Garden Thrills N' Chills

Saturday, October 31, 2009

I hate these guys. I really do.

I mean -- with a passion.

The wife that is Venus? She doesn't share my disgust. She doesn't share my fear of the BLACK WIDOW. "Live and Let Live" is the wife's motto. As long as the "living" part isn't done in her house. Heaven forbid the thought.

The spiders -- however -- can have the outside.

But for me? The Black Widow spider is something to be feared -- despised and eliminated. I'm not sure why I feel that way. I'm fortunate in that I've never been bitten by one. I know people who have -- everyone does. But it's a gardening experience that I do not want to share at this time thank you.

If you didn't notice -- the Year of 2009 was a pretty big one for Black Widow Spiders. I saw one recent television report about the emergence of the Brown Widow Spider in the Sacramento area. "It's just like the Black Widow Spider," the reporter told us. "Except the bite is twice as strong and the venom is ten times worse."

Great. Haven't found any Brown Widows where I am yet. Maybe the Black Widows will keep them out.

Despite my efforts to keep the house and yard as "spider free" as possible -- some always survive. This lucky lady did -- despite my nightly forays around the house -- armed with a flashlight and a can of RAID. I'm happy to report that I eliminated my share of Black Widows -- but somehow I missed the big MOTHER. Nope, Mother Nature did her in. A recent blast of cold weather was enough to bring her out of hiding (and I helped with a blast of RAID).

Somehow -- I missed her -- even though she was located very close to the sliding glass door. That means this plump lady got a full spring and summer to raise lots and lots of brood.


We grow them big here in North Natomas. Most of this was nothing but fertile farmland a few short years ago. The soil may have been churned up and cemented over -- but the farmland creatures who called this area home survived that intrusion. I've seen some monstrous Black Widows during my six years here -- much bigger than anything I ever witnessed while growing up on Ribier Avenue in Modesto -- or later while I was attending college or working in Fresno.

We had spiders -- yes. We even had our share of Black Widow spiders. But nothing like I've seen in North Natomas. These suckers are big. These suckers are scary.

Despite my ever vigilant efforts to eradicate this spider from the yard -- I know all too well that I didn't get them all. I got my fair share -- especially with those who built webs and homes right next to our house. But I know I missed some.

Which means the Black Widow will be back for more next summer. You can count on it.

Happy Halloween...

The Good, The Bad, The Lip-Smackers...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'll be honest -- there are a lot of favorites that came out of Tomato 2009. I normally describe these postings as "the best" and "the worst." But I can't do that this year.

To be perfectly honest -- there are no entries for "the worst" because I really didn't have any.

Well -- on second thought -- if you count those horrid starter plants that I purchased this spring from Whole Foods . . . . Yeah -- those plants. The starter plants that grew two inches? Yeah -- those.

Other than that -- it was a barnstorming year in the Backyard of Bird. We have the saved products to prove it. Venus always wanted a pantry in the kitchen. Little did she know that she would fill up half of it with home grown produce.

We have enough to keep us and the entire neighborhood in salsa -- tomato sauce -- whole tomatoes -- etc.

Enough of that. On with the favorites already!

Before we get started -- a small point about the ratings system. I will give the names of the favorites that performed exceptionally well this summer -- the source of the seed -- and then a little bit about each variety.

For the most part? The starter plants provided by Farmer Fred Hoffman tended to do the best. This is a blanket statement so to speak. Some did exceptionally well. Others did OK. But his starter plants did better than mine for the most part -- although I did get a few winners and you'll hear about those.

Just because I like to brag.

OK then? Onward and upward to Bill & Venus' favorite tomatoes from 2009!

FAVORITE TOMATOES: By "favorite tomatoes" I mean the "most productive" and the "best tasting" from the garden. Ranked in order of "lip-smacking goodness."

1. MARIANNA'S PEACE: Hands down, this is a clear winner from the Back 40 in North Natomas. Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This is my third year for growing this wonderful, potato-leaf variety. And we must have done something right this year. This was by far the tastiest, and most productive, variety to come out of the garden this summer. Marianna's Peace produced pink, saucer-sized tomatoes in the 1 and 1.5 lb. range all summer long and it's still producing ripened tomatoes in October. One bite of this time-honored treasure is a trip to a tomato lover's paradise. This is a must-have for any garden. It will get a prime spot in the garden next year.

2. ARKANSAS TRAVELER: Seed Source: Seeds of Change. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This was a new and unique introduction to the garden this year. Impulse seed packet purchase from Capital Nursery -- and a real winner in the garden this year in terms of TASTE and production. Arkansas Traveler produces a BRIGHT RED tomato -- an almost neon-red color that is brighter than any red tomato I've seen. Unlike many heirlooms -- Arkansas Traveler tomatoes are round -- red -- pleasing to the eye and resist cracking or concentric circles around the top and bottom. It's also resistant to Blossom End Rot. The taste is unique. It's not quite as good as Marianna's Peace -- but a treat just the same.

3. LEMON BOY: Seed Source: Fred Hoffman. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. Lemon Boy was probably the most prolific tomato in the garden in terms of outright production. It wasn't unusual to harvest 30-t0-40 tomatoes at a time during peak production. This is Venus' favorite tomato variety for the Heirloom Tomato Martini thanks to a rich -- sweet taste and aroma. Known for producing medium sized tomatoes -- our starter plant delivered more than a few in the 1 lb. range. This was a highly desired tomato that wound up in jars of canned tomatoes and sauce mixes for salsa and other creations. This was my second or third year for growing Lemon Boy. I will grow it again.

4. COSMONAUT VOLKOV: Seed Source: Pinetree Garden Seeds. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This is another red variety that knocked our socks off in terms of early season production and incredibly rich taste. The Cosmonaut Volkov is yet another Russian introduction to the American fascination with heirloom tomatoes -- and is yet more proof that Eastern Europe has something special going on with the creation of special tomato plant hybrids. The Cosmonaut Volkov grew and produced at an exponential rate throughout the spring and summer before petering out a bit in September. Still -- I will not hesitate to grow this fantastic variety again.

5. BRANDYWINE: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. I just knew it was going to be a special year for tomatoes in the garden when I watched a single vine from this one plant set eight tomatoes. I don't think I picked eight tomatoes from last year's Brandywine plant alone last year. Vines were just loaded with production and a few weighed in at just over 1 lb. While not quite as productive as the other potato-leaf variety in the garden -- Marianna's Peace -- I have no complaints. This is the most productive Brandywine tomato plant I've seen come out of the garden since 2004. That was a long time ago folks -- and I've spent the past five years trying to duplicate that 2004 success. This year? I finally did. Brandywine gets a deserved home in next year's tomato garden.

GREAT TOMATOES: It's tough to pick a top five or six plants when you've got ten to 15 that fit into that category. That was my problem this year. These varieties didn't make the Top 5 for whatever reason -- but they were darn close.

1. AZOYCHKA: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This is yet another Russian variety that delivered a knockout punch of early production -- fell off a bit during mid-season -- then rebounded with a nice harvest of late season tomatoes. Production fell off so much in late July and early August that I thought the plant had died. Azoychka looks a lot like Lemon Boy in that it's yellow in color -- but that's the only comparison. To me? Azoychka tastes like BACON! It has a wonderful, smoky taste that is perfect for one of my favorite sandwiches: Grilled Turkey Bird. Mmmmmm....BACON!

2. BEEFSTEAK: Seed Source: American Seed. Impulse purchase at a Dollar Tree for ten cents. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Beefsteak is a hands down winner in terms of outright production -- coming very close to hanging with Lemon Boy and Marianna's Peace in terms of plant production and size. One Beefsteak plant produced nearly 100 perfectly round, red tomatoes with no hint of Blossom End Rot or disease. However, the one drawback that puts Beefsteak into this category is: TASTE. Don't get me wrong! It's wonderful! But -- it just does not compare to the eyeball-roll-back-into-the-head moment that other heirlooms provide. However -- it gets a well-deserved home in the garden again next summer.

3. KELLOGG'S BREAKFAST: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. Some make the argument -- and a good one at that -- that the Kellogg's Breakfast is the most outstanding heirloom tomato every hybridized in terms of taste. This year's entry was good -- no doubt -- but it just didn't have the production that the other plants delivered. Blossom End Rot was another problem that seemed to affect this tomato -- but did not affect the Brandywine planted just two feet away. This is how good a year it was in the Backyard of Bird. I have NEVER had a Kellogg's Breakfast this productive. I've never harvested the number of KB tomatoes that I harvested this year. But -- other plants simply did better. In most years? This would get a top five rating. Not this year.

4. DRUZBA: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. In a word? Druzba DELIVERS. It is one of the most reliable and productive heirlooms that I've ever planted -- yet unlike some heirlooms -- you can always count on Druzba to deliver a large and tasty crop of round, red tomatoes. The plant is somewhat susceptible to blight and blossom end rot problems, and I battled both this year. But it wasn't unusual to harvest ten to 15 ripened tomatoes during the peak harvest months of July and October.

5. CAMPBELL'S 1327: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman and Bill & Venus Bird. Campbell's 1327 was last year's favorite out of the garden in terms of outright production and taste. Not a thing changed this year. So why isn't it in the Top 5 or closer to the top of this list? I told you that I had an outstanding year. This is how far it dropped. When everything goes right in the garden -- the old processing tomato from Campbell's Soups just cannot compare with the time-honored and time-treasured heirloom varieties. That's what happened this year. There's nothing wrong with this variety. I will plant it again next year.

GOOD TOMATOES: These varieties were good -- no doubt about it. They just could not crack the Top Ten this year.

1. OPALKA: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. We didn't have room for this red tomato variety in the raised beds -- but it produced well enough in the direct clay soil "test bed." This was one of the better producers out of the test bed, although BER was problematic. I was probably to blame for the BER problems that cropped up often in the test bed -- because I failed to amend with lime.

2. BLOODY BUTCHER: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. A tomato grower can always rely upon the Bloody Butcher to produce some of the earliest tomatoes, and this year was no different. The big change this year, however, was the heirlooms started to produce right about the same time. Long time growers say you're not supposed to get ripe tomatoes before May. The Bloody Butcher will make them think twice. Perfect for snacking on in the garden while you go about the main harvest.

3. DR. WYCHE'S YELLOW: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. I've been wanting to try this ever since Dr. Carolyn Male highlighted this variety in her book "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden." This is a true bible for heirloom growers -- a good starting point -- but not the be all-end all in the world of heirloom tomatoes. Blossom End Rot was a constant concern -- but the yellow-orange tomatoes that we did get were interesting to say the least. I will plant again and hope for better luck!

4. EVIL SEED: Seed Source: Unknown. Starter plants grown by Mother Nature. Evil Seed is a black tomato with fantastic taste and an even more fantastic story. Grown by a gardener who later made the rather unwise decision to leave his wife and children for another woman, I never did find out the true name of this tomato or where it came from. I thought I had lost it completely, until one popped out of the ground in an unlikely spot this year and grew like a weed. The plant receives its name courtesy of the jilted ex-wife. I seeded this tomato. I will grow it again.

5. JUBILEE: Seed Source: Lockhart Seed. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. This barely made the list -- and only because of its incredible taste. I will try again, but the production off one plant in a raised bed was average at best. The second plant, located in the test bed, was a little more productive but Blossom End Rot was a real problem. I lost most of them.

FAVORITE CHERRY TOMATOES: Cherry tomatoes get their own category this year because we really went to town on them this year. Venus searched high and low for the cherry tomato for the highest brix content so she could enter it in the Tomato Taste Challenge sponsored by NatureSweet. She would later find out, much to her chagrin, that the nearest "challenge" was held in Chicago, IL this year. Maybe next year Venus.

1. BLACK CHERRY: Seed Source: Pinetree Garden Seeds. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman, Bill & Venus Bird and Mother Nature. Black Cherry is simply the most outstanding cherry tomato ever developed in terms of taste and production in my humble opinion. Once you plant it -- you'll have them for years to come. We put one plant in a raised bed. About four or five more plants came up on their own in a bed we used the previous year from cherry tomatoes that had dropped to the ground (you never get them all). This will always have a home in our garden.

2. HYBRID RED GRAPE: Seed Source: Lockhart Seed. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Billed as the "cherry tomato with the highest brix content ever recorded," this was a Venus impulse purchase during our first visit to Lockhart Seed in Stockton. There's no denying it was sweet -- but it was also tough to get a ripe tomato. Why? Turns out this tomato was a favorite among birds who raided the garden non-stop. Birds of all feathers would pick these by the hundreds and fly off before returning for another "snack." Excellent producer. We will plant this again.

3. JELLY BEAN GRAPE: Seed Source: Pinetree Garden Seeds. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. This cherry was similar to Hybrid Red Grape, although the fruits were smaller. Very productive.

"MEH" TOMATOES: What does "Meh" mean? The first instance of "Meh" popped up in an episode of The Simpsons when Bart Simpson was asked for his opinion. His response? "Meh" -- along with a shrug of his shoulders. To put it short and sweet -- "meh" means "I don't care," or "I'm not really excited by this." In the words of Bart Simpson, "Don't Have a Cow, Homer."

1. CLINT EASTWOOD'S ROWDY RED: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Stater plants grown by Fred Hoffman. I had really high hopes for this tomato. It was hybridized not all that far away, by a former UC Davis plant scientist. It started out with a few great tomatoes -- and then not much. Many of the tomatoes were small -- about two to three ounces and production was nothing to write home about. I will not plant this again.

2. GREEN ZEBRA: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Due to space limitations, we were not able to put a Green Zebra in the raised beds, and production suffered in the test bed. The few that came off the vine were small -- Blossom End Rot was a problem -- and I have to give this one two thumbs down this year. May not plant again.

3. REIF RED HEART: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Some heirloom afficiandos swear by heart-shaped tomatoes. I don't understand why. This was average at best and production was limited. Will not plant again.

4. PINK PING PONG: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. This was another "test bed" plant that did not perform well. Will not plant again.

5. COSTALUTO GENOVESE: Seed Source: Seeds of Change. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This was a favorite from the garden two seasons ago. Despite the introduction of new seed this past spring -- and a spot in one of the raised beds -- I simply was not impressed. The tomatoes were small -- in the one ounce range. Not good for anything other than snacking. Tomatoes were too small for processing. Not sure if I will try again.

Other tomatoes to note are Zapotec Pleated (not good for processing -- but good taste), Dixie's Golden Giant (they must have been referring to a small giant) and Delicious (disease took this one early).


These are just a few that I've used in past years. There are many others. Try typing the term "heirloom tomatoes" or "heirloom tomato seeds" on Google and see what springs up.

In the Sacramento area, Capital Nursery and Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply have a very good selection of packaged seeds, as does the mother of all seed stores, Lockhart Seed in Stockton.

Lockhart Seed (no website -- you gotta go look for yourself)

Love Grows Where My Ro -- err -- Venus Goes

Monday, October 26, 2009

It was on this date -- seven years ago -- that I made the best decision of my life.

Yes sir. That's right.

I've been in cold beer ever since that fateful decision to purchase ye olde kegerator...

Wait? Was that seven years ago or five? I can't remember. Must be the effects of ye olde kegerator and draft Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Who am I kidding?

Actually -- it was on this date that a wonderful life journey started. It was on this date in history, October 26th, 2002, when I finally brainwashed the woman pictured to your right to the point where she could say the words "I do."

For her? It was a struggle. For me? Are you kidding? That's like the California Lottery asking if I wanted my $10 million award in "tens or twenties." That answer was pretty easy. It was on this date that I struck GOLD. And, if you're a fan of the San Francisco Giants, this also happens to be the same date that the Giants blew Game 6 of the 2002 World Series against the hated Angels.

That's the reason why watching the Angels lose to the Yankees last night wasn't half bad.

I digress. Back to the subject of this posting. Today, it's all about Venus. Because -- without the lovely bride that is Venus -- there would be no blog titled "Sacramento Vegetable Gardening." Well -- I suppose there could be -- but I wouldn't be writing it. There would be no garden in the backyard. No heirloom tomatoes. No sunshine. No happiness.

Venus and I haven't changed much since we were married seven years ago. Well -- check that. She still looks as gorgeous as ever and I have the photo snapped over the weekend to prove it. As for me -- well -- those rugged Mel Gibsonesque looks are starting to fade a bit. What happened to all my hair? Did I lose it in my waistline?

Questions, questions!

I'd like to tell you that Venus and I spent a glorious weekend in the Back 40 -- tearing out what was left of the summer garden and planting the rest of our fall treats. But -- you see -- we did that last weekend. And since it was our "special weekend," and using the same brainwashing techniques I successfully employed seven years ago, we both decided to hop on the train out of Sacramento on Friday for the romantic destination of: Berkeley.

Say again? Bezerkley? Yes -- that place. The University of California AT Berkeley to be more exact. Venus and I took in the Cal football game against Washington State this past weekend. It wasn't going to be televised. I knew that the Bears were probably going to win this one. The Cougars are -- well -- slightly better than God awful this season. So -- why not take the wife back to her old stomping grounds where she earned her degree?

Fortunately, Mother Nature came through with gorgeous Saturday afternoon weather. I mean -- folks -- for us Sacramento Valley types? The weather was perfect! Shirt sleeves and shorts. For Berkeley regulars? A little too hot for them -- but just fine for us.

And the Bears put on a show. By that -- I mean the game was pretty much over by the first quarter. Three or four first quarter touchdowns will do that to a game. The Cougars did at least try to make it interesting -- but the game was snoozeville pretty much after halftime.

No matter. The wife was home. She was back in her element. No visit to the Cal campus is complete without a stop at Top Dog -- the home of the (SURPRISE) Top Dog. You can't forget to at least walk a section or two of Telegraph Avenue -- and a stop at the Bear's Lair Pub is also an absolute must.

After two or three or seven (I kind of lost count) at the Bear's Lair -- the wife and I found ourself stumbling back in the direction of Shadduck Avenue -- toward that lovely downtown Berkeley BART station -- and the train back to Richmond. From there -- we would catch the Cal Train -- and the all-important BAR CAR -- back to Sacramento.

As for the Back 40? The fall garden? The Birds? The Bees? They can wait. The perfect marriage to the perfect woman comes only once in a man's lifetime. Better enjoy that life while you can. Because time does indeed fly when you're having fun. Which is why my marriage to this lady seems like yesterday.

Color Me Fall

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fall colors normally aren't as vibrant as those you will find in the spring and summer -- but the backyard is still spitting out some beautiful scenes. Oh sure -- those summer flower arrangements are starting to look a little tired (I'm partial to the Rainbow of Color design myself) -- but if you look hard enough -- you'll find some things are still going strong.

I didn't get everything done in the Back 40 that I wanted to get done this summer. I never do. The main section of the lawn that I was hoping to plant? Unplanted. The thirty-plus yards of garden soil I wanted to move in? I'm at five and counting. The greenhouse? Still a long ways off.

I suppose that's the way it works with us Weekend Warrior types. There's never enough time in the day. Weekends just seem to fly by. There's always that one "project" that must be accomplished first before moving onto backyard landscaping pleasures.

But I did get at least one project finished. Venus has her tree rose. Not just any tree rose mind you -- the one special tree rose that my wife has wanted since we were first married. I finally got around to locating the one remaining Saint Patrick tree rose left in the Sacramento area this summer.

This rose holds a special meaning for my wife. It was her mother's favorite rose. In every house her mother and father purchased during a ten-year span of home-flipping in Auburn, Rocklin and finally Sacramento -- you will find the Saint Patrick tree rose. And -- beside that special rose -- is the Celtic Cross of St. Patrick.

When Venus' mother passed away quite unexpectedly four years ago following a long battle with cancer -- I knew she longed for the Saint Patrick tree rose and the Celtic Cross. It is, quite simply, her favorite spot in the yard.

Unfortunately, the recent rain and windstorm that hit the Sacramento area (and the rest of California I might add) -- did some rather wicked damage to the wife's special rose. Not only did it lose blooms -- it's no longer standing straight as an arrow. I suppose I have learned the "curse" of tree roses. I don't care how well you have it staked. If Mother Nature throws a vicious curveball of sustained rain and winds -- that perfectly placed tree rose is no longer standing at attention.

Yet another project for me to take care of this weekend. The companion tree rose took at even worse hit.

One of the most pleasant surprises in the backyard has to be the Pomegranate tree that Venus and I stumbled upon last summer at Lowe's in West Sacramento. It wasn't the variety I wanted -- but it looked nice and the price was more than right. So -- I didn't get the pomegranate variety of Wonderful. I purchased the variety of "Sweet" instead. Or -- so I thought. As it turns out -- I may have purchased a mislabled variety. This tree is churning out fruit that look strangely like a Wonderful.

This picture simply doesn't do justice. The fruits were starting to color to a deep red when I took this two weeks ago. They are all now a deep -- candy-apple red in color. It wasn't ready to harvest two weeks ago when I was disappointed to find white kernals inside of a "test harvest" fruit. I'm not sure what it will look like now -- although I'm willing to give it a little more time.

I am somewhat surprised by this tree -- the rate of growth -- and fruit production. What had been a small starter tree last summer has blossomed into one of the fastest-growing, most prolific fruit trees in the backyard. It was covered with red and yellow blossoms earlier this spring -- and has tripled in size. I can only imagine what will happen next spring.

If you are looking for a beautiful landscape tree that produces more than just flowers and blooms -- I highly reccommend the Pomegranate. The spring-time blooms are staggering in color and a highly favored source of pollen for honeybees and Carpenter bees alike.

Plus -- I'll admit -- I love a splash of fresh pomegranate juice in my margarita! And I also ran across an interesting recipe for pomegranate syrup here, courtesty of Jenn's Cooking Garden.

Sadly -- the display of color located to your immediate right no longer exists. It was one of the last sunflower displays out of the summer garden -- and a big display of color at that. The flowers from this variety of sunflower were perfect for vase cuttings (combined with the Saint Patrick tree rose, of course).

I'm not exactly sure where I received the seeds for this one variety. They may have been sent to us through a bee research project at San Francisco State University. Seeds from this variety may have been collected from a wild plant growing on the side of Elkhorn Blvd., a hop, skip and a jump away from our North Natomas compound.

I know this much: Despite the landscaping headaches that sunflowers can pose, they are a welcome addition to our "Edible Garden" landscape. While not necessarily edible for humans, they are a favorite place to forage for our "Hello Kitty" beehive.

And they do put on a mighty fine show of color.

From Tomatoes to Onions in 20 Easy Steps!

Monday, October 19, 2009

If the title of this post sounds somewhat facetious -- that's because it is. And heck, who are we fooling anywho? Let's just be real and remove the "somewhat" and substitute "very."

Long time gardeners will tell you that any sentence containing the phrases of "easy steps" and "gardening" is an oxymoron. Nothing comes easy when you're digging in the dirt -- especially when that dirt has turned to mud thanks to some early season storm activity.

I might be the last person on the planet to know this, but -- TOMATO SEASON IS OFFICIALLY OVER.

There -- I called it. That's all folks. Show's over. Move along. Nothing to see here (except wretched looking late-season heirloom tomato plants (photo to your right should illustrate that point).

Of course, this comes as no news at all to other gardeners in the Sacramento area. Hank Shaw called it a season in late August. I thought the man was clinically insane. But -- as it turns out -- Hank knew something I didn't.

Of course, I could literally feel the end of the season coming. I just chose to ignore those cold mornings in September. Cold temperatures play havoc with sugar levels in fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes. Black Cherry tomatoes suddenly taste like something that comes out of a bottle labeled "Night Train." What is that white fungus forming in the cracks of my tomatoes? Why is that firm tomato suddenly so soft and mushy? What are those bugs and where did they all come from?

Charlie Brown put it best: BLECH!

What is the hardest part of tomato season? The end of tomato season. Those vines that you've nurtured all season long need to be torn out. Vines that snapped easily in the early and mid season are suddenly as tough as iron. And no matter how careful you are -- some giant tomato that is rotted to the core is going to fall off the vine and go "SPLAT" on your shoes.

It's guaranteed. You've heard of "White Shoes Johnson?" Just call me Tomato Shoes Johnson. And I've got the stained shoes to prove it.

It's at this point where I wish I'd really followed the advice of Farmer Fred Hoffman -- who advised me to stick to just three tomato plants per planter bed. Unfortunately -- I ignore that man's good advice far too often. He told me to stick to three plants. I went over that just a tad by planting eight.

Do you know what eight full grown tomato plants represents in the fall? A mess. Vines here. Vines there. How did that Bloody Butcher vine traverse the length of the bed and why didn't I see it? Will all those rotted Black Cherry tomatoes falling to the ground sprout next season (yes)? What just fell on my shoe?

Needless to say, removing eight full-grown plants from a tiny bed causes quite the mess. That large green waste can? Tomato plants laugh at that. Two full grown plants can take up an entire can, no matter how hard I jump up and down on it. So -- today -- I found myself in the act of calling the City of Sacramento "Green Waste" Division with the polite request to "please remove that mass of tomato plants piled in front of my driveway."

There's a good reason why I had such a great year in the tomato growing department. Each planter bed was recharged with nutrients and compost before planting starter plants earlier this spring. And I guarantee that those small starter plants sucked just about everything dry over the course of the summer.

In other words -- just removing the plants is only half the battle. The bed is now devoid of the nutrients that are needed for the fall garden. You think the work is over? Hardly. Removing the plants is just the beginning. It's now time for "Phase II."

Fortunately, I did think ahead in this battle by stacking bags of steer and chicken manure compost in a part of the garden area that could be reached -- even though most of my backyard is now a sticky, muddy, mess. I also discovered that the Mantis Rototiller is not only good at churning up the soil, but removes the last vestiges of tomato plant roots that were left behind during the removal process.

Once you've worked in the new amendments -- which consisted of two bags of steer manure compost, one bag of chicken manure compost and two cups of pelleted Vigaro Fertilizer for vegetables, you've got a fairly clean and recharged bed to work with.

The wife that is Venus didn't waste time. As soon as the tomato bed was cleaned and recharged? She flashed into action -- planting red and yellow onion sets -- lettuce and bok choy starter plants -- and seeds of green onions, radishes and other fall crops.

As for the tomato plants that are still standing in other planter beds that we failed to address this weekend? In the words of former Monday Night Football showman Dandy Don Meredith: "Turn Out the Lights -- The Party's Over."

Spare Time? New Planter Box!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The days of joyously working out in ye olde garden are about to come to a screeching halt. Rain is due in next week. :(

It's a time to reflect on the landscaping jobs that didn't get done this summer -- and work furiously to complete what you can.

Case in point? The new planter box located to your right. This is one of the last BIG boxes that I will build for the backyard -- at least -- I think that's the plan at this point.

But you never know what the future has in store for this "Backyard in Progress."

The supports holding up the new planter box *should* be sitting on a layer of freshly planted grass. Should is a key word in the world of landscaping. It's one of those projects that just didn't get done earlier this spring. The legislative year was a rather tough one on us legislative types. A lot of time that could have been spent in the backyard, was instead spent at my desk in the State Capitol.

It's not a complaint mind you. It's more of a lament. Like most "Weekend Warriors" I always bite off far more than I can chew when it comes to the two issues of "projects planned" and "projects completed."

The box above illustrates that point. The goal was to build the box, stain the box, put it in place in one of the side yards, install drip irrigation inside the box, move five yards of planter mix into the backyard and then -- finally -- fill the box with planter mix and other soil amendments.

Yeah -- umm -- good plan. I can tell you -- at this point -- that the box is "built." And we'll have to wrap it up from there.

This is why the new box is needed. That lovely greenery to your right? Those are the artichoke plants that sprang back to life about a month ago. This box had been nothing but bare soil after I cleaned out and cut back last season's artichoke plantings. But, as you can tell, next spring's crop is already off to an enormous head start.

The new box will be placed to the immediate right of this box pictured to your left -- about eight feet away. In between the two is a lovely Pomegranate Tree -- the Sweet variety -- that is producing a bumper crop of large, gorgeous-red pomegranates in just its second year of production. It's one of the most productive -- and successful I might add -- fruit trees that I've got growing in the backyard. When the tree finally reaches it's maximum height and width -- it well be framed against the two artichoke boxes. I'm hoping for a pretty good show.

The slowdown in the local housing market does have at least one silver lining. It means the lumber selections at the nearby Man's Toy Store, aka Home Depot, are not just "pretty good" but OUTSTANDING. Add to that? The wood is CHEAP. If I would have tried to purchase the redwood boards that I used to build the new box in 2005, it would have cost twice as much and the quality of the wood would have been far inferior.

Lucky me.

Don't be fooled. The box pictured to your right is constructed with nothing more than the cheapest redwood fencing board that Home Depot offers. Sure, it doesn't look like fencing board after I get done with it -- but it's nothing more than that. The wider, thicker, boards that make up the sides and ends of the box are currently selling for about a $1.50. The thinner "trim" boards that line the top and sides (including the center "V for Venus finish job) are selling for less than a buck.

The box is held together with one foot sections of a redwood 2X4. There's one in every corner plus two more in the middle for added stability.

The nice thing about this project is the good folks in the Home Depot lumber department will be more than happy to do the bulk of the required cutting for you. That includes the one foot sections of the anchor 2X4. The trim boards are cut later, after the main part of the box is constructed. But, other than the 45-degree angles required for the "V for Venus" finish decoration, the cutting job is a fairly simple one.

Here's how it works: I pick the best looking boards that I can find out of the stack of redwood fencing lumber in the center of the lumber department. The edges must be smooth. The boards need to be relatively free of knots, which are tough to saw through and will fall out later after the wood is seasoned. Once I find six of the most perfect boards that I can find -- I move on to the trim boards -- where I repeat the process of finding five or six of the best boards that I can find. The final step is finding a single, unblemished, six foot long, redwood 2X4. There's at least one or two in every stack.

Next? I move over to the saw and issue some fairly straightforward cutting instructions. I want the dog-ear, top portions, of the six wide fencing boards lopped off completely. That provides four boards for the sides. The remaining two boards are then cut in half -- providing me with the end pieces. And finally? The six foot redwood 2X4 is cut into one foot sections.

The project also requires the purchase of gold screws in differing sizes -- and then everything gets loaded into the car for the final trip home.

The project is easier if you have three cordless drills at the ready. One is used for drilling pilot holes for the screws. Another drill is outfitted with a countersink. And the third and final drill is used for the actuall drilling of the screws that will hold the box together. Without the three drills, you're switching implements from one drill to another, which will slow you down.

At some point this weekend I will move this box to its new home on the other end of the yard, install drip irrigation, and wait for the rains to come. If the weather cooperates? I'll move soil in the following weekend and then start transplanting artichoke plants from the old bed to the new bed.

If the weather doesn't cooperate? Well -- there's always blogging...

The Scent of a Lady

Thursday, October 8, 2009

It's one of the most favorite rose bushes I've ever planted -- and I've given it the prime spot in the Backyard of Bird. I'm proud to introduce the showpiece against the far back fence: the one, the only: SCENTIMENTAL.

I'm a sucker for roses. I'll be honest -- I haven't always been this way. I learned this love from a former roommate and still a good friend from Fresno by the name of Russ Maurice. When Russ and I moved into a ramshackle duplex together in the mid 1980's, one of the first things that he did was landscape the small side and backyard with strips of turf and a few rose bushes that he retrieved from a neighbor's green waste heap.

I even remember the name of his favorite rose: Midas Touch. He would gift his girlfriend, Michelle, with golden-yellow bouquets whenever possible.

I've never forgotten his love for roses, because that sparked my interest and eventual love as well. I had no idea that -- like heirloom tomatoes -- roses had names and histories behind them. And once I had set my mind to study -- it was no longer "just a yellow" or "just a red" rose. It was a Mr. Lincoln! A John F. Kennedy! A Blue Girl!

Like most of my favorite roses, I stumbled upon Scentimental quite by accident. Although I can't quite remember for sure -- this rose may have been part of a free gift. It was one of those "buy three roses and get one free" deals from a retailer like Jackson Perkins or Weeks. In the second year, when it grew to a height of six feet and over the fence at our first home -- well -- I knew I had something special.

The Scentimental is a Floribunda rose. What does that mean? Unlike the hybrid tea roses, which produce the classic beautiful rose on a long, single stem, the Floribunda produces great numbers of roses on just one stem. You can't cut just one and bring it inside the house for a flower arrangement. If you're going to cut -- you're going to get three or four.

I'll be honest -- I wasn't wild about Floribunda roses. Like most romatic suckers -- err -- men, I wanted the long-stem hybrid tea roses. I let my love for these varieties drive me a little nuts with my first home in the Madera Ranchos area of Madera County to be honest. I planted fifty different varieties of only the best hybrid tea roses -- roses that survive and thrive to this very day.

It's how I convinced the wife that is Venus -- to be the wife that is Venus. True -- most ladies can wave off or dismiss a single hybrid tea rose with a wave of the hand. But when you present a lady with the riot of color that is 40-to-50 hybrid tea roses week after week -- that kind of affection is tough to ignore. It is the rose that convinced her of my love and devotion. The rest is history.

Now, I will also admit that planting 40 hybrid tea roses was also a GIANT LANDSCAPING MISTAKE (one reason why I no longer own this home). Roses are nice -- yes. They're also a pain to care for. They require daily fertilizer, pruning, protection against disease and pests and offer lots and lots of skin-penetrating thorns. OUCH! It would take an entire weekend or two to carefully prune back the collection of hybrid tea and hedge roses that I had planted in Madera.

But that work was well worth the effort.

When Venus and I moved from the first home into our new (and current) home in North Natomas -- I had already made the decision. The Scentimental Rose that had scaled the fence in an out-of-the-way spot in the front yard was coming with us. It would get the prime location in the new backyard: the furthest corner from the house.

It's the first rosebush that people spot upon entering the Backyard of Bird. I knew that transplanting this beast would throw it into a bit of a shock, and while it grew well in that first year, it didn't grow as well as I knew it could. This year, however? The second year? It's up and over the six foot fenceline and still growing.

I can only imagine what will happen in Year Three.

The following is from the website All America Rose Selections:

"Scentimental intrigues the senses with burgundy and cream striped petals and a sweet spice fragrance. This free-blooming, rounded floribunda mimics the look and scent of the striped hybrid roses of the 1800s. Although striped roses date back more than 100 years, Scentimental is the first striped rose to win the AARS (All American Rose Selection, 1997) award.

Deep green, quilted foliage flatters large, pointed buds each opening to expose a swirl of color as unique as a snowflake. The 4-inch flowers have 25 to 30 petals. Introduced by Weeks Roses, Scentimental was hybridized by Tom Carruth. The rose was created from a combination of Playboy and Peppermint Twist."