Monday, April 14, 2014

11 Reasons You Should Consider Beekeeping

This month marks the two-year anniversary of my husband and I becoming full-fledged beekeepers. I love telling people that I keep bees - some react with fascination, others think I'm nuts. There's this notion that beekeeping is complicated, scary, and even dangerous. Really, beekeeping is none of those things.  In fact, I'm convinced that just about anyone who cares enough about bees can become a beekeeper.

Here are eleven reasons why you should consider beekeeping:

I'll just get this one of the way: one of the best reasons to keep bees is for the honey! This past fall, we got our first honey harvest (we didn't get enough our first year since we had such dry conditions in 2012). You know that difference between a store-bought tomato vs. a homegrown one? Same goes for honey. I've never tasted better honey in my life! I remember eating it the first time, honeycomb and all, and feeling such a sense of awe and gratitude for those bees. Sadly, we are on our last jar of the liquid gold. Our September honey extraction can't come soon enough! (You can read all about our honey extraction experience here.)

2.  Having beehives helps your garden grow....and your neighbor's garden, too. 
Having tens of thousands of honeybees living in your backyard means lots of pollinators for your garden. Our beehives are actually located in my parents' yard (since our city banned beehives up until last year) and I asked my my mom if she noticed a significant increase in her garden's production. She told me that of everything in her yard, her raspberry bushes have benefited the most -- she had more berries on them than in years past, thanks to the bees.  I'm practically begging my in-laws to let me and my husband put a couple hives in their yard since they have a bunch of fruit trees; I'm sure their yields would be even better if we could get more pollinators there! (Note to self: forward this post to hesitant father-in-law...)

3. Beekeeping is a great way to be self-sufficient.
Keeping bees is a wonderful way to be self-sufficient - honey is a great replacement for regular white sugar. There are some start-up costs that comes with beekeeping, but it's a worthwhile investment. If I remember correctly, we spent about $350 when got started -- that price included our two hives (with three deep boxes each), two beekeeping jackets and hats/veils, gloves, a hive tool, a smoker, and, of course, the bees (that price doesn't include the class I took, but that didn't cost much, either).  After a few honey harvests, the hives will pay for themselves. The only real expenses after the initial start-up costs are for mite treatments (all-natural) and any supplemental feeding that may be necessary. Another self-sufficiency facet:  in terms of food storage, you can't beat the shelf life of honey because it lasts forever. Archaeologists have found honey from the ancient Egyptians that can still be eaten today.

4. It takes very little effort and time to keep bees. 
Do you have a dog or cat? You spend more time taking care of that pet than you would a couple of beehives. Even in the peak summer months when my husband and I do regular inspections, we probably spend less than an hour a month taking care of them. Seriously. The less you bother the bees, the better. All they really need is a short-and-sweet inspection every 10 days or so. The only time-consuming part of beekeeping is the honey extraction, but that part also happens to be a lot of fun.

5. Honey is good for your health.
Honey has been used for centuries for health and medicinal uses. Honey contains flavonoids that have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers and heart disease. Honey is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal because the bees add an enzyme that makes hydrogen peroxide in the honey. For this reason, honey is actually a great treatment for wounds. I love adding honey to hot water and lemon when I have a cold, cough, or sore throat. Honey is actually as effective, studies have shown, as cough syrup. Another health benefit of honey is with allergy symptoms. Although there are no conclusive studies, many scientists believe as you ingest the pollen spores in honey in small amounts at a time, your body gets used to them and your allergic response to them diminishes. (One other medical sidenote: Did you know that scientists have found that bee venom can kill HIV? How crazy/cool is that?!)

One caveat: to get many of the health and medicinal benefits, you need to use raw, unprocessed (and local, particularly in terms of helping with allergies) honey. Most of the honey at the grocery store won't cut it. That's where beekeeping comes in: you can't get honey that is more local and raw than the honey that comes from your backyard.

For the other six reasons to consider beekeeping, check out my post at The Green Phone Booth!

{This post is linked up to the Homestead Barn Hop, Simple Lives Thursday, From the Farm Blog Hopand Little House Friday DIY Linky.}

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How My Garden Grows: My Not-So-Complicated Planning Process

Years ago, I took a gardening class about flowerbed design and soon found out that my method of flowerbed design was all wrong. What was my method? Impulsive buying of pretty plants at the local nursery. No rhyme or reason, just whatever caught my eye. While fun, that approach doesn't yield the best results; it creates more of a mish-mash of a flowerbed (albeit, a pretty mishmash). 

Same goes for vegetable gardening. Sure, you could head to the local garden center or Home Depot and pick up a bunch of vegetable starts, but you probably won't get the most success from your garden that way. A garden plan will help you make the most of the space you've got. 

Over a week ago I mentioned that I'd be sharing my garden planning process here. Let me say from the get-go: I'm not really the planning, super-organized type of girl. I've been known to keep a daily docket/to-do list from time to time, but I'll probably never be one of those people who has a household management binder. More power to those types, of course, but the all-or-nothing perfectionist in me gets overwhelmed simply at the idea of that much planning and organization. I hope you weren't expecting something complicated, mathematical, or super-scientific. I don't have any cute printables to help you plan your garden, either. That's not just not how I roll (though, for the record, I do love nice printable charts). 

This is the process I've used for the last few years works for me. No hard and fast rules here; just inspiration to help you figure out your own planning process.

The first step of my planning process often starts when there's still snow on the ground: research and reading.  In those months and weeks of winter, that time that toys with my emotions with warm days then snowy ones, dreaming about my garden does a lot to help my spirits. You can read about some of my favorite gardening books here (many of which are pictured above). My other favorite source for garden inspiration and information is Pinterest (you can find my gardening board here).

Next, I read and review my garden journal. 

Do you keep a garden journal? Because if you don't, you really ought to consider writing in one. I started keeping one back in 2012 and I love it. (For more detail on why and how I keep one, you can read my post about it here).  

It helps so much to be able to read the details of the previous year's garden because by spring, I have only vague memory of what I did. My journal lets me know exactly what I planted, when and where I planted it, how it worked, and my successes and failures. Reading and reviewing my journal helps me organize my thoughts and it helps me not repeat the mistakes I've made. 

My next step is seed inventory. This is when I go through my seed collection and see what I have leftover from last year (and the year before that, in some cases). This is where seed testing can be helpful and necessary (read here for how to test your seeds before planting them). I can't tell you how many times I've bought a packet of seeds even though I already had enough at home. When I did my inventory this year, I found three packets for the same kind of Swiss chard.

Once I know what seeds I do have, I make a list in my garden journal of what I want to grow and what I'll need to buy. I love flipping through seed catalogs to help me plan my garden. When I've purchased the seeds or retrieved them from my jumbled stash, I write down the exact variety each crop I'm planting that year.

I buy my seeds from my local nursery/feed store and through the mail. My favorite mail-order seed company is High Mowing Seeds. (And, no, they're not paying me or giving me seeds to say that.) Personally, I prefer to use organic, heirloom seeds in my garden. Heirloom vegetables are perfect for frugal gardeners because you can can use the seeds from the produce you grow and plant again. I was practically giddy last year when the tomato seeds I'd saved from my 2012 tomatoes sprouted and grew!

Once I know exactly what I want to grow, I have to figure out where I'm going to plant everything. I draw up my garden boxes in my journal, along with notes for each container and pallet I have, too.

One thing I am trying to keep in mind as I'm planning where I'm going to plant each vegetable is crop rotation. I made this little table in my journal last year and I found myself flipping back to it many times as I was figuring out my garden plan this past week. (You can find more in-depth info about crop rotation here. My chart in my journal doesn't include their 'rebuild' step. Oops.)

I assign each of the vegetable crops I want to grow to specific garden boxes and pots, depending what was grown there last year and what plants grow well (or don't grow well) together. I also take into account how much I want to grow (depending on how much my family eats of that particular vegetable, how much canning I want to do, etc) and how much space that will require  As I plant them, I'll make a note of the date when they were planted on my garden map. The plan pictured above is from last year; it's nice to see at glance the story of what happened last season so I can plan accordingly for this season. It also makes me mindful of my calendar, so I know when to plant those tender plants, especially.

Does having a garden plan ensure you'll have a perfect garden? Obviously not. Despite plenty of planning and effort, my garden last year was just 'meh'. But having a plan still made it less frustrating and keeping track of it all will help me not repeat some of the mistakes I made. And, of course, no garden works But that's what's nice about having a garden plan -- your work has purpose and direction, along with (hopefully!) some delicious results.

{This post is linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, Homestead Barn Hop, and Little House Friday DIY.}
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