The good, the bad, and the green!

venting the hoop house on a warm spring day

With the beautiful weather lately, who hasn’t been thinking about getting seeds into the garden. In years past, I would be watching and waiting for the spring-like weather to arrive so I could get started on the growing season. In the last three years, I’ve managed to get some early seeds in the ground by the middle of April. This year it was January 28th, thanks to the hoop house!

There has been some good and not-so-good that has come with planting so early here in Maine. It requires more awareness of the forecasted weather, the daily high and low temperatures and a physical effort to monitor the growings in the hoop house whether its opening or closing the vents and windows, watering, sowing more seeds, of figuring out what insect is eating holes in the leaves of your lettuce.

I would say for the most part this new adventure has been on the good side of things. The not so-go-things have been some near misses.

One day in February , I looked out to see the hoop house door swinging open in the wind when the temperature was only 15 degrees. We quickly affixed a door clamp and bungee cord to the door to preventing it from opening accidentally.

Before the wind storm

Then on Friday, April 27, I came home to the two caterpillar tunnels completely blown over.

The wind was so strong that it ripped a couple of cabbage plants right out of the ground. Others had broken leaves. Considering the whipping these plants got, I only lost about 10 % of my plants.

wind whipped cabbage

Another disappointment has been the spinach. I’ve planted spinach seeds three times on three different dates and have yet to see any significant growth. I’m not sure what the probably is. If anyone has a remedy, let me know.

Red Russian Kale, very tasty!

I haven’t completely given up of spinach yet, I’ve planned it two times in the Caterpillar tunnels (named CAT I and CAT II) and seems to be having somewhat better results. I can’t figure out if it been the temperature, the fertility of the soil, or the daylight hours. I definitely need to read up on this problem. I love spinach and it’s driving me crazy that I can’t grow it.

Early radish, crisp and crunchy!

In the last few weeks we have been harvesting radishes every day or two, and collecting enough greens to have a salad with dinner. It is pretty amazing to be eating greens this time of year when in years past I would have just been putting seeds in the grounds.

Mesclun greens, great addition to the salad.

Last fall, the National Weather Service had predicted that the winter of 2011-12 would be a winter of extremes, and extremes it was. We had a snow storm at the end of October, a snowstorm at Thanksgiving and really very little snowfall after that. And it continued right into Spring. The temperatures have been all over the board, with dips in the twenties and highs in the 60-70-80 in February, March and April. And this weekend its been not exception. The last two nights have been in the mid twenties and tonight is predicted to go as low at 21 degrees!

These unusually high temperature for spring in Maine have confused some of the plants and trees. The warm weather has forced many crops to blossom early. Now they are in jeopardy of being killed by these very cold nights.

peach tree in bloom, three weeks ahead of normal.

Vitamin greens, by far the most prolific grower in the hoop house.

Normally, plants like kale, tatsoi and arugula love cool growing temperatures, but when temperature soar into the 70-80 outside, the hoop house was pushing into the 90’s. This surge in temperature causes these plants to bolt. The plants think the high temps are a sign of the end of its growing season and starts to produce a seed head. This shouldn’t be happening to plants that I haven’t even had a chance to harvest yet. So off with their heads!

A delicious salad to go with dinner.

I’ve been clipping back the seed heads and adding them to my salad. The plants will continue to grow but will probably not mature to their full size.

It’s hard to predict what Mother Nature will do next. She is still in charge even if I tried to out smart her this year by planting two months ahead of schedule. She can bring on another chilly night, cause I’m right on her heals. Does she wear stilettos?

row covers protecting the tender strawberry blossoms

The strawberries are under the row cover and the young fruit trees are wrapped in a trash bag to protect their blossoms. The hoop house is closed up tight and the CAT tunnels are anchored down with rocks. (We’ve got plenty of rocks around here to be put to good use.)

One thing I’m learned through this growing process is, don’t put all your growing ideas in one basket. For if one crop doesn’t grow or is killed by frost, there is another crop waiting to fill the void. Therefore, today we planted 25 lbs of seed potatoes. Another crop that just might see the warm weather return and grow an abundance of spuds. Let’s hope!

Wherever you live, I hope tonight’s polar dip won’t crush your growing spirits. Press on, for warmer days are coming.

Do you have any experience growing spinach? I’d love to hear your comments. Diane


Bees+Pants+Monty Python = Success

April 14, 2012

Author: Linda Rivard

Photographer: Diane Rivard

The honey bees have arrived! Chuck and I (Linda) traveled to Rick Cooper’s house in Bowdoinham, Maine on Saturday to pick up two packages of bees we had ordered.  Rick drives down south (to Georgia, I believe) to get the bees himself, and has them ready for his students and customers to pick up in his garage. Chuck and I were quite surprised at the number of people (about 40) that were there to pick up their order of bees. One of the benefits of picking up the bees at Rick’s house is that we got to watch him demonstrate the installation of a bee package for his students and anyone else picking up bees.  Everyone gathered around Rick as he performed the demonstration with nary a piece of protective equipment (no veil or gloves!). I suppose the years of experience and the Master Beekeeper title he has earned affords him the ability to work with the bees with ease.  After the demonstration and armed with our two packages of bees, Chuck and I headed back to Gorham, Maine to start our first year of beekeeping.

When we arrived back at home, I readied all the equipment we would need for the package installation: veils and gloves, smoker and fuel, hive tool, sugar water, and a few good doses of courage!

Bees need to be fed sugar water until the local nectar flow starts

Trey helps out with the sugar water


The first order of business was to open up the box, pry out the sugar water can, and remove the queen cage.  The queen is housed separately from the worker bees in a small cage. She is unrelated to all the worker bees that are included in the package, and keeping her separated allows the workers to get use to her scent (pheromone) during travel, increasing the odds that she will be accepted by them as their new queen once hived together. The queen cage contains a cork covering a candy that is blocking the hole that will release the queen. The cork is removed before lodging the queen cage between two frames, candy side up.

No sooner had I dumped the bees onto the frames of the first hive that I felt a bee fly up my pant leg! Although in my mind I felt a bee sting was imminent at any moment, I tried to remain calm and tried not to move my leg that much, as I felt the bee scurrying around my calf and shin area. I tried to refocus my thoughts on the task at hand, but the bee kept tickling my skin reminding me she was still there, scouting out this new dark area. I am sure she was contemplating whether or not this was a good spot for her and her sisters to start their new home. I sent her my mental plea of “Please don’t sting me, I’m just trying to help you and your kind get set up in this great new hive!”, and switched my attention to finding the queen cage, while the bee dawdled around in my pants. Ha!

uncorking the queen cage

After letting the bees settle down into the frames, I found the queen cage and removed the cork. Still thinking about the bee in my pants, I wedged in the queen cage between two frames, and proceeded to put on the inner cover, add the sugar water and close up the hive. When all was secure I made my way to the awning area behind the house and peeled my pants down, in the hopes of releasing my bee friend. If my neighbors were watching, I am sorry for the fanny display! This approach paid off, and the bee did find her way out of my pants without losing her life.

Phew! One installation down, one to go. In all the excitement with the bee in the pants, I forgot to check to make sure the queen was alive and well before placement of the uncorked queen cage. I had to have faith that all was well with my phantom queen, and moved on to installation of the bees into the Starry Night hive.

Installation of the second package went much smoother. I managed to remove the queen cage and inspect for the queen before uncorking and placing the cage in the hive. She was moving quickly back and forth in her cramped quarters! She seemed to be very ready and amped up to get started with her egg-laying duties. The queens that are provided in the packages have previously mated with several drones before she is placed within the queen cage and package. Once the workers are released into the hive with their new caged queen, they set to work chewing through the candy barrier to release her. The plan is to check on the hives in 3 days to confirm the queen has been released, and to look for eggs being laid. The bees are fed sugar water to provide them with the carbohydrates need to start building comb, which will be used to raise the brood, and to store honey and pollen.

Once both of the bee packages were installed our crew milled around and talked about the experience. I noticed a larger size bee crawling on my jeans and recognized this bee as a drone.

Drones do not have stingers, as their sole purpose is to mate with virgin queens. They hang out in the hive and are fed by the workers, waiting for the opportunity for a new queen to be raised.

The queen lays a single egg in each comb, and can lay 1,000 eggs per day for 3-5 years. Workers, on the other hand, live about 2 weeks.  The eggs develop into larvae, and are fed royal honey for the first three days. At this point, if the larvae are being raised to produce workers, the workers begin to feed the larvae honey and pollen. In the event that the workers feel that their queen is weak, or if the hive is becoming too crowded, the workers will raise the larvae to become a queen. Larvae destined to become queens are exclusively fed royal jelly, which the worker bees exude from their head area. This bee fact continues to amaze me!

That afternoon after our guests had gone I checked on the bees several times to see what they were up to. I noticed workers bringing out dead bees from within the hive through the hive entrance, and was reminded of the scene from the Monty Python movie “Search for the Holy Grail” where they are shouting “Bring out your dead“. Bees do like to keep a clean hive, and this indicated they were making themselves at home by doing their house cleaning.

Throughout the next few days I found myself making excuses to go check on the bees. After three days had passed, Chuck and I inspected the hives to replenish their sugar water supplies and to check to see if the queen had been released. We confirmed the queen had been released in both hives, but I did not observe any eggs in any of the new comb they had built. We did observe honey and pollen stores. The Milky Way hive also had some burr comb formation in the area where the queen cage had been wedged. I wasn’t sure if I should remove this, so I decided to let it be.

Showing burr comb formation where the queen cage had created too wide of a space for the bees

Bees have an optimum “bee space” for them to navigate around the hive. Iff it is too wide, as happened by spreading apart the frames too much, they just fill it in with comb so they have easier access to every inch of space. Follow-up consultation with my bee mentor (a local in Germany, no less!) indicates this should be removed, because I do not want any stealthy queen cells or quarters being created.

We have a curious shrub in our front yard that bees of all kinds have been flocking to. I’ve asked several botanist-types what the formal name of this plant is, but have not got an answer yet.

Bees love this flowering shrub. Do you know what this plant is called?

If you know what this is please let me know. Also if you have any interesting bee stories to share we would love to hear about it.

Until next time, I think I will “Don’t Worry, Bee Happy


Tomato Graduation Day

My tomato babies!

April 21, 2012

by: Diane Rivard

Just 6 weeks ago, I planted some tomato seeds for dad’s hoop house project. I was a little apprehensive at first because I had the expectations of growing something for someone else. No, not just anybody, it was my dad, a man, a farmer with years of experience. I knew I had to get it right.

hoop house tomatoes started in oasis cubes.

I’ve grown tomatoes from seed many times before but this time was different. The seeds were started in oasis cubes. After nine days I need to fertilize them because the nutrients in the cubes ran out, then 2 weeks after sprouting they were turned on their side so they could grow a stronger root system. So many things to think about.

Everyday, twice a day, I climbed the ladder to the loft’s attic garden under the 6 x 6 sky window to check on my little tomato babies. I made sure they had enough water, they were rotated so they got even light exposure, and brushes my hands over the tops of them to help strengthen the stems. I could almost see them growing before my eyes. At four weeks old, they were transplant into peat pots and fertilized with fish fertilizer.

As they grew, I had to move them apart from each other so the leaves would not shade its neighbor.


the loft garden

Then three days ago, dad said he was ready to accept his tomatoes. Oh boy, did I think they were ready to leave home…so soon? I put 12 Clermon and 12 Geronimo’s in trays and carried them down the ladder on my right shoulder. I brought them out to the garage and set them up with an oscillating fan.

the fan running on medium speed, 6 feet away from the tomato plants

The move to the garage would get them ready for cooler temperature (nighttime temps of 60 degrees) and the fan got them ready for the stiff breeze that would no doubt blow through the hoop house.

This morning, I loaded the tomatoes into the car and drove them down to the farm. It was a bittersweet moment when I sprang the trunk and my tomato babies got their first taste of pure sunshine at their new home. Dad walked out of his hoop house with a smile and said, “What do we have here?”

“Your tomato graduates!”, I said

We carried the trays into the hoop house. It was a comfortable 78 degrees. Together, dad and I put two tomato plants, peat pot and all, into a five gallon grow bag half-full with bark mulch, we added more mulch to the bag, filling in around the sides of the pots and over the tops.

adding bark mulch to the grow bags

We talked about keeping them warm at night, a few nights a 60 degrees, then lowered a few degrees each night down to 55 degrees. My motherly instinct was working, I guess. Dad assured me that he planned to cover them with a low tunnel and use a quartz heat for supplemental night-time heat.

I gave dad a hug and said, “Take good care of my babies. I guess they’re not babies any more, they’ve graduated!”

Dad with his new hoop house tomatoes