Tomato Favorites From 2008!!!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

There comes a time to reflect on your summer tomato garden -- which is usually at the end of a growing season. At that point, you have a pretty good idea of what tomatoes did well in the backyard garden, what tomatoes you will grow again, and absolute DISASTERS that will never be allowed in your garden again. Like everyone else, I have that list:


Without a doubt in my mind, the answer is CAMPBELL'S 1327. If you're unaware of this variety, yes, this is the tomato that Campbell's Soups used for eons for their famous cans of soups and sauces. They gave up on this tried and true original with the advent of genetic engineering and plant breeding, and Campbells uses paste tomatoes that are grown by the millions in the South, Central and North San Joaquin Valley. Like many heirloom varieties, the 1327 was not abandoned because Campbells developed a "better tasting tomato." What they did develop was a tomato that could withstand shipping over long distances and bumpy valley roads. Thank goodness someone saved seeds from this wonderful, former, processing tomato because it is a true winner. The Campbell's 1327 is an "indeterminate" tomato, which means it yields crop after crop after crop during the summer. My one plant yielded five crops -- with anywhere from 15-20 tomatoes per harvest. The Campbell's 1327 produces round, red, 1 lb. lip-smacking tomatoes with a high acid content. It's good in salads, sauces and is perfect for canning. I will grow this variety for years to come.


The PINEAPPLE BEEFSTEAK is an absolutely WONDERFUL tomato and I hope to grow it again next season. The plant was given to me by South Natomas grower Nels Christensen, a member of our Fruit of the Heirloom (FOHL) club. Like most heirloom tomatoes, it took time to set fruit. But it was well worth the wait. The Pineapple Beefsteak averages about 1.5 lbs., and gets the Pineapple name from its incredibly sweet and lush taste. If you're looking for acid content, this is not the tomato for you. But, if you prefer sweet tasting tomatoes, well, this is one I highly reccommend.

The BLOODY BUTCHER will also have a home in my 2009 tomato garden. I was given two of these plants, courtesy of Farmer Fred Hoffman, and they were an instant favorite. It's not necessarily the taste that knocks you out. It's good -- yes -- but not out-of-this-world great. What sets this plant apart from others however, is the PRODUCTION. Bloody Butcher produced early, mid-season and late season. The golf-ball sized, red, round tomatoes produce in clusters of five or six. It produced the first tomatoes of the season, in late June, and kept the production going until late September. This is a great tomato for snacking on while in the garden.

The CELEBRITY is one of my most favorite hybrid tomatoes of all time. It is not an heirloom, and was developed in the early 1990's. Much like the Campbell's 1327, the Celebrity produces an abundance of large, red, round tomatoes. This is an excellent salad tomato.

ANDREW RAHART'S JUMBO RED is another "must have" in the heirloom tomato garden. Although it did not produce many JUMBO sized tomatoes, it put out a fair amount of production. The tomato taste is slightly sweet and acidic. This one reminds you of tomatoes from the past. There's an old world taste there that is hard to describe.

Other winners from this year's garden include Marianna's Peace, Pruden's Purple and a tomato plant that was mislabeled "Rainbow." This wasn't a Rainbow Beefsteak. Not even close. I'd love to grow it again, but the seed source is all but gone now -- out of the picture completely. This plant didn't produce a darn thing until it grew to a height of five feet. And then, without warning, it fruited a crop of about fifty tomatoes. They were dark in color, much like Cherokee Purple, and also had green shoulders. But this was not a Cherokee Purple. I'm not sure what it was, but I hope to get the opportunity to grow it again someday.


OMAR'S LEBANESE: This is another heirloom favorite that I've wanted to try for years. The plant grew well enough, but didn't produce much. I did get three or four late tomatoes. And they were absolutely delicious, no doubt about it. But, in terms of production? A real stinkeroo.

GREEN ZEBRA: I keep longing for the day that I will have another productive Green Zebra plant. I nearly had it this year. But, it produced late, producing in abundance, and I lost the vast majority of the crop when the weather turned cold. I love this tomato and will try to grow it again next year.

COSTOLUTO GENOVESE: My absolute favorite tomato from 2007 absolutely fell flat on its face in 2008. And this one was all my fault. When volunteer Genovese plants began popping up in the garden last spring from numerous tomatoes that had hit the ground in 2007, I was ecstatic. What I could not plant, I gave away to friends and neighbors. BIG MISTAKE. The tomatoes were small, almost cherry sized, and did not have that "Genovese" taste that has made it a favorite of heirloom gardeners all over the world. I am starting over with new seed this year. We'll see what happens.


Any tomato plant that contains the word "paste" will get tossed. I cannot grow them. Most get infected with Blossom End Rot, and it spreads to other plants. No thanks. No room in the garden for any paste tomato of any shape, size or color.

The End of a Season

This is the hardest part about gardening for many gardeners. I am no different. There comes a time in every garden where the tomato and vegetable plants that you have treated with loving care for months must be ripped out. The season is done, over, kaput. Whatever. I have a hard time admitting as much. In fact, I still haven't ripped everything out yet. Here it is -- almost January 1st, 2009 -- and I have rotting tomato plants still standing in beds in the backyard.

Mud is the problem here. The culprit. I have yet to put in an appropriate ground cover such as bark or decorative rock so I can reach said planter boxes without sinking in the muck that is Natomas clay. You think it's funny? Step into that backyard, and that pair of shoes is instantly ruined. They officially become "backyard shoes" -- never to be worn anywhere again except the backyard. And that's only if you can dig them out of the muck, which is no easy task if you hit a soft spot. And Lord knows, I've hit them.

But, back to the subject. There comes a time when everything has to come out. You pick the last vine-ripened tomato. You enjoy that last salad produced by the backyard garden. That last heirloom tomato martini. That's it. No more for the year. And it's kind of hard to take -- at least for me. I love my summer garden.

The end, unfortunately, came rather early for us. I may be posting about the end now -- in late December -- but everything really wrapped up in mid-to-late October. That windstorm in late September was a telling sign. That really changed everything. That one-day blustery wind from the north ripped apart most of my PVC tomato cages, tore fruit off the vine and generally made a gigantic wreck of the garden.

Three days of rain then followed that wind. And although the nice weather returned somewhat following that rain, the damage had been done. Blossom End Rot set in with a vengance. BER took at least 50% of the remaining crop in some plants -- less in others and completely took over the three Roma varieties. BER is a curse. It just happens, despite the best advice you get from long-time gardeners. But the wind and rain really wrecked what I had hoped would be a late-summer, early fall kind of crop. Venus and I managed to salvage some of it, but half the crop was either on the ground -- stricken with BER or split wide open from the heavy rainfall. Worse yet, the bugs were starting to eat away at many of the tomatoes that had split open.

That wasn't the only problem. The weather was also changing in a strange sort of way. It was starting to get very cold at night -- much colder than usual for September and October. The mornings were cool. There was dew and frost on the ground. That's normal for late fall and winter in the Sacramento Valley, but September? That also didn't help. The tomatoes that were saved during that final harvest were not very good. In fact, for some, it was like I was eating store bought BLAND.

At that point I knew "the jig was up." The 2008 summer garden was all done. Time to pull it all out. And, as I mentioned earlier, that job is half-done. I will complete it at some point this week.

Interesting Facts and Misperceptions About SUNFLOWERS!!!

Monday, December 29, 2008

I thought I would share some interesting tidbits I learned about growing sunflowers this year in Northern California. The wife and I grew two varieties -- including the Moulin Rouge. There's my lovely wife tending to this year's sunflower garden from earlier this summer. Nice eh? Watch it! Sunflowers are a TRAP! They are a CURSE upon man!

And here's why:

1. One sunflower plant equals fifty sunflower plants next year:

This is a true statement. I was a bit worried when my wife started ripping out dead sunflowers from one of the planter beds in late summer, but never thought all of those seeds hitting the ground during the removal process would germinate. Boy howdy, was I wrong. As you can probably tell from these photos, I'm the proud owner of a small sunflower forest -- which continues to grow at a rather rapid and alarming rate. I thought that the winter freeze would kill the new plants off. Hah! Sunflowers laugh at freezing temperatures. All of that green you see? While it's true that some of them are weeds, the vast majority of plants inside and around the planter bed are, in fact, sunflowers that germinated from seed that fell to the ground during the removal process during the late fall.

2. Sunflowers are "plant friendly" and grow well in mixed beds:

WRONG! Sunflowers take over every square inch of space and knock out the hardiest of vegetable and/or flower plants. They are a curse upon all gardeners. They cannot be contained.

3. Sunflowers make excellent cut flowers in vase arrangements:
FALSE! There is no such thing as "vase arrangements" when it comes to sunflowers. "Vase Arrangements" implies flowers other than sunflowers. What other flowers are available after the sunflowers kill everything off? A vase full of sunflowers looks good. A "vase arrangement" of sunflowers is an oxymoron.

4. Sunflowers require good soil, fertilizer and love to thrive:

FALSE! Sunflowers will grow in asphalt! They'll grow straight out of concrete! Good soil, bad soil, rocky soil, rocky asphalt, a bowl of acid, it doesn't matter. Sunflowers take over.

5. Once you grow sunflowers, you'll always have sunflowers, whether you want them or not:

TRUE!!! Sunflowers laugh at Roundup, blowtorches, plutonium and nuclear weapons. The scientist who predicted that only cockroaches would survive a nuclear holocaust obviously never met a sunflower.

6. Sunflowers are a gardeners best friend:

FALSE! A more true statement would be "sunflowers are a gardener's best curse!" Now that I have stated the lesson of the day, does anyone, perchance, need sunflower starter plants or sunflower seeds? I appear to have too much of both.

Preparing for Winter

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

There's no getting around it now. That "smell" of fall is in the air. You know that "smell," don't you? Cold weather in the mornings? The sun going down at 7:30 PM instead of the normal 9 PM? The urge to switch on the fireplace? Cats that no longer want to race around outside, and prefer the company of a warm lap instead?

It can mean only one thing. Summer is drawing to a close.

And the end is coming a bit faster this year than it did last year, much to my chagrin. Thanks to warmer than average temperatures, I nursed heirloom tomato plants well into December. That won't be happening this year. In fact, a three day windstorm pretty much tore everything into shreds.

As I gazed upon the damage caused by the wind last week, it suddenly hit me. I had a massive harvest still on the vine. Our choices were few. We could either gather up what we had left and just give it away to family, friends or neighbors, or we could save it for winter-time use.

We chose the second option.

Venus and I are first time canners. But we're getting better with every project. We put up more than three dozen quarts of garlic-dill pickles this summer using cucumbers from the garden. After one particularly large harvest in August, we canned the now famous "Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa."

But this latest project was to save what heirloom tomatoes we could for winter-time use. In past years we had simply taken tomatoes from the vine, washed them, put them in baggies and threw them into the freezer. And that worked well enough. But it also took up a lot of room. And frozen tomato skins get really TOUGH when defrosted. Plus, they're impossible to remove at that point.

So -- by using a new canning recipe -- Venus and I canned about 14 pints of heirloom tomatoes this past weekend. It wasn't easy. The windstorm had caused absolute carnage in the backyard garden -- and not with just the plants. Many ripe tomatoes split under the pressure, or were blown to the ground, bruising them beyond use or repair. We would up dumping about a third of the crop.

Plus, some of these heirlooms just do not have the acid content that some canning types do. And acid content is very important in the canning process. If your pH levels are off, you could get into a bit of trouble by breaking into one of these jars during the dead of winter. To combat that problem, Venus and I not only added two and one-half tablespoons of lemon juice to each jar, the remaining liquid was a mix of water and white vinegar.

It might have been overkill, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

14 pints of heirloom tomatoes won't keep us going all winter. We can use that much in a month. But there are still a lot of green tomatoes on the vine, and here's hoping for a change in the weather and a return of somewhat warmer temps during the latter part of October and early November.

Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa!!!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's been a busy couple of weeks at the Bird Household. Busy at work and busy in the garden. The main tomato crop is starting to come on strong now, which means Venus and I will be washing, freezing and saving as much of the harvest as possible.

The latest project took place this past weekend and is located to your immediate right. That's a Baker's Dozen pints of the best salsa known to mankind. How do I know this? Because it's Bill Bird's own tried and true recipe. And -- after spending 18-years in Fresno (where they know how to make a mean salsa) -- Bill Bird knows how to make a really good salsa. There are heirloom tomatoes by the dozen in those jars. Heirloom peppers are also "in the mix," and the star of the show is actually the roasted garlic. It just completely changes the salsa equation in terms of taste.

Venus and I took efforts to start saving the harvest a few years ago when we were hit with a sudden desire for that heirloom taste in the dead of the winter. But there was just one problem with that. Heirloom tomatoes were not even close to being in season -- not in our backyard and certainly not in any nearby store.

After speaking with a UC Davis Master Food Preserver at a Farmer's Market that next spring and telling her I had no idea how to can tomatoes -- she suggested the following: "Throw a couple in a plastic bag, pop them in the freezer, and use them when you're ready."

This does work by the way. Venus and I threw bag after bag of late harvest tomatoes into the freezer last fall and feasted on home-grown tomato dishes during the cold of winter. And while freezing does have its advatanges, usage of the saved product is somewhat limited. Frozen tomatoes are mushy when defrosted. You can't use them in a salad. It's not advisable to snack on them either as they'll just slip through your fingers. You CAN use them in soups, sauces and other dishes -- but that's about it. Plus -- they take up a lot of room the freezer -- which is another big drawback.

After a couple of years of freezing our harvest, Venus and I were ready to take the next step: Canning. We'd never done it before. We've never seen anyone do it before. But we both knew it could be done and we both wanted to do it. And where there's a will . . . . there is a way.

Of course -- the first thing you need to make the canning process work is REAL home-grown, fresh of the vine heirloom tomatoes. As you can tell -- our garden is starting to produce with abundance now. This haul includes Watermelon Beefsteak, Pineapple Beefsteak, Pruden's Purple, Brandywine, Campbell's 1327, Celebrity and lip-smacking Lemon Boy tomatoes. Not pictured are the Black Cherry and Sungold Sweet Cherry tomatoes that were also used to make a rather zesty sauce.

You must be careful when canning a salsa like this. Most home-canned products need quite a bit of acid to be safe and ward off the formation of bacteria. Some heirloom tomatoes are not that high in acid content. And other ingredients such as peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro have absolutely no acidic content at all. If you get the PH levels wrong in these jars, someone is going to get one very bad case of botulism food poisoning. And botulism is nothing to screw around with. It can be -- and has been -- fatal.

That said, I was advised by other experienced canners to "stick with the tried and true salsa recipes" when it came to canning salsa. But I had my own special recipe that I'd honed from years of watching salsa preparation in various Fresno restaurants and homes, and I wasn't about to give it up. So -- I borrowed a tried and true salsa canning recipe found at GardenWeb called "Annie's Salsa," and married it to the tried and true Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

The results have been lip-smacking spectacular to say the least.

The recipe starts with the line in the title: Roasting garlic. I find this gives garlic an incredible, smoky flavor -- not to mention the aroma when it comes out of the oven. And garlic becomes the consistency of toothpaste when it's roasted for an hour or so -- so you just squeeze the bottom of the clove and out of comes. It's just like squeezing a tube of toothpaste.

We also roast the peppers on an outdoor grill until they are browned and the skins are somewhat loose. This makes for rather easy peeling and seed removal over a sink. And, like the garlic, peppers take on an entirely new taste and aroma once they've been roasted over a grill. There's absolutely nothing like it.

Oddly enough, Venus and I found the making of the salsa to be much more difficult than the canning process that followed. The creation of the salsa takes several hours and leaves an unimaginable mess in the kitchen (thank goodness I have a wife who loves to do dishes!).

The canning process is quite simple. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. Remove and fill each jar with salsa. Add top and screw cap and then process for another 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. VOILA!!! Salsa! 13 pints of the stuff.

And now -- the recipe for:

Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa

8 cups processed heirloom tomatoes
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped peppers -- green-yellow-red-anything from the garden will work (half roasted, half fresh)
3 – 5 chopped Habanero peppers or jalapenos (we prefer a HOT salsa -- so we used 6-7 Habanero peppers) 2011 UPDATE: Venus and I are now using a mix of jalapeno pepper varieties of regular jalapeno, Mucho Nacho Jalapeno and Purple jalapeno. 
2 heads garlic
3 tsp cumin
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
3 tsp pepper
1/8 cup canning salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup lemon juice (for BWB or 1/3 cup vinegar for PC)
16 oz. tomato sauce
8 oz tomato paste

Cut tops off heads of garlic revealing tops of garlic inside. Drizzle with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees for one hour. Remove cover after roasting and allow garlic to cool, as you will need to handle it.

Roast 10-12 green, red or yellow peppers on grill until skins are browned on each side. You may use a combination of peppers from the garden -- whatever you have or like. Place roasted peppers in paper shopping bag after roasting and close tightly. Allow peppers to cool for 30 minutes. This will result in 3/4 cup of peppers.

Boil tomatoes to remove skin or process tomatoes to remove skins and seed. Process well in a food processor -- add tomatoes to cooking pot.
Squeeze garlic into cooking pot, peel seed and process roasted peppers and add to pot -- add remaining fresh and hot peppers and all other ingredients. Bring to a boil -- boil for ten minutes.

Process jars in a Boiling Water Bath (BWB) for ten minutes -- drain. Pour salsa into hot jars and process at 10 lbs of pressure for 30 minutes for pints. Or BWB 30 minutes** (see explanation below). Makes 6 1/2 pints.

NOTE: We used a food processor to do all of the chopping for tomatoes, peppers and onion. The picture above represents a doubling of this recipe, which is how we wound up with 13 pints of salsa.

**ADDITIONAL COMMENTS FROM SEPTEMBER 9, 2010: At the advice of a few canners that I know and respect -- I have re-checked the original recipe for Annie's Salsa, which is located on GardenWeb in many chat threads, including this one. The reccommended Boiling Water Bath (BWB) time for pint jars is 15 minutes in the original recipe. The comments below from the people I know and trust indicate this may not be enough time to get a good seal -- and they are reccommending at least 30 minutes in a BWB. Therefore -- I have changed and updated this recipe to reflect those concerns. However -- in my many years of canning this recipe -- I have used 15 minutes of BWB time -- and have never lost a single batch or jar. The finished product was submitted to Anresco Food Laboratories eight months after the canning process -- and the jars passed clinical lab pH and Standard Plate Count tests with flying colors.

The wife that is Venus and I graduated from a BWB canner to a pressure canner three years ago and we have not been disappointed with the results. In addition, while we are still using a mix of three different kinds of Jalapeno peppers, we just recently began to experiment with the Bhut Jolokia or "Ghost Pepper." We have found this pepper stands up very well to processing and pressure canning and delivers a spicy zip and heat to our salsa creations. It also allows us to increase the amount of the non-acidic ingredients as a much smaller number of Ghost Peppers are needed to establish the spice and heat content.

To further satisfy concerns -- I am also posting the lab test results from both jars below as .jpeg files. You may double-click on both to open and read. Finding a food science lab to run tests on home-canned products wasn't easy. Although these labs exist in nearly every county -- they are generally not open to the public. They also do not test home-canned products -- unless a home-canned product is suspected of killing someone (kinda creepy, I know, but this is a problem that I ran into).

The first .jpeg file is the pH count from a jar of Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa. These pH counts are VERY important. Sealed jars -- of any home-canned product -- must contain a pH of 4.6 or less. The jars I submitted had a pH of 3.81.

pH Count from Anresco Labs

The second -- and most important I might add -- is the test result called Standard Plate Count. This is a test that would reveal if any pathogens were growing in an oxygen-less environment like a sealed jar of salsa (or any other home-canned product). This test is routinely performed in commercial canning industries to test for food safety. These pathogens include -- but are not limited too -- Clostridium botulinum bacteria -- also known as Botulism. The SPC test resulted in a figure of <100 (less than 100). This was a hard number for me to understand -- as I'm not a scientist. However -- a number of food safety scientists employed by UC Davis assured me that this was the best test result possible -- and the numbers indicated that NO pathogens were discovered. Most -- if not all -- pathogens cannot grow in a properly sealed and canned product containing a pH of 4.6 or less.

Standard Plate Count Results from Anresco Labs

I hope this satisfies any and all concerns -- as it's all I have. In all of our years of canning -- from whole tomatoes to tomato sauce to salsa to pickles -- Venus and I have never become sick nor have we sickened others.

Here Come the Heirlooms!!!!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It's another late year for heirloom tomato production in the North Natomas garden of Bill and Venus Bird. My apologies for not updating the blog sooner -- it's been a rather busy month in the world of politics. And it's prevented me from sitting down to muse about one of my favorite outdoor activities -- the garden.

I would have to rate this year to be between the ranges of very good and outstanding. But the best is yet to come. For some strange reason, my heirloom plants are now just beginning to produce large amounts of fruit. About half of the garden has been giving me tomatoes since July, but the other half didn't even produce so much as a single solitary tomato -- up until about a month ago.

And boy, how things changed.

The Pineapple Beefsteak -- a six high foot plant with zero tomatoes on it developed its first tiny tomato in mid-August. Two days later there was another. Then two more. Then five. Then TEN!!!! Anyone for TWENTY!!!! THIRTY!!!!


And it just wasn't the Pineapple Beefsteak that suddenly erupted in this "fruity wonder." All of the non producers suddenly stood tall and performed a scene out of "Girls Gone Wild." All of a sudden I had tomatoes in extraordinary numbers on the Omar's Lebanese, Pruden's Purple, Brandywine, Kellogg's Breakfast, Rainbow Beefsteak, Cherokee Purple and more! And the August appearance of fruit held a promise of big harvests in September. A harvest that is now just beginning.

The wonderful looking tomato you see to your left was harvested just tonight. I could not wait any longer. I wanted to save it for the weekend -- when I plan to can some salsa -- but this thing was just getting a tad soft and had to come off right now! I was only too happy to oblige. This is a Pineapple Beefsteak -- about 1 lb. in weight and it's the second ripe tomato to come off the Pineapple Beef plant.

If this tomato is anything like the first, I know I'm in for a very sweet surprise. This isn't an especially tart or acidic tomato. It is, however, extremely sweet. Pineapple sweet, which is probably where this tomato got its name. This will be perfect chopped into spears and given a light dusting of salt, pepper and a little oregano.

The garden promises a lot of this in the next month. If the weather holds, I'll stretch heirloom season well into November. While I know we need the rain up north in California (and we really do), rain normally signals the end of tomato growing season in the North State. The tomatoes split with the excess moisture, and loose that fresh-off-the-vine zip.

So, for tonight -- a feast for heirloom tomato lovers. The second of what I hope will be many Pineapple Beefsteaks to come off the vine.

Heirloom season is in full swing. An heirloom gardener could not ask for more.

The Watermelon Experiment -- SUCCESS!!!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Growing watermelons can be a real chore. A lot of it is trial and error, especially that "error" part. But the payoff is special indeed. This summer's sweet payoff comes in the form of the Sweet Diane watermelon. This is the largest melon I've ever grown, and this is small for Sweet Diane standards. But when the top of the striped green rind began to turn yellow, I knew it was time to bring it out of the garden.

This is not the first time that I've grown melons in the garden. However, it is the first time that I've started melons like this from seed. Most previous melon experiences involved starter plants purchased from nearby nurseries and those efforts yielded melons that were no bigger than the size of an average softball. While it was nice to get ripened fruit, I was hoping for something a tad larger.

And, past melon patches also brought rather unwelcome surprises. That includes that "weeding" incident in the Madera Ranchos, where that patch of weeds I pulled up from my backyard melon patch also brought forth a three foot long King Snake (I came to find out much later that snakes just LOVE watermelons patches). There's nothing quite like grabbing a big weed, only to discover that you've also grabbed a snake as well, and suddenly "you and the big guy" are face-to-face. King snakes might not be dangerous, but who am I kidding? Snakes are snakes....Coming face-to-face with one is no great joy, plus it's hard on the ticker....

This year, however, the situation was slightly different. I had the land. I had ways to control weeds. More importantly however, NO SNAKES. I might get buzzed by the occassional hornet or have a run in with a slightly agitated wolf spider, but that's nothing compared to sharing garden space with King or Garter snakes.

The first order of busines however, was choosing the melon I would grow. I didn't want the normal starter plant from your neighborhood nursery. I've been there. I've done that. I didn't want softball sized watermelons. I wanted WATERMELON SIZED watermelons. Melons that said "I can feed an army!" And I found that watermelon in the form of seeds from Pine Tree seeds. It was called the Sweet Diane, and it promised a "watermelon-sized" watermelon. Perfect. It's exactly what I wanted.

But, I had never grown watermelons from seed before. How does this work? When my packet of seeds arrived in February, I decided to get to an early start and planted those seeds with my tomato and cucumber seeds.


Oh sure -- those seeds took off sure enough. They literally jumped out of those peat moss starter pods. And they continued to grow after transplanting. But it soon became apparent that watermelons do not do well indoors. Watermelons want sunshine -- not some cramped grow room. Watermelons want HEAT -- far more heat than a space heater can provide. Soon, each of my six starters wilted and then died.

I was disappointed, but not ready to give up. I again started seeds indoors and they again jumped out of starter cups, only to wilt and meet the same fate that the first set of starter plants met -- an early death. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what I was doing wrong.

Actually, it was very simple. Unlike tomatoes or peppers, watermelons are not good performers inside a room or in a greenhouse. The best way to plant melons? Wait until the weather warms up, drop some seeds in the ground and water. It was that simple. And with the six remaining seeds I had left, I did just that. Sure enough, the plants jumped out of the starter bed I had created for them and started growing just fine in that warm, spring sunshine.

Unfortunately, the new housing development I live in doesn't contain all the features that you find in more established neighborhoods. One of the disadvantages is there are no mature trees. There is no mature landscaping. And that means there is precious little room or space for things like a colony of bees, which is absolutely essential for pollination of watermelon vines. I did have hornets -- by the dozen -- but they just don't scratch after that pollen like normal honeybees do.

After waiting several weeks for the bees and the first fruits of my labor to appear I finally took devices into my own hands. If Mother Nature wasn't going to pollinate my Sweet Diane watermelon -- I was. And I did just that -- using a small paintbrush. It wasn't difficult, however it was time consuming. I scratched as many male flowers as I could with that brush, and then deposited what pollen I had into the open female flowers.

Not every pollination attempt was a success mind you. But, in some cases, it worked. Soon there was one melon. Then two. Then three more. And soon I had a garden full of Sweet Diane melons.

Although I had been told that Sweet Diane was an heirloom melon out of South Carolina, I appear to have been given the wrong information. Sweet Diane is a hybrid and a recent introduction to the melon market. No matter, because the taste is still outstanding. And these "melon-sized" watermelons provided fruit that was cotton-candy, out-of-this-world sweet.

Despite my success in the garden this year, I did make some mistakes. I planted corn in the same bed as my melon seeds. The wife also planted sunflowers. Those were big mistakes. The sunflowers grew quickly, cutting off sunshine to the melon patch and the corn wasn't much of a help either. I did get lots of melons out of the Sweet Diane, but I could have received that much more with smarter planting practices.

So, this is the first year for Sweet Diane, but it won't be the last when it comes to melons in the garden. There's a lot more to try and the lesson has been learned. Next year's melons will get a little more space, they won't have to share that space and they'll get a little more water as well.

And that's what gardening is all about, isn't it? Trial and error......

New Uses for Heirloom Tomatoes!!!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

If your heirloom tomato garden is anything like mine, it's probably getting to the point where it's starting to produce far more than you need. This is when experiened growers unlike myself turn to various canning and sauce efforts in an attempt to save this wonderful harvest for winter uses such as stews, chili, soups, etc.

In short, there are a million things you can do with your heirloom tomato crop.

Check that! Make that one million and ONE. And this use has found a HOME, in the HOME of Venus and Bill Bird. I first spotted this recipe on the Yahoo Group TomatoMania (thanks Mary-Anne). And, it immediately caught my interest. It looked good. It sounded good. But I would have to wait six months before I could try it.

The photo that you see to your immediate left? That's the result of our heirloom tomato growing efforts and a wonderful concoction called Manny Hinojosa's Heirloom Tomato Martini. Yes, Virginia. Heirloom tomatoes aren't just for salads anymore. And this is one of the best uses I've found for heirloom tomatoes yet.

Keep in mind, I'm not a big, big fan of martinis. Should one appear before me, I'll drink it of course. But it's not the standard fare that Bill or Venus Bird will order at your average dive bar. Most of the time, we're content with less-lavish fare such as a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. On those "extra-special" occassions, we might even dabble in a shot of fine whiskey. But, those occassions are rare.

I think the last time I had a martini was five, maybe six years ago. Based upon this recipe, I'm probably going to be mixing a few more. This is one lucious, incredible
drink. And, interestly enough, it changes colors depending on which heirloom tomato you use for each drink. For example, the drink to the right? It's the exact same yellow-looking concoction you saw above, with one little difference. The drink above was used with Lemon Boy heirloom tomatoes. The drink to your right contains about 10-12 crushed Sungold Sweet cherry tomatoes. And this was, by far, the best one of the bunch.

A bit of a warning here if you're going to try this recipe (which I highly encourage by the way). Even without the use of an heirloom tomato, this martini is slightly sour and very acidic. It's much like a Lemon Drop, due to the use of an entire lemon. If you use an heirloom tomato that is also high in acid content (we used a Green Zebra in one creation last night), you're going to get a martini that is extremely acidic. And, unless you have a cast-iron stomach, it can cause a bit of indigestion.

But not enough to put the kabosh on plans to make a third drink! The third experiment used an heirloom tomato that became an absolute favorite in our garden last year. As you can tell by the photo -- there is a bit of a red tinge to this drink. And, if you're thinking that we used red tomatoes, BINGO!! This drink is the result of two and a half small, crushed Costaluto Genovese tomatoes.

Second warning: This drink works best with vine-ripened tomatoes that you pull out of your own backyard garden, or you're fortunate enough to obtain from a neighbor's garden. Heirloom tomatoes purchased at conventional supermarkets are NOT acceptable substitutes. Heirloom tomatoes purchased at Farmer's Markets are a tad better. But there's nothing better than an heirloom tomato straight from the backyard.

Finally, although the recipe for this drink calls for "half of a small heirloom tomato," that is really hard to quantify. There is no standard size for "small heirloom tomatoes." That's the magic invovling heirlooms. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are as big as three pounds! Some are pea sized. This recipe works best with sweeter heirloom tomatoes. And, for the drink that utilized Sungold Sweet Cherry tomatoes, I used about ten of them, and also popped in a few West Sac Crack cherry tomatoes just to see "what happened."

The taste was simply out of this world good. Once you try this drink, I promise you, you will be hooked for good.

And now -- without fail -- the recipe for Manny Hinojosa's Heirloom Tomato Martini!

2 ounces Bombay Sapphire gin
3/4 ounce tripl sec
1 whole lemon
1/2 small heirloom tomato
4 leaves fresh basil (if you can get this out of the garden like we did -- wonderful!)

1. Muddle tomato with fresh basil in a shaker. Muddle means "grind it up." And I would suggest that you tear the basil leaves into two or three pieces and really grind all the juice possible out of that tomato at the bottom of the glass.
2. Add ice, fresh lemon juice, gin and triple sec.
3. Shake 10 times (making sure to dislodge that crushed tomato from the bottom of the mixing glass), strain and pour into martini glass.

This is an easy drink to make once you get the hang of it. Venus just loves it. And, I must admit, that wonderful wife has great taste.

I love it too.

The Garden Payoff

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vegetable gardens are work. No doubt about it. I've got blisters on top of my blisters, a farmer's tan from hell and various aches and bruises thanks to my gardening activity. Although I do enjoy it very much, I'll be honest. Building planter boxes, installing irrigation and adding compost and soil IS work. And it's hard work at that.

But you don't go through all of that for nothing. There is a payoff. And that payoff is starting ring up now in the garden of Bill and Venus Bird. And it's not just our garden either. Nels Christensen, a founding member of the heirloom tomato group "Fruit of the Heirloom" (FOHL) sent me this picture just the other day. There it is -- payoff from his garden. That's a near 1.5 lb. Omar's Lebanese tomato, fresh from his tomato patch. Based upon the prices I've seen recently for heirloom tomatoes in local stores, something like this would sell for $10.

$10 for ONE tomato? Egads! And the thing is -- you couldn't even purchase something this nice in your local store. Tomatoes in stores are harvested well before they reach peak ripeness. To be honest, the absolute best tomatoes in the world come straight off the vine in your backyard.

Venus and I are starting to realize the fruits of our gardening labor.

This Marianna's Peace tomato came as a complete and utter shock. I missed it completely over the past few months when I was out inspecting plants. I only noticed it after it turned a light shade of pink. And I watched in anticipation as this large, potato-leaf, beefsteak variety turned to a darker shade of pink, praying all the while that some critter wouldn't start muching on it.

Fortunately, my prayers were answered. This was one of the best tomatoes to come out of the garden this year. Fortunately, there will be a lot more of them. The Marianna's Peace tomato plant is located in a bed that was recharged with two bags of steer manure compost this spring. That is the best move I've ever made. Every plant in this bed is six feet tall or higher, and every single one is spitting out tomatoes right and left.

But tomatoes are only half of the garden. Venus has always wanted sunflowers in the backyard. The problem is -- we never had the room. But -- with the new house? There's room and more. And there are scads of sunflowers in this bed. This is the Moulin Rouge sunflower. Believe it or not, these were planted from seed -- just like everything else in this bed. And they are six feet tall, loaded with flowers and best of all, attracting bees to the garden in record numbers. Bees are hard to find in North Natomas.....

Unfortunately, the sunflowers are planted in the same bed as the corn, and the poor corn is getting pushed aside somewhat. The Sweet Diane watermelon, however, has no problem with sunflowers around it. Sunflowers bring bees and bees mean pollination, which is essential to get melons like this. These Sweet Diane melons are still on the vine at our home. They are nowhere near ripe, and it does appear they will wind up in the 10-to-15 lb. range.

So, the payoff is now beginning. It's not August yet, and the garden is really hopping. If it's this good now, I wonder what August, September and October will bring.

The Great Tomato Conundrum

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One thing that has always confounded me during tomato growing season, and confounded a number of heirloom tomato growers, is the simple question of WHY?

Such as: Why did this plant die? Why is plant tall, healthy and attractive, yet isn't producing a single tomato?

But the best "why" question of the bunch is "how did this happen" and "why aren't more people growing these?"

Those questions usually indicate a tomato "winner" in the garden, and I've been blessed this year to have many of them. One of the best was completely unexpected.

This is my second year for growing the Campbell's 1327. Blight and disease nearly took this plant from me last year before it finally recovered and gave me a late crop of large, tasty, red and round tomatoes. Based upon the production I saw out of this plant late last year, I decided to give it another shot this year.

I have not been disappointed. If anything, I am pleasantly surprised. This is one strange plant. It's doing things and growing in a way that I have never seen a tomato plant do before. But the most impressive thing about the Campbell's 1327 is the production. This plant -- which is the smaller plant to the left in this photo -- was planted at the same time as the plant to the right -- the Pruden's Purple. Yet -- as you can easily tell -- the Pruden's Purple is twice the size of the Campbell's 1327.

Yet, the Pruden's Purple has only produced two tomatoes at this point, while the smaller Campbell's 1327 has produced ten ripe tomatoes so far, and by the photos, appears to be very intent on producing a lot more. Why is this plant turning out so much fruit, but looks somewhat stunted? Why is the Pruden's Purple, or the Rainbow Beefsteak, planted right next to the Campbell's 1327 growing so much quicker?

The experts expound:

"Too much water!"

"Not enough water!"

"Too much fertilizer!"

"Not enough fertilizer!"

I have my own suspicions about why the plant growth on this Campbell's 1327 is so stunted. It's growing so many tomatoes, at once, it doesn't have the energy. I'm not sure what I'm doing right with this particular plant, but I sure wish I could bottle it and use it on some of the non-productive plants. Every single blossom on the Campbell's 1327 seems to turn into a tomato. I've never seen production quite like this before. And I've certainly never seen this type of growth pattern before.

Campbell's 1327 got its name from the Campbell's Soups that we were all raised on at one time or another. If you've ever had a bowl of Vegetable Beef, Vegetable, or Campbell's Tomato Soup, you've tasted the Campbell's 1327 in action. This was, at one time, the primary processing tomato used in all Campbell's Soup products.

But time has a way of changing practices and habits. At some point in time, someone made the decision to abandon this open-pollinated wonder. The advent of genetic engineering produced tomato plants that could grow in any type or soil or climate. Or, perhaps spoilage was a major concern. I don't really know why Campbell's abandoned the 1327 -- but at some point -- they did.

Thank goodness that someone decided to save seeds of this wonderful variety. If they hadn't, this variety would have been lost to future generations.
Campbell's 1327 produces large, red and round tomatoes in the 1 lb. range. Some are bigger. Some are smaller. It's an excellent slicing tomato for burgers or sandwiches. A single slice will cover the big burger buns. It's good in salads. It's fantastic in sauce. It's sweet, juicy and has a hint of acid.

And it will always have a home in the garden of Bill & Venus Bird.

Lightening in a Bottle

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I suppose you could also call this post "Saving the Garden's Goodness," but anything with a bolt from the blue is a little more catchy -- don't you think?

Venus and I have now officially taken the next step in our quest to be the best heirloom gardeners we can be. Yes, I'm pleased to announce that we are now, officially, at NERD status. It's taken some time and a lot of work. But we finally reached that lofty status last night.

One of the worst things about gardening is this: No matter how hard you work and how hard you plan, gardening season does come to a close. Tomato plants spit out their last tomato of the season and slowly die. Frost and cold weather sets in. No more treats from the garden. Oh sure, you can plant a fall garden. And don't get me wrong, because crisp greens and other fall garden produce is nice (I guess). But there's nothing quite like vine ripened tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, you name it. Summer gardens are the bomb.

But, sadly, they do end.

So, in an effort to save as much as our summer goodness as possible, Venus and I officially turned to canning last night. And this is the result. Eleven delicious quarts of what I hope will eventually be the best garlicy-Dill Pickles known to man. We're not entirely sure what we're going to get yet, because this is the first time we've done this AND -- it's going to be at least eight weeks or longer before I can officially crack open one of these jars and see what we've done here.

I've been searching for pickle recipes for a long time. A co-worker gave me a sweet pickle recipe not all that long ago, but to be honest, Bill Bird isn't wild about sweet pickles. But, Bill Bird absolutely LOVES salty dill pickles with garlic and other spices thrown in to give it a little kick.

And that's why I just love the internet. Google the term "Dill Pickles" and watch what pops up. I found this recipe on It's old school (which is good), and the reviews told me that this dill pickle recipe was off the hook. I had told Venus last winter that I wanted to try this, and she talked me into it last night. The cucumber patch in the backyard is really starting to produce now, and we got more than enough to do the job. The recipe made enough for eight quarts of pickles. However, we wound up making eleven because -- well -- we had a bunch of cucumbers.

And this is how it starts out pretty much. After harvesting and washing our haul, we proceeded to soak these cucumbers in a batch of ice water. They needed to soak anywhere from two to eight hours --and we hit the midpoint -- about four hours. You can't really tell what's underneath those ice cubes, but trust me when I tell you that we harvested two gigantic Armenian cukes, about four or five Burpee Hybrid cukes and probably five or six Marketmore 76 cucmbers (a true pickling cucumber).

Based upon some previous advice, we saved the Armenian cucumbers for pickle slices, and used the Marketmore's and Burpee Hybrids for pickle spears and, in some cases, whole pickles.

We did alter the recipe somewhat. It called for 16 cloves of garlic -- cut in half. As you can tell by the photo to the left -- that's a lot more than 16 cloves. It was more like fifty. And rather than cut them in half -- I used the food processor to liquify those cloves into a fine paste. Liquifying garlic brings out the real taste and the real burn in garlic. Each jar got a little more than two teaspoons of garlic, so I imagine the "garlicy" part of these pickles should be pretty darn good.

Although this was a first for Venus and I, the project came off pretty well. After adding the spices, pickles and brine, we added the lids and tightened everything down. Although this recipe did reccommend boiling the filled jars in a bath for 15 minutes -- many reviewers who tried this recipe warned us: don't do it. Boiling the jars for 15 minutes may remove all bacteria -- but it also means a batch of soft pickles. We didn't want that. So, rather than boil the entire jar, we took the advice of another reviewer and turned the jars upside down in a frying pan with boiling water and boiled the already tightened caps for five minutes.

So, time will tell. We'll know just how good (or how bad) these things are by Labor Day. I don't think I'll be strong enough to wait the required eight weeks (I was trying to open one after eight hours before the wife clanged me on the head with a frying pan). But I can tell you this much. This is not the end of this project. Indeed, this is just the beginning. We'll do another batch of pickles before the summer season ends -- maybe two or three. And we'll do more than just pickles. There's my famous roasted garlic and heirloom tomato salsa to be bottled and saved, and Venus is growing green beans by the dozen and baby corn.

So, we're going to save a tad of summer in our pantry this year. When it's cold, wet and rainy outside, we'll crack open a jar of salsa and enjoy the Sunday afternoon football games.

And dream of next summer's garden -- of course.

July Garden Update -- Tomatoes

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How does your garden grow?

Well, quite frankly, it's OFF THE HOOK! And thank you very much for asking.

It's early July in Northern California. The heat that vegetables love has finally arrived, along with abundant sunshine, long days and short nights. Sacramento is absolutely famous for its gardening conditions because you get the heat that tomato plants love, plus the cool conditions of the evening Delta Breeze. These conditions are unique to the Sacramento Valley, and it's one major reason why Campbell's Soups produces most of what they need for their canned products right here in Sacramento and Yolo Counties.

Given the right conditions, the right heat, the right amount of water and fertlizer, your tomato plants will be producing like this Celebrity plant located to your immediate left. The Celebrity, a fairly recent introduction to the hybrid world, can be enormously productive. Looks like this will be a good year for the Celebrity, as it started to fruit early and has been fruiting often. It's produced about four or five early season tomatoes, but better yet, will be producing a lot more as the summer wears on.

My 24 tomato plants are doing quite well for this time in the growing season. Some are bigger than others. Some are more productive than others. But that is to be expected. The plants that are located to the immediate right are, by far, the most successful. To the left, you'll notice a Bloody Butcher that is six feet tall and still growing. The plant to the right of that is a Costaluto Genovese. It has produced exactly one ripe tomato, but many more are growing. This was one of the most successful plants in my garden last year, and it appears to be well on its way to providing similar production this year. To the right of the Genovese, a Bill Bird heirloom favorite, the Green Zebra. It too, is loaded with early production.

While I did deal with some early blight problems during May and early June, it appears control efforts are paying off. But, while many of the heirloom plants are growing rapidly, many are also not producing much in the way of fruit. This is quite normal for heirloom plants. Most are generally late producers. This is especially true of the potato-leaf (PL) plants such as Marianna's Peace (MP), Pruden's Purple (PP) and Brandywine. Only the MP is actually producing tomatoes at this point, but it's a good two feet taller than the other two PL varieties. So, I'm hopeful that with some time and a little more growth, I'll see production from the PP and Brandywine.

One of the strangest plants in the garden this year is the Campbell's 1327. True to its name, this is a tomato variety that Campbell's Soups once used for its many varieties of canned soups. This variety was largely abandoned with the advent of genetic propogation efforts and corporate agriculture, but with most heirloom varieties, someone had the gumption to save seeds. And this old Campbell's Soups standby continues to produce in backyard gardens across America.

As I mentioned earlier, the growing habits of this plant are somewhat strange. You can clearly see the early production off this plant in the photo to the right. The Campbell's 1327 is located to the far right. I nearly lost this plant as a seedling, but it later recovered and grew quickly at plantout in late April. At one point however, I noticed the very top of this plant that produced new shoots and leaves develop a cluster of flowers. That cluster then bent to the left. And there was no more upward growth. The plant then fruited, many of the leaves turned upside down, and it just didn't look very happy. It didn't grow an inch for at least a week or two.

But, at some point, new, upward shoots did develop and this plant is now growing again. It has reached a height of about three and a half feet, and continues to produce new tomatoes. Several are starting to turn ripe and it's clear this plant will give me solid production throughout the summer season. The Campbell's 1327 produces red, round tomatoes in the 1 lb. range. It's the perfect slicer tomato for burgers or sandwiches, but also does well in salads or alone as a snack.

But, the biggest winner in the garden so far is the plant located to the left. This is the Bloody Butcher. There are two such plants in the garden. Both are six feet tall and are absolutely loaded with more tomatoes than I can count. The Bloody Butcher isn't an exceptionally large tomato. But what it lacks in size is made up in terms of production and zesty, acidic, taste. The Bloody Butcher produces fruit in clusters of four to five, with cluster sets located all over the plant.

So, the report for July is pretty darn good. With the exception of the Andrew Rahart Jumbo Red and Marianna's Peace, the large beefsteaks are not producing much fruit yet. But, I suppose that will come with time. By August, I should have a much better handle at what the garden will produce for the final two to three months of the growing season.

Planter Boxes on a Budget

Monday, June 30, 2008

I suppose you could also call this the "budget box." These are unlike the main planter beds in my garden. Those 4X8 foot beds used two-inch thick redwood boards, and when you added in the cost of the lumber, support planks, screws, and stain, the cost comes out to about $150 a box. Those boxes are a big investment in both time and money, as they take several days to construct.

But, the box you see to your immediate left is both cheap and easy. I built two of these boxes over the weekend, and will probably wind up building another eight or nine for open spots against the fenceline.

And I have a lot of fenceline.

If you every played with Lincoln Logs as a child, building something like this will be a breeze. These logs are very similar to those plastic Lincoln Log parts we played with as kids. The tops and bottoms of these logs are shaved flat. The sides are round, but the flat bottom and top allows for easy stacking.

These logs are eight feet in length, and they are already pre-stained for your convenience. But, the most important part of the equation is this: these logs are CHEAP. You can often find them "on sale" for a $1.97 each. And, if you happen to miss the sale, don't get too bummed. The regular or "normal" price for one of these logs is $2.97, which is still a bargain. The box pictured above contains six logs.

And this is what the logs usually look like when I get them home. It's just a pile of lumber waiting for me to put it together. These logs are sold in the "garden" or "landscaping" area of Home Depot. I'm guessing that Lowe's also sells something similar, but I can't confirm that. There is no Lowe's in my neighborhood unfortunately, so I normally do most of my shopping at Home Depot.

You'll need to do a bit of searching through the lumber pile to get the best logs. These things aren't perfect. Some are bent, others are cracked and still others are shaved at odd angles. But hey, what do you expect for less than three bucks? Perfection? If that's what you want -- move down the aisle to the $45 redwood landscape boards. There -- you'll find perfection -- and a big hit to the wallet.

Once I've found the six or 12 of the most perfectly straight, uncracked, logs that I can find, I haul them into the lumber section of Home Depot. There, they will cut them for you (yes they will!), and I cut two feet off of each eight foot log. This will result in a box that is six feet long and two feet wide. After each log is cut and placed back on my cart, I then move over to hardware and buy corner brackets like you see to the right.

Each "section" of this box (there are three) will require four corner brackets. So, you will need 12 corner brackets for all three sections, and you should also purchase four metal straps to hold each section together, one for each side. I also purchase two, one-foot sections of reebar to hold the boxes into place (but that's just overkill on my part, you don't really need them).

Once I get the logs home I use the brackets to put them together, using 1 5/8th's gold screws (four per bracket). This is what a finished section should look like. Once I'm finished, I stand in the middle of this section, pick it up and carry it to the final spot where I'm going to put this box. The bottom section is very important. You must take steps to ensure that bottom section is level. Because, if it's not, that box is going to come out crooked, which doesn't help when it comes to irrigation. I also tee off the main drip line located against the fence at this point and run a drip line underneath the bottom section and into the box.

The next steps are pretty simple. I simply build another section, just like I built the first one, and stack it on top of the first section. Then I repeat the process with the third and final section -- build and stack. Since the tops and bottoms of these logs are shaved flat, stacking is a breeze. I make sure to line them up correctly -- sometimes they require a little nudge or kick to line them up, but it's fairly simple stuff. Once all three sections are stacked, I screw metal straps inside each box to bind all three sections of the box together. The front and back both get straps and the sides get them as well. Two screws for each section -- which means each strap will hold six screws. That binds them together pretty well.

Once I have the straps installed, I proceed to install drip irrigation using 1/2 drip line, 1/2 inch metal straps (originally used for electrical conduit) and one inch screws to hold the straps in place. This elevates the drip line to the top section of this box, but leaves it far enough below the surface that it's covered with dirt once the box is finished. Each box also contains its own shutoff valve, which is also buried about an inch below the surface. This allows me to turn off the water when the box isn't in use.

Each box gives you nearly a foot or more of depth for planting purposes, and this is what the finished project looks like. You can increase the depth by adding additional levels, but I don't think they're needed. A foot of raised bed gives plants a lot of room to grow and spread out. The cucumbers we planted earlier this spring certainly seem to enjoy their new home.