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.