A Lizard's Ball Sack

Monday, March 29, 2010


Let's just roll that one around in the back of ye olde cranium for a second or two -- shall we?

During my eons of professional radio broadcasting education at Fresno State University -- the all-knowing professors instructed us to write flowery prose that created an image in the listener's mind. Instead of the line; "it rained real hard here today," we came up with image provoking lines of; "there's a small lake forming at the intersection of Shaw and Cedar Avenues..."

Imagine the image that comes to mind when you think of the phrase: "A Lizard's Ball Sack."

On second thought -- don't.

Yet -- that is how the "significant other" of a well-known Sacramento gardener describes the "look" of an artichoke that is slowly emerging from the center of an artichoke plant. After hearing that line -- suddenly my excitement vanished. My taste for all things "artichoke" went south (probably to Fresno). All I could think of was: Look at Bold Line Above.

First -- I really don't know what a lizard's private parts look like. Secondly -- I really don't want to know. Yes -- we do have small lizards that scamper about here in the wilds of North Natomas. No -- I am not inspecting the private parts of said lizard. And -- in case you were wondering -- no -- I'm not about to "go there."

I don't think the lizard would appreciate the inspection either -- but that's just a guess on my part. I haven't questioned a lizard lately. Have you?

Image provoking comments aside -- I don't think I'm going to surprise anyone with the statement of: Spring Has Sprung. It's fairly obvious. Vast fields of yellow mustard are blooming like mad in North Natomas. The daffodils popped early in February and now the tulips have shown up. The shower of blossoms that emerged from the Santa Rosa plum has come and gone -- and now? We have artichokes.

What's the big deal? Well -- number one -- I think this is the first time I've seen them pop this early. Usually? The first buds on an artichoke plant don't emerge until early to mid April. By the time May and June rolls around? It's fresh artichoke season in the Sacramento Valley. It does coincide somewhat with the start of artichoke harvesting efforts on the coast -- which means the grocery store headlines of "Artichokes: Five for $5" isn't all that far off.

But -- again -- I'm partial to what comes straight out of my backyard. I grew them. I know exactly what I put into them. I know exactly what I'm getting. And what I'm getting is some of the best artichokes you'll find anywhere. My guess is Venus and I will be harvesting the largest 'chokes in another week or two. It sort of depends upon the weather.

Speaking of the weather -- the series of rainstorms that is supposed to hit the Sacramento area this week is coming at an opportune time for backyard artichoke enthusiasts such as myself. I've discovered through experimentation that a heavy dose of water and fertilizer through the prime growing months results in large harvests of not only large artichokes -- but 'chokes that are just as tender.

Yes -- you'll still get artichokes without the increased attention to water and fertilization. The first harvest will still be pretty good. But the second, third and dare I say fourth, harvests will result in artichokes that are smaller in size -- and worse yet -- tough to chew on. How tough? How much do you like chewing on leather?

The wonderful wife that is Venus and I are sharing fertilization duties this year. The lady has hit upon a super-secret (so secret that she won't even tell me) mix of liquid organic fertilizers and I have been spreading nitrogen-rich -- time-release fertilizers such as Osmocote and other pelleted plant foods.

Is there such a thing as too much love for artichokes? If there is -- we haven't found it yet. Lord knows -- we're trying various experiments from year to year. It just doesn't seem to matter much. The more love that you show artichokes? The more love that they will show you in terms of a prolonged harvest.

How long will the harvest be? That depends upon Mother Nature. If the Grand Dame provides us with pleasant spring-time temperatures in the mid 70's to lower 80's -- you can stretch an artichoke harvest for three months. BUT -- the moment the mercury rises above 90? Kiss the season goodbye. The large plants don't like the heat much.

At that point -- they shut down -- die back -- and wait for the cooler breezes of fall. That's when the life cycle begins anew.

As for varieties? That's a good question. Venus and I know we have different varieties of artichokes that are growing out of the same bed. They're easy to spot. But the names were lost years ago. The artichokes that you see in these pictures started from four starter plants that were purchased from an Elk Grove area nursery in the spring of 2003.

They have survived year after year after year of abuse. They have even survived a transplant from one backyard to another. Just like the old Timex watch -- "they take a licking and keep on ticking."

Strangely -- that line brings back the image of a lizard's ball sack.

Pinkston -- clearly -- wants to change the subject.

The World's BEST radish!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Okay -- perhaps I'm showing a little "Homer Instinct" here. It might not be the "World's Best Radish." It might not even be the 2nd best. It might not even be selected for "runner-up" in the "Best Mutt" contest where the prize is two weeks in Bakersfield (1st place is one week in Bakersfield).

But I'm of the belief that the best produce in the world comes straight from your backyard garden. And -- thanks to a solid ten days of GORGEOUS weather in Northern California -- our North Natomas garden is "putting out."

Case in point? These lovely little radishes came straight from the raised gardening beds and went straight into last night's salad -- as did some various salad greens -- green onions -- garlic chives -- various fresh herbs and spices and whatever Mother Nature was good enough to bring us on Sunday.

Of course -- it does also help quite a bit that the wife that is Venus has discovered the magic of Omega 2000 and other liquid organic fertilizers that really pack a punch in the garden. That little lady will spend hours fertilizing every little last spot in the garden. And this is the result after a month of once-a-week treatment.

It's not just the radishes either. The fruit trees are popping. The peach trees are loaded - as is the Santa Rosa plum. The cherry trees are flowering like nobody's business. The hybrid tea roses -- tree roses and Floribunda roses are getting ready to pop open. The new plantings of nectarines -- pluots and table grapes are also showing decent signs of life.

This is what I like to call our "salad spring." Unfortunately, it doesn't last as long as Venus and I would like. But -- during this time of year -- you can literally harvest a salad a night from the backyard (minus the fresh tomatoes, of course).

The best part? In my opinion? Well -- I've always been a fan of radishes. I think it may have been the first thing that I planted in a garden as a small boy (radishes are easy). But -- in my humble opinion -- there's just something special about radishes that come straight from the backyard and onto your plate.

There's a bite there -- on the tastebuds -- that you just don't get from the store-bought varieties. Or -- perhaps you do -- but it's just not quite as strong. Plus -- you're not getting the "standard red radish" from the backyard. Oh no -- you're getting a taste of the Watermelon Radish -- or perhaps the French Breakfast. There's nothing wrong with the wild colors of the Easter Egg radish and the giant white April Cross makes for interesting dinner conversation.

Crunch, crunch people. It's fresh radish season! And -- if you're thinking that "I've missed the boat" -- think again! Plant seeds now to enjoy bumper harvests through mid-June. At some point the weather will turn just a tad too warm for radish growing endeavours -- but there's plenty of time left in fresh radish season.

"Adventures in" -- Check That -- "Errors in Gardening!"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The sun is shining! The ground is drying out! It's time to get out there and DIG to my heart's content!

Not so fast, Needlemeyer.

Unfortunately -- I came up with a perfect time to get infected with a disease known simply as "The Crud." You know what this is. Chances are -- you've already had it. You know? The symptoms include hacking cough, congested chest, the chills? Just when you think you're coming out of it -- it suddenly gets worse? Or -- when you think that it can't possibly get any worse -- it does?

Yeah -- that's "The Crud." And I have it. Lucky me. Just in time for Spring!

What is a gardener to do then? Unfortunately -- not much. I got this case of "The Crud" from the wonderful wife that is Venus -- who did battle with it all last week. This "stuff" has been making the rounds at work -- knocking people out and off the job for anywhere from a week to ten days. It's just downright nasty. In response -- I had been consuming two oranges -- or an orange and an apple -- every morning for months on end -- hoping I could fight this off.

You know the old saying? An Apple a Day Keeps The Crud Away? No, Needlemeyer, it don't.

There would be no post-hole digging this past weekend. Besides -- the Friday rain had pretty much washed away all possibilities of installing the second and final half of my table grape arbor. I mean -- it's tough to sink posts when the two foot post-holes you dug the previous weekend are filled with two feet of rainwater.

What's that? Bale them out you say? With what? A soup ladle? Be my guest. Besides -- I tried that. The ground was so saturated with rainfall that whatever water got taken out was immediately replaced. No -- there would be no sinking of the posts this weekend.

So -- what is a sick and frustrated gardener to do then? Just WASTE AWAY the first sunny and nice weekend of 2010? Stay inside and watch TV? Take a long afternoon nap? HEY -- THE SUN IS SHINING!

Well -- there was one project that I could do that wouldn't take much physical effort. See that nice little section of bare clay soil to the right? That's a small patch of ground against the back side of the house that desperately screamed for beautification. This patch of ground has frustrated me for quite some time. At first -- I had planted a camelia bush back there -- thinking that the shade of the house would protect it.

Bad idea. Oh -- the camelia got protection alright. But it was protected from the morning sun. By the time the clock hit High Noon -- that camelia got a full-on blast of summer heat and summer sunshine. It wilted against the heat. Leaves would burn and fall off. Nope -- as the wife pointed out last spring -- it wasn't going work. So I dug that camelia up -- moved it to another shady location (where it's very happy I might add and finally bloomed for the first time this year) -- and replaced that camelia with two tree roses.

While the roses did well -- as you can tell -- that area needed "more." That hard clay soil just looks ugly -- plus the weeds get to be problematic. The retired-rocket-scientist father-in-law who also serves as my landscaping inspiration suggested filling the area in with bark -- which wasn't a bad idea -- but I wanted more.

I do have a growing pile or collection of scrap wood from earlier box building efforts. Why not use that to build a small flower box the retired-rocket-scientist father-in-law suggested? I must admit -- it wasn't a bad idea. I did have four, two-foot long sections of 4X4 posts that I had shaved off from the posts I had purchased earlier for arbor-building efforts. Why not "recycle and re-use?"

It was about that point where the retired-rocket-scientist father-in-law asked the simple question of: Why did you purchase four, eight-foot long, 4X4 posts and cut two feet off?

My answer: "Because I needed six-foot posts for the arbor, Gale."

His response: "Why didn't you buy two, 12-foot long, 4X4 posts and just cut them in half?

I hate engineers. They're just so smug. And they're so right. As I stood there -- soaking in his simple advice -- I realized he was right. It was right about that time that I started to feel like -- and resemble -- a Jack ***. DOH! "Error in Gardening" Mistake #1.

It was also about that time that I realized that I didn't have quite enough of those two-foot sections to make the flower bed that I wanted. What I wanted was to be four feet long and two feet wide. That would require six, two-foot long sections of leftover 4X4 posts. I only had four.

Know what this means?

Back to Home Depot! Because -- Bill Bird just can't make ONE gardening error. There's got to be SEVERAL. Sooooo -- back I went -- fervently hoping the entire time that Home Depot did not stock the 12 foot sections of 4X4 posts that the retired-rocket-scientist father-in-law had suggested. Guess what? They did. DOH! "Error in Gardening" Mistake #2.

But I needed those two-foot sections that are the result of buying eight-foot-long, 4X4 posts and cutting two feet off. And so -- that's what I did. I bought four more eight-foot-long, 4X4 posts -- had our handy-dandy Home Depot associate cut two feet off each -- loaded everything into the car and headed home. It wasn't a terrible waste you understand. The six foot sections of 4X4 posts will be used for the second arbor. And I finally had the missing two-foot sections I would need to complete the flower bed project.

To the engineers who are reading this post (Garry) -- you have probably guessed by now what "Error in Gardening" Mistake #3 will be. I needed two, two-foot sections of 4X4 posts to complete the flower bed project. But -- instead of coming home with just two -- I came home with four. DOH! Suddenly -- the size of the flower bed in question expanded to six feet in length.

As I began to assemble this bed with my handy-dandy Makita drill and gold screws -- it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't have the necessary number of metal straps and reinforcements this "flower bed" in question would need. These pressure-treated posts are much heavier than the "Lincoln Logs" I had used earlier for other box building efforts. What I had at home just wasn't going to suffice. The bed in question to your right would need more -- otherwise it would just fall apart.

Back to Home Depot, Needlemeyer! I needed tin straps. I needed metal straps. Fortunately -- this was a short trip. There would be no "Error in Gardening" Mistake #4 (unless you want to call this entire endeavour one huge mistake). Putting together a box like this is quite easy -- and moves quickly -- when you finally have the parts that you need. Although I was tiring quickly from "The Crud," work progressed smoothly from that point forward.

But -- building the box is only half of the project. It's also the easiest part of the project. Moving the bed into the correct space -- centering the bed -- and finally -- leveling the bed isn't easy. The hard clay soil isn't level. Plus -- the box needed to be even with the surrounding concrete -- which it wasn't. And -- you can't forget about irrigation. Installation of drip irrigation must be done before the first cup of planter mix is placed inside the bed -- otherwise -- you've got problems.

Hard work? You bet! But at some point -- you do begin to see the payoff. Venus and I have spent years installing different gardening beds for different purposes. Some hold our famous heirloom tomatoes. Still others hold potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, cucumbers, okra, lettuce and other greens.

We've dug multiple holes and built other boxes for fruit trees and fruit bushes like blueberries, thornless blackberries and thornless boysenberries. While we still have room to add a few other things (I never did get around to planting an Owari Satsuma Mandarin) -- the last part of our landscaping effort involves "beautification." It's the last step in any landscaping process. You get the essentials in first -- and beautify later. You don't want to dig up a lawn later -- or rake away bark or landscaping rock -- because you forgot something important.

And so -- this is how this one small area looks now. It's the one section of the yard that I can point too with all honesty and say "job well done." It's a small section to be sure -- maybe four feet wide and ten feet long -- but it's done now. Soon -- this is how the rest of the yard will look. We're not "there" yet. It's going to take another year or three before we can say "we're done here."

But we're getting there, Needlemeyer. We're getting there.

Of Artichokes N' Blooms

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Excitement Level = HIGH!

We're getting close to Bill & Venus Bird's favorite part of the year. More so me than the lovely wife -- but Spring is getting ready to Sprung in ye olde North Natomas Back 40.

The wife loves this time of year too -- don't get me wrong. But she can hardly wait for the 100-degree nights (sans Delta Breeze of course), Johnny Miller calling the play-by-play on KNBR, cats chasing after insect ghosts in the dark backyard night and a refreshing drink containing high-class gin that comes from a plastic bottle.

Now that children -- is a good time for all. I happen to like it too.

Winter is a bit of a bummer for us backyard enthusiasts. Yeah -- you receive reams of catalogs to go through. Seeds must be ordered. Gardens must be planned. But that's all INDOOR work. Meanwhile -- for those of us who would rather be outside in the garden -- all we can do is look out the window at the downpour.

But the first hint of spring for us? That's when the daffodils burst open. We got quite the show this year. Next up? The Santa Rosa plum tree turned bright white with a thousand blossoms.

And now -- finally? The artichoke plants are beginning to perk up and look like artichoke plants again. In another month or two -- the first artichokes will begin to emerge from the nine or ten artichoke plants in this bed. By mid-May? Artichokes will be on the menu just about every night for supper.

There's nothing quite like a meal of a big, meaty artichoke, some melted butter, garlic salt and fresh herbs from the garden. It is Heaven on Earth.

I was a tad worried though -- earlier this year. The freeze that hit in December really walloped the artichoke plants that had emerged last fall. Usually -- artichoke plants emerge in the fall and grow right through the winter months. They are usually quite gargantuan by March and April. But something strange happened this year.

I'm not sure if it was the December freeze or perhaps a neighbor got a tad too generous with some Roundup -- as our plants started to die back in January. Some of the damage -- as the photo to the left illustrates -- is still with us. There was a time when every plant looked exactly like that one leaf. I'd never seen it before.

But -- thinking this could also be freeze damage -- I followed the advice of other well known gardeners who advised "leave it alone." It's true that artichokes do love cold, foggy conditions. But they draw the line when the mercury drops too far -- as it's been known to do in Sacramento. Give them a coastal climate and they'll shower you with love and artichokes.

Most of the time -- we have that. But there are those "exceptions..."

I'm not only happy to see them bouncing back -- but the return of my natural bug hunters brought a big smile to my face. I'm not exactly sure why ladybugs are so wild about my backyard -- but I have them in abundance. They are the best control that I have against the aphids and other pests that will begin munching on the artichokes and artichoke plants later this spring.

Eventually -- the aphids and the heat will always win out the day. But the ladybugs do their part in keeping the bad characters away. Now -- don't get me wrong here. You can't just cut -- steam and eat on home-grown chokes -- unless you really like getting a mouthful of yard critters. They love hiding ON and INSIDE the artichoke.

The best defense then? A good salt water bath is a must once you've brought them inside to prepare for that evening's meal. A good 30 minute soak in a salty brine will remove most of the bad actors -- and you'll be surprised to find out just how INFESTED these things can get.

Bill Bird -- and an overabundance of bugs -- love artichokes.

If you desire artichokes as big as your hand for dinner -- the time to start preparing for that experience is now. I fertilize my artichoke plants regularly -- with both organic and non-organic materials. The plants get a least a gallon of water mixed with Omega 2000 and Maxicrop every week and I also distribute several cups of Osmocote brand fertilizer in the bed during the month of March.

As the weather warms and the plants begin to produce? Normal watering schedules go by the wayside. The bed is soaked thoroughly with a hose on a low stream of water at least twice a week.

This method usually results in a first crop of artichokes that will be large -- meaty and very tender. Successive crops will result in smaller artichokes. And -- as the weather really begins to warm in mid-June -- artichokes take on the consistency of leather. They're still good mind you -- but tough on the teeth!

Perhaps more experimentation is needed? We will be expanding our artichoke planting efforts into a second bed later this spring. The bed is built -- but isn't irrigated yet nor do I have the required planter mix. Put that on the list of "projects to be completed later this spring."

I never do get to all of them.

Oh -- I promised BLOOMS! And here you go! This is another reason to get excited about the approaching change in seasons that is spring. The two peach trees in the backyard are flowering like nobody's business.

Although there are some growers who reccommend that you don't allow a peach tree to produce ANY fruit for the first three years -- well -- I couldn't wait. This O'Henry Peach tree produced a few peaches during the first year. Last year? An avalanche of peaches. The tree had to be culled regularly to keep branches from bending and breaking under the weight of loaded peaches.

As for Year 3? While I really should pull each and every peach from the tree and allow root systems to develop -- you should know me by now. There's peach pie to be had later this summer!

Blogging: Easier Than Digging Post Holes

Sunday, March 7, 2010

File that one in the "No Duh, Sherlock" department.

I just hurt all over. No -- not from the project pictured to the right. I hurt because of the project that I tackled AFTER creating that little rose and flower garden. Digging post holes is no darn fun. Digging post holes in muddy clay soil is REALLY no fun.

And I still have one more to go....

But -- I digress. Although my thoughts remain with a very ill gardening friend -- life goes on. It must. Flowers will flower. Roses will bloom. Peaches will grow. Heirloom tomatoes will ripen. Life happens. Katie would have wanted it that way.

But -- to honor our friend and beautify the yard at the same time -- Venus and I completed a project over the weekend that we call "Katie's Spot." Katie will like it because soon -- this spot will be full of flowers -- which matches her flowering personality. Perhaps -- if I'm lucky -- I can get Katie to weed it later this summer (fat chance!).

I've been meaning to tackle this project for quite some time -- but there were always other "pressing duties" that needed to be taken care of first. This hybrid tea rosebush -- Blue Girl -- was transplanted from our old home (now a rental) to the new backyard three years ago. I put it in a side yard -- hooked up some irrigation -- and there it sat.

Sure -- it looked pretty. But it was all alone. Hybrid tea rosebushes need company -- they really do. No -- they don't get lonely. No -- they don't have "isolation issues." The plain fact is that hybridizers have put so much work into the top of the rose -- where it flowers -- that they've kind of ignored the bottom.

This is how it looked earlier this year when I pruned back a lot of last year's growth. Compare the photo to your left to the one above. Quite a big difference eh? Now imagine that soil filled with a mix of perennials. It should put on quite the show.

Another point to consider is that the bottoms of hybrid tea rosebushes can get kind of ugly as the summer wears on. The first leaves to emerge on a hybrid tea rosebush are at the bottom. Those are usually the first to catch some sort of disease or be eaten away by some bug. They drop -- and sometimes the bottom of a pretty hybrid tea rosebush can look bare and ugly.

So why not beautify the area with some "Rocklin Rocks," a little bit of bark, some Coreopsis, Butterfly Flowers, English Daisies and other selected perennials? The flowers serve a double purpose. Not only will they look pretty and draw attention to the showpiece at the top (the actual roses) -- they also serve to hide that bare spot that invariably develops at the bottom of the rosebush.

And the rocks? We call them Rocklin Rocks for a reason. Why? Cause we got them in Rocklin -- that's why. A few years ago -- when developers couldn't build homes fast enough -- giant bulldozers turned over acres of soil for new housing subdivisions and new commercial shopping centers.

Have you ever tried to dig a hole in a Rocklin backyard? They call the place "Rocklin" for a reason. Chances are -- you're going to hit big boulders the moment the shovel hits the soil line. Venus and I would find piles and piles of these rocks during commercial building efforts -- and just help ourselves.

They make for an attractive border, no? And the best part is -- they're FREE. That's a good selling point for frugal folks like us (you can also substitute the word "cheap" in for "frugal").

I have a feeling that Katie will like the arrangement because:

1. Flowers match her flowering personality
2. Roses smell good
3. It's not a lawn (Katie doesn't like lawns)

Next week's project? Installing my acre-sized lawn!