Heaven Is

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Vine Ripened Tomatoes in Winter
With all due respects to Kevin Costner -- Heaven is not located in a corn field in Iowa. I know this to be true because I have found Heaven. Heaven is right out my back door.

Heaven is located just off the main campus at the University of California (UC), Davis -- just a short drive west on Hutchison Drive. Turn left onto the gravel road where you spot the sign that reads "Vegetable Crops" and you have arrived at Heaven's front door.

Greenhouse Heaven: UC Davis
There are 152 Greenhouses located on the campus of UC Davis. Not all of them are located in the same area, but in the row of greenhouses harboring vegetable crops, if you are a passionate fan of all things gardening, you will find Heaven on Earth. It just doesn't get any better than this.

The wife that is Venus and I -- plus gardening friend Nels Christensen -- lucked into a private tour of this greenhouse facility thanks to the kindness and generosity of Garry Pearson, who goes by the official title of Lead Greenhouse Manager for the Department Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

But, in all truth, he just directs things in Paradise.

Starter Crops for Field Research
I have been longing for all things greenhouse in the Bird Back 40 ever since the wife and I way overpaid for little slice of heaven some five years ago. It remains on my "to do" list, with about 100 projects that I would like to accomplish before I pass from this Earth.

But -- now -- for the first time -- I can understand what a greenhouse allows a gardener to do. There is quite a bit of magic that takes place behind these windows of glass and wonders of the vegetable world that will probably never find its way into any home garden.

Wolf Peach-Look But Don't Touch!
This is pure research, baby. Research can be hazardous indeed. If you are tempted by these tiny cherry tomatoes as I was, best not touch. This is very close to an original strain of the "wolf peach." In Latin, they call it Lycoperscion. In other words? It's poisonous. One bite of that tempting berry, or several, could result in rash of bad things like headaches, a really bad stomach cramp or something even worse.

This is the original tomato. For many years, people believed tomatoes to be poisonous. They weren't all that far off the mark. Tomatoes were once used as decorative plants for a summer garden. Nobody really gave any serious thought about using it as a food crop until only just recently in historical terms. It wasn't until a legendary Ohio seedsman by the name of Alexander Livingston develop the first commercially successful variety of tomato, did anyone give it much credence as a food source.

Climate Controlled Seed Vault
For his work in this field, Livingston is often referred to as the "Father of the Modern Tomato." Can you imagine a world without tomatoes now? A world without salsa? Scary thought!

Pearson's tour eventually took us into a cold vault -- almost like a meat locker. It would be the perfect place to hang out on a hot summer day, but not so much in the winter. I had heard about this room before, but never thought I'd get a chance to see it. This is one important place. This is the seed vault. This is where seeds for every known tomato and vegetable variety are kept, documented and stored for clinical research.

To put things into perspective? A backyard gardener could spend a lifetime growing different varieties every single year and still not come close to approaching half of the varieties that are stored in this climate controlled area. Just being inside it makes you feel a tad humble.

Flat of Shady Lady Tomato Starter Plants
And -- of course -- there are the tomatoes. Starter plants are grown by the thousands here -- mostly for field research. But one or two of them -- uh -- just might find a way into our summer garden this year. It was on this tour that I learned the variety called "Shady Lady" was the replacement for another variety called "Celebrity." Venus and I have grown both in our garden. But little did we know that one was the replacement for another.

In this Heaven, the ingredients for a tasty summer salad are grown year round. From red leaf lettuce to a splash of Romaine -- you'll find everything here except the croutons. Most of what Pearson told us during our short tour of Heaven flew a good mile over my head. Some of it I understood -- but most I did not. It's a humbling moment for gardener who gets taken to school. As much as I've learned through the years, I ain't seen nothing yet.

Starter Plants for Our Spring Garden!
However, thanks to the tour, I do have some pretty good ideas about where to go next. Gardening is an experiment with nature. Always move forward. Don't get stuck in the same old routine. Always be open to trying something new.

Heaven? In an Iowa corn field? I don't think so. Heaven is right out the back door.

Something Wickedly Good This Way Comes

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Overgrown Raised Gardening Bed
Monsters lurk here...

The name of the blog IS, after all, Sacramento Vegetable Gardening. I suppose I'd better get back to writing about THAT -- rather than grapes, bratty cats, shelving purchased from Target and a million and a half other boring things.

The wife that is Venus and I are slowly getting the Bird Back 40 back into order after a long winter slumber. The weather certainly has been a plus. Many of the beds have been prepared for the upcoming spring and summer gardening seasons. A few even hold some tempting crops.

But not the one pictured above. That's our "jungle bed." This is the only 8X8 foot bed in the Bird Back 40. It is the largest bed we have. In past years? It has played host to heirloom tomato plants, potatoes, cucumbers, all things watermelon and a host of other crops.

Weeds Anyone?
I always try to rotate my tomato plantings from bed to bed. The goal is to give each bed a two to three year break from heirloom tomato plantings. I'm not always successful at this, but I do try. After planting heirloom tomatoes in this bed two seasons ago, Venus utilized it for bell peppers, green onions, eggplant, carrots and a host of other items.

Last year was a rather trying year for both us. While we did go through the gardening routine, sometimes our heart wasn't quite in it. The death of Venus' father affected us both deeply, and in dramatically different ways. He was responsible for much of the raised bed construction in the Bird Back 40. It was his design -- his baby. I was hesitant to move on without him.

Venus with her father, Gale, on Lake Nicaragua
Venus, meanwhile, had the rather unenviable task of combing through a household of memories. Her father's home not only held his belongings, but also the personal items that belonged to her mother, who passed from cancer six years earlier. The house also held treasured family belongings from relatives long-since passed. Every shelf -- every box -- held something unique.

As a result, we fell behind on gardening duties for much of the year. There was just so much to do -- so much to accomplish -- one could get easily overwhelmed. An afternoon of tilling the dirt served to be a welcome respite, but it's a chore that we did not get to relish in nearly enough. So, we fell behind.

Hidden Rows of Parsnips
When you fall behind in gardening duties, you're greeted by gardening beds that were never cleaned following the summer growing season. They are beds that hold the skeletons of peppers and other items that are long since gone, and are also choked with fall and winter weed growth. Our chore this past weekend was to clean it out and prepare for spring.

And while removing some seasons worth of growth did Venus discover that she had a root cellar that she and I had no clue existed. While we thought we had harvested everything from this bed at the close of summer, Venus stumbled upon something fairly remarkable underneath a canopy of weeds and brush.

There -- in perfect little rows planted the previous spring -- grew the unmistakable sign of parsnips. They had overwintered in the garden, Protected by the growth of vegetables long since dead and gone and a jumble of weeds grew monster roots. This was like no parsnip we had ever seen.

Yet -- there they were: Row after row of fat, white parsnips. What are parsnips you ask? Good question. Up until Venus started growing them, I don't think I'd ever tasted one. Many people refer to parsnips as the "poor cousin to carrots." Like carrots and potatoes, parsnips are a root vegetable. They are sweeter than carrots, but are starchy like potatoes. And, yes, if you're wondering: mashed parsnips with garlic and fresh honey makes for a fine side dish.

In the Roman Empire, parsnips were considered to be an aphrodisiac. This isn't all that surprising since the Romans considered just about everything to be an aphrodisiac. Now you know what most adults did before TV was invented.

But, back to parsnips.

Getting these things out of the ground was no easy task. They had grown well beyond the soft planter mix in the raised bed, directly into the clay soil located a foot below. Clay soil doesn't release items easily. So, while root vegetables like carrots are rather easy to pull, these monster parsnips required the assistance of a well-placed shovel.

Partial Harvest. Parsnips Anyone?
These are the largest root vegetables we have ever grown. While we were expecting them to be somewhat woody, much like a radish that's been in the ground for far too long, we were surprised by the texture that greeted us. Parsnips can be shredded raw into a salad, cooked and eaten as a vegetable side dish, or mashed into a concoction that looks like a serving of mashed potatoes.

And for someone who had never experienced the poor cousin to carrots, I must admit, I'm impressed.

Look Who's Coming to Dinner!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pruned Table Grape Vines Ready for 2012
Yes, yes -- I know. I KNOW. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that this song is just ENTIRELY inappropriate for this blog posting. Well -- too bad. Because -- you're wrong. Because it is quite appropriate.

YES -- I do understand the meaning behind this song. I didn't at first -- but you'll have to excuse me -- I was just a kid prancing across the living room floor during the gilded 1970's "Disco Age" when this tune first hit the airwaves. It had a catchy beat. I liked it. I still like it.

It was my older and much wiser brother who caught me by the arm one day while mid prance with the question of, "you know what this song means, right?"

Thompson Table Grape is "Coming Out" to Play
"No," was my innocent response. Even though we were alone at the time, he whispered in my ear.

"Oh," I replied as my eyes opened somewhat wider. They quickly turned somewhat perplexed when I looked at my brother and asked (innocently, I might add), "what does that mean?"

He again whispered in my ear. "OH, I get it," I responded as my eyeballs nearly popped out of my skull.

I didn't prance much after that to be brutally honest. Hey, it was 1970's Modesto. They didn't teach us much about "alternative anything" back in that day. You were considered "edgy" if you ordered a blueberry snow cone.

It's looking a lot like the year of an early harvest in the Bird Back 40. No -- there's nothing quite ready to harvest just yet -- but give it time. The fruit trees are popping way early. As I write this, the flowering Santa Rosa plum tree is nearly finished, as are the nectarine trees. The Royal Rainier Cherry appears ready to pop open at any moment. And -- as you can tell by the photo to your left -- the table grape vines are indeed, "coming out."

I wasn't expecting this early growth out of the table grape vines to be brutally honest. They didn't pop open like this last year. I knew I was in a bit of trouble when I saw the first hint of green on the Thompson seedless. Hey! I hadn't done my homework! I wasn't ready.

Vines Need a Haircut!
This is what vines look like after a long winter snooze. Much like hair looks in the morning after a good snooze -- the best thing you can say about this picture is: jumbled. The vines were in need of a good haircut. And this is now the all-important third year for grapevine production. This should be the year when I finally see the first nice harvest of home-grown table grapes.

This is provided -- of course -- those damn mockingbirds don't get to the tasty treat first. Did I mention they were back this year? Oh yeah -- much like a bad dream -- this mischievous pair flew back into the Bird Back 40 one afternoon not all that long ago. They'd been gone for a good long time -- but not before stripping the yard of cherry tomatoes, grapes, pluots, peaches and anything else they could get their beaks into.

Mockingbirds have no shame. But they do have an appetite.

But -- back to all things vines. They are clearly popping. Whether I'm ready or not? They are clearly "coming out," or "coming to dinner."

Spur Pruned Thompson Table Grape
There are two ways to prune a table grape vine: Spur pruning and cane pruning. Some vines react better to spur pruning like the Thompson. Others, like the Black Monukka, really don't give a damn. Spur prune or cane prune, the Black Monukka is going to throw out a bunch of tasty table grapes come Hell or high water and that's just the way things are. In my particular case? I practice both styles.

Some vines -- like the Thompson -- just tend to develop nicely formed spurs at the top of the trunk. They jut out at nice angles. When I first started to prune this vine? I had about ten of them to choose from. But I was only going to keep two. One would head in a northerly direction -- while the other would head south.

Table Grape Vines Pruned and Tied
As for the Black Monukka -- it also had nice spur development. But it also had fat canes protruding directly from a well-established trunk. Do you know what new canes that directly protrude from a well-established trunk mean? It means grapes, my friend. It means loads and loads of table grapes. Although I had to prune some of those canes back to the trunk -- not all of them got the pruning treatment. The fattest canes are now tied down to the metal cattle fencing that serves as our "trellis."

Sadly, not all the table grape vines look as good as the Thompson and the Black Monukka. The Crimson Seedless, for example, got a "do over" whack job. What does the scientific term of "do over whack job" mean? It means part of the vine that I had chosen for trunk development a year earlier really hadn't grown all that well. Instead, a vine that developed near the base of the trunk took off and grew a good 15 feet. It was the fattest, most good looking cane that the Crimson Seedless developed last summer.

I wasn't going to lose that good looking vine under any circumstance, so the under-performing, original trunk is now resting comfortably somewhere near the bottom of our green waste can. This means table-grape production on the Crimson will be somewhat limited this year. But -- when it comes right down to it -- that doesn't matter to me. The Crimson now has a nice trunk that should develop a nice spur over the growing season that is now upon us.

That's important.

Strong Trunk Development
In other cases -- I simply did not keep after some of the vines like I should have. I allowed bottom growth to proliferate last summer -- which was a bad move. Bottom growth steals energy from the fruiting canes above. Canes located near the ground are going to get pruned back anyway. So -- they should be pruned almost immediately after they develop. I didn't do that. This is a mistake that resulted in long, strong bottom canes and weaker-than-expected development where I wanted it: at the top of the vine.

But -- that is just one small worry. Nothing is perfect in the world of grapevine development. Some vines are going to be perfect and others - well -- not so much. The eight table grapevines have developed well in the Bird Back 40. Trunk growth is strong. They love the new home. And they provide a nice barrier to the main raised bed vegetable garden. It looks pretty during the summer months.

And when you're in the process of "coming out," the word "pretty" is pretty darned important.

I am a Maine Coon Kitten -- Hear Me Mrr

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lenny: The Maine Coon Kitten

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten. I hissed at you the first time you reached out for me. Little did you know that was my way of choosing you. Your life will never be the same.

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten. I am the size of a 20 lb. diecast Toyota dump truck and hit like Patrick Willis. I will never catch that bird that is happily chirping on that fence because my hind end is five times the size of my head. But at least I can knock the fence flat.

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten. Things placed on tables, chairs, dressers and other surfaces bother me and get in my way. They should be removed before I remove them with a swipe of my massive paws. That includes the 32-inch LCD TV in my path. You needed to upgrade to an LED anyway.

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten: I am unique in that I chirp like a bird while chasing other cats about the home. I am much like a dog in that I come to you when called to do so. However, if you do not greet me with treat or toy upon my arrival, the resulting experience will be less than pleasant.

WARNING! Giant Kitten!
Love Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten: I have a live dog chew toy that I can and will make yelp with pain during a well-placed squeeze of my massive claws. One look at us rolling from room to room to room, and you will begin to understand Bill Murray's warning about "dogs and cats, sleeping together, mass hysteria" from Ghostbusters.

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten: I have discovered that Blackberries fly much like spaceships when given a well-placed whack of my giant paw. Hit at just the right angle, I have found that they will blow into pieces upon hitting the wall. SIM cards are fun.

Love Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten: I have been blessed with the nickname of "Old Yowler" for my unique crooning ability. I have a voice like none other. I love to practice at three in the morning.

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten. I will eat you out of house and home and the neighbor's home while I'm at it. I eat like cat food will be outlawed at any moment. Any type or size of cat treat should be on an Endangered Species list. Out of the way, dog. Your food is my food and my food is my food. Did someone say steak?

Fear Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten. I am nearly a year old and my paws are nearly the size of my head. If you think I’m a tank now, just wait until I’ve reached full maturity at three years growth. You ain’t seen anything yet.

Love Me, for I am a Maine Coon Kitten: I am that animal that only comes to you once in a lifetime. And I have come home to you.