Susan’s Gardens at Olsen Farm

Our Mom, Susan, had a real gift for gardening. She loved birds, butterflies and beneficial insects and planted acres of beautiful gardens around the property at Olsen Farm.

We are very lucky to still have detailed plans and photos of her gardens through the years, so we can look back and see the incredible growth and spread her green thumb has had over the past three decades.

IMG_5443Dad, (Tommy) getting new beds dug and laid out in 1993. Those tiny spruce trees in the center are taller than the house now!

IMG_5445The first flowers were thoughtfully planted with stone paths between. We are still working to reclaim these stone paths from the hearty perennials that have happily spread over the years. 

IMG_5444Olsen Farm farmer, Chris, showing off Mom’s new garden bed layout (and his Little League pride!) in 1993

IMG_5441The farm house in the back was built in the 1790’s and is where our great grandparents lived back in the 1930’s when they immigrated from Norway and founded Olsen Farm

IMG_5440Stunning close-up of rudbeckia and cone flowers- some of Susan’s (and our) favorites! 

IMG_5448Full bloom, Summer at Olsen Farm 1996

Olsen Farm holds so much history for our family. Susan’s amazing gardens are a very important piece of what makes this land such a special place. We have been working to uncover some of the overgrown gardens and bring them back to their glory.

The impact of a well thought out pollinator garden is so much greater than can be expressed through words and photos. Susan really had a gift for color, planting bright flowers to bloom in each season. We know our honey bees (and native pollinators) are thoroughly enjoying all the delicious flowers Susan planted!

 

 

We recently registered Susan’s Gardens on the National Pollinator Garden Network, a part of the Million Pollinator Garden challenge. Please check out their project and register your gardens: http://millionpollinatorgardens.org

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Remembrance: Happy Birthday to you, Tommy

Many of you may know, in January we lost our father/ father in law unexpectedly after a short illness. The months building up to and after his passing have left us broken and the future of Olsen Farm in jeopardy. Tommy grew up on this land, helping his grandparents to take care of the farm and soaking up knowledge about farming and caring for animals.

Today is Tommy’s birthday. He would have been 65.

In May we spread Tommy’s ashes on the property so that he could be part of this land eternally. We have been working tirelessly to raise money in order to keep the family land from being sold off and developed. The two most important things to Tommy were his family, and this land. There is so much history here and we hope there will be many, many more generations of Olsens and Wheelers here caring for this incredible piece of land.

 

Happy Birthday Tommy! It is an empty feeling to celebrate your birthday without you being here. But our memories are strong and our love for you and this land are endless. Our gift to you is that we keep fighting to save the family farm, that we will do everything in our power to keep Olsen Farm alive.

If you werewith us this year, Tommy, here are some highlights we know you would take joy in:

We planted your favorite, corn- and it was a success! Chris tried three sisters planting, sowing corn, beans and squash in the same bed so the three plants could support each other. Next year we plan to triple the crop. IMG_3854

There were so many monarchs in the yard and one even built a chrysalis on the chicken coop! IMG_4519

We added some cute little fancy chickens to the flock, and Jelly Doughnut hatched and raised a clutch of chicks. She was a great mama hen. You will get a kick out of this- instead of Thanksgiving turkey we will be having Thanksgiving rooster and eating Mr. Alexander Hamilton! IMG_4752

Chris harvested our first jar of honey, super dark and spicy from all the goldenrod in the yard. We lost the hive we had last year in February after a cold snap, but now we have three hives and are planning to double again next year. Susan’s gardens are looking AMAZING with all the extra help from these busy, busy bees. IMG_4681

Chris and I saved an injured barred owl from the side of the road. I remember last year, when I found an injured owl and was able to coax it back into the woods. You were so excited to hear about it then, we know you would have loved seeing this little owl too. IMG_4826

We know you and Susan are always watching over the family and farm and probably already know about all of these things- but it feels good to put them down in writing. Happy Birthday, we love you.

Remembrance is bittersweet, but I believe it is necessary. We know Olsen Farm would not be here without Tommy and the work he did to preserve this land. We will always remember, and while it brings saddness to remember it also brings hope and relief in knowing our fight to save the farm is righteous.

 

Bee Keeping: Filling a New Hive

Bees are truly incredible creatures. They have complex communication and social systems. They are hardworking, intelligent and organized. They pollinate our flowers, fruits, trees and plants. Without their hard work our gardens would not grow. They make delicious honey- a natural antibiotic and delicious vaccine for pollen allergies. We literally could not live without them.

At Olsen Farm we started keeping bees last year because of the importance of supporting pollinators and our drive to practice natural farm and gardening techniques. We have a responsibility to protect native bees by planting healthy gardens- free of chemicals and pesticides, as well as a responsibility to care for our domestic bees like any other pet.

Our colony survived the winter last year but was not able to survive the unfortunate February early thaw and sudden temperature drop. Bees are powerful and delicate, with our quickly changing climate and growing use of toxic pesticides their world is in great danger- and in consequence so is ours.

This year we have added a second hive, and are continuing our hope for the bees and all they share with us.

Here are some photos of the hive-filling process:

 

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Prepping the smoker, dried grass makes great smoke!
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Chris puts on gear to protect his hands, face and arms while filling the hive
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Prying the lid off to remove the queen’s cage
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Removing lid to expose can of sugar water queen’s cage is attached to during travel
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The queen’s cage is attached by a strap that has to be pried off for removal
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Pulling out the can and queen cage
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This can is covered in bees! As soon everything else will be too…
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Detaching the queen’s cage from the can
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Chris gently brushes bees off the outside of the queen’s cage and into the hive box, setting queen’s cage aside for placement later
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Holding the bee package upside down over the brooding box, Chris gets ready to shake them out
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The most exciting step- shaking, or tapping, three pounds of live bees into their new home. No stings to date!
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Chris carefully places the queen’s cage between two frames so the colony can get used to her pheromones and she can be released in a day or so
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Giving the colony some smoke to calm them
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Chris carefully stacks the super on top of the brooder box
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Stacking on the inner narrow lid
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Placing on the hive lid, or outer cover
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Weighing down the lid cover with a cement flat
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We use a ratchet strap to secure our hive boxes together, making it more of a challenge for a bear to break them apart if ever one gets through our electric fence
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Hive one is live!
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Happy bees, already getting to work cleaning up a honey drip in their new home

For the birds: Attracting Orioles

Orioles are beautiful birds with an amazing song and bright, sunny plumage. These stunning birds LOVE sweet blossoms and fruit, particularly oranges.

 

To attract these beauties to your yard you could simply stick orange slices out on posts in the yard, or you can make a decorative treat with sliced oranges with these simple steps.

What you will need:

fresh oranges

sharp knife

2-3 inch twigs

string or twine, cut in 12-15 inch lengths

a skewer or knitting needle (I used a knitting needle)

 

1. Slice oranges in half

2. Cut a few 2-3 inch twig bits

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I used willow twigs because they are plentiful in our yard and are flexible

3. Use a sharp knife to cut a small nick in the center of each twig, as shown below

4. Wrap string or twine around nick in center of each twig and tie securely

5. Use skewer or knitting needle to poke a hole through the center of each orange slice

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6. Push twine or string through hole in orange from bottom to top, so that twig sits and base of orange

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This step is very juicy and sticky, don’t be afraid to get good and messy for the sake of the birds!

7. Hang your finished bird treats in a tree where you can watch the orioles enjoy them! 

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Orioles love the sweet blossoms of apple trees so I decided to hang some orange slices here for an added attraction.

Orioles build incredible hanging basket-like nests. You can cut some lengths of string or twine and lay them on garden fences or branches for these amazing builders to collect for their nests. Enjoy your bird watching!

Beneficial Insects: Praying Mantids for Tick Control

Ticks are a serious problem in Berkshire County. Not a day goes by when we don’t find them on ourselves and our pets and we are always searching for ways to manage these horrible pests without the use of toxic chemicals. Our chickens and guinea fowl offer great tick control but can always use some help in their daunting task- we discovered these little helpers in praying mantids, a beneficial insect and natural predator to ticks and other small insects.

Mantids are native to our area so there is not risk of introducing one invasive species to manage another. Be sure to check your area before purchasing and releasing beneficial insects to be sure there is not risk of introducing invasive species. 

Two years ago we bought a few egg sacks and hatched them in a clear cup. There are about 300 tiny mantids in each egg sack- we bought the egg sacks in late April and they hatched in early June. Hatching times may differ for different geographic areas. These tiny critters sounded like popcorn popping when they hatched and bounced off their container!

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Be sure to release the tiny mantids soon after hatching to avoid cannibalism. Praying mantids are carnivorous and do not discriminate from their own species. When releasing mantids you can sprinkle them in the garden, on plants and trees and off ground level. Ants are predators to tiny mantid hatchlings and will take advantage of any babies they find on the ground. 

Mantis babies are itty bitty and a light brown color. They turn the bright green as they mature in order to blend in with the vegetation they hide in.

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You can keep a mantis or two as pets but they must be separated or they will eat one another. It can be a challenge to catch insects small enough for them to eat, ants will eat baby mantids and should not be offered as a food source. Fruit flies and gnats make a great mantis meal!

A few weeks ago while walking the orchards we found this mantid egg sack wrapped up in some dried tall grass. It was an exciting discovery and proud mantis-parent moment to see that our beneficials were breeding on the property. IMG_9802

You can order praying mantid egg sacks from Arbico Organics, they are a wonderful resource for organic and natural pest control options. Egg sacks can be place directly in the yard to hatch or hatched inside for your viewing pleasure. Make sure your insect nursery container has only tiny air holes- baby mantids are tiny and will escape all over your house if they can! 

 

 

Starting Seeds, Saving Money

We are always looking for ways to save money, and to live more sustainably. One small step we took this year is to start our seeds using homemade paper pots, rather than buying plastic or peat pots. We purchased a wooden PotMaker from Lehman’s- and used the tag paper our Lehman’s order was shipped in for our first pots! Take a look at our first DIY seed starting experiment:

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The PotMaker is a clever two piece wooden mold that allows you to repurpose newspaper or newsprint and turn it into biodegradable starting pots that can be popped right in the ground. 

Here is how it works:

1. Cut your paper into strips 3.5 inches wide by about 16 inches long. Line one edge of the long side your strip up with the lip of the cylindrical part of your PotMaker, as shown below. FullSizeRender

2. Gently wrap your paper strip around the cylindrical part of the PotMaker until your strip is completely wrapped. Overlapping layers will make your paper pot stronger. At first I wrapped my paper too tightly and the finished pot would not slide off the PotMaker- luckily, you can learn from my mistake! FullSizeRender_1

3. The bottom of your pot should have about an inch of paper overlapping- and should look like this:FullSizeRender

4. Start folding in the bottom paper overlap. I found my pots stayed together best when I made the first fold-in to the left of the seam where the paper roll finishes wrapping around the cylinder, so that the second fold-in would hold in the seam itself. FullSizeRender_1

5. Continue folding in the overlapping paper all the way around the base of your PotMaker.FullSizeRender_2

6. Now comes the fun part! Take your paper wrapped and folded cylindrical handle and press, twist and turn it into the fitted wooden base. Use your muscles! I found pots hold a better and stronger shape when you place the base on a hard surface and press the paper-wrapped top down into it. Unlike what I have shown in the photos below…FullSizeRender_5FullSizeRender_3

7. Gently slide your newly formed paper pot off the cylinder and repeat as many times as pots you desire! FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender_1

 

Congratulations! Your new, biodegradable, FREE paper pots are done- now it is time to plant!

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1. Take your favorite potting soil and fill each paper pot. Gently press soil down to about 1/4 inch from the top of your pot. With the money we saved from not buying plastic or peat pots we were able to invest in better soil for our starters. Today we used 100% Organic VermiSoil and it smelled delightful!IMG_2971

2. Generously pop in you choice of seeds (I always plant 3-5 seeds per starting pot, it is easy to separate later on when they sprout)- today we started sweet and hot peppers, two types of onions and an array of herbs. IMG_2972

4. Cover seeds with 1/4 of soil and gently press down. Add some labels, so you can remember what you have planted! IMG_2835

Don’t forget to water in your freshly planted seeds and set them in a sunny spot to sprout.

The PotMaker has proven to be a great investment so far this year. They are available at Lehman’s if you are feeling inspired to try one out yourself. We will check back in with seed starting updates as our PotMaker paper pots start to sprout!