Heaven is...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tree Ripened Santa Rosa Plum Ready for Picking
Heaven is....Life with the wife that is Venus.

Heaven is...Happiness.

Heaven is...Santa Rosa Plum season.

I must admit -- I've been waiting for this. Not a year or two mind you -- but a lifetime. You don't remember the simple joys of life until they are gone forever -- and you wish you could have them back -- just for a moment or two.

But you can't. The simple joys of life are memories of a simpler time. And unless you've cracked the H.G. Wells code for The Time machine, you can't visit them again.

But I'm here to tell you boys and girls -- that you can come close. Close indeed. I've been there. I was there just tonight.

Santa Rosa Plum Tree-Bird Compound
My memories of Heaven are fresh plum season in mid-1970's Modesto -- and a gigantic, towering, fifty foot tall plum tree across the street from 309 Ribier Avenue. I don't know how it got there. It was just "there" by the time I noticed it. And, you could always count on said tree to deliver a wallop of a harvest.

Heaven was climbing ten-to-15 feet up in those fruit laden branches -- finding the most comfortable spot to lean on and enjoying plum after plum after plum until my fingernails and hands were stained a dark purple. I never did find out what kind of plums they were. All I can tell you is that they were delicious -- and they were bountiful.

That plum tree offered up many a weekend meal or after-school snack during fresh fruit season. The neighbors didn't mind much. In fact, they rather welcomed the sight of me high up in that tree. Because -- soon -- with the onset of hotter days -- the thousands of pieces of leftover fruit in that tree would grow soft.

Santa Rosa Plums-4th Year Crop
And then -- PLOP! Plop on the ground they went. Plop on the neighbor's freshly poured concrete driveway they went, irritating a one Olin Johnson. If the plums weren't plopping on Olin's freshly poured concrete driveway -- the birds that raided that plum tree with regularity -- were leaving something else behind.

Plums make you regular -- much to Olin's chagrin as I recall.

I've never forgotten feasting on those tree-ripened plums all those years ago. I've also never had the opportunity to run across another plum tree like that in the 35-plus years since those special days. I was somewhat distressed to see that the plum tree that so offended Olin Johnson and his freshly poured concrete driveway had been cut down during my last visit back to the old neighborhood.

Of course -- Olin was long gone by this time. There wasn't even a stump to serve as a reminder that a magical plum tree rested there. It was a plum tree that just didn't feed Bill Bird -- but entire neighborhood of young boys just like Bill Bird and -- well -- generations of other "birds."

4th Year Crop-Lush With Plums
It's safe to say that I have waited to repeat this moment since Venus and I first planted our Santa Rosa plum tree four years ago in our North Natomas compound. She would come to discover that it would be the first of many such trees -- but the Santa Rosa was the first.

Although my hope is that the Santa Rosa would be similar to the plums I snacked on decades ago on Ribier Avenue, I realized after the first small crop that it wasn't. The tree delivered another small crop during its second year -- and last year's harvest of 30-to-50 plums was enough to warrant this joyous blog posting.

Ripe for the Picking -- and Snacking!
But it still wasn't what I wanted. What I yearned for is a return to the days when I was a 12-year old boy with enough boundless energy to leap into plum trees with a single bound, hang upside down on a sturdy branch, and snack away until my stomach couldn't hold another bite of plum.

I suppose I'm here to tell you in an excited way that I reached that special nirvana tonight. No, I did not climb said tree. Bill Bird is a tad heavier now than he was 35 years ago -- just a tad. And that "boundless" energy that 12-year old boys have vanishes somewhere -- I'm not really sure as to where.

But that didn't stop me from reaching up to feed on a four year old Santa Rosa plum crop until I reached that special fruit "nirvana." It arrives when you've had just enough. You've eaten your fill. You cannot think of eating another. And yet -- when that hunger returns tomorrow or the next day? There is more than enough to meet said desire.

Ultimate Digging Machine Tenderizing Kitten
As I was feeding the Ultimate Digging Machine, Bandi the Mutt, her share of Santa Rosa plums, it struck me. I had indeed had my fill. I had eaten enough to the point where I was actually sharing plums with the dog we brought home from Oregon from last summer.

It was at that point that Nirvana struck. Had I fed plums to Bon-Bon the family mutt in 1970's Modesto? The faithful family dog that helped raise a family of four children, including the youngest? A boy who loved to climb the nearest fruit trees and eat his fill, while tossing scraps to the ground?

For an instant -- just an instant -- I found myself there. The moment I'd waited to repeat for decades came and went with a flash. The smile had I had on my face as I walked back inside was hard to describe, and also brought questions from the wife that is Venus.

And she's still not quite sure why I'm not interested in having dinner tonight.

Would You Like Fries With That?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sack of Spuds Anyone?
It's a line I know well and repeated often during my youthful years in high school and later in college. And the answer was almost always, "yes, absolutely." Because if you're going to commit the foody sin of treating yourself to a real burger -- might as well complete the 25-to-Life sentence with a side of deep-fried french fries.

But the fries Bill Bird dished up all those years ago cannot compare to the sacks of spuds currently sitting in a cool and darkened corner of the Bird GarageMahal. The first big harvest of 2011 is now in -- and as you can tell by the photo -- we're in "Fat City."

Or -- if we convert these all to fries -- we soon will be.

After a less-than-stellar 2010 growing season -- the Backyard of Bird has bounced back with a spud harvest for the ages. A lot of factors play into a harvest like this -- which includes good seed potatoes and a green-thumbed wife named Venus willing and determined to pack every last square inch of a 4X8 raised bed with as many spuds as possible.

Colorado Rose Red monster. One of many
But there's also a lot of luck that plays into a harvest like this. You just don't grow a giant Colorado Rose Red baker like the one to your left without a little assistance from Mother Nature. And -- she delivered this year -- in spades. The late spring rains that distressed many gardeners by pelting tiny tomato plant starters with non-stop rain (and hail), turned out to be Manna from Heaven for potato growers.

The leafy potato plants that completely covered the bed soaked it all in. Inch after inch of steady rainfall hit all sections of the raised bed in an equal manner. And -- some weeks later when the plants began to die back in the graceful way that potato plants do -- a wonderful sight greeted me and the wife that is Venus.

There's GOLD in Them Thar Hills!
Tiny treasures poked from the top of every plant. Tiny treasures in every corner. Tiny treasures here. Tiny treasures there. Tiny treasures everywhere. I felt much like a gold miner in 1849 California. No need to dig into the ground son -- the gold is right here on top for the picking. Fattened by late spring rains, potatoes were literally bursting out of the ground.

I guess that late rain wasn't such a bad thing after all -- now was it?

There's a special and strange satisfaction that is so very hard to describe when you've literally lucked into a harvest like this. You forget about the hot sun beating down on your neck and back. The dirt between your fingernails isn't a bother. There's a treasure here to get out of the ground and you can't quite dig fast enough. Each shovel of dirt reveals a new prize and brings a new smile to the face of a gardener.

Fat Fingerlings
I suppose it means the work that you put into growing the crop -- the hours spent fertilizing and weeding the garden -- have now paid off with a monster harvest. While you always hope for the best when harvest arrives -- there's always a surprise here and there. There's nothing quite like finding a single Colorado Rose potato that's large enough to feed two people or fingerlings so fat with growth and production that you begin to wonder why you didn't plant more of them.

But it really doesn't hit you until you've turned over the last shovel full of dirt. You don't truly understand until you've poked through every last inch and bit of soil for spud surprises with that spade fork and get every last offering. Only then do you look at those burlap sacks fat with potatoes. And only then does it hit you.

What in Hades are we going to do with all these potatoes?

Pick a Potato
My guess is -- and it's a guess because we don't have a large scale -- that 5 lbs. of seed potatoes resulted in a harvest of 80-100 lbs. of fat potatoes. But -- without a scale -- it is just a guess. I can only tell you that those sacks were not easy to lift when the job was all said and done. Lugging them from the Bird Back 40 into the safety of the GarageMahal didn't do the back any favors.

But last night's french fries were some of the best I've ever had. Home grown potatoes are unlike anything you can find at your local supermarket, but you will find them in stores that cater to organic tastes and desires. You will almost certainly find these at Farmer's Markets scattered around the Sacramento area.

Sacks of Spuds. Harvest Completed
My thanks to the fine staff at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply for once again supplying a superior batch of seed potatoes. Special recognition to Capital Nursery as well for holding three sacks of fingerling potatoes in reserve for me when the wife that is Venus found an extra spot or two for additional seed potato plantings.

It's Sunday morning in Sacramento. Did someone say hash browns?

Dream a Little Dream

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Corn Skewers, Duh!
"Dream on Bill Bird, Dream on!" Those would be the somewhat facetious words of the wife that is Venus as I pondered a recent purchase in our nearby Safeway Supermarket. As you can tell from the photo to your right? I did make that purchase.

"Are you thinking about using those corn cob holders on our corn crop this year darling," she questioned in a teasing sort of way. After all -- last year's complete and total corn crop failure was still in her mind (and mine as well I must say). There would be no fresh corn from the backyard last year -- just the nearby Farmer's Market.

It's a complete and utter failure that I blamed on 49ers Quarterback Alex Smith -- and no -- I still haven't changed my opinion on this. Sure the weather was crappy. But Alex was even crappier.

Enough said on the subject. I could fill blog volumes on this particular item. We won't go there. We will instead focus on happier things.

Like, corn for example.

2011 Fresh Corn Crop!
The so-called "test bed" is once again in use this year in the Bird Back 40 -- although it is a tad smaller. This is what happens when you start claiming corners and sides of said bed for additional fruit and citrus tree plantings. Still -- the remaining plot was amended dutifully earlier this spring with compost and fertilizers -- worked deep into that hard clay bedrock that is the Bird Back 40.

The Mantis Rototiller is indeed an amazing tool to have when tackling jobs (did someone say tackle?) such as this. This is our third year for using the test bed. And with each year -- I'm able to churn up and reclaim another inch or two of soil that had been hard pan.

As you can tell from the photo above -- this year's corn crop is indeed off to a rousing start. Despite the less-than-perfect spring weather, the first two rows are well on their way. Venus and farmer-in-training Marquitos Stromberg added a third row two weeks ago, and that has already popped out of the ground. I added the final three rows this past weekend.

That's six delicious rows of Golden Bantam Corn if you're counting -- ten to eleven plants per row. Do you think that's enough for your average backyard plot? Venus has also planted three to four rows of a baby corn variety in another bed on the other side of the Back 40. If you place these varieties too close to one another -- they will cross pollinate -- leading to a mutant and non-edible mess.

2009 Corn Crop
This is a lesson we learned during our first year in the test bed. This is why we call it the "test bed." It also has other names that I shall not share at this time because this is a family blog.

And yes -- if you're wondering -- Golden Bantam would be considered an "heirloom" variety. The original strain of Golden Bantam was introduced by W. Atlee Burpee in 1902. These stalks will grow to a height of five to six feet -- and produce golden yellow ears that are five-to-seven inches long.

The taste you ask? Well -- there's a reason why heirloom varieties like Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Golden Bantam corn stick around for this long. Sure -- larger and more productive strains of yellow corn have been hybridized since Burpee first offered the Golden Bantam.

But nothing beats that old world taste -- and that's what you get with each lip-smacking and crunchy ear of Golden Bantam corn. It's also a good canning variety plus the ears freeze well -- which is another reason for its usage.

Golden Bantam Corn at Three Weeks
Once again -- our test bed has been reserved for "a little bit of everything." There are some tomato plants that I've stuck in there -- but not nearly as many as in past years. The bed is also home to watermelon, cantaloupe and pumpkin crops. It's a large side yard of the Bird Back 40 -- so the vines have "room to run."

As for the corn cob holders -- it was about time that we invested in something new. Most of our original corn cob skewers were of the heirloom variety themselves. In other words, they came from mom's house. They were -- how do you say -- a tad worn.

My hope and dream is that the Birds bounce back with the kind of corn-y year that we experienced in 2009 -- our first year for the test bed. Corn crops grew large and lush and delivered some tasty offerings before the mutants moved in and took over.

I'd like to say that last year was just an aberration -- but then again -- Alex Smith is still the starting quarterback for your San Francisco 49ers.

That's enough to scare any backyard farmer.

All Hail the THORNLESS Boysenberry!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Boysenberry & Strawberry Harvest: Bird Back 40
When one cannot sleep on a Friday morning? One Blogs.

Today I have thoughts of boysenberry cobbler on the brain -- or perhaps boysenberry pancake syrup. Boysenberry pie? That sounds nice.

I am consumed by thoughts of boysenberries because the very first boysenberry crop in the Bird Back 40 is coming ripe -- quickly. The photo up top doesn't even represent half of what we harvested this past weekend, and despite the inclement (lousy) weather, even more will come off the vine this weekend.

There was once a time and place in this world where a harvest like this not only resulted in fresh berries, but lots of Bactine, ACE bandages and well-pockmarked hands. The boysenberry harvest was anything but a pleasure. It meant a long and winding trip through Thorn County and Pain City.

Thornless Boysenberry Bush
We probably all have memories of boysenberry harvests as children. In my case? I have nightmares. I can remember the day when mother came home with a boysenberry plant with specific instructions to plant it in the patch of weeds that represented one of our side yards. There had been a sandbox back in this area when I was a small child, but the area had been taken over by weeds, spiders and insects since then.

Of course -- I didn't know what to expect. I remember I loved the thought of getting fresh berries from the backyard. So did my mother, who would relate tales of her berry-harvest adventures as a child growing up in Eugene, Oregon. There's no need to plant berry bushes anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Everywhere you turn -- there's a bush waiting to be harvested.

But mother also omitted one important fact. Old school boysenberry vines came complete with old school THORNS. These were RAZOR SHARP and left quite the impression in your skin and mind should you put your hand in the wrong area. Harvesting berries called for an expert hand -- not some uncoordinated pre-teen boy.

But pre-teen boy was all that we had. More than once I found myself inexplicably wrapped in several layers of a thorny vine, wondering how in the world I managed to get so attached to a vine intent on tearing skin from bone, and praying for assistance from above for a way out.

God would not answer my prayers on those days, which is why mom kept a vat of Bactine handy.

In no time at all -- that one vine managed to take over a good portion of that side yard -- and I kept my distance. I'd learned my lesson. The side yard belonged to the boysenberry vine and it's legendary thorns. I dare not tread there. I learned by lesson. When the time came -- some years later -- to clear the side yard for a garden project? I was only too happy to assault and dig up the vine that had caused so much pain as a child.

Into the compost heap of memory it went -- painful memories at that I might add.

Washing the Harvest: Sweet Boysenberries
It was the wife that is Venus who revived those awful memories a few years ago by suggesting a vine for the backyard. "No," I told her. "That's not for me. You can have the berries -- and the thorns."

But a lot has taken place in the world of Horticulture between the world that was 1970's Modesto and 2010 Sacramento. Someone -- I'm not sure who -- came up with the marvelous invention of a boysenberry plant that produced lip-smacking boysenberries -- minus the ear-piercing screams of pain that resulted from getting stuck by a boysenberry thorn.

Thornless boysenberries you say? Genius! And that is what we have planted in the Bird Back 40 today. Next to the thornless boysenberry are two types of blackberry vines -- including the legendary Black Satin vine. Both are also thornless.

Look Mom! No Thorns!
I've come to discover that the "thornless boysenberry" isn't exactly perfect. This is a plant -- at one time -- that did produce lots of thorns. And -- every once in a great while -- it will revert to its old school ways and send up a runner covered with them. I should know -- I've been stuck a few times.

 The instructions in this case are fairly simple. Do not allow the vines covered with thorns to grow. Cut them off at ground level as soon as you spot them. Once they have been cut back they rarely return and the plant returns to its normal habit of sending up thornless vines from root level.

Thornless boysenberry plants will also send out lots of vines in the fall that root into different areas and produce new boysenberry plants. This is fantastic if you want more than just one. But if you don't keep an eye on it -- that "small" patch will soon take over the yard. Like any fruit or citrus tree? It needs care and pruning.

But I can tell you this much: After one bite of the boysenberry cobbler we feasted on this weekend? The effort is more than worth it.

You can find thornless boysenberry plants -- several different varieties by the way -- online or at any nursery. In my case? My starter plant came from Capital Nursery last spring. I have no doubt you'll find similar, thornless, offerings at various nurseries in your area as well.