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Wayward Spark

Hand Pollinating Peach Trees (With Dog Hair)

 peach blossoms 

Henry pokes his head in the cabin door and asks, “Do we have a paintbrush?” 

I look around and quickly wrack my brain, “No. What do you want one for?”

“I need to pollinate my peaches. Do we have anything kind of like a paintbrush? Maybe something hairy?”

I look down at the heeler dog napping at my feet. This is the time of year when her soft undercoat starts to shed in clumps. I pluck one such clump from her rear end and hold it up. “Will this work?”

“Perfect!” he says.

dog hair on blossoms 

We have five young peach and nectarine trees growing in our greenhouse. Henry planted them under cover because Oregon’s climate is pretty marginal for peaches. Growers here only get a good crop about every third year. In the greenhouse, they will bear every year, though Henry will have to prune them back heavily to keep them from getting too big. 

The peach and nectarine trees are in full bloom right now, about a month ahead of a normal outdoor flowering schedule. Peaches are ideally pollinated by insects who smear pollen around the female flower bits as they buzz in and out of the flowers in their search for nectar and protein-rich pollen. The weather in early March or even early April in Oregon is often cool enough to keep insects grounded, sometimes leaving fruit tree flowers untouched.

Even if the weather were nice now, our wealth of honeybees doesn’t necessarily benefit the things Henry grows in the greenhouse. Honeybees will enter the greenhouse if the doors are open in warmer weather, but they have a hard time orienting under cover, so they often get trapped inside and eventually die.

 henry pollinating 

blossoms 

One remedy that’s really only feasible on a small scale is pollinating by hand. Hand pollinating is generally done with a paintbrush, but in this case, a clump of dog hair was a decent substitute. Henry simply went along swiping each flower with the “brush,”  accumulating pollen and redistributing it around the tree. This was not a precise operation, but it will greatly increase our chances of a good peach yield come July. 

 dog hair 

Above is the “before” shot of the dog hair “brush”… and below the “after”. It’s pretty surprising how much pollen one tree can produce. 

 dog hair with pollen 

 pretty 

Henry is glad to have one more little random chore crossed off his to-do list. 

 more pollinating 

Cheddar Crêpe Packets

 cheddar crepe packets 

We’re having a lazy snow day at home. It’s just me and the kids hunkered down indoors while the storm outside dumps large quantities of wet, slushy snow/hail/rain. It’s not nice weather. BUT I did make crêpes, and boy, do I love crêpes. I like crêpes plain, with jam or honey, or rolled up with savory filling. 

Today’s crêpe-based brunch was inspired by a recent recipe for egg sandwiches that Deb of Smitten Kitchen posted over on A CUP OF JO. When I read the recipe, I got the urge to make an egg sandwich right then and there, but I didn’t have any bread (let alone english muffins) in the house. In the post, Deb talks about cooking a beaten egg in a “crêpe-like” fashion several times, which gave me the idea to skip the bread and melt the cheese straight into a crêpe. I tried it, and it may be my favorite way to eat crêpes yet discovered.

crepe cooking 

My crêpe recipe was handed down to me from my mom who got it from her mom. It’s written on the back of a well-stained envelope. I’m sure it’s basically the same as any standard crêpe recipe, but importantly for me, it does not require the use of any electric kitchen appliances. This recipe works with both sweet or savory filling.

As much as I love crêpes, I’m not a crêpe elitist. My crêpes aren’t perfectly shaped or microscopically thin. I really could care less about any of that because I think what matters most is taste, and these crêpes taste good. I usually make a double batch of these to feed myself and two hungry kids.

 (I just googled “How to make crêpes” and found these tips from The Kitchn. I don’t actually follow any of these besides flipping with my fingers, but if you’re new to crêpes, you might try their method/recipe.) 

brown crepes 

 

Basic Crêpes 

2 good eggs
3/4 cup white flour
1 cup milk
pinch of salt

In a medium-large bowl, whisk the eggs. Gradually whisk in the flour. The batter will get very thick and sticky. Slowly whisk in the milk until the batter is smooth again. Whisk in the salt.

Pour the batter into a measuring cup or other vessel with a pouring spout. Heat two pans on medium. (I use cast iron because that’s what I have, but you’d probably be better off with something lighter weight like a basic sauté pan.) Melt a generous amount of butter to coat the bottom of each pan. Pour a small amount of batter into a pan, and tilt and shake the pan to spread the batter out evenly. Add a little more batter if needed to cover any significant holes.

Cook on one side for about two minutes. Pinch one edge with your fingers and lift and flip the crêpe as deftly as possible. Cook on the other side for about 30 seconds.

 cheddar on crepe 

 To make cheesy crêpe packets, place a slice of cheese in the middle of the crêpe just after you flip it. You could probably use any kind of cheese, but I’m a cheddar girl, so I use Tillamook Special Reserve Extra Sharp. When it starts to melt, fold in the four edges like an envelope. (See Deb’s egg sandwich tutorial for instructive folding photos.) Let it sit in the pan for another minute or so while the cheese melts fully. 

salad and crepe packet 

 The whole process start to finish takes maybe a half hour, but it feels totally gourmet. Cheesy crêpes are a pretty rich and filling food, so I ate mine with a big pile of homegrown salad greens to balance things out a bit (or maybe just to feel better about myself). 

 

Bees Flying in Winter

 bee hives 

The sun came out the other day, and the bees went nuts. They hurried out of the hives and clouded the air. I walked right into their territory to pick some kale (bottom right) for lunch, and in just a few moments, I had bees crawling in my hair, on my clothes, and on my camera. Though I’m not the beekeeper in the family, I’m getting used to having bees up in my business, and I can generally just carry on with what I want to do. 

 honeybees 

When it’s cold out, an entire bee colony will come together in a cluster around the queen for the purpose of conserving heat. While clustered, they only have access to the honey in the immediate vicinity of the group, so even sugar stores further away inside the hive won’t do them any good unless they can break cluster. 

If it’s warm enough for bees to get out of their hives at this time of year, there is pollen to be had. Red alder, chickweed, and hazelbrush/filberts are all blooming right now within foraging distance of our hives. Being able to bring these reserves home means Henry’s bees will need little or no sugar/protein supplementary feedings, and they can get a batch of brood going sooner rather than later.

Honeybees will break cluster at warmer temperatures (low 40s to 55 degrees depending on the type of bees), and then they can move around within the hive, or they can get out of the hive for a while. Henry prefers (and is breeding for) bees that will break cluster at lower temperatures because they will not only be able to forage earlier in the season, giving them a headstart on resource storage and brood rearing, but they also will have more opportunities to poop outside the hive instead of inside, which can prevent or lessen the prevalence of nosema (a unicellular parasite that acts like honeybee cholera). While monitoring bee pooping habits may seem a little obscure and gross, it’s pretty important. Once bees get nosema, they can’t hold their poo for very long, increasing the likelihood that they’ll relieve themselves inside the hive, which in turn increases the likelihood that affected bees will spread the disease to others in the colony. Unfortunately, in the photo below, you can see the yellow evidence of a hive affected by nosema.

Thankfully, after sunny days, we’ll find splatters of bee poo all over our car windshields and around the homestead, letting us know they had a good pooping day.

 nosema 

You may have noticed in the two photos above that Henry has restricted access to the hive down to a very small opening, even smaller than the standard crack at the bottom of a bee box. He did this because he has at least one colony of very aggressive bees that would much rather steal honey than make their own, and some of the other colonies have suffered significant losses as a result. The small entrance/exit space allows the guard bees to do a better job of keeping robbers out, though it can cause something of a traffic jam at the door. 

 dead bees

Another sunny-day activity for bees is the pitching of the dead. It’s inevitable that some bees will die over the course of the winter, and the deceased just hang around breeding disease while the bees are clustered. As soon as they can get out and about, workers will haul dead bees out of the hive and pitch them off the landing board. In the photo above, you can see quite a big pile of dead bees (mixed up with straw) right outside the hive. This is one of the hives that’s affected by nosema, so many in the colony are weak and dehydrated, and some have died as a result.

Henry has lost four hives so far this winter. At this point, the outlook seems pretty good, especially considering the fact that he only applied late-summer treatments to suppress varroa mites on four colonies. We’ll have to wait and see what kinds of conditions the bees will face in the coming months before we get a final tally of losses.

Alexanders

Alexanders
Alexanders. 

Camille head shotOkay, so it looks like Italian parsley, but it’s actually something you’ve probably never heard of, a leafy vegetable called alexanders. Alexanders (so named because it was allegedly a daily part of Alexander the Great’s diet) is a biennial (produces for two years before sexually reproducing) green that’s closely related to celery and parsley (Umbelliferae family). It’s native to the Mediterranean but was spread by the Romans and has naturalized in many parts of Europe and Great Britain, where it’s a common hedgerow plant.
 

A bunch of alexanders
A bunch of alexanders. 

Alexanders is still semi wild, having lost favor in the culinary world after the domestication of celery, so the taste is strong and somewhat bitter, though mellower when cooked. Plant breeders have never made serious efforts to breed for larger petioles (the botanical term for a celery stalk) or milder flavor, so it’s retained it’s original healthful properties.

Sun shining on alexanders
Sun shining on alexanders. 

Henry got alexanders seed from our friend Frank at Wild Garden Seed. It’s much hardier than parsley and can grow outdoors through the winter. Alexanders offers a fresh-flavored kick to cold-weather soups and hearty root-vegetable-and-meat dishes.

Alexanders growing in oak leaves
Alexanders growing in oak leaves. 

Gardeners should plant alexanders’ large, dark seeds in the fall (in Oregon) as the rains start and temperatures drop. They won’t grow much the first winter, and then plants will go dormant during warmer months. In November of the second year, the plants will start to produce prolifically, yielding significant quantities over the winter. By the second summer, alexanders will go to flower and die. This pungent pot herb is a good candidate for shady kitchen garden spots because it requires no watering and almost no maintenance.