Farmers · Lazer Creek Apiary

Driving a tractor

My husband and brother-in-law (BIL) both have the amazing ability to treat me like a princess while concurrently challenging me to expand my horizons.  They also know that while I am likely to insist that I  just want to watch first if my husband shows any intention of getting me to try something like using a circular saw or driving a tractor, I am far less likely to stubbornly wimp out in front of my BIL!   I don’t know if they had this in mind when my BIL told me which side of the tractor to climb up on and then calmly proceeded to instruct me on how to start it, move it, and use the implements.

Once I had the basics, I was tasked with picking up a wood post with hay forks.  After what seemed like a 500-point turn, I had the tractor perpendicular to the post and BIL kept motioning me forward, and forward, and forward……   Now, on one level I knew that he could move out of the way if the tines came too close, but my English 4 students have been watching A Knight’s Tale, so I could not help but envision the impaling of BIL by my mechanized jousting horse in a A-Knight’s-Tale-meets-Christine video clip that insisted on running through my head.  He patiently and fearlessly stood there and then celebrated my small success with me once the post was on its way to wherever I took it next.

Patience:  I think I value and admire it so much because I have so little of it myself.  I do have a hidden well-spring of it that opens up when I am tutoring a student, but most of the time my husband has to endure lots of huffing and eye-rolling when he’s being detail oriented and I’m just wanting to jump in and figure out the details as we go!

Back to the tractor.  I drove it uphill and in reverse out of the woods the next day, which was a little scary because it tilts a whole lot more than feels safe.  If it were a motorcycle, it would have keeled over, and I know what that feels like!  I will come to trust it in time, but for now rough terrain makes me very nervous.  I spent a good bit of time on level ground breaking up piles of tree branches that had been decomposing for years and then picking up some of the trash (tires, mattresses) that had been dumped in the clearing.  I earned some undeserved praise for fortuitously spearing a Cola can that I couldn’t even see with a tine on one of my many attempts to spear a tire that had been irritating me for months.  I was so happy to get that tire out of there and gained confidence in use of the tractor controls when I subsequently had to shake the thing off onto our trash pile.

Tractor controls still baffle me to an extent, as do many other mechanical things.  My inability to remember whether the clutch or the brake is on the left on a motorcycle is the reason I no longer drive my motorcycle and the reason I know what it’s like to fall off one!   When my husband or my BIL motion for me to raise the bucket, I look like I’m crossing myself as I try to remember which direction does what and then I still get it wrong most of the time.  I keep reminding myself that it took a while for shifting gears in a manual transmission car to feel natural and to not let my lack of patience with my progress defeat me.

As a tilting tractor still makes me nervous, the men took care of bush-hogging the deck and the front of the property.  It’s simply amazing what a difference that makes.   The deck is larger than we thought and we will have more than enough room there for gardens, orchards, and greenhouses.  The erosion ditch running outside the tree line at the front of the property is not as bad as we thought it was.  The culvert up by the road is in good shape.  The tractor work this weekend answered so many of our questions about the land.   The gate we built  makes it less likely that anyone will add more trash.   There’s one more trash pile to clean up, and then we’ll be mattress and tire free.  The spooky blue bag that I suspect belonged to Bluebeard will soon be gone and my imagination will no longer have to wonder just what is in there!

We are making progress.  And maybe, just maybe, parallel parking my car will not seem so hard now that I’ve driven a tractor.

Bees · Home Remedies

Bee stings and toothpaste

When we were visiting family in Texas this summer, my husband was stung on the forehead by some red wasps that he was attempting to evict from his aunt’s house soffit.  We were both surprised when his aunt exclaimed that she was going to get the toothpaste and disappeared into the house.  We were even more surprised when smearing toothpaste on the sting relieved his pain.

Then, a few weeks ago, my brother-in-law kindly loaned me a bee-hat so that I could get a little closer to the action when he and my husband were working his hives.  The day before, the bees had already shown their dislike of dark colors by dive bombing my husband’s black baseball cap the moment he plonked it on my head.  So, the following day, with my head safely ensconced in a white cover and face-protection, they decided to go after a different dark item — my navy-blue thermal shirt!  That was my first bee sting since childhood and considerably less painful than I anticipated.  (But still something to avoid, when possible.)  We were too far from the house to make fetching toothpaste seem worth while, but the bees had fired a warning shot.

You would think that would be a lesson that would stick with me, but apparently I’m a little slow today.  Now that I have my own bee suit and gloves, I headed out with my husband to put new fondant in our hives and to see if there was any left from the batch we placed in a week ago.  My husband lifted the lid on the least populated hive, and I got to see a wonderfully healthy cluster of bees through the hole in the top cover. Then I got to see that they had eaten almost all of the fondant, and then they let me know very clearly that a bee suit may protect my face and hands, but wearing thermal weave, dark pants is inviting them to find the weakness in my defense.  Of course, they went after the largest and most obvious target area and I was subsequently able to gain first-hand experience about the effectiveness of toothpaste on bee stings.

While cooking a new batch of fondant for the ungrateful little critters, I researched reasons why toothpaste would actually help soothe stings.  According to Rapid Home Remedies,  the alkalinity of toothpaste neutralizes the acidity of the venom in the bee sting.  Apparently fire ants have an alkaline venom, so toothpaste probably will not work on those.  I’ll let you know next summer….

The new batch of fondant is cooling, and the kitchen smells are invigorating.  First of all, the smell of the boiling sugar water reminded me suddenly and very strongly of memories of my mother making red-currant jelly.  I guess the lemon juice in the mixture is what transported me back to my childhood home.   Now the smell of the lemon grass in the Honey B Healthy I mixed into the fondant pervades the kitchen and makes the stress in my life just float away.  It smells so good that my husband recently felt compelled to tell me that the label clearly warns against human consumption!   The bees love the smell even more than I do, so it’s a good way to attract them to supplemental food supplies when there’s a dearth of plants to provide pollen and nectar.  Toothpaste and bee vitamins — what a weird mix of components to make a day on which I got stung still simply perfect!

Gardening · Lazer Creek Apiary

Adding "farmer" to my resume.

There’s a progression to my career path that for now ends with farmer: electronics technician, computer programmer, English teacher, and tree farmer.  It’s an odd mixture, but it represents my personality and my eclectic range of interests and abilities.  I do so love the logic and the beauty of math and science, but I also love the beauty of a well-written sentence.

Still, who would have thought I would ever become a tree farmer?  Or know so much about bees?  Or wear snake boots?  But, as of Wednesday, we own 20 acres of pine trees, so we are officially farmers!   We’ll still be teachers for at least 10 more years, but we will be able to recharge our mental batteries by working in our woods on long weekends.    Spending time in nature has always helped us get back to enjoying teaching when the demands of teaching start to obscure the rewards.

Wednesday itself was not a stress-free day!  We’ve bought and sold enough homes to anticipate surprises at closing, and this time was no exception.  Those surprises were followed by learning that the utility company we were told to contact doesn’t actually own the power lines that run along our property.  Their lines end a mile away, which makes connecting to their supply an expensive prospect at $4 a foot!  We’re meeting with an engineer from the company that does own the power lines next week and hope to be able to get electricity for less than $20,000!   On to the septic system permit — after much back and forth and $450, we finally have a permit for our second choice of locations at which to build our cabin.  We don’t know why the septic permit guy didn’t give us specs for our first choice, especially as the soils engineer typed his report with analysis of both sites.   That’s going to necessitate another round of phone calls and probably more money.  We’ve been researching composting toilets as an alternative, but as this will be our retirement home we have to consider our ability to empty the compost when we’re in our 70s and beyond.

The good side of Wednesday was spending time on the land, walking down to the creek, and investigating a natural spring that may become a series of shallow ponds with mini water falls on its way downhill.  Now that we own the land, I feel that I am allowed to snap off dead branches and vines to make my path through the woods a little easier!  As I now also own the brambles, I can threaten them with retaliation when they stick their thorns in me.

Back in the city, I can look at my 30 pots of day-lilies, my rosemary cuttings, my Goldenraintree seedlings, and all my magnolia seeds hibernating in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator in the garage as they apparently need that in order to germinate.  I’m already mentally planting the trees they will (hopefully) produce.  So, while my husband plans building foundations and septic systems, I plan gardens and avenues of pretty trees.  I envision a grove of Goldenraintrees — our own little Lothlorien nestled among the pines.


Experimenting with canning.

We have had a fig tree in our yard for 10 years, but have left most of the figs for the birds until this summer.  As our thoughts moved toward retirement and how and where we want to spend it, I decided to retry canning — something I have done sporadically since learning how in high school.  The figs seemed like a good place to start.

The first recipe (see link) I found is the one I used all summer, with some modifications.   With just one tree, I was making small batches of 1 – 2 pounds of figs at a time and found that I needed to add more water.  After a few batches, I also grew tired of all the chopping and started tossing the figs in the food processor and using dried lemon peel.  The food processor actually made the jam better because the pieces of fig were smaller.  (They were probably what they should have been in the first place, but that’s a lot of slicing and dicing.)   I eventually developed a routine of picking figs first thing in the morning and again early evening.  If I had just made a batch of jam, I picked figs that were still firm.  As I gathered more figs toward my ideal quantity of at least 2 pounds, I allowed them to ripen more.  Figs that were almost ripe in the morning were pecked by birds by mid-afternoon, so how long to leave the figs on the tree became a balancing act.

One day, we were going out of town and didn’t have enough figs to make a batch, but I did have apples.  Fig and apple jam is good, but I later found that fig and blueberry jam is even better!   With 10 jars of fig jam in the pantry, the addition of other flavors was a fortunate experiment.

Orange Marmelade
I was so excited over the fig jam success, that I tried my hand at orange marmelade.  It was a lot of work and peeling the pith from the inside of the skin was a far more tedious job than suits my personality.  After all that slicing, and chopping, and cooking, and cleaning, the marmelade didn’t set.  I eventually dumped it all back into a pot and added orange jello.  It still hasn’t set 4 months later, and it never really tasted the way it should.  I have thought about pouring it into a cake pan and using it in a as a substitute for pineapple in an upside down pineapple cake, but I’ve also thought about just pouring it down the drain and freeing up my mason jars!

Baked Beans
For years, I cooked beans in a crock pot, but a year ago I bought an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and have been much happier with the results.  My two favorite recipes are Carribean Black Beans and Boston Baked Beans from The Joy of Cooking cook book.  I have only canned Boston Baked Beans, and found that I need to add more water than the recipe calls for if I want to pour the beans into cans without leaving air pockets.    I also tried to substitute peppered bacon for the salt pork, but when my husband came home with salt pork, I found out that sticking to the recipe as far as that goes produces better beans!   (After 30 years in the South, I’m finally using salt pork!)

Freezing beans is easier, but regardless of the type of plastic container I have used, I always end up with some beans becoming freezer burned.  Canned beans can’t be stored for very long, but a batch of 2 pounds of dried beans doesn’t last us more than a couple of months anyway.  We don’t have to deal with freezer burn, and we don’t have to defrost the beans so it’s easier to just grab a jar from the pantry.

I have tried adding curry powder (after eating some Heinz curry beans) and red pepper flakes to the recipe, but always go back to the original, unadulterated recipe, other than the extra water.   After filling the jars, I can the beans in my pressure cooker for 75 minutes.  I can fit 5 jars in the pressure cooker, so I usually end up with a couple of jars in the refrigerator (unpressurized) for immediate use and 5 jars for longer-term storage in the pantry.

There probably won’t be any new adventures in canning until next summer when our garden and my brother-in-law’s farm start producing again.  I know for sure that I’m not going to try marmelade again!

Bees · Supplemental Feeding

Cooking for bees

I finally made a successful batch of bee fondant using the recipe from Honey Bee Suite.  I like the common-sense approach of the author, and I was able to use my experience from three failed batches to improve what I was doing with recipes in general.   Five pounds of sugar yielded six paper dinner plates of fondant.  We’ll let you know later how long it takes the bees to eat a plateful of sugar!

Why fondant?
If a hive has not had enough time to create a store of honey that will get them through the winter, the bee-keeper needs to supplement their food source.  This is our first year with bees, and it has been an interesting learning experience.  We started about a month before the summer dearth arrived with only a Nuc hive, but there were plenty of resources for the bees at the time. Things were going well all the way up to the dearth when the hive began to get weaker and weaker, then sometime between weekends, wax moths invaded and decimated our hive.  We placed the infected frames in the freezer to kill the moths and larvae, but the hive was weakened severely and they were not able to protect themselves from the next attack — robbers.  Feral bees attacked the weak hive and stole most of the honey and effectively ended the life of that hive.   We restarted again, early fall season with two ongoing hives we purchased from a beekeeper who was getting out of the business.  We currently have two strong hives, but they do not have as much stored honey as they should at this time of year.  When it’s warm, one can supplement natural food sources with sugar mixed with water, either outside the hive or in a feeder placed inside the hive.  In cold weather, bees stay in to keep the hive warm and cold syrup dripping on them doesn’t do them much good.  Fondant is table sugar that has been cooked to break the sugar down into fructose and glucose — molecules that are more like honey and easier for the bees to digest.
The first attempts
My first attempt used a scaled down recipe from Bamboo Hollow Apiary, and it’s a recipe I will go back to try again.  Mistake one was thinking I could do this without a candy thermometer!   I ended up with a brown sticky mess that I tried to give to the bees, but it acted like fly paper, so we very quickly removed it.

Attempt two:  I used the same recipe and my brand new, shiny candy thermometer.   That was far more successful, but the temperature kept rising for long time after I turned the heat down.  With the successful batch, I turned the heat down as the temperature approached 230 degrees and adjusted it up and down by one number on the dial until reaching the desired temperature.  I plan to make the next batch on the gas burner on the grill to see if that is easier.  So — I had a batch of fondant that had been heated a little too much, and when I went to pour it into a pan, the pan wasn’t where I had left it!   By the time I found a pan, I had a huge sugar lump in the pot!   I managed to break it up and scatter it on the pan, but it wasn’t pretty.   The bees seemed to like it, but there was no way to fit the chunks under the hive lid.

As the chunks weren’t really usable and leaving them outside the hive attracted ants, I decided to try dissolving  and reheating them.  By then, we’d watched a couple of YouTube videos that used Karo syrup to make the fondant more malleable (although other resources recommended avoiding Karo syrup and corn starch), so we stirred a little in.  We poured the resulting mixture onto a wax-paper lined pan and it set very nicely.

However — this mixture was hygroscopic, as we found when we cut the sheet into usable sheets and placed those sheets on a shelf in the refrigerator until we could place them in the hives.  The next evening, our left-over pizza was firmly glued to the glass shelf and we dumped the remaining fondant into a glass bowl.  By the next morning, the mixture had absorbed even more water and was quite runny.  The bees are enjoying it, regardless.  In fact, when I went to check one of the bowls this morning while it was still only 40 degrees outside, the guard bees from our strongest hive let me know that I needed to leave their bowl alone!

Farmers · Lazer Creek Apiary

Embarking on the project

Next week, we will take the second major step in our journey toward retirement in the countryside on what will become Magnolia Hill Farm — closing.  The first step was finding the right piece of land.   Our real estate agent, Kent, Morris, not only helped us, he has also restored our faith in real estate agents in general.  We highly recommend him to anyone looking for land around Pine Mountain.

Finding land is a lot like dating — you are unlikely to find the right one without first finding a lot of wrong ones.  Land that looked wonderful on Google Maps turned out to have been bulldozed and then left to whatever managed to grow on it afterward.  Land that was supposed to have mature hardwoods had a few scraggly scrub oaks and a couple of damaged trees that were probably beautiful before the invasion of the bulldozers.   Then we found “the one!”  We could not believe that the last piece of land we looked at on a long, discouraging day was a little slice of heaven.  Well, maybe not heaven — there are enough briars growing to make walking through some parts of it a painful process.  Then there are the current inhabitants — but more about that later.

The land is mainly planted pines, but as the land slopes sharply down to a creek on two sides of the property, beautiful old hardwood trees predominate in the areas close to the creek where neither our neighbor, a timber company, nor we can harvest trees. We love this harvesting restriction as we know those two property lines will always be as beautiful and peaceful as they are now.  The loading deck created when the pines were once thinned does not currently make the best first impression when driving onto the land, but we see such possibilities for that area.  One of our first chores will be to clean up the weeds, tires, and dumped mattresses to see what we really have there.   It’s a very small eyesore on a large piece of land, so we see its future rather than seeing its current state.  Our plans have so far included a little red school house to store garden equipment, a greenhouse, a shipping container for storage, a garden and an apiary.  And, of course, this entry to the rest of the land will be a home for all the magnolia seedlings I hope to have by spring so that the name of the farm makes sense!  I’m sure those plans will continue to evolve until after we at least have a place to sleep and bathe!

We think we’ve decided on our future home site, but we’ll make our final decision after closing and our meeting with the power company next week.  We’ll refine our ideas over Thanksgiving Break and then finalize them over Winter Break.   It’s going to be a lot of work, but it will be good exercise and great stress relief!

Oh yes — back to the current inhabitants.  We know we have deer, wild turkey, and some wild pigs.  We also encountered a huge rattlesnake on our last trip.  I am now looking for a pair of knee-high work boots to wear and I also pay far more attention to where I am going!   It’s going to be an adventure full of surprises.