Take the Pain

Friday, August 1, 2014

Lemon Boy Tomatoes-Bird Back 40
The calendar says it's only been two weeks since I last put pen to paper. But to be honest -- it seems like eons ago. Three weeks ago life was grand. That pesky Achilles tendon that kept me out of the garden had finally healed up. The boot was off. Bill Bird was back in his element -- in the garden where he belongs -- blowing through one delayed project after another.

And then -- wouldn't you know it? I pushed that envelope yet a wee bit too much. Even though I promised myself that I would take it easy -- I knew those heirloom tomato plants that I'd just staked up three weekends ago would enjoy a nice long drink of liquid fertilizers.

I use a combination of liquid organic fertilizers in the garden. I've been hooked on a product called Maxicrop, for example, ever since Farmer Fred Hoffman was kind enough to share some with me many, many moons ago when the wife that is Venus and I first started this North Natomas garden assault. Combined with another organic fish fertilizer that I'd obtained from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Nevada City, the fertilizer solution has always resulted in out-of-this-world tomato production.

Miracle Tomato Producer
Sure it takes time to fertilize 28 tomato plants with this liquid fertilizer solution, but the eye-popping production was worth it.

It didn't really dawn on me that hauling five gallon buckets filled with water and fertilizer solution from the garage to the backyard would put much stress on the back. I was more concerned about the foot that had just come out of a walking boot to be brutally honest. I wasn't thinking about the back.

And what a terribly bad thing to not think about.

As a veteran of many back problems, plus at least one back surgery, I can tell you that once you hurt the sciatic nerve in the spine, you're done for. The pain, however, is not immediate. It starts as an annoyance a day or two after the injury. And, depending upon the severity of the injury, that tickling annoyance of pain slowly increases to a level of gut wrenching, soul-killing, pain that is hard to describe.

There is no relief from this pain. Lying down doesn't help. It only makes it worse. Sitting only serves to increase the jolts of pain that the injured sciatic nerve is sending into your legs, and yes, even testicles. It is a pain like no other. And it was all mine, mine, mine. I owned it. All of it. I did it to myself. Three or four days after pinching the sciatic nerve, I couldn't move from the only contorted spot I'd found that temporarily relieved the shockwaves of pain.

It was, at this point, where I allowed waves of negative thinking to take control of my mind. What had I done to myself? How could I possibly screw up this back again after going through $15K of highly successful back surgery nearly ten years ago? How can I live with this pain? What about my job? My career? I couldn't move from the spot I was anchored too, let alone throw on a suit and tie.

Narcotics offered some relief. Prescription pain killers like Percocet, Morphine, Flexeril and many others offered the only road to relief that I could find. And while this road is nice for awhile, it's also a trap. Narcotics don't solve the problem. They merely mask the pain. Narcotics also leave you unable to function, especially in a work setting. And forget about setting foot in a car!

I spent a solid week -- my vacation week for the year oddly enough -- in this narcotics fog. The recipe called for pills in the morning, pills in the afternoon and pills before heading off to bed. With each passing day, the fog grew deeper. What was today? Wednesday? Was tomorrow Friday? Where did I leave the Percocet?

I was in no shape to return to work when I finally did just that. The pain levels were still very high, but the narcotics continued to mask it. On that first day back, a co-worker remarked, "your face is as red as a stoplight!" Simple tasks, like answering a phone call, suddenly weren't so simple anymore. And why was my voice so high?

It was at this point where I realized that allowing myself to sink into a pit of pain-killing narcotics for a week really wasn't the best of ideas. Instead? I should have just taken the pain. And that's when I decided to dump the pills. And when I say dump? I mean, DUMP. There is really only one way to confront the abuse of narcotic pain-killers. It's called "Cold Turkey."

It was also about this time where I ran across one of my favorite epics dealing with the Vietnam War. Platoon not only related a fantastic story of what our fighting soldiers faced in Vietnam, the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture in 1986 also gave rise to a number of great young actors like Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and many others.

But it's one line from that movie that stuck with me one night while I slowly dried out from the narcotics I'd used to mask my back pain. It's a battle scene where several soldiers are wounded and one even loses his life. It's a line where Berenger tells a screaming soldier to "take the pain." And suddenly, I knew what I had to do: Take the pain.

It's been five or six days since I made that decision. My back aches as I sit at this desk and type this prose. But I'm smiling because I know it's a pain that isn't half as bad as it was two weeks ago. It means surgery may not be needed. The falling levels of pain might indicate some future time in a garden setting. But -- don't worry kids -- I won't overdo it this time. That's a promise.

Shocking Blue

Monday, July 14, 2014

I know what many of you are thinking. "Hey, when did somebody do a remake of that Bananarama song?" But, for some strange and odd duck reason, I'm a fan of showing my true age. Which is old. Because this is the best version of "Venus," and it was released while many members of Bananarama were still in ponytail stage.

Venus Table Grapes-Bird Back 40
Yes -- Bananarama ripped "Venus" off from Shocking Blue -- not the other way around. And the version of this song -- plus the name of the Dutch band -- has been bouncing around in my head ever since the start of the Venus Table Grape harvest some two weeks ago.

Why? Why would you ask that? OK -- I'll answer. Besides the obvious (the table grape in question is named Venus, duh), Venus grapes are a shocking blue-purple in color. Perhaps now you'll understand? Oh -- that and I can eat Venus Table Grapes until the cows come home and still not come close to finishing what is still hanging on the Venus vine. Plus -- the thieving mockingbirds and robins who raid the vine with Exlax-like regularity can eat their fill and still not come close to finishing off the stash.

Venus on the Vine-Bird Back 40
If the next question is, "why not just give them away," my response is this: I have been. I've been unloading enough Venus table grapes for neighbors to suddenly slam the door shut and lock it when they see me coming. While they are fans of the Venus -- there is something called "too much of a good thing." Two pounds of Venus grapes make for a nice gift. Four pounds wears out the welcome, if you get my drift.

Is Venus the best tasting table grape I've ever had? No -- that honor still goes to Fantasy grape. That is another shocking blue-purple grape that is still ripening on the vine and will be ready for harvest at some point next month. In fact, that's when most California table grapes start to ripen: August. That's what makes Venus so very special. Venus ripens in late June, stores on the vine very well (doesn't spoil) and produces a harvest so ridiculously large and bountiful that you'll be munching on Venus for at least two to three weeks (or longer).

Venus Grapes: Here, There, Everywhere
I suppose if I leave on the vine any longer I'll be munching on Venus raisins.

By that time even the thieving and marauding birds will have tired of it. No wonder they seem to be casting a longing glance at the Flavor Finale pluot tree. Because man, nor bird, does not live by Venus grape alone.

Another interesting fact about the Venus is it's one of the rare California table grape varieties that wasn't born nor bred in California. Nope -- the Venus hails from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. It's prized by wine growers. It also makes a great grape jelly. It's not the sweetest grape in the world -- and it features a slip skin trait. In other words, there's no crunch when you bite into it.

Venus Vine-Bird Back 40
Try as you might, you probably won't find the Venus in your local grocery store. Nor do I think you'll run across it at your local farmer's market. While I'm not sure as to why the Venus didn't catch on as a marketable table grape (most grapes are coming in from Mexico at the moment), my feeling is the slip-skin trait of this variety probably didn't do it any favors. In other words, I don't believe it would ship to well without spoiling.

No matter -- because there is one place where the Venus has earned its rightful home as a reliable and hardy fruit producer: the Bird Back 40.

Mariska Veres-1970
POSTSCRIPT: Unfortunately, while researching for this blog posting I would come to learn that the lead singer of Shocking Blue, Mariska Veres, died from cancer in December, 2006 at the young age of 59. Although Veres was regarded as a sex-symbol during her years with Shocking Blue, she reportedly told the members of the band when she joined that relationships were out. Reflecting on her early fame, Veres told the Belgian magazine Flair: "I was just a painted doll, nobody could ever reach me. Nowadays, I am more open to people."

Unlike sex symbols and rock stars from her era, Veres didn't smoke, didn't do drugs and didn't drink. In fact, her drink of choice, up until the day she died, was tea.

And for you younger folks who have since joined us -- here's the version of "Venus" that you remember best:

Fear the Beard!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beard of Honeybees (A Swarm)
Sometimes -- even vegetable garden bloggers can hit mental subject roadblocks. It happens to the best of us. And, in my case, it happens to the worst of us. I knew I wanted to write about bees. But you just can't put pen to paper without having some sort of interesting subject matter in mind.

As it turns out -- the bees did all the work for me -- clearing that mental roadblock with one swift buzz.

While I had intended to write about the return of the bright pink Hello Kitty themed hive box -- I needed more than that. I wrote about Hello Kitty years ago. It's old news. Yeah -- I keep bees in a box painted bright pink with a Hello Kitty character stenciled on the side. What's so weird about that? Doesn't everybody do that?

The Return of the Hello Kitty Hive Box
As it turns out -- the honeybees I keep in two brightly painted hive boxes (pink and yellow) did all the hard work for me. They did what bees naturally do. The queen inside one of those colonies did such a fantastic job at laying eggs that the colony grew far too large for the multiple boxes I had assembled. And when a colony grows too large for the space it occupies: it swarms. That swarm is pictured above, right. And, yes, that's a closeup on my part. Bees that swarm rarely sting, and the swarm came from one of the most gentle colonies I've ever had the pleasure of keeping.

This is how new colonies are born or created in the wild. Normally, bees swarm in the spring or early summer. While it's not uncommon for colonies to swarm in the summer, it is rare. In most cases the queen stopped laying eggs weeks ago. I just hope she gets started up again to rebuild colony strength. Because, the unfortunate thing about swarms is this: about half the colony vanishes in the space of a day or two.

Second Hive Box with Bees "Bearding" in Front
That equals into a dramatic loss in honey production -- if you're keeping honeybees for such a thing.

I literally had to start over this year. The colony I'd nursed for the better part of two years, gifted to me by another beekeeper who got out of the business, up and vanished on me last winter. I didn't see much activity out of that hive in December after freezing weather set in. That got me worried. When spring finally rolled around and the weather warmed, a hive check revealed the worst of news. The colony was long gone.

I'll be honest, I missed them. A yard without an active box of pollinators around is an empty yard. It's a quiet yard. Once you've kept bees for a year or two, you're hooked. It's tough to live without them. One would think a beekeeper would get tired of excited bees whizzing to and fro and thonking into the back of one's head. Not so. They are like children. And when children leave, it gets quiet. Too quiet.

Hive Boxes-Face to Face-Shaded by Wisteria
I would come to discover that last year was a particularly nasty year for beekeepers -- and not just hobbyists like myself. When I discovered that one of the most experienced members of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA) reported the loss of 100 colonies, I suddenly didn't feel so bad about losing my single, solitary hive. Honeybee loss hits everyone equally -- from the very experienced to the novice bonehead like myself.

I could have taken several actions to acquire new colonies. I could have purchased a package of bees plus a queen -- but I'm not a fan of that approach. There's no guarantee that the queen you're purchasing is a strong one, and the process of introducing a new queen to a colony is tricky. If you don't know what you're doing (SEE: BILL BIRD), the queen can get killed during the introduction process.

Swarm in a Nearby Pluot Tree
The second approach, which is the cheapest one I might add, is waiting for an established, wild colony to swarm. Colonies that swarm in the spring often come from strong hives that feature strong queens, which means there's a good chance that the swarm will contain a nice young, strong queen as well. The problem with this approach is waiting for the phone to ring. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. You've also got to be prepared for a swarm call 24/7. Since I work full-time, bee hunting availability is at a premium.

The third option, which I chose this spring after getting a very nice offer from a very nice SABA member, is called a "Nuc Transfer." This involves the transfer of a queen, several frames of bees and several frames of honey to an existing hive box. The attractive offer came from SABA Treasurer Kate Morton, after I'd moaned about the loss of my colony the previous winter.

Honeybees "Bearding" in Front of Hive Box
"You want bees," she asked? "I have bees." When she quoted me a price so ridiculously low, I couldn't shout "SOLD" fast enough. I probably shouldn't be telling her this. She'll probably try to sell me another colony or three.

Sure enough -- her assurances of strong hives and strong queens were not empty promises. The swarm pictures included in this blog posting are proof of that. What initially started as three frames of bees in a small box -- something we call a "honey super" -- turned into three boxes stacked on top of one another overnight. Both queens were laying eggs at record rates. While I thought there was a chance one or both colonies might swarm, I also believed the addition of a true hive box at the bottom would prevent it.

Hah! Fat chance! Another boneheaded beekeeping move on my part. Add another one to a very long list.

Honeybee Collecting Siam Queen Basil Pollen
While I'd like to tell you that I kept and hived that swarm for myself, I'm not the best liar in the country. First and foremost, I've already tested the patience of nearby neighbors more than enough. Two colonies are fine. A third would be a little much. And while the City of Sacramento does encourage hobbyist beekeeping efforts, they also want beekeepers to limit the number of hives to just two. Two is exactly what I have. Adding a third, no matter how badly I wanted them, wouldn't have been the best of ideas.

Besides -- there's a popular poem regarding swarms that take place during the month of July. I didn't invent this. I'm not sure who did. But to beekeepers across the country -- and the world for that matter -- it's almost like a passage from the bible:

“A Swarm in May is worth a load of hay
A Swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A Swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.”

Fear The Beard!
Why are swarms that take place in May or June more desirable than those in July? It has to do with pollen production, and the ability of a colony to gather enough pollen to produce enough honey stores for the winter months. In many areas of the country, pollen production begins to dry up in July. The harder pollen is to find -- the harder it is for the bees to make honey. And if a colony can't produce honey -- it's doomed. It will not survive the winter.

But that didn't stop a beekeeper from Loomis from making the trip down to our North Natomas farm to take a chance on this swarm. Like many beekeepers, this particular gentleman had retired from the rat race that is full-time work to take on the full-time hobby of beekeeping. My swarm, which sprang from Kate's bees, are now his colony.

Best of luck to the little buggers. I will miss them.


If you're thinking the hobbyist beekeeper route might be the life for you -- I cannot stress the importance of belonging to a member organization like the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association. Here you will find the meetings and helpful people who are essential to getting started. And they will more than welcome you to the club as there's always room for more. Please feel free to drop by the SABA booth at the upcoming State Fair! You just might run into the wife that is Venus and her kook of a husband. Sample free honey! See honeybees in a glass enclosed demonstration hive! The SABA booth is always a top draw for kids and parents alike.

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.

Fish + HH = AMF X Kitchen Sink = FAIL!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

And they're Off!
Follow closely now children -- because the title of this article is the mathematical equation we followed earlier this spring when planting the heirloom tomato crop now growing, and growing quickly I might add, in the Bird Back 40. Fresh off last year's season where each tomato plant got a fish head, two aspirins plus bone meal in each planting hole, we redoubled our efforts in 2014.

My friends, I'm here today to tell you this. Despite those lovely looking plants pictured above right, you can "love" your tomato starter plants just a little bit too much. You can go overboard on even the most organic of treatment -- and I know this from experience. Because it's taken time, patience and a bit of replanting to get our starter plants to look THIS good at this point in May.

Adding Fish Parts to Holes for Tomato Plants
Plus -- several people who ignored frost concerns and warnings and planted in March are WAY ahead of us. In the words of the immortal Tom Petty, "you got lucky, babe." Because planting in March can sometimes result in misery in April, especially if the weather turns cold again. This year, it didn't. Oh sure, it cooled down a bit here and there and actually rained a bit. But it wasn't enough to knock off March planting efforts. And for those people who rolled the dice and planted in March, they'll be harvesting a bundle of fresh tomatoes in June and laughing at the rest of us who waited until the first weekend of May.

Edit: We normally plant on or around the birthday of Farmer Fred Hoffman of "Get Growing with Farmer Fred" fame. That's usually the last weekend of April. But it was raining that weekend so we pulled a bundle of weeds instead. Anyone who gardens will tell you there's always a weed or one thousand to pull. It just comes with the territory.

But -- I digress.

Let the Planting Commence!
Fresh off a fantastically productive and surprising tomato year in 2013, we once again called on the Goddess of Love Apple Farms fame to help us with our tomato planting efforts in 2014. This time Sara and the wife that is Venus armed themselves with two buckets of smelly fish parts instead of just one, aspirin for the planting holes, organic bone meal and a few other "additives."

Here is what this year's brew contained:

1 can of water soluble Mycorrhizae and Bacteria
1 bottle (300 count) aspirin
Two boxes of Granulated Humic Acids
Two 5-gallon buckets of fish heads, tails, guts, and various parts
4 bags of Bone Meal

A Garden Party?
Holes for 24 heirloom tomato plants were dug to a depth of two feet each. Into the hole went a big helping of "fish stuff," one-half cup of Humic Acids, one-half cup of bone meal and two aspirin. Tomato plants were removed from starter cups and soaked in a Mycorrhizae bath before planting. We then proceeded to fill the holes with composted soil. The official count that first weekend in May looked like this:

24 heirloom tomato plants
16 Pepper plants
4 eggplants
2 Blueberry plants LOADED with blueberries (Sharp Blue and Misty)

Notice the Dog...
Can you guess the first thing that happened after we went through all that work to plant everything into the raised beds? If you guess that the garden dog named "DIGGER" immediately tried to dig up 24 tomato plants in a quest to munch on some smelly fish parts, you wouldn't be half wrong. If you also guessed that many of the tomato plants suddenly seized up and died, you'd also be right on the money.

Both actually happened. What the dog didn't dig up and kill in the process, died on its own. Why? Because we gave our starter plants a bit too much love. There is such a thing such as too much love. And if you follow the witch's brew I've outlined above, you too can KILL your share of tomato plants.

Janet's Jacinthe Jewel
Thank goodness the wife that is Venus and I decided to plant two cups of each tomato variety. Those replacement plants came in handy. Instead of giving them away to family and friends as we've done in the past, we were doing quite a bit of "replacement planting," while muttering the words: "NEVER AGAIN!"

However, we seem to be past the worst of it. And, I'll be honest, not every plant seized up and died on us, nor did DIGGER dig it up. For those that survived the harrowing plant-out process, I'll be honest, they look GOOD. Not just good, good, mind you. But, REAL GOOD! This includes a number of varieties from Wild Boar Farms, including a new offering this year called Janet's Jacinthe Jewel.

Pepper and Basil Starter Plants
Described as a large bright orange (jacinthe) striped beefsteak, this is a potato-leafed variety that is off to an eye-popping start and seems destined to deliver a boatload of tomatoes, many in the one pound range. And this is a bad thing? I think not!

The onset of hot weather in May has also given our tomato plantings a boost. Our once "leggy" starters now feature thick stems and are flowering heavy. We also decided to devote more room to our tomato plantings, because there can never be a thing such as "too many tomatoes." If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you know this to be true.

Baby, I've Got a Headache...
Although I was not able to take part in the final plant out due to this bum wheel that keeps me confined to a walking boot (complete with a developing, continent-sized, blister), Venus sprinkled liberal amounts of leftover tomato plants to the in-ground test bed and other spots here and there in the Bird Back 40 that offered a bit of planting space. The final count is 39 plants -- about ten to 12 more than we normally plant during the summer season.

I'm pleased to report that everything the green-thumbed wife planted is now popping out of the ground at an accelerated rate -- this includes various garden seeds that she planted here and there. That list includes five varieties of carrots, six varieties of basil, four varieties of slicing cucumbers, three varieties of pickling cucumbers green onions, bush beans, squash, pumpkins and probably five to ten other things that I've forgotten.

There comes a point in the season that when it's time to pay a trip to the Farmer's Market? We head straight for the Bird Back 40...