The North Natomas "Volunteer"

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Weird and Strange things are taking place in the Backyard of Bird this summer gardening season.

I've alluded to them in a few other posts. Some "mysteries" are unfolding before our very eyes and -- quite frankly -- they are hard to explain.

Case in point -- that tomato plant to your left.

It shouldn't be there. It shouldn't be growing. Yet -- as the photo clearly shows -- not only is it THERE -- it's also growing like nobody's business.

My friends -- this is what we call a "Tomato Volunteer." This isn't the first year for them, by the way. The've popped up in my raised beds from the past -- most likely from cherry tomatoes that dropped to the ground for one reason or another (I didn't get to them or some bird got to them first).

But this is the first volunteer to pop out of the clay muck soil that makes up much of the backyard. And -- not just pop up -- but grow like it's got the best soil conditions in the universe. That's why I say -- this should not be happening. Venus and I are blessed with the worst soil known to mankind.

The Sacramento River -- long ago -- overran its banks into the Natomas basin. Whatever good, loamy topsoil we had in the Natomas basin was long ago stolen by river flooding and washed south into the Delta. You've heard about the good soil in the Delta? Well it's MINE! And I want it BACK!

Of course, I'm not getting it back. Which means I'm stuck with the worst clay hardpan known to mankind. It's as hard as a rock during the summer, and turns into a muddy, quicksandish SLOP during the winter. What is it good for? NOTHING! It's a "good for nothing soil!" You wouldn't even want to suffer the indignity of being BURIED in this soil. Nothing -- I mean NOTHING -- grows well in this hardpan except for WEEDS.

But now I have this. This thing. This plant. This tomato plant volunteer that not only sprung up in the worst soil known to mankind -- HECK -- IT LOVES THE STUFF. Clay hardpan? WHO CARES? This plant appears ready to grow in a vat of wet or hard cement, which is exactly what I got.

I spotted this thing last May and was actually quite amused. I wondered how long the poor thing would probably last. It had the worst soil and NO water source whatsoever. I gave it a lifespan of two weeks at the most.

What is it now? August? Near August? This FREAK of nature lives. Not only does it live -- it's got tomatoes all over it.

How? What? When? Where? Who? I feel like I'm in damn journalism school all over again!

But -- even more intriguing -- is this plant may have a rather *sordid* history behind it. I'm not sure yet. This could be one of several tomato varieties that I grew last year. Why? I had a late run of Blossom End Rot (BER) last August. A lot of the soiled and spoiled tomatoes got tossed into the exact area of where this plant rooted, and is now growing like gangbusters. It's most certainly one of those tomato varieties.

But which one? I can't tell yet -- although you can clearly see to your left that one of these tomatoes is now ripening. I'll have a pretty good idea in a couple of weeks just exactly what this plant is -- and I'm hoping that it's the plant I'm thinking of -- because it deserves to be saved.

There's a story behind this tomato. It's not a good story mind you. Even worse -- it's a BAD STORY. A true story? Yes, indeed. But a bad story just the same. Should this variety turn out to be the variety that I strongly suspect -- well -- it already has a name.

EVIL SEED

Yeah -- that's right: Evil Seed. The story behind this tomato? It's almost as good as the tomato itself. While it certainly does have another name -- I'll never know for sure what it is. Therefore -- because it's murky history and its cheating ways -- it gets a new name. Time will tell.

Through observation -- I can tell you what it's not. It's not a Brandywine. It's not a Pruden's Purple. Both of those are potato-leafed heirloom plants. This is not a potato-leaf -- so rule those two out. It's not a paste variety either, because the tomatoes on this plant are round. So, cross out the three paste tomatoes I had growing in the garden last year.

And then -- there's also the distinct possibility that some wayward bird flew into my backyard earlier this spring and made that special kind of "deposit" that only birds can make. This is unlikely, but you can't rule it out either.

I'm hoping for "Evil Seed." Stay tuned. Time will tell. Seeds -- and the story that goes with them -- will also be offered to interested growers -- PROVIDED -- this is THAT tomato.

What a story indeed.

UPDATE: SATURDAY, AUGUST 1ST:

Upon returning home tonight after a day full of activities, it became apparent that the one tomato nearing harvest? Well, it had fully colored up. It was time. And Venus and I both thought: "no time like the present."

Unfortunately -- from the moment I touched it -- I knew something was wrong. It was soft. TOO SOFT. Unfortunately, it must've split about a week ago (I didn't see the split), and some sort of white fungus was growing in the cracks where it had split open.

It was spoiled. Yes -- spoiled. But not spoiled enough. As Venus and I stared at this tomato -- we both knew in an instant. This was no cross. This is THAT tomato!!! It was black in color and the same shape and size as the mystery black tomatoes I grew last summer.

Make no doubt about it. The EVIL SEED lives. Although the tomato was too far gone for eating purposes -- it was fine for seeding. And we did just that. And this was one SEEDY tomato. Evil Seed indeed. It's living up to its name!

Seeds will be offered to a few lucky folks later this winter. I know I won't have nearly enough for demand -- but I'll do my best.

That Lady Must Read Minds!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Exactly one day after I post a blog entry about processing and canning tomatoes -- what happens?

Debbie Arrington runs a story in the Sacramento Bee about? Processing and canning tomatoes.

She must have read my mind!

It's good stuff and good information if you want to get started this summer on large-scale canning projects.

You can find Debbie's article, "A Jar Full of Summer," here.

Heirloom Eruption

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I knew this moment was coming. I knew it. Every morning and every evening as I surveyed the four heirloom tomato beds, I knew those plants were going to literally explode with so much production that Venus and I couldn't possibly handle the entire load.

Yeah, it exploded alright.

The signs came early this year. You could see it. Heirloom fruit forming on tomato plants barely a foot high? Plants literally jumping out of the garden beds? Surprise formations of tomatoes? Surprise plants? Volunteer plants springing up out of hard clay hardpan, loaded with tomatoes?

The picture to your left is the result. And that's not all. There were two more harvests just like the one to your left this past weekend. It was time. The tomatoes had to come off NOW. And it was more -- far far more -- than I ever expected.

I hope and pray that every heirloom grower gets to experience the type of year that Venus and I are enjoying now. I'll be honest. It's been a long wait for us. Heirloom tomato plants are tricky creatures indeed. They'll give and give and give one year -- then break your heart into tiny pieces the next. What grows like a weed one year -- suddenly won't grow at all the following year.

Yeah, heirlooms are like that.

But it's well worth it when you have harvests like the one to your right. I can't even begin to tell you how many pounds of ripe heirloom tomatoes we harvested last weekend. I can tell you that most of the production came from just 16 of our 38 plants that are located in two out of the four beds currently planted with tomatoes. They were the first two beds that Venus and I planted in early April. And they nearly died of shock that first week because Bill Bird got a little, umm, too excited with fertilization (yes, you can overdo it).

While harvesting an heirloom tomato plant like Druzba, Cosmonaut Volkov, Lemon Boy and so many others can be an exhiliarating experience, it's also frustrating and tiring. Why? Because you can only see what is on the outside of the tomato plant in question. It's only when you pick those ripened outside tomatoes, do you get a glance of the inside.

What a glance. If we picked one tomato, we spotted two more. Not a problem. But -- after picking those next two -- you came to discover that they were hiding four more ripened tomatoes. And when you picked those four? More ripened tomatoes.

Get the idea? It's work! And with every ripened tomato harvested comes this simple question:

"What am I going to do with all of these?"

Of course, you want to document the "special tomatoes." That one-pound Brandywine to your left? Check! Never grown anything that size before. What about that odd-shaped Zapotec Pleated bent at a crazy 90-degree angle? Check! And that Campbell's 1327 which appears to have some sort of pencil-like creature growing out of the side?

Venus liked that one. Suffice to say, I'll say no more on this subject.

The wife and I started canning on a large scale effort last year when the garden produced a bumper crop of late fall tomatoes. I imagine that this year's plantings will probably produce a bumper crop as well, if this July harvest is any indication. But we were well prepared this time. We even went so far as to purchase a 16-quart pot from Bed, Bath and Beyond for our upcoming canning efforts.

The canning projects in question: Our famous and always in demand "Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa" and whole tomatoes for winter cooking projects. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of popping open a jar of your own heirloom tomatoes during the DEAD of winter -- and having that freshly-harvested heirloom tomato smell smack you right in the nostrils.

That's exactly what you get with home canning efforts. From pickles to tomatoes -- there's just something special about opening a jar of something that you and the wife grew from seed the previous gardening season. I suppose you could call it a strange sort of satisfaction, but there's also something more.

I know that my mother -- at one time -- used to can garden produce and fruit from backyard gardens and fruit trees. She had all but abandoned the practice by the time I grew into childhood. A single mother of four children had no time for such activities. So -- while I never witnessed Mom canning so much as a pea -- I do have the memory of a canning jar filled with peaches sitting on a garage shelf for several years.

That jar -- like many childhood memories -- would eventually get tossed. But it was my brother Andy who confirmed that mother -- at one time -- was a champion canner. But -- times changed in the sixties. Home-canning was on the outs. Why can something you can already buy pre-packaged or canned at your neighborhood grocery store? Why put up with the hassle?

There are times -- and I'm sure I'm not alone in this feeling -- when I wish that mother could see what Venus and I are doing. I wish she could see the pots of boiling tomatoes on the stove. I wish she could see the time-saving routines and working together spirit that the wife and I have cultivated. Would she approve of this? I'm not sure. She might -- but then again -- she's not here.

I know -- for a fact -- that mom would enjoy the end product. Mom was a sucker for good salsa -- and our salsa -- while we haven't entered it in any contests -- always gets rave reviews.

A champion harvest results in champion salsa and other canned goodies. That's 15-pints of salsa in that photo to your left. Not only does it contain home grown heirloom tomatoes -- but home-grown peppers -- home grown onions -- home grown garlic and home-grown spices. Nearly everything in those pint jars -- with the exception of the salt and lemon juice -- came straight out of the backyard.

The salsa and quarts of canned tomatoes represents the first major canning project involving tomatoes this year. I say the "first" because other plants holding different varieties of heirlooms are now just beginning to turn. The wife and I will be back on the job soon -- guaranteed.

The Queen (Bee) of North Natomas

Monday, July 27, 2009

Whew! Almost stepped in that one -- big time.

We all know who the true QUEEN of North Natomas is, right? That would be the wife that is Venus -- the gardening inspiration of my life -- the love of my life -- the ruler of the household.

But the Queen Bee? That's something else entirely. And boy, do we have one heck of a Queen Bee.

My thanks once again to Howard Mann, our North Highlands-based mentor of all things honeybees. We turned to Howard in a fit of desperation about a month ago when our queenless Hello Kitty Honeybee Hive showed signs of extreme distress and colony failure. Once again, it's Howard who has provided the best digital photos you will ever find on this blog.

To put it short and sweet: they're amazing.

There's our lovely lady -- to your left -- the Queen of the Hello Kitty Beehive. Clearly marked by a dot of green paint -- she was going about her business -- indifferent from the beekeepers fawning over her (she'd make the perfect cat). Howard, Venus and I had gone back into the Hello Kitty hive a short three weeks after placing a new queen inside the hive, in hopes of saving it from an almost sure fate of destruction.

This was the crucial three week "test." Did the queen survive? What was the queen doing? What would the hive look like? Would we get stung? Actually, that last question wasn't really going through my mind, but needless to say, we had a lot of questions.

The saying goes that "Hindsight is 20-20." That's a true statement if I ever heard one. When I was presented with the choice of picking one queen from the two they had on stock at Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies -- I just wish I had been at a Vegas craps table instead, rolling the dice one final time with a million dollar bet on the table. Why? Because my only problem at this point would be deciding where to put all those new millions I would have won.

I just didn't pick a "new queen." I picked the Seattle Slew of new Queens -- the Joe Montana of Queens -- the MICHAEL JORDAN of new Queens. This little lady just isn't good. She's a ROCK STAR -- and I have the pictures to prove it.

There are pictures like this one. We found the queen on the first frame that we lifted out of the Hello Kitty Hive. If you count from left to right, the queen was located on the 7th frame (there are ten frames in the Hello Kitty Hive). I didn't know why she was there at the time, until we lifted the sixth frame out of the hive.

That frame is located to your immediate right. Any experienced beekeeper will tell you that "this is a beautiful sight." Do you know what those flat-capped, tan colored combs are? They spell the words L-I-F-E. Each one of those flat capped combs represents a new female worker bee in the pre-emergent stage. In another week or two, those females will chew their way through those combs and start doing what female workers do: either care for more brood or gather pollen for honey.

But it didn't stop there. As Howard, Venus and I moved from the sixth frame to the fifth, fourth, third, second and first -- we saw exactly the same signs -- and on both sides of the frame as well. Each one contained what you see to your immediate left: flat-capped, tan colored brood. Not only that -- but these frames were HEAVY, and had to be literally pried out of the Hello Kitty hive.

Why were they so heavy? Are female bees born with a "weight problem?" No -- not hardly. I didn't realize why the frames were so heavy until Howard pointed out the obvious. Across the top of each frame? Running down the sides of each frame? A golden supply of what bees do best: produce honey. And it was literally spilling out of each frame that I lifted out of the hive.

Our bees had been busy. The QUEEN HAD GOTTEN BUSY! How that little lady managed to fill up six entire frames, front and back, with new brood in the space of just three weeks is still quite the mystery. She must have started laying eggs the moment she crawled into her new home and she's probably still at it.

Meanwhile, the new female brood that I inserted into the hive with the new queen had also been hard at work, packing each frame with as much pollen and honey as possible. There was more than enough there to feed the colony through the winter, and since it's not even August yet, pollen season is far from over.

After seeing the new numbers -- and brood that was about to emerge -- I was immediately tempted to put a "Queen Excluder" over the top of the hive and start adding honey supers. Perhaps we could collect a little honey after all before the summer was out.

But, Howard counseled against it. He also counseled against the addition of a second hive body, although it was clear that the new queen probably could have filled it up in the space of a month. He counseled patience instead. So, for now, we'll leave the hive and our new Queen alone. We'll pass on the chance to collect honey, and concentrate on building up hive strength for the long winter ahead.

Although the vast majority of new colonies fail during the first year -- if any new colony is going to survive the first winter challenge -- this will be the one. Our new Queen means business. Although there are no guarantees in life when it comes to beekeeping -- life is looking good for the Hello Kitty Hive.

Heirloom Tomato Overload!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

WARNING! Blurry pictures and bumpy roads ahead!

I see that ye olde piece o' crud digital camera still hasn't totally recovered from the sugar water bath it received several weeks ago. Either that, or the picture taker imbibed in just a little too much Pabst Blue Ribbon from the GarageMahal kegerator.

You could make both arguments. They're valid. I'll be honest. PBR is the bomb. But, I digress.

There comes a time in everyone's tomato garden, where the plants that you have lovingly tended for months on end finally start to give it up. To put it short and sweet, you are literally "snowed under" and "snowed in" with vine-ripened tomatoes.

My friends, that time has now arrived. And, to make matters even worse, only two out of the four tomato beds are producing ripened fruit. What happens when the other two start giving it up? Hold a garage sale?

I knew this time was coming. For weeks I've watched as this haul to your left slowly ripened on the vine. And I became quite alarmed when I suddenly realized that far too many were going to come ripe at once. Venus and I love tomatoes. We can eat them all day and all night. But two people can only consume so much.

When the garden gives you fifty tomatoes in one day, my friends, that spells trouble.

We were supposed to spend this past weekend gathering tomatoes for a salsa canning project. But the pickling project mentioned in the previous post -- 21 quarts of lip-smacking dill pickles -- literally took up our free weekend time. The tomatoes would have to wait for another day.

But when I noticed last night that many of them could not wait -- they simply had to come off the vine NOW or I was going to lose them -- I took action.

Keep in mind -- that most of the tomatoes pictured above came off just two plants: the Druzba and the Cosmonaut Volkov. There's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Eastern Europe really knows how to speak tomato. Those varieties that have been imported with the fall of the Soviet Union are just out of sight!

The biggest catch of this haul however, is 100% home-grown American. That's a 2 lb. Campbell's 1327 sitting on top of that one-quart canning jar. That, by far, is the largest Campbell's 1327 I have ever harvested. And my Campbell's plant this year, like so many others, is just weighted down with more tomatoes than you can shake a stick at.

Why Coporate Campbell's dumped this one I'll never know. It's not like they replaced it with anything better or anything more productive. Perhaps the powers that be in the coporate board room should be taught the appropriate lesson. Just because it's old, doesn't mean that it's not any good.

The tomatoes that came off the vine last night represented an "emergency" harvest. I only chose those tomatoes that were simply not going to last another day, let alone another hour on the vine. Many of them split when I picked them -- they were that ripe. But, I left many more on the vine, hoping (praying) that they will last until the weekend, and a full-scale tomato sauce and salsa canning project.

So, what does one do with a basket full of tomatoes that are so ripe that they're starting to split? Easy. You either eat them on the spot, OR, call on the services of your handy-dandy food processor (if you don't have a food processor, a blender works just as well. If you don't have a blender -- don't grow tomatoes).

After coring and cutting each tomato into the appropriate size and shape -- into the food processor they went, and then a large one gallon pot for cooking purposes. While I didn't exactly measure it out completely, once I had churned up enough, it filled up almost the entire pot. Not to worry. Tomatoes lose a lot of the water content when you cook them down into a fine sauce, but none of the lip smacking taste.

Last night's emergency dinner? Chicken spaghetti. Today's lunch? The same thing! Tonight's dinner? Care to guess? One can never have too much chicken spaghetti.

At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

This is just the first of many harvests yet to come this summer. I'm not sure what Venus and I are doing in the backyard this year, but everything is coming up roses. These heirloom plants, and many more like them, will continue to produce crop after crop all summer long.

The Curious and Compelling Case of the Cat-Sized Cucumber!

Monday, July 20, 2009

How does a cucumber get this big?


Seriously? What is happening in our garden this year? We knew something was up several months ago when Venus harvested a baseball sized radish. Then, we followed that up by harvesting red potatoes the size of a red clay brick.

But now? A cucumber the size of Fuzzbutt the cat? That's 17.5 lbs. of cat I'll have you know. We grow them big on the Bird Farm, and that apparently applies to cats AND cucumbers.

This cat-sized cucumber plus a ton more cucumbers came straight out of the cucumber garden this weekend. I knew that we had several cucumbers to harvest, but I didn't discover the monster until I kicked it while stringing up 200 feet of electrical wiring for a seventh irrigation valve (another long story of failure I must share with you someday).

After finding the beast, I knew it was time. Venus knew it was time. So, we both dove into the cucumber beds and picked everything we could possibly find. The end result is pictured to your right, and that is only part of the harvest.


Yes, there was more.

What are two people going to do with enough cucumbers to feed an army? Why did we plant so many of them? How did they get so freaking big? We're still not sure why we're pulling super-sized vegetables out of the garden this year. This is a first for both of us. To be perfectly honest, we are trying some new gardening techniques and experiments this year. Perhaps that's the reason?

As for what to do with the haul? As a wise old man once told me, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And, in this case, when life gives you cucumbers, make pickles.

And that's exactly what the wife and I set out to do.

To be honest? Most of the cucumbers that we harvested were not pickling cukes, nor do they pickle well. They tend to get quite soft over time. Good pickling cucumbers are tough. That's why we specifically planted several varieties of pickling cucumbers this year, plus an Armenian slicer.

The Armenian cucumbers, pictured in this bath of ice water, are somewhat different and unique from the normal cucumber used in salads. The skin is far tougher than a normal cucumber. The flesh is far more crunchy. It's one of those "cross" cucumbers that goes well in a salad, or in a jar of pickles. And since we had plenty of them, well, it was time to get to work.


Fortunately, Venus and I both took steps last year and this year to ensure that most of the items needed for this pickling project would come straight from the backyard. We were using a standard Dill Pickle recipe that has been featured on this blog before (you can find it here). The dill, which Venus planted months ago, was in full flower. And the garlic would come from our garlic harvest that took place about three weeks ago.

Some of the other items were acquired more inventively. The red pepper flakes for example? Sure, we could have purchased a jar of those for three or four bucks at a nearby store, or we could have saved all those tiny packages of red pepper flakes that pizza joints hand out with abandon. If you have a drawer full of those packets, like we do, here's a chance to put them to work (if you guessed that I like pizza, that's a really good guess).

Other passed pickling efforts have included Thai Hot Peppers inside the jar with the pickles. It looks nice, but it also results in a batch of pickles that will burn your lips off. One needs to have a good supply of cold beer nearby just to handle the heat that comes off that pickle. Soon, you've consumed so much beer that you can no longer see the pickles. We had to avoid this.

The end result of our pickling efforts is located to your left. That's 21 jars of canned Dill Pickles, the most we have ever canned in any one sitting. Venus and I managed to can 36 jars of pickles last year, and after this little project, it seems we'll beat last year's count fairly quickly. Cucumber season is just beginning. In another two weeks, we'll probably have an even larger harvest.

More beer here!

Many people have asked, what are we going to do with all of those pickles and, secondly, are we madly insane? There might be an element of truth to that second question, but as for the first, there's nothing like a present of home-canned dill pickles at Christmas. Combine those pickles with jars of home-canned salsa, tomato sauce, pickled green beans and pickled baby corn -- and you have a gift that people will remember.

Ipods -- Schmypods. Who needs tech gadgets? I've got home-canned dill pickles.

Black Cherry Tomatoes are From God

Friday, July 17, 2009

Seriously, they are.

Seriously.

These are the best cherry tomatoes I've ever tasted in my life, and we have a bunch of them ripening on the vine at the moment in the Backyard of Bird. This is the first of several plants that we have growing in the backyard, and the first to give us ripened fruit.

There are three other, uh, "volunteers" that sprang from the ground outside of a raised bed where I had Black Cherry tomatoes growing last season. I knew what they were the moment I spotted them, but didn't have the heart to pull them out (I'm a SUCKER for good tomatoes), and those three volunteers are fruiting like nobody's business.

Soon, Venus and I will be snowed under with Black Cherry Tomatoes.

I wish everyone could be so lucky. This, by far, is the most prolific and best tasting cherry variety I've ever had. The discovery, oddly enough, came from a "political enemy" in my State Capitol world.

It's a secret that I don't let slip out often in my Republican circles, but my first introduction to this wonderful cherry tomato came from none other than Steve Maviglio, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Assembly Speakers Karen Bass and Fabian Nunez, two of the most powerful Democrats in the State Capitol. The wife that is Venus knew Maviglio thanks to her position at Capitol Television News Service.

As for me, I kept a wide berth around Steve Maviglio. I knew him. Every Republican who serves in the communications field knows him, or knows of him. But, he was the last person you wanted your Republican boss to get into a war of words with. Why? He was usually armed with a bevy of nasty zingers that reporters loved to print, and could wind up making your boss look like the 2nd coming of Mr. Magoo if you weren't careful.

But as it turns out, Steve was looking to barter. Venus had recently raved to him about the impending harvest of tree ripened Elberta Peaches -- and we were in for a whopper of a harvest that year. So -- Venus swung the trade: Black Cherry tomatoes and bush beans, for tree ripened peaches.

Steve got four or six of the best peaches off that tree, and I specifically looked high and low for the only peach I could find with a worm hole in it. He got that, plus other peaches, along with a note that read: "enclosing peach with worm hole because I know you organic Democrat types love worms."

I never did hear back from him. But Venus later learned that he enjoyed the note -- and the peaches.

Tracing the history of the Black Cherry tomato isn't easy. It's been around for a couple of years in the United States, but the roots of this fantastic treat appear to be in Russia. Despite researching high and low, I could not find a specific home for the Black Cherry, but I did find the following from Fine Quality Tomato Seeds:

"Black Tomatoes are native to the Southern Ukraine and their seeds were later distributed throughout Western Russia after the Crimean War by soldiers returning home from the front during the early 19th century. Though black tomatoes originally existed in only a relatively small area on the Crimean Peninsula and were limited to only a handful of recognizable varieties, in the years to follow, new varieties of all shapes and sizes began to appear throughout the Imperial Russian Empire.

Today there are at least fifty varieties of black tomato found in the territories of the former Soviet Union, as well as nearly a dozen other types of new black tomatoes which have cropped up elsewhere, most notably in Germany, the former Yugoslavia and the United States."


The taste of a Black Cherry tomato smacks the tastebuds with a tart surprise of sweet, sour and acidic flavors. You can't eat just one and walk away. If you encounter 10-20 ripened Black Cherry tomatoes during a harvest, the best bet is only half of them will make it inside.

I've used Black Cherry tomatoes for a number of dishes. They are perfect for skewers on a barbeque, wonderful in salsas, look and taste great in salads and are perfect for any stir fry dish under the sun. They are a wonderful addition to the Bird Heirloom Tomato garden, and will be a highly valued part of that garden for years to come.

Thanks Steve.

The Garden: A Time to Tend, A Time to Chomp!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mental Note to Self: Remember to use that Home Depot gift card on a new set of garden chompers for the garden. You'll need them.

This is what's left of the old set of long-handled garden cutters that I purchased from the Men's Toy Store, aka Home Depot, just about two years ago. Lord knows, I put them through quite the workout while removing this year's artichoke garden. Still, I'm a little disgusted that they didn't last longer than they did.

These chompers replaced yet another pair that had been gifted to me by my father-in-law. I managed to bust those into eensy teensy pieces as well. It's safe to say that I put the chompers through a workout. Don't even begin to tell me about garden chompers that I couldn't possibly break, because I will be the exception to that rule and will bust them into pieces.

I lost the latest pair on this job located to your immediate right. The bits and pieces of artichoke plant greenery that you see in the green waste can came directly from the raised planter bed located BEHIND the green waste can. These bits and pieces SHOULD got into a compost pile, which I will eventually create someday.

It's on the list of "things to do" at this point, along with a lot of other landscaping projects. For now, the remains from this season's artichoke season will go to a compost pile. It just won't be mine. It will go to the Sacramento City Yard instead, which means some other gardener will profit from my cuttings.

I'll be honest. I don't like cutting artichoke plants back to nothing. But it's one of those "jobs that must be done" when artichoke season comes to an end in the Backyard of Bird. Although I personally know of one Elk Grove gardener who is harvesting artichokes in the heat of July (yes, she is!), artichoke season for us ends in late spring/early summer. And the season came to a rather abrupt end this year, thanks to a mid-May jolt of heat.

I normally get the plants chopped back a bit sooner, but I found that our honeybees really went to town this year on the artichokes we left on the plants. Those chokes opened and bloomed and provided a source of pollen, which the bees really seemed to like. So, why not help out mother nature a tad.

Still -- I knew at some point that the plants had to come out. I had to remove every last dead stalk and every last dead leaf from the planter bed. I know this looks fairly barren now, but trust me. In another month or two, the surviving root systems below the soil will give birth to the artichoke plants that will provide next season's harvest.

It's important however, that you remove the dead and dying plants first so you can add some natural fertilizers like a layer of steer manure compost, which is exactly what you see to the left. In time, those root systems will give rise to new plants. And, in fact, that process has already started.

This plant to your right represents a surprise. I wasn't expecting to find it. It was buried under mounds of brown leaves and dying artichoke plants from the previous artichoke season. Once I discovered it however, I carefully cleaned it out, fertilized the area and provided it with a good drink of water.

Seems tough to believe that this small plant will turn into a six foot tall monster by next spring, but that's exactly what will happen. Artichoke plants don't do well in the heat of the summer, at least not where I live, but once the hot weather breaks and cooler temperatures move in with the onset of fall, these starter plants will start to grow at an exponential rate.

I am also operating under a tight time deadline. All of the artichoke plants in my North Natomas garden are planted in one 4X8 bed. We still need to add another, and will use starter plants from the existing bed to populate the new bed. Those starter plants are due at any time, so I'd better get busy with the box building...

I will also need to work on the drip irrigation and alter a few things. The process of gardening is a learning process indeed. A drip system that works well for tomatoes or other garden goodies, doesn't mean it's going to work well for artichoke plants. In my case? The drip sprinklers that I'm current using for this 4X8 bed got clogged as artichoke plants and leaves grew over and around them.

Not to worry. There's an answer for every problem. But, the list of projects to do in ye olde backyard just grew another page or so longer...

The Birds 25, Birds 10, Cats 2

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I was going to name this post the "June Explosion," but seeing that we're nearly halfway into July now, well, I'm just a little late. Venus and I have just finished off the last of a very delicious harvest of June Pride peaches, and the score in the title is fairly close to describing who got what.

The Birds (Venus and I) got about 25 very delicious June Pride peaches. The neighborhood birds pecked ten of them right down to the peach pit, and for those unfortunate birds who flew to the ground to take advantage of the peaches they pecked clean off the tree -- our cat Precious just cleaned up.

Poor birds.

That tree to your immediate left provided the good stuff. This is the June Pride peach tree, which I purchased last February from Silverado Nursery. They, in turn, received the tree from the Dave Wilson Nursery near Modesto, which has been putting delicious fruit trees in California backyards since 1938.

In short, they kinda know what they're doing.

I've shared my love for backyard fruit trees on this blog in the past. I grew up in a Modesto neighborhood built for returning World War II veterans. By the time I was growing up in the 1970's, these 25-to-30 year old peach trees were massive in size and producing buckets of fruit. You could sit there all day and eat your fill, and still not come close to harvesting one-quarter of that rich, summer bounty.

My friends, there is nothing quite like a true tree-ripened peach. And no, I'm not talking about some peach that's been plucked from a tree while it's still as hard as a Major League baseball, put into cold storage, then rolled into your nearest supermarket a few weeks later. Why on earth someone allows these growers to market that stuff as "tree-ripened peaches" is beyond me, but c'mon now, who are we kidding?

A true tree ripened peach is a peach that stays on the tree until it's soft from the outside in. A true tree ripened peach is a piece of fruit so packed with sweet nectar that it literally explodes when you cut it open or before you can even bring it inside to cut it open. A true tree-ripened peach, like the one I'm holding, tastes like heaven on earth. There's nothing in the world quite like it, and we're darn lucky to live in an area of the country that abounds in trees like the June Pride and hundreds of other varieties.

My friends, we're in peach heaven.

I grew up with two peach trees in my Modesto backyard. I'm not sure what varieties they were, but I strongly suspect they are the same two varieties that I have planted in my backyard. The Modesto trees featured peaches that ripened on one tree in late June and early July, and another variety that produced peaches the size of softballs in mid-to-late August.

That's a picture perfect description of the June Pride and O'Henry peach trees that I have growing in my North Natomas backyard. The June Pride is now finished for the year. The O'Henry is still another month away.

I'm very fond of fresh fruit trees because that's exactly what fed my brother and sisters while we were growing up in Modesto during the late 1960's and 1970's. Single mothers raising four children don't often have a lot of money, and we were no exception to that rule. Mother simply didn't have the money for "luxuries" such as cookies. Our "treats" came straight from our backyard fruit trees. Not a peach went to waste during peach season. Oh, sure, birds and neighbors got their fair share back in the day, but by the time fresh peach season ended, every tree had been picked clean.

Those trees sustained us. They provided breakfast in the morning. They provided a sweet treat for dessert after dinner. They gave us snacks after school. I will never forget those two workhorse trees in the Modesto backyard, and I wonder sometimes how they survived with four kids climbing all over them during the harvest. Somehow, they did. I never did get the chance to thank my mother and father for planting those trees, nor did they ever know what kind of impact they had on my life. If they could see my North Natomas backyard now, they would.

This was the first year of production for the June Pride peach tree. The nearby O'Henry tree is so loaded with fruit that I've probably had to cull the tree of half of the fruit, and may be forced to cull even more. That tree is still fairly small, as is the June Pride. If I were to allow every peach to stay on the tree, I wouldn't have much of a peach tree left. It would be more of a peach stick, as all of the branches would have snapped off under the weight of still-growing peaches.

In a few years I probably won't be forced to cull as much, but you still have to watch it. This isn't like growing cherries. Peaches are heavy. If you get too greedy, you can easily lose five years worth of tree growth. We don't want that to happen, now do we?

I still have many friends in the Modesto area. One of them is Larry Darpinian, who works the family farm called Darpinian Farms. Larry and his family grow peaches.

They grow acres and acres and acres of peaches. As you might guess, Larry and his family are just a tad busy with the harvest at the moment.

When I think of that family operation and all of those peaches? I consider Larry to be the luckiest man in the world.

It Couldn't Have Happened to a Nicer Guy

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Actually, that's kind of not true. It could have happened to me! But that's another story for another day.

If you haven't seen it yet, the Sacramento Bee's Debbie Arrington did a nice little article on one of my gardening mentors (and former radio co-worker). Not much about the article surprised me because Fred Hoffman, aka the famous "Farmer Fred Hoffman," and I have talked about every gardening issue under the sun over the years.

I first started following Fred's show because I was forced too. No! Really! It's true! As the news "voice" on KSTE Radio in 1999, I was actually located in a different building several blocks away from the main KSTE studios. And if I missed my cue -- tsk, tsk, tsk. As they say in radio, better hit your breaks, because you'll never get that moment in time back.

I wouldn't actually meet Fred until some years later when I started working weekends at KFBK. I wasn't gardening yet, that was still a number of years off, but I sure enjoyed whatever produce Fred brought into the building. And, whenever the talk turned to tomatoes (my favorite subject), I actually listened intently.

Fast forward a couple of years and Bill Bird suddenly finds his grandest wish come true -- married to the most beautiful woman in the world -- my true gardening inspiration in life -- Venus. Not only do I have a new wife -- I've got a new house with a yard to landscape, and that's when the years of listening to Fred's gardening show and advice really began to pay off.

Although I've learned a lot from trial and error, I've also tried to follow Fred's helpful advice whenever possible. It's whenever I don't follow it, do I usually wind up regretting it. And then I'll usually hear the music in one way or another from my gardening inspiration in life. "Did Fred tell you to do that," Venus will ask in an accusing sort of way. And when the inevitable reply of "No" comes out of my mouth, the retort is usually:

A. Why Not?
B. You're an idiot
C. Do I have to do everything around here?
D. All of the Above

Sacramentans are truly blessed to have some of the best gardening soil, weather and growing conditions known to all mankind. We're equally as blessed to have the garden advice of Farmer Fred Hoffman.

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Zillion Potato More!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

....and in other news, authorities are still looking for the Natomas husband and wife buried under a potato harvest they were not expecting....

It's harvest time in a big way in the Backyard of Bird. From tomatoes to onions to garlic, everything is coming up roses this year, and in a big and massive way. I know you might be surprised to find out that this is our first year of growing potatoes in the Back 40. It probably won't be the last.

Potatoes anyone?

The potatoes in the sack to your right represent about one-third of our harvest a few days ago. Each sack is loaded with about 25 lbs. of "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red" potatoes that we harvested from a 4X8 foot raised bed. Venus planted exactly one pound of seed potatoes each last March. That two pound investment paid off in record numbers.

We knew we were both in for something special when we stuck the new pitchfork underneat the first plant and lifted up. I could not believe the size of these monsters. Would every plant yield this kind of harvest? That answer would be NO. Some were even better!

The Cranberry Red provided the biggest potatoes. The "All Blue" were somewhat smaller, about the size of a normal sack of potatoes that you would purchase at a normal grocery store. But those plants also contained greater numbers of potatoes, so the per-pound harvest was about the same.

We both knew we were in for something special when we started harvesting potatoes that had popped to the surface about two weeks earlier. We've been harvesting three or four pounds each for the past week -- just utilizing those that had poked above the soil line. But we never quite expected the surprises uncovered when we started digging up the bed.

This was one massive harvest. And while that is a good thing, the big question is what are two people going to do with 75 lbs. of potatoes? Can you store them? Where? How? We needed some experienced advice.

Some of that advice came from my gardening mentor, Farmer Fred Hoffman, and still others in the gardening internet community that have grown, and are still growing, potatoes. We discovered that the garage would be sufficient for potato storage, but we were going to need some burlap sacks.

Burlap sacks? Are those still sold? Where? Home Depot didn't have them. Neither did Lowe's or any other helpful/handy hardware and gardening supply business. But, as luck would have it, Venus stumbled across exactly what we needed at an East Sacramento Feed Store of all places. Here she is, proudly modeling the only clothing I will allow her to buy.

As one of my many gardening buddies remarked, "well, burlap is all the rage in Paris this year..."

Venus has already used some of the harvest on a Red, White & Blue potato salad, which we served to multiple friends and family members during the 4th of July. And we'll probably be snacking on leftovers for the rest of the week (the celebration is spelled out in the post below).

As for right now, Bill Bird is on a search for potato recipes. Got potatoes?

Two Chickens, One Barbeque

I know what you're thinking, and forget about it, cause we're not going there. I thought the title of this post might catch your eye, and peak your curiosity. For those of you who have NO CLUE of what I'm talking about, consider yourself lucky.

Ladies and Gentlepeople -- I dearly hope that you're 4th of July was as fun and as successful as ours. We are very fortunate to live at the end of a cul-de-sac in North Natomas, and equally blessed to have the greatest neighbors anyone could ever ask for.

I belive that Rodney King would dearly love this neighborhood, because we all really do "just get along."

Beer Can Chicken
That photo to your immediate left? It represents part of the main course that we served to about 20 friends and neighbors last night. It is commonly referred to as "beer can chicken" and is also known as "beer butt chicken." I prefer "beer can chicken" myself. It's just a tad more classy in my opinion.

These chickens have been lovingly coated with a mixture of spices and herbs, some of which came directly from the backyard. The empty beer cans are filled with a mixture of red and white wines (whatever you have is good) and the cans also contain fresh herbs harvest from the backyard, including lemon thyme, parsley, basil and dill weed just to name a few. We stuff both cans with as many fresh herbs that will fit.

The cans are then inserted into the cavity of both whole chickens, which had been marinating in this special spice mixture for 24 hours. I've put both recipes below for your convenience. Feel free to experiment, because this is one delicious recipe.

Beer Can Chicken After Roasting
Both chickens only took about 70-80 minutes to thoroughly cook -- and they come out as tender as a rotissiere chicken from any supermarket (only it's that much better). The cook (me in this case) has to monitor the cooking process very carefully, however. Although the grill is set on low, the drippings from both birds cause quite the flame-up. So, if you're going to try this at home kids, please have a handy-dandy water bottle nearby.

Otherwise, beer can chicken will come out looking a lot like beer burnt chicken.

The wine and herbs play a huge role in the cooking process. The wine eventually will start to boil, and the steam rising from the can of wine and fresh herbs will help cook the chicken from the inside out, aided by the flame from the grill.

Potatoes from the Bird Back 40
Our 4th of July feast also featured other "goodies from the garden," such as these "All Blue" and "Cranberry Red" potatoes that Venus and I harvested just a few days earlier from one of the raised beds. Venus planted exactly one pound of potatoes last March in one of the raised beds. That one pound investment netted about 75 lbs. of potatoes.

Although I thought the wife was making far too much potato salad for the 4th, my fears were for naught. Venus made two types of potato salad with the freshly harvest potatoes: spicy and volcanic spicy. Both were a huge hit. There are some leftovers on the day after the 4th of July, but not nearly as much as I imagined. The wife's "Red, White & Blue" potato salad was clearly a hit.

Heirloom Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
We're both very fortunate, Venus and I, that the garden is now beginning to produce in large numbers. These heirloom tomatoes represent about one-quarter of what is now ripe and ready to harvest on the vine. What you're looking at is a mixture of Lemon Boy (yellow), Azoychka (yellow), Druzba (Red), Campbell's 1327 (red) and Bloody Butcher (red) tomatoes. The cucumber garden, meanwhile, provided four ready-to-harvest, Diva and Marketmore cucumbers.

The resulting salad is one of my favorites. I proceeded to chop and mix everything together, drown it in red wine vinegar, coat it with salt and pepper and then add a dusting of dried oregano flakes. After tossing everything together to mix all spices and vinegar together, I added a second dusting on the top for good measure.


I found out that many of our guests last night are big fans of yellow tomatoes. And there's no denying the taste of an Azoychka or Lemon Boy tomato. I personally believe the orange colored Kelloggs Breakfast tomatoes are some of the best and zestiest I've ever tasted, but the fans of Brandywine will challenge me on that.

But the best part of 4th of July isn't the food. It's a great meal, yes, but the real show comes later. 4th of July, like many holidays, are for children. Although Venus and I are not fortunate enough to have our own yet, we do have a niece and nephew who we host anytime we can get them. Add those kids to a neighborhood full of children, and you have an outdoor holiday filled with shrieks and excitement.

This is when memories are made. And as I watched our niece and nephew run in circles last night, multiple sparklers in hand, I knew that Venus and I had both created a memory that the kids will remember for a lifetime. In time, they will be fortunate enough to create memories for other children.

But let's not rush things. 4th of July is for children. Spice rub recipes and directions are below. Feel free to change or add spices. Any mixture comes out great!

BEER CAN CHICKEN SPICE RUB #1

1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
Place all spices in a small bowl and mix together

BEER CAN CHICKEN SPICE RUB #2

4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons garlic salt
3 teaspoons paprika
3 teaspoons pepper
2 teaspoons white pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dried thyme (lemon thyme works just as well)
Place all spices in a bowl and mix well

DIRECTIONS:

Remove giblets from the cavity of a whole chicken, rinse well, inside and out, and dry with a paper towel (or two).

Place chicken on a large cutting board (this gets kinda messy) and use a basting brush to coat entire chicken with a standard cooking oil. Press spice rub on the top and sides and bottom of chicken. You should have just enough, and I can't emphasis the word "press" enough. Coating the oiled chicken isn't good enough. You need to press that spice rub on, and yes, this will result in hands covered with oil and spices. I told you it was messy.

You can allow chickens to sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours, or cook immediately. Fill a standard beer can (note: drink beer first), about half to three-quarters full with any red or white wine you have handy. If you want to put fresh herbs in the wine-filled beer cans, whatever you have available will work just fine. But it's not required.

Hold the back of the chicken in the palm of one hand. Turn upright (like the chicken is standing on two legs), and insert beer can into the cavity of the chicken. Place can and chicken on pre-heated grill carefully. The can and chicken legs will help the chicken stay upright. Adjust if necessary.

Cook on low to semi-low heat for 70-80 minutes and keep a water bottle handy for barbeque flareups, because it WILL flare.

Use tongs to remove chicken from can after cooking. Let sit for 5 minutes before carving.

ENJOY!!!