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.

How to Get Kids to Eat Tomatoes (Cucumbers too!)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It's not easy convincing kids to eat something that you've just picked fresh from the vine in the backyard, especially in today's fast food world. If it didn't come out of a wrapper of some sort, or from a pot in the kitchen, most young boys are going to stick their noses up and say "no thanks," or give you nothing other than a shake of the head.

I know from experience. I was one of those boys. And I frustrated my mother to no end.

After all -- I was an excellent gardener. Even at a young age, I knew my way around with a rototiller, understood the use of compost, and could turn a patch of weeds into a tempting garden space. I could grow champion tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and radishes.

But eating that haul was an entirely different matter. I didn't eat what came out of the garden. I grew it for my mother and family, but I refused to touch any of it. And my mother tried just about everything under the sun -- even cash bribes -- to get me to sample just one slice of a vine-ripened tomato. Nope. I would have none of it.

I was even that snot-nosed kid who took slices of tomatoes out of a hamburger before consuming it. I was that bad.

So, where did it all change? At what point did Bill Bird suddenly drop his guard and agree to eat what he had grown in the backyard. I don't remember what year it was exactly, but I was probably a young teenager -- maybe 12 or 13 years old. I might have even been tad younger. And my mother hit upon a revolutionary recipe that I continue to use to this day.

I guarantee you -- if you're looking for a recipe that most kids cannot resist when it comes to home grown produce from the yard -- look no further. It's right here.

In today's day and age, you can find just about every salad dressing already pre-mixed and ready to serve on the shelf of your local supermarket. Want Italian? Blue Cheese? Ranch? Fat free Italian? Not a problem.

In the 1970's, however, that WAS a problem. The pre-mixed dressings were not widely available and cost a pretty penny. A penny that the Bird family didn't have, and couldn't spare, especially since Mom could whip up a zesty dressing with oil and red wine vinegar fairly quickly. And that was the key to this simple little invention that finally cracked my anti-tomato eating barrier for good.

The harvest had been pretty good to us that weekend. We had several ripe tomatoes and cucumbers fresh on the vine, and mother was convinced that she had to get me to eat them this time. So, she set up her cutting board, sliced those tomatoes and cucumbers, and arranged them neatly on a plate like you see here. You see, it wasn't just the food that was important. My mother had come to discover that *presentation* of the food in question was just as important when it came to my tastes.

Not only that, my mother had something else special planned. She had mixed together a standard Italian dressing of oil and vinegar and put it over the top of these tomatoes. And then, she added something a little special. She gave the plate of tomatoes and cucumbers a dusting of salt and pepper, and then finished the product off with a coating of oregano from the spice rack.

I'm not sure what it was, but something appealed to me very much in that special plate of garden goodies that mother had prepared for me. And, before I knew it, that entire plate was gone. Consumed in the space of five minutes -- I finally admitted this was one of the best things I had ever tasted.

My mother nearly dropped to the floor from Mycardial Infarction when I not only brought the empty plate into the kitchen, but then had the audacity to ask for more. And she did prepare that special dish, once again using the same ingredients she had used the first time. And, sure enough, in quick measure, that plate was gone as well. Who needed burgers I reasoned? I had vine-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers.

I've never forgotten this incident. From that point on, not only did I start eating tomatoes, I couldn't get enough of them. The same applied to cucumbers. And, I quickly discovered that you could do the same thing with bell peppers, another garden staple. Bush beans and pea pods were suddenly delicious, and more importantly, in demand.

I still can't get enough of this recipe. I've
been making variations of it for years, but only last year did I discover that I was missing an important ingredient -- the dried oregano flakes. It gives raw vegetables a real kick.

So, if you're looking for a hook -- an angle -- a recipe -- anything that will convince kids to eat a plate of tomatoes, remember the following:

1. Presentation
2. Oil and Vinegar
3. Salt and pepper
4. Dried oregano flakes

Now, I'm not telling you this is the magic ingredient that will suddenly convince your fast-food addicted children to suddenly sit up and fly right. They might even reject it the first time. Who knows? I may have rejected it the first time around myself as well. But, keep trying. Be patient. In time, that little boy and girl will notice that everyone at the table is reaching for that plate of home-grown garden stuff first. They'll get the message. I certainly did.

The First RIPE Tomato of the 2008 Season!!!

Friday, June 20, 2008

I'm sure there will be many more moments like this to come this summer, as I have 24 tomato plants that are positively loaded for bear this year, but the first ripe tomato of the season? It's always a special event.

It's June 20th, and I'm getting my first ripe tomato. A real tomato. Not a cherry tomato, but a real, ripe tomato. I've been getting ripe cherry tomatoes for about two weeks now. Those don't count. But the ripening tomato to your right? That counts!

The first real ripe tomato of 2008 comes courtesy of the Bloody Butcher plant. Grown from seed by Farmer Fred Hoffman, and planted in our garden during the last week of April, this is one of two plants in one of our 4X8 gardening beds. They are planted side-by-side, and represent two of the biggest plants in this bed by far. They are probably six feet in height now, and promise to grow much larger as the season gets into full swing.

I always feel pretty good about getting ripe tomatoes before July hits. It's normally a pretty good sign that good things are about to happen in the ol' tomato garden. Ripe tomatoes in June mean buckets of ripened tomatoes in July, and dump trucks of ripe tomatoes in August and September. It just feels good, ya know?

Both Bloody Butchers are planted in a bed that was recharged with two bags of Steer Manure Compost this spring, and this may be a key to my success in this one bed. Every plant in this bed, with the exception of one of the Marianna's Peace, is producing green fruit at a quick pace. MP hasn't produced just yet, but I have a feeling it's about too.

This is my first year for growing the Bloody Butcher. Farmer Fred called it an "impulse purchase" when he bought a packet of seeds last February. The name intrigued him. He just had to have it in the garden. And, according to my research, the Bloody Butcher is a fairly recent introduction to the tomato world. It's been around for about ten or eleven years. That's a short lifespan for a tomato variety, but its popularity is growing.

No need to wonder why. Just look at the production this plant is putting out now. It will produce the first ripened tomato in my garden. And, judging from these pictures, this is just the first of SEVERAL HUNDRED that I will get from these two plants alone.

Here's hoping the taste is as good as the production.

There's really nothing like the first vine-ripened tomato of the year.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The really wonderful thing about gardening is, the surprise that invariably comes about when you're growing a great many things. One of those surprises came tonight. It was completely unexpected, and I'm still scratching my head. This should not have happened. It's just too darn hot to happen. But happen it did, and I have the proof in the way of photos. The wife -- Venus -- has the proof in the form of DINNER!

As I have explained before in this blog, we do grow artichokes. And, given the right space, water and fertlizer, artichokes will do well here in Sacramento. But, unlike coastal areas, you get only ONE season. Coastal areas get two -- one in the spring and one in the fall. In Sacramento, you get the spring. The summers are just too brutal on the artichoke plants. This is how they normally look in late spring -- early summer -- wilted, dying back, not happy. The last thing you would expect, is a new crop of artichokes.

Not so fast.

Tonight -- I spotted that new crop. And I've never seen this before. Most artichokes produce right about the same time, no matter what the variety is. You get about a month of spring-time production, and that's it. Then the plants die back completely, before sending out new, tender shoots in the fall.

But tonight -- I noticed four very new, ready to pick artichokes in the bed of dying, wilting plants. When I moved the dying plants aside, what did I find? A new plant that had sprung up in my 4X8 gardening bed. A new plant? Now? In this heat? Unheard of at the old home.
But, perhaps it's because that bed was smaller? Not enough room? I'm just not sure.

What I can tell you is this much: This is the result. Four, ready-to-pick, artichokes. They don't look old, withered and tough, which is normally what most artichokes grown in Sacramento look like this time of year. Nope. This looks like normal, fresh, early spring growth.

Except, it's not early spring. It's June 17th. Temperatures have been in the upper nineties for awhile now. According to my previous gardening experience, this shouldn't be happening now.

But it is.

And tonight, the wife has a surprise for dinner (I'm eating leftover pizza!)

Every Tomato Tells a Story

Monday, June 16, 2008

One of the wonderful things about heirloom vegetable gardening is learning the story behind the varieties you're putting and propogating in the garden. It's not "just a tomato" anymore -- nor is it "just a melon."

No, many times the stuff that goes into the planter bed has a history behind it. And most stories can be fascinating, like the story behind the Mortgage Lifter tomato. It got that name because the man who hybridized -- or invented it -- paid off his home mortgage in six years by selling starter plants for one dollar each.

There is a similar story with this tomato. It is called, simply enough, The Shriver. And it's extremely rare. And the story behind this one plant, is how new heirlooms are discovered by backyard enthusiasts every single season. The Shriver might be rare now, but in another year or two, it will be a "must have" in the garden (or so I'm told).

The discovery of this variety started as a quest a few years ago to grow tomato starter plants in honor of our movie star Governor in California. I wanted to grow tomato plants that were named after famous actors (Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red), or famous TV shows (Taxi), or famous movies (Sophie's Choice). What I really wanted was a tomato variety with the name of "Arnold" or "Scharzenegger" or perhaps "Austrian Oak," but no such luck. My Googling came up with zero results.

However, when I googled the of California First Lady "Maria" and "Shriver" and "Tomato," a surprise popped up. It came in the form of a newspaper report from the "Sharon Herald," serving the Shenango Valley and Mercer County areas of Pennsylvania. And this 2007 report, titled "Seedlings from family's special tomatoes for sale," featured none other than the Shriver Tomato plant. And this was SOME plant.

The newspaper report featured a woman, Nancy Shriver Ridgeway, who had been growing the "family tomato" for generations. She got the seeds from this plant from her father, who, in turn, got them from his father. You know what that spells? H-E-I-R-L-O-O-M. I simply had to have this plant.

The next step was to call the reporter who wrote the story, which I did, and he put me in direct contact with none other than Nancy Ridgeway Shriver. I caught Nancy a little off-guard. How in the world, she wondered, did some California grower find out about her tomato variety in small-town Pennsylvania? I explained my passion to her, and she agreed, that I was just a little off-kilter mentally. But, more importantly, she agreed to share her Shriver Tomato seeds.

Not only did I receive seeds from Nancy, I received a little background on the Shriver in the form of a 1966 newspaper article from the Morgantown Dominion-Post in West Virginia. At some point in time, someone had written a very extensive article on the gardening habits and practices of Nancy's father, Mr. Forest O. Shriver. The article confirmed what Nancy had told me over the phone. This variety was at least 150 years old -- and possibly much older than that.

But the 1966 article revealed yet another mystery. A photo of The Shriver Tomato plant revealed the caption of "This New York Prize Winner Tomato Hasn't Reached Full Size Yet." Aha! So this tomato was originally called the New York Prize Winner? Or had this tomato won some sort of contest in New York? The article didn't specify, and I immediately enlisted some friends from around the country to check old seed catalogues, USDA records, anything, that featured a tomato by the name of New York Prize Winner.

After a few weeks, the verdict was in. Nobody could find a variety of tomato named New York Prize Winner. It may have been called that at one time. It may not. But for now, this tomato is called The Shriver, in honor of the generations of the West Virginia and Pennsylvania Shriver families who grew this tomato variety for decades and continue to nurture it today.

Not many seed outlets carry The Shriver yet. I expect that will change in a few years, because anything this old that's actually "new," is in high demand for a few years. At this point, only one commercial grower and seedsman has it, and that is Gary Ibsen of TomatoFest fame in California.

Requiem for a Tomato Plant

Monday, June 9, 2008

This is one of the hardest parts of growing heirloom tomatoes. It doesn’t matter how well you provide for your plants. It doesn’t matter that your tomatoes are in raised beds. It doesn’t matter that they have the best soil. It doesn’t matter that they get everything they need – and more. Because, this is bound to happen, guaranteed.

I bought this Cherokee Purple starter plant at the Sacramento Certified Farmer’s Markets, and its untimely death certainly wasn’t the fault of the seller. In fact, this plant thrived from the moment I placed it in its permanent home. Then, two weeks ago, the plant started showing signs of distress. Brown spots on the leaves. Some leaves wilted. A week later, entire leaf sets were dead. And a week after that, the entire plant was gone.

And now, sadly, I see the same signs of this disease starting to hit my ACE hybrid starter plant. Hybrids are supposed to be immune, or resistant, to just about everything under the sun. Take a good look. It sure doesn’t look resistant, now does it.

This blight appears to be the same thing that hit my garden last year, destroying half of my plants. I started spraying regularly in an attempt to control it, only to discover it was too late. Half of my plantings up and died on me last July. The other half, although infected, recovered to the point where they started growing again, and by the end of the summer, I was giving away tomatoes to anyone I could find.

But, this is a reminder of the many challenges that heirloom growers face. Do heirloom tomatoes taste fantastic? Yes, without a doubt. Can they provide you with so much bounty that you feel like you have tomatoes coming out of your ears? No doubt about that, as heirlooms can be big providers. Can heirlooms succumb to any and every tomato disease under the sun? Sadly, that answer is also yes.

What is means is this much: There will be no Cherokee Purple tomatoes from our garden this year. There are other plants nearby that will provide us with our share of purple tomatoes, such as Pruden’s Purple. But there’s only one Cherokee Purple. And now it’s gone.

This is part of the “trials and tribulations” facing heirloom tomato growers. You can give your plants everything they need and more, but sometimes, “everything” just isn’t enough.

So, Where Did This Crazy Heirloom Obsession Come From???

Friday, June 6, 2008

That's her to the right. She's the guilty party. She's the one who got me into this crazy mess. And sometimes, I think she probably wishes she hadn't made that fateful move so many years ago, as it has come to be an absolute obsession for me.

Be as it may -- if you're looking for the reason as to why I grow, eat and blog about heirloom tomatoes and other heirloom vegetables -- the key words are: BLAME VENUS.

This is one of her favorite photos by the way. Taken during our honeymoon cruise down the Mexican Riviera, I think she liked it because the drink matched her dress. I remember the night this photo was taken. I think it was disco night in the lounge. I'll never forget it.

Not soon after this night, Venus and I purchased our first home, and started the process of landscaping our first backyard together. A lot of it was "trial and error" (especially that error part), but we both knew that we wanted raised planter beds for a vegetable garden. It was, about this time, that Venus discovered she had this amazing green thumb. She had never planted so much as a radish before getting married. But when everything she touched bloomed, well, we both knew she had a very special talent.

I had grown gardens since I was a kid. I remember my father's garden of mostly corn and tomatoes, and how he would turn over half of his backyard it seemed to his gardening efforts. And, even though it was very long ago, I remember grilled corn on those lazy summer weekend nights in the backyard.

But, even though I had gardened in the past, my knowledge was extremely limited. In my world, there were three or four types of tomatoes: ACE, Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefsteak. That's it. Tomatoes were red. Tomatoes were round. To suggest anything else was pure blasphemy. Imagine my shock and surprise then, when one of the first tomato starter plants that Venus selected years ago was some strange thing called a "Green Zebra."

"Green Zebra?" Excuse me? My wife must have been mistaken. No matter, because she had me, the "expert," there to guide her. "Tomatoes are not green," I lectured her in the middle of Sacramento's Capital Nursery. "They are red. They are round. Nothing more. Nothing less. Bill Bird will not grow any green tomato in his garden."

My new wife smiled sweetly at me and proceeded to inform me that "I was full of it," and she was going to grow the Green Zebra. And, if I didn't like it, well, I knew where the couch in the living room was located. Not only did she pick out this ghastly thing called the "Green Zebra," she chose another advertised as a "potato leaf plant." This thing was even stranger. It was called "Brandyine."

"Fine," I told her as we both walked out of the nursery. "Suit yourself, I'm planting my standard ACE, Early Girl and Better Boy." I think that she, again, pointed out the directions to the couch in the living room. Then she had the audacity to pick up another plant at Home Depot called "Caspian Pink." I wondered what the heck had happened to my home-grown tomato world. It had been turned upside down. I simply didn't know there were any other varieties besides the standard hybrids.

I learned a lesson that summer that I'll never forget. For, the first moment that I ate a Green Zebra fresh from the vine, I was absolutely hooked. I couldn't get enough of them. And then, when our unstable Brandywine began churning out pink, red, orange and yellow tomatoes, I was in heaven. Where had these come from? Why had I never heard of them? They were absolutely the most wonderful thing I had ever tasted in my life. They were stunning! Why hadn't I been growing these?

Thank goodness for the World Wide Web. It was big enough then to start answering some of my questions, but not all. Still, it was through Yahoo and Google that I kept running across references to a book called "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden." I simply had to have that book. So did Venus.

Author Carolyn Male did a wonderful job of explaining where heirlooms came from, how many of them were actually around (thousands) and, quite frankly, why they were very tough to find during my teenage years in the 1970's. But, with the spread of the internet, came the spreading of knowledge among gardeners. Seed for these wonderful, old varieties of the past soon followed. And, not long after, the country was hooked. This is a "must read" book for heirloom growers, and I'm pleased to tell you that we've planted and continue to plant many of these old, tried and true, varieties.

My obsession, however, didn't end there. In fact, it was just beginning. And my quest for knowledge didn't end with Dr. Male's book. I had also read about various references to the "father of the modern tomato." And, it turns out that Alexander Livingston had written his own book called "Livinston and the Tomato." Sure enough, that book was soon in my library. It was a harder read, since it was written more than a century ago.

Still, that book contained another introduction to the growing obsession: a packet of seeds. Not just any seeds, but the "Paragon." Through my research, I had read about this tomato. If Alexander Livingston was the "father of the modern tomato," then the Paragon was the first born son. It was the first tomato he introduced as a seeds man, through a hybridizing effort that, although standard stuff today, was new and wildly experimental in Livingston's day.

And yes, if you must ask, I started planting seeds that next spring. I started with two Alexander Livingston originals -- the Paragon and the Golden Queen. I had no idea what to expect. This was a first for me. Start from seed? How utterly pioneer-like! Why, just two years ago, there were only three or four kinds of tomato plants, and they were born in six-packs found outside your average Longs or Rite-Aid stores...

WARNING! This is how your obsession starts. If you find your planter garden looking like this in the early spring, loaded with plastic cups containing tomato plant starters, it's too late. You're hooked.

When Life Gives You a Bag of Cherries...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Ribier Ave., Modesto, CA
I had the rather wonderful opportunity to walk the neighborhood where I grew up in Modesto, CA this past weekend, in support of a State Senator (Jeff Denham) who was facing a nasty recall election. Fortunately, the recall failed and Denham was safe. I'm proud of my hometown. They saw the recall for what it was -- a power grab -- and the measure was rejected by 80% of the electorate. That should send a strong message.

The neighborhood around Standiford Elementary School hasn't changed much since I was growing up there in the late sixties and 1970's. My old home that you see to the left and the entire neighborhood was built in the late 1940's for returning World War II veterans. It was the era of smaller homes, where quarter-acre lots were standard stuff and the standard three bedroom and two bathroom home was crammed into 1100-1300 square feet.

This was natural for this day and age. Families and kids didn't spend a lot of time in the home. In the age before computer games and computers, kids played outside in the front and backyards and in neighborhood parks. Not much has changed here since I was growing up. I saw mothers playing catch with daughters in the front yard. And I happened to encounter a brother and sister who were selling bags of cherries.
Cherries from a Modesto Backyard

This bag of cherries brought back wonderful memories and I was more than happy to pay the price of three bucks for a bag of the most delicious cherries I've had in ages. And for the kids, it was easy money. They simply raided the family cherry tree in the backyard, bagged up the good stuff and sold it at a nearby park. I used to do the same thing as a kid, but back then, that bag of cherries sold for fifty cents.

The World War II veterans who bought these homes on quarter-acre sized lots planted fruit trees by the dozens in those wide and deep backyards. And every neighborhood, like mine, had an alley. The veterans, sadly, are all but gone now. But the orchards of mature fruit trees stand as a testament to what they did.

Those alleys and backyards filled with fruit trees served as my private orchard during my early teenage years. I would walk the alleys on the way home from school, and pick whatever was in season and hanging over the fence. I got my fill of tree ripened peaches, nectarines, kumkwats, pears, plums, avocados, apples, pomegranates or vine ripened grapes and tomatoes. You name the fruit or vegetable and it was there at some point during the walk home from school. And yes, I ate my fill. Much healthier than some packaged snack, don't you think?

At one point during my walk I encountered a tree that looked vaguely familiar to me. I know I had seen it before, but I just couldn't place it. And then, it hit me like a bolt from the blue. It was the exact copy of the Bacon Avocado Tree that I planted in my backyard this spring (Venus LOVES avocados). The only difference was my avocado tree is three feet tall and years away from producing fruit. This Bacon Avocado tree was THIRTY FEET tall, THIRTY FEET wide and must have been at least thirty years old. And it was just loaded with fruit.

What did Bill Bird do? He took the same sort of action that he took decades ago as a young teenager. I walked into a nearby alley, located a branch hanging over a fence and picked one of those avocados to show the wife what she could expect in the very near future.

In many ways, our North Natomas backyard is planted as a tribute to backyards that supplied me with fresh fruit and vegetables as a teenager. I've planted two varieties of peaches (June Pride and an O'Henry), a Stella Cherry tree, Sweet Pomegranate and a Santa Rosa Plum. The wife and I also planted a citrus grove containing a Washington Navel Orange, Dancy Tangerine, Improved Meyer Lemon and a Bearss Lime.

The trees don't quite look like the monsters I encountered in Modesto, but give it time. I'm sure that in thirty years, it too, will feed its share of hungry teenagers.

It's amazing the memories that a simple bag of cherries can bring back, wouldn't you agree?

And now, a word about Tomato Cages!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I never thought it would be this exciting to write about tomato cages. What has my life come too? Yes, I know, stop thinking -- start writing...

I wish I could take credit for the cage design located to the immediate right, but that wouldn't be fair. This ingenious little cage design sprang from the mind of a software engineer who lives in Southern California. His name is Thomas Matkey, and his cage design is legendary stuff.

I first ran into Tom as I was scrolling through posts on the TomatoVille website. I saw several pictures of his cages posted on this forum, and just happened to run across them following a weekend where I used miles of twine in an attempt to prop up those dinky wire cages that were collapsing under the weight of a terrific tomato crop.

As they used to say in my old radio career, "nothing is original anymore, so steal the best ideas and make them your own." And that's what I did, with permission from Tom of course. And he was more than happy to share his design. It's even posted up on a website, which I've

linked to below. With most cage designs, there are good things and bad things. The good: this cage will never, EVER collapse. The bad: it does take some time to set up.

Tom shares the same disdain for the standard wire cage that I do. You can depend on standard wire cages to fail at the exact moment when you absolutely need them the most, and that failure can ruin a tomato crop that you've spent months growing. In Tom's words, "wire cages have the structural integrity of a slinky." I couldn't agree with him more. It was only after he'd lost a few crops, or had to prop up wire cages with various pieces of PVC pipe he had laying around in the yard, did he come up with his PVC Cage design.

Here's an example of Tom's design to the left. Notice all the tomatoes on that one single plant? Yeah, so did I. Not only did I envy his cage design, the amount of production Tom squeezes out of each plant makes me positively ILL. I believe that's a shot of Tom's Tigerella plant from two years ago. Then, to make matters even worse, Tom sends me photos of his ripened crop after harvest. But I'll get him this year.... I have a bigger backyard than he does now ;)

The cages are fairly simple to build, but as I noted above, they do take time. The advantage of each cage is, once you've cut the proper length of pipe, you can use them again and again and again, year after year after year. If you ever played with Tinker Toys as a kid, you'll love this. Think of it as a grown man's Tinker Toy Project.

The cages use standard, three-quarter inch, Schedule 40 PVC pipe. You will also need a collection of PVC elbows, connectors, cross connectors and T-Connectors. You should also purchase a PVC cutter if you don't already have one, because using a hacksaw to cut the pipes will be a huge time expense.

My design differs from Tom somewhat, due to space concerns and the size of our tomato beds. To put it short and sweet, it really doesn't matter how long the pipes are. You can customize it to fit any size backyard, big or small.

And this, boys and girls, is the end-of-summer payoff. This is how my garden looked late last summer, and although you can't actually see them, these plants are loaded with tomatoes. You might even spot the green garden "stretchy" tape in each photo. That tape is used to train the plants to grow up through the PVC cages. Once the plants have grown out the top, it's perfectly fine to let them fall and drape over and start growing in different directions. This cage WILL NOT FAIL -- ever.

More pictures of the cages, both mine and Tom's, are located below. Sacramento Bee Garden Editor Pat Rubin also did a story on various tomato cage designs, including this one, which you can read here.

Finally, you can access the "how to build" instructions here.

Happy Gardening!!!

Starting Tomatoes From Direct Seed

Monday, June 2, 2008

As if 24 tomato plants pictured below wasn't enough.....

Despite my early success, this was not a good year for us when it came to the subject of starting from seed. Oh sure, we started off with good intentions. We even reserved a spare bedroom for our seed starting efforts last February. And, true to my wife's green thumb, everything we planted, sprouted.

But, all good things must come to an end, and our party ended when we put our plants outdoors. I failed to harden them off correctly, and in the space of a day, everything we started from seed last February, about 95% of it, died. It was like a Stalinist Purge had hit our starters. Very few survived.

However, we did not give up. We still had a few seeds leftover from our February efforts, and we direct seeded into the planter cups you see above. These varieties include Black Cherry, Zapotec Pleated and Druzba. Not pictured are Kellogg's Breakfast and The Shriver. Direct seed is very easy. Just fill up a plastic cup with planter mix -- plant seed -- water and wait. In two weeks, VOILA! Tomato plant starters for your garden.

Unfortunately, the main garden doesn't have the room for additional plants, and since some of these are very rare, I must construct a new box to hold the new plants.

And that should make this gentleman to the left, extremely happy. Pinkston is doing his best Superman impression in this photo. But his other love is joining with his brothers and sisters in digging through the planter beds to "take care of business."

The 2008 Vegetable Garden!!!

If you're looking for tomatoes -- scroll down. I've given the tomato garden its own posting, since it's the largest tomato garden I've ever planted. Venus and I were normally limited, due to space concerns, to five or six plants at most. But now? With the new home and the quarter-acre sized backyard? Try 24 tomato plants, and still growing!

But there are other things in the garden, and here's a rundown on what's growing in the North Natomas home of Bill and Venus Bird:

Located to your right, is the bed devoted to peppers, a variety of pea called Mr. Big Pea and at least one rogue strawberry plant. The strawberry is my fault. It was one of those "impulse" purchases that I later regretted. Although I fully intend to build a bed dedicated solely to strawberries, it's not done yet and that plant had to go somewhere.

Most of the peppers are heirloom varieties, and include Flamingo, Lilac, Tequila, Ariane, Mariachi and Early Sensation. The hot varieties include, but are not limited too, Purple Cayenne and Habanero.

Next up -- the bed devoted to lettuce (a wide variety), green onions, radishes, spinach, cauliflower, basil, cilantro...and a bunch of other stuff I'm forgetting.

Everything you see in this bed was planted by Venus, direct seed into the ground. Needless to say, we've been eating lots of salad this spring. Radishes just love the raised beds, and grow to be the size of baseballs, or in some cases, resemble carrots in terms of length and width.

Seeds for these beds came from a wide variety of places, including Pine Tree Seeds, Home Depot, and even seeds from the nearby Dollar Store (ten packs for a buck!)

Finally, what garden would be complete without corn and sunflowers? Venus absolutely had to have sunflowers in the garden this year. She's wanted them for years, but we just never had the room! We've got that room now -- in spades, so who was I to argue when she started sprinking sunflower seeds among the corn?

There are two different types of corn planted in the bed so far, and we continue to plant new varieties every other week. The first type is a standard Burpee hybrid, but the second type from Pine Tree Seeds is an heirloom variety that's been around for at least 100 years. Guess which one will be better? My guess is the heirloom variety. But, time will tell.

Not pictured here? Black zucchini. I can hardly wait.

And, finally, if you're going to garden extensively, you've got to have some of the sweet stuff. This is Sweet Diane Watermelon, just getting started. This is my first attempt at growing Sweet Diane, which is, once again, another heirloom variety. I believe it's been around for 100 years or longer, and I'm guessing it's VERY good.

Varieties just don't stand the test of time unless they are THAT GOOD. So, this will be an interesting experiment to say the least. Sweet Diane is supposed to grow watermelons in the 10 to 15 lb. range. They ripen in late August, and love heat, which means it's the perfect fruit vine for Sacramento weather conditions.

Our 2008 Tomato Garden

Sorry it's taken so long to get around to this, but without further delay, here are some photos of our 2008 North Natomas vegetable garden!!!

We start, of course, with my favorite summertime vegetable of all -- home grown tomatoes. And who can't resist home grown heirloom tomatoes?

These plants were put in the ground about a month ago -- the last weekend in April. And, as you can probably tell from the photos, they are growing great guns. This bed contains planter mix that I purchased last year, and I recharged it this year with two bags of Steer Manure compost. So far, that appears to be a great move. All of the plants in this bed are growing great guns. I have eight plants in each 4X8 bed. Four to a row.

Here is a photo of the most productive plant by far, the Bloody Butcher. Grown from seed by Farmer Fred Hoffman, of KFBK-KSTE "Get Growing With Farmer Fred" fame, this little starter is just loaded with tomatoes. I have two of them planted. One is a little more productive than the other, so far, but both are growing great guns. Between the two, I probably have about 20 tomatoes. All of the plants in this bed are fruiting at the moment. Some have one or two tomatoes, while others have much more. I just noticed about four or five new itty bitty green tomatoes on the Celebrity yesterday, which makes me very happy. The Celebrity is a very productive plant, and that tangy taste makes for great tomato sauce. I would say that we're at least another two to three weeks away from getting ripened tomatoes on a regular basis, but the early returns so far look pretty good.

Here's a list of tomatoes we're growing in the garden this year:

1. Bloody Butcher (from Farmer Fred)
2. Celebrity (from Farmer Fred)
3. SunGold (from Farmer Fred)
4. Lemon Boy (from Farmer Fred)
5. Green Zebra (nursery purchase)
6. Pruden's Purple (started from seed)
7. Caspian Pink (started from seed)
8. Costoluto Genovese (volunteer)
9. Marianna's Peace (from FF)
10. West Sac Crack (seed)
11. Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red (started from seed)
12. Dominic's Paste (started from seed)
13. Margherita (from Nels Christensen)
14. Omar's Lebanese (from Nels Christensen)
15. Pineapple (from Nels Christensen)
16. Hank Shaw's Brandywine (started from seed)
17. Campbell's 1327 (started from seed)
18. Cherokee Purple (purchase)
19. ACE (purchase)
20. Rainbow (from Jeff Clarke)

There are a few I'm forgetting of course, since there are a total of 24 plants in the main garden. But, as you might be able to tell, we have "enough" to serve our tomato tastes this summer.