Strawberries for the Soul

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Emerging Strawberries-Bird Back 40
And you thought Chicken soup was the only good thing for the soul? Guess again. Strawberries -- especially home grown berries -- are pretty darn good for the soul as well. I should know -- since fresh berry patches grace the Bird Back 40 -- providing us with a bounty of fresh berries from mid-spring through June.

Why plant strawberries? The most obvious answer is "why not?" Strawberries are a wonderful addition to any backyard -- and you can grow a lot of berry with a small bit of room. In this particular case? A raised bed holding fruit trees is also doing double-duty as a strawberry patch. As it turns out -- fruit trees and strawberries work quite well with one another.

Strawberry Plants in the Apple Patch
This is a tip that the wife that is Venus and I learned one adventurous Saturday afternoon during a class taught by Folsom City Arborist Ken Menzer. A lot of great ideas came out of that class -- some of which worked and others (blueberries) did not. But his advice to plant strawberries at the base of fruit tree plantings was spot on. Leaves of these trees help shelter tender berry plants from blazing afternoon sunshine, while the berries open up cracks in the soil allowing water and other nutrients to reach fruit tree roots.

The pairing just works. Another advantage to this tandem is strawberry plants choke out all weeds. I haven't been required to weed the berry bed for years.

Emerging Strawberries in the Pear Patch
It's done just fine for the apple trees we planted four years ago in a side yard of the Bird Back 40. This apple "patch" as I call it also holds the tastiest apple on the planet -- bar none: The Honeycrisp. The raised bed that the trees are planted in is dotted with a collection of Albion and Chandler strawberry plants.

Although they look productive -- this was yet another gardening mistake on my part. If you Google the terms of "popular strawberries to plant in California," up jumps a number of lists of strawberry plant recommendations. At the top of those lists? The number one plant for California gardens? The recommendation is the "Albion" strawberry.

Shuksan Strawberries
And so -- four years ago -- Bill Bird sat at his computer as he is now -- and made yet another gardening blunder. I ordered a set of ten Albion plants and ten Chandler plants from Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington. Why was this an error on my part? Because I jumped before reading the fine print. As it turns out -- Albion is a GREAT strawberry for California -- but only for certain areas. Albion berries grow and produce best in gardening zones 3-8. The Bird Back 40 is located in Zone 9A.

Bummers. No wonder the strawberry plants weren't as productive as I hoped. Although they've set a nice crop here in Year 4 -- at some point I will pull them out and replace them with a strawberry plant that loves Zone 9A. There are plenty of varieties that do quite well in the Sacramento area. I just have to choose the right one.

Shuksan Strawberry Plant (bare root)
For this year's berry planting effort? I decided to read the fine print on the Sakuma Brothers website. In other words -- I found the berry for our backyard. It's called the Shuksan Strawberry -- and the bundle of 20 plants that arrived in the mail earlier this week have been planted here and there in the raised bed holding three pear trees.

Shuksan strawberries grow best in Zones 4-10 -- and are often found at those roadside strawberry stands that dot the Sacramento countryside during fresh strawberry season. They are good for fresh eating. They are good for jams and jellies. They are good for just about everything.

The Shuksan plants will grow through the spring and summer, sending out shoots and will take over every last inch of space in the raised bed holding our pear patch. Combine that with other strawberry patches dotting the Bird Back 40 -- and that's a lot of pie.

This is a bad thing?

I think not!

Can't You Just Taste That???

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Table Grape Cluster-Thompson Vine
I know I can! Know what that is pictured to the right peeps? That, my friends, is a cluster. Not just any cluster mind you. And not the kind of cluster that Gunny Highway (Clint Eastwood) popularized in "Heartbreak Ridge." Nope! The picture to the right represents a big, fat CLUSTER of Thompson Table Grapes. And clusters just like this one are now emerging on every shoot emerging from the Thompson Table Grape vine.

Know what that means? It means a boatload of Thompson Table Grapes come this summer. And boatloads of table grapes are not a bad thing -- at least not in my book anyway.

Haircut Needed!
The table grape clusters now emerging by the hundreds it seems from the Venus, Fantasy, Black Monukka and Diamond Muscat vines, to name a few, follow on the heels of a haircut party held several weeks ago in the Bird Back 40. These vines, which emerged last year, managed to grow and cover the sidewalk you see pictured here and there. They also managed to grow right into the nearby pluot tree. Not only did they grow into it -- tendrils from these vines wrapped themselves around pluot tree branches and grew clear to the other side of the tree.

It wasn't all that unusual then -- to see a cluster of table grapes growing inside the pluot tree. And it did make for nice conversation.

Vines Before Pruning
Properly maintained? One single table grape vine will produce anywhere from 50 to 60 lbs. of table grapes. That's more than you and I can eat in any one sitting or two or three sittings for that matter. Now -- multiply that kind of production with nine table grape vines. There comes a point in the season where it's open season on table grape production, and I can't give them away or juice them fast enough.

The trick is to make sure the vines are properly maintained. The mass of vines you see pictured above looks like a really bad haircut, or someone just got up from a hard night's sleep. Most of these vines will not survive the pruning process that takes place when you're getting your mini-vineyard ready for spring and summer production. The wood that produced last years crop gets pruned away first -- along with any vines that emerged from that wood.

Vines After Pruning
The wood that you keep are the strongest vines or runners that emerged from the top of the vine, or the runners that emerged from the trunk itself. Those are the vines you keep -- and you won't keep all of them either. Some grape growers practice spur pruning -- keeping the strongest two vines that grew from the top or "cordon." Other growers practice the cane pruning method -- keeping the strongest vines that emerged from the trunks.

In my case? I practice both. Some varieties do better with spur pruning. Still others do better with cane pruning. Through the years I've discovered that the Thompson performs best with the spur pruning method, while the Black Monukka produces best through the method of cane pruning. And, as for the Fantasy vine, it really doesn't matter. The Fantasy is going to churn out ping-pong sized grapes no matter no matter what method of pruning that I use.

Piles of Discarded Vines
The vines that I choose to keep -- those that will be this year's fruit producers -- are then tied to the cattle pen fencing that we installed some years ago for our table grape vineyard efforts. It's been one of our better gardening investments. Cattle pen fencing can hold cows in place -- and can also support several hundred lbs. of table grape production.

It takes the better part of a weekend to properly prune and tie up nine table grape vines -- plus dispose of the piles of discarded vines piled nearby. That's a big investment of time and energy -- but well worth it when table grape season arrives -- which comes in late June for the Venus vine and continues right into July and August when most of the other varieties ripen up.

Cattle Pen Fencing
These vines will be sprayed to protect against mildew and other damage. Gibberellic acid, or GA-3, an organic growth hormone that promotes cell growth, will also be used at some point. Although there has been some previous research that suggests the use of GA-3 limits production on the Fantasy vine, I have not found this to be readily apparent in the Bird Back 40. And GA-3 results in large grapes that are packed with lip-smacking natural sugars. Fantasy grapes are not only the best eating -- they make the finest table grape juice.

The crop is ready when the mockingbirds who mock me begin to raid the vines with impunity. But it really doesn't matter all that much. These vines produce so much fruit now that I can share some with our fine-feathered friends. Besides -- they're taking a risk by coming in this close. Because somewhere in those vines -- hiding beneath the leaves -- is our garden patrol cat: Lenny. And when a 25 lb. Maine Coon snags a mockingbird? It's game over -- at least as far as the mockingbird is concerned.

As the wife that is Venus would say, "that's nature." Cats chase birds. It's the natural order of things. Yes -- and we can add one more rule to that list: Bill Bird likes table grapes.

So You Wanna Grow MINT, Do Ya?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

MINT! Look good? Take me home!
MINT! It's an herb. Not just any herb mind you. No -- mint would have to classified as the Harry Callahan of herb fame. As in, "Go Ahead, Make My Day" fame. As in, "Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?" That starter plant of mint at your local big box store beckons. "Take me home," it whispers softly into your gardening ears. "Plant me with other herbs so I can have friends," it says.

My friends -- I'm here today to tell you this: Don't believe a word. Mint is lying to you. Oh sure -- you can plant mint in a tiny or a big herb garden. Do you know what the result will be exactly one year later? You'll have an herb bed consisting entirely of nothing but bright, green mint. And it will cast a longing eye at that bed you've set aside for tomato plants and other veggies.

Mint Overtakes Raised Gardening Bed-Bird Back 40
"You don't mind if I move right in, do you," mint asks. And before you can say "no," it's too late. Because mint has already moved in and made itself right at home. That cute little starter plant you brought home a year ago from your favorite big box store has turned into a monster that threatens to overwhelm your yard.

And it will.

That's why I was somewhat amused to read the blog posting printed in the Home and Garden section of today's Sacramento Bee. It contained a paragraph of a post from the blogger behind "Chic Little House," where the author revealed plans to plant her first vegetable garden. And the star of that garden? In the author's own words: "Yesterday, I saw mint and peppermint chocolate, I just have to grow both!"

Mint Gone Wild-Bird Back 40
Uh oh...

My friends, I'm here today to tell you this. If you do not control mint, it will control you. I know this from experience. The pictures above and the pictures below are pictures of the current state of the Bird Back 40. There's mint growing out of the walkways around my raised gardening beds. Mint has already invaded one bed. It's threatening to invade another, and will.

Mint will take over an entire garden in no time flat. It's the most invasive herb of any herb found in the herb family. It will take that oregano plant that you planted next to it and drop-kick it into the neighbor's backyard -- and then mint will grow into your neighbor's yard as well. It will choke out anything and everything in its path and keep right on going.

Mint From the Neighbor's Yard
Believe it or not, I know what you're thinking. If I knew mint was this bad and this invasive, why in HADES did I plant it anywhere in the Bird Back 40, especially near my raised gardening beds? That's a good question. The short answer is I didn't. My neighbor did. And before he knew it -- it took over the small patch he'd set aside for gardening, grew right underneath the fence and right into my backyard.

Thank you neighbor. That's mighty neighborly of you.

Evil, EVIL, Mint!
Once mint gets a foothold? It's nearly impossible to stop. The mint you see pictured here has an upcoming date with Roundup herbicide. It's either that -- or a blowtorch. And a blowtorch will just set my raised gardening beds on fire. Not a good idea.

As for the mint now slowly advancing through one of the raised beds -- that's even tougher. I'll be forced to remove every last inch of gardening soil, dig down into the clay below and eradicate every last mint root runner that I can find. I will get most of them. Unfortunately, I will not get all of them. The Roundup herbicide it will soon be soaked with will knock it down, but it won't knock it out.

The Monster in a Raised Bed for Tomato Plants
Mint is one tough customer.

So my friends -- please do me this little favor. Either don't listen to that starter plant of mint whispering to you from the garden area of your big box store -- or buy yourself a pot with small draining holes only and plant your mint there. If you make the mistake of placing this pot on the soil -- the mint roots will eventually grow right into the soil and you've released the monster.

Better keep that pot on concrete instead.

Tying Up Venus

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tie This Mess Up!
Hey now!!! All the Young Dudes have suddenly jumped up, tuned in and taken notice! Mix one part vegetable gardening with two parts of tying up Venus? Finally -- I'm about to embark on a perhaps not-safe-for-work blog post that All the Young Dudes can finally sink their teeth into!
Boy -- are they ever going to be disappointed.
Wife That Is Venus with The Venus Table Grape
This blog posting is about tying up Venus. Not the wife that is Venus. But rather, just Venus. So who is Venus all the young dudes sing out in a perfect chorus of curiosity? Venus isn't a "who." Venus is a "what." The Venus I am referring too is the Venus table grape variety that occupies one small corner of the Bird Back 40. No -- I am not tying the wife that is Venus to the fence. For any reason.
And suddenly, blog readership slipped back to the normal levels of 2.34 fans -- as All the Young Dudes have used their mouse or iPhones to click back to more interesting endeavors like that hot cheerleaders posting on their favorite sports forums.
All the Young Dudes can't be bothered with topics such as gardening.
Neglected Venus Table Grape Vine
My friends, it may be a tad early this year just like it was last year. But there's no denying that "spring has sprung." Ye olde calendar sitting on the wall stubbornly claims to the fact that we're still in the dead of winter. But there's no denying what is taking place before our very eyes. The trees and vines that provide us with fresh, lip-smacking fruit choices throughout the summer months have awoken from their winter slumber.
What does this mean? In gardening terms -- it means it's time to "get busy." And, no, that doesn't mean "get busy" with the wife that is Venus. Although she probably wouldn't mind. Nope, in this case? My attention is drawn to that Venus table grape variety that I planted several years ago when I installed rows of table grapes in the Bird Back 40.
Venus Table Grape in 2013
It's safe to say that the wife that is Venus is unique. So is the table grape that is Venus. It's at least unique to California. Not many people grow it locally. Developed by Dr. J.N. Moore and released in 1977 by the Arkansas Agricultural Research Station connected to the University of Arkansas, the Venus table grape is the only non-California grape that grows in the Bird Back 40.
And you thought California held a patent on all things grapes? Not so fast...
Venus Table Grape Cluster
The Venus table grape took some time to get established to our California climate, which is decidedly different from Arkansas. It grew a total of ONE FOOT in Year One after planting, when most table grapes will grow five to ten feet. The next year, the very unimpressive Venus table grape grew an additional foot, giving us a total of TWO FEET of growth in two years.
What a LOSER!
But -- little did I know. The Venus was merely taking its time. Because, in year three, when I dutifully paid all attention to the California table grape varieties that were growing quite well in the Bird Back 40 and all but ignored the Venus -- the Venus decided that it liked California. It liked California in a very big way.
Step One: Install and Bolt Trellis to Fence
Suddenly -- the vine that I had ignored and failed to trellis or even stake for that matter suddenly TOOK OFF. It had taken two years to grow two feet. But in Year 3? The Venus vine grew two feet in a week. It grew and it grew and it grew until it finally grew into the neighbor's yard -- six feet up a fence and it kept right on growing. By the time I thought of even adding a support for the Venus vine, it was already too late. The monster had emerged. The monster was on a rampage.
But the Venus did more than just grow. It produced its first crop of table grapes. And it produced them FAR earlier than Bill or the wife that is Venus EVER expected. Ripe table grapes in JUNE? Two to three months before the "California only" vines produced a batch of ripened table grapes? Can it be so?
Yeah, so...
Step Two: Tie Vines to Trellis
This year I was determined not to make the same mistake. I would not ignore the Venus Table Grape. I would not ignore the wife that is Venus. And so -- on one sunny Sunday afternoon -- I attached a trellis to the fence located closest to the Venus -- bolted it down so it wouldn't bend or break under the weight of 50 lbs. of table grapes and proceeded to tie up every last vine I could find.
Since I had made no effort to tie up last year's growth -- separating new wood from the old proved to be difficult. Was that particular vine last year's growth or the year before it? Did that branch produce fruit last year? If I came to the decision that it had -- it got pruned back. But it was tough to tell. Vines and branches that produced fruit the previous year will not be as giving in Year 2, which is why you want to preserve the shoots and branches that grew last year but did not produce. They will become this year's fruit producers.
Step Three: Enjoy Drinks
The end result is a Venus table grape vine that has suddenly erupted with new green growth as the calendar churned from February to March. The Venus gets an earlier start to the season than most table grapes. While the California varieties slumber away -- Venus is on a mission. This is probably why it ripens up so early in the season.
As far as taste is concerned -- I would put Venus on the same level as Black Monukka or Suffolk Red. It's not the best in the Bird Back 40. No -- that claim has been staked by Fantasy and Diamond Muscat, two of the finest tasting table grapes on the planet bar none.
But nothing beats fresh table grape production in late June and early July -- a solid month and a half before the California vines reach maturity. That's what makes the Venus table grape so special and why it's earned a deserved spot in the pantheon of fruit production gracing the Bird Back 40.
The wife that is Venus agrees. The Venus table grape is a keeper.

A Ghost Rises

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Ghost Rises
There's something mighty special taking place in one corner of the North Natomas heirloom tomato farm extravaganza belonging to yours truly -- and the wife that is Venus. Plants are just popping out all over in anticipating of the onset of spring -- and that includes the Bird 2014 heirloom tomato and pepper summer garden.
The most interesting item to emerge this morning? That would be it -- pictured above right. That, my fine gardening friends, represents a first for the Birdhouse. It is truly something special. It's called the Ghost Pepper -- and it's become a somewhat special and legendary ingredient in the moderately-famous and always in demand Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.
Ghost Pepper Seeds
The Ghost pepper -- my friends -- is a hands down winner. But I don't recommend that you sample one fresh from the garden. That might cause a bit of indigestive pain -- if you get my drift.
You see -- the Ghost Pepper -- also known as Bhut Jolokia -- is a rather warm pepper. I say this facetiously. The Ghost Pepper was once know as the hottest pepper on the planet, bar none. It's since been surpassed by others -- but that Scoville unit rating of one million is still nothing to be laughed at. The Ghost Pepper produces a taste that is so stinging hot, that it rates just a notch below standard police-grade pepper spray.
Bird 2014 Summer Garden under Shop Lights
None of this matters to the wife that is Venus. Once she discovered my plans to grow the Bhut Jolokia in the Bird Back 40, it's been "GAME ON." You see, the correct pronunciation of this pepper might be something akin to "Boot Holoka," but when it comes to the Bhut Jolokia the wife that is Venus suddenly reverts to the tender age of ten.
Which means I become the "Bhut" of all jokes. Bhut Jolokia has suddenly become my second name. Or, if I'm doing something to annoy her (which is quite often), I am nothing more than a "Bhut Jolokia."
Pick a Peck of Peppers
We were warned -- before planting our pepper and tomato seeds two weekends ago -- that the Ghost Pepper could take a rather long time to germinate and emerge from the soil. Germination can sometimes take up to a month. But this morning -- barely two weeks after planting -- the first Ghost Pepper seedling emerged. I'm sure it will be followed by others.
The emergence of the Bhut Jolokia actually beat out a few other pepper varieties -- which concerns me a tad. We didn't buy any pepper seeds this year -- other than the Bhut Jolokia of course -- because the gardening seed box (a repurposed box that once held a pair of size 13 sneakers) is jammed with pepper seed purchases made in previous years. Planting pepper seeds that are more than two or three years old is akin to rolling a pair of dice. Sometimes it comes up sixes. And sometimes it's snake eyes -- as in no germination at all.
Venus Plants Tomato Seeds
The Ghost Pepper has another thing going for it. Unlike our previous experience with other hot peppers -- the Bhut Jolokia does not lose its mega-byte of hotness after cooking for a solid hour or processing in a pressure canner for 30 minutes. We experimented with this pepper quite a bit last year, thanks to the generous donations of South Natomas gardener Nels Christensen.
The last experiment turned out to be the best: Four Ghost Peppers in a batch of salsa that resulted in eleven one-pint jars. Named "Ghost to the Post" in honor of former Oakland Raiders tight end Dave Casper (and the Ghost Pepper, of course), these eleven jars resulted in the best salsa we've ever created in the Bird family kitchen. Finally, after years of trial and many errors, we've produced something with a real kick.
Grow! Grow! Grow!
I look forward to this summer when we can hopefully combine ripened, red hot Ghost Peppers with the fine tomato selections offered by Brad Gates and his Wild Boar Farms. Peppers -- especially hot peppers -- are an essential ingredient in not just salsa -- but the many brands of tomato sauce that we create and can for winter use. Why confine yourself to a store purchase of tomato sauce mixed with one kind of pepper and one kind of basil -- when you can have six?
And so my friends, while I do recommend the Bhut Jolokia for your backyard pleasure, I also preach caution. Because this pepper has a real bite and kick to it. Treat it with the respect and care it deserves. Because if you're not careful, the Ghost Pepper just might kick you square in the Bhut.