Hubby finally found a “chainsaw” that is just right for me – a Stihl GTA 26 garden pruner! It’s a light-weight, battery-operated hand pruner that is capable of cutting down saplings and trimming tree limbs. I cleared part of the view of the creek with it yesterday afternoon, and we’ve been using a variety of tools to selectively cut trees between our planned house and the creek today.
Not only do we have a better view of the creek, we’ve unearthed another three sourwood trees. Sourwoods need adequate sunshine to bloom, so trimming non-nectar trees that are shading them will help us with our honey production next year. Our guide is that if we can put our thumb and forefinger around a sapling, it needs to go because it’s simply taking resources from the trees around it without much of a chance of ever being a strong tree in its own right. Of course, we’re also battling muscadine vine and blackberry briars while keeping a close watch for snakes, so it’s not exactly fun. It is, however, very satisfying to see instant progress.
After yesterday’s workout with the mini-saw, I decided to rest my muscles this morning and made a new batch of itch-soother salve. I ran out of salve last week, but had to wait for the oil-herb infusion to be ready for a new batch. It’s fairly quick and easy to make. Some of my first batch was a little grainy in texture, so I used the immersion blender this time once the beeswax melted. Now I just have to wait for my next bee sting to see if it’s as effective as the first batch! I also need to figure out how much each jar costs me to make as I originally spent $40 for the herbs that go in it.
Once I finished the salve and the clean-up, I couldn’t resist heading back out into the woods where I could hear Hubby with his chainsaw! Right now, I’m taking a break from the heat and waiting for the pruner’s battery to recharge, but I anticipate being back at work in just a few minutes.
Time to hydrate and head back outside before the afternoon thunderstorms move in!
Sourwood trees put on quite a show at this time of the year with their feathery white fronds of flowers, especially when the sunlight hits them just right. I spent much of last year wandering through our woods trying to find one that I can see from my desk late afternoons but never did find it from the ground! Now that we’ve pushed back even more brush, we’ve found more sourwoods than we ever imagined, including that one. These trees are probably the reason our honey was so very popular last year.
Sourwood honey is prized for its color, texture and taste. The bloom time is relatively short, so pure sourwood honey can be hard to find, especially after dry summers when the trees produce less nectar. The weather this year has been close to perfect for nectar production of all kinds, and we’re hoping for a good honey harvest.
We place our honey supers when the blackberries are in full bloom, but our bees also have access to plenty of nectar from trees, wild flowers, and clover. As we push back brush, we plant more clover to provide as much nectar close to the hives as possible. Up to this year, long grass has choked out the clover, but our zero-turn mower has solved that problem this year and the clover is still going strong. The sourwoods have just started blooming, and we’ll leave the honey supers in place until both they stop. We use no pesticides or insecticides (other than fire-ant granules) on our land, so we know our honey is high quality. Still, last year’s honey was the best we’ve ever produced, and we credit the sourwoods for that.
Last year’s honey was the color of champagne and delicious. Many of our repeat customers found it helped with their allergies and sore throats, and they are waiting for us to have a new batch to sell. We used plastic bottles with caps that seal for the first time last year as the bottles are sterilized when manufactured and we’ve had some leaky mason jars in previous years. Filling the bottles from the new honey keg was much faster and less messy than our old method of ladling honey into jars on a scale in the kitchen sink! We’ll be finished with the construction of the honey house by next year’s harvest, and the job will be even easier from start to finish.
I’m also looking forward to the honey harvest so I can immediately process the wax cappings for use in salves, lotion bars, and soap. While all the wax we use is filtered many times, I prefer the best wax for anything I’m going to use on my skin! I have started an itch-soother infusion for salve and a lavender infusion for soap and both will be ready by the time I have the fresh wax.
But right now, I hear thunder and need to go harvest zucchini and blueberries before it starts raining!
We’ve had the book Beeswax Alchemy for quite a while, but we had to build the workshop before I could start refining wax and trying different recipes. My large workbench is ideal for refining wax and making candles, and I thought I’d make everything there but realized it was less than ideal for some projects. I made the first batch of lye soap outside because of the fumes, but that wasn’t such a good idea as the breeze made getting all of the lye into the water a challenge. That first batch turned out okay, but then we had to move the soap to a dust-free environment where it also wasn’t in the way. I’ve since moved lotions, salves and soaps to the RV where I have lots of previously unused cabinet space and air-conditioning! We may as well put the RV to use for more than 4 weeks out of the year!
I first experimented with the massage lotion bars from Beeswax Alchemy. It’s an easy recipe that uses beeswax, cocoa butter, and sesame oil. It’s a lot softer than a lotion bar that a friend bought me last year and therefore very good for foot and shoulder rubs. It’s also been great for moisturizing sunburned skin. It stops my dry-skin itchiness without leaving a greasy feel on my skin or my clothes. At night, I wipe what’s left on my hands onto my face and it seems to be working as well as my store-bought night creams. I don’t add any scents because I love the chocolatey smell of the cocoa butter, but I have started to infuse the sesame oil with calendula blossoms.
Next up was Beeswax Alchemy’s Itch Soother salve. This is still a recipe for beginners, but the first step is the most difficult for someone like me as it requires patience! I had to wait a few days for my herbs to arrive and then an additional two weeks for the herbs to infuse the olive oil. I was like a kid waiting for Christmas looking at, rotating, and sniffing the mason jar far more often than was necessary! After that, it’s pretty much just a matter of mixing the oils with melted beeswax and the salve is done. At first I was disappointed because it doesn’t do much for winter-dry skin, but I’ve since used it on bee stings and fire ant bites and it works wonders. I’ve twice had a stinger left stuck in my skin (bee in the pants and bee in the jacket) and had the normal two inch diameter red spot. I applied the salve twice in that day and the next morning could not even see where I was stung. (Recovering from a bee sting is normally at least a 3 day process for me.) Friends have used it for tick and mosquito bites and been equally pleasantly surprised.
My first attempt to make soap used a recipe I found on Pinterest from My Frugal Home. It uses melt-and-pour soap base and honey — that’s it! I love the simplicity of the recipe and the soap. This is a recipe I would make with kids as the only thing to worry about is warming the soap base, but I want to use our apiary products, so I had to step up to making soap with lye.
I used another Pinterest recipe for lye soap attempt one. The Nerdy Farm Wife has a recipe for Chamomile Almost Castile Soap that I made without infusing the oil with chamomile simply because I don’t have any yet! I did however use chamomile tea, so I was halfway there. The biggest issues were overcoming my nerves and the need to rapidly change containers when my “sturdy” plastic bowl started to distort due to the heat! I’ve been using a small bar of soap from that batch even though it really needs another two weeks to cure, and I love the way it makes my skin feel and lathers up.
I wanted to try a soap that used beeswax and honey next, so I turned to Honey Craftingby Leeann Coleman and Jayne Barnes — a birthday gift from a wonderful friend. The Honey Castile Soap was easy to make and the directions were very well written. Of course, I was missing an ingredient for that one, but we just finished our first bar that does not contain nutmeg and it’s Hubby’s favorite so far. I made another batch today with cinnamon and nutmeg in addition to the honey and beeswax; it turned out even better than the first attempt. I’m getting better at setting up my workspace and learned a couple of lessons with the last soap I made, and the experience showed in better blended soap that I poured before it set up too much!
So that last batch of soap — back to Beeswax Alchemy, but this time to an advanced recipe. Part of what makes it advanced is that it uses four oils in addition to beeswax and honey. It’s also a larger batch, and that led to uneven mixing, which led to a bar not setting up.
Today I took care to mix in what was up around the edge of the bowl and, even with the easier recipe, was surprised by how much oily mix there was. That’s two-fold problem as the lye and oils need to be in correct proportions for the saponification process to occur correctly. If the balance is incorrect, the soap can have too much oil (messy) or unprocessed lye (dangerous). I ended up one small bar of soap from that batch that was oily because I filled the mold with what I scrapped from around the bowl, but the rest were fine, although we haven’t tried that one yet because it needs another four weeks of curing time. I’m eyeing a few more recipes, but first our friends and I need to test-drive what I’ve made already and I have to calculate the costs for each type of bar. While this is fun, and I can see many benefits of making soap for our own consumption, it would make no sense to make soap to sell if I can’t make a profit.
Meanwhile, the bees are storing nectar and capping honey; the chickens are starting to cluck and change into their adult feathers; the blueberries keep looking like they are almost ready to harvest; and, of course, life is always good on the farm!
Sometimes it seems that bees know just when I’m wearing a dress and heels or when we have ice-cream in the back of the car after a grocery run — they just know when to make swarming more of a challenge for us. Then I have to think back on the swarm that moved into an empty NUC while I was checking bees last fall to realize that maybe we just remember the inconvenient swarms better!
This swarm initially looked like 4 smaller swarms, but it turned into one of the biggest swarms we’ve had. We last inspected the hive on Sunday. They had barely started working the honey super and we made a split to give the queen open frames to lay fresh brood, but by Friday they had the honey super about 30% full, multiple frames had hatched, and they were still storing nectar in the brood boxes. Even with the bees in the trees, the hive was still rocking it! The nectar flow is good this year, and we need to recheck some other strong hives again as soon as the coffee kicks in this morning.
The swarm was pretty high up in a pine tree, so it took some brainstorming, which included discarding crazy ideas while building upon them, to get the branch down. We even very briefly considered chopping the tree down! Hubby managed to drop the swarm right onto the tarp we’d laid down with multiple boxes on it. We’d baited all of them with Swarm Commander and I’d put a frame with nectar, brood, and bees from the original hive in the 10-frame. After they’d recovered from the fall, they started pagenting in to the 10-frame and one of the NUCs. Some of them returned the tree, just higher up than before. They spent the night out there, but they are still alive and kicking!
After a while, we shook the remaining bees from the tarp into the 10-frame and just crossed our fingers. Now that’s it’s warmed up, bees are migrating down from the tree to the two capture-hives. Of course, we won’t know for a few days whether they are just regrouping in preparation of another escape attempt or happy in their new home, but we consider this capture a success, an adventure, and a wonderful example of how well Hubby and I work together.
We both took one sting each (for swarming bees they were relatively well-mannered) and the anti-itch salve I made from a Beeswax Alchemy recipe worked wonders. It was the first time we’d been able to try it on a bee sting — I’ve wanted to know if it works for a long time, but not enough to intentionally get stung. I’m not so sure that the soap I tried last week is turning out as well, but it is the most complex soap recipe I’ve tried yet. More about soaps, lotions, and salves next blog….
When I walked into the RV to check on the chicks yesterday morning, all three were perched on the wire mesh that is supposed to keep them inside the cattle trough until they are big enough to move outside. Surrounding the trough was “evidence” that they had been exploring for quite a while, and they appeared to be smirking at me! Their new home was almost ready, so we moved up their move-in date, set about completing the final necessary construction, added a brooder lamp to the coop just in case we have some more cool nights, and and moved them over. I had one more RV chicken wrangling rodeo and then they were in their new home.
We’d expected them to be nervous, but they immediately started exploring and searching for motivational meal-worms. Within half an hour, they were climbing on their ladder and by the end of the day they had become quite adept at walking up and down the rungs. The high point of the day was when Hubby found an earthworm in the soil he brought up for the planters and we got to watch two very determined chicks chase one highly motivated chick around while she gobbled up her treat! They looked remarkably like a picture I remember from one of my daughter’s story books many years ago.
Grayson, one of the twin cats, has been sniffing around the empty dog crate where the chicks have been vacationing for some time, and it didn’t take him long to show up and see what we were all up to. He did a very good tiger imitation as he walked around the coop and chicken run many times while checking out the measures we’ve taken to keep him, coyotes, raccoons, and other critters out.
Chicken run protection
We have field wire extending out about 2 feet from the coop and run to keep predators from digging under the fence. On the sides of the run, we have chicken wire going all the way to the top. Along the bottom, we have hardware cloth covering the ends of the field wire and chicken wire. On top of all that, we have cinder-blocks that I will use as planters, and the remaining field-wire is covered with gravel on the high traffic areas and soil where a future wildflower garden will be. After my sister-in-law’s surprises last summer, we hope the hardware cloth will provide a challenge for any snakes that want eggs for breakfast, but we know that snakes and mice can be pretty determined critters.
The two The two Red Sex Links went right into the coop last night once they realized I was throwing meal worms into it. The baby, which I’d name Speedy if I were going to name chicks, was reluctant to enter, to say the least. Trying to get Speedy in while stopping the other two leaving was getting everyone hot and bothered, so we closed the chicken door. After a while, the inside chicks and Speedy started calling back and forth to each other. Speedy walked up to the door, kept chirping, and then walked right through when I opened the door up for her. It took them a little while and a few meal worms to come out this morning, but now we have a routine started. The chicken door is automatic, and my brother-in-law says that their chickens very quickly got used to going in when they knew the door was about the close. We have a storm coming through tonight, so we’ll probably herd them again this evening, but as quickly as these girls figured out how to escape the brooder pen after their first accidental escape, I’m sure they’ll figure out where it’s warm at night very soon.
Okay – Now it’s time to stop calling the youngest chick Speedy as I am determined to not name the chickens, especially not that one as there’s a possibility that she may not be a she! At some point, I will need to wrap my head around having a chicken in the crock pot! Maybe.
We still need to add the nesting boxes and paint the trim, but today has just turned into another rainy day. Our bodies are telling us that it’s time to take a day off from heavy lifting, and we need to mentally make the shift to our return from spring break!
Stay healthy, everyone, and we will try to do the same because life is just too good to miss on the farm.
The chicks are rapidly outgrowing their space, and moving them outside to the dog kennel so that I can clean their indoor home is becoming more of adventure with every passing day. The baby can now fly out of the cattle trough, and the bigger girls can fly out of the plastic crate I use for transport. Moving them is no longer a one-man job! Luckily Maggie is just fascinated with them and wants to herd them like she herds everything else and she’s smart enough to realize they are not new dog toys! The chicks are becoming accustomed to being handled and one is eager to be picked up when she hears dried meals worms in a Dixie cup. That’s a trick I learned from my sister-in-law; she has her chickens trained to follow the sound of worms in a plastic Dixie cup, which they love even more than my gifts of chickweed and tender dandelion leaves.
Wax moths had moved into one of our swarm capture hives, so the chicks got a treat of larvae in a bowl followed by a couple of bee frames to clean up. They enjoyed chasing small hive beetles and I enjoyed watching! I kept an eye on them to make sure they weren’t eating anything besides the wiggly invaders. After three minutes, I had clean frames to put in the freezer and maybe reuse later this week.
This week is spring break, so Hubby has been able to make good progress on the coop and chicken run. We’ll move the girls into the coop once we have the door on and then we’ll finish up the run. It started raining today while Hubby was adding rafters to the run and I was painting the screen door, so we ended up with a non-construction day. We both have indoor chores to catch up on, and it’s probably good to give our bodies a break too.
While we currently plan to have a maximum of five chickens, Hubby is building the coop large enough to house more because we’ve learned that our plans are always changing here on the farm. We may eventually have enough honey and wax products for sale that we’d have a market for eggs too. I made my first batch of glycerin-honey soap last week and plan to attempt my first batch of soap using lye later this week. When we harvest honey this year, I need to weigh the wax we refine from cappings to get an idea of how much beeswax soap etc. I can make. So far, I’ve been using wax from previous years for my experiments, and I don’t plan to make any products with purchased wax.
Hubby just arrived home and announced that the only self-rising flour he could find came in a 25 pound bag, so I guess that I’ll be spending more time than usual baking over the next few weeks! Even if I bake a cake every day until it’s safe to socialize again, we’ll be eating healthier than we have been doing. It’s amazing how far we’ve slipped back into our “city” eating habits since the start of the school year. It takes very little time to make a pitcher of red rooibos tea, but we’ve been drinking sodas for the past few months. Likewise, I used to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast and they take no longer that Toaster Strudels, but we slipped into a Toaster Strudel routine. I didn’t realize how many convenience meals we were eating until I noticed how often I was running the dishwasher now that I’m cooking from scratch again! I hate that it took a pandemic to get us to rethink our eating habits, but that’s also a very small piece of silver lining in the huge cloud that is hanging across the world right now.
Life remains good here on the farm, and our thoughts and prayers are with all our friends, family, and blog-readers in this scary time.
Like the rest of the world, we are self-isolating but lucky to be living less cooped up than our friends who live in apartments. We both continue to teach, but from a distance. I’m finally getting into a routine and after a round of parent emails, students have been busy making up work today!
But tomorrow is Saturday. Tomorrow we start building the chicken coop. But first, a greenhouse update from Hubby:
Greenhouse is back up and running after a year with improvements that should extend its life and usability. Tried to go cheap last year and used standard 6 mil poly plastic. Found it worked great for about 120 days. Then it totally disintegrated due to UV. This year I used real greenhouse poly which is UV protected and suppose to last 5 years. I also added a solar powered vent opener and “wiggle wire” fasteners around the bottom to keep the poly tight. ‘Maters already growing.
Even though the plastic turned brittle and tore easily by summer, the cattle panel greenhouse ended up being more energy efficient than our old pre-fab greenhouse. The gravel floor seems to help retain heat. We didn’t have many plants to overwinter this year as we got them all in the ground, so we didn’t need the greenhouse until spring planting time. I was going to plant fewer tomatoes and peppers this year, but with the way things are going right now have decided that more is better. We’d already planned to add more raised beds and we had the cinder-blocks delivered last week. The delivery man from Taylor-Foster Hardware and Hubby found it odd to not shake hands, but we are all practicing safe distancing.
Hubby also added an automatic window to the greenhouse. We may add one to the front next time around, but this year it’s easy enough to open the door when it’s hot and close it in the evenings, especially as we go up to the RV to visit our chicks in their temporary home whenever we need a computer break.
Because we have so much going on, we’d decided to wait until next year to get chickens. Then schools closed for a week, then two weeks, then…… So, we now have 3 chicks in the RV and a friend has offered up 2 laying hens as soon as we have the coop built. Maggie is fascinated by the chicks and they are now used to having big brown doggie eyes staring at them. Just like the house site, we’ve changed our minds more times than we can count as to where to place the coop but have decided to place it close to the greenhouse with the two plastic compost bins between the two.
Meanwhile, a string of too warm days and 23 degree nights took its toll on our bees, but they are recovering. We hope we won’t have another hard freeze. Even if we do, the queens are laying like crazy and every hive is crowded now, so they’d survive. Very few bees are visiting syrup feeders this week, so they must be finding real nectar out there somewhere. We have the first blackberry and clover blossoms, but I haven’t seen bees on either yet.
We sincerely hope that all our readers remain healthy. These are worrying times, and I feel so blessed to have 20 acres of stress relief right outside our door. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Our thoughts are with you.