Berries Are for the Birds!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Arapaho Thornless Blackberry Vine
You bet they are! And Bill and the wife that is Venus Bird like it that way! Welcome to May 2015 -- and one of the coolest spring weather patterns I think I've ever experienced in the Sacramento area. That doesn't help much when it comes to summer producing vegetable plants like tomatoes and cucumbers, but the Bird berry patch likes it just fine.

The big winner in this year's berry battle in the Bird Back 40? It should come as no surprise by now. For the second straight year and the fourth year since I brought it home and planted it, the Arapaho Thornless Blackberry is sporting a massive crop of berries that are, in some cases, three inches long and an inch thick. I wrote about this particular variety last year.

Arapaho Blackberries
The Arapaho continues to defy zone logic. The plant professionals claim it's not supposed to do well in this climate. It's more suited for cooler climates not found in my Zone 9A. It's supposed to do better on the coast and up north where it doesn't get quite as hot. But berry plants are funny customers. Arapaho berries grown on a commercial basis on the coast, where it is cooler, suffer from tip dieback. But here in the more inland, hotter, area? The Arapaho does just fine.

Time and study will determine just how well the Arapaho will do in California. Although it's not the most recent introduction from the University of Arkansas breeding program, it's still fairly new to our area and climate. Although it may eventually prove to be a bust on a commercial basis, it seems to do just fine in your ordinary home backyard setting.

Shuksan Strawberry Patch
If there is one big difference in the Bird Back 40 berry battle -- it's that the Arapaho isn't the only berry sporting a fat crop this year. Nope -- it's a tie. For in 2015 there are 20 second-year Shuksan strawberry plants putting on a big show in what will eventually prove to be the largest and most luscious strawberry harvest we've ever experienced in these parts.

The introduction of the Shuksan strawberry has been a years long, trial and (mostly) error, attempt to grow strawberries in the Bird Back 40. I wasn't interested in those small, sweet berries that emerge from most backyard settings. Nope -- I wanted in on the action that comes out of our local strawberry fields: strawberries the size of a golf ball or larger.

Shuksan Strawberries
At first I thought the answer to my berry wishes would be the Chandler Strawberry. The production was, in a word: Meh. Then I thought a combination of Albion and Gaviota strawberries would be the answer. They should do well here, right? That's what the experts told me. It's the recommendation I found online here. In fact, they advised the following: Recommended strawberry varieties for CaliforniaAlbionAromasCamarosaCamino RealChandlerDiamanteGaviota, Oso Grande, Pacific, Seascape, Selva, Ventana.  (According to the California Strawberry Commission)

But guess what kids? Don't believe everything you read online. Yes -- these might be great strawberry selections for some regions of California. But not here in the heat of inland California. It wasn't until I started checking each and every strawberry plant selection offered here, and checking the recommended zones very closely, did I stumble upon the Shuksan Strawberry. Recommended for Zones 4-10. That was my "Eureka" moment.

Bird Back 40 Berry Patch
If this is the kind of production I can expect from 20 second year plants, what happens next year when the additional 40 plants I ordered and planted this year swing into full production? 60 plants instead of 20? How about 80-100 plants? Strawberry overload anyone?

I'll take it.

Despite the very berry success this year -- I'm just getting started. For where there is a bare patch of dirt in the Bird Back 40 -- there's room for another small raised bed and perhaps another berry plant or two. I've got my eye on another recent introduction from the University of Arkansas breeding program. This is one is also thornless. It is called the Ouachita Blackberry -- which does well in gardening zones 5-9.

Because man does not live on blackberries alone. But, personally, I would if I could.

The Stain

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wonderful Pomegranate-Bird Back 40
There she goes again. The Wonderful Pomegranate putting on her usual springtime "look at me, I'm pretty" show. I should have put this tree in the front yard where everyone can enjoy the bonanza of bright red and yellow flowers.

But the one drawback to that idea is I wouldn't get any pomegranate fruit in the fall. Some thieving kid would probably steal it all -- just as I did back in the Modesto day. And who could blame a kid for emulating me? I certainly can't.

Emerging Pomegranate Fruit-Bird Back 40
My passion for fresh fruit was forged by two factors -- neither of which I could control. Number one, I was the youngest of four kids growing up in a single-parent household. There wasn't much money when dad up and left. There wouldn't be much to go around for several years.

What bacon mom did bring home didn't last for long. This was the day and age before "free school lunches," although I do remember on some days we did get a half-pint of milk. That was always a treat.

Pretty Pomegranate Flowers
What I didn't get at home was augmented by what I could scavenge from the fruit trees that dotted front and back yards in our Ribier Avenue neighborhood. Fortunately, they were both large and plentiful. Plums in the front yard, cherries in the backyard. If that peach wasn't in season, the Merritt orange tree most certainly was. This was the second factor I had no control over. The fruit trees were there and I couldn't control myself.

But it would be on a nearby street -- Norwegian Ave. very near McHenry -- where I would discover a fruit like no other. It wasn't the biggest of trees as I recall -- probably no more than six or seven feet. But it shined with bright pink, red and yellow blossoms in the spring and delivered an eye-popping harvest of glistening red, softball sized fruit in the fall.

Pomegranates Here-Pomegranates There
I can remember my mother's first horrific reaction when she discovered I was bringing a bounty of pomegranates into her house. "DON'T EAT THOSE IN HERE," she positively screamed. "They'll leave behind a stain that will never go away!"

But what do mothers know about pomegranates and messy kids anyway? Besides -- it was dusty, old furniture in a Modesto tract home -- not the Taj Mahal. So I did what any snot-nosed kid would do. I promptly ignored mom and cracked those babies open on her freshly polished living room coffee table.

Ain't She Pretty?
Mom was right. Those stains never did quite go away. Thank God Almighty the carpet was a dark, chocolate colored brown. Otherwise those spots would have been plainly visible as well. I don't think the shirt I was wearing on this particular day also survived the onslaught of pomegranate juice. But I can tell you this much: It was on this day that my love for pomegranates was born.

I never did meet the family that owned this particular Norwegian Ave. tree. While I should have tried to knock on their door and at least ask -- I found it much easier to snatch as much as I could and run like the wind for the safety of home. This is a task and practice I repeated for many a year, until I acquired my first job as a newspaper delivery boy for the Modesto Bee. At that point I started to earn enough money to do what normal kids do: eat junk food.

Honey Bee Crack Cocaine
But I will never forget this tree. I hope you remember it too. Because it kept at least one small boy happy and fed when dollars were tight and good times were few and far between. While I could have chosen one of many pomegranate varieties to grow in the Bird Back 40 -- I chose the Wonderful -- which is the standard variety and the same tree that grew in front of that Norwegian Ave. home. And I think now you might understand why.

It's more than just a pretty tree. It's more than just fresh pomegranate juice (which is wonderful by the way). It's a connection to the past that I can never visit again. It's the thought of a mother, who is long since gone. It's a mystical connection that I feel. Because these flowers and this fruit remind me of a special time in my life.

It's a stain actually. A stain on my soul.