Spooked Out!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Spooktacular Pumpkins!
Happy Halloween! I have a small confession to make. My name is Bill. I am 51 years old. And I'm really just a child at heart. I mean, really. While other 51 year old men are captains of industry or finding a cure for one disease or another -- I'm at home carving pumpkins. I'm hanging orange colored pumpkin lights outside. I'm preparing a scary music CD for the kids on Halloween night.

What sort of 51 year old man does this? You're right -- he doesn't. But 12-year olds do. I'm 12. Nice to meet you.

What in the World? A Smooth Pumpkin?
This isn't the first time we've grown pumpkins in the Bird Back 40. This isn't even our best crop of pumpkins. But this year's harvest does feature something special: a smooth skinned sporty looking Jack O' Lantern. What kind of pumpkin is it? Good question! I don't remember planting any seeds for a smooth-skinned variety to be completely honest with you.

The wife that is Venus and I normally plant two types of pumpkins. The small, sugary types that are reserved for all things pumpkin pie, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin breads and even pumpkin soups! We also plant seeds for a second, larger variety that will be used for carving purposes on All Hallowed's Eve.

2014 Partial Pumpkin Harvest: Bird Back 40
Yet -- for some strange reason -- the test bed gardening plot that we normally reserve for corn and all things pumpkins and other squash yielded three varieties of pumpkins. We did get a smattering of large, ribbed pumpkins sure enough. And then -- the test bed produced this orange smooth skinned wonder that is also streaked with shades of yellow. We've never seen anything like it before. We've never grown anything like it before. And -- strangely enough -- the garden produced only one of this variety.

Are ghostly spirits at work in the Bird Back 40? Quite possibly! But these are the good spirits who kept the nasty bugs away -- including the pesky squash bugs that have played havoc with past plantings. We saw only two this spring. Venus managed to bring them inside the house with some tomatoes she had recently harvested. We dispatched them rather quickly and haven't seen a trace of them or any brethren since. I didn't get around to spraying for them this year -- my back was in no shape for that kind of work. As it turns out -- bug spray wasn't needed. The squash bugs stayed away.

Not Quite Ready for Pumpkin Prime Time
I get a strange satisfaction over NOT paying for pumpkins to carve for Halloween. The one season where squash bugs invaded and destroyed most of our pumpkin crop, the wife and I were forced to head out to a pumpkin farm on a lonely Rio Linda street corner, where we shelled out $25 for three pumpkins.

I hung my head in shame that Halloween. Shameful! And, never again!

Last year was a record setting Halloween in terms of child visits to our GarageMahal. It brought back memories of my childhood, where THOUSANDS of brightly costumed Modesto children jammed
Grinning Jack O' Lantern
neighborhood streets, knocking on doors and taking delight in all the Halloween decorations that had been placed outside. It seemed that every home sported some sort of decoration back in the day.

Those that didn't were properly egged. But not by me. Perish the thought.

When It Rains, It Blogs

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Black Cherry Tomatoes from the Bird Back 40
I really should be working. No -- really -- I should. It's a Saturday afternoon after a nice morning rainstorm and there's lots to do. I could plant garlic! I could pull weeds! I could clean the cat litter boxes! I could clean out the garage! So much to do. Instead, I blog.

No wonder the cats hate me.

There is one gardening project that I did take care of on this fine weekend day. See those nice cherry tomatoes in the top right corner? Those are Black Cherry tomatoes -- some of the best tasting cherry tomatoes I've ever had. And the thing is -- I didn't plant them this year. Like many tomato plants that spring to life in the spring -- the plant that produced these luscious Black Cherry tomatoes were "volunteers" in the Bird Back 40.

Saving Tomato Seed
I don't normally save tomato seed. I shove my plants so close together in the springtime that there's often a chance of cross-pollination. The tomato "experts" claim that cross-pollination among open-pollinated, heirloom tomato varieties is very rare, except I've seen it happen. And it's taken place right here in the Bird Back 40. Saving seed, therefore, simply isn't an option in my book.

But I made an exception with this particular tomato and if you're asking why, be patient, because I'll get to that in a moment. You see, this was one exceptional Black Cherry tomato plant. It produced golf ball sized cherry tomatoes in some cases -- bigger than most Black Cherry plants normally produce. That's a variety worth saving.

Black Cherry Volunteer Among Melon Vines
Secondly, this volunteer sprang to life in a raised gardening bed that had been reserved for melons, carrots, eggplants, bush beans, beets and a smattering of leftover pepper plants. In other words -- there was nary another tomato plant to be found in this bed. All of the other plants were on the other side of the Bird Back 40, reducing the chances of cross-pollination.

Finally, I'm almost positive that this plant sprang from a cherry tomato that I had put into this raised bed a year earlier. I'll be honest with you. The plant I put into the ground last year was nothing to write home about. It caught some sort of funky disease not long after plant out. And while the disease didn't kill it, it did severely limit production and what came off the vine wasn't all that good to be brutally honest.

Black Cherry Tomatoes Ready for Seed Saving
This is one of the challenges that heirloom growers face. Sometimes you get good tomato. Sometimes you don't. This Black Cherry tomato plant wasn't all that great. However, it was planted next to another heirloom variety that churned out buckets of large tomatoes -- one of my best producers last year. Figure that one out. I still haven't figured out why some plants do well -- while others planted two feet away perform horribly.

When I noticed this Black Cherry plant volunteer growing among the many melon seeds I planted -- I resisted the urge to tear it out. I didn't really spot it until I noticed the first ripened offerings to be honest. And they were pretty darn large and pretty darn good in my opinion. Secondly, the volunteer plant was prolific with production. Why tear out a good thing that Mother Nature rewarded you with? To put it short and sweet, you don't. You roll with what Mother Nature gives you.

Fermenting Tomato Seeds in a Windowsill
It's while I was cleaning out this particular bed last weekend did I first notice the golf ball sized offerings it had produced. I've never seen Black Cherry tomatoes so large before. So, I borrowed a page from the Father of the Modern Tomato, Alexander Livingston. He would often spot what he called "sports" in his tomato plantings. It's from these "sports" where he saved and gathered seed. This is how Livingston helped create the tomato as a major food source. Before Livingston's time, tomato plants were considered to be "ornamentals." They were to be admired as flowers and nothing more.

The process of saving seed to be used next year isn't all that difficult. It's a little messy -- but also a lot of fun. You simply cut the tomatoes open -- squeeze that tomato juice, pulp and seed into a plastic cup and top it off with two to three tablespoons of water. I also cover my cup with plastic and make sure to poke holes in the top so it can breathe. The most important part of the process is placing it in a spot where the cat won't fuck with it.

Bacterial Growth After Fermentation Process
I have many cats who like to fuck with things. It's what cats do. That's why my cup of tomato goop and seeds went on a windowsill in the office that I keep closed off to the cats. There's no temptation there if they can't see it, and the cats choose to chase marauding mockingbirds instead.

This process, by the way, is called fermentation. It's an important part of the saving seed process because the fermentation acts to remove diseases and other problems that can destroy tomato seeds. After five or six days in a windowsill, your cup of tomato goop will be covered with a fine layer of bacterial growth.

Good Seeds Sink to Bottom
Yeah -- it looks like Hell but it's the result you're looking for. After five or six days, you're ready for the next step. Simply remove the bacterial goop that's formed at the top of the cup with a spoon and fill the cup with a little more water. The good seeds that you'll want to save will sink to the bottom and stay there. I like to pour off bits of water because it gets the leftover tomato goop out before the seeds can spill out. After four or five rinses, you have clean tomato seed at the bottom of your cup. Better yet -- there's no more tomato goop.

After pouring off the rest of the water, while using a fat finger to stop the seeds from spilling out, place your freshly cleaned and fermented seeds on a paper plate or better yet -- a paper towel. Spread them out -- separating each seed if possible (easier said than done). Place your paper plate or paper towel containing seeds in a room or a place where marauding cats can't get to it, and in a week to ten days you have tomato seed for the following spring.

Black Cherry Seeds for Next Year's Garden
It means next year's tomato garden WILL have a Black Cherry tomato plant. Better yet -- you can also trade seed with other growers and try out new varieties.

There's a strange satisfaction that comes from saving your own tomato seed. I can't explain it. I can only tell you that it's there. There's a strange sort of pride that develops when you witness the seeds that you saved from the previous year suddenly spring to life the next spring. I can't put my finger on it, except to tell you that it does exist.

I suppose it's another one of those guilty pleasures derived from gardening. Whatever it is, I like it.

Dig, Child, Dig!

Monday, October 20, 2014

F.C. Joyce Elementary School: Photo Courtesy of Eli Bob
Dig, Child, Dig! Dig until it hurts! And then dig just a little bit more. I can still remember my mother's commands -- even after all of these years. For -- the love and joy that is digging in the dirt is not easily learned nor taken up by children right away. That is why I was fortunate enough to have a mother who pressed a gardening trowel in my hand one day, point to a particularly weedy and particularly dry gardening bed and utter the following one word command: DIG!

It was not a request. Nor was it a very good idea to tell my mother that I had better things to do, which I clearly thought I did. Little did I know that it would be on this day where my love for all things gardening would be born and nourished. This is where the education started: In a small patch of dirt in a somewhat barren and neglected corner of a single-family tract home built for returning World War II veterans on Ribier Avenue in the somewhat isolated San Joaquin Valley city of Modesto, CA.

Filling a Raised Garden Bed: F.C. Joyce Elementary School
I am approached often by many different sorts of people -- some local and some not -- who request that I post this note or that. Sometimes the causes are worthy and do deserve some mention -- but not on a blog about vegetable gardening in the Bird Back 40. And then there are some offers -- well -- where I can't say "thank you, but I'm not interested" quite fast enough. Not a week goes by when two or three people write to inquire about this or that. Most of the time -- I'm sorry to say -- the answer is no. This blog is about vegetable gardening. This blog is about my experience. It is about the wife that is Venus. This is my muse.

Consider this blog post an exception. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the pitch was too good. Perhaps it brought back memories of home. Whatever it was -- it worked. Today's story, children, is about children. Not just any children -- but a particularly hard-working group of children in North Highlands. These children attend F.C. Joyce Elementary School on Watt Avenue in North Highlands. More importantly, given the choice of playing tetherball or starting a garden -- these children chose work over play.

Raised Gardening Beds: F.C. Joyce Elementary School
The raised bed garden creation work that took place this past weekend on the campus of F.C. Joyce Elementary was the brainchild of an organization called Healthy Planet USA, a non-profit that works to provide gardens in schools for children and integrate hands-on learning experiences in the classroom. That is the language that Healthy Planet USA gave to me to repeat to you. What does "integrate hands-on learning experiences" mean?

It means these fine folks taught these kids a thing or two about digging in the dirt. They pressed a gardening trowel into the hands of those students, as my mother once did to me, and gave the following instructions: DIG.

Dig the children of F.C. Joyce Elementary did.

Photos Courtesy of Eli Bob
It's the photos that tell the true story of what took place one afternoon on the campus of this school located in North Highlands. Volunteers replaced some forlorn looking bushes with six raised beds, but that's just the start from what I understand. Once the kids get started and develop the passion for gardening that is sure to follow -- as many as 25 raised gardening beds could be in place soon.

So what's this all about? What is really going on here: Well -- I think Healthy Planet puts it best in their own words: "The Healthy Planet model is based not only on improving food awareness, academic outcomes, and entrepreneurship, but also community development and empowerment. As a result our Healthy Growing School Gardens are financed by the community and local business partners, (aka School Champions) through crowdfunding."

A Garden Grows Here
They continue: "School gardens achieve similar outcomes; bringing communities together, building a sense of pride, ownership, and empowerment along the way. The communities help fund, build and sustain their school gardens. And the children in our Healthy Growing programs benefit the greater community. This often overlooked ‘community development’ component is essential to ensuring that a school garden is successful for many years."

Not many people garden anymore. They don't have the time. They don't have the desire. They work too hard or family obligations take up far too much time. Although vegetable gardening has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, there was once a time when EVERY household on any particular block contained a garden. That simply isn't true anymore. I don't know if it will ever be true again.

But I do know this much. Pressing a gardening trowel into the hands of an impressionable young boy or girl, or letting them move gardening mix from one area to another, isn't necessarily such a bad thing. Because this is where it starts. This is where the education begins.

And that's not a terrible thing if you ask me.

Bill's Note: California schools looking to join the gardening movement are in luck. Schools can register easily through the Healthy Planet USA website. Once a school is registered there is a “site visit” where staff can visit the school and assess what is needed to make a garden happen. Any school can get involved whether they are public, private, have a garden or not.

Garden Leftovers, Meal Memories

Friday, October 17, 2014

Garden Fresh Sweet Bell Peppers
It's that special time of year when the summer garden, which I've nearly torn out and replaced with fall greens, yields a surprise tasty treat or two. This is especially true with the three varieties of eggplant that Venus grew from seed last winter. We were blessed with purple, white and yellow eggplants all summer long.

As I picked the last of this tasty treat plus a smattering of still-sweet and crunchy red and green garden peppers, a thought crossed my mind. I had the makings of one of the best Thai dishes I've ever had the pleasure of tasting. And it was that singular thought that brought on the memories of Tom Hudson and our famous lunches of scrumptious Thai dishes.

Tom Hudson
I had the good fortune of working with Tom while serving in the Office of Senator Rico Oller, who represented the 1st Senate District in California. One of the largest and most rural of districts, we had a lot of territory to cover. A lot of it was old gold rush territory -- where I would come to discover an ancient and massive pear tree that was and still is very productive. But that's another story for another day.

Tom was a jovial fellow -- easy to get along with -- very intelligent and as I would come to learn, we shared a common passion for all things Thai food. We also had something else in common: famous appetites. And on those days when we left the office on Friday for a nice lunch somewhere downtown, we always gravitated in the direction of our favorite Thai restaurant.

Gai Pad Prig Khing
Not only did we share a love for all things Thai food -- on those days we both professed a desire for the same dish: Gai Pad Prig Khing. Translated? That's a mix of green beans, bell peppers and a spicy chili paste that was to DIE for. We could chow down on that delicacy all day long and never get tired of it. A condemned inmate on Death Row had a better shot at redemption than any bowl of Gai Pad Prig Khing set down in front of Tom and I.

Ah -- but it was more than just a special dish, you understand. It also had to be prepared a special way. There are three particular versions of spicy Thai dishes: Medium heat, hot and THAI HOT. Thai hot dishes were normally reserved for people of southeast asian descent. It was deemed to be too hot for us white guys -- or so the waitress believed. But as we insisted on unlimited amounts of THAI HOT Pad Prig Khing, our pretty Vietnamese server opened her eyes so wide that her eyeballs nearly popped from their sockets.

Garden Fresh Eggplant from the Bird Back 40
As she ran to the kitchen, chattering in her native language about these two crazy, rotund white guys who were insisting upon a dish prepared in the traditional Thai hot method, both the owner and the cook leaned out to take a look. They smiled. They waved. They knew us from previous visits. They knew exactly what we wanted. And they would deliver a dish of Gai Pad Prig Khing that was so hot, it burst into flames the moment anyone dared touch it.

There was nary a green bean or sliver of sweet pepper left when we were finally finished. While Gai Pad Prik Khing wasn't the only dish that we would order -- it was clearly our favorite and it was always prepared in our special way.

Pad Prig Khing Prepared at Home
Time has a way of passing. Life changes. Tom would leave the Capitol some years later for a better opportunity at the Board of Equalization. I would switch over to another legislative office after Rico's term in office ended thanks to term limits. The Thai restaurant that we frequented would later close. Times change. People move on. But I never forgot those memories.

Not too long ago I stumbled across a recipe for this dish from a blogger who not only visited Thailand frequently, but had married a man of Thai descent. The recipe, which you can find here appeared to be an exact copy of the dish that Tom and I had enjoyed all those years ago. Not only that -- but this recipe contained the secret of how to make this dish just the way Tom and I liked it: THAI HOT.

A Late Season Garden Treat: Eggplant
I was not disappointed. Not only was the recipe an exact duplicate of what Tom and I enjoyed, I could make it better with fresher ingredients. I could play around with the seasonings, reduce the sugar or increase the amount of red curry or thai hot peppers. In short, I could make it better than any restaurant -- and I had fresh summer vegetables from the backyard to boot.

This is a meal that even Tom Hudson would approve of.

Please visit Sherri's Thai-Foodie blog here. It's filled with incredible recipes -- food that is so good that you'll never feel the need to step into a Thai restaurant again. Simply put, you can make it better in your own kitchen. And that's all that counts.

Let Us Plant Lettuce

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Lettuce Starter Plants
Oh boy...

Somewhere, Henny Youngman just groaned. Loudly. The king of the puns and one liners -- Henny's "take my wife, please" jokes had late night king Johnny Carson guffawing loudly on more than one occasion. You knew it was going to be a good show with Henny on the stage -- and he never once disappointed.

Although, he might be a tad disappointed with the title of this blog posting.

My friends -- the season of fall has fallen. It's here. Yes -- the afternoons are still quite warm. But that won't last much longer. There's a kiss of frost in the mornings. It's cold. Summer is just about at an end. And what an interesting summer it has been! But -- it's time to move on.

Garden Beds Ready for Planting
The wife that is Venus and I are expanding upon our fall plantings this year -- and there's a very good reason as to why. Have you purchased any type of green in the grocery store lately? I have. And this ultra spoiled Californian is not happy. Shelling our four bucks for two puny heads of celery is highway robbery in my opinion. Yet -- thanks to our wonderful drought -- this is the cross we are forced to bear.

As I headed unhappily home last week with my prize of two extremely small heads of celery -- the following thought crossed my mind. It went something like this: "You IDIOT! You've turned the Bird Back 40 into a shrine for everything gardening. Why aren't you growing your own lettuce? Why aren't you growing your own greens? Why are you shelling out cash for something you can easily grow in the backyard?"

Fall Greens for the Garden
My inner self is usually right. I shouldn't be running out to the store for lettuce and other greens. I should be running outside to the expansive Bird Back 40. And, in about another month, I will be.

We've never dedicated three 4X8 beds to the fall gardening effort. At most it's two -- but in some years it's just one. I'm usually loathe to tear out the heirloom tomato plants. I hold onto the summer garden for as long as I can -- and usually that's one or two months too long. I won't be making that mistake this year.

Though we could have easily started our plantings of lettuce and other greens indoors -- that tricky thing called the sciatic nerve wasn't really up to the challenge just yet. It's tough to think about future gardening challenges when the sciatic is sending "I love you" jolts into your right leg and testicle (back injuries are such fun!). But, fortunately for me, the pain has subsided to just about nothing other than the occasional ache and, better yet, the strength has returned.

Baby Bok Choi
Hey, I used the handy-dandy Mantis rototiller to churn up two 4X8 beds yesterday AFTER I'd removed a green waste can packed with weeds and heirloom tomato plants still loaded down with green tomatoes. How do I feel today? Not bad actually. Thanks for asking. It's a clear sign that the back has largely returned to normal. But I'm still not going to do anything stupid. I don't want to go through that pain again.

This year we are dedicating one entire bed to nothing but lettuce and spinach. A separate bed will hold other items such as kale, carrots and a healthy amount of pea seeds for the spring pea crop. It's important to get the peas planted during the fall. They don't grow incredibly fast as the weather cools and the days grow shorter, but those root systems sure do get established. By the time spring rolls around? Those pea plants suddenly take off and deliver a bounty of fresh, spring greens.

Planted and Ready for Fall
The wife that is Venus and I have tried a number of varieties -- but we're partial to two of them. The varieties of "Tall Telephone" and "Mister Big Pea" not only deliver the largest peas we've ever harvested, but the tough shells stand up to slugs, snails and other garden pests who are just as interested in peas as we are. Plus -- those tough shells are good in spring stir fry dishes.

But there's going to be far more this fall than just lettuce plants, seed and peas. How about a little broccoli? Cabbage, chard and broccoli rabe? Sure! Dandelion greens? Bring it on!

Fall is here. Bring on the greens! This spoiled Californian is tired of buying what he can easily grow at home.

A Harvest Like You

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Flavor Finale Pluots-Bird Back 40
I've been waiting for this moment to be brutally honest. I've been waiting for a harvest like you. Because the planting and growing of fruit trees is an exercise in patience. You are not going to be rewarded with a bounty of fresh fruit in the first year nor the second. The third year might give you a little something. But it's that fourth year that fruit growers really look forward too.

Why that fourth year? Because as you've dutifully tended, watered and fertilized your young fruit and citrus trees, you have given them the time they need to establish large and strong root systems below the soil line. Strong roots = strong trees. Strong trees = a bounty of fresh fruit come harvest time.

Sliced Flavor Finale Pluots
But, alas, it doesn't always work this way. Sometimes the fourth year is a bust. The fifth year can be disappointing as well. Sometimes -- it's the third year. It all depends upon the fruit tree in question, where it's planted, how much sunshine it receives and how well you've cared for it. Did disease hit at some point? What about bugs? Bugs love fruit trees just as much as I do.

But there comes that moment in time, where the harvest you've worked and waited for finally arrives. You can't taste it yet. But you can see it forming before your eyes. In my case? The Flavor Finale Pluot tree that I stuck in the ground five years ago finally got around to delivering the type of harvest that I had always dreamed about, but never quite attained.

WHOA! Now that's a harvest to remember!
What is that perfect harvest? It's a harvest that is so large, that one bathes in pluots. There's enough pluots on the tree for fresh eating. There's enough pluots on that tree to make loads and loads of pluot jam and other pluot goodies. Gin drinks made with freshly squeezed pluot juice anyone? Finally -- there's still enough to give away to family, friends and neighbors -- all they can take -- and there's still enough fruit left on the tree to feed a marauding family of mockingbirds.

That, my friends, is a harvest to remember. And it took place this year in the Bird Back 40 in what will be described as an "average" fruit year by many. The weather wasn't quite right for cherries in Northern California this year, which is why the purchase of 1 lb. of cherries cost an arm and a leg in the local supermarket. Some peach varieties -- like the June Pride for example -- set very little fruit. And the three nectarine trees delivered a smattering of fresh nectarines. And don't get me started on the apples and pears -- especially when it comes to a rather nasty bug like fire blight.

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree-Bird Back 40
This wasn't what I had expected. But if you grow fruit for fun, you take the good with the bad. In some years the times are good. In others? Not so much. That's when it's time to drag out the old farmer's lament of "there's always next year."

But -- as you might be able to notice in the photo above left --there's a bit of wood propping up a branch laden with pluots. Know what that means? It was a rather right fine year for pluot production. More than right fine I should say. The dang tree was loaded to the point where some unpropped branches did actually snap under the weight of a terrifically large and luscious pluot crop.

Flavor Finale Pluot Jam-Bird Kitchens
I'll be completely honest with you. I've been privy to pluots ever since I first discovered them at a Sacramento area farmer's market more than a decade ago. I've always been a fan of home-grown plums and not-yet-dried prunes like the Clairac Mammoth de Ente (Improved French Prune). But the pluot offered a tasty feast that I quickly fell in love with. I couldn't buy enough to meet my personal demand. And I knew, fairly early on during the Bird Back 40 landscaping process, that a pluot tree would find its way home. I just wasn't sure which one it would be.

It would be November 19th, 2009 where I would conspire with another Sacramento area gardener and blogger (two of them actually) and place a large order through Bay Laurel Nursery. That order consisted of table grapes, thornless boysenberry and blackberry vines and one Flavor Finale Pluot tree. Why the Flavor Finale? Good question! You think I remember after five years of hitting hard gin like that?

Pluots...
Actually -- I did know that the Flavor Finale had recently won a Dave Wilson Nursery taste test challenge. And the fact that it ripened late -- in September no less -- was another good call. When one chooses to grow fruit trees -- you don't want everything ripening up in August. I would come to find out later that grafting different plum and pluot varieties onto the Flavor Finale was like falling off a log. If there is every such a thing known as the "Franken Fruit Tree" in the Bird Back 40, it's the Flavor Finale Pluot.

My thanks to the wonderful and wacky mind of Floyd Zaiger and his Zaiger Genetics program. Without his wonderful invention called the pluot, the first of which was introduced under the name of Flavor Supreme in 1988, my Flavor Finale harvest to remember would never had taken place.

The Big Tomato Payoff

Friday, September 19, 2014

Heirloom Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
Break it Down! Stop! Tomato Time!

Is your garden like mine? Heirloom tomatoes coming out of your ears? It is that time of year for us heirloom aficionados. Long after the hybrids have played out and stopped producing, the heirlooms move in and take over -- delivering harvest after harvest after harvest.

And if the weather holds? Yet another harvest!

What does one do when nature delivers a boatload of heirloom tomato goodness? A couple like yours truly and the wife that is Venus drags out the canning equipment and starts preparing for some very big canning projects. We can't eat 50 tomatoes in one or two sittings. But we'll make darn sure that each one of them finds it's way into a canning jar of whole tomatoes, tomato sauces or salsa.

First Steps: Wash and Core Tomatoes
There's nothing quite like a warm bite of salsa on a Monday Night Football game played in a snowstorm. That's the payoff, my friends, the big tomato payoff.

This most recent project pays homage to a home-canning professional by the name of Sharon Howard, who plied her trade during decades of gardening in the Alberta, Canada area. I first became aware of Sharon many moons ago when I grabbed one of her recipes for canning dill pickles. She was kind enough to share many tomato sauce and stewed tomato canning recipes that were decades old, resulting in some of the most ridiculously delicious sauces we have ever created.

But on this particular day last August -- the job facing us was fairly simple. My back had healed up to the point where I could actually bend and pick a bounty of a harvest without a nerve or a disc flying off the handle and into the next backyard. The job on this day would be placing as many whole tomatoes into one-quart canning jars and processing the haul through a pressure canning process.

Skinned Tomatoes
The most tedious part of this process would be removing the skins from the actual tomatoes. That's job I leave up to the wife that is Venus. My job is to boil said tomatoes first, in a pot of water. Then place those tomatoes I've stuck in boiling water for one minute into an ice water bath.

With perfect red, round and smooth tomatoes -- those skins will slip off quite easily. But heirloom tomatoes aren't red. They aren't round either. And they are anything but smooth. Heirloom tomatoes are rather unwieldy, cat-faced beasts. It makes the job of peeling off the skins a little tougher, but it's still well worth the effort when those cold winter months roll into town.

Pack Each Jar Full!
As you might be able to guess, this process takes a little time with 50-100 freshly harvested tomatoes. But as we've come to learn in previous years, anything less than 20 one-quart jars of whole tomatoes is going to leave us short when we need them. And I cannot tell you how much I detest the assignment of driving to the store (in cold weather no less) to pick up a can or two of whole or sliced tomatoes.

And do you think our sauces are going to taste as good with something that came out of a common cannery? Perish the thought! Yep -- we're spoiled alright. Mighty spoiled. But it's also spoiled in a good way.

Summer Goodness in a Jar
After the skins are off -- the task gets fairly simple. Once those one-quart jars are washed and sterilized through the boiling water bath process, it's time to add a tablespoon or two of processed lemon juice to each jar, cram them with as many peeled tomatoes as possible, wipe the rims of each jar, seal and process through a 30-minute pressure canning process.

Then end result on this day? 18 quarts of whole tomatoes. Add those 18 quarts to five others that we had put through the canning process earlier this summer, and the Bird household is stocked with whole tomatoes for winter use.

Under Pressure
Ah -- but that's just part of the canning process. Because you can't make a tomato-good pizza sauce without adding a little finished tomato SAUCE to those whole tomatoes. Know what that means? It means another harvest is three weeks off.

You think sauce is important? Well, don't ask me! Rob Schneider of Saturday Night Live fame made sauce famous with his signature lines from skit involving a restaurant called "Hub's Gyros: "You like a de sauce, eh? De sauce is good, eh? I get you more sauce!" Three simple lines. Non-stop laughter.

Simple instructions for canning whole tomatoes can be found here and here.

Time for Some Shameless Self-Promotion

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sacramento Magazine
I suppose a little promotion every once in a great while is a good thing, right? Tooting your own horn, so to speak? Blow a little smoke? Pat myself on the back? Bluster? Boast? Crow?

OK -- enough already.

My friends, for some reason the fine people at Sacramento Magazine have chosen to profile the wife that is Venus (and perhaps yours truly) in this September's issue. I wouldn't say it's a "well deserved" honor. In fact, after an injury filled year like this one, I almost told the writer to "find someone else."

But I couldn't do that to Joan. She wanted an up close and personal tour of the Bird Back 40. She wanted to see how Venus and I turned a patch of bare dirt seven years ago into a thriving vegetable and fruit garden. She wanted to see what we grew. She wanted to see what we failed to grow.

Wife That is Venus in her Element
And so -- with my foot still in a cast from a previous bout of bad luck -- we invited Joan out for a tour of our expansive North Natomas acreage, plus all the weeds that managed to spring up during my time on the gardening "Physically Unable to Perform (PUP)" list.

But that was just the first part of my summer in the medical trauma ward. Later, after I'd pinched my sciatic nerve to the point where I just wanted to be shot (really people! It's painful!), a photographer asked permission to visit this fantastic garden that Joan had written about.

Just Peachy Eh?
Guess what greeted the photographer? More weeds! An overgrown garden! Lots of garden bugs. And one cranky gardener with a problematic back that wouldn't stop belting out the tune of that long ago Police hit: "King of Pain."

I'm so glad he didn't ask to take my photo. I feared I might tell him to go kiss my petunias -- or something worse. Fortunately, the wife that is Venus was there to save me from myself (again).

But you know what? I guess there were some good shots in that yard. I guess Joan saw a few things too. Because they both managed to capture the spirit of what we do here and what we enjoy so much.

Thanks Joan. Thanks to you Sacramento Magazine. It's been an interesting summer. 

My Favorite Mistakes

Friday, September 5, 2014


Sheryl Crow got one. I gots many. Of the gardening kind that is. No -- the wife that is Venus is not my favorite mistake. However, there may be times when she might feel that way. Like most husbands, uh, I tend to "push the envelope."

Canning Jars
And then she snaps me back to reality with a well placed rubber band. But, I digress. This is about gardening -- more succinctly -- gardening MISTAKES. Lord knows, I've made my share of them. See those jars? Those jars in our dishwasher are the proof of my many mistakes when it comes to canning and saving fresh from the garden foods.

But mistakes also tend to make me excited. Is that strange? Most people seem to think so -- especially by the way I react when they tell me the following: "I made a mistake." YOU DID, I say in an excited voice. "THAT'S GREAT!!!"

I see mistakes as learning achievements in gardening life. Yes, you made a mistake. Guess what the good thing is about that? You'll never make it again. You've learned a hard lesson. You zigged left when you should have zagged right. That's OK. We all make them. And this is how we learn. Because, after all these years, I'm still learning.

I write this post on the weekend after I dumped every mistake that was occupying a spot in the cupboard pantry set aside for all things home-canned products. My friends -- that was a lot of dumping -- representing years of gardening errors and "I'll never do that again." Here's a short list of what went down the drain or into the trash can.

Refrigerator Pickles (Tasty!)
PICKLES: Venus and I have been canning all things pickles for six or seven years. We've tried many different recipes and solutions. I suppose our favorite would be the old fashioned dill pickle. But I've come to learn that it's downright impossible to safely can pickles without them turning soft during the Boiling Water Bath or Pressure Canning Process. I've tried many solutions. Pretty much all of them have failed.

The last failure took place two years ago when I added a solution that I believed would keep our dill pickles hard and crunchy after the canning process had taken place. Should I have tested the idea first on one jar? Of course I should have! But -- no -- instead I canned a dozen quarts of pickles on that day.

Six months later I would come to find out that the pickles I'd canned with this "special ingredient" came out soft, bitter and left this rather unpleasant alkaline taste in our mouths. Perhaps it was a bad jar, we thought. So, we opened another. This one tasted even worse. Blech! No thank you. One dozen jars of pickles sat in the pantry, untouched, for the better part of two years.

So -- we're sticking with the tried n' true refrigerator pickle instead. Ten jars is enough to get us through all those winter celebrations and holidays. If there's one thing that family members and friends love, it's a good pickle.

GRAPE JELLY: When you add nine grapevines to the Bird Back 40, guess what happens? You get a lot of grapes. Not just a lot of grapes -- but so many grapes that you cannot possibly consume them all. I'm at that point now where if I see grapes in the store or at the farmer's market, I get ill. That's what happens when you eat too many grapes.

Grape Jelly!
So what does a gardening couple with far too many grapes do? Well -- they make a fine juice. And who doesn't like grape jelly? I suppose they would also make a fine wine. Too bad I don't like wine. And so, on one particular Sunday last August (2013), the wife and I set out to make our very first and special batch of grape jelly. The recipe sounded simple enough: grape juice, sugar and pectin. That's it

I'm here today to tell you -- it ain't that easy. This is especially true for first timers like me and the wife. We didn't just screw this up -- we royally screwed it up. How can you possibly screw up grape jelly? My friend, let me count the ways...

The cooking and canning part actually worked out fine. The jelly was actually starting to set before we processed them in the canner. Long time jelly makers are now thinking the following: "I sure hope they used that water bath canner."

No -- we didn't. Stupid (that would be me) decided to run them through the pressure canner. Know what happens when you run jars of jelly through a pressure canner? You get grape syrup -- and not a very good syrup at that. The 12 beautiful jars of jelly we canned on that day came out the consistency of a runny syrup. That's not good for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It's not good for anything to be brutally honest.

Those jars of jelly sat -- untouched -- for a year. Until last weekend that is.

OLIVES: Ever had the pleasure of tasting a home canned olive or two? I have. They are delicious! That's why I was bound and determined to can my very first olive crop last fall. Olives in a home brine of your own making are WONDERFUL. They are far better than the crap -- uh -- stuff you get in a store.

Storage Pantry with Lots of New Space!
I've brined my own olives on many occasions. But I'd never taken the next step of actually pressure canning the product for long-term storage (you cannot use water bath canners to process olives). I'm not really sure what went wrong, since I followed these instructions to the letter.

The first report that something went terribly wrong during the canning process would come some weeks later, after I gifted a jar of these special olives to gardening pal Nels Christensen. He messaged back later that evening to tell me the olives were soft to the point where they felt and tasted like a salted mush.

That wasn't right. "Try putting them in the refrigerator overnight," I advised. He did just that. And the next day, the olives were just as mushy. Did I give him a bad jar perchance? Nope -- as I opened one of my jars I was rewarded with olives that were just as mushy. Quart after quart -- pint after pint -- they were all bad.

Weeks of curing and fermentation went literally down the drain. The olives were safely canned alright. They passed the safety test with flying colors. But who wants to munch on olives that have the consistency of Cream of Wheat?

CONCLUSION: The time finally came last weekend to get rid of all those gardening and canning mistakes. I was tired of looking at them. Plus, hey, we needed the jars for other canning projects. This is September after all. The months of August and September are critically important for preserving the home harvest for treats to be shared during those cold winter months.

Did we manage to preserve everything? No -- not quite. Perhaps, one day, when I'm retired and have a little more time on my hands. But I can promise you this much: Those jars of grape jelly and pluot jam are going to make someone happy this winter.