The Blizzard

Perhaps one should not write a post after 2 days of shoveling snow…

Blizzard 2013
Blizzard 2013

Nature certainly did not spare us.   From a prediction of 12″ to 18″ to a final estimate of 30″ with drifts up to 6 feet, it is historical.   Well the howling wind they got right.  After two days it ended and  the sun rose on a  crystalline day, the sky that brilliant shade of blue that only winter allows.   Being of a self-sufficient nature,  we have managed past snow falls with shovels and a snow blower and have no plowing contract.  There was no option but to chip away at it.

On the day after the snow fall, we managed to get one snow blower track down the driveway to the road.   It was sufficient for me to walk to the store for milk but by the end of the day, the winds had piled inches back in.  We retreated to our snow cave, glad for the gifts of power and heat.

On day two the winds died and we got started early in the morning.   To get the snow to a manageable level for the snow blower, we had to shovel at least 18″ off the top.  There are aching muscles in my shoulders and back i never knew existed and my partner was battling the flu.  There are times in life, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.  This was one.  By mid-afternoon  the car was uncovered and moved down the driveway closer to the road.   After shoveling 5 feet of snow off the porch roof, we called it a day.

I could not get to the bees to check to see if the hives were covered. Bees generate quite a bit of moisture and the hives need ventilation even in the cold of winter.    It was just impossible and no vantage point from the house or barns allowed me to assess their situation.  Never had it crossed my mind that reaching them in the meadow would be a problem.   Alas, one does not plan for a blizzard and record snowfall.  Hopefully the coming warmer days and rain will collapse the snow enough for me to get to them.

View out the back door
View out the back door

The Sound of Silence

Life is full of times that test our hearts.   Nothing hurts a beekeeper’s heart more than to crack open the outer cover of a beehive and hear nothing.  I stood there for a long time listening.  There was the winter wind through the birches, the far off caw of a crow perched in the maples – but no hum of irritated bees.   I opened the inner cover and saw no movement.   Dead bees littered the frame tops.  I put the covers back on, put the rocks on top  – like stones on a grave – and walked slowly back down the hill.  

It was the Hamsa hive – the one I thought to be the strongest with the most stores – the one I thought would most likely survive the winter.  Winter is always a precarious time, especially for a new hive but what had gone wrong?

Bees do not hibernate – they remain active all winter eating honey to keep warm.   In the fall the hive population drops as the summer bees die off and are replaced by “winter” bees.  Winter bees are physiologically different than the summer bee and will live much longer (4 – 6 months vs. 1.5 months) and their purpose is to keep the hive alive till spring.  The bees remain active when the temperature is above about 50° but when it gets colder, they form a cluster.  They shiver their flight muscles to generate heat and warm the cluster.  The bees will rotate from the outside to the inside of the cluster as they tire and cool.  The outside edge of the cluster must be touching the honey stores so that they can pass food through the cluster.  The cluster can move to reach new areas of honey but if it gets too cold, they will not move and can die from starvation even though there is enough honey available.

The weather had been fairly warm through December and they had honey stores as well as fondant (bee candy) that I had supplied.  There were no signs of starvation.  I was mystified so I called my bee mentor Ralph to come do a postmortem.  Unfortunately we could not really determine what happened.  It could have been a failed queen, not enough winter bees to form a cluster, mite load … we just don’t know.  We emptied the bees from the hive and closed up the openings to prevent marauders like mice from damaging the comb.  In the spring, I will get a new package of bees and start again.

The Horus hive is still going.  Even with the extreme colds we had in January – into the single digits – they are hanging on.  I do what I can, keep a watchful eye and listen.

Potpourri – A Craft of the Garden

As if dried flowers weren’t old ladyish enough, I now have a passion for potpourri.

As if dried flowers weren’t old ladyish enough, I now have a passion for potpourri.  It is an interesting art.  A dry potpourri is made up on several components:  scented and decorative dried plant materials, dried herbs, spices, essential oils and fixatives.

During the summer I learned how to dry flowers, herbs and other plants.  The best methods proved to be the most low tech – air drying in the loft of the summer kitchen during the summer and on top of the steam radiators in the winter.  I tested a donated electric dehydrator but I found it too small and too slow.

In the heat of the summer the upstairs temperature easily reaches into the 100’s.   I hung bunches of plants from the rafters –  herbs,  flowers, lavender, and eastern red cedar branches.  I used old window screens propped up on pots to dry citrus rinds and small materials.

Delicate flowers were best dried using silica gel as most flowers lose their color when air dried. I found daylily petals stayed especially vibrant and I could collect them late in the day before the lilies closed.

When materials were dry I stored most (but not all) in large glass jars scavenged from the flea market. All went well until the late fall.  The mice had a grand snack chewing up pomegranates, buckeye seeds and anything else they could find before I spotted the damage.   Lesson learned (and time for the cats to earn their keep).  Now everything hangs from the rafters, is stored in containers or bags out of reach of gnawing teeth.

To add interesting texture to the mix,  I collected berries, pods, cones (hemlock and dawn redwood are just the right size) even shells.  Anything that strikes my fancy now gets rounded up and stored away – luckily there is room in the barns.

Learning about essential oils and aromatherapy was the next step.    The use of plant essences to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit, is becoming more widespread.  While some people may think it New Age bunk, consider that most every product we use has some added fragrance.  Human beings like scents.  Unfortunately the vast majority of fragrances are now synthetically derived.  These synthetic fragrances not only lack the subtlety of natural essential oils, they are quite noxious.  I find am constantly applying my knowledge of the properties of plants and essential oils whether in potpourri or my own non-toxic cleaning solutions.  How lucky we are to live in a time where quality organic oils are so readily available.  And so, what is old is new again.  Somewhere from the past, women who used this knowledge on a daily basis to care for their homes and families are smiling indulgently and nodding in approval.

The final component is a fixative.  Fixatives absorb and retain the volatile essential oils and can also add to the scent of the potpourri as a whole.  There are synthetic fixatives (sigh) but I use only natural ones – primarily orris root.  Orris root comes from Iris florentina – I need to look into growing some next year.

Spices – such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves – also act as a fixative and are aromatic in their own right.

After blending it all together in small bathes it must sit for at least six weeks to allow the scents to develop.

And finally, the finished product. A gift that allows a gardener to give of the garden long after the blooms have faded.


The Glory of Dried Flowers

They seem hopelessly out of fashion now – quaint, dusty, very ’70ish – but I am coming to appreciate dried flowers for a number of reasons.  One reason is the beauty in the subtle colors.  Somehow the bright colors of summer seems inappropriate and garish as the sun pales.  I enjoy the subtle colors – purples, golds, browns and silver and the earthy, smell of the dried leaves.   Perhaps now that I dry my own flowers, herbs and foliage, I feel more of a connection with each season’s offering and seek to honor the cycles as they are.  The standard hot house / supermarket flowers hold less and less charm especially when one understands the negative environmental and human impact of the global floriculture industry. (Here is one of many articles on the issues

Herb wreath made of silver artemesia, common and berggarten sage, tansy flowers and multiflora rose hips (nasty invasive, make sure to put hips in trash and not compost)

So here are my offerings to the season…they will grace my house till spring.

Arrangement of hydrangea, oregano blossoms, silver artemesia, and lunaria.
Arrangement of hydrangea and silver artemesia


An new perennial weed to watch out for in Connecticut gardens is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) aka Chrysanthemum weed.  While not yet on the CT Invasives Plant list it has very invasive tendencies.

I had some experience with it in my NY garden.   It was a “volunteer” with very pretty foliage so I let it go to see what it would do.  Yikes!   One or two seasons was all it needed to take over the bed.  It spreads by rhizomes and once it digs in, it takes constant digging and vigilance to eradicate.

I have a relative, Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Silver King’, in my garden now.   It came as a hitchhiker from a plant “donation”.   Luckily it is in a bed with day lilies (they can fight it out) and hemmed in by a concrete path and lawn.   It provides a nice silver accent and dries well.

Contact CIPWG if you see mugwort in natural areas.

October’s Maples

The maples (genus Acer) are in full glory this year and the sugar maple (A. saccharum) the queen of all.   Emblematic of Connecticut, the sugar maples are in decline in many areas.  Sugar maples are well suited for our Connecticut weather as the branches rarely break in wind or ice load.  They also draw water from lower soil layers and bring it into the upper, drier soil layers which benefits other understory plants.  Sugar maples are do not tolerate pollution, heat, and salt well nor does it do well in a restricted root zone.  For these reasons they are often very stressed in urban and even suburban situations.

Unfortunately that has led to the planting of many invasive species of maples including Norway (A. platanoides), amur (A. ginnala) and sycamore (A. pseudoplatanus) maples.  Amus and sycamore maples are banned.   Norway maples are considered invasive but not yet banned in Connecticut.  Unfortunately I have three very old (probably close to 100 years) and very large Norway maples.   Nothing – but nothing – will grow underneath them.  I would  be quite happy having them converted to firewood but the cost would be prohibitive.  Their small offspring has not been so lucky and I am continually chopping and pulling up seedlings.

Back to happier topics, our native red maples (A. rubrum) are brilliant this year as well.   Red maples are often called swamp maples and are more tolerant of adverse conditions – like wet soils – than the sugar maple.  However they are more susceptible to snow damage and we lost a limb off of this one in last fall’s October snowfall.