Goodnight Sweet Darling

Monday, December 31, 2012

Trimmed Tree Roses: Bird Back 40
When the lure of the yard becomes too much -- even in cold weather -- you know that one is progressing nicely from gall bladder removal surgery. After the first week at home after surgery? I couldn't even look at the yard. Now? A month and a half later? I can't wait to get out in the mud with a pair of chompers!

Now, that's progress!

It's that time of year again where we must say "goodnight" to the many tree and rose bushes that grace the Bird Back 40. This is always been a rather tough job for me because these roses have provided the wife that is Venus with multiple vases of flowers during the spring and summer months. A vase of home grown roses earns "points." Purchasing said roses does not. Remember this lesson boys: Grow Your Own.

Pruned St. Patrick's Tree Rose
Now -- before we go any further here -- let me issue this warning. I am not a professional Rosarian. I am a professional screwup -- but we'll save that post for another day. My "experience" with trimming rose bushes comes from watching others do it, plus a few online tips and tricks. There are going to be some experienced folks (Fred) who will shudder at the sight of this whack job, but I can tell you this much.

I've come to learn that it really doesn't matter HOW I cut these roses back. What matters is that I DO cut them back. After three or four years of solid growth, the roses have always jumped back to life in the spring. And some, like the Stinkin Lincoln (aka Mister Lincoln), are now large enough to grow right over the fence line and keep right on growing.

Mister Lincoln in Winter
By the way, does anyone know why the favorite known as Mister Lincoln is sometimes referred to as the Stinkin Lincoln? The answer is at the bottom -- but if you've already guessed -- I'm sorry but you don't win a prize. You have earned my respect, however. But, again, this is no prize.

There are two basic things that I keep in mind when trimming a rose bush. The first is locating and identifying the strongest and largest of the newest "canes" that developed during the previous spring and summer. The second thing that I watch out for is trimming said bush so it doesn't grow out and block off a walkway, as some of them have in recent years. This doesn't always result in a perfect, round cut. But my madness works in other ways.

Trust me, this is a madness.

Fat Purple Cane: Save Him!
This purple colored cane on the Mister Lincoln is exactly the kind of growth that I'm looking to preserve. Older canes are black and somewhat woody and easy to distinguish from the newer canes that emerged earlier this year. This happens to be one of the nicest, fattest canes that emerged from the Mister Lincoln this year. This is a cane that I will want to preserve for newer growth that will emerge next spring.

Another plus: The cane is growing in a direction next to the fence line. Roses against fence lines make for the perfect show. Roses growing out and covering a sidewalk can be problematic, especially if the rose has thorns. And the Mister Lincoln has thorns. They are big, FAT thorns that tend to rip and shred clothing and skin if you're not careful. This isn't something you want growing into a walkway that was installed the previous spring.

Unlike previous years, when I didn't have to worry about sidewalk protection, I would keep and preserve the strongest canes no matter which direction they grew in. I can't do that anymore. So -- any cane jutting out near a walkway, no matter how nice or strong, gets pruned back completely. Harsh? Mebbe. But a rose bush like the Stinkin Lincoln will eventually get the message and grow in areas you want growth to occur in.

A "Must Have" When Trimming Rose Bushes
The number one rule to remember when cutting back roses is this: Wear gloves. Wear heavy gloves. Wear gloves heavy enough to protect your hands against thorn abuse because no matter how careful you are, you're going to get nicked and pricked. The second rule to remember? Carry Bactine. Carry lots of Bactine and maybe a Hello Kitty brand First Aid kit.

Unlike previous years, I can no longer fit cuttings from eight rose and tree rose bushes into one green waste can, no matter now many small pieces I chomp the cuttings into or how much I jump up and down on the green waste can. It just doesn't work anymore. The rose bushes that Venus and I transferred over from the old North Natomas spread five years ago are now firmly established. And all of them have responded with so much growth that it usually takes two packing sessions and two days of cutting before the job of a winter nap is done.

No More Room at The Inn!
Another important step to remember is removing leaves from around the base of a freshly whacked rose bush. This isn't always easy (remember: THORNS). However, this job can be accomplished with a strong broom or a blast from a blower. Removing leaves means non-beneficial bugs don't have a place to overwinter and gives new spring shoots a chance to grow unimpeded.

Finally? The hardest part about cutting back a rose bush? It's not the thorns, as I may have led you to believe. It's not the job of chomping canes into small bits so one can pack a green waste can. No -- the hardest part of cutting back a rose bush is cutting back a rose bush that has been placed next to a yellow beehive. Make that an "active" yellow beehive.

Curious Bees
This is actually a nice sign if you're into the business of keeping bees as a hobby. An active beehive in late December means the colony inside that yellow colored hive has survived the summer and fall months and is overwintering well. It means there is a strong queen somewhere inside that yellow box. And it brings the promise of swarms in the spring for additional hives and honey production next year.

Yes, it does also mean you get the occasional visit from a curious bee or five. But I've come to find out that if you don't bother them, most of the time, they won't bother you.

Mister Lincoln Rose Bush
MISTER LINCOLN: Introduced by Swim and Weeks in 1964, the Mister Lincoln is one of the most enduring red hybrid tea roses ever developed. While other red roses have come and gone, the Mister Lincoln has endured the test of time and is a favorite of many growers. It is also the most fragrant of all hybrid tea (long-stemmed) roses, earning it the well-deserved nickname of "Stinkin Lincoln."

Christmas Garden Gifts

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Merry Bird Christmas
I had intended the title of this post to be "last minute gardening gifts for Christmas." Uh yeah, I'm a tad late. In fact, I'm not really done with Christmas shopping quite yet. Because, when it comes to the wonderful wife that is Venus, Christmas comes 365 days a year.

However, I did run into some problems this year when she retorted "NOTHING," in response to my question of "what do you want for Christmas, dearest?" That's a rather tough answer. If I had actually put nothing under the tree for Christmas Day, I could see myself camping in our North Natomas backyard for a rather extended stay.

A Favorite Bird Gardening Haunt
Though I am a fan of camping, I'd rather pass on the somewhat cold and quite waterlogged Bird Back 40. Besides, there's really no place to pitch a tent. Unless I want it to float away.

Still, the wife deserved something for Christmas Day. And, as I walked the aisles of Emigh's Ace Hardware this Christmas season (one of my favorite haunts), plenty of gift-gardening opportunities presented themselves. Instead of receiving "nothing," she would get items that made digging in the dirt that much more enjoyable.

Plus -- these are the types of things that vegetable gardeners really can't be without.

Cat Play Toys -- aka -- Garden Labels
PLANT LABELS: It's a simple thing actually, but you'd be surprised how quickly these things vanish in the Bird Back 40. Every row of seeds -- every tomato plant -- deserves a plant label. Sure -- our pesky cats have been known to knock a few of these into next year (bad cat!), but labels keep the garden in order. They also help us tell the difference between Atomic Red Carrots, Solar Yellow Carrots, and Cosmic Purple Carrots.

What's that? Purple carrots? They really make those things? Why, yes they do! Not just "make" them, but grow them. Carrots come in the colors of the rainbow and thanks to some fine work by researchers in all things vegetables, come packed with nutrients. Each row gets a label -- and with some 20 odd raised gardening beds -- that's a lot of rows.

Garden Sloggers for the Bird Back 40
GARDEN SLOGGERS: This is the one gift that made the wife's Christmas morning. Venus appreciates a pair of good shoes -- and now she's got a pair for her exploits in the Bird Back 40. I've been promised that these sloggers are appropriately named, and can handle wind, rain, mud or anything else that Mother Nature can throw at them.

I found the sloggers hanging on a back wall near the gardening department and couldn't resist. Call it an "impulse purchase." And -- try as they might -- our pesky cats cannot chew holes into these things.

Green Stretch Tape
GREEN GARDENING TAPE: Somehow we manage to go through miles of this stuff. If there's one rule in the Bird Back 40 garden? You can never have enough gardening tape for odd jobs. Tomato plants looking overgrown and somewhat disheveled? Put the green gardening tape to work. Branches bending under the weight of far too much fruit? Bring on the green gardening tape! Want that tree to grow up instead of out? Where's my tape?

Tape is also used to ensure that vines grow up a fence line rather than on a sidewalk or walkway, where they can be trampled by a herd of marauding cats (notice a theme here?).

Okra, Cucumbers, Onions, Oh My!
SEEDS: You can't have a garden without gardening seeds. Since Venus tends to plant everything from seed, you'd be surprised how many we actually go through. We also normally plant more than one variety of each vegetable. I mean, why grow just one variety of cucumber when you can have five? It's like growing just one variety of tomato, which will never work.

I also make sure to buy several packages of green onions -- one of my garden favorites. In fact, I'm still pulling green onions that are leftover from last summer's garden. Purchasing several packets of the same thing ensures that we'll never run out of them, as we did three years ago when we ran out of green onion seed. Or when the pesky cats dig them up and scatter them to the wind.

GIFT CERTIFICATES: I've got to give credit to my brother Andy for dreaming this one up. A gift certificate to Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Nevada City? Can you say "the perfect gift?" My thanks to Charlotte "Daffodil Planter" Germane for whispering into my brother's Facebook ear while he was searching for Christmas items.

And while we're on this particular subject -- why is one of Sacramento's best nurseries located in Nevada City? Not that I'm complaining, of course, but I'd probably wind up living there if they'd just move a tad closer to home.

Precious "The Destroyer"
Thanks to these last minute gardening gift items and a few more surprises, Christmas Day came and went without a hitch. To borrow a line from Twas the Night Before Christmas, "not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

It didn't help matters much when Precious decided to invade the Christmas Village and make it her personal nap spot for the day (nobody moves Precious from her nap spot). But the fact that she didn't actually destroy it in the process, or knock over any carefully placed figures has to count for something.

I just wish she'd show the same respect when knocking carefully placed plant labels into the next century.

When Gardening Stops

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gazing at the Bird Back 40 Garlic Crop
There does come a time in life where gardening does come to a complete standstill. I hate to say that I really haven't done much of anything lately, other than watch the garlic grow and witness other beds become overgrown with weeds or flowers from past seeds that failed to germinate at one time or another.

What, pray tell, brings about a halt in all gardening activities? Well, it wasn't the words from the wife that is Venus. Don't worry fair readers. Everything is fine and dandy in that department. In fact, life has never been better.

But there are other matters that can bring a temporary halt to the lifestyle that I love. And when that surgeon started in with a list of questions some weeks back, suddenly, priorities changed somewhat.

What, pray tell, would that question be?

Thought About This?
It was this question, a simple one really: "Have you made out a will?" Many people will ask this question of you over the course of a lifetime. Most of the time? There's no reason to worry. But when a treating surgeon asks this question? The time to worry is now, my friend. The time to worry is right now.

Surgeons don't have the time to crawl or tippy-toe through verbal minefields. If they ask? You answer. And it's probably best not to hide anything.

The famous stomach-ache that led to this rather eye-popping question came on during the day after the President's Day Weekend. That would be Tuesday, November 13th. I had just finished up a nice three-day weekend and even found time to juice half of a pomegranate crop from the Wonderful pomegranate tree located in a side yard of the Bird Back 40.

Pomegranate Juicer (It works!)
As I now recall, I would have juiced that entire tree, but my energy level just wasn't what it should have been. I was ready to call it quits after juicing more than a gallon of pure, deliciously sweet pomegranate juice. It was the first time I'd ever attempted something like this with a juicing contraption that the wife that is Venus bought for me during Christmas last year.

It worked like a charm.

At first I believed I'd probably mixed far too much gin with that fresh juice over the three-day holiday! My stomach will sometimes grumble if I consume too much alcohol in any one sitting, and man was that juice good! "It had to be that," I thought at the time.

But as the pain grew, and efforts to keep it in check failed, it suddenly dawned on me that not all was well with the Body of Bird. This was unlike any stomach problem I'd experienced before or since. The chills and fever that set in some hours later were also unique. I'd never experienced anything quite like this before. Stomach aches? Yes. Chills and a fever? Not since I was a teenager. That was a long time ago, people.

Although I just wanted to stay in bed and wait this thing out, the wife that is Venus would have none of it. Off to the North Natomas Med-7 clinic I went later that night, with Venus dragging me every step of the way. She was more concerned than I. Did I also mention she's also just a tad smarter than I am?

When the Med-7 treating physician got one look at the urine test that could have passed for orange colored Koolaid, he didn't bat an eyelash. "You are severly jaundiced," he told me. "Jaundice? What the Hell was that," I thought. I may have also said it out loud. Which is when he stopped trying to explain, and called for an ambulance instead. That will shut a cranky patient up.

Ambulance? Really? I guess this was kinda serious. As the surgeon explained to me the next morning after a night of tests at the Mercy General Hospital Emergency Room, it was. This was distressing news. It wasn't something I was expecting to hear. I wasn't ready to hear it.

Pancreatitis? Really?
"The enzyme levels from your Pancreas are sky high," the doctor told me. "You have a severe case of Pancreatitis."

"Pancreatitis," I thought. It sounded rather familiar. "Oh yeah," I remembered. That's what dad died from in 1973. And then, suddenly, reality: "Oh shit! You can't be serious!" But this time the joke was on me, people. Dr. Bozdech was dead serious. I had the same disease that took my father's life at age 57 in 1973. Pancreatitis is nothing to laugh at.

What is Pancreatitis? There are many forms of it. In my father's case, it developed into Pancreatic Necrosis and eventually Pancreatic Abscess. Although these cases can be treated now with better and stronger medications than were available in 1973, they can still be deadly. If allowed to spread it leads to multiorgan failure and eventually, death.

Tsk, tsk, tsk...
There are two known causes of Pancreatitis. One cause is heavy drinking. "Great," I thought. "My affair with cheap gin is paying off in ways that I did not expect." The second cause is blocked ducts thanks to a gall bladder that is spitting out stones instead of enzymes that are produced by the liver.

In my case? Despite my love affair with all things cheap gin, I simply didn't drink nearly enough to be classified as a patient with an "alcohol problem." I still did (key word, did) drink too much. But not enough to bring on a case of Pancreatitis. Multiple tests would soon reveal the true culprit: my gall bladder was spitting out stones that had blocked multiple ducts.

Although I felt somewhat better, as I would come to find out, this was still a huge problem. There was no room for a problematic gall bladder in the Body of Bird. It would have to come out, right quick too. But that was just the first problem. The gall bladder, as my surgeon would later explain, had actually stopped doing the job it was intended to do quite some time ago. Dr. Hunt explained that the blocked ducts would have to be cleared first, before any other surgery could take place.

But even before any of this could happen, the cranky pancreas had to CALM DOWN! By calm, I mean it had to stop spitting out enzymes that were no good for the body. Despite the many advances that have come with medical care since the advent of the digital age, there is only one sure-fire way to calm down a cranky pancreas: a diet of no food whatsoever.

Hospital food: Verbotten!
"What's that," I repeated? "No food? Not even crappy hospital food? This is a joke, right?" As it turns out? The joke was on me. I can't blame the nurses for grinding percocet (oxycodone) powder into cups of ice and water and water and ice, the only food I was allowed to have. By Day 3 of the "no food whatsoever" diet, I had become one very cranky individual.

"How long will this last," I whined one night to Doctors DeBose, Hunt and Bozdech, who would gather in my room nightly for one update or another. The answer from Dr. Hunt wasn't too encouraging. He smiled as he explained that people could actually go for WEEKS without eating. And, in some cases, it might take WEEKS for a cranky pancreas to stop being cranky. The surgeons may have smiled upon informing me of this news, but I wasn't. I wanted an end to this nightmare. But it was just beginning.

By Day Six of the "no food whatsoever" diet, the cranky Bill Bird had capitulated completely. There were ongoing discussions (some might even day disputes) between treating physicians as to whether the numerous gall stones blocking various ducts should be removed first -- or the problematic gall bladder get first treatment. At this point, after six days of ice and water, needles protruding from this arm or that arm, I really didn't care. They could have removed every organ in my body at this point, and I wouldn't have so much as batted an eyelash.

ERCP: Not for the Faint of Heart
I can now understand why the treating Gastroenterologist had voiced continual concerns about the procedure to remove gall stones from blocked ducts. The procedure, known as Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography or ERCP, is anything but easy. Physicians were concerned about the stress on my heart. And since I have had previous heart troubles...

No matter. The procedure had to happen. Otherwise, the pancreas was toast. One can live without a gall bladder. But not without a pancreas. Surgeons would enter the troubled duct area via a tube inserted into my throat, into the stomach, and then into the duodenum. Small cameras would reveal the presence of the troublesome stones, which would be removed, provided all went well of course.

Waking up from a procedure like this is just a small taste of Hell on Earth. One must learn how to breathe all over again. As you hack and cough from the fluid that has entered the lungs, taking even the smallest breath becomes a herculean task. I suppose this is how one feels when drowning, and it's not an experience that I wish to repeat. As the breathing muscles finally figured out how to work again, the treating surgeon entered the room with vacation photos from his trip to see the various monument stones near the cranky pancreas.

There were more than I expected. The surgery had been 100% successful, but left me weaker than I had been before. And, after six or seven days sans food? You're a pretty weak individual. I nearly jumped from my bed, however, and did the "happy dance" when treating physicians upgraded my diet from water and ice to clear liquids such as broth and jello. Broth never tasted so darn good.

Although I was well on my way to recovery, the battle was half over. The gall bladder responsible for this little problem and near miss with pancreatitis was still there. It was still filled with stones and still a threat to send those stones on a merry little journey. It had to come out -- and rather quickly I might add -- after the ERCP journey. Surgery would take place less than 24-hours after the ERCP procedure.

There was a point in medical history, not all that long ago I might add, when surgeons sliced open a patient like a freshly caught fish to remove a troublesome gall bladder. Though this sometimes still happens, most of the time a gall bladder can be removed through a Laparoscopic procedure. Though less invasive, three or four small holes cut into the stomach still leave you feeling like a wildfire has raced through your belly. I still can't begin to describe the level of pain I woke up too, despite repeated injections of Dilaudid and other painkillers.

That surgical pain would persist through most of the night before finally abating the next morning. And then? As soon as your treating physician sees you up and walking around? The journey is over. It is time to go home. And, on Day 8, mere hours after gall bladder surgery, the IV needle that had ruled my life for what seemed like forever and a day was removed. I don't miss it.

I suppose I could tell you about my various roommate adventures during this time, my experiences with Methadone Mitch, Mentally Retarded Randy, or even Lucky Bob (a 76-year old patient stabbed by his 36-year old girlfriend). But I'll save those stories for another time and day.

For now, I sit at home and look at the weeds slowly taking over various garden beds, waiting for my first opportunity to attack the dirt and finally declare that "life as normal" has returned. But that's for another day. For now? Gardening has stopped. But this is a temporary break at best. The desire to dig in the dirt has returned, but those troublesome scars aren't ready to be pulled in this or that direction just yet.

For now? I mark the days. The fun and joy that comes from digging in the dirt will eventually return.

THE END? My thanks to Doctors Andrew Bozdech, Renee DeBose, Ben Hunt and the numerous nurses and other care specialists who I irritated to no end during my one-week plus stay on the second floor of Mercy General Hospital in East Sacramento. Without you, without all of your efforts, I probably would not be here. Thank you for saving my life.

The Garlic That Almost Wasn't

Thursday, November 8, 2012

2013 Bird Garlic Crop
The picture to your immediate right will indeed confirm that the 2013 garlic crop is indeed planted in the Bird Back 40! Not just planted -- but literally jumping out of raised beds that dot our crazy little cul-de-sac corner dedicated to all things vegetable and fruit. 

So what's the big deal? We grow garlic every year, right? Well, yes, that is true. Except that this year it nearly didn't happen. This year was nearly a complete bust thanks to election limits on my free time and the Ultimate Digging Machine known as Bandi the adorable mutt.

Damaged Planter Bed
As it turns out  -- the mutt is good at not just digging. Seems she can take apart a planter bed with one swift kick of a back leg. And she managed to do just that some weeks back -- destroying a planter bed that was destined to hold the Bird 2013 garlic crop.

I have always wondered how long these cheaply constructed gardening beds were going to last -- and now I know. Profiled here several years ago, it appears these "gardening beds on a budget" have a lifespan of five to six years. After that? It's time to repair, rebuild or in my case, start from square one.

Ultimate Digging Machine at Play
The first hint of trouble came when I spotted fresh dirt on the ground and knew that digging doggy had been up to no darn good. Bandi is clearly past her "puppy stage," but that playful and somewhat destructive side does surface every now and then. That's especially true if she spots a vole (field mouse) duck into one of the beds.

A vole? I must DIG! I must FIND! Do voles taste like BACON? I must find out!

Although the cats that grace the Bird Back 40 get their fair share of "vole treats," these thing reproduce so quickly and in such massive numbers that there's always one or two for Bandi to chase in a futile effort from gardening bed to gardening bed. Keep in mind, she never does catch one. She just leaves her tell-tale sign behind, which is usually a nice little hole in the ground or bed.

Yes Fred, I know. You warned me. You were right.

Gardening Bed Damaged Beyond Repair
When I first noticed that the Ultimate Digging Machine had partially destroyed part of one of my older planter beds, my thoughts first turned to "repair." A few well placed gold screws, I believed, would solve this problem. After all -- the bed had been screwed together once before. It certainly could be repaired in the same fashion, right?


I would come to discover that the Ultimate Digging Machine had finished what Mother Nature started a long time ago. Wood that once those golden screws so securely was now so brittle that it fell apart into tiny pieces at the slightest touch. It was done. It was finished. There would be no repair. There would be no 2013 garlic crop.

Or so I first thought.

Damaged Gardening Bed Logs
But the more I thought about it? I just couldn't let it go. This bed has been the source of so many mouthwatering crops and harvests that I just could not write it off. I grew champion Cherokee Purple tomatoes in this bed! Last summer's crop of green onions and several different types of basil was raided quite often I must say. Lettuce had grown here in the fall. The last harvest had been a fat onion crop.

Let it go? Write it off? Leave a big hole in the ground? Perish the thought. As Oscar Goldman of Six Million Dollar Man fame once intoned: "We Can Rebuild Him." It wouldn't be easy. This was bare, open ground when I built the first bed five years ago. There was nothing to get in the way. The rose bush to the left of the bed was added later. That honeysuckle vine covering up our second beehive was added later. And that nice little sidewalk framing the bed against the fence was added just this spring.

Gardening Bed and Drip Irrigation System Removed
In other words, I didn't have a lot of room to operate. And, to add insult to injury, the old bed would have to be removed piece by piece, along with the drip irrigation system, before I could proceed with new bed building efforts. Removing an old, wooden garden bed is quite the inconvenience to the Black Widow spiders and other creepy-crawlers that had since moved in and long ago called it home.

The first step involved removing numerous layers of gardening soil. It was removed the same way it was added -- with shovel and wheelbarrow. I would come to discover that those golden screws that had held the bed together so securely years ago had since disintegrated and would sometimes just break into two brittle pieces upon removal. Some of these "Lincoln logs" as I call them were so brittle they easily snapped into two or three pieces once they were removed. Years of gardening and usage, plus natural elements of rain, cold and heat can do a lot of damage.

We Can Rebuild Him
Yet -- up and out the old bed came -- piece by piece -- leaving surprised spiders and insects to bolt and scramble away. I was left with a bare spot in the ground and started over with the same system I had employed so many years ago: Assemble the new bed in layers, stack, align, screw and reinforce. The re-installation of the drip irrigation system allowed me to make several improvements that will serve to save precious water supplies, yet ensure that the irrigation reaches every last corner.

By the end of the day? The new bed, which looks a lot like the old bed (minus the black widow spiders), had been installed. Old, tired soil was mixed in with some new planter mix and compost, and what was once old and tired was new again. Venus planted the garlic varieties of Lokalen, Bogatyr and California Late White in short order. The cloves have since sprouted, and everything looks just dandy.

Goodbye Old Bed: Hello Potash!
As for the remains from the old bed? I have quite the growing pile of lumber scraps from previous bed building efforts and other "around-the-house" projects. I wasn't interested in growing the size of that scrap pile, which is why I was happy to have a handy-dandy fire pit installed this previous spring.

Old wood burns fast and hot and leaves behind a helpful gardening supplement: potash or potassium, which is an essential ingredient for any gardening project.

And, as for the Ultimate Digging Machine? She most definitely approves of the new addition. Here's hoping that next "urge" to dig strikes in places where I want to add additional fruit trees next spring.

The Legendary Duke Avocado, Part Deux

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Duke Avocado Trees: Old Oroville Depot
An avocado tree that can not only withstand freezing conditions but laugh in the face of a one Mr. Jack Frost himself? An avocado that offers a higher oil content than the Hass? An avocado variety that can withstand root rot conditions that have doomed other trees in the Bird Back 40? Say it ain't so! I must have one!

Consider this a followup to a journey that started many moons ago during that one night where I could not sleep. I was desperately seeking Susan, err, for an avocado variety that could withstand our colder than cold Northern California winters. It was that night that I discovered the Duke, its ability to withstand freezing winter temperatures and its interesting history, which I wrote about several months ago.

Introductory Garden: Old Oroville Depot
The posting about the Duke has generated the largest response from readers since Venus and I painted a beehive Hello Kitty pink and proceeded to get stung silly while attempting to become amateur beekeepers. That's a good word: Amateur. Another good word is foolhardy. But I digress.

The quest to grow an avocado tree in our micro-climate cold North Natomas Back 40 by reaching back into Northern California history to grab a bit of the past has been an interesting journey indeed. My singular attempt to bring this 100-year old variety called the "Duke" into the present day has now grown to involve the efforts of several growers, some connected with California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) and some not.

First Graft Attempt: FAIL!
When I signed off on the last posting, I was attempting to graft Duke scions onto three different avocado root stocks provided by David Johnson, an avocado aficionado who has painstakingly turned his Waterford backyard into a rain forest-like shrine to all things citrus. If you think "you can't grow that here," David is probably growing it, and growing it successfully.

And now? The rest of the story.

I suck at grafting. I really do. It's a skill that I've not yet acquired, despite some early grafting success that I experienced last spring with my pluot and plum trees. Grafting stone fruit scions to other stone fruit trees is MUCH easier than grafting citrus, a painful lesson I would learn after watching every single avocado graft I attempted curl up, turn a none-too-pleasant shade of black and DIE.

After watching my repeated grafting attempts fail and fail and fail again, nearly destroying three avocado root stocks in the process, fate would smile upon me rather fondly. A fellow avocado NUTCASE like me learned of my struggles and advised: "Contact Sam."


Venus Beneath Monster Duke Avocado Trees
"Sam" is actually a nickname for a one Samad Janfeshan, who lives in a quiet Arden Oaks Vista neighborhood. I would later come to find out that Sam is quite famous, provided one of your primary languages is Persian. I am told he still takes phone calls from all areas of Europe and the Middle East thanks to his knowledge and experience in the field of all things horticulture. As I would come to find out, Sam employed a highly successful grafting technique learned while tending the family ranch in Iran.

How did "Sam" get from an orchard in central Iran to Sacramento? That's a story even more interesting than his grafting technique and a backyard that is a shrine to his marvelous grafting abilities. Like many Iranian citizens, Sam was fortunate enough to attend our institutions of higher education in California. Unfortunately for Sam, during this particular period in time, things got a little crazy in his home country.

Ayatollah Khomeini
It was during this time that the Shah would be overthrown, the U.S. embassy would be raided and hundreds taken hostage and a figure known as the Ayatollah would come to power. Overnight, a once-staunch U.S. ally in the Middle East would become decidedly anti-American. Sam, who watched events unfold from the safety of California, decided he wanted no part of the new direction his country was headed in and worked to become a citizen of the United States. He would give up the farm, but never lose his love for fruit trees and other horticultural endeavors.

I am more than fortunate to be steered in this man's direction. He saw the troubles I was having. He scolded me silly for my amateurish grafting attempts and proceeded to teach me a skin-grafting technique that I've never seen performed before. It's a technique that has resulted in multiple plum, mulberry and other fruit tree offerings that grace the family backyard. Yet, you will find none of these varieties at your local nursery. You will, however, find them in Iran.

Duke Avocado Leaves: Brilliant Yellowish Green
It suddenly struck me that if Sam could successfully grow fruit trees native to Iran in the backyard of his Sacramento home, he could probably solve my grafting problems with the Duke Avocado. Call that a rather fair assumption. Every graft Sam attempted survived. Three sorry looking avocado root stocks have been transformed into legendary Duke Avocado trees.

Not satisfied with his success on three trees, additional root stock was procured from a long-time member of the Sacramento Chapter of the CRFG where Sam again demonstrated his successful grafting skills. Additional Duke scion wood was also farmed out to David Johnson and other CRFG growers who are slowly bringing this heirloom avocado tree back to life.


Freshly Harvested Duke Avocados
Although I've uncovered a lot of information about the legendary Duke line and discovered old Duke trees in locations scattered throughout Butte County, one big piece remained missing from this equation. What does a Duke avocado taste like? Was this variety abandoned so long ago because it tasted like the inside of one of my old tennis shoes? I had always strongly suspected that the Duke was abandoned by commercial growers because it was a poor shipper. But I couldn't prove that. Not yet anyway.

I would have to wait for Duke season that finally arrived this month. Duke trees are alternate bearing, which means in some years you get a heavy crop of avocados and other years the pickings are slim. 2012 turned out to be one of those lean years. As I gazed into the treetops of the Duke trees in the Oroville Depot Introductory Garden earlier this month, I found what I was looking for.

Fruit Harvesting Basket for Fat People
It was also 30 feet off the ground. While I was once a champion tree climber in my youth, quite a few years have passed since then, and considerable pounds have been added to my once wiry frame. I wasn't about to scramble up a tree -- avocado or no avocado. Fortunately I had come armed with a fruit harvesting basket like the once you see pictured, plus a handy dandy telescoping handle that put the Duke fruit well within my reach.

I can't begin to describe the joy and satisfaction I felt as I pulled that very first piece of fruit off this heirloom tree and brought it slowly downward. Months of reading, research and phone calls had finally resulted in this moment. Upon grabbing my first Duke avocado, I brought it up close to my ear and gave it a vigorous shake. This was the final test. If this was truly a Duke avocado, the seed would be loose inside the piece of fruit. You can imagine my smile when I heard that tell-tale "thunk-thunk-thunk" sound as the seed bounced around inside.

Loose Seed Pit: Duke Avocado
That tell-tale sign of seed thumping plus the thin green skin confirmed, finally, that this was the Duke Avocado. What was once lost had been found again. After pulling 20-25 avocados from the largest of the two Duke trees in the Oroville Depot, I departed for a nice lunch in the Western Pacific Brewing Company before embarking for home.


The first true taste-test of the Duke avocado would take place later that night as I presented the Duke haul to the avocado snob that is the wife that is Venus. The wife that is Venus knows her avocados. The wife that is Venus also has her own avocado TOOL for removing seeds and skins from the precious fruit. I would come to discover that this tool is useless with Duke avocado. It's designed for working with thicker-skinned varieties like the Haas, Mexicola and Fuerte.

Duke Avocado: Right-Hass Avocado: Left
As I watched Venus slice into the first of the Duke fruits, the first wave of doubt washed over me. This wasn't a soft, smooth, creamy avocado. Not hardly. The first taste of the Duke fruit confirmed the worst of my fears. It featured the consistency of a crunchy apple. It was also quite tasteless. What had gone wrong? Had I picked it too early? Was the Duke abandoned because it had the consistency of a rock?

Color me disappoint.

It was a few days later when I received a message from gardening friend Nels Christensen, who I had gifted with four Duke avocados. He messaged me to tell me that he was in the process of making guacamole. "GUACAMOLE!" How does once make guacamole with rock hard avocados? Nels messaged back to inform me that the Dukes had softened to the point to where they were pliable.

Creamy Delicious Duke Avocados
As it turns out, my worst fears were nothing to worry about. Duke fruit does not turn soft and ripen on the tree. Duke avocados are quite hard at harvest. But after picking? They ripen VERY quickly. In two short days my collection of apple-consistency avocados had developed the consistency of a squishy sponge. They were more than ready for consumption.

I began to understand why the Duke had been labeled a "poor shipper." It ripens so fast at harvest, and turns so soft, that it would be incredibly difficult to keep these avocados from spoiling in large numbers. Growers would have been required to move boxes of fruit from field to store bins within a day or less. This effort also would have required consumers to snap up all of the fruit before it could spoil. And as I would come to find out, Duke fruit will spoil quickly once it's been harvested. That window of 48-72 hours isn't much.


My First Duke Avocado Harvest
So -- what does a Duke avocado taste like after it's been allowed to ripen? A little bit like heaven, my friend. Just a little bit like heaven. Duke avocados are creamy good -- offering a higher oil content than the Haas avocado -- which is the standard bearer in the commercial avocado market. Duke avocados also have a nutty flavor not found in the Hass and other avocados.

The skin of the Duke avocado is another treat not to be missed. Skins found on commercial avocados are much thicker and do, in fact, taste like the inside of one of my tennis shoes. But that's not the case with the Duke skins. They are fabulous and serve as a wonderful addition to consuming a piece of Duke fruit.

The Duke!
Since we had far more avocados than we knew what to do with, or eat in any one setting, Venus creamed many of them, mixed in some lime juice to keep it from spoiling, and stuck the finished product into a freezer. It will make for a nice guacamole snack during the next Super Bowl, when the 49ers destroy whatever AFC Team is foolish enough to take the field against them.

As far as the final reviews of the avocado snobs who tasted this year's fruit? I must admit -- those reviews are mixed. Nels Christensen and his wife prefer the Bacon avocado variety. Count David Johnson as a fan, as he consumed his Duke avocados with the skin still on. And as for the wife that is Venus?

The wife that is Venus is looking forward to the day when she will be able to harvest the first of many Duke avocados from her own backyard tree. And, my friends, that is really all that counts.