Monsters in the Backyard

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yes Virginia, artichoke plants do grow well in the Sacramento Valley. Castroville and other coastal valley locations still have a big advantage over us when it comes to "perfect" weather for growing giant sized artichokes, but it doesn't mean we can't have a little fun ourselves. And judging by the size of these plants in the backyard, it looks like Venus and I are in for a pretty good year.

At some point, in a few weeks, tender artichokes will form inside the center of this gargantuan plants and slowly grow upwards. I've learned some tricks through the years when it comes to growing artichokes in Sacramento, and it looks like this year that knowledge is really going to pay off. To put in bluntly, I've never seen artichoke plants quite this big before.

I'm in uncharted territory.

This is our second year for growing artichokes in the new North Natomas Back 40 (backyard), but the rootstock is actually quite a bit older. The roots of these plants came out of the old backyard at the old North Natomas home, located about ten minutes away from the new home. I had them confined in a very small area (all backyards in North Natomas are tiny). The first plants were put into a very small planter area in 2003 or 2004. And they grew well enough I suppose, although I had to force them to grow UP rather than OUT because I simply didn't have the room.

You can't tell by the photos because it's completely covered, but these artichoke plants are sitting in a 4X8 foot planter box constructed with cheap redwood fenceboard from the Home Despot. The box probably cost less than $30 to build (remember, I said CHEAP redwood fenceboard), and the nice planter-mix soil I put into this box probably cost a tad more than the box itself.

One of the first moves I made after building this box was to visit the backyard of the old home, which is now a rental. And I dug out every artichoke plant that I had growing in that small bed. We started with four in the first year -- but they had since expanded to about six or seven different rootstocks. After digging the plants out, I stuck them in some one gallon pots, put them in the back of my car, disassembled the old planter bed and raked decorative rock over the top.

If you were to visit the old home today, you'd never guess where the planter area had been.

Do you know what happened when the wife and I moved the rootstock and above-ground plants over to the new bed at the new home? If you're guessing "they thrived," WRONG. The plants immediately fell flat to the ground and started to shrivel up and die. I thought I had killed them. I was very upset. But then, a week later, I noticed a fresh, green sprout coming up from the center of a plant that had shown its distress by deflating completely. Then, I saw another -- and another. Pretty soon -- every rootstock was growing again.

The first harvest last spring was one for the ages. We got far more artichokes than I expected, and the plants kept on producing into early summer, when it gets hot and artichoke plants shut down from heat stress. You would never believe that these green monsters completely die back in the summer and everything has to be chopped away and removed, but that is exactly what takes place.

If last year's harvest was "one for the ages," I can't begin to imagine what we'll get this year. The plants have never been this big before -- EVER. And, the larger the plant, the larger the choke. The first artichokes of the season will be the largest, and judging from the size of the plants, they'll be the size of a catcher's mitt.

One thing you can't tell by the photos, and this really delights me to no end, is the number of ladybugs on these plants. The ladybugs love them, and I'll need them later this spring when the whiteflies and other bad bugs start attacking this plant. Ladybugs are the best natural control I know of, and if I make the mistake of spraying to control the bad bugs, I'll kill off the good bugs as well. And that is something I do not want to do.

I always thought that this 4X8 bed would offer more than enough room for artichoke plants. WRONG. As you can tell -- they're taking up every bit of space and more. Some plants are even leaning over the edge. That spells trouble, because these plants will fight to the death for room to grow, and I could lose a few if the base is put under so much stress that it snaps in half. That has happened before. And, since the plants are already starting to lean, I can see it happening again.

To prevent this from happening I will attach some eyelet screws to the 4X4 posts holding the fence up, then run string or twine around the bed, holding the plants in place. This has worked in the past.

This is just the first artichoke bed. I do plan on building a second bed this spring, and may consider adding a third. We have the room for it. And, by this time next year, we'll probably have artichokes coming out of our ears.

I can't think of a better fate, can you?

Are You a Tomato Maniac?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Today's lesson children, is titled "are you a certified Tomato Maniac?" This can be a hard question to answer. Another -- related -- question would be "are you certifiably insane?" If the answer to that question is yes, then you too could be a "certified" Tomato Maniac.

Do you enjoy fresh, off-the-vine tomatoes? Do you dream about fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes during the depths of the winter doldrums. Is 27 tomato plants in the backyard considered a "good start?" Do you freeze tomatoes? Can tomatoes? Talk about tomatoes until friends run for cover?

Then you are probably a Tomato Maniac.

Although I've mentioned before in this blog that my love affair with all things tomato began as a teenager, and really took off when Venus took a chance on a strange looking plant called the "Green Zebra," another source that fed the insanity is a special Yahoo group called Tomato Mania.

And, if you're guessing that this group is all about tomatoes, that would be a fine guess indeed.

There are thousands of groups on Yahoo dedicated to every subject under the sun. Anything between Apples and Zebras (A-Z) is fair game on Yahoo Groups. And you're likely to find anywhere from three to four groups dedicated to the same subject. The same is true with the subject of tomatoes. If you perform a search in Yahoo Groups under the subject heading of tomatoes, you'll likely find nine or ten groups dedicated to this single topic.

But -- Tomato Mania is the monster. This group, founded by a pair of Tomato Maniacs, started in 2001 and boasts nearly 1600 members from not just all over the country -- but all over the world. There are tomato lovers in every corner of this world. And, if you want to know how tomatoes grow in the Isle of Man (between Great Britain and Ireland) for example, you talk to June.

June lives in the Isle of Man and is a certifiable Tomato Maniac.

Or, if you're curious about what varieties grow well in the State of Oklahoma, you talk to "Dev."

Dev lives in Oklahoma and is a certifiable Tomato Maniac.

Northern Californians like myself, Farmer Fred Hoffman, Sue Kolbo (Rivergait Ranch) and Gayla Roberts (Always Enough Ranch) also visit the group daily to share tomato growing tips, exchange stories and let everyone know about what is doing well in their tomato world, and what is not doing so well.

You could call us all certifiable Tomato Maniacs.

To put it short and sweet, there are probably thousands of websites dedicated to the growth and production of tomatoes. But none of them offer the kind of traffic, tips and help that you will find on Tomato Mania. If you're going to dabble into the world of growing heirloom tomatoes, this group is a must. Because, I guarantee you that no matter how rare a tomato plant variety is, someone, somewhere, has already grown it.

And you will find this Tomato Maniac on Tomato Mania.

If you find yourself wanting to grow heirloom tomatoes this summer, but aren't sure what you should try (there are THOUSANDS of varieties), then you should have a discussion with "Janet." She is known in Tomato Mania circles as "Janet the Seedstress," and is the keeper and protector of the vast vault known as the Tomato Mania seed bank.

If you've never grown heirloom tomatoes before, but have the desire to try, Janet might reccommend a time-tested variety called Stupice. This variety grows just about anywhere, including concrete it seems, and it's just one of those plants that you can't possibly screw up. Not only will Janet and other group members be happy to supply you with seeds (in exchange for a self-addressed envelope), she and others will keep up with the advice and encouragement during the entire growing season.

The best thing about this deal? The seeds are free! Donations of stamps, envelopes and even cash for the seedbank are always welcome, but not required.

Tomato Mania was born in the minds of two growers who started trading heirloom seeds and stories long before the age of the internet and email. Both Mary-Anne and Byron helped nurture the heirloom tomato movement long before it gained the strength and popularity it has today. While tomato growers like Bill Bird believed there were only three types of tomato plants, or that all tomatoes were red in color and round in shape, Byron and Mary-Anne were discovering new varieties and seeds from all over the world.

They helped shaped the grow-your-own movement that is circling the globe today. Certainly, there are others that also deserve credit, but you also must give credit where credit is due.

And yes, both Mary-Anne and Byron are "certifiable" Tomato Maniacs. And you will find them posting tips, helpful advice and sharing every tomato story under the sun.

You can find the Yahoo Group, Tomato Mania, here. Registration is free. The only thing that is required is a love of all things tomato.

The "Rinky Dink" Seed Starting Effort

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I suppose you could also call this "starting seeds on the cheap," because it is that and more. Venus and I took the time to start more varieties of tomato and pepper seeds on Saturday, because demand for what is growing in nearby greenhouses is growing.

I started to get a tad worried when the brother-in-law called up from his Serrano neighborhood in El Dorado County and attempted to "reserve" six of our tomato plants. How nice of him. Not only did he want some of our heirloom starter plants for his gardening efforts, he also wanted to give some away to his neighbors.

Wait a minute. Does that sound right? He wants OUR tomato plant starter to give to HIS neighbors? The brother-in-law is known for his rather outlandish requests after consuming a quart or four of Canadian Mist Whiskey (which we refer too as "Canadian Moose Piss"), but his request for plants isn't the first and I don't think it will be the last either. In short, the backyard garden is back in a big way, and everyone wants those hard-to-find heirloom varieties.

I can't blame them. There's simply nothing quite like the taste of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes. Once you bite into a Brandywine or an Azoychka, you're hooked.

Venus and I don't have a greenhouse yet (it's on the list of "things to do'), but we did convert and old wine rack into a seed starting rack -- complete with hooks to hold grow lights and space for heating pad to keep the babies warm. This is about as "frugal" as frugal can get, so experienced growers will be anything but "impressed." However -- as cheap as this setup is -- it does work.

Venus and I prefer to invest a few bucks in the Jiffy seed starting kits that are starting to appear by the millions in places like your big box stores (Walmart and Home Depot), and even in the smaller locations such as grocery stores or your independent hardware retailers. You can buy "big" like we did for large scale starting efforts. Or, if you don't have the room, you can buy the small package which looks very much like a carton of a dozen eggs.

These kits come complete with two trays and compressed peat moss pellets. All you need to do is add warm water, and those compressed peat moss pellets grow and expand like nobody's business. They have a somewhat erie resemblance to the pods featured in the now-famous movie "Alien," once they fully expand. However, I guarantee you that nothing is going to pop up and attach itself to your face.

After adding the appropriate amount of water (about a gallon) -- the pods are ready for planting. Venus and I planted three complete rows of green, red and yellow peppers. We then planted half rows of various heirloom tomato varieties, including Red Reif Heart, Pink Ping Pong, Green Zebra, Arkansas Traveler and a cherry variety we purchased at Lockhart Seed. It immediately drew Venus' attention, because the packet of seeds promised cherry tomatoes that are "very high in brix content."

That's important for an event that Venus and I will attend later this year with about three to four hundred other tomato nerds. An event that promises a payday of $2,500 or more! And for this event, you need tomato varieties that are high in brix content (the brix meter was developed to measure the sugar content in wine and table grapes, but does have other uses).

Venus and I used chopsticks to poke holes in each pod, drop in some seed, then use the chopstick to cover the seed. It's that simple. After labeling each row, we moved the pods inside the house to a bedroom converted for "seed starting purposes." If this looks "Mickey Mouse," I promise you that it is. But I promise you, this works. The seeds have everything they need to sprout and grow. The covered seed pods create a "rainforest effect," which is essential to starting seeds indoors. The heating pad ensures strong root growth and thick stems, and the light source is more than enough. In fact, the light might even be overkill.

As I've stated before -- you can put these seed starting kits on a windowsill and they'll be just fine.

From previous experience I know that the tomatoes will germinate first. The peppers usually need a bit more time. Peppers, unlike tomatoes, require HEAT to really get going, so these seedlings will be rather unhappy at first. But, by the time of plantout at the end of April, I'm expecting starter plants in the one to two foot range.

At some point, Venus and I will also transplant the pods into larger cups, but that's another project for another day.

Here's hoping we have enough to satisfy growing "demand." Stay tuned!

The "Mother" of all Seed Stores

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein didn't do much for his own people, but at least he had the good faith to contribute to American slang, when he promised U.S. troops the "Mother" of all battles during the first Gulf War.

American language and slang hasn't been the same since he uttered that "Mother" statement, and we've since been treated to the "Mother" of all sales, or the "Mother" of all storms even the "Mother" of all tomatoes.

Add another "Mother" to that list -- as in the Mother of all Seed Stores -- and Lockhart Seed is just that and more.

Sacramento Bee "writer" (when are we going to add "Editor" to that title?) Debbie Arrington first tipped me to the existence of this wonderful store a couple of weeks ago in the Home and Garden section of the Bee. You can read the article here.

Now, I like to think my knowledge of valley towns and places is pretty darn good. I've only spent ALL of my 45 years here. I know Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties like the back of my hand thanks to my days of zipping around in a clown car for KMPH NewsRadio. I can tell you where you can find the best dish of Chorizo and Eggs (La Cocina on McKinley Blvd. in Fresno), the best deep-fried Calzone (Dicicco's) and the best pizza known to mankind (Zelda's Deep Dish pizza in Sacramento).

But I had no IDEA and no CLUE that a place like Lockhart Seed even existed. There's no excuse for that. They've only been around, and in the same downtown Stockton location, for something like eight decades. They've served generations of San Joaquin Valley farmers and are now making a big dent in that backyard gardening effort.

To put it short and sweet: Lockhart Seed has it all -- everything under the sun -- when it comes to the subject of seeds. You want onions? How about ten varieties? Is that enough? Pumpkin seeds? Corn? White, yellow, purple or red? What about lettuce? Okra? Spinach? Cabbage? Carrots? Radishes? Lockhart Seed has row after row after row of packaged seeds (not pictured), or you can buy in bulk from these shelves behind the main counter.

If you don't have the kind of land required for large planting efforts, not a problem. Lockhart Seed offers row after endless row after endless row of small garden packets for the backyard gardener. It's the type of display that will bring tears of joy to the average gardener, and I guarantee a visit to Lockhart Seeds will leave the wallet just a tad lighter. Of course, if you're into large-scale gardening efforts, I imagine that that these packages of Jalapeno Pepper seeds will be more than enough to satisfy your demand for what has been sometimes described as the "Mother" of all hot peppers.

Lockhart Seed isn't your average store. It's not necessarily a nursery, although you can find things such as fertilizer and soil there. It's not a Home Depot or some other big box store offering row upon row of gardening tools and other gardening implements, although you will find those items there as well.

In short, Lockhart Seed is a SEED store. We don't have many of those left. As a matter of fact, there's just one left on the West Coast. And that is Lockhart Seed. And while they offer all types and varieties of seed for every vegetable and flower under the sun, they have a leg up on other seed outlets. Lockhart Seed carries varieties that grow extremely well in our South, Central and North Valley locations. That's important, because what grows well in places such as New England or Maine, doesn't necessarily translate into success in California.

And I must also stop short of calling Lockhart Seed just a "seed store." It's more than that. This place is a freaking museum. It is a reminder of generations past. From the creaking wood plank floors to the diplays on the wall and crammed into every corner it seems, Lockhart Seed is something special. After all, how many of you knew that tomato seeds were once sold in tin cans like this? I found these packed away in a corner of the store, covered with dust. I don't think they've been touched in a very long time, and despite my advanced years, I had no idea that seeds once came in a can.

Although some gardeners had predicted the "demise" of Lockhart Seed, it appears those predictions were a bit premature. Business is up thanks to the recent articles in the Sacramento and Modesto Bees, and up because the "backyard garden" is suddenly "in vogue" again. Venus and I were first time customers when we made the trip from Sacramento earlier in the week. And we just happened to run into another couple of first-time visitors, also from the Sacramento area.

In short, this may have been our first visit to Lockhart Seed, but it won't be our last.

Lockhart Seed is located on 3 North Wilson Way in downtown Stockton, and its central, downtown location makes for easy access from either Highway 99 or Interstate 5. Unfortunately, it is not open on the weekends, which will mean a special trip if your work full-time like the wife and I do. But, I promise you this much: It's well worth the effort.

Tomato Babies

Monday, February 9, 2009

The 2009 Summer Garden is now planted.

Yes, you heard me right. The 2009 Summer Garden is now planted -- and better yet -- it's growing.

If you're wondering if RIGHT NOW is the time to plant summertime favorites like tomatoes, cucumbers and corn in the backyard the answer is NO! WRONG! Not after a weekend of rain and cold weather like we had this past weekend in the Sacramento area.

Don't get me wrong -- we need the rain. We need the snow. We'll really need it later this summer when thirsty Southern California starts demanding a supply of Northern California's clean, fresh and tasty water supply. So, let it rain, let in pour. More importantly, LET IT SNOW!

But there are some things that gardeners can do INDOORS to start their OUTDOOR summer garden. And that is taking place in greenhouses, homes and even workplaces across the Sacramento Valley area. In short -- it's time to plant some tomato seeds.

Want to get an early start on tomato season? Do you desire a fresh-off-the-vine heirloom tomato in JUNE? Then, the time to plant is now -- and as you can tell by the photos -- the planting effort is already underway.

The greenhouse you see pictured belongs to none other than Master Gardener Extraordinaire, and "Fruit of the Heirloom" (FOHL) charter member Fred Hoffman, host of the highly popular "Get Growing with Farmer Fred" radio programme on NewsTalk 1530, KFBK and also Talk 650, KSTE.

And Fred has one big advantage that I don't have -- YET. It's called a greenhouse. And this is almost essential to getting plants started early. As I said, it's almost essential. I know one other grower (Nels Christenson) who starts his seeds in his work office. Venus and I start our seeds in a spare bedroom, using a converted wine rack.

BUT -- if you're going to do some large-scale growing of tomato plant starters -- well -- you can't lose with a greenhouse. There, you can easily control the elements of heat, light, moisture, fertilizer and other issues that are so important when it comes to starting tomato plants. And you don't have to deal with curious and sometimes BRATTY cats who think it's just enormous fun to whack plant-starter pods from one side of the room to another.

But, provided you plant NOW, and provide the cats with some new toys in hopes that they'll leave the starter pods be, you'll see your planting efforts germinate in less than a week. Tomato plants are like weeds. They germinate quickly and grow rapidly. In short, you can't possibly screw this one up, even if you're a beginner. To be honest, you don't even need grow lights. You can start seeds in a windowsill.

The seed cups you see pictured here were planted ten days ago, and they've already germinated. These cups, and a lot more like them, contain forty to fifty varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomato plants. Heirloom varieties with names like Brandywine, Azoychka, Opalka, Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red, Black Krim and many more have already sprouted and are growing like mad.

These starter plants will be kept inside for the next two to two-and-a-half months. By mid-April, the starter plants will be at least a foot high, and possibly a lot more. In short, planting in February gives you a tremendous head-start on the summer growing season, which can be very long in the Sacramento area. If Mother Nature cooperates (which isn't always the case), you can be rewarded with a six-month growing season. And that means multiple harvests.

It seems hard to believe that the small cups pictured in Farmer Fred's greenhouse will be growing tomatoes larger than grapefruit, but that's just one of the wonderful, wild and wacky things about growing heirloom tomatoes...

Whither The Bees???

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I was distressed to recently read an article in the Sacramento Bee about an Elk Grove Beekeeper, Ron Melluish, who was apparently taking lots of grief for the hive (several hives actually) that he was keeping in his backyard.

You can read the article, Elk Grove abuzz over regulating beekeepers, here. And it just sort of struck me as unfair I guess. See, like every other kid that's gone barefoot in the backyard or in a neighborhood park, I've been walloped by a bee. But, it happened just once. You learn, at a very young age, to give bees a wide berth. And, for the most part, if you don't bother them, they won't bother you.

I guess that doesn't work with some people. Because someone is complaining about the hives that Melluish is keeping in his Elk Grove backyard. Even more distressing than that, was the suggestion that "government should be involved." That really brought on another shudder of distress.

You see, I subscribe a lot to the Ronald Reagan way of thinking when it comes to government involvement. The former President once remarked that: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' Having worked in a government office for the past decade, I can tell you personally that there's a lot of truth to that statement.

As a "Weekend Warrior" and backyard gardener who has built numerous planter boxes and planted vast tracts of fruit trees, I really like what Melluish is doing. We don't have many bees in North Natomas. It's a brand new subdivision stacked on top of other new subdivisions. Trees are small, and there's little to any natural infrastructure around to support a colony or hive of bees.

And, if you're going to garden extensively, or grow fruit, the one thing you need is BEES. And I didn't have nearly enough of them last season. Oh sure, this being the Sacramento area, we did have hornets and lots of them. This is "hornet country" to be sure. And while hornets do get into the business of pollinating, they're not nearly successful as bees.

I first noticed my "bee" problem, or lack of them, last June when my Sweet Diane Watermelon vine failed to yield a single melon.

I was perplexed. The vine was healthy enough. It got plenty of water and fertilizer and grew like nobody's business. I could see the blooms. I could even see the small melons, that would then whither and die on the vine within the space of a day or two.

And I wondered; "what gives?"

It was then that I noticed my little problem. I hadn't seen a single bee in the backyard all spring or summer. We just don't have them yet. Like a lot of wildlife that you see in normal neighborhoods, North Natomas is simply too new and too young to support things like bees.

So, being the determined gardener that I am (you could also say lost cause), I set out to pollinate the melon vines by hand. And I was somewhat successful. I would say my pollination efforts, using a small paintbrush to scratch at the male flowers and then female flowers, was about 30% successful.

But I couldn't do the work of the modern-day honeybee. They're good. And when they started showing up in larger numbers when the sunflowers began to bloom, that translated into more watermelons on the watermelon vine. But, by this time, it was too late. Melons that germinate or appear on the vine in late July aren't going to make it. And these didn't make it.

So, when I read about the problems that Melluish was facing, I had to get my two-cents in and fired off the following letter to the Sacramento Bee. I was shocked to discover that they printed it, in full, three days later:

"Make room for bees

Re "Elk Grove abuzz over city's plan to regulate beekeeping" (Our Region, Jan. 30): I believe Ron Melluish deserves a medal, and I'd love to have him in my North Natomas neighborhood. If any regulation should be put into place, it should be one that encourages bee production, not stifle it.

Bee colonies are nearly nonexistent in the North Natomas area because there is little to no infrastructure and vegetation needed to support them. I had to hand-pollinate a large part of my garden last summer, simply because there weren't nearly enough bees around to do the job.

I have 10 fruit and citrus trees planted in my North Natomas backyard. Each and every single one of them needs the special magic that bees perform. No bees means no peaches, cherries, melons, etc.

Bees are a part of nature. If you stifle their production, you stifle the natural beauty of the Sacramento area.

– Bill Bird, Sacramento

You can access the letter here.

I had forgotten about the letter to be honest, until I received a phone call out of the blue from South Natomas gardener Nels Christenson, who congratulated me on the letter. And then I heard from Fred Hoffman, who hosts the popular KFBK and KSTE radio program "Get Growing with Farmer Fred." But they weren't the only two reading the letter on that day.

Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway, who represents the vast new tracts of cookie-cutter subdivisions that are North Natomas weighed in with the following email, that I would like to share with you:

Hi Bill -

I read your letter to the editor and wanted you to know that the city allows up to 2 bee hives per residential property. I have had bees in the past and gave my wife a bee hive for her birthday last year. They are so important to the ecology of our neighborhoods and wealth of our gardens. I am also encouraging a fellow councilmember in the city of west sacramento to write an ordinance allowing bee hives and now I will call on my friends in the city of elk grove to do the same. - love your garden site - ray

Ray Tretheway
Councilmember, District One
City of Sacramento
(916) 808-7001

Nice guy that Ray. He even responds when the trash cans don't get emptied on that wonderful, once-a-week holiday known as "Trash Day." I appreciate the note, and appreciate even more that bees are more than welcome in our Sacramento backyards.

Here's hoping someone in Elk Grove gets the message.

Here's to the bees. Perhaps they'll take on a dual job and keep my four cats from digging around in the planter beds.

Hodge Podge Garden Soup!

Monday, February 2, 2009

I suppose I could also title this an "Ode to Working Families." And we all face the same dilemma from time to time. You're at ye olde work desk, working hard on a project for the boss, when it occurs to you that you haven't even thought about what to have for dinner that night.

Worse yet, you forgot to take something out of the freezer before you left home for work that morning?

Does that happen to you? Yeah, us too. I suppose it happens to the best of us. As a matter of fact, it seems to happen to Venus and I on a daily basis. Perhaps it's due to the over-consumption of cheap gin, but that's another blog posting for another day.

We were presented with not only that dilemma the other night -- but a daily occurrence at the household that has become far, far, far too irritating to overlook.

Every time we open up the freezer door, a bag of frozen bell peppers falls flat on the floor. It's a reminder to both of us. Venus and I managed to salvage a great deal of last summer's bell pepper garden before the weather turned, and the end result was four, one-gallon, ziplock bags of various-colored peppers.

What is a gardener-cook to do? Oh, sure, there are recipes here and there that call for particular types of peppers. But what happens if you've got a bag of all kinds of peppers? Hot peppers with the regular bells? Is that a Tequila pepper or a Black Purple pepper? And what's that slice of red pepper? An Anaheim pepper? Regular red bell pepper?

To put it short and sweet -- we just don't know.

And then, the other night, the skies parted and I was hit with the "let's pull something out of the hat and see what happens" idea. This can be dangerous. Gastronomical nightmares have resulted from previous "Frankenstein Kitchen" experiments. But, when inspiration calls, sometimes the stomach has to follow.

The Hodge Podge Garden Soup is one such inspiration -- and this one wasn't half bad. It's not going to win many awards mind you, and probably won't show up in any gourmet cooking magazine (unless they're really hurting for ideas), but it's a good way to chop down on that supply of frozen peppers from last year's garden.

This soup is actually a marriage of three recipes, including a Southwest Chicken soup recipe from the Betty Crocker recipe book. It also calls upon my recipe for Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa and a sauce recipe that I ran across not all that long ago (when I was looking for a sauce recipe oddly enough).

I know, from experience, that the roasting process will bring out a glorious taste in most peppers. The Southwest Chicken Soup -- for example -- uses two or three red bell peppers that have been roasted and blended (as did the sauce recipe). I also know, from experience, that garlic will greatly enhance any pepper's flavor.

So -- one night last week I got ambitous and pulled out a gallon-bag of frozen peppers from the freezer, dumped them into a frying plan containing a bit of oil and started frying. Frozen peppers get quite limp after defrosting and frying them was no different. In a few minutes, they were as soft as soft can be.

Meanwhile, I had started heating a pot containing four cups of water, two chicken bullion cubes and also dropped in some dried onion flakes for "effect." Why dry onions? Why not use a REAL onion? Simple. We were all out of fresh onions. And I wasn't about to rush to the store to buy something for a "Frankenstein Kitchen" experiment. So -- dried onions it was.

By the time the water and bullion cubes had started to warm -- the peppers were ready for the food processor. In went out four or five cloves of garlic first, which I chopped into itty bitty (ie: real small) pieces. After dumping the cooked peppers into the processor, I proceeded to liquify the whole thing.

I was a bit surprised by the end result. I had thought this process would result in a bright rainbow of colors. What I got was something that turned very green, with bright red bits. That's great for Christmas cookies during the Christmas season. But it's not so good in late January. But, I was determined. The testing process continued.

I dumped the pepper mixture into the rapidly heating water and boullion cubes, added some raw chicken chunks and later some shrimp and frozen vegetables. Add a little salt and pepper to taste and VOILA! You have Hodge Podge Garden Soup.

And I must admit -- this wasn't half bad -- nor did it cause any gastronomical discomfort later that night (as some pepper dishes have been known to do). In short, I would make and serve this again.

If only I had written it down.