Three is a Beautiful Number...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Three more games... Three more games... Three more games... Three is the only number that I can think of today -- as my thoughts are occupied by the magic that is currently taking place at AT&T Park in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Three more games...

St. Clare Catholic Church, Roseville CA
It wasn't all that long ago -- you understand -- October 26th, 2002 to be exact -- when the wonderful wife that is Venus said those magic words "I do" and started this magic journey of ours. "Watch Bill & Venus get married," we exclaimed. "Then watch the Giants take care of the Angels in Game 6 of the World Series during the reception and bring home a first-ever baseball championship to San Francisco."

Unfortunately -- as the rumor goes -- someone popped open a bottle of champagne a tad too early that night. The Giants would not win Game 6. They would eventually blow a 3-2 series lead by choking away Game 7 on the first night of our honeymoon cruise. There would be no joy in San Francisco. No championship. No party. Just missed opportunities.

As Frank Sinatra once crooned: "That's Life."

Hello Kitty Beehive
Speaking of life -- there is something rather strange taking place in the Backyard of Bird at the moment. You can see it in the photograph to your immediate left. Yes -- that is the "Hello Kitty" beehive. And you'll notice that the bees are quite active today. That's a good thing. They're active every single day of the week. I've been gifted with a strong hive -- but that's another story for another day.

No -- what I'm referring too is that "volunteer" tomato plant to the right of the hive. It's doing something that I have never seen a plant do before. It is literally changing colors before my very eyes. It's not dying. It's just turning a bright shade of yellow. I'm not sure how. I'm not sure why. It just is.

Mystery Tomato Plant Turning Yellow
I have never witnessed a tomato plant do such a thing before. Normally? Tomato plants start out green and remain green through the course of a growing season. They will yellow somewhat as the weather turns colder and the season comes to a close -- but that's the mark of death. I'm used to that.

No -- this is different. I have a healthy tomato plant that is turning a bright shade of yellow and I really can't understand why. It is also covered with a heavy crop of lacewings (I think that is what they are called) who gracefully move from leaf to leaf. There are scads of them -- as well as scads of tomato flowers -- but no tomatoes have formed on this plant yet (as far as I can tell).

I don't want to get too close to that "Hello Kitty" beehive you understand. It's late fall. Pollen sources are drying up. This is when honeybees tend to get defensive. They can -- and will -- reach out and "touch" you in ways you really don't like. So -- mind your manners young man.

There are some tomato plants -- some rare strains -- that do change colors during the course of a season. The father of the modern tomato -- Alexander Livingston -- wrote about one such plant in his 1893 book "Livingston and the Tomato." The name of this particular variety escapes me at the moment -- but the strain is very old -- and it's not counted as one of the "favorites" among heirloom growers.

I have never grown such a plant. I've heard of it in various publications. But I've never actually seen one in person.

Perhaps a smarter gardening mind than mine can figure this one out? I'm open to suggestions. I must tell you -- this plant is breathtakingly beautiful. It is a shimmering dark green. Based upon the number of flowers it is producing -- it appears to be some sort of cherry variety. But a tomato plant that turns a bright shade and healthy shade of yellow? That's a new one for me.

This is one of the many reasons -- I suppose -- why I like to grow heirloom tomatoes. Number one in my book -- of course -- is a love for all things tomato. I can't get enough of them. But it's also the surprises that tend to pop out of the ground every season.

Large Orange Cherry Tomato Plant
One of those surprises that continues to do very well into the fall season is a surprise cherry variety that I call Large Orange Cherry. It appears to be some sort of cross between a Sun Gold Cherry (which I grew several years ago but have not planted since) and another larger variety. This thing popped up outside of a raised bed last year and produced a few large -- orange colored -- cherry tomatoes.

I did not seed nor save it. I was surprised to see it spring to life again -- on the other side of a large backyard. It has flourished in this place -- it's new home -- and this year I will make an attempt to seed and save a variety that refuses to die.

That's Life.

Fine Gin Grown Here!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The fall vegetable crop is now planted and coming up nicely!

Well -- most of it is planted anyway. The wonderful wife that is Venus still has a few more rows left to go in one of the raised beds -- but by this weekend? We're hoping to put the finishing touches on a gorgeous fall crop of nothing but nutritous and wonderful things for the body.

Yes -- that includes the finest gin available in a plastic bottle! And if you don't think you can't grow fine gin in a plastic bottle next to Baby Bok Choy or red-leaf lettuce -- well -- you haven't witnessed the wife's wonderful green finger.

Everything the woman plants from seed? It grows. It not only grows -- it grows EXTREMELY WELL. So -- although the "gardening experts" might tell you that you can't grow the finest gin that comes in a plastic bottle from seed -- well -- it doesn't hurt to try -- does it?

We'll let you know what happens around Christmas. If you find that Bill & Venus Bird are involved in a very MERRY holiday -- you'll know that our little experiment worked just fine.

What grows well in the Sacramento Valley during the fall and winter months? Pick a crop! That's the wonderful thing about our area. As summer slowly transitions into fall -- it brings a wealth of "growth" opportunities.

As for the wife? She likes to plant from seed. She won't turn her nose up at some starter plants -- and we do like to support our local nurseries -- so you'll always find us with starter plants of broccoli, chard or one of many wonderful lettuce selections (lettuce tends to extremely well in our North Natomas Back 40).

But for most selections? Venus starts -- and ends -- with a packet of seeds either purchased locally or from one of many seed providers scattered about the country. We happen to be partial to an operation called Pinetree Garden Seeds. They're not local. Not hardly. They happen to be located in a small section of New Gloucester, Maine.

But we keep going back to them for a simple reason: Everything that we buy from them -- works. They've never let us down. I've never opened one bad package of seed provided by Pinetree Garden Seeds -- and that's the honest truth. Plus -- they're cheap -- which doesn't hurt.

Still -- if you're undecided as to what you'd like to plant in your backyard for the coming fall season -- you can't go wrong with the handy-dandy Farmer Fred Hoffman Planting Guide. Plus -- he also blogged about his favorite fall selections not all that long ago.

But he didn't have fine gin that comes in a plastic bottle on his list -- remember that much.

The first step we always take in planting our fall garden is recharging the raised beds that held part of our summer garden. The second step? Chasing "that damn dog" away from the raised beds that have just been recently amended. Bandi seems to have this belief that she was a Mantis Tiller in a former life. Solving that little "digging problem" has been problematic to say the least -- although I've found a gadget called The Scarecrow to be quite effective (it shoots a stream of water at anything that crosses its path).

If only I had ten of them...

We are recharging the beds with some different materials this fall. Venus and I recently switched to a new form of compost called "Paydirt" that we purchased from Capital Nursery in Sacramento. This is a little more expensive than the cheaper forms of Steer Manure Compost that we had been purchasing from Home Depot -- but we decided to make the switch for a number of reasons:

1. This is a better form of compost for our raised beds. We use these beds a lot. Treat them with good form of compost and they will treat you well in the form of vegetable crop production.
2. Paydirt Compost is an organic form of compost. We're not 100% organic mind you -- and may never get there -- but we try!
3. The illegal pot growers already snapped up the really good Fox Farm Compost!

Illegal Pot Grower: "We did not! I mean -- we're not growing anything!"

Me: "Then why is your name Illegal Pot Grower?"

Illegal Pot Grower: "DOH!"

The results -- so far -- have been better than we ever could have hoped. Every single one of Venus' seed rows has sprung to life -- and the starter plants that we purchased are also doing remarkably well.

Broccoli and Swiss Chard starter plants
We're not done -- of course -- not by a longshot. Venus and I will begin the process of planting seed garlic and onion starts next month -- and there's always another row to plant or another experimental vegetable to try. Who knows? We may put the test bed to work this fall instead of reserving it for "summertime use only."

I know I can count on one thing: The seeds that Venus planted earlier this month will result in a nice salad serving for ten-to-15 guests for our annual family Thanksgiving celebration. The Baby Bok Choy serves as a wonderful green to brighten those warm soups in the dead cold of winter. And there's nothing like fresh swiss chard and spinach in a turkey taco salad dinner.

We're not writing the summer garden off quite yet either. As long as we have heat -- we'll get tomatoes. There's still another watermelon to harvest -- the bell peppers aren't quite done yet -- and we might be able to squeeze another jar or two of pickles from the cucumber plantings.

But as for fall? The greens are jumping!

Satan Lives in My Green Waste Can

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I'm not kidding!

I have the proof!

In photos!

Serious gardeners beware -- because a bit of Mephistopheles may be hanging out in your Green Waste can as well.

There's no doubt that my Green Waste can had to have been posessed by something sinister. I say "had to have been" because it has been officially "retired" from service -- taken to wherever posessed Green Waste cans are taken.

My point is this: What on Earth could have caused the sinister destruction like the terrible scene that serves as "Exhibit A" to your very right? Who or what can tear holes in or rupture a can as strong as this?

I know what you're thinking. "Bill and Venus Bird played a game of how much CRAP can we fit in here....."

But unless you have photographic proof of Bill Bird jumping up and down on his old green waste can -- ferget about it.

And -- no -- we did not take part in the annual Fall contest known as "let's see how many tomato plants we can cram into this thing."

Although -- I will admit we have heard of such a contest.

But take part in said contest? Pshaw! Perish the thought!

Now -- while we might be a tad (just a tad) responsible for some of the damage to our old Green Waste refuse can -- the fine folks with the City of Sacramento Yard Waste Program that empty our refuse cans on a weekly basis are also partially to blame.

Yes, partially.

The first "hit" to our dear -- departed Green Waste can came about 18 months ago. The driver of that big -- massive -- Green Waste truck used the Jaws of Life (or so it seems) to grab this thing -- lift it up -- turn it upside down -- shake the life out of it -- then empty said contents into the truck.

It worked -- for the most part. The green waste did come out. The top also popped off and dropped off into the truck. Merry Freaking Christmas. Off the merry Green Waste driver went -- with our green waste refuse and the top of our Green Waste can -- never to be seen again.

"Bah," I thought at the time. "Who needs a top anyway?"

Needless to say -- I wasn't making that statement when we proceeded to receive ten inches of rain in the space of a month last winter. Our Green Waste can was suddenly converted into a Green Waste rain barrel.

It didn't take time before the first split appeared in the side of our can. With each passing week -- and each weekly whip with the Jaws of Life from our merry Green Waste driver -- the split got longer.

Then -- a second split -- followed by a third. "Oh well," I thought at the time. "At least it won't hold anymore rainwater" (dumping that thing in the dead of winter on trash nights was getting to be a pain to be honest).

I thought our "little problem" to be solved -- when suddenly -- our used -- abused and possessed Green Waste can slowly -- painfully -- started to collapse like a well-worn slinky. Have you ever tried a wheel a slinky down a sloped driveway?

It's painful -- trust me on this.

This was the final straw -- or dead tomato plant if you will -- that broke the waste can's back. It was time for the unthinkable. Our Green Waste can needed a trip to the Green Waste graveyard.

"Not a problem," I thought at the time. One well placed call to North Natomas City Councilman Ray Tretheway will solve that problem. Sure enough -- Assistant Randi Kay Stephens promised "quick action."

Sure enough! A month later and guess what? The new Green Waste can is here!

Just in time for a game of "Let's see how many tomato plants we can cram into this thing...."

Oops. Did I say that?

How the HECK did THAT get THERE?

Friday, September 17, 2010

...And now for another edition of "How the HECK did THAT get THERE?" Followed closely by -- "What am I supposed to DO about THAT?"

Thanks for tuning in!

Bill & Venus Bird made a rather amazing garden discovery last night. It's a set of tomato cages that we normally use to prop up pepper plants in the garden. But we had hidden them away in a corner of the garden this spring -- completely forgetting about them until they were covered under a growth of cucumber plants.

The good news is -- we found them last night!

The bad news is -- well -- see for yourself. This is one of gardening's many little mysteries. Just how did this happen? AKA: How the HECK did THAT get THERE?

THAT is an Armenian cucumber that has grown through two parts of the cages and isn't budging folks. It's stuck fast. If I want it out -- or if Venus wants it out -- we'll have to cut it out. How it got there? Blame inattentiveness on our part. We didn't realize those tomato cages were hidden away in a corner of the yard until we went hunting for cucumbers just last night.

Cherry Tomatoes from the Backyard of Bird

I'm beginning to enjoy these end-of-summer garden hunts for fresh produce. The garden continues to churn out some rather amazing results -- including different varieties of cherry tomatoes by the hundreds. This is but a small sample of what continues to produce in very impressive numbers this year -- and many of the plants that produced the bounty in this bowel are "volunteers" in this year's garden.

The biggest surprise of the year has been the two to three (or four or five -- I can't tell) Pink Ping Pong tomato plants that sprang to life at the edge of our test gardening bed last spring. I've never had great success with this variety until now. I must admit -- I have no great secrets to impart this year. If anything -- I've ignored the numerous volunteers that have sprung up in various -- odd places.

The Pink Ping Pong and Black Cherry plants scattered about the backyard do have access to a good source of irrigation water -- but have received little in the way of fertilizer or any other assistance.

Still -- the plants produce. I just pick.

As for the bowl of cherry tomatoes? I brought those into work for my numerous State Capitol co-workers.

Call it a "good way to make friends."

I Dream of Peaches!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Some people dream of fame. Some people dream of fortune. Still others dream of Jeannie.

But not me.

I'm the weird one.

I dream of: Peaches.

I do not dream of the peaches that Steve Miller sings about in "The Joker." I have no desire to shake anyone's tree. Something tells me Dear Steve wasn't crooning about the type of peaches that I have in mind.

In other words: real -- honest to goodness -- peaches.

Peach season is long gone in this part of Northern California. It came and went over a two-and-a-half to three week period for my O'Henry Peach tree in the backyard. But -- oh -- what a season it was.

Don't be worried. Don't you fret a bit. I got my fill of peaches this summer. It got to the point last month where I couldn't stand to eat another peach. That's a feeling that comes over you after consuming peaches every morning and night for 15-20 days straight.

Yeah -- they're good alright. But have you ever heard of "too much of a good thing?"

But -- sadly -- I find myself craving O'Henry peaches a month after the season has ended. I thought I got enough to satisfy that "fresh peach urge" during the season in question -- but I guess not.

Glistening O'Henry Peaches
In a season full of gardening "booms" and "busts" -- this year's O'Henry harvest definitely goes into the "boom" category. This year's harvest literally glistened with sugary flavors that can only be discovered when you harvest a tree-ripened peach at just the right time.

You know you've hit paydirt with an O'Henry peach when it slices open easily and effortlessly -- and the pit pulls away from the peach flesh with just the slightest touch of pressure. You know you've hit paydirt with an O'Henry peach whe you see that telltale red streak of sweetness running from the center of the fruit straight to the outer edges.

There's nothing better.

Sliced O'Henry Peaches
There were times earlier this summer when Venus and I harvested so many ripened peaches that it resulted in a sliced peach breakfast at work -- followed up by peach dessert for dinner later that night. The next day's harvest would bring about the same results.

That's a lot of peaches!

But -- sadly -- as I find myself with this fresh peach craving that I cannot satisfy -- it's not enough.

Our three year old O'Henry tree is at that special stage now where it's starting to overproduce for our own personal needs -- which is why some of our neighbors got to share in the harvest this year. Nothing gets a front door open quicker than the sight of freshly harvested peaches.

Now -- keep in mind -- that I'm not referring to those peaches that are still rock hard when harvested. I understand -- from an agricultural standpoint -- why most peaches must be harvested long before they hit that special stage of ripeness.

But it's still just criminal in my opinion. That doesn't taste like a peach! It has the consistency of a Fuji Apple! Peaches don't taste like that!

But -- although the tree produced a large crop this year -- it's still not to that point where Venus and I can give serious thoughts to canning this fresh harvest for winter usage. We're close -- but we're still not "there" yet in terms of tree size. I've still got to cull this tree quite a bit to focus on root development and tree growth.

While it is tough to pull all those green peaches off the tree and throw them into the green waste pile -- I always remind myself -- "remember, each new branch this tree sprouts means another row of peaches next year."

Plus -- the tree doesn't literally snap in two under the weight of a full crop of tree-ripened peaches. I've seen that before. Ever seen a grown man cry? You should have seen me on the day in question.

It's mid-September. I should be thinking about football like most normal men do during this time of year. I should be thinking about planting that fall garden like most rational gardeners are doing right now.

But I'm not rational. I dream of peaches.

My Corn Fails Like Alex Smith

Monday, September 13, 2010

Boy -- that sure was fast. I never expected the end of the 2010-2011 football season to come in early September -- but when the 49ers and Raiders turn in the kind of "El Stinko" type of performances that both squads turned in yesterday -- well -- it begs the following question:

When does basketball/baseball/hockey/tiddlywinks season start again?

Whatever the answer is -- it can't be soon enough. There's nothing like putting off an entire's day worth of work in the garden to watch something so horrible that will make you regret putting off an entire day's worth of work in the garden.

Jeez! I could have planted my lawn by now!

Total Crop Failure!
As I was staring at the complete crop failure that is my corn this Monday morning -- it reminded me that I hadn't seen anything quite this bad or demoralizing since -- well -- yesterday's Seahawks-49ers opener. And then -- it hit me: my corn failed as badly on me this season as Alex Smith failed the San Francisco 49ers.

There's no way around it. There's no hiding the disaster. It's right in front for everyone to see: a complete and utter failure. My 2010 summer corn crop and the latest reincarnation of Alex Smith.

I will say this much however: last year -- I had a great crop of corn -- a wonderful harvest that I blogged about here. So -- at least I can say that I had ONE good year under my belt.

As for Alex Smith -- well -- no....

Sickly Corn
To be brutally honest though -- I'm not sure what exactly what went wrong with the Bird corn crop this year. However -- I can tell you that we're not alone. A lot of other gardeners reported the same garden lament to me this season: total and complete corn crop failure.

The seeds for this year's crop of Golden Cross Bantam came from Lockhart Seed in Stockton. I knew -- from last year's experience -- that seeds from different varieties should not be planted close together (they will cross-pollinate and you'll get all sorts of weird and wacky combinations). We used a bed located close to a bed that was used for last year's successful corn plantings -- after amending it -- of course.

Venus and I planted seed for the first two rows in Mid-April. We planted a third and fourth row some three weeks later in early May. The fifth and sixth rows were planted two weeks later -- after other seeds had germinated and jumped out of the ground.

Everything looked A-OK at first. Sure -- the weather wasn't cooperating all that much. Sure -- it was cold. And yes -- that cold weather would have an effect on the other crops like tomatoes -- melons and squash.

But it didn't result in outright failures either.

Purple-Colored Corn Stalks
Nope -- the first sign that something wasn't quite right in Dodge was when I noticed this purple coloring showing up in some of the first rows that we had planted. It seemed a little strange -- yes -- but then again -- we were also experimenting with a new variety. Perhaps this is the way it should look?

But -- as the growing season moved forward -- I began to notice signs that something just wasn't right. Normally strong corn stalks were rather thin and wispy. Developing tassels weren't growing far beyond the weakened stalks. Worse yet -- the purple color I had noticed near the bottom of the stalks was slowly moving up the plant.

Soon -- it would overtake the entire row.

The end result? Venus and I managed to grow a lot of corn cobbettes rather than actual cobs. They didn't taste very good either -- and the harvest just wasnt worth our time. Additionally -- the later rows that we had planted were not doing as well as we had expected. They were stunted in growth. They seemed to be lacking in something.

Now -- to be fair and honest -- I'm not the only Natomas gardener to suffer a complete corn crop failure this season. Others had the same type of problem. They didn't plant as much as Venus and I had -- but they all had similar problems: purplish coloring on the stalks -- weakened stalks -- and little to no corn production.

In other words -- we weren't alone. Misery loves company.

So -- what went wrong? I'm not sure. I know it wasn't a lack of fertilizer or water. Our crops received regular fertilization and were on the same drip system that our successful corn crop utilized last season. Other crops planted nearby -- such as squash and tomatoes -- exhibited much better production.

Could it have been the unseasonable cool weather? That is a possibility. Corn -- like a lot of other summer crops -- needs sustained summer heat to do well. We didn't get a whole lot of that this season.

So -- in retrospect -- it could have been a lot of things. It could have been a combination of different factors.

As for me? I'm blaming my crop failure on Alex Smith.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fresh Produce from the Bird Garden!
One of my favorite skits from Saturday Night Live involves the key lines of: "You Like-a De Sauce? De Sauce is Good!" It came from some lame skit featuring Rob "Deuce Bigelow" Schneider as a cook at a Greek Restaraunt -- but for some reason it plays on in my head even now.

Perhaps it's because Bill N' Venus are always in search of the "perfect sauce." De Sauce is good, eh?

In honor of NFL Kickoff Thursday -- not only does the blog Sacramento Vegetable Gardening provide you with some timely music to get ready for tonight's kickoff between the Vikings and the Super Bowl Champion Saints -- but a mighty fine and tasty recipe for the best salsa on the planet bar none. I give you Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa. Yes -- the recipe is located below...

Of course -- I must admit -- I'm just a tad biased. This is -- after all -- my own recipe -- combined with a "canning safe" recipe called Annie's Salsa.

Nothing against Annie mind you -- but mine is better.

Why am I so souped up about this salsa? Well -- for one thing -- it's kind of nice to make something that is almost exclusively pulled from the backyard garden. From the tomatoes to the peppers -- the garlic to the onions -- the basil to the cilantro and dill weed -- nearly everything in this jar of salsa comes straight from the raised beds in the Backyard of Bird.

That's satisfaction...

Mix of Bell Peppers
The first step in the process is selecting the right kind of produce -- and that hasn't been an easy task this year because -- well -- the weather just hasn't been all that cooperative. But -- our summer garden finally started to kick into high production two weeks ago and -- I'll be honest -- we've been busy. Sure -- we can give stuff to neighbors -- which we have. But there's nothing like saving summertime produce for a sweet treat in the dead of winter.

The peppers to your left include a mix of your standard green -- yellow and red bells plus a few heirloom varieties. Pictured above right -- and in the center of this photo -- is a key ingredient in this year's salsa creation: three different kinds of Jalapeno peppers that will give this salsa the spicy BITE that just about everyone craves.

The tomato selection plays a key role in the production of this salsa as well. It's no secret that the best heirloom tomatoes make for the best salsa. Short and sweet? Heirloom tomatoes have a better taste than your standard hybrids -- and it's a taste that is retained even after cooking over a hot stove.

The tomato varieties used for this year's creation include -- but are not limited too -- Brandywine, Black Sea Man, Oxheart, Black Krim, Mortgage Lifter, Campbell's 1327 and Druzba. We have also used cherry tomatoes for our salsa creation on occassion -- but not for this particular batch. We didn't need them.

Now -- the only warning that I have for you children is this: If you're going to try this at home -- canning a salsa -- FOLLOW LABEL DIRECTIONS. In other words -- don't deviate from the recipe. A little extra scoop of peppers or onions isn't going to hurt mind you -- but it's critically important that you maintain the balance of acidic items to non-acidic items.

The acidic items in Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa include the tomatoes themselves, the canned tomato sauce and the one cup of processed lemon juice. You can also substitute white vinegar for the lemon juice -- but not lime juice. Why? Lime juice -- although acidic -- doesn't carry the same acid content as processed lemon juice. It's also critically important that canners use processed lemon juice -- not lemons that you've squeezed on your own. Again -- it comes down to maintaining the correct acid content -- or pH balance -- in each jar of salsa.

The Finished Product!
The non-acidic items in this creation include the peppers, onions, garlic and fresh herbs. There are some home-food canners who will not have anything to do with garlic -- simply because it can play havoc with the acid content in any given jar of salsa. With our salsa creation -- however -- the garlic is roasted in the oven at high temperatures for a good hour. This gives it the consistency of a grainy toothpaste -- making it very easy to squeeze directly into a pot of salsa on the stove. One squeeze and you're done.

One other final note before we get to the recipe? Venus and I have experimented through the years with a number of hot peppers to give our salsa that proper "kick in the pants." You would think that five or six finely grated Habanero peppers would set just about anyone's mouth ablaze -- and with fresh salsa -- it would.

But -- the problem is that many so-called "hot peppers" loose that all important blaze after they've been cooked on an open flame for ten minutes or more. Yes -- this includes the Habanero -- which is one of the hottest peppers in the pepper family. Food researchers will tell you that it's the capsaicin in the peppers that makes them hot -- but not all peppers are created equally.

Boiling Water Bath Processing
After a disappointing canning effort two years ago using Habanero peppers -- Venus and I turned to the Red Thai Chili peppers last year. These are routinely used in Thai cooking and appear to retain that all important "heat element" during the cooking process. But -- again we were foiled. Venus and I added 30 red Thai peppers to one salsa creation last year -- seeds included -- in what we had labeled "Volcanic Salsa."

Much to our chagrin -- the Volcano was named Pipsqueak. The peppers lost much of their bite during the cooking -- and subsquent Boiling Water Bath processing.

This year? Venus and I turned to the Jalapeno pepper. We used three different varieties: Mucho Nacho -- Purple or Chocolate and standard Jalapeno. The jalapeno pepper isn't the hottest variety on the market -- not hardly -- but so far it appears to have withstood the boiling and BWB process without losing much heat.

All of gardening -- and garden creation -- is an experiment. So we will label this one as "wait and see." If our salsa is still making people reach for a cold vat of beer during the Super Bowl? We know it will have passed the true *heat* test.

And now? Without fail -- the recipe (and instructions):

Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa

8 cups processed heirloom tomatoes
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped peppers -- green-yellow-red-anything from the garden will work (half roasted, half fresh)
3 – 5 chopped Habanero peppers or jalapenos (we prefer a HOT salsa -- so we used 13-15 Jalapeno peppers)
2 heads garlic
3 tsp cumin
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
3 tsp pepper
1/8 cup canning salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, basil and dill weed
1 cup lemon juice (for Boil Water Bath processing or 1/3 cup vinegar for Pressure Canner)
16 oz. tomato sauce


Cut tops off heads of garlic revealing tops of garlic inside. Drizzle with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees for one hour. Remove cover after roasting and allow garlic to cool, as you will need to handle it.

Canned Salsa Ready for Storage
Roast 10-12 green, red or yellow peppers on grill until skins are browned on each side. You may use a combination of peppers from the garden -- whatever you have or like. Place roasted peppers in paper shopping bag after roasting and close tightly. Allow peppers to cool for 30 minutes. This will result in 3/4 cup of peppers.

Boil tomatoes to remove skin or process tomatoes to remove skins and seed. Process well in a food processor -- add tomatoes to cooking pot.

Squeeze garlic into cooking pot, peel seed and process roasted peppers and add to pot -- add remaining fresh and hot peppers and all other ingredients. Bring to a boil -- boil for ten minutes.

Process jars in a Boiling Water Bath (BWB) for ten minutes -- drain. Pour salsa into hot jars and process at 10 lbs of pressure for 30 minutes for pints. Or BWB 30-40 minutes. Makes 6 1/2 pints.

NOTE: We have also put jars -- lids and rings through the hot cycle of the dishwasher and pulled them directly out after a high heat dry (they're quite hot -- so be careful) and filled each jar with salsa before the final BWB processing. Place lids in a small pot covered with water and bring to a near boil before removing each one to place on top of a salsa filled jar. Secure well with rings -- then process.

SECONDARY NOTE: Jars of Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa were submitted to Anresco Food Testing Laboratory in San Francisco in December, 2008 for pH and pathogen testing. The lab tests results -- pictured below -- show a successful pH level of 3.81 was obtained (canned products must contain a pH of 4.6 or below). Further pathogen testing revealed a Standard Plate Count of less than 100.

Are you ready for some FOOTBALL???

pH Test Results


SPC Test Results

A Tomato Grows Here

Friday, September 3, 2010

Three months ago -- Kathy Hilke and I were discussing where to have turkey sandwiches for lunch. Kathy and I worked together in the Capitol Office of Senator Sam Aanestad for nearly seven years. And yes -- we also found time to take part in a bowling tournament or two -- as evidenced to the photo to your right.

Yesterday -- Kathy Hilke died. She was 52. An evil scourge called cancer claimed her last breath. A scourge that wasn't uncovered or discovered until it was far too late.

Sometimes -- life isn't fair. In Kathy's case -- it wasn't. 52 year old women are not supposed to pass away from cancer. I find it hard to believe -- even for one minute -- that this is what God designed. Kathy loved God. She was deeply religious. Yet -- she also loved life.

I guess it still hasn't sunk in quite yet. We used to talk regularly every single day of the work week. If I wasn't doing everything within my will to drive her up the wall -- then she was doing the same to me. We liked each other.

We also shared a love of all things heirloom tomatoes.

It really doesn't seem all that long ago that she left work. She complained of a shortness of breath. Like me -- she had dealt with regular back pain -- but was otherwise a completely healthy woman.

Or so it seemed.

The shortness of breath was initially diagnosed as pneumonia in that second week of June. She was given medication. She was sent home. When the breathing problems worsened two days later -- she checked herself into the hospital.

It was there they found them: the tumors. One was in her kidney -- pressing up against her spine -- the real source of years of back pain. But that wasn't the worst part. Gone untreated for God knows how long -- the kidney tumor had metastasized into many small tumors in both lungs.

The tumors were causing her lungs to fill up with fluid.

The two physicians that I work with assured me that various steps could be taken -- and they were. Yet -- at the same time -- I detected a hint of sadness in their eyes. They had seen this before. They would never tell me what they were truly thinking. But I could guess.

Still -- it's OK to pray for miracles.

Kathy showed me one such miracle of life once. It was located in the West Sacramento Trailer Park where she lived. Across the street from her home -- under a covered patio that blotted out the sun -- in the crack of a dirty driveway sidewalk -- a cherry tomato plant bloomed with prolific life.

Impossible? Not if you had seen it. I did.

Kathy would bring me a sack of these red cherry tomatoes just BURSTING with flavor from time to time. One plant seemed to yield thousands of them. Yet it received no care. It received no sun. There was no water source to speak of. It would die back in the winter and spring to life in the summer.

Who knows how long it had been there.

A child of that plant grows in the Bird backyard this year. The tomato variety known as West Sac Crack -- in honor of Kathy's discovery -- burst forth out of a crack in the inhospitable clay soil of our yard this spring. Lord knows -- we didn't plant it there. It's nowhere close to a source of water.

Yet it not only survives. It thrives. We know it to be the West Sac Crack variety because it is the only red cherry tomato that we have ever planted in our backyard. Sure enough -- it has that same -- old world tomato taste.

I guess now we will call it Kathy's Miracle. That is appropriate -- as Kathy touched and blessed all that came into her life.

Kathy is survived by her mother, Shirley, a sister and two brothers. Her father, Richard, who she adored, passed away Tuesday morning.

A Little Off the Top Barber!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bird Herb Garden
Ah September! A change of seasons! A change of garden plans. Time to think about putting the summer garden to bed -- and perhaps start thinking about the offerings you want in the Fall Garden? Farmer Fred Hoffman has some pretty good ideas here -- and Angela Pratt's Vegetable Planting Calendar is just loaded with great ideas.

As for us? September is a time to "assess" and start cutting back on summer's rather explosive gardening growth -- as evidenced by the photo located above and to your right. That's what the Bird Herb Garden looks like after the wife that is Venus has given it a rather extensive "haircut."

More than a little off the top I'd say.

Field Bindweed (BLECH!)
Venus got to the "Big Whack Job" a little early this year for a couple of very good reasons. First and foremost? An invasive little weed -- known as Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) -- is popping up just about everywhere in North Natomas. It was here long before our new Cookie Cutter subdivision rose from the clay dirt riverbottom -- and will probably outlive the cockroach.

Quite simply -- it's everywhere. It's also getting into some of the raised gardening beds -- which causes quite the problem. It's nearly impossible to kill unless you drown it in a vat of Roundup -- which we're not going put anywhere close to our little herb garden. It's also impossible to pull it out as the root systems are extensive -- extending to a depth of 20-to-30 feet.

I ran across some of these root systems while I was digging post holes last February for our little Table Grape Trellis. There -- at the bottom of that two foot hole -- was a unmistakable bright white sign of a bindweed root system.

There really is no way that I know of to completely eradicate bindweed -- so the next best option is to control it and attack it before it has chance to get started and then flourish. Despite bunching our herb plants tightly together -- bindweed managed to come up in the middle of our Lemon Thyme -- and since the leaf structures are somewhat similar in shape, size and color -- attacking it wasn't easy.

Thus -- the whack job. Venus was able to cut back the herbs enough to start removing every last trace of bindweed -- digging two to three feet down in some cases to dig out as much of the root system as possible. Did she get all of it? Probably not. You never do. But you can knock it down and knock it back to the point where it won't be a problem.

Herbs Headed for Compost Pile
I must admit -- it was a sad sign to see all of these fresh herbs hit the compost pile -- but it's a job that had to be done. While we are taking steps to dry some of them in the GarageMahal -- bindweed had become so intertwined in a lot of it that it couldn't be saved. Therefore -- into the Green Waste can it went.

Despite my pledge to live organically as possible -- the weedkiller RoundUp will come into play. We won't use it in the beds of course -- but left uncontrolled -- bindweed will surface everywhere -- and yes that includes a four-to-five inch layer of mulch. While it's true that mulch is great weed control -- bindweed overcomes.

Vietnamese Corriander (Rau Rum)
Cutting back the herb garden also gave Venus a chance to plant some new entries into the always growing herb garden -- including some starter plants that we purchased from Morningsun Herb Farm at the Harvest Festival held earlier this summer at the Fair Oaks Community Garden. The new entries include Rau Ram -- also known as Vietnamese Corriander. It is described as having a lemon and coriander-cilantro aroma -- and is supposed to serve as a replacement for cilantro after it wilts in our famous Sacramento Valley heat.

We'll see about that. Time will tell.

San Francisco Chronicle Food & Wine Section
Of course -- while Venus and I had the best of intentions in preparing our herb garden for the upcoming fall and winter season (it will grow back -- trust me) -- we always seem to choose the EXACT wrong time to accomplish these tasks. Case in point? The Food and Wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle -- which arrived this week at our North Natomas home -- with the title "Herbal Heaven."

To put it short and sweet? The accompanying article described all the wonderful fresh herbs that can be used in fresh drink concoctions. These carry wonderful names like "Old Thyme Collins" and "Green and White Tarragon Collins" that can be mixed with only the finest gin that comes in a plastic bottle (our favorite).

Yes -- we cut back the herb garden just in time to miss out on all those fresh and fruity drinks. Excuse me for a moment. I feel a Homer Simpson moment coming on.

There -- that feels better.

Sorta. Kinda. OK -- no. But we'll survive.

The good wife didn't cut back everything.