Gardening on Delmarva - Spring, 2014

by Dana Kester-McCabe

I'm sure I'm not the only Delmarva gardener - or farmer - who wondered if winter would ever end or if we would have any kind of a spring season before hot summer temperatures arrived. The very cold weather and frequent snowstorms significantly delayed preparations for spring planting this year and then abundant rains turned my garden plots into giant mud puddles.

Nevertheless, since all gardeners are optimists, I planted four rows of peas in mid-March during a brief warm spell and, sticking to my normal spring schedule, started beets, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage and spinach under the grow-lights indoors. Outside, everything else is on hold until we finally see some normal temperatures and dryer weather.

The extended cold placed additional stress on my bees, too. In early February, when we enjoyed a few warm days, both hives were active. But by the end of the month it was clear that one of them was not well and further investigation proved that the queen was gone and the hive was down to just a handful of bees. The remaining hive survived.

It has been a trying time for beekeepers all over the peninsula. At the Lower Eastern Shore Beekeepers Association meeting in March (the group meets at 7:00pm on the 2nd Wednesday of the month at the University of Maryland Extension Service office on Nanticoke Road in Salisbury - everyone is welcome to attend) some members with large apiaries reported losing 45% of their hives over the winter.

And it's not just the garden and the bees that suffered. What about all the other chores we ought to be getting to at this time of year? For example, there's the garden shed. Outside it looks normal enough, but inside it's a horror! Everything should have been moved outside by now, the building swept clean, and then neatly rearranged to make it all accessible again. I'll bet there are lots of people with a long to-do list of activities that should have been completed weeks ago.

Still, some things can be accomplished indoors. For example, this spring I had planned, before I was reduced to just a single hive, to increase my apiary to four hives and therefore bought a number of hive boxes from my regular bee supplier, Walter T. Kelley Co. in Kentucky ( I ordered five deep supers, used as brood chambers, five shallow supers to collect the honey the bees make, and the materials to make 100 frames, 10 per box. It's possible to buy these boxes already assembled and painted but the "knocked down" boxes are cheaper and very easy to construct. I spent several of the days waiting for nicer weather putting these boxes together, painting them (photo) and assembling the frames. Frames are the supports on which bees build their comb that will eventually contain the brood as well as stores of pollen and honey.

Up until the 1850's, most beekeepers used straw structures, called skeps, to raise bees and produce honey and wax. Although they worked perfectly well, the biggest flaw with the upside down basket design was that in order to harvest the honey the bee colony had to be destroyed. Then in 1851 a Pennsylvania minister, Lorenzo Langstroth, invented the movable, interchangeable frame, which he kept in a wooden box. From careful observation, he discovered bees required a space of 3/8" to move easily throughout the hive. By constructing a hive with suspended frames kept that distance from one another and below the cover of the box, Langstroth revolutionized beekeeping. From then on, beekeepers needed only to take off the cover, remove the frames, extract the honey and return the frames back into the same hive to be refilled.

The five pieces of the modern frame (photo 1) are nailed together and a sheet of beeswax foundation attached, first through the split bottom board (photo 6) then to the top bar. The foundation is prestamped with a hexagonal shape on both sides of the sheet and, once in the hive, these cells are drawn out by the bees with more wax produced from their bodies. The sheet of foundation is strengthened by embedded wires running from top to bottom and made rigid inside the frame with slotted pins (photo 8). Ten frames fill one box.

Now, finally, in mid-April, the soil can be worked without too much difficulty and I have planted 15 Red Norland and 15 Kennebec potatoes, plus three rows each of white and yellow onion sets. About half of the peas I took a chance with last month have emerged. I have a bunch (about 25 plants) of Earliglow strawberries sitting in a tub of water (photo) that will go in the ground shortly. Normally the asparagus would be showing signs of life by now but it looks like more patience will be called for here as well.

Oh well, gardening has always been an unpredictable enterprise, with new challenges every season, so I am reconciled to wait to get everything into the ground and, in the meantime, contemplate the delicious results to come.