Rainy days and Sundays always get me down when I can not garden!

Monday, April 24, 2017


It is believed that the first window boxes hung from the terraces in the Gardens of Babylon (southern Iraq) making the plants look like they were suspended or floating in mid air. The story goes that King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled between 605-562 BC had the gardens built for his wife Queen Amytis of Medis who was homesick for the mountains of her homeland. In 290 BC the Babylonian Priest Berrossus writes about these gardens crediting the King with their creation. The exact location of these gardens have yet to be identified and no physical evidence have been found making some believe they are more mythical then physical. If the gardens were real then it's believed that they had been destroyed after the 1st century AD.

For the Romans the use of window boxes was purposeful and convenient. These terra cotta boxes were used for growing herbs for food, medicine and religious purposes. Overtime, these boxes took on a more decorative role with flowers replacing herbs. Wealthy Romans created gardens on balconies and rooftops with the use of window boxes. Roman writer, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder mentions window boxes in his works, Naturalis Historia (encyclopedias). In it he writes:

The urban poor used to have window-boxes, which gave them a glimpse of the countryside every day, but now the countless violent burglaries have forced them to shutter their windows.”

The use of window boxes spread through Europe (as did the Romans) and eventually to the US. The French used wrought iron to create their boxes while the English utilized wire hay baskets for a “cottage style garden”. The arrival of the settlers to America gave rise to the traditional colonial style window box. One thought is that the poor utilized window boxes in Europe do to lack of land for traditional gardens. In historic cities like Charleston, South Carolina, homes extend all the way out to the sidewalks. This left no front yard garden space, thus the use of window boxes. Today, these boxes play a vital role in the cities appearance.

According to an article in the Independent (Oct. 13, 1995) window boxes were at their height of popularity by the 1870's. In 1955, Neosho Missouri embarked on a city wide, beautification project utilizing window-boxes. Since 1957 it has been known as “The Flower Box City” at least to the locals. In cities like Philadelphia, window box companies will design, install, plant and replant your window-boxes seasonally.

When designing your own window boxes think “Thriller, Filler, Spiller”. Thriller plants are the tallest, adding drama, movement and a focal point. Fillers, as the name implies adds mass, texture and color. And spillers are trailing plants that drape over the sides, creating softness and anchors the design.

Window boxes can add charm and beauty. They are miniature gardens that bring nature in and provide a colorful view looking out. They can also support our pollinators. In 2016 the USDA launched “Plant A Window Box for Pollinators” through the Peoples Garden Initiative Website (peoplesgarden.usda.gov). This tool helps you locate plants for pollinators based on your zip code. The Pollinator Partnership (pollinator.org/windowbox) has created an online web application in which you can create a window boxes for pollinators with an emphasis on native plants. Once created you can share your virtual window box with others through social media or create the real deal.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


"Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle … a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl.  And the anticipation nurtures our dream.” –  Barbara Winkler

December 21 is the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere) and the official start to winter! Known as the Winter Solstice it is also the start of “WINTER SOWING” (creator and Guru Trudi Davidoff).  This is a nifty method of outdoor seed germination using milk cartoons, 2 liter soda bottles, plastic kitty litter jugs or other similar types of containers. These mini-greenhouses are placed outdoors in a safe and sunny locations, protected from heavy winds but can still get water from rain or snow. Winter Sowing works with perennials, annuals, herbs and even garden veggies.

Winter sowing is not difficult but does have a few guidelines. For starters, the containers need to be “transparent”, deep enough to hold 3"-4” of potting soil along with adequate “head space” There also needs to be drainage holes on the bottom (so we don’t drown our seeds) as well as ventilation holes on the top (or remove the cap). Hardier seeds are started in January and the more tender seeds in February and March.

As the days start to warm but the nights are still cold seedlings will began to emerge. As the seedlings grow keep an eye on moisture levels and water as needed. Open up the containers on nicer days but close them up at night if cold or a chance of frost. Winter-sown seedlings are naturally “harden off” allowing direct transplanting into the garden come the Vernal (Spring) equinox!


Monday, January 2, 2017


What's all the buzz about gardens for pollinators? For starters, 85% of all flowering plants rely on pollinators! Without them you would not have many of the fruits and vegetables that you enjoy eating. Examples of common foods dependent upon or benefit from pollinators are apples, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cucumbers, pumpkins, almonds, melons, squash, peppers, tomatoes, spices, cocoa, coffee and figs just to name a few! As the saying goes, “1 in 3 bites” of our food relies on pollinators. So the next time you are at the supermarket look around at the produce section. Now look again but imagine 33% of the shelves are bare. Without pollinators, that could be a reality.

If your vegetable garden is not doing well or your fruit trees are failing to produce, chances are that you are not attracting enough pollinators into your yard. Our pollinators travel about without regard to property lines or fences. Creating a pollinator friendly garden is simple no matter how big or small. By planting a garden focused on welcoming these insects, you can increase the number of pollinators in your area. Select plants that provide adequate food sources for bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds and other pollinators. You will need both pollen and nectar producing plants with bright colors and a variety of shapes and sizes to attract many different pollinators. Stick with plants specific or native to your area (avoiding non-native and exotics) which better support pollinators. Have a combination of spring, summer and fall blooming flowers and whenever possible, plant in groups of 3 or more to better “grab” the pollinators attention. When planting annuals go with old fashion heirlooms (avoiding hybrids) and intersperse them among the vegetable plants in your garden. You can also designate a section of your yard strictly for a pollination garden and reduce grassy areas by planting more pollinator friendly trees, shrubs and plants. No matter if you are planting in flower pots, window boxes or garden beds you can make a positive impact one plant at a time. One yard is great, but a string of yards is even better!

In 2007 the U.S. Senate unanimously designated one week each June as National Pollinator Week. Several years later( 2011) Penn State Master Gardeners began certifying Pollinator Friendly Gardens. Pollinators need our help. Their numbers are in decline due to habitat loss, disease and contact with pesticides. Penn State Extension Master Gardeners are taking action to protect pollinators by planting pollinator friendly gardens and providing education for the gardening public. Won't you make an effort by gardening with a purpose, selecting plants that provide food, shelter and nesting sites and limiting the use of pesticide? Pollinators will, in turn, provide the pollination needed to protect our plant diversity and food sources. Certifying your property as “Pollinator Friendly” will help support a healthy ecosystem for our community and the future. Plus, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you are making a difference!

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Falling temperatures, shorter days and longer nights tells us that the current year is coming to an end. Nectar and pollen are becoming more and more scarce and the activity in the hive slows. The queen reduces or stops laying eggs, old bees die off, and drones are kicked out of the hive. “Winter bees” hunker down with one goal “survival”.  Winter may designate the end of the growing season but it actually marks the beginning of the New Year in beekeeping. And the condition of the colony going into winter will help determine the outcome/success the fallowing spring. A healthy hive free of disease with plenty of food stores, and a strong Queen helps with survival. As beekeepers we can also help the bees prepare for winter by reducing the size of the hives themselves.  During the spring and summer the hive grows quickly and so does the need for space. Boxes holding frames are added to accommodate this growth. Some of the frames/boxes are used for brood while others are used for the storage of honey (supers). But as October roles around and the bee population starts to decline, multiple boxes stacked on top of each other is not ideal. Especially if those boxes contain empty waxed frames or unused comb. The threat of swarming has passed (hopefully) so more bees can cover less frames in a smaller space. Condensing or “tightening up” the hive by removing unused frames and boxes makes it easier for the bees to maintain the temperature of their cluster (around 92 degrees), conserving the bees energy and food consumption. How much to compact the hive is a judgment call by the beekeeper.  Once the bees are tucked away for winter and snow starts to fall we can only hope we did our best. Come spring the days will be getting longer, the temperatures start to climb and hopefully our bees will emerge from their hives!


Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Through-out the year, the activity changes within the beehive and the number of bees fluctuates according to these changes. Heading into winter a hive contains about 30,000 to 40,000 bees. By February/March that number has dropped down to around 20,000 provided the hive has survived winters icy grip. As April approaches and the days are getting warmer the Queen is in full laying mode and over the next few months the hive expands rapidly. Birthrates exceed death rates, and by June/July there are roughly 60,000+ bees in the hive. With this rapid growth, the hive becomes overcrowded, space is limited, and the queen may start to run out of brood space to lay her eggs. With more bees in the hive, the queen’s pheromones may not “get around” to all the workers. All of these factors can contribute to the hive deciding to swarm. In nature, swarming is instinctual, and results in creating a new hive from an existing (strong) colony. In other words, it’s a method of reproduction. Most swarms take place in the spring and early summer, however, bees can swarm at any time. The later in the season a hive swarms after July, the less chance it has for survival through the winter months.  
Once a hive has decided to swarm they put their game plan into motion. First, they select several eggs that will be developed into the hives new queen(s). These peanut-shaped swarm cells are usually found along the bottom of the frames. As these queens are developing, the old queen slows down her egg laying and “slims down” in preparation of flying off with the swarm. The hive does not wait around for the new queen(s) to emerge. Shortly before swarming, the worker bees gorge themselves on a 3-day supply of honey and nectar. Once they are ready the hives original queen along with 50%-60% of worker bees take flight (truly a sight to be seen). As the virgin daughter queens hatch out, they fight each other to the death until there is just one. This new queen will go on her mating flight and then resume the role left to her by her mother.

Bees swarm without having a new location in mind to move into. At first they will stop and cluster not far from their original hive, keeping the queen in the center of the swarm. The queen is not great at flying and needs to stop and rest. While resting, scout bees go out in search of a new home. They return to share their findings with the others. Collectively, the hive must agree before moving into their new location. When swarming the bees are focused on finding a new home. They are not protecting brood so they tend not to be aggressive. (Bees attack when they are protecting their hive or feel threatened). If you see a swarm of bees, keep your distance. Typically, they will not remain at that location for very long. You can also contact a beekeeper, who would be happy to come and “rescue” a swarm. Catching a swarm is the equivalent to free bees. (A package of bees cost roughly $95)

Swarming reduces the original hives numbers by disrupting the brood cycle, slowing down the hives growth and honey production. Sometimes, once a hive has swarmed, it is followed by after swarms. After swarm are smaller swarms that fallow the original or first swarm but usually with a virgin queen. This can result in the depletion of the hive. Since a hive swarms before new queen emerges there is always the risk of losing the new queen resulting in a queen less hive. This happened to us last year while inspecting a hive that had swarmed. Lifting off one of the brood boxes, we damaged the swarm cell killing the larva inside. There were no other swarm cells, nor were there any eggs to create an emergency queen. This left us scrambling to locate a queen for sale and to re queen the hive.

Beekeepers hate swarming and employ various methods to prevent it. They may clip one of the queen’s wings to keep her from flying or try to trick the bees into thinking they have already swarmed by doing what are called “splits”. They will continue to add supers, manipulate the brood boxes or even destroy swarm cells. All of these methods may post pone swarming, but it may not stop the inevitable.

This past summer we caught our first swarm of bees! Yea, free bees! It was easy since they were wrapped around one of the legs of our hive stand. Could it had been a swarm from one of our hives? Who knows? Either way we were able to scoop them up along with the queen and place them into a nuc box. (When catching swarms, you must catch the queen or the hive will not stay.)

As we enter into fall foraging/ nectar sources are becoming more scarce and swarming should be behind us, hopefully. Of course there is always absconding, when ALL bees in a hive leave in search of a new home.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"If you want to gather honey, don't kick over the beehive" Dale Carnegie

Raw, "wild flower" honey from our hives.
Uncapping fork and knife.

Our hives.
Removing the waxed cappings from the frames....
...to reveal the honey inside the comb.

Perforating the honey cells with the uncapping fork  This helps the honey to flow out of the cells during the extraction process.
Once uncapped the frames are placed into the extractor. 

It's time to give the extractor a spin....for 5 minutes!!!  Our extractor is a hand cranked model!

The honey is run through a strainer to remove any leftover wax or other particles.   
The aftermath. 
A by-product of harvesting honey, the cappings can be melted down and used for other purposes.

Bees cleaning up anything left on frames.

"If everything is honey
And I am what I eat
I must bee made of honey
And life is very sweet"
From Winnie The Pooh - Everything Is Honey

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


It's spring! The days are getting warmer and bees can be seen buzzing about in front of our hive. Forager bees head out in search of food (nectar and pollen) and water sources and return with brightly colored pollen packed into their “pollen baskets”. With temperatures in the 50's, sunny, and not to breezy, it's time to do our first full hive inspection of the new year. We have been patiently waiting all winter to take a look inside and this inspection will allow us to see just how well this colony has overwintered.

A few puffs of smoke from the smoker and we pop off the top. The bees appear gentle which is a good sign since past experience has shown us that an aggressive hive is a queen-less hive. The bee population/cluster looks fairly good and we do not see signs of disease or pest. As we continue to work our way through the hive, we will be looking for the queen along with eggs, larva and capped brood. All signs that our girl is doing her job.

Now we are faced with a decision, do we re-queen our hive or keep our existing queen? So let's look at the role of the queen and reasons why you may re-queen a hive. The queen is the matriarch and only female capable of laying fertilized eggs. She is the heart of the hive and without her the hive will fail to thrive. Her only role is to lay eggs, laying between 1500-2000 eggs a day. She emits pheromones which controls the bees-behavior in the hive and gives the hive its identity, but she makes no decisions. She is cared for by worker bees who tend to all her needs and a queen can live for 5+ years. Compare this to worker bees who live for 6-7 weeks in the spring and summer and up to 4 to 6 months in the fall and winter. If she starts to falter in her egg laying duties, becomes to old, has diminished pheromone output, or becomes diseased, the hive will replace her by a procedure known as “supersedure”

Many beekeepers do not wait for the queen to “age out” and for the hive to re-queen itself, instead opting to replace their queen every year or two. Older queens tend to swarm, taking 50%-60% of the hive with them. In nature, swarming is natural, but considered a loss by many beekeepers. Re-queening with a new young queen seems to reduce the need to swarm. Egg laying is more prolific the first year or two, thus older queens lay less eggs, more drones and the brood pattern may be spotty. This will effect the strength of the hive as well as honey production. Another reason to re-queen a hive is to introduce new genetics since a hive that re-queens itself transfers the genetics of the mother queen to her daughter.

Our queen was a “banked” queen. She was pulled from a hive and replaced with a new queen by a fellow beekeeper who re-queens his hives every year. But instead of killing this “old queen”, the beekeeper kept her for “just in case someone needed her”. That was the case for us with the sudden loss of our queen late last summer.

Spring is a good time to re-queen since the colony is usually smaller and it's normally easier to locate the existing queen. Some beekeepers re-queen in the fall with the idea of having a strong young queen for the fallowing springs buildup.

So, it appears that our hive has made it through the winter. The activity out front is fierce and all is well inside. This queen saved our hive last summer. Do we save her?