Tuesday, November 15, 2011

California Native Plants: Coyote Bush

Hello and konnichiwa! Katie here, writing my first blog post for the farm. I was introduced by Sarah a couple posts back, with Bert and Ernie, the pack goats. Among other things, I will be posting regular introductions to California native plants that can be found here on Castle Rock farm. Here is the first...

As the nights get colder and the first frosts come, there is still busy activity all around the farm. A couple weeks ago, the Coyote Bush started to bloom. Coyote Bush, or Baccharis pilularis, is one of the only California native plants blooming this time of year and therefore it attracts a lot of attention and is a valuable food source for many insects. Watching for just a couple minutes, you can spot different varieties of bees, wasps, ladybugs, may flies, flies, ants and more crawling and buzzing around the plant. You can also smell the sweet honey-like fragrance of the flowers if you get up close.

Coyote Bush is a hardy plant and can survive even in very dry and nutrient poor soil. It has a large complex root system that is perfect for holding soil in place to help prevent erosion. On the farm there are many Coyote Bush plants planted along the creek bed bordering the property, in order to hold the soil. Coyote Bush can survive harsh weather conditions and even low to moderate levels of salinity, so it is often used as erosion control in nutrient poor coastal areas and is found growing there naturally as well. Coyote Bush is also considered fire retardant and is not eaten by deer. Dwarf coyote bush is more commonly grown for native gardens in California as it makes a nice ground cover or more easily controlled small shrub.

The larger coyote bushes tend to be rangier and less 'pretty.'

There are both larger coyote bushes and smaller dwarf coyote bush here on Castle Rock Farm. Both have small oval leaves that range from dark to bright green. Coyote Bush is an evergreen, so it adds color to the landscape year round. The flowers are very small and are white, cream, or yellow and can bloom from early summer through mid-winter.

I have been having fun learning more about native plants here on the farm and watching all the activity on the Coyote Bush lately. Consider planting Coyote Bush in your garden and you can see what all the buzz is about!

(Note: All pictures from here on the farm except the second photo, of the dwarf coyote bush ground cover, which was taken from the Native Sons website.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Honey Bees

Last Christmas, I asked Santa for honey bees, as I wanted to have my own source of beeswax for the lip balms and salves that I make.  Santa thought we were just getting one bee hive, but after talking with several bee keepers, two hives worth of bees were procured from a local source.

As with just about every type of critter one can keep, the critters themselves end up being the least of your expenses.  There's also the hive boxes- eight frame vs. ten frame, deciding what type of frame you want to use in those boxes, lids, inner covers, entrance reducers, hive stands, and hive bottoms.  Then there's the beekeeper tools- most importantly- what type of protective clothing you're going to wear, and the smoker you'll use.  Then there's the hive tool, bee brush, feeders, capping scrapers, and a few other things you may or may not eventually need.  The bee keeper I got my frames of bees from recommended, after a long day of working his hives, that I get eight frame boxes as full boxes of bees and honey can get quite heavy.

While putting the frames of bees into the hives, we noticed several queen cups in the first hive, which the bee keeper scraped off of the frames.  We didn't see either of the queens, but we did see several drones, which are bigger than the workers and look somewhat husky.  Drones are the only male bees in the hive, and they serve just one purpose- to go out and mate with virgin queens.  They can't even feed themselves, and have to beg the workers to feed them, and once they mate with a queen, they die.

Drone hanging out on the hive porch

I went back a week later and found that queen cups (where the hive grows new queens) had shown up again in the hive that had contained them the previous week.  Before scraping the queen cups off this time, I decided to look and see if I could find the queen.  I was unable to find her, so I left the queen cups alone, and checked the other hive, in which I did find the queen.  Two weeks later, the cups had hatched out, and a new queen had established herself.

In the month after getting the original two hives, we captured three swarms that showed up at our farm.  Luckily, all of the swarms decided to beard on low hanging branches of plants, so they were relatively easy to capture.

A beard of bees

The first swarm was pretty large, and is now my strongest hive.  The second two swarms were small, and when checking one of them, I found that they had no queen, so I combined the two.  We now have four hives in our "bee garden".

We selected a location where the bees would have morning sun and afternoon shade, and where they would be out of the way of farm visitors.  I'm glad we started with two hives as the hive that hatched out a new queen has never really recovered and is currently my weakest hive, and should be requeened in the spring- if I hadn't had another hive to compare with, I'd probably be pretty discouraged with my first experience in beekeeping. 

I love to take a few minutes to go sit near the hives and watch the workers flying in and out on their daily chores of gathering pollen and nectar.  The guards check all who enter, while other workers either fan at the entrance to help with ventilation and temperature control, or scurry about filling in cracks and crannies with propolis.  The workers typically pay me no heed even though I sit within a few feet of their homes, going about their daily chores since I am not threatening their hives in any way.  There's a faint scent of honey in the air and a contented buzzing which has made this one of my favorite spots on the farm.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Introducing Katie, Bert, and Ernie

And now, for something a little different (besides one post every wow-has-it-really-been-that-many months)...introductions of a few farm residents.

We'll start with Katie- she's the person on the right in the picture.  She's staying with us at the farm for several months after spending the last couple of years in Japan teaching English, and has an interest in international agriculture.  She'll also be putting up some blog posts about the farm and a topic I have long planned to write more about- California native plants.  So, when you see her name on the blog, that's who it is, and I'm excited that the blog will be a bit more up to date. I know, I know, more than two posts isn't that high of a bar- our goal is for at least one post a week.

As for the four legged beings in the picture, you may have noticed that they look different than the goats you usually see on the web site.  Much longer legs, and much shorter ears.  These guys are La Mancha-Saanen cross wethers I obtained when they were a mere one week old and bottle raised with the goal of making them into pack goats.  I love backpacking, but I also know that my knees most likely aren't going to last forever.  I considered donkeys, llamas, mules, and goats when deciding on a pack animal.

Llamas have the advantage of being relatively low maintenance, quiet, and efficient eaters who are light on the land.  However, I have owned three llamas (we currently have just one) and they are too aloof for me- if I'm going to get another animal or two to take into the back country, I want a species that does more than just tolerates me, I want them to like me.  Growing the llama collection didn't really excite me all that much.

Donkeys seemed like a good option- they appear to be awfully strong for their size, smart, and my friends who have them seem to really enjoy them.  When you have a donkey, you still have to do all of the shots and ferrier work that a mule requires, only a mule could carry you out of the back country while still having enough smarts to take care of themselves.  If I'm going to feed a mule, I might as well feed a horse, which I've wanted since I can remember.  But, I don't really have enough time for a horse right now, which meant I was back to looking at pack goats.

So, back to goats.  Their advantages: I already know how to take care of them, they can carry 20 to 25 percent of their body weight, and I don't have to put them in a trailer to transport them.  Bert (the lighter one) and Ernie are about three and a half now and I'm starting their packing training by getting them out and about just with the saddles on.  I will add paniers soon with a little weight at first and then slowly build up from there.  I have to say, it is a good thing that most backpacking happens at elevations where it doesn't get as hot as it does here cause these boys are a bit more heat sensitive than I expected them to be.

I hadn't realized just how much bigger Ernie is than Bert until we took these pictures!  These guys are littermate brothers, but obviously Ernie is going to be the one who will end up with the heavier packs.  Ernie is a bit of a momma's boy when we're out and about- he gets pretty worried if I am more than 30 feet from him and will call to me in a clearly worried voice.  Bert is quite attached to his brother, and gets worried if Ernie is more than about 30 feet from him.  This should work out fairly well on the trail- I'll lead, Ernie will go where ever I go, and Bert will go wherever Ernie goes.  At least, I hope it works that way out on the trail.  So far, we've just gone for walks on the roads where we live, which is not all that much like being on a trail, especially with all of the cars going by.

Handling goats that are much bigger than I'm used to can be challenging, and makes me appreciate that the majority of our goats are small.  I suppose that if we had more of the bigger goats, we'd be better set up for handling them and taking care of routine maintenance, but the way we are currently set up, hoof trimming turns into a two person-one-goat wrestling match.  I am pretty fond of these big guys though- they are pretty affectionate, and with the bucks being in the midst of breeding season (which means lots of wether molesting by the bucks), they are pretty eager to go out for hikes these days.