The Flowers of Spring

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Honey Crisp Apple Tree in Full Bloom
"April Showers Bring May Flowers," my mother once crooned. She usually started screeching after a surprise rain storm wiped out whatever her youngest boy had planned for the day -- an event that was usually outside. Because, what boy wants to be stuck inside when the sun is shining outside?

Thank God our house had some thick walls -- because mom's singing was pretty brutal. Brutal enough to drive a boy into a garage in an attempt to find some auditory relief. Perhaps that's the way she wanted it. Perhaps I'm not giving mom enough credit...

Granny Smith Apple in Bloom
Spring is special because it brings a bounty of flowers to the Bird Back 40. And, in our case, every single tiny flower brings the promise of a fruit payoff later this summer. I've come to that age (OLD), where I appreciate the finer things in life. And nothing brings greater joy than a Honey Crisp Apple tree doing it's best Granny Smith Apple imitation.

This is year five for the Honey Crisp. It's delivered exactly one eye-popping crop so far -- and that came in year two. The dreaded Fire Blight would strike in year three, wiping out an entire crop. And last year? Last year the Honey Crisp bloomed in exactly one spot. That's a crime, because the Honey Crisp Apple is that good.

Duke Avocado Tree in Bloom
But this year is somewhat different. This year is somewhat exciting. The temperamental Honey Crisp is covered with blooms and honey bees. The Fuji Apple is also blooming heavily -- a first for this tree as well. And the Granny? The Granny Smith apple was meant to bloom. It always blooms. When doesn't a Granny bloom? If you're looking for a good pollinator tree, look no further than the Granny. That tree is rather ridiculous. It blooms early. It blooms mid-season. It blooms late. Even after you think the Granny is done blooming, surprise! There's another set of buttery pink blossoms.

The story is pretty much the same across the Bird Back 40. The blossom period for the peaches and nectarines is just about over. The thorn less blackberry vines are in full bloom. The Shuksan strawberry plants are going to town. Even the Duke Avocado tree is covered with more blooms and bees than I can possibly count. Step anywhere near that tree and you'd swear there was a beehive hidden somewhere in there.

Duke Avocado Blooms
But the most surprising development isn't the surprisingly heavy crop of Royal Rainier Cherries. It's not the myriad of mandarins that are covered with a carpet of white. No -- the most surprising development was the number of blooms on the Harrow Delight Pear tree. I planted this tree three years ago. I dutifully chopped it in half to knee level to encourage low branch development. And I was told it could take 4-5 years before the Harrow Delight produced its first crop.

Instead, the Harrow Delight bloomed in year three and set a nice crop of pears. This is important because I fell in love with the Harrow Delight at a Dave Wilson Nursery fruit tasting event held several years ago at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. Even though the wife that is Venus were sampling a bevy of different fruits on this particular day, one item stood out among all the others. I kept going back for more. It was the Harrow Delight Pear.

Harrow Delight Pear in Bloom
The Harrow Delight is one of two varieties planted in a raised bed that are supposedly resistant to the scourge upon fruit kind known as Fire Blight. It was introduced in 1982 from the Harrow Agricultural station in Ontario, Canada. The Blake's Pride Pear, which is also billed as Fire Blight resistant, was developed by Richard Bell with the ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia in 1998.

Unfortunately, I will have to wait on the Blake's Pride as it did now flower this spring. The old-fashioned Bartlett Pear, which is not resistant to blight and is planted in the same raised bed as the other two varieties, flowered heavily this year.

Harrow Delight Pears
No sign of the dreaded blight yet this year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and trying a new organic solution of water and apple cider vinegar to keep the blight at bay. I do have something stronger, BUT, I really don't like what this particular chemical did to the fruit composition last year. So it stays on the sideline.

Half the work of growing home-grown fruit takes place in the spring. Is the area clear of weeds (weeds steal water)? Has the appropriate fertilizer been applied? Is it getting enough water? Are the fruit trees protected from various ills, like blight, that can strike in the spring?

If the answer to all four questions is "YES," congratulations. You should have a tree full of fruit. Of course, a million and one things could happen between now and harvest time that could spoil that tempting looking crop. As backyard fruit growers, this is the cross we bear.

So -- congratulations. Springtime has arrived. The fruit trees are in full bloom. The honey bees are out in force. And, so far, mom hasn't been tempted to start crooning "April Showers Bring May Flowers."

Steaks in the Summer Garden

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Heirloom Tomato Seedlings
We're planning to grow steaks in the Bird Back 40 summer garden this year. How about you? Can you spot the tiny steak starter plants in the photo to your right? They are right in front of your nose. They don't look all that special -- but come this summer -- hopefully the wife that is Venus will be digging into her favorite cut of prime rib.

How does one grow steaks in a garden you ask? Plant a moo-moo cow in the raised garden beds perchance? Set aside a portion of the Bird Back 40 for some moo-moo cows? They'd get along great with Lenny the Giant Maine Coon cat, wouldn't they? Probably not -- so perish the thought.

Steak House Hybrid Tomato Seed
No -- the steaks we're growing this year -- a first for us by the way -- are of the vegetable or fruit variety. It's called the Steak House Hybrid. It's the latest introduction from Burpee Seed, and I must warn you, it's ridiculously expensive. How expensive? Stupid expensive. As someone has to be as stupid as yours truly to lay down $7 for a packet of magic beans.

Yes -- I will admit -- I paid $7 for Burpee's latest creation. They promised a seed packet with 25 seeds. Yet -- someone has a serious math problem in that seed operation because when the package finally did arrive, it contained a total of six or seven seeds. That's right, a buck a seed. This better be worth it.

Tomato Seed Selections from Tomato Growers Supply
Burpee claims that it is. "Meet the biggest tomato ever bred," the advertising claims. "And it’s not just bigger but better. Tipping the scales at up to three lbs. plus, broad-shouldered tomato titan is bigger than Big Daddy, and loaded with true heirloom tomato flavor and head-spinning fragrance. Indeterminate plants produce gorgeous, humongous fruits."

With advertising like that, who can resist? The Steak House Hybrid is one of 40-50 varieties that we're growing from seed this year. Planted two weeks ago, most of everything has sprung to life. This includes numerous peppers, which should have been planted a month earlier, but, uh, I'm late. OK, so sue me.

Solar Flare Tomato Seed: Wild Boar Farms
Some of these varieties are new. Some are old favorites. Every tomato garden must now include a Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, the brainchild of Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms. If that's not a gardening law, it should be.

Other old-time gardening varieties include the always amazing, but sometimes tempermental, Azochka (tastes like bacon!). Look closely and you will find a Druzba, Green Zebra, Caspian Pink and Brandywine.

Ah -- but the Steak House Hybrid isn't the only "meat" feature in this year's summer garden. And no summer garden is complete without other tasty summer vegetables. Nope -- you've got to have a patch of basil here and there. Peppers are a must. And who can forget about tasty eggplant?

Seed Starting Station
So -- it's not just steaks -- but meatballs as well. This is yet another Burpee selection -- an eggplant they like to call "Meatball." So -- what's so special about "Meatball?" I have absolutely no clue. This is the first time I've grown it.

But if you were to believe the fine folks at Burpee: "Meet the mightiest, meatiest eggplant ever. Imagine fresh, home-grown, vine-ripened MEAT! That's Meatball."

Do you believe them? Meh -- me too. We'll see what happens.

Our "seed rack" contains about 140 starter plants this year. That represents the most we've ever started from seed. Can we fit 140 starter plants into the Bird Back 40? Only if I knock down the neighbor's fence and take over his backyard -- something he probably wouldn't like.

But, starting too many plants is a tradition here. Besides, they always do find a home. If not in our garden, somewhere else. I mean, look, who can pass on a tomato named after a STEAK and even the hardiest eggplant hater would pause at something called a MEATBALL.

It's 2016 in the Bird Back 40. The carnivores are taking over.

Big Pink
Black Krim
Campbell’s 1327
Cascade Lava
Caspian Pink
Green Tie Dye
Green Zebra
Italian Sweet
Lemon Boy
Marisol Purple
Mint Julep
Oaxacan Jewel
Pink Berkeley Tie Dye
Pink Boar
Pork Chop
San Marzano
Sky Reacher
Solar Flare
Sweet 100

Dark Opal
Large Leaf
Siam Queen

Chillax Dude!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Pride Peach Tree-Bird Back 40
Chill! Chill out dude! Take a chill pill! Dude, just chill for a minute, will you? It was the "cool" word of the day -- way back in the day when I was a young man. Back when horse drawn carriages plied pretty red brick lined streets of Old Sacramento, and...

Oh, who am I kidding. I'm old, yes. But ancient? Only in the eyes of someone half my age, say 26 or 27? But, seriously, I can remember this word. I can remember it because my friends and I used it often. Usually, we called upon the magic word to stop our friends from saying or doing something rather foolish.

Or, perhaps they'd already done something foolish. Like -- trying to appeal a member of the opposite sex by complimenting her on that very pretty undergarment she was wearing at that particular moment. At that point, we had to rush him off and drag the offender away from the highly-offended member of the opposite sex, while muttering the entire time, "yo, dude, major error on your part! Just chill for a minute."

Eva's Pride Peach
I sometimes wonder how teenage boys survive to become men. But I digress.

Those precocious teenage years are but a distant and now blurry dot on that rear view mirror we call life. I'm older now. With age comes the rewards of crankiness, grouchiness, grumpiness and a somewhat disturbing loss of bowel control. Win!

But -- not everything changes. I'm still using that cool word we call "chill." Only now it has an entirely different, but still very important, meaning. Those of us who grow all sorts of delicious fruit for fun or profit also know the importance behind the magic word of "chill." But it's not "chill out dude," it's more like "check the chill hours, dude."

Honeycrisp Apple-Requires 800 Chill Hours
What are chill hours and why are they so important? Are you really that bored with life that you want to learn? Become a nerd like yours truly? Then, you're in luck. Because I am always willing to share the nerd germ with anyone who wants it.

Sleep is an important factor in our lives. Most of us don't get enough of it and yearn for more when that damn alarm starts going off, or the Maine Coon cat starts using a baseball bat against the sliding glass door. But it's not just important for people and pets. Fruit trees need a nap too -- and a long one at that.

In some ways fruit trees are a lot like that child that will not accept an 8:00 PM bedtime. They'll cry, they'll moan, they'll complain. And then -- after all that -- comes the fun of a childhood tantrum. Fruit trees follow much the same behavior. They will stubbornly stay awake until that very last possible moment and will resist the urge to lose every last leaf and fall into a deep, winter slumber.

Harrow Delight Pear-Requires 800 Chill Hours
These are the chill hours I speak of. I've come to discover, through trial and error, that they are vitally important to the health of next summer's crop. Because a fruit tree that doesn't get enough chill hours is just as cranky as that child who stayed up far too long past that 8:00 PM mandatory bedtime.

Ah -- but not all fruit trees are created equal. That Pride Peach collection pictured above and now coming into bloom has a far different chill requirement than the Black Tartarian Cherry tree planted nearby. Some fruit trees require a lot of chill hours. Some, not as much. That's why it's always best to check the chill hour requirement BEFORE you make that fruit tree or bush purchase. Chill hour requirements are just as important as the gardening zones that determine what type of and when vegetables should be planted.

The current drought that I hope and pray will come to a speedy end this winter means more than just a lack of water for fruit tree growers. When the rain stops falling and the storms move way, it tends to start warming up. And when it warms up early as it has for the past two to three years, fruit trees that require a lot of chill hours tend to suffer a great deal.

Black Tartarian Cherry-800 Chill Hours
Something simple like a lack of chill hours can result in a reduced harvest or no harvest at all. This is why prices for fresh cherries have been so high in some parts of the country. If that Black Tartarian cherry tree doesn't get the required 800 chill hours of slumber, it doesn't matter how much water or fertilizer it gets during the spring and summer months. It's just not going to produce.

I've learned the same hard lesson about other fruit trees that have long chill hour requirements -- like the best apple on God's Green Earth: The Honeycrisp Apple. If the Honeycrisp doesn't get that 800 hour chill hour nap during the winter, much like the Black Tartarian cherry, production is going to suffer.

It's not just production that can suffer. Sometimes a fruit tree that doesn't get enough chill hours will produce a lot of fruit. But that fruit will often be smaller, and in the case of last year's June Pride peach crop, lumpier. Lumpy peaches don't look appealing. They don't taste all that grand either.

Royal Rosa Apricot Preparing to Flower
Commercial growers long ago learned the secret behind and the importance of chill hours. That's why the fine folks at the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Research and Information Division long ago developed a very handy and dandy chill calculator page. By clicking on this page you can see the chill hours that are taking place in every county of California, and more importantly, the chill hours in your very own backyard.

The nearest chill hour station to the Bird Back 40 is just over the Yolo County line, near Woodland. Like the true fruit nerd that I am -- I visit this page often during the all important winter months. The chill hours ranging between a high of 45 degrees and a low of 32 are the most important statistic. The Bird Back 40 is up to nearly 700 chill hours as I write this -- and that is the cause for a very wide smile on my part. I haven't seen this type of cold weather treatment for awhile and fruit production has suffered.

5-in-1 Apricot Tree
Although most Sacramento County locations normally average about 1,000 chill hours during most years -- the last two winters have been anything but normal. It didn't rain or snow a lot -- and it didn't stay cold for nearly long enough. Our chill hours suffered. Instead of the expected and hoped for average of 1,000 chill hours -- some areas received less than 600. Fruit trees flowered weeks earlier than expected and production suffered.

Short and sweet, there is absolutely nothing a grower can do if Mother Nature doesn't deliver on some extended cold weather. A lack of chill hours impacts just about every fresh fruit variety grown around here, from apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears and even grapes. Think that might impact the price of your favorite variety of wine in two to three years? It might.

Redwood Barn Nursery owner Don Shor recently wrote an impressive article on the tremendous importance of chill hours in the Davis Enterprise. He predicted that the 2015 fresh fruit year might be a bad one. For the most part, he was right on the money.

June Pride Peach Tree
What will 2016 bring us? That's a good question. The jury is still out. If the weather warms up and the storms stay away like they have for the past two to three years, most fruit tree owners are, in a word, screwed.

If there is a silver lining, it's this. We are off to a very good start as far as chill hours are concerned. December started off with and ended with a cold winter's blast. January conditions were nearly as good. The $64 question is, what will February bring?

So, sit back and chill out dude. Chillax for a moment. My Black Tartarian cherry tree will thank you.

Good Night Sweet Charlotte

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree-Bird Back 40
It's a serious hair cut. We all get them from time to time. In this particular case and this particular year -- the famed and favored Flavor Finale Pluot got the "big chop" as they say in fruit growing circles. What had been a mighty fine looking large and wonderfully productive tree now resembles an outdoor houseplant.

I hope you didn't think I was talking about myself. It's been a few years since I had enough hair on my own head to qualify for a "big chop." Now, the instructions to the barber are more like, "can't you cover up that big bald spot at the top of my head?"

Barbers can work wonders. But they can't make hair grow where it once grew in abundance.

Flavor Finale Tree Before Haircut
Although my own hair won't be growing back anytime soon -- I have no doubt that the Flavor Finale Pluot WILL spring back to life when it wakes up from its long winter nap in a couple of months. Why on God's Green Earth did I cut this tree so far back to size? It's my own fault, really.

See, I'm a glutton for pluots. I have been since I tasted my first one many moons ago during a former lifetime in Fresno. They were -- and still are -- amazing. I couldn't get enough of them back in the day -- which is why I set out several years ago to grow my own. I figured that -- with my own tree -- I would finally get more pluots than I bargained for.

It took awhile -- about six years of growth and tender care. That first big crop that I'd dreamed up finally showed up two seasons ago. It nearly broke several branches on the tree -- but not quite. I should have learned my lesson then -- but didn't. I wasn't expecting the gigantic crop that finally appeared last season.

Busted Branches
It appears the tree wasn't ready for it either.

The "damage" (if you want to call it that) started to show up in late summer about a month before Flavor Finale crop was due to ripen. Those strong branches suddenly laden with fruit didn't seem so strong and sturdy with hundreds of pounds of juicy pluots attached to them. I watched, rather hopelessly I might add, as those branches slowly sank under the weight of a terrific crop.

I can handle one branch loaded with fruit. The same goes with two. But when EVERY branch on the tree suddenly begins to bend in an alarming, downward fashion, you can guess what happened next. Much like a rice krispies treat, my Flavor Finale suffered a "snap, crackle, pop" treatment of one broken branch after another. And if the branch didn't snap in two, it bent so low that it eventually hit the ground.

Pluot Limbs Removed During Haircut
This wasn't what I was expecting. But I should have known better. Because it's exactly what I got.

Pretty soon, my pretty and well trimmed Flavor Finale tree resembled some sort of failed bush. The wife swears it actually fell over at one point. A visual inspection would reveal that the tree was still standing tall alright. It's just another branch had busted under the weight of a terrific crop. And then another followed by yet another.

I won't lie to you. Last year's harvest was truly something special. I lived on pluots for as long as I could stand them. I would pack heavy, 30 lb. sacks of them for family and friends. Yet at the end of this picking party project, the tree was so heavily laden with fruit, it didn't look like I'd even touched it. Despite my efforts to process as many pluots into jars of jam as I could, and give them away to anyone who asked or wanted them, I'd estimate about 30-40 percent of the crop went to waste.

More Broken Branches
This is also despite the presence of family of marauding mockingbirds who also shared a love for everything pluots. At the end of the season I had a family of fat mockingbirds hanging out in the Bird Back 40. And despite the heavy raids of both man and beast -- hundreds of pluots still went to waste.

The damage -- oh there was plenty of it -- wasn't easy to look at after the onset of rain and cold put the tree into a deep slumber and removed every last leaf. The Tree That Bethany Built -- a collection of many different varieties of pluots thanks to exhaustive grafting efforts -- looked like a child's toy that had been abused far too often. What was once well shaped and majestic looked bent, busted, tired and worn.

So what happens next? Oh -- the tree will eventually recover soon enough. Fruit trees can take fantastic amounts of abuse once established and spring back again and again and again. I don't know if I will ever get as large as it did the first time, because I'm no fan of fruit going to waste. But I will take special care now to carefully trim this tree in a way that will result in strong branches that can hold a big crop -- rather than those long and slender sticks that are nothing more than a distant memory now.

So -- it will be awhile before I see another pluot crop like the one I had last year. And that's fine in my opinion. The mockingbirds who live in that tree during harvest season may not like it too much -- but I could use a small break!

Berries Are for the Birds!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Arapaho Thornless Blackberry Vine
You bet they are! And Bill and the wife that is Venus Bird like it that way! Welcome to May 2015 -- and one of the coolest spring weather patterns I think I've ever experienced in the Sacramento area. That doesn't help much when it comes to summer producing vegetable plants like tomatoes and cucumbers, but the Bird berry patch likes it just fine.

The big winner in this year's berry battle in the Bird Back 40? It should come as no surprise by now. For the second straight year and the fourth year since I brought it home and planted it, the Arapaho Thornless Blackberry is sporting a massive crop of berries that are, in some cases, three inches long and an inch thick. I wrote about this particular variety last year.

Arapaho Blackberries
The Arapaho continues to defy zone logic. The plant professionals claim it's not supposed to do well in this climate. It's more suited for cooler climates not found in my Zone 9A. It's supposed to do better on the coast and up north where it doesn't get quite as hot. But berry plants are funny customers. Arapaho berries grown on a commercial basis on the coast, where it is cooler, suffer from tip dieback. But here in the more inland, hotter, area? The Arapaho does just fine.

Time and study will determine just how well the Arapaho will do in California. Although it's not the most recent introduction from the University of Arkansas breeding program, it's still fairly new to our area and climate. Although it may eventually prove to be a bust on a commercial basis, it seems to do just fine in your ordinary home backyard setting.

Shuksan Strawberry Patch
If there is one big difference in the Bird Back 40 berry battle -- it's that the Arapaho isn't the only berry sporting a fat crop this year. Nope -- it's a tie. For in 2015 there are 20 second-year Shuksan strawberry plants putting on a big show in what will eventually prove to be the largest and most luscious strawberry harvest we've ever experienced in these parts.

The introduction of the Shuksan strawberry has been a years long, trial and (mostly) error, attempt to grow strawberries in the Bird Back 40. I wasn't interested in those small, sweet berries that emerge from most backyard settings. Nope -- I wanted in on the action that comes out of our local strawberry fields: strawberries the size of a golf ball or larger.

Shuksan Strawberries
At first I thought the answer to my berry wishes would be the Chandler Strawberry. The production was, in a word: Meh. Then I thought a combination of Albion and Gaviota strawberries would be the answer. They should do well here, right? That's what the experts told me. It's the recommendation I found online here. In fact, they advised the following: Recommended strawberry varieties for CaliforniaAlbionAromasCamarosaCamino RealChandlerDiamanteGaviota, Oso Grande, Pacific, Seascape, Selva, Ventana.  (According to the California Strawberry Commission)

But guess what kids? Don't believe everything you read online. Yes -- these might be great strawberry selections for some regions of California. But not here in the heat of inland California. It wasn't until I started checking each and every strawberry plant selection offered here, and checking the recommended zones very closely, did I stumble upon the Shuksan Strawberry. Recommended for Zones 4-10. That was my "Eureka" moment.

Bird Back 40 Berry Patch
If this is the kind of production I can expect from 20 second year plants, what happens next year when the additional 40 plants I ordered and planted this year swing into full production? 60 plants instead of 20? How about 80-100 plants? Strawberry overload anyone?

I'll take it.

Despite the very berry success this year -- I'm just getting started. For where there is a bare patch of dirt in the Bird Back 40 -- there's room for another small raised bed and perhaps another berry plant or two. I've got my eye on another recent introduction from the University of Arkansas breeding program. This is one is also thornless. It is called the Ouachita Blackberry -- which does well in gardening zones 5-9.

Because man does not live on blackberries alone. But, personally, I would if I could.

The Stain

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wonderful Pomegranate-Bird Back 40
There she goes again. The Wonderful Pomegranate putting on her usual springtime "look at me, I'm pretty" show. I should have put this tree in the front yard where everyone can enjoy the bonanza of bright red and yellow flowers.

But the one drawback to that idea is I wouldn't get any pomegranate fruit in the fall. Some thieving kid would probably steal it all -- just as I did back in the Modesto day. And who could blame a kid for emulating me? I certainly can't.

Emerging Pomegranate Fruit-Bird Back 40
My passion for fresh fruit was forged by two factors -- neither of which I could control. Number one, I was the youngest of four kids growing up in a single-parent household. There wasn't much money when dad up and left. There wouldn't be much to go around for several years.

What bacon mom did bring home didn't last for long. This was the day and age before "free school lunches," although I do remember on some days we did get a half-pint of milk. That was always a treat.

Pretty Pomegranate Flowers
What I didn't get at home was augmented by what I could scavenge from the fruit trees that dotted front and back yards in our Ribier Avenue neighborhood. Fortunately, they were both large and plentiful. Plums in the front yard, cherries in the backyard. If that peach wasn't in season, the Merritt orange tree most certainly was. This was the second factor I had no control over. The fruit trees were there and I couldn't control myself.

But it would be on a nearby street -- Norwegian Ave. very near McHenry -- where I would discover a fruit like no other. It wasn't the biggest of trees as I recall -- probably no more than six or seven feet. But it shined with bright pink, red and yellow blossoms in the spring and delivered an eye-popping harvest of glistening red, softball sized fruit in the fall.

Pomegranates Here-Pomegranates There
I can remember my mother's first horrific reaction when she discovered I was bringing a bounty of pomegranates into her house. "DON'T EAT THOSE IN HERE," she positively screamed. "They'll leave behind a stain that will never go away!"

But what do mothers know about pomegranates and messy kids anyway? Besides -- it was dusty, old furniture in a Modesto tract home -- not the Taj Mahal. So I did what any snot-nosed kid would do. I promptly ignored mom and cracked those babies open on her freshly polished living room coffee table.

Ain't She Pretty?
Mom was right. Those stains never did quite go away. Thank God Almighty the carpet was a dark, chocolate colored brown. Otherwise those spots would have been plainly visible as well. I don't think the shirt I was wearing on this particular day also survived the onslaught of pomegranate juice. But I can tell you this much: It was on this day that my love for pomegranates was born.

I never did meet the family that owned this particular Norwegian Ave. tree. While I should have tried to knock on their door and at least ask -- I found it much easier to snatch as much as I could and run like the wind for the safety of home. This is a task and practice I repeated for many a year, until I acquired my first job as a newspaper delivery boy for the Modesto Bee. At that point I started to earn enough money to do what normal kids do: eat junk food.

Honey Bee Crack Cocaine
But I will never forget this tree. I hope you remember it too. Because it kept at least one small boy happy and fed when dollars were tight and good times were few and far between. While I could have chosen one of many pomegranate varieties to grow in the Bird Back 40 -- I chose the Wonderful -- which is the standard variety and the same tree that grew in front of that Norwegian Ave. home. And I think now you might understand why.

It's more than just a pretty tree. It's more than just fresh pomegranate juice (which is wonderful by the way). It's a connection to the past that I can never visit again. It's the thought of a mother, who is long since gone. It's a mystical connection that I feel. Because these flowers and this fruit remind me of a special time in my life.

It's a stain actually. A stain on my soul.

Gold Nugget or Crazy Good Mandarin?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Gold Nugget Mandarin-Bird Back 40
I'll be honest. This past winter restored my faith in citrus. I had one of the best citrus harvests ever on the Dancy Mandarin. And since Mr. Freeze steered clear of much of the Bird Back 40 this past winter, my citrus and avocado plantings sailed right through a mild winter and bloomed like something special this spring.

Know what that means? It means a record harvest later this fall for the Bearss Lime, aka Gin and Tonic, tree. That's what it means! Because when it comes to a mean Gin and Tonic or a mean Tom Collins, a juicy Bearss Lime or three is absolutely essential. That my friends, is fresh drink heaven.

Mister Snow Miser (Not Kind to Citrus)
Last winter was also a far cry from the devastating winter of 2013. Yes -- 2013 was just as dry, if not more so, than 2014. But what 2013 had that 2014 didn't was a long and extended stay by Mister Snow Miser. Do you remember him from your ABC Holiday specials? He's got a thing or two for icicles, and unfortunately he stuck around for far too long in December 2013. By the time he finally departed, the lemons had shriveled into unappetizing black lumps. Oh -- and half of the Gin and Tonic tree decided to take a dirt nap.

Good riddance to 2013!

Part of this past weekend was dedicated to restoring the damage that took place during 2013. The Clementine Mandarin that also checked out permanently that year was replaced this past weekend by something rather special. Say hello to the Gold Nugget Mandarin, plus a little something else extra special.

Yours Truly With Gold Nugget Prize
Do you know how difficult it is to find and purchase a standard sized mandarin tree in this day and age? Try this one on for size: Extremely Difficult. The primary supplier for all things citrus in California, Four Winds Growers, will provide you with plenty of dwarf citrus offerings. You want a dwarf lemon? No problem! Dwarf lime? Got them right here in spades! Dwarf mandarin? Take your pick! Standard size lemon, lime, orange or mandarin? Better luck next year, son.

Why is the primary supplier of citrus in California focusing on dwarf selections? Good question! Ask! I've tried. It's tough to get a straight answer. So what's the problem with dwarf citrus offerings? Dwarf sizes often result in small harvests. The days of that 30 foot tall and 30 foot wide citrus tree are quickly disappearing. Say hello to citrus trees that grow no larger than six or seven feet -- and like it.

Mandarin Trees-Green Acres Nursery
This past weekend just happened to be that very special weekend that the Sacramento Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) held its annual citrus scion exchange. You want something special when it comes to all things citrus? Visit the CRFG exchange. You won't find everything under the sun there -- but it's pretty darn close.

I'd heard some good feedback about the Gold Nugget Mandarin. A recently released mandarin developed within the University of California, Riverside citrus breeding program, the Gold Nugget holds up well against freezing conditions (a plus) and also ripens at a time (early March) when most mandarins in the Bird Back 40 have come and gone.

Gold Nugget Mandarins
I tried to find a standard sized Gold Nugget tree. I failed. Miserably. Although the Bird Back 40 is studded with standard sized citrus trees of every shape and variety -- finding a standard sized Gold Nugget was proving to be rather impossible. So, I settled for what was available that day at Green Acres Nursery: a Gold Nugget mandarin tree on dwarf root stock.

BUT -- obtaining that Gold Nugget mandarin tree was just the first part of the battle. You see, that tree would become the root stock that I would use for other varieties offered through the CRFG citrus exchange. I was particularly interested in obtaining scions for two different varieties: the Minneola Tangelo and another variety offered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It's so new that it doesn't even have a name yet -- and may never have one. It's known only by number: The 6-15-150.

6-15-150 Mandarin
As soon as the wife that is Venus spotted the scions marked with the number of "15-150," she broke into a wide grin and blurted out "the 5150 mandarin? That's crazy good stuff." That's all she had to say. Consider us sold. Before we departed Maddox Park on this particular weekend, the Gold Nugget Mandarin had been outfitted with a graft of what promises to be a "crazy good mandarin."

The newest mandarin tree to grace the Bird Back 40 has already found it's permanent home. It sits in the spot once occupied by the long-gone Clementine. It's not that I've given up on the Clementine. That's also a right fine mandarin. But all mandarins are not the same. Some have a little more trouble standing up to deep freezes. The Clementine, unfortunately, isn't as cold tolerant as I would like. And since Mr.Snow Miser does like to pay a visit every once in awhile, it's probably best to stick with mandarin varieties that can survive an icicle-challenged night or two.

Dwarf Mandarin Trees-Green Acres Nursery
The graft, which is completely wrapped in grafting tape to keep it safe from water intrusion, hasn't sprouted yet. It may never sprout. Grafting isn't 100 percent foolproof. I know this to be true because my success with citrus grafting is nothing to write home about, unless the piece appears in "Failure Magazine." That's why I had someone with a more experienced hand do the grafting work for me. That's the advantage of membership in a group like the CRFG. That's where you find the really special scion wood -- and someone who knows what they are doing.

Will it turn out to be our favorite mandarin, provided the graft sprouts to life? Good question. I can't tell you. As one CRFG member is fond of saying, "my favorite mandarin happens to be the one I'm eating at that particular moment."

Wise words indeed.

Meet Katie Amaral

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Katie Amaral (right) of Dave Wilson Nursery
There she is. To your right. That, my friends, is Miss Katie Amaral. And that is your's truly to the left of Katie. This photo was snapped about two weeks ago. For the people that I work with day in and day out at the California State Capitol, you might recognize this as the entry room to the Governor's Office on the first floor of the State Capitol Annex.

That's where I would find Katie Amaral on this fine day. And, although we've known each other for years, this was the first time we actually met in person. Katie and I have been corresponding with one another via email for years. Oh -- nothing to worry about. Nothing insidious here. Yes, the wife that is Venus knows all about Miss Katie. As it turns out -- all three of us share a love for fruit trees.

And, if you love fruit trees as much as we do, Katie happens to hold down the dream job of Marketing Manager for Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman, CA. They just happen to be the largest provider of fruit trees on the planet. Want to parlay about pluots? Talk to Katie. In pursuit of peaches? You need to see Katie. Compare notes about Nectaplums? See Katie Amaral.

Mark Stromberg
Katie's visit came at an opportune time. That was a rather tough week two weeks ago when this photo was taken. It's been a rough couple of weeks since then. I suppose this reaction is quite normal when a brother-in-law suddenly and surprisingly passes away. And that's exactly what Mark Stromberg did on March 12th. He had just turned 42 years old. He died from triple organ failure.

I know what you're probably thinking. How does an otherwise healthy 42-year old man suddenly and unexpectedly pass from triple organ failure? It's the same question the family is asking. You see, we don't know. We're not doctors. But we are hoping the Sacramento County Coroner can find the answer. Yet -- these types of investigations take time. Autopsy results are still pending.

Venus and Barky
I still don't know how Venus has managed to maintain the strength she has. She was the first one with her brother when they brought him into the Sutter General emergency room, very much unresponsive. Although I would join her later as we sat outside the room Mark was in, there wasn't much we could do other than hold one another after Mark's heart stopped beating again and again. We could hear the monitor code. We saw emergency room physicians and nurses rushing in and out. There was little else we could do.

The wife that is Venus is now the last surviving member of a family of four. She lost both her mother and father to cancer. And now she's lost her baby brother -- Barky she would sometimes call him. Somehow she has to deal with his. The only thing I can do at this point is be here to support her, in whatever she may need.

So you can imagine how I felt that day when Katie Amaral messaged me to say she was in the Governor's Office. I couldn't get out of my State Senate chair quickly enough. I needed the distraction from the thoughts going through my mind about my brother-in-law and how things could have gone so horribly wrong. Katie offered that distraction -- and I can't thank her enough for it.

Backyard Orchard Culture Pear Trees
You see, Katie is responsible for many of the fruit trees growing in the Bird Back 40. There wouldn't be a five-in-one Pride Peach Collection without her help. The Harrow Delight and Blake's Pride pear trees also found their way into a raised bed thanks to her efforts.

To be honest -- I haven't felt like doing a whole lot since Mark's passing. Working in the yard does provide some relief, but it's just an escape from the reality of this thing called life. At some point I have to get back to living life. That's been a tough assignment. How can I possibly blog about heirloom tomatoes when this is hanging over my head?

Celina Marie and Marquitos Stromberg
Mark leaves behind a wife and two children. Our niece and nephew now have to face the reality of growing up without a father. That's not easy. I remember how I felt when my mother told me that my father had passed away in the hospital. I was nine years old. I grew up without a father. You can grow up without one. I'm living proof of that. But it was anything but easy.

Perhaps that is the answer then? Be there for the kids? We can't be a father to them, but we can sure do everything we possibly can to be the best and most attentive uncle and aunt (or Tio and Tia). I suppose that is the answer then. Be strong for the children. Be strong because strength and mentoring is what they need the most right now.

It isn't easy. But we're up to the task. So long, Mark Stromberg. And thanks for the visit, Katie Amaral. It came at an opportune time.