2020 Super Hot Pepper Preparations – March 13 Update

Just a quick update on the super-hot seeds planted recently. Frankly I’m surprised at how many have already sprouted given past experience. All were planted in seeding mix, on a heat mat. There is a single grow light over the seedlings as they sprout (and they are sitting at a south-facing window).

Variety (Planted Date) Germination Rate
Yellow Brain Strain (2/28) 100%
Yellow Reaper (2/28) 50%
Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah (2/28)
Thai Dragon (2/28) 100%
Moruga Scorpion (3/4) 75%
Naga Viper (3/4) 25%
Yellow Reaper – source 1 (3/10)
Brain Strain – source 2 (3/10)

Do It Yourself Mason and Leafcutter Bee Houses. DIY Bee Houses!

Do it yourself mason bee homes

The following outlines my attempts to create a few low budget mason and leafcutter bee houses to spread around the property. Houses I won’t be overly concerned about should weather or other factors damage them during the hear. They are NOT pretty, so if you’re looking for mason bee houses to improve the appearance of your garden consider one of the following (but remember to take them in over winter else you’ll be buying again next year.

Mason bee houses shipped from Canada

Mason bee houses shipped from the US

My mason bee houses are in bad shape. Really bad shape. Being the fool that I am I forgot to bring them in and left them to the elements on the roof through a very wet, very cold winter. Rather than spend for new, nicely designed houses I’ve decided to get scrappy and go the DIY route. 

What do I have so far? A whole lot of ugly, but ugly that just might work if placed in the right locations. I wanted something light, that wouldn’t break if dropped, and that required as little work as possible. I used cardboard from the recycle bin (toilet paper rolls, cereal and cracker boxes etc) to make the mason bee tubes, rolling the cardboard around a pencil and taping them once rolled using masking tape. Pay attention to which direction the cardboard ‘wants’ to roll and it will make your life much easier. Last year I used dollar store bamboo and did a pass with a cordless drill to open up any tubes that weren’t fully accessible. These worked, but opening the bamboo was a real challenge. I’m hoping the cardboard will be much easier to open in the fall in order to recover and clean the cocoons.

Also, I’m considering placing some kind of mesh at the entrance to prevent larger animals (birds, squirrels etc) from ruining things, and giving the bees some measure of protection while they work. 

The three ‘designs’ I’ve tried so far start with the milk carton mason bee house:

  • Milk carton. 1L size, to cut off.
  • Duct tape
  • Cardboard for rolling (toilet paper tubes, cereal boxes, etc)
  • Paper straws
  • Masking tape

I used the duct tape to ‘waterproof’ the paper milk carton, including about 2 inches inside the lip of the carton to both protect the exposed cardboard from the initial cut, and to provide some texture for the tubes to catch against. I used a blend of tubes (different cardboard sources and slightly different lengths) an also included a few smaller, paper straw tubes in case other bee types show up. All tubes were pushed against the back of the carton, and I kept adding until I could add no more.

Milk carton mason bee house
Milk carton mason bee house version 1

 

Next up is the beer can mason bee house.

  • Beer cans (473mL tall style)
  • Duct tape
  • Cardboard for rolling
  • Paper straws
  • Masking tape

Basically the same as the milk carton, expect I had to cut the tops off the beer cans. I just used a serrated knife, but use whatever you like, and be careful. Once off, cleaned and dried I used duct tape around the cut edge to smooth them. From there it was the same as with the cartons.

Beer can mason bee house
Beer can mason bee house

 

Finally, Pringles can mason bee house.

  • Tall Pringles can
  • Duct tape
  • Cardboard for rolling OR longer cardboard pre-fab tubes
  • Paper straws
  • Masking tape

Pringles can was similar to the milk carton, but is my least favorite as despite washing the inside, the sides remained slippery. The tape isn’t sticking as well as the others, so we’ll see how these ones perform.

Pringles can mason bee house
Pringles can mason bee house

 

Over the next several days I’ll be placing these mason bee houses around the property here, as well as a few other locations I saw frequented by mason bees last year. As always, I’ll be positioning the bee houses facing southeast, and to the extent possible under cover to limit the risk of water ingress.

Thoughts?

The Benefits of Fennel in the Pacific Northwest Garden

2019 was my first year growing fennel. I grew both from starts (Orion I believe with the rounded bulb ), as well as from seed (Selma Fino from WestCoastSeeds). Initially I planted them out of curiosity as I do enjoy fennel in salads, and like the look of both fennel and dill plants. After year one, I recommend a fennel planting to anyone considering it, and will be planting several pockets of fennel again this year.

First, my fennel did very well, both those started from small pants and those started from seed. After a bit of a slow start, the seed fennel took off and by year’s end were massive.

Next, they were a very effective draw for pollinators and various types of wasps. Based on what I’ve read, I believe several of these were predatory wasps, which I was very happy to have around. The fennel flowers bloomed on immense heads and at any given point were covered by bees, wasps as well as ladybugs which really seemed to favor the plant.

Recommendations?

  • If you’re planning to eat them, plant extras (so you can have the benefits of the ladybugs and wasps throughout the season) and don’t wait too long to harvest. If I could do it over, I would have pulled the bulbs earlier as the ones we ate were a bit woody. According to WestCoastSeeds you should harvest the fennel bulbs before the flowers form… in which case I wasn’t even close.
  • Think about how you might stake them. I planted my fennel fairly close to some of my pepper plants (to the north and east so as not to shade them) and later in the summer the fennel started to bend over top the peppers. I tied the longer stalks back, but it wasn’t very nice to look at. This year I’ll better plan how to keep the fennel stalks and flowers from shading the peppers, while still having them close enough for the wasps and ladybugs to wander by. 
  • Don’t forget the seeds! At the end of the summer I saved a fair number of fennel seeds from one of the plants. After they’d try they served as a very nice snack over the next several months. That said, don’t leave the little ‘connector’ to the seed itself. Those things don’t fall off easily on their own, and dry into little gum-piercing spears. You’ve been warned.
  • Don’t plant too close to dill. I read this somewhere, but given that they’re closely related you want to keep them away from one another.

That’s it. I didn’t experience any real downsides to growing fennel in my garden, and observed several valuable benefits that will see fennel become a constant presence in my garden going forward.

One more thing. I didn’t fully clean out my fennel at the end of last year. On inspection this week I noticed that shoots were erupting from the older bulb / roots. I pulled the old plant and cut the base into several pieces, each with a new green shoot and placed them back in the garden bed. It’s been several days, and so far they’re showing no ill effects, so I may have found an easy way to get a head start on this year’s fennel patch.

It’s Almost March, Are Your Native Bees Ready?

Prepping tubes for mason and leaf cutter bees.

Buy Bright Creations mason bee tubes – US

Buy Milliard mason bee tubes – Canada

Just like that we’re (hopefully) through the worst of winter here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re into March in a month, which means it’s time to ready your bee homes, and the residents they’ll house. 

While there aren’t any blooms out at this point, other than a handful of crocus’ providing a splash of colour, the various berry bushes have produced buds, with the gooseberries showing the first hint of leaves. It won’t be long now, and previous years have taught me that without the mason bees, we’ll be lucky to get fruit from the gooseberries, blueberries and currants.

My chief learnings from the last year would be the following, along with mitigation ideas for this time around.

  • Angle the bee houses slightly forward. Last year, despite facing the tube openings eastward there were a few days with heavy wind and rain that saw moisture enter the bee home. This year I’ll be tethering the homes more securely to their anchors to prevent even the slightest shifting in wind, and I’ll be angling them slightly forward so that any liquid that enters has a natural path out.
  • Reconsider wooden bee houses. My wooden houses are in rough shape after only two seasons. This year I’m thinking of trying to repurpose something like plastic milk jugs or 2L soda bottles to form the shell of the bee home. Benefits I’m hoping for are that it allows reuse of an existing material, is impermeable to water, can be cut to the necessary dimensions including an overhang to limit water ingress, and won’t break down under the stresses of Vancouver weather. The test will be securing the bee tubes side the slick plastic shell.

Finally, if you’re looking for a source of good quality, well-priced mason bee tubes here are the ones I’m testing this year. I’ll be comparing them to the drilled bamboo tubes I used last year.

Buy Bright Creations mason bee tubes – US

Buy Milliard mason bee tubes – Canada

There you have it. Good luck!

Testing Landscape Fabric to Limit Weeds and Capture Heat

Buy Master gardener landscape fabric – US

Buy Weed control landscape fabric – Canada

This past summer I tried tested black landscape fabric as a weed barrier, and heat retention tool for my pepper plants. The idea being that a) any weeds that germinated in that planter would be starved for light unless they could find a path to one of the holes where the peppers were planted, and b) the black colour of the fabric would serve to capture the sun’s heat, bringing the soil up to a temperature preferred by peppers even on cooler days.

What did I learn?

  • Weed suppression. Well, a single layer of landscape fabric doesn’t seem to starve weeds of light or water. Weeds still germinated and grew under the fabric. In some cases they surfaced through one of the pepper holes, but in many cases they didn’t, yet still appeared to grow well. Despite this, they were restricted to the height they were able to push the fabric, and so didn’t compete with the peppers vertically for sun. Not what I’d expected, but less work than the constant weeding needed with bare soil.
  • Heat capture. Landscape fabric does seem to trap the sun’s heat in the soil. Comparing the temperature of the soil under the fabric to the surface soil of a neighbouring bed showed clearly that this worked.
  • Surprise! There was another learning from this ‘experiment.’ When the pepper plants were the only plants accessible in this particular bed, they were the only plants that avian pests targeted. Crows are smart, and they watch every year as I prepare the soil and plant seedlings. It seems that the black tarp may have brought an appealing focus to the seedlings planted, and almost half of them were uprooted by curious crows over the course of several weeks. Eventually they seem to realize that pepper seedlings represented nothing of interest , but in the meantime halved the number of plants for the 2019 crop.

So, would I do it again? No. At least not the same way. I think next year I may encircle my seedlings with some of the fabric in service of heat capture, but I’m not going to blanket the entire bed. Additionally, I may consider covering the bed with netting or something similar until the plants are off to a good start to prevent the crow disaster from this past year.

Buy Master gardener landscape fabric – US

Buy Weed control landscape fabric – Canada

Rooftop Vegetables and Protection from High Winds Part II – You Forgot The Berries

Buy garden trellis & netting – US

Buy garden trellis & netting – Canada

Winds on the roof can be more damaging than I’d anticipated. My focus has been on securing / protecting the ‘softer’ plants like peas, beans and tomatoes that may be whipped and damaged by the wind. Especially early in the season while stems are particularly flexible and soft. What I didn’t worry myself with were the berry plants. 

In our rooftop garden we have 2 gooseberry bushes, 2 blueberry bushes and 3 currant bushes. All have been in the ground for at least 2 years, so there are relatively mature, woody stalks in all cases. That said, over a recent weekend we had winds strong enough to both strip flowers/fruit in some cases and even kill branches by presumably thrashing them about. In all cases the branch damage was on new, green growth but it did take me by surprise. 

Lesson learned. Any new growth or soft material is at risk on the rooftop if not properly protected. This may take the form of staking, trellises (to allow peas to anchor for example, and limit thrashing), cages (to limit movement for larger tomato and tomatillo plants for example), barriers (I’ve used burlap stretched across stakes to create windbreaks) or natural barriers like hedges. I don’t know that the form is important is terribly important provided that it gives the necessary support or protection. The one exception being that in past experience fully blocking wind can expose plants to mildew and other issues as circulation is limited.

Buy garden trellis & netting – US

Buy garden trellis & netting – Canada

The Problem With Pollinators Part II – Good, Bad And The Nasty

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – US

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – Canada

It’s the middle of April, so time for my second post on native pollinators. This year I again purchased a handful of mason bee cocoons to get a jump on pollinating until the bumblebee and honey bee populations can find the roof. I should mention that last year several of the tubes in my bee houses were filled and sealed by the mason bees introduced at that time. Unfortunately I didn’t properly take care of them over the winter, though I intend to do so this year if I’m given a second chance. For anyone else in a similar situation, here’s a handy guide to harvesting your mason bee cocoons at the end of the season: https://crownbees.com/harvest-cocoons

The Good. As mentioned above, the cocoons we set out last year hatched (not all, but many of them) and were seen happily pollinating the flowers across our roof. After a few weeks I started to see a few of the tubes closed off with mud. All in all perhaps a dozen tubes were closed in this fashion.

The Bad. First, I noticed many small insects around one of my bee houses in particular, this being the one housing the leaf-cutter bee cocoons. They were almost certainly predatory wasps, and looked like this. Their presence might explain the very low hatch rate for the leaf-cutter cocoons that I’d purchased. Also, as mentioned above I didn’t properly harvest the mason bee cocoons, and instead left them outside over the winter. Fortunately for me, almost all of the plugged cocoons appear to have hatched this spring, and I’m seeing bees buzzing about the bee houses even though the newly purchased cocoons haven’t yet emerged.

The Ugly. While most of the bees I’ve seen up close this spring have looked healthy, I’ve encountered a couple that were absolutely INFESTED with mites. If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you’ll see 6 mites hitching a ride on the bee’s back. In one instance there must have been HUNDREDS of mites on the poor bee. As such, I will be absolutely sure to properly harvest the cocoons this year, and will at minimum continue to replace all tubes with new bamboo, and possibly replace the houses themselves.

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – US

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – Canada

Improving Your Soil – Worm Composters

Worm composter 360. Separate trays for staged composting

As I mentioned previously the soil in the planters that we use is less than ideal. We’ve taken to amending it with purchased compost and manure each spring, which has had a noticeable effect on production. While purchasing soil amendments is fine, we’ve also set up a worm composter on the roof to provide additional, free nutrients to the soil.

First, we don’t have the smaller, apartment worm composter that is provided by the city following their composting courses. We’re currently using the Worm Factory 360 Composting Worm Bin which we were lucky to pick up on Craigslist. This bin has 4 separate trays that stack one inside the other which lets you build your compost in stages, and makes separating the worms out easier. Additionally, there is a final, lower tray used to catch the compost tea, and a spigot to let you drain it when desired.
Using the Worm Factory 360 (If you’re from Canada, here’s a local Worm Factory 360 link) has come with learnings that I will share here.

  • Keep the compost bin in a somewhat sheltered location. The trays aren’t sealed, and water hitting from the side will get into the trays. We live in Vancouver, and it rains A LOT. To prevent the trays getting too wet, we’ve positioned out bin where it is open from above to allow some moisture to hit the composter, but where it is protected from the sides.
  • Keep the composter’s spigot open. I know, this robs us of the compost tea, but we’re not diligent enough to keep it drained enough to avoid the lower tray from getting soaked. If you’re checking on the bin daily, then maybe closing the spigot is fine, but otherwise consider keeping it open. It also helps that our bin is on a grassed area, so the tea doesn’t cause any mess.
  • Do not compost large pieces of bread, and any meats/cheeses. We don’t have rodent pests on the roof, so the typical rodent risk related to meat/cheese isn’t an issue. That said, we do like to avoid smells, and further we’ve found that any dense break/cake etc tends to not break down and instead just mold.
  • Rotate the compost trays. We keep the trays with the freshest material in the bottom, and the oldest/most ‘ready’ tray at the top. I’ve found that the worms in that top tray, once they’ve finished the available organic matter start to migrate down to lower, more nutritious trays, making worm extraction much easier.
Photo of a worm factory 360 staged compost bin
Worm Factory 360 Composting Worm Bin

So far we’ve made due with a single Worm Factory 360 Composting Worm Bin but given interest from others in the building, we’ll be looking at purchasing additional, or some other, larger bin to accommodate the available vegetable waste. At this point I’m thinking about either a tumbler / rolling composter, or one of the more pleasantly designed aerobins like the ones on offer at Amazon.

Buy Worm Factory 360 Composter – US

Buy Worm Factory 360 Composter – Canada

The Problem With Pollinators – Early Flowering Plants And Missing Bee Population

Mason bee home suspended in a tree - Vancouver, BC

Buy Mason Bee houses and refill tubes – US

Buy Mason Bee houses and refill tubes – Canada

What’s the problem with pollinators? There aren’t enough of them… and they sleep in.

My second year, I added berry bushes to the roof, and added to the count this past season. What I found is that the berries bud and flower much sooner than vegetables in this climate, and apparently much sooner than bumblebees and honeybees surface to help with pollination. As a result, I’ve had very limited fruit production, though this past year I was able to get some improvement by manually making the effort.

The fruit in question are:

  • Gooseberries (european): 2 bushes
  • Blueberries: 2 bushes
  • Currants: 3 plants

Growing blueberries, gooseberries and currants – Amazon.ca

I don’t know if the issue is that local pollinators aren’t emerging at the same time, or whether the location, and relatively limited flower options means they don’t visit until blooms are more abundant. Regardless, it’s a problem that I’m trying to deal with on a couple levels in 2019.

First, I scattered wildflower seeds in some beds reserved for non-edibles in hopes that they will emerge and flower to provide additional options for any pollinators that do emerge and visit early in the year.

Second, I’ve purchased a number of solitary bee homes and will be seeding them with mason bees in March, in hopes that the early-emerging mason bees will bridge the time between early flower emergence and the arrival of the pollinators that service the broader pool of fruit and vegetable plants.

If anyone has other ideas I’m all ears, as I’d like nothing more than to have bushes loaded with berries through the spring/summer of 2019.

Rooftop Vegetables and Protection from High Winds

Links to burlap and weed barrier fabrics – US

Links to burlap and weed barrier fabrics – Canada

One topic I wasn’t prepared for during year one was the increased impact of wind on the garden. Ground-level gardens benefit from natural barriers in the form of trees, buildings, hedges and the like. On the roof, most of these aren’t present, and in our case winds from the west are uninterrupted as far as the eye can see. The implications?

  • Risk of toppling for any non-woody plants.
  • Lower ambient and soil temperatures due to the cooling effects of wind.
  • Arrival of foreign seeds from who-knows-where.

Risk of toppling non-woody plants. This issue became clear almost immediately as after transferring seedlings to the outdoor beds. Despite having staked them, the first windy day saw them lashed about their stakes to the point of death. Over time I’ve come to realize the obvious danger to young plants, but that this extends also to larger plants later in the year as well. A number of large tomatillo plants found themselves significantly damaged as a late summer wind caught the row and toppled those poorly staked, and even snapped some of the stakes themselves.

We’re still testing, however we’ve found the following to work:

  • Choose locations with wind & temperature consideration in mind when planning your garden. For example, our pepper plants are now bordered by a protective glass barrier (conveniently already present on the roof) which both limits wind exposure and allows light through to heat the soil.
  • Stake all plants, large and small. We used bamboo of various lengths and diameters, affixed with twist ties which required adjustment as the plants matured in order to avoid impairing growth. Note that we affixed both stems, and branches where necessary, and revised placement of supports through the season to provide adequate support and protection.
  • Protect the most exposed areas with additional barriers. For some beds the exposure was just too great for anything other than strawberries, or low herbs like thyme, or woody plants. Here we affixed supports to the beds themselves and used strips of burlap to break the wind. This worked well to block the wind, however I think it was too effective and may have lead to powdery mildew on some plants as they dried more slowly after rain, and there was limited circulation. This burlap on Amazon (here’s a link in you’re in Canada) comes in narrower sheets which should allow introduction of gaps which should help with circulation.

Lower ambient, and soil temperatures. This one’s pretty straightforward, but cool wind will cool plants, so constant wind will bring down the temperature around the plants, and of the soil itself. My guess is that this will be more of an issue for plants like peppers, but I could be wrong. This year I’ll be trying black plastic sheeting (link for those in Canada) on the soil prior to seeding, and then retaining it around the plants to raise temperature for those plants that need it.

Arrival of foreign seeds. This one I hadn’t considered, but it quickly became evident. Each spring we see the evidence as weeds of all types start to sprout in our planters, and each year we see new varieties showing up. Some of these may arrive with birds (a particularly irritating example being climbing nightshade which has taken root in the far corner of a non-cultivated, and hard-to-access planter… right at the precarious edge of the roof), but I’m completely convinced that many are brought on the wind and deposited randomly.

These challenges aside, I do think the plants benefit from the additional circulation afforded on the roof, especially given I tend to plant more densely than recommended given the limited square footage.

Good luck!