Spring at Last

It has been the wettest March on record here in Washington state but the plants don’t seem to mind.  They are putting themselves on display as they always do and I am reveling in the every changing show.  This is what’s happening in early April in my sacred woods and fields.  Enjoy.

Lovely spring bulbs, such a welcome sight after all the wet!

Lovely spring bulbs, such a welcome sight after all the wet!




The orchard is waking up.

The orchard is waking up.

Pear blossoms

Pear blossoms


Ever wonder how a stinging nettle gets you? Here are the spines on the underside of the leaf that inject the stinging stuff.


The amazingly gorgeous fiddle head of the bracken fern


An assortment of moss and lichen that grow everywhere here



Pulmonaria communing with a Cedar twig.

Blueberry flowers about to open up

Blueberry flowers about to open up

What happens when trees get old.  Very sad.

What happens when trees get old. Very sad.

Salmonberry flower. The color is so striking

Salmonberry flower. The color is so striking


Skunk Cabbage- a standard wetland plant around these parts.



The most ancient of plants- Equisetum or Horsetail.

Big Leaf Maple Blossom.  The supreme bee food in Spring around here.

Big Leaf Maple Blossom. The supreme bee food in Spring around here.



Lemon Balm leaf. If you look closely you can see the grains of pollen from the trees clinging to it.



Brussel Sprouts starting to flower



Kale flower. If you let this happen in your garden you will never have to replant Kale again!

A Tranquil Interlude

So if you are not from the Pacific Northwest you might think that because we are so far north that snow would be a common occurrence in winter here.  But because we are so close to the ocean the modifying effects of the maritime climate keep us mostly mild and wet for most of the winter, well for most of the year actually. But a few times a season we are blessed with a gentle frosted blanket that drapes our towering cedar and fir trees in fleecy splendor.  And it usually doesn’t last for long which can be good or bad depending on your perspective or which day of the week it happens to occur.  This time it happened conveniently on a Sunday morning and was mostly gone by the time real responsibilities resumed.  Here are some shots of the beauty I managed to capture before the sun was truly up.  As I tread upon the unspoiled beauty I felt slightly guilty but noticed that if I looked closely, others had been there before me.  All the other creatures that share this space.  Enjoy.

Elderberry Syrup for Colds and Flu

“Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food”.  Our ancient friend Hippocrates said this a few thousand years ago and it is just as salient today as it was in ancient Greece. In fact in most parts of the world folks still use food and herbs to heal themselves including Europe where they certainly have access to modern pharmaceuticals. So why would modern folks opt for such an old school option for healing?  Simple. The cures often work better and they are probably not going to kill you. Works for me.


Sambucus Nigra or Black Elderberry is native to much of the United States preferring a moist area near streams.

There are so many herbs you can grow right out your back door or forage for in the woods that can be made into very effective treatments.  I’ll discuss some of them in future blogs posts but since cold and flu season is heavily upon us right now I would like to concentrate on a simple Elderberry Syrup.

Elderberries have been used for centuries for cold and flu relief and although few studies are done on the efficacy of herbal preparations, the ones that are available show what our ancestors knew about elderberries was spot on.  They decrease the symptoms and length of episodes of these illnesses.

A few basic things before we get to the easy recipe  for this delicious medicine.  Only use black Elderberries. The red ones are quite common here in the Pacific Northwest and some experts say they are poisonous or at the very least will make you wish you hadn’t tried them.  If you forage for black Elderberries in the wild make sure you take a good field guide or someone who is familiar with native plants with you.

If this amazing plant doesn’t grow near you or you don’t feel comfortable foraging you can always buy the dried berries from a reputable online source such as.Mountain Rose Herbs an amazing environmentally responsible company out in Oregon. If you want to cultivate your own supply of elderberries, growing this plant is very easy but it needs ample water to do well. It is a beautiful landscape plant and the berries are abundant enough for both you and the wildlife who will devour them as well.

The flowers of the Black Elderberry are also medicinal and are tasty as well.

The flowers of the Black Elderberry are also medicinal and are tasty as well.

Once you have obtained your Black Elderberries you can use them either dried or fresh.  Boil 1/2 cup of dried or 1 cup of fresh Elderberries in three cups of water at a low simmer for about 20 minutes. You can add spices to the berries while boiling such as cinnamon, cloves and ginger if you like.  Crush what remains of the berries and then strain through a fine mesh strainer and allow to cool.

Add one cup of local raw honey then stir and bottle. Store in the fridge for 2-3 months or you can freeze for up to a year and thaw it out when you feel an illness coming on.  However remember the medicine and food quote? This syrup is powerful medicine but it is also a syrup. As in pancake and waffles.  It’s delicious and what better way to keep your family healthy this winter?

Various medicinal foods  made from Black Elderberries.

Various medicinal foods made from Black Elderberries.

Cool Facts About Bees Series-What is a swarm?

Twenty years ago before the thought of beekeeping had ever crossed my mind I saw a swarm in progress and I was terrified. Bees filled the sky almost blocking out the sun and their flight seemed so random and unpredictable that I was convinced that nothing in their path could be safe. But at the same time as I watched them circle, hover and undulate over the ancient building in Salzburg, Austria I was mesmerized.  And after ten minutes or so as they all converged into a tight ball under the eaves of the roof and the sky was again peaceful and clear I was in awe.  What were they doing? Why would they leave the protection of their hive to hang out in this public and decidedly unsafe location?  Clearly they knew because the whole population had the same game plan but it made no sense to an uneducated human onlooker.  I never found out what happened to that swarm but the experience stayed with me.


Beautiful swarm on an apple tree just as the blossoms are about to open. Swarms usually happen in the spring to allow the new hive time to establish itself before winter.

When most folks see this spectacle they probably have the same thought that I did so let’s discuss why it happens and why it shouldn’t be the least bit scary.  And why it’s not only amazing to witness but a good thing for the bees as well.  So why would the bees decide to ostensibly weaken themselves by leaving a protected place to start all over again in another spot that may not be safe or productive? To answer this question we must first consider what happens in the hive to stimulate the bees to take off in such huge numbers in the first place.

A swarm may at first glance appear to be a spontaneous random event but that is far from the case.  In reality it is precisely calculated and the bees have been planing it for at least three weeks before we see the awesome aerial display. The very basic signal is this  Man, it’s getting really crowded in here, some of us need to find another place to hang out., So at this point about half of the hive takes off along with the queen in search of greener pastures.  Of course this begs the question well, what does the old hive do for a queen if the old one is gone?  Well, they make a new one of course! And it is just this preparation that takes three weeks and sets everything in motion.

Queen cell capped-L

A queen cell is created by the worker bees in order to raise a new queen. Because the queen is much larger than the worker she needs more space to develop.

When the hive gets the signal that space it too tight, worker bees began creating special cells to raise a new queen and these cells need to be bigger because the queen is bigger  Special nurse bees then feed the queen large amounts of royal jelly as well as honey and pollen so that when she hatches 19 days later she is able to lay eggs, her only real job. A few hours to a few days before the new virgin queen hatches out, the old queen probably has a thought similar to this  This new queen is younger and probably more fertile than I am and the workers might like her better so I had better skedaddle out of here before we have to fight it out for the throne. So she leaves.

But this does not guarantee an easy road for the new queen. There are many things that can go awry during this very delicate orchestrated dance of workers who are all females, the queen and ultimately the male drones who are obviously integral players as well. Her biggest job lies ahead- she must become mated in order to lay fertilized eggs and to do this she must leave the hive for her mating flight with the drones.

She takes flight on the morning of a clear day and by the time she comes back to the hive she will have mated on the wing with up to twenty drones from multiple hives storing in her body enough sperm to fertilize all the eggs she will ever lay.  And all the eggs she now lays will  be her daughters genetically so mating with multiple drones gives adequate genetic diversity to all the future hive members. Mating with multiple partners might be taxing for the virgin queen but it’s much more serious for her amorous suitors. After they couple with the queen and attempt to disengage, their abdomens are torn open and they spiral to the earth to their deaths. A small price to pay for spreading their DNA around.


Queen mating with one of many drones. He will die when they are finished.

If the virgin queen is successful in her mating and then makes it back to the hive safely, chances are pretty good that she will be productive and the hive will thrive.  Once she reenters the hive after mating she won’t leave it again until it is her  turn to depart with a swarm at some point in the future. She will lay up to 2000 eggs, almost her entire body weight every day and will be groomed, fed and pampered by the worker bees for her entire life.

But let’s get back to the swarm and the old queen. How do they find a new home?  This is where it really gets interesting. When the hive gets the signal to lickety split they all begin to stream out of the hive in a quick and orderly fashion.   Because the journey ahead is arduous and uncertain, only the older, experienced bees go with the swarm leaving the newly hatched and younger bees with the virgin queen to get some experience under their fuzzy belts before they have to do any real work.

Within an hour or so of taking flight the hive finds a temporary place to hang out while they look for a suitable home.  If you have ever seen a swarm hanging in a tree or on a fence post or under the eaves of a building like my first experience, it is this stage that you are witnessing. They are in a holding pattern and will need to find a permanent home in 1-2 days or they will starve or fall victim to predators or bad weather.

car swarm

Swarms are usually seen in trees but sometimes they choose an awkward spot. They are very docile at this stage and will rarely sting as they have no hive to be territorial about. The swarm usually leaves for its permanent home within 24 hours.

As soon as the swarm has settled in the tree or whatever location is convenient, usually within sight of the original hive, it will send out two hundred or so scout bees to look for a suitable new home.  They fan out in all directions scouring the neighborhood looking for hollow trees, a hole in the side of a building or any other dark protected space that appeals to them. The scout bees return to the swarm and ‘talk’ about what they have found and then narrow down the options to one or two and then all the scouts visit the winning spot. (We know all of this because there are scientists who care and do amazingly detailed research and tracking of bees.  More power to them!)

Once the bees come to a democratic consensus about their new home the scout bees take flight and circle above the swarm coaxing all of the bees into the air.  They then ‘coral’ the others, flying on the outside while the masses who have no idea where they are going but trust the scouts to lead them fly on the inside of the procession. In this way the whole group of around thirty thousand bees is led to the promised land and fortunately because bees are smarter than people, without wandering for forty years in the desert. Usually within a day the entire population is tucked in snugly and the business of setting up a household begins in earnest.


Bee trees are more common than many people think but are often remote and go unnoticed by humans.

So as we can see swarming is a natural response by the bees to reproduce themselves on a massive scale.  We can think of it as giving birth to a new hive that will hopefully go on to birth many hives of its own.  In this way honeybees populate a given area and over time and given the right conditions can populate vast areas of land.  This ability is more important now than ever as the conditions for honeybees deteriorate due to rampant chemical use by beekeepers, homeowners and big agriculture. So the next time you witness a swarm, stay calm and marvel in the bees ability to orchestrate such a complex and beautiful reproductive ritual.

How Bees Celebrate the Winter Solstice

Here in the northern hemisphere our calendar may indicate that it’s the First Day of Winter but I like to  use a more accurate and uplifting appellation and call it the Winter Solstice.  Not only does it sound beautifully spiritual but it more accurately describes this specific day and what is going on in the planetary sphere. As any amateur astronomer knows the earth rotates about its axis, and the axis is tilted in relationship with the sun. The winter solstice occurs when the earth’s axis is tilted the farthest away from the sun so that at noon on or around December 21st the sun is at its lowest position in the sky for the year. In the northern hemisphere this is the day with the least amount of daylight and the longest night.


Our sacred woods in deep slumber

For the next six months, the days progressively lengthen and the nights get shorter until the Summer Solstice marking the longest day of the year.  These planetary observations were well-known by man in ancient times and the Winter Solstice was the starting point of many traditions honoring the rebirth of the sun which then assured abundance during the growing season  and survival of humans and livestock alike.  Many ancient monuments were  oriented  to carefully align on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange in Ireland) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge in England).

moonrise stars Stonehenge Wiltshire England UK

Stonehenge was built by Neolithic man to honor the winter solstice.

Much the same way our ancient Pagan ancestors viewed the winter solstice as a sign of rebirth and fertility renewed so the honey bee understands the concept and observes the solstice  in a similar way. Like many plants and animals, bees are highly affected by changes in day length and immediately after the solstice, when the hours of daily sunlight start to increase, the colony begins to respond. Up until this date the primary function of the hive was survival and the hardest part of that task was keeping the colony and the queen from freezing

But amazingly within a few days of the solstice the focus changes from self-preservation of the current generation to procreation of the next. The worker bees slowly begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest using up more of their precious honey stores from a cool resting temperature of 70-75° F to the brood rearing temperature of about 95°F. This increase in warmth spurs the queen to lay eggs. She will build a small brood nest and gradually, over the course of many weeks, increase the size further.  If all goes well the hive population will explode with the first warm weather of the new year.

So the honey bee reassures us that even though the days seem dark, dreary and cold with creation frozen in time much is going on behind the scenes and under the ground.   Rest assured that all the plants and creatures, including ourselves if we are tuned into the deep knowledge of our not so distant past are beginning to stir and reawaken to the promise and coming abundance that the lengthening day brings.  Summer will come, the bees will fly and the earth will again bless us with her bounty.


The Farm in Autumn

Fall is always bittersweet for me. Once all the crops are harvested and stored and jams, pickles and vegetables canned I can exhale deeply and just enjoy the quiet and coolness and meditate on a job well done. As I put the garden and the bees to bed for the winter I am already planning for next year and how I might live lighter on the land and further nurture the life that shares my small piece of the planet. I’ve made amazing progress in one year but there is still so much I want to do. As my sacred space falls into slumber I know the plants are also gaining their strength and planning their rebirth in the glorious spring to come. So the plants and I rest together knowing that we will both be rejuvenated with this much deserved respite. So grab a cup of tea and enjoy the beauty that surround you this time of year. Here is what I nurture in my space. Enjoy.

What’s Up With the Bees Part 2

To my mind, most of the problems the bees are now facing can be traced to a change in beekeeping philosophy. Now I know this idea will make me very unpopular with some of my fellow beekeepers but there it is. This is not to say that external factors are not also at work and I will talk about them later but  I feel the bulk of the problem is a catastrophe of our own making created by those of us who claim to want the best for the bees.  Over the last fifty years or so we have  developed a very interventionist method of beekeeping thinking that we knew best and inadvertently we have driven our bees to the edge of extermination.  Some of these practices were born out of the good intentions but some of them were and are driven by pure greed  to maximize profit over bee health and welfare. Bee exploitation pure and simple. Let’s talk about some of these practices and the reason they were instituted in the first place.

So when I think of the problems that the beekeeping community has inflicted upon our innocent insect charges several things come to mind.  Migratory practices, maximizing honey production and treating with myriad chemicals to ‘help the bees survive’ are chief among the culprits  aiding the decline in honey bee health and vitality.  So let’s explore each of these and I think by the time we’re done, you will see the problem and how we may begin to fix it and in the process assure the continuation of our food supply and the beautiful amazing honeybee and her pollinator friends.

So most of you have probably heard of the local food movement or ‘locavores’ those folks who try to eat food from within one hundred miles of where they live.  This sounds like a very radical idea to some folks until we realize that until the advent of refrigerated train cars and the discovery of cheap fossil fuels, all food was local.  Most food with the exception of dry staples that had a longer shelf life and could be shipped  was grown and consumed in the same fifty mile radius.  People did not eat strawberries in December and very few folks had even tasted a banana and certainly not a mango. In fact, the modern-day supermarket as we know it has only been around for about 70 years. But when they did become widespread these mega stores had to be stocked with food and lots of it.  And you just can’t produce that amount and variety of foods locally so when food started being produced by the millions of tons in warm places like California and Florida, all of those crops packed together acre upon acre needed to be pollinated.  Enter the migratory beekeeper.

Semi being loaded with bee hives for a three thousand mile journey across the country.

Semi being loaded with bee hives for a three thousand mile journey across the country.

So migratory beekeepers started out by filling a much-needed gap in the bee-food production chain but it has morphed into a billion dollar industry and is now an integral part of what we call ‘Big Ag’ short for big agriculture. It has become a nightmare for bee health and for that matter our health as well.  Bees now are trucked back and forth across the country following crop blooming schedules rather than their own rhythms honed by thousands of years of evolution. They are often fed high fructose corn syrup (HCS) after their natural food, honey is taken from them to be sold. HCS has none of the vitamins and minerals that the bees need to remain healthy and virtually all HCS  is made from genetically modified corn, which is a huge problem all by itself.   As they are moved thousands of miles in a single season their normal rhythms are disrupted leaving them susceptible to many diseases and pests.  So, when you consider that according to the American Beekeeping Federation nearly two-thirds of the hives in America are used for migratory pollination purposes, is it any wonder that the bee population is declining?  We can not continue to exploit these creatures in such a way and expect anything but catastrophe as a result.

So if the great majority of the hives in America are migratory and  kept in a perpetual weakened state of health it is quite natural to assume that they will be getting sick at a much greater rate than their counter parts who are raised by more ‘natural’ means in other words, raised in one climate zone and allowed to store and eat their natural food.  Indeed it has been found according to a study by the University of Massachusetts that “The migratory bees were more consistently infected and had a significantly higher prevalence of triple infections. This may be due to the differences in both exposure to pathogens that migratory and local bees experience and overall fitness of the hives as related to stress.” And this becomes a problem for local bees as well because as the weakened migratory bees are exposed to strange pathogens from all over the world in their tens of thousands of miles traveled, they then bring these back to our local hives and expose them as well. Some of the most potent bee pests and diseases have been imported and it’s a huge problem.

So let’s talk briefly about how bee pests and diseases were dealt with in the recent past and how that philosophy has changed in the last fifty years.  There are many diseases and parasites that affect honey bees and they have been a minor problem for many years.  My guess it that most of them have been around for as long as the honey bee has and they didn’t create a huge problem as a healthy hive can usually fight them off if left to their own devices. But as we have mentioned our hives are no longer considered healthy and herein lies the problem. Fifty year ago your average beekeeper probably had less than 50 hives and his livelihood was not based solely on how much honey he could pump out of a hive.  He cared for his bees in a poly culture treating them like his other livestock paying close attention to living conditions and that appropriate food and water was available to them.  They were allowed adequate forage to assure their health and long-term survival. Hives rarely got sick but if they did they were allowed to expire naturally and were replaced with healthier stock that were more hardy.  Quick chemical fixes were not available then so the beekeeper used his intimate knowledge of the bees and their needs to fix the problems that he could and let the rest go.

Honeybee with varroa mite attached.  This is one of the many pest that afflict honeybees.

Honeybee with varroa mite attached. This is one of the many pest that afflict honeybees.

But as apiaries got bigger and bigger now numbering in the thousands of hives, the bees were fighting for nectar and pollen sources often being fed unnatural alternatives.  Beekeeper had become a sole occupation for some folks and so they were heavily invested in turning a profit from their hives and willing to go to radical steps to do so. And this is where the chemical companies came to the rescue proffering new drugs and ‘cides’ to kill every pest or disease that reared its ugly head.  And as one pest was brought under control with powerful chemicals, it seemed in a few years another one would take its place.  So for the last forty years or so beekeepers, even small recreational ones, have been playing a game of chase, pulling out bigger and more potent weapons to win the microscopic war within the hive. And the bees have suffered for it becoming weaker and taking heavier losses each year despite the claims of the big agricultural pharmaceutical companies that their latest and greatest will help save our hives. Clearly this has now been exposed as a huge fallacy.

Two of the myriad pest treatments proffered by chemicals companies to help 'save' the honeybee.

Two of the myriad pest treatments proffered by chemicals companies to help ‘save’ the honeybee.

So what can be done to get ourselves out of this disaster of our own making? How do we clean up our hives and make this sacred creature whole again?  It’s not a moot point because as I’ve mentioned we need honeybees to assure our continued food supply and the biodiversity on the planet.  In Part 3 I will discuss what I and many other beekeepers are doing to turn this train wreck around.  Stay tuned.

What’s Up With the Bees? Part 1 The Amazing Dissappearing Honeybee

When I first started keeping bees eight years ago I did it sort of under the radar as did most of my beekeeping colleagues.   We didn’t get a lot of press coverage because there was really nothing to say that the average person would care about.   We moved blissfully along in our own little world and the worst thing my  bees had to face were mites and the occasional skunk raiding their honey stores.  I called myself a bee keeper then but my main concern really  was how much honey my hives would produce and thus how much honey I could collect and sell.  And even though I kept my bees ‘naturally’ meaning I didn’t put chemicals in the hive to kill the many tiny pests that can be a problem for the bees, I didn’t give too much thought to the long term survival of the species in general. I was keeping bees but I wasn’t really caring for them.

If my hives died or got weak surely I could get replacements and start over.  We’ve had honey bees on this continent since the early 1600’s.  They would always be around no matter what the beekeepers did or didn’t do, right?  Well,it’s becoming increasing clear  that that was blissful ignorance. Turn on any television or radio station and you can hear the sad stories about our honeybee population.  They are facing a dire situation and very soon we may be reminiscing about the good ole days when the bees did our pollinating and gave up their sweet nectar in return.  This fact has caused me to rethink my relationship with my hives and change my whole philosophy.  I now consider myself a bee guardian and this article will explain why this may be the only way out of our current crisis.

A non traditional pollinator.

A non traditional pollinator.

When most people find out I am a beekeeper they ask me, So what’s going on with the beehives?  Why are they dying?  It’s usually in the spring when many beekeepers are reporting huge winter die offs and the media jumps on it hard.   And then the colonies that managed to survive the winter begin to increase their populations, create swarms and multiply themselves and the crisis of the honeybee is shunted to the back burner and we don’t hear anything else until next Spring when the same scenario unfolds.  This is unfortunate because the survival rate has been trending down for almost a decade now and at some point the bees ability to recover from such devastating winter losses will cease. If we don’t all take responsibility for the dire state of pollinator health, very soon it may be too late.

Yep, these guys are beneficial as well.

Yep, these guys are beneficial as well.

Let me first start with why we should care about these tiny creatures.  It’s often quoted that honeybees are responsible for every third spoonful of food that goes into our mouths.  It gets  folks attention and I suppose that is why it is so often cited but it isn’t quite true.  Indeed one third of our food crops require pollinators  but not just  honey bees.  There are many species of bees, moths, flies and bats that pollinate  crops as well so if you add up all this hard work, then yes, it’s about thirty percent.  All pollinators are important and are in serious need of our protection because almost without exception what is harmful to honeybees hurts most other pollinators as well.  So if  we do the right thing to take care of one species, it will invariably help all of them.

One of my honeybees on an apple blossom.  Bees are good pollinators mostly due to their large numbers.

One of my honeybees on an apple blossom. Bees are good pollinators mostly due to their large numbers.

So we need honeybees for food production.  But we also need them because they are beautiful and amazing and the products they create have the ability to heal and make our lives better. I could write a book and many people have about the genius of the honeybee. How they can build perfect comb in complete darkness and communicate minute details of nectar location miles from the hive just by dancing.  How they produce tiny wafers of bees wax from their abdomens and chew and stomp it into perfect hexagons in the hive because that shape is the strongest and can store the most honey.  And the fact that they produce not one but four  products of the hive that have known health benefits for humans.  Honey, propolis, bee venom and bee pollen have been used as  medicine for thousands of years.  We are only now beginning to rediscover these amazing products and indeed are finding new ways to use them.

So honeybees and their fellow pollinators  are important on many levels but are they essential?  Can we survive as a species if  we let them disappear? Could our  planet continue to nurture life as we know it?  Nobody really knows the answer to that question but many smart people have serious doubts.  My hope is that we will never have to find out.

But the sad reality is that some beekeepers in my area are reporting forty to fifty percent losses over the last winter.  Those numbers are staggering and seem to have been getting worse, more or less for the last ten years.   The most worrisome part is that no matter how much research we throw at it, there is no smoking gun.  That does not mean that there have not been many things implicated but it seems to be a combination of factors at work and therein lies the problem.


One of our native bumble bees on broccoli flowers.  Amazing pollinators.

When this issue  first surfaced almost a decade ago it was called CCD or colony collapse disorder and it got lots of press at the time.  The primary symptom was that the bees would leave the hive one day and would not come back leaving beekeepers perplexed and clueless as to the cause.  But as the years have gone on the primary symptom is not hive abandonment but just a slow and steady failure to thrive and then a winter die off of up to fifty percent of all colonies. Obviously having sick bees is better than having a colony disappear.  But when you don’t know what’s causing the problem and no amount of feeding, medication and hive manipulation can save the hive,  it’s heartbreaking.  So  in part 2 of this blog post we’ll discuss what might be causing the problems and some things that we can all do  to protect this unique creature and the intricate web of pollinators that surround it.

What Are Those Curly Things On My Garlic Plants?

I have grown garlic for years so I thought I knew everything pertinent to the task.  So I was surprised to walk into the garden last week and find what looked to be seed heads forming on the tops of my garlic plants and since our weather had been warm for a few days I worried that they had been shocked into ‘bolting’ or producing seeds too soon.  In all my years of growing this esteemed bulb, I had never had this happen so I was perplexed,  Fortunately a trip to the farmer’s market soon ensued and I saw the curly cue looking greens at the organic grower’s stall and ask her what the deal was.

She immediately asked me what kind of garlic I was growing ie, was it hard neck or soft neck garlic.  Having procured the bulbs at the local food co-op I wasn’t sure but after answering a few more questions, she deduced that it must be a hard necked variety and that it was standard operating procedure for these to  produce seed heads or ‘scapes’ as they are called by those in the know.  This made perfect sense.  Because I had never grown this variety before I had never seen a garlic scape.  So she sent me home with a little advice on what to do and now I can pass that wisdom on to you all.


The unique shape of garlic scapes which are the seed heads of the hard necked garlic plant. But get them while you can at the farmer’s markets, they only appear once per year.

When I arrived back in the garden I immediately snapped off the scapes just  at the top of the plant.  They have to be removed so the plant does not redirect its energy into producing ‘bulbettes’  which is what the very top of the scape would morph into if left in place.  This would in turn compromise the true mission of the  plant, to produce whopping big bulbs of garlicy goodness. So off with their heads and into the kitchen they went.  But what the heck was I going to do with these things that at first smell, didn’t even faintly resemble the pungent aroma that wafts through the kitchen when introduced to a saute pan and butter.  I thought I’d better at least take a taste and see what I was dealing with before I decided what they should become.

At first nibble, I was unimpressed.  But, wait for it, in about ten seconds, my mouth was on fire and I was thankful that I would not be having close company in the next three days.  This stuff was potent.  So potent in fact that I was afraid to cook with it so what to do?  Up until a few days before I had never even seen or heard of this oddity and now I had at least a pound of it calling to me from my fridge.  And since I consider it a mortal sin to let anything from my garden go to waste I knew there was only one option.  So I called my friend Gail who is a amazing gourmand and she suggested garlic scape pesto.  Perfect!  I love pesto.

Garlic scape pesto cut with a little bit of basil to bring down the heat.

Garlic scape pesto cut with a little bit of basil to bring down the heat.

So you can really just substitute garlic scapes for the basil in your favorite pesto recipe and if you don’t have a favorite pesto recipe , one is an easy google away.  I used a bit of basil in addition to the scapes just to cut the heat a little but if you are a hard core garlic freak you’d be fine using it straight.  What ensues is a healthy pungent spread for anything you want to add a little zing to.  I put mine on some gluten free pasta and it was so  amazing even the twelve year old sucked it down and wanted more….wait he always wants more no matter what it is!  Well, you get my meaning, this stuff rocks.

Garlic scape pesto over yummy gluten free pasta

Garlic scape pesto over yummy gluten free pasta

So if  you have a farmer’s market in your town, get down there in a hurry and grab some of these goodies.  They are only available for a few weeks but once you make the pesto it will freeze for months so you can spread out the goodness.  And that may be a good thing considering the intensity of odor that results after consumption. Just make sure those closest to you have a large portion as well and you’ll be fine.  Bon Appetite!

Losing Livestock

I knew it would happen eventually.  Living in the area that we do there is no shortage of predators that all want a chicken dinner and allowing our flock to free range on the 3 1/2 acres was taking  a risk.  And I accepted that risk because I believe chickens need to do what they love and that is wander around and scratch in the earth.  So it was with a little angst that I counted them up each evening when I summoned them with what my neighbors have probably dubbed  the crazy chicken lady jingle sounding something like chick, chick, chickeeeeennnn!   And as they would all come running toward the coop with cracked corn on their minds I would do the quick mental math hoping to come up with the magic number of thirteen.  If  I came up short more mental gymnastics were required to figure out who was missing and I got pretty good at pegging  the absentees in less than 30 seconds.  So then of course a search of the offender would ensue with me and Damien beating the bushes and cajoling the wayward hen with the promise of meal worms, cooked grain or their all time favorite, strawberries.  Usually the absconder would emerge in a few minutes because chickens are highly motivated by gastronomical delights but sometimes we would have to put all the others away and just wait for nightfall hoping that the threat of darkness would drive the missing hen to the safety of the coop.

So about three weeks ago when Goldilocks went missing we waited till dusk and then called for her, we walked the perimeter making ridiculous chicken noises, we talked to the neighbors to make sure she had not flown into their yard over the four foot fence that separates our properties.  But when morning came and there was still no sign of her, we feared the worst.  We walked the property again looking for signs of a struggle between a fairly small chicken and a coyote, hawk, owl, raccoon, weasel or fox all of which live in our woods and will readily eat a chicken without a second thought but we found nothing.  Not a trace of feathers, blood or other carnage.  Whatever had taken her had done it quickly and apparently without a struggle. And because we never found a body  I think we were in denial, thinking that possibly  she just wandered away and might make it back someday.  Of course this was easier to accept and we moved on with twelve chickens.

Where the predators play

Where the predators play

About a week later we were faced with the grim reality of how nature works and this time there could be no denial.  The chickens were free ranging in the back yard, close to the forest which always made me nervous because I had seen what lurks  in those woods and was acutely aware that those creatures  knew we had a roving chicken buffet laid out daily.  I actually heard nothing of the attack but when I called for Damien and got no reply I looked out the back and saw him holding Snowflake one of our smaller hens in his arms and she was limp with an ominous red stain, coating her beautiful white and black plumage.  I saw the trail of white feathers extending thirty feet across the emerald green lawn and instantly knew what had happened.  And when I got down the stairs to Damien he told me through tears and sobs what he had seen.

Damien luring the chickens with treats.  All of our chickens are pets and losing them is painful.

Damien luring the chickens with treats. All of our chickens are pets and losing them is painful.

He heard the chickens screaming and quickly opened the door to see what was wrong and at that point saw one coyote with Snowflake in its mouth and another one busting out of the forest to assist the first.  Damien ran at both of them screaming  forcing the beast to drop the chicken and head for the safety of the trees but the damage had been quick and deadly.  Damien picked Snowflake up but she died in his arms. It was heartbreaking to see but even more wrenching to watch Damien have to accept the brutality of nature unfold right in his own backyard.

We buried Snowflake under her favorite tree where she loved to sit and take dust baths and bask in the sun and marked the spot with a simple wooden cross made with sticks. Some of her feathers still grace the backyard and the native birds have taken to gathering them for the soft downy parts of their nests.  A fitting tribute only another bird could truly understand.   The consolation is that Snowflake died doing what chickens live to do, being free and looking for tasty treats to eat.