The Sweetest Melon...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hale's Best Jumbo Cantaloupe the melon that comes straight from the backyard melon patch! Like that cantaloupe to your right? 4.5 lbs. of Hale's Best Jumbo Cantaloupe? It will go down as the sweetest -- juciest bit of melon that has ever come from the Bird Backyard bar none.

In a summer full of gardening missteps and disappointments -- this baby goes down as the "bright spot" in the Bird Back 40. It's the "Grand Slam" in the bottom of the 9th in the 7th Game of the October Classic. I've never grown a cantaloupe this large -- and nothing -- I mean NOTHING -- has ever tasted this good.

Bill Bird is a tad melancholy this Sunday morning. Stick with me for a minute. It's one of those helpless little feelings you get when you open the morning newspaper (yeah -- we're old skool print people, people) and discover that a neighbor has just short-sold a home on your block for $235,000.

That price -- folks -- represents a loss of more than 50% on our housing value. Not 20% -- not 30% -- not 50% either. Make it more like 60% for a neighborhood that was nothing more than a rice field just four years ago. Who needs morning coffee when a former neighbor sticks a pin in your eye?

What does this mean? Well -- it means that Bill and Venus Bird aren't going anywhere soon! We're going to be farming this North Natomas Back 40 from "here until eternity" to borrow a somewhat famous movie line. I might even have to sell off parts of this blog. For three cents.

What to do then?

Kleckley Sweet Watermelon
Grow melons. Lots and lots of melons. Oh -- and perhaps drink fine gin that comes in a plastic bottle.

Melon season has indeed "arrived" in Northern California. Like everything else -- it's late -- but better late than never. And -- I'm also somewhat surprised to discovered that our cooler-than-normal summer hasn't affected the melon sugar content.

Venus and I harvested the first of the Kleckley Sweet melons last weekend. It wasn't huge -- not hardly. In fact -- at 10 lbs. -- that's rather small for Kleckley Sweet size. These babies can top out at 25-30 lbs. But you won't find me complaining here. This is one of the sweetest watermelons to come from the Bird Backyard yet.

There's nothing quite like the satisfaction you get when cutting into a melon and discovering that you have harvested said melon at JUST the right time. Picking melons -- for the most part -- is a crapshoot. Sometimes you get great melon. Sometimes you pick it a tad too early. Sometimes you pick it a tad to late. Picking it at the exact right time? You feel like you've just "doubled down" and life has dealt you a "21."

As for the Kleckley Sweet that we picked last weekend -- I noticed that the green rind had turned a shade or two "whiter" over the course of four or five days (I inspect the garden everyday because I'm quite insane and want to find out where "that damn dog" has been digging) and that proved to be a tell-tale sign that the melon was indeed "ready for harvest."

But you never really know until you slice said melon wide open and taste the gift that is located inside. And home-grown watermelon is quite the gift. It's juicy. It's messy. It's sweet. It's lip smacking good. And -- about those seeds? I'm of the opinion that it ain't melon unless it has SEEDS. Yes -- "seedless melon" or "seedless anything" for that matter is an abomination!

Besides -- the seeds are good for spitting at rogue cats. Or -- rogue neighbors who do you no favors...

Hale's Best
As for the Hale's Best Jumbo Cantaloupe? Figuring out that perfect moment to harvest is a tad easier. The melon color changes from green -- to brown -- to finally a light orange-brown. You know it's ready when the stem snaps off from the vine with ease.

The real trick is getting to said cantaloupe before the voles can "help themselves." So far? They haven't been the problem they were last year. But melon season is now just beginning in North Natomas.

The voles have plenty of time...

A Bowl Full of Color

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ain't it amazing what three solid days of normal summertime heat can do to a backyard garden?

The heat that I have waited for to arrive all summer long finally showed up this past weekend in the form of bright sunshine -- highs in the mid 90's and some of the warmest nights we've seen this year. It's not quite warm enough for the wife that is Venus to take off her sweater (the wife prefers "Fresno Warm") -- but I'm not complaining.

Lord knows -- I've done enough already.

The heat was just enough to kick some loaded cherry plants into production. Although the heat isn't expected to last -- it was apparently enough to give us this bowl full of color tonight. And I'm hopeful these harvests will not only continue -- but gain in intensity as the summer marches on.

Bill Bird is never quite satsified. I guess that's what keeps me going.

I'll be honest. We went a *tad* overboard with our cherry tomato plantings this year. I never intended to set aside room in our limited raised bed space to three different cherry tomato varieties (the wife that is Venus had other plans) and I also wasn't counting on the INFINITE number of volunteers that would suddenly spring up in spaces so arid it could be mistaken for a moonscape.

How Black Cherry tomatoes can grow without any source of water continues to amaze me. But grow they do -- and do quite well.

The Bowl Full of Color represents many different varieties -- both intended and unintended plantings. That list includes Black Cherry (volunteers everywhere plus one is planted in a raised bed, a Large Orange Cherry volunteer, Pink Ping Pong, Lemon Drop, Jelly Bean and Santa Hybrid.

Heirloom Tomatoes from the Bird Backyard
I'm not exactly sure where the Large Orange Cherry comes from. It showed up last year outside of a raised bed that contained a smaller orange cherry variety called SunGold the previous year. That bed also held a number of beefsteak tomatoes -- including Mortgage Lifter and Pineapple. Could these be a cross of two plants? I suppose it's entirely possible -- but I'll never know.

For now? It's called Large Orange Cherry. I'll seed this particular variety (it is quite good) in hopes of producing a genetic duplicate next season -- but one never knows with volunteer plants. I suppose that's half the fun of planting a tomato garden.

Cherry tomatoes are just the start though. The main part of the tomato garden is -- at long last -- finally coming into production. I'm not seeing the numbers that I saw last year -- and I highly doubt that I'll encounter those massive harvests -- but it looks like Venus and I will be busy with some home canning projects later this August.

Bush Beans N' Basil Anyone?
Since the 49ers are once again going with Alex Smith at quarterback and the Raiders are -- well -- the Raiders -- I'll be able to dedicate some NFL Sundays to home canning efforts without missing much in the way of quality football.

I said quality football people. Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y. If you're not a fan -- let's just say it's been missing around these parts for -- oh -- the past decade. I either can summer produce or hook up an IV to the Kegerator outside. I'll choose summertime produce -- thank you.

That Damn Dog!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bandi the "Ninja Turtle"
...and now for the next chapter in the riveting Sacramento Vegetable Garden miniseries that is "That Damn Dog!"

Starring: That Damn Dog!

Acclimating said dog with garden is proving to be a challenge -- as many gardeners suggested it would. Bandi the Bandana Girl is -- after all -- just a six or seven month old mutt pup of an adorable dog (who can resist that face?) -- and puppies are just full of non-stop energy.

Having kids around the house helps drain some of that pent-up energy -- but they're not around 24-7 -- so That Damn Dog has been known to put her paws to good use around the yard.

The damage hasn't been all that extensive to be honest -- although she did particulary enjoy that Incrediball Hydrangea that had been growing extremely well in a tucked away corner against the home near the berry plantings. Flowers -- stems -- even the roots -- made for a tasty meal. All Bill and Venus Bird discovered was a gaping hole.

That Damn Dog...

Still -- she hasn't been quite the disaster that some had predicted either. Despite an overwhelming selection of raised beds filled with loose soil -- she has resisted the urge so far to "dig, dig, dig." My fear that this damn dog would develop a love for all things ripened tomatoes hasn't come to fruition -- and I forgave her for picking that underdeveloped cantaloupe. I must admit -- it looked like one of her play toy softballs.

O'Henry Peach
But where Bill & Venus Bird are drawing the absolute line is right here to your left -- our O'Henry Peach tree -- which is positively loaded with a large crop of what I hope will be very tasty peaches. This counts as the third year for this tree -- and Venus and I culled it quite a bit during the spring and early summer to keep the crop small and manageable.

Not only does culling the fruit cut down on the stress placed on the tree itself -- it also seems to aid in actual tree growth. Venus and I trimmed said tree for the first time last winter -- and sure enough -- the O'Henry responded with three new shoots for every trim cut that we made.

June Pride Peach
It's hard to tell just how extensive the new growth is in these photos -- however -- because Venus and I have already netted the tree against marauding bird and possible raids by that damn dog. The birds really went to town on the June Pride Peach tree earlier this year and we were not prepared for the onslaught. In past years -- birds have helped themselves to about 10% of the crop -- which is a manageable number for us.

This year however? The birds showed up in greater numbers and started feasting away on what I must admit was a rather poor showing from the June Pride peach this year. The June Pride normally produces baseball sized fruit that ripens during the last week of June and the first week of July. But this year? Not only was the harvest late -- most of the peaches were plum sized.

O'Henry Peaches Protected by Netting
While I was willing to wait for tree ripened fruit -- our fine feather friends were not. I simply wasn't prepared for the type of damage they would eventually inflict. I probably lost anywhere from 50%-60% of the crop to birds that settled in for the feast -- and I was bound and determined to not let the same thing happen with the O'Henry crop.

Thus -- the addition of the bird netting -- which also keeps a curious dog at bay. She hasn't made the connection yet that the tree holds a similar bounty to the old June Pride peach pits that I have allowed her to chew on from time to time (if the pits keep her interest away from the melon crop located nearby -- I consider this a *win*).

The O'Henry Peach
Although most of this year's fruit harvests have been somewhat disappointing -- which also involves losing trees to blight and freeze -- our fortunes appear to have turned with the impending O'Henry Peach harvest. The tree is finally large enough to support a somewhat moderate harvest (peach pie/cobbler anyone?) -- and the peaches are finally growing into true "O'Henry size."

Yeah. They're the size of beach balls. Bill Bird likes big peaches.

An Interesting Observation....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An early morning walk through ye olde vegetable garden can yield many interesting discoveries...

First -- my thanks to sister-in-law Leana Barrantes -- who was kind enough to gift me with an old digital camera she no longer uses. It just happens to be the best camera I've ever had -- and the photos prove it.

This camera appears to be idiot proof. I should know -- since I'm an idiot -- First Class.

My friends -- the photo to your immediate right represents one section of the Bird heirloom tomato garden in early August. I have quite the conundrum here. Perhaps you can help me figure it out?

By looking at the first photo above -- you'll notice that the tomato plants in the raised bed to the right are much taller than the plants in the raised bed to your left. The taller plants represent the starter plants I received earlier this year from Farmer Fred Hoffman. The plants to your left represent my starters.

This comes as no surprise to me whatsoever. Fred's starter plants TOWERED over our sickly offerings this year. Although my plants are now catching up and fruiting quite nicely -- they still haven't caught up to Fred's starter plants and may never catch up to them.

Here is the same shot of the two beds taken at a different angle. The bed containing my starter plants is in front. Fred's starter plants are located the next bed over. The PVC cages that you see in these photos stand about six feet high. The starter plants from Fred Hoffman have grown through the top of these PVC cages and stand at a height of about eight feet.

My starters -- meanwhile -- have barely begun to approach the six foot level.

Why is this so confusing? Well -- to be honest -- it's not. I expected as much. When you start with tall and healthy starter plants -- you're bound to get better growth. The proof is in these two photos.

BUT -- that's not all.

There's another section in the Bird Back 40 also dedicated to our heirloom tomato efforts. It's yet another raised bed located on the other side of the backyard. This is an 8X8 wide raised bed that we use for growing tomatoes -- and another section has been reserved for all things melon.

The plants located in this bed -- pictured to your right -- are not Fred Hoffman's starter plants. They are -- or were -- our sickly starter plants. Notice how these are growing through the top of the PVC cages. And -- keep in mind -- that this bed was planted one week AFTER we planted out in the two beds pictured above.

The tomato plants located in this bed are about the same size of the bed that contains Fred's starter plants. These starter plants were just as sickly as the rest of our starters. They were nowhere near as tall or lush as the plants gifted to us by Fred -- yet as the photo clearly shows -- they are now just as tall as Fred's plants if not taller.

How could this be. Why are these plants so lush -- green and tall? Why are they so much larger than my other starters in the photos above?

But that's not all.

The tomato plants located in this bed -- again pictured to your left in a somewhat wider shot (those are wifey's sunflowers in the background) -- were slow to produce fruit this year. I had blamed the lack of production on the weather (which continues to be less than ideal) -- but yet another strange development took place about two weeks ago.

These plants -- after growing to a height of six or seven feet and not producing much -- suddenly set a large and surprising crop of tomatoes. I'm not complaining mind you -- no not at all. Some of our best heirloom offerings are located in this bed. That includes the time-honored classic of Brandywine and other varieties like Tigerella, Arkansas Traveler and German Orange Strawberry (a new addition to the Bird heirloom tomato garden this season).

In fact -- the numbers of tomatoes that have formed on the German Orange Strawberry would bring a smile to the face of any heirloom grower. The plant is simply loaded with fruit from top to bottom. The same development has taken place with the Brandywine -- which is planted right next to it and the Tigerella (which is rather hard to reach because it's blocked by melons).

So -- what gives? Well -- to be honest -- I'm not sure. This has happened once before -- with a black tomato variety that Venus and I planted two years ago. Oh -- the plant grew to an impressive size sure enough. But production was lacking. In fact -- to be honest -- this black variety didn't produce a single, solitary tomato.

But -- upon reaching a height of five to six feet -- the tomato plant stopped growing and suddenly fruited a crop of 30-40 tomatoes within the space of a week. It went from the "least productive" category to "Whoa" in the space of a few hours. I still haven't figured out how or why that happened.

It just did.

If I had to guess? I think I may have been a little too *generous* with the amendments that I added to the soil last spring before Venus and I planted. The 8X8 bed was amended with chicken manure compost -- which is a tad hotter than the steer manure compost that I normally use in the other beds. I may have also added in a tad too much in the way of pelleted fertilizers -- which I also use when I recharge our raised beds for the upcoming season.

Too much nitrogen will result in a strong and healthy tomato plant with very little fruit set. I do like to experiment somewhat when recharging these beds for the upcoming growing season (you learn through screwing up) -- and it's possible that I "crossed the line" when it came to the all important nutrient of NITROGEN. Yes -- it's essential for tomato plant growth or any vegetable plant growth.

But -- to be honest? This is really just a guess on my part. It could be too much nitrogen. It could be something else entirely.

Your thoughts?


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fresh Fruit Samples from Dave Wilson Nursery
Mmmm....Yeah, like that...

When Bill Bird encounters a fruity scene from heaven like the one you see to your immediate right -- the first impulse that pops into his head is the overall urge to shove everyone out of line and announce (with a bullhorn no less): "This fruit has been impounded by the blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening."

Thank goodness I ignore these types of urges -- as I most certainly would have incited a riot amount the HUNDREDS (dare I say thousands?) of fresh fruit and vegetable fans that showed up this past weekend for Harvest Day 2010 festivities at the Fair Oaks Community Garden.

This was the first time that Venus and I have attended said annual event. Dare I say that it probably will not be our last?

If fresh fruit is your game -- an endless game of checkers awaits. You're not going to find everything under the sun -- fruit wise -- at this event because -- not everything ripens at the same time. The world just doesn't work that way. My June Pride peaches are but an afterthought -- and the impending O'Henry Peach harvest is still another week or two off.

But there's enough getting ripe now on ye olde vine and fruit tree to satisfy just about anyone's palate. You want proof?

Dapple Dandy Pluot
How about this scrumptious offering of Dapple Dandy Pluots? The pluot -- a relatively new introduction from the fine folks at Dave Wilson Nursery -- is all the rage in backyard gardens right now. The perfect cross between a plum and an apricot -- breeders can't churn out enough varieties to meet actual demand. Question any nursery owner in the Sacramento area -- and they'll tell you that pluot trees are normally the first to get snatched up during bare root planting season.

As for Bill and Venus Bird? We have a Flavor Finale Pluot growing like gangbusters in the Back 40 that is our North Natomas backyard. Purchased from Bay Laurel Nursery during bare root season last winter -- we may be forced to order up another tree to serve as a pollinator.

I know -- unlucky us.

Flavor King Pluot
As much as I would have liked to sample what is currently growing in our backyard -- alas -- it's not quite Flavor Finale season yet. Pluots -- like plums and like apricots -- ripen up at different times of the year. If you're lucky enough to visit a fruit tasting festival in August or September? You just might be lucky enough to get a slice or two of pure fruit heaven.

No worries though -- despite the absence of the Flavor Finale. There was plenty of fruit to go around -- including the nectarine varities of Flavortop and Arctic Jay -- which are growing quite nicely in the Bird front yard as part of our experiment with the Backyard Orchard Culture concept. After one taste of each variety Venus and I both know that a bit of nectarine heaven awaits. Very soon -- one day -- our trees will provide enough bounty for not only our needs but the desires of an entire neighborhood.

There's nothing like fresh fruit season baby.

If you're in the market for planting a fruit tree (or ten) -- and you're just not sure what to plant or when -- this is one reason why you should attend a harvest tasting festival like this one. Instead of sampling just one or two different kinds of fruit from different trees -- you're sampling 30. Didn't like the taste of that particular pear? How about this one?

Harrow Delight Pear
That's how I discovered this Harrow Delight Pear. After just one taste -- I knew this one was a keeper. It is sugary sweet.  Indeed -- Venus and I have set aside space in the backyard for additional fruit trees after our failed experimentation with all things avocados (they'll grow in some areas -- and in others -- fergit it son).

No matter what corner you turned at this weekend's harvest festival -- there was something to either see or sample. Heirloom tomato season is decidely late this year (for some -- not for others) -- but there was still enough to go around for tomato afficiandos.

Black Monukka Table Grapes
The same applies to fresh-from-the-vine tablegrapes like this sampling of the Black Monukka -- which Venus and I planted as part of our grand "table grape experiment" in the Back 40 last spring. The vines aren't producing yet. They probably won't produce until the third year. But a tasting festival like this one gives you a chance to sample the bounty that will soon come.

So -- what was the best part of this year's harvest festival? If you like to look at and analyze trends like Venus and I do -- one had to be amazed and heartened by the young twenty-and-thirty-somethings that showed up -- children and dogs in tow. It's proof that the "grow your own" movement isn't slowing down -- indeed -- if anything -- it's still taking off.

That suits these gardeners just fine.


Monday, August 2, 2010

It's getting to be that time of year when weird things start taking place in the backyard. I haven't mulched it all yet -- though I'm getting there -- and I sometimes wonder why. The mulch doesn't last long. It gets swallowed and digested by the crack you see to your immediate right.

I'm not exactly sure how deep this crack goes -- though I've tried tossing pebbles down that hole and never quite reached the bottom. I can tell you that these cracks -- which are opening up pretty much everywhere -- are fairly deep. What's down there? I don't want to know. I'm hoping it's the Mother Lode -- but hope springs eternal.

But that's not the only crack that is spreading across the Bird Back 40. This here -- to your left -- also counts as a "crack" -- although I'm sure you've noticed that this is a plant and not a crack in the ground. Look closer. Indeed -- you'll see that the plant has indeed sprung from a crack in the soil.

I'm not sure where it's getting water from. There's nothing in the form of drip irrigation nearby. It doesn't get fertilzer. It doesn't get care. Before you start thinking that I'm a terrible tomato-parent -- please understand this much: this plant does much better if I up and ignore it. The only thing I'm allowed to do is harvest said plant. That's it. The moment I start caring for it -- is the moment that something goes wrong.

My friends -- I give you the red cherry variety known as "West Sac Crack." Seeds for this variety were procured from a VERY productive red cherry tomato plant that was growing through a crack in the driveway of a West Sacramento trailer park. Make that a COVERED driveway.

That's right. A co-worker discovered this plant four years ago. It didn't get any water. It hardly received any sunlight. It didn't belong to anyone. It just grew through a crack in the driveway -- and it has come back year after year after year.

My co-worker was good enough to harvest about fifty red cherry tomatoes and bring them to me at work. We had NO clue of where the plant came from. There were no tomato gardens nearby. People at trailer parks come and go -- so we had no idea how this plant got there -- nor how it grew so well. It was just *THERE* when my co-worker moved in.

So -- Venus and I gifted it with the name "West Sac Crack."

I seeded this plant a few years back. I started a few starter plants from that saved seed. I gave said starter plants a prime spot in a raised bed filled with the best planter mix soil that money can buy. The starter plant received regular irrigation and only the finest fertilizers. Guess what? It fell flat on its face.

It was somewhat productive. Yes -- it did have that distinctive taste. But it didn't grow into the bush that I had seen in West Sacramento. It wasn't covered with red cherry tomatoes like the parent plant in West Sacramento. It was -- at best -- a moderate producer. I wasn't impressed with it -- therefore -- I made the decision to not try it again.

Little did I know that West Sac Crack had other plans.

A volunteer sprang from the soil last season. Like many volunteers I let it grow -- just "because." I wanted to see what variety was growing out of my crummy clay soil. And -- not just growing mind you -- but thriving. When I saw those cherry tomatoes turn a bright shade of red? There was only one possible source: West Sac Crack. And it gave me a bounty of cherry tomatoes last season.

Did I replant this year? Oh heck no! I knew that neighborhood birds of the feathered variety had been feeding off the excess as well -- and thought I might see it spring to life again. Sure enough -- across the yard? A cherry tomato plant sprouted and grew well in the most inhospitable of locations. And -- once again -- it is thriving.

This isn't the only cherry "volunteer" to be sprouting up in the Bird Back 40 this season. A large orange cherry is also producing SCADS of tomatoes. I'd like to report that this is a Sungella variety -- except I've never planted a Sungella (large orange cherry). However -- it just might be a cross between a SunGold and a Pineapple Beefsteak that had been planted nearby.

It could also be a cross between a SunGold and Mortgage Lifter -- that has somehow retained its bright orange color. The thing is -- I'm just not sure. I don't think I'll ever know what it is.

I can tell you this much -- however. It sure is good. And that's the nice thing about growing heirloom tomatoes in the backyard. You're never quite sure what you're going to get -- but whatever it is -- it's guaranteed to be good stuff.