A Garden Grew Here

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

WE Garden Plot in Winter, Capitol Park
It's not much to look at right now -- in the dead of winter -- but at one time a great garden bloomed in this very spot to your right.

This is the site of the "WE Garden" effort in Capitol Park east of the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento. Former First Lady Maria Shriver borrowed the idea from First Lady Michelle Obama, who started her own garden outside the White House.

Children came to this very spot in May, 2009. They planted seeds. Tomato starter plants went into this ground by the dozen. The children returned in May, 2010 to plant anew. Although the "inside" joke at the time was that the First Lady's gardening efforts kept the squirrels and homeless well fed -- I must admit -- I was quite envious of the patches of basil that grew around the outside of this circle.

It was perfect for Heirloom Tomato Martinis you understand.

I'm not sure if the children will return in 2011. The Schwarzeneggers have officially departed Sacramento. A new team is in charge. The photos of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver that once dotted State Capitol hallways have been removed. The only reminder that "Arnold" (as the children called him) was here was the bear that sits outside the Governor's Office. It's still there.

State Capitol Bear
But the garden? That was Maria Shriver's effort. That was her contribution. I'm not sure if the new First Lady will continue with gardening tradtion -- but then again -- spring is still a few months away.

A lot has been written about Governor Schwarznegger and his legacy -- written by reporters that I know, work with and respect very much. Some of the stories they've written touched on the Governor's legislative agenda, which was filled with equal parts success and failure. They've also touched on his work with the budget.

The general consensus of these reports is that "Arnold" didn't leave much of a legacy.

I still can't believe how many of them missed the target so completely. Schwarzenegger left a tremendous legacy that is awfully hard to measure -- and will probably never be matched. Perhaps you had to work inside the State Capitol day in and day out to realize the impact he had -- and still has to this day. He was larger than life -- bigger than the Governor himself -- even though he was the Governor.

Sign at the We Garden Plot at Capitol Park
If you want to know the Governor's true legacy -- his true impact on California -- ask the children. Ask the schoolchildren who visit the State Capitol nearly every single day of the year. Ask the children who planted seeds and starter plants (and a fruit tree or two) in the WE Garden plot.

They'll tell you about the Schwarzenegger Legacy. But first, you have to listen. Secondly, you have to understand.

To truly understand Arnold Schwarzenegger's impact on Sacramento and the larger-than-life legacy he leaves behind -- you must first take a trip back in time to what I call "BA." That's "Before Arnold." This is long before anyone ever envisioned The Terminator in the Goveror's Office. He was still a major Hollywood star. The thought of him in Sacramento simply hadn't crossed anyone's mind.

Field trips to the State Capitol during this time -- for most children -- registered below zero on an excitement scale of 1-10. They were as dull as used dishwater. Oh sure -- looking at the restored Capitol Rotunda brought some interest. But after 30-seconds of staring up at the top of the Capitol Dome -- the fifth graders were asking teacher, "when's lunch?"

Field trips to the dentist provided more excitement.

School children in the State Capitol Rotunda
The only time any child or teenager got excited about a field trip to the State Capitol is when a group of overanxious 15-and-a-half year old teenagers came to the building looking to tar and feather anyone who supported any legislative effort to raise the legal driving age from age 16 to age 18.

Other than that? The kids were bored to TEARS. You could see it in their eyes. You could see it as they moved from aisle to aisle, wondering why any of this was important and asking the tired question of, "will this be on a test?" The usual retort from an annoyed teacher was a loud "YES!" That got their attention -- for a little while at least.

But that changed overnight when the movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped through the doors of the Governor's Office following the recall of Governor Gray Davis. Suddenly -- field trips to the State Capitol were COOL. Not just cool -- but WAY COOL. Arnold was there. Kids sat up and took notice.

Tens of thousands of children -- classrooms from all over the world -- visited the State Capitol during this period. It was tough to move through the main hallways on the first floor of the restored section of the State Capitol on many days simply because there were so many visitors -- so many children.

They had come to visit their star. They had come to see Arnold. They didn't come to see the Governor. You see -- "Arnold" was bigger than the Governor. They came to see Arnold. And they came by the thousands. Day after day -- year after year -- visitors from every corner of the globe came to walk the same halls that Arnold walked. They posed for pictures by the bear in front of his office. They asked the CHP officer posted outside if "Arnold was inside." The response was "maybe, I don't know." That was inevitably followed by the question, "can we go inside and look?"

On those rare occassions when Governor Schwarzenegger actually came out of his office? If you were a lowly staffer like me -- you got caught up in a maelstrom. If you were lucky -- you could back out of the throng of children and other visitors who were quickly assembling. If not? You were stuck in one place until the Governor passed.

That was life in the State Capitol. Day after day. Year after year.

Field trips to the State Capitol were suddenly -- overnight -- the hottest ticket in town. If you've ever done any sort of time in a legislative office, you've normally drawn the assignment of meeting with a group of students from a school that is located in the district that a particular legislator represents.

A typical class visit to the Office of Senator X (no disrespect intended here, because this happened in every office, both Republican and Democrat) went like this: The teacher would lead a group of 20-30 students into the Office of Senator X. She would explain that Senator X represents them in the State Legislature -- and do they (the students) have any questions for Senator X's assistant (that would be me on those unlucky days).

Almost immediately -- 20 hands shot up in the air like they were fired from some sort of air gun. It was my job to pick someone -- so I would do my best to pick the first hand that went up. "Yes," I said, "what's your question?

Legislative Aide Sandra Trevino meets with students
Student: "Do you know Arnold?"

Me: "No, I don't know Arnold." That was the truth actually. I'd spoken to the man on occassion -- but so had thousands of others and I'm sure he didn't know me from Jack. "Next question," I said.

Another Student: "Have you ever seen Arnold?"

Me: "Yes, I have. Quite often actually." That answer was true. I did see him from time to time -- usually pressed against a wall by his security unit as "Arnold" moved from one hallway to another.

That answer -- by the way -- earned kudos with the kids -- who exchanged knowing glances. I had actually SEEN Arnold. Therefore -- I was in the VERY COOL category. Another round of hands suddenly shot out of an airgun into the air.

Student: "What's Arnold like?"

Me: "He's like the Arnold you see in The Terminator," I replied, which was also true. Hey -- it was ARNOLD. He sort of lit up a room anytime he walked in.

Student: "Where's Arnold now?"

Me: "Well -- I don't know really. He might be in his smoking tent which is located outside (pointing) this window, three stories down."

THAT -- was a BIG mistake. Suddenly, without warning, 30 sets of hands and 30 noses were scrunched against the glass as children peered down at the Governor's smoking tent below (I was fortunate enough to work in a Capitol Office that offered a view of the famous "smoking tent," and yes, you could plainly smell it when the Governor was holding court below).

"Is the Arnold down there," asked one excited student. "Can we go down there," another student positively screamed. Other students stood guard near Senator X's couch, ready to rip the fabric to shreds that would serve as a rope to climb down to the tent below.

"No, you can't go down there," was my usual response. And -- it was usually at this point when the teacher leading this class would intervene.

"Class," she said impatiently as the children moved away from the window. "You're in the Office of Senator X," she said with emphasis. "Don't you have any questions about Senator X?"

The children were silent for the most part. But then, finally, a girl in the corner bravely raised her hand with a question about the Senator I worked for. "Yes," I answered. "What's your question?"

Student: "How well does the Senator know Arnold?"

This was a scene repeated time and time again during the years that Arnold Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California. Not a day went by when children lined up for photos in front of the bear that adorned the outside of his office. Not a day went by when packs of schoolchildren wandered the halls, hoping to catch just a glimpse of their hero.

Governor Schwarzenegger ignited a passionate fire in the minds of schoolchildren from one end of the state to another -- from one end of the country to another. He was bigger than Disneyland and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk combined. He was Arnold. And nobody was bigger than Arnold.

Just as President John F. Kennedy once ignited a divided generation when he proclaimed "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," there is no doubt that Governor Schwarzenegger planted the seeds of public service and serving others in the minds of tens of thousands of children.

Some of those children will most certainly return in the future to serve -- as I have been fortunate enough to serve -- in the office of a State Legislator. Others may seek higher office themselves -- looking to return to the building that generated the excitement and wonder they felt as children.

It's a legacy that cannot be measured in words or numbers. But it's a legacy that cannot be ignored.

Happy, Happy Joy, Joy!!!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Only the BEST Christmas gift EVAR!
Riddle me this?

What's better than a shopping trip to the man's toy store -- also known as the Home Depot?

We'll -- I'll tell you.

It's a shopping trip to the man's toy store -- with a $200 gift card in Bill Bird's grubby little hands. Now that children -- is a slice of heaven! It's free cash! It's free stuff! It's one of the very few chances to spring on something that I WANT -- rather than what I really NEED.

As my dear old mother taught me years ago, there is a difference between the two. Although -- I must admit -- I do try to blur the lines as much as possible.

So -- on the first day of a three-day weekend -- our Master of All Things Gardening Errors found himself at the North Natomas Home Depot -- looking to pick up what he really needed and also a few things that he really WANTED.

Loading Up at the Depot
NEED: Light bulbs of all shapes and sizes. These goofy, new cookie-cutter homes in cookie-cutter developments are outfitted with every kind of light bulb conceivable to mankind. Remember when light bulbs came with four or five different choices? Were you shopping for 60 watt, 75 watt, or the dreaded 100 watt eye atomizer? A few years later -- a new choice entered the shopping realm -- regular blinding white or "soft white." But still -- choices were few and far between.

My friends -- those days are LONG gone. It's getting to the point now where someone could open a new store dedicated to light bulbs and light bulbs only. There's a reason why Home Depot dedicates an entire aisle to all things light bulbs. They come in an array of shapes, sizes, colors and tints now. Plug in or screw in? Saucer shaped or straight? Ceiling fan bulb or appliance bulb? Oh -- they might look the same -- but apparently -- there's a difference. Read label directions!

Bare Root Fruit Trees!
WANT: When it comes to a store like Home Depot I just can't confine myself to the areas that sell the products that Bill & Venus Bird really NEED. There's got to be that inevitable tour to the garden area where BARE ROOT season is in full swing this year.

There's nothing like row of neatly lined bare-root fruit trees to get the heart muscle pumping. Peaches here and plums there -- all of them promising a lip-smacking payoff. All you have to do is purchase -- take them home -- dig a hole and plant.

Or -- if you're not in the market for a fruit tree -- how about a fruit bush? Table grapes anyone? Blackberry vines? Raspberries? Boysenberries. They're all boxed up in an array of shapes and sizes -- just waiting for someone to take them home.

Bare Root Raspberry
But this time -- I would not allow my natural instinct of gluttony to take over. I learned a hard lesson last year when I followed some advice that may have not been all that good -- planting four bare-root blueberry bushes underneath our peach and cherry tree plantings. We were assured the pairing would work -- as would planting strawberry plants under said trees.

Unfortunately -- it didn't work. Three of the blueberry bushes gave up the ghost with the onset of summer. The fourth and final bush is still alive. Unfortunately -- the Lapin Cherry tree it was planted under? It died from what I strongly suspect to be brown rot. At least -- I think it's dead. I'll know more this spring when it should flower with abundance. If it doesn't? DEAD!

But -- back to the subject at hand -- I was actually looking for something specific. I would not find them at Home Depot on this day -- but I did find them later somewhere else.

But that is a blog subject for another day and time. As of right now? I have light bulbs to replace!

It's an Orange New Year!!!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Precious the cat being "precious."
...and a Happy 2011 to you as well! I tell you -- it's been a busy start to what promises to be an even busier New Year. 2011 brings all sorts of challenges to the Bird Household -- which includes a new job -- which deals with a LOT of writing.

Writing about VEGETABLE GARDENING matters you ask? Hah! No -- that would be my dream job. I'll do that in retirement -- along with my other dream job -- selling Steer Manure Compost at my local Home Depot. Us Birds can never retire you know. We have some sort of wacky gene that shuts off the heart muscle at any moment retirement plans are made.

From L-R: Deborah, Andy & Mary Bird
So -- we don't use the word "retire." We use the term; "moving onto the next career," instead. Hopefully, that terrible Bird Family gene will be satisfied and not give the dreaded Final Order. My older sister -- who is quite the vegetable gardener and gourmet chef herself (she's to the left in the family photo) -- is currently preparing for her next career as "Horse Whisperer."

I figure she can supply me with plenty of horse apples with this new profession. But I digress...

Don't you just love this weather? I loved the handy-dandy gardening guide that appeared in last Saturday's Home and Garden section of the Sacramento Bee. It contained lots of colorful suggestions for each month out of the gardening year. You can find it right here if you missed it. It made me want to run right outside and put what was in print into practice -- until I realized it was POURING BUCKETS OF RAIN.

There's nothing like an inch of rain or two to -- uh -- dampen that gardening spirit. Put away the trowel son. Turn on the Mud Bowl instead -- featuring two college nobodies that you've never heard of. Mother Nature has since shut off the spigot -- and given us a blast of icy cold arctic air.

Yet another gardening downer.

Dancy Tangerine tree in November
But -- despite the flooded backyard and muddy gardening areas -- the wonderful wife that is Venus and I have been happily harvesting during this cold weather period. The Dancy Tangerines that were ripening on ye olde citrus tree during October and November are now ready for harvest. This is the third year for my Dancy -- and I must say -- it's been the best ever.

The frosty mornings that kissed our backyards during the months of November and December did not take the terrible toll that I had feared it might. We're not quite out of frost danger yet -- not hardly -- and although a solitary leaf took a freeze hit here and there -- most of our citrus trees are undamaged.

Indeed -- my Bearss Lime tree continues to grow -- as does the Improved Meyer Lemon. In fact -- as I type this -- the Meyer Lemon is actually FLOWERING.

Dancy Tangerines
But -- it's the Dancy that is the real star of this show. It's the oldest citrus tree in our young backyard. It's been -- by far -- the most productive. If I'm brave enough to slip on a pair of mud shoes and traverse through what seems to be a long stretch of brown clay slop -- I'm rewarded with a bowl of 15-20 tangerines.

My initial fear was that the frost had sucked out every last remaining bit of moisture from these tangerines. This has happened in the past. There's nothing quite like the downer of chewing on a tangerine that is as dry as dust. It's sort of like chewing on a well-used mud shoe.

But -- my fears were put to rest during the first harvest. I came back from the mud adventure with a bowl of juicy -- sweet and sour citrus. Better yet? If I let the tangerines sit for a day or two and come to room temperature? The sweetness factor jumped X 10.

I've always been a fan of mixing different kinds of fruit to see "what happens," and I didn't stop with the Dancy Tangerines. I'd like to tell you that I have a Pineapple Tree in the backyard. But that would be -- in fact -- a LIE. However -- pineapples were on sale that week at my local Bel-Air Grocery Store...

Tangerine & Pineapple Breakfast!!! YUM!!!
And who can resist a big, fat pineapple for a $1.99? I can't. So -- two pineapples came home with me on that day. And they found there way into this breakfast bowl of tangerines and pineapples that I prepared for the wonderful wife and I this past weekend.

So -- gardeners -- I share your frustrations. It's wet. It's cold. Conditions just aren't conduicive to stepping outside and digging in the dirt right now. But there's still lots to be done. It's BARE ROOT season people! It's time to order seeds (if you haven't already)! Time to set up the seed rack! Get the grow lights ready!

The 2011 gardening season -- and harvest -- is now -- officially -- underway.