Monday, April 10, 2017

Walking the bees home

Just two days after Mian and I captured a swarm, the bees swarmed again. And this time,we had no hive conveniently ready to house them. So Mian and I called G, to call a young man we knew who had recently lost his bees and wanted some more. Instead, G came over in the afternoon. 'It is time I learnt, Madam' he said. I am vain enough to think that our efforts helped demystify beekeeping for him.

Our 'new' hive
He had come with bee keeper's tools-a veiled hat and a basket- borrowed from a friend. The hat was standard gear, the basket was homemade. Over here, it is considered essential for capturing a swarm. Rather than 'plopping' the swarm into a box, as the admittedly uncouth pair of us had done, the local beekeepers invite the bees in. The 'basket' is a woven cone covered with jute fabric. Honey and wax is rubbed into the fabric. The bee whisperer then holds this basket close to the swarm and coaxes them to move onto it.
The swarm-catching basket
Once he had seen the bees, Mian, I and G scurried around to complete his outfit. In lieu of beekeeper's overalls, we scrounged together a cooking ladle, Mian's bomber jacket and my gardening gloves for G. Mian and I followed in our shirtsleeves, Madhu was far more circumspect.
G scopes out the swarm

G sat down close to the swarm and held the basket almost touching them.
Introducing the bees to the basket
Some drones got interested enough to check it out. Soon, he began slowly directing them to the basket with the ladle. This was a gentle unhurried process with the ladle being used more to show the bees where they might like to go than to push them there.
Gently coaxing the bees in with a ladle
The relaxed pace means that the bees stay calm, but it also takes a while. G's arm rapidly tired but he refused all offers of help.
Waiting for the bees to make up their collective mind
Finally, after more than half an hour, the queen moved to the basket. While we could not see her, we knew it by the change in pace. Suddenly, the basket was the happening place to be and the workers could not get there fast enough.
They make up their mind. At this point, the bees are walking in by themselves
Soon, they were all in the basket, and a tired but triumphant G was holding up his new friends.
All aboard!

And then he turned around and trudged off for the kilometer-long walk home. Carrying a few hundred bees in an upside down basket.
The long walk home. Good thing he's got company. Lots of it




Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Our garden wakes up

Just yesterday, Mian and I stood in the garden and thought, 'It's coming together..slowly, but it's happening.'
That 'it' of course is our garden. Still very much  a work in progress, still with too many 'placeholders' and blank gaps, still too many failures swaggering in front of me.
But now it is spring and time to celebrate the magic of flowers.
Here is  what is in bloom in my garden at the moment, starting with the gifts I have been given- the wild flowers on our land.
The autumn olive (Eleagnus sp). Not invasive here and fills the orchard with its fragrance. Butterflies love it!
Kilmora (Berberis Aristata), has interest all the year around, attracts pollinators and birds.

I have taken to spreading those two shrubs around our garden, and they thank me so prettily.
Another inherited flower- the 'wilson' apple. A variety with a fascinating history. And oh, the fragrance!
 And now for the plants in my garden
Lady Bank's rose (Rosa Banksiae) . Such a cheerful flower with a direct link to the interesting Joseph Banks

I have struggled with this rose.When I first planted it four years ago, I covered it with shade thinking it would protect it from scorching. Result- it never grew. And though I removed the cover later, somehow  that rose never did well. This year it has put on a massive show. Perhaps the worst is over?

Sweet peas! finally!
Another plant I have struggled with. I followed the instructions the first year and planted them in spring. The poor little seedlings got scorched almost as soon as they poked their heads out. And then I came across a passage by Gertrude Jekyll in which she boasted of getting sweetpea flowers six weeks before her neighbours by planting the seeds in the autumn. And that's what I did. I planted the seeds, G fashioned a cover for them. And throughout the frosty weeks, those peas got coddled. Well worth the effort I think as I inhale their fragrance.
An old dependable..The 'iris bed' I had planned under the pear tree is finally recognizable as such. 
I got this iris from a kind neighbour. Such lovely colours and a deep, musky fragrance.

So that's my garden right now. And everywhere there's lots of promise. Borage, and nasturtiums have sprouted and doing well. The roses are displaying fat buds. Spring, it is here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In which Mian and Chicu astound themselves

G warned me a couple of weeks ago that our bees would likely swarm this month. Apparently, they do that after a year in the hive.

'Mine, all Mine. And they will stay that way', said I and sent him off to 'borrow' a hive box from A and D.

And then I left for a week-long workshop in another state.
I got back yesterday and noticed that the box had arrived. I decided to spend the next afternoon cleaning and mending it.

The bees had other plans.  As Mian and I sat drinking coffee today I noticed a lump on a peach tree. A curiously vibrating, shimmering lump. Our bees had swarmed!
 A cursory search on the internet revealed that this is when bees are most docile. Apparently, it is easy enough to drop them into a box. When I called G to share the good news of the swarm and our plans to capture it, he was adamant. 'You absolutely will not do this, Madam. I will send someone.'

Humph.

I busied myself cleaning the borrowed hive of all the muck of its neglected past. It was washed, dried, sunned and still no bee whisperer.


In the meantime, Mian had done his research. We decided to go ahead with capturing the hive.
Now in the mountains, women are not supposed to touch a hive. But of the two of us, Mian has far stronger biceps. So he got the job of holding the hive box under the swarm while I scraped the bees off the branch using a stick. They fell in one mass with a plop, accompanied with a smothered yelp from Mian. He got  stung on the forehead. But considering both of us had minimal gear- sun hats (no veil) and gardening gloves, I am  impressed with the single sting.

And after that, it was sit and wait while we made sure the queen was in the hive and the swarm was content. As of now, they seem to have accepted their home.

Our tasks today?
Move the hive into the fenced garden after sunset. Replace the panels. Remove old wire from one entrance. Secure the box lid with wire.
And I am so very very proud. Think of it. Beekeeping here has a mysticism. there are three bee-whisperers in the area, and they are the only ones who handle hives. And here are Mian and I, amateurs sans gear, who managed to hold on to a swarm. I am happy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A mulch of money

After I wrote the last post, I emailed it to my family, sat back, and waited for congratulations. They did arrive eventually, but the first reply was not what I expected 'you spent 40K and don't even have walls', she said.

Ouch. 'I wanted it very much' , I replied. And then I thought about it.

The photo that started this chain of thought
 My reply must have seemed arrogant It probably was.
I definitely do not regret the toilet. It gives me great pleasure, it feeds my garden, it has removed a lot of tension over water, and I get a major kick just dreaming of all I will do with the compost. I would do it all over again, and happily.
But that conversation got me to thinking about my spending on the garden. Is it too much? How does one estimate whether spending on a hobby is justifiable?
This amazing display, all gifted by a friend from her extras
 As far as possible, I am a DIY person. The 'make do or do without' philosophy is entrenched in me, or so I thought. But now I wonder.
I don't spend on frills. My garden has no tchotkes, none of the fancy gear that is considered indispensable. My bird table  is a plank wedged into a tree. I propagate my plants. I handwater using a can and a pipe.
But the list of what I consider 'not-frills' is increasing. I spend a lot on labour. I got the patio-wall resurfaced, the veg garden fenced in, the upper fields ploughed. When Mian goes to the States at Christmas, he always goes accompanied by a list of seeds. Not all of them survive.
My seed stash. Part bought, part collected. Mian doubled this stash with his annual spring gift
 I now am in contact with a supplier of bulbs in Kalimpong and 'treated myself' to an embarrassingly luxurious order last fall.
Part of my luxurious bulb order- on the resurfaced patio wall
 I want a golden azalea, I have decided. I want a proper rose arch, not my current jugad one. I want a proper path down to the house. I want garden furniture to sit in. I want. I want.
The 'jugaad' rose arch I want to replace

But the rose couldn't care less. Definitely a 'want' and not a 'need'
And there are two things running through my head now. One is from a book  I am currently reading, which says that gardeners who don't have creative capabilities try to cover up deficiencies with 'a mulch of money'. And the other is what a friend had told me once, when we were discussing the concepts of 'high maintenance' women. 'You are the worst of both worlds' she said. 'You look low maintenance, but are high maintenance'

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The bestest toilet ev-AH!

 I rapidly grew tired of throwing away water and of losing nutrients. Especially when we were short of water, the idea of flushing away excellent compost fodder began to grate on me.

Finally I wrote to a friend asking him where I could find me a compost toilet pan. 'I'll send you one' he said, and he did. The village post service being what it is, it was many months till I came across the pan lying in a neighbour's garden.

And then the building started. I did not want it just for me, but I also wanted to share the concept with the village. A suitably prominent place, next to the village path, was chosen. I wanted it to be pretty, we decided on bamboo.Prakash, Bhuvan, Ganesh and I were all learning how to build it. Many measurements were taken, and many mockups assembled. We all blushed furiously as I tried to explain in my hindi just what the various holes were for and how they worked.


The cost? It came to around 40K, excluding the pan. I still have some material left over, and we pay a premium to truck stuff in from the nearest town. For the pan, I'd add another 10K including transport.

Would I do anything differently? Not for myself, I think it is perfect as it is.But as a demonstration unit, I'd go with a pan cast at home rather than one procured from outside. It would make it seem a lot more doable.

But now it is ready and it is stunning. Seriously. I have not seen a prettier one. The walls are bamboo, the roof is bamboo overlaid with tin. There are tall slits in the walls upto waist level to let in plenty of air and sunlight. It sits below an oak tree, and soon grasses will be planted along its base. The floor is prosaic concrete, but sprinkled with glass beads.

But  don't just believe me. Here are pictures

View from the front.We have a curtain instead of a door, which G rather disapproved of at first


This is the view from the house. Soon, I will plant grasses along the base.





The inside. Note the sparkly floor and the rustic TP holder!
I started off with dried leaves in the base.Not necessary, but I thought the carbon would do my compost good!
Here's a detail of the 'door' (hung on a sunflower stalk) and the 'windows'





Friday, February 10, 2017

Not a cakewalk

'Aunty only loves me, she doesn't love you' the small boy jeered. 'She gave me cake for my birthday, you got a great big Noo-oo-thing' he continued while his sister blinked back tears. It was all my fault of course. I had gone off to my mum's last year and missed G's daughter's birthday.

And so, this year, I had to make up for it. As per custom, I baked and frosted a birthday cake. My guilt for the last year led me to make a tall, tall layer cake. It was when I was making a swirly pattern on the sugar tower that I realised that 1.5km of mountain road lay between me and the birthday girl.

So the cake was on a plate, which was on a baking tray, which was in a fruit box, which was covered by stiff paper, which was taped down.

Which led to this contraption:
The first rest-stop was needed before I walked 50 metres. The others followed at similar intervals
 As we slowly made our way to G's house, Madhu and I picked up a little band of merry followers. I am not vain enough to think the kids adore my company, but I thought that Madhu was the attraction. And then I heard one child call out, 'Is the cake coming?'

Priorities, the kids have them sorted out.

Our walk back was blissfully carefree. And we received the gift of a moonrise.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A bitter story

When a good friend ran out of bitter marmalade, she called me. I was the only person she knew who could be trusted to give her traditional marmalade. An acquaintance had gone on a trek last year, in the course of which he dropped in to visit Mian. His chief memory of that long day is that he had eaten whisky-laced marmalade at our home. In a few hours, two young men are coming over home so that I can teach them how to coax lemons into marmalade. So I have a bit of a reputation for making the stuff. And I make a LOT of it.

Which is  why it is surprising that I do not enjoy the jam-making process. Is it the tedium of chopping and stirring, you wonder? Is it the hours spent over a stove knowing that if you look away, the gloopy mess will suddenly burn? Is it the dipping of hands alternately into cold lemon pulp and hot water with disastrous results? Ye-es..all of that does have a place, but the real reason is different.

I detest marmalade-making because the process is the equivalent of the nosy neighbour who visits to pass judgement on your housekeeping. Marmalade making is the pious uncle who discovers that you used your 'no-aromatics' chopping board to cut onions because all the others were in the sink; the  aunty who spies the mustard seed you spilled into the sugar the day you were juggling chai and khichidi; the other uncle who points out that you have 12 jars and 8 lids; and worst of all, marmalade-making is the pesky brat who announces to everyone that you miscalculated the recipe and tried to cover it up by stirring hot water into half a jar of marmalade.

Thankfully, all these jars have lids..
For me, the source of distress all of last year was the case of the  Ginger-Garlic-marmalade. I had opened a fresh jar and immediately smelt it- ginger and garlic where there should have been only lemon and sugar. Hastily, I shoved it to the back of the fridge and opened another jar.

Many months later, Mian reached for a new jar and I watched his face change as he uncapped it. 'Oh is that the garlic one?' I asked blithely. 'That's for when we make sweet-and-sour pork.' Mian, bless the man, did not ask any more questions but put it back in the fridge. As our stock diminished, that jar became more and more prominent till I finally emptied it out, popped the contents into the freezer,and washed the jar.

For this year's batch, I had learnt my lesson. I used two buckets of hot lemony water to scrub every surface and every utensil in sight, I boiled jars and jar lids, I did not eat or cook anything till everything was sealed away. I even used a new dish sponge for the occasion.

One of the 5 batches..plain lemon and lemon + cocoa
And today I opened a jar and there it was..ginger garlic marmalade. Turns out that particular  jar is haunted by the spirit of Kimchi past. I had made it once, and it's ghost lingers in the plastic lid. I had to toss that. Thankfully, it is just the one jar and after 5 kilos, I have declared that marmalade season is Closed.

I've barely made a dent in the tree




A friend has bought me 3 kilos of cabbage. They want to try my Kimchi, they say..