School Garden Summer Success Secrets

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Summer presents numerous challenges in the school garden. Whenever we meet with school communities, the same question always arises, “What are we supposed to do in the summer time?” Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to common concerns about summer in the school garden.


Common concerns about summer include:

1.) There will be no staff, students or teachers on campus to take care of the garden.
2.) Summer crops use more water than spring, fall and winter crops. Why use lots of water to grow food that students will not be around to harvest?
3.) In higher latitudes and altitudes, summer is the main growing season. If we don’t grow in the summer, we won’t have a garden!
4.) Irrigation systems can falter – batteries die, leaks occur, water can get disconnected for construction projects, etc.

Our recommendations:

1.) Set up a calendar for families to rotate taking care of the garden for a week or two at a time. If a family can visit the garden two times per week to water, weed, and check that the irrigation systems are running properly, they get to take home any food that is ready to harvest. Orient families to their responsibilities before school gets out in the late spring.
2.) Create a summer program that links to other summer camps or summer school programs, local youth clubs, etc. in order to get more children into the garden when it is in full production.
3.) If possible, set up a paid internship program for teens to help take care of the garden.
4.) Fallow, mulch over, or cover-crop areas of the garden that do not need to be in production during the summer months. Mustards, buckwheat and cow peas are good summer cover crops for cooler climates, sun hemp (a legume) works well in warmer climates.
5.) Prioritize maximizing crop diversity in the garden over food production in the summer. A broader diversity of crops will help to ensure a more resilient garden ecosystem.
6.) Don’t be afraid to let annual plants get wild and go to seed during summer. Pulling out overgrown plants, saving seeds, building compost piles, and cultivating the soil are perfect gardening tasks for students to become familiar with at the beginning of the school year (video password: Grow2016).
7.) Plant the summer crops as late as possible in order to get a late summer harvest when students are back in school.

Three Sisters Original

Though the challenge of maintaining a school garden during the summer will remain as long as summer vacation exists, there are numerous ways to rethink the garden during summer that can allow for new opportunities and less frustration and lost production. We hope you find these tips useful!

As always, if you would like to connect with us to discuss your school’s garden program, you can schedule a free school garden strategy session here. If your community could benefit from a Garden Site and Program Assessment, you can find details here.

Happy growing!

The Art of Weeding

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Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Is the “Flow Hive” as Sweet as it Appears to Bee?

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The Australian “honey tap” invention, currently funded with over $5 Million on Indiegogo, is alluring to commercial and backyard beekeepers worldwide. I have been asked to share my opinion, so here it is. Raw and unfiltered, like good wildflower honey.

Before you proceed, please see their video so you know what I’m talking about.

First of all, teaching children that honey comes out of a plastic tube is like telling them that chocolate milk comes out of brown cows (which, trust me, many children actually believe).

There are, however, three aspects of this invention that I find compelling:

1.) Lesser harm to the bees during the extraction process
2.) Smaller overall hive size (facilitating transportation for commercial beekeepers and addressing space concerns for urban beekeepers)
3.) Ease of honey harvest

Making beekeeping sound as easy as “honey on tap” raises a few red flags, though. This seems like a great way to get “bee-ignorant” people to donate $ or buy products. More than anything these guys are trying to make a buck off of the fact that bees have been in the news as of late and people don’t understand the half of it. Sadly, their product is not about the bees, the health of the environment, or you and me, no matter how sweet they make it sound. This is about MONEY! And they want more and more people like YOU to give it to them.

It is true that some bees are harmed during the conventional honey extraction process, but we are talking about a statistically insignificant loss of life (per my calculations on our farm, less than .03%/colony/year).

Country Flat Farm Honey Harvest

“Capped” Honey Comb

If we really cared about the environment, we’d be talking about how invasive Apis mellifera truly is – how this species has naturalized to every continent except Antarctica over the last 400 years, and how it has literally obliterated hundreds of native species through aggressive habitat invasion.

If we really cared about honey bees, we’d be talking about the fact that honey bees are sick because we have enslaved them and forced them to hard labor on a narrow diet of nectar and pollen from crops which they aren’t evolved to eat.  This invention takes us one step further in the direction toward mankind’s complete technological dominion over living things, which is already backfiring all around us – think antibiotic resistance, loss of biodiversity, industrial agriculture and genetic engineering.

It doesn’t matter that Dave Rastovich, the pro surfer featured in Indiegogo promotional video for the honey-keg, is an internationally-known, self-proclaimed “environmentalist” and cetacean-lover. He might surf naked with whales and dolphins, but sadly, he’s also under-informed about the realities of beekeeping. We are left to wonder if these guys paid him to stand there with a plastic tube full of honey and make their whole project look “cool” and garner a broader audience.

My concern is that a more hands-off approach to keeping bees will lead novice beekeepers to believe that they don’t need to interact with or monitor their hives as much as they really should. Monitoring them from an outside trap door/window is not sufficient, especially considering the diverse afflictions they currently face. More novice beekeepers keeping bees sloppily all over the planet will only encourage the viruses, fungi, pathogens, parasites, diseases and other biochemical disorders that the rest of us are trying to bring under control through responsible, natural, small-scale beekeeping.

Producing honey is becoming more difficult every year and I highly doubt that the thousands of novice beekeepers who buy in to this seductive pitch will produce more than a few drops with their “miracle” hives. Meanwhile, Cedar Anderson and Co. and the plastics manufacturers make a bundle.

Honey Bee Pollinating Meyer Lemon Blossom

Honey Bee Pollinating Meyer Lemon Blossoms

Another question: if you’re not in a warm place like Australia, how do you get the honey to actually “flow” without heating your entire hive up to 80+ degrees Fahrenheit? If/when your bees actually produce honey, manual extraction will still be necessary during times of year when the bees are producing honey but it’s still to cold for the honey to flow.

Full disclosure: Honey extraction has been an important cultural component of my farm education. Since I was a kid, we always had family and friends, and now beekeeping students, down to the farm to help with the process. The work itself, though cumbersome at times, gives us an opportunity to celebrate the bees in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t. Most importantly, manual honey extraction forces us to look through the entire hive to monitor the health of every frame.

What’s the problem with a little bit of honest blood, sweat and tears anyway? These guys make it sound like the process of extracting honey is onerous beyond belief. The people I work with who are learning about growing food on their own actually want to work, want to get covered in honey and clean up the mess, not just flip a switch and have it all done for them!

Honey Comb

“Uncapped” Honey Comb

The honey extraction process also allows us to extract the wax, which we use to make candles in the Winter time. Wax buildup and extraction is another concern I have about this “miracle honey box.”

Finally, I don’t like the idea of the frames being made out of plastic – it’s just more junk destined for the landfill that won’t break down for centuries and more petrochemicals in contact with the food we feed our children.

My dad and I mill the wood for our frames out of salvaged Redwood when we can and always build them by hand to ensure quality and durability. Even if one doesn’t take it to this degree of self-sufficiency, plastic can be avoided easily with traditional, pre-assembled Langstroth hives and natural wax “foundation” comb.

I guess I’m a little skeptical about a hive that makes producing honey sound so easy, but I wish them luck and appreciate their dedication to being kind to the bees.

If you want to see honey extracted the “old fashioned” way, we’re doing it on June 20 this year in Big Sur.

My two cents,

Farmer Ben

Bee and Rose Blossom

Bee and Rose Blossom

Beekeeping Questions

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Hi Farmer Ben, This is Michael, a student of yours from the Edible Schoolyard. I have recently gotten into bee keeping (I have four “top-bar” hives) and I am doing my 8th Grade “I-Search” research project on bees. Here are some questions I have for you:


M: How did you get into keeping bees?

FB: My dad has been keeping bees since the 1960’s. I was sucked in to beekeeping as a kid. I’ve been helping him manage our bees since I was a kid. I wasn’t that interested in it until I was out of college and back in CA, working at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.

M: How successful was your first hive?

FB: I didn’t keep my own hives until I lived in Berkeley in my mid twenties. I was very successful at hiving swarms and ended up giving many of my hives to my dad or selling them to others interested in starting to keep bees. I didn’t keep those bees for more than a year or two, but I would say they were very successful.

M: Why  do you use Langstroth hives?

FB: We use Langstroth hives because they are easy to move around, easy to manage and control, and most importantly, it’s easy to extract honey from them mechanically (we use a twenty-frame electric extractor).

M: What breed of bee do you have and why?

FB: We have a lot of wild bees in our colonies’ gene pool so it’s difficult to know which breed of Apis mellifera they are. When we buy queens (which we do occasionally), we normally buy Russian Carniolan because they are very tough and disease-resistant.

M: have you ever had a mess up? and what did you do to fix it?

FB: We mess up all the time, primarily because we are managing a lot of hives (30-40). Often we don’t get to our hives to add material soon enough and they swarm. Also, sometimes we don’t get to our hives to take material off soon enough in the Fall and they become weak and sick. Also, sometimes when we are “hiving” a swarm, we don’t capture the queen or she dies in transit and we lose the colony. Last summer I caught the edge of a tractor implement on a hive stand and flipped the hive upside-down. That was a serious mess up! I guess you have to live and learn.

M: With all the other bee keepers out there is it hard to sell your honey?

FB: No. We have to make sure we don’t sell it too fast and run out before extracting again to get more. Our honey is primarily Black Sage honey and is highly sought after.

M: Are your bees affected by the people in the surrounding area using pesticides?

FB: Not as far as we are aware. We are in Big Sur and are pretty isolated from other peoples homes or agricultural areas.

M: Does colony collapse disorder effect you?

FB: Maybe. We aren’t totally sure. CCD is very hard to identify. We have definitely observed dead colonies with very few bees left inside. This is one of the tell tale signs of CCD…

M: Do mites and pests affect your hive(s)?

FB: Yes, we have been struggling with Varroa mites since the early 1990’s. We lost all of our hives except for 1 in 1992 due to Varroa infestation.

M:  Do you wear a suit?

FB: Yes. You don’t have to if you open your colonies regularly and they are accustomed to you. We often don’t check on our hives for a few weeks to a few months at a time and need to make sure we are protected. I have been stung enough times already 🙂 I even put duct tape on my sleeves and pant cuffs to keep the bees out!

M:  Is there one plant type (lavender,clover,nut trees, fruit trees) the majority of your bees pollinate?

FB: Our bees feed primarily on the CA Black Sage, Salvia mellifera or “honey sage” this time of year, but they feed on many different species throughout the year. We grow citrus, berries, apples, pears and stone fruit on our farm and the bees are very helpful with pollination.

M:  Do you see think the area around you is more plant rich because of the pollination?

FB: I’m not sure. As a non-native, invasive species, honey bees compete aggressively with native pollinators. If honey bees were not around, there would be more native pollinators and those species would probably do just as good of a job at pollinating the native plants.

M: do you know any neighbors that dislike the fact that you keep bees and why (if not why do they like it)?

FB: Not really. Most people like our honey and are far enough away from our farm to not be bothered by them. They like the honey and many of them use it for building immunity to local allergens.

M: Do you use anything to help your hive (chemicals, foods, antibiotics…)?

FB: We are using an organic approved miticide right now called Formic acid – naturally found in ants, which repels the Varroa mites. We also feed our hives sugar water and botanical essences during the colder, shorter days of the year (October-March) to build they immunity to diseases.

M: If you could start over would you do something differently?

FB: I think beekeeping is problematic because it involves encouraging an invasive, exotic species, which I have been trained think of as negative.  I’d like to learn more about encouraging native pollinators in agriculture.  Maybe I’d only have a couple hives of honey bees instead of 30+.

M: Do the stings affect you as much as they did before?

FB: I have been stung hundreds of times throughout my life, but I actually had my first allergic reaction to bee stings last Summer. Since then, I have had very little reaction to stings.

M: What do you think the main factors in the decrease of bees is result of?

FB: Monocultural agriculture, transporting bees over long distances, feeding them corn and soy products that are not their natural foods. When bees have balanced, diversified diets (i.e. lots of different species’ flowers to feed upon), then they don’t get sick as easily (just like us!).

M: How has bee keeping changed you as a person?

FB: I have become a community resource, an expert of sorts, with regard to understanding how pollinators (native and non-native) affect our environment and food sources. I have read voraciously on the topic and lead seasonal beekeeping workshops with my dad on our farm. Click here for more information.

M: How much honey do you eat a week?

FB: Not too much. I like it in the winter time in tea with lemon juice to fight off colds. I also like it on toast or goat cheese with figs 🙂 I probably only consume a tablespoon a week. I have eaten a lot of honey though! Especially when I was a kid. I don’t have allergies and I don’t get sick very often. Eating honey probably has something to do with that.

Best of luck on your project, Michael. I’m happy to help!
Farmer Ben