Mid-Spring Homestead Update 2022

Mid-Spring is kind of an antsy time on the homestead for me. Seedlings are starting to emerge and they take a lot of water and weeding until the garden is in full swing. I have to watch the bees for swarming. Projects need to be done. And the weather is all over the place. I was so grateful for three whole days of rain this week. We desperately need it.

A few weeks ago, we had an open farm day, where we met many neighbors; answered questions about the alpacas, hens, and bees; and sold some dryer balls and greeting cards. We plan to have additional farm days at least once a month during summer and fall. 

In the meantime, here’s what’s going on: 

Bees

IMG_20220430_123903711The Bee & Bee is thriving! My big task at the moment is keeping an eye out for swarm cells and deciding if/when to split them into a second hive. In a nutshell, a honeybee colony is better thought of as a superorganism that reproduces itself rather than individual bees reproducing. When a colony survives the winter like this one did (yay! yay!), their population climbs quickly and they start to think about throwing off a swarm—a new colony. When that happens, they build queen cells at the bottom of frames, and once those are growing new queens, the bees gorge themselves on honey and about half of them leave with the old queen. They usually land on a nearby tree and scout bees fly out to look for a new place to live. Some beekeepers love to catch swarms (free bees!). Queen Leslie Knope II is doing an amazing job and I just spent good money on her in my emergency requeening last year, so I would very much like for them to not swarm away with her. If I see that they are getting ready to swarm, I can split them to try to prevent it. Or I can split them preemptively. I need to decide which very soon, I think.

IMG_20220430_123630717The bees have started to build drone comb in-between the two deep boxes that make the brood nest. Last week during my hive inspection, I was worried that it was swarm cells, but a closer inspection clearly revealed that it was drone cells. Drone (male bee) cells look like bullets. Queen cells look like peanuts and hang down from the bottom of the frame or perpendicular to the rest of the comb. I think they were annoyed that I destroyed some of the drone cells when I pulled the frames out. Sorry girls!

Today during my hive inspection, I found some good news and some bad news. I have been feeding them 1:1 sugar syrup in hopes that they will start drawing fresh comb in their honey super. They weren’t, so I took the queen excluder off last week. I had put it in place so that the brood the queen laid in the old, mite treatment tainted comb could hatch out before I put clean frames in. Today, I saw that they were starting to build comb. IMG_20220506_130806551Yay! It was mostly cross comb, so I pushed it into the frame, wanting them to use the wax to build the comb on the frame instead of out from it. The bad news was that there was a patch of mold on the bottom board. The bee shop sold me some pollen patties a couple of months ago and I put one in the brood nest, but it started to melt and drip onto the bottom board. Clearly, that was the origin of the mold. I could smell that something was off as soon as I opened the hive. It wasn’t as sweet as usual. Fortunately, the spot of mold was small, so I was able to scrape it and flip the bottom board before the mold caused any real damage to the hive or the comb. Phew! Beekeepers, do you use pollen patties? This was my first experience and I’m not sold on them. I am so happy that the hive is doing well! 

IMG_20220506_131504244That One Bee

In general, my bees are very sweet, but often there is one guard bee who just won’t quit. When I take my glove off to take pictures she’s buzzing at my hand. When I go home, she follows me. In an online beekeeping group I’m in, I saw this bee referred to as That One Bee. This year’s hypervigilant guard bee has emerged. When I was filling garden beds (more on that below), she kept buzzing me. I have sat by the hive and watched the bees without having an issue, but that day she was on the warpath. Today, I had a bee hang out on my beesuit for the longest time after I was done. Beekeepers, do you have That One Bee?

Garden

IMG_20220506_122017460I have started to harden off my seedlings (tomato, eggplant, echinacea, verbascum, and pepper) before transplanting them outside. My pumpkin seedlings were looking really good, if leggy, but they withered and died while I was hardening them off. If I am completely honest, I think what did it was that they were sitting on the kitchen counter overnight and, on an impulse, I watered them with leftover coffee and it was tooooooo much nitrogen. Sorry, plant babies. I love you. 

Before those three days of rain, however, I was able to plant corn, green beans, and pumpkins outside in the pumpkin patch and the new raised beds. This year I am growing two types of corn, purple green beans, and a wide variety of winter squash: Porcelain Princess Pumpkin, Mashed Potato Squash, Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, Baby Bear Pumpkin, Naked Bear Pumpkin, Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Luffa Gourd, Igor Pumpkin, Jack O’Lantern, Harvest Moon Squash, Butternut and Acorn Squash, and Kabocha Squash. 

I thought that I was planting them on the early side, but when I checked my records, I planted them on the same exact date last year. I hope to have a good harvest, using the insights about watering I learned last year. Again, fingers crossed. 

About a month ago, when it looked like we were in the clear for frost, I planted summer squash, greens, peas, leeks, and carrots. Plenty of seedlings have started to come up. This weekend, I am planting the rest of the flowers, including several varieties of sunflowers. I am really trying to get the border around the horse run bursting with pollinator-friendly and native flowers this year. My efforts last year did not work out, but I think the soil was too hot, since it was largely made up from old horse poop we had to clean out of the barn. I mulched it heavily over winter to try to draw the nitrogen out. I hope this year things grow better. At any rate, a single grape hyacinth made its way from the front yard to the back, and they are good spreaders, so nature might do the work for me. Thanks, girl. 

Compost

I have been struggling with composting for two years now. I was told that it’s not really that hard, but I can’t seem to get my compost to compost all the way. It didn’t smell bad or anything, it just was not breaking all the way down into good dirt. I spent some time doing research over the winter and came to the conclusion that I was

  1.  not turning my compost often enough 
  2.  including scraps that were too big and 
  3. not giving it enough time. 

After listening to an episode of Gimlet’s How to Save a Planet Podcast (which is very good) called Waste, Worms, and Windrows: Domingo Morales’ Quest to Make Compost Cool, I felt convicted to get my compost efforts back in action. The episode does a good job of explaining why composting is better for the environment and talks about Morales’ efforts to bring composting to New York City on a bigger scale. It’s worth a listen. Since then, I have been diligently turning our tumblers almost every day and putting all of our non-dairy food scraps into a container to go out each day (We don’t eat meat, but if you do, that doesn’t go in compost). I use our kitchen shears to cut fruit peels into smaller pieces and crush the eggshells before tossing them in. It’s a little more effort, but also strangely satisfying. We have two tumblers and I let one rest while I filled the other. The full one is now being turned while it breaks down, but I’m not adding anything new anymore, and have moved to the second tumbler. I can tell by the weight when I turn them that the food is breaking down. Will it turn all the way back into dirt this time? Fingers crossed. If you are good at this, I would love tips. 

Alpacas

IMG_20220409_125333029The alpacas are set for shearing during the first weekend of June. It will be Luna’s first shearing and we are a little nervous about how Miss Firecracker will handle it. She is still very protective of her baby. Luna is almost eight months old. It seemed like Miss Firecracker was weaning her back in February, but Luna is still nursing sometimes, so it is taking awhile. From what I’ve read, when left to their own devices, alpacas wean around 8 months old, so I expect that we will see the nursing sessions continue to wane over the next month or so, until they end completely. Miss Firecracker is not losing weight, and we are not planning to breed her again anytime soon, so we have no reason not to let her follow her instincts. 

The pool is back out for the alpacas. Anytime I get the hose out to water plants, they run over to their pool and wait for me to top it up. They each have at least 2” of fleece on their backs, so you can imagine how hot they get on warm, sunny days. They also like to gather in the shade of the barn by the chicken coop. Miss Firecracker usually gets the shadiest spot. 

Last weekend, I was filling in the new raised beds that Julio and his dad built. I put a layer of alpaca poop on the bottom of each bed as filler and for the added nutrients. As I struggled to get the wheelbarrow, which I discovered too late has a flat tire, through the gate, Moira pushed her way into the backyard to eat the grass. As if Moira wasn’t enough to handle, I took pity on the other girls, who were looking on jealously. I let them eat the yard last year and was usually able to get them back over the fence without too much fuss. This time was different, however. Not only did they leave poor Luna behind, they would not go back to the pasture no matter what I tried. I used a treat to try to bait them into the pasture or barn. I banged on a bucket to scare them. I chased them. I tried to push them. I sprayed them with the hose. I turned on the sprinkler. An hour later, I just charged at them yelling “Go! Go! Go!”, making myself as big and menacing as I could. It worked. Fortunately, I didn’t get kicked or spit at (Theo thought about it) and they looked at me from the pasture like I had lost my mind. It was quite the drama. 

Luna and Clementine need work on halter training and this experience just reinforced that maybe they all need a little work, so we will use that as an opportunity to let them eat the yard as well, but with less frustration getting them back across the fence. 

IMG_20220428_100542801Chickens

The flock has really ramped up egg production and the problem of them eating their eggs is getting better. We’ve been getting 2-4 eggs a day on average. One day we got five! Julio’s theory is that whoever is laying the pale green eggs (Eliza?) is the head hen, because hers never get eaten. One of these days, we really are going to build them that tractor, but in the meantime some afternoons in the orchard await them. 

Orchard

Speaking of the orchard, we think about half of our apple trees are dead. The rest have put out leaves and the pear trees are already in bloom. The rest, however, seem to have a bit of frostbite, or something else went wrong. I am pretty bummed. We watered them (although, in our climate, perhaps they could have used more), fertilized them, mulched, and wrapped the trunks. I am not sure what happened, but I am sad about the loss. We are going to keep watering them and keep our fingers crossed a bit longer. 

Alpaca Dryer Balls: How to Make Them and Why Use Them

Not all of the fleece that the alpacas grow is suitable to spin into yarn. When alpacas are sheared, typically three cuts are done. The first cut, the torso, is the best fleece, perfect for spinning. The second and third cuts include the legs, neck, and chest, and have a shorter staple length. Although this fleece can be spun, the shorter staple length makes it harder to do so. Even still, the fleece is soft, durable, and worth using for other projects. One such project is making felted dryer balls. 

Why Use a Dryer Ball

 A dryer ball is used for the same reason you might use a dryer sheet. The balls tumble around the dryer with your clothes and help wick moisture away from them, cutting drying time. While they do that, they also reduce static and help clothes come out of the dryer less wrinkly. 

Unlike dryer sheets, however, wool dryer balls can be used for years, eliminating the waste of a single-use sheet. If you like the fragrance of your dryer sheets, you can even add essential oils to wool dryer balls to give your clean laundry a pleasant aroma. 

How We Make Alpaca Wool Dryer Balls

IMG_20220416_122334_773 (1)First, we wash the fleece. For this batch of dryer balls, I used Theodora’s seconds. I washed the fleece twice until the water ran clean, then plucked any remaining hay out with tweezers. This batch of fleece was good for making felt balls because it started to matt as it dried. I suspect that the water got too hot while I was washing it. 

Next, I rolled balls from the fleece. Each ball is approximately 1 oz of fiber. Because Theodora naturally has some white spots and different shades of brown in her coat, I played with the colors so that there would be some variation on the outside of the balls. 

Once each ball was formed, I placed it into a nylon stocking, tying a knot between each ball. I was able to fit five dryer balls in each stocking leg, or three in a kneehigh. For pantyhose, I cut the pair in half, but later I used kneehighs, which was a bit easier.IMG_20220416_122338_358

Next came the felting process. I tossed my maternity overalls and a bit of detergent in the washing machine and ran the string of fiber balls through a hot cycle. I checked on them every few minutes to make sure the balls were not felting to the stocking, until the rinse cycle, at which point my top-loading washing machine lid locks. 

The hot cycle followed by a cold rinse cycle shocks the fibers, causing them to stick to each other. The once loose balls of fiber become hard balls that won’t fall apart in the dryer. After one wash, the balls were hard enough to remove from the stocking. At this point, I went over each ball again, plucking stray pieces of hay out with tweezers. (Before the next shearing, we are going to give our alpacas a good brushing so there will be less hay. Rookie mistake!)IMG_20220416_122346_759_2

I set the balls aside and, to save energy, gave them another felting once I had the next string of dryer balls ready to go. If you wanted, you could felt multiple strands of balls at the same time, but I imagine they would get quite tangled with each other. 

Alpaca Fiber Dryer Balls

I was mostly pleased with how the dryer balls turned out, although some are more oblong in shape than others. I plan to keep making them with leftover fiber. I think it will be neat to make some with scraps from various spinning projects so that they will have a wide variety of colors, but that’s a project for later. 

IMG_20220416_122949_159Alpaca Dryer Balls will be available at our market days for $15 for a set of three. Any balls that do not pass quality control will be available at a discounted $3/each. We think they’d make nice toys for your cats or dogs. Follow us on Instagram @solhomestead to stay up to date on Market Days this spring and summer. 

Alpaca Etiquette Basics

IMG_20210220_150736488If you’re in our area, you’re welcome to pull over and say hi to the alpacas at the gate. They spend a lot of the day behind the barn eating, but if they’re out, Theodora and Clementine are likely to greet you. We have some tips to help you not scare them off.

Alpacas look sweet and cuddly, but they actually don’t like to be touched very much—not even by each other! If you have visited our herd, Theodora probably sat down for you to pet her. That’s not actually typical behavior; she’s unusually friendly. If an alpaca doesn’t let you pet them, don’t take it personally. When making friends with an alpaca, calmness and patience are key. 

Our tips for petting an alpaca:

  • Get down on their level. 
  • Let them sniff your face. Scent is part of alpaca communication and smelling you is a way for them to get to know you. 
  • Approach an alpaca from the front or the side. 
  • Extend the back of your hand. Grasping fingers can be alarming to alpacas. 
  • Stroke the alpaca on the side of her neck or body. 
  • Do not reach for the alpaca’s face or top knot. They don’t like being touched there.
  • Do not stand behind an alpaca or pet their bums. You could get kicked.
  • Use your ears. Alpacas hum for many reasons to communicate with each other. One reason is that they’re stressed. They also make a clucking noise to warn you that they might spit at you. And a dinosaur-like sound when they’re really annoyed. Back off if they seem annoyed with you.

Don’t Stand Behind An Alpaca

Naturally, alpacas are vulnerable to predators like deer are. Their primary defenses are their herd dynamics, spitting, and kicking. They are always on alert to potential danger, so it’s generally not good manners to walk up behind an alpaca. It startles them.

Our girls weigh between 100-150 lbs, so they’re not likely to really injure you, but it’s possible. Our biggest concern is a child chasing behind an alpaca and getting pegged. So, always remember: 

Do not walk, stand, or chase behind an alpaca.

You don’t even have to be bothering them to get kicked. Several times, one of the girls has gotten annoyed by another and we got kicked just for being nearby. 

We learned on shearing day that if you have to bother an alpaca (for example, to get them on the scale or in a halter) the closer you stand to their back legs, the less they can hurt you because their kick won’t have enough velocity at that short distance. Physics!

Still, it’s best to just give their back ends some space. 

Don’t Feed the Alpacas

Unless given explicit permission by their human, it’s not good etiquette to feed an alpaca. Not all of the foods in the video are bad for them, but you see, they don’t recognize a lot as food. 

Alpacas are lean-mean fluff-producing machines who only need to eat 2% of their body weight to stay healthy. They are modified ruminants who have three compartments to their stomachs and keeping a neutral PH and a healthy gut microbiome is essential to their health. Putting on too much weight is also bad for them, particularly for pregnant alpacas.

Alpacas eat grass, hay, alfalfa, and we also give our herd just a little bit of Equine Senior Feed to fill any gaps in their diet, like a multivitamin. Alpacas are browsers, though, so they will taste whatever they find. We have to keep the pastures clear of debris and harmful plants for this reason. We’ve gotten really good at using Google Lens to identify weeds so that we can pull any that are poisonous to the alpacas. And just like with dogs and cats, some foods that we eat are toxic to alpacas. 

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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 

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