Bees tomorrow!

Our new boxes of bees arrive tomorrow, UPS overnight from Bee Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, TX. We had originally paid for shipping via the US postal service, but BW is disappointed with the 4-5 day delivery time this year and upgraded us to UPS – which is newly certified to handle live animals. I hope my regular UPS gal likes bugs. She can bench press 250 and I’d hate to piss her off.

I think we’re ready for the new colonies. The hives, named Avocado and MilknHoney, are all set up. . .

bee hives

I have 2 gallons of sugar syrup laced with Honey B Healthy, my bee suit, a spray bottle of syrup for spraying on the boxes, the smoker is full of fuel, and the garden is full of heather and rock cress in bloom. My coworkers can’t wait to “meet the bees”, and I can’t wait for company in the garden. You can’t imagine what fascinating garden companions they are until you have a hive of your own.

bee food

Has anyone seen my hive tool? It’s here somewhere. . .



Astier, 12 Avril 2012

One more post about Paris, and then on to what’s happening in the Maine garden these days. Right now there’s a pounding Nor’easter in the garden so it’s more pleasant to blog about dinner in Paris, but soon. . .

We went to a traditional French restaurant for our wedding anniversary on April 12. Restaurant Astier is tiny, friendly, and thirty feet from the apartment we were renting. Did  I mention tiny? The waiters had to back down the stairs to the wine cellar – I don’t think there was enough room to turn around down there.


We chose the prix fixe menu and split the dishes between us. The first course was one dish of thin slices of duck breast on a circle of mirepoix, and the other a bright green cold soup with a “dumpling” of lightly smoked haddock.

first course

Second course: a circle of lamb in dark gravy topped with eggplant tomato puree; grilled pork chop on a plate of white beans.

second course

Third course is The Famous Cheese Platter – renowned in song and story. Fifteen pounds of cheese folks, representing every shape, flavor and region. The waiter brings this huge platter of cheese to your table – on a metal stand because it’s much too big to actually fit on that tiny surface with your plate and the accompanying bread basket – and hands off a couple of sharp knives. That’s it – for this course it’s you against the cheese.

amazing cheese

Last course, dessert! R. had creme brulee covered in diced strawberries. Delicate and delicious, very sorry the photo was taken moments too late to see its lovely presentation. I had Baba au rhum traditionnel. Now baba au rhum in my experience is a nicely glazed brioche sort-of-thing. At Astier our waiter brought me a cylinder of yellow pound cake in a soup plate, a sharp knife, and a soup spoon. I was puzzled. He took the knife back from me and cut the pound cake into quarters, produced a dark green decanter and poured a cup of rum into the soup plate, then handed me a drinking glass full of whipped cream and wished us “Bon appetite”.


It was a wonderful meal, we had fantastic (and very friendly) service, delightful people-watching, and it was also fortunate that our apartment was two doors down the street after wine with dinner and rum with dessert.

And evidently wedding anniversary #26 is the French restaurant anniversary. If I could, I’d make reservations for #27 right now.

Paris Botanical Garden

I sat down to write a post on the tradition of burying one’s heart separately from one’s body – no, really – and was then distracted by the opportunity to visit Le Jardin des Plantes. Thank heavens, right? Turns out the gardens are right down the #5 Metro from our apartment, it’s a beautiful April afternoon, and admission is free.  I couldn’t resist.

So, this post is dedicated to SP, ChK, LF, KW, CT, and all my other  friends who commiserate with me about the poor dirt and harsh climate where we garden in Maine. Take a look at what 28 hectares of managed soil, mild weather, and 400 years can do.

avenue gran

They’re a bit further on into spring than we are, too.


This is their Sargent Crab. This Japanese variety is notable for nearly horizontal branching.  I have one of these too – the trunk caliper on mine is about two inches.

Sargent crab

I remembered the French for bee – Apis – and had a halting conversation with one of the staff about apis and miele (honey). They don’t have hives at the Gardens because too many visitors are allergic, but they have begun to foster orchard mason bees and other wild pollinators with “bee hutches”.

bee hutch

I wandered around in the conservatories for a while, past figs, bananas and date palms, through the orchids and into grasses and succulents. At one point I had the whole place to myself; I guess it was just too nice a day to be inside even in a place like this.



I found “Jardin de Roches” on the map and correctly translated it as a rock garden. I was expecting dry succulents and small arid plantings, but this turns out to be a very nice garden filled with very big rocks. Specimens from the Mineral Bibliotech that are too large (way too large) are arranged out of doors here with polite signs asking visitors not to sit on them.

rock garden

Beds of poppies were everywhere. The staff will begin to dig them out and replace them with summer plantings next week, as the roses begin to leaf out in the alles. Later this year they’ll be installing webcams so that, although we have to leave tomorrow,  I’ll be able to check in on the new plantings.






Full Persian

Quite a few people have advised us not to do too much of the Louvre in one day and we’ve taken that to heart. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to resist going to as many museums as possible during daylight hours. Today we went to Musee d’Orsay, the Petit Palais, and Cathedral Saint Merri.  I’d never heard of the Cathedral – it’s not even on our map – but Paris is the kind of place where the immense 500 year old building is so beautiful you have to walk right in.

The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition and became a museum in 1902. It has an amazing facade, an exceptional collection (I love Bougeureau, so sue me), and the gardens are outstanding.

persian gardens entrance

The gardens are described as “Persian” and have the ornate geometric pools, mosaic tile floors and potted palms you might associate with that geography. The plantings are designed to be very hardy while appearing exotic: euphorbia, bergenia, and yucca grow beneath crabapple and ornamental pears. Pampas grass is planted as a background, but it also provides a hedge divider – I’ve never thought of cutting it back like this. I can’t wait to try this out in my gardens.grass hedge

The immense roof line adds scale and is lavishly decorated with, well, boats. I have no idea why – Paris hasn’t struck me as very nautical so far but we’re headed across the Seine tomorrow and perhaps we’ll find out?

ships of stoneA golden metal garland hangs between the portico pillars – I imagine it’s very festive when the vegetation is dormant. Something else to think about in the home garden, should you have a portico? I couldn’t get a good photo, but the ceiling of the portico is painted with a fresco of vines and medallions featuring the Months of the Year by Paul Baudouin, a student of Puvis de Chavannes.

golden garland

When we get home I plan to go “full Persian” on the gardens. Meanwhile, I’m trying hard to resist replacing the dead geraniums in the window box of our apartment. Maybe tomorrow we’ll pass a Fleuriste and I’ll succumb to temptation.

our windowbox

Addendum of Things I Have Learned in Paris

  • A forecast for rain here means that it will shower periodically and everyone will become attractively tousled. Then the sun will come out briefly, followed by clouds, and the cycle begins again. In addition, everyone here looks good in a wet t-shirt.
  • The French are courteous, friendly, and enthusiastic about visitors to their city. I hate to spill the beans given how hard they must have worked on that haughty image throughout history, but none of it is true. They will patiently try to understand my lousy, halting French and they will praise my husband’s better version. They will apologize for switching to English. They will give us directions home when we’re lost (quite often) and tell us (slowly and clearly) where to get coffee. They may be trying to kill us with espresso and pastry, but I’m strangely fine with that.

Reality check

I’m using a “Streetwise” map of Paris, and it’s wonderful. It has just enough detail to be useful without being overwhelming, it seems to be very accurate (we’ve only gotten lost by not consulting it), and it’s laminated which has come in handy more than once.


I was remarkably slow, however, in learning that when a building takes up two square inches on my little tiny map it means that building is huge. Gargantuan. The biggest pile of carved rocks you have ever imagined, times two. The Louvre? Is huge. We’ve spent the better part of two days there now and several docents have nodded graciously in recognition at seeing us in the French painting galleries multiple times, but we’ve only just begun to see what is enclosed in that space.

BoucherThis is the Lion Gate.

lion gate

I couldn’t get anything in the photo for scale because the lion is on a 10′ plinth. And he’s huge.

The stag tree

If you go out my front door and take a right and follow the path through the blueberry field . . .

the path. . . well, first you’ll come across this nest of mound building ants. This is only an aside to the main attraction which is still some ways out, but it’s interesting – ants built this! They circulate the stony subsoil up to the surface as they build tunnels and rooms below. The mounds can be huge – this active nest is four feet across and about two feet high.

ant houseThe crater just beyond the ant-haus in this photo is proof of another charming local custom. Back 100 years ago, when wealthy “rusticators” were building cottages-cum-mansions all over the Island, their ground crews harvested trees from fallow property wherever they pleased. Soil is hard won here and trees grow very slowly, so the perfectly circular holes where they dug out nicely symmetrical conifers still remain to trip up unwary hikers.

At the end of the little path is a section of “cut road”. Follow that for a while,

cut roadand then take a left on to another deer path. Follow that deeper into the pine woods.

deer pathThe deer path ends at a stag tree.

stag treeIt looks like a bear or cougar has been working on the bark, but actually a buck has been scraping the spring velvet off his antlers. I hear it itches.

stag tree antler damageBears do mark trees, even the very shy and retiring (and fat) black bears we have around here, but their claws scrape down the line of the trunk. If you look closely you can see where this damage goes up the trunk, against the grain, and makes splintered pieces stick out.

All kinds of things go on in the back yard this time of year.


On the easel

I’ve been doing studies of Flemish masters lately, and reading about their techniques and working methods. Some things will remain out of my reach – I can’t see coming across a stash of real parchment – but the ideas about what color ink provides the widest spectrum of tones for landscape drawing (sepia, enhanced with brick dust) and a visual vocabulary of marks with a bamboo pen have been interesting and useful.

Several sources suggest using fixative at regular intervals.  I’m finding that it does indeed make the surface more uniform and prevents incidental damage from my dirty fingers as I work. It also means extra time lugging the drawing and an easel outside on a lovely spring day, but sometimes we have to suffer for our art, right? This is a collection of early spring flowers; red maple blossoms, bergenia, and dandelion, in a tarnished silver pitcher, about half-way to finished.

spring setup

Seedling inventory

under the lights

Started under lights down cellar so far: broccoli rapa, regular stem broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage mix, 2 varieties of zinnia, Lavatera (mallow), rice, 4 tomato varieties, “Minutia” salad greens, chard, kale, 2 lettuce varieties, sunflowers (1 of 3 varieties), 2 varieties peppers

Started in raised beds outside: Oregon Giant snow peas, winter spinach, kale, chard, winter lettuce. The fall-planted garlic is almost 3″ tall in the same beds.

My seedling FAQ

  • Those are regular, if eco-friendly, shop lights. I get the brand with the safest disposal protocols, but grow lights are only useful if you like to show off your African violet collection to its best advantage.
  • I use a peat-based growing medium that I recycle year to year with very little loss. I allow the used cells to weather the Maine winter in the hoop house and so far haven’t had any disease or pest transmission. For those in milder climes I’d suggest baking or freezing the loose soil to specs that you can find at your Co-op Ext office.
  • The average temperature in my unheated 20′ x 30′ cellar during Feb/March is 44 degrees F. It’s probably a tiny bit warmer directly under the lights – I should probably check that some day. The tomato and pepper seedlings take a while to get started, but the cooler temperature keeps the moisture levels constant and discourages rot. Tonight the temperature down there is closer to 39 because I didn’t notice that the north casement window had fallen open. I’ve closed it up and should be able to tell by tomorrow if anything was badly afflicted by the drop.
  • The most important thing I’ve learned about starting seeds is to limit how many I plant (with a few exceptions). I’m terrible at editing healthy little green sprouts and that means I have too many to plant in the space available – maybe even too many to care for properly. It’s much easier to plant fewer seeds at the start. The exception would be a crop that needs the whole season to grow (cannot be planted in succession) and should be harvested all at the same time, such as rice.

Your weekly Owl

I’ve noticed an uptick in Social Capital Owl costume changes lately. Maybe it’s the bustle of the summer starting up (out-of-state license plates have been seen on the road already) or it could be that the Owl is just more accessible now that the snow drifts have melted. Three weeks ago we had Mardi Gras Owl whose gauzy lime butterfly wings were sadly battered by a rain and wind. Someone carefully removed all the finery and left it in a plastic shopping bag on my front stoop for safekeeping and for a few days the Owl wore a nice wool scarf. Then, to mark Thursday’s record breaking high temperature of 80 degrees F (!!) another anonymous Owler duct taped on a pair of sunglasses. And here you have it – a totally appropriate commentary on our coldest/hottest spring ever:

Future's so bright, I have to wear shades.

Chickpea Tapas

I have a very short list of vegetarian appetizers because all the truly wonderful hand-food seems to involve bacon. Devils on Horseback anyone? Tapas, on the other hand, are meant to be scooped out of dish with a piece of bread and many of them involve legumes and sauce. Also, garlic, sea-salt and jalapenos with lots of great combinations to choose from. I made this chickpea and greens mixture for Sunday dinner with S. and K. – very nice, very spring.

Chickpea tapas

1 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

About 3 Tbs olive oil (the amount depends on how dry/tough your greens are)

About 1 pound of greens – freshly picked is best, boxed cooking greens next, or you can use spinach

1 C croutons or bagel chips

1/4 C tomato sauce

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 Tbs chopped jalepenos (optional, but traditional)

1  Tbs white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 C grated cheddar cheese – although smoked gouda is nice, too.

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lemon juice, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the greens and the jalepenos and stir fry until the greens are just wilted, about 2 minutes and less than that if they’re right out of the garden. Add the cumin and garlic and stir for a minute until fragrant. Dump in the chickpeas, croutons or chips, tomato sauce, vinegar into the pan and allow to heat through. Add more olive oil if necessary and stir until well blended.

Transfer to a food processor, blender or mortar and pestle along with the vinegar, and mash to a coarse paste.  It should be a good consistency to scoop out onto a piece of baguette – go ahead and try it out, like a responsible cook.  Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Spoon the mixture into an oven-proof dish and distribute the grated cheese on top. Just before serving, heat under the broiler until the cheese is bubbly. Sprinkle with smoked paprika (yum) and serve in the hot dish with slices of baguette or more bagel chips.