And Now for Something Completely Ugly

Saturday, April 19, 2014

BOC Apple Orchard-Bird Back 40
Mother Nature can be viciously cruel at times, especially for those of us who yearn to dig in the dirt and plant good things to eat. Pictured to your right, my friends, is the Bird Back 40 Apple Orchard. It consists of three trees: Granny Smith, Fuji and Honey Crisp. I know this photo doesn't necessarily look all that ugly, but a closer inspection reveals the kinds of troubles that drive backyard growers crazy.

Short and sweet? Although those trees look healthy, they're not. In fact, the wife that is Venus and I will be lucky if we get a single apple this year. That's right! Three trees! One apple -- and we'll be lucky to get it. Worse yet -- there will no Honeycrisp Apple harvest this fall. That's worse than bad. It's tragic. The Honey Crisp is the best dang apple on the planet -- offering a taste explosion that cannot be missed.

Granny Smith Apple Tree-Bird Back 40
Yet -- I will miss it this year. And the photo to your left explains why. Those drooping leaves coming out at the end of one branch of the Granny Smith spell big time trouble. I first noticed this problem last week. It has since spread, slowly, to other parts of the Granny Smith and to the Honey Crisp.

This trouble is called Fire Blight. It's the first time its reared its ugly head in the Bird Back 40. I had this mistaken belief, perhaps call it a prayer, that backyard growers like myself would be spared from this scourge. Hah! Fat chance kid! The Blight is here and it's here to stay. Fire Blight means big trouble. Not only do the apple trees have it -- but the pear orchard I installed earlier this year has it as well.

Bartlett Pear-Bitten by Blight
I know what you're thinking. Why didn't you spray your trees to protect them from this bad boy over the winter? Oh, but I did. You see -- although Fire Blight has been around for a very long time -- there's still no active control for it. There is no spray, no dust, no treatment, organic or otherwise, that fights the dreaded blight. There is only one, proven method of control. And that method can result in a total crop loss, which is exactly what I'm facing.

This disease is called Fire Blight because it looks like leaves and fruit have been hit with a blow torch. The first sign of a problem is wilt. The leaves then turn a none-too-pleasant shade of brown, before fading to black. Fire Blight also spreads like wildfire.

Blackened Leaves-Granny Smith Apple Tree
I bet that you didn't know that, at one time in our not so distant past, pears and apples were kind of a big deal in Sacramento, Placer and the surrounding counties. Long before Sacramento adopted the nickname of SackofTomatoes, this was prime pear country. It still is in the southern part of Sacramento County, near the Sacramento River, but at one time tens of thousands of pear trees covered Sacramento fields from one of the county to the other.

And then, one day without warning, Fire Blight showed up. The damage was minimal at first -- but it spread like an out-of-control wildfire. Numerous controls were attempted. They all failed. Entire orchards were snuffed out in the space of a year or three. The main crop that powered the economic engine of Sacramento and the surrounding counties was dying a slow death, and nobody knew how it got here, how it spread from tree to tree and worse yet, how to stop it.

Dying Honey Crisp Apple-Bird Back 40
The answer of how the disease spread would come from horticulturists sent from UC Berkeley. It was believed that field workers were spreading the disease as they used pruning tools again and again as they moved from tree to tree, without washing them first. Today, that thinking has changed somewhat, at least in the opinion of some horticulturists who I contacted regarding my little problem. While the cleaning of pruning tools is still recommended, the belief is pollinators are spreading the pathogen as they move from tree to tree and flower to flower.

That's right -- the ordinary bee. This is where the infection starts -- when pear or apple tree bursts into bloom after a long winter's nap.

Fire Blight Strikes the Granny Smith Apple Tree
The good news? If there is any good news out of this, the "window of infection" is a short one. Once spring moves into summer, it's done. If there is any fruit on the tree that didn't get infected during the "window of infection," it's safe. But as for the branches, apples and pears that are infected? There is only one answer. That answer is pruning the infected branch back to a point where the dreaded blight can spread no further. It means the trees I've dutifully tended to a height of seven feet are about to get a rather severe haircut.

But that is my only option. Do nothing in the face of this scourge and the blight will show up again next year, stronger than the first year and left uncontrolled, will spread into the root system, killing the tree.

Honey Crisp Apple Blight Damage
I can't let that happen. I don't care how severe the cutting will have to be -- it's my only option. Do it, and I might save the tree. Do nothing, and that prized Honey Crisp will never deliver another tasty apple.

And so, those dreams I had over the winter of apple crisps, apple pie, apple juice and applesauce using our own home-grown apples will remain just that -- a dream. For this year -- Bill and the wife that is Venus are singing the farmer's lament: "There's Always Next Year."

Are They Tuff Enuff?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Vegetable Plant Starters-Bird Back 40
Texas-based Blues Rock and Rockabilly band The FabulousThunderbirds posed this question to the rest of America with their first and only Top 40 hit, and it's the same question the Birds are now posing to our 2014 summer vegetable crop. At this moment these tender, leggy veggie starters have been moved from the safety and warmth of their office-converted-greenhouse, to a shady spot in the Bird Back 40.

To throw these babies into full sunshine would be cruel and unusual punishment as well as foolhardy. Do that and the starters we've been nursing since mid-February would perish in a day. Nope -- wheeling our crop outside to a shady spot is just the first step in a gardening dance called "Hardening Off." It's a Texas-style two-step that we've come to learn quite well through the years (and a number of dead or shocked starter plants in the process).

Three rows of a Summer Garden
One wrong move in this process and we're heading off to a nursery later this month to purchase our summer starter plants.

So what are the Birds tending this summer? Just the most delectable of summer garden selections found in any Sacramento area backyard. There's a selection of new varieties -- a selection of old-time favorites -- big tomatoes -- small tomatoes -- hot peppers -- warm peppers -- sweet peppers -- you name it and we probably have it stuck in that rack somewhere.

By our count that's 34 varieties of tomato plant starters (two of each variety), 14 sweet, hot and warm peppers and six varieties of basil. Because what's a summer garden without at least six varieties of basil? That's right! BORING! Oh -- and did I mention the eggplants? Throw four or five varieties of eggplant starters into the mix as well.

Blue Beauty Starter Plant
This month represents one of the most crucial months in the "grow your own" summer vegetable garden movement. Should a sudden snowstorm or freeze strike the Bird Back 40 this month -- it means big trouble. Because, as of right now, these starter plants are not "Tuff Enuff." They will be by the end of the month, that much I can promise you. But as for right now? The first day and first week in Sacramento's natural elements? There's a whole HOST of things that can go wrong.

And they have before.

Starter plants grown sans a true greenhouse are leggy, weak and not ready for prime time. But the goal -- over the course of this next month -- is to toughen up those leggy stems. The goal is to prepare those leaves for the shock of true sunlight and the UV rays that come with it. The goal is to produce a starter plant that is tuff enuff to not only withstand everything that Mother Nature can throw at it -- but thrive in these conditions.

Pepper Plant Starters
The wife that is Venus and I will keep the plants in the safety of shade and away from the winds that can tear those tender stalks into so much kindling. At some point, the metal rack holding our starter plants will be covered with a a plastic sheeting that is used by painters and sold in any Big Box hardware store. After five or six days under the plastic cover in full sunshine? The once- weak and leggy starter plants are completely hardened off and feature thicker stems to boot.

The suggestion to use plastic sheeting -- I must admit -- was not a Bill Bird invention. Nope -- like most good ideas I STOLE IT from someone else. In this case? I stole it from a retired engineer turned gardener who lives in upstate New York. I love retired engineer-turned-gardener types. They have a solution for just about every problem -- and in this case? The advice was right on the money. After five or six days under the cover of 4 ml translucent sheeting purchased from my nearby Home Depot? The once-tender starters were indeed "tuff enough" for the 2013 summer gardening season.

Heirloom Tomato Starter Plant Forest
And 2013 was one of our best years ever, I might add.

And so my friends, while I could write more, I'm afraid that weed-pulling project in the vegetable garden deserves not only my time but attention as well. Because -- after a warm spring day like this one -- the weeds that await are certainly "tuff enuff."

Starring in the Bird Back 40 This Season:

  1. Azoychka
  2. Black and Brown Boar
  3. Black Sea Man
  4. Blue Beauty
  5. Blueberries
  6. Brad’s Black Heart
  7. Brandywine OTV
  8. Campbell’s 1327
  9. Cascade Lava
  10. Copia
  11. Costaluto Fiorentino
  12. Fireworks
  13. German Johnson
  14. German Queen
  15. Giant Belgium
  16. Green Zebra
  17. Grushkova
  18. Indian Stripe
  19. Janet’s Jacinthe Jewel
  20. Lemon Boy
  21. Limmony
  22. Lush Queen
  23. Lynn’s Mahogany Garnet
  24. Martha Washington
  25. Paul Robeson
  26. Pineapple
  27. Pineapple Tomatillo
  28. Pink Berkeley Tie Dye
  29. Pork Chop
  30. Porter’s Pride
  31. Purple Bumble Bee
  32. Royal Hillbilly
  33. Sioux
  34. Solar Flare
  1. Alma Paprika
  2. Anaheim Pepper
  3. Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper)
  4. Big Bertha Bell Pepper
  5. California Wonder Bell Pepper
  6. Chinese Giant Bell Pepper
  7. Early Jalapeno
  8. Early Sunsation Bell Pepper
  9. Merlot Bell Pepper
  10. Mucho Nacho Jalapeno
  11. Pasilla Bajo
  12. Purple Jalapeno
  13. Sunbrite Bell Pepper
  14. Sweet Red Bell Pepper
  1. Corsican
  2. Dark Opalka
  3. Genovese
  4. Lemon
  5. Lime
  6. Siam Queen