Horse Tradin' Time...

Friday, April 29, 2011

Trading Time at the Bird Ranch for Wayward Heirlooms
It has arrived. One of my most favorite times of the year is here at last. The summer tomato garden is mostly planted. We have 24 plants in -- and I will most likely find room to plant another eight to ten. This doesn't count the massive numbers of cherry tomatoes that spring up in every nook and cranny of the backyard now. They don't count.

Nope -- we're talking "real" tomatoes here.

So -- what's on the list? What eight to ten heirloom tomato varieties will round out the heirloom tomato garden in the Bird Back 40 this spring? That's a good question! I don't really know the answer just yet. And this is when "horse tradin' time" comes in.

It's time to check in with other gardeners who have also been nurturing heirloom tomato plants from seed during the cold winter months. The question to them is  -- "What You Got?" They return the same question in a coy sort of way. Nobody gives away their hand. This is serious business, friends. It's a bit like five-card stud or any other good hand of poker. Each plant is like a card in a 52-card deck. Some are worth more than others.

Angela Lyons: Knows her Heirloom Tomatoes
The goal of this game? It's the same goal as a high-stakes game of seven-card Follow the Queen: Get the best hand possible. I don't know what eight to ten heirloom tomato plants will round out the Bird summer garden just yet. I'm still drawing cards from the deck. This hand has yet to be played.

This "game," which has some fairly loose rules, is already underway thanks to the super-charged and picture-perfect growing techniques of Sacramento Starter Plant Star Angela Lyons. Once again, this lady has enlisted the help of a magic waterbed to grow some magnificent starter plants -- two of which have already been delivered (plus one pepper starter to boot!).

Angela's gift to the Bird Garden this year is an Early Girl -- which has already produced three small tomatoes just since it was planted into its final home five days ago. But the real prize in this exchange? It's not the Early Girl -- it's the Black Cherry starter that came with it. Black Cherry starter plants are ALWAYS in high demand -- and this one has already found a home in in the garden of a shall-not-be-named, high-ranking, political operative.

Ssssh!! We won't tell the Fair Political Practices Commission. Like they read the blog anyway...

Early Girl is EARLY (no complaints here)
Heirloom starter tomato plants not only serve as trade material for other -- more desirable -- starter plants, they're also good for making friends in high places. In Angela's case -- she received a Tigerella starter in trade. It's not just any Tigerella starter either -- but the best looking and most lush of the Bird Bunch.

So -- if you're going to play this game of Heirloom Tomato Horse Tradin' -- best come prepared. Fortunately -- Mother Nature smiled upon the Bird seed starting efforts this year. We didn't lose a single starter to disease. We didn't lose a single plant to hardening off efforts that took place earlier this April. What does this mean? It means Bill and Venus Bird have drawn the proverbial "Full House" in this year's trading game.

Although it can be hard to assign a "point value" in a trading game like this one (everyone's tomato tastes are different) -- there are some general rules that are universally recognized by most heirloom seed starters. They are as follows:

There's a potato-leaf or two in here somewhere!
POTATO LEAF TOMATOES: Potato leaf starter plants normally produce some of the best and most legendary of tomato names. Brandywine, Marianna's Peace, Pruden's Purple, Stupice, Yellow Brandywine, Magnus, Galina's Yellow and MANY others. A detailed listing of potato-leafed heirloom tomatoes can be found here. If you have potato-leaf starter plants in your collection of seed-starting efforts, you've come to play.

BLACK TOMATOES: Black tomatoes are legendary for their size shape, color and TASTE. The Black Cherry heirloom is -- as I've already related -- highly prized. But it's not the only black tomato on the prized heirloom tomato list. There are others. Why are they so special? It might be due to the fact that you can trace the history of black tomatoes to the Crimean Peninsula. Others defer to the taste. Japanese Black Trifele, for example, is highly prized. Other growers have developed a passion for Black Krim tomatoes. Black tomatoes are good trading partners.

A Livingston Original? Mebbe...
LIVINGSTON TOMATOES: The father of the modern tomato, Alexander Livingston, is credited with developing close to half of the heirloom tomatoes that are grown around the world today. Although many of the "Livingston Originals" have been lost to time, a few like Paragon and Golden Queen are still offered online by a variety of sources. If you've got starter plants that harken back to the days of of the Livingston Seed Company? You're in the "horse tradin' game."

TOMATOES WITH HISTORY: Tomatoes with well-doccumented histories such as Cherokee Purple (grown by Cherokee Indian tribes) and Mortgage Lifter (wondeful story on Radiator Charlie here) are highly prized by heirloom growers. Others on this list include Dr. Wyche's Yellow (fertlized by circus animals) or Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart (grown by, guess? Homer Fike!). If you've grown a starter plant with an interesting and well-documented history? Welcome to the horse tradin' table!

Tomato plants here, Tomato plants there. What you got?
TOMATOES YOU CAN'T FIND AT A NURSERY: Most Sacramento area nurseries do an excellent job at stocking heirloom tomato plant starters. Capitol Nursery is one place I go often. I'm sure that Green Acres Nursery offers the same kind of selection. Eisley Nursery in Auburn is another location that also stocks up. But when it comes to heirloom tomato plants, you can't possibly stock them all. There are thousands of varieties to choose from. If you're growing a rare variety that can't be found anywhere else other than your backyard? GAME ON!

So -- it's horse tradin' time peoples. What you got?

Mind Your P's and Q'uitos!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nephew Marquitos with pea pod victim!
"Wouldn't that make the perfect title for the blog?" the wife that is Venus questioned during a sun-drenched Easter Sunday afternoon as nephew Marquitos Stromberg munched on a mound of freshly harvested peas nearby.

"I don't know," was my response. "I was thinking along the line of 'A Pound of Peas From the Garden Please'," to be honest.

"No," she said. "That's just stupid (a line I hear often to many a suggestion)."

Guess who won that argument? Dear Lord, the wife is taking over the blog. Things will never be the same. Don't be surprised if you find a shrine to all things Duran Duran in the coming weeks.

Freshly harvested pea pods from the Bird garden
Actually -- it's not a bad title to be brutally honest. The garden played a rather large and fulfilling role in our Easter Feast at the Bird House -- where we hosted children, aunts, uncles, sister-in-laws, cousins and even a brother or two. It was a packed Bird House -- and we kind of like it that way.

On the menu for Easter Sunday? How does a ham slathered and basted with freshly harvested honey from the Hello Kitty Hive sound? Fresh peas from the garden? Radishes galore and spinach from the spring and still bountiful fall gardens? Freshly harvested beets for the Easter salad? The garden production was on full display -- and nobody went home unhappy (or hungry I might add).

But the best part of Easter Sunday is children. No celebration is complete without the young ones. Bill and Venus played host this past holiday to four of them -- ranging in age from one (NFL linebacker in waiting Brennan Sullivan) to seven (Marquitos Stromberg). Children make holidays special -- and no holiday was more special than the one we celebrated this past Sunday.

Of course -- no Easter is complete without an old-fashioned Easter Egg hunt. And Easter Eggs hide easy in a mound of bushy pea plants or under the shade of a yet-to-be-harvested Easter Egg radish. But -- as Venus and I were delighted to learn -- the kids took the greatest joy in what came after: the harvest.

Champion Radish Harvester: Aiden Sullivan
Aiden Sullivan isn't exactly keen on the consumption of vegetables just yet -- much to the chagrin of his mother, Alice. His younger brother is -- but that doesn't really count -- as Brennan will eat just about anything in his path, including raw iron. Ever heard of a child that doesn't reject any sort of consumable item put in front of him? Ladies and Gentlemen -- may I introduce you to Brennan Sullivan. I would show you a photo of him -- but the poor lad is still eating.

Aiden -- however -- proved himself to be the champion harvester of all things radish. And once he had pulled one of those bright pink Easter Egg radish orbs from the ground and saw what awaited -- nothing could stop him from going back for more. The same applied to Marquitos and sister Celina Stromberg. Let's just say the Easter Sunday salad was a bit "radish heavy" after the "picking party" came to a merciful end.

But I've got to give credit where credit is due for this one. Venus planted this radish patch exactly six weeks ago with the hopes that her efforts would be ready for harvest in time for this very special holiday. The wife's planning paid off in droves. Perhaps her momentary takeover of the blog isn't such a bad thing after all.

Celina Stromberg: Ready for Radish Harvest
But I draw the line at a shrine to all things Duran Duran. Did they write a song about harvesting radishes? Nuff said.

But to be completely honest? It's the pea harvest that opened my eyes a bit. When Venus brought the first bowl of peas inside the garden to be shelled for the upcoming holiday feast -- I could not believe that we had actually grown quite this many. When she further confided in me that this was -- perhaps 25% of the harvest and another 75% was yet to come? Folks -- that's something to get excited about.

I'm never going to scream about peas -- thought I'm not about to push them away either. While it might be true that I'm not exactly wild about some vegetables -- peas are not on that list. Unfortunately -- I never had any experience with them as a child -- unless they came out of a can or were frozen inside of a bag. What are fresh peas like?

Nothing that comes out of a can or a bag -- that much I can tell you.

Pounds of Peas for Easter
An unopened pod full of peas is a treasure that has yet to be uncovered. There's nothing quite like the experience of unzipping a long pod -- only to discover a sweet tasting treat inside. Freshly harvested peas are indeed SWEET -- and crunchy to much on. This might explain why Marquitos has such a love for them. The boy has developed a love affair with peas and other garden produce at an age when many boys reject foods that come colored in green.

The first harvest from the Bird garden resulted in more than 1.5 lbs. of peas. I won't lie. It could have yielded twice that amount. This has been quite the year for fresh pea production in the Backyard of Bird. I wish I could tell you the secret. When I find out just exactly what we did right -- I'll let you know.

An Easter harvest to remember
There are those rare holiday celebrations where everything goes well. They include those celebrations where you don't exactly realize just how good it was -- until it comes to an end. All that's left are the memories of a special day with family and friends.

Easter Sunday, 2011, was indeed one of those days. I'm still not quite ready to believe that it's over. Yes, the children that made this day special are indeed gone.

But the pea harvest continues...

A Salivatin' Sight INDEED!!!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The "Pineapple" Artichoke
I like mine with BUTTER! Okay -- mebbe just a little bit of melted butter -- combined with margarine and garlic salt. That's the pefect dipping sauce for a beauty of an artichoke like this one to your right.

As for the wife? The wife that is Venus goes ALL out when it comes to the perfect artichoke dipping sauce. Sure -- there's a LOT of bit of butter -- some fresh lemon juice -- fresh herbs from the herb garden and just a tiny bit of salt.

And that makes it just right. What is your favorite dipping sauce? We're taking suggestions -- because we're about to come into a "boatload of artichokes."

I am literally licking my lips at the thought of the 2011 artichoke season. As the photo in the upper right will attest and the others below will show -- that season is just around the corner. And -- I might add -- it's also a tad early this year.

Oh, that's just tooooo bad!

The "Mother Bed"
After a disappointing 2010 artichoke season -- the "mother" plants have rebounded in a big way this spring. They've nearly grown right out of the raised bed I have them contained in and have nearly reached the top of a six-foot-high fence. I have never seen them get quite this large or quite this lush before. But I'm not complaining. Oh no -- not Bill Bird. Not in the slightest.

You see -- do you know what large and lush artichoke plants will result in? Large, lush and tender artichokes hopefully.

How do I know when artichoke season is right around the corner? It's when they begin showing up at the local supermarket -- usually at a pretty good price too. It's not all that uncommon to find them at Sacramento area supermarkets with a price tag of two for $3 or $5.

And it's well worth the price. Venus and I always make sure to purchase four or six of them. It sort of whets the appetite for what is to come. For there is nothing folks -- nothing quite like -- the taste of an artichoke that you grow right in your own backyard. It's just as unique and tasty as a home-grown tomato or any home-grown fruit. There's just something "special" about them.

Artichokes here. Artichokes there. Artichokes everywhere!
So -- "what's so special Bill Bird," you ask? Well -- I'll tell you. Our home grown chokes have a nutty -- almost walnut-like flavor to them. It's a unique taste that you don't find with artichokes that are now arriving by the thousands from coastal farming areas. Another difference? The heart of our home-grown chokes -- that "prize" that artichoke lovers yearn for -- is both larger and richer.

Another thing about artichokes? We have different types. The artichoke featured in the picture at the top is what I refer to as the "Pineapple Artichoke" because the shape of the leaves at the top very much reminds me of the tough bark surrounding a pineapple. These also make for the largest artichokes out of our artichoke patch -- but it doesn't mean the other varieties are bad. Indeed -- they are just as unique in shape, size and taste. No two are alike.

But do you know what the best part of home-grown artichokes is? They're not "two for $3." They're not even "one for a dollar." It's as many as you can get from a backyard patch through the spring and early summer months for $0. A home grown patch consisting of 10-12 productive plants can produce 75-80 good-sized artichokes. The goal? The goal is to eat so many artichokes over the next three months that you can't stand to even look at them anymore.

That's the sign of a good season!

Secondary Bed. Plants less than one year old.
This is shaping up to be a unique season -- like no other -- because as lush and large as the mother plants are -- it's the secondary bed that I planted last fall that has me intrigued. The plants in this bed were transplanted over from the mother bed. Most of them reacted to the move by falling flat on their faces. Artichokes look like death when you transplant them from one bed to another. It's just the way they are. They rebounded soon enough though -- as the photo shows. They are not nearly as large or lush as the mother plants -- but that's to be expected.

They'll get there. Give them a few years.

What is most interesting however -- is that the transplants are a good two weeks behind the plants in the mother bed in terms of production. Are they producing artichokes? You bet they are! But they haven't emerged just yet. You can spot them by digging gently into the center leaves -- it's almost like peeling back a banana. They are there -- but they are behind.

Emerging Artichoke from secondary bed
So what will happen? I'm not too sure. I've never dealt with two artichoke beds before. I never had the room for more than one. It was always my intention to create two different beds with our move to the Bird Back 40 -- but "other projects" just got in the way. I finally did get around to creating that second bed last spring -- and populated said bed with starters last fall. After falling flat from transplant -- they sprang back to life and continued to grow through the cold and wet winter months.

Although I can't tell what will happen next -- I can tell you what our hope is. Our hope is that by the time the artichokes in the mother bed begin to play out -- artichoke season will be in full swing in the secondary bed. That means an extended season. Instead of 45-days of artichokes coming out of our ears -- we'll get 90.

It might get so bad that you'll see me on the street begging passing motorists to please take them off my hands.

We'll see about that.

To flower or not to flower? That is the question...
There is another "conundrum" so to speak. Should I allow some of these delicious artichokes to actually flower as God and Mother Nature intended? They are WONDERUL pollen sources for the Hello Kitty Hive. They are THICK with pollen. The bees love them. BUT -- if you allow an artichoke plant to flower -- it will result in decreased production the following year.

Venus and I love our bees -- yes -- but we also love our artichokes! Questions! Questions!

I'll be honest with you though. This is a nice problem to have.

That Man Smells Like Manure!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Does Someone Smell Cow?
Step back ladies -- and please try to control yourselves. The Don Juan of bovine meadow muffins is in the house -- and as the photo to the right will clearly attest -- the "defcon of reekness" level stands at four.

Thanks to a weekend of warm weather and bright sunshine in North Natomas -- I'm pleased to announce that the 2011 summer garden season is now "on." Oh sure -- it's mid April. I'm not forgetting the calendar. But when two straight wam weekend days fall into your lap - a gentleman "takes advantage."

Think about it for a minute. In a lot of ways? Gardening is like sex. "How so Bill Bird," you inquire? Let's look at the facts, shall we? A day of gardening leaves you hot -- sweaty -- dirty -- tired -- spent and in desperate need of an ice-cold beer.

What other activity leaves you feeling in such the same manner?

I rest my case.

"Work It" With a Wheelbarrow!
If you're seriously insane -- I mean -- serious about gardening -- you just can't "plant seed" and forget about it. Oh no -- there's a lot that comes before that magic moment. First and foremost? You need to prepare for it. You need to "work it" so to speak -- as in work the garden beds before planting.

There are six main 4X8 gardening beds in the main part of the Backyard of Bird. There -- you will find the now infamous "V for Venus" beds. I'll be honest. After a long and frustrating winter -- a lot of the beds were covered in weeds. Call it our winter of neglect.

Fortunately? These are raised beds filled with loose soil planter mix. No matter how big the weeds get? They're fairly easy to pull out -- roots and all. And if you don't get it every last part of each root? The Mantis Rototiller will take care of the rest.

The Mantis needed yet another tune-up before I got started this weekend. Despite my efforts to drain out the old gasoline from last season and replace it with something new -- it wouldn't fire up the way I wanted it. It would run for a minute or two and then die when I gave it the gas. Know what that means? It means another trip to Bill Knight and the Lawn and Mower Repair shop in Elverta.

Bill knows his two-cycle engines.

Mantis Rototiller in Action!
After a standard $25 tuneup? Ye olde Mantis was running like a top again -- ready to tear into those beds with abandon. Each bed received three bags of top quality manure -- and I say that in jest -- because when is the last time you ever heard anyone use the line "top quality manure?"

It's cow-poop folks. Plain and simple. It comes from the back end of -- well -- you know.

After a less than satisfactory experiment with other forms of compost last year -- I switched back to the simple one-buck-a-bag variety found at your local Home Depot. Why fiddle with something that works wonders? Some of my best summer vegetable gardens have resulted from the use of the cheapest form of steer manure compost -- so why fiddle with something that works?

Sure -- I've tried better forms of compost. I've tried the organic variety. I've shelled out $20 for a bag of the Fox Farm product. Guess what? In my short experience? The buck-a-bag Home Depot stuff just works better. And there's nothing like the feeling of ripping into a bag of smelly steer manure compost -- only to find that it's rich with earthworms. That's like hitting the garden jackpot.

Amended bed before rototilling
I managed to till up four different beds this weekend -- which is a record for productive output. The main 4X8 beds each received three bags of steer manure compost -- which also comes with an ample supply of potash (potassium). I also experimented some additional nutrients for the beds in the form of organic bone meal -- which is high in phosphorus. If you're as insane as I am about heirloom tomatoes -- you'll find that they need equal amounts of three nutrients to do well: Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.

If your garden is lacking in any one of the three? It can affect production. You can also work in far too much of a good thing -- which I discovered last year when I experimented with chicken manure compost. However -- I am returning to a nutrient recipe that has served me well in the past. My "method of gardening madness" is to till up each bed with the Mantis -- add manure, bone meal and other pelleted nutrients -- and use the Mantis a second time to mix it in with the existing soil.

After splashing each bed with a fine spray of water (this keeps the wind from blowing half the soil away -- which is a real problem in the windy riverbottom) -- the end result is a dark -- rich soil that is ready for planting. And so -- this is when the magic moment comes. It's time to plant.

Amended "V for Venus" planter bed
I'll be honest with you -- I jumped the gun a tad. The heirloom tomato starters that I have been babying in a back room through most of the winter months are now in their permanent location. Yes -- I'm taking a gamble here. Yes -- there's still the chance for another cold storm or two. Yes -- most serious growers wait until the END of April before they dare plant anything.

In my case -- however -- it was time. The long and lanky heirloom starters were seriously rootbound. Worse yet? A normal spring day of warm weather was enough to dry them out completely. My only options were to transplant the starters into larger containers -- or plant out now. I chose the latter. It's a gamble -- yes it is. But the long range forecasts look promising.

Tomato plants can withstand a warm spring deluge. In fact -- I've found that they tend to enjoy it. I've seen plants knocked flat by warm spring downpours -- only to watch them spring back stronger than ever a few days later with nary a trace of disease. Warm spring rain doesn't bother me. A cold snap followed by cold rain and more cold weather? That's different. It should cause concern.

Raggedy heirloom tomato plant starters

If we're lucky? The wife that is Venus and I will be enjoying vine ripened tomatoes by the end of May or in early June. This is providing the weather cooperates. After experiencing a colder-than-normal summer last season -- I know that the weather rarely cooperates in these cases.

But -- every once in a great while -- a squirrel finds a nut. The heriloom tomatoes are in. The wife and I smell like we've been rolling around in meadow muffins all weekend long. There is no turning back now.

As for me? I need a beer -- and a shower.

From BUST to BOOM in Nine Months

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bees Swarming to Meet You!
BOOM!

So -- is this what it feels like? To be a successful home beekeeper hobbyist? Folks -- I was an utter and complete FAILURE at this exercise when decided to adopt this hobby out of pure frustration a few years back. I too -- knew what it was like -- to have the shape of an "L" on my forehead.

I was "expert" at losing hives. I was an even bigger "expert" at losing queens. No matter what I tried -- no matter what I did -- I FAILED and failed MISERABLY.

But all of that seems so long ago now. Because -- today? I'm a successful beekeeper hobbyist as the photo to the upper right will attest. That is the current state of the neon pink Hello Kitty Hive. To put it short and sweet? It's loaded -- both deeps are packed solid with bees so thick that they fall out of the hive like a graceful curtain blowing in the wind.

One-Half of the Hello Kitty Hive
Much to my chagrin -- and the chagrin of others in the neighborhood -- the hive has now swarmed three times this spring. While many beekeepers are proud of swarms -- because it is the sign of a massively reproductive hive -- they do their level best to prevent it. A swarm happens when a hive becomes jam packed and overcrowded. But it also means you lose precious numbers of beekeeping friends that could have been better put to work making fresh honey for the wife that is Venus.

Beekeeper Keith Scott took these amazing photographs last week while collecting Swarm #2 -- that had come to rest behind the Dinner Plate Honeysuckle Vine. What he witnessed and photographed surprised even the most experienced of beekeepers. Tens of thousands of bees were still packed tightly into the hive even after the second swarm. Tens of thousands remain after Swarm #3 took place this past weekend.

I was surprised to find out that the activity gained the interest of a none-too pleased neighbor. I can't blame him for his dismay -- nor the note he left behind on the blog. If you do not have any experience with watching a hive suddenly swarm into the open on a bright and sunny day -- it can be one of the most terrifying and fascinating events to watch unfold.

Nobody ever said nature was pretty.

Bee Swarm #II in the Dinner Plate Honeysuckle Vine
To protect the innocent -- we'll call this neighbor "Mr. Neighbor." He left this note in the comments section of the blog: "As one of your nearby neighbors, I am a little less than amused by a swarming of bees. It seems to be happening again today (Apr 9th)...might have been nice if we had been warned or even given a choice as to whether or not we wanted this influx of bees."

Some of my more hardened beekeeping friends came to my defense by suggesting that I leave the next swarm in his bed. As much as I chuckled at the "Godfatherly" suggestion -- I was also concerned. I want to be a good neighbor. I like my neighbors. Sure -- Venus and I could have moved out to acreage from North Natomas into Rio Linda -- but that also meant isolation.

I've done that. I've been there. I had my two acres. I couldn't stand the quiet. I hated the privacy that acreage brings. I didn't know my neighbors from Jack. Bill Bird is a product of the Modesto, CA suburbs. I like waving to neighbors as I drive down the street. 4th of July Block Parties shared with family and neighbors are the bomb. Nothing is better -- in my opinion -- that a boatload of children screaming out TRICK OR TREAT on Halloween night.

Nephew Marquitos Stromberg With Yellow Carrot Harvest
Mr. Neighbor would later add that he had a grandaughter that very much enjoyed visting the home and backyard of her grandparents -- which I also identified with. Venus and I have not been blessed with the gift of children. We instead smother our love and affection on nephew Marquitos and niece Celina -- who reward us with "most favored destination" status. Can you imagine then -- how we would feel if Marquitos and Celina were suddenly too scared to visit "Tío and Tía?"

We would be crushed. Mr. Neighbor and his wife would feel equally crushed if their grandaughter reacted in the same manner. I can understand and identify with that concern. I can also identify with the fact that -- while bees are legal to keep in Sacramento City limits -- they can also be classified as nuisance problems. Therefore, it's best to reach out and react before problems are allowed to fester into something larger.

Promising "Mr. Neighbor" a jar of honey for his troubles also helped smooth things over a bit, as did a message of understanding. When the bees swarmed for the first time nearly two weeks ago, leaving a resulting mass of bees on a nearby peach tree, I wasn't sure what to do. I certainly did not approach them. Were they agitated? Would they reach out and "touch me" with a stinging party? I didn't know -- and I surely didn't want to find out.

Honeybees Preparing to Swarm
But the nice thing about beekeeping is this: you learn the basics from others. You find out that swarms are just a part of nature and nothing more. Better yet -- swarms of Italian honeybees are as harmless as any bee colony will ever be. You can reach out and run your hand over the top of one -- provided you have the nerve -- and they will not instinctively react with a stinging party. They have no hive to protect -- therefore -- no reason to sting.

And so -- much to the delight -- and chagrin -- of some -- Bill Bird is now a successful beekeeper with a strong colony inside that bright pink Hello Kitty Hive. What is my secret? How did this failure of a hobbyist beekeeper go from BUST to BOOM overnight? How did three frames worth of bees delivered last June result in a massive hive nine months later that is so healthy it's splitting at a record rate?

I wish I could tell you the secret. I'd like to know myself. While Venus and I did make every effort to keep the hive in sugar water during the first few months -- once the bees turned aggressive last October -- and our pathway to the hive turned into a mudpit -- we ended our feeding efforts. To be brutally honest? We didn't do a darn thing. We stayed away.

As it turns out? They didn't need our help. As it turns out? I have far more pollen sources around this North Natomas home than I ever dreamed possible. A colony this strong -- this large and this lush doesn't get this way overnight without a steady source of pollen from a variety of sources.

A Keith Scott Photo
Obviously? The bees found that source. I find that the colony is also very adept at "planting" its own sources of pollen around the hive. Am I trying to tell you that I have bees that farm? I can only tell you that the clover that is springing up in every corner of the Bird Back 40 is coming from somewhere -- seeds of which that have no doubt been deposited by a passing bee. I certainly didn't put it there.

The end result is this: Bill and Venus Bird have the pollinators that they desperately sought in 2007. Roseville area beekeeper Keith Scott is getting fat in the beekeeping hobbyist business with three new colonies catpured from the Bird Back 40. Neighbors like "Mr. Neighbor" and Greg and Dara DiBiase and many others are getting treated to a swarm show that many people never get to witness in person.

Interesting? Without a doubt. A learning experience? Of course! And the show is now just begining. Act II of the beekeeping experience moves from pollination to honey collection later this summer.

Stay tuned...

A Haircut That HURT!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Leggy Heirloom Starter Plants Flopping Over
It was time. I just couldn't bear to look at them anymore. "Them" is pictured to your right. This is how my heirloom tomato starter plants look at the moment as I put them through the "hardening off" process by introducing them to the harsh sunlight of outdoor life.

I was hoping that the introduction to outside conditions would be the kind of "tough love" my heirloom tomato starter plants would need to develop tough stems at the base. And while the "tough love" approach of direct sunlight, cool spring temperatures and breezy days is having the desired effect -- it's not going to result in the kind of stem growth we need that will allow these plants to stand upright.

Leggy starters like these aren't a problem if you've finally arrived at the magic "plant out" date. You can take a variety of actions when faced with the problem of "leggy" starter plants. You can either dig a deep hole and plant the root system and most of the stem deep into soil. Or -- you can dig a long trench and bury most of the plant in soil except for the top four or five inches.

There's just one problem. We're not at "plant out" date yet. In fact, as much as I hoped for an early plant out date -- it ain't gonna happen children. It's still too cold outside. Oh -- sure -- the afternoons (like this afternoon) are wonderful. But our nights are still cold. There's also a chance of another cold rainstorm or two in the long-range forecast. To plant out now? That's like rolling the dice at a craps table. And I don't want to come up snake eyes -- not after caring for these starter plants for as long as I have.

A Leggy Stupice Heirloom Starter
So -- what's the alternative? Continue to let them flop over like they have been? That's a three foot long Stupice starter plant that I'm holding in my fat paw in that photo to the left! Do you know what happens to starter plants that flop over like that? Eventually -- they break in two. Or worse yet -- they snap at the base of the plant. Know what that means? GAME OVER!

No thanks.

The second option? Transplant into larger pots. In my case? I would need much LARGER pots that would allow me to plant these leggy starters deeply. Stems that are planted into soil WILL develop a secondary set of roots. That's one of the nice things about tomato plants -- you can bury them deeply and not hurt them. But -- there's just one problem. I didn't have that many half-gallon pots. I certainly did not have the extra soil on hand. Finally, transplanting into that large of a new pot could possibly delay plant out which should come at the end of this month.

Time for a haircut? Mebbe!
Transplanting is only half the battle. Once transplanted, you've got to allow the starters to expand and grow a new set of roots -- otherwise you can shock them by removing the plants from starter cups during plant out. Even worse -- you can snap a tender starter in half. Know what that means? GAME OVER!

So -- what's a tomato nutcase like Bill Bird to do? I suddenly remembered that I had rooted several varieties of basil in a glass of water during the last growing season. Sacramento area gardener Carri Stokes assured me it would work. And -- it did work. Rooting those basil starters brought back an even more distant memory where Venus and I had taken the same steps with a cutting of lemon thyme that Venus received from a colleague at work. The cutting developed root systems while placed in a cup of water before we transplanted it into the herb bed. Today, it's one of the most prolific herbs in the backyard bed (it's also a good pollen source for the bees -- but more on that later).

And so the inevitable thought crossed my mind. If you can root herbs like basil and thyme by placing cuttings in a glass of water -- can you do the same with tomato plant cuttings? Will they take root in a glass of water? Can they successfully transplanted into starter cups after rooting in water?

Snip, Snip!
For questions like these and more -- I usually turn to the TomatoMania forum or Group on Yahoo. It's a community of like-minded heirloom tomato nutcases like myself -- where you can ask questions and get quick answers. Sure enough -- they all answered in the affirmative -- so the haircut activity took place in earnest earlier today.

Trust me when I tell you: this was anything but EASY. Venus and I have babied these starters from seed for months. We've made every effort to provide them with good soil, light, water, heat -- all the elements one needs for producing starter plants indoors. To suddenly WHACK them back by several feet seemed a little inhuman -- but it had to be done.

And if the action resulted in additional starter plants for family and friends???? Well -- there could be an upside to this endeavour. At least 300 people at work have asked me to "put them on the list" for starter plants. This is one impressive list -- and no I won't be able to fill every last order or desire -- even if every plant roots.

Will They Take Root?
So today -- the three-foot long Stupice got a nice "haircut." So did the two-foot Brandywine. Tigerella also offered up a nice top stem -- as did Bradley, Kelloggs Breakfast, Marianna's Peace and a few others.

The cuttings from each starter plant have been placed in clear plastic cups -- as pictured -- filled with cool water -- labeled and placed on a bright and sunny location on a windowsill. A number of things could happen in the next two weeks. They could root. A marauding cat could knock them into next week (always a possibility in the home for wayward and bratty cats). Or, they could simply shrivel up and die.

As with every gardening experiment? Time will tell!

A GIANT of a Day!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Baseball is back, baby!
Here is Northern California -- all is just peachy keen! There might be a bad bout of peach-leaf curl on the peach trees thanks to some late spring rain and cold weather -- but baseball is back in the San Francisco Bay Area and life is just fine.

And it does appear -- once again -- that the San Francisco Giants motto for the 2011 season will be TORTURE. After an AT&T opener like fans experienced today (a 5-4 come from behind NAILBITER over the Cardinals) -- how could one expect any differently?

But -- hey -- it's baseball, right. Whaddya want? Another three months of the Sacramento KINGS? Another season of Alex Smith at QB for your San Francisco 49ers?

No -- thank you -- I'll pass. Gimme some Giants baseball -- with a side of your Sacramento River Cats on a warm summer evening on the banks of the Sacramento River.

Heaven!

Despite what appears to be yet another lousy spring for us gardening types -- things are a changing for the better in the Bird Back 40. Yes indeed -- the grapevines a growing! There appears to be a WHOPPER of a crop on the Santa Rosa Plum tree -- and for the first time ever -- Flavor Finale Pluots on our pluot tree which is now entering its second year of production. We didn't get pluots last year -- so this will be a first for us.

A second spring swarm from the Hello Kitty HIve
But the bone-chilling sunny afternoons aren't holding down the colony of bees in the Hello Kitty Hive -- which swarmed for a second time this week. They are kind of tough to see in the mass of vines that is the Dinner Plate Honeysuckle bush -- but trust me -- they are there.

And when the bees aren't swarming about the yard? They're doing a pretty good job at what I wanted them to do: pollinate various crops here and there.

Case in point? The wife that is Venus and I are heading for an impressive pea harvest from vines that we allowed to grow through the winter. To put in bluntly? We're loaded.

Venus and I have been hit and miss with our pea plantings -- mostly miss. During the past couple of years, we've always planted seed during the first week or two of spring. But by the time the vines finally reach the desired size where they can produce? Hot weather sets in. And nothing knocks off a nice pea crop like successive 90-degree days.

The tomatoes might love it -- but peas are a cool weather crop. Once summer checks in, pea crops check out.

Did someone say peas?
So this year Venus tried something different. Rather than plant in February -- she planted in early November. The intent was not to get a fall crop of peas -- although it is possible. Nope -- the hope is that the seeds would sprout just before the winter freeze set in. Did they survive that freeze? It appears that they not only survived -- they loved it.

There are a few plantings in the Bird backyard that really thrive in cold, wet and wintry conditions. Artichoke plants are one of them. Artichoke plants are gluttons for winter punishment. Two weeks of non-stop winter rain and cold? Bring it on. Wind gusts of 35 plus? Is that all you've got?

Venus suspected that peas could not only absorb the same abuse, but continue to grow through the winter months. Guess what? She's right. The pea seeds that she planted in November didn't necessarily grow to towering heights during the cold weather. But they appear to have developed strong root systems.

Monster peas growing up bamboo support system
So when the first warm, hint of spring days arrived? The pea vines shot out of the ground like a cannon and started marching up a bamboo tee pee that we had assembled earlier. When they began to flower two to three weeks ago -- the vines hummed with that unmistakable sound of foraging honeybees.

We didn't do a whole lot of fall or winter vegetable gardening this year. A death in the family will knock you off the gardening track for awhile. It's tough to find enjoyment in the dirt when a family member is suffering. Suffice to say that the onion and garlic crops will be substantially smaller this year.

But chalk one up for the peas -- and a bounty of a 2011 harvest.

Fear This Beard, Brian Wilson!!!

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Beard for Brian? I think not!
Just in time for the start of Major League Baseball season!!! A beard that you won't see Brian Wilson wearing on the mound for your San Francisco Giants anytime soon.

Can you only begin to imagine how they would react when he uncorks one of his famous fastballs?

I hope he has insurance.

My friends -- this is the vision that greeted me and the wonderful wife that is Venus when we returned to home to our North Natomas farm after a quick trip to East Sacramento last Sunday. Know what this is? In technical terms -- it's called a swarm.

It's also the result of a lazy or inattentive beekeeper. In case you're wondering? That would be yours truly.

The Feared Beard of Brian Wilson
In this particular case? This is a Prime Swarm -- which means about 60% of the worker bees have now departed our Hello Kitty Hive. But -- as bad as that sounds -- that's not the worst part. No -- the worst part is they take the old queen with them. And it's the old queen that's responsible for this brood beard that Brian Wilson will never touch.

Neighbor Greg DiBiase greeted us last Sunday with some interesting and distressing news. "Something is happening in your backyard," he told us. "Your bees put up a real racket this afternoon and were flying all over the place."

Bees flying all over the yard didn't neceesarily concern me. I had witnessed this many times before. A vast majority of the worker bees will pick a specific time of day to mass or fly around outside the hive. I've seen it many times before -- and it's just part of "bee behavior." It's also fun and fascinating to watch -- from a safe distance. Bill Bird is many things. Extraordinarily stupid isn't one of them.

But make a racket? Other than a normal buzzing sound -- even large swarms of bees don't put up much of a racket. The decibel levels will increase if I'm inspecting the hive for one reason or another -- but that's a given. Bees don't like intruders -- especially bear-shaped intruders like Bill Bird.

There is only one other instance where bees have been know to put up a racket or a ruckus. I have never witnessed it before -- but I've seen it in clips on youtube and other places. Bees make a high-pitched racket when they swarm out of a hive.

Bee Swarm on the O'Henry Peach Tree
And -- so -- when Greg informed me that he had not only witnessed a cloud of bees in the backyard -- but also reported a high pitched scream -- my first thought was "uh-oh." Upon stepping into the North Natomas Back 40 and turning a corner -- this is what greeted us. Sure enough -- the hive had swarmed. The old queen had left -- landed on a nearby peach tree -- and taken a good chunk of our Hello Kitty Hive with her.

This -- I might add -- was the first dry and sunny day of spring that we had experienced after two-weeks of seemingly non-stop rainfall and cold weather. It seemed our bees had been waiting for the right moment. And when opportunity knocked in the form of a nice day? BUZZ!

Of course -- I was unprepared. I have never witnessed a hive swarm before (and I still haven't to be honest -- because I missed this one). What does one do when a hive swarms? A Happy Dance? I think not. Can you approach a swarm like this? Good question! Do bees that swarm sting if you get too close? Another good question!

Up Close and Personal
I had a lot of questions on this day -- and very little in the way of answers. But the good thing is -- I was armed with the right bit of knowledge. I knew who to call -- and no -- it wasn't the Ghostbusters either.

Although my experience with a backyard hive has been short and sweet -- sweet like honey I might add -- I have managed to make a number of contacts. Garry Erck gifted me with this old queen and several frames of brood last summer from a wild swarm that he had captured near his home in Diamond Springs. I was starting to wonder if he wanted the old queen back.

If anyone was prepared to handle a swarm? It was Garry. But Diamond Springs is also a long haul away from North Natomas. Plus -- it was late Sunday afternoon.

Beekeeper Keith Scott with a gentle brush...
Fate would intervene in the form of another beekeeper -- a gentleman by the name of Keith Scott. Not only do the two plot against the rest of humanity together at Intel -- Keith was the "other half" of Garry's bee swarm collection hobby. I'd never met Keith -- but I sure did love stealing his engineering design for a contraption designed to grow tomatoes from seed.

Without engineers -- Bill Bird wouldn't have any original thoughts. File that one away for later.

But I digress. As luck would have it? Keith was in the neighborhood. Not only was Keith in the neighborhood -- he had everything he needed to catch a wild swarm. Why did he have all this stuff in the trunk of his car? Because Garry Erck told him to "be prepared."

See what I mean about plotting against the rest of humanity? These guys are good.

Keith sprays swarm with sugar water
It's often been said that if you ask ten beekeepers the same question regarding bees -- you're going to get ten entirely different answers. There is no tried and true method. There is no "Bible of Beekeeping." But there is a thing called "Bee Protocol." Part of bee protocol is this: The Beekeeper Who Traps the Swarm -- Keeps the Swarm.

It's not a part of the Ten Commandments as far as I know -- but it's a rule that is followed by most beekeepers religiously.

Plus -- not only was Bill Bird not prepared to trap a swarm -- he also wasn't prepared for a second hive in the backyard. Venus and I practice "The Highlander" form of maintaining a beehive: "There Can Be Only One." Therefore -- Keith got the swarm -- and my old queen to boot.

Plus -- he was prepared. He had the suit! He had the transport box! He had the brush! He had the sugar water. He also had some unsuspecting young boys who were only too happy to "give dad a hand." I'll never forget his instructions on that day: "Boy Number One! Step Forward! Hand me that frame! Now step back! Boy Number Two! Step Forward! Hand me your frame! Now step back!"

It's nice to be prepared...
I've never seen such artful precision out of young boys before. I should have Keith train my cats.

As it turns out -- the safest time to approach a mass of bees is right after they've swarmed. They have no hive to protect, therefore lack the instinct to defend a hive against an intruder. As long as I didn't get close to the queen? I could get as close as I wanted. Another beekeeper (Ernie Buda from the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association) advised that I should "run my hands over them and let them crawl on me."

No thanks Mr. Beekeeper. I deferred to Keith and his moonsuit.

The former queen of the Hello Kitty Hive is now somewhere in a rural Roseville-area backyard. I have no doubt she is once again building up a champion hive. Perhaps -- if I'm lucky -- I might get her back someday. As for now? I have -- or soon will have -- her queen offspring.

At some point -- and it already may have happened during this past week -- a new queen will emerge from one of several queen cells that worker bees have undoubtedly prepared for just this type of circumstance. The new queen will emerge -- and her first task will be to search out and destroy other queen cells before other new queens can emerge.

If two queens are born at the same time -- there will be a battle royale for control of the Hello Kitty Hive. There is room for only one queen and one queen only.

If I had thought ahead? I'd put the whole kit n' kaboodle on pay-per-view TV and make bank!

But once again -- Bill Bird is not prepared.