One Potato-Two Potato....

Monday, March 30, 2009

My apologies for having been away for so long. As luck would have it, a rather nasty virus invaded my home computer, and the old home hunk O' junk has been rather unusable lately. However, after several virus scans (one of which is running as I type this) -- things are almost back to normal.


I thought I would get a chance to use three gorgeous days of spring weather to get a head start on preparing the beds that will be a part of the 2009 summer vegetable garden. But, alas, while the sun is up and shining, the winds are also howling through the backyard. This is no time to start tilling up the soil in the raised beds -- as all of that good stuff will just blow into the neighbor's backyard.

So, I find myself inside, praying that the fruit trees don't blow down in this late March blast of wind.

In the meantime, however, the seeds that my dear, wonderful wife planted last February have been popping to the surface. Venus actually planted this bed full of potatoes about two or three weekends ago. This is after I took the Mantis Rototiller to the bed in question, mixing in three or four bags of steer manure compost and two or three cups of pelleted fertilizers designed to supply phosphorus and potash (I figure the steer manure will provide all the nitrogen needed).

And -- as the pictures will show -- so far so good. The bed is really rocking. All of the seed potatoes that Venus planted are now popping to the surface. These aren't your "normal" potatoes. Nope -- what you see here my friends are the varieties of "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red." What's so special about these? Supposedly, these "colored" potatoes retain their color after cooking. And it's just what the wife will need to prepare her "Red, White and Blue" Potato Salad for this year's 4th of July Block Party in North Natomas.

If everything goes according to plan (and when does anything go "according to plan?") -- Venus and I should be harvesting buckets of "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red" potatoes by the end of June. There are others she still hopes to plant in another bed, but alas, Mother Nature is not cooperating with these fierce northern winds.

Other spring crops are
also doing just dandy. This bed, which contains peas in the foreground and a variety of lettuce in the background, was planted in early February. We're already starting to harvest radishes and green onions, and the wife made sure to plant another row of radishes not all that long ago. You can stretch a radish harvest into four or five months during the spring, provided the weather cooperates. However, it just gets a tad too hot for radish plantings in late June and July, so you enjoy them while you can.

There's nothing quite like the bite of a home-grown radish.

Most of the salads prepared for dinner in the past two to three months have been coming via our backyard beds. Venus planted a variety of lettuce and spinach seeds among rows of garlic and onions last fall, which proved to be an extraordinary move. That one 6X2 bed -- against a back fence -- has been throwing out enough lettuce and spinach for full-sized salads nearly every day of the week. And the onions and garlic planted amidst the lettuce and spinach rows? They're growing fatter by the minute. They should be ready for harvest later this summer.

The best, of course, is yet to come. Tomato season is just around the corner.

Purple Rain & Contrails

Monday, March 23, 2009

Does this post have anything to do with gardening?





Again, Nope!

As I mentioned in the previous post, our wet weather weekend knocked a lot of projects into next weekend (alcohol has a tendency to do this too). But the skies cleared at just the right moment to put on one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" twilights that I had to capture.

You don't often see colors of red and purple against a blue background. Nor do you get to witness the kind of show that I witnessed just last night. The receding stormclouds and setting sun combined to put on quite the color show last night, which isn't something you often see.

The fact that I was -- at this point -- barbequeing some chicken on the outdoor grill left me lots of time to take in a great show. And -- as I took in this display put on by Mother Nature -- I noticed something else. And it was anything but mother nature.

North Natomas is very close to the Sacramento International Airport -- too close for my liking. It's great when one of us has to hop on a plane. The ride over takes all of five minutes -- no traffic. That's the plus. The minus is all those jets shaking the house when they fly over the neighborhood upon takeoff.

And they fly over all too often.

We're also close to Beale Air Force Base -- which is just a few miles to the north in Yuba County. We don't often see or hear those planes taking off -- but every once in a great while you can see them heading for home. You don't see the jet -- but rather the contrail it leaves behind.

Most of the time -- by the time you see the contrail -- the military jet responsible for it is long gone. But not this time. This one was streaking across the blue sky just below the cloud colors of purple and red -- and there was no mistaking the bright white contrail it left behind.

I find contrails interesting thanks to a rather "interesting" character that Venus and I met once at the American Legion Hall in Rio Linda. You meet all sorts of characters in Rio Linda -- and they all seem to congregate at the Legion Hall. And our friend "John" had a rather fascinating theory about "contrails."

They were -- in his opinion -- "evil." As in "George Orwell's 1984" evil. It was John's opinion that "Big Brother" government was keeping watch over all of us through the use of contrails. I never did learn from John exactly how "Big Brother" was using these trails to keep watch on us -- we never got that far with the conversation. Usually, we'd both nod our heads and say something like "that's nice John," and then head off quickly for another drink at the bar.

John was a character. But then again, so are we. And who knows? John just might be right. Perhaps our new First Lady wants to check out our heirloom tomato garden setup so she can get some tips and pointers about the new White House Garden? So why not put the pilots at Beale AFB to work? It makes perfect sense to me.

At least John would find this conclusion quite believable.

Farmer Fred's Greenhouse

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I should be gardening.....

This thought is on the mind of more than one gardener this weekend following three gorgeous days of sunshine last week.

But, as luck would have it, Mother Nature played a cruel trick on all of us gardening types by moving the sun out -- and the stormclouds in -- just as many of us were ending our workweek. I emerged from my office Friday evening hoping for a glimpse of the sunshine that I'd been hearing about - only to be greeted by a stiff, cool, breeze.


So, with weekend projects on hold, I thought I'd take the time to update you on the status of plants currently growing in the greehouse that belongs to famous Sacramento gardener and radio broadcasting legend, Fred Hoffman, aka "Farmer Fred."

Fred and I first met years ago when I was still in the business of broadcast radio news. He would later work alongside my wife, Venus, another former reporter at NewsTalk 1530, KFBK (seems all Sacramentans are "former" KFBK employees).

Fred, as you might be able to guess, has served as my "mentor" through the years. If I sometimes ignore his good advice, I usually wind up regretting it for one reason or another (there's a method to his madness). I built my first, raised, gardening bed at his urging. And, I'll take credit where credit is due, I introduced Fred to that wide, wonderful world that is heirloom tomatoes.

He's still not a big fan of the Green Zebra -- but that's another story for another day.

Fred has a couple of things going for him -- first and foremost -- his wonderful wife. But he also wisely invested in some land years ago when land could be purchased cheaply. And he's got a nice little setup that would make most gardeners salivate. Lord knows, I have.

Fred has also been nice enough to start a lot of my plants in the previous year of two, courtesy of his greenhouse. All of these plants aren't for me, of course. Fred does starts for a lot of neighbors, friends and fans of the show. And he's just got a wonderful system -- a way of doing things -- that results in garden success. More importantly, he's got a way of doing things on the cheap.

The photos of tomato and pepper plant starters that you see here were taken about a week ago, so these plants are quite a bit larger now. His starters are a little ahead of mine -- but then he got started a week or two earlier than I did too. Still -- there's no denying the benefit of a real greenhouse.

Soon, Fred and I will begin the process of "hardening off" our tomato and pepper plant starters. This is perhaps the most crucial part of starting plants indoors from seed, and the source of frustration for many growers. Venus and I spent months last year growing and nurturing a number of plants from seed, only to lose them in the space of one day after they had been placed outside.

If murdering tomato plants were a criminal offense, I'd be serving a life sentence right now.

It seems hard to believe that these baby plants will soon be delivering a bountiful harvest this summer that will go into a number of delicious and healthy dishes, but they will. They will also contribute to a number of canning efforts involving sauces, salsas, whole tomatoes, pickled peppers and numerous other creations.

Venus and I have come to discover that "canning a harvest" is almost as rewarding as a fresh summer salad.

Every once in a great while, you will hear my voice on Fred's show. And that's usually on the KSTE broadcast, because I'm just not getting down to the studio that early in time for the KFBK show. Sleep is important to me you know.

What's Bloomin' at the Bird House?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ah spring, when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love....

Or, in my case, heirloom tomatoes.

With all due respects to the great poet that is Alfred Lord Tennyson and my dear wife, that "young man" age went out with the 1963 Dodge Dart (starburst-neon green Dodge Dart I might add), my Foreigner casette tape of "Double Vision" (Hot Blooded, check it and see) and my acid-washed jeans.

Actually, I still have those jeans somewhere. Lord knows they don't fit anymore. Nor would anyone want them to fit.

I guess the point that I'm trying to make here is -- as you grow older -- you begin to appreciate what the spring season really means. There was a time in my life where winter -- and cold weather -- was "all that." Not anymore. I just don't like it when it's 33 and foggy outside. Give me sunshine. Give me warmth. And give me a show of daffodils and tulips blooming in the front yard.

Venus planted these daffodils during the first fall at the new home in North Natomas. And -- true to that lady's green thumb -- they came up again this year. As a matter of fact, every tulip and daffodil bulb she planted at the old home continues to sprout -- and each year those numbers grow as the bulbs grow, and then split into new bulbs.

But the most exciting part of spring -- to me that is -- is to watch the dormant, dead looking fruit trees suddenly spring to life. That happened about three weeks ago for this O'Henry Peach tree in the backyard. This is just the second year for this tree -- and you can barely see the bark on the branches through all of the pink peach blossoms. And the smell is -- well -- heavenly.

This is truly an exciting moment for me. This small tree produced perhaps ten to 12 blossoms last year -- its first in the backyard. And now? It's just covered with blossoms. This is one reason why Venus and I took the extra step of purchasing a hive of bees -- and one of my biggest concerns about the new yard.

Despite the number of blooms on just this one tree -- I haven't seen one single, solitary bee. Now, while it's true that peach trees don't necessarily need bees to pollinate, who are we kidding? Imagine this one tree full of bees. Then, imagine this one tree full of young peaches. It doesn't take much to take that next step. We will get peaches off this tree this year -- but not nearly as much as I was hoping for.

But the O'Henry peach isn't the only tree blooming in the front and backyard this pre-spring season. So is another peach variety called June Pride (Can you guess that perhaps I like peaches?). True to its name, the June Pride is designed to deliver a peach harvest in late June and early July. The O'Henry Peach will deliver its crop in late July and early August.

This means three solid months of peach harvests, which I can't argue with.

Venus and I purchased the June Pride and the O'Henry trees last February from Silverado Nursery. And although we planted before the spring bloom hit, the June Pride failed to deliver a single bloom -- which means it failed to deliver a single peach. As you can probably tell by the photo to your right, I'm hoping that won't be a problem this year. This photo is two weeks old and now the June Pride, much like the O'Henry, is covered with scads of pink blossoms.

But this isn't the only blooming thing taking place in our North Natomas backyard. This one single bloom (it's blurry -- I'm not great with a digital camera -- so sue me)? This belongs to the Lapin Cherry tree -- which the wife and I also purchased -- and planted -- last February. And this represents the very first cherry blossom this tree has produced. It will be the first of many, as I see shades of white about to burst out all over this tree.

Does this mean cherries are in our immediate backyard future? Tough to say. The Lapin is also known as a "self-fruiting Bing," which means it doesn't require another cherry tree to pollinate. It does have one nearby in the form of a Royal Ranier cherry tree (purchased this year), but it doesn't need it.

Still -- blossoms don't necessarily translate into fruit production. It's a good sign, of course, but I sure would feel better if some lonely beehive would discover our backyard.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

A Prayer in Spring
Robert Frost (1915)

March Update: Babies Move to a New Home

Monday, March 16, 2009

The heirloom tomato starter plants currently growing in the North Natomas home of Bill and Venus Bird are doing well. So well as a matter of fact that it was time to take the next step in the seed propogation effort.

Moving day had come.

I could tell because the plants that we started in this Jiffy starter tray were developing "root legs," and my fear was that if they didn't get a new home and soon, they just might walk away. Plus -- they were hitting the top of the grow lights, which is never a good sign. And those long stems that you see in abundance? That's not a good sign either.

There's a term for this -- and it's called "leggy." And this happens to a lot of indoor growers who do not have standard greenhouses. Starter plants tend to develop very weak stems when reaching for heat or a light source or both, and that's not good when you're growing tomato starter plants. Strong stems are needed for leaf growth and development. If the plant gets top heavy -- SNAP! You've just a lost a starter that you've spent a good month growing.

So, the "project" so to speak this weekend was to move the babies to a new home. This required a couple of different steps: A nice place to stretch out and work -- some new cups for the tomato and pepper starters and some good compost that the tomato and pepper plants will appreciate over the next month and a half.

Venus and I found the planter mix after a trip to the Big Box store that is Lowe's in West Sacramento, and the cups came courtesy of Farmer Fred Hoffman (Fred can just about find anything). After setting everything up in ye olde GarageMahal, including a tarp to cover the garage floor, Venus and I were ready to get to work.

In past years, we have used each Jiffy Peat Moss Pod to start three to four seeds -- or plants -- each. But separating the plants from the pod, without damaging the intertwined root systems, wasn't easy. And it was extremely messy. We usually wound up losing one or two starter plants from each pod anyway, so this year we tried something a little different:

One plant per pod.

And this made the process of transplanting pods into cups much easier. All you needed to do was scoop -- pack the dirt down -- drop in a pod with a plant -- cover with more composted soil -- label the plant and move on to the next pod.

The tomato starters, however, required a little more care than the peppers. Since the plants were so "leggy," we actually had to bury most of the stem in the compost, leaving only the top leaves exposed. This is actually a reccommended practice if you're going to start tomato plants from seed. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that will actually develop a second set of root systems resulting from a buried stem. And that, in time, will hopefully result in a stronger, thicker stem above.

As for the pepper plant starters, well, they didn't require this sort of "deep burial" treatment. All of the bell pepper plants had nicely developed stems, with good leaf structure. These were the easiest of plants to transplant into new cups.

This also happens to be the absolute worst year I've experience when it comes to actual germination rates. In previous years, tomato plants have always germinated faster -- and at better rates -- than the bell pepper counterparts. But, not this year. The bell pepper seeds gave us germination rates of nearly 100%

But the tomato seed? While some rows did better than others -- the total germination rate was probably 60%. In some cases, we had zero germination. We will not be enjoying Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red this year, because none of the pods planted with seed germinated. The same holds true with another heirloom variety called Red Reif Heart.

But, don't feel sorry for us. We're not crying. We have more than enough started to plant five or six tomato and pepper gardens rather than just one. This includes a large variety of heirloom tomatoes and peppers. All of these plants are now sitting under a special contraption that I put together last week in the GarageMahal.

I can't take credit for inventing this PVC contraption. It sprang from the mind of an A-Type personality engineer who works for Intel and lives in the Rocklin area. But, while I could never invent something like this -- I am very good at looking at pictures or instructions and making a duplicate copy.

Which is exactly what I did!

All of these plants will remain indoors for about the next month (four weeks). By mid-April, if the weather has warmed sufficiently, I will take the next step in the "growing from seed" process and place the babies outside for what is called the "hardening off" process.

Details on that -- and more -- to come. But for now -- everthing is just dandy in North Natomas.

She's a Beauty.....

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Don't fall in love.....She's one in a million girls...

With all due apologies to The Tubes, I present to you, our latest lovely addition to the Bird family garden in North Natomas. Isn't she just gorgeous? A sight to behold? Can't take your eyes off her? Neither can I. For me -- it was love at first sight.

No -- not the wife. Don't get me wrong. She's great too. Love her to death! But -- take a look at what the wife is modeling in our "Back 40" Natomas backyard. That is none other than the world famous Mantis Rototiller.

I've been looking to acquire a Mantis for years now, but wasn't quite ready to pony up the $400 because I wasn't sold on the product. And who blows $400 on something that was only available via mailorder up until just a few short years ago?

But -- as I started to read the user reviews -- I just knew I had to have one of these for the garden. And the reviews are right on the money. This baby packs quite the wallop and was well worth the investment of $150.

That's right. You read it correctly. This Mantis Rototiller cost $150 because I bought it used. I'd been scanning the Sacramento Bee classfieds and Craigslist for a couple of months, hoping to get one. But, everytime an ad popped up, somebody beat me to the punch. I came to discover that these things are gold. If you don't strike while the iron is hot, someone will get it before you.

Why used? Why not new? Because, I knew from experience, if I had bought a brand new Mantis, I would have suffered the inevitable "Buyer's Remorse." You see -- the plan is to beat the living H-E-Double Hockey Sticks out of this thing. The Mantis Rototiller won't be used to just "till the soil." No, it has a variety of uses. I'll put this baby to work later this spring digging trench lines for the new backyard lawn. The Mantis can also be used as an edger, and can even dig holes for the new trees and shrubs that I have yet to plant in the new backyard. To put it short and sweet -- this little machine is in for a real workout.

Plus -- if I had bought this new -- I would have regretted the very first scratch or dent caused by use. It would have bothered me to no end -- even though I could have easily afforded to "buy new." I'm just that cheap I suppose. I had to take a chance on buying a used Mantis -- and hope that my gamble paid off.

Boy, did it pay off.

I found this Mantis in an older section of South Sacramento. It started up easily enough when I visited the owner who was selling it. But the tines also showed signs of rust. It actually looked like the thing had been left out in the rain. But, you can replace tines. What I was worried about was the two-stroke engine. If it was in good shape -- then I had made a good deal.

One visit to the Lawn and Mower Repair shop in Elverta proved that I'd lucked into a valuable investment. The technician who tuned it up and replaced some key parts reported what I had initially suspected. The engine was "barely used." Someone bought this brand new, and then just left it outside in the elements.

One man's trash is another man's treasure!

The Mantis has been sitting in my garage for the past month and a half, just waiting for a chance to spring into action. That chance came last weekend. The sunshine that arrived during the first week of March following weeks of February rain dried out the backyard enough to access the raised planter beds.

I had the Mantis. I had three bags of Steer Manure compost. I had other compost at the ready. The time had come. It was time to put the new toy to work. And boy -- did it ever work -- beyond my wildest dreams. I managed to recharge this bed with all sorts of compost in a matter of minutes. The Mantis Rototiller made short work of chopping up the root systems left over from last year's tomato garden. It laughed at tough soil. It saved my back from hours of tilling up a 4X8 raised bed by hand.

As soon as this bed was done -- the wife immediately attacked with her planting efforts. The entire bed is now filled with seed potatoes -- two varieties -- known as "All Blue" and Cranberry Red." The wife's goal is to produce a "Red, White and Blue" Potato Salad creation for the 4th of July. And with the spuds now starting to sprout -- it just might happen.

I will use this Mantis to till up a section of the yard near the planter beds as part of an "experiment" later this summer. If South Natomas grower Nels Christenson can transform his clay soil into a productive garden (which he did) -- then I can certainly do the same in North Natomas.

And the Mantis will make it happen -- with ease.

Instant Lawn? Hardly!

Monday, March 9, 2009

I suppose you could file this blog post under the subject heading of "Extreme Gardening." Needless to say I am back at work this morning, recovering from a brutal three-day weekend.

Brutal? Three day weekends? Since when did three-day weekends become brutal? Most people believe they are heaven on Earth -- and for the most part -- they're right on the money.

But when you spend the entire three days working on gardening and other yard projects -- every muscle in the body begins to ache. And then, muscles that you didn't even know that you had also begin to ache. And then -- you have aching muscles on top of aching muscles.

Yeah -- it was one of "those" weekends.

When the wonderful wife that is Venus and I realized that we were in for a weekend of bright sunshine and moderate temperatures this past weekend, our minds began to wander to the backyard. We haven't been out there much. With all of the recent rain, it's been little more than a mud pit. Even Venus' jaunts to the lettuce garden have been fraught with peril -- and the shoes she's been using to access the lettuce planter box are now PERMANENT outside mud shoes.

But, when we noticed last week that the sunshine following the rain was drying out portions of the backyard, we thought that we just might be able to access a good part of it by Saturday without sinking to the center of the Earth. And sure enough, although parts of the yard were still "sticky" from mud, we at least had some dry trails to use.

And we used them.

First project? Normal yard care. I made sure to fertilize the lawns in the front and backyard and at the rental before the rain started to fall two weeks ago. That turned out to be a great move. I started this section of lawn from seed last July as an "experiment." And it was an experiment gone vastly wrong.

First, you don't start lawns from seed in the heat of July. It just doesn't work. Secondly, lawns started from seed look "spotty" during the first year or two until all the grass can fill in. Even this lawn has some "empty" spots -- but I must admit it doesn't look half bad.

Notice the brown, clay dirt beyond the lawn? The dirt that is the rest of the backyard? That is "this year's" little lawn project. And, if all goes well, by this time next spring, I should have a pretty good lawn covering the backyard.

While the "rollout" lawns (sod) that offer "instant lawn" are the rage of the day now, especially with new developments, I have never been a big fan of them. I'm not necessarily against "instant lawn" mind you. But those lawns are not very strong and will invite various diseases and pests.

These blights are spread by, SURPRISE, neighborhood gardeners. Most homeowners do not care for their own front and backyards anymore. They hire someone for $60 a month to take care of normal yardwork instead. I've never been able to understand that -- and while gardening is an honest job -- gardeners can and do spread diseases of the lawn.

How does this happen? Quite simple really. If you've ever used a mower before -- then you know that the underside of most mowers catch quite a bit of grass. Not all of it goes into the grass catcher. Some of it sticks to the underside of the mower, or maybe to a wheel, or maybe the underside of a grass catcher.

And all it takes is one, small blade of infected grass to hit your formerly disease free lawn. Once that blade hits -- you're in trouble. Even if a gardener doesn't care for your lawn -- all it takes is a blade of infected grass from the neighbor who DOES use a gardener -- for it to spread to your lawn. And these diseases do spread quite easily.

Those diseases -- which mainly strike the "instant sod lawns" -- range from dead spots to yellowing. Sometimes those spots can be caused by insects. But other problems can result from viruses like Leaf Spot, Melting Out, Fusarium Blight and others. Unfortunately, this means you need a host of chemicals and other controls to keep the lawn free of dead spots -- and those get expensive.

But lawns planted from seed are immune to most of the bad stuff going around. And right now, the lawn is looking pretty darn good.

It didn't always look this way -- and the photos will clearly show that there are small patches of dirt and other areas that either need more seed or just time and care to "fill in." But the lawn has been filling in fairly well now since last July, when half of it up and died because it simply got too hot.

For the longest time -- this lawn was nothing to look at and be proud of. Imagine if you will -- dirt patches larger than patches of lawn. It did look like that at one point last summer. As a matter of fact, I felt more than one urge to dig everything up and start over with sod -- admitting that lawn planted from seed was a big, fat, failure.

But now? Well -- for now anyway -- I'm beginning to think that starting from seed was a pretty smart idea. Plus -- it's a lot cheaper than sod. This small patch of lawn would have run about $150 or more if I had used sod. But with seed? This required a $15 investment for the seed, another $10 for seed-starter fertilizer -- plus another $10-$15 for peat moss to cover the seeds.
Not a bad investment -- so far...

The Birds and their Bees!!!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Today folks -- a "first ever" event for the blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening. The husband now steps aside for the first time to welcome a "guest blogger" -- the wife and the gardening inspiration that is "Venus."

So how do you spend your last “Furlough Friday” as a state worker when your husband’s boss says he can have the day off to be with you? With the tax man and at a BEE STORE of course!!!

A bee store? Really? A place where we go to actually spend what little tax return we’ll be getting on something that’s going to sting us? You have GOT TO BE KIDDING. And who EVER heard of a bee store?

I was skeptical, as I usually am when heading off on one of Bill Bird’s “great adventures.” But, he bought me a really nice lunch that included a couple of Modelo Especiales, so at that point … I was game.

So into Midtown Sacramento we went and I realized I had driven by Sacramento Bee Keeping Supplies at least a million times as it is near my former place of employment. But I had never noticed it was a BEE STORE, in spite of the bees and honey combs painted on it.

I walked in and was amazed. I just kept looking at all of the products made with honey and other bee byproducts, candles, lotions, and all the little bee knick knacks, and wasn’t even paying attention to the whole live bee thing until Bill approached the desk and asked about ordering bees. At which point we found out we’d be at the END of the list. There are other people out there just as whacked? Really??

So she told us it would cost 100 bucks for the colony, this amount for this, that amount for that and an additional 50 something for some contraption to get the honey. To which Bill says, “Oh, I don’t care about honey, I just want them to pollinate the garden.” Bill is quite obsessed with the lack of bees in North Natomas where we live as evidenced by his
letter to the editor in the Sacramento BEE!!

But given that bees are all about honey I had to chime in, “If we’re spending this much money, we might as well reap something from this whole ordeal.” So we got the contraption for the honey. The whole set up is pretty complicated but I think Bill understands it so that’s good. And we were told we have to paint the outside of the wooden contraption where our bees will hang out. Bill said I get to paint it. So now, I must go buy some PINK paint. And Bill says I can stencil a Hello Kitty onto it. That’ll be great since I know our four kitties are going to LOVE their thousand or so new friends with stingers!!!


Bill's Note: The wife and I purchased the basic "Beginner's Kit" from Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies -- which includes a complete one-story beehive containing the top and bottom, plus ten frames that go inside the hive -- a standard hive tool -- standard tin smoker -- a mesh hat and round veil (don't I look just stylin in this getup?) -- extra large size gloves that fit up to the elbows -- a "feeder" (yes -- you've got to feed them bees as I've learned) and the book "First Lessons in Beekeeping."

I peppered the poor woman who helped me with a number of questions because, like the beginniner I am, I had NO idea of what I was getting myself into. And she was using terms like "nucs" and "supers" and other terms that sounded like they had more use in the Klingon Language than with beekeeping.

But the book, which was an easy read, explained a lot of questions. The most eye-opening part came with the chapter that dealt with honey production. You see -- I didn't want bees for honey. I wanted them for pollination. Too bad -- because I'm going to get honey -- and a lot of it apparently.

If I do this right -- and most beginners don't mind you -- one, single hive can produce as much as 100 lbs. of honey during the normal production season. What am I going to do with 100 lbs. of honey? Not only honey -- but beeswax -- which is used for the production of candles, soaps, shampoos, you name it.

So -- whether the wife and I like it or not -- it looks like we're going into the "bee business."

We don't have the bees yet -- they will be delivered later. First -- we have to get the hive painted and situated in the right area -- and then we can expect the bees and the all important "Queen Bee" to be delivered at some point in late April or early May.

The delivery will come too late for the peach and plum trees that are already in full bloom in our backyard -- but right on time for the citrus, melon and pumpkin patches.
Stay tuned -- this is going to get rather interesting. I wonder how the neighbors will react to a beehive in the backyard? Perhaps they'll teach that pesky dog that never stops barking a thing or two. Venus and I know this much -- our four cats are in for a very big surprise.

Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies does have a website -- which you can access here. You can also email them at

But -- if you're in the market for a hive -- a word to the wise: don't wait. They are one of the few Mom & Pop Sacramento stores that are absolutely THRIVING during this economic downturn. My order -- even though it was placed in early March -- put me on the "third shipment" list. And the explanation I received was that "third shipments are very rare."

Just Say NO!!!!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Starter plants for the 2009 Tomato Garden? They're here? Already? Seriously? You've got to be kidding! Right?

Gardening Guys N' Gals -- follow Nancy Reagan's good advice: JUST SAY NO!

I must say I was more than intrigued when I received a rather worried email from a rather worried "Pam" in Elk Grove this past weekend. She had been doing some shopping at a nearby Box Store, when she saw THEM.

Yes -- THEM!

THEM -- as in tomato starter plants! Out on display! In Elk Grove! In FEBRUARY! Not just any starter plants either, but her favorites: EARLY GIRL.

And so Pam did what many growers are doing right now, and should not be doing. Pam bought herself some starter plants.

In February no less. And she bought them just in time for ten solid days of rain and cold, wet, yucky weather in the Sacramento Valley.

Intrigued by her email and her request from help, I decided to visit my own "Big Box" store in North Natomas -- the men's toy store -- Home Depot -- to see if what Pam had told me was really true.

Guess what? It's true!

When I walked into the garden section this weekend -- lo and behold -- there I found rack after rack of brand new tomato starter plants. There you could find Early Girls by the hundreds, Better Boys, Big Beefs, Celebrities and even cherry varieties like Yellow Pear.

And it wasn't just tomatoes! Cucumber starter plants were on display! Pepper plants! Bell peppers! Habanero hot peppers! Artichoke starter plants! Herb starter plants!

In short, there was the summer garden, on display and ripe for the taking and purchasing. And I was rather distressed to see that many customers were taking and purchasing on the day that I visited.

But -- there's just one problem.

It ain't summer folks. Not even close. It's still winter. And Mother Nature could have a wallop in store for us for the next month and a half. Then again, the skies could clear and spring sunshine could emerge. It's happened before, right? It could happen again, right? Well, yes and no.

Point is -- we just don't know.

But -- the lesson here gardening fanatics is this: Just Say NO! Don't buy that starter plant. Don't buy that BIG BEEF tomato starter plant, no matter how good it looks or how delicious that tomato in the picture looks. It's a lie. And, if you "buy now," chances are you'll be forced to "buy later" to replace the plant that died from lack of heat, or got drowned from non-stop rain.

Just because the Big Box stores have the plants out now, doesn't mean that you have to buy them. Don't worry. They're not going to run out. I guarantee you that the Early Girls, Better Boys, Big Beefs and other lip-smacking varieties are still going to be in good supply later this spring, when it really IS time for planting.

Just don't jump the gun.

From experience I know that there are two possible scenarios that could result from BUYING and then PLANTING a starter plant in the backyard when it's still this cold and wet.

SCENARIO 1: The plant just sits in the ground. It doesn't look happy. It doesn't grow. It's freezing its pretty little pitooty (do tomato plants have pitooties?) off and isn't going to do a thing for at least a month or two, until the weather warms up. At that point, it will start growing. And this will only happen if you're very lucky.

SCENARIO 2: The plant just sits in the ground. It's very unhappy. It's FREEZING. And suddenly, Mr. Freezing Tomato Plant meets Mr. Airborne Virus. The two sort of join hands, and then you're really in trouble. Mr. Airborne Virus not only adopts your tomato starter plant, but thrives when it warms up and spreads to other starter plants you have planted nearby. Finally, at some point in mid-to-late June, your entire tomato crop kicks the proverbial bucket.

Think that's funny? It's not. It happened to me once -- yes ME! Just because I write a gardening blog doesn't make me Mr. Perfect when it comes to the subject of tomato plants. Just ask the 50-60 starter plants that I managed to kill last spring when I put them outside too soon and they keeled over in one day from too much exposure.

And trust me, having witnessed this in person before, you don't want to watch an entire tomato crop meet its unfortunate end to some nasty disease that could have been avoided to start with. While it's true that Sacramento is home to some of the best growing conditions in the world when it comes to growing tomatoes, we're also cursed with every tomato pest -- airborne and soilborne -- under the sun.

So -- remember -- the lesson for today is JUST SAY NO. And "Pam" in "Elk Grove" is keeping her starter plants indoors -- on a windowsill -- until the proper planting time arrives.