It's Winter Solstice Day!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Old Man Winter!
A Happy Winter Solstice to you! As well as a Happy First Day of Winter. And why not throw in a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays while I'm at it?

Ah -- the time you have when you're unemployed. I suppose I'd better enjoy it before the honeymoon ends. And it will end -- trust me.

It better!

This day is an important event for many gardeners. It's time to put 2010 behind us. It's the shortest day of the year (for certain parts of the world) -- and it also means that -- from this day forward -- we'll start to see more sunlight.

Those long days of summer are closer than you think.

So what exactly is the Winter Solstice? For that answer -- we turn to people who are much smarter than me (anyone and everyone). This fine bit of information is provided by

"The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.

...for an observer in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight for those living north of the Tropic of Cancer. Those living or traveling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole will not be able to see the sun during this time of the year."

For gardening FANATICS like me and the wonderful Wife that is Venus? It means the official kickoff to planning next year's spring and summer gardens. It's a time to place an order for certain -- selected -- varieties of seed. It's time to drag out and piece together ye olde seed starting rack.

In other words? There's lots to do.

Pit River Bridge at Shasta Lake
It's also a time to reflect. We've been incredibly fortunate so far this winter season in Northern California thanks to an early series of storms that have dropped a near-record amount of rainfall in the valley and boatloads of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Reservoirs that hold this bounty -- like the bathtub known as Lake Shasta -- are nearly full as the picture to the left indicates.

Water inflow is so strong at other storage facilities like Folsom Lake -- for example -- that dam operators are releasing record amounts of water into the American River below. River levels on the Sacramento -- American and Feather Rivers are at or near all-time highs.

Recently Transplanted Artichoke Plants
The rainstorms we've received so far have been so strong and so furious that they've overwhelmed the drainage system in the front and backyards. I have a series of small lakes to prove it -- and water flow from that drainage system has been strong enough to blow off the plastic drain caps in the front yard.

Merry Freaking Christmas!

Despite all of that good news -- we're not out of the woods just yet. But we're off to a mighty fine start in the wet weather season.

Although I don't personally enjoy this time of year (who enjoys getting pelted with rain?) -- there is one plant in the Bird backyard that can not only "take it" -- it absolutely cries out for more.

You might remember that this was the state of my poor artichoke garden (pictured above) last month when I decided to transplant some new plants from one overcrowded bed to another that wasn't so crowded. How do artichoke plants react when they are dug up and planted somewhere else? They flop down like they're dead.

One Month Old Artichoke Transplants
But they're not -- not really. This is the same bed about five weeks later. All of those plants that had FLOPPED have suddenly sprung back to life and are soaking up this cold and rainy weather. Artichokes do best in coastal weather conditions -- and we've had a lot of that in Northern California during the past couple of weeks -- with a lot more yet to come.

By this spring? It will be Artichoke City in the Backyard of Bird. And there is nothing quite like the nutty flavor of home-grown artichokes.

But -- don't worry -- all of those artichokes will find a good home. The phone just rang while I was typing this blog posting.

My days of "House Boy" for the Wife that is Venus are coming to an end. Unemployment is over. As of next week? It's back to the daily grind.

I hope the new boss likes home-grown artichokes and other home-grown goodies from our backyard. She has most certainly earned them.

It's Great Straight! (Or -- With Vodka)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fresh Squeezed Pomegranate Lemonade
Ah yes -- time for another glass of Juice from the Gods...

Our newest -- and most favorite mixer I might add -- comes straight out of our own backyard -- with an assist from from Roseville Gardener/Blogger Greg Damitz. After all -- it was his generous donations of lemons -- combined with our own modest production -- that make the magic happen.

That magic is located to your immediate right. It's a half gallon of lip-smacking Pomegranate Lemonade -- and let me tell you -- this is one FINE combined taste.

Bird Pomegranate Tree
But it does require a bit of work -- careful work at that. Let us not forget that pomegranates can be messy -- and we don't want any fresh stains in the kitchen of the wife that is Venus.

I've been reading up a bit on squeezing fresh juice out of pomegranates -- and much to my chagrin -- it appears that a normal juicer does too much of a good job. The idea is to get the juice out of the pomegranate seeds only - not the pith that surrounds them -- as that can be quite bitter.

Unfortunately -- the normal juicer not only gets the juice out of the seeds -- it also squeezes some of that bitter tasting juice out the pith.

Not a good thing.

Simple Juicer
The reccommended product then? A simple juicer like the one you see to your right. There are fancier varieties of course -- which carry a price tag far higher than the simple juicer than the one I used. But -- the bottom line is this: It doesn't matter which juicer is used. It still results in a bit of a mess if you're not careful.

You'd like for those streams of pomegranate juice to head straight down. But -- sometimes -- that doesn't always happen. And there's nothing quite like taking a squirt of pomegranate juice in the eyeball!

I learned -- through experience I might add -- by breaking the pomegranate into seven or eight chunks -- and placing the seed side down with the rind facing up -- you experience far less in the way of "mistakes."

This is the third year of production from the Sweet or Wonderful Pomegranate variety we have planted in the side yard (we're not really quite sure which variety we have). Last year our small tree churned out about 25 pieces of fruit. This year it was closer to 100. I wonder what next year will bring?

Pomegranate overload anyone?

The process of making Pomegranate Lemonade is fairly simple. Once you've finished squeezing the juice out of three pomegranates (and hopefully getting most of that juice into a bowl) -- your strain the finished product into a half -gallon container. I then fill said container with enough freshly squeezed Meyer Lemon juice to just below the one-quart mark.

Combine one cup of sugar (or less depending upon your likes) with the juice mixture -- stir vigorously for about two minutes -- and allow the mixture to sit until the sugar is fully disolved. At that point? Add enough water to make a half gallon (two quarts) of juice.

Improved Meyer Lemons
The next step is the absolute most difficult. Ignore the temptation to drink a half gallon of Pomegranate Lemonade on the spot -- and stick that wonderful concotion into your refrigerator.

It really best to serve it chilled -- if you can ignore the temptation...

Christmas Punch anyone???

Merry Christmas to ME!!! Merry Christmas to ME!!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Bird Casa
Everyone knows that the best Christmas gifts in the whole wide world are those that you buy for yourself.

That's a Bill Bird rule. I just made it up. Live with it.

I always overdo it at Christmas. That's especially true when it comes to the Christmas light display outside. Like Clark Griswold -- my feeling is -- you can never have too many lights. It may take the better part of a Sunday afternoon to set it up and string out miles of extension cords -- but it's a house that Santa Claus cannot possibly ignore come Christmas Eve.

This is also the time of year to look for specific gardening "deals." I've already explained my love for all things citrus in a previous post. Although I've got two Improved Meyer Lemons and a Bearss Lime growing in the Bird Back 40 -- I'm always looking to expand upon my citrus plantings.

When it comes to citrus -- there are deals to be had in the month of December -- if you know where and when to find them.

Dancy Tangerine Tree
I figured this out -- quite by accident - three years ago. That's when I stumbled upon this gorgeous Dancy Tangerine sitting in a neglected aisle of a very wet -- and very empty I might add -- Home Depot garden section. It stood four feet high and was loaded with bright orange tangerines.

The price? $20. I couldn't buy it fast enough. Sure enough -- as I swooped in on what would be the citrus deal of that year -- so did about three other shoppers who attempted to beat me to the punch.

They weren't fast enough on that night three years ago.

Today -- that Dancy Tangerine is planted in one of my wide side yards. It's now about eight feet tall and is once again loaded with about 40-50 bright orange tangerines. They are ripening a tad quicker this year than last -- which means three or four just might be ready for harvest on Christmas Day.

Dancy Tangerines
A Mimosa for the wonderful wife that is Venus on Christmas morning? I think so! And -- perhaps her husband as well.

My point is -- this tree was a steal of a deal. I don't often shop for fruit or citrus trees at Big Box stores like Home Depot or Lowes. Not that I'm a snob or anything like that -- but you tend to get better quality fruit and citrus trees at nurseries like Don Shor's Redwood Barn or even Capital Nursery.

Are they more expensive? Of course! Better quality trees cost a few extra bucks. But they tend to be better quality fruit and citrus trees -- and don't come with the myriad of problems that the "$14.99 Big Box Deal" can bring. Trust me -- I've lost a few of those trees to disease. I've learned my lesson. From now on -- it's nursery stock and nursery stock only.

The one exception to this rule? Citrus. If you know what you're looking for -- you can get a STEAL OF A DEAL. But this is only true if you know where to shop -- what to look for -- and when to buy.

Improved Meyer Lemon
Case in point: the month of December.

I know -- from experience -- that for some odd reason -- the North Natomas Home Depot ALWAYS gets a shipment of citrus trees in from Four Winds Growers -- the premiere supplier of citrus trees to Northern California. But -- much of that stock that you find at your local Big Box store isn't worth a second look.

In other words -- it just isn't worth it. Many of them are dwarf varieties. Nothing against dwarf fruit or citrus trees mind you -- but I've come to discover that small trees = small harvests. If you do happen to find a full-size tree -- it's often priced to the point where it's better to shop for your desires at a local nursery.

Owari Satsuma Mandarin
But if you arrive at just the right time -- right after the truck has been unloaded -- you're going to find a little gem like this one to your right. That -- Ladies and Germs -- is a citrus tree that I've been trying to get into my backyard for the past two years. It's an Owari Satsuma Mandarin -- the absolute best tasting mandarin you can find anywhere on the planet. But -- I'm not alone in this opinion.

Farmer Fred Hoffman -- of KFBK Garden Show fame on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK and Get Growing on Talk 650 KSTE -- has proclaimed the Owari Satsuma as one of his personal favorites. I've been looking for the right kind of tree for a very long time now. But everything I've found just wasn't what I was looking for -- or it presented too much of a hit on ye olde wallet.

Wet North Natomas Home Depot
Until now. I spotted it yesterday during a heavy downpour in the very back of the North Natomas Home Depot. It had just been delivered the previous day. It just stood out from the rest. It was a thing of beauty. And it's now in my backyard. As I wheeled it inside (dripping wet I might add) -- many a customer asked where I'd found it. Sure enough -- despite the heavy rain falling outside -- many of them beat a path to where I had just been.

Of course -- I failed to tell them that this was the best looking tree of the lot by a MILE.

It is six feet tall. It has been meticulously pruned and cared for. This will eventually grow into a full size mandarin citrus tree that can grow to a height of 20 feet or more and will yield hundreds of tasty Satsuma Mandarins once it reaches full maturity.

Purchased at a local nursery -- a tree like this would run anywhere from $100-$125.

I didn't even come close to paying half that amount.

I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Merry Freaking Christmas to ME! 

Winter Means It's Time to Say Goodbye

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Charlie Brown Christmas
This is probably my least favorite time of the year. Despite the holiday madness -- Thanksgiving turkey with far too much stuffing (not to speak of the butter) and the task of setting up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree -- it's also a melancholy time for me.

I'm a gardener. I like to see things grow and nourish. And you just don't get much of that during the months of December, January and February. Oh -- sure -- the break does give you some time to start thinking about next year's garden. But it's a wait that is far too long for me.

Perhaps we need a new law? Perish the thought!

The wonderful wife that is Venus and I always wait far too long to tear out the summer garden. Here it is -- December 4th -- and I'm not too proud to admit that we still have a couple of dead and dying tomato plants that I still haven't stuffed into the Green Waste can yet (hey -- it can only hold so much).

Heirloom Tomato Plant Monsters
It wasn't the greatest year in terms of tomatoes -- for anyone that I know of. It started poorly with sickly starter plants in the spring -- we never did get the Sacramento summer heat needed to produce a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes and then ended a lot quicker than I imagined with a couple of frozen nights in early November.

Heirloom Tomato Season: Exit Stage Left!

Don't be fooled by the extra large heirloom tomato plant crop to your left. It may look big -- but this was one disappointing year. This one bed produced one tomato blunder after another -- ranging from poor production to a nasty run of Blossom End Rot (BER). Nearly every German Orange Strawberry that came off the vine this year was stricken with BER.

Yet -- the Black tomato to the left -- Evil Seed -- and the Brandywine planted to the right suffered no such BER problem. They were not overwhelmingly productive -- no tomato plant was this year with the exception of the Reliable Reds -- but why just one plant would suffer from BER problems while others planted a foot away did not continues to vex me.

There are no answers here -- just questions.

So -- the goal this one fine, fall day was to move these plants into that Green Waste can pictured to the immediate right of the tomato jungle. This was easier said than done. A gallon of water cannot contain five quarts. It can hold four. And I had far more plant material than space. And this was just one of THREE beds that had reached the "end of the life cycle."

You can see why we're still tearing out portions of the summer garden.

I'm certainly not going to repeat the same mistake I made three years ago -- when I was told by a certain, high-ranking, Sacramento City employee that I could order a "special pickup" from a Green Waste Truck. I thought that was a wonderful idea -- so I spent an entire weekend day piling up my entire summer garden in the street.

Imagine my "chagrin," when I called for a "special pickup" and was informed on the other end of the line that these "pickups" were limited to three to four times per year. "So, when's the next pickup," I asked. "We'll be there in six months," the cheery voice on the other end of the phone replied.

Great...My neighbors were just THRILLED with that pile of garden waste that slowly vanished over the course of six to eight weeks. As soon as that Green Waste truck emptied my Green Waste can -- I packed it full again.

My method of removing tomato plants is fairly simple. I attack the outer edges with a long-handled pair of garden shears (which are also used for cutting back roses). Once the growth around the PVC cages has been cut away -- I employ the "tug and rip" method -- which removes the vines from inside most of the cage (you'd be surprised how far these vines can travel). At that point -- I remove the cage from around the still-visible base of the plant -- toss it aiside -- and dig up the root system with a well-used shovel.

Rip, Tug, Shred!
Removing the eight plants from this bed -- plus the numerous volunteers that sprung up around it (they kept the Vole population well fed) -- took about four hours.

Getting all of those tomato plants out of the backyard and into a Sacramento City Green Waste truck is a process that may last well into 2011.

So -- why go through all this trouble and effort? I thought you would have figured it out by now.

It's because we're gardeners. Which means -- we're quite insane...