A Lip Smackin' HARVEST FESTIVAL!!!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Alright -- I'm not too proud to admit it. I do have this rather strange habit of drooling in front of any sort of vine-ripened fruit. I'm sorry -- but it's just one of those annoying little habits that developed over a period of decades. I can't help myself. Really, I can't! I mean -- just look at those LUSCIOUS -- not-quite-ripe -- blackberries to your right!

How can anyone not drool at a sight like that?

However -- I do have a eerie feeling that is why the good Master Gardeners at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center haven't extended an invitation to me yet to attend the upcoming Harvest Festival. I can't blame them really. The whole idea is to *excite* people into growing fresh fruit. Looking at some weirdo who can't keep his mouth shut in front of a blackberry vine? Not what the good people at the Horticulture Center ordered.

Alas -- I can't blame them.

But photos such as this -- and a whole lot more -- is what you'll find at the upcoming Harvest Festival -- which takes place on the first Saturday in August -- August 7th -- at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center on Fair Oaks Blvd. in the wonderful community of Fair Oaks no less (11549 Fair Oaks Boulevard to be exact).

Venus and I visited just under two months ago -- during a free open house -- where we were looking for and obtained table grape starter plants. And not just any table grapes mind you -- but the table grapes that tend to peform exceptionally well in our Northern California climate. While Venus got advice from one of the Master Gardeners to your left -- greedy Bill Bird was putting his fat paws on every table grape variety he could find (no -- I didn't take them all people -- there's lots and lots left).

But -- I really appreciated this visit. First -- it was a chance to talk to not one -- but several Master Gardeners who were there to answer every question you had -- no matter how weird. Trust me -- I had lots of weird questions. Secondly? These people really know what they're talking about when it comes to any kind of fruit or vegetable. You want advice? You need help? In need of a pep talk? A dry napkin? You'll find it at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center.

Well -- maybe not the napkin...

At any rate -- I can tell you -- without a doubt -- that these people know what they're talking about and then some. I have the proof. The six table grape vines that Venus and I purchased on that day are growing like weeds in the Bird Back 40. Some have already reached the top of our five-foot-tall trellis -- and we're in the process of encouraging lateral shoot growth now in hopes of enjoying a somewhat small harvest next season.

But -- I'll tell you what... I couldn't have done it without them....

But if you want to taste some tasty fruit -- or take a big, juicy bite out of a vine-ripened heirloom tomato -- or perhaps sample a berry or two? Harvest Festival at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center is the place to be. That's where Venus and I also discovered -- and filled up on I might add -- these Sharp Blue Blueberries that were READY FOR HARVEST.

That's right. The gardeners picked them. We ate them.

Only too happy to oblige...

Seriously though -- if you like "growing your own," or you're looking for some tips as to what fruit trees should be planted in the back or front yard? I highly suggest you skedaddle your way to Fair Oaks a week from this Saturday.

Not only will you find fruits and vegetables in abundance -- but you just might meet up with some rather famous garden types as well. No -- not us -- but perhaps Farmer Fred Hoffman? Yes -- the star of the "KFBK Garden Show" on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK  and "Get Growing" on Talk 650 KSTE will be there from 8:30-9:15 AM to speak on the subject of "Weeding Out Garden Myths."

Trust me -- after reading this blog for a couple of years? Fred has plenty of "myths" to tell you about -- like our rather *unfortunate* attempt to grow blueberry bushes under our stonefruit trees (didn't work out so well people -- two out of four have kicked the bucket this summer).

And if you're looking for me? Just look for the guy climbing up the peach tree and the unfortunate wife that is Venus attempting to pull me off.

It's fresh fruit season people. Bill Bird can't resist. It's my kind of party.

THE 411:

HARVEST DAY 2010
Saturday, August 7th
8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Fair Oaks Horticulture Center
11549 Fair Oaks Boulevard
Fair Oaks, CA 95628

Harvest Day 2010 highlights

Speakers:

8:30-9:15
Weeding Out Garden Myths
Farmer Fred Hoffman, Radio Garden Show Host, Lifetime Master Gardener

9:30-10:15
Arboretum All Stars: Why These Plants are Real Champions
Missy Borel, Program Manager, California Center for Urban Horticulture

10:30-11:1 5
Retrofitting For Dummies:
Cool Technology To Easily Upgrade A Water Wasting System
Don Smith, Water Conservation Coordinator, City of Folsom Utilities Department

11:30-12:15
Graze In Your Garden Year Round: Setting Aside Time and Space to Keep Your Harvest Basket Full
Alison Harris, Peas and Harmony LLC, Organic Food Gardens for Homes and Schools

12:30-1:15
Growing Succulents and Other Drought Tolerant Plants in Containers and in the Ground
Ernesto Sandoval, Curator, UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

Other Opportunities:

•Composting display - learn how to get started, see worm composting in action
•Fruit, tomato & grape tasting - sample a variety of fruits, see what you like before you plant
•Irrigation display area - see what’s new with irrigation
•Food vendor - cool off with an iced beverage or enjoy a snack in the shade of the oaks
•Silent auction - get your bid in early on some great gardening items
•Plant Clinic - have a sick plant diagnosed or have that pesky insect identified
•Community Garden and Food Closet - tour flower and vegetable gardens and chat with a gardener
•Support Sacramento County UC Master Gardeners - buy your 2011 Master Gardener Gardening Guide and Calendar

French Fries! Mashed Taters! And....French Fries???

Monday, July 26, 2010

Uh....Scuse me. I was just dreaming about the kind of dishes that I will hopefully be enjoying as this glorious summer grinds on. The bulk of the Bird Family tomato crop is still weeks away from turning any other color than green -- but some harvests are coming in thank you very much.

Bill and Venus Bird once again find themselves buried under a massive load of spuds thanks to our weekend harvesting efforts -- as evidence by that rather tasty and blurry photo to your right.

The really good news is the sister-in-law -- Leana -- is coming to the rescue with the gift of a digital camera she no longer finds useful. And believe me -- it's better than anything Bill Bird has ever used. I had to promise Leana -- of course -- that the new camera will not be taken on a rafting trip down the Rogue or any other river for that matter. Done.

Folks -- the photo above and the one to your left is the result of planting one 4X8 foot raised bed with a single lb. of "All Red," "All Blue," and "Colorado Rose" seed potatoes purchased from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Grass Valley. The harvest appears to be a tad larger this year when compared to last year -- but it's also true that the sizes are down somewhat.

The lovely wife that is Venus and I were pulling monster-sized Red and Blue potatoes from the potato patch last year in an eye-popping harvest that apparently will not be duplicated anytime soon (last year was just "special" -- on so many fronts). It seemed as if every other potato pulled from last year's patch was a "baking" type variety. This year? Perhaps one in five?

But -- while the sizes are down -- production is up. Venus and I harvested so many spuds over the weekend that it took two sets of hands to haul the freshly harvested bounty into the GarageMahal. And Venus promptly brought the Saturday harvest to the Sunday table with a DELISH potato offering (I'll have to post up that recipe).

I'll be honest. Venus and I have been looking forward to the potato harvest for the better part of six to seven months. That's about when we ran through the last potato from last year's harvest -- our first. It was then that we discovered that --like heirloom tomatoes -- no spud is the same. The potatoes that you grow in your own backyard are unlike anything that you purchase at your local supermarket.

In fact? There is no comparison.

Our favorite meal? Well -- I'm almost embarassed to admit it -- but our favorite meal is not the healthiest use of this backyard produce. There is nothing better -- in my humble opinion -- than a tasty snack of "All Red" and "All Blue" deep-fried french fries. It's eyeball-roll-back-in-the-skull kind of good. McDonald's french fries are rumored to be the best fries on the planet bar none -- but I have no doubt that Mayor McCheese himself would be hard-pressed not to proclaim our discovery "Fries From Heaven."

Yeah -- it's that good.

Venus and I have come to discover that spuds grow best in a raised bed. The environmental conditions are so much easier to control in a raised bed when compared to direct-ground planting. Potatoes grow well -- and larger I might add -- in a bed filled with soil that is not compacted (in other words -- no clay).

Although our test planting in the direct-ground bed did yield a nice harvest -- the sizes of the spuds were noticeably smaller. Almost none of them were large enough to proclaim them as true "baking" type potatoes.

No matter. We'll still find a good use for them.

Our harvest -- like everything else so far this year -- is a tad late. We're about three weeks behind where we were last year at this point -- and there's also no doubt in my mind that our less-than-desirable spring weather also affected potato sizes this year.

But you know what gardeners say, right? Better late than never!

Those Reliable Reds...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill Bird's crappier than crap digital camera is no longer functioning after swallowing a mouthful of Rogue River water during a rafting trip in Southern Oregon. If you didn't think his photos could get any worse -- you ain't seen nuthin' yet!

Hello friends! How does that garden grow? If it's anything like mine? The word is FINALLY!

Yes -- finally the heirloom tomato plants are springing to life. Finally -- they are growing by leaps and bounds. Some are actually producing fruit! Others are not! And that's LIFE with heirloom tomato plants my friend. Sometimes you get some. Other times -- you get the stick.

Why? Well -- that is certainly the $64 question. Why do some heirloom tomato plants grow and grow and grow -- yet fail to produce a single tomato? How can that possibly happen when the plants located to the immediate right and left are loaded with more green tomatoes than you can possibly count?

How indeed!

The Joys of Growing Heirloom Tomatoes! It should be a book. It certainly is an experience. Heirloom tomatoes can bring the most wonderful of rewards -- and can also usher in the most vexing of problems. Farmer Fred Hoffman writes about one such problem here. There are others.

But I've come to discover -- through experience -- that there are some rather reliable heirloom varieties that not only grow well right here in Northern California -- they're almost guaranteed to produce a boatload of tomatoes.

I call these my "Reliable Reds." They have produced for me year in and year out. They have survived diseases. They have survived infestations (Voles). Although they are not technically "disease resistant," they have shown a remarkable ability to throw off the leaf and stem blight that sometimes strikes the Bird Backyard during these hot July days.

Now -- understand -- these "Reliable Reds" aren't going to knock you flat with that eye-popping heirloom taste like you get with some varieties. They're not going to make your eyeballs roll back into your skull like a Brandywine or Kelloggs Breakfast sometimes can. They don't have that eye-catching bi-colored skin that other heirloom varieties offer.

Nope -- what you get with the Reliable Reds is this: A red, sometimes round, tomato. Not just one of them either -- but a bushel. These may not be the "best-tasting" heirloom tomatoes -- but they're not bad either. These two varieties have produced an extraordinary crop for me during the past three seasons -- so I feel somewhat safe in recommending these to your garden.

The first is DRUZBA. Although we're off to an extraordinarily late start this year -- the reliable Druzba is once again fruiting like nobody's business. It also happens to be one of my favorites because -- as an indeterminate -- it keeps right on producing round, red tomatoes until winter frost sets in. It's not all that unusual to be harvesting fresh Druzba tomatoes for a Thanksgiving feast -- long after other varieties have played out or shut down.

Druzba is a fairly recent introduction to the United States heirloom tomato market. It comes from Bulgaria where its name means "friendship." One of the leading authorities on growing heirloom tomatoes -- Dr. Carolyn Male -- calls Druzba "ideal for nearly every type of gardener.... one of the finest heirlooms available."

Of course -- it didn't hurt that she helped introduce it to American gardeners by donating seed to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) in 1995 -- and it also comes highly reccommended in what I like to call the "bible" for heirloom tomato growers: Dr. Male's "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden."

The second variety that is also going gangbusters in the Bird Family Heirloom Tomato Garden -- for the third straight year I might add -- is Campbell's 1327. I had read about this particular variety for years before I finally got around to trying it. I will continue to grow it for year after year for obvious reasons: you just can't possibly screw up a Campbell's 1327.

The Campbell's 1327 is an open pollenated tomato variety that was originally developed by the Research and Development Division of Campbell's Soup Company over 50 years ago. The variety sets sweet, tart red tomato fruit with ease.

Why the Campbell's Soup Company abandoned this variety for others isn't known -- but I can tell you it's not because of the taste or the output of a single plant. It is simply one of the best-tasting red tomatoes on the market -- and one plant is going to keep you in tomatoes and tomato sauce for quite some time.

The Campbell's 1327 does well in any type of salad and is also good for snacking. It should come as no surprise at all that it's also an outstanding performer in any home soup creation. It also peels easily for home-canning efforts.

So there you have it: our Reliable Reds -- so far. We continue to test other varieties every summer and I nearly added another red variety -- Cosmonaut Volkov -- to this list. But this is just the second year with this variety. Like last year -- the bush is loaded with green tomatoes. If it does well for a third straight year -- I will update and add it to the Reliable Reds list.

THEY.....Are Not Amused....

Monday, July 19, 2010

THEY...As in THEM... That crowd of kitties on the bed to your right? They are -- in more than one word -- none too pleased with Bill and Venus Bird of North Natomas at the moment.

Why? Did I forget to clean the catbox? Uh, no. Forgot the nightly serving of Friskies' Beefy Bits N' Sauce for dinner? Although that would elicit mild outrage -- the answer is again no.

Adopt a new dog without their knowledge and consent? Spring said dog on them after Bill & Venus have been away on a four-day trip? Step inside THEIR home with said doggy and announce: SURPRISE, SURPRISE, SURPRISE?

Ummm, yeah, that just might be it.

I suppose an explanation is in order here. Unfortunately -- those who need to hear it the most really aren't interested in the slightest. They only know one thing: A dog has taken a whiz in their bowl of Cheerios -- and folks -- the gardening cats are none too happy.

I say "gardening cats" because they like to dig up and amend our gardening beds -- but that's a disgusting story for another day.

May I introduce to you: Bandana Tenaya Bird -- AKA -- "Bandi." She's the newest pup to join the Bird Family garden and is probably gnawing away at the last watermelon I have on the vine at the moment -- before moving onto that tasty patch of (still green) Brandywine Tomatoes.

Dear Lord...

Venus and I *adopted* Bandi this past weekend after attending a family event in Ashland, Oregon. The event was somewhat somber as we said our final goodbyes to a long-time gardener in the family. But it also served as a mini-family reunion -- which was held at the Flying L Ranch -- a working horse-ranch near Ashland, OR.

Keep in mind -- the wife and I did not visit Oregon to adopt a dog. In fact -- I can honestly confess to you that adopting a dog was the last thing on either of our minds.

Until we saw and met Bandana for the very first time. It was at that point -- I believe -- where both of our hearts melted simultaneously. Why is she named "Bandana?" Because she was -- and still is -- wearing one, silly! Bandi was one of many dogs at the ranch in question. But rather than occupy herself with horses or other ranch work like the other ranch dogs -- she played ball and chased sticks to the squeals of delight of the nieces and nephews in attendance.

Bandi is a six or seven month old purebred MUTT of a dog that absolutely loves everything to do with children. She'll also make fast friends with you if you happen to *accidentally* let a piece of barbequed chicken fall from your plate to the grass below -- but that's another story.

Short and sweet: Bandi captured our attention and our hearts all at the same time. She wanted nothing to do with those dusty old horses in the corral or out in the pasture. But -- give that tennis ball a good long toss -- and she was your best friend. When it came to romping around on the acre of front yard lawn -- throwing water balloons or just tossing a football around -- there was Bandi.

Parting with her was not easy for Bandi's owner. Tenaya Yager had raised this loving girl from a pup. But she also knew that a working horse ranch was no place for a dog like this -- adding that Bandi had nearly been trampled by horses on several occassions. Bottom line? She wasn't raised to to work at a horse ranch.

Fighting back her tears -- Tenaya did what she thought best for her Bandi and allowed us to take her home -- where she will be well trained to "horse around" with four of the brattiest cats known to mankind. Thus the name: Bandana Tenaya Bird.

Now -- the $64 question is this: Will we have any garden left in the coming summer months?

Welcome home, Bandi...

You Like Melons? Bill Bird LIKES MELONS!!!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Let me rephrase that title just a tad: Bill Bird just doesn't *like* melons. He LOVES melons. You've heard of a Renaissance Man? Call me a Melon Man. There's nothing quite like that sweet taste of summertime sugar fruit that comes straight out of a San Joaquin Valley Field -- or better yet -- your own backyard.

I'm not sure when my love affair with all things melon began -- but it's been with me for quite some time. I literally faint at the luscious site of a watermelon half converted into a bowl that contains a fruity mix of fruit salad. One of my favorite events to cover during my television and reporting days in Fresno was the famous Kingsburg Watermelon Festival -- where you could chow down on as much melon as you could possibly consume.

Note: Bill Bird can consume a lot of melon. He proved that over the course of several Kingsburg summer festivals. "I'll cover this one boss," I would volunteer. "I'll see you in eight or nine hours." When reminded by the News Director that covering the festival was a two or three hour job, my retort was always, "not if you want a serious reporting job boss."

Venus and I devote one half of an 8X8 planter bed to our passion. She's more partial to Cantaloupe -- but fell in love with an heirloom watermelon variety last year called Moon and Stars. And -- sure enough -- Venus' favorite melon is back this year -- planted in more than one raised bed.

As for why the most wonderful wife in the world prefers the Moon and Stars -- I'm not sure -- but it might be the size. Venus is a fan of "small and cute" (I sometimes wonder why she married me as I'm neither) -- and that's what you get with the Moon and Stars: a personal size serving of melon.

As for Bill Bird? Call me the "anti small and cute." I like my melons big. Not just big -- but back-buster huge monsters peaking out from underneath a canopy of watermelon plant leaves. There's nothing prettier -- in my humble opinion -- than a 40 lb. green-rind garden monster packed with a mouthwatering reddish-pink fruit. When it comes to watermelon -- only one rule applies: Bigger is Better.

Imagine my excitement this morning then -- as I was inspecting the "patch." Like everything else this year -- our melon growing efforts got off to a slow start this season thanks to some rather stinky spring weather. I've been checking the patch daily -- hoping to find some sort of fruity growth in there -- but had been rather disappointed with what I'd found. It was usually a whole lot of nothing.

I know the problem isn't pollination this year. The melon patch is literally humming with activity as honeybees and other native pollinators move in an out -- feasting upon one open flower or another. The patch is watered deeply twice a week and also receives a daily dose of fertilizer (both organic and non-organic***).

So what gives then? As it turns out -- I was lacking in one major category: PATIENCE BILL BIRD.

I know -- you're shocked.

Patience rewarded. As I walked toward the watermelon patch this morning -- something winked at me out of the corner of my eye. Drawn by early morning sunlight bouncing off zippered lime-and-dark green shoulders -- I discovered the most wonderful sight in the world: a watermelon. And not just any melon either. It was the most beautiful watermelon I've ever seen. It's a monster melon -- or it soon will be.

But the melon patch wasn't satisfied in revealing its deep, dark secrets. As I was looking at the most gorgeous of sights -- yet another and larger melon caught my eye two feet away. And then another -- and yet another. As I would soon discover -- my melon patch is literally filled with fast-growing watermelons of all shapes -- sizes and varieties.

"Aha!" I thought. "No wonder the cats are paying so much attention to this area." And it's true. I noticed our one true hunter-killer cat (named Precious) in front of the melon patch last night. I also remembered seeing her in about the same location the night before. I knew what she was doing.

What pest is attracted to melons? Well -- lots of them actually. Birds of all shapes and sizes love melons -- but the rind is far too hard for them to peck into -- so they generally leave the patch alone. But the field mice known as Voles love melon patches -- as I ruefully discovered last year. They're adept at digging into melons from the ground up -- so you never do begin to notice the damage until it's time to harvest.

Precious has been catching her share of Voles lately. I know this for a fact because she routinely brings them inside to show Venus -- who proceeds to emit an ear-piercing shriek of terror before Precious runs right back outside with her "snack." Her "guardianship" of the melon patch tells me that the Voles have discovered our crop this year as well.

Venus and I are growing several varieties of watermelon and other melons this season. Besides the Moon and Stars -- the Jubilee Melon has found a home in this year's garden -- as has another variety known as Kleckley Sweet. Both are the type of melons that Bill Bird loves -- which means they come in sizes of large, extra-large and Holy Cow.

Another new entry in the Bird Back 40 this season is a hybrid melon-cantaloupe cross called Honeycomb. The seeds for this variety were purchased from Pinetree Garden Seeds -- which offers this somewhat tasty and mouthwatering description:

"The first thing I notice with a honeydew melon is the fragrance and Honeycomb is a fine smelling specimen. It is quite large for a fairly early maturing variety with many going in excess of 6 pounds. Anyone growing Honeycomb mentions its high yield, around a half dozen fruit per hill. Flavor is great, enhanced by a super high sugar content."

And finally -- to top it all off -- the final entry in this year's melon patch is the old standard: Hale's Best Jumbo Cantaloupe. Like the nearby melon crops -- it is also fruiting with abundance.

Is that enough to get ye olde tastebuds working? Too much for you? In my humble opinion -- the line of "too much melon" represents an oxymoron. We're off to a late start this year -- no doubt -- but better late than never.

***EDITORS NOTE: Daily dose of fertilizers does not imply that Bill Bird is fertilizing his garden every single day of the week. The organic fertilizers of Maxicrop and Omega 2000 are applied once every two weeks -- per label directions.

The World Cup? It's in My Backyard!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Have you managed to tune into a World Cup game this summer? Do you hear the buzz? It's like you've been caught inside a hive of bees thanks to the incessant blowing of the Vuvuzela horns! Thanks to Diamond Springs gardener and honeybee swarm-trapper extraordinaire, Garry Erck -- I have bees.

Lots and lots of bees. There's an incessant hum emanating from the Backyard of Bird these days. Standing still earns a strafing attack from not one but several hundred bees that are feeding on frame after frame of delicious honey left behind by last year's colony. It's either a World Cup Final or I'm trapped inside multiple hives...

I suppose an explanation is in order...

A new colony of bees is now officially installed at the North Natomas Home of the Hello Kitty Hive. If you look closely at the photo to your left -- that's Garry -- giving the smoke treatment to a very agitated colony that was none too happy about being driven from one place to another.

Have you ever driven a cat to the veterinarian? It's the same type of distress and response. Except that cats don't sting. Bees do -- and they did. It's just what bees do. At any rate -- Garry quickly deduced that the bees that had taken over the Hello Kitty Hive a few days earlier were -- in fact -- robber bees and not a new swarm that had flown in to "take over."

How did Garry come to this conclusion? Because we got up earlier than the bees did man -- like WAAAYYY too early for Bill Bird. At 6 AM last Saturday morning Garry and I were staring into an empty Hello Kitty Hive box. Since the hive was empty -- we instantly knew that robber bees had taken control of the hive -- not a new swarm or a new queen.

So -- as you can tell in the above photo -- Garry removed the honey laden frames from the hive to keep the robber bees away and keep them occupied somewhere else. We put them against the fence instead -- and then proceeded to install the new colony.

Let me tell you something about Garry Erck: This man is committed. Or -- he should be. Garry doesn't believe in "suiting up" before working a hive. He's a "hands on" kinda guy -- as in "hands without gloves." So -- while Bill Bird put his girlie netting on and his gloves of iron -- Garry just smirked.

Our first task? Unpack the bee-covered frames from the transport hive and transfer them to their new -- bright pink -- Hello Kitty hive. And -- at the same time -- inspect each and every frame closely. We were looking for the queen -- which was no easy task. Here's why:

When a novice beekeeper purchases a new hive from a beekeeping business -- normally the queen of that particular hive comes clearly marked with a dot of neon green or blue paint on the backside of her abdomen. Queens ordinarily stand out from other bees if you know what to look for. But if your name is Bill or Venus -- thy name is ROOKIE -- therefore the dot of paint helps a great deal.

But in this case? The new colony was a gift. Garry trapped a wild swarm -- took it home -- adapted it to the standard Langstroth Hive and then delivered it to the home of Bill and Venus. The queen wasn't marked. It won't ever be marked because Bill Bird just isn't that brave (stupid is another good word to use). And I doubt the new queen is going to show up at my back door anytime soon with a sign that reads "PAINT ME!"

But there is some good news here. Garry spotted the queen on the third frame that we checked. Sure enough -- the little gal was there in all of her glory. She's a good looking little lady and sure does appear to like her new home very much. She's surrounded by attentive workers. Pollen sources are plentiful. There's a new pollen patty in the hive itself -- plus there's a fresh quart of sugar water delivered daily.

What more could a lady ask for? A Hello Kitty Mercedes? Don't give her any ideas!

But the news isn't all wonderful. Garry also spotted potential trouble in the form of a queen cell. Then he found another. He proceeded to quickly destroy both. What is a queen cell? The queen cell is actually normal, ordinary brood. But the workers are feeding this chosen brood a special substance called Royal Jelly. So -- instead of a new worker or drone bee -- what eventually hatches out of the cell is -- in fact -- a new queen.

Why are workers creating a new queen when one already exists? To give the new queen some company? Ummm....NOPE! There is only one queen per hive. Don't ask me why -- I didn't make the rules here. I just abide by them. But usually -- workers start creating queen cells when a hive gets overcrowded -- and that's when you get a swarm. The newly hatched queen leaves the hive -- along with about half the workers and the drones -- in search of a new home.

It's just the way Mother Nature works.

Can you stop bees from swarming? In some cases -- yes. The rule of thumb is this: If a hive box gets too crowded -- add another box on top -- a second story so to speak. It's generally thought that this relieves the perception of overcrowding -- and workers aren't so quick to start creating queen cells.

That's the thought anyway. And that's why the Hello Kitty Hive now has a bright pink second story -- filled with ten empty and inviting frames. It does appear that the colony is enjoying its new digs. They've moved right on in and up to the second story -- where we've also placed the sugar-feeder jar.

So -- this is why the Bird Back 40 is suddenly buzzing with activity. In three short years I've gone from no bees at all -- to bees everywhere. I've got thousands of bees in a double-deep (bee terminology) hive -- and thousands more robber bees covering and rooting after those frames of honey set against the back fence. There are bees here. There are bees there. There are bees everywhere.

Buzz! Buzz! Buzz! World Cup fans would feel right at home!

Peaches N' Berries for Breakfast? Yes Please!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

There's nothing like fresh fruit in the summertime -- especially when that freshness comes straight from the backyard. Our gardening -- tending and fertilization efforts are starting to pay off now with some impressive strawberry harvests from a berry patch that started from one, single, solitary strawberry plant.

One is apparently all you need...Because -- as I was soon to discover -- one plant turns into many if provided with the right soil and right conditions. The strawberries featured to your right started from just one plant -- purchased at Capitol Nursery two seasons ago.

We didn't have our raised strawberry bed created just yet -- so I planted it in the corner of a tomato bed -- and there it grew -- expanded -- and sent out "runners" for other berry plants in the same bed. By the time next spring rolled around? One plant had turned into about 20.

I was rather alarmed. How did all those plants get there? Did someone plant other strawberries while I wasn't watching? It was time to move them to a new home.

That "new home" is a two foot wide and six foot long, nine inch raised bed located against a back fence on the east end of the Bird Back 40. I thought this would be more than enough room -- but our little "strawberry patch" soon gobbled up the extra space and began to "demand more." I have to hack this thing back regularly.

I should be handing out strawberry plants to unsuspecting friends and neighbors instead.

I'm not even sure of what this variety is -- except that it is an ever-bearing plant -- which means it produces all summer long. The berries that you see in the photo above? That was just the start of the harvest. I didn't realize it -- but I'd skipped quite a few ripened berries during the first harvest.

I also noticed ten to 12 developing strawberries right next to every strawberry that I harvested today. This tells me that our season is just now starting to get underway. I think we'll be harvesting berries for quite some time.

Please forgive the blurry photo to your right. My hand was shaking (with obvious excitement!). Our strawberry patch has never yielded quite this much before -- and what I like to call the "Hand of Venus" is playing dividends.

I told you this lady has a green thumb.

Venus had been battling an invasion of slugs in the strawberry patch earlier this spring. Although she battled back with cat food cans filled with cheap beer (slugs love beer) -- she couldn't fill them up fast enough -- or a spring rainstorm diluted things so much that the "beer barrier" was rendered inneffective.

She's recently turned to the organic practice of spreading egg shells in the strawberry patch -- a new one for me. Believe it or not -- it appears to be working wonders. There was a time when three out of five strawberries would show some kind of slug damage.

But since Venus started spreading eggshells? No damage whatsoever. I didn't find a single -- slug-spoiled strawberry during my hunting and gathering efforts this morning. Don't ask me how this works. I have no clue. But Bill Bird is a big fan of egg shells in the strawberry patch

And boy did I find some berries!

Combine those strawberries with some ripened June Pride peaches? You've got yourself one nice, sweet garden treat for breakfast. Although the June Pride peaches are disappointingly small this season -- they're still pretty darn good.

I'm not sure why the peach harvest is somewhat smaller this year. It might be the result of our cold spring. Or it just might be the year for smaller peaches. I'm not familiar enough yet with the June Pride variety to tell yet. This variety normally doesn't yield large, grapefruit sized peaches. But it's not supposed to yield plum-sized peaches either.

This year -- for some reason -- it is.

The neighborhood birds -- our "feathered friends" as we call them -- don't seem to mind much to our chagrin.

Stupid birds! Just when we need our hunter-killer cats for fruit protection efforts -- they suddenly choose to go on a diet. "No birds for us," they claim. "How bout refilling that cat food dish son?"

So -- what's new? This is the first year -- our third in our new and expansive North Natomas backyard -- that we've been able to actually combine fruit harvests. The strawberries were not ripening at the same time as the June Pride peaches last year -- probably due to the fact that they had just been transplanted into a new home.

But this year? We have strawberries. We have an eye-popping number of strawberries. I have a feeling that these harvest numbers will only continue to multiply exponentially in the coming years.

To Prune? Or Not to Prune?

Friday, July 2, 2010

I was inspired to write this entry about pruning tomato plants after reading Farmer Fred Hoffman's take on the issue. Bottom line? I'd listen to Fred. Fred doesn't prune. He doesn't advocate the pruning of tomato plants. In fact -- he's got the scientific research to back up his claims. I've been burned far too many times by ignoring that man's good advice --  so whatever he says? Take it to heart. It's the real truth.

But -- at the same time -- I am also reminded of a very good gardening friend by the name of Tom Matkey. Tom was fortunate enough to recently retire from the rat race of a 9-5 job -- and now splits his time sitting on a beach in Hawaii or tending his tomato plants in the backyard of his Craftsman home in the Southern California community of Glendora.

Where did I meet Tom? Where I meet most of my gardening friends on the internet: which is usually some chat room dealing with one of my most favorite subjects in the whole wide world: Heirloom Tomatoes.

Tom had posted up some pictures of a unique looking tomato cage that looked strangly like 3/4 inch PVC. I wrote to him and asked, "is that really PVC?" Sure enough -- he wrote back -- and it was PVC indeed.

Tom had come up with a unique design for a PVC cage that just looked -- well -- rather ingenious. I'd had some troubles keeping my plants standing straight up in those dinky wire cages the previous year -- a situation that he also faced. That's when he informed me that those dinky wire cages are like a modern-day slinky -- and will fail the moment you need them the most.

So -- being the good gardener that I am -- I copied (ripped off) Tom's cage idea and continue to use it to this very day. I've never lost a plant since -- not even during a rare windstorm in late August. The PVC cages stand up to every challenge that has been thrown at them. As a matter of fact -- this will be my third year of using the PVC cage design -- which you can access here or read more about here.

But there's another tip that Tom also passed along with his cage design: Tom prunes his tomato plants. He doesn't just prune. He REALLY prunes. I mean -- a HARD PRUNE. As Tom explains: "I never let my plants get beyond four leaders (stems). Every other leader that develops gets pruned off immediately."

Now -- I had heard of pruning before. But never pruning in a method such as this one? FOUR LEADERS? That's ALL? My tomato plants usually grow into a jumbled mess of nearly 100 LEADERS by the time growing season is in the books. I can't imagine the kind of work it would take to prune a tomato plant to just four leaders.

But then again -- there's no arguing with the results. You can plainly see them in this photo. This is a photo of Tom's Tigerlla tomato plant taken in 2007. I was amazed by the fruit set on this one plant. I may have come close to duplicating this feat last year -- which by the way was one of the best on record. But I don't get this kind of fruit set every year.

Tom -- it appears -- does.

That's not the only photo Tom would sent of the tomato garden in his Craftsman home backyard. The luscious Lemon Boy harvest in 2008 also caught my eye and attention. And again -- Tom used the same method: Tomato plants were pruned to four leaders and four leaders only. Each leader was then tied to one of the four PVC uprights and trained to grow straight up and out.

All tomato flowers and subsequent fruit were generated from just those four leaders.

I've never seen anything like this before. To this day -- despite my various conversations with heirloom tomato lovers from around the world (there are a lot of us folks) -- I've never come across anyone who does a hard prune like this and keeps it up through the entire growing season.

Oh sure -- there are people who do prune. There are also advocates of pruning. But not anything like this. Do the math people! If you're growing 30-40 heirloom tomato plants in the backyard -- and you're pruning to just four leaders? You're out in the garden every darn day and pruning those tomato plants whether you like it or not!

For me? I think I'm going to stick with Fred's advice and leave my plants alone. They're been doing just fine without human interference for centuries -- so why upset the apple cart? Plus -- Fred -- as a Certified Master Gardener -- has the scientific evidence and study to back up his claims.

Then again -- a picture says a thousand words -- doesn't it?

SURPRISE, SURPRISE, SURPRISE!!!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Yes -- indeed -- it's a Gomer Pyle moment in the Backyard of Bird. Or -- I suppose you could also say -- "Just when you least expect it, *IT* happens."

*IT* is happening right now in the Bird Back 40 -- right underneath our very noses -- and to be honest boys and girls: I'm not really sure what to make of it nor what I should do next.

Ideas anyone? Buehler? Please leave them below in the circular file.

I had intended to prepare a special post this weekend -- with some special news indeed: The Hello Kitty Hive was back in action. Although Venus and I had come to a decision earlier this spring to not purchase another colony of bees -- a good gardening friend by the name of Garry Erck had another idea.

Garry -- an experienced beekeeper himself -- had taken an interest in our Hello Kitty Hive and the many challenges we faced last season -- our first as beekeepers. He exulted at the good news that came from the installation of a new queen. He communicated his sorrow when our hive "flew the coop" (Colony Collapse Disorder) last October.

Garry's plan this year was to capture at least five wild colonies -- also called swarms -- which are apparently in big numbers where he lives in the El Dorado County foothills. I say "big numbers" because Garry became so proficient at capturing swarms this spring and summer that he's wound up with nine colonies -- about four more than he really wanted.

Garry -- knowing of our misfortune -- had promised as early as April that he would try to secure a new colony for us. As time passed -- and I watched him blog about capture after capture -- I knew that at some point Garry would come calling in the direction of the Natomas Gardening Birds.

Sure enough -- the good news came in the form of an email about three weeks ago. "How would you like a new colony," Garry asked. Although Venus and I had made a decision to sit the summer out -- we also missed our bees very much. Not a weekend went by without one of us in front of the hive -- lamenting our loss -- or thinking about the colony we had tended the summer before.

So -- when the chance to get another colony landed on our front doorstep? We jumped at it!

That's right -- a new life for the Hello Kitty Hive! A new colony of bees! Would we have better luck this time? We were both certainly willing to give it a try! After all -- we do have that all important first year of experience now. So why not try, try again?

But -- Mother Nature it seems -- had other plans.

Venus and I started preparing the Hello Kitty Hive for the new colony on Tuesday night. We pulled the weeds around it -- wiped the outside down a bit with a damp cloth and also opened up the hive to make sure that no spiders had taken up residence inside (Black Widow spiders love bee hives -- FYI).

While we had the top open -- we both thought it prudent to remove yet one more frame of delicious -- Hello Kitty Hive -- honey. After all -- the previous colony had left us with ten packed frames? Why not take one or two and enjoy nature's bounty? The new colony can have the other eight frames we reasoned. Surely -- they wouldn't miss two?

Apparently not.

Proud readers: This is the sight that greeted us when Venus and I arrived home after work on Wednesday evening. That's right. Your eyes are not deceiving you. That is the Hello Kitty Hive. And yes -- it's covered with BEES.

Did Garry arrive early and surprise us with our new colony perhaps?

Uh -- no...

As I indicated earlier -- Mother Nature had "other plans." Those plans include a wild swarm of bees that discovered our hive -- discovered the open top -- discovered the eight remaining frames of honey and moved right on in and made themselves comfortable inside their brand new -- Hello Kitty Hive.

"No," we both thought. "This can't be." I reasoned that the bees all over the sides and in the frames of the hive must -- in fact -- be "robber bees." I had heard about them. Robber bees are bees from a strong hive -- that will sometimes attack a weak hive -- to get at the honey.

That must be it I reasoned: Robber Bees...

But as I took a closer look at the hive -- I noticed the clusters of honeybees on either side of the hive. That isn't normal behavior for "robber bees." No -- they go right on inside and help themselves to the honey on the frames. However -- it is normal behavior for bees to "cluster" around a new queen. It is the "bee way" of protecting the new leader from attack.

A new queen had discovered the Hello Kitty Hive. At least -- I think it's a new queen. To be brutally honest -- I'm not quite sure myself. But I do know that robber bees will leave and return to their own hives when the sun goes down. They don't stick around at night.

But these bees did. So did the clusters. As of this morning? They were swarming wildly above the open hive. You can actually see a few of them if you look closely enough at the photos.

"No," I thought -- still not believing my eyes. "This just can't be right," I reasoned. After all -- nary a bee had shown interest in the hive -- or the honey inside -- since the last colony left in October. This isn't due to a lack of bees in the Bird Back 40. We get swarms of them from other colonies that have discovered the pollinators in the vast backyard. Honeybees -- Mason Bees -- Carpenter Bees -- you name it and we have them.

So -- why now? At this very moment in time? Three days before Garry Erck was going to gift me with a new colony? Bees suddenly show up? A new queen? An actual wild swarm? I needed help. And when Bill Bird needs help -- he turns to his unfortunate mentor: Farmer Fred Hoffman.

Surely -- Fred would have an answer. Surely -- the guru of Northern California gardening could figure this one out for me. Right? Like so many times in the past?

Not this time. His response? "I only know who to call to get rid of swarms. 451-BEES."

Not that I want to get rid of a swarm mind you. I'd just like to really know what I have here. It appears that I will wait until Saturday -- when the more experienced beekeeper eye of Mr. Erck pays me a visit to tell me exactly what I have.

But as for now -- I give you -- the Hello Kitty Hive 2010 Edition.