Saturday, December 14, 2013

Order Form: Wild Boar Farms
Uh oh. There's no hiding it now. As soon as I saw the back page of this year's Totally Tomatoes catalog, I got that sinking feeling in my gut. Tomato nerds like me know all too well what's on the back page of that catalog. Uh huh. That's right. Our little tomato secret is close to no longer being a secret. The Wild Boar series of striped tomatoes from Wild Boar Farms in Napa Valley just hit the mainstream big-time.

That's why I secretly placed my order this morning. Heh! Better get while the getting is good! There's no telling when they might run out of tomato seed for the lip-smacking Berkeley Pink Tie-Dye, or the absolutely LUSCIOUS Pork Chop. And yes, they do run out. The man behind the Wild Boar collection of fantastic tomatoes, Bradley Gates, is no longer a tomato grower's best kept secret.

Wild Boar Collection: Totally Tomatoes
Bradley doesn't just grow our favorite types of heirloom tomatoes, although he does offer a few. What he does offer, however, is somewhat better. These are his own creations: Solar Flare, Cascade Lava, Red Furry Boar, Lush Queen are all hand-crafted creations out of the Gates garden. What makes them so special is they are absolutely the best tasting tomatoes I've ever had the pleasure of tasting. And I've tasted my share, people. Trust me on this. Gates has hit on something big -- and the sky's the limit for his ever-expanding operation.

It's not just the taste of these tomatoes. Production figures into the equation just as well -- as does disease resistance. I took a chance last year and ordered four different varieties from Wild Boar Farms. Three of those selections: Lush Queen, Solar Flare and Pork Chop were among the biggest producers in last year's Bird Back 40 tomato garden. The wife that is Venus knows this all too well. Based upon last year's results? I'm doubling my order for 2014.

2013 Whole Tomato Canning Efforts (Partial)
It got to the point during last year's harvest season, where Venus could actually choose the kinds of colors she wanted in each one-quart jar of whole, canned tomatoes. Some jars were all red. Still others were all yellow. And yes, one or two or even three more went straight pink. That's because we literally had so much to choose from that we could "pick and choose" to our heart's delight.

This, by the way, has never happened during previous gardening years. In previous gardening years? Everything we harvested, no matter what the color, got added to those one-quart jars. But last year's gardening efforts produced such a payoff, that just one days worth of canning whole tomatoes provided enough jars to last us and one or two other families with enough tomatoes to last through the entire winter.

Know what that's called? That's called production, my friends. And it's why the Birds are handing out jars of salsa and special tomato sauce blends for Christmas this year. Because you haven't truly savored the flavor of tomato sauce, until you've prepared a meal with herbed sauce or a distinct Italian blend. In other words, why have a bland sauce with one type of basil, when you can spice it up with six blends of basil?

The tomato nerds over at all things tomatoes, a gathering spot called TomatoMania, have been whispering about Bradley's exploits and offerings for more than a few years. But I didn't get around to actually ordering anything from Wild Boar Farms until last winter. And it wouldn't be until late June or mid-July did I finally get to harvest some of these special offerings.

Solar Flare Tomato
I'll never forget that first taste of the very first, vine-ripened, Solar Flare. In a word? Scrumptious.

If you take the time to visit the Wild Boar Farms website, you'll find yourself in a world of striped tomatoes. There is no one, dominant color here. There's yellow streaked with white, red streaked with green and orange, orange streaked with yellow and just about every color found in a rainbow. The descriptions for each tomato are almost as entertaining as the colors. For instance? The Berkeley Tie-Dye carries the following warning: "High Acid Content May Cause Flashbacks."

It appears they have a sense of humor to go along with the ability to grow those great tasting tomatoes.

Garden Pornography
So, tomato lovers, as you gather your gardening porn together that recently arrived in the mail, and start to make those vegetable growing decisions for the 2014 garden, don't forget to pay Wild Boar Farms a visit. Because if there's room for a Brandywine or a Martha Washington in next year's tomato garden, you might also find a spot for the Pineapple Pig or the Golden Gates.

You have been warned.

Have Another Cold One!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Grapevines in Winter
It's about this time of year when Mother Nature begins to act like our favorite bartender. "Have Another Cold One," she screams as she delivers one whopper cold morning after another. It doesn't matter if you've already had enough of the frosty conditions that have blanketed the Sacramento area during the past weeks. Because Mother Nature is still in that giving mood: "Have Another Cold One!"

Notice -- I said Mother Nature begins to act like our FAVORITE bartender. This doesn't necessarily mean mean she's the MOST RESPONSIBLE barkeep. Them are two entirely different things.

Frosty Bird Back 40
As an amateur citrus grower, I've kind of come to regret the month of December in the Sacramento area. Oh sure -- the cold weather means great news for stone fruit crops like peaches, pluots and cherries because they get a nice, long winter slumber. And the longer they sleep? The happier they'll be in the morning come spring-time. But if you grow stone fruit AND citrus, this can get a little tricky.

You see -- citrus likes cold weather -- to a point. But that daily dose of "have another cold one" can get a little old. This is when cracks start to appear in the machine. All that newly emerged fall growth turns a none-too-pleasant shade of brown, which can only mean one thing. And it's not too much Brown Ale, either. It means it's time to hold a funeral for that promising growth that took place in October and November.

C-9 Christmas Lights Around Duke Avocado Tree
Responsible citrus growers, like Farmer Fred Hoffman for example, will take special precautions to protect those tender citrus babies. These responsible steps include heat-producing C-9 Christmas tree lights around the tree, an even bigger, warmer and brighter light, topped off with a special cloth covering. Isn't that nice?

By the way, this is nothing compared to the steps that the large scale citrus producers are taking. They battle the fierce cold weather with giant wind turbines, water and other measures to keep the freezing temps at bay. When a single, solitary acre of citrus plantings can produce a profit of $25K? This is nothing to laugh at, especially if you have 100-200 acres of citrus to protect. In other words, that's a lot of peel, if you get my snowdrift.

Cold Dancy Mandarin Tree
Other growers, like say yours truly, practice the hope and prayer method. This does involve stringing those warm C-9 Christmas bulbs around some citrus trees. But come on people! Covering one or two trees is one thing. When some fool decides to plant eight or nine citrus trees (me), there's just not enough C-9 lights or cloth covers to go around. Know what I'm saying?

That said, I must inform you that the time honored Bird ritual of the "hope and prayer" method isn't always 100 percent successful. And I have the blackened remains of old avocado trees and various mandarin branches to prove it. All because Mother Nature decided to announce: "Have Another Cold One!"

It gets colder than cold in the Bird Back 40. I know this to be a fact. The proof I have, as I mentioned before, are the blackened remains of four or five avocado trees that were once scattered about the yard. I also have highly sensitive thermometer equipment purchased some years back in a box of Cracker Jacks that confirms my micro-climate cold settings.

Loaded Meyer Lemon Bush
I thought it odd, however, that the equipment would yield a low of six degrees in the month of June. But if you can't trust the high quality temperature equipment yielded from a box of Cracker Jacks, what can you trust?

That said -- I must report these conditions from the Bird Back 40: So far, so good. Yes -- there's been some damage to some of the smaller mandarin trees that aren't producing citrus just yet. This includes the Clementine Mandarin and the Cara Cara orange tree. But I can also report that the Hangover citrus tree and the nearby Dancy Mandarin tree are doing just fine in this frigid "Have Another Cold One" snap.

Hangover Bearss Lime Tree
What's that you say? The Hangover Citrus Tree? Oh -- that would be the Bearss Lime tree. Which, by the way, produced a FINE crop of large and juicy limes this year. I call it the Hangover Citrus Tree for a very special reason. It's responsible for a number of weekend hangovers.

What's what you say? If I didn't mix so much tequila in that freshly squeezed lime juice, I wouldn't be suffering from hangovers? What are you? A communist? Or just my voice of reason, that I try to drown out with freshly squeezed Bearss Lime juice at every occasion possible?

There's nothing quite like freshly squeezed Bearss Lime juice. Trust me on this. I've had my share.

Murcott Mandarin
And so this holiday season, remember to follow the advice offered by Farmer Fred Hoffman. Don't follow the Bird "hope and prayer" method. For I fear that my favorite bartender is about to utter her time honored phrase: "HAVE ANOTHER COLD ONE!" And we'll get it, whether we like it or not.

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Monday, November 18, 2013

Melon Fruit Salad? Yes Please!
Yes -- I do understand. I get it. Our summer is as distant a memory as Sly and the Family Stone. Yet I am reminded of those "Summer Days" when I begin to clean up and clean out of the last of the summer garden. The last to go was the melon patch. It's so very hard to let go of something that was so good to us during those days in the country sun.

Actually, I'd be telling a bit of a fib to you if I proclaimed 2013 as the "perfect" melon year. It wasn't. In fact, for the second straight year, I'm sad to proclaim that my attempt to grow the Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon to be a big, fat failure. Instead of "fat melons" I got lots of melons that grew to a size of two to three inches, and then developed a dead blotch of skin at the end.

Georgia Rattlesnake Melon
It didn't take long for that dead spot at the end to cover the entire melon either. I can't tell you how many times I watched so many promising starts on the vine go haywire on us. Like avocado trees, I've got some sort of "complex" when it comes to the Georgia Rattlesnake. No matter how many times I've tried to grow this variety -- no matter how many different things I've tried -- each attempt has come up a big, fat zero.

Fortunately? Not all melons act in this matter.

The Sangria variety -- for example -- did quite well for me this year. Do you know what the really funny part of this equation is? I didn't plant any Sangria watermelon seeds. Nope -- the seeds that germinated in one corner of a raised gardening bed this year were left over from last year. It didn't matter much that I ran them over once or twice with the injustice of a Mantis Rototiller. They seemed to like it just fine. So -- while my watermelon desires may not have been satisfied with a Georgia Rattlesnake -- the Sangria made for an acceptable substitute.

Cantaloupe and Crenshaw Melon Combo
I find myself thinking about melons now because -- well -- because melon season is long gone. Like many fruit varieties to come out of the garden this year -- they all managed to ripen up for a two-week to 10-day period in late August. During this golden, luscious period in time, it was melons for breakfast, melons for lunch and melons for dinner.

As the picture top right shows -- it was a fruit salad bonanza. Grapes, melons, peaches, you name it. Everything gave a little or a lot. And guess what? Even after all that -- it still wasn't enough. Because Bill Bird finds himself craving a home-grown, vine-ripened melon here in the month of November.

Sangria Melon Right, Crenshaw Melon Left
Except -- you can't get vine-ripened melons in November. Not in this part of the country anyway. Therefore, I do the next best thing: Post pictures and dream till next year.

Once again -- the clear winner in this year's melon patch -- just as it was last year -- is the Crenshaw Melon. I'm beginning to believe that the Crenshaw is just so darn easy to grow that one would have to be named Bill Bird to possibly screw up something this simple. So far? I haven't managed to screw it up. Therefore, I must be doing something right.

What the bugs didn't get -- the wife that is Venus would squeeze into fresh Crenshaw melon juice. Unlike past years, we didn't allow one melon to go to waste this year. What we didn't consume fresh -- the wife cut into pieces and ran it through the juicer.

Sliced Crenshaw Melon
It's during melon season where I am reminded of the Kingsburg Watermelon Festival. Sponsored by the Kingsburg Lions Club chapter, the watermelon festival was a place where you could get your fill of vine-ripened watermelon. If one quarter-slice wasn't enough, here, have two! And while you're at it? Enjoy a third! Heck, there was enough there to bathe in.

Sadly, the Kingsburg Watermelon Festival is an event that can now only be found in local memories. I'm not sure why it went away, but like most good things it did. The radio station I worked for at the time in Fresno sent me south to cover the Kingsburg event every year it seemed. Why I kept on drawing repeat coverage duty, I'll never know. It wasn't one of those events that was very hard to report on. I suppose my report went a little like this:

"There are people here... They are consuming watermelon and lots of it... Reporting live from Kingsburg...."

My love for watermelon wasn't born there -- but it's one of those little events that will always stay with me. And it's one reason why the mighty melon will always have room in the Backyard of Bird...

Don't Say it's Over!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pumpkin Harvest: Bird Back 40
But I'm not ready for it yet! Don't go there! Are you serious? My favorite time of the year known as summer gardening season is over? But it can't be! Seems like just yesterday that I planted those tomato bushes. It can't be gone this quickly, can it?

Welcome to my annual ritual: DENIAL. As you've heard it said before, probably on more than one occasion, it ain't just a river in Egypt.

Actually, if you checked ye olde calendar, which I'm loathe to do this time of year, one comes to find that summer gardening season ended more than a few weeks ago. It really ended with the onset of cool temperatures in the morning. That tends to play havoc with the sugar content in vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes. One can literally "taste" the end of summer.

Whoa! Time for a Haircut!
But when the brown, featherly leaves of downtown Sacramento begin to rain down and rest during my annual pilgramages to downtown Sacramento, I know the time has come. I'm just not ready to say goodbye just yet.

The end of summer gardening season also brings on a massive cleanup job in the Backyard of Bird. Every bush and every tree produces a little something during summer gardening and fresh fruit season. And, when the summer ends, it's time to clean up.

Unfortunately -- those tiny green waste cans do not do us much justice out here in the northern burbs. While I could really use a service like "The Claw" around my house during this time of the year -- the monster doesn't travel this far out in my direction. So -- the job of "disposing" of the summer garden usually results in stacked piles of garden rubbish around the backyard.

Common End of Summer Sight
Those piles will sit and wait for space to open up in the green waste can. Or, if I'm lucky, one of the neighbors will lend a hand with a half empty can. I've already learned one valuable lesson with my last green waste can, which busted into an unholy and warped cauldron that scared neighborhood children half to death.

We're not doing that again.

So -- piles here and there it is. I've also learned a bit of "patience" (aka "laziness") on the job. Rome wasn't built in a day. It wasn't also taken apart in a fortnight. Some projects can sit and wait until space opens up at the olde inn. Then and only then does it get scheduled for the "fall haircut."

The end of the summer gardening season also brings sadness. There are no more nightly visits to the Farmer's Market that we call our backyard. While some summer crops are still producing -- most are curled up and long gone. It's both sad and tough to reach for a jar of canned tomatoes that we prepped earlier in the year, rather than picking them fresh off the vine.

Test Bed: All Played Out
I'm just not ready to say goodbye!

Still -- the onset of Fall brings new challenges. What, for example, are we going to do with that line of pumpkins from this year's extraordinarily successful pumpkin patch pictured above? Share them with friends? Yes -- there's some of that. Carve pumpkins for Halloween? Absolutely!

But I also wouldn't be completely forthcoming if I didn't say that there's a little bit of a pumpkin pie in those pumpkins. We just might have plans for pumpkin bread. And then there's that recipe for pumpkin soup with barley that looked pretty darn good.

Short and sweet? You can lot more with pumpkins other than carve a scary face and roast some pumpkin seeds.

Summer Garden Pile: Scheduled for Removal
Fall is also a time to start thinking about other crops. There's garlic seed to stick in the ground for next year's garlic crop. And -- one just can't do without Tall Telephone Garden Peas, which are also planted now in anticipation of a fat spring harvest. Since you failed to remove every last potato from the ground last summer, the spuds you left behind have rewarded you with a nice fall crop.

So, no, the onset of Fall isn't a complete and total bummer. There's also time for a weekend nap in the schedule, where one can dream about next summer's heirloom tomato crop.

A Witch's Brew

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tasty Home Brew
And now -- just in time for Halloween! Wait! Check that! And now -- just in time for Halloween 2014...

Hey, there's nothing wrong with being early, is there?

To your right is the latest project in the House of Bird. For the first time since I was 18 years old (long time ago kids), I'm "brewing" up something special. If you look below the rosemary and jalapeno peppers, you'll see something mighty tasty down in that brine.

That's right, kids. It's home brined, or home brewed, olives. And not just any olive, mind you. Nope, those are the large, queen sized, green olives -- also known as the Sevillano Olive. While I am also have some Mission olives undergoing a nice salt-water soak -- nothing beats the Sevillano Olive. These are the best of the best.

Henry Madden Library at CSUF
A lot of has changed since I was 18 and brewing my first batch of olives. First -- there was no such thing called "the internets." As for the personal computer, hell, only rich people had those. I was lucky enough to have an electric typewriter. Recipes for home-canned olives were not at your fingertips. They were in the local library. You paid a quarter to photocopy a page out of a book. This is after you'd spent the better part of two hours looking for the correct book at the Fresno State University Madden Library.

This was pure old school.

But, I'll tell you this much: A number of years have passed since I first brewed my own batch of olives. My life has taken many twists and turns that I was not expecting it to take. But I never forgot the incredible taste of home-brewed olives. They made for a tasty snack that a starving college student literally survived on. I stored my brew creation in old one-gallon, plastic milk bottles that I dug out of a dumpster. They sat for months in a dusty apartment kitchen pantry, waiting to be consumed.

Sevillano Olive Soak
Know what? They never went bad! When money was tight (money is always tight when you're a starving college student in Fresno), a bowl of olives made for a nice lunch or dinner.

Fast forward some thirty-plus years and you'll find that a lot has changed. Today, recipes for home-brew olives are literally at your fingertips. Not just one recipe for one type of olive -- but multiple recipes for multiple olives. I must also thank Honest Food blogger Hank Shaw for re-sparking my interest in home-brewed olives, as he wrote about his experiences last year.

A lot of time may have passed between this year's experiment and my brewing experience long ago, but the recipe remains largely the same. Although there are many ways to brine olives -- the standard involves something found in Drano. Yes kids -- as in something you would pour into a clogged kitchen sink. Lye is an essential ingredient for brewing only the best olives and it's still used today.

Good for Opening Drains and Making Olives
A side benefit of this exercise is the grimy sink in the garage used for dirty garden purposes gets mighty clean and mighty fast with one lye soak after another. The garage sink hasn't looked this good since the wife that is Venus and I moved into this North Natomas pad. It also drains like a champ now.

But, I digress. This isn't about sinks. It's about olives.

Although olive trees dot the landscape around many Sacramento and Placer County parks, I found these to be a major disappointment. Many of these trees just don't receive the irrigation they need to produce a good crop of olives. And if these trees are fortunate enough to receive an adequate supply of water, they have no protection from the bugs that drill into immature fruit and lay eggs that eventually become larvae.

Sevillano Olives After Lye Soak
Eating an olive infested with larvae (worms) doesn't sound too good, now does it? Blech!

I would also come to discover that home-brew olive addicts like myself head out to olive orchards in September and October and "steal" from the grower -- the rightful owner. Sorry kids -- but that's just not my style. I don't believe in helping myself to a crop grown by someone else and for a different purpose. Again, "the internets" would come to my rescue.

A grower of Sevillano Olives northwest of Sacramento in a ranch just outside the Woodland city limits had exactly what I was looking for. I could pick ripened olives to my heart's content -- five bucks for a five gallon bucket. Not only that, this was a grower who had properly irrigated and properly cared for his two acre spread of Sevillano trees. "SOLD," I thought at the time. This was the man I was looking for.

Sevillano Olive Harvest
I would spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon at this man's ranch, picking just enough to fill a five-gallon bucket and hauling my prized harvest back home. The lye soak started 30 minutes later. The lye solution accomplishes two major tasks. First, it softens a hard olive. Secondly, it removes the oleuropein compound that makes olives taste bitter. After a 12-24 hour soak, you've got a batch of soft olives that taste like soap.

Probably not a good idea to eat these olives. In fact, don't do it kids. It just results in a really bad tummy ache and perhaps a trip to the hospital to have your stomach pumped.

Time to Start the Brine Process
Once the lye soak has done its job, it's time to get the lye out of the olive. This is done through a series of fresh water rinses and soaks that can take anywhere from a week or two. I changed the water in this five gallon of bucket of olives -- religiously mind you -- every 12 hours. When the color of the water no longer turns brown, but a light shade of green, the lye has been removed.

Congratulations! You have a softened olive that tastes like, well, nothing. It doesn't taste bad. It doesn't taste good either. This is where the fun begins. It's time to put the taste into your softened olive collection. Although salt is a major ingredient of olive brine, don't stop there. Use your imagination!

Peppers and Lime Juice in Olives? Why Not!
In my particular case? My olives are soaking in a solution of sea salt and red wine vinegar. After the first week of this soak -- these olives tasted pretty darn good. But why stop at darn good when you can have jaw-dropping excellence? The second soak, which also included sea salt and vinegar, also contained fresh rosemary, basil and other herbs from the garden. Why not put those late season jalapeno peppers to work? Bay leaves? Sure!

Let your imagination run wild. The only problem you'll face is family members you've allowed in on your little home-brew "secret." They're already staking their claim...

The Memory of Generations Gone By

Monday, September 30, 2013

Introductory Garden: Western Pacific Rail Road Depot
My friends -- I don't often do this. But -- this time -- I had to make an exception. I am regularly approached by one person or another offering cash or product trade for space on this blog. I turn the vast majority of these requests down because this is not a commercial blog, nor did I ever intend it to be one. This is simply one man's diary of gardening in Northern California -- nothing more.

But -- from time to time I do manage to touch upon on a subject that touches others in the Northern California area. It's not intentional. But when you write about Northern California experiences, people and places, you're bound to strike a chord with someone. In this particular case, it appears I did. And I had to share it with you.

Branches of an Heirloom Duke Avocado Tree
The message below comes from a reader named Martha Smith, who stumbled across this blog after shopping for Duke Avocados at the Chico Farmer's Market this past weekend. Dukes are now "in season" across Northern California markets, so if you're interested in trying out a variety that is native to Northern California, get while the getting is good. Duke Avocado season doesn't last long.

Martha wrote to me after reading my latest post about my personal adventure with the Duke Avocado here. Additional updates about the Duke can be found here and here.

In Martha's words -- I have not changed a thing:

"Dear Bill,

About 6 or so years ago, I had mentioned to my father that I was traveling to Oroville. He said, "if you have the time, go by The Depot, and visit the trees. It is there that your grandmother fell in love with  your grandfather. She would wait at the small grove of trees for his train to come in."

Note: This was the secret lovers meeting place, because he was not approved by her father.

Duke Avocado Trees: Oroville
So I went there and saw the  old carvings into the trees from long ago. Carving each others initials into the tree trunk was the way back then. It must have been one of the biggest ways to proclaim their love for each other, out-loud.

I also noticed the sign of "do not touch". But I had to touch the trunk. Just once to experience the whole idea that their love for each other had been spoken in this very spot, long ago. That would have been in the mid-1930's.

I had put that experience and details away in my heart until today.

I was at the Chico Farmers market and saw the green avocado's  with the sign that read Duke Avocado's.

Curious and all, I asked a few questions and was satisfied with trying them. Then I set out to search the internet for information.

Western Pacific Rail Road Depot: Oroville
Thankfully I found your website and want you to know how glad I am for your research. You have just made  a beautiful fall day even better.

When I see the Duke, it will always represent a link to my ancestors who lived in the area.

Thank you again,

Martha Smith

No, Martha, thank you for sharing a wonderful story. Take care, and God Bless.

PURCHASE DUKE AVOCADOS: Duke Avocado season starts in late September and continues through mid-to-late October depending upon availability. There is only one Northern California grower that has a collection of these unique trees. They are located on the grounds of a 2,000 acre family ranch known as Chaffin Family Orchards, located just north of Oroville. The Chaffin Family sells Duke Avocados at farmer's markets in Chico and Paradise until the supply runs out for the year. Please visit the ranch website for more information.

Baby Duke Finds a Home

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Wife That is Venus and The Duke Avocado
There are two things in the photo to the right that are very special to me. The first -- and most obvious I might add -- is the wife that is Venus. She's got a smile on her face. Why? Because I told her to smile! No, not really. That potted plant is behind the smile that the wife is wearing. Can you guess what it might be?

If you guessed an avocado tree -- points to you dear friend. By now you're probably wondering, "big deal, it's a fricken avocado tree!" Yes -- that may be true -- but it's not just any avocado tree. My friends -- this is the legendary Duke Avocado. What makes the Duke so special? You can't buy it at any store. No nursery carries the Duke. If you call around looking for a Duke, you're likely to be greeted with silence or even a blank stare. No store -- no supplier -- carries the Duke Avocado anymore.

Duke Avocado Tree
Why? Good question. I still don't quite understand why it was abandoned as a backyard tree. This isn't your dad's avocado tree -- this is what dear old grandaddy planted in his backyard. There is only one way to obtain a true, grafted, Duke. If you want a true Duke Avocado tree, you have to "make one."

Which is just what Bill Bird did -- with a little help from his friends at the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG). The tree that Venus is holding and again pictured to your left is probably the first true, grafted Duke tree that has been grown in decades. The scion attached to the root stock was taken from the spot where the Duke Avocado was born in 1912: Butte County.

This tree just isn't rare. The Duke Avocado is incredibly rare. And it has one incredible story behind it.

Oroville: Home of the Duke Avocado
This has been a rather long journey which I documented here last year and again here about six months later. The baby Duke Avocado tree now growing in the Bird Back 40 is the result of a quest to find an avocado variety that will laugh at freezing conditions, grow in terrible soils that have doomed other avocado varieties and, of course, produce boatloads of avocados.

The Duke is the result of a quest that started when I earned a none-too-stellar reputation of killing avocado trees. It didn't matter what variety I planted. It didn't matter where I planted it. Because, with each tree I planted, death arrived at its doorstep less than six months later. The tried-and-true standard nursery varieties of Bacon, Mexicola, Mexicola Grande, Zutano and Pinkerton all had a date with the Grim Reaper. They bit the dust, bought the farm, took a dirt nap, fed the worms, etc.

Duke Avocado Planted in Raised Bed
Avocado tree suppliers made bank on my misfortune. Because when one tree kicked the bucket, Bill Bird trotted out and dutifully shelled out another fifty bucks on another, supposed, "cold weather tolerant" avocado tree. Why keep kicking myself like this? Because the wife that is Venus DEMANDED an avocado tree for her backyard. That's why. Isn't that enough?

Since the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I knew I had to try something different (I'm not that whacko, people. Not yet anyway). The links above detail the quest I started last year to find an avocado variety that could withstand the micro-climate cold freezes that cover the Bird Back 40 every December.

Duke Avocado Tree-Oroville Train Depot
The discovery of the Duke would then lead to the quest for a Duke -- the steps I took to find a supplier -- and finally -- the discovery of ancient Duke avocado trees planted in an old Introductory Garden located at the site of the old Oroville train Depot once served by the Western Pacific Rail Road. It was there where I would procure the scions from an ancient heirloom tree brought about by a crazy old man called "Benedict," who started planting avocado seed in Bangor in 1912.

Mr. Benedict may have failed in his quest to build an avocado nursery in one of the coldest interior regions of California. But his lasting success is the creation of the Duke line. The last major investigative report on the Duke, printed in the 1963 California Avocado Yearbook, not only failed to find the source of the avocado seed that Benedict was importing into Butte County, trees similar to the Duke couldn't be located anywhere.

Duke Avocado Leaves Are Shiny Yellow-Green
The Duke, like many avocado varieties that once graced California fields, was replaced by another variety at some point and then forgotten. There are a myriad of reasons as to why it was abandoned. Perhaps better tasting varieties were developed? The thin skins of the Duke fruit quickly fell out of favor with commercial growers and shippers. The fruit bruised far too easily during transport from farm to market. What happened to the Duke isn't unique. Many other avocado varieties have been tried, and then forgotten.

What makes the Duke unique, however, is this tree's ability to withstand frosty cold conditions. The Duke has survived major freezes that severely damaged other varieties planted nearby. I have witnessed the Duke's ability to laugh off a sustained frost with my own eyes. I have seen healthy Duke scions protruding from half dead root stock that nearly perished after a cold December freeze.


The quest for my own Duke Avocado tree didn't end with the discovery of original Duke trees in Oroville. That was just the start of our avocado adventure. One does not "plant" Duke Avocado seed to obtain a true Duke tree. The only way to get a true Duke is through the process of grafting.

Duke Avocado Tree-Bird Back 40
Since my grafting skills are still suspect (ie: BAD), I farmed out Duke cuttings (scions) taken from original Duke trees in Oroville to growers connected to the CRFG. Avocado root stock was procured from other CRFG suppliers in Northern and Central California. Two growers with marvelous grafting abilities volunteered to take on the project of creating new Duke trees.

Unfortunately, for reasons that I still don't understand, the Sacramento grower who volunteered for this effort allowed all of his Duke trees and his avocado root stock to die this summer. I'm not exactly sure what went wrong. I didn't get much of an explanation from him, other than that the three grafted Duke trees in his possession, and additional root stock, had died.

Heritage Duke Tree-Oroville, CA
Ever get socked in the stomach? That's kind of how I felt. I had visited this grower last May and witnessed the progress he had made with his grafting efforts. I saw, with my own eyes, healthy Duke shoots protruding from root stock that had nearly perished during the previous winter. Since the root stock was suspect, I agreed with his request. He wanted to break the half-dead root stock into pieces and bury it under the soil line, leaving only the healthy Duke shoot above.

He was the expert at this, right? So I agreed. And, after hearing that all of his trees had died from lack of care this summer, I began to regret this decision. A thought kept running through my mind: "Why didn't I grab one of those trees when I had a chance?"

Hindsight is 20-20.


A Waterford Backyard
If you have ever taken the opportunity to visit the downtown area of Waterford, "lovely" is probably the last adjective that comes to mind. Waterford is a small community that most people on Highway 120 zoom right through -- usually on their way to a nearby reservoir or even Yosemite National Park. It's not a place where one would normally stop, unless you need gas.

But there is a spot in downtown Waterford that is, indeed, quite lovely. It's the backyard of CRFG grower David Johnson. This is the second time I've had the pleasure of walking into David's backyard. It is a tribute to not just avocado trees of different shapes and sizes, but rare and unique citrus varieties and other fruit that isn't often found in the normal California backyard. Thanks to a canopy of shade from fruit and citrus trees planted long ago, David makes magic happen on the ground below.

Backyard of CRFG Member David Johnson
I like to think of it as a science lab for growing the rare and unique. Small trails lead from one discovery to another. And there's usually a friendly cat that steps out along the way, demanding a scratch or to be held and petted. On this particular day I had come to adopt an avocado tree. I nearly adopted another cat (something I do not need).

David is the other grower who had been enlisted with Duke scions taken from the Oroville trees. I hadn't given David nearly as much as I'd delivered to the Sacramento grower, but it was enough to create two or three grafted Duke trees. As I gazed upon those light green leaves tinged with yellow streaks, a signature of the Duke tree, I knew that my work on this venture had not been in vain.

Avocado Tree Nursery-Waterford
Unlike my Sacramento grower, David did not splice scions into existing root stock. He instead sliced into root stock at the base of the tree -- removing all previous growth -- and inserted a Duke scion. I had given him enough scion material last year for six trees. If the graft failed to take, it meant the entire root stock was also a goner. But David experienced a fifty percent success rate. Six grafts with six different root stocks resulted in three healthy trees.

Before you get too excited -- all three have found a home. But I did more than just drive to Waterford to pick up Venus' Duke Avocado tree. David also received a delivery of an ice chest packed with scion material taken from the Oroville trees that I had visited earlier that morning. David is now creating new Duke trees as this post is written.

Avocado Cat Says "Adopt Me!"
Yes -- you're right -- it was a long drive. From Sacramento north to Oroville -- then back south again to Sacramento and even further south to Waterford. Thanks to Google Maps, I was able to follow a lot of the original route that had been set aside for the never constructed Highway 65. These are old rural roads now that are rarely traveled, but offer a glimpse of the San Joaquin Valley one doesn't get from Highway 99 or Interstate 5.

Highway 65 was originally designed to take pressure off Highway 99. Like many highway building projects, it was shelved under the mistaken belief of: "If we don't built it, they (people) won't come." Lots of highway projects were abandoned in the 1970's under this mistaken belief. The people still came. Our population has nearly doubled since 1970.

But that's enough of politics. Back to avocados -- specifically -- The Duke Avocado.


Emerging Duke Leaf Sets
Venus' Duke Avocado tree has found a home in a side yard of the Bird Back 40. Planted in a raised bed and sheltered from the freezing winds that blow in from the north during winter, I'm hopeful this avocado tree will meet with a better fate than most previous avocado tree efforts. The Duke is located near a Bearss Lime tree, which can also succumb to cold weather freezes, but has done quite well in the spot we placed it four years ago.

I'm pleased to report that this tree is experiencing a growth spurt in its new home and hope the incredible growth pattern that I've read about regarding the Duke tree also holds true. As to when this tree will produce its first real avocado, that's anyone's guess. It can take some trees five to seven years before they will produce.

I'm hoping for a little quicker production than that -- but have also learned the time honored rule when it comes to gardening or growing good things in the garden: Patience is a virtue.


Newly Grafted Duke Avocado Tree
Sorry folks -- demand exceeded supply. I mean, way, way, WAY exceeded supply. Our Duke Avocado operation is quite small. Once I announced several months ago that Duke trees were for sale? I was inundated with email requests from across the continental United States. I even discovered the location of another Duke tree -- growing in a USDA Agricultural Research Station located outside of Miami! Yes -- the Duke grows in Florida! And probably elsewhere.

So, I'm sorry to report that the window has closed shut. Heck, it's been nailed down. I have so many requests for Duke trees that it will take years to fulfill them all.

In the meantime? If you've got your heart and soul stuck on a Duke Avocado, as I did, you can always make one, as I did.

Find the details of how I did it here and here.