An Unseasonably Cold Weekend, By the Numbers

If you’re like us, you planted your flowers Mother’s Day weekend. Even with Colorado’s unpredictable springs, that date is generally in the clear for a hard frost. It has snowed as late as Father’s Day, but you have to live your life and try not to think about snow in June. We planted our winter squash, corn, and beans on May 1st because the forecast looked warm and damp. Flowers went in the ground and indoor-started veggies moved outside on May 7th or 8th. Yesterday it was 88°, but today, May 20th, we could get 3-5 inches of snow and the forecast calls for an overnight low of 28°. Tomorrow, the low is 30° and then things start to warm up to the mid-50s by Monday and 70° by Wednesday, with lots of rain between now and then. The precipitation is more than welcome, but the cold makes us worry about the garden. We take comfort in data, so we went in search of how cold is too cold for our plants. 

Here’s the breakdown of how cold affects our homestead, by the numbers. 

Bees

Our honeybees pulled through the winter, but we just split them into a second colony about ten days ago. We’re a little worried about the queenless hive being able to keep all the brood and queen cells warm enough, but the split, which has the queen and a smaller nest, should be fine. 

  • 41°: the body temperature at which a bee will die.
  • 93°: the average temperature at the center of the winter cluster, with brood present.
  • 57°: the temperature at which bees form a tight cluster
  • 45-50°: the temperature at which bees enter a state of torpor 

Dampness and wind are more likely to harm bees than the cold is.

IMG_20220520_141604464Garden

Germination and seedling growth are highly dependent on water and soil temperature.

  • 25°: hard freeze
  • 28°: for 5 hours: the temperature at which most plants will freeze
  • 32°: the temperature at which most seedlings will die. 

Evaporation will help raise the air temperature around the plants, so watering deeply in the evening can help, as can covering plants before the colder air sets in. We are using the alpacas’ pool, beach towels, tarps, outdoor blankets, old sheets—basically anything we can find—and I’m running the clean towels and sheets through the dryer first for good measure. And then I’m saying a prayer. 

I feel really lucky that I decided to plant peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants in the patio garden because I can move these more heat-loving plants inside for the weekend. I just have to keep the toddler out of them. 

IMG_20220519_200512260Orchard

Our apple and pear trees are beyond the flowering stage and it looks like many of the blossoms have been pollinated (thanks, bees!). Julio found this guide to critical temperatures for fruit trees. It looks like our trees should be okay, for the most part, and enjoy a drink from all the precipitation. 

  • 28°: the temperature at which 10% of buds will die.
  • 25°: the temperature at which 90% of buds will die.

Alpacas

  • 2 inches: how much fleece each alpaca has grown on her torso right now. 

IMG_20220520_123540163They’re wet, but probably enjoying a break from being hot. Alpacas can tolerate very cold temperatures, provided they have a windbreak.

I was in the middle of writing this when the snow started, so I had to run outside and cover the babies. Now, I’m sipping stress relief tea and praying for the garden while taking deep breaths. Best wishes to you, fellow Front Range gardeners. 

We will update here with how the forecast played out and if our plants survived.

IMG_20220520_142028894

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

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!)