Thursday, April 23, 2009

Isn't she lovely?

Isn't that just the most wonderful shot in the world?

The world's most beautiful lady with the world's most impressive home-grown artichoke?

This photo goes in the "keeper file," for a number of reasons.

Family and friends -- I officially announce the start of ARTICHOKE SEASON in Sacramento! It actually started last weekend when we harvested the largest artichoke we have ever SEEN or GROWN off of a massive plant that is now over the fenceline.

I'll be honest. I enjoyed this artichoke for dinner last Saturday night. Of course, I did offer it to the wife, but she said no. This one was mine. I tried to get her to take it, but she would have none of it. This beauty was all for Bill Bird.

And what a beauty it was. It was absolutely fabulous. Years of growing artichokes in large and small backyards have finally started to pay off in not only record harvests, but the most delcious and tasty artichokes I have ever tasted. Nothing, in any store, cannot compare with what we are getting in the backyard right now. In fact, with all due respect to Sacramento grocery retailers, there's no comparison at all.

The artichokes that we are harvesting right now are not only larger than a softball, they are the most tender vegetables under the sun. The hearts of our artichokes are more than an inch thick, soft and easy to cut after steaming, and offer a taste that is simply out of this world good. Think of the best artichoke you have ever enjoyed -- double that experience -- and you might come close to what is coming out of our backyard at this very moment. Each leaf -- each tender slice of artichoke heart -- is a creamy, nutty, mouthwatering experience.

But, I must admit -- it wasn't always this way. We didn't start out with monster artichokes. We didn't start out with tender artichokes. When Venus and I started growing these wonderful vegetables in our backyard some six years ago, they were smaller. They were tougher. They had a nice taste -- don't get me wrong -- but the artichokes we were getting out of the stores were just -- well -- I'll admit it -- BETTER. And that's just not right.

And then -- one fine spring day in 2005 -- when an artichoke laden plant snapped off its base and fell to the sidewalk -- I made a vow to "do better." It's taken four years to adapt planting practices and care for plants. It's taken four years of hits and misses. It's taken four years of experimentation. But you know what? When you look at the artichokes and the production off of just one plant -- you say to yourself -- "it was well worth the effort."

Here are just a few things that I learned:

1. Artichokes need room. They need room to grow. They need room to expand. Artichokes do not do well in mixed beds. In fact, most artichokes will take over mixed beds. They'll push other plants out of the way, or worse yet, cover them, blocking off sunshine and blocking off water. If you have a small yard, like I once had, you can train your artichokes to grow up rather than out. It requires more work and effort, and lots of staking and twine, but you can do it.

2. Water consumption is key. If you find yourself with a tough artichoke, chances are, you didn't give it enough water. I'm not advising that you suddenly drown artichoke plants in a deluge of water, especially if they're producing right now. That won't help you at all. Artichokes need a regular and dependable supply of water through the winter and and spring months to produce quality fruit. They will even appreciate a regular watering schedule through Sacramento's rainy season. I'm not suggestion you turn on the sprinklers when it's pouring outside. That's overkill. But if two weeks go by without so much as a raindrop, guess what? It doesn't matter how cold it is outside -- the artichokes NEED water.

3. Fertilization is not only encouraged, it is required. If you want big, meaty and tender artichokes with tender leaves and large, luscious hearts, you must feed them. And I've come to discover that artichokes are a lot like tomato plants in this respect. Nitrogen is good -- but they need more. Nitrogen and nitrogen only will give you large plants with limited production. If you want large plants and large production -- equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are required. I normally apply fertilizers with equal amounts of all three items in the fall and winter months, and give an especially heavy dose in March, about a month before the plants begin to produce.

4. Soil is also important. Artichokes are the only vegetable that I know of that will grow in our crappy, cruddy, North Natomas clay cement. Plant them once and they'll grow year after year. They won't be the best artichokes in the world, but you will get them. But -- if you want or desire the kind of heavenly artichokes that Venus and I are experiencing today -- please give these babies what they need. Either place them in a raised bed filled with amended and composted planter mix, or amend and compost the clay soil BEFORE planting. You will be richly rewarded.

5. Artichokes do well with "organic only" gardening practices. It's taken some time to realize this, but it's true. Artichoke plants attract lots of insects. Some are beneficial. Some are not. If you spray your artichokes with any kind of bug-killer, you're going to destroy the beneficial insects that your plants will need during early and late season production. At some point however, the bad bugs will start to outweigh the good. Ladybugs can only eat so many bad critters at any one particular sitting. The more you encourage ladybug production in your yard, the better. But, if you resort to chemicals, the ladybugs you need in the spring will not be around to help you out and your plants will be quickly overwhelmed rather than gradually.

The plants that you see in these photos? They are quite old. Venus and I invested in four plants when we created our first garden in our first Natomas home in 2003. It was an investment of less than $10. The plants have produced every year except the first. As spring turns into summer, the bugs take over and the plants die back. They cannot hack Sacramento's summertime heat -- even with our famous Delta Breeze.

At some point this summer, the monsters that are currently growing in my planter bed will completely die back. At that point I will move in with some long-handled cutters and even a saw for the tough plants. I will cut these back to soil level. It won't look pretty. But it's something that must be done.

The artichokes, however, will survive. They have every year. At some point in the late summer or early fall, when the heat begins to break, the root systems of these plants will send up new shoots. These new shoots can either be used for next year's crop, or they can also be transplanted to a new bed (one of this year's "projects" is a new 4X8 bed for additional plants).

The life cycle begins anew. These small starters will grow exponentially through the fall and winter months and become giants in the early spring. I am already looking foward to next year's harvest, even though I have a lot more coming my way (and a few neighbors will benefit as well) in 2009.

The Moment of TRUTH!!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

The time had come. I could not ignore the task at hand any longer. The honeybee project that Venus and I have been working on for a solid six weeks was about to come to a BUZZING conclusion.

Yes -- that's right. It was time to GET STUNG!

Actually, it was time to introduce a new colony of bees to their new, and custom, Hello Kitty beehive. I've been dreading this moment for quite some time.

WHY you ask? Do you relish the thought of being the "center of attention" in a swarm of bees? Because, that's exactly what happens when you "hive" a new colony of bees. You're the center of attention. And the invited guests are royally pissed off at some rough behavior.

Venus and I picked up our new colony of bees from Sacramento Beekeeping Supply on Saturday. Although many beekeepers had advised me that I would probably get stung during the hiving process, the fine folks at beekeeping supply reassured me that it probably wouldn't happen.

You see, I'm mortally afraid of getting stung by a bee. Come to think of it -- I'm mortally afraid of just about anything. I'm a 6'2, 300 lb. wuss in sheep's clothing. I cry when I watch Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, or whenever I hear a good song. I'm not one of those tough guys. I'm as soft as they come. I haven't been stung by a bee since I was four or five. And the thought of getting stung now -- well -- that made me nervous.

But -- as it turns out -- the fine folks at Sacramento Beekeeping Supply were dead on RIGHT! I just didn't know it then. I do now. The Italian Honeybee is a fairly gentle creature. I know it doesn't seem that way when you're stuck in a swarm of them, but they are.

The first step in hiving a new colony? Getting dressed up in an outfit that would make any trick-or-treater proud with envy. In short, you take every possible measure to look as dorky as possible. And, in my heavy 49'er sweatshirt -- cap and faceguard -- plus gloves that extend up to the elbow -- well -- I looked as dorky as possible. It was a good 90 degrees outside during this hiving project, plus I was as nervous as a teenager on a first date with a Playboy model.

The time had come.

The bees were in that box that you see pictured to the right -- and they instinctively knew that "something was up." You could hear them buzzing lightly from time to time, but the moment I picked up that box and carried it near the hive, they just knew something was about to happen.

Placed on that box is a sprayer bottle of equal parts sugar and water. That's very helpful when you're dealing with honeybees. They're attracted to that stuff like young kids are attracted to grape snowcones. In short, they're not paying attention to the buffoon with an oversized 49'er sweatshirt on -- they're after that sugar water. Lastly came the "hive tool" and a standard smoker that I'd filled with torn up pieces of paper, dead weeds from the garden and pieces of bark.

My job was to first spray the bees with sugar water, then give the box a couple of good whacks. This would hopefully dislodge them from the lid that they were hanging on at the top of this box. At least, I thought it was a lid. It sure looks like one, right? But, upon removing it, I realized it was the top lid to some canned product that was still very full! It actually felt like a can of pumpkin or tomatoes -- and it wasn't easy to lift out.

After slapping the box a few times to dislodge the bees -- I removed the can, then place a piece of wood over the box to prevent the bees from escaping. Some do, of course, and guess what happens? You're the center of attention in a small swarm of about 15-20 bees.

"OK," I thought. I can handle that. Not a problem.

The next move? Removing the Queen from the hive of bees. The queen is placed into a smaller box -- think box of matches -- to protect her. She is relatively new to the hive. If she's added to a mix of bees too quickly, the other bees just might tear her apart. And that's death to a hive. Without the queen, it's just a box of bees that will soon disperse in search of new homes. The queen keeps them together.

I had been advised to keep that queen in her small cage after retrieving her -- which means I had to remove the wood from the hole in that box opening. I did retrive her easily enough -- a few more bees escaped, and I hung her cage against one of the many slats in the beehive. There are bees all over this boxed queen that you need to be very careful of. One wrong move and POW! You invite a stinging party.

But -- remove the queen I did. And I managed to place that cage exactly where I was supposed to place it -- and secure it as well without maiming a single bee. Keep in mind that, by this time, even though the box was covered again, I had bees all over my gloved hands, all over my 49'er sweatshirt, and buzzing all about.

But this was nothing. Nothing can prepare you for the moment of truth that was about to come. It was time to take the rest of the bees in that box -- who were terribly anxious to get out -- and introduce them to their new home.

You'd like to think that this is as simple as "Hello Mr. and Mrs. Bee, please come out and aquaint yourself with your new home and surroundings." It would be nice if the hiving process worked like that. It doesn't.

The next step was to take that box of bees -- remove the wood covering the top -- turn it upside down -- hold it over the open hive and slap it silly. Two or three good whacks was all it took for the majority of bees in that box to fall out -- and go SMACK into the bottom of the hive.

What happened next was truly the "Come to Jesus" moment in hiving a new colony of bees. That low hum of buzzing? It suddenly jumped exponentially to an excited scream of annoyed honeybees. Finally freed from their cage, they began to swarm. The pictures simply do not do any justice here. You cannot see this rather annoyed swarm of hundreds of annoyed honeybees, but trust me, they were there. And they were highly agitated.

But, this is precisely the point where you remain calm. There's work to be done. It's 90 degrees outside. You're covered up like it's the middle of winter in Montana. You've got lots of new and very agitated friends and you've got to look right back down into the innards of that hive.

It's not easy. But it had to be done.

The next step was to replace the four or five slats I'd removed from the hive several hours earlier. You'd think this would be an easy task, except the slats were leaned up against the hive. And -- as you might guess -- they were covered with agitated honeybees. But, each one had to be picked up and lifted back into the hive, taking special care not to crush any of the bees milling about on the bottom and on all sides of the hive.

I managed to do this, and put the cover of the hive back on, without much of a problem. At that point, I leaned the original box against the hive (some bees did not spill out with their brothers and sisters), picked up my tools and walked away.

Job completed. Colony of Bees hived. No bee stings. Time for a beer.

But, we're not done yet. Remember the Queen? She is still caged. At some point -- probably tomorrow night -- I will be forced to don my dorkish gear and open up that hive to get the queen out of her cage. This is, again, not an easy task. The queen will be agitated. Hopefully, the bees who have accepted her by this time, will be agitated as well.

There is only one proven way to find out if the queen has been accepted. I must open the hive back up, which will bring bees welling to the top. I must remove the queen cage, which is at the top of a slat. I must take one of the gloves off, and run my bare finger along the queen cage. If the bees covering this cage move out of the way of my finger -- the queen has been accepted. If not, I can't remove her just yet.

Should she be accepted, here comes another tricky job. There's a hole at the end of the queen cage covered with a cork. If I just remove the cork, the queen will fly away and the rest of the bees will follow her wherever she goes. She might come back to the hive. But then again, she might not. Lose the queen, and you lose the hive.

So -- one of the jobs will be to plug a small marshmellow into the hole that is currently covered with cork. And it must be done swiftly and delicately, before the queen can react to an open escape route.

Should I react quickly enough to plug up the open hole with a marshmellow, I'll place the queen cage back at it's original spot on top of a slat, and the worker bees will eat away at the sweet treat, freeing the queen from captivity and ready to take her rightful place in the hive.

But, keep in mind tht I am neither swift, nor delicate. This should be an interesting job indeed. Stay tuned for the next edition of "The Birds and their Bee Farm."

Direct Seed

Friday, April 17, 2009

If you're guessing that you "missed the boat" because you failed to start tomatoes and peppers from seed earlier this year, guess again!

If you've resigned yourself to visiting some nursery this weekend or next and be limited to what they have -- or don't have -- in stock -- don't give in!

You can still grow all the varieties of tomatoes -- cucumbers -- melons -- even pumpkins -- through an easy process called "Direct Seed."

"Direct Seed," you say? "What's that?"

Direct Seed is a fairly simple process where you place seeds directly into a planter cup filled with soil -- setting it in a sunny location that also offers some bottom warmth (this is critical) -- and letting it germinate on its own.

This is just one short project that Venus and I took part in last weekend while I was battling the dreaded Strep Throat. I didn't have much energy or desire to do anything to be completely honest, but direct seed is EASY. And, in no time at all, you can have the varieties of everything you want and more growing in your very own backyard.

That photo to your left? That's the result of a one-hour, direct seeding project. The wife and I found eight or nine old planter cups from past seasons (we tend to save them) -- filled them with planter mix purchased from a nearby nursery (you can also find acceptable planter mix at places like Longs or Rite Aide), drop in a few seeds, label and water.

That's it. Pretty simple stuff eh? Cup, soil, seed: that's all you need.

These starter cups filled with different varieties of watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers and pumpkins have already started to sprout. In another two to three weeks, they will be ready for a permanent home. This is the perfect time to plant cucumber or melon seeds because the weather is finally warm, and these are the types of plants that really need warm weather to thrive.

Of course, tomatoes started by the direct seed effort will be a bit behind than the starter plants that were nurtured by indoor growers during the winter months. That's to be expected. But eventually, with time , those direct seed plants will catch up to the early starts, and by the end of the growing season, you won't be able to tell one plant from another.

This is how Venus started varieties of Black Cherry and Kelloggs Breakfast tomatoes last year: Direct Seed. The harvest came a bit later -- but the harvest did eventually come - -and it was well worth the effort.

If you can find a sunny location in your yard -- preferably cement or brick -- you too can "Direct Seed" your garden. The brick or cement surface is crucial to direct seeding efforts. Seedlings LOVE heat and lots of it. When the afternoon sunshine starts to warm those surfaces, starter plants literally jump out of those cups. Plus, the reflecting heat can also aid plant growth once a seedling has broken to the surface.

I discovered this one year -- totally by accident -- when I started tomato plants from seed for the very first time. The starter cups that I had placed on a dirt surface weren't doing nearly as well as the nearby counterparts on a brick surface. I couldn't figure out the disparity until, one day, I was required to sit on the brick. Then it hit me: HEAT.

So -- remember -- cup, soil, seed -- that's all you need!

And Happy Gardening!

The HELLO KITTY Beehive Arrives

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A deal is a deal -- and Bill Bird doesn't back down on a bargain.

In this case -- the deal is located to your immediate left. Please contain yourself. I said -- STOP LAUGHING! Are you finished? Good.

I thought you indicated you were finished?

When I first set my sights on aquiring a colony of bees or beehive, I thought this investment would mean no more than a loss of $100. Boy -- I was I off on that guess. WAY OFF. Bees aren't cheap. If you want the pleasure of your very own hive in your very own backyard, well, you're going to "pay the piper." Only, in this case, we paid the "beekeeper."

When Venus and I learned of the rather eye-popping price for acquiring a hive last March, she saw her chance for a deal and jumped right at it. I could have the bees -- no matter what the price -- as long as she got to choose the color and theme of the beehive.

I figured that was a good compromise at the time, until she informed me that she wanted to paint the hive in a shade of "Hello Kitty" pink, with "Hello Kitty" stencils to boot. The first concern that came to my mind was how badly would Bill Bird get stung from a new colony of bees who are suffering from extreme embarassment. Not many queens get to live in a Hello Kitty beehive. In fact, this is probably the first one I've ever seen.

But -- a deal's a deal -- right? And so Venus set about aquiring the right shades of pink (Shy Little Piglet) for the hive cover, hot pink for the bow plus your standard black and white colors for the Hello Kitty face.

Now, as you can probably clearly tell from the photos, neither of us have an artistic bone in our body. Before you snidely remark, "Oh REALLY?" (thanks Mr. Owl), understand that painting a Hello Kitty stencil is no easy task -- especially when you're using exterior paint on a rough, wooden surface like a beehive. Venus and I aren't very good with a paintbrush to begin with, and after four or five drinks, our painting talents decline to the level of "absolutely criminal."

A friend, who recently viewed these hive photos, went on to snidely remark: "Who painted this -- your four-year old nephew?" Gee, thanks Colleen. BTW, your free beer supply at Club Raven just dried up. How do you like them apples?

The first task was to paint the entire hive (exterior of the hive only) a shade of pink. That was easy enough. The fine folks at Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies warned us that painting the inside of the hive was not a good idea, as bees don't like the inside of a hive painted. And they would probably expend energy to chew the stuff off anyway.

We didn't want them expending energy chewing off paint. We want the queen to expend energy by laying eggs, and other bees to expend energy by pollinating crops and making HONEY! Besides, we didn't argue. That's less to paint anyway.

But, the hardest part of this project came with the stencil. First -- there are no real Hello Kitty stencils on the market. There are a few -- but those are for kids and a sheet of paper -- not for adults and a wood surface. That meant we had to make our own, which again called for "artistic talent" that we sorely lack.

Still -- as you can see in this photo -- we did acquire some plastic stenciling paper from a nearby crafts store -- and using a picture printed straight off the internet -- both Venus and I began to trace a rough outline. But that's just the first start. You need a razor blade and a steady hand to cut the stencil -- and that "steady hand" part is also quite difficult after five or six beers.

For those of you now thinking -- "why not just lay off the beer?" What are you? A Communist?

But, with stencils cut (three of them), we set about on the project to paint our "Hello Kitty" face. The face of our new hive. It actually looks a lot better from a distance -- or -- if you've had five or six beers.

It also turned out to be a slow and laborious project. Each part of the Hello Kitty face required the use of three cut-out stencils. We were required to tape the first stencil to the hive -- paint -- and then wait for it to dry. Four or five hours later -- we would remove that first stencil -- put the second one on -- and paint again. That meant another wait of four to five hours before you could remove the second stencil -- apply the third -- and paint again.

And, of course, stencils aren't perfect. Neither are we -- especially after five or six drinks. Sometimes paint runs. Sometimes it chips. Other times it just won't go where you want it to go! And then, there's the issue of paintbrushes, open cans of paint, four bratty and curious cats, stir sticks and lots and lots of paper towels for "boo-boo's" or "do overs."

To put it short and sweet, this is a project that took quite a bit of time. More time than either Venus and I thought. And this is just the first part of the project. The new colony of bees will arrive next weekend. And, although they won't immediately start producing honey, at some point, they will. And, if you want honey, that means the purchase of additional boxes called "honey supers."

That means more "Shy Little Piglet" pink -- more stencils -- more paintbrushes and more "boo-boo's."

It may be time to order another keg for the kegerator.

This hive will eventually go against a back fence (our lucky neighbors don't know about that quite yet), and hopefully the bees will do what I want them to do: pollinate trees, pollinate melon crops, heck, even help pollinate tomato plants.

This weekend's delivery should be interesting indeed. I wound up running from a solitary bee that had adopted this hive a few weeks early. It seems he didn't like me putting hive slats back into the hive, so I was strafed repeatedly. And it suddenly came to me: "if I'm running in terror from one bee, what's going to happen when I've got 1,000 or so buzzing around my head?"

Next weekend should be interesting indeed. Some please notify the nearest trauma center.

Let the Games Begin!!!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

So, what does one do during an Easter Weekend when one is confined to home with a bad case of Strep Throat?

If you're guessing that the answer is "stay home so you don't infect anyone else," good answer. I wish the person who spread this nasty little bug my way, who just might be a physician no less, had taken the same route. Unfortunately, that person didn't.

Strep, which is highly contagious by the way, meant that our plans to hold an Easter Weekend dinner for family and friends were promptly canceled. This made the wife none too happy, of course, as she had been planning an Easter egg hunt for her nieces and nephews. Instead, what she got is a weekend alone with a sick husband.

Thank goodness I have the best wife known to mankind. ;)

While the medication I'm taking is making me feel somewhat better, it is kind of frustrating. That "feeling better" part is followed by an urge to get out in the garden. But "urges" and "energy" are two different things entirely. I have plenty of "urges" to do this and that. I have the actual energy to do very little.

But -- one thing that did take place this weekend was the initial planning of the Bill & Venus Bird Tomato Garden of 2009. We didn't do everything mind you. This planting effort involved the planting of just eight starter plants -- and Venus did half of those. I barely had the energy to handle the four on my end.

But -- "in" they are. It was time. Although I had taken great pains to stake up the leggy starter plants that Fred Hoffman delivered last weekend, this just allowed them to grow even more. And grow they did. Some of the starter plants are nearly three feet in height -- half my size. Some of them, like the Bloody Butcher, actually have tomatoes on the plants. All of them were rootbound beyond belief.

In short, it was time. Time for the babies to go out to a permanent home. We're taking a bit of a chance by planting this early. Most growers normally hold back until the first weekend in May, and some even later than that. But the starter plants I have nursing for a good week just didn't have that kind of time. So, in they went.

All eight plants went into a 4X8 raised bed, made of redwood lumber that I purchased just last year. This bed held strawberry and pepper plants last season -- its first. Since I strongly believe in rotating crops from bed to bed, this year it will hold eight tomato plants, four plants per row.

Although the planter mix soil in this bed was fairly new (purchased last year from Redmond's Building Supply in North Highlands), I knew from experience that this bed would need quite a bit of compost and recharge. Much of the original soil came out with the strawberry plants, which were replanted in a nearby raised bed. Four bags of Steer Manure compost plust EarthGro planter mix were added during the recharging process, made easier by my handy-dandy Mantis Rototiller.

As you can see by the photos -- the Bloody Butcher is already throwing out tomatoes. If we're blessed with mild weather for the rest of this spring, Venus and I will be harvesting the first vine-ripened tomatoes of the season later this June.

Four plants is about all the energy I had for this project. At that point -- it was time to go back inside -- back to some fruit juices and the comfort of a nearby couch. This bout with Strep has set me behind considerably. Hopefully, with time and rest, I'll be back in the saddle again in no time flat. Perhaps next weekend. Perhaps the weekend after that.

But, please, no surprise visits between now and then. Consider the North Natomas home of Bill & Venus Bird QUARATINED until further notice. As much as people enjoy our tomato starter plants, you won't like what I'm currently spreading.

The "Secret Sauce"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I'll admit it. I love getting compliments about my tomato starter plants. I love getting questions such as "how did you do that?" It's a lot of fun to not only learn from other people, but also share that knowledge with others.

Done correctly, growing vegetable or tomato plants from seed can be a very rewarding experience. Like anything, it does take work and some dedication, but when the payoff is a vine-ripened tomato in the summer, it's worth it.

The first time I tried growing tomato plants from seed came in 2005 -- and I'll admit it -- I had a great deal of "beginner's luck." I'm still not sure what I did, but fate smiled upon me that year when I produced the most absolutely gorgeous starter plants I've ever seen. Farmer Fred Hoffman even went so far as to proclaim them as "nursery quality stuff," and I'll admit, I was pretty darn proud of my accomplishment.

But, upon trying that same feat next year, I struck out. Similar disappointments followed. For whatever reason, I simply could not produce the same kind of plants that I had produced in my very first year of growing tomato plants from seed.

Until now, that is.

I'm not really sure, again, what I'm doing right this year but I've been rewarded with starter plants that are of "nursery quality" once again. Could it be the new-fangled fertlizer mix I'm using? The mix I call the "secret sauce?"

It's not really a secret. In fact -- it's pictured to your immediate left. No it's not the kegerator. The kegerator is what produces the "secret sauce" for me (and the wife that is Venus). Nope -- the REAL "secret sauce" is what's ON the kegerator. That is a bottle of Omega 666 -- the good stuff -- purchased from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in the Nevada County hamlet of Nevada City.

I aquired this stuff completely by accident. I had intended to stop off at Eisley Nursery in Auburn, when Fred Hoffman inquired if I could buy him a bottle of Omega 666 at Peaceful Valley. And then he warned me it "wasn't cheap."

I had never heard of the stuff, but since I was going to be in the neighborhood anyway, I'd go ahead and buy it. The wife was in the market for blue and red potatoes anyway, and since Peaceful Valley stocked both varieties she was looking for, I figured I'd kill two birds with one potato.....ah.....stone.

Fred was right. The stuff isn't cheap. A one gallon bottle will set you back a cool $40 -- not including tax. But -- at the same time -- this "all organic" product intrigued me. I'd done some research before visiting Peaceful Valley, and growers just RAVED about this stuff.

I'm not one of those "all organic" growers by the way. In my book it's "whatever works." Products with the name "Ortho" stenciled on them do not scare me, nor do I think they "poison the environment." I'm always willing to try something new, so I decided to give Omega 666 a tryout in the garden.

This was one of those good calls. Combined with another powdered ingredient called "Maxicrop," all sorts of vegetables starting popping out of raised planter beds. That included potatoes, several varieties of radish seed, peas, baby bok choi, lettuce, spinach, you name it.

At that point, I decided to use a weak solution of Omega 666 on the tomato and pepper seedlings growing in a spare bedroom. I had used fish emulsion fertlizer with limited success some years earlier, so why not Omega 666?

Given a choice -- what would I use? Fish Emulsion Fertilizer or Omega 666? That's a tough call. The economical (see = CHEAP) side of me loves the $3 price for a bottle of Fish Emulsion Fertilizer. Then again, Omega 666 doesn't leave the spare bedroom smelling like DEAD FISH either. So, I think I'll choose the non-smelly, expensive stuff.

If this success keeps up, I will again produce tomato plant starters that are of "nursery quality." The plants that you see here were started from seed the weekend following the Super Bowl. I started twice-weekly feedings of Omega 666 in mid-March, soon after the seedlings were transplanted from peat moss pellets into regular starter cups.

I now have starter plants so lush and large that they're hitting the tops of my grow lights. Better yet -- they have the kind of strong and healthy stems that indoor growers pray for, but rarely see.

I don't often endorse products on this blog. And I certainly don't accept any payments. I'd be dragged before a Senate Rules Firing Squad for doing such a thing. But I will reccommend products that I think are useful. And -- for me -- this "not-so-secret-sauce" packs a punch that my garden really does like.

Monsters Move Outside

Monday, April 6, 2009

It's early April -- the warm weather is here a tad early -- and it's planting time.

Gentlemen -- Start Your Engines!

The final, and probably the most important step, in the growing from seed process has now arrived for my indoor tomato and pepper plant starters. It's time for the babies to grow up and move outside.

This happens to be the biggest source of frustration for many growers who are "sans" greenhouse. The "hardening off" process can just be maddening to go through, because you never truly know when the plants that you've been nurturing for months are finally ready for outdoor conditions.

I can tell you this much: moving indoor plants outside and leaving them there is a sure way to lose a crop. I've lost them before. This process isn't easy, nor is it scientific. You can do everything right -- that is -- by the book -- and still do something wrong.

Indoor plants are used to indoor conditions. They've had a constant source of warmth. No stiff wind to deal with. They don't deal with cold mornings or hot days. Indoor plants are accustomed to getting 12-hours of light, generous feedings of fertilizer and water and a constant temperature of 72 degrees.

Putting it short and sweet: What you've got is a bunch of spoiled brats.

Putting the babies outside -- then -- is somewhat of a shock. But you've got to do it at some point -- and by the looks of these photos -- the time has come. The plants are ready for their permanent home, but introducing them to outside conditions has to be done slowly and carefully.

The babies just spent another two hours outside this morning. And they reacted much better than yesterday, where some where wilting after just two short hours under a covered patio. They recovered soon enough and seemed to handle today's cool morning weather quite well.

Hardening off plants is a difficult thing to do if you work full-time like Venus and I. We simply do not have the hours in the day to monitor this plants. We can give them extended time -- and plenty of attention -- during the weekends. But -- during the week -- it's a short two hours in the morning and another dose of outside conditions at the end of the workday.

At some point -- probably by next weekend -- I'm going to choose one of these plants for an experiment. This will be my "Canary in a Coalmine" so to speak. If it can survive one full day and one full night outside -- in rough outdoor conditions -- then my "hardening off" procedures will have worked.

But -- if it up and dies -- I've got more work to do.

Should my "Canary in a Coalmine" survive this "final" test -- then all plants will be placed outside. But -- we're not done yet. This is yet another step. The plants will be kept under a patio cover, shielded from the harshest rays of outdoor sunlight for another four to five days. They will get limited sun in the late afternoon -- but that's a perfect introduction to outdoor conditions.

Finally, at one point in the next two weeks, the Canary in a Coalmine that survived the first full day and night outside will be placed in direct sunlight and darkness for a full 24-hours. This will be the final test.

If it lives -- congratulations son -- you just grew your own tomato garden.

The North Natomas Tomato Farm

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I bet you didn't know there was a "Tomato Farm" in the North Natomas area did you?

Neither did I. And I live in North Natomas!

Not only is there a Tomato Farm in North Natomas -- as it turns out -- it's in my backyard. As Gomer Pyle once told a non-amused Sergeant Carter, "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise."

I knew these tomato plant starters were coming. But I had no idea they were coming so soon. Coming they are -- as in tomorrow -- just in time for the weekend.

The plants come courtesy of this gentleman to your immediate left. That is Fred Hoffman -- aka -- Farmer Fred Hoffman of KFBK/KSTE radio fame. He and I both encountered enormous success in starting seeds this winter, and those planting efforts have resulted in some rather enormous monsters. The table that Fred is sitting in front of contains the entire stock of Bill & Venus Bird's North Natomas Tomato Farm -- 100 starter plants -- or as Fred calls it -- 44 square feet of "Heirloom Heaven."

Not only that -- but this is just the "first delivery." Yes -- more is to come. The pictures you see here do not contain the sixty odd tomato and pepper plant starters I have growing at home in a spare bedroom, nor does it contain the "other plants" in Fred's greenhouse. In other words -- I've been told to expect a second delivery during the third week in April.

Ain't life grand? The plants will arrive right about the same time as my bees -- but that's another story for another time.

Fred started these plants from seed about two weeks before I started mine. And you can plainly see the obvious advantage of having a greenhouse nearby. My starter plants look pretty good. But they look nothing like the monsters that are about to invade my backyard.

So -- the real question is this: What am I going to do with 100 starter plants? Plant them all? Hah! The backyard is big -- yes -- but not big enough. I posted this little problem on my Facebook Page yesterday for all to see (and laugh at), when a reporter and fellow heirloom tomato afficianado by the name of Hank Shaw picked up on it and ran the following story in today's edition of the Capitol Morning Report:

"It's time again for Bill Bird, spokesman for Sen. Sam Aanestad, to offer scores of tomato seedlings to members of the Capitol community. Some may remember the Great Seedling Massacre of a year ago, in which 150 tomato seedlings that Bird had grown mysteriously perished before the planned giveaway could happen. This time Bird has a backup. He says he struck a deal with Fred Hoffman, host of KFBK radio's garden show, to house a "few" tomato seedlings in his greenhouse. Hoffman just called Bird to tell him that he's delivering 120 seedlings this weekend, which will be combined with the 60 plants that Bird has already started in his home. Needless to say, with nearly 200 such houseguests, Bird is eager, maybe even desperate, to find takers. So, if anyone needs tomato seedlings, contact Bird to pick them up at his house in North Natomas. What varieties you ask? "Let's just say there's a lot," Bird says. The range from Brandywine to Black Krim to Pink Ping Pong to Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red (seriously). Want to see what 120 tomato seedlings looks like? Well Hoffman has posted up a video of his miniature jungle on YouTube here. Let's hope they don't whither by Sunday....Contact Bird at billbird@gmail.com.

Gee, thanks Hank -- especially about that reminder of how I singlehandedly managed to butcher (massacre is also a good word) last year's entire heirloom tomato crop after MONTHS of careful growing efforts inside. It's not like that memory is going to fade anytime soon, but thanks for the reminder pal.

I should also mention that Hank is the proud author of the wildly popular and James Beard Award nominated blog "Hunter Angler Gardener Cook." It also happens to have about twenty times the readership of my blog.

Not that I'm jealous or anything. Nooo.....

As luck would have it, the delivery of this "farm" comes on the eve of what may be the last blast of cold weather in the Sacramento area. The long range forecast looks ominous -- five or six days of rain with lows into the mid forties. I've posted before about the effects of cold weather on young tomato plants, so I'm just a tad nervous. Nothing will get planted -- yet -- but will rather go indoors. I'd rather be safe than sorry.

There's nothing quite like watching a crop go under from blight in June.

Venus and I will perhaps keep anywhere from 15-20 of these for our garden and the rest will be given away to family, friends, associates, or may just find itself mysteriously planted in the front yard of an unsuspecting neighbor.

I can just hear my neighbors now: "Hey! Where did that dang tomato plant come from?" Surprise, Surprise, Surprise...

As much as I like to complain, I must admit, this is a rather fun and exciting problem to have. Get ready growers: Heirloom tomato season is just around the corner.

Don't forget -- check out Fred Hoffman's "monster" tomato plant video here.