Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hiring a Chicken to do a Duck's Job

    Earlier this spring I loaned my incubator to the Veatch children in order to let them hatch out some ducklings for me.  That effort was not successful and I still have a few less ducks than I would like. I was hoping one of my hen ducks might go broody but that didn't happen either.  Runner ducks are reputed to have a nervous temperament which makes them lousy mothers.  I have to admit, that has been my experience so far.  My hen ducks are way too nervous to set on a clutch of eggs for 28 days.  I was ready to give up on the idea for this year when one of my chickens went broody.  For several weeks this Dominique hen has tried to persuade me that she really wanted to set on a clutch of eggs, but I really didn't want more chickens.  Then I had the bright idea to let the hen set on a clutch of duck eggs.
The Best Duck for the Job Happens to be  a Chicken

     Dominiques are an old time heirloom breed.  It would appear that we haven't bred away many of their basic instincts as may be the case with the India Runner Ducks.  About a week ago I removed the clutch of chicken eggs the hen was collecting and replaced it with eight duck eggs.  She has since been happily setting away.  I estimate that it will be 28 days on about June 19th.  The other hens have added a few chicken eggs in the past few days so the hatch may be somewhat of a mixed bag.  The duck eggs have a weeks head start. That should work out perfectly as chickens incubate in 21 days while ducks require 28 days.  I'm thinking this hen deserves a new name since she has shown more personality and spunk than the other hens.  I'm thinking something French since the Dominique would appear to be a French breed based on their name. I'm open to suggestions, but Grandma and little Cozette have nothing to worry about.  I'm not about to name a chicken after a family member.

     A few of the strawberries are starting to turn color.  I'll be able to start picking strawberries in just a few more days. Within a few weeks we will be hard pressed to keep up with them. I am very much looking forward to making shortcake using my new biscuit flour.  


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Moving the Garden

    I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few days doing a salvage operation on our vegetable garden.  I had planted a bed of red onions (my sweetie's favorite onion) in garden space on the water right of way.  They were doing nicely, but were right in the path of the new access road.  They seem to have transplanted ok. I guess I will know better in a two months.  I have one more bed of onions that are partially transplanted.  The second bed is a yellow storage variety named Copra.  We're dong very well for alliums as I also planted shallots, garlic, and chives.  I planted the chives in one of our old cedar stumps and you can see they seem to be doing well.

    I'm very grateful that Linda is letting me move the garden to a portion of our front yard.  I think I also owe a debt of gratitude to someone who lives on Madison Street in Monroe near Beth and James.  They had a nice big vegetable garden in their front yard and Linda thought it looked really cute.  Never underestimate the power of the cute factor where women are concerned.  That part of the front yard also happens to be the sunniest spot on our property thanks to the absence of the very large cedar tree that has been cut into boards and is drying in our garage.  I'm laying down cardboard again, covering it with about six to eight inches of compost moved from my erstwhile corn patch, and covering that with several inches of good soil moved from the site of the erstwhile onion beds.  I'm hoping that it will be deep enough that I can get away with planting dry beans. As I have been removing the dirt from the former corn patch I have been pretty impressed with how well the cardboard worked.   It did a very good job in killing off the weeds. There were just a few places where I had some grass or horsetail that had made it through the cardboard.  I think it is a great way to prepare a bed in the fall for the following spring.  The photo below shows the new garden bed as a work in progress.  There is still a lot of dirt and compost to be moved in order to get the beds deep enough to plant.


     Sadly, I've given up on indian corn this year. I did transplant a dozen little corn plants to another part of the garden just to see how well the new variety works  I've got two varieties of dry beans I want to try out in the front yard.  Terry Johnson gave me some black and white  bean seeds named yin and yang.  They look very much like the oriental symbol, although bean shaped rather than round.  He has grown them for a number of years and has had good results.  The other dry bean I want to try is a heirloom variety from western Washington named Rockwell.  I purchased the Rockwell seeds from Uprising Seeds in Bellingham. I also will plant some more pole beans in the front garden as one of Linda's demands for the front garden are some bean towers. I'm also committed to a cute fence, design yet to be determined by Linda, and brick edging of some sort.  There are also a number of stumps impeding the size of the new garden.  That will require the rental of a stump grinder later in the summer.

Rockwell Beans

Yin Yang Beans

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Evicted from the Garden

  We got some bad news a few days ago.  The City of Everett is going to put in an access road on the water main right of way on our neighbor's property.  This is bad news because the neighbors have been letting us do a vegetable garden there.  Its even worse news because they will be doing this within the next two weeks.  We do have other garden area, but my indian corn, onions, and potatoes will all be evicted from the site of the new roadway.  The good news is that Linda has agreed to let me put in a vegetable garden in the front yard in the area where the lawn was ruined by the felling and milling of the big cedar tree.  

    This interferes significantly with my trial of a new variety of indian corn called Cascade Ruby-Gold Flint Corn.  I got it in the mail a little over a week ago from Fertile Valley Seeds, located in Corvallis, Oregon.  Its supposed to be a big improvement on the Painted Mountain variety I tried last year.  I'm looking for a variety of indian corn that won't need to be babied in our cool maritime climate.  With my old variety of indian corn I often had to pull-up the plants and put them in the garage so they could finish drying out of the rain.  Painted Mountain was definitely faster than the old unknown variety I had used previously.  I had merely bought some indian corn at a fruit stand in Eastern Washington and then decided to plant it.  Its a pretty safe assumption that it wasn't the best choice for our climate.  If I can get some area prepared in the front yard I may try transplanting the indian corn.  More than likely the indian corn will be deferred to next year.

      In addition to the indian corn I also bought some garbanzo beans which you can parch just like some corn varieties.  However, the instructions with the package of garbanzo beans states that they have to be planted mid-March through April or else you get small plants with few seeds. I will therefore defer my garbanzo experiment to next spring as the whole point of a garden is to harvest more seeds than I plant.

    My erstwhile corn patch involved another experiment in which the planting bed wasn't tilled.  Instead I covered the existing weeds and grass with a layer of cardboard and then covered the cardboard with layers of leaves, compost, spoiled hay, composted horse manure, etc.  The idea is that the cardboard kills off most of the existing weeds over the winter, the worms move the organic matter deeper into the soil, and   the finished garden plot has nice loose generally weed free soil.  It seemed to be working well. I guess I'll know better how well it worked when I remove all of the good dirt from the corn patch over to my new garden area in the front yard. I am not about to let all of that good organic humus be buried under a road. That means a whole lot of digging and moving dirt with a wheelbarrow. Obviously, I don't have time to prepare another planting bed in that manner for this year.

   Things are looking much better on the fruit side of the garden.  Our strawberries are looking good and my plum tree has set fruit on all three varieties.  I have good fruit set with my asian pears and most of my sweet cherries have set fruit as well.  I expect to have both red currants and black currants, along with our first harvest of hardy kiwis.  Its still too early to tell with the apples and the blueberries, but I'm always optimistic.  Hopefully, we'll have a continuous supply of some sort of fresh fruit from the middle of June through the end of October.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Biscuit Update II

  While purchasing sugar for our bees at Cash and Carry I found that they do sell cake flour in larger containers.  By larger containers I mean 50 pound bags.  I went ahead and bought a bag even though it was a lot more than I needed.  I took it home and combined ten pounds of the cake flour with 10 pounds of all purpose flour and put it in a five gallon bucket labeled as "biscuit flour". I was finally ready to take my biscuits to the next level.

   This morning I made biscuits.  I used 2 1/4 cup of my new biscuit flour, 1 cup of buttermilk, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and one teaspoon of baking soda.  I was happy with the results in that I think they are the best I have made so far.  I took three of them to the shop with me so I could use random customers as biscuit guinea pigs.  When I got to the bee store, Quentin was already there along with Daniel Sullivan and his girlfriend Tiffany. It was perfect. Three biscuits, three biscuit guinea pigs.  I imposed on our friendship and made each of them eat a biscuit. They all agreed that they were very good biscuits. I asked Daniel if they merited an A to which he responded "A plus."  They turned out very well, but I don't feel I have reached the end of my quest for the perfect biscuit.  I still have other variables I want to test besides the flour.  However, I am pretty happy with the results thus far.

   If any of my blog followers are inclined to jump on the biscuit bandwagon I would be happy to share some of my surplus supply of cake flour.  All you have to do is add it to an equal amount of all purpose flour to have the makings of some pretty fantastic biscuits.  I am assuming that my daughter, Lia, currently living in Maryland, can probably find some good low protein flour in her local grocery stores.  Maryland is technically part of the south so the stores may carry Martha White or White Lily flour, both good low protein southern brands. Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest are somewhat deprived when it comes to the availability of good biscuit flour. Fortunately there are a lot of benefits to living here that more than compensate for the lack of good biscuit flour.

    I spent some time discussing biscuits with my mother this evening.  She learned how to make biscuits from her grandmother, (Lillie Etta Heiskill) while she lived with her grandparents in Baxter County Arkansas.  She didn't recall what brand of flour her grandmother used, only that they bought flour in 50 pound cloth bags.  Both the flour and sugar sacks were made of cotton cloth that was printed with colorful patterns suitable for making into dresses.   They stored their flour in a large cardboard drum and they used a large wooden bowl as a lid. Whenever they made biscuits, they simply filled the bowl with flour, made a hole in the flour with their fist, added buttermilk, liquid bacon grease, baking soda, and salt, stirred it until the mixture was the right consistency to set out on a board and cut out the biscuits.  Making biscuits became mom's job because her grandmother thought mom made fluffier biscuits than she did. This was because mom, being a child, had smaller and weaker hands and thus tended to work the dough less. The less the dough is worked, the fluffier the biscuits. They baked the biscuits in a pan where the biscuits were touching each other. This made them rise better and contributed to fluffier biscuits.

    They usually had buttermilk so that was their first choice for milk to use to make biscuits. They called them soda biscuits. When they didn't have buttermilk they used baking powder instead of baking soda and called them baking powder biscuits. Mom said that her aunt Eller made the very best soda biscuits. Aunt Eller was married to Don Haney, who played the fiddle and did five years in prison for running a moonshine still. They had biscuits every day at breakfast and dinner and cornbread for supper.  There were usually three or four left over biscuits at each meal. They always fed the leftover biscuits to their dog, Checker.  They never bought dog food.

   Mom had a few suggestions for me to try in my continuing quest for the perfect biscuit.  The first was to try making biscuits without using a formal recipe.  That would constitute a considerable leap of faith for me as I'm one of those people who really like to measure stuff carefully.  When she made biscuits, she used approximately 4 cups of flour but she never measured the flour. Everything hinged on how much milk she used which she didn't measure either.  She poured the milk into the hole in the flour and used liquid bacon grease so she didn't need to cut in the oil. The quantity of oil used is apparently less critical to the biscuits turning out well. Less oil will tend to make fluffier biscuits while more oil makes crisper biscuits. Her grandma kept salt in a canister of some sort so she simply reached in a grabbed some salt with her hand. That only leaves the baking soda. According to the recipes I have read, four cups of flour would require about two teaspoons of baking soda. However, a little extra baking soda wouldn't have any great impact on the taste of the biscuits and might make them even fluffier. Too little baking soda would result in less fluffy biscuits.

    Mom said that she never rolled the biscuit dough.  She simply mixed in enough flour until the consistency of the dough seemed right, then dumped it out onto a floured board and patted it down to the right thickness. The goal was to have very fluffy biscuits and the more the dough was worked, the less fluffy the biscuit. She cut out the biscuits using a floured glass and put them into a pan where the biscuits were all touching each other. She didn't know how hot the oven was as they baked their biscuits in a wood cook stove with no temperature gauge.  Her grandma simply stuck her hand into the oven to feel if it was hot enough.

   Mom's second suggestion was to try making biscuits with liquid butter to eliminate the cutting in of the cold butter.  According to my book, "Southern Biscuit Basics", using cold butter or lard results in a flakey biscuit so using melted butter would be trading flakey for fluffy. Using more butter contributes to flavor. Using less butter contributes to fluffy. I can see that I still have considerable biscuit trials ahead of me as I continue my quest for the perfect biscuit. Everyone is forewarned that they can expect to take their turn as biscuit guinea pigs when they come to visit.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bees on the Loose!

    I had a busy day at the bee store today. It was our first day of business after all of the package bees were sold.  The thirty extra packages we hived will probably not last long.  Seven were spoken for before the end of the day.  We also had a swarm call today.  I tried to pass it on but wasn't able to find someone able to retrieve it.  I consulted with Quentin who decided it was my turn to do a recreational swarm call.

    This particular swarm was located at a storage rental place behind the Panther Square strip center in Snohomish.  It was about 15 feet up in a cedar tree, but was in the interior portion of the branches rather than hanging out in the open.  In order to reach the swarm I had to cut away a number of dead limbs and clear a path for me and the ladder.  After a bit of prep work I was able to get 80 percent of the swarm into a cardboard box with some window screen added for ventilation.  Rather than reopen the box and attempt to add the remaining 20 percent to the box,  I grabbed an empty bee package shipping container and collected the stragglers in that.  It went fairly well considering the inconvenient location of the swarm.  I put the bees in the back of the van and headed back to the bee store.  The entire job took little more than a half an hour, including the time it took me to drive home and get my lopers.

   Back at the store I left the bees in the back of the van with the rear doors open and got busy helping customers.  We planned to hive the bees for a customer who wanted to buy one of our hived packages. However, his equipment consisted of all western size boxes and frames rather than the larger deep frames we had used to hive the extra packages.  The plan was to assemble two western boxes and the necessary frames, then take the swarm home and hive them for the customer.  About a half hour later a customer asked me why there were so many bees in my van.  I looked outside and realized we had lost containment on the swarm.  The duct tape I had used to close up the cardboard box and failed and the bees were on the loose again. My van looked like a scene from a movie about killer bees.  I had to wait for an hour or more before the bees settled down into about 5 or 6 different clumps at various locations within my van.  Then it took another hour to corral them all with my trusty bee vacuum.  It really could have been much worse.  The bees could have staged their escape while I was driving the van.   Then I might have been driving a bit distracted.  As it was it was merely the inconvenience of capturing the swarm a second time. The big question mark at this point is whether the queen got through all of that without injury.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Linda's first Package Bee Trip

Loading the trailer with package bees
    After owning the bee store for six years, an extraordinary thing happened this year.  Linda went to California with me to pick up the bees.  It really turned out quite well in spite of our respective weaknesses.  Linda seriously gimped herself out moving gravel a few days before we left. As a consequence she was in a fair amount of pain the entire trip.  In spite of her pain she was still pretty good company and was willing to drive more than I had expected.  As busy as we've been lately, it was very nice just to spend the time together.  I would consider that to be a good sign that we still like hanging out together after all these years. We stopped in Medford at about eight p.m. and ate dinner at Red Lobster  We arrived in Redding some time after midnight and booked the usual cheap room at the Motel Six.

     The next morning we spent a few hours looking for a drug store so we could find some appropriate medicated patches to lessen the pain in Linda's shoulder.  After the trip to the drug store and a quick lunch at Carl Jr.'s we headed over to load up the bees.  Steve Park was as friendly and helpful as always.  They loaded us up with another 410  three pound packages of honeybees and had us on our way back north by 3:30 p.m.  Linda said it was like she had seen it all before as we've taken a lot of pictures on past trips.  However, she did get to watch some of Steve's employees grafting queens. This consists of transferring new larvae into specially prepared queen cups so they can be placed into beehives and turned into queen bees. Watching a skillful person graft queens is pretty fascinating to your average bee geek.  Linda was polite enough to at least pretend to find it interesting.
Steve Park, who always seems to have a big smile

Another loading the trailer shot.

     When they loaded us up in Redding it was in the high seventies, warm and sunny.  I was very anxious to get the bees up out of the heat and drove with a little excess enthusiasm as we passed Weed, California.  My enthusiasm was rewarded with a speeding ticket from a California Highway Patrolman.  I thought he was a serous jerk, not because he gave me a speeding ticket which I deserved, but because he wouldn't let me get out and open the trailer doors to keep the bees from overheating.

     I had one other shot of adrenaline while driving through Portland.  I had been sleeping for the past hour or so when Linda wakes me up and asks if we are supposed to take the St. Helens exit.  As I wake up enough to answer "No" it was already too late.  We are exiting the freeway going who knows where into the depths of Portland.  By the time we reach a place where we can stop we are in an industrial area with no helpful signage. After I woke up enough to be coherent I looked at the map on my iPhone.  We turned the truck around and amazingly drove right back onto the freeway six blocks later.  That was probably the only freeway exit in Portland where we could have gotten back on the freeway that easily. Portland's freeways are a masterpiece of confusion. The rest of the trip went by without incident.  The scenery in Northern California and Southern Oregon was gorgeous.  Washington has some nice scenery too but it was dark by the time we crossed the bridge into Washington. We pulled into Snohomish at about 3:00 a.m. with Quentin and his crew waiting for us at the bee store to unload the trailer.  Linda and I just got into our car, drove home, and went to bed.

Package Bees are Past, Phew!

   It was so nice to get up this morning and know I didn't have to spend the whole day down at the store doing something about package bees.  It has been a long two weeks of package bees, with an even longer two month run up to the event.  I am so looking forward to normal hours and an occasional day off.  I do have a few little package bee tasks ahead of me today, but we only have 7 packages still waiting in the store to be hived.  I have homes for 4 of them.  The remaining three will be hived in either my backyard or Quentin's backyard.  As of Saturday afternoon it looked like Quentin and I were going to be hiving about 35 or 40 packages today. Fortunately, Dave Pearson and Shannon Boling had some extra equipment and energy. They hived most of our extras for us on new frames in exchange for some of the extras.  Once again good friends come to the rescue.
   I was busy at church yesterday while my faithful minion was busily breaking the sabbath on my behalf, helping Dave hive all of those packages.  I tried to talk him out of it, but it was a clear ox in the mire issue to him. He didn't feel comfortable having Dave do all of our work for us. I was just more willing to let it all wait until Monday. When Quentin looks at things from livestock terms it is pretty hard to dissuade him. I suffered some serious guilt twinges throughout the day as a result.

    Today is supposed to be a lovely day, 74 degrees and sunny.  I'm looking forward to some quality time in the garden. I do have an early morning dental appointment and a few hours of bee chores to get  out of the way first. After the dentist I'm stopping by cash and carry to buy six  50 pound bags of sugar.  We have lots of hungry little mouths to feed over the next month or so.  It also will be a good excuse to check out their flour section and see if I can find the perfect biscuit flour on their shelves somewhere.  I'm looking for some kind of cake flour that I can mix half and half with all-purpose flour. "Biscuit Nirvana" could be right around the corner.