In the gloaming

I have a post nearly finished about Sunday’s hive inspection, but I was out in the garden tonight and it was so beautiful that I took dozens of photos. The combination of a wet spring (groundwater tables are finally above drought levels) and my 2012 resolution not to mow or weed-whack where it wasn’t absolutely necessary has produced a really lush environment, especially for Maine.

The valerian jungle hasn’t quite spread to the entire yard, but it’s a near thing.

valarian fields forever

This is a very photogenic patch of Fedco’s “Freedom” lettuce mix.


The view down the south hill, with newly clipped withy and a row of elecampne in front of the bog garden.

withy in the gloaming

Red oakleaf lettuce growing through garlic and chives.

garlic forest

The view out back, into the alpine garden.


May showers bring June flowers

That’s how the saying would go if the poet had lived in Maine. Flowers here in April are few and far between, especially when the bergenia has an off year. (I think of bergenia as indestructible, but it was a poor performer in 2012.) By May, we have:

Isatis tinctoria, Dyer’s woad. The leaves produce a blue dye famous in olden times, until it was supplanted by indigo. The blossoms are always full of bees.


Papaver alpinum, alpine poppies. Short-lived but amazingly generous in self-seeding everywhere.

papaver a

Hesperis matronalis, Dame’s Rocket. Another generous volunteer year after year.

Hesperis m

Tree peony, unknown variety because I bought it at Marden’s, our local salvage chain. The box was labeled as a yellow flowering type and I imagine that’s why it ended up there for $5.00. This plant has been growing on an exposed hillside for 15 years and has 15 buds on it this spring. I hear the peonies in the Emperor’s garden had 100 each. . .can’t wait.

peony covered in beeeeezzz

I think the buds look like strawberry ice cream cones.

single scoop

Centaurea, cornflower. This particular plant has proven a little too generous with the re-seeding – and it’s difficult to weed out, so I can’t recommend it. On the other hand, the bees love it in the morning. I’m still going to try to limit it’s range next spring.


How to mail a birthday cake.

The Boy turns 21 next week and we won’t be there to help celebrate – what to do? One of us (I can’t remember who to blame) said, “We should mail him his birthday cake!”. This isn’t just any old cake – in our family you get a checkerboard cake with your choice of any three colors or dealer’s (mother’s) choice if you can’t make up your mind. We did really UPS the cake to Providence this afternoon, so I dug out a 15 year-old photo from birthday #6 to show the finished effect.

Colorful, no?

This year’s version is YELLOW/red/blue and yes, I did mean to put that in all caps. Wow, the yellow.  I’ve adapted the recipe from the back of the Chicago Metallic Cake Pan Set because really, Einstein himself couldn’t divide this batter into thirds precisely enough to make the original work out to three even layers. The original proportions are in parenthesis if you feel up to the challenge.

Checkerboard Cake

Preheat oven to 340 (325) degrees and grease and flour the three 9″ pans. The instructions imply that the pans are nonstick but um, no. I use cooking spray, and I also spray the divider.

Mix 5 (4) C flour, 4 (3) tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt in a bowl and set aside.

In a small pan or the microwave melt 1 1/4 C butter which is 2.5 sticks  (1 C or 2 sticks) and cool.

In a VERY large bowl, cream the butter with 2 1/2 (2) C sugar. Add 5 (4) eggs, one at at time, beating after each addition. Add 1 Tbs vanilla.

Add 2 C milk (1 1/2) at room temperature alternately with the flour mixture, beat until batter is smooth. (I use the lazy baker’s method: add half the flour and beat in, add ALL the milk and beat until smooth, add the remaining flour and beat 30 seconds. There! All done while still obeying the ancient law passed down by mothers everywhere to “Start with dry and end with dry”.)

Divide the batter in thirds and add food coloring. If you want to make one ring chocolate you might add 3 oz of melted semi-sweet chocolate to one bowl.  Work fast, because the batter sets up fairly quickly and doesn’t “flow” as nicely after a while in a warm kitchen.

wow, yellow

Put the divider in the pan and press down to snap in place. Fill each ring about half-way up with each color, alternating the color choices in each pan. There are very good directions on the box for this step although they say to wash and dry the divider between pans and yikes, that’s a lot of work. I lift it carefully and vertically out of the batter and go on to the next pan  because I’m a bad person but really, the cake will be fine.

Insanity cake

The box emphatically tells you DO NOT PUT DIVIDER IN THE OVEN, so don’t do that.

The directions say to bake for 25 minutes but with the slightly thicker layers I check at 30 minutes. If you can, rotate the pans halfway through to keep the layers even. Remove when cake springs back to the touch or a tester comes out clean. The colors will probably darken on the surface but they will still be hallucination-bright when you cut a slice. Cool on racks for about 10 minutes, remove from pans. Happy crazy clean-up!

Too pretty to clean

I use a chocolate ganache frosting spread very thinly between the layers to allow the checkerboard to really show off, and then much spread it much thicker on the  top and sides to hide the colors until the cake is cut. We’ll have to wait for The Boy to send pics to see that.

I put the unfrosted layers on cardboard cake discs, sealed each one in a gallon Ziplock bag and stacked them in a 12″ x 12″ x 8″ box with a box of birthday candles and assorted decorations, 2 sealed and bagged plastic containers of frosting, a card, and a lot of air-pillow-packing. The nice ladies at the UPS Store slapped fragile stickers all over it (thanks Victoria!) and sent it off with loving care. Happy Birthday, Boy!

Bees in a Bag

Three weeks ago we hived two new packages of bees from BeeWeaver Apiaries. The weather here has been unseasonably cool and rainy – even for Downeast Maine – but the bees are thriving.

two hives

There were a few dozen bees left in the box after I installed them, so I bagged the delivery box and stored in our hoop house to give them a fighting chance to make it through the cold, rainy night. The next morning I set the box down near the hives and slit the front open. Bees spilled out almost immediately and it looked like they were headed to their new homes (that’s the black garbage bag to the right of the hives in this photo).

two hives and a bag

I admit it might have been asking for trouble to leave the bag sitting there until Saturday. I have a day job, OK? Cut a girl some slack. When I came to dispose of the bag and empty packages I found that bees had moved in and started building comb. The bag was FULL of bees, lots of traffic in and out, loud buzzing, the works. They weren’t happy with me for trying to pick up their new home so I didn’t get a good photo, but you can see a patch of lovely golden comb in the bag’s opening. I’d estimate the bag weighed 5 -7 lbs.

bag o bees

I put together a new hive box, waited till late afternoon when everyone was home, and installed them (bag and all) into the new location – making sure they were oriented the same way. We’ve had another few days of rain but today, in the bright sun, there is heavy traffic in and out of the hive. They are friendly and social and don’t seem to be testy at all – a good sign since I don’t know this colony. The neighborhood children who named the other hives “Avocado” and “MilknHoney” have named this one “Surprise!”.

new home

The 2012 dandelion crop is spectacular.

dandelion harvest

There was a bee on every flower. Plenty of bee fodder in the alpine bed too: heaths, heather, and rockcress.

alpines heath heather rockcress

New horizons

Our local college campus has a community garden plot just down the road from my mother’s new digs.

COA garden

I applied for a plot in the depths of January and got the call to come down to work day and claim my space just last week.  Fifteen of us had a wonderful Saturday morning hauling old logs up the hill to the new vineyard site and cutting turf in under cloudy, windless skies.

COA gardeners

The site has some of the problems common to community gardens: a bad case of clubroot and invasive populations of comfrey, sowthistle,  bindweed, and witchgrass. Clubroot spreads easily on tools and shoes, especially in the damp spring weather, and rototilling has contributed to the spread of invasive perrenials, but current management has good protocols in place to keep these problems from spreading. Shoes and tools are rinsed in a bleach solution upon leaving the plot. I prefer to cut comfrey down to the ground because the leaves make an excellent mulch, but if you’re in the mood to pull them out each type of weed has a dedicated disposal area (the sowthistle has its own glass-topped “coffin”). The good news is that the soil is rich, deep and organic, and supplemented with abundant compost from the college cafeteria.

compost bins

Here’s what my 10′ x 10′ plot looks like now – I’ll be posting updates as the season progresses. Today the soil was too wet to start work without damaging its structure.

my plot

And here’s a photo of the raisin sour cream coffee cake I brought with me. You should always show up at work-day with high quality fuel.

Aunt Loris's coffee cake

Aunt Loris’s Raisin Cinnamon Coffee Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick) at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon table salt

Filling and Topping
2 cups raisins
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter or spray a 9-x-13-inch baking pan with Pam.

In a large bowl, cream butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla. Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together into a separate bowl. Mix in sour cream and then dry ingredients alternately into butter mixture until both are used up and the batter is smooth and very thick. Mix in 1 1/2 raisins, reserving 1/2 C of the raisins as a topping.  In a medium bowl, beat eggs whites until stiff, then fold into batter.

In a small dish, whisk together sugar and cinnamon for filling and/or topping.

Spread half the cake batter in the bottom of prepared pan. Sprinkle with half of cinnamon-sugar mixture. Dollop remaining cake batter over filling in spoonfuls. Use a rubber or offset spatula to gently spread it over the filling and smooth the top. Sprinkle batter with remaining cinnamon-sugar and remaining raisins.

Feel free to ignore this step and just sprinkle the entire portion of cinnamon and sugar on top of the cake with the remaining raisins. It will still be totally delicious.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, and it’s even better the next day.




Sing like a Tree Frog (Owl)

owl frog frog owl

One of the neighbors dressed the Social Capital Owl in a Japanese frog mask, possibly in honor of the spring peepers going mad in our swamp. Here’s a poem by Dick Allen to celebrate.

You May Leave a Memory, Or You Can be Feted by Crows

Three years, Huang Gongwang

worked on his famous handscroll,

“Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains”.

As he put successive applications of ink to paper

over the “one burst of creation,” his original design,

it is said he often sang like a tree frog

and danced on his old bare feet.

One day, he adds one hemp fiber stroke,

the next a moss dot.

What patience he had,

like a cat who comes back season after season to a mole’s tunnel.

Honors may go to others.

Riches may go to others.

Huang Gongwang has one great job to do.

And he sings like a tree frog,

and he dances on old bare feet.


Bees in boxes

Co-worker Carl meets the BeeWeaver bees that were delivered to the office at noon today. The UPS driver was funny; “You want these inside the office? Really?”. It was pouring rain out there so yes, he brought them into the conference room for everyone to admire.

bee box

The bees did very well in transit considering the long haul from Texas in the rain. I sprayed them lightly with sugar syrup and HoneyBHealthy and loaded them into the car for the trip to the island.

There was an hour’s respite from pouring rain and dropping temperatures at around three this afternoon. (I work for a very understanding organization that’s all about flexible time off for agricultural crisis so I was home for a day.) I’ve been cleaning equipment and stockpiling sugar syrup for a few days now so was all ready to load up the smoker and hives some bees.


Where I ran into my first problem: what to do when the boxes are fastened together for ease of shipping? I tried levering them apart, but there are 3 deeply sunk staples in each of those cross pieces. I finally just opened one box and a time and emptied them into the hive as I would normally. It worked out fine – I think the bees were happy to have a warm dark place to dive into to – but I don’t know as it was the most elegant solution. Are you supposed to use a saw?

Almost everyone was in their new home by four o’clock. Now it’s 39 degrees F with a possible low of 25 and wind chill to 16 so I’ve tacked a skirt of insulation around  the hives to cut down on the air circulation around the screened bottom board. I checked on them a few minutes ago and can still hear the cluster loud and clear inside the hive, with very few bees lingering outdoors. The top feeders are full of sugar syrup and they’re as protected as I can make them.

active hives

And there will be peach tree blossoms to find tomorrow.

red haven peach


Bees continued, and some sorrel

I jumped the gun – to be fair, so did UPS – and our bees were not delivered today. They might not arrive until Monday or Tuesday of next week, which wouldn’t be a bad thing because the weather forecast is for cold and stormy weather over the weekend. We’ll see if my UPS tracking number changes status over night.

Meanwhile, there’s sorrel in ready in the garden.

sorrel in the garden

Time to pick a whole bowl. . .

bowl of sorrel

And process in a food processor with olive oil, garlic, sea salt and a few toasted pine nuts.

sorrel pesto

PS Just got notification – bees tomorrow!