The Color of Summer

Friday, June 27, 2014

Vine-Ripening Lemon Boy Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
The color of summer in a backyard vegetable garden is a show not to be missed. Like the rainbow, backyard produce can produce a glow, a hue, an iridescence that excites the soul. I can see that excitement in the photo to your immediate right. I will soon be able to taste that glow and excitement that is the first vine-ripened tomato of the 2014 summer gardening season.

And there's a quiet satisfaction in knowing that we made that. We made it happen. All that work -- all that prep -- it's all going to start paying off now with a bounty of produce that will transform the Bird Back 40 into our personal farmer's market. It may not be the first tomato to ripen up in the Sacramento area. Others have beat us to the punch and are weeks ahead of us.

Sioux Tomato
No matter. It's not a race. It's just the first tomato of the season. This weekend the Lemon Boy tomato pictured above will join the first cucumber of the young season on small snack plate to be voraciously consumed by two backyard gardeners who are eagerly awaiting that first taste of the summer season.

It's late June in Sacramento. You won't see them in these pictures -- but the weeds are EVERYWHERE. I suppose that's the price one pays for wearing a boot for a solid month, waiting for a cranky Achilles Tendon to heal. But heal it has. There is strength in that step again. The pain is gone. I'm ready to be turned loose in the garden for the first time in nearly two months.

Heirloom Tomato Monsters-Bird Back 40
A lot of work awaits.

But with the work comes excitement. Yes -- I need to stake up some tomato plants that have grown so large that they fallen over. But as I peer into the depths of those plants, now hidden by weeds, what I can see brings a large smile to my face. That courtship we danced with Love Apple Farms in May is paying dividends with monster production in the month of June. We haven't lost a single plant to disease this year, which is incredibly rare. Not only that, the vast majority of them are loaded for bear.

This includes the Sioux Tomato which has found a home in the Bird Back 40 for the very first time this year. This isn't a new tomato -- not by any stretch of the imagination. Introduced in 1944 by the University of Nebraska, the Sioux qualifies as an exceptional heirloom variety that has withstood the test of time. I may not have planted this variety before, but I've certainly heard good things about it from others.

Paul Robeson Tomato
In the world of growing heirloom tomatoes, my friends, there's nothing quite like the marketing campaign called "word of mouth."

When I stroll through the garden and study the various tomato plants in various stages of production, it's not the single fruit that interests me nearly as much as the cluster of fruit. Cherry varieties offer fruit that is clustered together, but that can be hard to find with standard, larger varieties. So if I find clusters of fruit on plants that are designed to produce 1 lb. beefsteak monsters or more? That's called excitement.

Honeybee Forages on Basil Flowers
These clusters exist on the Paul Robeson. What is a Paul Robeson you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked! Please, let me enlighten you.

Paul Robeson was an equal rights advocate who stood up to the infamous Joseph McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 1950’s, which nearly destroyed his career in opera. Idolized in Russia, as well as the rest of the world, this black Russian heirloom was named in his honor. Today the Paul Robeson can be found in vegetable gardens around the world, including the Bird Back 40.

Think that might go well in a jar of Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa? Yeah -- I think it might too. It makes for an interesting story too.

Siam Queen Thai Basil-Bird Back 40
It's summer. The tomatoes are fruiting. The corn is growing. Peppers are popping. Bees are buzzing with excitement as they race from one tempting patch of pollen to another. The first tomato of the season awaits harvest.

Does it get any better than this?

Plums are for Drinkin!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Santa Rosa Plum Cocktails
Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids! And fresh plums from the yard aren't for munching -- although they do make a nice snack in the morning, afternoon or night. No -- fresh plums are for drinking! And I have the proof. Look Ma! Photos! Know what that is? That my friends is a plum cocktail. You might also find a Plum-Basil Gin Fizz in there somewhere.

And you just might find the recipes for the lip-smacking concoctions at the bottom of the page. Provided you're lucky.

Santa Rosa Plum Tree
In order to "make" a cocktail such as these -- several items are needed. Gin would be a good start. And with good gin available just about everywhere you look in the Sacramento area -- finding a bottle of the good stuff shouldn't be all that difficult. As for the other items? You'll probably need a fresh lime or two (lime juice works too), some sprigs of basil. And you'll need to harvest about 10-15 large, tree-ripened Santa Rosa plums from your tree in the front yard.

Don't have a Santa Rosa plum tree in your front yard? How about the back yard? No? Then, I'm sorry, but as the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld fame once lectured: "No plum cocktails for you!" Because, I'm kinda sorry to say this, but fresh, tree-ripened Santa Rosa plums are an absolute MUST for preparing drinks like these.

Ripe Santa Rosa Plums
The good, ol' Santa Rosa plum tree put out a right fine crop this year - and it was good to see. Last year I let a tree trimmer go to work on it because I allowed it to grow beyond my control. That's never a good idea. Because -- this was one excited tree trimmer. And he did a right fine job of cutting it back, sure enough. Unfortunately, he did a little bit too good of a job. We didn't get many plums last year.

Ahem, we all learn from our mistakes.

Sliced Plums Added to Simple Syrup Mixture
So -- this year I sent Mr. Hyperactive Tree Trimmer into retirement. I trimmed it myself last summer -- several times actually. But I made sure to keep enough fruiting branches around so I would hopefully enjoy a nice crop in 2014. Well, whaddya know? Tree trimming isn't so difficult after all. You just have to do it. That tree isn't going to trim itself.

Although the tree is raided regularly by a family of shrieking mockingbirds, who also dive-bomb the neighborhood cats incessantly, there's enough to go around. I must admit -- I've been enjoying a number of at-work breakfast breaks involving sliced Santa Rosa plums. There's always five or six for snacking on when I get home.

Notice That Color?
And did I mention the plum cocktails?

Unlike other fruit-producing trees that grace the Bird Back 40 -- the Santa Rosa plum isn't all that unique. In fact, it's one of the most common plum trees found in homes from one end of the valley to another. It loves our weather. It grows quickly. Treat it with a little love and care -- and it will reward you with sweet, fresh, dripping fruit goodness.

Like just about every other plum tree on the planet, it can and will drop plums on the grass or a sidewalk if it's planted too close to one. The birds also peck their share out of the tree. But that's about the only drawback that I can think of. And, if you don't mind picking up a few plums that have fallen to the ground -- well -- consider it a nice fruit producer for the month of June.

Plums Are For Drinking!
As for the drinks? I discovered those last year, online. If you just feed your Google search monster with the words Santa Rosa plums and gin, a multitude of recipes pop up. I find that many of them come from the Deep South -- or even southwest. And some even have quite the history, such as the Sugar Plum Dreams Cocktail, which was first served in 1862.

And did I fail to mention just how good plum cocktails are? If I did, forgive me. They are a treat not to be missed. So -- find yourself some Santa Rosa plums or any other plum that's in season right now and follow my path straight where I land on my face at some point.

I guess you can have one too many plum-tini's...


Plum Cocktails
(prepare in advance)
- Heat over medium heat 1 1/4 cups sugar and 1 1/2 cups water in a saucepan until sugar dissolves
- Bring to a boil, then stir in 10-15 plums (pitted and cut into wedges). I also mashed the mixture with a potato masher
- Remove from heat and refrigerate until cold

(to serve)
- Fill glasses with ice
- Squeeze 1 lime wedge into each glass
- Stir in 1/4 cup plum syrup and 1 oz gin into each glass
- Add sparking water to fill, stir

The plum syrup, lime juice and gin can be combined in a pitcher for easy entertaining. Just fill glasses with desired amount and top off with sparkling water.



1 ripe plum, pitted, half diced and half sliced
5 large basil leaves
2 oz. gin
1 oz. simple syrup
Seltzer, to top drink
Lime wedge, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the diced plum and basil leaves. Fill the shaker with ice; add the gin & simple syrup. Place on the shaker lid and shake for 1 minute. Pour into a glass filled the sliced plum. Fill glass to the top with seltzer and garnish with lime wedge.

But Will There be Enough for PIE???

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Arapaho Blackberries
My friends! The facetious, bull hockey artist known as yours truly is asking a stupid question. Why is it so stupid? Look at the evidence to your immediate right! Know what that is? That's about 5 lbs. of LIP-SMACKING blackberries harvested directly from the Bird Back 40. Know what's so special about this harvest? I'll tell you what's special.

It ain't done yet.

It's just getting started.

That 5 lbs. is a proverbial "drop in the bucket." 

Loaded Arapaho Blackberry Plant-Bird Back 40
Is 5 lbs. of freshly harvested blackberries enough for a blackberry pie? Is Bill Bird a facetious, bull hockey artist? Therefore -- we know the answer to the pie question. There's enough for pie. There's enough for two pies. Wait! Make that three pies! Anyone venture to guess, FOUR? Can you eat four blackberry pies? I honestly don't know if I could (in one sitting). But, I'll tell you this much. It sure would be fun to try!

The surprising thing about this haul from the Bird Back 40 is it came from just ONE blackberry bush. Yes, there's more. This boatload of berries came from the Arapaho Blackberry, which was nothing more than an impulse purchase three years ago at Lowe's Big Box store in West Sacramento. Hey! I needed another blackberry to complete my blackberry plantings.

Ripening Arapaho Blackberries
Up next is the harvest from the Black Satin Blackberry plant. I'll admit -- the harvest from the Black Satin is not going to be as wonderfully prolific as the Arapaho. Boo Hoo. Bill Bird gets two pies instead of five. Oh darn. Woe is me. Cue up the world's smallest violin. Oh -- wait -- did I forget to tell you about the boysenberry harvest?

I'll admit -- I didn't do any research about the Arapaho before I bought it. The bare root vine just happened to be there on that February afternoon three years ago. It looked good. I bought it. I wouldn't find out about this special plant till some years later when I finally got around to researching what I purchased. I'll be honest -- this isn't the smartest way of planning out a fresh fruit garden. Do your research FIRST -- then buy. That's a good rule of thumb.

Look Ma! No thorns!
But -- every once in a great while -- a squirrel finds a nut. In this case, the nut dropped directly from the tree and smacked me upside my head. As I would come to discover -- the best thing about the Arapaho plant is the thorns.

It doesn't have any. Say what, Willis? No thorns? Blackberry plants and thorns go together like peanut butter and jelly! A blackberry plant without thorns is one step short of sacrilege! You can do that now? The short answer is, "yes you can." A trip to the backyard blackberry patch no longer means a trip to the nearest medical center to be treated with Bactine and bandages.

Next Year's Fruiting Cane Emerges
The Arapaho is a fairly recent introduction from the University of Arkansas Department of Forestry and Agriculture. If UC Davis is famous for developing and breeding new cultivars of strawberry plants (which they are), the University of Arkansas has the market cornered on thornless blackberry production. The Arapaho, which was released to the public in 1993, is just one of many recent blackberry introductions. 

The University of Arkansas Blackberry Breeding Program has recently developed many excellent blackberry cultivars including: Apache, Arapaho, Cherokee, Comanche, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Kiowa, Navaho, Ouachita, and Shawnee. Almost all of them are thornless and almost all grow and grow well from one end of the country to another.

In fact -- the one variety of blackberry that isn't supposed to grow well in the Sacramento area is, surprisingly, the Arapaho. It's recommended for Garden Zones 3-8. Bill Bird gardens in Zone 9A. I can attest that it really doesn't matter. The Arapaho loves it here -- and I have the lip-smacking pie ingredients to prove it.

Another nice thing about the Arapaho is it doesn't require any staking. It will fruit more if you do tie it to something -- but the Arapaho sends up canes as thick as a small tree trunk every spring and summer. Those canes that emerge this year will serve as the fruiting canes next season. Sure enough -- while the Arapaho was growing a boatload of fresh blackberries for Bill and the wife that is Venus this spring -- next year's fruiting cane emerged from the raised bed it calls home and has grown straight up to a height of seven feet. When next spring arrives, it will eventually get so heavy with fruit production that I'll need to tie it to something to keep it from collapsing.

Blackberry Pie! For me?
No matter. That's why God invented fences. And 4X4 posts. And concrete. And, nevermind...

As for the age of question of: Is there enough for pie? Well, photos do tell a wonderful story...

100 Degrees! Stop! Pea-Pod Time!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Fresh Peas from the Spring Garden
In the words of the great MC Hammer, "U Can't Touch This." Well -- actually -- that's a lie because you can. And -- in all honesty folks -- I stole this. Not from MC Hammer either. I stole it from my neighbor, Patrick. He and his wife Jillian just recently celebrated the onset of parenthood with the birth of their first (and hopefully not last) baby girl.

Patrick and his wife aren't just great neighbors, they are also Facebook friends. And I was more amused to see one of his most recent post-birth Facebook posts state the following: "3:25 AM! Stop! Baby Time!" I suppose many young parents, and older parents, might recognize what is taking place next door. Needless to say, both new mom and dad are looking a little more tired than usual these days.

Pea Vines Heavy with Pea Pods
Hopefully new baby girl will learn to sleep more than an hour or two at a time at night. At least that's my hope for you good neighbors. As for me? I'm still quite limited in my garden endeavors thanks to this damn boot on my right leg. But I'm not totally useless. As I reminded the wife that is Venus -- I can sit at a kitchen table and shell pea pods to my heart's content. This is provided she goes out in the verboten garden area to harvest said pea pods.

And what a harvest it was!

Unfortunately -- we didn't get the seeds into the ground at the proper time. That normally happens in the fall -- around mid October. Emerging shoots will grow to a certain height before freezing weather moves in, shutting down the growth process. But beneath the freeze and underneath that soil line? The already established root system keeps right on growing. So when spring finally arrives? The pea shoots that were stunted by winter growth suddenly explode and flower like nobody's business.

Tall Telephone and Mister Big Pea Pods
Unfortunately, right about the time that I should have been planting peas, I was stuck in a hospital room instead, fighting off a nasty case of pneumonia. Pneumonia is no laughing matter. The heart won't work if you can't breathe -- and breathing was indeed a problem that month. It sort of set us behind. While the planting of said pea crop finally did take place -- it took place in early spring.

Despite the late planting, the crop wasn't half bad. The wife that is Venus and I are partial to two different types of pea seed (there are many). Mister Big Pea and Tall Telephone Pea tend to produce the largest pea pods, and the largest of peas. Like most crops, there is just no comparison to home-grown peas and the fake, frozen peas that are sold in the local grocery store. Home-grown peas are meaty, sweet, crunchy and offer a meal not to be missed. Peas purchased frozen in a bag are, well, "meh."

Fresh Peas and Pea Pods Good for Stir Fry Meals!
Both varieties are also somewhat resistant to the slugs and snails that regularly patrol the raised bed gardening areas. And -- try as they might -- the plants can resist marauding cats who like to dig them up. I have plenty of experience with marauding cats -- and slugs and snails -- unfortunately.

While the onset of 100 degree days is great for all thing heirloom tomatoes, garden-grown peppers, crunchy home-grown slicing cucumbers, squash, corn and the like -- it's killer-diller on fresh peas from the garden. Peas is strictly spring. Once the weather warms like it has -- those tender vines that yielded that sweet and tasty crunch of pea-dom are history. Those vines are but a distant memory now. But there's still a heaping-helping of fresh peas that are chilling in the freezer.

A Garden Feast
Those leftovers will be put to good use later this summer when the wife that is Venus and I get around to one of my favorite canning projects: Home Grown Veg-All. If you think Bill Bird has finally gone off the deep end for using the words "excitement" and "Veg-All" in the same sentence, my challenge to you my friend is "try it before you buy it."

For there's nothing like breaking into a Ball Canning jar brimming with spring and summer vegetable produce in the dead of winter. The smell of that year's garden is right there -- a reminder that even in the coldest of days -- spring and summer is just around the corner.