A U-Pick Paradise

Friday, December 30, 2011

Moody's Middle Mountain Mandarin Farm-Sutter Buttes
Nestled at the base of the Sutter Buttes in the unincorporated community of Sutter, CA, adventure awaits three Sacramento transplants in search of fresh citrus on a clear and cold winter day. Not just any citrus either, but fresh from the tree lemons, mandarins, grapefruit and more.

We would find and fulfill our quest at Moody's Middle Mountain Mandarin Farm located just next door to the Sutter High School football field, a slice of wild country life located at the front door -- so to speak -- the dividing line between rural city life and country living at its finest.

I had been searching for a U-pick operation involving fresh lemons for quite some time, but every promising lead fizzled. Every operation that offered fresh lemons wouldn't allow you to set foot near a tree -- but you could buy freshly harvested lemons - two or three for a buck. That wasn't good enough. I wanted something different. I wanted a U-pick operation where I could pick my fill. I wasn't after ten or 15 lemons -- I had my sights set on ten or 15 buckets.

Moody's Middle Mountain Mandarin Farm
That's a lot of lemons. Combined with the fresh honey and pomegranate juice from the Bird Back 40, it was enough to keep us pickled in lemonade and other delicacies through the winter months. That was my quest, but my search was coming up woefully short. Sure -- I know plenty of people in Sacramento with massive lemon trees. I consider these folks to be very lucky people. They wouldn't mind if I helped myself to ten or 15 lemons -- not at all.

But ten or 15 Homer sized buckets? Meh...Keep looking son...

South Natomas heirloom tomato grower Nels Christensen felt our pain. Nels DOES have lemon trees. But Nels, like many other owners of mature citrus trees, also has USES for his lemons. He's not in the market for giving up 10-15 buckets worth -- but he did join us in our search. It was a search that would lead me first into Butte County -- later Yuba and Yolo -- Placer County too.

Monster Lisbon Lemon Tree-Moody's Mountain Mandarins
But it was Sutter County -- gorgeous Sutter County -- that offered the elusive answer I was looking for. Al Moody, owner and operator of Moody's Middle Mountain Mandarins, confirmed that he did indeed have the type of lemon tree I was looking for. It was a massive, grand bush of a tree. It's the type of tree that held so many lemons that you could harvest 10-15 buckets and the tree looked like it hadn't been touched.

That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a lemon tree.

It was the lovely wife that is Venus who snapped me back to reality when she scolded that I didn't really need 10-15 buckets of lemons. What I might WANT and what I NEED, she lectured, are two entirely different things. Two buckets, she counseled, would be just fine.

Buckets for Picking!
She was, of course, right. When is she not? Except when she uttered the immortal words of "I do," the mistakes have been few and far between.

To be honest? I had been searching for a source of Meyer Lemons. Those are my favorite. The funny thing is -- the Improved Meyer Lemon really isn't a true lemon. It's a cross between a true lemon and a mandarin or common orange. It's far sweeter than the Eureka or Lisbon lemons, which are two of the most common "true lemons" that are planted in California. But the Meyer also happens to be a favorite among many lemon fans because of it's sweetness, juicing ability and unique taste.

While Moody confirmed he did have Meyer Lemons on his vast property -- I was in for a jolt of disappointment. This has been a poor year for Meyer production, he related. He wasn't allowing U-pick services for his Meyer trees yet -- and may not allow them this year. The same holds true for the acres of mandarins planted behind his home. In past years? You could pick all you wanted to your heart's (or stomach's) content. But not this year.

Carpet of Lisbon Lemons-Moody's Mountain Mandarins
However -- in the center of this property -- located behind a few small Meyer Lemon and somewhat larger Naval Orange and other citrus trees stood the granddaddy lemon tree of them all: Lisbon lemons. I'll be honest with you -- I've never tasted Lisbon Lemons before. I've heard of them -- but never harvested them in great numbers like the Meyer.

But Bill Bird isn't one to pass up a lemon of a bargain like this. Al was selling his lemons for $12 bucks for a 5-gallon Homer bucket -- all the lemons I wanted and more. My eyeballs nearly rolled out of their sockets when I saw this massive wonder for the first time. Nels, who had graciously volunteered to join our lemon of an adventure, smiled as well.

Lisbon Lemons-Ready for Harvest
It was a lemon of a promised land. Ladders? No need for ladders with a tree this large and this wide. The entire tree was covered with a canopy, wall and base of lemons. Lemons at the bottom. Lemons at the middle. More lemons than you can possibly count within easy reach.

It didn't take us long -- 30 minutes perhaps -- to fill two of those 5-gallon buckets. Each bucket resulted in a large grocery sack full of lemons. Venus was right. She's always right. Two buckets were more than enough.

Mandarins for Snacking-Moody's Mountain Mandarins
But you just can't visit a mandarin farm like this -- especially this mandarin farm so close to the Sutter Buttes -- and leave with just a couple of sacks of lemons. No -- there were mandarins to be had here. There were mandarins by the thousands. "Help yourself to a snack," Al invited us. Snack we did. I must admit -- those are some of the best mandarins I've tasted this season -- even better than the Owari Satsuma Mandarins that came from my own backyard.

The final haul resulted in two large sacks of Lisbon Lemons, a large bag of Al's Middle Mountain Mandarins, a smaller sack of Meyer Lemons plus a couple of grapefruit that caught Venus' eye.

The Order Board
The drive to Al's Middle Mountain Mandarin Farm is a pleasing drive up Highway 99 through gorgeous Northern California countryside -- in and out of of Yuba City and a right turn on Acacia Blvd. off Highway 20 that will lead you to the community of Sutter.

Turn left on Griffith and travel past the grounds of Sutter High School to reach Al's farm, which is located at 8189 Griffith Lane -- almost at the end of the block. Feel free to pull right in or call (530) 673-2567 ‎and ask Al about the many types of citrus trees he has on his farm (there's a lot there to look at). Perhaps you'll get a crack at that Lisbon Lemon as we did, or be content to purchase a sack or two of some of the best citrus you'll ever taste.

Turn Out the Lights!!!!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bird Back 40 Asparagus Patch
As Dandy Don Meredith of ABC's Monday Night Football would croon at the end of games (especially blowouts):

"Turn Out the Lights...
The Party's Over...
They Say That...
All Good Things Must End...
Call it Tonight...
The Party's Over...
And Tomorrow Starts...
The Same Old Thing Again..."

Willie Nelson wrote those amazing lyrics and sings that amazing song. But I don't know if it would be quite as popular today, had not one of the best Color Commentators in all of football crooned that same, signature song again and again and again.

It's the song that comes to mind when looking at the asparagus patch pictured above. Venus and I planted asparagus crowns just last spring, really not knowing what to expect. After all, we'd never grown asparagus before. Have you? Was it supposed to erupt in a tangled mass of ferns like it did last summer? Because it most certainly did.

Asparagus Spears Allowed to Flower and Fern
Hidden most of the summer by the Bird Back 40 corn crop, those tiny root systems for Jersey Knight and Purple Passion bolted into a cacophany of fern growth that promptly grew straight up and then flopped over on the ground after reaching a height of three to four feet. Any fern that flopped was immediately replaced by another spear -- which also proceeded to fern and flop.

There were many times during the summer, I might add, where Bill Bird was more than just a tad tempted to cut that fat green or purple spear literally jumping out of the raised bed that holds the Bird asparagus patch. So was the wife that is Venus. But we managed to resist that urge -- knowing all the while -- that each fern would most likely result in a multitude of fat asparagus spears next spring.

That's the hope anywho. Like I mentioned earlier, we've never attempted anything like this before.

We had plenty of questions -- but very little in the way of answers. Was this fern growth normal? Should we be doing anything special to the asparagus patch during the ferning and flopping process -- rather than fawning over it every third day? Should we allow the ferns to flop? Stake them up? So many questions -- so little answers.

Asparagus Ferns
Normally -- in times of need like this -- I turn to one or more gardening mentors like Farmer Fred Hoffman, Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery fame or former Sacramento Bee Home and Garden Editor Dan Vierra. But, to be brutally honest, I really do bug these people too much with incessant questioning. It was time to do some searching on my own, and as a very wise man once taught me, "Google is your friend."


The most helpful "how too" articles that I came across were "Growing ASPARAGUS in the Garden" from the UC Davis Vegetable Research and Information Station and "Growing Asparagus in the Home Garden" from the University of Ohio Horticulture and Crop Science Extension service. Both were loaded with tips (asparagus tips I might add) -- and both confirmed that Venus and I were off to a rather rousing start.

In fact -- the best bit of advice came from Carl J. Cantaluppi (University of Ohio) when he wrote: "The year after planting, asparagus can be harvested several times throughout a three-week period, depending on air temperatures. Research shows there is no need to wait two years after planting before harvesting. In fact, harvesting the year after planting will stimulate more bud production on the crown and provide greater yields in future years, as compared with waiting two years before harvesting.

This was indeed -- tremendous news. Venus and I had been under the belief that it would be at least two seasons before we could harvest our first spears. Yet here was plain advice from a crop scientist advocating to pick, pick and pick away after just one year of fern growth. Do you know what this means?

Asparagus Ferns Removed (Cut Back)
It means that the bed that has now been cut back of dead fern growth will be throwing out delicious spears of asparagus this spring, just in time for Easter Supper at the Bird Ranch. Nothing -- I mean absolutely NOTHING -- is better than what you can grow in your own little patch of yard. This is a rule that applies to all produce -- and I can only begin to imagine what kind of taste surprise will result from our own home-grown asparagus.

These same articles (links are above) -- while confirming that we were indeed on the right path -- also contained tips that I never would have crossed my mind (unless someone told me to do it). Those ferns that had erupted from the asparagus crowns (roots) that we planted last spring were actually quite beneficial. They were sending all kinds of important nutrients into the crowns (root systems) below. The more fern activity -- the better. More ferns result in more spears -- bigger and better spears I might add.

But there also comes a time when enough is enough. Those ferns don't last. In fact, as you can tell from the photos, many of them have turned brown. Some -- much to my surprise -- completely withered away. I discovered this as I hacked the fern growth back to ground level. The instructions that I encountered online advised a "haircut and close shave," as those former spears that erupted into ferns will become quite woody and quite *sharp* during the overwintering process.

We don't want to be slicing up fingers when slicing tender shoots of asparagus next spring, now do we?

Asparagus Hidden by Ferns
That "shave and a haircut (two bits)" is now complete. What's more surprising, although the thought did cross my mind, is that the removal of the dead and dying ferns revealed the growth of ASPARAGUS SPEARS! Sure enough -- what may be the first tender shoots of spring-time growth were popping just above the soil line.

Now -- it's entirely possible that this growth will also result in additional ferns -- which will be cut back later this winter. Then again, the growth rate might be so slow that these spears may be the first we actually harvest during our short, three week, asparagus season. This season, by the way, will expand with time and additional years of growth. But, for the first year? Three weeks is all you get.

That's fine by us. As the wife that is Venus says -- three weeks is better than no weeks. We're looking forward to a rather tasty backyard harvest. See you in the spring!

Potato Baby Jesus?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Day Potato Surprise From the Bird Back 40
Every once in a great while while working in the garden -- the wife that is Venus will utter a line that makes the perfect title for a gardening post like this one. It's the line that she shouted out after digging this monster potato out of the garden on Christmas Day -- a complete and total surprise I might add. We didn't pick Christmas Day as the day to harvest potatoes. No -- that mistake is on me -- yours truly. I'm the husband who forgot to purchase a five pound sack of spuds during our many shopping trips to prepare for the big day.

As soon as she uttered the line, I responded with the following: "that's perfect for the blog. I'm STEALING it." But the wife -- a devout Catholic -- suddenly had second thoughts lest the title offend someone. "How about calling it Potato Santa Claus instead," she questioned.

Nope -- Potato Baby Jesus was just too good to pass.

This monster potato, which snapped into two pieces as we dug it out of the soil, weighed in at a solid 2 lbs. It is one of the largest potatoes we have ever dug out of the backyard, and came as a shock and surprise to the both of us.

Frost and Potato Plants Do Not Mix
We weren't expecting anything this large -- especially since a week or two of winter frost in the morning had essentially laid waste to the potato plants in the backyard. Much to my chagrin, the frost also destroyed a growth spurt on one of two Meyer Lemon trees in the Bird Back 40. Why the Meyer Lemon suddenly chose late fall to suddenly bolt with a flurry of new branch growth and blossom set, I'll never know. I prayed and hoped the new growth would survive the onset of winter, but prepared for the worst.

The worst was revealed on Christmas Day after digging up a surprise monster of a potato. Despite covering the tree with Christmas lights (lights that generate heat I might add -- because some do not) -- the frosty conditions prevailed. Most of the new, purple colored, branch growth that I'd witnessed in recent weeks had turned black. That's never a good sign.


As for the potato harvest party on Christmas Day? That was also a surprise! It was necessitated when Venus discovered her dolt of a husband had forgotten to purchase a 5 lb. sack of spuds for holiday meals. Her response? "I guess we're digging for Christmas dinner then."

Christmas Day Potato Harvest
I didn't have much hope to be honest. We were a tad late on planting fall crops like potatoes this year. While some plants had sprung up in the bed we used for our very successful potato harvest last spring, the plants never did get a chance to flower and die back as they do naturally during the spring planting. 10-15 days of solid frost turned a once leafy and nice looking bed into something rather barren and dead looking.

I wasn't all that encouraged. Until -- that is -- Venus and I unearthed a monster of spud that we were not expecting.

The haul in the basket picture above came from digging up a small portion of the bed -- no more than one or two plants. We know there's a lot more where this came from, and perhaps another monster or two to uncover.

As for Christmas Day dishes -- the potato haul made for a nice breakfast in the form of hash browns. This a must have before the chore of ripping open Christmas presents. That evening, the wife that is Venus Productions concocted her famous roasted potato dish, featuring fresh rosemary from the garden, sea salt, pepper and olive oil (plus a few other secret seasonings).

This was a nice, and rather unexpected, gift from the garden on Christmas Day.

Why is This Man Smiling?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Happy Honey Extractor at Work
His incredible weight loss secrets perchance? Mmmm....NO!

The wife that is Venus is rewarding me with a back rub? No again, since she's taking the picture.

The 49ers are winning? That very well could be, but again, no.

But there is a reason for this grin. I'm rich! I'm fabulously rich and wealthy! Not in money mind you, but in fresh, tasty, straight-from-the-backyard Hello Kitty Beehive, HONEY.

As for the picture above? Yes, that is me. Yes, I could stand to lose more than just a few pounds. But I am seated in front of a strange contraption known as an extractor. I had never heard of an extractor, and never had a use for an extractor until I got this crazy idea in my head some three years ago to manage a beehive.

Pure Honey is a Pretty Sight
How does one procure honey from a hive? One needs an "extractor." What is an extractor? If you combine the mental pictures of a large metal trash can and a ten-speed bike -- that's kind of what it's like. And it's the perfect way to remove large amounts of honey from honey-laden combs like the one pictured to your left in a very short period of time.

That honey capped frame, by the way, comes from the part of the beehive called the "honey super." Why do they call it a "honey super?" Why are you asking these questions? My short and sweet answer is: I have no clue why they call it that. Perhaps because it results in a lot of honey -- and such a development is just "super?"

Probably not.

Scraping Wax Capped Frames of Honey for Extraction
My hand was literally shaking with excitement, by the way, as I used a hard-wire brush to break into the white wax caps that held back a massive flow of golden-rich honey. This was a first for me. I'd never done anything like it before. But the time to procure honey from backyard hives had come and gone. It was late October. The weather had turned cold. Cold temperatures turn honey into the consistency and weight of a wet and sticky cement.

Have you ever tried pouring cement? I have. It ain't easy. It also takes a skill level that I never acquired and probably never will. This is why I don't pour wet cement anymore, unless I'm going to bury it in the form of a fence post for a grape arbor. You'll never see my shoddy cement work. It's buried. You'll only notice it when the fence falls over. Hah!

Neon Pink Hello Kitty Hive
Breaking into the Hello Kitty Hive also contained a surprise that I had not been expecting. Since the weather was cold -- I knew the colony must have clustered. I had not seen nary a bee fly in or out of the hive for about a week. This is normal activity during colder months. Bees cluster in a hive to protect the queen and keep her warm. My hope was that the bees had clustered near the bottom of the hive, which would make retrieval of the honey super that much easier.

That particular super is located at the top of the hive. My hope was I could dart in and out without the colony flying up to meet me, retrieve the super and the queen excluder and quickly make my exit.

WARNING! This box is HEAVY!
I'll never forget the rush I felt upon opening the top of that hive to look into the super for the first time since I'd placed it on top of the hive last spring. What had been nothing more than a simple box with ten empty frames had been transformed into a box containing ten white-capped frames of honey that weighed a good 50-60 lbs. It took all of my effort to lug that box off the hive and move it a good twenty feet away. So far, so good. The bees had not come up to greet the wife and I.

Removal of the queen excluder and the second hive body (which contained two year old honey) also went without a hitch. But that's when the first feelings of doubt began to wash over me. I should have seen at least one bee by now. Bees normally react with annoyance when a beekeeper disturbs the hive body. It's a natural reaction. Remember that bees are insects. They do not have individual minds or individual wills. Insects react instinctively. The first instinct of any honeybee is to protect the queen and hive. I should have at least encountered an angry buzz by now.

Frame of Wax-Capped Honey
We didn't hear a thing. That's bad news. If you don't hear bees buzzing, it means it's time to inspect the hive. This is something I hadn't done since last spring, when our very healthy and productive colony swarmed on four different occasions. Although beekeepers do their level best to keep a hive from swarming, it's part of the natural reproductive process. This is how new colonies form. If a colony swarms, it usually means you've got a champion queen inside that hive and she has produced so much new brood -- that it's time to split.

So what happened? I'm not really sure. But an inspection of the bottom hive body revealed a rather distressing sight. There was nary a bee to be found. There wasn't one single, solitary honeybee in that hive. There wasn't so much as a carcass. Short and sweet? They were gone. Why would a queen and colony leave a hive that they had packed with honey stores during the spring and summer? It's a vexing question and problem that affects commercial and hobbyist beekeepers. Successful colonies can collapse and vanish in the space of a month.

Frames Inside Extractor. Notice Honey at the Bottom?
This one vanished. But before vanishing -- they sure did leave behind a boatload of honey.

The first step in claiming this honey from the super was to warm it up. You can't extract honey that is the consistency of wet cement -- even with the powerful force of an extractor. Honey extracts easily when it is thin and pours easily. But it needs heat to reach this consistency -- and sustained heat at that.

The Bird family garage does double-duty for many things. It's not just a garage. It's a party room. It's a bar, complete with kegerator. It's a place to watch football on a flat-screen TV. It's a place for tools and garden implements AND neon signs for Red Stripe, Coors Light, Corona and the like. Short and sweet? It's not just a garage. It's a "GarageMahal."

By turning up the heat and letting the super sit in one place overnight, inside a well heated GarageMahal, the honey inside those white, wax-capped frames took on the kind of consistency that I wanted. It was soft, pliable and easy to work with. It also leaves behind a sticky mess, necessitating the use of a tarp normally reserved for paint jobs inside the house.

Three Frame Extractor With Spigot at Bottom
The extractor is a simple device that uses the force of gravity to remove honey from frames very quickly. The frames are first scraped with a wire brush to remove the wax cappings, then placed inside slots located inside the drum of the extractor. The top of the extractor is then covered, and at that point, it's muscle over matter. The operator cranks the handle at the top of the extractor, the frames inside whip round and round at high speeds, and the force of gravity sends the honey, wax and bits of pollen slinging to the sides of this modified trash can.

Here's a short, one-minute demo here.

The honey that collects at the bottom of this can drains through a spigot into anything you have available (a five gallon bucket works best) and the end result looks a lot like what is pictured above. You get a lot of honey mixed with bits of wax and pollen that also dislodged during the extraction process. Those bits wax and pollen are lighter than the honey, and will rise to the top of a bucket or one gallon container over a day or two. This makes it easier to dig out, but the honey still must be strained a second time. And even then, tiny particles of wax and pollen remain.

Extracted Honey Before Straining
My friends, I can tell you this much. There is nothing quite like honey freshly harvested from your own backyard hive. The taste is dramatically different from what is purchased in a store (many commercial honey products are mixed with corn syrup or other products). It also contains enzymes and pollens that are considered to be medicinal.

Honey that is allowed to stay in a comb stage for two years is far darker and far sweeter. I am not sure if this can be purchased commercially, I've never come across it before. It is truly something special and will make for some nice gifts during the Christmas season.

The Finished Product: Pure 100% Raw Honey
The bees inside that Hello Kitty Hive were extraordinarily productive. The extractor yielded about 60 lbs. of honey -- enough to fill a number of half gallon and one gallon jugs. I have never seen so much honey in my life and consider myself to be very fortunate indeed. While I am saddened that Sudden Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) appears to have struck again, Venus and I will start with a new swarm again next spring.

Beekeeping is like a madness. Once it strikes, it never lets go.