Waffle beds, part III

Waffle beds are the opposite of the raised beds that have become a fixture in US gardens since the 60’s. Unfortunately, raised beds don’t work well in my micro-climate: mid-summer droughts make it difficult to get moisture to the plant roots, and our soil is light and sandy and doesn’t compact well in a heap. For years I’ve noticed that plants (mostly weeds) grow better in the depressions between beds but it wasn’t until this April that I began to take advantage of this. This is the first waffle bed I made almost two months ago, now full of well-grown celtuce and brassicas with a mixed cover crop around the edges.

waffle bed garden celtuce

The depression seems to have kept the seedlings sheltered from the cold winds and night frosts during our late spring. The waffles definitely increase water retention. Below are the first beds I dug near the house for our tomatoes and you can clearly see the color contrast between the dry walls and damp lower level.

Waffle bed tomatoes 1

The same seedlings, one week later and about twice the size. They evidently like the additional shelter and moisture, while the cover crop of Phacelia Tanacetifolia is drought-tolerant and sprouts well on the waffle “walls”. (I’ve planted 10 beds of at least 5 plants each – to the tune of 700 lbs of tomatoes as a conservative estimate of yield. Come September I may be posting extensively on tomato sauce production.)

Tomato seedlings waffle

This bed in the lower garden has been divided into five waffles: peach tree, cabbages, Provider bush green beans (still under row cover), BlueGold potatoes, and the far bed of celtuce and brassicas pictured above. Everything seems to be thriving. I’ve planted the poor soil heaped between waffles with nasturtiums and a low-growing cover crop mix, mostly to help hold the soil in place during the first year.

lower garden waffle beds

I’m pleased with this method so far! Next post will be on this weekend’s project:  swales as a solution for “depression” gardening on a south facing slope. Here is a terrific introduction on swale gardening from Tenth Acre Farm.

What is a Swale and Why You Need One

What is a Swale?

Autumn bee maintenance – installing an in-hive warmer

This will be my first winter using an in-hive warmer and, as usual, I’m posting both to share the information and keep a history going for myself. I installed the Warmbees product in August during my last full hive inspection. (Note that Warmbees has changed the configuration on their heater from the one I purchased – the new model looks more compact and can be re-oriented for use in a top bar hive.)

in-hive heater

Photo credit: www.warmbees.com

Installation couldn’t be easier: select the temperature range (mine is set to low to maintain a temperature of about 40 degrees F), drape the wire ribbon with LED signal light and the cord over the edge of the hive box, and plug it in to an extension cord. Naturally, this requires the colony to be within cord distance of an electrical outlet. I haven’t quite figured out a battery/solar configuration yet. There’s no assembly required and you don’t need to know anything about wiring. The tiny LED makes a reassuring glow in the front yard:

hive box with heater

I used an Imirie shim installed with the opening toward the back of the hive to run the cord and ribbon through, and blocked the extra space with dry grass. When I wrap the hive with insulation for winter in November I’ll tape over the hole as the bees should be used to it by then. When I replaced the quart mason jar of sugar syrup for fall feeding today (they’ve been going through a quart every three days) I noticed that they’ve built beautiful, regular comb over the wires running on top of the frame.

The beauty of this device is that it is controlled by the internal temperature of the hive box. Other products that wrap around the outside of the equipment doesn’t sense the heat generated by the cluster of bees and by overheating them can convince them to fly in freezing weather. We had a frost last night but with a good sized cluster generating its own warmth the heater hasn’t needed to go on to keep the internal temp at around 40. I have high hopes that this product will help an otherwise healthy colony last through the long, cold Maine winter and the cold, wet spring that follows.

The garden in late September after the first frost:

September garden


Blizzard warning!

Tonight there’s a scary-beautiful conflagration of low pressure and high cold air that will bring us 20″ of spring snow and 50 mph winds by early morning. The storm will intensify over the Gulf of Maine and bring even higher winds to the Nova Scotia reaches, scouring the highlands and dumping 2′ of snow along the way.

But isn’t it pretty? That’s us – right between the huge gray high and the Buddhist monk orange low.

Blizzard warning

Time to go fill the teakettle and grind some coffee before the power goes out. Stay warm, everyone!


Grape juicing

The Beta grapes are ready to harvest. Beta is a cross with Concord, those huge sprawling vines that took over rock walls and climbed into trees where I grew up in central Connecticut. Here in Maine the growing season is too short for Concord to ripen reliably, so Beta with its smaller grapes and quick growth is a winner. This season it took me 15 minutes to fill the steam juicer basket, and I estimate I have at least 10 more baskets-worth waiting on the vine. Fortunately, we own a Mehu-Liisa steam juicer and quarts of dense, fragrant grape juice concentrate will be less work than you might think.

Beta grape

So now you have a full steamer basket of grapes – what next?

basket full of Beta grapes

Rinse the full basket under the sprayer of your kitchen faucet, or outdoors with the garden hose. The water that clings to the fruit will dilute your product, so if you have time you can let the basket drip dry. If not, I’ve processed batches both ways and the difference is negligible. Press the grapes gently with a potato masher or wooden spoon to ensure a tight seal with the lid (I always fill the basket to overflowing), turn the burner on to medium, and let the whole thing sit until you hear water boiling in the bottom pot.

Mehu Liisa steam juicer

When you hear a vigorous boil you can turn the heat down to a high simmer. Cook until the fruit has lost color and at least half its mass. This full basket of grapes will turn into about four cups of stems, seeds, and tired-looking skins in about 25 minutes. Harder fruit such as quince, apples, and Seckel pears take up to an hour.

The silicon tube can be clamped off, but it does leak a tiny bit under pressure. This grape juice is like purple dye so I like to keep it contained in the lower pot. Sometimes I draw off some juice half-way through the process to make more room in the pot, but it’s not necessary.

One design note: Mehu-Liisa designed the juice collection pot so that the hose begins level with the bottom. Whatever small amount of sediment is steamed out of your fruit will pass along with the juice – there’s no lip to keep it out – so if you’re going for a blue ribbon jelly at the State Fair you may want to strain the final product. Personally, I don’t mind and think it adds to the flavor.

The next step is to add sugar to taste – for me that’s about a cup of white cane sugar per pint of juice concentrate – and decant into hot, sterile canning jars. Cap with hot lids according to canning instructions, and then off to the steam canner.

Jars of grape juice concentrate

I process the quarts for 20 minutes in the steam canner, it won’t hurt the occasional pint jar to be in for that long.

steam canner

I like my steam canner better than a water bath or pressure cooker, but that’s a whole other blog post – possibly coming soon. Now, off to juice some of the vast quantities of tomatoes that are ripening in the lower garden!

The internet is a wonderful thing – here’s an excellent blog all about canning with your Mehu-Liisa.  The author mentions something I didn’t – the grape juice coming down that silicon tube is hot!

Hive work – Spring is coming

Outside the coyotes that live on Frenchman’s Hill are hollering at the full moon. They’re so loud I can hear them down cellar where I’m painting hive bodies under shop lights. We’re all waiting for spring. . .

hive deeps or supers

I’m making some changes to my beekeeping practices in 2013.

1. 10 frames in 10 frame boxes. I used 9 frames for years – the idea is to make the boxes lighter and easier to heft. “Nine-frame” adherents insist that the bees don’t mind the variation in the bee space; the precise distance between structures that bees require for their comfort zone. This year my partner is interested in helping out so I won’t be lifting 120 wooden boxes full of bees and honey by myself, and my experience suggests that the bees DO mind the extra space, perhaps especially in our Northern climate.

2. Full-sized, or “deep” supers. Hive boxes come in three sizes: small ones specifically for the honey harvest and meant to be rotated out quickly during the nectar flows in spring and fall, medium boxes for longer term honey cropping and extra living space, and “deeps”, the largest size, meant to be the colony’s living space. I’ve been using only small and medium – again for ease of moving them around. Deeps can weigh >150 lbs fully loaded with bees, larvae, and food stores. Unfortunately, nuc boxes contain large frames, and transferring a “deep” size frame into a medium hive body requires stacking boxes to accommodate extra length. It’s not an elegant solution. This year I know in advance that I’m getting 2 nucs from Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan and have planned accordingly – 2 large supers painted “vanilla” and ready to go!

2. Stencils. You’ll notice that both the supers in the photo are the same color of exterior latex paint. I generally throw a few strips of duct tape on one of the hives to differentiate it to the bee population, but this year I’m going to be more purposeful and plan a decoration, perhaps a stencil? Or this. Wow, there’s a lot of choices out there – now I feel very inadequate about all those years of duct tape!

Do It Yourself: Sea Salt

We live on an island and often benefit from our proximity to the ocean by harvesting seaweed and compost for the garden, digging clams, and gathering  rose hips and wild asparagus that grow untended on the beach. A few weeks ago I found myself buying 8 oz of sea salt for $3.00 at the grocery store and thought hey, ocean!  And then I went down to Beach Road Beach for 6 gallons of really clean seawater. harvest seawaterI also did some research online. According to various blogs and agriculture sites (and for once, Wikipedia wasn’t all that helpful) six gallons of seawater should produce six cups of salt via evaporation. That seemed like a very high concentration to me, but turned out to be quite accurate.

I chose shorefront with no sewage outflow or houses nearby and a fast-running current. Water from a shallow bay might contain more salt, but is more prone to contamination. I initially forgot that water weighs 8.3 lbs per gallon but remembered pretty quickly when I realized I was downhill from the car with a container that would weigh >50 lbs when full. I finally put the large container up by the car and schlepped buckets up the ridge to fill it. You’ll want your water source to be convenient to your transportation.

Strain the water through a sieve to remove bits of debris and sealife. Don’t empty the container all the way when you pour it into your cooking pot to avoid any sand that has settled to the bottom. It helps to rest the water container on something sturdy above the level of your cooking pot to pour it off. I used a honey sieve to strain the water into a 5 gallon restaurant pail.

pouring off If you can possibly avoid it, don’t do this inside! Boiling off six gallons of water took a full day – actually two half days of diminishing sunlight – over a wood fire, and that’s a lot of water vapor to add to the interior of your house. I used a 5 gallon lobster pot a refilled it when necessary but I imagine any non-reactive pot or bucket would do. If you have to use a smaller size, try for as much surface area as possible to encourage evaporation.

kettle on the fire I lit a wood fire in my cinderblock grill using slightly punky firewood that the mice have been living in that I don’t want to burn in our woodstove. I only kept the fire going during daylight hours, currently 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. here in Downeast Maine, and it took two days to reduce 6 gallons of seawater down to about 4″ of what looked like clear water and a cup of chunky tan sediment swirling on the bottom of the kettle. At that point I took it off the fire because I was afraid I’d scorch the pot.  Boy, was I disappointed!

The remaining water was very salty to the taste, but even the steam coming off the kettle was salty – I didn’t see how it was going to produce 6 cups of salt. I dumped what was left into a large glass baking pan, per directions on the web, and figured I had nothing to lose by letting it evaporate the rest of the way in the house. The next day it had dried enough to appear opaque and slushy, and then crystals started to form. I broke up the slab with a potato masher periodically because the top dried out first.

pan o'saltNow, a week later, I have 5 1/2 cups of large crystal sea salt that has dried quite white like the dish I pulled out first so that we could sample it. It tastes like salt, of course, but there’s also a little extra “ocean” flavor somehow, probably due to the lack of processing. My neighbor describes it as “smoky”. All in all, a good experiment – would try again!


Over time

Late in 2009 we cut down a dozen spruce trees and a lot of scrub in the front yard. Over the course of just a few days we went from a dark, 40′ tall forest screen to a flat front yard in full sun, dotted with huge stumps and torn wild raspberry bushes. There isn’t much soil here and dirt is expensive to truck in, so we made set out new garden beds with seaweed gathered from a local beach, 3 yards of biocompost, and a lot of cardboard and small deadwood in our first attempts at hugel-kultur. This photo was taken in early June 2010. The spruce tree stumps are clearly visible, as are all the rocks that were too big for me to collect in a wheelbarrow. The  boulder at top left looked even bigger after we took down all those trees.

garden before photo in 2010That year I started to read about “macro-culture”, sheet mulching and the practice of planting the entire garden to a purpose – including the paths and surrounding areas, not simply the beds. Over time the sheer plant density builds soil, holds moisture and insect life, and provides shelter for root systems. It is a popular system for marginal soils in desert areas and eroded hillsides, and I thought it might be helpful on our mix of never-cultivated rocks and clay. I stood in the same spot to take this photo yesterday and I think the idea might be working. . .

garden after macroculture


Idea in progress

For 2012 I’m trying a new regimen of allowing all the vegetation to grow up together in the garden, vs mowing, weeding, or trimming. As we get to the hot, dry part of the summer I find that the garden beds are better insulated with all the extra ground cover and that even very aggressive “weeds” haven’t cut into my production all that much. This photo was taken yesterday and you’ll notice that paths and divisions between “beds” have largely disappeared over the course of the season. It’s not actually a bad look – very “abundant”.

the no trim garden

Sitting around the supper table last night (zucchini-bacon cakes with basil dipping sauce) R. brought up a TED talk he listened to in the car titled “Chef Dan Barber talks about his pursuit of a sustainable fish he could love”.  The farm he chose was one that had tens of thousand of acres under minimal cultivation, and the scale of the enterprise allowed other species to compliment as well as compete with his farmed fish. The farmer was even sanguine  about the percentage of his crop to flamingos who moved in once the marine life was  established (“Aren’t they a beautiful pink color!”).

I don’t have an extraordinary amount of land available, but I like the overall philosophy. The photo below is of garden beds for green beans, lettuce, snow peas and tomatoes (all of which would be much more evident if I was mowing down paths as in other years). The area is maximized for growth, minimized for labor.

the no trim garden II

After very cursory research, it seems this concept of large scale land use combined with minimal amendments for a (possibly) lower yield is labeled “extensive”  as opposed to “intensive” farming. I’ll be doing more research and planning for next steps as the active harvest season closes out in November. . . meanwhile, potatoes and grapes are coming in!

From the Wikipedia article on Intensive Farming:


Less labour per unit areas is required to farm large areas, especially since expensive alterations to land (like terracing) are completely absent.

Mechanisation can be used more effectively over large, flat areas.

Greater efficiency of labour means generally lower product prices.

Animal welfare is generally improved because animals are not kept in stifling conditions.

Lower requirements of inputs such as fertilizers.

If animals are grazed on pastures native to the locality, there is less likely to be problems with exotic species.

Local environment and soil are not damaged by overuse of chemicals.


Yields tend to be much lower than with intensive farming in the short term.

Large land requirements limit the habitat of wild species (in some cases, even very low stocking rates can be dangerous), as is the case with intensive farming


I love my new oil palette. Reading and research gave me some ideas while I tried to keep an open mind and avoid the prejudices I’ve been taught. For instance, my current line-up does not include any cadmium colors although all of my teachers thought they were indispensable.

and thats how you make cherries

Titanium White – Neither warm nor cool, somewhere between Zinc and Lead white. R. suggested using Old Holland brand for this particular color because of the relative intensity of its tinting strength and now I can’t get along without it. The history notes from Dick Blick are interesting:

Titanium is the ninth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, however mineral deposits that are economical to mine are less common. Titanium dioxide was first discovered in 1821, although it could not be mass produced until 1919. Widespread use of the pigment began in the 1940s. Since that time, it has become the most commonly used white pigment.

Permanent yellow light – Cooler than the cadmium yellows that it was intended to be a chemical replacement for, and much more versatile. This pigment mixed with Ivory black makes a beautiful range of still-life greens.

Quinacridone ruby (also sold as Old Holland magenta) – From the  Dick Blick excerpt on this color:

Chemical Formula: C22H16N2O2

Properties: Quinacridone Magenta is a semi-transparent and powerful bluish red with an impressive mixing range. It makes an excellent glazing color and is one of the bluest of the Quinacridone colors. The pigment’s properties vary considerably, depending on how it is ground. Quinacridone pigments have relatively low tinting strength in general. For this reason, quinacridone colors are often expensive, because more pigment is required in the formulation.

Permanence: Quinacridone Magenta offers very good lightfastness in most media, but some have argued that it is less lightfast in watercolor form. Although Quinacridone Magenta received only a passing grade of “fair” under ASTM test protocols, other test results have rated the pigment very good to excellent. Transparent reddish violet pigments in general have more problems with lightfastness than any other range of colors. PR122 is often used as the Magenta of CMYK (four color) process printing because it offers a better tradeoff between tinting strength and lightfastness than other pigments in its class.

History:Quinacridone Magenta came from a red violet aniline dye that was first produced in 1858 by Natanson. It was called Magenta to commemorate a battle in Magenta, Italy. Over time, Magenta became the standard color name for a deep, violet red. Although quinacridone compounds became known in the late 19th century, methods of manufacturing so as to make them practical for use as commercial pigments did not begin until the 1950s. PR122 has become particularly popular in the formulation of Magenta for CMYK process printing.

Phthalo green blue – intense, mixes well, and is closest to the discontinued (and toxic) Verdigris.

Manganese blue – copper phthalocyanine. Very deep and slow drying, reliable and light-fast, tending toward green. This pigment was discovered by accident in 1935.

Ivory black – from charred bones these days, since ivory is protected. Blue-black with a hint of brown in mixtures, this color functions in my palette (with so many cool colors) as a warm mixture.

Raw Umber – A combination of Mars Black and Mars Orange, this dark pigment has strong warm undertone, great for warming the phthalo blues.

I’ve never had a more dependable selection of pigments, even for simple two-color mixes to produce a range of still-life colors. This random sample is permanent yellow light and q. rose, tinted with white at the bottom of the palette and toned with ivory black to the right.

two color mixes

Next on the easel is a set up of pink mallow and scarlet roses on a raw umber ground. Can’t wait!