Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gator Jeep

We picked up our new Jeep Wrangler today. Here are a few pictures...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mystery Vine

Last year when we started pruning the Traminette vines, we discovered a couple of vines that clearly were not Traminette. They must have gotten mixed up at the nursery. They are in the same row and about two or three vines away from each other. We have no idea what they are but they are extremely hardy, very fast growing and look absolutely nothing like Traminette. They are massive compared to the other vines in the row. We're going to let them produce this year and try to identify what they are. Maybe they're something weird and unusual like some obscure old heirloom table grape or something we can play around with making crosses. It seems vigorous enough to put on an arbor so maybe we'll take some cuttings and start some new plants to use near the house.

Here's what it looks like.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Man, it looks like an antler...

It's not though. It's a recently pruned peach tree.

All of them are Reliance semi-dwarf trees, one of the few peaches that will grow this far north. We have three of them, as well as four apple trees. The oldest two of the peach trees are about five years old and I've been pretty slack about pruning them, and over the last several years they've gotten a little out of control. Lots of young wood up high, out of reach, and not very good structure down low at arm's reach. Peaches develop on second year wood and in the case of these trees, that puts almost all of it way up high. Not what you want if you plan to harvest the crop.

Last week, I finally spent a little bit of time on You-Tube learning how to properly prune them to maximize fruit production and maintain healthy structure. Letting them run wild is counter-productive both from a fruit standpoint and also the long-term survival of the tree. It looks pretty drastic and I'm pretty sure I've pruned at least 50% of the wood from each tree. We'll see what happens this year. We won't have many peaches but hopefully the trees are on track now for lots of peaches next year.

At our old house, we planted two of this same variety and they quickly grew huge, just like these did, and produced a tremendous amount of peaches. The same bad pruning regimen doomed those trees because we allowed the horizontal limbs to get way too long, and when fully weighted down with peaches, the limbs bent down literally almost to the ground, and sometimes tore away from the trunk. We moved in 2005 to our new place and over the years those trees at the old house continued to deteriorate and the last time I drove by there, I think they were almost dead. The apple and cherry trees we left behind seemed to be thriving with zero maintenance, as the place is vacant and has been for several years. In fact, the house burned to the ground about a year or so after we sold it and there's nothing left but a hole in the ground, some outbuildings, and the perennials and fruit trees we left behind. Sad.

There are apple orchards in Iowa on old homesteads that are over a hundred years old and still producing fruit. Apples are a lot tougher in this area than peaches, and apparently don't require the same vigilance to keep them productive. Iowa is on the very northern limit for even the hardiest of peach cultivars. They don't live terribly long here under even the best of conditions, and I can't recall seeing a particularly mature peach tree since I've lived here. They seem to do better in Missouri, just a short hop south of us. I don't think that many people around here even try to grow them. Anyway, hopefully taking the trees back down to a manageable size, avoiding overcropping, and not stressing the limbs at the point where they join the trunk, will allow these trees to live as long as possible.

I love peaches.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Now Get To Work!

With about a row and a half of Traminette vines left to prune, and with things starting to rapidly green up on the vineyard floor, today seemed like a good day to get out and do some pruning and take my mowing crew with me. There's not much to eat in their winter pasture now, and they were more than happy to head up to the vineyard and start mowing the grass and eating weeds. We're expecting snow this afternoon but at the moment, they are on the clock.

Here are a couple of photos of them hanging out with me in the vineyard.

Monday, March 21, 2011


"So... I guess that's your accomplice there in the wood chipper?"

Oh how I love this thing... We've started on the dead tree "carcasses" and so far, the bed of the truck is about two-thirds full of wood chips. I have no shortage of places that need mulch, starting with my newly pruned fruit trees, and around my clay oven, Sunny, so it definitely won't go to waste. We have massive piles of tree branches to chip, and lots of stuff too big for the chipper but not big enough to mill into dimensional lumber. It will need to be cut up with the chainsaw and used for firewood. This afternoon, I used the tow strap and hooked one of the biggest logs to the truck and dragged it down the driveway and parked it out of the way. I think I came within an inch of backing the truck into it the other day. Not something I wanted to have to 'splain to Greg...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pruning in Winter, II

Haha! Not really, just needed an excuse to post this picture. This was taken in early January, looking southeast from the front yard.

I spent three hours today pruning the Traminette vines. Thus far, everything that was alive last fall is still alive and looks ready to take off sometime in April. It was 66 degrees today, sunny and breezy. Can't ask for better than that...

I have about two more rows of Traminette and then I'll start on the Cynthiana vines.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I took this picture today while I was waiting for the barn water tank to fill. I was sitting on a log and Pancho came over and stood next to me waiting for me to scratch his chin. He loves it. While he was standing there, I took the opportunity to comb the wool out of his eyes. They really need to be sheared soon.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Yellow Hives

No, that is not a tropical disease, it's what is currently sitting in my garage. Greg and I (okay, mostly Greg) got all of the beehive boxes primed and painted this weekend. The boxes need one more coat of paint and then they'll be done. We still have about 140 frames to assemble. These go inside the boxes and hold the foundation that provides a starting point for the bees to build out the comb. Each hive box holds ten frames. This step should go pretty fast with the pneumatic stapler Greg picked up at Menard's on Saturday, and the jig I borrowed from a member of the Beekeeping Club, which allows you to put ten frames together in a batch and holds them in place while you staple the pieces together. Once that is done, I'll need to find the perfect location for the hives, and set up some cinder blocks and pallets in an area with full sun and good air circulation. Ideally, the location needs to be at a relatively high elevation which helps keep the hives from getting too humid inside, which promotes diseases. Also the hives need to be in full sun so they warm up in the morning as early as possible, which encourages the bees to get out and forage for nectar and pollen. The more hours per day the population is active and working, the more honey gets made. The site also needs to be accessible to me year round, and I need to be able to drive up pretty close so that I can take off the honey supers when it's time to harvest the honey in September. I need to be able to check on them several times in the winter as well, and add sugar syrup if the stored honey is running low. I plan to put some sort of fence around the hives to keep wildlife, especially skunks, away from them. Fortunately we don't have bears in Southern Iowa.

I'll set the hives up a couple of days before the bees arrive, and have all my tools, the feeder, and everything I'll need laid out and ready before I install the bees. That will happen sometime the third week of April, right around the time the dandelions and several other early flowering plants and trees are getting started around here. That reminds me, I need to get out there and prune my peach trees and apple trees, and see how close they are to coming out of dormancy.

Stand by for updates!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tree Carnage

Here's what carnage looks like...

Over the course of the last several years, we've had a few large oak trees drop all of their leaves in the middle of summer and just die. Some were damaged by ice storms but I don't think it was enough to kill them. Anyway, I'm not really sure what is going on and I've gotten a different opinion from every person I've talked to about it. They seem to just give up and die. It's sickening to watch it happen and not be able to do anything about it. At the end of the process,

there's a dead tree standing among a bunch of living trees, like a huge skeleton. Some of them are well over a hundred years old (yes I counted the rings).

A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to addressing the situation, after playing Russian Roulette for a couple of years with them looming way too close to the house. I had contacted a guy back in October about taking them down and after giving me an estimate, he promptly fell off the face of the earth (that would be my second Craigslist Fail, as Greg refers to them). No money changed hands so it was mostly just a waste of my time.

I decided about three weeks ago that it was time to just pony up and get them taken down by some professional tree surgeons before I came to regret procrastinating about it. I contacted Morris Tree Service and they gave me an estimate of $500 to take all four of them down, and leave them for me to deal with. A few days later, they showed up right on time at 9:00 a.m. and were done by 10:30. They used a bucket truck to lop off the limbs and top the trees before cutting them down and while there's a huge mess out there, the risk of them falling on the house is now gone.

Including the trees we took down several years ago when we planted the vineyard, we have a total of about 12 very big logs to mill into some useful oak lumber, and my next quest is finding someone with either a portable sawmill who will come and mill them on site, or a regular sawmill with a truck and crane big enough to load them and haul them away. We probably have as much as seven thousand board feet of white oak in these logs and it appears to be in good enough shape that it's criminal to turn it into firewood. The log in the picture has a rotten center at the base and I'm not sure it goes all the way through the length of the log, but most of the trees we've taken down have been solid all the way through and the cause of death is unknown.

If I knew of one nearby, I'd try to connect with a Cooper and have some of the wood made into wine barrels. That would be pretty cool. Hmmm, I may look into that. I think there might be a couple of them in Missouri...

Anyway, at some point we are either going to finish building our house, or skip that and move on to building the winery. Either way, it would give me a really good feeling to know that these poor trees went on to have a second life in the form of some furniture, timber framing, flooring, or even some wine barrels.

In the meantime, I have a lot of debris to clean up and the wood chipper will be getting a decent workout pretty soon. This mess is going to make quite a pile of mulch...

Sunday, March 6, 2011


For about a year, I've been thinking about getting some bees. I'm fascinated by them, and their role in agriculture. We seem to have a lot of wild (feral) bees, including honey bees, bumble bees, mason/orchard bees, and lots of different species of tiny bees that I know nothing about other than they're bees.

Last March we went on a vacation to Kauai and we met a beekeeper who let us tour his apiary and processing set up. At that point, I knew I had to have some bees.

I am planning to set up two hives and with the vineyard, the fruit trees we've planted, lots of clover in the pasture, and the huge variety of wildflowers we have around our place, I hope these two little hives will produce lots of honey.

One thing the long Iowa winter allows is a lot of down time to plan and plot next year's gardens and projects. This year it allowed me time to take a beekeeping class and this past Thursday was the final class. There were about 25 people in the bee class, and almost all of them are planning on starting hives this spring. It's been fun to take this class and learn how it's all done. I'd read several books before taking the class so I was already pretty well prepared for what was involved but it was nice to be able to actually ask someone the questions I had, after reading several how-to guides.

At this point, I'm very excited. I will have to drive about an hour and a half to pick up the bees from the guy I bought them from, and then make the same trip home with them in the car. LOL. After my last Bee Class this past Thursday, I picked up all of the equipment I had ordered the previous week. The instructor had driven to Nebraska to pick up his large order and several orders for people in the class, which saved us all the shipping costs (my three boxes weighed well over 100 lbs in total). The bees will be ready to be picked up the third week of April so I have just over a month to get everything built and painted, and set up in the location of their permanent home. This needs to get done sooner rather than later because things in the vineyard are also going to get very busy by the end of March.

Greg worked out an assembly line in the garage and while I glued the pieces and fit the hive boxes together, he put the nails in and made sure the boxes were square. We have 12 out of the 15 boxes done now (we ran out of nails) and the next step is priming and painting them. Most people paint their hives white because it is reflective and helps prevent the hives from getting too hot in the summer. I've chosen a pale yellow that should accomplish almost the same thing, while making them just a little different than everyone else's. Once the painting is done, we'll assemble the frames where the bees actually build out the comb and store the larvae, pollen and honey. There are ten frames per hive box. Each hive also needs a base and an inner and outer cover. I have them and they need to be assembled as well. If things go well with these initial two hives, I'll expand next year.

I still have a few things to buy, including my bee suit and veil, as well as some leather gloves and a couple of tools that are used while working with the bees. I already have the smoker, although I haven't messed around with it yet.

Oh, and the instructor suggested a big bottle of liquid Benadryl, just in case...