4:30 am birdsong

2014-02-02 10.51.54I woke up extra early today. My dog wanted to go out. Finally,  is not raining or snowing. As I stumbled out the door into the darkness of pre-dawn, I had to suppress the urge to curse my dog for needing to go out…especially since he seemed to be taking his sweet time finding the right spot. Four blocks later, it became clear his whining and insistent pawing at my knee was not simply about the call of nature. Or, rather, it was precisely about the call of nature and not just a bathroom break.

Four blocks into the walk I calmed my annoyance enough to realize I was surrounded by a chorus of robins. Every tree and every bush seemed to hold a bird serenading the promise of sunshine. It sounded through the neighborhood like an echo in a mountain valley. There was absolutely nothing else going on; there isn’t much traffic at this time of morning, and the birds had the full attention of nature’s ear.

Dante has a gift for picking these moments. One time we were walking by a church and he abruptly stopped and sat absolutely still, staring at a stained-glass window with half-closed eyes. I realized he was listening to a choir practicing. So I had to stop and listen with him. Of course his strongest sense is his nose, and as he was listening his twitching nose was pointed at the window as if he were trying to make olfactory sense of what his ears were telling him. While I cannot share in the symphony of smells he enjoys on his daily walks, when he noses around it reminds me to try and be aware of my sense of smell, too. Actually, to make full use of all senses at the same time.

If you have a dog and you approach walks the way your dog does, you will find yourself in a meditative state and a greater awareness of yourself and your surroundings.

 

Lost and Found

selfieIt has been almost a year since my last blog post in June. I hadn’t intended to abandon my blog for nearly a year and indeed there were many exciting things that happened in 2015 that  I wanted to share here. For example, I had a solo show at ARC Gallery with work spanning almost 20 years. It was the first time I’ve done a solo show on that scale and I was very proud of the way it turned out. I also had a great garden and beekeeping year for most of the season. In fact, in many ways it was one of the best gardening seasons ever.

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But the reality is that 2015 was also the year the bottom dropped out of my life. I lost much that I had spent years earning and growing. Little did I know last April, as I planted my garden and set up my beehives, that it would be the garden’s last year.  In May I became ill, and, long story short, by the time I figured out what was going on I lost 50 lbs because I couldn’t digest anything properly.  I felt exhausted and unwell all the time, and it lasted for the rest of the year. During this time my marriage fell apart. How much of the illness was triggered by stress of a failing relationship I’ll never know, but it certainly played a role. Besides the emotional blow of an ending marriage, there’s the lifestyle change that goes along with breaking up a household and creating two single-parent households. I’ve lost many of the things about my life I’ve treasured the most; my house with the big office and attic art studio, my garden, my beehives. I’ve had to come to terms with having fewer resources, and this means that things like art shows and beehives are not in the budget right now.

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new sunroom, happy plants

But the truth is, for everything I’ve lost in the last year and all of the challenges I will still face, I’m more optimistic than ever that good opportunities are waiting just around the corner. My new apartment is located in a vibrant community close to work, schools, park district amenities like pool and skating rink, gardens and a farmer’s market. I can’t afford a car, but my car-free lifestyle is more environmentally friendly and allows me to get plenty of exercise by walking and biking.  I will have two plots in a community garden at Third Unitarian Church.  I’ll still be maintaining my ties to the Galewood-Montclare Garden Club in my old neighborhood whenever I can. I haven’t found a good place for beekeeping in my new neighborhood yet, but my brother still has my one remaining hive at his blueberry farm. I’m not sure if the colony survived the winter but at least I have enough equipment to start up again should the opportunity arise.

I have learned many lessons in the past year that have ultimately made me a stronger person. Several people have told me that “everything happens for a reason”. That doesn’t ring true to me. I think things happen, and we give meaning to them. I could take the events of the past year and stay mired in regret and loss, or look forward to new opportunities and a new life. I choose the latter.  There are opportunities in my life now that would not be here if I had stayed married. Each day brings opportunities that yesterday’s actions led me to. I can’t change the past, but it is my responsibility to make the most of today’s situation. I’ve found that as the layers of my old life and my old self are stripped away, I’m finding out who I am now. In some ways I’m stumbling upon parts of myself that have always been there, long forgotten, and only now being rediscovered!

 

Carpenter Bees, Help!

I received a text from someone in the neighborhood asking for help in saving the carpenter bees that had taken up residence in her garage. I texted her back and gave her my usual spiel about the time I had carpenter bees living in my garage, and how I called up Mike McGrath and got on the radio show “You Bet Your Garden”. His advice was, basically, that carpenter bees are highly beneficial native pollinators (the kind we should be saving because we need them to pollinate our food crops!), usually don’t cause structural damage, and don’t sting. So I left them alone.

For those of you who don’t know what carpenter bees are, they look like gigantic bumble bees except with shiny, black bald abdomens. The males, the ones that hang out in front of the nests and can rather aggressively dive bomb you if you get too close, don’t actually have stingers. The females do have stingers, but are very unlikely to do so unless you are actually disturbing their nest. In recent years, I have many carpenter bees on my property and I suspect they are nesting primarily in the salvaged logs I use as garden edging, and a few of them may have taken up residence in the wood of my salad tables.

Me watering my salad table where carpenter bees may be living.

Me watering my salad table where carpenter bees may be living.

They can be seen diligently working the roses, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, tomatillos, and many other plants in my garden. There are many websites out there telling you how they are going to cause major structural damage to your house and must be vaporized or your house will fall down. Break out the insecticide, wd 40, or whatever else you can get and take aim.

As is the case with many things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The truth is, while these bees are extremely gentle, the females can sting. The truth is, while they tunnel slowly and aren’t going to destroy your house quickly (they are not as dangerous to your woodwork as, say, termites or carpenter ants) they can, slowly, over time, do quite a bit of damage, especially if they like your house and a large colony develops over many years. If that’s the case, then, yes, you’re going to get structural damage.

So back to the woman with the carpenter bees in her garage. Without seeing anything, it sounded to me like she may have a large number of them in her garage. She can actually hear them digging and buzzing when she goes in there. My initial advice to her was to wait until spring when the overwintered larvae had just hatched and the holes are as empty as possible…and then patch up the holes and diligently paint the surfaces. If necessary, have rotten and/or soft wood replaced by a (human) carpenter. Don’t use caulk to fill the holes but something like steel wool in the holes or screen over the holes, that will be harder for them to dig through. They don’t like painted surfaces as much as unpainted, soft wood, so providing suitable nesting sites for them somewhere else on the property is a good way to keep them around without encouraging damage to buildings.

Then she mentioned the elderly neighbor with the bee allergy. Now THAT was going to change the situation. It seems as though the neighbor is very afraid of them and wants them gone. He’s citing a city ordinance about removing bees from within a certain distance from a home where someone with a bee allergy lives. I am not familiar with the ordinance regarding bee allergies, but irregardless, that is a legitimate concern. The chances of getting stung by a carpenter bee is very low unless you are directly messing with the nest, but the consequences of getting stung, for the neighbor, could be lethal if in fact he has a serious allergy. In that case the fate of the bees is really up to how comfortable the neighbor is in waiting a while to have the bees removed and how willing he is to take precautions in the meantime. It didn’t sound as though the neighbor is interested in saving the bees.

In the end I recommended that she find an environmentally friendly exterminator and remove them a.s.a.p. I also recommended that she get any weak or soft wood professionally repaired, and to keep it painted and monitored for any returning bees. We talked about any possible way of saving the bees living there now, but the only thing I could think of was a (human) carpenter with a bee suit who would be willing to remove pieces of wood with bees in them and relocated them someplace safe (like a forest preserve or community garden). I have a bee suit but am no carpenter. She felt really bad, but I told her in this situation the best thing she could do for the bees is make sure they don’t come back and waste resources building nests in a place they can’t stay. I felt really bad recommending an exterminator, and she really doesn’t want hire one, but in this case it seemed like the appropriate response.

I always cringe when I hear people talk about “pest control” as if the living creatures involved are somehow waging a war against us and we must fight back against the deadly foe. The truth is they just want food, shelter and a place to raise their young, just like us. The truth is we need many of these “pests” to have a healthy ecosystem. Often creatures that we deem to be “pests” only cause us problems when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but, like these carpenter bees, are extremely beneficial to the environment as well as to humans under the right circumstances.

I would love to see more conversations like the one I had about the carpenter bees. Time and effort was given into thinking of the well-being of the bees and extermination is a last resort. Also in situations like this I like to think of considering an act of fostering life to help balance out the act of dealing death. If the carpenter bees in this particular garage need to die, what will be done to offset this act? Some ideas include building some carpenter bee or mason bee or beneficial insect houses for a community garden, research and make a point of educating people about how to co-exist with carpenter bees, or plant something that would feed beneficial insects (but not near the home of the allergic neighbor).

I believe that if we stopped thinking about pest control as “waging war” and instead focused the conversation on finding ways to co-exist, with dealing death as a last resort done regretfully, that attitude would eliminate many of the problems we are having with overuse of pesticides and herbicides. It would have a huge impact on creating a healthy environment for all creatures. It makes an interesting thought experiment to consider your most hated pests and think of how they are in fact good creatures that are important to the environment in some way, even if we humans can’t fathom it. Try it. It is hard. Here’s my list of creatures I’m tempted to wage war on: yellow jackets, house ants, cockroaches, rats. Termites and cabbage worms. Mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Japanese beetles. Oh, and let’s not forget slugs. What is your list? Yup, we need all of those things too.

I  have killed or would kill any one of the creatures in this list, but can I do it as a last resort and regretfully? Can I consider the place these creatures might hold in my local ecosystem and how my killing it might affect other things, or how my pest control methods might harm other species? Only by weighing these aspects can we make a good decision about how to deal with pests.

New Bees

My brother found a beekeeper with an apiary near DeKalb, IL (actually it was Sycamore, IL to be exact) who was kind enough to get a couple of nucs for me when he was picking up his own bees. Tom, from Charter Grove Honey Farm, was very helpful and had a wealth of information to share about bees. You should check out his Facebook page. It was great to meet a local beekeeper and see his apiary. I really appreciated that he took the time out of a very busy day to pick up a couple extra nucs for a newbie, and then keep them safe in the shade until I was able to pick them up later in the day. He also took some time to answer some of my questions about bees and give me some pointers. He also told me to check out Koehnen Queens (I thought it was Konan but when I searched online this is what I found), he feels they are the best source for quality queen bees.

Following the tradition of naming my bee colonies after strong women (or in this case, girls), I’d like to introduce to you Gianna (left) and Aravis (right). They seem to be settling in well.

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In the queen castle to the right are the queenless and dwindling remnants of the Sweet Melissa hive, my original hive.  I can’t be certain, but I am hoping that those bees find their way into the one of the new hives. Almost immediately after installing the new hives I saw smaller bees entering with pollen on their legs. Since the Melissa bees were a bit smaller and I don’t know how the new bees would have found the local pollen sources that quickly, I wonder if the Sweet Melissa bees got tired of being queenless and doomed so they decided to try their luck in the new hives by bringing in a peace-offering of pollen? I’d like to think so, but of course I am anthropomorphizing. Plus I’ve read the “Bee Wars” books by Chris Mottershead. The queen castle where I put the remnants of the Sweet Melissa hive is now full of bees robbing out the honey that is left. Even though there isn’t frenzied fighting going in it may be best to remove that hive and combine any remaining bees/honey comb with the new hives, which I will do as soon as I get a chance.

Vegan Paper

I just saw this blog post by Jonathan Beaton. I am totally going to try making veggie paper. However, I think I’m going to use leftover pulp from my VitaMix when I’m done juicing. I don’t use a separate juicer, I just put my pulp through a mesh nut milk bag. I’ve been enjoying the juice and have either been composting the pulp or feeding it to my dogs, but it sometimes ends up with the consistency of homemade paper clay and I wonder about its potential as an art material! Has anyone experimented with this? I would probably add a little bit of soap flakes or something to inhibit mold growth, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. I can also see a potential use as a clay for making beads.

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.