Thursday, 8 March 2018

Bee swarm and orphan bees

We had a bee swarm visit us!

On Saturday 3 March a friendly swarm of honey bees decided to visit.  They flew in and created an impressive and frantic swarm, then they settled on one of our fruit trees.  At first there were plenty of bees flying here and there and getting caught in spider webs and things.  After a little while they calmed down and politely waited while the scout bees were looking for a more permanent home.

Being Autumn I was a little surprised to see them.  As you can see, they settled into a friendly little clump.  Over the next few hours I grew fond of them and decided to quickly pull together a hive in which to keep them, and planned on building something better later.

Unfortunately the swarm had other ideas, and they left.  

I miss my little bee swarm.

All that was left behind from the lovely bee swarm was a tennis ball sized clump of orphan bees who did not know where the swarm had gone.  I have worked with bees in the past a little, they normally follow some rigid rules and it is pretty easy to work out what they are likely to do next.  But without a queen I am not sure what the rules are, to be honest I am not sure if the orphan bees knew what the rules were either.  I felt sorry for the orphan bees.

With no queen to maintain order these orphan bees grew increasingly aggressive.  They  started to buzz me even when I was nowhere near them and cause all kinds of trouble.  It appears that orphan bees get sad and angry and confused when they don't have anywhere to call home. 

Those poor little orphan bees, it couldn't have been easy being left behind.  They stayed in the last place that they knew the queen had been.  In a few days they would likely starve, or they would die from exposure, I doubt any would have found their way to their new hive or been welcome to return to their old hive. 

The orphan bees stayed for the night, then the next day, and that night, and they got more and more agitated as time went on.  So I had to get rid of the orphan bees before someone got hurt.  I feel really sad, but it wasn't going to end well if I left them there

Bee swarm with a few bees still in the air

My nice little swarm of bees

Bee swarm, nice and calm by now

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

White fruited mulberries

Mulberries are delicious, they are one of the greatest tasting and easiest to grow temperate fruit trees.  The mulberry trees are fast growing, high yielding, and reasonably hardy.  As well as being great to eat, they are very simple to grow and the tree is nice enough to look at and is great for shade.

Mulberry trees have a few problems though, the fruit does not transport or store well, the fruit also will not ripen once picked, for these reasons you never see them for sale in the shops.  Unfortunately for some reason you also don't see things like mulberry pies in shops.

Another problem is the mess and stains from the fruit.  White mulberry (Morus alba) often have dark fruit that stain everything.  You get stains from dropped fruit and on fingers while eating them, smushing unripe fruit takes away the stain from fingers.  More annoyingly birds eat the mulberry fruit and deposit stains on washing etc.  Luckily there are a few strains of white mulberries that are white fruited which do not stain.

A few years ago I bought a mulberry tree from Rodney's nursery in Pialligo.  It was a white mulberry (Morus alba) and I paid extra for a white fruited one.  It had a tag that was the same as the pictures below (which are not my pictures, they were found on gumtree).
White fruited white mulberry - picture from gumtree
White fruited white mulberry - picture from gumtree
Notice that the tag clearly states that it is a "white fruited form".  It is quite clear that the fruit will be white when ripe.  This is why I paid extra, I didn't want a normal white mulberry with dark fruit.

Unfortunately the tags must have been mixed up, and my tree produced dark, highly staining fruit.  I complained to Rodney's nursery and they were not interested as I had lost the receipt.  I still had the tag, and the pot with the sticker on the side that said "Rodney's" and "mulberry" but without the receipt they were not willing to accept any responsibility or even discuss it with me.  Poor form Rodney's nursery, very poor form.

The fruit tasted amazing, like most mulberries do, but was no good for growing in town.  Then we were about to move house to live on acreage so I took a small 10cm cutting.  I took my cutting and left the tree behind and hoped that the new owners would enjoy it.

The cutting grew roots easily, as white mulberries do, and we moved mid summer in early January.  We had rain that first year and a comparatively mild summer.  I planted the rooted cutting in the vegetable garden and by the following January that cutting had grown to about 6 foot tall and started fruiting.  As I didn't want a tree in the vegetable bed I dug it up in winter and planted it in a spare spot in one of my orchards.

The following summer was hot and dry.  My little mulberry tree died.  I didn't buy another one as it was just too arid for mulberry to thrive there.  The previous owners planted a black mulberry behind the shed and even though it was well established before we moved in it struggled to survive each year even with additional watering.

Now we have moved to a cooler and less arid climate I wanted to get another mulberry tree.  We are in town so I probably shouldn't grow a dark fruited one here.  This time, instead of getting another white fruited white mulberry I have bought a white shahtoot mulberry (Morus macroura) from Daleys Fruit Tree nursery.  Daleys seem to have a reasonable reputation and as the tree is grafted there is a high chance of getting what I paid for.
White Shahtoot Mulberry
White shahtoot are either a different species of mulberry to the white mulberry, or are an inter-specific hybrid of several mulberry species.  They are grow very long mulberries, about 10cm long.

The first year I grew this in a large pot of soil.  Apparently shahtoot are less cold hardy than white mulberry, so having it in a pot while it is small means that I was able to protect it from the frost.  We had a few nights below -8C this winter, and it snowed a few times, which would likely have been too much for the little tree without a little protection.  By protection I mean that I grew it near a hedge where ti would get a little less frost, I certainly didn't coddle the tree.

Mulberry graft site
Towards the end of winter I planted it in the ground.  When taking it out of the pot I noticed that the soil was absolutely riddled with grubs happily eating the roots.  Not great.

Not long after planting it the tree started to bud.  Unfortunately many of the branches died off from the grubs, but the tree is pretty fast growing and seems to have since come good so I am hoping that the grubs have disappeared somewhat.

White Shahtoot buds

White shahtoot - each bud had 3 or more fruits

Look how long these are, even before they have flowered they are longer than regular mulberries
My white fruited shahtoot mulberries went on to grow a lot of fruit for such a small tree.  Every place that leaves were growing also had several long mulberries developing.  The minimum was three but some grew half a dozen mulberries.  Each mulberry was roughly 10 cm long, some longer and some shorter.

I was expecting white shahtoot mulberries to ripen white but they ripened more of a green colour, similar to white grapes.  The difference between unripe and ripe was obvious so it was simple to pick them.  Like any other variety of mulberry, the ripe fruit drops off in your hand when you touch them, so picking these took no effort.  Perhaps it is because my tree is small, or perhaps it is the colour, but birds did not touch any of these.  Kids and bugs on the other hand...

The taste of white shahtoot mulberries is pretty sweet.  They can be eaten slightly unripe and are still sweet.  Depending on how ripe they almost taste like apricot or honey, it is difficult to describe, but they were well liked by everyone who ate them.  When over ripe they weren't fantastic, but still not horrible, the kids still enjoyed these.

I can hardly wait until next spring when I get to eat more!

White shahtoot starting to ripen
White shahtoot - very productive
I am told that shahtoot mulberry will not grow from cuttings and do not set viable seed.  My tree is still not large enough for me to experiment with so I have not tried air layering or anything yet.  I am told that the only way to propagate more is to graft them onto white mulberry rootstock.  Luckily white mulberries grow easily from cuttings, so getting rootstock is easy, and grafting is pretty simple.

I have since obtained a cutting of another supposedly white fruited white mulberry.  I got it as a tiny cutting, since planting it into a pot it is growing rather well.  I had planned to use it as rootstock and graft shahtoot onto it and have a second beautiful shahtoot tree.  I may let it grow a bit larger before I try that, plus I am curious to see if it is actually white fruited.  If it is white fruited, growing two different varieties of mulberry sounds nice and may extend the harvest season.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Days to maturity Chester Thornless Blackberry

One of the berries I grew this year was a thornless blackberry known as 'Chester'.  Chester is meant to be one of the tastier and more cold hardy of the thornless blackberries.

Unlike some of the varieties of thornless blackberry such as Waldo, Chester is said to be relatively productive and tasty.  Also unlike many varieties of blackberry it is legal to grow, sell, propagate, distribute etc Chester blackberries in NSW.

Unfortunately the heat hit at the wrong time and we lost most of the berries, hopefully next year when the plant is larger we get a larger crop. They do taste good, but I far prefer my thornless youngberries.

Days to maturity Thornless Chester Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus species aggregate)

Seeds planted       N/A grown from divisions
Germinated           N/A
Flowered              26/11/2017       Day 0
Fruit Ripe              06/01/2018       Day 41

I have added this to a larger list of vegetable days to harvest from seed.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Days to Maturity raspberries from seed

Not many people grow raspberries from seed.  To be honest, unless you have some reason to grow them from seed it is probably best not to.  Most people grow from existing plants, which is far easier, much faster, and far more reliable.

Raspberries are not the easiest seed to germinate, or the easiest seedling to care for.  Most, if not all, are highly heterozygous, meaning that each seed will be genetically unique.  They take a long time to germinate, they are tiny and take  a long time to grow, meaning you have to water them and protect them from slugs, snails and insects over this time.  Then the resultant fruit may be delicious or bland or sweet or sour or anywhere in between.

If you are going to grow raspberries from seed you should NEVER  EVER buy it from ebay as there are too many thieves on ebay selling fake seeds.  Very few seed sellers carry raspberry seed, and many who do make all kinds of dishonest claims about them.  This means if you plan to grow it you will need to get fresh raspberries and save the seed yourself.

Knowing all of this, if you still choose to grow raspberries from seed (perhaps you have some interesting breeding project in mind) I thought I would record raspberry days to maturity from seed.  I wish I started keeping a record of days to maturity a long time ago.

Days to maturity Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) from seed

Seeds planted       16/09/2017             Day 0
Germinated           21/12/2017             Day 96
Flowered              Not Yet Flowered - still tiny
Fruit Ripe              Not Yet Fruited

Raspberry seedling with first true leaf
Raspberry seedlings next to chilli seedlings - raspberry seedlings are tiny

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Igloo tomato

I wrote a post about finding seeds from the first tomatoes that I ever bred.  I have grown them twice since then, the first time I was amazed at how fit for purpose and great they were.  The second time I grew them I decided to record some stats. 

The first tomato variety I bred I have named ‘Igloo’ after my first son.  It is a sturdy and productive plant that only grew to be under two feet tall.  The Igloo tomato fruit is red and round, this is because at the time I was developing it I only had access to red round tomatoes as breeding stock.  I wanted relatively small fruit as large fruit takes longer to ripen and faces more danger of something damaging the fruit before it is picked.  Most of the fruits were about 45 grams in weight, they are relatively uniform but some were smaller and some were larger as I didn’t breed for uniformity.
Igloo tomato - the first tomato variety I bred
When I was developing this variety I lived in a climate with a very short summer, so I wanted fast ripening small tomatoes.  This is one of the earliest ripening tomatoes I have grown and was the first to ripen of my productive tomatoes (ie Micro Tom ripened first but doesn’t count).  This year it took 147 days from planting the seed to picking the first ripe fruit.  When you look at my vegetable days to harvest page you will notice that this is very early.  I also wanted something that would set fruit in the cold, which this variety does well.

I didn’t have a great deal of access to water and had to carry manure to fertilise the soil, so I wanted short plants that did not waste resources on growing tall and did not need huge amounts of water.  These Igloo tomatoes only grow to about two feet tall, usually a bit less depending on growing conditions.  They don’t appear to be too water hungry but I haven’t tried growing them without watering.  All tomatoes need water, don’t let anyone make you think that they don’t.
Igloo tomato - absolutely covered in flowers
The taste of Igloo tomato is very good, probably a bit more sweet than it is sour, but a good mix of both.  If eaten too early they taste ok, if left to ripen properly the taste is far superior.  As with any tomato they are best not refrigerated as it impacts on the taste.  Also like any other variety of tomato they taste best when ripened on the plant and grown in much sun and warmth.
Igloo tomato, loaded with unripe fruit

Igloo tomato is what would be considered to be a determinate variety, or possibly semi-determinate, it sets flowers/fruit at the end of the growing point.  Unlike most determinate tomato varieties, once it has set fruit it tends to put out a few more shoots lower down and starts again.  This means it crops over an extended period.  Each flower truss tends to have 16 flowers, some have more but 16 seems very common.  Even though you would probably consider them to be determinate they do ripen over a very long period of time.

I was amazed at how absolutely covered in fruit this small plant was, it was very productive for such a small plant.  Rather than estimate the number I decided to count every fruit and record it after I picked it. 

Over the summer of 2017/2018 my Igloo tomato has already produced a flush of 242 tomatoes and has started to put out a few more branches and has started to flower again.  We lost some tomatoes to insects and birds (and the kids probably picked some that I didn’t know about) so I have not included them in the count. 

I didn’t weigh each fruit, but if the average weight is 45 grams this represents a harvest of 10.89 kg of tomatoes from one Igloo tomato plant so far.  This is excellent when you consider that the plant took up a small amount of space and was well under 2 feet tall.
I sell seeds of Igloo tomato, as well as some other vegetables seeds and perennial vegetable plants on my for sale page.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Wasabi herb (Diplotaxis erucoides)

It is not very often that I find a vegetable that I am not familiar with.  Different varieties or new varieties yes, but I generally have grown and eaten similar things many times before.  This time I happened across something no new to me that the binomial name didn’t even sound familiar to me.  

It was a small an uninteresting looking plant in a nursery labelled as "wasabi salad herb" (Diplotaxis erucoides), the label claimed the plant tastes like wasabi.  I had never heard of Diplotaxis before, so I was immediately intrigued.

I really like wasabi, but it sounds difficult to grow and is very expensive to buy.  I have plans to attempt to grow it in the future, I have even marked out a spot where I think it should grow, but I am not ready to get one yet.  Most ‘wasabi’ paste in shops in Australia contains no actual wasabi but instead is a mix of horseradish, mustard and green food colouring.  I grow a purple mustard that is described as being as hot as wasabi, it certainly has the heat but to me it tastes like mustard.  That is not really what I am after.  I particularly like the complex taste of wasabi, I enjoy wasabi’s heat but would almost prefer that it was slightly less hot.  

While I was at the nursery standing in front of this so called wasabi herb plant I surreptitiously picked a small part of leaf, popped it in my mouth, and chewed it.  At first it didn’t really taste like anything, then the wasabi taste came through, then the heat.  It was nowhere near as hot as real wasabi, and the burn didn’t last long, but the taste was certainly there, as was some of the nose tingling goodness.  I couldn’t help myself, I bought a plant and took it home.  I didn’t really know what it was, I didn’t know how to grow it or if it would survive, but I figured I could work that out later.

When I got home I looked on the internet, Diplotaxis erucoides is also called wasabi arugula or wild rocket.  It is not terribly uncommon, and several online places in Australia currently sell its seeds, but for some reason I had never heard of it.  I have asked around some of the growers I know, none of them have grown it either.  Diplotaxis erucoides is reasonably common, but no one has ever heard of it, what fun. 
Wasabi herb flowers and developing seed pods
Unlike actual wasabi (Wasabi japonica) which is a perennial vegetable, this little wasabi herb is meant to be a short season annual.  They grow, flower, set seed, and die in less than a year.  They can set a decent number of seeds and the seeds are not too tricky to save or germinate.  I decided not to plant my wasabi herb into the vegetable garden in fear of making it bolt to flower and die, instead I grew it in its little pot and harvested its leaves.  I have harvested leaves and have eaten them on sandwiches which cheese, which taste amazing.

It was super easy to grow, I just watered it when I water everything else and picked the leaves when I wanted to eat them.  After I had this plant for a while, and picked and eaten most of its leaves, it stopped growing new leaves.  It  starting to send up a flower stalk.  Being an annual they tend to die after flowering.  Saving seeds was simple and growing from seed was also simple.  I imagine this would self seed easily and take care of itself if I found it somewhere suitable to grow.

I now have many little wasabi herb plants growing.  They don't appear to like the heat of summer, but they are surviving, some are flowering and should produce seed when the time is right.  If you like wasabi and haven't grown this little herb before you should give it a try.  If I have enough extra seed I should sell it through my for sale page.
I ate most of the leaves and then they started to flower

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Microbats eat 1,200 mosquitoes per hour? No they don't.

Microbats in Australia don’t eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour.  This is a common myth that has been spread for far too long by people who should know better.  Like many myths, this one is well meaning but does more harm than good.

Microbats are great, their habitat is shrinking and I think that more people should build and install bat boxes and other artificial shelters for them, I even found some nice free plans here to build one and would like to encourage you to build a few. 

Far too often people are taken in by this microbats consuming huge numbers of mosquitoes nonsense, they build a bat box, then when it doesn’t reduce the number of mosquitoes at their BBQ they tell people not to bother building bat boxes.  This is where the damage is done.

Let’s look at the reality of microbats and you can decide if you still want to build a bat box.  Build them because microbats are great, not because you have misunderstood these creatures and expect them to do something that is impossible for them to do.  I think if you understand the reality of these lovely little animals that you will be just as likely to build a roosting box for them but will be far less likely to convince others not to build them.

In Australia we have less than 90 species of microbat, there is some controversy over the actual number.  Depending on your location there may be 1 or 2 that are native to your region, or there may be 30.  Australia is a big country, not surprisingly it has a lot of diversity in habitat, vegetation and wildlife.  Not surprisingly, different species of Australian microbats have different diets.

Most species of microbat in Australia don’t eat mosquitoes at all.  Several species of microbat that are native to Australia can and do eat some mosquitoes, they just don’t eat them very often and when they do they don’t eat many of them. 

Very few species of microbats in Australia actually eat mosquitoes, most species only eat larger things such as moths, beetles and spiders.  Of the few species of microbat in Australia that ever eat mosquitoes, on any given night the majority of individuals will not consume any mosquitoes at all.  Of the individual microbats who do eat mosquitoes on a given night, the vast majority of their diet will usually be made of moths or beetles, and mosquitoes will only ever be a very small percentage. 
Eastern bentwing bat - picture from Department of Environment and Heritage
We know what microbats eat from a few studies conducted to figure out what microbats in Australia are eating.  If you are curious how they tell what a bat eats, they capture some from the bush and do a DNA analysis of the bat poo.  This test can detect tiny amounts of insects even in a small sample and completely removes all guess work and conjecture.  This test has also disproven the myth that microbats eat thousands of mosquitoes each and every hour. 

Most studies that I have read indicate that very few species of microbat ever eat mosquitoes, but all species of microbat in Australia eat a lot of moths and beetles.  In one study in a QLD grain growing region it was found that 100% of the diet of microbats was grain weevils (weevils are a type of beetle).  This alone disproves the microbats making a noticeable difference to the local mosquito population myth.  If you have ever been to grain growing regions you will notice that there are a lot of mosquitoes, so microbats could eat them if they wanted.  The microbats just prefer to catch larger, slower , more nutritious meals.  It doesn't mean that you shouldn't still build a nice box for bats to sleep in, just that they don't eat significant amounts of mosquitoes.

So far I am yet to find any research where mosquitoes made up a large percentage of a microbat’s diet anywhere in Australia.  If you are a bat researcher or know of any study that indicates otherwise please let me know as I would love to read it.  This has to be a peer reviewed study, not notes someone wrote after claiming to read a study, or some unverifiable and unrepeated observation written for BATS magazine that has been misunderstood and plagiarised by milkwood.

Ever wonder where the microbats eating 1,200 mosquitoes an hour myth first came from?  The ridiculously high numbers of mosquitoes potentially being consumed was extrapolated from a student in Sweden who reported once observing a single bat successfully capture “up to 20 mosquitoes in a minute” using a stopwatch.  One minute, not an hour, not averaged over an entire night, just one minute with a stopwatch in the field and a best guess.  Have you ever watched microbats feeding?  This method is far from accurate.

It gets worse, the field observations were made in northern Sweden during the summer where the sun only dips below the horizon for 90 minutes per night.  During this time the larger, slower, more nutritious insects were not common.  That means that even if this number was accurate it would not be transferable to Australian microbats.

There is no point having a two dimensional simplistic view of the world.  In Australia we have different species of microbats than they have in Sweden, many larger and easier to catch food insects are present here, and our nights are far longer.  All of this means that even if it were true, this unrealistically high number of mosquitoes being consumed is not applicable in Australia. 

Mosquitoes are small and fast and require a lot of energy to catch.  Due to their tiny size a mosquito provides very little return on this large investment.  It is easier to catch fewer but larger food items and have some time for rest, drinking water, searching for roosting sites, courtship etc.  Catching a mosquito every three seconds for hour after hour when there are larger slower food items around just doesn’t happen, it is illogical to ever think that it would.  So please don't be taken in by it.

In Australia, mosquitoes are more of a convenient treat for some microbats rather than a staple food, microbats much prefer to eat moths or beetles.  Notice how I keep talking about microbats in Australia?  I don’t care what happens in other parts of the world, me building a bat box only effects microbats that I may encounter here in Australia.

Why bother encouraging microbats if they don’t eat many mosquitoes?  To put it bluntly, I attract many animals to my yard that don’t eat mosquitoes as they have other benefits, why wouldn't I do the same for microbats.  Many people buy insect zappers with those blue lights, they don’t attract mosquitoes yet it is a thriving industry.  Lowering the numbers of moths and beetles is fantastic and well worth encouraging microbats into your garden.  The microbats don’t just eat the insects, they also disrupt mating which reduces the number of insect eggs laid which has an even larger effect on pest populations. 

Don’t ever be so gullible that you are fooled into thinking that microbats only eat pests, they also eat many beneficial arthropods.  This is the same as spiders and birds eat pests but they also eat beneficial insects.  This is nature, there is no way around it, no use in pretending it isn’t happening.

Strangely very few studies have been done to see how much of a difference microbats make in protecting large scale crops from pests.  I have heard of a few studies that claim microbats significantly lower damage from coddling moth in walnuts, helicoverpa moth in cotton fields, and grain weevils in grain crops, but would love to read more studies.  Again I stress that microbats are great to have around, they just won't make a noticeable difference to the local mosquito population in your back yard.

I have often wondered if encouraging microbats to live near bee hives would reduce the damage from wax moth.  Would running poultry under the hives during the day and encouraging microbats at night reduce pests significantly?  Unfortunately I can find no research (or even anecdotal evidence) that has tested this.  I guess people are too caught up in thinking microbats only eat thousands of mosquitoes per hour that they can’t think of ways to utilise them to actually reduce pests.

Let me stress that I want to encourage people to build and install bat boxes.  Just remember that microbats are great to have around, but they won’t make a noticeable difference to the mosquito population in your area.