Decorating the White House for Christmas-Part 1

East Landing with Bo

Now that the White House has been decorated for Christmas for 2012, I thought that I would repost my experiences decorating there in 2011. I looked at the pictures for this year and one caught my eye, the ‘Rainbow Tree’! I thought that this interpretation of a Christmas tree was outstanding.

tumblr_mehn0xjBPU1ry3a70o1_500Here is my experience from 2011:

Everyone loves to decorate for Christmas and after finishing decorating my house, I itch to do more! So I have always had a desire to decorate the White House but thought it was an impossible dream. But after watching the HGTV special last year and seeing the army of volunteers that are busily hanging garlands and balls, I was determined to try.

I wrote a letter to Michelle Obama right after Christmas and forgot about it. But in August I was thrilled to get an official letter from the White House Social Office informing me that I could fill out the volunteer application on line which I did right away. The application was pretty standard and asked things such as to list and explain in some detail your volunteer experience, and to send pictures of your work. I have decorated Hampton Mansion for Christmas with my Garden Club for many years and hoped that that experience would help.

In October I was thrilled to learn by email that I was accepted conditionally pending a security check. The Social Office also requested that volunteers not post to Facebook or blog about their experiences before the event but afterwards was fine.  The reason was to keep the theme secret before “the big reveal” on November 30th. The theme was to be kept secret until our opening reception on the 30th but we suspected that it was a military theme.

Everything Red!

Once I learned that I was accepted, I started to get emails from AgencyEA, an event planning company based in Chicago. AgencyEA is known for planning Ophra Winfrey’s events so I knew that they must be good.  AgencyEA reserved blocks of rooms in two hotels that were within walking distance of the White House with a really good rate as it can be quite expensive to stay in D.C. I made arrangements to stay at the Donovan House for 6 nights and planned on checking in on Thanksgiving night.

After eating dinner at my brother’s house, my husband and I drove into D.C. and checked in to the hotel and met some of my fellow decorators and people from AgencyEA. I got a red badge, red work apron,  and room assignment- the red room! The Agency told everyone that we would be working for 2 days at an off site warehouse and then 3 days at the White House.  I learned that I would be working with a team of 130 volunteers and AgencyEA employees from over 40 states.  There were mother/daughter , husband/wife, and sister teams, and the youngest volunteer was 12 and the oldest was 80!

After being told to report the next morning at 6:30 AM in the downstairs lobby to board the buses I turned in.


The next morning, the drive to the warehouse lasted about 40 minutes and we arrived at a huge brick warehouse that the National Park Service rents and stores all the Christmas paraphenalia from previous years and other props used by the Park Service.  It was fascinating to walk up and down the aisles and see what was there.  There were pallets of stuff, such as lumber, corn oil ???, sleds, silver bowls, large urns, plus tons of Christmas stuff.  It was a veritable treasure trove of Christmas decorations- the mother load!!!

But we were put right to work and there was a huge amount of work to do!!! I started out inventorying boxes of ornaments, taking the wrappers off of ornaments and removing the hang tags from balls and replacing them with wires.  People are known to steal the ornaments from the trees at the White House so the balls must all be wired to the trees. We worked with the decorations that belonged to a specific room and made sure that everything was accounted for and placed in the loading area when we were done.  It could take hours and hours to do a room depending on the size. I worked with a team of about 6 or 7 people. Each room had a “key” basket that contained an example of every kind of ball, ribbon, or branch used to decorate that particular room.  A designer from AgencyEA had selected the colors and ornaments and ribbon months before.

Wreaths and Things

Cedar Stars in White House East Landing

Someone from the Agency  asked if anyone knew how to make wreaths and I volunteered because I preferred to make something rather than count and wire ornaments. I was assigned then as the team leader for a group of 7 people to assemble 8 cedar stars about 3 feet in diameter that would be hung in the East room landing by the Gold Star tree. Since the cedar stars would be hung in the window, they needed to be double sided. After dragging 50 feet of extemely heavy garland over to our work station, we set to work dismantling the cedar garland and wiring the bunches onto the star wreath bases. The wreaths took all day and into the next as they were very labor intensive.

Other teams were involved in a variety of tasks- making endless pine cone garlands, sewing felt poinsettia petals and leaves, unloading and sorting tons of fresh greens, making knotted wreaths out of military medal ribbons, constructing felt trees, and wiring hundreds of thousands of ornaments.  Someone was even sewing on an ancient Singer sewing machine. The tasks were endless.

Lunch was a festive affair with wraps, hot soup, snacks, desserts, and drinks.  It felt good to be sitting down for a while!

Military Medal Ribbon Wreaths
Pine Cone Garlands

At the end of the day, we piled into the buses and went back to the hotel and collapsed. But we returned the next day and did it all over again, but at a more feverish pace because we had to get it done by the end of the day. By the end of that second day we all realized that the theme for the Holiday would be a military one as so many of the decorations were all about the armed forces.

Cut Out Poinsettias in East Landing
Framed Purple Hearts on Blue Room Tree

White House!!!!

Here was the whole reason we all volunteered! To actually go to the White House and decorate.  I met some of my new friends in the dark outside our hotel at 6:15 AM for our trek. We walked 10 minutes to the White House and ended at the North East entrance for security check points.  The Agency stressed to us beforehand that we needed our badges, name tags and a photo ID to get in.

Security Checkpoint at the White House

There were two security checkpoints to go through where they look at your driver’s license and check your name off of a list. You and your belongings have to go through a metal detector. It was pretty much like airport security except you could keep your shoes on. The security lines took about a half an hour and then we were in! We entered through the East Landing and were treated to coffee and donuts and figured out where the bathroom was. The entrance hallway is quite interesting with lots of candid photos from past and present administrations lining the walls.

East Landing of the White House

We were given a tour of the White House and met the Chief Usher, the Special Assistant to the President, the Curator, and the Executive Housekeeper. We were made to feel welcome and appreciated. The Curator stressed to us that the White House is a living museum and asked that we not touch or handle the furnishings.  All of us were just in awe to be inside and wouldn’t think of touching anything!

Our first task was to unload all the boxes that were delivered by truck to the White House and make sure that each labeled box was carried to the correct destination. Then we got to the best part –decorating!

Red Room

The Red Room is one of three state parlors on the first floor of the White House and is decorated in different shades of red.  The walls are actually hung with burgundy silk. Usually the Christmas decorations are all bright screaming red but I was relieved to see that the decorator had taken a different tack and we were going to use copper, gold, dark red, wine, cinnamon, and touches of cream.  I approved of the color palette!

My job the first day was to decorate the Red Room with 5 other people.  We looked through our “key basket” to see what materials we had to work with and started brain storming about the best way to get everything done.  We had two 5 foot trees mounted in large red wooden planters, and a gorgeous Italian marble mantel with caryatid supports to decorate.  For materials, we had beautiful glittery pine cone balls, yards and yards of 8″ wide coppery gold wired ribbon, gold leaf branches, fresh lemon leaves, 2 long balsam fir garlands, and assorted glass ornaments with some snowflakes.  The ornaments ranged from a dozen large copper balls, smaller gold and white ones, to glittery tear drops. We were told to start decorating and we jumped right into it and made some very large bows for the mantels and adorned the garland on the mantel with an assortment of the ornaments.

Then we started to decorate the trees with doubled ribbon garlands swagged around the trees.  We put the larger ornaments in the center of the tree and filled in every available spot with the smaller ornaments.

When lunch rolled around we strolled over to the formal dining room where a fantastic hot buffet awaited us. Salads, thick sliced ham, soups, breads, drinks and dessert were all available.  The White House staff ate first and then we got in line. The kitchen staff was phenomenal! They must have known that with all the physical work that we did we would be hungry.

Red Room Tree

A crew from HGTV with Genevieve was circulating around the rooms filming and interviewing people for the Holiday special that will be aired Dec 11. They talked to me for a few minutes while I was decorating the trees and had me sign a release form.

After working all day, we left at 4PM to go back to the hotel and collapse.

To see Part 2 of this blog, search my blog for White House Christmas!


Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter

Finished body butter ready to use


In the dry air of winter, I go through a lot of “body butter”!  I have been buying it from Burt’s Bees at $13 for a small tub and it was adding up. I like to apply it all over my body after I shower and butter goes on smoothly and sinks right into your skin and really hydrates. For an updated version of my body butter with lavender, go to my post Lavender Scented Honey Body Butter.

After going through some recipes on line and experimenting with several, I came up with one that works great and costs about half of what I was paying. Plus, I got to use some of my beeswax from my hives! The whole process is so easy, I don’t know why I was spending all that money before.

First of all, gather your ingredients.

Ingredients for body butter: Shea Butter, Sweet Almond OIl, Beeswax chunks, Coconut Oil, and Vitamin E

I shopped for my oils at MOM’s Organic market.  You could try WholeFoods or a good pharmacy, or online. I used 1 Cup of Shea Butter, 1/2 cup of Coconut Oil, 1/2 cup of Sweet Almond Oil, and 50 drops of Vitamin E. If you can’t find Almond Oil, you could substitute olive, jojoba, or any other liquid oil. I also use about 4 Tablespoons of Beeswax.  The Beeswax is hard to measure, so I just broke off a hunk from my stash and chopped it up into smaller pieces.  The beeswax keeps the butter from becoming too soft and scents the body butter with honey. Here is the recipe:

Honey Scented Body Butter

1 C Shea Butter

1/2 C Coconut Oil

1/2 C Sweet Almond Oil

4 T Beeswax, broken up into small pieces

50 drops of Vitamin E Oil

Melt the Shea Butter, Coconut Oil, and Beeswax in the top of a double boiler until all lumps are melted.

Melting the Coconut Oil, Beeswax, and Shea Butter in the top of a double boiler

The Beeswax has the highest melting temperature, so will be the last to melt. Beeswax has honey deposited in it so you get the fragrance of the honey from your added beeswax.

Beeswax chunks are the last to melt

Remove from heat, letting cool slightly, and add the Sweet Almond Oil and the Vitamin E drops.

Remove from the heat and add the Sweet Almond Oil and the vitamin E drops and stir

Stir until mixed and place into the refrigerator for about an hour.

Place the mixture into the refrigerator to solidify

While in the refrigerator, the mixture will turn opaque and become very thick.

The mixture after chilling looks like icing

Bring the mixture out and whip it with a mixer or immersion blender or mixer.

Whipping the body butter with an immersion blender

Place in containers. I used an old Burt’s bees container and just some other containers that I had sitting around.

Scooping out the butter into containers- It is the perfect consistency!

Don’t worry if you forget the mixture in the refrigerator and it gets too hard.  Just gently warm it until it softens enough to whip.

With this recipe, I made about 3 1/2 cups of body butter that cost about $25 for materials.  I was spending $13 for a 6.75 ounce container from Burt’s Bees. After some calculation, I figured that if I bought 3 1/2 cups of body butter from Burt’s Bees, it would have cost me twice as much. Plus, I knew exactly what went into it.

Enough body butter to slather on for months!

I am thinking about making another batch for Christmas gifts!

The Dreaded ‘Hive Beetle’ Attacks

Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifer...
Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) with eggs and larvae. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I opened my hive the other day to check on things -removing my last super, and to button everything up for the winter. When I took off the inner cover, I noticed some small black beetles scurrying around on the top bars of the hive and my heart sank.  I knew right away that these were the dreaded ‘hive beetles’ that I had heard about but never had to deal with. Honeybees get a lot of pests, and I thought that I had dodged the bullet on this, because I have never seen them in more than 10 years of beekeeping. But even though I had never seen one, I knew exactly what it was when I saw them dart around the top bars of the combs. How could something so tiny be so destructive? And be in my one hive that was doing do well?

Aethina tumida Common Name: small hive beetle ...
Aethina tumida Common Name: small hive beetle Photographer: James D. Ellis, University of Florida, United States Descriptor: Adult(s) Description: 2003; Grahamstown, South Africa Image taken in: United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life Cycle

Hive beetles, Aethina tumida,  are opportunistic creatures and will seek out weak hives. They fly into the entrance of a hive and lay eggs in the comb.  The larvae hatches and feeds on pollen and honey stored within the hive. When feeding on the honey and pollen, they can leave a slimy mess of honey that can ferment and ruin the honey. Yuck!! I didn’t want those %!!*)!!!! beetles in my hive.

Small Hive Beetle life cycle

The larvae exit the hive and enter the ground to pupate for 3 to 6 weeks, emerge from soil as an adult, and can fly 5 to 12 miles in search of a hive to invade. A severe infestation can cause an entire hive to leave and find better conditions, so I was quite worried. And I saw at least a half-dozen of those darn beetles darting around, so I had to do something before they became too numerous for the honeybees to take care of. I wanted to use non-chemical means so I found a ‘trap’ from that is basically a bottom woodenware drawer that you fill with vegetable oil.  You place the drawer under the slotted rack (if you have one), at the base of the entire hive and the beetles fall and drown in the oil. Yea!!!!

First I tore apart the hive down to the bottom board.  Here was my opportunity to scrape all the debris off and clean it.

Tearing the hive down to the bottom board

Then I removed my screened bottom and put the new ‘drawer’ with oil in its place.

New wooden ware drawer with oil stacked on top of the bottom board

Then I placed the slotted screen on top to maintain good circulation throughout the hive.

Placing the slotted board on top of the drawer of oil

Then I placed both hive bodies on top and the inner and outer cover to put it all together again.

The newly inserted drawer acts as the new entrance to the hive

The idea is that the beetles in their travels through the hive will fall, especially when the honeybees chase them.  Normally, they would fall to the bottom and come back up to the combs and start wreaking more havoc.  But with the oil at the bottom, they become stuck and drown.  If water was used in place of oil, the water would freeze in cold weather, so oil is the best option. The next day, I pulled open the drawer and voila, there were at least a dozen very dead hive beetles floating in the oil. Hooray!!! It works!!

Dead beetles in the tray of oil


I always like to look at how these things start so you can put this in context. Hive beetles originated in sub-saharan Africa and were noticed in the United States in Florida in the late 1990’s and gradually have invaded 30 states, mostly in the southeast. They are a tropical insect so are more active in warmer areas. Here are some interesting facts about them:

  1. First noticed in the U.S. in 1996
  2. Larvae will not hatch when humidity is less than 49%
  3. Attracted to weaker hives and bee alarm pheromones
  4. Females lay 4000 eggs a month for 2 months!
  5. Beetles prefer hives in full sun, not shade
  6. Severe infestation can cause bees to abscond the hive

The best way to avoid infestation is to have a strong, queenright, healthy hive. If the hive is strong, then the honeybees will chase them out. But the beetles are very wily. The following scenario just blew me away:

The beetles have developed the ability to stimulate the mouth parts of worker bees with their antennae, similar to drones begging for food and able to trick bees into feeding them!

Wow, how do you deal with a pest like that?

The honeybees cannot sting them – they are unable to penetrate their hard shell.  So, they chase them and the beetles hide in cracks and crevices in the hive. Honeybees are able to contend with fairly large populations of hive beetles, but there is a tipping point where they become too numerous and can be a huge problem, and that is why I was worried. I wanted to nip the problem in the bud and would recommend this method of the oil to anyone.  It was easy and safe, rather than resorting to chemical controls.

A Cut Above – Creating Sculptures from Wood

Play area at Oregon Ridge Nature Center

It doesn’t seem possible to be able to use the words ‘chainsaw‘ and ‘art’ in the same sentence.  The chainsaw is such a workmanlike and crude tool that it is always surprising to me what beautiful carvings can be made within a couple of hours with the right kind of wood and a noisy, sawdust spitting, dangerous chainsaw. But when I visited Oregon Ridge Nature Center recently, my eyes were opened to the possibilities, as soon as I saw the new play area that was designed with all chain saw creations by Pat Hundley, a local chainsaw artist.

Creations from Logs

These chainsaw creations are perfect to decorate your garden or outdoor space and will last for years. You can get one to hold up your mailbox, embrace a sign, use as a play set for kids, or just for decoration.

Bear emerging from log by Pat Hundley

Chainsaw art has become very popular, especially in timber heavy areas of the country. In western Maryland, Deep Creek  Lake is chock full of chainsaw artists on every corner, advertising their masterpieces. There is even a new TV show called Chainsaw Gang, which features premier chainsaw artists from around the country who battle each other to deliver incredible works of art.

Fox sculpture by Pat Hundley

I talked with Pat Hundley, who has a day job as a teacher for Baltimore County Schools, about how he got started in this unusual hobby. He said that he got started after Baltimore Gas & Electric did some tree trimming at his house and left some logs behind. Pat got the idea of carving a bear out of one as a surprise for his wife. An hour later, he created a bear coming out of a log and he hasn’t stopped since.

One of Pat Hundley’s creations

Pat says it takes about an hour to do a bear and he will charge around $100 for the piece, depending on the complexity. The carving can last for years if you seal it at least twice a year with deck sealant and/or polyurethane. He paints some of the pieces also to make the details pop. Pine is the primary wood that he carves in as it is readily accessible in MD, but he uses anything that becomes available. Pat is friendly with some tree removal professionals to obtain the materials that he needs.

Painted Bald Eagle on log by Pat Hundley

The most popular design that Pat does is the bear emerging from a log and I can see how that one would fit right into my garden! Pat sells his creations at local craft shows and by word of mouth.

There are special tools of the trade to make the detailed carvings come to life. Pat uses guide bars or carving bars called ‘quarter tip’ and ‘dime tip’, that have very small ‘noses’ that allow finer cuts for details such as fur and feathers.  The important advantage of these special bars is that they do not produce ‘kickback’ when using them, and are much safer than the standard bars.

Pat in action

In order to reach the high levels of skill required to be a “chainsaw carver“, a good amount of instruction and practice is required in the safe operation of a chainsaw. This is then followed by plenty of study and practice in carving basic shapes which then ultimately leads on to more ambitious projects. It is extremely important that anyone using a chainsaw wear the proper protective clothing, like leather chaps and ear protection. A cut from a chainsaw is not just a cut, it  can actually remove a chunk of flesh and bone.

Chainsaw Women

Chainsaw art is a relative recent art form dating back to the 1950’s. Not only is it seen as a sculpture, but also as performance art or spectacle –  with the noise, flying sawdust, and very fast carving results. It is stunning how fast the carving comes to life, as opposed to old-fashioned carving using mallets and gouges that can take much longer. Also, the detail that you can achieve with chainsaws amazes me.

Turtles by Cherie Currie

I was also delighted at the number of women who make a living out of chainsaw art. There is even a group called ‘Chainsaw Chix’ which is the first group of all-female sculptors. Go Girls! Chainsaw art is not limited to the United States either. There are international artists all over and competitions all around the world.  There is even a chainsaw carving school in Toei, Japan.

World's tallest Virgin Mary carving at Schochw...
World’s tallest Virgin Mary carving at Schochwitz, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I just need to find that perfect spot in my garden to showcase one of these pieces of art!

Fabulous Fall Performers- The Best of the Best

Who would have thought that Cotoneaster has such pretty berries in October? These are in Blockley, Cotswolds in October.

Color in the Fall

Giverny in September
Fall color at Hidcote in October

Golden Rod

A succession of color and flowers is easy to produce in the spring and early summer, but once September hits, the show of blooms peeters out and it gets harder and harder for the garden to be colorful. That is why I am sure to plant some stellar standouts, that tend to sit around all summer long which you forget about, and then all the sudden, they burst on the scene with a bang! The most important trait of being a savvy gardener is planting something that looks very uninspiring in the spring and patiently waiting for it to show its full potential. Golden Rod does it in spades.

Golden rod attracts Monarchs and other butterflies

Take for example, the aptly named ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod, which when I looked at it last week was not doing anything much.  But one week later, it transforms into a graceful exploding golden display.

‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’
Wool dyed with golden rod

American gardeners usually disdain this wonderful native, but English gardeners know and love using this in their borders. Fireworks gets around 4 feet high and is easy to grow in full sun.  There are many other varieties, from the diminutive ‘Little Lemon’ at 12 inches high, to the taller 4 to 5 foot species rigida, that you normally see on roadsides. I am often surprised that more people don’t plant Golden Rod, especially with the huge emphasis on planting natives. There is a mistaken belief that it causes hay fever symptoms but that honor goes to ragweed, Ambrosia sp., a totally different plant.  Golden Rod is a great butterfly attractor and food source for wildlife, is easy to grow, and dries very nicely for flower arranging. So plan on planting this next spring for fall color.

Felted wool at a farmers market – I would love to do a garden with these colors!


Dahlias at Giverny in September

Dahlias are another flower that come into their own in September. When I visited Monet’s fantastic garden in Giverny, France, a few years ago, the gardens were ablaze with blooms, mainly Dahlias and Sunflowers, and annuals such as Nasturtium. If you keep the plants dead headed, Dahlias will constantly produce more and more until frost gets them.

Pink dahlias are my favorite

Dahlias are tubers that are planted in the early spring in pots inside to get a head start, and then brought out and planted into the garden when all danger of frost is over.

I like to place a tomato cage over the plant when you plant it out so that the heavy growing plant has something to support it.  If you don’t do that early, then you are dealing with a floppy sprawling plant later that doesn’t show as nice. Dahlias are heavy feeders of both fertilizer and water.  They do not like to dry out, so keep them watered in July and August when things can get hot and dry. They make excellent long-lasting cut flowers and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and colors.

dahlia tuber

I used to dig up the tubers and wash them and store them in my basement to replant the following spring, but I got lazy and only bothered to dig up some really beautiful and special ones. But in the last couple of years, I noticed that a lot of Dahlias come up in the spring on their own without me doing anything. Maybe this happened because of the mild winters, but I am not going to dig them up any more. It is easier to just try new ones every year as the tubers aren’t that expensive. Call me a lazy gardener!

Teddy Bear Sunflowers at Giverny
Having fun with Love Lies Bleeding at Giverny


Mums flowers
Mums flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course Chrysanthemums must be considered when you discuss fall color. I do love the weirdly beautiful football mums and the spider varieties that the Japanese grow in different formations.

Carefully trained Chrysanthemums, called Kiku, at The NY Botanical gardens

The art of Kiku, the closely guarded tradition of carefully training large Chrysanthemums, on a single stem up to 6 foot high, is on view at the NY Botanical gardens every fall. I went a few years ago and was in awe of this art.  Only the Japanese would have the patience to grow a plant that requires hours of tending every day. They fertilize, groom, stake and tie up these monsters to make fantastical shapes.

Beautiful football mum at NY Botanical Gardens

A zen like mosaic of chrysanthemums at the NY Botanical Gardens

I admire this art of flower manipulation for show but for growing, I love the garden Chrysanthemums, like ‘Sheffield Pink’. The botanists call this genus Leucanthemum, not Chrysanthemum, but most people just call them mums.   I love the Sheffield Pink one as it has a soft pinky peach flower that changes color as it ages, and it starts to bloom in late October into November.  Nothing much is blooming then so it is a welcome sight.

Sheffield Pink Mum lining a driveway in November

When I went to the NY Botanical Gardens they had a similar Chrysanthemum that resembled the Sheffield Pink, but it was bright orangey red with a yellow center and I loved it. Unfortunately, I searched for it in the trade and could not find it.  I am still looking as I love orange flowers.

Love this garden Chrysanthemum! At the NY Botanical Gardens wih Cuphea


I was growing Agastaches, or Anise Hyssops, 3o years ago before they became fashionable.  Their trademark is a wonderful licorice scented foliage and plumes of long-lasting flowers in a range of colors. Long blooming and tough, if you have full sun you should try a few of the varieties. Hybridizers have been working on developing new colors and I love them all.  My favorite is the old stand-by ‘Blue Fortune’.

This ‘Blue Fortune’ Agastache has been blooming for 2 months and still looks good

Purple Haze, Tutti Fruitti, Tango, Black Adder, Bolero, Firebird, Golden Jubilee – the list goes on and on. Drought tolerant, easy to grow in full sun, attracting tons of butterflies and bees, it is a great unsung hero of plants.  Add a few of these to your sunny garden for hordes of pollinators to discover. Again, it is not much to look at in the spring when you are shopping for plants. But, seek this one out and you will be rewarded with a great performer.

Purple Haze Agastache
Purple Haze Agastache at the nursery
Agastache Bolero and Tango


If you think that I am forgetting Asters, I’m not.  I don’t like them much and I have grown a few. There is a quite nice ground cover one called Aster ericoides which blooms with tiny white flowers for about 6 weeks and is only 3 inches high! It forms woody branches that cover the ground closely so it is great to use on slopes. The other Asters tend to get quite large and floppy and have small flowers with a lot of tall foliage.  I am pulling ‘October Skies’ out this fall after it blooms because it has taken over my garden and has greatly exceeded its promised 18 inches in height. Anything that needs staking and engulfs its neighbors, I cannot tolerate.

Aster ericoides ground cover

So, after trying my share of different asters, they are off my list for good. Asters are preferred by deer and rabbits and are usually eaten to the ground in the spring, so I lose a lot of them that way.

Ok, this one is quite pretty, but I am ripping it out anyway!

Gallery of Other Fall Flowers that Everyone Should Grow

Cimicifuga ‘Brunette’
Fall hillside garden that I designed with Hostas, Autumn Bride Heuchera, Tricyrtus
Tricyrtus or Toad Lily
Artwork of Toad lily by Laura Jones
Chelone ‘Hot Lips’ or Turtle Head
Swallowtail butterfly on tithonia, a mexican sunflower annual
Henry Eilers Rudbeckia, a nice change from the omnipresent Black eyed Susan
An old standy-by, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, still is a beautiful choice for a fall bloomer
Angels Trumpets planted on the streets of Germany blooming in September
‘Michael Dodge’ Viburnum has colorful yellow berries
Tender Salvias wait until September to spike out into incredible colors
Shrub Crepe Myrtles edged with Rozanne Geranium
Verbena bonariensis with Monarch


Saddlebacks are Back!

Saddleback, picture taken by Gretchen Schmidl
Saddleback, picture taken by Gretchen Schmidl

Watch out for the invasion of the body snatchers! – no really it is just saddleback caterpillars, Sibine stimulea.  I have noticed them in my yard this year and I would rather be stung by a bee than stung by this nasty caterpillar. They look like ugly bizarre clowns or a Scotty dog in a green t-shirt!

Saddleback Caterpillar
Saddleback Caterpillar (Photo credit: cotinis)

Also known as “pack-saddles”, these caterpillars are very distinctive looking, and are the larvae stage of a brown moth native to eastern North America. They appear at the end of the summer gobbling up as much greenery as possible prior to pupating into a moth.

Non-descriptive brown moth
Non-descriptive brown moth
Saddleback Caterpillar
Saddleback Caterpillar (Photo credit: noramunro)

Saddlebacks feed on a large variety of plant material and usually are found on the underside of foliage and thus are easy to miss when  you are pruning or weeding underneath greenery. My particular caterpillars were feeding on the underside of a weeping beech and I was crawling underneath the tree to prune it.  I felt an intense burning sensation and flinched back, but they had already stung me. The caterpillars have fleshy horns on either end bearing urticating hairs(irritating bristles) that secrete venom.  These are hollow quill-like hairs that have poisonous sacs at the base of them which can excrete a poisonous punch.The venom causes a very painful swelling and can cause nausea and a rash that can last for days.

Looks cute, doesn’t it? Photo by Gretchen Schmidl

The best remedy for the stinging and swelling is the application of ice.  Also, if you use some sticky tape to remove the barbs immediately, you can reduce the amount of poison that is excreted. If you are very allergic to stings, it is best to use an epi pen for a bad reaction. I always see these caterpillars in groups of 2 or 3, so you are likely to be stung by several at once. It just gives me shivers to think about it!

Acharia stimulea Clemens, 1960 Common Name: sa...
Acharia stimulea Clemens, 1960 Common Name: saddleback caterpillar Photographer: Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service, United States Descriptor: Larva(e) Description: urticating hairs Image taken in: United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Honey Bee Royalty at the Maryland State Fair

Danielle Dale, American Honey Princess 2012 for the American Beekeeping Federation, working at the Timonium State Fair promoting honey

Honey Princess 2012

On a hot and muggy afternoon recently, I worked at the MD State Fair in Timonium at the honey booth selling honey products. As a MD beekeeper, you are encouraged to work the fair for a shift to help our group, the Central MD Beekeepers Association, sell members honey.

While there, I got to meet Danielle Dale, a prior 2011 Wisconsin Honey Queen, who competed and won the national title of Honey Princess 2012, to represent the American Beekeeping Federation. Danielle is 20 years old and from Sparta, Wisconsin and is a 3rd generation beekeeper who began beekeeping at age 12.

There is also an American Honey Queen that does similar promotions around the country.  For Danielle, being selected as the American Honey Princess is quite an honor, and she gets to travel all over the country as the spokesperson for the American Beekeeping Federation, giving demonstrations and talks about beekeeping. Go to!/AmericanHoneyQueenProgram to see Princess Danielle and Queen Alyssa in action. They do lots of fun things like roll beeswax candles with kids, make foods with honey, and give interviews and talks about honey.

Judged bottles of honey with ribbons at the MD State Fair

The American Beekeeping Federation represents beekeepers and honey producers throughout the United States and relies on Danielle and Alyssa as their ambassadors throughout the country, so Danielle really has to know beekeeping inside and out.  And she does! After talking to her and hearing her explain the demonstration hive to the fair goers, she impressed me with her breadth of knowledge. And that is the main criteria that the Honey Princess is selected on. She was poised, and even though the heat was stifling in the exhibition hall, Danielle always looked cool and calm. I was dripping sweat from being there for just a few hours, but Danielle who is from Wisconsin and not used to our sauna-like weather, was there all day and never complained. She was dressed in a dress, tiara, and nylons, so I felt for her!

One of the beekeeping displays at the MD State Fair

There were exhibits, bee products such as soap, honeycomb, honey, gift baskets, honey sticks, and candles on display and for sale.

Soap and chunks of beeswax for sale

Honey Tasting

We were deluged with hordes of people who wanted to taste the different varieties of honey and creamed honey for sale. We had 3 varieties from MD – thistle, locust, and wildflower, and 3 from different parts of the country – blueberry, orange blossom, and buckwheat. Buckwheat honey from Wisconsin is dark like molasses, and has a very earthy taste. It  is not my favorite but there are people who appreciate it.  I love thistle honey from MD which has a floral note that is sweet, but not too sweet like orange blossom honey. When people taste the blueberry honey, they are disappointed that it doesn’t taste like blueberries! I explain that it is the nectar from the blueberry flower in Maine that the bees collect and not the fruit itself.

Checking out the wares at the honey booth at the MD State Fair

People are very curious about honey and honeybees and this give me an opportunity to talk to interested people about my favorite hobby. At the demonstration hive which is just an enclosed glass beehive, my husband explained beekeeping to an enthralled audience. The queen is marked so you can easily see her move around and kids are fascinated.

Marked queen bee with attendants
Marked queen bee with attendants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chunk Honey

Chunk Honey, which is a large piece of honey comb in a jar of honey – Delicious!

Not many people looked at the chunk honey which is just a large chunk of beeswax dropped into a jar with honey. From my days of extracting honey, I have become addicted to the taste of chewy tasty honeycomb.  I tell people who aren’t sure what to do with it, just to take a large spoonful of the honeycomb dripping with the honey and gobble it up.  The beeswax is chewy and delicious like bubble gum and you can spit the wax out when you are done extracting every bit of honey from it, or you can swallow it.  The honeycomb is actually good for you!

Creamed Honey

My next favorite is creamed honey.  This is simply a very creamy crystallized honey product.  It is processed commercially with seed crystals in precisely controlled temperatures to crystallize to a smooth consistency. As anyone who has honey crystallize in the jar, the resulting product can be very grainy and unappetizing. But with the invention of creamed honey in the 1920’s, a mild spreadable butter-like honey that doesn’t drip became possible.

Creamed honey in the jar
Spreading creamed honey on an english muffin

Storing Honey

Whenever I made a honey sale, I was sure to tell people to store their honey in a warm place, such as a sunny windowsill.  Honey needs to be warm so it will not crystallize into big granulated chunks.  Never put honey in the refrigerator! It will crystallize very quickly in cold conditions.  If the honey starts to crystallize, just set the entire bottle in a saucepan of water on the stove and heat very slowly.  Shake the bottle once in a while to distribute the heat and continue until all the crystals are gone and it is a runny consistency.

Other Honey and Wax Products

A combination langstroth and top bar hive that won first prize

There were lots of other interesting honey products and inventions that gave me ideas for my own hives. Seeing all the exhibits inspired me to show or sell some of the things that I have been making out of beeswax at next year’s fair. This combination hive that won the first prize really intrigued me because it combines two very different kinds of hives that you never see together. But it was ingenious how it all fit together. I need to find out more about it because I really can’t explain how it is used.

Cleaned and melted beeswax from my hives

I have plenty of beeswax that I have accumulated over the years and finally decided to do something with it the past couple of weeks.  I am definitely going to take some of my candles and soaps to the fair next year and maybe bring home a blue ribbon!

My mason jar and bee skep candles
My honey oatmeal soap

Robbing the Bees- A Honey of a Day

Honey coming out of the extractor into a bucket lined with a mesh paint strainer to remove all bee parts

It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth.  How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 55 pounds from my one remaining hive.

I started out with 2 hives this season, one tanked and the other one hummed along – not boiling over with bees but – steady, eddy. So, it is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Yes, it was 92 degrees when we extracted, a requirement so that the honey flows quickly and smoothly

Removal of the Supers, Sans Bees of Course!

First job is removal of the top boxes or supers with the excess honey that I want. I open them up and smoke the bees to get them to head down into the hive and put on a lid covered with Fisher-Bee-Quick. No, I didn’t make that up. It is a liquid in a spray bottle that smells like almond oil that you spray on the lid with a cardboard insert to saturate with this fragrant oil.  Evidently, bees hate the smell and will try to put as much space as they can from the odor.

Firing up the smoker with a propane torch, an essential tool in beekeeping
Tools at the ready – A lid lined with cardboard saturated with Fisher-Bee-Quick, bee brush, smoker, frame puller, torch, and hive tool. I am ready to go!

I remove the outer and inner cover of the hive and place the lid with the Fisher-Bee-Quick insert on top, and start using my propane torch on top to heat the entire lid to a high temp that will dissipate the almond odor throughout the entire hive. Note that the lid is covered on the outside with tin which will not burn. The whole point of this exercise is to get the  bees off the supers so I can steal their honey.  I have tried a blower (they get mad), brushing them off with a bee brush (too slow), and a special escape board which once the bees go out, they can’t come back in (way too slow). The spray works like a charm.  It just takes about 10 minutes for the bees to react and leave.

Smoking the hive
Using the propane torch on top to heat up the hive

After heating the lid thoroughly, I remove the lid and peak in.  Bees have scampered! There are a few stragglers, but that is good enough for me and I load the entire super box into a wheelbarrow nearby.  It easily weighs at least 50 pounds which is a good sign – lots of honey! I cover the super up with a piece of canvas as I don’t want any stray bees to come and investigate. After taking the super to the honey staging area and off loading it on a tarp, I go back for the second box.  After both boxes are sitting on the tarp, we are ready to remove each frame and place in the extractor to spin.

Supers on the tarp – Removing one frame at a time to go into the extractor


After removing each frame from the hive, my helper (husband), takes a heated electric knife and slices off the wax cappings to reveal the honey deposited into each cell.

Helper who is afraid of bees!
Slicing off the wax cappings on a funky frame

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  We grab a dollop of honey comb that is dripping with honey and start chewing.  We suck out all the honey and spit out the wax. Luscious!

Honey extractor with motor attached
Honey extractor
Honey extractor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After uncapping, each frame is placed into the extractor on a rack and we turn on the motor and it starts to spin.  The extractor is kind of like a washer machine.  If everything is balanced and even, the extractor runs fine.   If one frame has lots of honey, and one doesn’t, then the whole extractor wobbles and I have to lean on it to steady it up so it spins evenly. After spinning for about 10 minutes, I stop the extractor and we turn all the frames over.  Each side has to be extracted fully to get as much honey as we can possibly get out of each frame. The extractor, as it spins, flings the warm honey to the sides of the extractor and it slides down to the bottom and accumulates.

I lifted up the flap of the extractor to peak in at the spinning frames

While we are extracting and grabbing gobs of dripping honeycomb, the bees are flying like crazy around us.  There is no way to get rid of all of them before extracting, and they drive my husband wacky, and he keeps swatting at them.  I just tell him to take it easy, that the bees aren’t aggressive and are just looking for a way to get back to their hive. But he is on edge.

Honey in honeycombs
Honey in honeycombs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees once they discover the free honey go crazy and zing around the yard.  Good thing that my dog is oblivious and I have no friends over! We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles.

English: Honey bees cleaning the last of the h...
English: Honey bees cleaning the last of the honey off of a comb which has been processed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Aftermath

Everything is left outside for the bees to clean, and they take any honey that we missed back to their hive.  The bees have to have enough honey stores to last them through the winter, so I made sure that there were frames of honey left in the hive that we didn’t tap.  Plus, the bees have some time before it gets chilly to store some more honey, and I will start to feed them in late October for insurance that they do make it through the winter.

Bottled honey


The next step, after the honey has settled in the large food grade bucket for a day or two, is to bottle.  I sterilize my containers in the dishwasher, an assortment that I have collected over the years, and start filling them up. I have small 12 ounce plastic bee skep ones and 16 ounce plastic ones that I fill for selling and gifts.  For home use, I just use large glass jars and fill them up with 5 pounds of honey. We can go through about 30 to 35 pounds of honey during the year. We are a honey loving group!  Bottling can take me a week as I don’t do it all in one sitting.

We finished the extracting thoroughly sticky and tired but no one got stung!  I looked at the honey color, and since the bees forage from a variety of flowers, I call it wildflower honey and some years it is darker than others.  I would say this year it is darker than usual.

5 Lb jar of honey

I clean the wax by boiling it in my crock pot with water in preparation for making soap and candles.  But that is another post……… Stay tuned.

Cleaned and melted beeswax from my hives

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Okra – Superfood Superstar

Okra bloom with pods ready to be picked

I ended up with some free Okra seeds this spring and thought I would try them, not thinking at all about eating them, but just to enjoy the beauty of the plants. Now they are 6 feet tall and producing tons of okra pods every few days so I am trying to use them in cooking.  I did some research about Okra – it’s nutritional benefits, and how to prepare it, and I think that I found another one of those superfoods, like blueberries!

Beautiful okra flower

According to the blog Healthy, Happy, Life:, they rave about Okra’s benefits:

” Though okra was voted most hated veggie, it can actually be quite tasty and nutritious! So I’m here to convert the haters to lovers!Okra is actually incredibly healthy despite its unappealing reputation. Okra is low in calories. One cup of raw okra only has around 30 calories. And in that low-calorie cup is a whopping 66% RDA of Vitamin K! Okra is also high is calcium, fiber, vitamin C, protein, folate, manganese and magnesium. Why munch not-nutrient-dense celery or iceberg lettuce for a low-calorie veggie when you can munch the much-more-nutrient-dense super food veggie okra!”

Here is the complete nutrition information about Okra which completely blew me away!
serving size: 1 cup raw, chopped
(about 6 spears)
calories: 31
fat: 0 g
carbs: 7 g
protein: 2 g
fiber: 3 g
Vitamin K: 66% RDA
Vitamin C: 35% RDA
folate: 22% RDA
thiamin: 13% RDA
manganese: 50% RDA
magnesium: 14% RDA

Okra – beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin

Low in calories and an amazing source per calorie of Vitamin K, fiber and Manganese.  Okra is a stellar veggie that you have to learn to love!

One day of picking


The seeds are large and easy to sow after danger of frost is over, here about May 10, covering with about 1 inch of soil. I thinned the seedlings to stand about 18 inches apart and then forgot about them.  Next thing I knew the plants were 3 feet tall with beautiful leaves that look like marijuana plants!

Large beautiful leaves

The flowers, since they are related to hibiscus, are beautiful also with a soft yellow cast and a reddish center. They bloom for one day only, and then form a pod which should be picked within a few days, before it gets too long and tough. I picked the pods from 1 inch to 4 inches long for eating, and the larger ones for drying for dried flower arrangements. There is also a purplish reddish okra pod.

I harvest the pods every few days

Reading about other people experiences with growing Okra, it sounds like the plants can tower up to 9 or 10 feet tall! I believe it, as mine are going strong and are almost 6 feet high now. Being a Southern plant, Okra thrives in hot weather which we have had plenty of this summer.


Cutting up okra, you see the large seeds

I like to slice the pods up crosswise about 1/3 of an inch thick and saute them in olive oil with tomatoes and onions.  Okra pods are a natural thickener and with watery tomatoes, they thicken the tomatoes up nicely. I love tamale pie and here is my take on it using okra:

Tamale Okra Casserole

Tamale pie
Tamale pie (Photo credit: TheLawleys)

1 onion, chopped

a clump of fresh thyme

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

8 okra pods, sliced

1 large chicken breast, chopped into 1 inch chunks

4 large tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp cumin

salt and pepper to taste

Saute chopped onion,  4 or 5 strands of fresh thyme, 7 or 8 chopped up okra pods, a chopped large red pepper, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a chicken breast chopped up into 1 inch chunks. After these cook up and leave a brown crust on the saute pan, drop in large chopped tomatoes with seasonings of chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook for about 8 minutes until nice and thick. Remove any stems of thyme. Place mixture into a casserole dish and top with Polenta below, and cook for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Pull out of oven and spread 2 cups of shredded cheddar on top and bake an additional 5 minutes.

Top with sour cream and green onions if desired.


1 cup of water set to boil in a large heavy saucepan

Whisk together 1 1/2 cup of cold water and 1 1/2 cup of corn meal until smooth. Whisk into the boiling water in saucepan until smooth and thick. Spread on top of casserole.

English: Red okra pods
English: Red okra pods (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to fry okra in cornmeal like they do in the south. Gumbo is next on my list to try, and I will attempt freezing some. I love to grill and will grill some because everything tastes better grilled!

Plate of okra
Plate of okra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If the okra pods get too large, you end up with monsters that can be quite tough and stringy. I like to dry these large pods by placing the okra on a cookie sheet lined with a paper towel and place in the sun outdoors for a couple of weeks. The pods dry with prominent ribs and stripes and are wonderful to use in dry pod arrangements.

Dried okra pods

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