Sol Homestead in Winter

Miss Firecracker

Winter is allegedly a quiet time, when the garden and apiary are done for the season and I am all cuddled up reading a mystery novel. There’s always something to do, though, between the toddler, the chores, and keeping all of us living things warm, fed, and growing. 

Animals

The hens went on “sabbatical” for about six weeks and egg production is slowly ramping back up. They molted starting in November. When hens molt it can be a “hard” molting when they lose their feathers all at once and look awful for a minute before they grow back. Our hens did a “soft” molt. Aside from feathers blowing everywhere on the property and Eliza looking a little naked around her neck, you’d not really guess that they were molting. The energy needed to produce new feathers, plus the very short days probably caused them to stop laying eggs. Someone is also eating eggs if we don’t get to them soon enough. This would indicate that they might need a little more calcium in their diets. Oyster shell it is! 

Freeloading chickens Angelica, Persephone, and Peggy

The alpaca herd is doing well and getting fluffier by the day. Little Luna has grown so much. She is four months old and almost as tall as her mama, Miss Firecracker. We didn’t really notice how much shorter Miss Firecracker is compared to the other girls until Luna started to catch up to her!

We still have two 200 yd 2-ply worsted weight skeins of Miss Firecracker’s yarn left for $35 each. Send us a note in the contact tab if you’re interested!

Bees

A couple of weeks ago, we had a three-day stretch of temperatures in the mid-50s, so I decided to get into the hive for a couple of quick chores. I had seen bees out flying occasionally and I could hear them when I put my ear to the hive, but still, I was nervous that when I opened it I would find that they had blitzed through their food or that there would be signs of too much moisture or too few bees. None of the above happened. I didn’t pull any frames out, but it looks like they have most of their honey left. I added sugar to the feeding shim just in case they do run out of food (the Mountain Camp Method), as I am not planning to open the hive again until spring. If they don’t use the sugar they will just haul it out eventually, but in the meantime it will help absorb moisture.  

A big winter cluster still!

I also did a quick Oxalic Acid dribble just in case the previous mite treatments weren’t sufficient. I wanted to do it when it would be warm for a few days so that the moisture had time to dry out before it got cold again. I have read over and over that this year was an especially gnarly mite year. I think I got out there just as they were heading out for the day, which was the perfect time because they were still mostly in one place for the treatment. There was just one little hiccup. To dribble the OA in the lower deep box, I just tilted the top one up, as I was trying not to disturb the hive too much. Just as I was dribbling the solution along the last frame, the top box slipped and almost fell to the ground. It was heavy and I was holding it one-handed, but somehow I didn’t drop it or smash anyone. 

An undertaker bee at work

Once I reassembled the hive, I brushed as many dead bees out from behind the mouseguard as I could and then watched the bees coming out to relieve themselves and do their chores. I got to watch some undertakers at work. I did help them by brushing the dead bees off the landing board before I left. 

Overall, I am really encouraged by the size of the cluster and how tidy and well-stocked the Bee & Bee is looking. The average overwinter survival rate is ~40%, though, so I’m still keeping a close eye on the hive on sunny, warm days.

Orchard

IMG_20220113_154658038We are hoping to see more growth out of our orchard trees in the coming year now that they are fenced in and safe from alpaca attacks. We need to be more regular about watering them, but for now, the blanket of snow is taking care of that. Our little orchard trees have stood up to some brutal winds this season, assisted by a slight windbreak created by the barn. 

Ideally, I should have wrapped the trunks on the trees around Thanksgiving, but I got to it around New Year’s Day. Hopefully the little guys are okay. I wrapped each trunk in felt, which provides breathable protection from the harsh winter sun in the absence of leaves. They look like they are wrapped up in little scarves. I saw tiny buds on one of the trees when I was wrapping it, and that little glimpse of spring was encouraging. Colorado is not the easiest place to grow fruit trees. 

Garden

I am getting ready to start seeds in about a month, and the first order of business was organizing the seeds I have left over and the new ones I ordered on sale last month. The result was too many seeds! My big goals are to expand the pumpkin patch and get the pollinator garden blooming this year. I think the soil was too hot last year, since the beds had a layer of old horse poo under them, so I put down a heavy layer of mulch to try to cool it down. In order to make everything fit, I am expanding the container garden on the patio, using some pots left by the previous owners. In terms of seed starting, last year was a total flop, so this year I am adding heating pads and humidity covers to try to get some little plant babies growing! These additions should be especially helpful for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Any tips, master gardeners?

First attempts at spinning

Spinning

I am learning how to spin. After almost a year with little progress, I decided that I needed to put a deadline on myself to get the ball rolling, or the spindle spinning, rather. I decided to use the pretty merino fiber I had to make Christmas gifts for my grandparents. I was really pleased with how my first two yarns turned out, but I got less than a third of the way through knitting a cabled headband before I was out of yarn. That’s when I learned how to measure a skein using a niddy noddy, and discovered that I had only spun ~30 yds out of 4 oz of fiber. Yikes. I had to learn to spin thinner!

My first skein. So fluffy and pretty, but only 30 yds!

I eventually managed to spin three 2-ply 100 yd skeins of bulky weight yarn and I thought they turned out nicely. I know they are durable too, because I had to restart one knitting project three times due to some technical mistakes, and the yarn held up splendidly. Now, I am working on spinning thinner, more consistent yarn and finishing skeins so that they are not just usable, but saleable. A huge help in all of this was the book and DVD Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont and the Youtube channels MeganERisk Tutorials and JillianEve. I’m spinning every day now, for at least a few minutes and I’m enjoying it, which is a huge improvement from just a few months ago. 

Home 

Spinning thinner yarn with leftovers from Moira.

Aside from holiday festivities, things have been quiet around the house (knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, whatever it takes). We have been enjoying our repaired fireplace and trying out some new recipes. We are vegetarians, and each winter I am on the hunt for new veggie comfort food. This winter has had some real hits. 

Some of our favorite new-to-us recipes this winter have been:

In a few weeks, we will be putting up a new fence, to provide some more privacy and deaden the road noise in the backyard and pasture. That, we hope, pray, cross our fingers, is our last big house project for some time. 

What do you do during this winter season, for fun or around your own homestead? Let us know below. -Kasey 

The Fiddle Leaf Fig Who Could + Tips for Growing Fiddle Leaf Figs

IMG_20190623_072110521_HDRThe first Father’s Day after my father died, I was having a low-key, but difficult day. Nothing dramatic, no great outpouring of grief, just a sad day spent mostly on the verge of tears that never really came. That afternoon, Julio went on an errand and came home with a Fiddle Leaf Fig that he named The Last One. I had been filing our apartment with houseplants and he had made me promise that I wouldn’t bring home anymore for a while, but I really wanted a Fiddle Leaf Fig. So here it was, the last houseplant. (Or so he thought.)

It was a sweet gesture, tacitly acknowledging that he knew I was down in the dumps and that there was nothing he could do about it except to bribe a smile out of me with a houseplant. As we sat on the balcony admiring our new addition, I explained to him that I wanted the Fiddle Leaf Fig because it was notoriously finicky—a real challenge to my fledgling gardening skills—but if kept happy, it could grow to the ceiling over time.

Fiddle Leaf Figs are native to Africa and love humidity. We technically live in a high desert climate so, even running a humidifier, I was never going to be able to convince this baby that it was in the jungle. I had also read that you could kill a Fiddle Leaf Fig just by breathing wrong near it. I was determined, however, to keep The Last One growing.

IMG_20210905_095052250I bought Fiddle Leaf Fig fertilizer, dutifully applying it once a month through the summer, and watered it exactly one Ball jar a week on Saturdays. I soon deduced that the humidifier was unnecessary, as it made no real difference in the humidity. I opted instead just to keep my tropical plants clustered together, sharing the sunlight and the moisture they “exhaled.” Over the summer and fall, the Fiddle Leaf Fig grew about a foot. I was delighted. I celebrated every new leaf that emerged, first as a tight coil, gradually unwrapping into a bright green, tiny leaf that, over time, grew and darkened into a deep green violin shape.

Screenshot_20220113-102028-161In January, we moved to our house. I was prepared for the Fiddle Leaf Fig to drop some leaves in response to the change in environment as everything I read about the plant suggested that big changes could stress the poor thing out. At first, it seemed to be enjoying its new home next to a sunny South-facing window. Then, I came down one morning and leaves had dropped to the kitchen floor. They were weirdly far away from the plant, but I thought the dog must have accidentally dragged them away with her tail.

A week or so later, I came downstairs in the morning and discovered that the top half of the plant was missing, leaves and all. My once lush Fiddle Leaf Fig was now a potted stick. There was nary a leaf in sight. Something did not add up.

I was in the midst of the first trimester of pregnancy and we had just moved and murmurs about a possible pandemic were starting, so I did not think much about the plant. I didn’t throw it away, but I put figuring out what happened on hold.

A couple of weeks later, now under lockdown in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Julio was coming upstairs one night when he saw a rodent dart from the dog’s bowl to hide behind the refrigerator. The following night, I dusted the area with flour to confirm what he saw. The next morning, tiny footprints were in the flour. Julio was thoroughly creeped out, but I had an a-ha moment. When Julio moved the refrigerator to see if there was a hole there allowing a rodent to enter the kitchen, he found a hole and I found a few pieces of Fiddle Leaf Fig leaf.

IMG_20200317_094918587_PORTRAITGetting rid of the packrat that was breaking into our home each night through a gap under our balcony was a long process and a different story, but now I had an answer on the plant. It wasn’t dying; it had been robbed. I moved The Last One and the small orange tree we were given as a housewarming gift to the west-facing window in our bedroom and leaves and fruit stopped disappearing. A month later, the Fiddle Leaf Fig had a handful of tiny leaves. It kept growing and I kept fertilizing it once a month and watering it deeply once a week. A year later, I repotted it into a bigger pot. Almost two years later, it is hip-height and still thriving.

IMG_20220113_101816554_HDRI watched the resurgence of The Last One with awe and amusement. I am generally pretty successful with my houseplants. I only lost one, a pothos, to the move, and I subsequently killed a young Parlour Palm because I couldn’t find the right spot or the right watering routine. Other than those losses, however, my little indoor jungle has done pretty well. None, however, have thrived like The Fiddle Leaf Fig who could. This plant, known for being easy to kill, so challenging to keep that Julio joined a Fiddle Leaf Fig support group on Facebook when he brought it home, has proved itself resilient beyond what I thought possible. I do not exaggerate when I say it was at one point a potted stick. The rat took all of the leaves and the young portion of the trunk. I couldn’t imagine that it would start producing leaves again without any way to take in sunlight. I am thankful that I neglected the plant in those first days after its losses, too distracted by another new life to count the plant as a loss. That pause gave it time to start again, growing back with vigor. Fickle who?  -Kasey

My Tips for Maintaining a Fiddle Leaf Fig

  • Choose the right size pot and establish drainage. For the first year or so, keep the plant in the grower pot it comes in. I simply set the grower pot inside of a prettier pot. This ensured that excess water could drain out because the Fiddle Leaf Fig hates getting soggy.
  • IMG_20210410_103212768Repot the plant once it is rootbound. One way to tell is if roots start to come out of the drainage holes in the grower pot. Make sure the new pot has adequate drainage. Choose a new pot that is one size up from the current pot. For example, an 8” pot after a 6” pot.
  • There are different philosophies on watering. What has worked well for me is to water deeply once a week, no more. I have occasionally gone longer, for example when we traveled, but underwatering is easier to correct and to spot than overwatering. For example on one very hot day, I came home from work and the leaves were all drooping significantly. I watered the thirsty plant and within two hours, the leaves perked back up.
  • To water deeply, water the plant evenly until the water starts to run out of the drainage hole, then stop.
  • Make sure that the Fiddle Leaf Fig gets several hours of direct sunlight a day. Mine has been happy in windows facing both South and West. If the sun is too hot in your area, placing it slightly back from the window or using a sheer curtain could help.
  • Once a month, turn the plant a quarter turn so that the stem grows straight and even. I forgot to do this for a couple of months and my plant developed a big curve in its stem. I have since staked it up, trying to correct the curve before the trunk hardens.
  • Occasionally, give the plant a wind bath by placing it outside on a breezy day or gently shaking the stem with your hands. That helps the trunk develop strength.
  • Occasionally, dust the leaves gently with a cloth. The leaves can get dusty, which can prevent them from taking in the sunlight properly.
  • Enjoy your plant and have faith in it! These babies can grow to 40 feet tall in the wild. We only think they’re fickle because we’re trying to grow a jungle baby in a climate where it snows.

IMG_20210410_103815476

Preparing the Backyard Bees for Winter

Winter Bees

Often, when talking to people about our bees, I get asked what the bees do during the winter. The answer is pretty amazing, really. 

A bee born in the spring will generally live for around six weeks, but a bee born in the late fall can live for up to four months. The reason for this is that over the cold months, the bees’ metabolisms slow down, preserving their energy and, as a result, slowing the aging process. 

Bees are experts at regulating the temperature in the hive. In the summer, that means bearding and fanning to cool things off. In the winter, that means sealing the hive with propolis (bee glue) and forming a cluster. Bees cluster when the outside air temperature dips below around 57 degrees. (I have sometimes seen the bees out flying when it is slightly cooler than that.) The cluster keeps the queen and any brood present at the proper temperature, between 85 and 93 depending on the status of the brood nest. The cluster needs to maintain contact with the stored food or they can starve to death even if there is plenty of honey in the hive. If it gets really cold outside, the bees may enter torpor, a sort of suspended animation in which their metabolism slows down so much that they require little fuel and look dead. Their are plenty of videos out there of people breathing bees “back to life” by bringing them out of torpor. 

Winter Hive Setup

Since temperature isn’t really a problem for bees most of the time, the really issues are 1) mites and 2) moisture. 

The Varroa Destructor Mite is the probable cause of many colony collapses because the parasitic mites deplete the nutrition vital to winter bees and also spread disease. It is vital to get the mite situation under control before the queen is rearing the winter bees so that the cluster is as healthy as possible. I treated our bees with Apivar and Formic Pro during the year. Before closing the hive up for the winter, I also did an Oxalic Acid Drip to try to get rid of as many mites as I could. I feared that the extended bit of warm weather we had, which lead the queen to keep laying a decent sized nest, meant the mites would keep breeding too. Having a large cluster is great, but as the bee population starts to decline, the mites could overtake them. So, I hope that worked. 

Colorado is a pretty dry climate, so I am not very worried about moisture, but too much moisture in the hive can be disastrous to the bees. When they generate heat for themselves, some condensation is created and some is needed. Bees, like all living things, need water. But if too much builds up, it can drip on the bees and/or lead to mold, both of which are very bad. To control moisture, I put a quilt box on top of the honey super. The quilt box (purple in the picture) has a thick layer of pine shavings from the chicken supplies that will absorb moisture. It also features screened vents to allow ventilation, another form of moisture control. Under the quilt box, I have a feeding shim (blue), which will allow me to add a layer of dry sugar (Mountain Camp Method) later in the winter as emergency feed. The dry sugar will also absorb moisture in the hive. If I put it in too early, though, the bees will just haul it out like trash. Many beekeepers tilt their hives forward about 5 degrees to allow water to run out of the hive, but I cannot figure out how to do that with my hive stand. Given the dry climate and the quilt box, I hope that this setup works.

Finally, there’s a mouse guard and it’s all strapped to gether with a ratchet strap with some heavy rocks on top. This setup held it all together during 85 mph winds yesterday!

 It’s our first winter with the bees and I have so enjoyed them this year. I really hope that they make it through the winter. The requeening late in the season made me nervous, but the long stretch of warm weather gave them a leg up, I think. I fed them 2:1 syrup along the way so that they didn’t have to break into their stores. At the last inspection, I estimated that they had about 100 pounds of honey stored, plus plenty of pollen. I’ve seen them out taking “cleansing flights” (to go to the bathroom) and dragging out dead bees on each warm day, and I get a little thrill every time. 

 Good luck, bees! I hope to see you in the spring.  -Kasey

Further Reading

Scientific Beekeeping: Fat Bees Part 1

Honey Bee Suite: Temperature regulation in a winter cluster

The Saga of Queen Leslie Knope II

IMG_20211005_101958753_HDR (2)I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that my beehive lost its queen after a Formic Pro treatment. I had suspected for a few weeks prior that the queen was getting weak, but as it’s my first year, I wasn’t sure if she was slowing down because it was summer dearth or if it was a problem. The hive had made moves to replace her before, and I thwarted them. Because she was unmarked, I did not know how old she was. Looking back, I should have either requeened the hive earlier in the summer or let them requeen themselves. When I removed the Formic strips and did a hive inspection in the last week of September, I found many supersedure cells. I stopped counting at 12. That late in the season, however, it was too late for them to raise a new queen and get her mated. Thanks to the advice of a couple of other local beekeepers on Instagram (Thank you!), I moved quickly to find a new mated queen. I couldn’t find one locally anymore, so I was able to get one shipped from California. Thankfully, she arrived safely. 

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Queen Leslie Knope I

While I was waiting on Queen Leslie Knope II to arrive from California, I had to deal with the mess in the hive. I inspected the frames to cut out the supersedure cells. I saw a lot of eggs, but at the bottom of a few frames, there were multiple eggs in a cell, all at the back. It was perplexing. For some background, the presence of the queen’s pheromones suppresses the ability of worker bees to lay eggs. If a hive has been queenless for a bit, some of the workers may start to lay eggs. The problem is that they are unmated and so they can only lay eggs for male bees—drones—whose only job is procreation (and sometimes heat regulation) so in the fall they are so useless that before winter the workers evict them entirely. A laying worker bee also doesn’t have the long body needed to lay an egg in the back of a cell, where it belongs, and she generally lays multiple eggs per cell. Once the eggs hatched and the workers capped the cells, I saw that the hive was full of drone larvae. But it had looked so good when it was in the egg stage. It is also possible that before a queen bee dies she runs out of stored semen to fertilize eggs and only lays drones. I wast not sure if what I saw in the brood nest was a laying worker or a dying queen. 

IMG_20210927_094740441 (1)

Supersedure Cells.

Either way, I had to find and dispatch Queen Leslie Knope I before introducing her successor. If the queen was already in the hive, the bees would most likely reject the new queen, killing her. Or the two queens could do battle, possibly leaving me with the failing queen again. Queen Leslie I was on the smaller side and unmarked. I had not been able to find her in previous inspections, although I did find her in a couple of photos over the summer. I did careful searches for her on consecutive days and never found her. I also never found fresh eggs, which told me that she was likely dead already. 

Then, there was the question of the laying workers. If I had laying workers, it also increased the likelihood that the hive would be hostile to the new queen. I still wasn’t sure if I had laying workers or not. The absence of new, messy eggs leaned toward not. But, to be safe, I thought I should intervene. I read that one way to deal with laying workers is to shake the frames of bees out about 100 feet from the hive. Laying workers are usually, but not always, nurse bees who have not left the hive to forage yet. The theory is that if you shake a laying worker out away from the hive, she won’t be able to find her way back. It felt kind of mean, but the hive is really a superorganism and it’s not worth risking the whole colony for a few bees. So, I shook out the brood nest away from the hive. I don’t really know if that did anything other than making the bees angry. Based on subsequent reading I did, though, I am pretty sure that I had a drone-laying queen, not laying workers.

IMG_20211005_102708275By the time Queen Leslie II arrived, I was as confident as I could be that Queen Leslie I was no longer in the hive. Even still, I spent some time observing the bees’ attitude toward their new queen before I left her in the hive. When you order a new queen, she comes in a little cage with a few attendant bees who are there to care for her. One end of the cage has fondant for the bees to eat and the other has a candy plug that the bees will gradually eat through to release her into the hive. This slow-release mechanism allows the queen’s pheromones to circulate through the hive before she is loose, helping the hive to accept her as their queen, and not immediately ball and kill her. Usually the candy plug is reinforced with a cork, which you pull out before putting the cage in the hive. When Queen Leslie II arrived, I set her on top of some frames for a while and watched how the bees approached her. They were not at all aggressive. Workers came up to the cage and crawled around it, but none were trying to sting her through the mesh or trying to ball her. So, I left the cage suspended between two frames in the brood nest. (Full disclosure: I accidentally hung it upside down, so I had to go in the next day and flip it. If one of the attendats had died in the meantime, it could have possibly plugged the exit. Oops.) Some people encourage beekeepers to remove the attendant bees before placing a queen, as the presence of strangers can cause aggression in your workers. I read that the queen’s pheromones cover these workers too, so it shouldn’t really be a problem. Additionally, as a new beekeeper, I didn’t want to run the risk of losing or injuring the queen while removing the attendants. 

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Queen Leslie Knope II at work in the hive

I installed the new queen on Wednesday, October 6. Because it was so late in the season, I wanted to get her laying eggs as soon as possible, so on Friday, I went back to check how things were going. The bees were still not aggressive toward her and they had started to eat through the candy. I spent some more time watching them. I tested their response by brushing them off the queen cage—the brush test. They were easily brushed away, which was the result I was looking for. So, I took a small nail and punched through the candy plug. She was out. 

A week later, I did a hive inspection and there were a few eggs, but not many. I felt so anxious about the hive at that point. I was afraid that they couldn’t get a good cluster going before winter. But, the next week, my hive inspection revealed many more eggs. The drones that Queen Leslie I left behind were hatching out and Queen Leslie II had the beginnings of a healthy nest of workers. Now, a month later, the hive is booming with bees. This warm fall has helped, no doubt.

IMG_20211018_141426793_HDRIt is not unusual for hives to try to replace a new queen. During that first hive inspection after installing her majesty, I again found supersedure cells. I cut them out, and scolded my workers a bit. During the first weekend of November, I was doing a hive inspection on an unseasonable 70-degree day, and found a swarm cell—with a larva in it—on the bottom of one frame. That there was only one, and that it was there so late in the season was confusing, and frustrating to me. Before I could even decide what to do, I accidentally smashed it while moving the box it was in. My latest, and last, hive inspection showed no signs of them trying to replace Queen Leslie II, who is still laying like a champ. I expect that as the temperature drops, she will slow down. In the meantime, it has been an absolute treat to have a marked queen. I can always find the queen now and I am delighted every time I see her. 

Long live Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Helpful Resources on Re-queening

Barnyard Bees: How to Tell if Bees will Accept a New Queen

Barnyard Bees: How Bees Act When They Reject the Queen

Bee Culture: Laying Wokers. It Happens. Fix It. 

Honey Bee Suite: How to Fix a Laying Worker Hive

Backyard Beekeeping: How Many Days after Requeening Should I Expect to See Eggs

Welcome, Luna!

IMG_20210914_111420767 (3)Our newest alpaca, Luna, is two months old today. She’s growing so fast and has more than doubled her birth weight. Miss Firecracker delivered her in an uncomplicated birth, thank goodness! You can watch our video about the birth at our YouTube Channel.

Luna kind of looks like her aunt, Theodora, who is Miss Firecracker’s half-sister. The herd was so excited when the new cria arrived and Miss Firecracker is a wonderful mother. Her temperament also changed a lot after she gave birth, she’s still not exactly outgoing, but she is much less aloof and seems vastly more comfortable. After a 50 week pregnancy, that figures. 

Baby Luna enjoys running around with the herd, taking naps while her aunties eat, following her mama everywhere, and nibbling at hay. We are enjoying watching her grow! You can follow along at our Instagram page

 

Lessons We Learned In Our Second Year

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We are having an unseasonably warm autumn where we are, with temperatures still consistently in the upper 50s. We’ve even had some days in the 70s lately, which has been great for the bees and for giving us a little leeway as we break things down for the winter. 

As we work on winterizing the garden and the beehive, it has been natural to think about what we learned this year, primarily by making mistakes or making things harder on ourselves. So, here are the big lessons we’ve learned. 

IMG_20210825_135914620_HDRBrush the Alpacas Before Shearing Them

During the first week of June, our alpacas were sheared for the first time at our homestead. They were so ready for a haircut! Before we sent the prime cuts of their fleece to a fibermill to be spun into yarn, we had to skirt the fleece—that means picking out the hay, debris, and matts. I don’t know if you know this about alpacas, but they like to roll around in the dirt and hay. They were pretty dusty and dirty and skirting their fleece was a nightmare. Kasey is still working on getting their second and third cuts ready to spin and it is just so full of hay. 

We contacted our mentor to ask him if there was anything that we could do to keep them cleaner. Some really serious farms keep their alpacas in coats so that they can’t get hay, etc. stuck in their fleece, but that is too hardcore for us. And Moira is always hot enough as it is. We also knew that brushing them could destroy the structure of their fleece, which is meant to have a beautiful crimp to it. We visited our mentor during Alpaca Farm Days and he showed us a bucket full of different brushes that we could use before shearing. If we are shearing them to spin the fleece into yarn, it is okay for us to brush them then, because spinning destroys the crimp of the yarn. Of course! So, we hope that next year that will be less of an issue for us. 

Get Beekeeping Timing Right

IMG_20210616_134653790One of the biggest disappointments we had this year had to do with the beehive. Kasey keeps our bees and this is her first year. She got the bees on May 2nd and now wishes that she had immediately tested the bees for mites and treated them, but she was new and nervous about it and it took a few weeks to get used to working with them before she was ready to check for mites. She did so the third week of May and the mite count was really high. If she had understood her options better, she probably would have used Formic Pro, but she didn’t understand that the temperature restrictions were just for the first three days. Knowing that it would soon be really hot, she instead used Apivar, adding it May 25 and removing it on July 20th. 

Apivar cannot be used with the honey supers on, because the treatment creates residue in the honey and the wax that is not safe for human consumption. When the treatment was added, there were no supers on, but there were two deeps. It was a killer honey flow this year, though, and so supers were needed after a couple of weeks so that the bees didn’t run out of room. Long story short, they filled two medium honey supers with honey, none of which was safe for human consumption. It will get fed back to the bees, but by the time the treatment was done, the honey flow was over and summer dearth had set in. So many mistakes. 

Kasey feels pretty annoyed and let down by this mistake. She didn’t plan on harvesting honey this year, but with such a good season, it would have been nice to be able to harvest a couple of frames to give as Christmas gifts. Then, in late summer, she did use Formic Pro, and the queen ended up dying. More on that in another post. The most important thing is that the bees make it through the winter, but this was a steep learning curve and the mite treatment was the only part that was really frustrating.

Gardening Lessons 

IMG_20211009_152353403 (1)The garden grew SO. MUCH. BETTER. this year overall. We grew a delicious assortment of winter squash and pumpkins, patty pan squash, zucchini, greens, some tiny carrots, green beans. The Harvest Moon Squash was a variety we’d never tried before and it was delicious when stuffed and baked. 

But there’s still room for growth (pun intended). We realized that we want more room, so next year we are most likely building four more raised beds to create a natural buffer in front of the beehive and extend the garden’s footprint. 

We also learned that our watering strategy was insufficient. Although we got many, many squash and pumpkins, our Jack O’Lanterns and corn were puny and we think that was in part due to shifting too late from the type of watering we were doing to encourage the seedlings to grow to the deep watering that the plants needed to form fruit. We will also be watering the orchard more. 

IMG_20211009_114345683_HDRWhen we cleaned out the barn, it produced a giant mound of old, old horse manure. We were able to give a lot of it away for people to compost, but Kasey also used a lot to create a base layer for flowerbeds around the edge of the horse run. The plan was to grow wildflowers there to support pollinators. Her dream is to have lush perennial wildflower garden that takes not that much maintenance. She planted lavender, sunflowers, apache plume, Veronicas, and cone flowers there. The lavender was really the only thing that grew. Everything else scorched. She needs to test the soil, but it seems like the soil is too hot. The plan is to mulch it over the winter to draw out some of the nitrogen, but it was a good lesson in checking soil PH. 

There were so many lessons this year, but these were the biggest ones. What did you learn this year through trial and error? Let us know below. 

Notes on a Bee Sting

IMG_20210720_111925228Now that summer dearth has settled in, I’ve had a lesson about honeybee psychology. 

I did a hive inspection on Tuesday and was puzzled to find that there were plenty of eggs, larvae, and capped brood in the second deep box, but wide patches of empty comb in the brood nest in the lower deep box. There was clear evidence that the hive was queenright, so I was confused. After doing some research, I understood that I was probably seeing a brood break in response to the mid-summer dearth. Sensing that resources are scarcer, the queen lays fewer eggs so there are fewer mouths to feed. That would also explain why the bees had not drawn any comb in the third honey super I had given them the week before—although they had drawn out the brood frame I had put in place of a drone frame. I decided to feed them 1:1 just to get them through dearth and to encourage them to maybe, just maybe, draw out that super. 

IMG_20210803_133307507 (1)I thought about the bees throughout my shift as a greeter at the Molly Brown House the next day, because I watched a single honeybee repeatedly fly around the front porch, where there were no plants, in search of nectar (I guess?). Bees checking and rechecking unusual places is one sign that dearth has set in. Later that night, I did some more research, deciding whether I needed 1:1 or 2:1 syrup for the hive and I asked Julio to make it for me. By the time our baby was asleep, it was almost 8:00 and, although the sun hadn’t set, it was probably too late to go into the hive. It’s fine, I thought, and besides, I didn’t even have to take off the inner cover to put the feeder in place. 

When I got to the hive, the back fence line smelled like the neighborhood skunk had been there recently. Skunks eat bees. I did not know that. I think most people think of skunks as Pepe Le Pew and not much else, but skunks have a voracious appetite for gardens, mice, and insects. Not only will they tear a hive apart to get to the honey, but they will also scratch at the bottom of a beehive and then eat the bees who come out trying to figure out what is going on. They chew them up, devouring their juices, and then spit the little bee carcasses out. Brutal. I had no reason to believe that the skunk had been bothering the garden or the bees, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bees, who seem so hyper-attuned to their environment, recognized the stench of skunk and were on edge. They were bearding dramatically over the front of the hive, too. All of these factors indicated that I should probably just wait to put the feeder in until the next day, but I figured if I did it now, I wouldn’t attract the yellow jackets, two of whom had been hanging around the hive inspection the day before. 

As soon as I took off the outer cover of the hive, I had hangry bees flying around me. I was wearing just a veil, a regular jacket, and one beekeeping glove. Not a smart move, but at least I remembered to take my rings off. I thought I’d just be in and out quickly, but the defensive bees made it hard to get the feeder in place and the box over it smoothly. Then, a sharp pain. I was stung through my pants right on the kneecap. I had the bees’ knees. 

The box was really crooked and I still had to get the outer cover in place. I grabbed a second glove and went back, but the bees were still angry. Fortunately, I didn’t get stung again, but I did get bitten by a mosquito on the bum. 

That night, as I drank my post bee sting beer, I remembered that the observation cover I’d put over the feeder box had upper vents and that created an additional gap that perhaps the bees might have to guard. I started thinking about yellow jackets and wasps I’d seen in the garden, on edge. A strong hive can defend against a few robbers, but could my hive withstand an attack? I’d have to keep an eye on things and flip that cover over when I could.

The next morning, as I left for my run, I could smell the skunk for a quarter mile up the street. What had it been up to? Had someone hit it with a car? Had the neighbors’ dogs chased it? The stink was everywhere. Earlier in the week, I had been startled by a giant bull snake while on my run. Snakes can also pose an indirect threat to a colony if they choose to take shelter in the bottom of the hive. 

Robbing insects. Skunks. Snakes. In a couple of months, as the nights get cold, mice might also decide that the hive looks like a cozy place to stay. I should probably put on a mouse guard, too. There is always the possibility of a bear, too, however remote. 

As my own anxiety about the security of the beehive rose, my frustration that the ungrateful bees had stung me when I was just trying to feed them ebbed. Seemingly every creature in the neighborhood was trying to steal their honey, their home, their very lives. Or, in the order of priority for the bees, their very lives, their honey, their home. They had worked so hard to build the nest and then to fill it with brood, pollen, and honey. Then, in comes some giant and pops the top off the whole thing just as they’re starting to settle down after a hard day’s work foraging? I’d want to sting me too.   -Kasey

(Disclaimer: I’m a first-year beek, so if any of this sounds really mistaken, please share some wisdom, fellow beekeepers!)

Garden Update

As a very wet May turns to June, there is a lot going on in our garden! In all, the garden is going much better this year. I’m going to give credit to the alpaca beans we amended the soil with. ($1/lb if you need some!) IMG_20210604_181027748 IMG_20210605_095331361There’s a lesson to be taken from my garden this year about being patient. First there were the seedlings that sprouted randomly in the containers I dumped my soil from failed seed starting into. The mystery seedlings are still going strong. Then, in the patio garden, I had some squash seeds that I didn’t think had germinated, so I did a second pass and now I have a crowded, random batch of plants. I will probably have to move some once they get bigger. I am very proud of how tidy the rows of greens are. I can be a bit of a chaos muppet, as evidenced by my carrots and onions, but those neat greens make me smile every time I see them. IMG_20210605_095219486 The corn is growing! Last year the seeds did not germinate, so I am very excited. This Indiana girl is hoping to see it knee high by the 4th of July. Last week, I planted a second type of sweet corn and some more beans to fill in gaps where seeds didn’t start. It has been so wet this year, that mushrooms have come up in a few places in the garden. It was one item on the long list of things we’ve had to check to see if they are toxic to alpacas now that we let the girls graze the backyard. (On that list, the Columbines, poppies, and, yes, the mushrooms.) I planted three packets of sunflower seeds and they’re starting to pop up in a lot of borders and fence lines. I’m feeling very protective of them and managed to chase Clementine away from one just in time yesterday. I am excited that one of the Icelandic poppies is getting ready to put up flowers again. I put four plants in that old trough. One died, the other hasn’t started to bloom again, and then the fourth has seemingly transformed into an entirely different plant. I am mystified and letting it grow, hoping that eventually it will reveal what kind of plant crowded out that poppy. I am also excited that the wildflowers I planted in pots last year are coming back. The seeds I put by our front door did nothing last year, but they are sprouting this year! They look like weeds for now, but I know better and am pleased as punch. IMG_20210605_103853174The rabbits have dug the entrance from their warren into our pumpkin patch again. I filled it in again. I keep seeing the snake by the raised pumpkin beds. I spent some time on a website about Colorado snakes yesterday. I think it is either a garter snake or an Eastern racer. Either way, it poses no threat to anything unless in the unlikely event it decides to climb into the beehive. I spent some time this morning on my own and then with my little helper watering, weeding, and doing succession plantings or “try again” plantings of almost everything, including greens, herbs, corn, beans, cucumbers, and several types of pumpkin. The pumpkin patch is starting to show lots of growth, so hopefully we will see you in October!  -Kasey

How to Use Alpaca Manure as Fertilizer and Why

One of the things that we love about alpacas is how efficient and eco-friendly they are. Without using much land or food, they produce pounds and pounds of soft, warm, hypoallergenic, flame-retardant (yes!) fluff and even more pounds of fertilizer good for gardens or crops. 

Some alpaca farmers refer to their animals’ manure as “magic beans.” That’s because the poo pellets that alpacas produce are prized as fertilizer, particularly by experienced or niche gardeners. 

All fertilizer is made of a balance of three major nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen is important for the development of protein and helps leaves grow lush and green. Phosphorus helps plants photosynthesize. Potassium helps defend against disease and assists plants in developing strong root structures. 

Most manure is very high in nitrogen and if placed directly on crops can “burn” the plants—causing brown spots and stunted leaves. Alpaca manure, by contrast, has a lower nitrogen content and is thus considered a “cool” fertilizer that you can mix straight into beds or use under mulch around your trees. Alpaca manure is about average in its potassium and phosphorus content.

Although you can use alpaca manure mixed in with your garden soil on its own without “burning” your plants, it is best practice to compost all manures before applying them to food crops. You can also steep the beans in water, creating “alpaca tea” and apply the liquid to your garden beds. Doing so helps to break down the hard pellets for better absorption.

There are plenty of options for how to use alpaca beans and the benefits for your garden are wonderful. In addition to being healthy for your soil, alpaca manure is relatively odor free, and lightweight—if you’ve ever cleaned up after a horse or cow, you know what a bonus that is! 

Plus, picking up some beans can come with the chance to say “hello” to the source of your fertilizer. At Sol Homestead, you can buy our “magic beans” for the low, low price of $1/pound with free local pickup or an added $5 for delivery in the Denver/Boulder metro areas. Contact us to buy our alpaca manure by the pound for your garden. (For a limited time, you can even get some aged horse manure for free–local pickup only!)

Notes:

Alpaca Manure Fertilizer

Modern Farmer Manure Guide

What is the Value of Alpaca Manure

The Fertilizer Institute

Alpaca poop like black gold

Preparing for Christmas at Sol Homestead

If you have longed for a simpler Christmas in years past, 2020 has provided you with the opportunity. For us at Sol Homestead, it is our first Christmas in our home and also our daughter’s first Christmas. Due to the pandemic, we are not traveling to spend the holiday with either of our families and we are trying our hardest to make things merry, despite the circumstances. To do so, we are focusing on starting traditions with our daughter that we plan to continue through her childhood. In short, the joy of this Christmas, if we manage it, comes not from bustle and merriment, but from designing what Christmas will feel like in our home for the first time.

We are trying to keep things simple and cozy in the traditions we establish, focusing on togetherness and simple pleasures. It has been on our hearts how much of a struggle it will be for some families to celebrate this year, not only because of a pandemic advisement against travel, but also because of economic hardship. We look at our newborn, who won’t really “get” Christmas this year (beyond lights—she loves those) and our hearts hurt for parents who may struggle to get gifts for their children. In that spirit, we think it is best to keep our celebration modest—for the most part, making due with what we have, even though the tree skirt is too small and some of our lights burned out, etc. (Of course, we got each other alpacas for Christmas, so that feels pretty big!) We did get a real, tall tree, and Kasey invested in the supplies to make the JOY garland on the railing, an idea her mom found on Pinterest.

The additional benefit for the long-term is that trying to keep things simple this year will hopefully set a foundation for Christmases that don’t get super commercialized every year. One of our hopes for our girl is that she does not get stuck on the consumer hamster wheel and we want to do our part to keep the holidays feeling homey and special without them feeling too much about stuff. So, here is what we’re doing.

Advent We are Catholic, so Advent is a special part of our preparation for Christmas. It feels like the verse on our advent wreath really hits home this year: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1). We use two advent wreathes, even though it is awkward to find a place for them both, because the first Christmas we were married, Kasey’s dad sent us one, not knowing that we already had one. He has since passed away, so it feels extra special to put out the one he sent. We also use our nativity set, just like the Fontanini one Kasey grew up with. Baby Jesus arrives for Christmas night and then the three wise men start their journey from across the living room to the nativity for the Feast of the Epiphany. This year, we also have a felt advent calendar where we will put up a different character in the nativity each night before bed. We imagine these things will only get to be more fun as the baby grows.

Pajamas for St. Nicholas Day We love the idea of giving Christmas jammies but wanted our growing girl to get to wear them all month (especially since zippy jammies are the easiest thing to dress her in), so we’ve decided that we will give her new Christmas pajamas on St. Nicholas Day each year. We will also continue our tradition of listening to David Sedaris’s hilarious story “Six to Eight Black Men” that morning over coffee (Caution: it is not safe for little ears).

Jólabókaflóð A couple of years ago, we went on a trip to Iceland, which was amazing, and Kasey was really drawn to the Icelandic tradition of giving books for Christmas, Jólabókaflóð. That year, she gave everyone on her list a book and made bookmarks to go along with them. The leftovers have become her very favorite bookmarks. Starting this year, we are making it a tradition in our little family to exchange books and hot cocoa on Christmas Eve and getting snuggly with them before bed.

In the meantime, we checked out several Christmas books from the library to enjoy for a few weeks. So far, our favorite has been Tonight You Are My Baby, which focuses on Christmas night from Mary’s perspective and, we think does a better job than The Christmas Baby. We will also enjoy some of the wintry books that we were given at baby showers, including The Mitten and The Snowy Day.

Christmas Eve Dinner Christmas Eve is the day when our family traditions will be most blended. A big meal and celebration is traditional in Julio’s family. We already feel so grateful that his mom brought us two bottles of coquito when they visited in October. In Kasey’s family, her dad also made a meal of soup and a big salad (and also usually a roast for the carnivores). This year, we will enjoy coquito, Kasey’s dad’s Hungarian Mushroom Soup, and either a drive-in Mass or streaming Mass, hopefully at Midnight.

Gingerbread Alpacas Kasey loves making Smitten Kitchen’s spicy gingerbread and will miss making sugar cookies with her mom this year. We were gifted a couple of alpaca cookie cutters and a llama cookie cutter last year, so the perfect combination of all of these things will be making alpaca and llama Christmas cookies for friends and neighbors this season.

Lights Finally, we are putting up lights as much as we can. We found 500 feet of Christmas lights when we were cleaning out the barn, so that will go a long way. (Metaphorically. Literally, it will go 500 feet.)

We hope that you all have ways to make this Christmas season cozy and special. What are your traditions? Let us know in the comments.