Archive for April, 2009

Mason Bees; North American Native Pollinators

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009


We’ll be lucky to get any Osmia lignaria bees this season as they generally try to already have a nesting site by now. They are a very early season pollinator!

However, there is a second native bee that may likely take up residence and provide effective pollination services all summer. Osmia californica, another mason bee, takes over about the time lignaria is done!

I might order some tubes of Osmia californica bees to kick start the local population.

Ready for Occupancy!

If you have any interest in gardening or flowers, or follow any kind of agricultural related financial markets, you are likely aware that one of the ecological disasters we face is known as colony collapse disorder.

Basically, the worker bees in a honey bee colony die, get lost, or otherwise just cease to function. The cause has been attributed to pollution, mites, genetic degradation, pesticides, genetically modified crops, and/or a slew of other guesses.

It is a serious problem in that bee driven pollination of crops is what sustains much of the agricultural production in the United States.

Oddly, though, the european honey bee — the bee that everyone immediately thinks of as the One True Way that flowers are pollinated to yield seeds and crops — is actually an imported species and, frankly, a bit invasive at that.

Not only invasive, honey bees tend to be territorial in that they will actively defend their hive. As well, they really aren’t even that efficient as pollinators.

Not surprisingly, there are many native pollinators buzzing or flitting about. In the South Bay, the most noticeable are the carpenter bees as they are gigantic, relatively clumsy, totally non-agressive, fuzzy, and have a noticeably loud buzz while flying.

But they aren’t the true superstars of the native North American pollinators. For that, one should look to the Mason Bee or Orchard Bee (Osmia lignaria).

The mason bee is a rather docile flying insect that is considerably smaller than the carpenter bee. Like the carpenter bee, it is non-territorial, won’t sting unless seriously threatened, and is non-swarming.

The mason bee is an extremely efficient pollinator as a single bee may visit over a thousand blooms per day.

Clearly, this is a bug whose presence should be encouraged!

Fortunately, it is easy to provide housing for such a helpful critter. Roger is standing next to a mason bee home that we made over the weekend. We chose to make one out of a block of wood. However, bundles of reeds, bamboo or — even — appropriately sized straws work quite well, too.

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Kitchen Ratios; A Foundation for Bread (and so much more)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
Rosemary Boule

At left is a picture of the first loaf of bread I have ever made.

Simple bread; the dough was comprised of nothing more than flour, water, yeast, a touch of salt and some finely minced rosemary. It was baked in a cast iron dutch oven, lid on for 30 minutes and off for 20 (the captured steam yields an amazing crunchy crust without requiring a steam injecting oven).

But that isn’t the point of this post.


Minus the yeast, add some fat. And… pie dough!

No yeast, add fat, and add sugar? Cookies. Just flour and egg? Pasta.

They are all that simple. But not that simple. The key is the ratio of the ingredients.

And that brings me to the point.

Cooking is generally about taking some foundation — some basic combination of ingredients — combining them in the appropriate ratio, adding some additional goodies for flavor (cookie dough + chocolate chips…. basic bread dough + honey + nuts…. etc.), and then changing the temperature in the right way to yield good eats.

Not just doughs, but batters, sauces, stocks, sausages, brines, custards, and many other forms of food are all based around a simple set of ratios. Know the ratio of a given type of food, and you have the foundation that will yield a basic, delicious, meal or be the carrier for more far flung culinary adventures.

This book — Ruhlman’s Ratio — describes a number of the foundation ratios, the basic science behind them and then describes a handful of recipes built upon each.

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The Incredible Growth of Banana Plants

Sunday, April 12th, 2009
4 Hours of Banana Growth

I have always loved banana plants. Actually kept one alive in a pot in an apartment in Columbia, MO for a few years! For an apartment banana in a cold climate, a new leaf is rare and exciting (if you are into plants anyway).

Upon moving to California, I acquired some banana plants. For free, even, though that really shouldn’t come as much surprise to other Californians.

In a more favorable climate — like California — Bananas are incredibly fast growing plants. And they multiply rapidly. A well established banana tree will produce two or three new tree stalks per year.

Fast growth? No. Really. Fast growth.

A couple of weeks ago, I was cutting the dead leaves off of our bananas and accidentally sliced new leaf growth that was coiled up inside an old leaf.

The picture at left was taken less than 4 hours after the cut was made.

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Blue Blade; Destroyer of Favas

Monday, April 6th, 2009
Loading the Fava Bean Shredder

This year we are making a more concerted effort to actually, like, plan meals and buy what we need as opposed to ending up with the world’s most expensive compost heap from the wasted food bought at the farmer’s market with best of intentions.

As a part of that, I’m also taking a more serious run at the whole gardening thing in our community garden plot.

This actually started last fall when I turned and planted the entire 20′ x 30′ (approx) plot with fava beans. Now, we happen to love fava beans, but not that many. There was an ulterior motive.

Namely, fava bean plants do a brilliant job of pulling nitrogen out of the air and fixing it into the cells of the plant itself. As well, since favas are such a vigorous over-winter growth in this climate, they nicely shade and choke out most of the weeds that would be sprouting about now.

To put the nitrogen into the soil, the bean plants must be worked into the soil. Last year, I did this largely by hand (with a much smaller number of favas) by digging holes, chopping up the plants with a shovel and turning them into the soil. It worked, but not terribly well as it leaves potentially large air pockets in the soil that plants hate.

This year, I used Blue Blade (pictured at left). Or the scariest damned Make-style hack ever. It is one of the various inventions used by the gardeners in plots around mine. (No, I didn’t make this — if I had, the sides would be a bit sturdier and I would have used nylon nuts to keep the damned thing from falling apart.)

Shredded Fava Beans And Shredder

It is a pretty simple device.

  • Rip apart an old lawnmower
  • Cut a piece of plywood in a circle the same diameter as the lawnmower’s deck
  • Drill hole in middle and bolt lawnmower engine to plywood
  • Attach blade to bottom
  • Attach plywood to a sawed off barrel (In this case, plastic… lending to the fear factor)
  • Cut a 2.5″ in diameter hole to the side of the engine
  • Attach a plastic tube used to feed in the favas
  • Grab a handy stick and jam the engine’s throttle wide open because you don’t have a throttle cable or dead man’s switch anymore

Then? Fire the damned thing up and feed favas, weeds, and any snails/slugs into the tube.

The end result is green gold. A thick mat of minced favas that are easily spread and turned into the soil. Not only does it add a ton of nutrients to the soil, but the fibrous matter loosens the soil quite a bit and makes subsequent planting and weeding tasks a ton easier.

I’m still letting a good sized patch of favas grow to full maturity. Which is frightening. I picked up fava seeds from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply along with a rhizobacteria that grows in symbiosis with the plant to maximize nitrogen yield through excellent plant growth & health. In my case, this means a solid mass of 6 foot tall favas!

Peaceful Valley or “” is an awesome company. They have been very helpful and have an amazing assortment of heirloom seeds.