Locked and Loaded!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Venus and Sara: Gardening Girls Gone Wild
Hello! Welcome to yet another adventure in "Extreme Gardening." This week in the Bird Back 40? It's Garden Girls Gone Wild and guess who the lucky man behind the camera was? If you're guessing a one Bill Bird, you just might be correct. And, despite hands that trembled with excitement, I'm here to tell you a satisfying tale in both pictures and words.

Those two young ladies pictured above right played a starring role in Garden Girls Gone Wild. You may have noticed that one on the left is none other than the lovely gardening wife that is Venus. But that girl to the right may not be as familiar. Her name is Sara. And she is a charter member of GWG -- "Gardeners Without Gardens."

Heirloom Tomato Starter Plants
I would meet Sara some years back when she magically appeared from nowhere with an offer of free heirloom tomato starter plants for an annual tomato plant handout that I once hosted at the State Capitol. It was Sara who gave us the brilliant idea for our seed starting rack. And it's Sara who gave us the inspiration for what took place in the Bird Back 40 last weekend.

Yes -- we jumped the gun a tad. Tomato plant out in the Sacramento area normally takes place with the start of May. But the weather isn't cooperating. It's been downright gorgeous for most of the month of April, other than a few blustery days. But there's been no rain to speak of -- certainly no frost -- and we've been blessed with mostly warm temperatures and abundant California sunshine.

Can you blame us for getting a head start?

Return of the Mantis Rototiller
After giving the Mantis rototiller a good workout in three different raised gardening beds, I put Venus and Sara to work. And, make no doubt about it: This was WORK. It was hot, sweaty, grungy, get down in the dirt and DIG DEEP type of work. Quite simply? This is unlike any summer garden planting process we've gone through before.

It's not like we've never planted heirloom tomato starter plants before. We have. If you've read this blog a time or two, you've probably figured out that Venus and I have planted our fair share. But when it comes to the world of extreme vegetable gardening, there's always something new to try. A new approach beckoned. "Be one with the Earth, William," both Sara and Venus whispered.

They Work-I Watch
As it turns out -- I let the two gorgeous gardeners be "one with the Earth." I just snapped the photos and earned a rather brutal sunburn in the process. That's the luck of the Irish for you. Irish people don't tan. They turn a bright shade of redneck red. They peel. And then they burn themselves silly again. Insane Irish.

Last week's post related a special story of a Homer five gallon bucket that was packed with fish parts. It had fish heads. It contained fish tails. One could find fish skins, fish entrails, fish poop and all parts of a fish that people just won't pay money for. We'd let our tightly covered can of smelly fish parts sit and cook in warm sunshine for a full day before we finally popped that lid off.

Smelly Fish Parts!
What an aroma! We drove neighborhood dogs and cats wild with envy. My neighbors thought -- and still think -- we'd gone half mad. And they just might be right.

Although I always amend our raised gardening beds with proper and equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium every spring, Venus and I had never taken that extra step of adding additional amendments to each hole that we dug when it came to plant our heirloom tomato garden. The standing order of business had been the following: till up the garden with the Mantis, add amendments, then proceed to use the Mantis again to till everything together. The beds were then raked smooth and planting would then commence.

Venus Prepares to Plant: Bird Back 40
Venus and I would each dig a hole anywhere from eight to 12 inches deep -- place our treasured Brandywine or Lemon Boy at the bottom of the hole -- cover with dirt and move onto the next hole. It's the same step we repeated day after day, year after year. We didn't vary much. It always worked, so why mess with a good thing?

Why mess with a good thing? Because better things can be had. Sara came armed with some pretty good ideas. She's not the first person to employ this technique. She certainly won't be the last. But this was a departure from what we've done in the past.

I knew this was going to be a different gardening experience when Sara approached me with a request for a shovel. I handed her our standard gardening trowel. She proceeded to launch said trowel into orbit with a retort of something along the lines of: "Not this wimpy thing, I mean a SHOVEL!"

One Cup Liquid Fish Parts
She wasn't kidding.

Sara wasn't content or happy with digging a hole of eight to 12-inches. Sara demanded a hole two feet deep and two feet wide. Since most of my raised beds don't stand taller than 14-inches, I informed her she was going to hit some nasty hard clay at the bottom of her quest. No matter. She cut right through it. Sara and shovels are no mystery to one another.

When I indicated earlier this was real grunt, sweaty type of work, I wasn't kidding. Digging a two foot deep and two foot wide hole isn't hard. But try digging 26 of them. In hot sunshine. One after the other. See what I'm getting at? This was no vacation. By the time Sara and Venus were finished cutting through the clay soil line, my once nice and level gardening beds had been transformed into a series of sharp, mountainous peaks.

Fish Parts Added
Why dig a hole two feet wide and two feet deep? Recall that story about a Homer 5 gallon bucket full of fish parts? Those parts, plus other amendments were destined for the bottom of these holes. These had to be placed deep, lest neighborhood critters steal in during the dead of night to dig them up for a "snack."

If you once believed that those 18-ounce Red Solo Cups were reserved for one purpose and one purpose only (PAR-TAY!), guess again. The gardening girls needed something to transfer smelly and by now quite liquidish fish parts from bucket to gardening hole -- and the red solo cups were it. And so it went. The girls, who wore plastic gloves for some protection, dove into that bucket again and again and again. Ever tried swimming in liquidish fish parts? Oh, the fun we have here in the Bird Back 40!

Aspirin Amendments
Each hole demanded a cup of fish heads and fish parts. Each hole received a cup of fish heads and fish guts. Venus and Sara then topped off each hole with two aspirin, a quarter-cup of fine bone meal and a bit of amended dirt to make everything nice and level. What's the aspirin for you ask? That's a good question. You may ask. I make no promises of answering.

However, if you take a gander at this article from Science Daily -- the aspirin supposedly adds to a plant's immunity, thereby reducing the need for pesticides to control bad bugs and bad fungal diseases. Heirloom plants are unlike their cousins, the hybrids, in that they are highly susceptible to many bugs and fungal diseases. I still think it's a bit odd to place two aspirin next to the root ball of an heirloom tomato starter plant, but I'm willing to try anything once I suppose. As for the bone meal? It's high in phosphorus, which tomato plants need to survive and thrive.

If you're asking why we didn't throw the kitchen sink into the bottom of those cavernous holes, you may ask.

The final step: Planting
With holes dug, fish parts, aspirin and bone meal distributed, it was now time to get down to the task of why we gathered in the Bird Back 40 on this particular day: It was time to plant our leggy heirloom tomato plant starters. Those leaf sets that I had lovingly cared for during the seed-starting growth process last winter were clipped and tossed aside. Into each hole went a very long and skinny starter plant, with a few leaves remaining at the top.

Tomatoes are one of the few vegetable plants that will develop additional root systems. The stem will actually take root, provided you plant it deep enough. And two or three sets of root systems are better than one as the old saying goes.

Sara in Her Element
Why go through this process for a simple tomato plant? Because Sara and others have promised this particular method of planting will result in end-of-season stems that are as thick as small trees. Why do the stems get this thick? They are needed to support the plant because it's busy producing a whopper of a heavy tomato harvest.

That's all the argument Bill Bird needs. Please bury me in various colors of heirloom tomatoes people and leave me in heavenly peace. One part of the summer garden -- the most important part some would say -- is now in. Bring on the peppers and basil and other summertime bounty. The job of planting our summer garden continues.

Garden Girls Gone Wild approves of this message.

What's in that Bucket?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Homer All Purpose Bucket
Betcha can't guess what's in that bucket. You know -- THAT bucket. That Home Depot five gallon Homer bucket located to your immediate right. I have about ten of these things all over the house because, well, they're useful for holding, you know, "stuff."

In fact, the simple "Homer" bucket just might be the greatest invention ever. I know Home Depot didn't invent it, but they've put a nice patent on it with the Homer logo. They're cheap too, which is another plus. And, they hold stuff. Thing is -- this particular Homer bucket holds something quite special. Can you guess what it might be?

Venus and "The Bucket"
Home Depot stuff? No. My brother-in-law was using this particular bucket to store cat litter, but that's long since gone. Parts for PVC cages? Nope! Gardening tools? Guess again. And, keep in mind, this bucket is covered for a reason. The stuff in this bucket is highly volatile. Neighborhood cats are drawn to this bucket by an irresistible force.

Now that's the last hint that I'm going to provide for you before Venus pulls the top off this thing. Sara Stout knows what's in this bucket. She's the one that gave us this grand idea. She's the one who urged the wife that is Venus to drive all the way into South Sacramento (South Sac) and visit that "special place."

Finding Nemo
So, what's in that bucket? Well -- I'll tell you. What? You thought I was going to keep it a secret through this entire blog post? My friends, that would be cruel. Besides, I've got too big a mouth to keep anything a secret for very long. Do you remember the old joke about the three modern forms of communication? The three modern forms of communication are: telephone, telegraph and tell Bill.

There's some truth to that equation.

My friends, the stuff in this bucket is a bit of gardening gold. It's a treasure for tomato plants. It's plunder for peppers, a bonus for basil, opulence for eggplants and pure swag for squash. It is: fish guts. It is also fish heads. There are some fish tails down in that bucket. There's fish skins, fish entrails, just about every part of the fish that isn't sold at your local fish market.

Garden Gold
And it is this five gallon Homer bucket full of fish parts that is currently stinking up a storm in the Bird Back 40. We're going to let it "age" a day or two like a fine wine. When we finally take the top off this thing today, my neighbors are in for a rather putrid surprise.

I know what you're thinking. Why on God's Green Earth are we "roasting" a five gallon bucket full of fish parts? Finally gone off the deep end have we? Time for a little white jacket with straps, perhaps? A long rest and lots of medication?

Heirloom Tomato Starter Plants
Any heirloom tomato grower worth his or her salt knows exactly what this bucket is for. Those fish parts are going into the bottom of a hole that will soon hold an heirloom tomato starter plant. Every grower has his or her little secrets for soil supplements when it comes to growing great tomatoes, but the verdict on fish parts is darn near universal: this is the good stuff.

Cynthia Sandberg from Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz raves about the use of fish heads in her tomato garden. In her words? "The fish head slowly decomposes, feeding both nitrogen and calcium to the tomato plant." Those who celebrate the day of April 20th also use this trick. Except, they're not growing tomatoes. Sara Stout claims the use of fish heads resulted in end-of-season tomato stems as thick as small trees -- and a bounty of a harvest to boot.

Bring on the Basil!
And so, my friends, I'm not too proud nor ashamed to try a little something new in the garden. If the gardening world says "add fish parts," I add fish parts. Some even suggest we add crushed eggshells. Others prefer worm castings. Adding nightcrawlers, like you find in you average bait and tackle shop, is also recommended.

Why not? It's tomato planting season, people. Bring on Nemo and his pals. It's time to get digging in the dirt.

After a Storm: CRY!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tree Rose After Wind Storm: Bird Back 40
There are gardening writers in the local blogosphere (is that even a word?) who offer helpful and handy tips of what steps to take now that a storm has come and gone.

I'm here to tell you that I am not one of those bloggers. If you're looking for good advice, go elsewhere. If you're looking for "can't possibly fail" gardening tips, you've tuned to the wrong channel. But if you're here to laugh at my misfortunes, congratulations, you've reached Nirvana.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that it doesn't take long for Mother Nature to utterly destroy what took you months to build. Mere hours of misfortune can result in epic disaster, especially if you've devoted an entire Bird Back 40 to this insane gardening endeavor.

St. Patrick's Rose Stem Ripped from Bush
Case in point? That nice looking tree rose bush pictured above right? That's not just any tree rose, my friend. That is the St. Patrick's tree rose. It was a gift to the wife that is Venus a few years back for her birthday. I would later to have to invest in another tree rose that went with the St. Patrick as it snapped in two following a rather ferocious wind storm.

That's gardening for you. Investment and epic failure. I'm here today to tell you that I babied this tree rose like no other when the first spring shoots began to emerge in February. It was given the best fertilizer on a once-a-month schedule. Daily and deep watering would follow. And if any bad bugs appeared to munch on those yet-unopened rose buds? They got a shot of something special, which also protected said tree rose from other maladies of the fungal variety.

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree: Mangled
But, in the end, when a sustained wind rips through the North Natomas river bottom, as it did this past Monday, it really doesn't matter. Because those howling winds just about tore everything to shreds, or mangled it to the point where it looks like someone beat on it with a crow hammer.

Those branches and buds of the Saint Patrick's tree rose that I'd cared for, nurtured, performed concerts for now lie in a heap on the ground. They are broken. They will not be roses. They will be waste for the Green Waste can. I am disgusted. What a waste.

Pluots That Will Never Ripen
That same despair and disgust applies to just about everything that Venus and I nurtured during those spring months. Why did we graft those new varieties to the Flavor Finale Pluot? So they could produce more pluots that the wind could just knock off the tree?

Oh, and that ingenious little contraption that I wrote about here that makes a nice little cover for my tomato plant starters? I also discovered, sadly, that it makes great kite material. This is after it blew off somewhere into Yolo County. I might find it someday and mount on a wall as a testament of good ideas gone very wrong.

Broken Arapaho Blackberry Vines
Never again will I visit those emerging Arapaho blackberry vine flowers and get visions of blackberry pie or blackberry cobbler. Not with visions like this one. Tender blackberry vines and sustained gusting winds do not mix. Something's gotta give, and it wasn't the wind.

Our spring of discontent doesn't end there. There's no need to "cull" the peach trees of extra peaches. Mother Nature did it for us. Whether we wanted to do it or not. Consider it done. And as desperate as I am, I will NOT try to glue those peaches back on the tree. Unless, of course, someone tells me it can be done.

If it didn't break, it got bent. If it didn't get bent, it flew two counties to the south. There was a time when the spring artichoke crops were close to growing over the fence. Not anymore. Some of them are growing to the east, while others grow to the west. Some are growing down. Did they survive? Sure! Will those plants snap off at the base under the weight of a heavy artichoke crop come this spring? By golly you betcha they will!

Bent Artichoke Plants
So, dear gardeners, take heed. No matter what measures you take to prevent disaster, no matter how hard you try, Mother Nature can undo all of it with a single blow. And then you begin to wonder why this lady doesn't like you so much.

A wise gardener once wrote the following: Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes." If that's the case, this must be a case of shock therapy at it's best.

Let's Move Them Out, Gunny!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Heirloom Tomato Plant Starters Under Cover
One of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies from all time would have to be Heartbreak Ridge. I simply cannot get enough of Eastwood's character. I find myself invariably repeating lines from time to time, as you may have guessed with the title. When it comes to the Bird 2013 Heirloom Tomato plant starters? Gunny has indeed, "moved them out.

You'll notice that this year's crop of heirloom tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, five varieties of basil, three varieties of eggplant and numerous flower plant starters are covered by a thick plastic sheeting. This is for their protection. This is the all important "hardening off" time for the starters that Venus and I planted from seed last February. This also happens to be a new addition to the hardening off process.

Basil Plant Starters
One wrong move during this process can result in exactly 120 DEAD AS A DOOR NAIL plant starters. It's either DEAD or severely sunburned and shocked to the point where it will take weeks to recover, resulting in the loss of precious growth time that vegetable plants need to become healthy, large and, ultimately, productive.

I did my best job of hardening off tomato starters during the first year that I planted tomato varieties from seed. That was 2003. I started exactly two varieties that year -- both Livingston originals. I'm not exactly sure what I did right, but I grew 12 champion starter plants that spring. It was pretty darn close to nursery quality.

Paragon Starters: 2003
Call it beginner's luck I guess, because I've never been able to duplicate that success. Hardening off tomato and vegetable plant starters can be difficult for folks who work a full work week, which would include me and the wife that is Venus. The "hardening off" process involves moving plants into sunlight for a few hours each day, then moving them back under cover, away from the harmful UV rays that result in sunburn and shock.

The hardening off process, if done correctly, results in tomato and vegetable plant starters that are completely hardened off and resistant from UV rays in about a week's worth of time. Done incorrectly? A whole host of problems can develop. And I've managed to experience most of them as I majored in gardening errors.

Vegetable Plant Starters 
Bottom line? We simply don't have the time to move plants into sunlight and back under cover over the course of a five or six day period. If we're lucky? We get three days. On the fourth day when both of us return to work? It's a case of "you're on your own, fellas." I can't begin to tell you the disappointment that washes over me when I see the results of this rushed process pop up a day or two later and worsen over time. Leaves that were once lush, healthy and green turn a none-too-pleasant shade of brown and curl up and die. Starter plants wilt. New growth slows to a crawl.

Although the plants do eventually recover, time has been lost. Worse yet, some plants will recover and grow but not fruit much during the summer. Growing heirloom tomatoes, as I've come to find out, is really hit and miss. Some plants fruit up a storm, while others planted right next to them do very little. Or worse yet, produce fruit that is eventually lost to Blossom End Rot (BER) or other disease.

I'll admit, it's frustrating.

Some Good Advice?
But this year? This year represents a new hope in the hardening off process. It is the result of some very good advice from a retired rocket engineer turned heirloom tomato grower who lives in New York and posts on gardening forums under the name of "Hotwired." I tend to trust retired engineers like my father-in-law who passed away a few years ago. I've never forgiven him for doing that. I wasn't quite ready to let Gale go. I guess we never are when it comes to people who make a meaningful impact in our lives.

I was immediately drawn to the title of one of Hotwired's articles titled "Harding Off Tomato Plants for People Who Work Full Time." His suggestions took me into an area that I never would have dreamed of going. It was a simple fix, really. And since he practices this method with great success, why not give it a try?

Plastic Sheeting
His advice was aimed at growers who produce 50-500 plant starters, not the novice beginner who is growing out tomatoes for the very first time. His suggestion? Purchase rolls of plastic sheeting found in the paint departments of any big box or hardware store and cover the plants for at least five or six days. At first I was a bit dubious. There are many types and sizes of this sheeting. If you've ever painted your own house before (never again!), you go through miles of this stuff it seems.

Hotwired's advice was quite specific. The plastic sheeting, sold in thickness that ranges from 1 ml to 6 ml, would have to be at least 4 ml in thickness. His instructions promised that as long as the plants are covered with 4 ml plastic sheeting, it would result in starter plants that were completely hardened off within five or six days.

2013 Bird Vegetable Starters
Color me interested. A solution like this had never dawned upon me before. I shared this advice with other gardeners, who also found it unique, but also believed it just might work. Gardening is, after all, a gamble and leap into the unknown. Why not give it a try?

As you can tell by the numerous photos above, it was high time to move the starters outside anyway. They had grown quite large and lush during the month of March in a room that doubles as our home office. Plus, the weather has been just a tad strange this year. Our winter came to a rather abrupt end in January. It turned moderately warm in February, and other than a couple of spring rainstorms, it's been downright pleasant.

Wire Rack with Wheels: Genius!
Home Depot offered two types of 4 ml sheeting. One roll came in a size that was three feet long and 50 feet wide. The other, larger roll, offered enough 4 ml sheeting to cover our entire house. I went with the cheap option because, well, I'm cheap. After an investment of $12 bucks, I was at home taping sheets together with duct tape. You thought those were racing stripes? Hardly! It's called the cheap man's way to harden off vegetable plant starters. Three feet wouldn't be wide enough to completely cover our four-foot wide and six-feet high, tiered gardening rack. But two three foot sections taped together with duct tape offered the cheap dude's solution.

The first problem we faced, which I'd given some thought to, was the wind. I had believed that the rocks that I placed on the bottom rack of our tiered gardening rack would be enough. WRONG! A rainstorm blew in the next day and left the sheeting on the other side of the yard. Meanwhile? Our tomato starters were getting pelted with a spring rain. Back underneath the patio they went.

A Jumbled Mess!
By the way, there's nothing quite like getting out in the middle of a severe downpour right after you've woken up for the upcoming workday. It works better than a strong jolt of java. But, I digress.

Fortunately, I still hadn't cleaned up from last spring's addition of extra sidewalk space in the Bird Back 40. There were heavy chunks of concrete to be found. I would discover that putting heavy chunks of concrete on top of the gardening rack, as well as the bottom rung, would be solution to our "wind and rain" problem.

One might point out that I've constructed a "mini-greenhouse." Perhaps. But not quite. The sides to this plastic sheeting contraption are not banded together. There's plenty of air circulation that blows through. And although the flaps to this contraption will sometimes blow open, exposing the starters to the dangers of direct sunlight, they quickly close up again.

So far? There's been no telltale sign of sunburn. The plants are green. The plants are lush. They do require daily watering now (they tend to dry out rather quickly in full sunlight, covered or not). But I haven't lost one to sunburn. There's been no wilt or any other problems that come with not hardening off plants correctly.

The big test, of course, will come on Tuesday or Wednesday when the cover is removed and the starters are exposed to the direct rays of warm sunshine. And, yes, it's supposed to be quite warm, with temperatures approaching 90 degrees by the middle of next week.

Will this solution work? Only time will tell. But if it does, Clint Eastwood would approve.