And -- They're Off!!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Heirloom Tomato Starter Plants Under Shop Lights
Into the first turn they go -- the 2012 Race to the Garden Finish is on! It may be bloody cold outside. It might be raining buckets. But inside? Seeds for the 2012 Bird Back 40 summer garden are jumping out of azalea starter cups and dreaming of those long, warm, summer days.

Well -- I might be dreaming. As for the tomato, pepper, eggplant, basil and lavender (yes, lavender! Talk to the boss that is the Wife that is Venus!) -- starters -- well -- as you can tell by the photo to your immediate right? We're off to a fairly nice start here in February 2012.

We are using an entirely new design for our seed starting efforts this year. A design that I'd love to tell you that I came up with. But that would be a big, fat, enormous lie, now wouldn't it? I don't come up with really good gardening ideas folks -- I watch what others do and steal good ideas. In this case? I stole one great idea from a gardener who, unfortunately, is not doing much gardening this year.

New Seed Starting Rack!
But she still gets credit for her sheer gardening brilliance.

We have eighty plants in 4.5 inch azalea stater cups this year. That's about 50 tomato plants -- 20 peppers and ten assorted cups of basil, eggplants and lavender (Yes! Lavender! Talk to Venus!). If I were still relying upon the old method of using a PVC contraption on a simple card table to hold up 4-foot long shop lights -- I'd have starter plants stacked on starter plants.

But this is a new year -- and a new idea! Check that -- it's a new year and a stolen idea.

A young East Sacramento lady by the name of Sara S. (last names have been changed to protect the innocent) first tipped me to this rather brilliant idea. Actually -- I had always longed to build my own seed starting rack. There are a million and one do-it-yourself construction plans online to build a seed shelving system. But those required time -- something I have precious little of these days.

Starter Rack by Target
It didn't even cross my mind to actually purchase already-made shelving units -- until I came across the setup put together by Sara. She contacted me out of the blue last year -- with an offer of extra starter plants for our yearly distribution efforts at the California State Capitol. It was an offer I gladly accepted.

It's always nice to meet other gardeners who share the same passion and drive that you do. Young or old -- they have new ideas and new techniques to share. You can learn a lot about gardening simply by watching and learning from others. And although Sara is probably young enough to be my daughter -- she trumped my seed starting designs and efforts by an East Sacramento mile.

The rack that you see pictured above was recently purchased from Target at nominal cost. It's almost as if the designers had gardeners in mind. It is the perfect fit for holding two four-foot long shop lights on each row. The rack has five rows. Each row can hold up to 40 azalea cups and starter plants. If you do the math -- you'll come to discover that I could be growing far more starter plants than I am this year.

Pepper Starters Under Shop Light
Hey, man, I didn't want to push it! 80 is more than enough.

I am also using a somewhat different technique for starting seeds this year. I call it the "tough love" treatment. I am no longer providing my starters with as much love and warmth as possible. As a matter of fact, although the plants are inside, in a spare room, I am exposing them daily to a jolt of the rather cold conditions outside. I am also going without bottom heat this year.

Why the tough love treatment? In past years, I had always done my best to provide a warm and welcoming environment for plants. That meant a room closed off completely to the outside elements. It meant bottom heat for the starter cups. It meant a fan to simulate an outdoor breeze.

Cracked Window Allows for Cold Air Circulation
Do you know what this loving atmosphere resulted in? Lots of plants, yes. But they were plants with very weak stems. They would invariably require stakes to hold them aloft -- plus a good two to three weeks outside to harden off and gain stem strength.

There has to be a better way.

So -- this year? The bottom heat is gone. The nice warm room -- history. Cold, drafty, outdoor conditions have been introduced. Who knows? I might even wind up dumping the shop lights. The goal isn't to produce plants with long stems that can snap in two during a spring breeze. My goal, by introducing a little bit of that rough world outside, is a strong root system.

Seed Starting Rack Assembled by Gardening Moron
If I have a starter plant that is firmly rooted, with an extensive and healthy root system to boot, by the time April rolls around? Strong stem development will almost certainly follow as I begin to expose the plants to the outdoor elements.

So far -- the experiment is working. Germination was a bit slower this year. But -- two weeks after planting -- I'm pleased to report 100%, across-the-board germination with every tomato, pepper, eggplant, basil and lavender (Yes, LAVENDER! Talk to the Wife that is Venus!) in those 80 starter cups. The tomatoes have already developed their first set of true leaves.

What are the advantages to this system? The biggest advantage that I can think of, at this point, is we won't be doing any transplant work later this spring. The cups are large enough to hold tall, healthy starter plants. By the time these starters actually become root bound -- the hope is they will be ready to transplant into a permanent, raised bed home.

Bill Bird still dreams of a true greenhouse in the backyard. A greenhouse that offers the prospect of year-round tomato and cucumber production. But this do-it-yourself backyard landscaping experiment with all things fruit trees and raised beds for gardening production is taking a bit longer than I thought it would. I'm closer to the greenhouse prize than I was four years ago when a barren, backyard moonscape greeted us upon our move to the Bird Back 40.

As a wise gardening friend once preached: Patience. Our time will come.

Wait! We Haven't Had Winter Yet!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Santa Rosa Plum in Full Bloom
Spring has Sprung. All about the yard. In the front. In the back. The signs are everywhere. This winter has seen some frost. We've seen some cold days. But we've seen very little in the way of rain.

Which makes me a bit nervous when I see signs like the one to your right. It's a pretty sign to be sure. If you dedicate your yard to all things vegetable and fruit gardening -- the yard can look a little gray and gloomy during those cold winter months.

But that all changes with the onset of a new season. Suddenly? That damp, dark and dreary landscape has exploded in a virtual kaleidoscope of colorful flowers and blooms. Not everything has busted out for the 2012 season just yet.

Flavortop, Fantasia and Arctic Jay Necartines
But it's clear that the starter's gun has gone off.

The nectarines and Santa Rosa plum have been the first to emerge from their long slumber. There are green buds and a single white flower on the Flavor Finale Pluot. The grapes (which I've yet to cut back and prepare) are even showing those familiar signs of green.

Guess what the next Back 40 project is?

Although I welcome the end of a dark and dreary winter season -- the onset of spring does bring some concerns. We received little in the way of actual rainfall this year. During normal years? It takes a good set of mud resistant boots to traverse much of the muddy landscape that is the Bird Back 40.

Daffodils Jumping Out of Planter Box
Not this year. Normal tennis shoes will gain access to every corner. This is a first. I've never seen it quite this dry before.

That is a concern -- because if you're going to garden -- water is an essential element. Yes -- you can install the most efficient of drip and sprinkler systems. Yes -- you can take measures to ensure that not a drop of this precious resource is wasted. But -- the bottom line is -- even the most efficient of watering systems puts a strain on a valuable resource we didn't get much of in the way of rain and snowfall this year.

So -- while I welcome spring and the colors that the season brings to our backyard of fruit and vegetables -- I keep a wary eye trained on the sky.

Is that all for this year?

Let's hope not. Spring is here.

What Day is it Sacramento?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Onion Bed After Planting-Bird Back 40
The answer is "Intermediate-Day." The answer is always "Intermediate-Day" no matter what time of the day or week it is. You see -- this is a trick question.

How dare I do such a thing!

The raised planting bed to your immediate right contains one of our latest outdoor gardening projects (there are indoor projects that I will get too later, of course). What are those little things that look like tiny matchsticks in the ground?

They are onions.

Onions? You mean, green onions? NOPE! These are going to be -- hopefully I might add -- regular sized onions in a few months. Remember what I told you about gardening and experimentation?

This is one of those experiments.

Onions in a Box? How Quaint!
It's also called "following advice." South Natomas grower Nels Christensen has been pushing me to try his grand onion planting adventure for a couple of years now. When he delivered one of the fattest red onions I'd ever seen to my front doorstep last year -- I thought he might be onto something.

Fat onions = Good times.

This year -- my onions arrived in a neatly packed box (pictured above left). In past years? I have always relied upon onion sets. These weren't always reliable. Although they did produce some whoppers -- they were usually far and few between. Most could be considered disappointing and I had always wondered what I might be doing wrong.

For the uninformed -- onion sets are small bulbs less than 1" in diameter. In the Sacramento Valley, they are usually planted in late fall – about the same time as garlic bulbs – to produce big onions. They can also be planted in the early spring to produce green (salad) onions. For me? It didn't matter when or where I planted them. I usually wound up with a few whoppers and lots and lots of green onions.

Box Packed with Onion Starter Plants-Dixondale Farms
But after Nels dropped off the fattest red onion I'd seen come out of a backyard garden -- well -- that kind of peaked my interest a bit. Nels has got a bit of a head start on me in this gardening game -- and it's never a good idea to ignore good advice (although I sometimes do).

This year -- I decided to do something a little different. I passed on the sets offered up at local nurseries and took a flier on a place called Dixondale Farms -- a big onion operation out of central Texas. It's near the town of Pancake, and by looking at several photos of the operation in question, I wondered if the town earned it's name due to the fact that the surrounding land is as flat as a -- uh -- you know.

It was on the Dixondale Farms website where I learned I'd been making a series of blunders regarding my onion plantings. As it turns out? Not all onions are created equal. In the United States, there are three different classifications of onions: Long-Day, Intermediate-Day and Short-Day.

Venus planting Candy Apple Red Variety
If you make the mistake of planting a Long Day variety in a zone set aside for Intermediate-Day or Short-Day onions? According to Dixondale Farms -- you're in a world of hurt. You're going to get a few whoppers and lots of small green onions.

This had a ring of truth to it -- at least for me. Sacramento is officially classified in the Intermediate-Day zone. That's news to me, since I had no clue these zones existed. Worse yet, I would come to find out that most onion sets sold at nurseries are Long-Day zone varieties. It means that no matter how good your soil, water and fertilizer regimen is: you're going to get a few whoppers and lots of smallish green onions.

I'm not going to go into the science of it all -- because I do my best not to bore people to death on this blog (Hey! WAKE UP!). But if you're really into onions -- and want to "read all about it" as they say -- I suggest you spend 30-45 minutes on the Dixondale Farms website. Plus -- those youtube videos they host are really campy.

Dixondale Farms youtube Page

If you ever wondered what happened to Jed Clampett and the Beverly Hillbillies -- now you know (no disrepect intended there, Jed). These people know their onions.

So -- bottom line? In the Bird Back 40 this year the wife that is Venus and I have planted three different varieties of Intermediate-Day onions: Candy, Red Candy Apple and Super Star. They were not shipped as sets, either. These arrived as living plants -- fresh from the field -- each tightly wrapped bundle containing anywhere from 50-75 onion starters.

Do the math people. If experience a success rate of just 50% -- that's nearly 100 onions. Do you really think we're going to eat 100 onions? Plus -- I've been assured by Nels and others who use Dixondale Farms that the success rate is much higher.

Onions Ready for Transplanting!
These onions -- which required an investment of less than $20 (free shipping too -- these people don't muss around) -- were planted in three different raised beds on the day that they arrived. They have already taken root in our mild winter weather here on the Left Coast and are growing like -- well -- onions.

So -- if you happen to see a North Natomas couple shedding more than a few tears later this summer around onion harvest time -- don't be sad. You'll know this is one of those rare experiments that actually worked.

The Trap

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Garden Porn
Gardening is indeed filled with them. I'm referring to "traps," of course. They are easy to fall into. They are hard to get out of. They are just as serious as the trap that many gardeners had fallen into before the onset of heirloom tomato madness.

Remember that trap? Remember, at one time, there were only three types of tomatoes? They were named Early Girl, Better Boy and ACE. Tomatoes were supposed to be red, remember? They were supposed to be perfectly round, do you recall that? Anything else was not a tomato. And so, you grew the same varieties year after year after year after year.

We simply didn't understand there was something better out there -- until we took that big jump -- that big leap of faith. Green tomatoes? Purple tomatoes? BLACK tomatoes?

Heirloom Tomato Seeds for the 2012 Garden!

This is indeed seed starting season for many tomato growers. Some have already planted. Even more will plant this weekend. Some may wait another week. But February is normally the "golden" month for tomato seed starting efforts on the Left Coast.

The trap that I am referring too is pictured all over in this blog posting. Mr. Postman has been stuffing our mail slot with lots and lots of tomato and vegetable porn lately. All catalogs carry the promise of big, beautiful heirloom tomatoes and a monster harvest. One good read and you can't wait for spring and planting season to arrive.

I can't do without Eva Purple Ball! I just CAN'T!
The trap springs shut when you begin to place your orders for the year. Heirloom growers are partial to certain varieties. Every heirloom tomato garden, for example, should include one or several different types of Brandywine. Don't dare pass on that Marianna's Peace! Black Krim is a must! And what about Bloody Butcher? Can you really do without a Kelloggs Breakfast?

It's very easy for heirloom tomato growers to start ordering the same varieties of heirlooms every single year. They did so well the year before, how can you possibly do without them? Suddenly, you begin to realize that you've fallen into the same trap and the same rut you were stuck in when you were under the mistaken belief that there were only three types of tomatoes: Round and Red.

Tatiana Kouchnareva, Tatiana's TOMATObase
It's very easy to stop experimenting with new varieties and stick with what is tried and true in your garden. Sure, you've expanded your base a little bit. But not nearly enough. There are literally THOUSANDS of varieties of heirloom and non-heirloom tomatoes. Tatiana's TOMATObase, for example, has an extensive listing of potato-leaf varieties. While some names are familiar, most are not.

Seed catalogs are sometimes helpful, but many times not. Many seed outlets offer the same type of seed for the same type of variety, year after year. They don't deviate much, even though they do service heirloom tomato growers. But they only scratch at the surface of what is truly available.

Cleota Pink Tomato
You're going to find a listing for Brandywine at Tomato Growers Supply, but a search for Cleota Pink won't yield much. The same holds true for Jagged Leaf, Kansas Depression, Burwood Prize or Gerig. These are ALL potato-leaf varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Finding seed sources for these varieties can be difficult. Google the names. See what comes up. Not much.

I'll be honest. I had nearly fallen into this trap. Sure -- I was growing heirloom tomatoes. But I found myself growing the same varieties year after year. There had to be space for a Brandywine. I couldn't do without a Campbell's 1327. A year without Druzba was a year without sunshine.

Gregory's Altai: A New Selection
See what I'm getting at? Where is the fun, excitement and discovery in growing the same varieties year after year after year? The point is -- there isn't any. And that is the trap.

So -- my pledge is this: I'm going to go without a few of the beloved varieties so I can continue experimenting in the garden. Yes, there will still be a Brandywine. But there will also be a Gregory's Altai. South Natomas grower Nels Christensen is also delivering a selection of seed featuring varieties I've never heard of before.

Change is a good thing. The trap will not spring shut this year.

A Homer Simpson Moment

Sunday, February 5, 2012

FUMBLE!!! Courtesy, Houston Chronicle
It's Super Bowl Sunday. Rather than spend the day watching football and eating fatty snacks, this Super Bowl Sunday will be like any other Sunday for this 49er fan.

Bitter? Why do you ask? ME? BITTER? Just because that blind ref can't call a fumble when the rest of us can?

No, I'm not bitter. Not at all. Not in the slightest. 

Outside the CRFG Scion Exchange
As it turns out -- I do have something better to do. Gardeners always have something to do. It's just a matter of getting around to DOING said task. But this is a task that suddenly jumped very high up on my mental list of "gardening things to do."

It seems I made a slight error.

Me? Make a MISTAKE? Didn't think that could happen, did you? Well, it does happen. As a matter of fact, it happens far too often. You've heard the term that gardening is often Trial and Error?

Meet Mr. Error.

In my rush to create a cornucopia of fruit trees through the grafting process that I detailed here, it seems that I forgot to follow a very simple rule: watch where you're grafting.

Red Top Peach Graft to June Pride Peach Tree
I give you Exhibit A. Can you see the mistake that I made in this photograph? As blurry as the photo is -- a trained expert has already spotted the error in question and is having himself/herself a good chuckle. I've done some mighty dumb gardening things in the past, but this one probably takes the cake.

You'll be happy to know that this isn't the only mistake. Oh no! When Bill Bird screws up? He tends to go for the adjective of "royally." 

For those of you who have not been initiated into the world of grafting fruit trees -- here's a good rule to follow. Make darn sure that the buds on the twig that you're attempting to graft onto an existing tree are pointing in the OUTWARD direction.

Pluot Graft Pointing in Wrong Direction
If you point them INWARD, and the graft union is successful, you'll have new branches growing awkwardly inward towards the trunk of the fruit tree. Nothing screams *SCREWUP* like the sight of branches that fail to grow out and up. That's what nature intended.

Worse yet -- I didn't notice this error until I was on the second day of "grafting duty." After the first four or five graft attempts, you tend to improve with time and experience. The unions fit a little tighter. The taping job is a bit smoother and more professional looking. What emerges is a fairly nice graft.

Time to Put Ye Olde Grafting Tool Back to Work!
It is -- at this point -- where one begins the mental image of patting himself on the back. At this point you begin to step back and admire the work. "Hey," you think. "That looks pretty darn good!" And the next step is to gaze at the work that took place the day before. It is at this point, where you suddenly realize that something is terribly wrong and the next thought is "OH CRAP!"

So -- umm -- yeah -- the Super Bowl can wait. I have more mistakes to make!

Zoned Out

Saturday, February 4, 2012

No way! I'm not buying it! Talk to the Hand, USDA man!

This is my somewhat personal reaction to the new Hardiness Zone maps unveiled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Sacramento Bee's Debbie Arrington writes about them in today's Home and Garden section. The new maps can be accessed here.

So what's the big deal about a new Hardiness Zone map? Well -- I'll tell you what the big deal is!

The fine scientists who released this map have decided to switch Sacramento's Hardiness Zone designation from 9A to 9B. This isn't a subtle change. What the USDA is now telling you is that it's safe to run out and buy an avocado tree and plant it in your backyard.

USDA Hardiness Zone Map
Not so fast there buckaroo.

The new USDA Hardiness Zone Map is divided into 13 different zones. These zones are based on the average winter temperature, and are further separated by "A" and "B" regions. Zone 9A, for example, is somewhat colder than Zone 9B. The same would hold true with Zone 10A and Zone 10B.

Up until a few short and blissful weeks ago, Sacramento was stuck in Zone 9A. What does this mean? It means certain trees and plants just won't tolerate the snap freezes that can haunt a gardener during the months of December and January. One good jolt of Mr. Freeze can turned your prized avocado tree into a pile of blackened twigs. I should know. I'm "expert" at killing avocado trees.

Venus next to the Pinkerton Avocado (now gone)
The supposedly "cold weather" varieties of Bacon, Pinkerton, Zutano, Mexicola and Mexicola Grande have all had a date with Mr. Freeze in my North Natomas Back 40. And all five have reacted by biting the proverbial dust. It didn't matter where they were planted. Raised beds for good drainage? Yesiree! Christmas lights at night to keep them warm? Yes, once again.

Mr. Freeze laughed at every precaution. After four years of nothing but frost-kissed black-twig failure, I officially announced to the wife that loves all thing avocados (this would be Venus) that no matter how hard I tried, I could not fit that square peg into a round hole. I got tired of watching avocado trees die -- let alone watching that growth spurt on the Meyer Lemon turn black and die back.

Why Meyer Lemons can't experience growth spurts in the spring amazes me to no end. But -- NOPE -- they always flush with new growth during the fall months out in our Back 40 territory. And you can bet the farm that those new purple shoots will blacken and die back once they've been kissed by Mr. Freeze.

New Northern California Map (BAH!)
If these developments aren't bad enough -- imagine how you would feel if some dumb USDA scientists suddenly changed your zone designation from 9A to 9B? How does that make me feel? It makes me feel like shipping some dead avocado tree limbs and twigs to those clueless USDA scientists -- telling them exactly where they can stick their new zone designation.

The voice of reason in this discussion is none other than Master Gardener Fred Hoffman, aka, Farmer Fred of NewsTalk 1530 KFBK and Talk 650 KSTE fame. He tells the Sacramento Bee that, "I'm a little leery about extending 9b so far." This makes me feel somewhat better. Lord knows, I've cried on his shoulder enough about my avocado tree failures.

Bacon Avocado Tree (DEAD!)
Fred is also a strong believer in microclimates, which is why, he says "you can find bananas (growing) in Lodi." This I tend to believe since South Natomas grower Nels Christensen, who lives less than five miles from me as the crow flies, has two mature and productive avocado trees in his backyard. Nels is always kind enough to bring four or five over during harvest season. It's a supply that lasts exactly 90 seconds.

I did mention the wife likes avocados, right?

So, my invitation to these smart USDA scientists is this: Give me your best shot. If you can make an avocado tree -- any avocado tree -- last an entire winter in the Bird Back 40, I'll eat the words printed on this blog.

Until then -- I'm firmly planted in Zone 9A.