Monthly Archives: February 2010

Sowing Seeds Outdoors in Winter

I came across an article entitled “It’s Sow Easy” in my Northern Gardener magazine last winter about sowing seeds outdoors in winter.  Because I’m always looking for inexpensive ways to increase my perennial collection, I thought I would give this method a try.  The theory is to turn recyclables into mini-greenhouses to place outside during the winter months to wait for the spring thaw and germination of the seeds.  Seems easy enough and it has the added bonus of using recyclable materials.  We’ll see how it goes.

After purchasing potting soil, seed starter mix, seeds, and saving up some gallon milk jugs, I was ready to get the process started.

The first step is to cut the milk jugs in half with a sharp utility knife and poke several slits in the bottom for drainage.

Using a mixture of equal parts seed starter mix and potting soil, I put 3-4 inches of dirt in each container.

Here are all the mini-greenhouses waiting for seeds.

The soil needs to be well-moistened, a “muddy consistency” according to the article.  I checked each container to make sure that the water was draining out the bottom.

Not surprisingly, I purchased way more seeds than I had room for in containers.  I could hardly control myself at the nursery at all the seed choices of plants that I want to grow or multiply in my garden.

I decided to plant Delphinium, Oriental Poppy, Shasta Daisy and Foxglove with my first set of mini-greenhouses.  After sowing the seeds according to the package directions, use clear duct tape to attach the top and bottom back together.

Set the mini-greenhouses out in the snow somewhere that gets plenty of sunlight, snow and rain.  According to the article, I can just put my feet up now and let Mother Nature take over until spring, when the seedling appear and more holes will need to be added so that the plants don’t get overheated in the greenhouse.  I’ll be amazed and thrilled if this process actually works.  And if it does, I’ll start planning huge new perennial gardens and saving milk jugs much further in advance!  Stay tuned.

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Filed under Flower, Gardens

Our “Geriatric” Cat

Last summer, I decided to give our daughter a kitten for her birthday.   Both our dog and our cat were getting older and I thought it would be fun to have a young and lively kitten around for some entertainment.  I found a kitten at the local animal shelter that I fell in love with and decided to adopt (another tabby).  We named her Nina.

Nina is full of energy, playful, and loving.

She’s also a little weird.  I had never seen a cat pant before Nina.  She chases our Golden Retriever around relentlessly until she has to stop to take a break…and then she pants. Strange cat.

She also follows our other cat around and he does his best to ignore her.

At the animal shelter, they asked me if we had any other cats when I was filling out the paperwork to adopt Nina.  I told them about our other cat, Tiger , who will be 10 years old this August.  He was born to a stray cat at the farm the summer we purchased the property and is the only survivor from the litter.  They warned me that “geriatric” cats sometimes have trouble adjusting to kittens and gave me some literature on helping him with the transition.

Geriatric?  Did they really call Tiger a “geriatric” cat?  How can he fall into this category already?  It seems like just yesterday that he was a kitten.

I choose to describe Tiger much differently.  Mature.  Wise.  Clever.


Regal.  Aloof.  Sophisticated.

Above all else, he is a loving cat who knows who he can rely on to sneak him into the warm house in the winter.

So, despite what others might say, Tiger is no “geriatric” cat in our book.

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The Bees are Dead!

It was our understanding as beginning beekeepers that it was possible to winter our hive here in Minnesota so long as we took steps to help them through the harsh season.  The first task was to provide the bees with sugar syrup (since we harvested most of their honey) for them to cure for their winter food store.  We prepared the sugar syrup (a 2:1 ration of sugar to water) and put it into a feeder in the hive.  It was still warm enough that the bees were active and they went to work curing the syrup.

As the cold weather set in, Jesse continued to prepare the hive by building an insulated hive cover to help keep the bees warm and block chilling winds.

Around the beginning or middle of December when Jesse checked on the bees, they were still alive and thriving in the winter cluster.  According to our go-to beekeeping information source,“The Beekeeper’s Handbook” by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile, bees form a winter cluster in the late fall and winter that expands and contracts as the outside temperatures rise and fall.  The bees remain active in the cluster and continue about their business.  However, their activity continues to produce water vapors, which must be allowed to escape the hive. 

After the extreme cold snap of weather that we experienced over the holidays, Jesse went to check once again on the bees.  The scene was quite different this  time when he removed the hive cover.  Silence.  No bees.  No activity.  Nothing.

With our limited knowledge and experience, we have concluded that the bees did not have adequate ventilation and that too much moisture built up inside the hive.  Another possibile reason for the loss of the bees is those extreme holiday temperatures.  In any event, despite our best efforts, we failed our bees. 

We went out to the hive yesterday to take a closer look.  After taking off the cover and lifting off the boxes, we saw the carnage.

All of our wonderful, hard-working bees…dead.

So we end of our first year as beekeepers with feelings of mixed success.  We managed to make it through the summer and fall with no failures in the hive or diseases.  Most importantly, we enjoyed a moderately successful honey harvest for our first year.  After these successes, the loss of the honeybees this winter is quite disappointing. 

Like all failures, however, there are lessons to be learned.  Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby and we intend to continue our education and become more knowledgeable in all aspects of managing bees.  We have already placed our order for two packages of honeybees to arrive some time in April.  We will also be attending a one day course offered at the University of Minnesota on beekeeping in northern climates this spring.  Hopefully our next year with honeybees will have a better ending than our first year!

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Pretzel Project

A Sunday in February with nothing on the calendar (a rare event in our household)…and it’s Valentine’s Day!!  Instead of just relaxing, I decided we needed a plan.

My daughter recently made homemade soft pretzels in her high school baking class and has asked to make them at home.  Jesse’s family also has a tradition of making soft pretzels and we haven’t done so in a long time.  We decided to tackle the pretzel project, but with a twist.  We wanted to compare the recipe from school with the one used by Jesse’s family.

The recipe used in school is by Alton Brown from the Food Network (Homemade Soft Pretzel Recipe) and uses homemade bread dough.

Jesse’s family recipe uses 4 loaves of frozen bread dough and continues below:

  • Thaw bread dough and cut each loaf into 20 pieces.  With hands, roll each piece on a very lightly floured surface until it is 12-14 inches long.
  • To shape pretzel: Cross hands at wrists, one hand over the other.  Pick up the opposite ends of rolled out piece of dough.  Uncross hands.  Re-cross hands with other hands ending up on top.
  • Let pretzels rest for about 5 minutes.
  • Prepare lye bath:  One gallon water and two tablespoons of Lewis Lye.
  • Heat lye bath to boiling.
  • Drop pretzels, one by one, into boiling lye bath.
  • When pretzel floats, remove it from bath with slotted spoon.
  • Place pretzel on plate and sprinkle with coarse salt.
  • Place pretzels on greased baking sheet.
  • Bake at 400 degrees until brown, about 10 minutes.

We started out with both the frozen bread dough (thawed out) and a batch of the home-made bread dough we prepared from Alton Brown’s recipe. 

The next step was to decide what type of water bath we would use for the pretzels.  Jesse’s family recipe calls for a lye bath.  Really?  Where do you even buy lye?  And is it really safe to eat something that has been submersed in lye?  I guess Jesse is living proof that you can survive eating soft pretzels cooked in a lye bath, but we nonetheless opted to go with the baking soda water bath used in Alton Brown’s recipe.  We also egg-washed the pretzels after removing them from the soda water bath and before sprinkling them with salt.

The other main variation in the recipes was simply in the size of the pretzel.  Jesse’s family recipe called for dividing each loaf into 20 pieces to roll out the pretzel, which made much smaller pretzels than the Alton Brown recipe.

Mastering the technique of shaping the pretzels was challenging and some of the creations quite humorous.   I’m sorry to say that my attempts at food photography were pathetic and I only ended up with one picture even close to being worthy of sharing.

The hot pretzels right out of the oven, smothered with cream cheese, were a big hit with the kids. 

And the results of the recipe comparison?  The home-made soft pretzels had a slight edge over the frozen bread dough technique.

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Filed under Cooking, Food, Kids

Winter Wonderland

I am definitely not a fan of winter, especially in Minnesota.  It seems to go on forever.   By the time February rolls around I am completely ready for it to be over.  My impatience with winter grows each year that passes and I dream of living somewhere much warmer and milder some day.  There are those moments, however, that the beauty of winter catches me by surprise and my negative view of winter softens…at least a little.  Yesterday was one of those days.  We had a light fluffy snow fall over night and the sun was shining bright in the morning.  It was sparkly and magical looking outside with the snow glistening on the ground and in the trees.  I decided to take my camera out and take some random shots of this winter wonderland.  Soaking in the winter sunshine also does wonders for the spirit!  Happy Valentine’s Day!!

A view of our hayfield behind the house.

Lonely Liatrus plant standing in the garden.

Undergrowth in the woods.

Oak leaves hanging on until spring.

A view towards the river.

Coneflower seed heads ready to burst.

Standing on the back deck.

Crabapples.

Snowy branches.

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Frost Photography – Experimenting out of Auto Mode

I have always loved to take pictures.  Just ask my children.  When they were small, I had them so conditioned to being the subject of photographs that when they would see me with the camera and I called out their name they would stop and smile.  If the three of them were together, they would form a nice little line.  No arguments.  Although their willingness to co-operate has become less reliable through the years, my love of taking pictures has not waned.

Before taking a big trip in December 2007 to visit some friends in Japan, I bought my first digital SLR, a Nikon D40.  For the past two years I have shot with this camera in Auto mode and for the most part, I have been happy with the pictures.  Before the holidays, however, I started wondering about all the untapped potential of my camera…all those buttons, modes, and settings that I didn’t understand and had never dared to try.  So I signed myself up for a beginner class on digital SLR’s at a camera store in the big city.

The first class left me both inspired and overwhelmed.  Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance….my head was spinning.  Although I was intimidated, I was also amazed by the creative options opened up by moving the dial from auto to the different priority modes (aperture, shutter speed, manual, etc.).

A week after my first class, I looked out the window in the morning and saw a beautiful hoar frost blanketing the trees.  I wanted to throw on my boots, grab my camera and head outdoors to do some experimenting taking pictures.  Reality set in, however, and I turned my attention to getting the kids out the door for school and driving to work.  On my drive home later that day, I noticed that remnants of the hoar frost still clung to the trees.  If I hurried, I could maybe try out a few shots in between picking the kids up from school, running them home for a snack, and getting back in the car to drive them to piano lessons.

While the kids were getting their piano books together and eating, I had about 10 minutes to go outside with my camera.  I put the camera in aperture priority mode and shot the pictures below.  The first shot is of seeds on an Amur Maple tree along our driveway at a focal length of 135mm (my lens is an 18mm – 135mm, so that means I had the lens zoomed in all the way).

I took the next series of shots of a Prairie Fire Crab Apple tree outside of my kitchen window.  The first one was taken at a focal length of 52 mm.  I didn’t really know what I was doing, other than trying out the aperture priority mode, so for each picture I tried to dial down the aperture setting as far as I could….just to see what would happen.  The aperture setting or “f-stop” for this picture was f/8.0.  To be honest, even after my first class, I really had no idea what this meant, except that I knew changing the aperture affected the “depth of field” in a picture.  The depth of field is basically how much of the picture is in focus.

I zoomed in a little closer in the next shot to 58 mm and tried turning the aperture down again, but the f-stop remained f/8.0 for this shot.

In the next photo, I once again zoomed in closer to 70 mm.  The f-stop setting is f/5.5.  The lower the aperture number, the less the depth of field is in a picture.  You can see the berries are in focus (sort of) and the background is getting blurry.

Finally, I zoomed in all the way to 135 mm and took the last shot.  The aperture setting was f/5.6.

Although these pictures are far from perfect or even particularly interesting, I was proud of myself for finally turning that dial from auto mode and making my first attempt at shooting in aperture priority mode.  I have a LOT to learn and even since shooting these first pictures, I believe that I have a better understanding of some of these photography concepts.  I will continue to experiment, learn, hopefully improve, and most importantly, aggravate my children by taking lots and lots of pictures.

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Our First Honey Harvest

After our first summer as beekeepers, we were fortunate enough to enjoy a moderately successful honey harvest.  Jesse collected the full frames from the hive and we brought them into the house to start the messy process of extracting the honey from the comb.  Using an electric uncapping knife, we sliced away the waxy caps of the honeycomb to allow the honey to drain out.

The hot knife cuts right through the wax.  You can see it starting to ooze out already.

Furthering our investment in beekeeping equipment, we purchased a honey extractor from Mann Lake, Ltd. The extractor holds three frames.  Once the frames are uncapped, we placed them into the extractor for spinning.  We learned from a demonstration at the State Fair to only partially spin one side out and then turn the frames around and spin the other side out.

The extracted honey sits in the bottom of the drum until opening the drain valve.  Passing through a double-strainer, the beautiful golden honey drained into a five-gallon bucket.

After finishing with the extraction process, we were ready to put our honey into containers.  We ordered 25 of these great honey bottles from our favorite bee supply company.

The final total for our bees was in excess of 50 pounds of honey.  Not too bad for beginners!

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Filed under Bees, Kids