Monday, August 30, 2010

August Roof Farm: Her Ups, Her Downs are Second Nature to Me Now

Inspired by Mrs Homegrown and her post The glass is half full--even if it's full of greywater, it's time for a reckoning.

Summer 2010 was the antithesis of Summer 2009, the latter cool, rainy, and overcast. This year's Chicago growing season can best be described as a blast furnace. Could it be that we need to think about lightly shading plants to shield them from the sun?

We did have some nice harvests in July.

Check out the black funk on these black velvet tomatoes. Click to enlarge.
Seriously sad to cut down the plant, since it produced early and often this summer. We picked every one of the last beautiful fruits, which had no signs of disease.

And then we removed the old fertilizer, added some new, and seeded the tomato SIP with collards. There, that's better.
Our tomatoes started producing nearly two weeks early this year, but didn't have the stay power of other more moderate weather years.

I wonder if the heat stressed them so badly that it set them up for disease, because we surely have a lot of funky looking tomato foliage. Interestingly, I visited Bruce's roof garden (six blocks away) and his greenery is suffering from the same plant-destroying whatever. Further, my brother the in-ground organic gardener in suburban Chicago told me his heirloom tomatoes did not do well at all.

Still, there were some productive periods. I brought in a few pounds of produce every other day, enough to keep us happily fed (one of these years I'll start recording the weight like these folks do).

The eggplant listada, from Seed Savers, was a robust producer, and nicely disease resistant.

So was this Franchi tomato start from Debbie, a sort of Christmas tree loaded with flavorful small tomatoes.
The Peppers Santa Fe Grande, another Seed Savers selection, always do well, and this year's heat didn't faze them.
Here's a real downer. The Armenian cukes that Art built a new trellis for were devastated by powdery mildew, despite being planted in late June. One lonely cuke...

This year we also planted summer squash in late June, trying to outwit the powdery mildew. I seeded some mustard alongside in one of our adopted earthboxes.
But not so pic to see the powdery mildew in all its glory today (one nice squash too).

We grew a melon called Golden Midget this year. I don't think the foliage is supposed to be golden though. Mildew again?
Still, we got a beautiful melon, sweet as can be.

Here's a pepper I planted very late--mid-July maybe--since it didn't get planted in May-June. I have no idea what it is (Bruce, any help?). Looks like a yellow banana type. This is planted in the Canadian SIP sold by our big-box Menard's store for $5.

And here's a self-harvested Mickey Lee melon. I found it cracked on the roof on morning after it apparently cut loose from its vine on the melon trellis one windy night.

Pried it open to reveal a gorgeous interior, sweet enough for dessert.

You can always hope for more, better, and less disease, but this day's gathering looks bountiful.

A fun upside to summer: Our new growing pals and co-bloggers Debbie and her Little Green Girl Kara visited the roof. Here Kara tries one of the purple tomatillos (or is she just faking it?).

They generously brought us The World's Tiniest Tomato! (in addition to a bounty of others) from their garden.

Debbie's heat-tolerant lettuce seeds are flourishing on the roof...

And remember Brooke and Amy, who came this spring to learn about SIPs and help me try the new wicking fabric method? Their rooster spur peppers (left) loved this summer's extreme heat.

More good news: in September they'll be showing a group of children at the Fremont Public Library District, where they are librarians, how to make Bob Hyland's pop bottle planters. Each participant will plant a young lettuce plant and also direct-seed some of the cool-weather greens seeds saved from our roof. Way to go, you two!

Most-fascinating-plant-to-grow-for-the-first-time award goes to...okra. Beautiful hibiscus-like flowers and noble fruit. This plant is about 7 feet tall.
Remember the Olive Garden salad bowl SIP? This one's still growing salad, using seeds we harvested from plants started by Bruce in February, set out in March, and gone to seed last month. Nice mustard greens and wrinkled crinkled crumpled cress.
We also direct-seeded some SIPs that had run their course. The tatsoi and collard seeds sprang to life, though it took several attempts because the heat on the roof dried out the soil the first few times.

Growing food is filled with uncertainty: you can't control the weather or pests or spores that move invisibly on the breeze. There are ups, there are downs. On balance, though, it still seems remarkable that we can eat so well from the roof of a building in downtown Chicago.

If the title of this post stumps you...listen:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rooftop Honey Harvest 2010: 6.5 Gallons of Bliss

For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom. William Shakespeare

Did someone say "act of order"? In retrospect, we humans were quite orderly in our descent on the hives to disrupt all the hard work these girls did over the spring and summer. Our weather Sunday -- outside the bee costumes, not in -- was sublime.

So many people were interested in watching/participating. Since it was our first harvest, we didn't know what to expect, but we quickly learned.

It started at 9:30 am, when Noam and Laura, above, suited up (me too!), smoked the hive, and cracked open the casa de Italians in Hive #2.

Noam began by removing each frame and giving it a shake to throw down the bees.  Here he's working on Hive #1.
And then he'd use his brush to gently encourage the others to leave.

He handed off the mostly bee-free frame to me...

...and I handed off to Laura (click to big it up) halfway across the roof.

She did a final brush off and placed each frame into a hard plastic bin with lids to keep the bees out. Art devised an attachment for this (heavy when full of frames) box that went onto a pulley. It was then lowered down to the landing on our fire escape. Then the boxes would be carried the rest of the way down.

Remember, the roof is 30 feet up!

Look at the thick comb, filled with honey.
Noam was kind enough to show me how to use the tool, a simple pry bar, to remove a frame. Then I got to try the throw-down maneuver to remove the first bees (I was a little too vigorous, feeling untouchable in that suit) before brushing.

After a lot of backing and forthing, we moved downstairs--as far away from the hives as we could get--where the action picks up. All the honeyed frames have been lowered down, four full boxes worth.

Here Rob carefully removes the wax caps off the hexagonal chambers where bees store their honey. They're incredibly smart. They seal the chambers once they're filled, to protect them.

Note the 1970s-era afro pick (not really, but that's what it reminds me of) used to de-cap.

Rob's an orderly de-capper...
...and Laura's got one all done. Look at the depth of comb...and as a consequence, honey.
Once de-capped, two frames fit into the borrowed extractor (thanks to Noam's pal for this).
The lid goes on and the crank turns the mechanism, using centrifugal force to pull the honey out and into the bucket.
Like this:

Everyone takes a turn turning...
...while we fall into a sort of groove of de-capping and extracting. I'm admitting right here that even though I'm smiling, this is not my favorite task. Rob and Laura were skilled artisans at this.
My favorite part was getting globs of wax and honey out of this scraper bowl to eat:

The bees didn't wait long telling each other where all their honey went.

Frequent washing was essential. I'd say this outdoor sink, which Art set up with hot water, was a star of the show.
Once the honey starts to accumulate in the extractor it gets strained into the tapper--used to fill jars. Here we tried using my chinoise, whose mesh may have been a little dense for the job at hand, to strain the honey as it flows from the extractor to the tapper.
It's an exciting moment--the first pure honey!

Art pulled down his old French cooking strainer, and it fit reasonably well atop the tapper bucket, making the job slightly easier. Here the honey comes out of the extractor...into his strainer...and finally into the tapper.

Noam gets the last of the extracted honey out of his tub.

Now we can start the jarring process. This borrowed tapper unit is meant for making booze and so the tap is a bit poky when filled with the more viscous honey, but that's OK.

We're like a well-oiled machine, with people de-capping, extracting, straining, and filling.

At some point the extent of this harvest becomes apparent. We need more jars, and Bruce comes to the rescue. He wheelbarrows over a bunch of jars he needed for canning this summer.
Meanwhile, the scraping bowls from decapping hold a lot of wax. Bruce and Brooke decide they might make candles. Each went home with about 2 pounds of wax to play with. Here Bruce transfers the wax to a go-container.
Then Noam and Laura de-capped two frames that are extremely dark in color. He postulates that these Hive 1 frames first housed brood (babies) and then honey.
He wants to strain this honey separately, since it's darker.
This is a real Martha I-strain-honey-in-my-pretty-sundress-and-necklace moment. The dark honey and the lovely Laura, who had to leave for a quick shower and costume change so she could attend her workplace picnic, where they were roasting a pig--yum.
It's all gorgeous.
Time for a toast with our neighbors' homemade wheat beer. Thanks Sean and Fran! The perfect ending to a perfect day.

What a fine group effort. So many hands and friends, not all pictured here. And more vids to come.

Thanks, Rob, for the stills and the vids. Thanks to everyone who pitched in. Thanks to Art who never stopped all day and who is strangely absent from the photos.

Most of all, thanks to Noam for his focused tenacity, helping us all learn what to do and toiling from 9:30 until nearly 8 pm to leave us with nicely intact hives and a honey-free work area.

We never did get it all bottled...still working on that indoors here. Gallons to go before we sleep.