When a Nectarine Blossoms...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Artic Jay, Fantasia and Flavor Top Nectarine Trees
I feel an extra special sense of joy when fruit trees begin to blossom. It means that fresh fruit season isn't very far behind. My gardening insanity reaches entirely new levels when I stand in the front yard - looking up at a flowering Santa Rosa plum tree -- hoping to find a sign of a bee or any other pollinator on tender blossoms that are now just starting to unfurl.

The neighbors think I've gone nuts -- AGAIN! But there is a method to my madness. If I spot a pollinator on the plum? I hope the same pollinator makes a similar trip some 75 feet away in the backyard to a Flavor Finale Pluot tree that is flowering for the first time since I planted it about a year ago during the 2010 bare root season.

Artic Jay Nectarine Blossoms
Pluots are special trees. But they require a pollinator to produce fruit. I have that pollinator in the form of the Santa Rosa plum. But is it planted close enough? Will the colony of bees that are now streaming daily in and out from the neon pink Hello Kitty Hive favor both blossoms during the same trip?

Questions, questions! Time will tell...

The gardening experiment known as Backyard Orchard Culture or "Orchard Insanity" as I call it is now in its second year in the front yard of our North Natomas fruit farm. The three nectarine trees that I planted in a corner of the yard last year are flowering to life again. The chilly nights and bone-chilling rain we received last week didn't seem to bother the Arctic Jay White Nectarine much. She was the first to open up. The Flavor Top and Fantasia yellow nectarines are not far behind.

Although I had my doubts about this planting concept -- it's working better than I expected. You can grow fruit trees in tight spaces after all. And although the hardest part of the procedure is hacking and whacking four-or-five foot tall trees back to knee level -- it doesn't seem to have caused much of a problem.

Center Cut, Arctic Jay Nectarine
You can easily see where I cut the Arctic Jay back last winter after planting in the photo to your right. It was nothing more than a single stick after I got done with it. But new branches emerged over the spring and summer -- and were pruned back carefully to limit growth. I never let any branch get beyond five or six leaf-sets before lopping it off with my Corona cutters.

But I noticed something both interesting and uplifting. With every cut I made? Two or three new branches emerged. Know what that means? It means two or three new branches to hold delicious, tree-ripened nectarines! That's what it means!

There are some gardeners who will allow fruit trees to grow for at least three years before allowing it to produce any fruit. That means any fruit that forms in the first, second and even third years is picked off and thrown away. The thinking behind this practice is that you give a fruit tree time to develop strong root and branch systems. The fruit will come later.

Personally? I think the people who think in this manner are as insane as I am. Not allow fruit to ripen? That's a crime against humanity. So -- any nectarines that do result from the blossoms that are now opening have a breakfast or lunch date with my kitchen table. We don't let any fruit or citrus go to waste here!

The nectarine trees that are now blossoming in the corner of my front yard will almost certainly grow at a much more rapid rate than they did last year. My thinking in this matter will not change. No branch will be allowed to grow more than five leafsets before it has a date with my sharpened Corona choppers.

Center Cut, Flavor Top Nectarine
By the third year these trees will have probably reached a height of six to seven feet and will not be allowed to grow any taller. They can most certainly spread out a bit and take advantage of the room they have. That much we will allow.

But -- I'm getting a ahead of myself. As of right now? We have blossoms. Let's hope that the wife that is Venus and I are munching on an Artic Jay White Nectarine later this summer.

What more could you ask for?

She's Got Legs

Thursday, February 24, 2011

2011 Heirloom Tomato Plant Starters
As you can plainly tell in the photo to your immediate right -- yes indeed -- it's true. My babies have "legs." In other words -- they're "leggy."

And you thought this post was going to be exciting. I am such a tease. No such luck here.

The 2011 heirloom tomato growin' season is now underway in a Bird bedroom -- tucked inside a home on our North Natomas Back 40. Despite the tough January -- followed by an excruciating February -- the wifey and I found time to do what we do best: plant tomato seed and grow "leggy" tomato starters.

I must admit -- there's nothing special about our seed starting efforts this year. We simply did not have the time to "build" our own soil from parts of this and that. We didn't have the time or energy to plant row after row of scrumptious tomato starters. Nope -- what you see is what you get. The first 30 cups were planted on Super Bowl Sunday -- about three days before Venus' father took his last breath.

We finally got around to planting the last 20 cups a few days ago. They haven't germinated like the others yet. But -- give them time. They will eventually spring to life.

This wasn't part of my "master plan." The so-called master plan was to build a seed starting rack this year -- a rack big enough to holding 80-to-100 cups. But I never did get around to building that rack. The man who used to help me with these woodworking projects has since passed. This means I'm on my own for next year.

I won't lie. That thought is just a tad scary for me. But, life goes on right? The old man would have demanded as much. So we march on and persevere.

Sacramento gardener extraordinaire Angela (Angie) Lyons -- who gifted us last year with the most beautiful tomato starter we received (a Dr. Wyche's Yellow) -- tipped me on a mail order place that sold the coveted green azalea starter cups in whatever number I wanted. The soil we're using came from a bag of normal Miracle Gro planter mix that I purchased for the wife last year and she never got around to using.

I had my doubts at first. A six month old bag of Miracle Gro planter mix that has been through its share of early rain activity tends to have a fine growth of moss on it. But -- any worries I had about germination problems have been put to rest. The first to spring to life was the Kelloggs Breakfast. Others soon followed and I'm happy to report that we achieved 100% germination success this year.

That's a first. Perhaps that moss wasn't such a bad thing after all. I'll make a mental note of that.

The seeds that I planted have all developed their first true leafsets -- and are intent into growing right into the light systems propped up under a seed starting contraption composed of nothing but bits and pieces of old PVC pipe  and pipe fittings that I had lying around the backyard. They're not glued together -- which means I can take this contraption apart in the late spring and store it in an ordinatry shoebox.

PVC "Contraption" complete with Gro Lights

The 4.5 inch azalea cups I'm using are stacked into what are called "shuttle trays." I quickly learned that the term "shuttle" is an English term. While these things were easy to find and order through any British manufacturer -- I couldn't find anything comparable closer to home. That's when I discovered that the term "shuttle" didn't exactly make it across the pond. These trays -- which hold ten of the 4.5 inch azalea cups -- are referred to as "gardening" or "display" trays in the States.

Aren't you glad that you asked?

These trays will come in handy when it comes time to move the starter babies inside and out during the warmer spring months. Instead of attempting to move 50-60 individual cups, the wonderful wife that is Venus and I will only be required to hoist a tray or five outside.

Tre' Easy.

When will we move the starter plants to the outside world? That's a tricky question. If it's a normal year -- with normal conditions -- we will start giving our starter plants a taste of the outside world around the beginning of April. But -- since no year is "normal" -- this is a trick question. When the weather warms to suitable temperatures -- and night-time temperatures no longer sink to bone-chilling levels -- then "it's time."

Until then? We'll keep the babies safe. We'll keep them warm. We'll keep them watered. We'll keep them fed.

And we'll watch those legs develop.

As for what we're growing this year? A "partial list" is below:

TOMATOES (not in alphabetical order, I'm too tired):
Black Krim
Eva Purple Ball
Kelloggs Breakfast
Virginia Sweets
Marianna's Peace
Lemon Boy
Mortgage Lifter
Yellow Brandywine
Beefsteak (a Gale Stromberg favorite)
Evil Seed
Amish Paste
Super Sioux
Royal Hillbilly
Hendersons Winsall
Cherokee Purple
Omar's Lebanese
Mortgage Lifter
Campbell's 1327

Purple Jalapeno
Mucho Nacho Jalapeno
Big Bertha (purple Bell)
Green Bell Pepper
Golden Cal Wonder (Yellow Bell)
Purple Beauty Bell Pepper (Red Bell)


One final note: Many people have asked me, "why grow your own? It seems like a lot of work. Why not just buy your starters at the nursery?" Each and every question is a good one. The answer is simple: We're INSANE!!!

Actually -- that's not quite the truth. The real truth is that most nurseries do not offer nearly the kind of selection that we've planted. You're simply not going to find a Lemon Boy or a Marianna's Peace at your local nursery. You will find a few of these -- to be sure. But if you want the best that heirloom tomatoes have to offer -- the answer is simple.

You grow your own.

The Most Romantic City in the World!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lockhart Seeds, downtown Stockton
If you assume that I'm referring to the City of Love, Paris France, well please, perish the thought. Although the official motto of Rome, Italy is "you have never lived until you’ve loved in Rome," the motto-makers "missed the mark."

The most romatic spot in the world -- according to the wonderful wife that is Venus -- is just a hop, skip and a jump south on Interstate 5 or Highway 99 -- to Stockton, California. Yes -- Stockton is the most romantic city in the world because that's where I take the wife on the most romantic of dates: Seed shopping at Lockhart Seeds in downtown Stockton.

Honestly now -- think about it for a second. How can a business that features a GIANT heart lock as its logo not be the most romantic spot on earth? Since nobody has ever offered a valid explanation that would explain otherwise -- the wife's reasoning in this matter stands true.

This marked our third trip to the most romantic spot on Earth. I first learned about Lockhart Seeds from a Sacramento Bee article penned by garden writer Debbie Arrington about three years ago. At that time? Lockhart Seeds was the LAST store left in California dedicated to the sale of vegetable seeds of all shapes and sizes -- serving small growers and backyard gardeners alike (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has since opened another outlet dedicated to all things vegetable seed in Petaluma).

We have since visited every President's Day Holiday in the month of February -- because of one small quirk in the Lockhart Seeds service schedule: they're not open on weekends. They're not open at night. It's one of the few businesses left in business that operates on a strict Monday through Friday, 9-5 schedule.

Lockhart Seeds -- All Locked Up
But since we had last Monday off for the President's Day Holiday, that shouldn't be a problem, right? WRONG. Imagine our shock and chagrin when we wound up on the doorstep of Lockhart Seeds only to find the GIANT heart lock all locked up for the holiday.

What went wrong? This had never happened before. Lockhart Seeds? Take a holiday? Blasphemy! If you remember last year's post about Lockhart Seeds, then you know I had promised that the wife that is Venus that we would finally purchase those asparagas roots she had taken such an interest in.

A promise is a promise after all.

But the asparagas roots will have to wait for another day. The seed purchases will also have to wait, for who knows how long? It's not like we can just go galavanting off to the most Romantic Spot on Earth on any particular day and time. Like most people, we do work for a living.

I suppose it's safe to say that we're just a tad bit annoyed.

Fresh Tortillas! Fresh Tequila!
After finding our favorite store all locked up for the President's Day Holiday -- Venus and I could only think of one other option: visit the nearest Mexican restaurant closest to Lockhart Seeds and drown away our sorrows in fine tequila.

We did just that. We're quite good at that as a matter of fact. I'm pleased to report that at least our favorite restaurant was indeed open -- holiday or no holiday. The food was good. So were the margaritas (blended, with salt).

Despite the fine lunch I must admit that both the wife and I were a tad depressed as we drove back toward the location of Lockhart Seeds -- with every intention of jumping back on the Crosstown Freeway (Highway 4) -- for the trip back home to North Natomas.

But -- as we passed the storefront -- we saw another chagrined customer out in front of the store -- staring in disbelief as we did -- at the sign proclaiming "CLOSED FOR THE PRESIDENT'S DAY HOLIDAY." We pulled over to lend an encouraging word.

"We traveled all the way from Sacramento to visit and we're out of luck," the wife told the stranger. His response? "I'm from Sacramento too!" As we both shared a discouraging laugh -- our new friend shared some interesting and uplifting news. Not all was lost. Our trip to the most romantic city in the world would not be in vain after all.

Lockhart Seeds wasn't the only option for vegetable seeds in Stockton.

Port Stockton Nursery, Stockton
Intrigued, we followed our new friend out of the downtown area and down Main Street to a place called the Port Stockton Nursery. Was it like Lockhart Seeds in that it dealt with seeds and seeds only? Technically? No. It was -- in fact -- a nursery.

But -- unlike Lockhart Seeds -- it was open.

And it was there -- standing in the middle of a this nursery -- in the most Romantic City on Earth -- where Venus found her true love.

Venus with "Clarence the Lionhearted"
"Clarence the Lionhearted" announced his presence by rubbing up against the wife's legs. Clarence -- the wife would reveal -- was an exact copy of the cat she grew up with San Jose -- a cat named Tiggy Tom.

No -- we did not adopt another cat. We need another cat like we need another house payment. But after a month of heartbreak involving the death of her father and my father-in-law -- Clarence the Lionhearted brought a rare smile of joy to the wife's face.

Who could ask for more?

Happy Trails Cold Warrior!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gale Stromberg with the Arriba Rocket
It's the kind of party that the man to your right would have very much enjoyed. I wish he could be there. After all, it is in his honor. It's my hope and prayer -- however -- that he will be there in spirit.

I lost a big part of me this past week -- a loss that not even I can comprehend at this point. The gentleman to your right, pictured in front of the rocket he helped build (the Arriba), passed away last week from lung cancer. His death closed a chapter on a wonderful period in my life and in the life that is the wonderful wife -- Venus.

Gale Stromberg -- Rocket Man Extraordinaire -- took his final breath under heavy sedation inside a Kaiser Hospital Room in Roseville. The old man was 75-years young. With him, passed the story -- and a life -- of a lifetime.

Services for Gale -- and the party that he most certainly would have enjoyed -- will take place this weekend.

Gale with daughter, Venus
I wasn't expecting this -- to be be brutally honest. Up until his dying day I kept telling him -- more like pleading -- that he had at least another 20-years of life yet to live. There are unfinished projects to complete I told him. There is a lawn to plant. Landscaping projects demand his attention. There are gardening boxes yet unbuilt.

Yet -- nothing could sway the cancer that claimed the life of the most wonderful father that I will ever have in this lifetime. He may have been -- by law -- just a father-in-law. But the men who proceeded him in my lifetime can't hold a candle to the impact he had on me.

There are those men -- and women -- who come around and brighten your life ever so rarely that you can count them on the fingers of just one hand. Gale Stromberg was that man. His passing leaves a hole inside of me that I doubt will ever be filled.

The title to this post is fitting -- because the gentle man that was Gale Stromberg was indeed the consumate Cold Warrior. A self-taught engineer who grew up during World War II -- Stromberg volunteered most of his life in the service of this country. His accomplishments are the stuff of legend.

Gale with grandaughter, Celina
By the time I met Gale -- as a young man in desperate pursuit of his lovely daughter -- most of his work on behalf of the United States military had already come and gone. Gale Stromberg had retired to the hills of Auburn -- where he put his engineering skills to work on cracking the thick lava cap that blanketed the half acre of backyard so he could grow citrus trees and other wonders. In every backyard that Gale ever landscaped, citrus trees grow. Citrus trees thrive.

Gale loved his citrus. Gale loved a challenge. Crack that lava cap he did in the most ingenious of ways. Where other men used dynamite -- Gale used the gray matter between his ears. No problem -- no obstacle -- ever slowed him down. His engineering skills won the day.

Gale was born in 1935 -- and his formal education lasted little beyond a high school diploma. Perhaps it was the sight and sound of the V2 rockets used by Nazi, Germany in World War II that drove him into the field of rocket science, nobody is really sure. But the Rocket Man left his mark.

After a short career at Aerojet in Rancho Cordova -- the father-in-law went to work for United Technologies (UTC) in the Bay Area. It was there where the old man help develop the fuel systems for the Atlas, Titan and Rapier missiles and the dreaded Tomahawk Cruise Missile that was unveiled to the world for the first time during the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

Gale and Venus on Lake Nicaragua
If he wasn't designing fuel systems that struck fear into the hearts of ruthless dictators around the world, he was helping design booster rockets for the Space Shuttle program. Although his work took place so very long ago -- elements of it are still in use today -- long after the old man said goodbye to the 40-hour work week.

When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall finally fell -- Gale's career in rocket science came to an end. Funding for the research and design work that he dedicated his life too dried up. He was still fairly young when he was offered the Golden Handshake that many defense workers would receive -- but the old man recognized opportunity and jumped at it.

He would spend the rest of his life building garden boxes, buying and selling homes during the real estate boom, entertaining grandchildren and studying the somewhat young man his daughter brought home to his house one day. He just wasn't sold yet on the kid who would someday call him father-in-law. That is -- until -- I asked for his help in building a garden box for the backyard.

Suddenly -- I was alright in his world.

Stromberg Gardening Boxes
The garden boxes in use today in our North Natomas farm are a far cry from the simple project boxes we tackled at first. Inspired by his original design -- I took it and produced something on a much grander scale. The "V for Venus"  gardening boxes that grow heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, vegetables, melons and other produce simply would not have happened without Gale Stromberg.

It's because of Gale that I can design and build boxes for any use. It's because of Gale Stromberg that I can install PVC irrigation systems for small and large yards. It's because of him that I can optimize the use of drip irrigation technologies. Because of him -- I can install electrical outlets and switches. I have carpentry, irrigation and electrical skills that I never dreamed I would ever acquire because of this one man.

I was a sponge. I soaked it all in. And -- over time - I came to love him like I had no other man. I didn't quite realize this until he had taken his last breath. But now -- that he's gone from this world -- I've come to realize what a treasure this man was.

Gale Stromberg with grandchildren
Cancer is a terrible way to die. It's a terribly dehabilitating disease that robs every last decency and respect from a man before robbing him of his last breath. Gale fought the good fight before his death. His final year was spent enjoying the myriad of western shows and movies that are shown on the Encore Western Channel. What he had marveled at in his youth on the silver screen -- he saw again from the comfort of his home.

When he had seen all there was to see -- and build all there was to build -- it was time for the final trip home.

Too bad none of us were ready to say goodbye.

Ciderman, Ciderman

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bare Root Fruit Trees-Capital Nursery
Ciderman, Ciderman,
Will Drink Cider From a Can,
Cranks a Press -- Any Size,
Hard Cider From Bill Should be No Surprise,
For He is You're Friendly CIDERMAN!!!

Yes, yes, I know -- stick to writing. But I'm excited you see! The smell of SPRING is in the air! Those long days and dreary nights of winter show a promise of ending soon. What does this mean? It means I'm running out of time! That's what it means!

Case in point? BARE ROOT SEASON. If it gets much warmer over the next week or two those slumbering root systems are suddenly going to wake up and declare an early start to the spring growth season. It doesn't matter what the calendar on the wall says. Yes, I know it's early February. I know there's several more months of cold weather and possible rain to endure.

But once those roots wake up? They're up!

The wonderful wife that is Venus and I are moving a bit slower this year when it comes to adding addtional fruit trees and vines to the backyard. We rushed it a bit last bare root season and our impatience resulted in several dead Blueberry bushes.

No such mistake this year.

Fruit Salad Anyone?
However, we are adding, albeit at a slower rate. This isn't easy for me. Do you know why? Did you notice the photo above? The photo to your left? This is what most Sacramento nurseries look like these days. They're stocked with every available fruit tree under the sun. You want peaches? They got peaches? Cherries? By the bucket!

You see -- when I come across a lovely scene like this -- the first impulse is to reach out and buy everything in sight. That might make the operator of Capital Nursery very happy -- but I would be digging holes from now until next Christmas.

But this is a GREAT time indeed to visit your local nursery for fruit tree selections. Everything you could possibly want in a backyard fruit garden is within your fingertips. And -- on this day -- Bill Bird was after something special: apples.

The Honey Crisp Apple
We've given up on growing avocados. Four dead trees in the space of three years will do that to you. Oh -- we tried all sorts of tricks. Planting in the best soil? Check! Planting in a raised bed for drainage purposes? Check! Christmas lights on the tree during winter to keep Jack Frost away? Check, check and check again.

They still died. Each and every one. It sort of sends a message. It's time to try something else. The wife mentioned that she wanted apple trees for baking purposes. I like apples for snacking and cider. So why not try APPLES?

The wife's selection in this particular case was the Granny Smith apple. It's not necessarily the best apple to snack on (although some do love its rather tart taste) -- but it is the best selection for baked items like apple pie, apple crisp and that apple cake (with caramel drizzle) that Venus whipped together from scratch just this past weekend.

Yes, I know, I'm very lucky. I have the stomach to prove it.

Pink Lady Apple Trees
The second selection? The Fuji Apple. Although its introduction to this country is rather recent -- it's probably the hottest selling apple in California now. The Fuji is the perfect apple for snacking and it's a good juicing apple as well.

As for the third selection (yes, I'm a glutton), I employed an old nursery trick. I wasn't the first customer to slowly walk up aisle after aisle of delicious fruit trees. Others had been there before me. You could see the telltale signs -- open holes where fruit trees had once been placed. Usually? The best trees go first -- either the hottest new variety or the best variety.

As I stared at the many varieties of apple trees standing in front of me, it became quite obvious what the "hot apple tree of the day" was. It was the Honey Crisp Apple. "Honey Crisp," I questioned? "Never heard of it." Others apparently had, however. There were more empty holes than trees, so I plucked the best looking of the lot the Capital Nursery still had left.

Future Apple Garden Home
I was told -- on my way out of the nursery -- that Honey Crisp was a past Dave Wilson Nursery taste-test winner. But the website doesn't mention that, so I suppose I'll have to trust the prowess of others.

The next step? Getting the trees home and determining exactly where I was going to plant them. I already knew that I was going to employ the Backyard Orchard Culture concept to these plantings. That concept is the grouped planting of three or more trees in a shared hole or raised bed.

Farmer Fred Hoffman reccommends a raised 4X4 bed that is at least a foot high for group plantings like this. In my case? The bed is 5X3 feet -- with trees staggered from back to front to give them as much breathing room as possible. This bed -- built with standard "Lincoln Log" stackable logs purchased from Home Depot is also outfitted with drip irrigation and filled with a planter mix purchased last summer from Hastie's Sand and Gravel in West Sacramento.

Apple Trees Planted-Ready for Whacking!
The hardest part about Backyard Orchard Culture plantings? It's not building the bed -- that was easy. Moving planter mix the consistency of wet concrete (it was quite soaked from all the rain activity we've had) -- wasn't exactly thrilling. The sprained foot that resulted from this project also wasn't fun -- but it wasn't the hard part either.

No -- the hard part is whacking these full grown apple trees down to knee length. You're cutting a tree like this to a third of its original size. The goal is to encourage branch production near the base of the tree -- and never let it get beyond six to seven feet in height (standing on ladders to pick apples can also result in sprained feet or broken legs -- especially if you've been drinking cider).

This project is now complete. Let the cider-making, commence.