Tasty Turkey Taco Salad!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I can't remember the last time that Venus and I purchased a head of lettuce -- or any other leafy-green item from our local grocery store or farmer's market. I really can't.

I know this may sound like bragging to some, and perhaps it is, but it really isn't intended to be that way. I might, however, might be bragging about my wife's green thumb when it comes to anything leafy-green in the garden. Sorry, but that's allowed.

Venus isn't just growing greens. She's growing greens on some kind of steroids.

The photo to your left is just an example of what comes out of the garden on a nightly basis. And we can't really get to all of it before it goes to seed. The greens to your left include Swiss Chard, Arugula, two types of Mustard greens, Kale and Collards.

Venus loves to grow all types of lettuce and spinach, and they do grow well in the fall, winter and spring months. But when the hot weather of summer begins to set it, as it always does, the lettuce can't take the heat.

Last year we invested in seeds from a variety of lettuce developed in Israel, and guaranteed to produce greens in the hottest of desert heat. And it promptly bolted about five seconds after sprouting. We learned the hard way that what stands up well in Israel, doesn't exactly transfer into success in Sacramento.

But, trial and error is what gardening is all about.

We'll keep trying, of course. There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce to experiment with. It's just that 99.9% of them start to bolt to seed once they get a taste of Sacramento's summertime heat. Perhaps lettuce does better in foothill areas? I'm not sure. What I can tell you is this: it's tough to grow in the riverbottom.

But for now - the monster chard, mustard, arugula, kale and collards are doing a fine job of lettuce immitation. It may not have the water content of your standard head of iceberg lettuce, still one of my favorites, but it sure is tasty.

The lettuce and peas featured in this colander went into one of my favorite meals the other night -- tasty Turkey Taco Salad. That salad also contained freshly harvested radishes from the garden, and yes, the second and third ripe Bloody Butcher tomatoes to come from the summer tomato garden.

Do those tomatoes have that fresh, ripened on the vine, summertime zing that tomatoes usually have? Almost -- but not quite. They may look red. They may be soft to the touch. They may look quite ripe. But they're not quite "there" yet in terms of that summertime *ZING* of fresh tomato taste.

But, I can tell you this much: It's better than anything coming out of neighborhood stores at this point.

V is for VICTORY! (and Venus)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Here's hoping that your Memorial Day Weekend was as productive as mine! The wife that is VENUS and I spent three wonderful days in the yard and at local nurseries, as we look for ways to creatively landscape the "Back 40" and our "fruit salad" backyard.

With gardening season now starting to move into full swing (yes -- there's still time to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, the good stuff) -- I needed to complete a rather important project that will hopefully lead to a vast improvement to our pickling project that we undertook for the first time last summer.

It's not that last year's Dill Pickle canning project was a failure, mind you. It wasn't! Venus and I canned 36 one-quart jars of different types of dill pickles last summer, and they were fabulous.

But we also learned a few things.

Not all cucumbers make great pickles. Despite our efforts to produce batch after batch of crunchy, garlic-dill pickles, some of them came out a tad "soft" after the canning process. We learned a very important lesson.

That cucumber that tastes so great in your summer salad? It may not turn out to be the best variety for pickling. Some do well, like the Armenian cucumber. But the Burpee hybrid? The Diva? If you like soft pickles, then you'll like these varieties. But if you want pickles to have a semblance of CRUNCH when you eat them, you may want to try another variety.

Venus and I spent last winter pouring over the seed catalogues and possibilities. We finally settled on two or three different seed packets for "pickling" cucumbers, and gardening friend Carri Stokes was kind enough to provide seeds for the highly desired, and very crunchy after canning, Armenian cucumber.

But -- all of these seeds presented a problem. Where do we plant them all? The cucumber bed I created last year is perfect for three or four varieties of cucumbers. But not eight. And, it's probably not wise to mix pickling cucumbers with slicers.

To put in short and sweet -- we needed another planter bed. And that's just one project that we knocked out this weekend.

However, this box is unlike the Lincoln Log boxes that I've described in great detail in previous posts on this blog (Planter Boxes on a Budget). This project would utilize standard Redwood fenceboard purchased from Home Depot, a Redwood 2X4, about 100 gold screws, three Makita cordless drills, a belt sander and finally, redwood stain to protect the finished project.

This was a big deal.

I was delighted to find the standard Redwood fenceboard on sale this weekend at the man's toy store, Home Depot. I was even more delighted when I discovered that not only was the desired fenceboard on sale (think CHEAP) -- it was also LOCAL. That's right. This is Mendocino County redwood -- the best redwood on the planet in my humble opinion.

Plus, at a price of $1.67 per wide fenceboard and $1.29 for the smaller trim boards, I wasn't going to argue. Bill Bird knows a deal when he sees one. This was a deal. Plus -- Home Depot would do a large part of the required cutting for me!

After purchasing the standard six foot long boards (well -- almost six feet -- they do cheat just a tad), I instructed my handy-dandy Home Depot wood-cutter to lop off the ear from the fenceboard in question -- lop off another one and a half feet from all four of the larger boards that would make up the sides of this box. I also had him cut the 2X4 into six pieces that were about eleven inches long.

These 2X4 pieces would hold my box together.

Venus' father (my father-in-law), the retired rocket scientist who knows all when it comes to box building (or any other subject -- just ask him), provided the "brains." He also served as the steady hand cutting the redwood trim boards, which had to be cut at a perfect length.

I must admit, he's far better with a table saw than I am.

This was a fairly easy project once we got all the tools in place. We used one Makita to drill pilot holes for the screws, another for the countersink and the third for the actual screw driving. Screws would then be driven into the 2X4 pieces placed in the corners, plus two more located in the center of the box for reinforcement.

I've found that putting the box together is actually the easy part of any planter-box building project. The toughest part of the job is installing the trim, or finishing boards. You can't be off by more than an 1/8th of an inch, otherwise it's back to the drawing board and back to table saw for another piece of wood.

The trim boards serve two purposes. First -- they look darn good! Secondly, they provide badly needed reinforcement for the box in question. A planter box doesn't need them mind you, but they do help hold everything together. And a planter box will last longer with as much reinforcement possible.

Trim boards required the same installation process as the front and side boards. You drill the pilot hole, countersink each pilot hole, then drill the gold screw home. There are 12 trim boards on the box, including two in each corner.

And finally, the box is finished off with a final piece of trim: "V for Venus."

I have several different methods of constructing planter boxes in the backyard -- and I'll be honest with you -- this is the most difficult. It is one of the cheapest boxes to build -- the cost is about $30 when you add in the cost of wood, screws, sandpaper and stain. But it does require some previous wood-working knowledge.

These boxes are quite rough by the way. This is cheap redwood fenceboard after all. So -- after the screwing is done -- out comes the belt sander and a storm of redwood dust to "smooth out the edges." The final step is transporting it to the garage -- where stain is applied.

And this is how the finished project looks. I'm guessing that there are about 100 screws in this box. The stain will provide protection against the elements outside. My hope is this box will grow a record number of pickling cucumbers for our pickling efforts this summer.

The yard will provide most of the ingredients for the pickling project. Fresh dill weed is already growing, and some of it is actually starting to flower now. A special kind of garlic is probably a month away from harvest, as are the Thai Hot Peppers that are growing in one of the main planter beds. The only ingredients not to come from the backyard will be the water, vinegar and canning salt.

Here's hoping for a tasty pickle.

On Memorial Day, I Remember Dad

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Memorial Day.

On this day, we honor the untold millions of men and women who served this country during times of war and peace. We pay our respects to the hundreds of thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend this great nation.

Although I never did serve in the Armed Forces, I know from experience that the freedom we enjoy didn't come cheaply. My family history contains many heroes, on both sides of the family. On Memorial Day, I think of them.

On Memorial Day, I think of Dad: Andrew Jackson Bird.

Would dad approve of my gardening exploits? Are heirloom tomatoes lumpy? Dad's backyard gardens were the stuff of LEGEND. The old man was well known for tilling up half the backyard to plant corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. The memories of summertime cookouts with freshly harvested corn grilling on the barbeque and a game of croquet after dinner will never be forgotten.

I can't tell you exactly when the photo to your left was taken. That's dad with my mother, Doris Marie Bird (who would later change her name to Brown -- but that's another story for another day). Given the age of both, I'm guessing this photo is circa mid 1950's, but to be honest, I can't be sure.

Dad served in the war to end all wars -- the big one -- World War II. I'd like to tell you that he served America with pride, but that wouldn't be exactly correct. Dad served with the Canadian Sixth Army. Why did an American citizen like dad serve with the Canadian Sixth Army? It's another long story, but the long and short of it is, dad wanted IN World War II in the worst way. It was his ticket back to England -- where he was born.

Dad was serving in the U.S. Army when England declared war against Nazi Germany in 1938. It would be almost four years before America got involved, which came with the surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. But in 1938 -- dad wanted in the war. So, as the story goes, one day dad simply left the U.S. base he was serving at. He went AWOL -- Absent Without Leave.

In 1938, Dad made his way across the border with Canada and joined the Canadian Army. Since England was in the war, so was the Commonwealth -- and that meant Canada was at war with Nazi Germany. Some 35 years later, thousands of American boys would flee to Canada to escape the draft and service in Vietnam.

But, in 1938, it was a different story. Dad wasn't the only American to cross the border to join the fight against Facism. He might have been the only person to go AWOL, and he took a big risk in doing so. His citizenship in the United States was actually revoked for the actions he took. It would later be restored after the war ended, and dad came home.

England needed men to guard the beaches against possible Nazi invasion. France had already fallen. The Royal Air Force was battling the Luftwaffe for control of the skies over England, and that fight wasn't going so well at first for the Allies. The Nazi's were preparing to invade. So -- off dad went -- with about six thousand other Canadians and Americans to guard the beaches.

While in England, dad would meet Ruby, his first wife. The photo to your right was taken either right after or right before they were married. Dad was still guarding beaches at this point during the campaign, but the threat of invasion waned as the Royal Air Force recovered and won control of the skies.

Dad would later be captured by Nazi forces during the Dieppe Raid in May, 1942. He spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp. The first year of confinement may have been his worst. The Nazi's were winning the war. Allied prisoners were not treated well. When the tide of war finally turned a year later, treatment improved.

As much of a hero as my father was, he was not the best husband nor family man. I put that mildly. My dear mother, if she were still alive, would probably have stronger words than that. And it's true that Dad did wind up leaving her for another woman in 1966, leaving mother with four children to raise on her own. Four very young children I might add (I was just three).

In retrospect, it was probably the worst move he ever made. Dad wound up penniless and very much alone when he entered Doctor's Hospital in Modesto for an operation on his pancreas in 1972. He never recovered. Six months later he was dead. I was nine years old -- probably a year or three younger than this photo of fun in the snow at Twain Harte. With me and dad is my older (MUCH OLDER) brother Andy.

Growing up after my father's death wasn't easy. My mother was extremely bitter. I can't blame her. She would repeat this line many times in the ensuing years: "the best thing your father ever did for this family was die." It's a mean thing to say, no doubt, but there's an element of truth in that. His death allowed mother to tap into his Social Security retirement benefits, guaranteeing a source of income that would help raise four children.

But, on Memorial Day, I don't think much of the bad times. I don't think much of the sad times. I remember the backyard barbeques. I remember his expansive vegetable gardens, and how proud he was when it came to harvest fresh corn and tomatoes. I remember games of Lawn Darts and Croquet.

Most of all, I remember dad.

Did Someone say POTATOES?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I've got potatoes.

Yes I do.

Apparently, I've got potatoes coming out of my ears -- or at least they soon will be.

The potato bed that looked so lush and green at the end of April is now starting to look a little ragged as we push into the last week of May. Long gone are the bright blue flowers -- and long gone is that lush, green look.

Many of the plants, in fact, are starting to lean over. Some of them have keeled over out of the raised bed completely. They're not dead mind you -- but I don't see them bouncing back up and looking bright and perky anytime soon.

In short, for us -- potato *growing* season is about to end. Potato harvest season, however, may be just around the corner.

This came as another "gotcha" moment when I was slaving away in the Back 40 of Bill & Venus Bird this holiday weekend. As my eyes scanned the potato bed, looking for any signs of production, a flash of color caught my eye.

And there it was -- as plain as you can see. A bright red, small, potato staring right back up at me. You can clearly see the small spud in the center of the picture to your immediate right.

Upon closer inspection, Venus and I learned that we'll be having a rather large harvest of large and small sized "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red" potatoes in another week or two. The photos simply do not do any justice here whatsoever. Venus and I discovered four or five MONSTER potatoes -- the "All Blue" variety" we think -- just now starting to break the soil line.

Now, the big question here is: what happens next? To be honest, I'm really not too sure. This is the first time that Venus and I have tried growing potatoes before. And we didn't grow the normal spud. Nope, these had to be *special* potatoes. Venus wants to make a "Red, White and Blue" potato salad for the 4th of July, therefore, we planted potatoes that retain their "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red" colors, even after cooking.

The big question however, is when to harvest? And if any growers have any suggestions for me, please feel free to leave any suggestions you might have. I've been told that you should wait for the above ground plants to die back completely before harvesting -- and that's still several weeks away.

Should the potatoes on top of the soil be harvested? Are they any good? What is this "green potato" problem that I've heard about, and advice that "green potatoes should not be consumed?" How can you tell if an "All Blue" or "Cranberry Red" potato is green -- when they're sporting the colors of purple-blue and bright red?

Questions, questions!

Meanwhile, the All Blue monsters continue to gain size and shape.

Two Thumbs Up for the TEST BED!

Friday, May 22, 2009

This is a gardening experiment that -- quite frankly -- could have gone either way -- up or down.

I've tried growing vegetables in our Natomas Clay Muck before without much success. Artichokes did OK -- but just *OK.* The most outstanding results, of course, came in raised beds.

There's nothing wrong with this of course, because there are a lot of advantages to using raised beds. You can control what kind of soil goes inside, control drainage, they warm up faster -- the list of advantages goes on and on.

But, at the same time, raised beds take time to build. They can be expensive. They require room. You need walkways to reach all sides of a raised bed, which can be a waste of space. And, if you're limited on space....

You see, every inch in a normal North Natomas backyard counts. Some are no bigger than your average broom closet. I'm fortunate to have a large backyard, but I don't want an inch of it to go to waste.

And that's why I decided to put my handy-dandy Mantis Rototiller through a workout earlier this spring in an attempt to somehow, someway, improve the hard clay soil in our backyard. Growers in South Natomas, who moved in years before North Natomas was built, have done it.

And, if they've done it, so can I.

So far, it's working. With the exception of one tomato starter plant, everything planted in our "test bed" as I call it has either sprouted or is growing fairly well. As you can tell from the photo above -- the corn seems to like it. The squash seeds that the wife planted a couple of weeks ago have all sprouted. And, for the most part, the tomato starter plants are doing well.

They are not growing nearly as fast, mind you, as the tomato plants we have in raised beds. They're not nearly as lush. They're not nearly as productive -- yet. They still might be. One of the advantages of a raised bed is warmth -- it "warms up" faster than your average pile of dirt.

My hope is that by the time summer really hits -- and the temps warm up at night -- the test bed will get just as warm as the raised beds. My hope is that we can keep the slugs and other critters who can't reach the raised beds -- out of the test bed. My hope is the roots of these tender tomato plants don't curl up in horror when they reach 10-12 inches down and discover real Natomas clay soil.

That is my hope.

Cutting through the soil in the test bed was probably the hardest workout I have faced. The Mantis Rototiller has a lot of good things going for it, but it is not a heavy machine. When the tines of this tiller hit hard clay -- the tiller starts bouncing. It's hard to control. It takes a lot of muscle and a lot of pulling from behind to keep the tiller where it's supposed to be, and ensure that you're cutting as deep as possible.

I managed to do that over the space of an hour or two -- and then amended this concrete-like soild with as much compost as I could haul into the backyard. It swallowed every bit of it. Hopefully, the compost will stop the clay from turning into cement again.

That is my hope. Everything is working -- or seems to be working -- so far.

Then again -- it's only May. The garden season is just beginning.

The First Ripe Tomato of 2009!!!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

It's a seminal moment in the Backyard of Bird.

The first tomato of the 2009 season is now ripening in one of the main, raised planter beds. It's May 16th, and I have a tomato getting ripe in the backyard.

Unbelievable. I've never quite seen production like this before.

The first ripe tomato of 2009 from our North Natomas backyard is not a cherry tomato. It's a Bloody Butcher -- one of the many starter plants provided by Farmer Fred Hoffman earlier this year. And, actually, it's off one of the very first tomato plants that Venus and I put into the ground.

Others followed mere seconds later when we planted the first raised bed with eight tomato plants, but the Bloody Butcher was first to go into the ground.

It's now the first to produce a ripened tomato, or it soon will (we haven't picked it yet).

I wasn't expecting to see this quite this early in the season. I know that I've been blessed with early season production. That's been discussed in an earlier posting on the blog. The 16 tomato plants that Venus and I put into the ground five weeks ago are literally jumping out of the ground now, and continue to produce small tomatoes at a rapid rate.

Small tomatoes that are getting bigger.

But I never expected to see what I saw today. The moment came, as they always do, completely by accident. I was tending another part of the garden when I noticed a flash of red out of the corner of my eye. I nearly thought it was just another ladybug (we do have a lot of them), but when I saw that flash of color again, I knew instantly this was no ladybug.

If it had been, I would have been a bit frightened. That would be one big ladybug.

As I moved closer to inspect this surprise color, it suddenly dawned on me that fresh-off-the-vine tomato season was just about to begin. I never expected to see a tomato ripen this quickly. In previous years, the first ripe tomato of the season was normally a cherry tomato. And -- normally -- it wasn't that good because Venus and I refused to wait and picked it early.

We won't make that mistake this year.

The first ripe tomato of the season isn't big enough for a salad. It might cover a standard hamburger or two with several slices, but that's about all. And it doesn't signal that more ripe tomatoes are on the way in May. At least -- I think it doesn't signal it.

Who knows what surprises the garden holds? For now -- I can tell you that the first ripe tomato of 2009 isn't a surprise -- nor is it a dream. It's reality.

ANNOUNCING: The 2009 Bird Tomato Garden!!!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I feel like I've been run over by a Mack Truck.


Yet, strangely, I feel satisfied. This is how I normally feel after a weekend of intense gardening therapy in the Back 40 backyard of Bill & Venus Bird. And, yes, it is therapy. I enjoy it. No matter how much by back hurts nor how much the shoulders peel from sunburn on sunburn, there is a strange and perverse satisfaction to planting a tomato garden in the backyard.

This is one whopper of a garden. We outdid ourselves again. There are 37 tomato plants that found homes in our backyard this season. That's ten more than last year. That's thirty more than six years ago, when the wife and I both discovered a shared love for all things heirloom tomatoes.

Not only is the garden in -- it's PRODUCING. Yes -- you read it correctly. The 16 plants that Venus and I stuck in the ground four weeks ago, with the exception of just one, are PRODUCING tomatoes at a rapid rate.

This is a first for me. It's a first for Venus as well. I've never seen heirloom plants produce quite this early. In fact, as a rule, most of them generally don't start producing small fruits until June or even July. We enjoy late harvests in August and September, but at our current rate, we'll be harvesting buckets of heirloom tomatoes in June. Who knows -- we might even get something at the end of May.

The picture to your right is a pretty good indication of what I discovered last weekend when I was staking up 16 tomato plants that had been blown flat by a weekend storm of rain and wind. That, my friends, is the Azoychka tomato plant. And those are three to four Azoychka tomatoes -- good sized tomatoes at that.

I'm still not quite ready to install my PVC tomato cages just yet -- and they take time to put up. I needed a quick fix. So -- off to Home Depot I went this past weekend for some bamboo stakes and garden twine. Both items are a gardener's best friend. Upon pulling up the tomato plants that had fallen to the ground, I discovered a treasure trove of production that, quite frankly, surprised me.

Each plant had not only flowered, but many of those flowers had resulted in fruit. Most of the plants had no more than three or four tomatoes, but in some cases there were more. The Druzba -- for example -- has thrown out ten tomatoes. And the Black Cherry plant you see to your left? That's just one of several clusters of cherry tomatoes that have developed so far.

What did I do differently this year to get such early production? I'm not really sure. Could it be that I recharged each raised planter bed with three bags of steer manure compost and other pelleted fertilzers? Possibly. Could it be the Omega 666 and Maxicrop liquid organic fertilizers? I suppose? Is the new hive of bees going to work on the tomato flowers? I suppose anything is possible.

At any rate -- we're off to a great start this year. And we're just getting started. It's barely mid-May. We've got a good five or six months to go! And now, without fail, here's a list of what we're growing in the Bird backyard this season and where the plants came from.

Almost all were started from seed. Some of the plants were grown by Farmer Fred Hoffman. Some were grown by Bill and Venus Bird. Still others were grown by Nels Christenson.

1. Arkansas Traveler (Farmer Fred)
2. Azoychka (Farmer Fred)
3. Beefsteak (Bill & Venus)
4. Black Cherry (Farmer Fred)
5. Black Krim (Farmer Fred)
6. Bloody Butcher (Farmer Fred)
7. Brandywine (2) Farmer Fred & Bill & Venus)
8. Campbell’s 1327 (Farmer Fred)
9. Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red (Farmer Fred)
10. Cosmonaut Volkov (Farmer Fred)
11. Costoluto Genovese (Farmer Fred)
12. Dixie’s Golden Giant (Farmer Fred)
13. Dr. Wyche’s Yellow (Farmer Fred)
14. Druzba (Farmer Fred)
15. Giant Belgium (Farmer Fred)
16. Green Zebra (Bill & Venus)
17. Japanese Black Trefele (Nursery purchase)
18. Jelly Bean (Farmer Fred)
19. Jubilee (Bill & Venus)
20. Kelloggs Breakfast (Farmer Fred)
21. Lemon Boy (Farmer Fred)
22. Marianna’s Peace (Farmer Fred & Bill & Venus)
23. Peppermint Quitos Strain (Bill & Venus)
24. Pineapple Beefsteak (Nursery Purchase)
25. Pink Ping Pong (Bill & Venus)
26. Red Reif Heart (Bill & Venus)
27. Santa Sweet (Bill & Venus)
28. Sun Gold Cherry (Volunteer)
29. Winsall (Nels Christenson)
30. Zapotec Pleated (Bill &Venus)

Before I sign off -- I want to add one other note. The photos above represent tomatoes in raised beds that were planted exactly one month ago. Not all of the garden looks this nice. Not all of the plants are THAT tall, THAT lush, or look THAT good.

Here's a good example of one bed, to your left, that we planted this past weekend. What will this bed look like in another month? Good question. As you can tell by the photo to your left, these tomato plants were NOT planted into a raised bed. Nope -- these plants went directly into cruddy, crappy, North Natomas clay soil.

Keep in mind that I amended this soil with LOTS of compost (four bags) and LOTS of steer manure compost (ten bags). But, even with the good stuff, it's still crappy, cruddy, Natomas clay sludge soil. Who knows what these plants will look like in another month? Will they survive? Will they thrive? The answers will be provided in time.

In short -- this is a "test" bed. It's an experiment to utlize every section of our backyard for growing purposes. If this works, like I hope it will work, we will amend other sections of the yard in future years to expand our tiny, but always growing, garden.

Stay tuned. The 2009 fresh-off-the-vine tomato season is now underway.

Photos from the Yard

Friday, May 8, 2009

Not everything is "peachy-keen" at the Bird household. The "Back 40" backyard remains a work in progress. A lot has been done, but for the few visitors who have seen it, they know that a lot of work remains to be done.

However, there are some bright spots. This is one of them. This is our June Pride peach tree that Venus and I purchased last year, bare-root, from Silverado Nursery. This tree failed to produce a single blossom last spring, which meant no peaches. But this year? This year is a different story.

This peach tree is loaded with peaches. A lot of them have been "culled" (removed), because it's really smart at this point to focus on tree growth rather than tree production. There will be plenty of years to come for production. I want to focus on growing a strong tree first. I didn't pick off all the peaches mind you, but I'm not going to let 50 peaches try to ripen on a tree that isn't two years of age yet. You're just asking for a disaster, like a broken trunk.

However, what really makes me smile is the tree growth. It really didn't grow much during it's first spring. It produced a few upward shoots -- about four -- and I'm guessing those upward shoots produced about two to three leafsets. But that's all this tree produced.

But this year? There is new growth everywhere. And I can't argue against that.

Artichoke season is now in full swing at our North Natomas farm. I like to call this photo the "three sisters." And they were quite good for dinner the other night. You can find this "three sister" cluster formation all over the artichoke bed during this time of year. I don't know why they're producing in clusters of three, they just are.

This will be the first year that I don't resort to any sort of spray to control pests. What does this mean? Well, it means that these artichokes will be soaking in a bath of salt water after they've been cut for dinner. You'd be surprised by how many bugs, both good and bad come off during the salt water bath process.

I'm using a natural defense for my artichokes this year. I've gone out of my way to encourage the production of ladybugs in the backyard. That's the one bad thing about spraying artichokes to control bugs. It destroys the good with the bad. Eventually, the bad bugs take over in the summer, no matter how much you spray. So, for me, the natural method of pest control works best.

And finally, yes, I've made room in the Back 40 for a corn field. Two rows have already sprouted and I'll plant a few more this weekend. That includes baby corn, which Venus and I will save, blanch in boiling water, and attempt to can to be used at a later date. Canning baby corn is a tricky process, but I think we'll be OK.
It's going to be a weekend filled with backyard projects. I hope yours go as well as mine.

You Can't Stop Seeds

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mother Nature can sure deliver a wallop of winter during springtime -- but she can't stop seeds from bursting out of the ground. And our direct seed efforts are paying off with the introduction of new cucumber, watermelon, cantaloupe and tomato plants to the garden.

Venus and I direct seeded into these cups about two or three weeks ago. Warm weather would have been nice -- I know. But the weather didn't cooperate as you probably know. We got walloped with one rainstorm after another here in the Sacramento area, although now we've been blessed with some clearing and it looks like a right fine weekend this weekend in the Sacramento area.

Get ready to plant!

The wife that is Venus has already started "Stage 2" of the Direct Seed effort and she has started 14-15 cups of various vegetable plant starters, including, but not limited too, pole beans, squash, zucchini, muskmelon and a few other things that I can't think of at the moment. Most of sprouted, but are still somewhat behind the Direct Seed cups we planted a few weeks back.

A few warm days, which are about to arrive, will take care of that.

If you're still itching to plant that garden, there's still time to direct seed, although I will admit that time is running short. If you don't want to find yourself limited to what Big Box stores or nurseries are offering, here's what you do.

Grab yourself some ordinary planting cups (old cups work just fine), some ordinary planter mix and seeds. Fill the cups with planter mix and plant seeds. It's that simple!

In our case? We keep the cups in a pathway around the lawn. This way
they get water from the morning sprinklers, and we don't have to worry about watering them day in and day out. The sprinklers tend to take care of those water needs.

At some point, in the next week or two, these cups will find permanent homes in the planter beds scattered about the yard.

I'm not quite able to put my finger on it, but there's something immensely satisfying when it comes to starting seeds. Perhaps it's the fact that there's no instant gratification? Perhaps it's you've helped create and nurture life?

Or, perhaps it's just the beer.

Potatoes on Steroids

Saturday, May 2, 2009

That wonderful wife of mine sure does have one magic green thumb.

She's demonstrated her prowess time and time again with her work among our raised beds, and I'll be darned if this very special lady isn't doing it again this year with a brand new crop.

This green thumb came as a surprise to her. Her parents didn't let her garden much when she was a child. Unlike my mother who pressed a spade in my hand, pointed out a patch of dirt and uttered the command "dig," Venus got no such lesson.

It wasn't until we moved into our first home in the Spring of 2003, did I first begin to realize that she had a special talent. Everything she plants not only pops out of the ground, it absolutely thrives.

And I have the photos to prove it. A before and after shot that amazes me.

And here is that "before" shot. This was taken about two weeks after Venus used an entire 4X8 raised bed to plant several rows of special potatoes called "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red." Venus planted her potatoes in mid-March -- a tad early to be sure. But she wants potatoes for a "Red, White and Blue" potato salad for the upcoming 4th of July holiday.

The picture was taken during the last weekend of March -- right after these special spuds that supposedly "retain their color after cooking" had sprouted.

What was to follow still continues to amaze me.

You see, I'm not sure if it's the combination of the raised beds, special fertilizer or just my wife's green thumb that resulted in the exponetial growth that followed. Indeed, the bed was recharged this spring with three bags of steer manure compost. I did -- and will continue with -- once a week liquid fertilizer treatments of Omega 666.

But -- in the space of just one month -- four weeks mind you, these plants grew into monsters. I'm still amazed by what is growing in the backyard. As you can tell by the "after" photos, these plants are so lush and green that you can't even see the soil below. I have no idea what is going on underneath those leaves, but whatever we're doing is working.

Each plant is also setting multiple flowers. They haven't bloomed yet, but the pods are popping out all over. In another week or two all of these green, lush potato plants will sprout flowers in the color of either "All Blue" or "Cranberry Red." We're not there yet. But it's about to happen.

This is a first for us. Venus and I have been thinking about growing potatoes for several years, but just never had the room. But now that the beds are in -- it's potato time.

There are many gardeners who strongly reccommend that you build up -- or mound -- soil or even straw around these plants after they reach five inches in height. The reason? Supposedly the plants will grow even more potatoes -- more than are growing right now just beneath the soil line.

But -- after talking with both Fred Hoffman and Nels Christenson (who've been at this gardening game a tad longer than Venus and I), I've been advised to do absolutely nothing. And -- so -- that's what we're doing. Absolutely nothing. No mound of dirt or straw will be added to these plants because it's not needed. We still might have some potatoes that will start growing above soil level, because the large, lush potato leaves are providing all the cover that these young spuds need.

I am just a tad concerned that this crop is going to produce far more potatoes than we know what to do with. And -- if that's the case -- please drop me a line and let me know if you're interested in a heapin' helpin' of the wife's Red, White and Blue potato salad creation.

Fun times.

The BIRDS Versus The BEES!

Friday, May 1, 2009

If someone ever predicted that one day I would be going into battle against a hive of bees -- I would have asked "and what have you been smoking?"

I never imagined that I'd actually invest in a hive of bees someday, and would actually be required to tend to said hive of bees and sometimes take steps that the hive would not like.

This was just one of those procedures. It had to be done. If I Venus and I were to have a healthy hive of bees that would be around to pollinate all of the trees in our "all you can eat fruit salad" backyard, the job had to be done.

The time had come to remove the waxy, burr comb buildup in our hive so a missing slat could fit inside. A normal hive contains ten slats -- and it's very important that the hive have access to each and every one. A missing slat could mean a weakened hive, so it had to go back in.

I was forced to remove this slat from the hive during the actual "hiving" process. The all important Queen of this hive arrived in our "package" of bees encased in a very small cage. The bees were not comfortable with the new Queen just yet. She had to be kept inside her small cage, and that cage had to be placed in the hive.

This would give the rest of our colony a chance to introduce themselves -- and get comfortable with the new Queen so to speak. Following instructions to the letter I removed a slat to place the caged Queen inside, then covered the hive back up. In three days I returned to free the Queen, only to find that worker bees had build a waxy honeycomb called "burr wax" in place of the missing slat.

It had to come out. It was covered with bees -- bees that got quite upset anytime my gloved hand got near it. I would need the assistance of my fine wife, who is just as inexperienced at beekeeping as I am, and just as nervous.

The battle commenced...

This is Venus showing off her special "costume" before taking on the hive. If she only knew what was coming. If I only knew! Not shown in this photo? The heavy gloves she would wear before the assault.

This was the problem right here. This missing slat was leaned up against the beehive, but would not fit inside. We were using a standard smoker to calm the hive at this point, and I could hear the colony nervously start buzzing when they got a whiff of that smoke. They knew something was up. They just didn't know what.

They were about to find out.

This is exactly what greeted Venus and I when we opened the top of the hive. The photos do not do a whole lot of justice here. Yes -- you can see the burr comb wax in this photo. And yes -- you can also see bees welling up from the hive to greet us. What you cannot see is the hundreds of bees that began to nervously swarm around us.

When you open up a hive -- this is the kind of treatment you can expect. Bees are insects. Their first instinct is to protect the Queen from danger. The second instinct is to protect the hive. And my job -- the job that would really make them mad -- was to remove that waxy, white comb covered with hundreds of nervous bees.

If I could only tell them I was just as terrified.

Venus is also doing her part during this process. She is armed with a sprayer bottle containing equal parts sugar and water. Bees LOVE sugar water. And once they are sprayed with it -- they can't fly. They no longer have any interest in the two strange creatures who are knocking on the front door. They're busy lapping up a sugary treat.

But -- try as she might -- try as I might -- you can't spray all of them. The bees that were already swarming us and landing on our clothes? We couldn't get them. I don't know if I would ever reccommend the experience of bees climbing all over your body -- but it is something special. It's not for the faint of heart.

After spraying as much sugar water as possible I used a standard hive tool -- a metal prong) and ordinary kitchen tongs, I managed to remove one slat from the hive, tearing away the burr comb buildup that fell to the bottom of the hive.

You can't see the angry bees that are swarming me at this moment. I didn't pay much attention to them. I couldn't. But one of them managed to get my attention. I felt this growing pain in my armpit, and it was then that I realized one of these very annoyed bees had just delivered an extra-strong mesage that he didn't like what we were doing and I'd better wipe that cheesy smile off my face.

I had been STUNG! For the first time since I was six-years old -- I HAD BEEN STUNG! But, that was just the first sting. More were to come.

As I mentioned earlier, when I removed one of the slats to get the burr comb out (it easily fell away from the slat) -- a large chunk of it fell directly into the hive. A hive full of very pissed off bees at this point. I was destroying a lot of their hard work. And they were defending the hive.

As I stared into the depths of this angry hive, I used the kitchen tongs to bring up the burr comb, covered with bees, and place it on the ground in front of the hive. Not all of it would come out at once. Pieces of it would break off and fall back into the hive. This meant several return trips.

It was during this time when I noticed that more than one bee had managed to slip under the cover of my sweat pants at the ankles and were slowly climbing up my bare legs to my stomach. Now, that did bother me somewhat. I can only go so far without getting worried. And -- it was at that point that another angry bee delivered another angry jolt -- this one in the stomach. Sting #2!

Bees can smell fear -- if you let them. If they notice any weakness -- they will exploit it. I could not let this angry hive know that the stings were having any effect. That would only invite more stinging. I had a job to finish.

Covered with bees -- with burr comb removed -- Venus handed me the all important tenth slat and I gently placed it in its rightful spot inside the hive. The bees responded with another jolt to my lower belly. And -- unlike the previous two -- this one really hurt. A bee had crawled all the way up my leg and delivered his stinger into the biggest, softest part of Bill Bird's body.


But -- by this time -- the job was completed. Burr wax removed -- Venus and I retreated. The bees followed. If any neighbors were watching at this point -- they saw a husband and wife streaking down a concrete walkway to the safety of a garage, stripping off bee covered clothing along the way.

It was only after I was safely inside did Venus notice that I'd brought a few friends with me. We managed to brush them off without anymore damage, and actually let them back outside.

I dearly hope that this is a project that I will not have to attempt again, but I know I probably will. At some point Venus and I will be forced to go back out to the hive and inspect the frames for the presence of the Queen, and to see what kind of a job the Queen is doing.

Time to invest in a BEE SUIT!