Native Pollinators: Build a tiny house with a big impact

Build A Mason Bee House

Save the Bees! And wasps and hoverflies and ladybugs and butterflies…..

There’s a lot of attention to bees in the media lately: hive collapse, mass deaths due to improper pesticide use, the list goes on. But much of the “Save the Bees” attention is focused on the European Honeybee- a foreign import to this country. When you think of honeybees, you most likely think first to ‘honey’ and worry about a world without this natural sweetener…. but honeybees play a larger roll for agriculture:  pollination. Bee farmers and vegetable/tree/fruit farmers work together to ensure solid pollination of crops, while harvesting natural sweetener. The potential loss of honeybees would be devastating to the food systems we have in place.

But, there are OTHER bees who were here long before their European cousins – native, solitary bees!! They need our help too. Read on for 4 simple tips you can take to help your native bees plus a building guide for our mason bee house.
Honeybees are colony bees: they live in hives surrounding one queen and make honey to feed future generations. Most of our native bees are solitary creatures – they forage on their own and lay their eggs inside holes in the ground, in rotted wood or in broken ends of pithy shrubs. They pack their eggs in with mud or sawdust and they are as varied as you can imagine, from teeny tiny Perdita Minima to the friendly and fluffy Bumble Bees. Bees are, in fact descendants of their protein hungry Wasp cousins, but prefer the sweet pollen of bolting radishes, apple blossoms, dandelions and other weeds to meat.

PollinatorsI am by no means a bee/wasp/fly expert, but I do have eyes and ears and natural curiosity. In early spring when the nights are still cold, I often find a single Bombus/Bumblebee perched on one of my fruit trees, deep inside a blossom or on a warm branch nearby. Still weak and sleepy, these friendly bees are just waking up and need early nutrition. In spring and summer when my lavender, catnip and mints are in full bloom, the sound of all the tiny to large native bees is deafening. Kneeling down to look closely I can count more types of pollinators than fingers on my hands: bees, ladybugs, butterflies, moths- all gorging on the bountiful feast! And in fall when the veggie garden is slowing down I allow lettuces, broccolis and radishes to bolt, offering a late season meal to the pollinators as they’re preparing their winter egg caches. Once you begin to observe the multitudes of tiny pollinators, you will surely want to do all you can to give them the best chance at life – for their sake and yours!

Providing food and habitat for our small friends is the best thing we can do to ensure a stable food supply for us humans who count on tiny mouths and furry legs to pollinate our crops. Here are a few things to think of and to try to become a better neighbor of native pollinators:

1. Broaden the Blooms: plant native flowers, shrubs and trees with staggered bloom dates and allow a few vegetables (like lettuce, radish and especially broccoli) to bolt in the garden. Native pollinators need food to be available in early spring, early winter and all seasons in between. Lavender and mint are easy to grow and highly favored by bumbles but they also need food as soon as they wake up: fruit trees bloom early, as do many wildflowers. They will also need a late season snack, too so include flowers and shrubs that bloom late and hold onto those blossoms until frost-killed. Bees love yellow, blue and purple. Butterflies love hot oranges and reds. Sunflowers are popular with bees and birds and the pernicious weed Queen Anne’s Lace is a favorite among hover flies. Research native plants particular to your growing zone and plant a wide succession of blooming times.

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2. Home Sweet Home: Solitary bees don’t live in hives like honeybees: they prefer to bed down in holes or hedgerows. Put up bee houses in a sunny, East-facing location near your garden to attract the bees right where you need them. Bee houses can be as simple as drilling holes in a chunk of wood, stuffing teasel into an old can, or can be more crafty affairs. The key is to mount the house where it will get morning sunlight and to include assorted sizes of holes to offer vacancy to all sizes of pollinators. Unlike honeybees, mason bees do great in a greenhouse or hoophouse and don’t get trapped in the plastic/glass trying to escape. Bee habitat can even be as simple as a brush pile. Some shrubs have hollow/pithy branches when broken and make excellent egg depositories.

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3. Quench their thirst: One of the most commonly forgotten requirements is drinking water. Bees can easily drown in open water buckets or troughs. Place marbles or stones in a birdbath or bowl so the bees are able to stand on the stones and drink safely without falling in and drowning.

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4. Give Them a Kick Start: Found a bee that looks too tired to fly away? It probably is! Bees work hard and occasionally run out of steam. If you find a bee on the ground that looks too sleepy to move on, offer it a spoonful of sugar water – he’ll thank you for the extra kick!

Solitary Bee House Building Plans

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Our bee houses are made using recycled cedar siding and local, dry Teasel. Teasel is a weed found along the edges of pastures and ditch banks and looks a bit like a tall thistle. In the fall, the stems dry and are totally hollow. One Teasel stem can provide many sizes of tubs from top to bottom. They’re thorny, so wear leather gloves when handling them. Bamboo would be another great choice. The dimensions of these houses are not overly important: you want a top that protects the house from rain and it should be at least 4-6 inches deep to provide long tubes to fill with lots of eggs in the fall. Add a loop screwed to the back for hanging on a garden post or tree facing East. It may take a while for the bees to find their new house, so be patient. Hang them in the spring and hopefully you’ll have some new residents come fall!

 

 

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Ways to Store Your Garlic Harvest

Garlic is a wonderful crop for those of us looking to stock up on our homegrown produce and to spice up our menu without relying on expensive (and none-too-fresh) packaged spices. With the proper care, garlic can be stored for up to a year. Here are some of my favorite ways for storing my garlic harvest.

Hardneck Garlic: use it up first or dehydrate for long term storage

Dehydrate your garlic

Hardneck garlic has a much shorter storage life than its softneck cousins. The cloves are larger and more flavorful than most softneck varieties, making hardneck garlic the perfect candidate for dehydration. What, you don’t think that hand slicing hundreds of cloves to fill your dehydrator is the best idea for a fun afternoon? I have a partial solution for the chore: I picked up this handy miniature mandolin/Garlic Slicer made specifically for slicing garlic. I LOVE it. It works really well and creates perfectly even slices of garlic for efficient and safe dehydration – it’s always best to slice vegetables evenly so that all pieces get fully dried. We filled my Excalibur in a few hours then set it to dehydrate at 115 degrees for around 12 hours. Test a slice to be sure they’re dried brittle and add more time if not. I store my garlic in glass jars and grind for powder in smaller batches closer to use: garlic powder has the tendency to clump.

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Hardneck garlic also makes killer roasted garlic. Just wrap each bulb in foil with a bit of olive oil and toss them in the oven when you bake your next meal. Spread on bread, meat, or stir into sauces. However you enjoy your garlic: use the hardneck first and then move onto your softneck varieties.

Softneck garlic: Those soft necks sure braid up nicely!

Softneck garlic braided and stored in my pantry

Learn how to braid garlicThe obvious way for storing softneck garlic is to braid it! All your garlic should be cured for about a month somewhere well ventilated and shady before long term storage. Set aside all the biggest bulbs to plant this fall, but store the rest of the softneck varieties in beautiful braids. Store the braids out of direct light for best storage. Visit this post for complete, illustrated instructions!

When properly cured and stored some varieties of garlic can last in your pantry for over a year. If you notice any green shoots – use those bulbs up asap. Also watch for pithy bulbs or any mold and remove those from the others quickly. Garlic needs ventilation and a dark, cool place to store best. Never store your garlic in plastic and avoid storing near onions or potatoes.

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Filed under Birdsong Farm, Kitchen Tools, Preserved Food

Tuna/Zucchini Patties

For those of us fortunate enough to live within an hour or two of the Oregon coast, summertime means Albacore tuna season! For the folks willing to put in the time, 2 or 3 whole tuna can fill our pantries with the most delicious canned tuna anyone could ask for. Earlier this summer i purchased 2 whole tuna, filleted them myself and put up 23 half pints of tuna, seasoned with assorted herbs and spices from my gardens and froze several more fillets for enjoying fresh. It wasn’t ‘difficult’ per say, but it certainly took some time.

Time spent then is time saved now.

Tuna/Zucchini Patties - Recipe

September is also the time of year (in Kings Valley, OR at least) that the garden is finally producing like gang busters. Zucchini? Yes, please!   This recipe pairs both ingredients in tandem. The tuna really shines, the zucchini helps the tuna go further and adds some vegetable to the dish, and the lard…… that’s another whole food preservation topic – it’s delicious and really is the best frying oil EVER. Without further ado: the recipe.

Tuna/Zucchini patties (Serves 2-3)

  • 1 jar (1/2 pint) home canned tuna (I have been using my ‘dill/garlic’ tuna for this recipe)
  • 1 small to medium zucchini, shredded
  • Panko
  • optional: 1/2 cup finely diced sweet onion
  • 1 duck egg (2-2 chicken eggs)
  • Fine cornmeal
  • Lard
  • optional herbs: dill/garlic/lemon basil/hot chillies

First off, drain your zucchini: shred zucchini into a collander or pasta strainer. Sprinkle with salt and let sit over sink 5-10 minutes then firmly squeeze down to press out as much liquid as possible. In large bowl combine tuna, zucchini and enough panko to soak up any remaining zucc liquid. I fill the tuna jar with panko and use that amount plus about 1/4 to 1/2 jar additional. Stir in eggs and optional onion. You want the mixture to not be too crumbly and to hold together as a patty without being overly wet or dry: add more egg if dry, more panko if wet.

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Heat your pan to medium with a generous dollup of lard. What, you don’t render your own lard? Shame on you. You could also use reserved bacon grease, duck lard, coconut oil or butter. Form a palm sized ball and press into a patty shape. Roll this patty into seasoned cornmeal (get the extra fine cornmeal that’s finer than normal cornmeal but not as floury as masa) and put one patty at a time into the fat and cook until browned. I rotate my patties at least once so that all sides spend some time on that hotter center of the pan (my stove ain’t so great). Once brown, flip. This does take a bit of time – you don’t want a burnt exterior and gooey center.

Tuna/Zucchini Patties - Recipe

Tip: i like to prepare the cakes and put them onto a cookie sheet to finish in the oven. Since i’m also cooking oven fries, i just put the cakes into the oven for about 5 minutes to re-heat the first ones and ensure a fully cooked center.

Serve with tartar sauce, ranch, ketchup, etc. We love a mix of 2 parts yogurt, 1 part mayo, minced garlic and pinch of chives.

Tuna/Zucchini Patties - Recipe

Have you ever canned tuna? What are your favorite ways of serving it?

 

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Filed under Cast Iron, Cooking, Dinner

Duck and Mushroom Gravy

When I am vending the farmer’s market, offering my Muscovy duck and rabbit meat for sale to local customers, I often spend half of my time explaining my favorite recipes and how best to prepare my meats. Both rabbit and duck are ‘unusual’ and many customers have never cooked them before. I often refer to Hank Shaw’s book, “Duck, Duck, Goose”. I taut ‘pan seared breast’ as the best recipe ever for featuring my Muscovies in your kitchen, and pan seared breasts ARE the most delicious thing ever. But honestly, the best recipe for a ‘duck virgin’ isn’t necessarily the best recipe, it’s the EASIEST recipe that brings out the most flavor with a high success rate. THIS is my new most recommended recipe. *Apologies for the terrible ipad photos. I just wanted to get to EATING not photographing.

Muscovy Duck and Mushroom gravy

I am not going to be overly specific with this ‘recipe’. I want you to feel free to put what you want into this dish, and to cut the meat in a way familiar to you. The basic ingredients needed are good stock, duck meat, mushrooms. You could use locally foraged wild mushrooms. You could pick up some oysters from the farmer’s market. You could use skinless breasts or thighs or skin on breasts. Spice it up, add more veggies: you get it, it’s versatile. Read on to see how I prepared this dish then try it your way.

Enter: fresh muscovy drake, about 5 pounds. First I breasted the bird and put aside the remaining carcass (the thighs will become confit and the carcass will become rich stock). I risked flabby skin chunks and sliced the breasts about 1/4 to 1/2 inch think with skin on. The fat under the skin rendered nicely and i didn’t notice anything gross about the skin, but you could remove it first. The fat will add quite a bit of flavor, though so leave it on and see what you think.

After slicing, I tossed my meat into a medium hot cast iron pan with some salt and pepper. Once the fat began to render out, i added some chopped garlic and onion with salt. Stir, stir, stir until the meat is mostly cooked and there are even some crispy bits on the skin. Next i added some roughly chopped oyster mushrooms from the vendor next to me at market. You may choose to put a lid on to steam the mushrooms more while they cook, or not. I also threw in some mildly hot peppers. Continue stirring and cooking until the mushrooms are softening, sprinkle a tablespoon or two of flour around the pan then add most of a quart of stock.

*Hint: Want an even EASIER way to cook this recipe?? To achieve a ‘shredded’ style meat that is super tender, place the whole duck in your crock pot and cook on high for 5-6 hours with a splash of stock and your favorite herbs. Add the mushrooms halfway through cooking time. Remove the bones from the meat, add a bit more stock if necessary and your favorite thickener: voila!

Stock: i make and can my own. I prepare my stock with mostly duck and chicken bones – either from raw or roasted carcasses. I cook my stock down thick enough that the gelatin sets up when refrigerated. This is some seriously flavorful, rich, nutritious stuff. You COULD of course use store bought stock but do me a favor: save the carcass from tonight’s dinner and make your own homemade stock for next time. You can freeze it if you don’t know how to pressure can.

Bring this gravy to a boil then turn down and simmer until it’s getting good and thick. I added a bit of cornstarch at the end to thicken it up a smidgeon more. Served over homegrown mashed potatoes with a side of kale almost-chips and we both about swooned into a food coma. This much meat should have served 3 or 4 but we ate almost all of it. I’m not sorry: it was delicious!

Birdsong Farm Oregon: Raising Muscovy Ducks

So, the next time i have a ‘duck virgin’ at market, i will direct them to this recipe. Let me know how it turns out for you!

 

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Filed under Birdsong Farm, Cast Iron, Cooking, Duck