Monday, March 25, 2013

Go plant a tree. You'll be glad you did.

Last weekend I planted an apple tree. Maybe that does not sound like much, but give it some thought.
Planting a tree is one simple act that can have lasting impacts for many years to come. Not only does a tree provide the obvious benefits of shade and fruit (in the case of a fruit tree) but it can also provide countless other benefits. Trees convert CO2 into O2 (that's carbon dioxide into oxygen for the non science types out there). That ability by itself should be enough to make us all stop and say "wow" but there's more. Trees purify water, stabilize soil, provide habitat, feed wildlife, increase soil productivity, store carbon, increase property value, reduce temperature fluctuations, create mulch, provide jobs and fight crime.
Provide Jobs and Fight Crime? Yes, it's true. There are more jobs directly related to trees than the fabled auto industry, and it's been proven by the US Forest Service's Urban Forest Program that neighborhoods with trees have less crime than neighborhoods without trees. Trees are literally leafy green job making-crime fighters. Given that resume, if a tree ran for public office I think we'd all be better off!
The benefits of a tree are hard to realize immediately. In the era of instant gratification, planting a tree is a long term investment. It is a forced slow down. It takes many years for a seedling to grow into a tree. Fruit trees take 3 years or more to bear a crop after planting. But, what you may not see right away are the countless little things that tree is doing everyday. From learning to appreciate the seasons by watching the bud - leaf - bloom - fruit cycle, to reminding you to take a moment and water the trees, trees improve the quality of our lives everyday. One of my favorite things about spring is going out to my little orchard and checking the bud swell. How many more days until leaf burst? Until bloom? Until fruit? In the springtime at work, I am lucky enough to get to check on seedlings I've planted in years past. Conducting survival surveys it's called and it's an activity that can leave me excited and inspired, or downtrodden depending on the results. It's a harsh world for a young tree. The environment is full of hazards from deer and elk to drought to insects and disease, even a late frost can spell death for a seedling. The fact that any seedling makes it to tree is a miracle, but they do.  Both planted and naturally regenerated trees are growing everyday, in fact there are more trees growing in our country today than at any other time in recorded history. A fact that is not without it's downside when you consider overcrowding of our forests and fire hazard - but that's a topic for another post.
I have had the unique opportunity to plant thousands of trees in my life. From a childhood on a tree farm where spring planting was a right of passage, to my education and career as a Forester, to a homeowner with an interest in growing my own foods, I seem to be constantly digging holes for trees. And yet I still love it. To me there are few things more satisfying than revisiting a tree I've planted, and seeing it's growth. So my advice to you is: Go plant a tree. You'll be glad you did.
Counting the days until the bloom.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Surviving the Molt

Chickens molt annually, which is to say they loose their old feathers and grow new. This coincides with the changing seasons and shortened daylight hours, and typically occurs in the fall or early winter. Actually, they molt a couple of times from hatching to becoming chickens, but the most noticeable molt for me hit our flock this fall when our hens were approximately 1.5 years of age.
It is at about that age that chickens experience their first mature molt and quit laying eggs. From our high of 27 dozen eggs last July, we dwindled down to just 7 dozen in the month of November.  Because growing feathers takes such a great amount of energy and protein, during the molt many chickens quit laying, or laying becomes very sporadic. To make matters worse, the long dark nights of winter also cause chickens to reduce egg laying, molting or not.
It also seems that this is about the time many chickens meet their end. At about 18 months old a young hen is fully grown, the meat is tender and not yet tough, and she is about to quit laying. It is at this point when you have to decide if you are going to keep feeding an animal that is not producing, or if you are going to butcher and  raise new chicks in the spring. From a livestock producer's view point the choice is clear, however from the backyard chicken keepers perspective the decision is a tough one. While we do intend to raise meat birds "someday" it was clear from early on, these birds were not going in the stew pot.
You might remember from earlier blog posts that I had hoped our chicken flock would be self supporting. They should "pay their way" I reasoned, and up until this point they had - more or less. We sell our eggs to friends and the proceeds buy the feed. By supplementing with kitchen scraps and plenty of yard foraging, we had managed to keep the monthly feed bill fairly low. Until the molt. This fall we struggled to meet our weekly egg orders, and finally in November just had to tell our customers that "the hens are taking some time off". There were times when I thought we were suckers for continuing to feed chickens that had no intent to lay. I worried if they'd ever lay again. I was nearly convinced that we were going to be stuck with hens that merely wandered around eating ever more expensive feed until they died of old age.
But at last it seems we've all survived the molt.

Last week for the first time in what seemed like forever, we collected 5 dozen eggs. Our daily production has been ramping up for a while now, but I have been skeptical until recently. Only now do I truly believe that we are through. Through the molt, through the winter and back in business.
Spring is a time of new life and new energy. For our hens it is also time for them to get back to work!
Silver Laced Wyandottes resting on the dog house.
For more information on the molt and how to get through it check out this article by:

Sunday, March 10, 2013


This afternoon I was really excited to see not only lots of bee action from all of our hives, but also lots of bees bringing home pollen. The first pollen of the year! Here are some shots of a little worker heavily loaded with pollen that I took this afternoon.
Forager bees visit flowers and mix the pollen with saliva before placing it into their pollen sacks. Once they return the hive nurse bees unload them and take the pollen into the hive, while the foragers go out for more. In the hive, pollen is mixed with nectar to make brood food.

Seeing bees hauling full pollen sacks, told me both that something out there is blooming and also that the queens will soon be laying eggs for brood. I am very curious what is blooming, and my hunch is it's maple trees or willows. I've been told they are the first bloom in this area. As far as the queens beginning to lay, this tells me that I need to be ready for the populations to grow rapidly and swarm season is coming. Exciting times!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A taste of Spring

Today was the first nice day of the year, we hit 58 degrees this afternoon! Whitney and I hit the yard this morning intent on making the most of the day before the forecasted storm tonight. Between pruning trees, lighting the burn pile, planting crocuses and hyacinths and finishing a homemade earring display stand, we took a minute to check on the honey bees.  I am thrilled to report that all three hives were a buzz with activity and things are looking good. Here is a video of today's activity.
As excited as I am that the bees were up and flying today, we're not out of the woods yet. March is a very hard time for the bees. It is warm enough to fly more regularly, but there is nothing to eat outside the hive. So for that reason I'll keep feeding my candy cakes and when the bloom is a little closer, I'll add protein patties to the hives to inspire brood production.
Overwintering your bee colonies is no easy feat. Ask any bee keeper and you'll hear stories of bees starving, getting sick and dieing or just plain disappearing. That is why today's display from the hives was so exciting.

So while I would not say we've made it through the winter yet, today wearing a tee shirt and watching the bees fly was a real taste of spring.