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A novice's guide to producing his own food


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The year of the bee

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Goodness, has it really been three months since my last post? Doesn’t seem that long since we were emerging from winter, and already the longest day has been and gone.

Of course, I’m sure this is a common feeling among all allotmenteers. Spring and summer are the busiest times, and almost all daylight hours are spent planting, weeding, watering or harvesting.

But it is the bees that have taken up an increasingly large slab of my time this year. I am slowly making the transition from a novice beekeeper who spends all his time in crisis management, to one who is starting to feel in control of his bees. And once you get to that stage, you can start playing about with your colonies, manipulating and experimenting with them in all sorts of ways.

I began the year with three colonies, had hoped to get nine by the end, but have eight, so I’m quite pleased. I had split each of the original hives three times, but two swarms escaped (incurring the wrath of a neighbouring family whose house also became a home to some of my bees), thus leaving me with seven. However, I managed to catch a swarm from a garden  about six miles from the apiary. As you will hear in the video below, that colony had a marked queen, so it belonged to another beekeeper. (Finders keepers, is the rule here, but if I hear of someone with a missing colony, they can have it back.)

So, that makes eight colonies. Not bad. About half are fairly weak, so  my next goal is to try to build up their strength, so they are as healthy as possible as they go into winter.

Aside from losing two swarms, my main shock so far this year has been  a hive which toppled over. Check out the video.

Another major bee development is I passed my Basic Beemaster exam — with distinction! OK, so it is one of those tests that just about every beekeeper passes, but not everyone gets a distinction. It has given me further confidence that I have a good grounding in the subject. It also means, however, that I should really plough on with the rest of the modules. There are eight or nine of them, all a lot tougher, so it’ll take a good few years.

Oh, it’s become almost incidental, but I also got 38lbs of honey from two hives. That’s the thing about beekeeping — you start keeping hives to get honey, but, in the end, just become obsessed about bees.

 


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What a weekend!

The quail -- well five of them -- safety at home in our garden

The quail — well five of them — safety at home in our garden

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m reflecting on a weekend that was a bit hectic, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The rewards are starting to reveal themselves after all the hard work I’ve put in over the last few months.

Saturday began with an 8am start. Janek and I were driving to the village of Dollar (almost 55 miles away) to collect six Japanese quail. My three boys had decided to get them for me as a Father’s Day gift. Janek had seen an allotment holder with quail, and reckoned I’d like some too. A nice thought.

The sun broke cover by the time we left Dundee, and most of the day was gloriously hot. The drive to Dollar was quick as Janek and I chatted quite a bit (I rarely see him). We found the farm easily enough, and collected the quail in a pet carrier. Lovely little birds, and they make a soothing cooing noise. Although they are ground-dwellers, you look after them in the same way as chickens.

Back home, I transferred my new wee pals into an ark I had bought for the chickens (but never used). After cowering in the shade for a bit, they soon ventured out.

In the afternoon, I visited the pet shop in Monifieth, and bought the quail two little houses (which are meant for small rabbits). They seemed to like them, as they provided more cover. I think I’m right in saying that quail traditionally live on forest floors, so they like being out of the sun.

On Sunday, Janek accompanied me again. This time to check the bees. It was his first-ever visit , and he was (naturally) quite wary. But he did OK, remained calm and didn’t get stung.

My main hive is absolutely chock-full of bees. I’ve never seen so many. And they’re bringing in more honey. The super is getting heavy for a second time — something that has never happened to me before. I’ll keep this honey for the bees, and let them use it over the winter.

The nucleus hive at the apiary (the other is at the allotment) is also doing well. Plenty of bees about to hatch. I’ll have to “upgrade” the nuc to a full brood box soon.

On our way home Janek and I decided to drop in on the allotment. All of a sudden everything seems to be becoming ready at the plot. The two of us spent the next two hours harvesting, and between us gathered the first potatoes (purple majesty), red and white onions, two types of garlic, courgettes, broad beans, two types of peas, a few raspberries, even fewer Tayberries, but a massive 5lbs of strawberries. Oh, and an absolutely huge bunch of sweet peas for Sue.

The strawberries have been stunning this year (they’re even good from the shops), and I think I have harvested about 7lbs so far. There will be more to come, but I suspect today was the peak.

Back at the house, I spread the onions out to dry, and gave Sue a hand as she shelled the beans and peas.

After tea (and an amazing snooze), I zipped back to the allotment to check on the nucleus hive there. It’s also doing great. Although it has not grown as strong as the other nuc, it does have sealed brood. That’s a sign that I can move it back to the apiary. Mission accomplished!

This evening has been spent preparing the strawberries to make jam, making potato and courgette soup, and using a couple of bulbs (yes, bulbs) of garlic to make guacamole.

That’s the end to a perfect weekend. Time to put my feet up and pour myself a whisky.


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Stepping up a gear

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

All of a sudden the allotment seems have entered a new phase. After months and months of digging, mulching and sowing in bare earth, the plants are now roaring ahead, and I’ve even been able to harvest something.

The winter onions were an unsuccessful experiment. Despite being planted before Christmas, they’re only a few weeks ahead of my main onions, so (as I need the space) I’ve decided to dig them up  for use in salads. The lettuce in the greenhouse is also ready to eat. At last, the hungry gap is over.

Although there is substantial growth at the allotment, the biggest change is probably in the greenhouse. Up until now, it was being used to bring on as many seedlings as I could. Hundreds of peas (Alderman and Hurst), beans (Blauhilde and Wisley), leeks, lettuce, chillies and tomatoes have all been brought on under glass.

Gradually, however, most have been hardened off and replanted in the allotment, leaving only the tomatoes and chillies. The toms are getting too big for their pots and need to be placed in grow bags. This means a complete clear-out of everything in the greenhouse – three staging benches, plant pots and bags of compost. From this weekend on, it will devoted to growing only cucumber (they arrived in the post today), chillies and, most importantly of all, lots and lots of tomatoes of varying colours and sizes. Nearly all have been grown from seed, but I’ve also acquired about seven freebie plug plants.

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The swarm chaser

The first swarm. A terrifying thing of beauty

It was only nine days ago that the weather was so rubbish I thought it was going to be a disastrous year for bees. Since then, the heat has rocketed, my bees are going like stink, and I have had four major crises in eight days. I’m knackered.

It all began on Sunday, May 20. I had already noticed that one hive was bringing in a serious amount of honey, expanding rapidly, and producing queen cells.

It was time to create an artificial swarm.

When a colony expands quickly in the spring, it soon outgrows the  hive, and so decides to swarm. It initiates the process by created new queens, and it is at the point before they hatch that a beekeeper has to act. By creating an artificial warm, a beekeeper will get rid of the colony’s urge to move home. Plus he gets an extra colony into the bargain.

The first thing I had to do was find the queen. It’s not something I’m great at, but I saw her first time. Brilliant.

I popped a queen cage on her and prepared to move her to her new hive. The rest of the flying bees would follow.

It was all going well until the cage dropped off, and, to make matters worse, the queen then flew away. That was Crisis No. 1.

Where did she go? Chances are she went back to her hive, but by this time the bees were so disturbed, I had no chance of seeing her, so I shut the hive up.

That was on the Sunday. On the Monday, I returned to see if I could find her. No sign, despite going through the hive twice. I was preparing to go home when I turned round and saw something that rooted me to the spot. There was a huge swarm in a nearby tree. It must’ve been a least three-foot long.

Crisis No. 2. What do I do? I’d never caught a swarm before and didn’t have the right equipment. So, I phoned my mentor. Luckily he was available to help.

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2011: The rise and fall and rise and eventual collapse of the greenhouse

The greenhouse didn't survive the December storm

Looking back over the 2011, it’s clear events have been dominated by one thing – the greenhouse. Money, and even more importantly, time have been wasted on it.

My “big project” of the year was to grow my first veg in a greenhouse, and yet here I am at the beginning of 2011 without one, despite having built one twice and moved it three times. As you’ve probably guessed my year-old greenhouse blew down in the December 8 storm, and is completely unrepairable.

This is the second time it has blown over since I bought it in January 2011. The first time was when it was on the allotment. Then I thought I had lost it for good, along with the £459 I paid for it. However, it was salvageable and so I  brought up to the garden at home.

But, come December, it blew down again. Although it was in a much more sheltered spot, the winds were the strongest in 10 years, and the greenhouse was completely wrecked. However, as it was on my own property, I was able to claim insurance, and got most of the cash back. Good news.

I am still determined to have a greenhouse, and will put the cash towards a proper wooden Victorian lookalikey. This will cost thousands, rather than hundreds, but I am confident it will last. After all, we have two wooden summerhouses and a shed which weren’t at all fazed by the storms.

The fault with my greenhouse was a common one — it used polycarbonate sheeting. This is supposed to better than glass for the plants,  but the downside is it makes greenhouses so light they can’t withstand even moderate winds. After the last storms, it was suckers like me with polycarbonate greenhouses who lost everything, while glass greenhouses stood.

The lesson here is: don’t ever buy polycarbonate. I will never touch them again

But I must’ve be too negative, there was plenty to be excited about in 2011. The harvest (although not large) was at least consistent. Just about everything produced a crop which ended up on the table.

Let’s take a look at each bed  in turn.

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From two to four (and back to three)

The final stages of the second artificial swarm

My beekeeping this year has been characterised by one thing — a lack of preparation. Several times, I have been caught on the hop as the demands of my colonies have forced more than a few urgent trips down to Thornes to stock up on supplies.

The year started slowly enough, and it was May before I had a proper peak inside my two hives. All seemed to be fine. However, when my mentor had a look a week or so later, he noticed one hive was producing queen cells. This means one of two things — either the old queen is dead or missing (she wasn’t) or my hive was going to swarm.

It was time to take action.

Last year when my hives made queen cells, I simply cut them out and killed them. Not only is it unpleasant, it’s also bad practice. Instead, what I should be doing is creating an “artificial swarm”. It’s quite a complicated procedure which is very well explained here. Essentially, you are encouraging your hive to swarm, but in a way that is completely under your control. It should (in theory) stop the colony’s urge to swarm for the rest of the year, plus it you get an extra hive!

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