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.

It Calls to Me...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming, already in progress...

It's tough to write when your back hurts. It's tough to write after a shot to cure that pain suddenly causes all sorts of side effects that throw you for a double loop when you were not expecting. Most of all, it's tough to write about gardening and all things Bird Back 40, when the thought of bending over for a mundane task like picking an heirloom tomato scared the bejesus out of me.

But -- time does eventually heal most wounds. And when I finally began to feel somewhat normal again, this space called. I haven't written in quite a bit. This is my own personal journal after all. When you start jotting down notes here and there, well, you begin to miss it. I supposed I missed it.

Can You Name the Mystery Apple?
But, in this time that I've chosen to reflect and heal, I've learned quite a bit. I've met new friends. I've discovered new adventures that call to me. I've even discovered a new variety of apple and lilac that may find a home one day on the Bird Homestead.

But -- most of all -- I've missed you, old friend. You've been with me for a very long time. I'm not quite ready to see you go just yet.

Take the Pain

Friday, August 1, 2014

Lemon Boy Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
The calendar says it's only been two weeks since I last put pen to paper. But to be honest -- it seems like eons ago. Three weeks ago life was grand. That pesky Achilles tendon that kept me out of the garden had finally healed up. The boot was off. Bill Bird was back in his element -- in the garden where he belongs -- blowing through one delayed project after another.

And then -- wouldn't you know it? I pushed that envelope yet a wee bit too much. Even though I promised myself that I would take it easy -- I knew those heirloom tomato plants that I'd just staked up three weekends ago would enjoy a nice long drink of liquid fertilizers.

I use a combination of liquid organic fertilizers in the garden. I've been hooked on a product called Maxicrop, for example, ever since Farmer Fred Hoffman was kind enough to share some with me many, many moons ago when the wife that is Venus and I first started this North Natomas garden assault. Combined with another organic fish fertilizer that I'd obtained from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Nevada City, the fertilizer solution has always resulted in out-of-this-world tomato production.

Miracle Tomato Producer
Sure it takes time to fertilize 28 tomato plants with this liquid fertilizer solution, but the eye-popping production was worth it.

It didn't really dawn on me that hauling five gallon buckets filled with water and fertilizer solution from the garage to the backyard would put much stress on the back. I was more concerned about the foot that had just come out of a walking boot to be brutally honest. I wasn't thinking about the back.

And what a terribly bad thing to not think about.

As a veteran of many back problems, plus at least one back surgery, I can tell you that once you hurt the sciatic nerve in the spine, you're done for. The pain, however, is not immediate. It starts as an annoyance a day or two after the injury. And, depending upon the severity of the injury, that tickling annoyance of pain slowly increases to a level of gut wrenching, soul-killing, pain that is hard to describe.

There is no relief from this pain. Lying down doesn't help. It only makes it worse. Sitting only serves to increase the jolts of pain that the injured sciatic nerve is sending into your legs, and yes, even testicles. It is a pain like no other. And it was all mine, mine, mine. I owned it. All of it. I did it to myself. Three or four days after pinching the sciatic nerve, I couldn't move from the only contorted spot I'd found that temporarily relieved the shockwaves of pain.

It was, at this point, where I allowed waves of negative thinking to take control of my mind. What had I done to myself? How could I possibly screw up this back again after going through $15K of highly successful back surgery nearly ten years ago? How can I live with this pain? What about my job? My career? I couldn't move from the spot I was anchored too, let alone throw on a suit and tie.

Narcotics offered some relief. Prescription pain killers like Percocet, Morphine, Flexeril and many others offered the only road to relief that I could find. And while this road is nice for awhile, it's also a trap. Narcotics don't solve the problem. They merely mask the pain. Narcotics also leave you unable to function, especially in a work setting. And forget about setting foot in a car!

I spent a solid week -- my vacation week for the year oddly enough -- in this narcotics fog. The recipe called for pills in the morning, pills in the afternoon and pills before heading off to bed. With each passing day, the fog grew deeper. What was today? Wednesday? Was tomorrow Friday? Where did I leave the Percocet?

I was in no shape to return to work when I finally did just that. The pain levels were still very high, but the narcotics continued to mask it. On that first day back, a co-worker remarked, "your face is as red as a stoplight!" Simple tasks, like answering a phone call, suddenly weren't so simple anymore. And why was my voice so high?

It was at this point where I realized that allowing myself to sink into a pit of pain-killing narcotics for a week really wasn't the best of ideas. Instead? I should have just taken the pain. And that's when I decided to dump the pills. And when I say dump? I mean, DUMP. There is really only one way to confront the abuse of narcotic pain-killers. It's called "Cold Turkey."

It was also about this time where I ran across one of my favorite epics dealing with the Vietnam War. Platoon not only related a fantastic story of what our fighting soldiers faced in Vietnam, the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture in 1986 also gave rise to a number of great young actors like Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and many others.

But it's one line from that movie that stuck with me one night while I slowly dried out from the narcotics I'd used to mask my back pain. It's a battle scene where several soldiers are wounded and one even loses his life. It's a line where Berenger tells a screaming soldier to "take the pain." And suddenly, I knew what I had to do: Take the pain.

It's been five or six days since I made that decision. My back aches as I sit at this desk and type this prose. But I'm smiling because I know it's a pain that isn't half as bad as it was two weeks ago. It means surgery may not be needed. The falling levels of pain might indicate some future time in a garden setting. But -- don't worry kids -- I won't overdo it this time. That's a promise.

Shocking Blue

Monday, July 14, 2014



I know what many of you are thinking. "Hey, when did somebody do a remake of that Bananarama song?" But, for some strange and odd duck reason, I'm a fan of showing my true age. Which is old. Because this is the best version of "Venus," and it was released while many members of Bananarama were still in ponytail stage.

Venus Table Grapes-Bird Back 40
Yes -- Bananarama ripped "Venus" off from Shocking Blue -- not the other way around. And the version of this song -- plus the name of the Dutch band -- has been bouncing around in my head ever since the start of the Venus Table Grape harvest some two weeks ago.

Why? Why would you ask that? OK -- I'll answer. Besides the obvious (the table grape in question is named Venus, duh), Venus grapes are a shocking blue-purple in color. Perhaps now you'll understand? Oh -- that and I can eat Venus Table Grapes until the cows come home and still not come close to finishing what is still hanging on the Venus vine. Plus -- the thieving mockingbirds and robins who raid the vine with Exlax-like regularity can eat their fill and still not come close to finishing off the stash.

Venus on the Vine-Bird Back 40
If the next question is, "why not just give them away," my response is this: I have been. I've been unloading enough Venus table grapes for neighbors to suddenly slam the door shut and lock it when they see me coming. While they are fans of the Venus -- there is something called "too much of a good thing." Two pounds of Venus grapes make for a nice gift. Four pounds wears out the welcome, if you get my drift.

Is Venus the best tasting table grape I've ever had? No -- that honor still goes to Fantasy grape. That is another shocking blue-purple grape that is still ripening on the vine and will be ready for harvest at some point next month. In fact, that's when most California table grapes start to ripen: August. That's what makes Venus so very special. Venus ripens in late June, stores on the vine very well (doesn't spoil) and produces a harvest so ridiculously large and bountiful that you'll be munching on Venus for at least two to three weeks (or longer).

Venus Grapes: Here, There, Everywhere
I suppose if I leave on the vine any longer I'll be munching on Venus raisins.

By that time even the thieving and marauding birds will have tired of it. No wonder they seem to be casting a longing glance at the Flavor Finale pluot tree. Because man, nor bird, does not live by Venus grape alone.

Another interesting fact about the Venus is it's one of the rare California table grape varieties that wasn't born nor bred in California. Nope -- the Venus hails from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. It's prized by wine growers. It also makes a great grape jelly. It's not the sweetest grape in the world -- and it features a slip skin trait. In other words, there's no crunch when you bite into it.

Venus Vine-Bird Back 40
Try as you might, you probably won't find the Venus in your local grocery store. Nor do I think you'll run across it at your local farmer's market. While I'm not sure as to why the Venus didn't catch on as a marketable table grape (most grapes are coming in from Mexico at the moment), my feeling is the slip-skin trait of this variety probably didn't do it any favors. In other words, I don't believe it would ship to well without spoiling.

No matter -- because there is one place where the Venus has earned its rightful home as a reliable and hardy fruit producer: the Bird Back 40.

Mariska Veres-1970
POSTSCRIPT: Unfortunately, while researching for this blog posting I would come to learn that the lead singer of Shocking Blue, Mariska Veres, died from cancer in December, 2006 at the young age of 59. Although Veres was regarded as a sex-symbol during her years with Shocking Blue, she reportedly told the members of the band when she joined that relationships were out. Reflecting on her early fame, Veres told the Belgian magazine Flair: "I was just a painted doll, nobody could ever reach me. Nowadays, I am more open to people."

Unlike sex symbols and rock stars from her era, Veres didn't smoke, didn't do drugs and didn't drink. In fact, her drink of choice, up until the day she died, was tea.

And for you younger folks who have since joined us -- here's the version of "Venus" that you remember best:

Fear the Beard!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beard of Honeybees (A Swarm)
Sometimes -- even vegetable garden bloggers can hit mental subject roadblocks. It happens to the best of us. And, in my case, it happens to the worst of us. I knew I wanted to write about bees. But you just can't put pen to paper without having some sort of interesting subject matter in mind.

As it turns out -- the bees did all the work for me -- clearing that mental roadblock with one swift buzz.

While I had intended to write about the return of the bright pink Hello Kitty themed hive box -- I needed more than that. I wrote about Hello Kitty years ago. It's old news. Yeah -- I keep bees in a box painted bright pink with a Hello Kitty character stenciled on the side. What's so weird about that? Doesn't everybody do that?

The Return of the Hello Kitty Hive Box
As it turns out -- the honeybees I keep in two brightly painted hive boxes (pink and yellow) did all the hard work for me. They did what bees naturally do. The queen inside one of those colonies did such a fantastic job at laying eggs that the colony grew far too large for the multiple boxes I had assembled. And when a colony grows too large for the space it occupies: it swarms. That swarm is pictured above, right. And, yes, that's a closeup on my part. Bees that swarm rarely sting, and the swarm came from one of the most gentle colonies I've ever had the pleasure of keeping.

This is how new colonies are born or created in the wild. Normally, bees swarm in the spring or early summer. While it's not uncommon for colonies to swarm in the summer, it is rare. In most cases the queen stopped laying eggs weeks ago. I just hope she gets started up again to rebuild colony strength. Because, the unfortunate thing about swarms is this: about half the colony vanishes in the space of a day or two.

Second Hive Box with Bees "Bearding" in Front
That equals into a dramatic loss in honey production -- if you're keeping honeybees for such a thing.

I literally had to start over this year. The colony I'd nursed for the better part of two years, gifted to me by another beekeeper who got out of the business, up and vanished on me last winter. I didn't see much activity out of that hive in December after freezing weather set in. That got me worried. When spring finally rolled around and the weather warmed, a hive check revealed the worst of news. The colony was long gone.

I'll be honest, I missed them. A yard without an active box of pollinators around is an empty yard. It's a quiet yard. Once you've kept bees for a year or two, you're hooked. It's tough to live without them. One would think a beekeeper would get tired of excited bees whizzing to and fro and thonking into the back of one's head. Not so. They are like children. And when children leave, it gets quiet. Too quiet.

Hive Boxes-Face to Face-Shaded by Wisteria
I would come to discover that last year was a particularly nasty year for beekeepers -- and not just hobbyists like myself. When I discovered that one of the most experienced members of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA) reported the loss of 100 colonies, I suddenly didn't feel so bad about losing my single, solitary hive. Honeybee loss hits everyone equally -- from the very experienced to the novice bonehead like myself.

I could have taken several actions to acquire new colonies. I could have purchased a package of bees plus a queen -- but I'm not a fan of that approach. There's no guarantee that the queen you're purchasing is a strong one, and the process of introducing a new queen to a colony is tricky. If you don't know what you're doing (SEE: BILL BIRD), the queen can get killed during the introduction process.

Swarm in a Nearby Pluot Tree
The second approach, which is the cheapest one I might add, is waiting for an established, wild colony to swarm. Colonies that swarm in the spring often come from strong hives that feature strong queens, which means there's a good chance that the swarm will contain a nice young, strong queen as well. The problem with this approach is waiting for the phone to ring. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. You've also got to be prepared for a swarm call 24/7. Since I work full-time, bee hunting availability is at a premium.

The third option, which I chose this spring after getting a very nice offer from a very nice SABA member, is called a "Nuc Transfer." This involves the transfer of a queen, several frames of bees and several frames of honey to an existing hive box. The attractive offer came from SABA Treasurer Kate Morton, after I'd moaned about the loss of my colony the previous winter.

Honeybees "Bearding" in Front of Hive Box
"You want bees," she asked? "I have bees." When she quoted me a price so ridiculously low, I couldn't shout "SOLD" fast enough. I probably shouldn't be telling her this. She'll probably try to sell me another colony or three.

Sure enough -- her assurances of strong hives and strong queens were not empty promises. The swarm pictures included in this blog posting are proof of that. What initially started as three frames of bees in a small box -- something we call a "honey super" -- turned into three boxes stacked on top of one another overnight. Both queens were laying eggs at record rates. While I thought there was a chance one or both colonies might swarm, I also believed the addition of a true hive box at the bottom would prevent it.

Hah! Fat chance! Another boneheaded beekeeping move on my part. Add another one to a very long list.

Honeybee Collecting Siam Queen Basil Pollen
While I'd like to tell you that I kept and hived that swarm for myself, I'm not the best liar in the country. First and foremost, I've already tested the patience of nearby neighbors more than enough. Two colonies are fine. A third would be a little much. And while the City of Sacramento does encourage hobbyist beekeeping efforts, they also want beekeepers to limit the number of hives to just two. Two is exactly what I have. Adding a third, no matter how badly I wanted them, wouldn't have been the best of ideas.

Besides -- there's a popular poem regarding swarms that take place during the month of July. I didn't invent this. I'm not sure who did. But to beekeepers across the country -- and the world for that matter -- it's almost like a passage from the bible:

“A Swarm in May is worth a load of hay
A Swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A Swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.”

Fear The Beard!
Why are swarms that take place in May or June more desirable than those in July? It has to do with pollen production, and the ability of a colony to gather enough pollen to produce enough honey stores for the winter months. In many areas of the country, pollen production begins to dry up in July. The harder pollen is to find -- the harder it is for the bees to make honey. And if a colony can't produce honey -- it's doomed. It will not survive the winter.

But that didn't stop a beekeeper from Loomis from making the trip down to our North Natomas farm to take a chance on this swarm. Like many beekeepers, this particular gentleman had retired from the rat race that is full-time work to take on the full-time hobby of beekeeping. My swarm, which sprang from Kate's bees, are now his colony.

Best of luck to the little buggers. I will miss them.

POSTSCRIPT:

If you're thinking the hobbyist beekeeper route might be the life for you -- I cannot stress the importance of belonging to a member organization like the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association. Here you will find the meetings and helpful people who are essential to getting started. And they will more than welcome you to the club as there's always room for more. Please feel free to drop by the SABA booth at the upcoming State Fair! You just might run into the wife that is Venus and her kook of a husband. Sample free honey! See honeybees in a glass enclosed demonstration hive! The SABA booth is always a top draw for kids and parents alike.

The Color of Summer

Friday, June 27, 2014

Vine-Ripening Lemon Boy Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
The color of summer in a backyard vegetable garden is a show not to be missed. Like the rainbow, backyard produce can produce a glow, a hue, an iridescence that excites the soul. I can see that excitement in the photo to your immediate right. I will soon be able to taste that glow and excitement that is the first vine-ripened tomato of the 2014 summer gardening season.

And there's a quiet satisfaction in knowing that we made that. We made it happen. All that work -- all that prep -- it's all going to start paying off now with a bounty of produce that will transform the Bird Back 40 into our personal farmer's market. It may not be the first tomato to ripen up in the Sacramento area. Others have beat us to the punch and are weeks ahead of us.

Sioux Tomato
No matter. It's not a race. It's just the first tomato of the season. This weekend the Lemon Boy tomato pictured above will join the first cucumber of the young season on small snack plate to be voraciously consumed by two backyard gardeners who are eagerly awaiting that first taste of the summer season.

It's late June in Sacramento. You won't see them in these pictures -- but the weeds are EVERYWHERE. I suppose that's the price one pays for wearing a boot for a solid month, waiting for a cranky Achilles Tendon to heal. But heal it has. There is strength in that step again. The pain is gone. I'm ready to be turned loose in the garden for the first time in nearly two months.

Heirloom Tomato Monsters-Bird Back 40
A lot of work awaits.

But with the work comes excitement. Yes -- I need to stake up some tomato plants that have grown so large that they fallen over. But as I peer into the depths of those plants, now hidden by weeds, what I can see brings a large smile to my face. That courtship we danced with Love Apple Farms in May is paying dividends with monster production in the month of June. We haven't lost a single plant to disease this year, which is incredibly rare. Not only that, the vast majority of them are loaded for bear.

This includes the Sioux Tomato which has found a home in the Bird Back 40 for the very first time this year. This isn't a new tomato -- not by any stretch of the imagination. Introduced in 1944 by the University of Nebraska, the Sioux qualifies as an exceptional heirloom variety that has withstood the test of time. I may not have planted this variety before, but I've certainly heard good things about it from others.

Paul Robeson Tomato
In the world of growing heirloom tomatoes, my friends, there's nothing quite like the marketing campaign called "word of mouth."

When I stroll through the garden and study the various tomato plants in various stages of production, it's not the single fruit that interests me nearly as much as the cluster of fruit. Cherry varieties offer fruit that is clustered together, but that can be hard to find with standard, larger varieties. So if I find clusters of fruit on plants that are designed to produce 1 lb. beefsteak monsters or more? That's called excitement.

Honeybee Forages on Basil Flowers
These clusters exist on the Paul Robeson. What is a Paul Robeson you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked! Please, let me enlighten you.

Paul Robeson was an equal rights advocate who stood up to the infamous Joseph McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 1950’s, which nearly destroyed his career in opera. Idolized in Russia, as well as the rest of the world, this black Russian heirloom was named in his honor. Today the Paul Robeson can be found in vegetable gardens around the world, including the Bird Back 40.

Think that might go well in a jar of Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa? Yeah -- I think it might too. It makes for an interesting story too.

Siam Queen Thai Basil-Bird Back 40
It's summer. The tomatoes are fruiting. The corn is growing. Peppers are popping. Bees are buzzing with excitement as they race from one tempting patch of pollen to another. The first tomato of the season awaits harvest.

Does it get any better than this?