A Harvest Like You

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Flavor Finale Pluots-Bird Back 40
I've been waiting for this moment to be brutally honest. I've been waiting for a harvest like you. Because the planting and growing of fruit trees is an exercise in patience. You are not going to be rewarded with a bounty of fresh fruit in the first year nor the second. The third year might give you a little something. But it's that fourth year that fruit growers really look forward too.

Why that fourth year? Because as you've dutifully tended, watered and fertilized your young fruit and citrus trees, you have given them the time they need to establish large and strong root systems below the soil line. Strong roots = strong trees. Strong trees = a bounty of fresh fruit come harvest time.

Sliced Flavor Finale Pluots
But, alas, it doesn't always work this way. Sometimes the fourth year is a bust. The fifth year can be disappointing as well. Sometimes -- it's the third year. It all depends upon the fruit tree in question, where it's planted, how much sunshine it receives and how well you've cared for it. Did disease hit at some point? What about bugs? Bugs love fruit trees just as much as I do.

But there comes that moment in time, where the harvest you've worked and waited for finally arrives. You can't taste it yet. But you can see it forming before your eyes. In my case? The Flavor Finale Pluot tree that I stuck in the ground five years ago finally got around to delivering the type of harvest that I had always dreamed about, but never quite attained.

WHOA! Now that's a harvest to remember!
What is that perfect harvest? It's a harvest that is so large, that one bathes in pluots. There's enough pluots on the tree for fresh eating. There's enough pluots on that tree to make loads and loads of pluot jam and other pluot goodies. Gin drinks made with freshly squeezed pluot juice anyone? Finally -- there's still enough to give away to family, friends and neighbors -- all they can take -- and there's still enough fruit left on the tree to feed a marauding family of mockingbirds.

That, my friends, is a harvest to remember. And it took place this year in the Bird Back 40 in what will be described as an "average" fruit year by many. The weather wasn't quite right for cherries in Northern California this year, which is why the purchase of 1 lb. of cherries cost an arm and a leg in the local supermarket. Some peach varieties -- like the June Pride for example -- set very little fruit. And the three nectarine trees delivered a smattering of fresh nectarines. And don't get me started on the apples and pears -- especially when it comes to a rather nasty bug like fire blight.

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree-Bird Back 40
This wasn't what I had expected. But if you grow fruit for fun, you take the good with the bad. In some years the times are good. In others? Not so much. That's when it's time to drag out the old farmer's lament of "there's always next year."

But -- as you might be able to notice in the photo above left --there's a bit of wood propping up a branch laden with pluots. Know what that means? It was a rather right fine year for pluot production. More than right fine I should say. The dang tree was loaded to the point where some unpropped branches did actually snap under the weight of a terrifically large and luscious pluot crop.

Flavor Finale Pluot Jam-Bird Kitchens
I'll be completely honest with you. I've been privy to pluots ever since I first discovered them at a Sacramento area farmer's market more than a decade ago. I've always been a fan of home-grown plums and not-yet-dried prunes like the Clairac Mammoth de Ente (Improved French Prune). But the pluot offered a tasty feast that I quickly fell in love with. I couldn't buy enough to meet my personal demand. And I knew, fairly early on during the Bird Back 40 landscaping process, that a pluot tree would find its way home. I just wasn't sure which one it would be.

It would be November 19th, 2009 where I would conspire with another Sacramento area gardener and blogger (two of them actually) and place a large order through Bay Laurel Nursery. That order consisted of table grapes, thornless boysenberry and blackberry vines and one Flavor Finale Pluot tree. Why the Flavor Finale? Good question! You think I remember after five years of hitting hard gin like that?

Actually -- I did know that the Flavor Finale had recently won a Dave Wilson Nursery taste test challenge. And the fact that it ripened late -- in September no less -- was another good call. When one chooses to grow fruit trees -- you don't want everything ripening up in August. I would come to find out later that grafting different plum and pluot varieties onto the Flavor Finale was like falling off a log. If there is every such a thing known as the "Franken Fruit Tree" in the Bird Back 40, it's the Flavor Finale Pluot.

My thanks to the wonderful and wacky mind of Floyd Zaiger and his Zaiger Genetics program. Without his wonderful invention called the pluot, the first of which was introduced under the name of Flavor Supreme in 1988, my Flavor Finale harvest to remember would never had taken place.

The Big Tomato Payoff

Friday, September 19, 2014

Heirloom Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
Break it Down! Stop! Tomato Time!

Is your garden like mine? Heirloom tomatoes coming out of your ears? It is that time of year for us heirloom aficionados. Long after the hybrids have played out and stopped producing, the heirlooms move in and take over -- delivering harvest after harvest after harvest.

And if the weather holds? Yet another harvest!

What does one do when nature delivers a boatload of heirloom tomato goodness? A couple like yours truly and the wife that is Venus drags out the canning equipment and starts preparing for some very big canning projects. We can't eat 50 tomatoes in one or two sittings. But we'll make darn sure that each one of them finds it's way into a canning jar of whole tomatoes, tomato sauces or salsa.

First Steps: Wash and Core Tomatoes
There's nothing quite like a warm bite of salsa on a Monday Night Football game played in a snowstorm. That's the payoff, my friends, the big tomato payoff.

This most recent project pays homage to a home-canning professional by the name of Sharon Howard, who plied her trade during decades of gardening in the Alberta, Canada area. I first became aware of Sharon many moons ago when I grabbed one of her recipes for canning dill pickles. She was kind enough to share many tomato sauce and stewed tomato canning recipes that were decades old, resulting in some of the most ridiculously delicious sauces we have ever created.

But on this particular day last August -- the job facing us was fairly simple. My back had healed up to the point where I could actually bend and pick a bounty of a harvest without a nerve or a disc flying off the handle and into the next backyard. The job on this day would be placing as many whole tomatoes into one-quart canning jars and processing the haul through a pressure canning process.

Skinned Tomatoes
The most tedious part of this process would be removing the skins from the actual tomatoes. That's job I leave up to the wife that is Venus. My job is to boil said tomatoes first, in a pot of water. Then place those tomatoes I've stuck in boiling water for one minute into an ice water bath.

With perfect red, round and smooth tomatoes -- those skins will slip off quite easily. But heirloom tomatoes aren't red. They aren't round either. And they are anything but smooth. Heirloom tomatoes are rather unwieldy, cat-faced beasts. It makes the job of peeling off the skins a little tougher, but it's still well worth the effort when those cold winter months roll into town.

Pack Each Jar Full!
As you might be able to guess, this process takes a little time with 50-100 freshly harvested tomatoes. But as we've come to learn in previous years, anything less than 20 one-quart jars of whole tomatoes is going to leave us short when we need them. And I cannot tell you how much I detest the assignment of driving to the store (in cold weather no less) to pick up a can or two of whole or sliced tomatoes.

And do you think our sauces are going to taste as good with something that came out of a common cannery? Perish the thought! Yep -- we're spoiled alright. Mighty spoiled. But it's also spoiled in a good way.

Summer Goodness in a Jar
After the skins are off -- the task gets fairly simple. Once those one-quart jars are washed and sterilized through the boiling water bath process, it's time to add a tablespoon or two of processed lemon juice to each jar, cram them with as many peeled tomatoes as possible, wipe the rims of each jar, seal and process through a 30-minute pressure canning process.

Then end result on this day? 18 quarts of whole tomatoes. Add those 18 quarts to five others that we had put through the canning process earlier this summer, and the Bird household is stocked with whole tomatoes for winter use.

Under Pressure
Ah -- but that's just part of the canning process. Because you can't make a tomato-good pizza sauce without adding a little finished tomato SAUCE to those whole tomatoes. Know what that means? It means another harvest is three weeks off.

You think sauce is important? Well, don't ask me! Rob Schneider of Saturday Night Live fame made sauce famous with his signature lines from skit involving a restaurant called "Hub's Gyros: "You like a de sauce, eh? De sauce is good, eh? I get you more sauce!" Three simple lines. Non-stop laughter.

Simple instructions for canning whole tomatoes can be found here and here.

Time for Some Shameless Self-Promotion

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sacramento Magazine
I suppose a little promotion every once in a great while is a good thing, right? Tooting your own horn, so to speak? Blow a little smoke? Pat myself on the back? Bluster? Boast? Crow?

OK -- enough already.

My friends, for some reason the fine people at Sacramento Magazine have chosen to profile the wife that is Venus (and perhaps yours truly) in this September's issue. I wouldn't say it's a "well deserved" honor. In fact, after an injury filled year like this one, I almost told the writer to "find someone else."

But I couldn't do that to Joan. She wanted an up close and personal tour of the Bird Back 40. She wanted to see how Venus and I turned a patch of bare dirt seven years ago into a thriving vegetable and fruit garden. She wanted to see what we grew. She wanted to see what we failed to grow.

Wife That is Venus in her Element
And so -- with my foot still in a cast from a previous bout of bad luck -- we invited Joan out for a tour of our expansive North Natomas acreage, plus all the weeds that managed to spring up during my time on the gardening "Physically Unable to Perform (PUP)" list.

But that was just the first part of my summer in the medical trauma ward. Later, after I'd pinched my sciatic nerve to the point where I just wanted to be shot (really people! It's painful!), a photographer asked permission to visit this fantastic garden that Joan had written about.

Just Peachy Eh?
Guess what greeted the photographer? More weeds! An overgrown garden! Lots of garden bugs. And one cranky gardener with a problematic back that wouldn't stop belting out the tune of that long ago Police hit: "King of Pain."

I'm so glad he didn't ask to take my photo. I feared I might tell him to go kiss my petunias -- or something worse. Fortunately, the wife that is Venus was there to save me from myself (again).

But you know what? I guess there were some good shots in that yard. I guess Joan saw a few things too. Because they both managed to capture the spirit of what we do here and what we enjoy so much.

Thanks Joan. Thanks to you Sacramento Magazine. It's been an interesting summer. 

My Favorite Mistakes

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sheryl Crow got one. I gots many. Of the gardening kind that is. No -- the wife that is Venus is not my favorite mistake. However, there may be times when she might feel that way. Like most husbands, uh, I tend to "push the envelope."

Canning Jars
And then she snaps me back to reality with a well placed rubber band. But, I digress. This is about gardening -- more succinctly -- gardening MISTAKES. Lord knows, I've made my share of them. See those jars? Those jars in our dishwasher are the proof of my many mistakes when it comes to canning and saving fresh from the garden foods.

But mistakes also tend to make me excited. Is that strange? Most people seem to think so -- especially by the way I react when they tell me the following: "I made a mistake." YOU DID, I say in an excited voice. "THAT'S GREAT!!!"

I see mistakes as learning achievements in gardening life. Yes, you made a mistake. Guess what the good thing is about that? You'll never make it again. You've learned a hard lesson. You zigged left when you should have zagged right. That's OK. We all make them. And this is how we learn. Because, after all these years, I'm still learning.

I write this post on the weekend after I dumped every mistake that was occupying a spot in the cupboard pantry set aside for all things home-canned products. My friends -- that was a lot of dumping -- representing years of gardening errors and "I'll never do that again." Here's a short list of what went down the drain or into the trash can.

Refrigerator Pickles (Tasty!)
PICKLES: Venus and I have been canning all things pickles for six or seven years. We've tried many different recipes and solutions. I suppose our favorite would be the old fashioned dill pickle. But I've come to learn that it's downright impossible to safely can pickles without them turning soft during the Boiling Water Bath or Pressure Canning Process. I've tried many solutions. Pretty much all of them have failed.

The last failure took place two years ago when I added a solution that I believed would keep our dill pickles hard and crunchy after the canning process had taken place. Should I have tested the idea first on one jar? Of course I should have! But -- no -- instead I canned a dozen quarts of pickles on that day.

Six months later I would come to find out that the pickles I'd canned with this "special ingredient" came out soft, bitter and left this rather unpleasant alkaline taste in our mouths. Perhaps it was a bad jar, we thought. So, we opened another. This one tasted even worse. Blech! No thank you. One dozen jars of pickles sat in the pantry, untouched, for the better part of two years.

So -- we're sticking with the tried n' true refrigerator pickle instead. Ten jars is enough to get us through all those winter celebrations and holidays. If there's one thing that family members and friends love, it's a good pickle.

GRAPE JELLY: When you add nine grapevines to the Bird Back 40, guess what happens? You get a lot of grapes. Not just a lot of grapes -- but so many grapes that you cannot possibly consume them all. I'm at that point now where if I see grapes in the store or at the farmer's market, I get ill. That's what happens when you eat too many grapes.

Grape Jelly!
So what does a gardening couple with far too many grapes do? Well -- they make a fine juice. And who doesn't like grape jelly? I suppose they would also make a fine wine. Too bad I don't like wine. And so, on one particular Sunday last August (2013), the wife and I set out to make our very first and special batch of grape jelly. The recipe sounded simple enough: grape juice, sugar and pectin. That's it

I'm here today to tell you -- it ain't that easy. This is especially true for first timers like me and the wife. We didn't just screw this up -- we royally screwed it up. How can you possibly screw up grape jelly? My friend, let me count the ways...

The cooking and canning part actually worked out fine. The jelly was actually starting to set before we processed them in the canner. Long time jelly makers are now thinking the following: "I sure hope they used that water bath canner."

No -- we didn't. Stupid (that would be me) decided to run them through the pressure canner. Know what happens when you run jars of jelly through a pressure canner? You get grape syrup -- and not a very good syrup at that. The 12 beautiful jars of jelly we canned on that day came out the consistency of a runny syrup. That's not good for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It's not good for anything to be brutally honest.

Those jars of jelly sat -- untouched -- for a year. Until last weekend that is.

OLIVES: Ever had the pleasure of tasting a home canned olive or two? I have. They are delicious! That's why I was bound and determined to can my very first olive crop last fall. Olives in a home brine of your own making are WONDERFUL. They are far better than the crap -- uh -- stuff you get in a store.

Storage Pantry with Lots of New Space!
I've brined my own olives on many occasions. But I'd never taken the next step of actually pressure canning the product for long-term storage (you cannot use water bath canners to process olives). I'm not really sure what went wrong, since I followed these instructions to the letter.

The first report that something went terribly wrong during the canning process would come some weeks later, after I gifted a jar of these special olives to gardening pal Nels Christensen. He messaged back later that evening to tell me the olives were soft to the point where they felt and tasted like a salted mush.

That wasn't right. "Try putting them in the refrigerator overnight," I advised. He did just that. And the next day, the olives were just as mushy. Did I give him a bad jar perchance? Nope -- as I opened one of my jars I was rewarded with olives that were just as mushy. Quart after quart -- pint after pint -- they were all bad.

Weeks of curing and fermentation went literally down the drain. The olives were safely canned alright. They passed the safety test with flying colors. But who wants to munch on olives that have the consistency of Cream of Wheat?

CONCLUSION: The time finally came last weekend to get rid of all those gardening and canning mistakes. I was tired of looking at them. Plus, hey, we needed the jars for other canning projects. This is September after all. The months of August and September are critically important for preserving the home harvest for treats to be shared during those cold winter months.

Did we manage to preserve everything? No -- not quite. Perhaps, one day, when I'm retired and have a little more time on my hands. But I can promise you this much: Those jars of grape jelly and pluot jam are going to make someone happy this winter.

It Calls to Me...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming, already in progress...

It's tough to write when your back hurts. It's tough to write after a shot to cure that pain suddenly causes all sorts of side effects that throw you for a double loop when you were not expecting. Most of all, it's tough to write about gardening and all things Bird Back 40, when the thought of bending over for a mundane task like picking an heirloom tomato scared the bejesus out of me.

But -- time does eventually heal most wounds. And when I finally began to feel somewhat normal again, this space called. I haven't written in quite a bit. This is my own personal journal after all. When you start jotting down notes here and there, well, you begin to miss it. I supposed I missed it.

Can You Name the Mystery Apple?
But, in this time that I've chosen to reflect and heal, I've learned quite a bit. I've met new friends. I've discovered new adventures that call to me. I've even discovered a new variety of apple and lilac that may find a home one day on the Bird Homestead.

But -- most of all -- I've missed you, old friend. You've been with me for a very long time. I'm not quite ready to see you go just yet.