Emergency SURGERY for the HELLO KITTY Hive!!!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The business of bees is not as simple nor as satisfying as one might think. Venus and I have both learned a great deal ever since we purchased our first hive box and package of bees in late April.

But we still have much to learn. Our mistakes may have cost us the life of one colony. I hope not. There's still time for our hive to recover. But that's not up to us now. It's up to fate. It's up to nature. It's up to God.

I'd like to thank Howard Mann from the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association for contributing some really intense photos attached with this posting (the best you'll ever see on this blog). Howard has been nurting bees in his North Highlands backyard for darn near a decade, and is now serving as a mentor for both Venus and I.

The emergency steps we have taken in the past three weeks with Howard's help just might work. Then again, they might not. But at least I can content myself with the knowledge that I've done everything I can to save our hive.

Some of the passages in the book "First Lessons in Beekeeping" by Keith Delaplane stand out rather ominously now. I didn't initially understand the phrase: "75% of all new hives fail in the first year." I do now. That's a true statement.

The first inkling that the Hello Kitty hive was in serious trouble came three weeks ago when I finally built up enough courage to check on the progress of the Queen. It would be the first visit back inside the hive since I removed a large patch of burr comb, and suffered three stings in the process.

Although the stings didn't really hurt all that much (really, they didn't), they do serve as a warning of what can go wrong when you inspect a hive. Three stings can turn into ten rather quickly. But, if I was going to be serious about maintaining a hive in the backyard, the progress check had to be done.

What I found -- and what you see to the right -- spelled a massive jolt of trouble. Those empty combs were a massive disappointment. If you look closely, you can see a male bee -- called a drone -- emerging from his bullet-capped cell. You can also clearly see other bullet-capped cells in the same picture.

But what I should have encountered, and did not, is lots of brown, flat capped cells among the few drone cells. Those are the female worker bees, and its those bees that can mean success, or spell doom, for any beekeeper. I clearly didn't have any. I also couldn't find the queen either.

What I did find during the hive check three weeks ago is a colony severely depleted in numbers. A queenless colony. What happened to our queen? I'm not really sure. I could have accidentally killed her on the night of the previous visit, when I clearly upset the hive by removing burr comb buildup. Or, she could have abandoned the hive on her own. She also could have been killed by other workers.

Any number of things could have happened.

The picture to your left represents what I should have found when I checked the hive. It is what i was hoping to find. This is a frame from a healthy hive. All of those flat, tan colored combs belong to female workers that have yet to emerge. They will breathe new life into any colony. I had nothing like this.

As disappointed as I was by finding a near empty hive and a few bullet-shaped cappings, the news was about to get worse. Others more experienced than me at this business informed me that I might have a "laying worker" inside the hive. That's a death sentence. Laying workers cannot produce other females. They can only lay eggs that will produce male drones. Soon I would have nothing left but hive of male drones, which would eventually die off.

The next bit of advice didn't make me any happier. You cannot "re-queen" a hive that contains a laying worker. The other bees will just kill the new queen. Do you know the only proven way to rid a hive of a laying worker? Every frame of the hive must be removed from the hive -- taken a distance of 80-to-100 feet away -- and then whacked silly to dislodge every remaining bee on each of all ten frames.

The "laying worker" will not have the ability to fly back to the hive (she's too fat), and will die. At that point, you CAN reintroduce a new queen into the hive, provided all those bees you've enraged during the removal process haven't taken their own lives by stinging the intruder destroying their home.

I needed help. Help arrived in the form of Howard Mann. He offered the experienced eye that Venus and I did not have, and knew what steps needed to be taken. Time was of the essence.

The first thing that Howard discovered after closely examing the bees in the hive is that the queen was obviously gone. That, we already knew. But he also delivered some unsuspected good news: the hive did not appear to have a laying worker. There would have been some evidence of a laying worker in LOTS of bullet shaped drone cells.

But, since I only had a few drones, he deduced very quickly that I did not have a laying worker, nor a queen. Even worse, the population of the existing hive had fallen into a near-failure state. Not only would I need to add a new queen to the hive, I would be forced to add new bees as well in what is referred to as a "nuc (nuke) transfer."

A "nuc transfer" is somewhat different from purchasing a "package of bees," which is what I had initially done last April. In a "nuc transfer" several frames of existing brood and bees are removed from a successful hive and directly inserted into a failing hive (like mine).

But, successful hives are hard to find in late June. If you're a beekeeper with a successful hive, you normally resist attempts to split the hive, unless you receive indications that the successful hive is so crowded, that bees are preparing to swarm. Then, and only then, will a beekeeper with a successful hive agree to sell some frames of brood and bees.

Once again, Howard's experience paid dividends. He knew other beekeepers in the Sacramento area who had queens. He knew others that had brood they were willing to part with. And, after a few phone calls and a quick trip to Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies in downtown Sacramento, I had my new queen (pictured to your left).

Unfortunately, you can't actually see her in that cage. But, trust me, she's there. She's covered with a dot of green paint on her abdomen, which makes her extremely easy to spot.

I also managed to acquire two frames of existing brood and bees, which I immediately inserted into my hive. Do you see the tan or brown colored cappings in the middle of that frame? Each one of those combs represents a female worker bee that has yet to emerge. Those new workers, and the new queen, represent new life for the hive. If you look closely in the upper right of the photo to your right, you'll also spot the new queen in her queen cage.

We were almost there.

Inserting the new frames into an existing hive is easy enough. The old bees mix in with the new bees easily enough. The new bees are immediately accepted because they didn't try to enter the hive. I placed them there. So, to the old bees, it was like nothing had happened. The new bees just sort of magically appeared.

But -- the story was different for the hundreds of bees who were flying around the frames and their new hive. Because they failed to stay on the frames when I inserted them into the hive, they were immediately attacked the moment they tried to enter the hive through the entrance at the bottom.

The old, or existing bees, saw them as invaders. The new bees were simply trying to gain access to the frames they called home. That, unfortunately, set off a Death Match 3000 fight between old and new in front of the hive. It's a match where both bees -- old and new -- would perish. As much as I didn't like it, bees are insects. This is just something that they do.

As for the new queen? Well, she got to hang out in the new hive for a bit -- but still very much protected by her queen cage. She sat in her cage -- held aloft by two frames pressed together -- for a good 72 hours. And then, in the final move of attempting to save my hive, we removed the cork covering the entrance to the queen cage, and laid it on top of the hive.

We waited and watched.

Sure enough -- about a minute later -- the queen emerged. She paid no notice to the beekeepers fawning over her -- no worry at all. She looked about, looked down, and immediately climbed into her hive. She was accepted without question. Long live the queen.

Does this mean new life for the Hello Kitty hive? Possibly. Keep your fingers crossed. I'm hoping and praying that the new queen is laying a bundle of eggs in frame after empty frame. My hope is that when we enter the hive next, we'll see frame after frame after frame of covered brood. Should we see that -- the Hello Kitty hive has got a fighting chance.

Time will tell.

Vampires Need Not Apply

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Let's just say that the "Prince of Darkness," aka "Dracula," would have a hard time hanging out in the garage. Because, if the rumors about vampires and strong garlic really are true, the Prince of Darkness would be begging for the stake-through-the-heart treatment right about now.

The wife that is Venus is holding our latest harvest from the garden this year -- and this is another "first" for the both of us. Venus is holding onto the world's most pungent and hottest garlic known as INCHELIUM RED.

One visit into our GarageMahal would tell you that there's something very smelly going on inside there. To be perfectly honest, drying 40-50 fat bulbs of INCHELIUM RED garlic does result in quite the aroma.

But I like it.

What is INCHELIUM RED garlic? Hah! I'm glad you asked, because the fine folks at the website LocalHarvest tell us the following:

Hailing from the Colville Indian Reservation in Inchelium, Washington, this garlic is a large and beautiful artichoke variety. The dense bulb can have anywhere from 9-20 cloves and a thick outer bulb wrapper to protect the bulb. The flavor of the Inchelium Red is softly robust but not so strong as to be overwhelming; the flavor often sharpens in storage...

I disagree on one minor point: 49ers Coach Mike Singletary would like this garlic because, quite plainly, it "smacks you in the mouth." This is one good garlic.

We grew garlic and onions together in a couple of raised beds like you see in this photo. This is one of the cheap planter box creations utilizing wood, brackets and screws from the nearby North Natomas Home Depot. Like every planter box in the yard, the soil is a mix of planter mix, steer manure compost and other types of pelleted fertilzers.

Venus and I started with three simple heads of INCHELIUM RED garlic (I can't remember where we ordered it from). And the cloves from just those three heads of garlic resulted in 40-50 heads of garlic that we harvested just last weekend. When the tops and centers of the plants started to die back and whither away completely, we knew it was time to come out.

And what came out of ground, quite frankly, surprised us immensely. Big, fat, pungent, juicy heads of garlic pulled easily out of the ground. It looks like my frequent watering trips to this bed for additional irrigation paid off handsomely. I did experiment somewhat in my watering patterns this season, by soaking the garlic and onion beds with either a common garden hose on a slow drip, or gallons of water from a one gallon watering can.

The effort appears to have paid off quite handsomely. Some of these cloves are the size of baseballs. Still others are normal sized. We did pull a few small heads out of the ground, but that was not the norm.

What are we going to do with this wealth of garlic? Good question! Venus and I will save some of the largest heads for the always popular, and always in demand, Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa canning project. Still others will go into various summer meals. We will also take great pains to save six or seven heads for next year's planting efforts.

That's right, this fall, we'll plant twice as much. Why? Because, even with 40-50 heads drying away in the GarageMahal, it's still "not enough."

DILL.......LICIOUS!!!!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

My thanks to Karen at the Yahoo Group VeggiePatch for a delicious suggestion on how to best make use of some early pickling cucumbers.

Venus and I planted a LOT of pickling cucumbers this spring, in anticipation of a large canning project in another month or two. And while those plants are now starting to produce -- they're not quite producing in the numbers needed for a large 12-or-24 quart, Boiling Water Bath (BWB), canning project.

So, what does one do with the first pickling cukes that are now more than ready to come off the vine? Save them? Freeze them? Toss them? No my friends, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And that's exactly what Venus and I did, with the expert assistance of our 5-year old nephew, Marquitos Stromberg.

The answer gardening guys and gals is to your left: Three DILL....LICIOUS jars of a simple canning recipe titled Clausen Kosher Dill Pickles. This is a quick and easy canning project that takes less than 20 minutes to complete from start to finish, and utilizes everything you have growing fresh in the backyard.

For instance, the recipe called for quite a bit of fresh dill. Fresh dill weed you say? Hmm.....Not a problem. You see, Venus planted this patch of dill weed about a month ago, and it's been a big hit with bees and butterflies alike. You'll even see a hummingbird, from time to time, flitting about the flowers.

The rest of this dill, and probably a bit more than this, will be used later this summer for larger canning efforts of various types of pickles.

The recipe also called for quite a bit of fresh garlic, which was again, not a huge problem since the wife and I just last week harvested an entire crop of INCHELIUM RED garlic -- some of the hottest, tastiest garlic I've ever had.

Don't look for it in Raleys. Don't look for it in Safeway. You won't find it there. If you want INCHELIUM RED garlic, you either grow it on your own in the backyard, or if you're very lucky, you might find it somewhere in a Farmer's Market.

This is great fun for a 5-year old boy, who just loves digging about the cucumber patch in search of pickling cucumbers to be used in this project. Marquitos also loves wandering about the dill weed patch (what kid doesn't love digging in weed patches or digging anywhere for that matter?) finding just the right sprig or flower needed.

The rest of the project is fairly easy. Although you do use regular "canning" jars for a project like this, they're not really required. These are also commonly known as "refrigerator pickles." They won't keep as long as a regular canning project, but look at the jar that the nephew is proudly clutching. Do you think those will last past the 4th of July?

Nope, I didn't think so either.

And now, courtesy of the Yahoo Group VeggiePatch, I give you the recipe and instructions for and easy and simple pickling project:

Clausen Kosher Dill Pickles

Ingredients:
2 dill flowers
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1- 1/4 (8-10) pickling cucumbers
6 long spring fresh dill
1 tbsp coarse kosher salt
1/2 cup white vinegar

Put dill flowers and garlic in bottom of mason jar, and add as many cucumbers that will fit in the jar (whole cucumbers)

Put sprigs of dill in the center of the cucumber filled jar and add salt, vinegar and fill jar with boiled water that is now cool to within 1/8th of top.

Put on seal and ring, shake to dissolve salt, set upside down on counter away from sunlight and heat. Let sit 4-5 days flipping the jar either upright or upside down each day. Let sit upright 2 more days then refrigerate.

Bill's Note: I live for strong garlic taste, so I used a bit more and crushed the garlic with a garlic press directly inside the jar.

AZOYCHKA!!! Tastes Like BACON!!!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This is quickly becoming one of my favorite tomato varieties. First off, I just love the name: AZOYCHKA!!! It just sort of rolls off the tongue -- with excitement. What does it mean? I dunno. Think I'm smart? You've come to the WRONG place!

But it is one fine, lip-smacking tomato. One of the best I've ever had. And last night's harvest of three VEEERRRRYYY ripe Azoychka tomatoes came as a complete surprise.

This is happening a lot in our garden, and will continue to happen for the rest of the summer.

These tomatoes were located near the center of the raised bed and had been completed covered with foilage -- foilage that was starting to turn yellow in color by the way --which is why I missed them (the tomatoes are yellow too).

I did spot these tomatoes very early on in the growth process -- in late April -- and thought I had located them again. Alas, it was the wrong three tomato set. And while I was waiting for the wrong three tomato set to ripen -- these three had already ripened and were just waiting to be discovered.

Yeah, they were that ripe, that juicy, that GOOD!

The Azoychka is an heirloom, but is also a relatively new tomato to the United States. As you might guess, it is Russian. But the seeds of this variety, like many others from Eastern Europe, didn't start to show up in large numbers until the Wall fell and the Soviet Union bit the dust.

It has a creamy -- somewhat smoky taste. In my opinion? The Azoychka tastes like BACON! It's the perfect variety to use on a BLT -- or top on a burger. Others who are growing this variety haven't picked up on the bacon-type taste, but do agree that is has a smoky flavor that makes it very special.

It's a unique addition to the heirloom tomato garden of Bill & Venus Bird, and judging from the fruit set so far, it's going to be providing ripe, tasty fruit throughout the summer months.

Heirloom tomato season is here at last.

And the Home Depot Gift Card Winner IS!!!!!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

And Virginia Taylor from Letcher, South Dakota is our LUCKY WINNER. She wins a Home Depot gift card in the amount of $100 for anything she wants.

Virginia's response was "Gosh, I never win anything."

Not this time Virginia.

Virginia is a regular poster at a Yahoo Group that I frequent from time to time (OK -- all the time) called TomatoMania. There's close to two thousand tomatomaniacs over there, posting all things about tomatoes -- especially HEIRLOOM Tomatoes. If you love tomatoes as much as I do, I urge you to join.

My thanks to everyone who entered! I wish you could all be winners, but there's just one card, and the wonderful wife that is Venus picked Virginia's name out of a bowl.

Yeah, this was one scientific contest. And, yes, Venus did have her eyes closed.

Congrats everyone! Thanks for taking part!

An Offer You Can't Refuse From The Man's Toy Store!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I'll be honest. I often think of this place as "my second home." If it's the weekend and the sun is out, you'll probably find me milling around somewhere in the North Natomas Home Depot.

Heck, I'm there so much that most of the employees know me by name. Now that's bad.

Are you addicted to this place as much as I am? Do you find yourself going into the Home Depot with a suit and tie on during the work week just so you can get a jump start on that weekend project? Could you shop the drip irrigation section blindfolded? Do you know more about what they stock at your local Home Depot than the hired help?

If you answer yes to all three questions, there's no denying the truth: you're just as addicted to this place as I am.

The fine folks at the Home Depot want to reward you for your customer loyalty in the form of a $100 gift card. Could you spend $100 at Home Depot in five seconds? You've come to the right place, because the blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening is presenting an offer that you can't refuse.

Are you ready to win?

Here's the catch: No money is required. However, you must do two things for me. First, you must click on this very special link HERE. Secondly, you must leave a comment at the bottom of this blog telling the fine folks at the Man's Toy Store why YOU deserve a $100 gift card. The link will take you to the Home Depot Garden Club, where you will find all sorts of useful ideas for the yard.

Am I shilling for Home Depot? You Betcha! Am I getting paid? NOPE! I love this store THAT much, even though the North Natomas branch will ANNOY me to no end by refusing to stock simple items like the Phillips Pan Head 10 X 1/2 metal screws in packages of 100 or more (I hope someone from the North Natomas store is reading this).

Those screws, you see, are essential for building planter boxes pictured to your immediate left. I have about ten of these in the yard now -- set against the fence line. Everything in this box, from the wood to the screws to the drip irrigation to the soil -- came directly from Home Depot. They even cut the wood for me! You can read more about these easy-to-build planter boxes here.

Home Depot is also one of the best places I've found to purchase soil amendments for raised planter boxes. I learned, from experience, last year that brand new planter mix for planter boxes isn't going to cut it. That soil might be brand new, but it still needs various amendments like a bag or three of steer manure compost purchased from the Home Depot for a buck a bag.

Venus and I amended each and every planter box in the backyard this spring, including a test bed in the side yard, using about 40 bags of steer manure compost. Yes, you can say that gardening "smells." It also results in whopper sized tomatoes, radishes and other good stuff from the garden.

So, if you think you're the one for that $100 Home Depot gift card, remember, click on this LINK. Then, leave a comment at the bottom of this blog. You must do both. And, by clicking on this LINK, you can also get valuable information about your region, gardening advice from pros and updates on local gardening events.

The wonderful wife that is Venus will draw the winner on Monday. Good luck!!!

The Garden Produces a Dinner

Friday, June 19, 2009

It's getting to be that time of year for many gardening addicts in Northern California. It's that time where you've tended the garden so much, that it now starts to tend to YOU.


Last night, our garden provided this dinner for us. It's the first full dinner of the summer season using summer produce, but obviously not the last.

Every item in this stir-fry dinner, with the exception of the chicken of course, came fresh-picked from the garden. What you see to your left is the result of hours of work, hours of planting, hours of tending and about ten minutes worth of harvesting.

Venus celebrated her birthday this past evening -- and rather than go out -- her birthday wish was for a green curry dish utilizing everything fresh from the backyard garden. We also could have used tomatoes, but green curry and tomatoes just don't mix.

Not many asian dishes use tomatoes as a featured item. I'm told, by one friend who grew up in Vietnam, that tomatoes do not grow well in southeast Asia, therefore they are not a staple of the local diet.

Cooking a green curry dish like this one is always an adventure. This one was no different. First off, Venus and I aren't quite good enough yet to make our own green curry mixture. So, we rely on the pre-mixed Mai Ploy brand (one of the best) and some coconut milk to get the job done.

Why is this such an adventure? Well -- one look at this VERY blurry photo to your right will tell half the story. And you run into this kind of roadblock quite often whenever you attempt to re-create a dish from your favorite Thai or Vietnamese restaurant.

I always want to know how much of a particular spice or mixed spices I should use in any creation, so I always rely on the "serving suggestion" advice that is posted on most jars. True enough, there are the words clearly printed in English: Serving Suggestion.

Unfortunately, the suggestions are all in Vietnamese.

I may be a good cook, but I haven't gotten around to learning Vietnamese quite yet. Sadly, the wife hasn't yet either. She does trump me on foriegn languages though, as she CAN read, write and speak Spanish.

But, even Spanish fluency doesn't mean you can translate instructions printed in Vietnamese. Sorry, but we were out luck.

No matter. This is what guessing is for. The dinner is all about the fresh ingredients, not the green curry.

The greens in this fabulous bowl include a couple of bell peppers chopped into bite sized chunks, some very large bush beans (including a variety that is quickly becoming one of my favorites: Dragon's Tongue), some Bok Choy, freshly harvested basil and a GINORMOUS Asian Eggplant.


I'm normally not a huge fan of eggplant. I can take it or leave it on the vegetable front. I'm just not wild about it. BUT -- put some eggplant in a Thai or Vietnamese dish? Suddenly, I can't get enough of the stuff. There's something about eggplant drowning in a dish of green or red curry that brings out a special kind of taste.

To put it short and sweet, everything in last night's dinner was a favorite from the garden. Although the peppers are still probably another month away from peak production, the same cannot be said about the bush beans. These things grow overnight.

This is our first year growing bush beans. I've been told that they are not as productive as pole beans. But, whomever told me that must be a liar, because we suddenly have far more bush beans than we know what to do with. I'm almost afraid to go home tonight, because I might be attacked by a bush bean.

These things are prolific.

Although Venus would have no problem with a meatless stir-fry -- I still haven't reached that stage of vegetarian nirvana. I may never get there. And before you criticize, remember this: My diet once consisted of Western Bacon Cheeseburgers, french fries and a large coke -- supersized at that. So, believe me, I'm doing a lot better in my mid 40's with boneless, skinless, chicken breasts.

Meal prep is the hardest part of this creation. Once everything is chopped up and mixed, you can cook everything up with a nice side of rice in 15 minutes or less. And, yes, because we experimented with the green curry, the meal did come out a TAD HOT.

Just a tad though. Do you know what the nice thing about eating hot meals is? It takes awhile to eat. And you get full -- which means you wind up eating a lot less.

Not to worry though. This fresh-from-the-garden creation made for a tasty lunch the very next day.

Sugar Water and Digital Cameras Do Not Mix

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's quite possible that many of you well retort, "well, no DUH" to the warning that you should never spray equal mixtures of sugar and water on a digital camera.

After doing this during a check of the beehive this weekend (you spray sugar water to keep the bees from flying up and biting you in the keester), I had a digital camera covered with sugary, sticky, GOO!

"No problem," I thought. "I'll just wash it off with some warm water, and everything will be cool!" It was only after washing, did the following question cross my mind: "Hey, are these things waterproof?"

Nope! Now the camera is taking great shots that look like a thick fog bank, and little else. This is why you're getting FABULOUS photos taken with my handy-dandy Samsung phone!

I'm getting just a tad tired of the cool weather that's been overstaying it's welcome in the Sacramento Valley. Yes, I know this cooler weather is causing tomato plants to fruit like nobody's business. I understand that a lot of us have plants loaded with tomatoes. That's good.

But, at some point, you've just gotta have the heat to make a summer garden produce. Tomatoes might be fruiting, but without heat, they're not going to ripen in large numbers. The strawberries will be good, yes, but not quite as good, and the melon plants are anything but happy.

But, one crop starting to produce in fairly large numbers now are the bush beans that Venus planted from seed about a month ago in one of the raised beds. We tried growing these last year, and I'm sad to report that we were the only gardeners on the West Coast who FAILED to grow bush beans.

How can you screw up bush beans? I'm not sure, but Bill and Venus Bird are living proof that "you can."

But that was last year. This year is somewhat different. The beans you see to your left came out of the garden just last night, and made for a tasty side dish to the main, extremely high-class, meal of "Beer Can Chicken."

These things grow fast. I mean, real fast. How fast you say? It's almost like one minute there's nothing there, and the next time you look at the same spot, you've got loads of bush beans.

My early favorite is the "Dragon's Tongue" bush bean. I mean, how can you not like something out of your favorite nightmare? The redish-streaked beans are also easy to spot, which is both good and bad. Why bad? As it turns out, honeybees are attrached to bush bean flowers. And, if you grab a handful of beans, chances are, you've also grabbed a bee or a small army of them.

Ouch.

The bush-bean "haul," our first by the way, also included the standard Italian bean, and two more varieties called "Cherokee" and "Hurricane." This is just a start, of course. The bush beans are now just starting to produce. And soon, the pole beans planted nearby will star producing record numbers as well.

At least, that's the hope. The goal is to can these suckers for later use this winter. I've had more than one person tell me about fist-fights that have erupted over a jar of pickled bush or pole beans.

Time will tell.

The garden is still throwing out lots of interesting produce, including a few tomatoes, but these have been overshadowed recently by the radish discoveries the wife has been making on a daily basis. Last week she pulled up a pink radish the size of a baseball.

This weekend she pulled out two white radishes that, while not quite baseball sized, still managed to raise a few eyebrows. I'm not exactly sure what the wife is doing to that radish and chard seed, but I know this much: I can't argue with the results.

Pray for my crummy digital camera. I might be forced to run out and buy another crummy one. Why not invest in something good? Something that will take decent pictures? Yeah, I could do that. But I know better. Bill Bird is the proverbial bull in a china shop.

In other words, I'll just break it.

A Tasty Tomato Snack

Thursday, June 11, 2009

It's surprising what discoveries can be made during an early morning or early evening walk through ye olde vegetable garden.

For instance? I keep waiting, patiently, for three Azoychka tomatoes to turn yellow. They are three of the largest tomatoes I have in the garden. And they stubbornly remain GREEN -- as do about four or five other Lemon Boy tomatoes.

Not that I'm complaining. I am getting surprise production out of the red tomato varieties. In fact, because I was concentrating so hard on the Azoychka, I completely MISSED the Cosmonaut Volkov that was turning ripe right before my very eyes.

The Cosmonaut Volkov, plus a Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red, became part of a tasty tomato snack that Venus and I enjoyed before dinner on Tuesday night. I cut these tomatoes into quarters, douse them with red wine vinegar, dust them with salt and pepper and finally finish the seasoning off with a coating of dried oregano flakes.

Yuuuuum! Tasty.

I also find it somewhat surprising how common red varieties of tomatoes can have a dramatically different taste. The Cosmonaut Volkov has a rather mellow taste to it, while the Rowdy Red is tart, sweet and acidic at the same time.

The Volkov, as you might be able to deduce, is a relatively new variety that was developed in Russia. The Rowdy Red was developed closer to home, by a UC Davis breeder, according to Gary Ibsen of "Tomatofest" fame. The following is from his website:

The seeds of "Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red" came from Archie Millett, a tomato breeder with the University of California at Davis since the early 50's. Following years of crossing thousands of tomato varieties at the university to produce a disease resistant tomato with intense flavor, Archie retired in '87 and continued cross breeding his favorite tomatoes to further enhance the flavor qualities of his favorite tomato from his small home garden.

One day while visiting Archie in his garden he gave me these seeds by pressing them into my palm and said, "Here, Gary, these are for you. I've only shared these with friends and family. This is the best tasting tomato of my 50 years of growing tomatoes. Name it what you want. Share it with others."

...wanting to give this special tomato a boost into recognition and acknowledge Clint, I asked Clint's permission, to name it, "Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red," after Rowdy Yates, the character played by Clint in his old television series Rawhide." Clint replied, "Sure, Gary, name it whatever you want."

Thus, a new tomato "star" of the garden was born.

Reviews on the Rowdy Red have been mixed at best. The plant peforms best here, close to where it was developed. It has not done as well in other gardens in areas across the country. It is growing well in my garden, and I understand it is growing well in other local gardens as well.

You're My Favorite Mistake...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


With all due apologies to Cheryl Crow, I think she wrote "My Favorite Mistake" on my behalf. Why? Because no matter how much I learn when it comes to gardening and landscaping, I keep on making: My Favorite Mistake.

This weekend was a real doozy.

PVC Drip Line Anchored to Fence

My father-in-law, many years ago, taught me a rather unique and ingenious way of running drip irrigation line to meet my watering needs. Rather than bury the drip line, as many landscapers will do, he would run it around the back fence, using a series of clamps to hold it against the fence board.

That line, would then be covered with decorative rock or bark when the final landscaping finishes were added and VoilĂ !!! No more drip line. The decorative rock or bark covered it completely! Plus, if you ever needed to add to it, or run another line, you weren't required to dig through layers of mud to find it.

Ingenious! I've used variations of the father-in-law's invention (he's a retired rocket scientist doncha know), with all of my landscaping efforts since. And, for the most part, it's worked wonders.

But, with the larger yard, I ran into a bit of a problem that I wasn't expecting. I have a fenceline that runs some 450 feet. I knew that I would need at least two drip systems, and installed both during initial landscaping efforts two years ago. But little did I realize that stretching a drip line more than 450 feet would result in a drastic drop in pressure at the end of the line.

Two years later -- I learned the hard lesson. No matter how great the water pressure is at the source (beginning) of a drip line, it's going to drop as irrigation water traverses the length of a drip line. And, at 450 feet, what was coming out at the end wasn't nearly enough to provide for my watering needs.

New Valve for the Bird Back 40
But there was a solution! Yes indeed! If I were to locate and hack into the "PVC Hot Line" that I installed first years earlier, then I would be able to install a NEW valve, with NEW and IMPROVED water pressure right where I needed it! There's a picture of that new valve to your immediate right. I already had the parts on-hand from previous landscaping projects, so why not put those extra parts to good use?

Problem solved!

Or so I thought.

Hot Line and Manifold Done Right (not by me)
The "PVC Hot Line" is the first, initial line that I install to bring water into the backyard. Most "hot lines" end at a row of irrigation valves, which is also referred to as a Manifold. The individual valves that make up the manifold then run water to different parts of a common backyard and serve as either sprinklers for the lawn or drip systems for vegetable and flower gardening.

But, in my case, I extend the PVC Hot Line past the manifold and run it through the yard. Why? For one, you just might need to hack into it someday. Secondly, bringing the "hot line" into the yard allows you to install as many water faucets against the fence as you need. You can never have enough faucets or hose bibs in my opinion. In my case, I set up four of them -- one for each section of the yard.

So, installing a new drip valve on the existing Hot Line should be as easy as locating the line that I installed next to the fence and then buried two years ago, right?

Yeah, um.....

I knew I was going to face one eensy, teensy, little problem. I knew that I had buried more than one PVC line along with the Hot Line. In some cases, the lines were marked. In some cases, they weren't. And when I located and uncovered these buried, hidden lines, I'd dug into a section where the lines had NOT BEEN MARKED.

There were two lines. One was the Hot Line. Another line served a large, raised planter bed on the other side of the yard. But which was which? I needed to break into the Hot Line ONLY -- not the PVC line that served the large, raised bed on the other side of the bed.

Have you ever seen those movies where the "star" is confronted with the task of cutting a wire to a nuclear device that is about to explode? And it always seems like there are two or three wires to choose from? In every single movie I have seen this plot played out (think Ed Harris in "The Abyss"), our hero ALWAYS manages to cut the RIGHT wire -- saving the world from nuclear destruction.

ALWAYS!

BOOM! I Cut the WRONG Line!
Let's just say -- had the situation I faced this past weekend been a nuclear device -- anyone living within 150 miles of North Natomas would be nothing more than atom particles.

That's right. I cut the wrong line. And here it is for you to gawk and laugh at. A big hole in a line that had NOTHING to do with what I was trying to accomplish.

Well, at least I knew where the Hot Line was.

But, all thoughts of cutting into the Hot Line to install the new drip irrigation valve suddenly vanished. The "improvement project" you were working on suddenly became an immediate repair project. Fortunately, I
Time Out for Emergency PVC Repair Job
had the connector I needed on hand to repair this mistake in judgement.

But, I had one and ONLY one. Screw it up -- and it's off to Home Depot for another.

My luck suddenly changed. I didn't screw this one up. And I did move onto the "improvement project" once the "emergency repair project" was completed. I managed to cut into the right line (this time). I managed to install the PVC T connector I would need without cracking the Hot Line, which was another huge accomplishment.

Hacking Done the Right Way
From that point on -- the project went as smoothly as it could possibly go. Of course, it got a lot easier. You weren't dealing with buried lines anymore. The only requirement was to make the right cuts, apply primer and glue to the correct places, apply the correct pressure, and the project of installing a new drip irrigation line was finished.

But that's not the best part. There is a satisfaction to "correcting" mistakes and completing a project to be sure, but the real satisfaction comes from testing your work. You can't bury those lines without a pressure check first.

New Drip Line Partially Installed
There are two things that can happen during a pressure check. It can work as intended -- or your entire project can blow apart in a massive shower of water explosion titled "FAIL....."

"My Favorite Mistake" was not to repeat itself. I didn't "FAIL." Not only did the line hold up to the pressure, it also worked better than expected.

The areas of the yard that had been suffering from a lack of irrigation water are suffering no more.

Hopefully, this will result in softball sized O'Henry Peaches later this summer.

Time will tell.

The Radish that SWALLOWED Natomas!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I thought this second Sunday post was going to be about tomatoes. Little did I know.

I was going to brag you know -- about pulling FOUR ripe tomatoes out of ye olde tomato garden, including the likes of a Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red (it was begging to be picked), a Druzba and two more Bloody Butchers.

But -- as it turns out -- a common red radish stole the show. Here are the tomatoes to your left. No, we did not run out to the store and buy them (as some have alleged). Those are vine-ripened, heirloom tomatoes. Each and every one. I have never in my life witnessed heirlooms ripen before any other variety, including cherry tomatoes, but this is one heck of a strange year.

Not that I'm complaining. I'll take vine-ripened or tree-ripened anything, any day of the week. But, as good as the tomatoes will be for dinner tonight -- the star of the show isn't tomatoes.

It's the radish that swallowed Natomas.

Venus and I were out harvesting greens for dinner, plus radishes and tomatoes, when she discovered a whopper growing near the back of the garden. This was totally unexpected. This radish has been in the ground for the exact same time as the other, normal sized radishes. It's not woody. It's not old. It's just a baseball sized radish.

Quite frankly, I've never seen a radish quite this big before. Don't get me wrong. We've pulled some whoppers from the garden before. But a radish the size of a baseball? Planted at the exact same time as the normal sized radishes?

That's a first, for both of us.

The garden will contribute quite a bit to tonight's dinner. The fresh greens, tomatoes and radishes will make one whopper of a salad. The potatoes we pulled out of the potato bed will be tossed with oil and other seasonings -- making for a nice potato dish.

The London Broil steak that would normally be the star of tonight's barbeque? Eh -- I can take it or leave it.

I have the radish that swallowed Natomas.

Bee Food!!!

When life gives you lemons.....

This is the sad state of Bill & Venus' Artichoke Garden I'm sad to say. The patch of dirt that had been yielding delicious offerings of nightly artichokes looks dried out and sad at the moment. This is the way it always looks at the end of the season I must admit. It's just that -- thanks to some unseasonably hot weather in April and May -- artichoke season came to a close a tad early this year.

It's also painfully clear, judging from the purple artichoke flowers, that we should have given away far more than we did. Although one of the plants is an ornamental, there are probably another 20 artichokes that could have been steamed and then consumed by a lucky neighbor/friend.

Alas, a missed opportunity. These chokes are nothing more than a good flower show now.

But wait!

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

It has been the source of mock disgust, of course, to watch the bees I acquired to pollinate MY garden, fly over the fence to pollinate the NEIGHBOR'S garden. Bees, of course, have no respect for property lines. The hive may be in my yard, and I may feed them generous helpings of sugar water, but bees are bees. If they find a source of pollen somewhere else -- that's where bees go.

So, for the past month, I've been watching my bees take flight out of the hive, only to fly over the fence. I have witnessed this day after day after day, even though my yard is populated with plenty of flowers and pollen. Apparently, there's better stuff to be had somewhere else.

But, when I noticed the artichokes start to flower, I also noticed they were thick with a white pollen. Each purple stem was coated with enough pollen to sustain five colonies of bees, and sure enough, it appears to be to my hive's liking.

And not just my hive either. Each artichoke flower is covered with bees, hornets and even a massive leaf-cutter bee that appears big enough to eat one or all four of my cats. I know leaf cutter bees are large -- but battleship large?

Oh well, beggars can't be choosers I suppose.

The photos from my ultra-cheap digital camera don't do a whole lot of justice -- I know. But trust me when I tell you that each artichoke flower is covered with a multitude of bees. Not only that -- I can also see the line of flight between the hive in my yard and the bees that are making a beeline for the for the artichoke bed.

I hesitate to call them "my bees" because bees belong to themselves. They're just hanging out in the yard.

But -- for now? I have a sense of pride and accomplishment. The artichoke bed that gave us more artichokes than we could possibly handle earlier this spring, is now supporting a wide variety of nature's creatures.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monsters in the Backyard

Friday, June 5, 2009

We are growing monsters in the backyard.

This is a first for us -- in fact this year represents a year of many firsts for us -- as our garden plantings literally tripled from last year. A combination of raised beds and other planting areas made for a lot of extra room -- and we're making good use of it.

For example, last year I grew a variety of watermelon called the Sweet Diane. But this year? Thanks to the extra room? We are growing THREE varieties of watermelon, one variety of cantaloupe and yet another melon called "muskmellon."

What's a muskmellon you ask? I have no idea. Never had a muskmellon. At least, I don't think I've ever had a muskmellon. Perhaps they're like Snozberries? And, if you don't know what a Snozberry is, I'm sorry -- you're beyond hope.

Another new entry in the Back 40 Garden of Bill & Venus Bird is (drum roll please): Pumpkins. Not just any pumpkin mind you. Oh yeah, we're growing those as well.

But.....We're also growing something kind of "special."

It's big.

Courtesy of South Natomas gardener Nels Christenson, I give you: GIANT PUMPKINS. Not just any old pumpkin mind you. But seeds that are specifically designed to produce pumpkins the size of a VW Bug. Or, at least that's what I'm told. I'm not really sure to be honest. I mean, I've never grown a Giant Pumpkin before. Have you?

Nels obtained the seeds last summer while attending a class on -- surprise -- growing Giant Pumpkins. The class, offered through the Consumnes Community Service District, not only offered tips on growing giant pumpkins (according to Nels), but also resulted in the collection of some mighty interesting pumpkin seed.

This isn't your ordinary Halloween pumpkin seed. Not hardly. The two varieties that Nels acquired are called Wallace, and another variety that may be local to the Elk Grove area: Urena-Glasier.

How special is this seed? The photo to your immediate right should give you a pretty good indication. There are two pumpkin starters that germinated from seed. The first, purchased from Lockhart Seed in Stockton, is a variety called the "Hallow-Queen." But to the left of the Hallow-Queen is the Giant Pumpkin known as Wallace.

Can you see the difference between the two? Amazing eh?

I had intended to research both varieties of Giant Pumpkin Seed before writing this blog posting, but that's just a tad difficult. Type in the words "Urena" and "Glasier" and even the reliable GOOGLE has a brain fart. Try typing in the terms "Urena" and "Glasier" and "pumpkin" and Google returns with the message of "No Habla Ingles."

I knew that couldn't be true.

To put it short and sweet, finding information about these varieties isn't easy. However, I did run across a website called Pumpkin Nook during my quest for answers, and that took me to a special page called the 1100 Club.

It was there where I discovered the names of Elk Grove pumpkin growers Leonardo Urena and Pete Glasier. Both are record holding GIANT pumpkin growers (Urena clocked in with a 1200 lb. giant in 2005, while Glasier contributed an equally impressive 1195 lb. monster).

By putting two and two together, I can only surmise that somehow Nels got his hands on seed from those record pumpkin growing efforts. It's just a guess, of course, but it's the best guess I can make.

The Wallace, however, appears to have a completely different parentage. Google shoots back with a picture of a kilt-wearing Mel Gibson when you query "Wallace." It's not the Wallace I was looking for to be honest, but I came to learn that it is the "pollinator" I will need for growing Giant Pumpkins.

Further research shows me, what I am probably growing in the Back 40, is, in some way, related to the Dills Atlantic Giant, which is billed as the "World's Largest Pumpkin Variety" (just ask them).

This MONSTER variety, as the website claims, "is the grand-daddy of all giant pumpkins. The present day record, for this variety is an amazing 1689 lbs (767.7 kg) and it is common for the variety to produce 400- 500 pound (180-230 kg) fruit consistently. Used mainly for fall fairs and International pumpkin competitions that are becoming increasingly more popular around the world. Also perfect for huge jack o'lanterns and fall displays!"

I'm still not sure why I'm growing Monsters in the backyard yet, but it's true that I'm one of the few backyard gardeners in the Sacramento area to actually have the required room. So why not give it a shot? Why not do my best to grow the biggest pumpkin I've ever seen in my lifetime?

Just one question?

How am I going to get it out of the backyard?