the wax I got from the first melting:


I’ll post the finished product after the next round or two of processing it.

April 6th and 7th: Spring Cleaning!

Monday and Tuesday were the first two days of my Spring Break. I took off work because my son is off of school this week. He unfortunately has a nasty spring cold and has preferred to spend his day curled up under warm blankets chilling out with every episode of “Slugterra” available on Netflix. I have found myself sucked in. It is a good series!  Mostly, though, I did spring cleaning. On Monday I got caught up on laundry and organized the basement.

Tuesday April 7 was bee spring cleaning day. I went through all of the bee equipment from my dead beehives and got it ready to give to my friends at Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm. I discovered that Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap is great for wiping down surfaces on the beehives, since it is effective, doesn’t use harsh chemicals, and bees love peppermint. I don’t go too crazy with cleaning, though, since bees are very good at cleaning up and re-using abandoned hives. I usually don’t do more than shake out any dead bees, but since the hives had gotten wet and the bees had dysentery I needed to make sure the equipment was clean and dry. Sitting next to a dehumidifier for a few weeks solved the moisture issue, and between scraping down surfaces with a hive tool and wiping down with Dr. Bronner’s, they are good to go.

I had enough honey  left in the hives to give Cedar Valley about 10 frames of drawn comb/honey and I kept more than enough for my own bees to start two new 8 frame hives. I also was able to extract 10 frames of honey for my own use, and I made 2 jars of elderberry-honey syrup to help deal with a spring cold that has struck our household. This honey is not quite “pure” because there is some sugar in it. The bees utilized the dry sugar I gave them (mountain camp method) and stored it in the combs, and while I tried to choose to extract from frames that were pure honey, some sugar got in. Since I am the one who bought the sugar and we’ve been baking with it, I’m not so worried about a little bit of sugar in my honey. I wouldn’t sell it, but It still tastes way better than processed honey!

April 5th: Happy Easter! Butterflies and Bees

It seems somehow fitting that I released Flutterby on Easter Sunday. I had a hard time deciding if I should let her go. Although the day was warm and sunny, I knew the temperature would drop and it was still a bit early to release her. But, I had her for about 15 days, and although I couldn’t get a definitive lifespan for an emerged black swallowtail butterfly,  it seemed she should live anywhere from two weeks to a month and it was 15 days since she emerged. If there are any butterfly experts feel free to leave a comment! She couldn’t fly very well indoors and seemed to be fading fast, so I decided it would be better to give her freedom for a day or two than to dwindle indoors without ever feeling the sun or having a breeze to float on. I was prepared to take her back in if she was unable to fly at all.

However, after basking in real sunlight for about 15 minutes, she took off as if nothing were ever wrong with her wings. I turned my back for 5 minutes to take a quick look at my “dying” beehive and she was gone. I searched the yard high and low and she was nowhere to be found. This is how I learned that butterflies are “solar powered”. The full-spectrum bulb may have kept her warm, but apparently she needed real sun and a light breeze to really take off.

Also, I discovered that my dying bees didn’t. Yet again, this beehive died down to almost nothing, literally 2 frames of  sick wet bees with dysentery. I figured the weakened bees didn’t have enough workers to recover, but I was wrong! Sometimes being wrong is a great thing! The remaining bees, given a dry hive and plenty of clean honey stores, appear to be making a comeback. Although I didn’t open the hive up for long, it is obvious there IS a queen in there. Otherwise, the population wouldn’t have noticeably increased. I intervened in the nick of time it seems, but these are some tough bees. If you are looking to purchase your first package, I highly recommend getting the North Central Carnolian Queens from Apple Blossom Honey Farm, since that is what I started with. This current queen is now a mix of the original Carnolian queen, Italians, local feral bees and possibly some Russian bees. My brother had Russians at one point and we’re still trying to figure out if he had them long enough for those genes to be in the mix. In any case, I am now calling these bees “Chicago Mutts”.

April 4th – Key Lime Cove

Today I Took my son to Key Lime Cove to go swimming and stay at a “fancy” hotel. My son’s definition of a fancy hotel is not the same as mine, but he does love hotels and road trips. Not much to say about it except we went down water slides, went on the lazy river multiple times, played a lot of arcade games and ate dinner at Culver’s. Sometimes you have to take time to play games with your kid. Just because.