Archive for the ‘homesteading’ Category

Bee Happy

Hard to believe, but it’s that time of year again when the beekeeper really starts rolling. We have an order arriving on Thursday which will contain two packages of bees and one extra queen, which will hopefully round out our small homestead apiary to four hives. Since I did such a poor job of updating you once my pregnancy hit me full force, here’s the rundown of our exciting bee-happenings from last year.

After we started making the honey, we realized we had a really good thing on our hands. We purchased a small hand crank honey extractor and harvested the surplus honey from our hive. All in all, we got almost 40 lbs. of surplus honey, plus plenty left over to feed the bees over the winter. Harvesting was sticky and fun, and through the generosity of our friends at Tangleweed Farm down the road we were able to sell some of our bounty. Here we are at the farm’s Open House selling our goods:

The sale of our honey was such a success that we had a whole email list full of customers. Our smaller, second harvest of the season was sold out before it even hit the shelves. This year, we’ve already had people asking about our honey, so we decided to make a go of expanding the business a bit.

In addition to the honey, I’ve started tinkering with beeswax products as well. So far I’ve made some basic lip balm and have just ordered some supplies to play with the recipe a bit. I also hope to try my hand at candles, soaps, and some healing salves–all using our girls’ honey or wax.

Of course, it’s tough to do this without mentors. There are no local beekeepers that we know of that can really show us how to do some more sophisticated maneuvers like rearing our own queens or collecting pollen to sell. So a lot of this is trial and error. But we’re reading everything we can get our hands on and luckily there is a large support system for small scale beekeepers on the internet. And we’re having a lot of fun.

Who would have ever thought, when we began dreaming of our own homestead, that I’d be a beekeeping gal who makes my own lip balm, collects eggs from the backyard coop each night, and gave birth in my own bedroom? Not me. But thank God for these blessings–I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Our First Harvest

After a wonderful week with Rob’s family, the house is quiet again. I’ve spent most of the day getting the house back into order and reminding myself of the old groove. It’s hard to spend a day alone after so many days filled with loved ones–especially my Robert. But such is the nature of vacations. If those wonderful types of days were normal, perhaps we wouldn’t appreciate them so much.

A wonderful thing happened during the festivities of the week. We did a hive inspection with Rob’s family, and behold! We were able to harvest a frame of honey. Each super holds eight frames in our English-Garden-style hive, and just one frame yielded about 32 oz. of honey. And it wasn’t even completely full and capped! Admittedly, we were a bit anxious and harvested a bit prematurely. But hey, we were excited. It was our first. We can be more patient next time.

Because we don’t have an extractor yet, we had to harvest the honey with the ol’ crush and drain method. This means that we let gravity do most of the work–we let crushed foundation, wax and all, sit on a fine mesh strainer over night. The result was some of the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted. It was thick, sweet, rich…and distinctly ours. I had never tasted honey quite so wonderful. Perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps we have a bit of a good thing going. Personally, I’d like to think it’s a little bit of both.

So with a little bit of patience, we should be swimming in honey soon. We might even make a buck or two from it. But even if all the honey ends up in our hands, stored for the colder days when a cup of sweet hot tea makes the bitter cold bearable, I still probably wouldn’t complain too much. 🙂

A Simpler Life

When we started this journey a little over a year and a half ago–through reading, researching, learning, and dreaming–it was easy to romanticize the “simple life.” After all, I had seen the beauty of laundry hanging in the wind and drinking homemade root beer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I read blogs of chicken owners, talked to farmers at the farmers markets, and we even planted a few raised beds of our own. I began making my own cleaning products, cleaning up our eating, and trying to learn how to sew my own clothes.

Then we moved to the country and grabbed the “simple life” with both hands. We used less natural gas by doing things like hanging our laundry to dry. We planted a 140+ square foot garden. We began tending our orchard and grape vines and berry canes. We got chickens that will start laying eggs in the Fall.  Our living space got bigger and thus our ability to host friends and family joyfully increased. Ah, yes–the “simple life.”

But let me tell you–this simpler life of ours is certainly not easier.

Not that I’m complaining. But I’d like any readers out there who imagine this life as more recreational or less busy to understand that voluntary simplicity requires a lot of hard work. A lot. We rise with the sun and go to bed shortly after it sets, and are usually exhausted. Rob works hard at his job and then comes home and works hard on the land. I work hard to keep our house a home, to keep the behind-the-scenes show running, and then try to help in the evenings when and where I can.

And yes, there are things I miss. I definitely miss Rob and I having time in the kitchen together to cook. The demands of evening chores usually mean that dinner needs to be done by the time he gets home, so he doesn’t have the time to participate in one of his most fulfilling activities (which is also a great source of talent, I might add). The commute also is tiring for him, so I’m not sure if he would even want to cook when he gets home; but still, I miss the days when I used to play assistant chef. He makes such better meals than me!

I miss the rare night when we would dim the lights, make popcorn, and watch a movie on TV. Since moving here we haven’t set up the TV in the house, and don’t necessarily plan to (thank goodness). And we certainly have watched a movie or two on my laptop computer. But, I’ll admit, it’s just not the same.

I’m looking forward to the greater sense of relative calm that will hopefully come in the next few years, once our routine and garden and orchard and berry patches are established and require a little less oversight.  I pray daily that Rob’s job would be less stressful. I appreciate each sacrifice that both of us make on a daily basis to give us this beautiful, wonderful life.

This simpler life has it’s advantages and disadvantages, although I must say that it brings more fulfillment than I ever felt living in Los Angeles. It’s not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the lazy. It’s for the hopeful, the dreamers, and the slightly looney. It’s for Rob and me, for the family we’ll someday have, and for Sugar, Midnight, Easter, eight chickens and a hive full of bees.

The simpler life is a harder life. But it’s a good one. Of that, I’m sure.

Exhale

My friends, I can finally exhale. The class is over, as is my commute down to Pasadena (at least, for now–but who knows what the future holds?).  Although I’m still not feeling great, I’ve been able to settle down into a functional combination of rest and work. Things have been changing inside the home, outside the home, and across the Tehachapi Valley in general.

The weather is finally consistently warm–almost hot–and the hillsides have changed from emerald to a dusty gold. The oak trees dot the hills with their dark green, reassuring presence. Things have turned dry, and it’s the time of year for hot, windy afternoons, snake sightings, and iced tea.

There are many things to do around the homestead these days, and there is never enough daylight or energy to do it all. Robert’s family is coming to stay with us in less than three weeks, and the house has a long way to go before they arrive. It’s been difficult to stay on top of housework with my class and feeling sick lately, so each day begins with a long list of catch-up household chores. And then there’s the outside! Wonderous things are happening, yet sometimes it feels like a bit of a treadmill. Stop running and something’s bound to fall off the track. Between bees, chickens, garden, and overall maintenance, we’re never lacking for something to do. I’ll admit to having an evening or two where I long for the cold, early darkness of winter and nights sitting under a blanket, practicing my fiddle. But everything has a season, and in the midst of a snowstorm I’ll inevitably long for a summer breeze.

Here are some visual updates from the homestead, since a picture tells more than I ever could describe.

The bees are doing great! We have four supers (boxes filled with foundation for comb, pollen, eggs and honey) already!

Our older grape vines (the ones already established, not the ones we just planted this spring), as with most of the things in our garden, are showing little signs of what is to come:

My husband looks quite natural as he rides our mower to get the most ferocious of the weeds in our yard (mustard weed really is viciously reproductive).  We tried tackling it with our push mower, but some things just need to be handled with a more powerful beast. Maybe someday we’ll trade it in for a tractor! 🙂

Finally, we decided to take a much-needed break from everything on the neverending to-do list and take a little day trip up to the southernmost end of the Sequoia National forest, about 3 hours away. The silence and grandeur of these ancient giants helped to put everything in perspective. It was as if they whispered to us about the smallness of our tiny daily emergencies. It was everything I needed, and more.

I hope to continue to update more regularly now that things have slowed down a bit. Thanks for your patience until now; exciting things are beginning to happen!

Perfectly Formed

This is a piece of burr comb that we recently took out of the hive before we added a second super (which is another box with frames inside it). Burr comb is wax comb that is made in empty spaces–in this case, they had made it when the sugar water ran low and they found the empty space inside the feeder too enticing. As you can see, they had already started putting pollen in some of the comb (the purple and yellow).

What struck me about the comb was how perfect it was. Each little “bee space” was perfectly formed. It was delicate, powerful, and beautiful.

We’re hoping to be able to melt this down a little bit to make a small candle. Not sure if it will work, but I’m hoping to get my candle-making skills up to par soon. I’ll admit that I will be a little sad to melt this down, but it also seems right to recycle it into something that can be used and appreciated. I’ll think of the perfection of bee-work every time I light that candle.

The bees themselves are doing great. Very active, and lots of capped comb last time we looked. In our last inspection, we actually saw the queen (she’s marked with a dot to help us locate her and be extra careful), made sure she was laying eggs, and assessed the overall health of the hive. Everything seems to be going well. I bet the bees are loving all of our wildflowers around here; it’s my guess that very soon we’ll be taking the top feeder off of the hive.  We’ll have a better sense of it this weekend when we do our next inspection.

So many exciting things going on–and in the midst of it, I continue to work hard at seminary. I’m commuting down twice a week for an 8am class, which is tiring. But the class is so exhilarating that the long commute seems worth it. I’m always excited to come home and share the day’s lessons with Rob over dinner. And my professor is intimidatingly brilliant. I feel blessed.

Everything’s a balance, I suppose. I try to balance all of the excitement of the homestead–and the work of it–with school, with preparing for my own work as a speaker and writer, with my health, with the daily chores that are necessary to keep the household going smoothly. It’s not by my own strength that I can do it, either. Thank God for God!

Chasin’ Chicks

My uncle has had a long history of picking up my younger brother (who has special needs that keep him at a cognitive level of around 7 or 8 years old) and taking him out for some “guy time.” Usually they will go somewhere and have lunch, visit the toy store, and maybe see a movie. But when they come home and we ask what they did to have fun, my uncle always replies with a grin: “Oh, we were just out chasin’ chicks.”

Well, Rob and I have decided to really chase chicks. As in, eight of them–five-week-old pullets that we got after a long time dreaming, reading, and researching and a short time actually making the decision.  Last Friday, I walked into our local Hay and Feed store to check out some other things they had. There they were–the last of the spring chicks that had been for sale in the store over the last month or so. There were only about thirty left. In the giant, peeping tub were two different breeds: the popular Rhode Island Red, a dependable layer of light brown eggs, and the barred (some might consider it “striped”) Cuckoo Maran, known for laying dark chocolate colored eggs. I asked the lady at the counter how long she thought they’d last. “Not through the weekend,” she sighed almost wistfully. “People have been snapping them up, and these are the last of them.”

I got on the phone to Rob. A list of verbal pros and cons were discussed. They weren’t day-old chicks, which meant they wouldn’t need the intensive care of very young chicks (temperature control, for one). And since they were five weeks old, they would be laying by September. It also meant we could have them outside in the coop by Memorial Day, when we would be gone for three days in New Jersey. It would be easier to let a neighbor take care of them. On the other hand, the coop wasn’t near ready to house hens. There was no door, no lid for the roosting box, no run, and the inside needed a good once-over. We’d have to put in a lot of work in a little time.  And besides, were we ready? This would make the homestead…well, much more of a “real” homestead. We’d have chickens, for goodness sake.

But in the end, the chicks won. I picked up four Rhode Island Reds and four Cuckoo Marans, bought a 30-gallon tub (which I quickly learned was too small), some wood shavings, and some feed. I brought them home and tenderly set everything up. I whispered a “welcome” to our newest ladies.

This weekend we undertook the job of getting the coop chicken-ready; that way, even if we didn’t have the run ready for a week or two, we could transition them to their new, bigger digs after this cold spell passes (a freak mid-May snowstorm, ugh).  So here’s what we started with:

We swept the inside free of inches of oak leaves and other crud, added a roosting bar, and put in a little ladder up to the roosting boxes. Then we pached the hole under the boxes with a plank of plywood, added a lid and lock to the roosting nests, and added dutch doors (since there is no ventilation built into the coop, we’ll open the top door for now, and hope to add an inner screen door as well). The wood is quite old, so we’re not sure how long this coop will last, but hopefully it will give us a few good years before we need to start from scratch. We’ll paint the whole thing in the next few days, but for now we just painted the exposed wood and added some weather stripping to the door. Here’s what we ended up with:

As for the chicks, they’re doing great. They’re quite entertaining, and I think they’ll have a wonderful life here. Our hope is to let them out into their run during the day, and when we’re home we’ll let them pasture our property in a little portable pen we’ve picked up. The goal here isn’t just about eggs (or possibly meat) for our family. The goal is a dual one: it’s to give back as much as we get. Even though we’ll be getting eggs, I want to give these chicks a shot at a wonderful life. I want to support the home-grown, local movement as much as possible–and this is the ultimate in that support. I want to give our friends and family a chance to really get what “from farm to fork” means.

Plus, it gives Sugar a new job: she’s the official chicken-guarder. So far, she’s doing pretty well.

Whirlwind

Like our land in spring, life is moving so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.  The oak leaves are beginning to tint the branches with green. The lilacs are showing their potential, hinting at what is to come. Grass is growing at an incredible rate. We even had a tulip pop up out of nowhere!

The garden is coming to life. We painted the inside of the fence and, weather permitting, will finish the outside this weekend. We need to get that protective coat of paint on so we can secure some hardware cloth to the inside. We’ve seen plenty of rabbits hopping around, and I don’t want our seedlings to become anyone’s dinner anytime soon. We’ve also laid down a thick layer of road gravel along the pathways inside the fence to discourage grass, gophers, and other things that would like access to our garden boxes. Along the outside of the fence we’ve planted all sorts of bee-friendly flowers, laid down mulch, and installed a drip irrigation system. As far as the garden itself, all of the beds have the properly amended soil and drip irrigation lines put in. But we’ve only put kale seedlings into the groud so far (with straw as mulch so it will compost well when we’re done with it). We’re in the midst of hardening off our onions and leeks–which essentially means putting them outside during the day and in the greenhouse at night to get them used to the cold. But we have plenty other things to get into the ground in the next few weeks. The last potential day of frost (May 15) is approaching fast, and I can’t wait.

All in all, things are going really well. The bees are settling in–I’ll have an update on that soon. But the hive looks healthy and active.  The bees are calm and I love seeing them dive in and out of the hive every day. The fruit trees are blossoming, and our berry canes are looking great. I’m learning how much exercise a push mower can provide! There’s always something to do around the homestead, and often we end our weekends exhausted, sore, and satisfied.

As far as school–you can probably guess that it is keeping me pretty busy. But the class itself is amazing; it’s one of those classes that requires you to pick your jaw up off the floor on your way out. I’m blown away by some of the insights that I learn. The work is hard, but manageable. I’m glad that I only took one class this quarter. I feel like trying to balance school, housework, and working the land is a constant juggling act. But things are beginning to come together, and I can see it happening.

Back to my strong cup of coffee, cleaning rag, and homemade all-purpose cleaner. It’s supposed to rain today, so I’m off the hook for my yard duties!