Monday, June 30, 2008
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.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
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
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.
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!)
Monday, June 16, 2008
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.
Monday, June 9, 2008
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.
Friday, June 6, 2008
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.
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."
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."
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?
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 seedsman, through a hybridizing effort that, although standard stuff today, was new and wildly experimental in Livingston's day.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
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
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?
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
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 ;)
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.
Monday, June 2, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.