April 16, 2014

Chandra L. Mattingly

Biography and photo

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Of Bugs, Blooms & Vittles
Is it hot yet? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly   
Monday, April 07, 2014 2:42 PM

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After weeks and weeks and weeks of snow, ice, and frigid temperatures, spring seems to finally have arrived.

There is a flurry of activity in the beeyard as workers from my four hives buzz in and out, searching for, finding and carrying home nectar and pollen from early bloomers: willow and maple trees, creeping jenny, crocus and others.

Today – April 1 – I saw my first dandelion blooming, a species which provides major food for bees early in the year. (If you want to help honeybees and other pollinators, let these flowers co-exist with your lawn grass.) Yesterday I saw a violet blooming, another nectar source. Flowering fruit and decorative trees will soon follow.

But the honeybees aren't the only signs of spring at our house. In the wildflower patch, red trilliums are budding, bloodroot is blooming in gleaming white displays, and spring beauties have poked their twin leaves above ground. Nearby the lenten rose, helleborus, has opened its dangling purple buds on stalks also containing new leaves.

Daffodils, blue scillia, iris reticulata and glory of the snow have joined the crocus in extravagant glory. The hyacinths have pushed up from the ground but not yet opened – they're probably my favorite flower to sniff aside from old-fashioned roses.

Out back, one row of Buttercrunch lettuce has germinated well, with adjacent rows of Green Ice and a lettuce mix showing more scattered plants. I've cleaned off most of the asparagus beds, treating the backyard hens to the green weeds I've pulled. Thanks to Samantha, the one who initiated it, about half the flock has learned to jump into the air and snatch the weeds dangling from my hands.

Indoors, all my plant lights are in use. I've started oodles of seeds, from vegetables to perennial flowers to herbs to – well, about anything that catches my fancy. I even tried grafting tomatoes, but they failed to thrive – which doesn't mean I won't try again.

This year's collection includes the standard herbs, rosemary, lavender, thyme, sweet marjoram, sage, Greek oregano and more, but also some native wildflowers, some of which may take two years to germinate. I'm hoping the ramps, blue-eyed grass, spicebush, butterfly weed and viper's bugloss (a stickery weed that provides rain-resistant bee fodder) will sprout this year or next. I do know the seeds I planted and set outside months ago got plenty of freezing and thawing!

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for American chestnut tree sprouts to surface. Rising Sun's Red Wolf Sanctuary co-owner Paul Strasser shared some nuts with me last fall, and after a few months in peat moss in the 'frig, some had sprouted roots, just like they were supposed to do! Who knows whether they will be virus resistant or not, but obviously their parent tree or trees lived long enough to produce fruit.

Every year is an adventure when it comes to gardening, not to mention beekeeping. Will the bees thrive and produce excess honey this year? Will we get enough rain but not repeated deluges? Will the warmer temperatures (finally) stick around?

And just how soon will we start complaining about the weather being too hot and humid?

Last Updated on Tuesday, April 15, 2014 11:20 AM
 
Is it hot yet? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly   
Thursday, April 03, 2014 10:00 AM

After weeks and weeks and weeks of snow, ice, and frigid temperatures, spring seems to finally have arrived.

There is a flurry of activity in the beeyard as workers from my four hives buzz in and out, searching for, finding and carrying home nectar and pollen from early bloomers: willow and maple trees, creeping jenny, crocus and others.

Today – April 1 – I saw my first dandelion blooming, a species which provides major food for bees early in the year. (If you want to help honeybees and other pollinators, let these flowers co-exist with your lawn grass.)

Yesterday I saw a violet blooming, another nectar source. Flowering fruit and decorative trees will soon follow.

But the honeybees aren’t the only signs of spring at our house. In the wildflower patch, red trilliums are budding, bloodroot is blooming in gleaming white displays, and spring beauties have poked their twin leaves above ground.

Nearby the lenten rose, helleborus, has opened its dangling purple buds on stalks also containing new leaves.

Daffodils, blue scillia, iris reticulata and glory of the snow have joined the crocus in extravagant glory. The hyacinths have pushed up from the ground but not yet opened – they’re probably my favorite flower to sniff aside from old-fashioned roses.

Out back, one row of Buttercrunch lettuce has germinated well, with adjacent rows of Green Ice and a lettuce mix showing more scattered plants. I’ve cleaned off most of the asparagus beds, treating the backyard hens to the green weeds I’ve pulled. Thanks to Samantha, the one who initiated it, about half the flock has learned to jump into the air and snatch the weeds dangling from my hands.

Indoors, all my plant lights are in use. I’ve started oodles of seeds, from vegetables to perennial flowers to herbs to – well, about anything that catches my fancy. I even tried grafting tomatoes, but they failed to thrive – which doesn’t mean I won’t try again.

This year’s collection includes the standard herbs, rosemary, lavender, thyme, sweet marjoram, sage, Greek oregano and more, but also some native wildflowers, some of which may take two years to germinate.

I’m hoping the ramps, blue-eyed grass, spicebush, butterfly weed and viper’s bugloss (a stickery weed that provides rain-resistant bee fodder) will sprout this year or next.

I do know the seeds I planted and set outside months ago got plenty of freezing and thawing!

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for American chestnut tree sprouts to surface. Rising Sun’s Red Wolf Sanctuary co-owner Paul Strasser shared some nuts with me last fall, and after a few months in peat moss in the Fridge, some had sprouted roots, just like they were supposed to do!

Who knows whether they will be virus resistant or not, but obviously their parent tree or trees lived long enough to produce fruit.

Every year is an adventure when it comes to gardening, not to mention beekeeping.

Will the bees thrive and produce excess honey this year? Will we get enough rain but not repeated deluges? Will the warmer temperatures (finally) stick around?

And just how soon will we start complaining about the weather being too hot and humid?

Chandra L. Mattingly is a staff reporter for The Journal-Press and Dearborn County Register, in addition to being an avid gardener, beekeeper and horsewoman. Look for a video of her jumping chickens soon on Facebook.

 
I 'seed' spring coming PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly   
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 11:55 AM

Winter's back is broken!

OK, you think it's because temperatures finally are soaring above freezing and we've gotten rain this week instead of snow. Heck, today, Thursday, Feb. 20, the high is supposed to be 60 degrees or so.

No, winter is over in my heart because I have planted the first seeds of this year's garden-to-be.

As usual, some of those were tomatoes and peppers; others were members of the onion family. Rosemary fits in there, too, as it grows rather slowly from seed. Next up will be parsley and some of the other herbs, wildflowers (some of these, such as the ramps, may take two years to sprout!) and perennial flowers.

I love this time of year! The birds are singing and perhaps the crocus, snowdrops and winter aconite will pop up blooming in a week's time or so. (Most years all of these early buds are blooming by this date!)

But sorting through these packets of mail-ordered seeds, with bright flowers and green things pictured on the outside, tiny potential plants in hard coatings on the inside, makes my day even when it is snowy and cold outdoors.

The tomato seeds, round, light brown and flat, have been planted in six-cell containers in the rich, loamy soil mix sprung from composted leaves and horse manure in my back yard. Soaked in warm water, the trays are nestled atop containers of hot water in a cooler, which now has become a warmer.

The sweet bell pepper seeds, similar to but a little larger than the tomato seeds and stained yellow or red, depending on which color fruit their variety ripens, also are in small trays in the cooler. For the next week or two, I will be switching cooled water jugs for freshly-filled hot ones morning and evening.

Some of the tomatoes will sprout within five days using this method; the peppers will take about a week. As the tomatoes come out, to be set immediately as close under fluorescent lights as possible, a tray of eggplant seeds will go in.

I love finding the first sprouts, half circles poked above the soil, roots grounded on one end, those first leaves – cotyledon – on the other end, being pulled up from the ground by the unfurling stem. Once the little plants are under the lights, I've been known to stop and gaze at them repeatedly throughout the day. New life is awesome.

Meanwhile, I returned to my potting bench, actually an old wooden table in the basement that came with the house, overhung with fluorescent lights. The shallots, leeks and onion seeds come next, all of them sharp-edged, hard and black. Over the years, I've learned if I take time planting the seeds to space them about an inch apart, not only will the little plants grow better than when overcrowded, but they also will be easier to transplant.

These seeds get covered with a layer of vermiculite, but don't need as much warmth to germinate as the seeds in the cooler. Nor do the rosemary seeds, but they must have light to sprout. So I press the small, light-brown, oblong seeds into the vermiculite, poke toothpicks upright throughout the tray and cover it with plastic wrap. The tray goes under the lights immediately where, kept damp, the rosemary will begin sprouting in perhaps two or three weeks, even its cotyledon seeds fuzzy gray and scented.

Unfortunately, rosemary is not hardy in our garden zone, though I've had a plant at the south corner of our house not only survive through two winters but bloom in January and February those years as well. This year it was getting flower buds at the end of December, but the arctic blast has frozen them as well as the leaves. Only time will tell whether the plant itself survived and will send out new shoots come spring.

By then I will have started trays and trays of flowers, herbs and wildflowers. The plants overwintering in pots and in the ground in my backyard will begin to show new growth as well and I will learn which plants survived and which surrendered to this wintry winter.

As well, the seeds planted and set outside last fall will begin to germinate and I should have butterfly weed, button bush and linden trees to pot up. Surely the time needed will be more than I have, and yet – well, I wouldn't have it any other way. This year's garden will be the best ever, weeded and mulched and tended with love.

That's how it always is before the ground is tilled.



 
'Yellow rain' is a good thing PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly   
Monday, January 20, 2014 3:21 PM

Around Dusseldorf, Germany, pussy willows and forsythia bushes are starting to bloom – so says my daughter, anyway.

Not here! Just a month into winter, this year's coldest in decades continues its icy grip. But – and this is important to beekeepers – not, so far, without breaks of 40-plus to 50-degree days. These warm spells allow honeybees to fly out of the hive and ensure hive sanitation: the bees get a chance to defecate outside (they won't in the hive unless ill) and carry out those co-workers who have died.

Some folks refer to it as “yellow rain” when the bee poop shows up on car windshields and laundry hung out to dry. But it's great news to know the honeybees are out there, considering all the threats they and other pollinators face these days.

Above-freezing days also allow the bees to move around inside the beehive, shifting from comb emptied of honey stores to other comb still containing honey. Clumped together, they stay warm enough to survive by vibrating their wing muscles to produce heat – but they need fuel (honey) to do so.

In my four-hive apiary in Rising Sun, the warm days also have engendered some beekeeper anxiety in yours truly. After the cold and snow the second week of December (which wasn't even winter yet!) temperatures popped up to the 50s Dec. 19 and I observed bees flying from all four hives.

Temperatures went up and down the next week or so – up to 50 Dec. 22 and 28, down to 13 overnight Dec. 23. I didn't notice any hive activity, but wasn't watching closely either, what with holidays and work.

But Jan. 1, the temperature reached the upper 40s and I observed bees from my strongest hive flying in and out like gangbusters! You'd have thought it was a summer day during a strong honey flow from the activity at the hive entrance.

Unfortunately, not one of the other hives showed any activity. Just a little concerned – each hive responds differently and some get more sun than others – I cleaned all the dead bees from the entrance area and landing board on the hive stands. If more dead bees appeared in those areas, I could be pretty sure the hives were active and carrying out their dead.

My concern mounted Jan. 10, when again, I saw only the one hive flying (large numbers again!) on a day reaching 50 degrees. There were a few dead bees outside the other hives, but no activity. I had to leave for the day, but before doing so, took a twig and cleaned off the dead bees, as well as pulled numerous dead bees from inside the entrance of one hive. It sure looked like I'd lost that one!

Saturday, Jan. 11, jumped to 50 degrees again, after heavy rain and thunderstorms in the night. Come mid-afternoon, I found honeybees flying from all three of the other hives – but not the strongest one, which apparently was done for the day. So no worries, for now – all hives remain heavy when slightly tipped, indicating they still have plenty of stores.

As do all beekeepers, I just hope the hives have enough bees and supplies to make it till spring. Should we get a good warm day, as we probably will by February, I'll be out there taking a look inside!

Meanwhile, I've been perusing seed catalogs, including native-plant nurseries, and have ordered a number of seeds specifically for bee fodder for my plant sale this May 8, 9 and 10, even viper's bugloss, which is stickery. But it supplies nectar even after rain!

Seeds for button bush, a super nectar plant which grows in and beside waterways, is outside freezing and thawing, as are butterfly weed seeds, one of the milkweeds. These plants not only provide lots of nectar for bees and butterflies (ask Ohio County's Kevin Fancher!) but also are host plants for monarch caterpillars. Though the official count won't be released till March, the monarch population appears to be at an all-time low, so please, do what you can to help.

I may have linden tree seedlings again as well. They, too, are excellent nectar producers and the scent of the tree in bloom is almost intoxicating.

Another great scent is lemon grass, and I've wintered over some plants this year. I'm also going to try making my own lemon grass essential oil which a lot of beekeepers use to lure honeybee swarms into swarm traps in April and May.

Swarms occur when a hive gets overcrowded and starts raising a new queen. Before she hatches, most of the workers and the old queen leave the hive to start a new home elsewhere. More information about swarms and beekeepers who will remove them is available on the Southeast Indiana Beekeepers Association website: http://www.indianahoney.org.

Spring will come, swarms and all. It always does.

 
Asking the eternal question: the chicken or the egg? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chandra L. Mattingly   
Monday, December 23, 2013 10:53 AM

Every kid knows the joy of the Easter egg hunt, of finding hidden treasure.

Some lucky few also have had the joy of collecting fresh eggs at a friend’s or relative’s farm, as I did as a youngster. Sure, you risked getting pecked if a hen was still on the nest you were trying to rob, but there was something magical about finding those eggs, not only in the chicken house but hidden here and there about the farm.

And the colors were so different from anything you could buy in a store: deep brown, pink and light brown, as well as white. Nor could you compare the orange yolks of those eggs of truly free-range chickens to the pale yellow of store-bought eggs. Of course, 50 years ago, stores didn’t much offer brown or so-called free-range or specially-supplemented chickens’ eggs.

With those memories, it’s no wonder my yard sported a small flock of hens long before backyard chickens became popular, and soon after my marriage – and still does. Each of the “girls” has a name, with some being quite tame, others a bit more wary. One pair even rode the handlebars of my daughter’s bicycle!

Hens will lay, by the way, without the benefit of a rooster. Of course, the eggs are not fertile, but if you have close neighbors, it’s considerate NOT to have a rooster and its crows without at least checking with your closest neighbors.

As an adult (well, at least in age) I still get a thrill when I find an egg in the chicken pen. The fun part is figuring out which hen laid it, and, with the young hens, determining which color egg they lay. But it’s also fun to take a grub to the door and offer it on outstretched palm. As with treats such as cheese and fruit, one hen will grab it and run from the others, trying to gobble it down before another snatches it away.

Aside from fresh eggs, the best part of the chicken flock is how they recycle the weeds from the garden into chicken manure for the compost pile. A bucket of green weeds disappears in no time, and helps keep those egg yolks nicely dark.

Most of the current flock lay green eggs, but these older hens quit laying in October this year as the days shortened. They’ll start up again in January or February when the days get longer, after their winter rest. Meanwhile, two of this spring’s chicks started laying in late November, so I’m getting an occasional light brown egg from Hildegard or Clarabell, who appear to be golden Wyandottes.

They were given to me by a friend, along with two chicks that turned out to be a lovely green-iridescent black Australorp named Igor and a white bantum with a few black spots named Sugar. Igor should lay light-brown eggs; I’m guessing Sugar’s will be white and small, considering her size.

In pioneer days, old chickens whose egg-laying ability diminished would be eaten. These days, however, some folks try raising backyard chickens expecting easy, nutritious eggs, and quickly learn there are drawbacks. Free-range chickens will scratch up garden vegetables and flowers and leave fertilizer in inconvenient places. Even in town, they may become prey for hawks, coyotes, foxes, dogs and raccoons, and their feed can attract mice and rats.

Chickens need daily care, not only feed but fresh water, including during freezing weather. And, like any animals, they are subject to pests and disease. A veterinarian visit for a sick chicken can substantially increase the cost of any eggs produced. And while older chickens may continue laying, especially with good nutrition, the number of eggs they lay will diminish.

So perhaps it’s not surprising some folks have abandoned their former pets at animal shelters, both in big cities and in rural areas. Most are older hens who have slowed or stopped laying eggs after age 2 or so, especially if they’ve been induced into year-round laying with supplemental light.

My girls don’t have to worry. They don’t get extra lighting in the winter and, whether they lay or not, Gertrude, Pandora, Guadalupe and the others are set for life. Meanwhile, I get to enjoy the equivalent of an Easter egg hunt for about 10 months of each year.

Chandra L. Mattingly is a staff reporter for The Journal-Press and The Dearborn County Register. She also is an avid gardener, and raises chickens at her home in Rising Sun.

Last Updated on Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:29 AM
 
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