Month: October 2013

Slowly switching to sub-tropical vegetables and herbs

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A selection of seeds suitable for sub-tropical climates.
A selection of seeds suitable for sub-tropical climates.

The coastal areas of Sydney sit half way between temperate and sub-tropical climates. This has historically been great for growing vegetables: just like a temperate climate, but without frosts and overall a bit warmer.

In recent years, however, Sydney has become hotter and more humid, at least where we live in Lewisham. This has led to vegetables prematurely bolting to seed, and to us losing the fight with powdery mildew (and its cousins).

So I’ve recently started to shift my mindset, to increasingly treating Sydney as a sub-tropical climate.

This was reflected in my last seed order from Green Harvest (who are located in Queensland):

  • Coriander ‘Slow Bolt’
  • Cucumber ‘Giant Russian’
  • Onion ‘Green Stem Welsh’
  • Cauliflower ‘Sixty Days’
  • Mexican Tarragon

These are all listed as being suitable for hot climates, slow to bolt to seed, and/or being disease resistant (in particular, powdery mildew).

We’ll see how they go!

Termites ate our garden beds

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Half wine barrels -- they look great
Half wine barrels — they add rustic charm

Most of our vege patch is constructed using corrugated iron raised garden beds, which look great, and last for a long time.

Here and there we’ve used half wine barrels, to squeeze in some extra space, and to add further visual interest. Painted inside with a sealant layer, they should also last quite a while, or so we thought.

I recently lent on one of the barrels, and one of the planks snapped straight off, revealing that the apparently solid barrels were in fact a tissue-thin veneer of wood:

Yep, that would be terminates then.
Yep, that would be terminates then.

We know there are termites in the garden, although they’ve never attacked the house in it’s 100-year history. For some reason, I thought that the half wine barrels would be OK, but I was wrong.

Wine barrels make a great meal for termites.
Wine barrels make a great meal for termites.

Once I dug out the soil, the scope of the damage became apparent (photo above). Clearly these aren’t saveable.

So out they went, replaced by a solid raised bed made out of H4 treated pine (with an inside layer of plastic to keep the toxins away from the rhubarb).

There’s one half wine barrel left, but it’s in the open, away from any fences or other wood sources. We’ll see how long it lasts!

The new garden bed -- this should last.
The new garden bed — this should last.

Summer has come early to Sydney!

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Christmas bush in flower, two months early!
Christmas bush in flower, two months early!

Summer has come early to Sydney this year, and it’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.

30+ degree temperatures for many days, even in early October, officially the start of spring.

The give-away that summer is here — ready or not — are the plants and trees in flower.

Such as the Christmas bush in next door’s garden (picture above), which started flowering in early October instead of … well .. at Christmas time! The gum trees are flowering, and everything is rushing to seed.

Great for the bees, but we’re somewhat fearful about what we’ll experience when we get to actual summer!

Climate change, it’s here.

Harvesting our first honey

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Getting ready to harvest honey from the hive.
Getting ready to harvest honey from the hive. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Bosett.)

With the very warm weather in Sydney, our bees have been very busy laying down comb, and filling it with honey. So when I added some empty boxes to the bottom of the hive, I was very surprised to find the top box very heavy indeed (and therefore filled with honey).

With the able help of Sarah, a fellow beginner natural beekeeper, we went up onto the roof last week to harvest our first honey.

I had put a “clearing board” on the frame the day before, which is a sort of one-way gate for the bees. In theory, this should clear the top box of most bees, although it didn’t work all that well in this instance.

There’s no particular magic to harvesting honey: lift out a frame, check it’s full of honey, brush off the bees, and put it in a container. (Repeat as required.)

In the end, there were three frames of entirely capped honey, and the remaining frames were a mix of capped and uncapped honey. While we probably could’ve harvested all of it, we decided to leave the uncapped frames in the hive.

Our first frame of honey. Photo courtesy of Sarah Bosett.
Our first frame of honey. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Bosett.)
One frame of honeycomb, fresh and full of honey.
One frame of honeycomb, fresh and full of honey.

In Warré hives, frames aren’t wired. So to harvest the honey, you simply cut it out of the frames. (I then put the empty frames back into the hive, to fill the gaps in the top box.)

Honeycomb, ready for the honey to be extracted.
Honeycomb, ready for the honey to be extracted.

At a small scale, extracting the honey is pretty simple. Put the comb in a sieve that fits on top of a 20L plastic bucket.

Breaking up the honeycomb, letting the honey drain out.
Breaking up the honeycomb, letting the honey drain out.

Break up the honeycomb, and let the honey to drain out. A fine plastic filter sheet keeps the bits out of the honey (shown above). It only took about 24 hours for the vast bulk of the honey to drain out, with a small amount of mixing up throughout.

Pouring the honey into jars :-)
Pouring the honey into jars 🙂

Hornsby Beekeeping  (where I obtained the sieves, etc) kindly put a pouring tap (called a “gate”) into the storage bucket, which made it super-easy to pour the honey into jars, without spilling a drop.

The final haul - 2.5L of lovely home-made honey.
The final haul – 2.5L of lovely home-made honey.

These are the jars of honey we ended up with, complete with “Lewisham honey” labels. That’s a lot of honey for a small and very early honey harvest.

The final stats:

  • 3 frames harvested (out of 8 in the top box)
  • 6kg of comb and honey
  • 2.5 litres of lovely honey

That’s not a bad start, I think! Particularly with more harvesting expected soon (of the whole top box and probably the second box.)

This is what 3 cubic metres of compost looks like

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Now that's a big pile of compost!
Now that’s a big pile of compost!

I recently ordered a large delivery of compost, to be mainly used in the guerrilla gardened space behind our house. Much of that soil is heavily depleted, and I wanted to give our fruit trees the fastest rate of growth this year.

Why order such a big pile? For the simple reason that it cost $51/m3 to buy in bulk (plus a delivery charge), compared to $9 (or more) per 40L bag if purchased at a garden centre (or Bunnings for that matter). And a it takes a lot of 40L bags to make up a cubic metre of compost. That’s a big saving!

This time around, I purchased the compost from Australian Native Landscapes, who have a nice range of recycled products.

We ordered “RE-CARB® ESSENSE”, which is described as:

Humus rich, 100% organic compost is specifically designed to build soild carbon levels and soil microbial activity.  Apply 75mm and dig into tired, nutrient poor soils. Suitable for all plants, this compost is particulary beneficial for phosphorous sensitive Australian natives.

That matched exactly what we needed! In general, I really like the idea of using recycled coffee grounds, Sydney sewage, wood chips, etc to make compost. Much better than going into a tip…

Our bees ‘bearding’ on the hottest October day in Sydney history

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Bee ‘bearding’ describes when a bee hive takes extreme steps to cool the hive. Thousands of bees can hang off the entrance (like a beard), fanning cool air into the hive. By hanging on the outside of the hive, they also reduce the heat load within the hive itself.

It’s not surprising that my hive generated an impressive beard earlier in the week, on the 37°C day that was the hottest October day for Sydney in all of history. What was fascinating (and somewhat scary!) was how the bearding grew during the day (see below).

Apparently this also means I should add a sixth (!) box to the hive, to reduce overcrowding.

Bearding bees, at 11am ...
Bearding bees, at 11am …
... and then at 1pm ...
… then at 1pm …
... and finally at 4pm (that's a lot of bees!)
… and finally at 4pm (that’s a lot of bees!)

PS. apparently the day-time temperature peaked at 4pm that day, which would explain the crazy amount of bearding. (While the bees are on a relatively exposed roof, they do get shade for most of the day from nearby trees.)

Helping out with bee hive maintenance (and possibly gaining a second hive)

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The Warré hive at Jason and Gloria's house
The Warré hive at Jason and Gloria’s house

Earlier in the week, Gavin Smith (one of the elders of the Sydney beekeeping community) put out a call for help to the Natural beekeeping in Australia list. Eager to learn more, I volunteered to help.

The first stop was Jason and Gloria’s house in Hurlstone Park, just 10mins drive from our house. They have a lovely Warré hive in the back corner of their incredibly productive garden.

Jason and Gloria's bountiful back garden
Jason and Gloria’s bountiful back garden

The task at hand was to harvest a box of honey from the top, and to place an empty box at the bottom (‘nadiring’).

Gavin getting ready to open the hive...
Gavin getting ready to open the hive…

The bees were very gentle, and quite unconcerned even when we opened up the hive. The hive was very strong, with no hive beetles to be seen. It all went smoothly, until we looked into the top box we were harvesting.

Bees will grow comb however they like, when it comes down to it
Bees will grow comb however they like, when it comes down to it
(photo showing the underside of the box).

The bees had started following the orientation of the frames, and then decided to grow comb in completely different directions. As they say, bees will do whatever they want to do.

After separating the outer four frames (with some judicious cutting of comb), we were left with three heavily cross-linked frames.

Voila, a second hive!

The three-ish combs that will hopefully form the start of a viable new hive.
The three-ish combs that will hopefully form the start of a viable new hive.

After spotting a queen cell in amongst these three frames, Gavin declared this would be a viable ‘nuc’ (nucleus), which could act as a starter for a second hive on my roof. So that got boxed up, and taken home. Ten minutes of transferring the frames, and I had a second hive in place. Not what I was expecting, but I’m hardly complaining!

The next stop was Michele Margolis’ house, where a traditional Langstroth hive also needed attention. With the constant guidance of Gavin, I took the hive apart frame by frame, checking it as we went.

Gavin had been trying to convince the hive to migrate from Langstroth boxes into a Warré box, but it just wasn’t happening. Taking away the one Warré box, Gavin then decided this would be an excellent second box of bees for my new hive.

I did get three bee stings during the day, but only one really hurt (the bee got me on the ankle, through my sock). I learned a lot, and now have a second hive. All in all, a very worthwhile 3 hours! Many thanks to Gavin for being such a patient teacher.

(PS. I won’t know for another month or so whether the second hive will survive. The queen needs to be hatched, and then she needs to fly out, mate, and return. Fingers crossed it all works!)