Eureka! It's a (Lemon) Boy!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vine Ripening Stupice Tomatoes
It's getting to be that time of year where things really start to pop in the Bird Summer Vegetable Garden. That long awaited garden harvest is starting. And that most treasured of summer crops, heirloom tomatoes, are slowly beginning to ripen up.

Venus and I actually started snacking on a few of them a couple of weeks back. The Czech variety known as Stupice (pronounced "Stoo-Pee-Chay" or "Stu-Pick," take your pick) is once again producing tomatoes at a prolific rate. I profiled this variety last year (Stupice is as Stupice Does) and not much has changed really. It is, once again, growing at a rather prolific rate and setting golf-ball sized tomatoes in bunches of three to seven in a raised bed that holds seven other plants.

Where Did That Lemon Boy Come From?
I sometimes wonder how I ever did without this wonderful variety. If you're looking for a tomato plant that you can't possibly screw up, or is guaranteed to produce, Stupice is your girl.

It is getting to be the time of year, however, when the garden begins to reveal little surprises here and there that you were not expecting. One of those surprises came just last night. As we were strolling through the garden in the fading daylight, I made the observation that it was going to be rather difficult to spot ripened tomatoes in one particular bed because it was flush with green growth.

Fat Shady Lady Production
As I got on one knee to inspect this bed, there was that rather familiar jolt of yellow joy. Through the darkened green leaves of numerous plants, there sat two baseball sized, yellow, vine-ripened Lemon Boy tomatoes. That's like hitting the lottery for gardeners, my friends. There's nothing more scrumptious than a vine-ripened Lemon Boy tomato. That yellow color holds the promise of a sweet, sour and tangy surprise for supper that you were not expecting.

Combined with a handful of bright red Stupice tomatoes and raw green zucchini? You've got a meal fit for King and Queen my friends. The wife that is Venus and I like to mix it all up with some red wine vinegar, a drop or two of olive oil, cracked salt and pepper, plus fresh oregano. I don't know why I've made the mistake of cooking zucchini all these years. It's much better raw off the bush, sort of like the way that one would enjoy a sliced cucumber.

The Indigo Rose Tomato
I would have taken a picture of this production, but it didn't last. It was, as they say, "Gone in Sixty Seconds."

I do enjoy inspection time in the garden. It's that time of year now where this annual walk yields daily surprises. A lot can change over the course of 24-hours. There are new tomatoes here. That plant over there looks like it grew a foot overnight. Is that Indigo Rose ripe yet? Is it ever going to ripen? Where did all those Brandywine tomatoes come from?

The Indigo Rose is one of the newer and more exciting introductions to the Bird Back 40 this year. It's anything but an heirloom. I like to call it the world's first "designer tomato." Developed a few years ago at Oregon State University, the Indigo Rose is the first, perfect, Deep Purple tomato. It looks nothing like a tomato should, yet it is a tomato. While not uniformly purple, this variety will ripen when the bottom of the fruit turns red and the shoulders turn from a shiny to dull color.

World's First "Designer Tomato?"
Much like the Stupice, the Indigo Rose sets anywhere from three to seven tomatoes per bunch and is growing at a rather eye-popping rate. Much like an heirloom, the Indigo Rose is open-pollinated. This means it won't develop one crop and quit. It will continue to grow and set tomatoes through the summer months, and deliver a whopper of a harvest.

Now who is going to complain about that? Buehler?

I must admit not everything has been "peachy keen" in the garden this year. The whitefly infestation was especially heavy this year, which may be due to the fact that the commercial growers nearby converted those vast, open fields nearby into rice production once again. It's the first time in five years that these fields have been put into rice production, and while the vast open stretches of water are a pleasure to look at, it could be the reason why there are so many whiteflies, it looks like a bank of fog has descended.

Bird Tomato Garden in June
Whiteflies are problematic. Whiteflies carry disease. They love to settle into fruit trees and tomato bushes. Early blight has been a problem with some plants this year, especially those heirloom varieties that don't have much resistance to it. While the infestation may be mostly gone now, the damage they cause can last for months after. When they are this thick and prolific, there is simply no getting rid of them.

But -- when it comes right down to brass taxes -- there is no such thing as the "perfect year" when it comes to gardening. There's always going to be a nagging problem here or there -- some rock thrown from an overpass that you weren't expecting to rain down and cause havoc on your windshield.

As Frank Sinatra once crooned: "That's life, that's what people say. You're riding high in April, Shot down in May. But I know I'm gonna change their tune, When I'm right back on top in June."

And Frankie was known to love his tomatoes...

The Duke Rides Again

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wrong Duke!
It was that night where I could not sleep when I first discovered you. I remember it almost as if it were yesterday. Nels Christenson had once again provided us with a gift of four avocados from the Bacon Avocado tree growing in his side yard. The wife that is Venus once again remarked how much she would like an avocado tree for our yard.

It was that night -- or very early that morning. Do you recall? Frustrated by years of attempting to grow avocados in the Bird Back 40, and watching all slowly turn black and die from the December frosts that coated our backyard, I sat at the computer as I am now and started this journey.

This is how I found "The Duke."

As I sat at my computer that morning, I entered the familiar Google search terms of "avocado" and "cold weather variety." Up popped the same results. The Bacon Avocado, the Mexicola, Mexicola Grande and Fuerte. I was disappointed. This wasn't what I wanted. I've tried all four of these varieties. All four aren't as "cold weather tolerant" as advertised. They kick off at the first hint of frost. Wasn't there anything else out there? Anything at all?

Venus Under "The Duke" Avocado Tree
It was -- at that point -- frustrated by years of searching and failure that I decided to change my search terms. Instead of "cold weather varieties," I entered the terms of "avocado" and "freeze." That did it. Up popped a bevy of new entries and results about avocados that I'd never seen before. And, in each entry, a name kept repeating itself. Over and over again.


"The Duke Avocado," I wondered? "I've never heard of The Duke." Curiosity got the best of me. I clicked on the first search term result, a 1963 report from the Avocado Yearbook. 1963 was the year I was born. This was one very old report. I was surprised to find it online. I was even more enchanted by the story that was about to unfold.

The Duke Avocado is one of the oldest varieties to be grown extensively on the West Coast. It's ancestral home is near Bangor, located in Butte County, on the grounds of the old Sunnyslope Nursery. It was there, in the middle of nowhere, where a crazy old man by the name of "Mr. Benedict" began planting avocado seeds by the hundreds in 1912. Not much is known about this man, not even his first name, but the nursery appeared to be a big, fat failure.

The Duke
It would soon fall into disrepair and be abandoned. The old nursery site and the land around it would later be purchased by a "Mr. Hornung," who used the land for pasture purposes. But Mr. Hornung, who was known around the parts as "Duke," noticed several avocado trees growing in one corner of his property. He could have cut them down. Cows and avocados don't mix. However, he was intrigued enough to clear the land around the trees, and then took the next step of notifying Dr. J. Eliot Coit.

"Coit," I wondered. I'd heard of him. He is known as the Father of the Avocado Industry in California for his work in this particular field. He earned a Masters Degree in Horticulture from Cornell University in 1907 and would later serve as professor at UC Berkeley and Farm Advisor in Los Angeles County. What was Coit doing in Bangor?

What was he doing? He was collecting budwood from the now mature trees on Mr. Hornung's ranch. Budwood that would later become the Duke was sent to nurseries around California. This is how the Duke was born.

Duke Avocados: Shiny Green and Thin Skinned
I could bore you with more details from this 1963 report, which you can find here, but I'll spare the details. What really jumped out at me is this passage on Page 3:

"In the Alta Loma area Duke trees withstood temperatures of 21 °F during the 1937 freeze and bloomed that spring, while Fuerte trees in the same locations were severely damaged."

So the Duke survived freezes that knocked other groves flat? This suddenly got very interesting. Slowly, as I read more about the Duke, I knew that this was the avocado tree for our frosty Northern California backyard. It gets cold in the Bird Back 40, but we've never had any type of cold snap that can compare to the 1937 freeze, which decimated not just avocado groves, but citrus as well.

The next step was obvious. I immediately started searching for a source where I could buy the Duke Avocado tree. Try as you might, you cannot kill these trees from freezing conditions. The Duke rootstock, I would later learn, is also resistant to a scourge called Phytophthora root rot, which develops in areas with clay soils that offer poor drainage.

Green-Yellow Leaves of the Duke Avocado
This happens to describe much of the Bird Back 40.

Everything I read about the Duke screamed "THIS IS THE TREE YOU'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR!" I had to find a source! This was it! The avocado tree that I couldn't possibly kill! The perfect birthday gift for the wife that is Venus! "She'll be thrilled," I thought.


It was -- right about that point -- where I would run into that good, ol' proverbial brick wall. This wonderful tree, which is the heirloom of all heirloom avocado trees on the Left Coast, is no longer propagated commercially. Duke trees haven't been grown for decades. They were abandoned long before I was born, long before the 1963 Avocado Yearbook report was written.

Talk about letting the air out of that proverbial balloon. The balloon just didn't deflate. It popped in my face. Not only did the major citrus suppliers, like Four Winds Growers, not carry the Duke, they'd never heard of it before. Weeks of searching, emails and phone calls yielded the same results: "No Dukes here, would you like a Bacon Avocado instead?"

Original Duke Avocado Trees
I wasn't interested in watching another Bacon Avocado tree slowly turn black and die, so, no thanks. The customer service department at Four Winds Growers got so annoyed with my constant pestering that they fired off a non-flattering email which I will not share with you here. Needless to say, I won't be purchasing anything from Four Winds anymore.

Why was the Duke abandoned and why was it abandoned so long ago? That search would lead me back to the 1963 Avocado Yearbook report and other scraps and pieces about the Duke variety that I could find online. This particular passage, from the Yearbook report, stood out:

"The quality of the Duke fruit is listed in the checklist as excellent, but this is a point on which there has been considerable difference of opinion. Many people connected with the industry believe the fruit to be of only fair quality. Because of the thin skin the Duke fruit has proven to be a poor shipper; consequently it must be sold on the local market."

Duke Avocado in June-Ripens in September
So, that was it. The Duke did not ship well. It did not package well. I would learn elsewhere that Duke fruit was also prone to cracking, forming concentric circles at the bottom. The trees, as I would later discover, were "alternate bearing." That means in some years you get a good crop, and in some years you get squat. It is for these reasons, that the Duke was abandoned so very long ago.

That is when the first beam of light would hit me. These terms sounded very familiar. They are the same things I've read about heirloom tomato varieties like Brandywine, Kelloggs Breakfast, Campbells 1327, Pruden's Purple and so many others. Heirloom tomatoes were often abandoned by growers because they didn't ship well, or they were prone to cracking or prone to disease. Commercial growers want fruit that can withstand bumpy rides on a truck through dusty, pothole filled, country roads.

Now ask yourself: What tastes better? A vine-ripened Brandywine tomato or that rock disguised as a tomato in the produce section of your local supermarket? Argument over. There was nothing wrong with the Duke Avocado. I would later learn that it's one of the best tasting avocados you can find, provided you can find it. The Duke was abandoned simply because it didn't provide the profit margin that commercial growers wanted.


Sacramento Chapter: CRFG
I joined the Sacramento Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) last year because I was interested in grafting onto fruit trees that are already growing and growing well in the Bird Back 40. It was there where I would find the budwood I wanted, plus kinship with others who are just as crazy as I am when it comes to fruit produced in your own backyard. These people know fruit. They also know citrus and avocados.

David Johnson heads up the CRFG Chapter in Central California. This man has been growing avocados and other citrus for decades. Entering the backyard of his Waterford home is akin to entering a rainforest. Not only did David know about the Duke, he shared locations of old avocado trees in the San Joaquin Valley that could possibly be related to the Duke tree. Since the Duke hasn't been propagated commercially for decades, word-of-mouth has it that the old, giant avocado trees sprinkled here and there in the countryside are, in fact, Dukes.

But, there's a problem with word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth can sometimes be wrong. That massive, 50 foot tall and 50 foot wide avocado tree that outlived the person who planted it eons ago might be a Duke. Then again, it might not. There are many of these trees scattered throughout the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys as I would come to find. Long ago abandoned, the fruit is often stripped from the trees at harvest and sold at local flea markets.

Avocado Root Stock
While David couldn't provide an exact location for a tree -- he did have something that I very much needed: avocado root stock. I had long ago come to the conclusion that I was not going to find a Duke tree to purchase. I would have to find an old Duke, somewhere, take budwood from it, and graft said budwood to root stock. David has been collecting avocado seeds from different trees for decades. Since the origin of the trees he had collected from are long since gone, he has given them "valley specific" names such as the "Newman No Freeze."

With root stock procured, one problem was solved. But it wasn't the biggest problem I would face. Where could I find an original Duke? The 1963 Avocado Yearbook report indicated the parent tree on the Hornung property was dead. But many cuttings had been taken from this tree. Successful grafting had taken place. I wasn't about to go hunting around on the grounds of the old Sunnyslope Nursery. That area is still fairly rural, and one just doesn't "wander" onto private ranch land without the risk of receiving a keester full of buckshot.

There had to be a better way.


Old Oroville Train Depot
My search for an original Duke tree would lead me in a circle back to the home range of the Duke Avocado: Butte County. Thanks to my years of service in the 4th Senate District, under Senator Sam Aanestad, I do have some connections and friends there. None are quite as insane as I am when it comes to fruit trees, but they did promise to help in my quest. I knew that the Duke could not have died out. I strongly suspected that several still existed. They do.

Help would come from a rather surprising source. Many phone calls and emails that I made in my quest for the Duke were never returned. While I had been advised to check with the Chico Farmers Market, I quickly discovered that the people who run these affairs don't return phone calls or emails. Unless you're a grower with something to sell, getting someone to call you back can be quite difficult.

Out of frustration one night I ran across the name of Joseph "Joe" Connell, Farm Advisor and County Director of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Butte County. I shared the link of the 1963 Avocado Yearbook report and requested his help. Had he heard of the Duke?

Paydirt! Eureka! It's a DUKE!
It is, at this point, where I must thank Joseph profusely for his assistance. Not only had he heard of the Duke, he also knew of its storied history. One of the Farm Advisors pictured in the 1963 Yearbook report, Clem Meith, had been his mentor. He not only shared his passion for the Duke, he also shared something much more important.


Mr. Connell's reply to my email contained a color photograph of a very old avocado tree located in downtown Oroville. It was a photo he had taken many years earlier, and it was based upon an old black and white photo contained in the archives of the UC Riverside Department of Botany and Plant Sciences. The old photo, taken in 1956, identified the tree in question as an original Duke Avocado. Mr. Connell would later duplicate the photo with a digital camera.

Introduction Garden at the Oroville Depot
There it was. There was no question this time. Everything matched. Leaves on the Duke Avocado tree are unlike any other avocado. They are a shiny yellow green in color, thinner than most avocado leaves and Duke trees grow to a massive size. As I gazed upon the photo that Joseph provided, I knew that I'd finally found what I'd been searching for: an original Duke avocado tree.

I would soon come to discover that the Duke tree, plus another planted nearby, was in an old Introductory Garden planted near the old Oroville Depot. The railroad giants that once served our area planted these gardens next to depots like the Oroville Depot, to give visitors from the east an introduction to California and the agricultural promise the Left Coast offered.

Although passenger rail service died out long ago in Oroville, someone made a brilliant decision to keep and preserve the Depot as well as the original Introductory Garden. Though not as big as it once was, more than the Duke Avocado grows on this plot of land. There are figs here, olive trees, persimmons plus a few others that I could not identify. The Depot was long ago converted into a restaurant and banquet facility. It is now home to the Western Pacific Brewing Company, where they make a mean nachos served with freshly baked Indian Fry Bread chips. The beer is just as tasty and ice cold, a perfect treat after examining and procuring budwood from an original Duke avocado tree.

Now the Western Pacific Brewery
The trip proved even more worthwhile after we greeted a visitor in the Oroville Depot who related stories about the avocado tree we were so interested in. "The fruit ripens in September," he told us. "It produces long, green avocados with skin so thin, some people enjoy them with the skin still on." Although he could not remember the actual name of the tree, everything he told us fell right into place with what I've discovered about the Duke so far. The thin skins of the Duke are the tipoff. It's why the fruit bruises easily during transport from farm to market.

Venus and I departed Oroville with just enough budwood for three grafts. The Duke has been meticulously cared for through the years, from metal struts that keep massive limbs from collapsing to Plaster of Paris to repair massive gaps and holes that have developed over time. A tree like this deserves to be treated with respect. It was.

Cleft Graft-Duke Avocado
The avocado seedlings that I have under a shaded porch in the Bird Back 40 now hold three grafts -- which include two cleft grafts and one veneer graft. It is the first time I have ever tried a veneer graft. I'm hopeful that the grafts will take. But, if there's one thing I've learned about grafting it's this: It takes time and patience. These grafts, if they do grow, will not grow overnight. I've been told it can take anywhere from two weeks to two months before a graft can be proven successful. 

As with any venture, time will tell. But this is my story. With a little luck and time, the Duke will ride again.

POSTSCRIPT: Help and knowledge in this crazy little endeavor of mine also came from the owner and operator of Chaffin Family Orchards located just north of Oroville. A.L. Chaffin is also mentioned in the 1963 Avocado Yearbook report. Chaffin Family Orchards has the only known grove of Duke trees, which are related to the original Duke. The farm sells freshly harvested Dukes at farmers markets in Chico, Oroville and elsewhere during the months of September and October. The farm will also fulfill special shipment orders and also offers family tours.

Find a followup to the Duke Avocado adventure posted here.

The One-Two Punch of Epic Crop Failure

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Plum Disaster: Snapped Branch
Yes -- it does indeed happen to the best of us. Or -- in my case -- the worst of us. Not everything is a screaming success at the Bird Ranch for Wayward Heirloom tomato plants. That's all I ever let you hear about -- the screaming successes. There are failures. Trust me. There are failures and plenty of them.

But what happens when you combine an epic failure with a natural disaster? The end result is a dramatically reduced Santa Rosa plum crop. You know this crop. You know it well. It's the crop you've been tending and babying through the spring months. From the very first flower, to the first hint of fruit on a branch, it's the first tree you see every time you step outside the front door.

Hello Santa Rosa Plum Tree. How are you feeling today? That's a nice looking tree of fruit, my friend. I look forward to sampling some of it in a few months.

Avoidable Disaster Unless You're a Glutton
You see -- I talk to my fruit trees because -- well -- if you haven't guessed it by now -- there's this slight edge of insanity that runs in my family. We like talking to inanimate objects. We even think the family dog is listening to our deep conversations, when in all honesty, all the family dog can hear is "blah, blah, blah, FOOD!"

The pictures above right and to the left should more than demonstrate the first part of this year's tragedy. The broken branch picture above and the plums in the wastebasket are what greeted me when I arrived home from work a week ago last Friday. You see -- I had failed to cull the tree of plums properly. And this is what happens when you dismiss the talk of mentors who know more than you do. They say "cull, cull, cull," and you think: "blah, blah, blah, PLUMS!"

Plums Needlessly Gone to Waste
I had cast more than one nervous glance at those branches slowly bending in a downward direction thanks to the weight of a massive plum crop. But rather than react with a cull party, I prayed for salvation. I hoped the branches would survive long enough for that massive load of plums to ripen and then: PLUM CITY!

I'm such a glutton.

But there would be no such plum party. Salvation would not arrive in the form that I expected, but I would hear from Mother Nature a short time later. First things first? I had a broken branch to deal with. There were a lot of plums to get off the ground. And there were other branches to save from a similar disaster. This wasn't the only bender. Others were straining under the size of the biggest Santa Rosa plum crop I've ever grown.

A Little Rope Goes a Long Way
Rather than taking the wife that is Venus out for a much deserved dinner out last Friday, I spent the hours cleaning plums off the grass, chopping up a broken branch and -- thanks to an assist from a friendly neighbor -- propping up other branches that were also close to snapping in two. I had already lost one branch loaded with plums. I dare not lose another. I might not get 80 plums off that branch. But at least I'll get ten, right?

Or so the thinking goes.

But that fickle thing called fate has a funny way of screwing with this thing called life. This wasn't the only disaster that would befall the Santa Rosa plum tree. It was the first of two big jolts that reduced what should have been a healthy crop to "better luck next year, kid."

AT&T Park: San Francisco
You see -- last weekend was a birthday weekend for yours truly. That's right. Bill Bird turned the ripe old age of 39. Again. I can't tell you how many times I've turned the ripe old age of 39. I've sort of lost count. But it was the anniversary of that date -- that much I can tell you. Since I am the luckiest man on the face of this planet, with the greatest wife in the entire universe, I was treated to a San Francisco Giants game the very next day.

A blast of wind greeted us as we pulled out of the driveway that Saturday. Both Venus and I agreed that if we had wind problems in the valley -- the Bay Area would probably be perfect. And it was. Sitting in those outfield bleacher seats, watching the Giants clobber the Rangers ("Whatsa Matter With Gentry??? He's a BUM!!!), was the best gift any 39 year plus man could ever ask for.

Wind and Plums do NOT Mix
There was no wind to worry about in the City by the Bay on that particular day -- but guess what? It was blowing pretty fierce through the Sacramento river bottom. Although I had prayed for salvation -- I got a surprise late spring sustained gust of wind instead. Wind and plums do not mix well. Wind tends to blow plums right off the tree.

And that is exactly what took place on Saturday, June 9th, 2012. While I was vainly chasing balls that Giants outfielder Angel Pagan was tossing into the centerfield bleacher seats, a rather unexpected jolt of wind blew through and blew what was left of the still unripened but oh-so-close Santa Rosa plum crop to the ground. The carpet of plums was so thick in some places that it covered the grass. I would spend that Sunday loading up the green waste can with what I had hoped to be a massive plum harvest.

Better Luck Next Year Kid
Those recipes I'd printed out for plumtinis? Plum cocktails? Plum punch? Plum cobbler? Those can wait for another year. While a few plums do remain, it's not going to be the large-scale harvest that I had hoped and dreamed for.

And that's my personal one-two punch of Santa Rose plum tree epic crop failure. Better luck next year kid.

Laying Pipe

Thursday, June 7, 2012

PVC Project (Laying Pipe): Bird Back 40
Somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, a young and excited young boy is royally cheesed off. He is visiting the blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening for the very first time thanks to the rather suggestive label of "laying pipe" (plus a few others that I will think up later).

Relax kid. This isn't the kind of show you were hoping to find. We're not laying that kind of pipe -- nor would I ever write about such a thing. Who would read it? A tryst involving a middle-aged married couple? Blech! Hit the search button again quick and get me out of here before I see anything that might fry my eyeballs.

Installing New PVC Line
However, if you're never-ending curiosity has forced you to stay -- let me tell you exactly what kind of pipe we're laying in today's blog. Because you just might be laying some of the exact same stuff someday. In this case? It's PVC irrigation pipe, and yet another irrigation project in the Backyard that is Bird.

This adventure of landscaping a large backyard has taken many twists and turns. Sometimes I get it right. Many times I don't. When the wife that is Venus and I first gazed upon the backyard spaces that greeted us in our North Natomas backyard, we saw nothing but clay dirt. There were certainly lots of possibilities that went with the dirt, but the best you got five years ago was imagination and bare dirt. Lots and lots of bare dirt.

I'll admit -- I did have some prior landscaping experience. I had totally destroyed a yard in Madera County with landscaping efforts before I discovered there were two types and two sizes of drip irrigation fittings. The discovery would come after different fittings to different hoses began to literally explode into different pieces thanks to PVC manifolds that were installed sans "pressure regulators."

Bird Back 40: 2007-Bare Dirt
Pressure regulators? What are those and why do I need them? I would soon discover why. But to this day I still can't figure out why some brainiac decided there had to be two different drip irrigation sizes -- with both so close in size (.50 opposed to .57) that it's impossible to tell them apart with the naked eye unless you know exactly what you're doing.

I had a little better time of it when it came to landscaping our first North Natomas home. Ah -- but then I had acquired the valued assistance of a retired rocket scientist and engineer who not only knew his nuclear missile systems -- but also how to install drip irrigation. Talk about your dual majors.

But that first yard -- like most in the wilds of North Natomas -- was no bigger than your average postage stamp. If you were using more than one valve for irrigation drip purposes -- you had committed the sin of planting far too much seed. If you needed more than one valve for lawn sprinklers, you had committed the error of planting a lawn on your roof.

PVC Project: 2007
But with the Bird Back 40? There was room. There was room for everything that captured a gardener's fancy. One could plant, plant and plant again and still not come close to scratching the surface of a "fully landscaped Back 40." It was here where you could let your imagination "run wild" and Venus and I have been doing just that.

I knew -- very early on in this process -- that the one drip system and the one sprinkler system that serviced our old yard wasn't going to come close to satisfying the concerns of the new stretch of land. So I planned ahead. Rather than one drip system -- I would install two. Rather than one valve dedicated to sprinklers -- I would reserve at least two and perhaps three.

Boy was I ever off. Thus the need to "lay pipe" from time to time to address glaring and distressing drops in water pressure during key irrigation periods.

New PVC Project: 2012
It was the rocket scientist turned father-in-law who came up with the rather ingenious idea of using clamps to bolt drip line to the bottom of a fence. This meant you could line an entire backyard fence line with enough drip lines to irrigate any landscaping project.


It would be a few years before I realized that drip lines can only handle so much pressure. And the further you extend a drip line? The less pressure you get. Instead of getting a flow of water at the end of a 200 foot drip-line extension -- you get a trickle. Trickles don't equal successful fruit trees or heirloom tomato production. Trickles equal trouble.

I learned that lesson all too well a few years ago when I split off this line into another (fun detailed here) -- plus tapped into the drip line feeding a very small section of the front yard. While this did serve to increase water pressure somewhat, it was clear that I had failed to install enough PVC pipe for the overtaxed line, and had placed far too much of a demand on the drip line bolted against the fence.

PVC T: New line joins existing line
Which leads to the latest project of -- you guessed it -- laying pipe. After hacking into the all important PVC irrigation line near the manifold -- I cut a new trench carefully between citrus and fruit tree plantings. This wasn't like the irrigation project all those years ago when Venus and I first gazed upon our all-dirt Back 40. There was nothing to run into then. We could and did cut straight lines because there were no trees or boxes to get in our path.

Not this time. There are tree roots here. Watch out for that box over there! Who in Hades put that rock in my path?

PVC Overkill!
After many fits and starts -- twists and turns -- plus the addition of a new trenching shovel -- the digging part was over. Hacking into and installing a PVC T connector on the existing line I'd buried all those years ago (never expecting to dig back up again) went far smoother than I ever could have imagined. From that point forward? The job was as easy as pie: Glue, hold for compression, tear glued hand away from pipe. Who needs skin anyway?

It may have been overkill (OK, so it WAS overkill), but I made sure to create dual exit points at the end of the PVC line. I'd just about had it with low water pressure in the garden and wanted to ensure that I wouldn't have to deal with this problem again. I won't. The new lines, and the new drip sprinklers attached to the new lines, provide me with all the coverage I'll ever need and more.

Test Bed: Bird Back 40
A well soaked in-ground test bed equals equal parts great corn, squash, pumpkin and tomato crops. The new line will also open up new areas and new possibilities for additional plantings. Because I've always had that super-secret desire for a lawn on my roof.

A Royal Harvest

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ripe Royal Rainier Cherries-Bird Back 40
What's better than a bag of freshly harvested Royal Rainier Cherries? This is a trick question. There can be only one answer. And that answer is two bags of freshly harvested Royal Rainier Cherries.

What's better than two bags of freshly harvested Royal Rainier Cherries? Nevermind...

Welcome to the Bird Back 40 where the 2012 fresh fruit season is officially ON! The first to ripen up? You might have guessed it by now: Royal Rainier Cherries. This is is Year 4 for the Royal Rainier Cherry tree. Last year's harvest of 4 lbs. was "decent" in my opinion.

A Sweet Treat: The Royal Rainier Cherry
This year's harvest of 20 lbs. is off the hook. My friends, we are truly blessed.

My deepest debt and gratitude to sister-in-law Leana Stromberg who snapped these incredible harvest photos with a camera not purchased from something closely resembling a gumball machine. I've got to stop doing that. I never do learn my lesson. Cameras purchased from something closely resembling a gumball machine just aren't going to pay off as the "world's wisest investment."

Not only did Leana volunteer her photographic talents, she also drafted the services of her son, daughter and husband. Unlike last year where we had the kids for "fun," and really didn't need them for a 4 lb. cherry harvest, this year was somewhat different.

Celina & Marquitos: Ready for Harvest
This year was work. Do you know what it's like to harvest 20 lbs. of cherries? I can tell you that they don't just fall off the tree and into your collection bag! This is difficult work people! But the sweet payoff is well worth it.

The wife that is Venus and I, with an assist from my brother Andy, netted the tree about two weeks ago -- just in the Royal Rainier nick-of-time. The two pesky mockingbirds that made a mockery of my netting efforts last year made a return visit to the Backyard of Bird just a few short weeks ago.

If there's anything I did learn about my netting efforts last year, it's this: I'm terrible at putting up nets to protect fruit trees against pesky mockingbirds intent on stealing the crop. Not only did I manage to break off a number of branches during my initial effort, the birds kept finding a way in. No matter what the fix -- a bird with a pea-sized brain ALWAYS kept foiling this Bird's best netting efforts.

Last Years Netting Effort: FAIL!
Intent is a wonderful thing. I had INTENDED to build a PVC cage to hold my netting this year at the advice of a gardening mentor and others who had undertaken the same task. But "intent" doesn't always equal results. That was certainly the case when it came time to net the tree this year. The intent to build a PVC cage never did grow into an actual result -- so it was back to the old netting experience that I failed so miserably at the year before.

If there's one caveat in this repeat -- it would have to be the X-Factor that is Venus. See -- the wife has no problems reminding me of what works and what doesn't work in the Bird Back 40 garden setting. As soon as she saw me dragging out last year's netting setup that failed so miserably, she immediately reminded me of my multiple failures last year and promptly took over.

The Royal Rainier Cherry Tree
Leave it up to the wife to devise a plan that foiled the best intentions of a flock of mockingbirds. Despite numerous attempts to foil her fine work -- they never did find a way in. They would have to be content at stealing the one or two cherries that were closest to the net opening. The vast majority of the crop remained unmolested.

That's why I'm writing about a wallop of a harvest this year. And it's quite the wallop indeed. It's also the harvest that brings about the most pride in backyard harvests.

You see -- the Royal Rainier Cherry is fairly unique. Although it may resemble a normal Rainier Cherry, there is a considerable difference in appearance, and more importantly, taste. Royal Rainier Cherries are sweet treats to the taste buds indeed. This is a Dave Wilson Nursery Taste Test Award Winner -- a certified treat for any fresh fruit grower.

Weighing the Crop
So -- what's the plan for this year's Royal Rainier crop? Fresh eating is almost certainly on the menu. Bill Bird can polish off a pound of cherries in a single setting. It's not that difficult once you get started.

Leana, Mark and the kids also received a bounty's share for their help in getting the harvest down off the tree and into the house, where it could be processed and weighed. Unlike last year, both children have grown quite fond of cherries. My guess is a pound or two of them probably never made it into the collection bowls.

I can't blame them. My love of cherries was born years ago in the countless trees that grace nearly every backyard of those older Modesto subdivisions. There was nothing more heavenly to climb into a giant cherry tree and eat my fill before literally falling out. I wasn't the world's best tree climber to be brutally honest. I could climb like no other. Getting down was a different story entirely...

Cherries Anyone?
Although the Royal Rainier and Black Tartarian Cherry trees that grace our North Natomas spread aren't quite to "kid-climbing size" just yet -- with every passing year they do get closer. I may be a very old man indeed before I can witness the joys of another child climb those branches for a warm spring afternoon meal of cherries, but it will be well worth the wait.

Perhaps they will be kind enough to bring down a bag or two for me.

Peachy Keen

Saturday, June 2, 2012

June Pride Peach Tree-Bird Back 40
There is only one thing that I can think of in this world that's better than a tree full of ripening peaches. It would have to be a peach tree, loaded with peaches, that is doubling in size.

Why is this such a good thing? DUH! More peaches next year! When it comes to growing fresh peaches in the backyard, one tree full of peaches is never enough. Two or three trees is just about right.

There is something rather strange and exciting taking place in the Bird Back 40 this 2012 spring season. The peach trees that the wife that is Venus and I planted some four years ago are -- for some reason -- both growing like weeds. It's enough to make a amateur peach grower wonder: Why didn't this happen last year? The year before? Why this year?

Exponential Peach Tree Growth
Both the June Pride and O'Henry peach trees are finally beginning to take off in terms of new growth. And while that may not mean much in terms of peach production this year, it almost certainly portends good things to come next year and in the years to follow.

I still haven't begun to figure out why certain fruit trees will grow an inch one year and then two feet the next. Does it have anything to do with fertilization? Water? Perhaps they're just in a really good mood? Those love songs I croon to them in the dead of night (sorry neighbors)?

Not that I'm complaining mind you. I'd always been somewhat distressed by the lack of growth in both Bird Back 40 peach selections. Don't peach trees get any bigger than this? Hey! Look at that Royal Rainier Cherry tree planted some 30 feet away! It grew ten feet last year! Why can't you do that June Pride?

Perhaps the shame worked.

Ripening O'Henry Peach
It also might be the fertilization schedule that I adopted last year at the advice of Folsom City Arborist Ken Menzer. His point was, why fertilize fruit trees once or twice and then stop? Why not fertilize them once a month? Why not try a cocktail of different fertilizers? If the liquid organic fertilizers are so successful with tomato crops, try feeding the same mixture to the fruit and citrus trees.

Menzer's message has largely been a blessing. It's not just the peach trees that are literally reaching for the sky this spring. The table grapes -- now entering their third year of growth -- are putting on a show I've never quite witnessed. Several of the citrus trees are reacting in the same manner. The Dancy Mandarin, for example, has now grown so large that I will need a ladder to harvest the production at the top of the tree.

New Fruit Bearing Branches-June Pride Peach
Although the mockingbirds that curse the Bird Back 40 are casting a hungry glance at the June Pride and O'Henry peaches that are slowly growing into maturity this season -- I dare not throw a net over these trees. While netting does preserve a crop for "humans only" it also tends to bend branches in a downward direction. What had been a ten foot tall tree loses a foot or three once the netting is removed.

Short and sweet? Those new branches that are green and pliable have been bent in a terrible direction for so long that they're not going to "straighten up and fly right" again. So -- the net stays off. The mockingbirds will probably knock half the crop off the tree -- a tragedy no doubt. But my "new growth" patience will pay off with larger harvests in the years to come.

What more could anyone ask? What's better than fresh peach pie? Two peach pies!

I'm such a glutton!