Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The first step in the gardening process is now arriving in bunches in the mailbox of Bill and Venus Bird. Yep -- I'm talking seeds, seeds and more seeds. And lots of them too. This batch pictured to your left came from Pine Tree Seeds, but we're also getting deliveries from other places around the country.

I like Pine Tree seeds. I've ordered from them before and they have a couple of things going for them. One, the seed packages are CHEAP (always a good sign), and secondly, I've found that they are very productive. Some of the best vegetables grown in the backyard last summer came via Pine Tree seeds, including the Sweet Diane Watermelon that I wrote about in this blog just last summer.

That was one delicious melon. I can only dream about that taste now, but I'll never forget it. There's nothing quite like pulling a vine-ripened melon -- any melon -- from the backyard. You haven't tasted sweet, until you've grown it by seed in your very own backyard.

The arrival of the seed orders doesn't mean "ready, set, PLANT!" I sure wish that were the case, but we're still a couple of months off. What it does allow Venus and I to do is lay out the garden. Since we rotate crops to ward off harmful bugs, we know the tomatoes will be in a different bed next spring, as will the bush beans, corn, lettuce, radishes, green onions, etc. Once the seeds packets are in hand, we can divide them between the six main beds and the 10-15 smaller planter beds.

Of course, it should come as no big surprise that my personal favorite are the tomato seeds. They're arriving in big numbers now. Some of the seeds, like Delicious for example, were gifts from other growers. Still others were ordered from TomatoFest, Pine Tree Seeds, Seeds of Change, Totally Tomatoes -- you name it. Some varieties are new to the garden. Some are old favorites.

For instance, I had to re-order a particular variety of seed from Seeds of Change. And I'm very hopeful that this package of Costaluto Genovese seed will produce a bumper crop of Genovese tomatoes, which was an absolute favorite out of the garden in 2007. Not only was it a favorite, it was the "outstanding producer" in our garden that year. The wife and I froze 15-20 bags of Genovese tomatoes and used them through the 2007-2008 winter on a variety of dishes.

Unfortunately, last year, I made a serious mistake. When volunteer Genovese plants began popping up in the garden beds last spring, I mistakingly believed I would not have to start from seed again. After all, why plant a seed when you've got a perfectly good starter plant that popped up out of nowhere, right?

Wrong. Bad idea. The tomatoes that came off those starter plants last summer were nothing like the tomatoes that came off the Genovese plant vine in 2007. The plant may have looked the same, or similar, but the production was not good and that fabulous Genovese taste just wasn't there.

In short, it was a major disappointment in the Bird garden last year. But, thanks to the new seed, that won't happen this year (I hope!).

And yes, there are some varieties I simply cannot do without. Campbell's 1327, for example, will have a home in the garden this summer. So will Kellogg's Breakfast. You can't count out Marianna's Peace, and never give up on the Brandywine. There are a few others that will also make a return trip.

And then there are still others to try. I've heard a lot about the variety called Cosmonaut Volkov, which is named after Vladislav Nikolayevich Volkov, who was a Soviet cosmonaut who flew on the Soyuz 7 and Soyuz 11 missions (he unfortunately died during the Soyuz 11 mission).

Another interesting addition to the garden this year is Dr. Wyche's Yellow, which was was developed by the late Dr. John Wyche who owned the Cole Brothers Circus. Rumor has it that the good Dr. Wyche, as a Circus owner, had access to lots of different "fertilizers."

And that's the really interesting thing about growing heirloom tomatoes and other heirloom vegetables. You're not just growing a tomato. You're not just growing a watermelon, or a radish, or ordinary cauliflower.

You're growing a piece of history. It's got a name behind it. There's a reason why it survived all these years. Sometimes the story is just as good as the crop.

Seeds are in -- time to start planning!

A followup to this posting -- as I forgot to mention a very important seed source that has served us well in the past. How could I?

Don't roll your eyes or put your nose up at seedracks located in Dollar Stores or other bargain stores in your town. Those can be a great deal in some cases. Some of the best basil I have ever grown came right out of the Dollar Tree store located near Elkhorn and Watt in North Highlands.

We already had more than enough seed for the garden as I remember, but were immediately drawn to the rack that offered a deal too good to pass up: TEN PACKS OF SEED FOR $1!

Who can pass up a deal like that? We couldn't. We didn't. And those ten packets of spinach, basil, carrots, radishes and green onions kept producing all summer long.

It just goes to show that good gardening bargains can be found just about anywhere you look.

The TOP TEN from TomatoFest!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gary Ibsen of TomatoFest fame recently sent this news release to Farmer Fred Hoffman, and I wanted to make sure you were informed of the growing popularity of certain types of Heirloom Tomatoes:

Announcing "Top 10" Heirloom Tomatoes for 2009
"Black" Tomatoes Still Reign with the Best of the Reds and Pinks
Bi-Colored and Cherry Tomatoes Also Growing In Popularity

Carmel, Calif. – January 25, 2009 – TomatoFest® Garden Seeds today announced that "black" tomatoes again rank high in the "Top 10" list of favorite heirloom tomatoes going into 2009. The "Top 10" favorite heirloom tomatoes are:

Brandywine (pink)
Paul Robeson (purple/black)
Aussie (red)
Julia Child (pink)
Cherokee Purple (purple/black)
Black Cherry (purple/black)
Kellogg's Breakfast (orange)
Gold Medal (yellow/red striped)
Aunt Ginny's Purple (purple/black)
Carmello (red)

"Black" tomatoes were more popular in 2008 than in any prior year," said Gary Ibsen, grower of 600 varieties of certified organic, heirloom tomatoes in California, and founder of TomatoFest® Garden Seeds, the most prominent internet retailer of organic heirloom tomato seeds.

"The purple/black colored heirloom tomatoes continue to rise in popularity at produce markets, with restaurant chefs, and with home gardeners for the 6th year in a row," "Black" tomatoes are fast becoming as popular as many of the best tasting pink and red tomatoes."

"Black" tomatoes are not really black," remarked Ibsen. "They cover a range of dark colors, including deep purple, dusky deep brown, smoky mahogany with dark green shoulders, and bluish-brown. The depth of colors seems to be encouraged by a higher acid and mineral content in the soil."

"Black" tomatoes are native to Southern Ukraine during the early 19th century. They originally existed in only a small region of the Crimean Peninsula. Soon they were showing up as new varieties in many shapes and sizes and began to appear throughout the territories of the former Soviet Union. Then they began turning up in the former Yugoslavia, Germany and the United States.

"A survey of our tomato seed sales to home gardeners and commercial tomato farmers, along with a review of our sales of fresh heirloom tomatoes to retailers and restaurants, demonstrate soundly that consumers have discovered the superior and complex flavors of the "black" heirloom tomatoes, and are selecting these bold colors along with their mix of favorite red, pink, orange and bi-colored tomatoes," said Ibsen.

Also showing a rise in popularity in 2008 with a greater presence in produce markets, are sweeter tasting bi-colored tomatoes, and a wider selection of different colored cherry tomatoes.

Photos and descriptions of all the above listed tomato varieties can be found at TomatoFest.

Bill's Note: Venus and I have grown four of the varieties listed in Ibsen's TOP TEN, and loved each and every one of them. Some heirloom afficianados go so far as to claim that Kellogg's Breakfast is the best tasting heirloom tomato, bar none, and they have a pretty good argument.

I ordered several different varieties from TomatoFest this year, and I have high hopes for a unique variety called "Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red." Time will tell with this new heirloom tomato entry into our backyard North Natomas garden. Some growers have reported amazing success with it, others have not.

And that's the trial and tribulation, so to speak, of growing heirloom tomatoes.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

There goes our false spring. Wave bye-bye. So long. See ya. Mother Nature took it back, and took it back with a vengeance. This is what the ye olde Bird backyard looks like now after a solid night of steady rain. We won't be able to access the planter beds for another year I think.

I did have hopes you know. A week or two of nice weather will do that to gardening guys and gals. At first, we remind ourselves, that this can't possibly last. After all, it's January. And, January in Sacramento is normally cold, wet and miserable.

But then the nice weather continues for more than a day or two and stretches into a week, the thinking changes. "Well now," a gardener thinks. "What kind of damage can I do now?" Summer garden planting is out of the question, of course, but it's never too early to get a start on the ol' spring garden, right?


And I have pictures.

It seems hard to believe that just a few days I was digging around and recharging the planter beds shown above. I was planting a new fruit tree -- a Royal Ranier Cherry to go with the Self-Fruiting Bing or Lapice Cherry. I was spraying the weeds, preparing the ground, even fertilizing the lawn.

And now? I have a mud-pit again. My own personal backyard lake -- with several small ponds to boot. I'm frustrated. The wife is frustrated. And the cats are really upset. Do you think they enjoy rolling around in that mud?

Of course, cats don't really understand Mother Nature. They know, almost by instinct, that we provide them with food and water. Therefore, they also believe that we also control the wind and rain, and the looks they've been shooting us show an outright contempt and displeasure.

In short, they want us to turn the water "off" and the sun "on."

Cats are so dumb.

Don't dare make the mistake of stepping into a yard like this one following an all-night rainstorm. That's clay muck out there. In the summer time it's as hard as a ROCK. But in the winter? It's muck-sand. Step in that stuff and you'll sink into the center of the earth. Well, not quite, but you will sink.

And you will also destroy a pair of shoes in the process. It doesn't matter how nice or how cruddy they might be. Step in that muck after a rainstorm and the shoes you are wearing get caked with the stickiest mud known to mankind.

It's back to dreaming about next year's garden again. Our "false spring" just blew out of town.

Re-Charging Raised Planter Beds

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How the best plans can sometimes change....

I had intended to post up photos of heavily frost covered planter beds, with a "winter is here -- woe is me" blog message but Mothern Nature isn't cooperating.

A day after I took photos of my frost-covered beds, the weather changed, and changed rather dramatically. Those frost covered mornings? Gone. Replaced with bright sunshine, cool morning temperatures and real spring warmth in the afternoon.

Spring warmth? The high sixties? Low 70's? In JANUARY? Exsqueeze me? Did Old Man Winter take a break? Keel over? Last year at this time we were getting hit with rain and windstorms that blew fences down and cars off the road. And this year Mother Nature brings us April in January?


But, if there's one thing I've learned it's this: there's no arguing with Mother Nature. You just take what she gives you -- grin and bear it so to speak -- and if that grand old dame wants to give us a false spring, then so be it. Use your time wisely.

And that's just what I did this past weekend. The wife shoved a planting guide into my face, promptly produced thirty packets of seed, pointed to a nearby raised bed and ordered the now famous line: "get to work." That means, time to get digging.

Now myself, as a very romantic man, did inform the wife last Friday night that I had brought her a gift from the heart: three bags of composted steer manure. Not every man is this romantic, I'll give you that. But Bill Bird's heart just oozes with romance. And in some cases, romance smells.

Put these elements together: the weather is warm, I've got three bags of composted steer manure from Home Depot and the wife has thirty packets of various lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, bok choi, peas and other seeds. Plus, she's got the always reliable Farmer Fred Hoffman planting guide. And who can argue with that?

If there's one thing I've learned about raised beds, it's this? Yes, they are wonderful to garden in. The soil is surrounded by redwood, which conducts heat into the soil, warming it MUCH faster that ordinary dirt in ordinary ground. When you've got sunshine and highs in the sixties, you've got dirt with temps in the 70's.

Another thing I've learned is raised beds are USELESS unless they are "re-charged" so to speak with every season. The plants suck up all the good nutrients during the growing season. You might still have soft, loamy soil. But without a bag or four of compost, you've got a soil without nutrients. And without nutrients, you've got a garden that will not grow.

Since I have yet to inheirit a two-cycle, gas powered, Mantis Rototiller, I recharge my beds the old fashioned way. Yep. See that green-handled hoe in the bed? That's mine. And it digs pretty darn good if you're using two hands to dig up the dirt and mix in compost. With a raised bed, you must ensure that you pull ALL soil away from the redwood boards and ensure that old soil mixes in with the compost you're adding to the bed. Why? Because root systems grow towards HEAT. And those boards get pretty hot in the summer. I find that roots tend to grow right to the edges and, in some cases, stick right to them.

I also discovered that lots of little critters, such as BLACK WIDOWS, also enjoy raised beds. I manged to rudely intrude on a few of them. You would have thought that frosty cold days and nights would have done them in by now, but no such luck. By hiding in the soil, and near one of the redwood boards that retains warmth, just about any critter can withstand the onslaught of winter cold.

So, dig carefully and wear gloves!

The bed pictured here contains three bags of composted steer manure, worked into every corner. It also contains several cups of bone meal and other pelleted fertilzers that will ensure that vegetables will get the three important nutrients that ALL vegetables and fruit need: Nitrogen, Potassium (also called Potash) and Phosphorus.

It didn't take the wife long to start planting after I had finished -- perhaps thirty seconds or less. That entire 4X8 bed contains all sorts of good seed now, and if the weather holds, we'll see germination happen before the start of the weekend. If the cold weather sets in again, some seeds will germinate, while others will not.

It's still way, way, way, way too early to tell if spring has arrived two months early. Knowing our wacky weather, we could get another two months of wind, rain and more wind. But, when Mother Nature rewards you with a patch of spring in January, if you like to garden, you'd better take advantage of it.

Garden Porn

Sunday, January 4, 2009

It's that time of year in the Sacramento Valley where a thick layer of frost covers the backyard. You can see the white stuff on the ground, on the grass, covering the planter boxes and most of all: you can clearly see the look and dismay on the faces of our cats who meow plaintively to "turn the warm weather on."

Sorry, no such luck. Old man winter is here. The last of the summer garden has been ripped out. Those colorful rose bushes have been pruned back. The peach, cherry and other fruit producing trees are happily slumbering away. Winter is here.

What is a gardener to do then?

By this time, if you're seriously into the gardening movement, seed catalogs should be arriving in your mailbox by the armful. I'm talking names like Territorial Seed Company, Tomato Growers Supply, Totally Tomatoes, Pinetree Seeds, RH Shumway, Vermont Bean Seed Company, Johnny's Seeds, Seeds of Change and hundreds of others.

In short, it's time to order next year's summer garden. The weather is deathly cold now, but you know that first hint of spring is right around the corner, and if you're not prepared, tsk...tsk....tsk!

If you're anything like Venus and I -- you've got seed catalogs lying all over the house by now. You can find them on the coffee table, on the side tables, in the bedroom and, much to my wife's chagrin, sometimes in the bathroom (hey, sometimes reading material IS a necessity!). These catalogs come with brightly colored pictures of harvests that you can only dream of at this point in the gardening process, and all sorts of interesting possibilities for next summer's garden.

I wish I could take credit for this comparison, but I can't. It actually came from a grower in Oklahoma of all places, when she compared seed catalogs to pornography magazines. And, after thinking about it, she's right. We leave these things lying about the house for months at a time. You can even find last year's seed catalogs on the coffee table, right underneath the catalogs that arrived in the mail this year.

And, much like porn magazines, there is also the strong desire to read every catalog from cover to cover. The pictures excite you! What's new here? What about this? Oh my goodness, this would look nice in the garden, wouldn't it? And, don't overlook this or that or the other thing!

To put it short and sweet, like porn magazines, garden seed catalogs are terribly addictive. You are compelled to order this new bush bean, or perhaps the latest in cherry tomatoes, or even that funky looking all-blue potato that retains its color, even after cooking!

Unlike regular porn however, I think that garden magazine porn is a bit more healthy for the soul -- not to mention the stomach.

In Praise of Rosemary

Thursday, January 1, 2009

One of the absolute worst things that can happen to you during the process of cooking that "special" meal is to reach into the spice rack and suddenly discover that you're out of that crucial ingredient that will transform your truly special dish to extraordinary from just plain ordinary.

What to do? I can remember many times where I've set the burners on low and rushed out to the nearest Safeway, Raley's or Bel-Air to get that crucial spice replacement. The wife and I always keep a good supply of spices on hand, and even some backups of spices that are heavily used. But, every once in a great while, BINGO, we run out of something that we really need.

One heavily used spice in the Bird household is Rosemary. We love it. We lather it on nearly every chicken dish served in the house. Some meat dishes, like the one you see in this photo, are also stuffed with Rosemary. That delectable piece of ribeye roast served as our Christmas dinner this year. It fed 15 people. And yes, if you're wondering, those are fresh pieces of Rosemary stuck into the top of that roast. It sort of looks like, well, a set of tiny Christmas trees doesn't it?

I write this post because it took me a few years, and a few lost dollars I might add, to discover that Rosemary is quite common in the Sacramento area. More than common actually. IT GROWS LIKE A WEED. I discovered this very important point by checking out new housing developments in the North Natomas area -- the fastest growing area of Sacramento.

As you know, most new housing comes complete with a fully landscaped backyard. This means you get a bit of grass, one tree, a few bushes, a scattering of bark, and the builder calls this $10,000 OF FREE LANDSCAPING!!! Yeah, right. More like $100 worth. What landscapers do is look for the cheapest available option when it comes to landscaping, especially in the cookie cutter subdivisions like I call home.

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. One of the cheapest things to plant in Sacramento is ROSEMARY. What's that? You mean that stuff I have in the spice rack is growing right outside in my front yard? Chances are, that answer is yes. Rosemary absolutely THRIVES in the Sacramento area. A small bush will turn into a monster in less than a year. And yes, it's the same stuff that you're paying cash money for at your nearby grocery store. Actually, to be brutally honest, what is growing out front is probably a lot better. But that's just my opinion.

Once you know what you're looking for, Rosemary is easy to spot. It is an herb in the mint family. It is a small evergreen shrub, Rosmarinus officinalis, whose 1inch leaves resemble curved pine needles.

Rosemary's name is rooted in legend. The story goes that during her flight from Egypt, the Virgin Mary draped her blue cloak on a Rosemary bush. She then laid a white flower on top of the cloak. That night, the flower turned blue and the bush was thereafter known as the "rose of Mary." Greeks, who wove Rosemary wreaths into their hair, believed Rosemary strengthened the brain and enhanced memory. It was also known as a symbol of fidelity. In the Middle Ages, Rosemary was used medicinally and as a condiment for salted meats. In Europe, wedding parties burned Rosemary as incense. Judges burned it to protect against illness brought in by prisoners.

Today, Rosemary is used for landscaping homes and businesses by the thousands. You can find fields of it, for example, in front of the California Farm Bureau Federation building in the Natomas area. And, if you spot a bush sporting lots of pretty blue or purple flowers during the spring, chances are, you've stumbled upon a Rosemary bush.

Rosemary can be used both fresh, and dried. Drying is a simple process. Just hang a bun or two in your garage for about a month, strip the bark of needles and process for a few minutes in a food processor. You'll have a enough dried Rosemary to last a season or more.