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Showing posts from March, 2010

Bees in Her Trees

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... This past weekend, I got a message, saying that my friend Kitty had a swarm of bees in her tree, and asking if I might know what to do about this situation. Anyone who knows me even a little bit will be able to guess what happened next. I called Kitty and asked a bunch of questions, I gathered up a car-full of gear, had a quick chat with a local beekeeper, and headed out the door, looking for bees. I've been wanting to see a wild swarm, ever since I heard about them. Apparently, I didn't ask quite the right questions, because I came prepared for a swarm of bees, hanging from her tree, and what I found was a hole in the tree that bees were said to be going in and out of. In the springtime, if a colony of bees is healthy enough, the bees may swarm. What this means is that the queen and some portion of her colony will leave all of their stored honey and developing offspring, and set out to find a new home. The bees that are left behind in the hive will raise a new

Turn Out for Earth Hour

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... I strongly believe that the small actions we take in our lives can have a huge effect on the larger world. Robb and I try to "live lightly on the earth." We have been making an effort to reduce our water consumption, by using a wash-basin for dishes, and then using the wash-water on our garden. We've made a conscious choice not to own a clothes dryer, which is considered a totally freaky choice in America, but is No Big Deal in much of the world. We compost and recycle. We turn off the lights, when we leave a room. And I really believe that these little things can add up. Tonight, we'll be participating in Earth Hour, from 8:30 until 9:30. We'll turn off the lights, shut down the computer, and not watch television. Maybe we'll bundle up, and sit in the garden. We'll take some time to slow down, and think about what it means to use less power. We've done this for several years, now . It's a small, simple gesture, and one that I

Easter Eggs?

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... I know that this is terribly last-minute, but who wants to get together and decorate Ukrainian-style Easter Eggs next weekend? How does Saturday, April 3rd, sound? We'll do this at 1pm at the Berkeley Rep Scenic Studios at 2526 Wood Street, in West Oakland. Bring your own eggs. Here's a tutorial I wrote on how to decorating your eggs. And here's something about "blowing out" eggs . And here are some silly photos from last year . This is a fun event. It's a bit messy, and we usually set something on fire. We have a few beers, and the kids race around. I hope you can join us!

Dudes, We're Growing A Beer Tree!

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... Since we bought our little bungalow and started working on the garden, Robb has had one gardening goal. He wanted to grow hops, and use them to brew beer. So, a few weeks ago, we got three plastic baggies in the mail, each containing a sprouty stick. This exemplifies the magic of gardening, as far as I'm concerned. Buy a stick in the mail. Plant stick. Care for stick. Brew beer. It's like Jack and the Beanstalk, minus all the family drama. Hops are fascinating plants. They're vigorous vines, that are grown on tall poles. In our case we're using locally gown bamboo that we scrounged from our neighbors . I spent eight summers working in Central New York which, prior to a big hop blight, was a major center of beer production. Hops are still grown at the excellent Farmers' Museum , and I used to enjoy watching the progress of the plants over the course of the summer. (Beer is still important in that part of the country. The opera house where I

Lethal Bee Hives

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... I read, today, about some really chilling findings about the health of honeybees in America. You may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) a mysterious (and deadly) malady which is affecting honeybees since 2006. According to a paper published by the Public Library of Science , honeybees are under a lot of stress, because the honeycombs (in which they store their food, and raise their young) is seriously contaminated by agro-chemicals (pesticides used in crop fields and on orchards). Beekeepers had long suspected this to be one of the factors causing CCD. The findings are -- to my mind -- pretty shocking. When researchers sampled hives in 23 American states, almost 98% of the honey comb samples were contaminated with pesticides. Likewise, the pollen in sample hives were heavily contaminated with pesticides. And we're not talking about just one kind of chemical. These hives were a toxic brew. On average, the hives sampled showed contamination by six differ

Broadway!

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... One March 24th, American Idiot begins previews on at the St. James Theater Broadway . I was in charge of the scenic studio that created all of the surface treatments for this show when it premiered in Berkeley this past fall. Working on this show was a delight, from a scenic artist's point of view. Christine Jones , the designer is about as wonderful an artist as anyone would want to work with. And, hey, the New York Times thought so, too. In their review, they called the scenery for the show " both spectacular and scummy. " High praise indeed! (If you never saw the photos of this as a work-in-progress, or if you want to see them again, click here. Really. Do click. They're cool photos.) The show itself totally rocks. The cast sings the hell out of Green Day's music. ( You may have seen them, singing with Green Day on the Grammy Awards, a while back. ) What's particularly exciting for me, is that the Broadway producers picked up the enti

Cat-Boxing

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... What is it about cats and boxes? Why does Felis catus have such a compulsion to cram itself into the tiniest of boxes or baskets? Robb set a basket down on the table in the back yard, and the neighborhood cats immediately claimed it as their own. Cardigan called "dibs," but Sleeves cuddled up next to him. Then commenced the synchronized napping, grooming, and yawning display. I burst out laughing, every time I look at this photograph. So much for Feline Dignity. You would hardly think that this cat (who is gently grooming Robb's hand) used to be terrified of us. Sadly, his brother still thinks we're Unrepentant Cat Murderers. He's willing to take the food we offer, but he still runs away in terror, when we get too close. I spent all Sunday at work, painting scenery. But there was a beer and a Kitty Cuddle ready for me when I got home. I think we both have interesting markings on our legs.

Dispelling the Myth of the Slacky Artist

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... All of the scenic artists and muralists that I work with are highly motivated people. They have to be. They are expected to create high-quality work, under tight deadlines. They have to share their workspaces with other teams. And they have to "get it right" every single time. There's no waiting for the muse to strike. Tickets are sold. The show must go on. And there's no being fussy about the projects. Sure, sometimes you're covering forty foot walls with punk rock posters, or painting sixty foot wide copies of paintings by the Old Masters. But other times, you're coming to work on the weekends, and painting cinderblock walls. There are no Slackers among the my colleagues. We work hard, and have a lot of fun. There are no Starving Artists, either, because I bribed everyone on my crew with home made scones and home grown lemons.

Soil Amendments: the Robb and Lisa Way

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... Given access to the smallest scrap of earth, I'll start a garden. And once gardening commences, composting is not far behind. In Baltimore our constantly-fighting, tree-hating, next-door-neighbors detested our compost bin, because they were convinced it was the source of every rat in the entire city. Personally, I think they should have directed some of their negative energy to our upstairs neighbor who regularly threw his kitchen scraps out his third-storey window. He was a toothless, ex-cop, cross-dressing gazork, and perhaps the next-door-neighbors found him a tad unapproachable. Who knows, in a city like Baltimore ? At the farmhouse outside of Cooperstown, I started the compost pile that earned the affectionate nickname "the raccoon's snack bar." Once I got access to the tiny plot in West Oakland, I was carrying compost buckets into work each morning. Yeah, I'm pretty much of a compost wacko. From the moment we took possession of our little

A Backyard Mystery Solved!

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... Over the past few weeks, Robb and I had been hearing a strange, loud, and intermittent "chirp" sound, out in the back yard. We found this sound very hard to pin-point, and I think that was driving Robb crazy. It seemed to move around the neighborhood, and it seemed to come from somewhere just above our heads. And then the other day, I noticed a little female Anna's Hummingbird sitting on a tiny branch. I'd hear the chirp, which would be immediately followed by the "annoyed" sound of hummingbird chatter. CHIRP ... chatter ... CHIRP ... chatter ... CHIRP ... chatter. Over and over again. I mentioned this to Robb, who did a little digging around on the internet, and found out that what we had been hearing were the mating flights of the male Anna's Hummingbird. When the males are courting the females, they fly up to a hundred feet in the air. (Let's just say that again: a creature who weighs less than a nickel, flies a HUNDRED feet in

Venom

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... Because we're about to start keeping bees in our backyard, we're trying to take care of projects right next to where the hive is going to be. We don't relish the thought of hammering, painting or shoveling right next to a couple of thousand bees. This morning, we decided to replace the wooden awning that covers a window on neighbor's garage, and juts into our back yard. A few weeks ago, Lisa had asked Mandy next door if we could fix this falling-apart awning, and she admitted to having never known that this structure was even on her building. This awning is only a few feet from where we hope to house our bees. And it's falling apart. Better to fix it now, when the coast is clear. Taking down the awning was no big deal. Three taps with a ball-peen hammer and it was lying on the ground in pieces. As I was collecting the remains, I noticed one of our very common "cellar spiders" crawling on a plank. People call them that here, as well as

A Sunset Bee

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... I was planting my baby kale in the garden today, when I noticed a tiny bee, trying to burrow into the soil in my seed-starting tray. I had read about how certain species of bees lay their eggs underground, so I had a pretty good idea what she was up to. Clearly, a seed tray was not an appropriate place for her to be trying to raise her family. As gently as I could, I lifted her out into the freshly-loosened soil of my garden. This was not an easy task. The little bee was determined to burrow into the dirt, and I was terrified of crushing her. As soon as I had her safe on the ground, I ran inside to grab my camera. The light was failing, and this little girl was moving fast, so these photos are really terrible. But hey, they're the only photos I've ever taken of this type of bee! Look at her wonderfully hairy legs! I'm charmed by her golden fur. A quick internet search turns up an alarming number of companies that will kill burrowing bees. Once I filtere

Educating the New-Bees

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... Robb and I are members of the Alameda Beekeepers' Association, even though we don't actually have our own bees yet. Today, the club offered a class for beginning beekeepers. Sara Willis kindly hosted at her house in the Oakland hills. She's got a beautiful wooded property, which is home to about a dozen hives. (She's also got the 1920s stove of my dreams moldering outside her garage, but nevermind that.) Sara and Bob Ballard (who gave me my first glimpse inside a beehive , back in October) graciously spent several hours going over the basics of beekeeping. It was a beautiful warm day, just great for opening up a hive. Even so, Sara made sure to cover her hive (with a highly technical tea towel) to hold in heat. Bees thermo-regulate, keeping their hives about 95ยบ, and while it was warm today, it certainly wasn't that hot! Right now, bee colonies are starting to raise the next generation of bees, and we certainly didn't want to chill the brood

Unfurling

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... Thanks to all the lovely older trees and fencing at our house, a lot of our little garden is in deep, deep shade. I'm embracing this, and planting native ferns, and other shade-lovers. These plants are supposed to provide good habitat for wildlife . At the moment, they're providing a hang-out spot for the local feral cats, so I doubt we'll see a lot of birds moving in to our would-be fern grottoes. I really enjoy the forms of the uncurling fiddleheads. I know that certain Eastern ferns' fiddleheads are edible . I ate fiddleheads from the local grocery stores, when I worked in Central New York. They were a fleeting springtime treat, coming at about the same time as garlic scapes . I planted a few ferns last fall, and when they weren't devoured by slugs (like the Western Columbine -- alas), I planted some more last weekend. I'm trying to replace the invasive oxalis plants with more suitable -- and tough -- natives. For most of this past ye

Why Native Plants?

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... Thanks to the bloggers at Homemade Wilderness , I was alerted to this article , about how dozens of Cedar Waxwings in Florida died after eating poisonous, non-native Rosary Pea berries. So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, native birds have evolved to eat (ahem) native plants. There's a mutually beneficial relationship between plants and animals. Plants provide yummy, nutritious food to animals, who (ahem) spread their seeds, thus producing more plants, and more sources of food. When gardeners plant non-native plants, the balance of nature is disrupted. The birds and other critters can't find their normal food sources, and eat what they can find. Some of this food suits the birds, and some, like the Rosary Pea berries, are deadly. And the same goes for insects. The bee keeper's lecture I went to, two months ago, speculated about how genetically modified crops aren't producing enough pollen and nectar to feed bees. Many of our

Whose garden is this?

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... When Robb and I first looked at our little house, the back garden was almost impassable. The mulberry tree clogged up the center of the yard. Most of the edges of the property (which is tiny to begin with) were tangled up with weeds and huge Tarzan-like vines. There were dead branches and abandoned boards all over the place. We spent the first few months, after we bought the house, trying to dig out of this mess. I could see that, once upon a time, this garden was very special. The owner of the house, Miss Seklemian, was in her 90s, and I imagine that she didn't have the energy to keep up with things. (We never met the home's previous owner. The sale was handled by lawyers from Alameda County, acting on her behalf, who we also never met.) So, now we're the owners of a somewhat unfocused garden. We've got some lovely older fruit trees, and a truly beautiful camellia. And we've got more onion flowers than you could possibly imagine. We'v