Thank You Sir! May I Have Another?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The run of good gardening luck just continues to roll our way here at the North Natomas "Home for Wayward Heirloom Tomato Plants."

If that sounds rather facetious -- well Howdy Doo! It is. Our luck has been as absent as a warm spring day in April -- which happened on this date exactly two years ago.

Case in point? This little mess to your immediate right. Can you guess what that is kids? That is heartbreak on a stick. Make that a broken stick. That's actually a tree rose kids -- or what's left of a tree rose after a couple of days of fierce winds howling through the northern area.

We always get the wind just a little bit worse than most neighborhoods. Why? Well -- for one thing -- we're in the riverbottom. It just gusts. Secondly -- North Natomas is devoid of a natural windbreak in the form of mature trees. There weren't any in the riverbottom to begin with (well -- maybe a century or two ago) -- and the landscaping trees that have been planted in this new subdivision are far too small to make any sort of a difference when it comes to slowing down Mother Nature's springtime sneezing fits.

So -- it gusts -- and we deal.

This is not what I expected -- however. In fact -- this was the last thing on my mind. Danger to a tree rose? A well staked tree rose? A well staked tree rose with not one but two stakes? A well staked tree rose next to the house for added wind protection?

Color me surprised. In fact -- color me many different shades of surprised as that busted rose before you is known as a "Weeks 36 inch Twofers." What's a "Twofer" you ask? Well kids -- you're in luck! Because -- according to the Weeks Roses website, the "Twofer" is:

"(Roses that) are guaranteed to cause quite a clamor in your garden. Imagine the excitement of 2 colors of flowers on just one tree. We’ve carefully selected 2 different varieties that are perfectly balanced in flower size, floriferousness, foliage and habit to bud onto our 36″ Dr. Huey rootstock. A real attention-grabber!"

Dear Weeks: Consider my attention "grabbed." Mortified is more like it -- but on with the show here!

The "Twofer" rose now lying in "twopieces" in our Back 40 is the combined varieties of "Livin Easy" and "Easy Going." Venus actually spotted this in a Weeks catalog last year and remarked how much she'd like to have one. How I came into posession of this tree rose is a little bit of a surprise -- because it was not the "tree rose" that Bill Bird was looking for when he went about a shoppin nearly one year ago.

Regular readers of this blog know all too well who I turn too (run crying in desperation) when I have questions: Farmer Fred Hoffman. So -- I emailed him these photos with the question of: "Can it be saved." The thing I like about Fred is his straightforward honesty. He doesn't sugarcoat it. He advised me that the rose is probably a "goner" but also turned to Sacramento's premiere Rosarian -- Baldo Villegas -- for the practiced eye of rose assistance.

Know what Baldo said? It's a "goner." Fred went on to advise that he has also had his share of bad luck with tree roses -- a point backed up by Baldo as well. Their combined advice? Don't buy tree roses unless you really do like the feeling of being whipped with a rubber hose.

Eh -- scuse me -- but I really didn't have a choice in the matter.

Let me explain.

Venus has been asking (pestering) me for years to get the tree rose "St. Patrick" in honor of her mother -- who lost a valiant battle with cancer at far too young an age nearly five years ago. The St. Patrick tree rose was the preferred rose of the late Patricia (Pat) Stromberg. She made sure the St. Patrick was planted in every backyard she helped landscape and it was always the center of attention.

Therefore -- I knew my task last June when it came to fulfilling Venus' birthday request. She wanted a rose on her mother's behalf. Not just any rose mind you. Oh no -- it had to be the St. Patrick. Not only that -- it had to be the St. Patrick tree rose. Nothing else would suffice. It's that -- or try sleeping in the car for the next month Bill Bird.

Now -- I ask the fine ladies who frequent this blog just what happens to the unlucky husband if birthday wishes like this one are not fulfilled? Does a month in the GarageMahal doghouse sound like the appropriate punishment? Hmm??? Oh sure! The GarageMahal is decked out with a flat screen TV and a KEGERATOR. But let's be honest here. That's still a garage floor. It's concrete. It's cold. Try sleeping on a slab, son.

So -- off I went last year in search of Venus' demand. Bare root season was over. That was working against me. The St. Patrick also happens to be one of the more popular varieties. Strike Two. But I found what I was looking for at Capitol Nursery. They had one left. I bought it on the spot over the phone without even looking at it. And I also advised the very happy salesman that I would need a second tree rose to complete the layout -- so just "find something."

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Capitol Nursery later that day to not only find the St. Patrick, but the Weeks "Twofer" rose that Venus had spotted in a catalog about three months earlier. It was an incredible stroke of luck. Venus gets her St. Patrick. She also gets the "Twofer."

Needless to say -- I wasn't forced to sleep in the GarageMahal for the next month.

I'll be honest. The roses were not in the best shape when I found them. Black spot and other leaf diseases had taken an obvious toll. The Weeks "Twofer" was bent at a crazy angle. It looked nothing like that nice looking rose in the Weeks catalog. I couldn't do much last year other than halt the spread of the leaf diseases with some applications of fungicide -- plus make sure the "Twofer" was planted at an even crazier angle so that it stood "straight up."

After cutting both tree roses back last fall -- I started the "baby effort." They received regular water -- regular fertilizer and regular applications of rose protection fungicides that got rid of the pests and disease.

Sure enough -- both tree roses flowered beautifully this spring. Wouldn't you know it? The Twofer started looking like that tree rose that Venus had admired so much the previous year. The first blooms had just opened to a rather brilliant and dazzling sight -- before those dreaded April winds spoiled the show.

So -- what now? In the words of the late, great John Lennon: it's (Just Like) Starting Over.

Ah, Honey Honey...

Monday, April 26, 2010

The colony of bees that once occupied our "Hello Kitty" Hive are long gone -- but they left a lot of gifts behind. Venus and I still don't know why they up and took flight and left their fine pink home -- but we know one thing for sure:

It wasn't because of a lack of food. Nope -- the little buggers left behind a hive PACKED with frame after frame of wax and honey.

Venus and I haven't really felt the need to go near the hive. It just brings back some rather unpleasant memories of; "why did they leave?" But when Sacramento Bee Garden Writer Debbie Arrington had us break into the hive a couple of weeks ago -- both Venus and I knew that we could not let all of this honey go to waste.

Of course -- that's not why we purchased our colony to begin with. We weren't thinking honey. We were thinking "pollination." We had a hard time believing that a single hive could produce up to 100 lbs. of pure honey -- but after a rather unprofessional harvesting effort this past weekend? WE BELIEVE.

Allow me to demonstrate with said photo? Nope! I know what you're thinking and the answer is no. We did not run out and plunk down $20 for a one-gallon jar of honey. Besides -- the amount of honey in this bowl came out to about 3.5 lbs. And this is just part of the haul.

Needless to say -- the wife and I now have enough honey to last us for a few years.

Getting into the hive isn't easy. It's sticky with honey. The frames are literally glued into the hive body itself. One requires the services of a hive tool to pry these honey-laden frames apart and the curved end of the tool to actually lift the frame out of the hive itself.

But this is what raw honey essentially looks like before all that wonderful processing. Inside of those white and black caps is enough honey to sustain a small army. Bees are wonderful insects when it comes to using every inch of space to pack away as much honey as possible.

Most professional beekeepers use a device called an "Extractor" to remove honey from comb like this. A heated knife is used to literally cut long slices of the comb in this frame. Those slices are then placed inside of an Extractor. After a few cranks? The honey easily separates from frames.

But there's just one problem: Venus and I don't have an "Extractor." We don't even have the heated knife. What did we have? Well -- we did have the all important hive tool which helped a great deal when it came to tearing the comb away from the hive. That comb -- laden with honey -- went into a large mixing bowl.

But the real problem remained: how does one separate a THICK honey from the wax comb? A common strainer would take too long because the honey was so thick. Venus suggested that we heat the mixture over the stove -- which was a fine idea -- except I knew that the wax would melt as well.

Wax with honey anyone? No -- I didn't think so.

And suddenly? I was hit with one of those oh-so-rare "bright ideas." It doesn't happen often folks -- so this is my turn to brag.

Why not fill a sink with hot water and let the bowl containing wax and honey sit on top? Think of it as a double-boiler operation -- without direct heat at the bottom.

What do you know? It worked!

Of course -- it took some time. The honey mixed with wax in this strainer didn't exactly drain in an hour two. Nope -- Venus and I actually went to bed during the straining process. When we woke up eight hours later? HONEY!

But that was just the first straining process we would need. We noticed that a lot of small pieces of wax -- and even a bug or two slipped through the first strainer and into the bowl of honey. Not a problem, since we had a second strainer nearby -- and that one did the trick.

Four or five hours of scooping and straining later? Pure honey. No bugs. No wax. Just fresh, clean, pure, TASTY, honey.

The Food of the Gods.

Of course -- we missed a lot of the honey during our "less than professional" separation job. An Extractor would have removed most of it. But I'm not going to complain about 5.5 lbs. of honey. And keep in mind -- this is just ONE frame inside the Hello Kitty Hive.

There are nine left. And wouldn't you know it? Each one is PACKED.

Time to get to work!

It's Enough to Make You DROOL....

Here it is folks! The finished product! If the ole gums aren't drooling yet -- they soon will be!

Pictured to your right? Fresh squeezed Meyer Lemons -- mixed with pure cane sugar -- which makes a mighty fine lemonade. The lemonade in that half gallon jug to the right in this photo is the SECOND half gallon of LIP SMACKING lemonade that Venus and I have squeezed from lemons that we procured straight from the Old Roseville backyard of Greg Damitz -- aka -- the brains behind Roseville Vegetable Gardening.

The jug to your left? That's what we had leftover! That's pure lemon juice folks -- made from some of the juciest Meyer Lemons that I've been lucky to come across. We can use this for a variety of uses.

Venus -- for example? She just loves fresh lemon juice mixed with melted butter and garlic salt. That's her somewhat special liquid concoction that she uses when devouring artichoke leaves from the backyard garden. The lady can also make a mean guacamole. And with fresh lemons? It gets that much....MEANER.

I'm drooling already...

The Cruel Tease

Sunday, April 25, 2010

What's that song? Accentuate The Positive? Sung so brilliantly by Bing N' Bette in a 1977 television special?

I suppose I could talk about the show the roses are putting on in the backyard. The two giant artichokes we will harvest for dinner tonight? Maybe the monster garlic that is growing even more monstrous with every spring rainstorm or deep watering session on the weekends.

Nope. My "tale" this weekend is one of woe. It's one of those cruel jokes pulled by Mother Nature when I was least expecting it. There's no escaping this one. One of the fruit harvests that I most look forward to every spring and summer is no more -- stolen away -- by a dreaded disease called Brown Rot.

I just spent the better part of this afternoon pulling off every single diseased cherry from this Lapin Cherry tree located to your immediate right.

It wasn't easy -- but it had to be done. There will be no cherries from the Lapin this year -- which is the cruelest of hoaxes and "cherry jobs" that Mother Nature can deliver.

This was the ultimate tease. This tree produced its first crop during it's second year -- last spring. Yes -- it was a small crop. But it was a tasty one at that. The birds got a share. So did the bugs. But Venus and I got a nice taste of what was to come in Year 3. The Lapin -- also called a "self-fruitful Bing" -- is one sweet cherry.

So -- during the winter -- I dreamed of Lapin cherries. Not just one or two. But Lapin cherries by the bucket. Venus and I even planted a Royal Ranier Cherry tree nearby -- because we knew that one cherry tree just wasn't going to be enough.

Venus wanted enough cherries for cherry pies. I wanted to re-live the days of my Modesto youth -- where I could sit in a cherry tree and eat my fill. We took steps to baby the tree during the winter. I trimmed it for the first time. Venus mulched around the base of the tree. By the time spring rolled around -- we had those visions of cherries dancing in our heads.

Sadly -- something went terribly wrong.

Oh sure -- the first thing that took place this spring? The tree burst into a glory of white cherry blossoms. It is the moment I had been waiting for. Hundreds of blossoms covered every branch -- even the trunk of the tree got involved. Venus' two-year old Royal Ranier also got into the act with a few blossoms of its own.

But nothing was putting on a show quite like the Lapin. Venus and I began to make plans. I would need a mesh cover for the tree to fight off the birds. Venus -- meanwhile -- started researching cherry pie recipes.

But -- as time went by -- concern began to slip into that big cranium of mine. I wasn't sure what was wrong -- but something didn't seem right. Some of those white blossoms turned a light shade of brown before they could even fully open up.

This wasn't right -- was it? To be honest kids -- I really didn't know. I've never grown cherry trees before. This is a new experience for me. Perhaps this is normal? Perhaps not every blossom turns into a cherry? Perhaps it's fate that some die off before they can open?

As time went by -- my concern mounted. That light brown color turned darker. It covered entire sections of the tree. Worse yet -- some of that brown was beginning to move into the cherry blossoms that had already opened and developed a cherry husk.

I also noticed -- right about the same time -- that the leaves on Venus' cherry tree were developing at a much faster rate than the leaves on the Lapin. I reasoned -- at the time -- that this must be normal development since the Royal Ranier produces ripe cherries almost a full month before the Lapin. So -- it made sense that the leafsets would develop a little quicker.

Instead of taking action -- I waited. Two weeks later -- I knew that something was wrong. The young, still not quite developed leaves on the Lapin were turning brown. Some of the leafsets at the top of the tree had died back completely. That's when I knew something wasn't quite right in Dodge.

Where to turn? Facebook of course! The Social Media Pages are full of horticulturalists and nursery shop owners who could probably immediately diagnose the problem -- and better yet -- suggest a quick cure. So -- I snapped some photos -- the same photos that you see here -- posted them up on Facebook and asked for help.

It didn't take long. Redwood Barn Nursery Owner Don Shor diagnosed the problem less than eight hours later: Brown Rot. Farmer Fred Hoffman concurred. So did Sacramento Gardening's Angela Pratt. Brown Rot had taken hold of my Lapin Cherry tree -- and was delivering quite the knockout punch.

That's when I turned to the web for a little photo research. I started Googling phrases like "brown rot" and "Lapin Cherry brown rot" and some interesting and alarming photos popped up. Sure enough -- the infected brown rot branches that I found online were an exact match for what was taking place at home.

But even worse than that -- was a photo of a cherry tree that was exhibiting signs of Brown Rot in late summer. The fully developed leaves were turning a dark shade of brown and falling to the ground. It suddenly hit me that my Lapin Cherry had exhibited the exact same signs last fall. Although it should have raised red flags then -- I took the leaf die off and drop as the "sign of fall." The tree -- I reasoned -- would be back.

If only I had known.

The spores that cause Brown Rot overwintered and grew during the wet and cold rainy months. By the time spring hit? Every single branch was covered with disease. And I had no idea until it reared its ugly head with some early blossom die-off. By then? It was already too late. The entire tree was infected.

It didn't take long for the disease to progress. The green cherries that you see in the photos taken two weeks ago have since turned a shade of red and brown. Not a single cherry made it. And I just finished up today with picking the entire 2010 crop and dumping all of it -- every last cherry -- into the green waste bin.

The pie cherries? Gone. The eating cherries? Eaten by disease. The only cherries that Bill Bird will eat this year will come from the Farmer's Market.

Fortunately -- Brown Rot can be controlled. Unlike many diseases that force you to dig up a tree and start over -- regular applications of copper sulfate fungicides should be enough to knock out Brown Rot -- no matter how far it's progression. Other -- stronger -- fungicides are also available for home use. Those will be drafted into this battle at some point as well.

As for Venus' tree -- which is planted just 15 feet away -- so far so good. The tree isn't exhibiting any signs of disease yet. The few cherries on the tree will eventually ripen -- and hopefully Venus will get to one or two of them before our fine feathered friends start feasting away on them.

But if the leaves on this tree suddenly turn brown and begin to fall in late summer or early fall? Well -- at least I'll know what steps to take next.

Gifts From Greg

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I'd like to introduce you today to an interesting member of the gardening-hunting blogging community. His name is Greg Damitz. He's the brains behind the blog that is Roseville Vegetable Gardening -- and as you might be able to guess from the photo -- he's rather fond of duckies.

I first discovered Greg's blog about a year and a half ago -- right about the time he discovered my blog and we started to trade notes back and forth about heirloom tomatoes -- onions -- garlic and other produce straight from the backyard garden.

Greg's blog intrigued me for a number of reasons. First -- he lives in Old Roseville -- in a neighborhood that some people would love to move into. The neighborhoods near the Roseville Fairgrounds and railyard are so unlike the newer cookie cutter subdivisions that are located just blocks away.

Greg lives in a neighborhood that was built sixty to seventy years ago. No house looks alike. The streets are wide. The houses are small. The yards are expansive. They were built for a generation that grew up without computers and other indoor gadgets. They were built for families who spent the bulk of their time outdoors -- in the sunshine.

These are homes that feature alleys behind every home. Mature fruit and citrus trees abound in nearly every front and backyard. It's a picture of stark beauty that is hard to describe -- but it's similar to the neighborhoods that I called home as a child in Modesto. Although -- I'll admit -- those Modesto homes offered slightly larger lots.

Why? Who wanted to live in Modesto in the 1950's? Who wants to live in Modesto now? Developers had to do something to lure people to town. Homes with extra large lots were the selling point. Sacramento and Roseville meanwhile -- although small towns at the time -- offered direct access to San Francisco to the west or Reno to the east. In Modesto -- at that time -- it took quite a bit of driving down old, dusty, county roads before you hit any main highway that would take you anywhere worth going.

But I digress. My chance visit with Greg took place during a quest where I was trying to "take care of two birds with one stone." A co-worker from Grass Valley had picked up a package of "All Red" seed potatoes from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and had traveled to nearby Lincoln for a high school baseball game featuring her record-setting son who is making college scouts drool (this kid is going to make life miserable for the Dodgers while starting for your San Francisco Giants people -- trust me on this).

Greg's home was just a short drive away from the game in question -- AND it just happened to lead me in the same direction of home. You see -- Greg had some things I wanted.

One of those items is located in this photo to your right -- and it's a project that I'd been attempting to tackle for quite some time -- but had yet to "get around to it." To most folks? This is nothing more than a couple of pieces of wood with some large holes drilled into it. But for experienced beekeepers? This is a home for Mason and Carpenter bees -- which are some of the best pollinators on the planet. Those tubes taped to the side of that home? Those are Mason Bee tubes -- purchased just yesterday at Sacramento Beekeeping Supply.

Soon -- those Mason Bees will emerge from those tubes -- and hopefully crawl right into one of those pre-drilled holes. And -- since I know that we already have Carpenter Bees in the neighborhood -- I'm hopefull they'll find the new home just as appealing.

Mason and Carpenter bees -- yes they are those large black bees -- aren't the honey producers that your standard Italian honeybees are. Nope. But they are superior pollinators. And they are attracted to food crops like heirloom tomatoes that the standard honeybee ignores. If you've never witnessed a Mason or Carpenter bee drilling into a small tomato flower -- it's a show everyone should catch in their lifetimes. Better yet? When a Mason or Carpenter bee is finished with that tomato flower? A tomato invariably develops.

And these bees can hit THOUSANDS of tomato flowers in the space of a week or two. I should know. Venus and I hosted a Carpenter Bee last year that we could hear coming from 50-yards off. There was no mistaking his entry into the backyard. Our "Battleship Missouri" would normally locate us in the yard -- buzz by our heads to announce his presence -- and head straight for the raised beds that held our heirloom tomato, melon and squash crops.

Is it any wonder why we had a monster year last summer for tomato production?

I also used to visit Greg's blog often to take in photos of the mature fruit and citrus trees that abound in this neighborhood. These are MONSTER trees people. They're big enough to feed an entire block -- let alone just one home. A nearby pomegranate -- for example -- would keep you pickled in pomegranate cider for an entire year.

To put it into perspective? I'll be in my mid-to-late fifties before I even begin to approach that kind of production in my own backyard. And -- although I do have that "distinguished gray" look -- I'm not even close to sniffing fifty yet people!

Greg surprised me when I arrived. Not only did he present me with my very own Mason and Carpenter Bee hive -- he also handed me a large box of some of the juciest -- most delectable -- Meyer Lemons I'd seen in quite some time. How do I know they were juicy? Because I juiced some of them just last night. It only took ten of them to create a half-gallon of lip-smacking lemonade.

Meyer Lemons are the BOMB! In Greg's neighborhood? The trees are so large and so productive that you can pick year round -- and still not quite get every last one.

Now -- I don't know about you -- but to me? That's a slice of Heaven.

We put those lemons to *good* use last night with not just lemonade -- but we mixed that home-grown creation with fresh strawberries and freshly harvested honey from the Hello Kitty Hive. Throw in some ice and a little more than a splash of tequila -- and you have one FINE margarita on the rocks.

This is the first time Venus and I have broken into the hive to harvest the honey that our bees left behind. And they left a METRIC TON of it. Just one frame resulted in the production of 10 lbs. of pure -- golden honey. And there are still nine wax-capped frames to go.

As for Greg? His gifts will result in a return gardening gift of heirloom tomato starter plants later this spring -- and I imagine he just might enjoy a jar of honey to boot. Lord knows -- I have enough of it. And with the way that fellow blogger Garry Erck is capturing wild hive swarms in El Dorado County? Looks like I'll have some new *BUZZ* activity in that hive sooner than Venus and I expected.

Gardening Is . . .

A. Hard Work
B. A Sense of Renewal
C. Causes You to Smell Like Fresh Steer Manure
D. Frustrating
E. Why My Back is Sore
F. All of the Above


For You, My Love

Saturday, April 17, 2010

OK, I'll admit it.

I'm a sap.

Really -- truly -- I'm just a big baby in extra medium men's size clothing. I sometimes wonder why I am not like other men -- perhaps it was the way I was raised without a father -- I'm just not sure. I may look like a "big guy." But inside -- I'm just a softie.

I demonstrate this in so many ways -- from hanging bird feeders in the yard to entertain or tease the housecats to no end -- or think of new and imaginative ways to please the wife that is Venus.

One of the events that I look forward too every spring is the first rose of the year. Springtime roses are the best in my personal opinion. This is when buds are at a peak size and burst out in a glory of color. They also make for the best cutting roses -- if you can get to them before the spring rains spoil that short moment of beauty.

Such an event took place this past weekend. I knew we were in for a whale of a storm the coming week. Some of the rose bushes scattered about the backyard were just beginning to flower. So why not get a bud while the getting is good -- right?

I found this gorgeous white with green-tinges John F. Kennedy (JFK) rose in the deepest -- most remote -- part of the backyard. Why did I put it there? Well -- it was a transplant from the first home. It had not done all that well during its first six years -- and to be honest -- it wasn't one of my favorites. But -- since it was in a line of rose bushes that we were removing from the old home -- it had to go somewhere.

So -- I found an out of the way corner in a part of the backyard that nobody really visits -- dug a small hole and that's where the JFK went.

Imagine my surprise when it not only flowered the following spring -- but produced an overwhelming display of force that I had never seen out of this particular rose bush before. By all accounts -- it should not have done this well. I didn't amend the planter hole much -- the bush was right next to the house and a fence. It didn't get a whole lot of sun. It didn't get a whole lot of water either (just a single drip emitter).

Today? The JFK is a showpiece of the backyard. And it produced the first -- perfectly shaped rose -- of Spring 2010. The stem was perfect -- about 15-inches in length. No other roses were developing off this stem -- and the rose had just barely started to open. Perhaps two petals had unfurled at the point where I cut it and brought it inside.

The timing really could not have been better. The wife was showering. Her eyes were closed. After putting the JFK in a simple bud vase and filling it with water -- I placed it right next to a bathroom sink that the wife uses. When she finally emerged? I had already "left the building," and she was greeted with a single hybrid tea rose.

One week later and that rose has now unfurled completely and is still putting on a grand show in the dining room.

There will be other roses this season -- that much is sure. The center-piece of the backyard? The Floribunda called Scentimental? It's nearly as high as the fence now -- it's just loaded with buds -- but is still a week away from flowering. Other nearby bushes are also starting to show some color and a few buds have opened here and there.

But nothing is putting on quite the show like the old, reliable, JFK.

This is for you my dear Venus. Rest assured my dear wife -- this is just a start. I will continue to remind you of your dazzling beauty -- and my love for you -- all summer long.

Color me GREEN

Thursday, April 15, 2010

ENVY is thy name. Glad to meet you.

One day after posting up some rather tempting pictures of our little tomato and pepper stater plant grow operation (which I was quite proud of mind you) -- well -- someone just had to pop that balloon.

What a mighty big PIN that was. The air in that balloon? Gone!

Listen -- I know there's some section of the Ten Commandments that says something along the lines of "Shall Not Covet Your Neighbor's Donkey" (among other things) -- but do you think the Good Lord in Heaven would apply that to -- say -- a neighbor's tomato starter plants?

He would? Dang. Major disappointment.

Well then -- I won't "covet." I'll just drool from a distance then. What do you mean by "that's the same thing as "covet?" How about admire? Is that OK?

I can't help but feeling this way after looking at some pictures of the tomato plants that Farmer Fred Hoffman has growing in that great big greenhouse of his. I mean -- we both planted seeds at right about the same time. But my tiny seedlings just do not compare to the California Coastal Redwood starters to the immediate left.

Those suckers are HUGE! Sure -- they're a tad "leggy." Who cares! Look at the stem growth on those things. Anyone who grows starter plants from direct seed would KILL for stem development like that.

Well -- perhaps "kill" is the wrong choice of words here. Drool? No -- I already used that. We'll stick with "admire" then.

So what gives? Why are Fred's starter plants that much larger? That much more lush? Well -- even though I don't have one and can't say for sure -- that nice greenhouse has to play some kind of role here. It's not the only thing -- to be sure. Fred's been at this game a little bit longer than I have -- a little bit longer than most of us.

The last time I spoke with Fred about tomato starter plants? Well -- let's see? It's been at least a month and a half. At that point in time -- many of my seeds had sprouted. Fred indicated that he was having germination problems. So -- at one point -- I was ahead in this game here.

Obviously -- something has changed between "then" and "now." Those pictures are fairly dramatic. As much as I've learned from him -- I also know that I have a long way to go. No -- I don't have a greenhouse. I don't have that advantage yet.

But it's more than "just a greenhouse." It's the expertise that comes with using a greenhouse in the correct matter -- or the right soil solution -- or the right fertilizer. The tomato starter plants in question will send you a message -- telling you what they really need.

It's up to you to "read the leaves."

It's just a guess on my part of course -- but something tells me Fred Hoffman is pretty darn proficient in this langauge.

Am I buttering him up in hopes that he'll cut loose with some starter plants? Of course! I'm not stupid! But it's more than that. In looking at the photos he provided?

I still have a lot to learn.

As we move into the prime tomato growing season that is summer -- a lot of this argument will become moot. Yes -- you can start tomatoes early. But those that are started later invariably catch up to the plants started indoors. In other words -- if you compare the two plants at the end of the summer? It will be tough to tell them apart.

That's why the lovely wife that is Venus and I will be doing a lot of direct seeding this weekend. More on the "direct seed" option in a future post.

The Kids Are Alright...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

For those of you who are as "Mathematically Challenged" (Dumb as Rocks) as I am -- please answer the following question:

When do three flats containing 72 tomato and pepper starter plants suddenly equal nine flats and 216 tomato and pepper starter plants?

If you answered "second planting," WRONG!

But if you guessed that the wonderful wife that is Venus and I got a little *ahem* "generous" with our seed distribution efforts in those first three flats? DING! You're ready for Alex Trebek.

What do you win if you answered the math question correctly? Let me check my supply of used cat hair -- and I'll get back to you on that. Vanna White -- I'm not.

I thought that Venus and I would be a tad late with our tomato and pepper plant starters this year (we started our seeds on the weekend after the Super Bowl) -- but our local weather has been more than highly unpredictable. It's been downright pathetic.

At this point last year? Venus and I had already received our starter plants courtesy of Farmer Fred Hoffman and half had already been planted. Why did someone as famous as Fred Hoffman "volunteer" to grow starter plants for our North Natomas farm? Does a hearty contribution to the Hoffman Foundation of Fine Scotch begin to answer that question?

But this year -- contribution or no -- the decision was made to strike out on our own. My decision? Oh -- HECK NO! I begged and pleaded on bended knee for another starter plant offering from the Hoffman estate. I even entertained the thought of enlisting the support of the Sacramento branch of Al Qaeda to change Fred's line of thinking -- but alas -- we were on our own.

See? This is what happens. The happy North Natomas gardeners start with three simple trays containing 24 cells each. Two months later? I'm seriously considering knocking out one of the bedroom walls in an attempt to gain more growing space. Heirloom tomatoes make you crazy. Not wives -- tomatoes.

But -- so far -- everything is working. In fact -- I'm more than a little surprised by the results of our plant separation efforts. We didn't do anything fancy mind you. When the time finally came to separate plants -- Venus and I literally tore them out of each cell and then re-planted into new trays. End result? Take a good look. The trays containing the transplants are actually doing BETTER than the trays that contain the original plantings.

How is this happening? Why is this happening? I'm not sure. The jury-rigged -- excuse me -- professional light system setup we're using is just extensive enough to cover three trays. The problem is -- we have nine. Those that are closest to the light source should be doing better.

But they're not. The transplants furthest from the light source have actually grown at a faster rate and look healthier than the starter plants that were not rudely ripped from their homes and transplanted into another tray.

We didn't change our methods much during the transplant process -- a job that we undertook in stages. We used the same "Black Gold" seed starter mix that we used for the first three trays. I continue to fertilize my seedlings with a weak mixture of a liquid organic fertilizer called Omega 2000

So what gives? I'm not sure. For those of you who are visiting the blog for the first time expecting expert advice -- I'm really sorry to tell you that not only are you going to be sorely disappointed -- but you've come to the wrong place. Despite what you may have read recently in your local newspaper -- about the only expertise I have is in the consumption of fine gin that comes from a plastic bottle.

What I can tell you is this: There are 216 tomato, pepper and eggplant starters that are growing in a spare bedroom. Instead of just two varieties of each heirloom tomato starter -- I suddenly find myself with four or five. Instead of one or two varieties of peppers (sweet, hot and VOLCANIC) -- there are six.

I suppose I could plant all 216 starter plants in my backyard. But -- at last check -- I still hadn't gotten around to building raised beds on the roof of our home. Therefore -- yes it's true -- Venus and I will be parting with a great many of our plants when the time comes.

This is provided -- of course -- that I don't kill them all off during the hardening process. What's that? Can that possibly happen? Does gin come in a plastic bottle???

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Cranberry Red?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Our fifteen minutes of fame now over -- it's time to move on to bigger and better gardening delights. This is gardening season my friends. Yeah -- I know -- it may not look like it outside -- but the month of April is pretty darn crucial in terms of getting work done. If only Mother Nature would cooperate.

Venus and I are actually behind on the gardening front. At this point last year? Venus had filled up an entire 4X8 bed with two varieties of seed potatoes. By early April? The first sprouts were poking above the soil. We were on our way to a monster potato harvest that year -- and the wife's goal of a Red, White and Blue Potato Salad for the 4th of July holiday was FULFILLED.

This year? Sorry Venus. It appears were out of luck. A range of factors -- some that were out of my control -- will probably prevent an early July harvest this year.

The biggest error -- however -- appears to be all on me. I made the wrong move in assuming that I would find a bountiful supply of seed potatoes when I visited Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in the foothill community of Grass Valley two weeks ago.

Bad assumption.

Oh -- they had -- and still have a good selection of seed potatoes alright. These two bags of "All Blue" and "Colorado Rose" potatoes are evidence of that. At some point -- Venus will be chopping these up and planting them into one of our raised beds.

But -- I was too late to find our personal favorite: Cranberry Red. This is a wonderful variety. Much like "All Blue," the Cranberry Red variety doesn't lose that light red streaky color, even after cooking. Not only was Peaceful Valley out of this particular variety -- I would soon find out that EVERY nursery I contacted either didn't stock it -- or sold the last Cranberry Red spud eons before I called.

What does this mean? It probably means that Cranberry Red won't be a part of our potato plantings this spring -- OR -- it will be planted far too late to produce in time for a "Red, White and Blue" Potato Salad creation for the 4th of July. Don't be fooled. The wife creates a mean potato salad. Add in the colorful display? Suddenly -- you're the envy of every other wife at the big bash block party.

The second key factor in all of this is the weather is just not cooperating this year like it did last season. Don't get me wrong. The weather in April of last year wasn't perfect. We got very lucky when a bed of tomato plants survived a late, warm, April rain. But it was a lot nicer -- and warmer -- in April of last year than it is this year. And next week's weather forecasts are enough to make a grown gardener cry.

But that's Mother Nature for you. I can still remember my mother singing the familiar tune of "April Showers Bring May Flowers" while I wistfully sat inside during the April weekends of my youth -- missing yet another youth baseball game opportunity (I played the position of Left Out).

And -- who knows? Maybe our April lament will turn into a mid-July surprise when we hopefully harvest a bountiful crop of Colorado Rose Red Potatoes? No -- it doesn't retain that "All Red" color (even after cooking) -- but the reviews look pretty darn tasty. The website "Maine Potato Lady" gives Colorado Red a solid thumbs up:

"With Cherry Red as one of its parents, Colorado Rose was bred for high yield and early bulking. Attractive oval red tubers with white flesh are great for those early summer salads or roasting. Resistant to hollow heart, second growth, and bruising. Medium semi-erect plant with purple flowers."

If there's one thing that I've learned about gardening -- it's this: Never be afraid to try something new. At one point in my life -- not all that long ago -- I believed that a potato was a potato and nothing more. They all tasted the same.

Then I grew my own and learned the real truth. Potatoes can be a lot like heirloom tomatoes in terms of color -- taste and texture. All you need is some seed spuds and the urge to create your own, personal, Frankenstein monster in your backyard garden.

Closing Note: Thanks to some fine hunting by Farmer Fred Hoffman -- you can still order Cranberry Red Seed Potatoes through Territorial Seed. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply should also receive a new shipment of Cranberry Red seed stock by mid-April (you may want to call ahead and check first).

Shameless, Shameless Self-Promotion!!!

Sacramento Bee Garden Writer/Blogger/Newswoman Extraordinaire Debbie Arrington paid a visit to the Bird compound in North Natomas earlier this week.

What appeared in today's Home and Garden section was totally unexpected! She was too nice! She needs to learn a thing or three from Farmer Fred Hoffman.

Debbie will be on Fred's gardening show tomorrow by the way -- on both NewsTalk 1530 KFBK and later Talk 650 KSTE.

If the conversation turns to us? It's a sign that the show is getting SLOW...

Hands Off My S-Curve -- You Ingrates!!!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sorry -- but I'm just a WEE bit cranky at the moment. Spring has sprung -- which means summer isn't all that far off -- and that means it's time to plan out the summer flowerbeds.

What on earth does a flower garden have to do with vegetable gardening? Easy! Flowers attract beneficials like butterlies and BEES -- and Bill &Venus need BEES to pollinate those wonderful melon vines and citrus trees.

Otherwise -- no summer martini for you!

But -- I digress. Summer flowerbeds are the BOMB. The best and most vibrant colors come from a summer flower garden. One of my personal favorites is a design called the "Rainbow of Colors."

It's tough to find this exact design online -- but here's a picture of what it looked like in the front yard of our first home in North Natomas. I can't remember exactly who sent me this design -- except that it came with a packet of other flower garden designs that I received in the mail shortly after purchasing my first home in Madera, CA in 1993.

Yes -- I lived in Madera. So what? Why are you snickering?

There's nothing better -- in my humble opinion -- than the Rainbow of Color Flower design. I've tried several -- but I keep on coming back to this one. There's just something about the color show -- and it puts on quite a show during those hot summer months of July and August.

The most famous part of the Rainbow of Color design? Again, in my humble opinion, it's got to be the all important S-CURVE. The curve is made up of one of my personal favorites in the flower garden: the Victoria Blue Salvia. The latin name for this old-time favorite is Salvia farinacea. A more common name that some gardeners might recognize is Mealy-cup sage.

There was a day -- a time -- an age -- where you could find Victoria Blue Salvia in just about any nursery. Heck -- the Big Box Stores like Home Depot carried this stuff by the flats. You could walk out with enough Victoria Blue to create your own -- personal -- 100 yard Rainbow of Color patch.

Sadly my friends -- those days are long gone. It seems that our common friend -- our mealy-cup sage -- has become the newest and latest target of the young and the dumb. That's right -- the kids are after MY S-CURVE. Not because the young and the dumb are suddenly into creating a Rainbow of Color Flower Garden.

Nope -- they're smoking it.

Say again? Did you say what I thought you said? Smoking it?

Yes -- it's true. They're not only smoking it. They're chewing on the leaves. You laugh? I would join you -- except it's TRUE.

Our little Victoria Blue is under assault. And the thing is -- the kids aren't even getting it right! They're confused! Then again -- if they're dumb enough to light up some Salvia farinacea -- they're probably too far gone to understand that they're lighting up with or chewing on the wrong weed.

Victoria Blue salvia is a member of the mint family, which is characterized by square stems and an aromatic fragrance. The salvia genus is a large group within this family that includes more than 900 species of shrubs, herbs, herbaceous perennials and annuals. Salvia comes from salveo, which means "save," referring to the medicinal value associated with this genus.

Unfortunately, it has also been confused with another species called Salvia divinorum. Also known as Diviner's Sage, Salvia divinorum and Salvia farinacea are two completely different plants altogether. However -- they do share a common trait.

Unless you have a practiced eye, you can't tell them apart.

What is Salvia divinorum? It's a is a psychoactive plant which can induce intense feelings of joy -- sadness -- fits of laughter and other altered states. It's certainly nothing new in terms of a drug. It's been around for awhile.

But it's suddenly become the "designer" drug to have among the young and dumb. You can witness these kids posting up on the subject in various chat rooms -- and most have absolutely NO CLUE of what they are doing. But most often -- they write something dumb like "I've got to have some." And suddenly -- there's a big chunk missing out of MY S-CURVE at home!

What does this mean? It means the young and dumb are targeting MY S-CURVE! Even though -- it's the wrong thing ENTIRELY! Who says kids read labels anyway? My S-Curve is to be "admired" from the street. It's not meant to be dried -- rolled -- chewed -- stuffed into a pipe or smoked. How do I know these terms? From exp -- NEVERMIND!

I know what this means. Suddenly -- Victoria Blue Salvia is going to be HARD to find this year. Once a flat or two gets put out for sale -- a bunch of kids show up and it's suddenly GONE LIKE THE WIND.

I would grow it at home -- like I do with my tomato and pepper plant starters -- but that just screams for a surprise daytime visit by some uninvited guests. No -- I'll have to do what I do every year -- which is call around various nurseries -- looking for an available six-pack or two.

And if I'm lucky enough to find that -- it means I'm standing guard doing shotgun duty for the rest of the summer.

Stupid kids...