Chocolate Poetry

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Chocolate Cherry Tomato
"I think that I shall never see
A cherry tomato lovelier than thee.

A Chocolate Cherry that I planted here;
Alms from a grower with vision clear.

A cherry tomato that produces a gift;
Providing every tomato lover with a lift.

A taste so sweet, so undeniably tart;
It can only be classified as work of art.

It’s that special tomato in my garden;
A taste I will miss, when the season is done."

Modesto's 7th Poet Laureate
Somewhere, Stella Beratlis, the City of Modesto's 7th Poet Laureate, is doing a face palm. (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, meanwhile, a hero of World War I who penned the poem "Trees" that I ripped off with no shame whatsoever, is probably spinning in his grave.

Why pick on Stella? Because she is an avid vegetable gardener, and published author I might add, who has also professed a love for cherry tomatoes. That, and we went to high school together (go Patriots!). As for Kilmer, I needed something even my simple brain could comprehend.

Chocolate Cherry Tomato Plant-Citrus Heights
My friends and tomato growing maniacs, I come to you with a message today: If there is room for only one cherry tomato in your garden next summer, I highly recommend the Chocolate Cherry. A close cousin to the treasured Black Cherry tomato, there are also subtle differences that set it apart. Both are black or deep purple in color. Both are cherry varieties. But the comparison ends there.

My Chocolate Cherry tomato, which now stands at a height of roughly ten feet in front of this temporary rental home, resulted from a $1 investment into a starter plant grown by a Citrus Heights tomato maniac by the name of Melanie Steffens. Melanie had extra plants from her seed starting effort. I had room for one extra plant and a spare buck.

Call it a marriage made in heaven.

Forest of Cherry Tomato Production
Of the six tomato plants that comprise the Bird tomato growing efforts this year, three have been Grand Slams in terms of tomato production. Yet another has been a steady, get on base producer and the other two, much like this year's San Francisco Giants team, struck out at ever opportunity.

I bet you didn't know growing tomatoes and baseball had so much in common. But I'm getting way off topic here, plus I get depressed whenever I think about the Giants. So, back to tomatoes I go.

Memorial Stadium: Berkeley, CA
I like cherry tomatoes because they represent a portable snack. You can pick them and take them everywhere. I saw a young lady produce a bag of cherry tomatoes at a Cal football game in Memorial Stadium several years ago and thought it to be a rather brilliant idea.

I had been focused on somehow smuggling a flask of whiskey into that stadium -- so much so I didn't think about the three cherry tomato plants at home -- teeming with production I might add. While I'd sentenced myself to some overpriced, deep-fried snack from a stadium vendor, this rather brilliant young lady managed to produce something far more healthy and far more satisfying. And, I'll tell you this much, she didn't have to sneak it in either.

A Transportable and Healthy Snack!
Taking a cue from this lady, I load up a plastic sandwich bag with Chocolate Cherry tomatoes before heading into work every morning. It is at a size now where's it's producing 10-20 ripe tomatoes nearly every single day. The numbers diminish somewhat late in the week, but by the time Monday morning rolls around again, there's my Chocolate Cherry, teeming with this week's breakfast and lunch snack.

Pros and cons: The Chocolate Cherry appears to be more disease resistant than the Black Cherry. Either that, or I'm just the recipient of dumb luck. But I can't begin to tell you how many times disease has either interrupted or curtailed Black Cherry production in my garden. That hasn't been a problem this year with the Chocolate Cherry, and it's resisted a leaf spot problem that struck the Thessaloniki tomato planted just a few feet away.

The Chocolate Cherry
Unlike many cherry tomato varieties, Chocolate Cherry fruit does not split. They're portable over long distances. The skins are much tougher. Indeed, there's almost a slight crunch when one bites into an under-ripened Chocolate Cherry. You can dump a bunch of them into a sandwich bag and won't experience the problem of split, mushy cherry tomatoes when you arrive at your intended destination.

Finally, in terms of taste? I'll be honest. The Chocolate Cherry does not offer the zesty taste explosion that is the Black Cherry. It's a bit more mild. This isn't to tell you that Chocolate Cherry doesn't taste good. It does. This variety will find a home in next year's garden, that much I can tell you. But I'm not going to tell you it's the best cherry variety I've tried.

It will, however, rank among the best I've ever grown. It will join that pantheon list that includes West Sac Crack, Pink Ping Pong, Black Cherry, Sungella and countless others that have graced previous gardens in previous lifetimes.

After all, a cherry tomato that drives a man to write really bad poetry can't be all that bad, can it?

Blame, Properly Placed

Friday, February 24, 2017

John Lennon
A wise British-born philosopher and poet once stated the following:

"Everyday we used to make it love
Why can't we be making love nice and easy
It's time to spread our wings and fly
Don't let another day go by my love
It'll be just like starting over
Starting over"

But I'm not blaming John Lennon for my sudden burst of strange activity last weekend. Nope, that would be blame misplaced. The fault lies squarely upon the shoulders of a certain garden writer who toils for a certain daily newspaper that is printed and distributed in the Sacramento area.

Time to Plant!
The words written by Debbie Arrington in the Home and Garden section of the Sacramento Bee were quite simple really: "It's time to plant (BLANK)." And that's all Bill Bird really needed. Because the first thought that jolted through my gin-addled mind was, plant? PLANT! It's time to plant! "TIME TO PLANT," the voices in my head suddenly screamed at the top of their lungs.

Which is why my new neighbors in a well seasoned subdivision of Citrus Heights were treated the sight of a strange man bundled up in a heavy coat, tearing up a planter area in the front yard of a rental home in a heavy rainstorm. If that activity didn't raise any suspicion, certainly my chase down neighborhood gutters for hundreds of worms that came out to enjoy the deluge certainly sparked discussion.

Free Worms! Free!
Or perhaps they've been treated to somewhat crazy behavior before? Or perhaps they know that worms are good for the garden? And, yes, there is a garden. There will be a garden everywhere I go. I may be "Starting Over," as Lennon crooned, but the garden goes with me.

It's not much when compared to the massive garden efforts that consumed an entire quarter-acre in an area once known the Bird Back 40. But it's enough to plant a row or three of radishes, six broccoli plant starters and six red leaf lettuce starter plants.

The Spring Garden
And although Ms. Arrington's specific instructions didn't say so, my new/old planting area also contains rows set aside for green onions and carrots. Because you can't make Pam Farley's famous Loaded Fried Rice meal without a proper helping of carrots and green onions.

I had wondered through the months if this desire to plant would ever return. The skies opened up and began to cry after I had just moved into the new neighborhood. In doing so, I left behind the remains of a garden and a home that hurt anytime I stepped near it.

The Mantis Tills Again...
But time in a new setting and time alone has a strange way of healing a broken heart. The Mantis Tiller that churned up countless raised beds in North Natomas found the soil to be more than adequate in the new Citrus Heights setting. The worms that I captured on their mad rush to the drainage gutters found the spot I'd amended to be quite acceptable and moved right in.

But, more importantly, the love for digging in the dirt suddenly returned with a vengeance. I didn't lose that passion. It just took a short vacation. The only thing that's missing now is a gardening partner.

Perhaps, in time, that will return as well.

Confessions of a Serial Abuser

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The mental health professionals who fawn over me at nearly every turn these days tell me that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem to begin with. What the Hell do they know? Seriously, however, this is my confession to you. On this Super Bowl Sunday, I'm here to admit that I am a serial abuser.

I abuse beans. I didn't mean too, of course, but I've been abusing beans for years. It's always been a goal of mine to make the perfect pot of home-cooked beans. But it really didn't matter what recipe I used as my beans would turn out more like a refried bean dish than anything else. Barbecue beans came out looking and tasting like barbecue refried beans. Boston Baked Beans? You guessed it, Boston Baked Refried Beans.

Ranch Style Beans Copycat
Oh -- I tried all sorts of tricks to solve my little abuse problem. Additional ingredients? Check! Soaking the beans overnight? Check! Different types of beans? Check! But, in the end, it really didn't matter. My beans would fall apart into a sad looking mush.

What in Hades was I doing wrong?

But, thanks to this wonderful invention called the internets, I would find a solution to my problem. The internet, at some point, replaced grandmother and her fine advice. It was a simple problem with a simple answer:

Don't Abuse the Bean!
I was abusing my beans. I had been for years. Beans are fragile things the man on the other side of the internet portal explained. Treat them like you would treat your own children. Not that I would drop my own kids into a vat of simmering water mind you, but I got the idea.

If you are to believe the old Klingon poverb (Wrath of Khan) that "revenge is a dish best served cold," then one must also believe that "beans are to be treated with care." They are not to be boiled or placed on a hard simmer for many hours. That just results in a mush. Beans are to be brought to a boil and then allowed to simmer gently over a period of three to four hours. No bubbles! Bubbles are bad! Bubbles in your slow-cooked bean mixture mean BAD NEWS. Nope, the aim here is for a gentle, slow roil.

Selected Spices
This isn't as easy as it sounds -- especially for those of you to be stuck with electric stoves. Gas works best. And when it comes to my home-cooked bean creations, I'm an expert at gas.

I've always had a love affair with beans -- especially on Super Bowl Sunday. Those legendary Hamm's Scam (you think we're serving great beer, but it's really just Hamm's) parties of the past featuring deep fried chicken strips or wings plus a pot of home-cooked beans may be history for me now -- but they will never be forgotten.

My most recent goal has been trying to recreate one of my favorite canned bean dishes: Ranch Style Beans. Although there's a pretty good copycat recipe on a blog called Homesick Texan, it wasn't quite what I was looking for. It was close, but it was missing a key ingredient and I wasn't quite sure what.

"Must Have" Ingredient
I'm not here to tell you today that the recipe I've stumbled upon is by any means perfect. But it's a pretty good imitation in my fair opinion. To be honest and fair, it's not the healthiest meal on the planet. Which means you shouldn't be serving yourself this creation every week or every month for that matter.

But for special occasions like Super Bowl Sunday? When you really don't give darn about the two teams in the big game? And the team you do root for is coming off a pathetically bad two win season? This makes for a good meal. And helps erase the pain of a 14-loss season.

Ranch Style Beans Copycat Recipe

Three pieces of thick cut bacon (I usually get the peppered or honey-cured bacon from meat counter at Raley's or Bel-Air.
1-3 cups of Pinto beans (soaked overnight)
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons cocoa
1-2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 12-ounce can tomato juice
1 32-ounce container beef broth, plus 3-4 additional cups as needed

Directions: Cut three pieces of bacon in half and fry in a skillet over medium-low heat until well browned. Remove bacon to drain and cool and pour bacon fat into the pot you will be using to cook your beans. Add container of beef broth, plus two additional cups of beef broth, leaving two in reserve. Add tomato juice, chili powder, ground cumin, oregano, cocoa and garlic salt.

Rinse soaked beans and add them to pot. Place cooked and cooled bacon into a food processor or blender and chop into fine bits. Scrape bacon into pot and bring to a solid boil. Reduce heat to a slow roil. Cook beans at a low heat, stirring every 30 minutes, until tender. Beans should be ready in about 3.5 hours, but may need additional cooking to completely soften. Test taste and add additional garlic salt if needed.


Henrí the Peach

Monday, June 27, 2016

In a small corner of a treed city, paradise bloomed. It was one of those carefully tended gardens where honeybees nourished themselves on a never ending supply of pollen from a various supply of delicious sources, and where migrating Monarch butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbird moths stopped off to dance and play among an assortment of brightly colored blooms.

A tree grew near the center of this glorious landscape. It stood near the top of a gently sloping ridge. Its branches spread over and provided shade for the myriad of wildflowers and insects below. But this was no ordinary tree. This was the territory of Henrí the Peach. And there was no finer peach tree in the land than Henrí (pronounced "Ahn-Rhee").

Henrí fancied himself to be French in origin, but he had been planted at that spot for so long that nobody really knew. He had heard someone remark at one point during his life that all peach trees hailed from France, which really wasn’t the truth, but Henrí the Peach fancied himself as the finest French peach in the land.

He would greet visitors to his garden with a healthy “Bonjour.” Which was inevitably followed by “Je m'appelle, Henrí” (Hello, my name is Henry). “Comment vous appelezvous?” (What is your name?). His accent, if you could hear a peach tree speak the French language that is, bordered on the comical Pepé Le Pew, a fictional character from the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons.

All of this, of course, was rather ridiculous. But Henrí had his share of fans and visitors in the paradise that had been created just for him. You see, Henrí was more than just a fine specimen of a peach tree. Henrí produced the finest peaches anyone had ever seen or tasted. Nobody was quite sure what variety they were, but he shared his bounty willingly every summer from the dozens who came to sample his delicious yellow freestone juice and texture.

It’s safe to say that Henrí wasn’t just a peach tree. Henrí was the finest and most extraordinary peach that anyone had ever tasted. His fruit went into a myriad of creations, including pies, cobblers, jams, jellies, salsas, spreads and any concoction that fans could dream of. Fruit tree growers from far and wide came every year to clip branches and twigs from his wide canopy, which would be propagated with other peach trees that grew nearby in the countryside. Everybody loved Henrí. And Henrí loved them.

Henrí the Peach was as happy as a peach tree could possibly be. But it’s not just because Henrí was loved by so many. Yes, that was important. But more important than anything else was, Henrí was in love himself. His love, which he saw nearly every day, tended the garden in which Henrí grew. And, although this garden was wide and diverse, she devoted most of her attention to Henrí.

He received more attention and care than any peach tree ever should. She made sure that Henrí always had a plentiful supply of water. The food and nutrients that Henrí consumed on a daily basis had been lovingly worked into the soil around his root system. Henrí was never one to want anything. Yearly applications of sprays and herbicides kept bugs and disease at bay. The minerals Henrí received created a strong and vibrant root system. The water that Henrí received was the finest in the land, originating from crystal clear streams that started in the high country and weaved their way to his garden.

It’s safe to say that Henrí led the charmed life – or as charmed as any peach tree could possibly imagine. His love not only made sure he was well fed and protected; she would at times sit underneath his impressive canopy and lean against the strong and powerful trunk that she had helped to create and nourish. It is here where she would whisper her love to Henrí and even sing his favorite songs.

Henrí would fancy that he could bend his powerful branches around her and protect her from any harm or disease that might strike in her direction. His heart, if peach trees had such a thing, sung with joy in her presence. “Je veux être avec toi,” he would whisper to his love (I want to be with you). Henrí was as happy as any peach tree could possibly be.

This is one reason why Henrí would reward his love with the finest peaches in the land. The mother of his love would sometimes stop off to visit during the August harvest season. Mrs. Willoughby came for a purpose. Mrs. Willoughby’s pies were the stuff of legend. Nobody baked a pie like Mrs. Willoughby. Nobody produced fresh peaches like Henrí the Peach. Combined, the two produced a magical pie creation that would bring joyous tears to the eyes of anyone who tasted near perfection.

It was during this point in his life where an excited Mrs. Willoughby visited the home of her daughter with the most exciting of news. Although Henrí couldn’t overhear exactly what the two were sharing with one another, he knew it involved him in some way. Henrí noticed that Mrs. Willoughby clutched something very bright and shiny in one hand as she moved in his direction and proceeded to pin the shiny object on one his outstretched branches.

As Henrí would come to learn from the excitement shared between his love and Mrs. Willoughby, pies she created featuring his peaches had captured first prize at the local county fair. The reward for Henrí was a shiny first place ribbon and even more love and adoration from those who prized his peaches. It was proof positive that Henrí produced only the finest peaches in the land. He could not have been happier.

Life continued much like this for Henrí for as long as he could remember. “La vie ne pouvait pas être plus parfait,” he would whisper to his love during those warm summer nights (Life could not be more perfect). But as Henrí the Peach was soon to learn, life does change, and sometimes it doesn’t always change for the better.

The first inkling that something was wrong in the life of his love came during the fall, when Henrí was beginning to shed his impressive summer foliage and preparing for his long winter sleep. He noticed his love standing on the porch of his garden. What seemed like raindrops fell from her eyes. Henrí beckoned his love to move closer. He wished to comfort her and wipe away her tears. But despite his repeated calls, his love stood on the porch of the garden and cried like he had never seen her cry before.

Henrí did his best to stay awake and stave off the long winter slumber that so desperately called to him. But, eventually, time and the gray skies of the winter season caught up to him. Henrí fell into a deep winter slumber that all peach trees need to rest and recharge themselves for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. All the while, he noticed his love standing at the porch and staring at him with a sadness he did not understand, nor could he possibly comprehend.

It wasn’t until Henrí awoke next spring did he finally begin to understand the events that had taken place the previous year. The migrating warblers that perched on his branches informed him that the mother of his love and the creator of those wonderful, lip-smacking pies had passed. It was cancer they told him and Mrs. Willoughby slowly slipped from this world while his love, powerless to stop what was happening, watched and grieved.

His first reaction of course was to reach out to his love to provide the comfort and understanding that only Henrí the Peach could provide. They had been through so much together; he and his love, and he vowed that they would make it through this. But fate had other plans.

It started slowly at first, but as time passed, Henrí noticed that his love spent fewer and fewer hours in the garden they shared together. The wildflowers that once grew in abundance weren’t as numerous as they had been in previous years. Honeybees and other insects would soon migrate to other nearby areas. The water that had once been applied in abundance no longer flowed. The minerals that sustained Henrí through the growth spurt every spring season did not get applied. Worse yet, Henrí the Peach had developed a nasty case of peach leaf curl. Though it would not affect fruit production, it wasn’t long before Henrí went from beautiful specimen to downright ugly.

Henrí, of course, noticed the change immediately. During the windy season that normally came every March, he allowed his branches to whip around too and fro, in hopes of getting the attention of his love. But Henrí would soon come to realize that he didn’t see his love nearly as much as he once did. She didn’t visit like she once did. She no longer applied her love in a tender way. The long conversations he enjoyed became fewer and fewer. Worse yet, his lover no longer sang to him in that silky, beautiful way she once had.

Henrí could only stand helplessly and watch from a distance as his love would appear and then disappear just as quickly. He would immediately call out to her “Je ne comprends pas” (I don’t understand). But his love did not hear him. For peach trees cannot speak. Not even the famous Henrí the Peach.

Henrí could not begin to comprehend at first why his love no longer seemed to care for him. If peach trees had such things as feelings, Henrí would have been deeply hurt. His love, for all intensive purposes, had slowly pulled away and abandoned him. Henrí had been left behind in a garden now overgrown with weeds and vines that sapped the moisture he so desperately needed.

As spring slowly progressed into summer and the weather began to warm, Henrí awoke one day parched with thirst. This was a new feeling for him. Henrí had never known want before. His love had always attended to his every need and desire. But as his thirst grew from day to day, he noticed that the irrigation system that once provided him with abundant, clean, cool and crisp mountain spring water had broken down over the winter months.

The ground around his impressive canopy had gone from lush to brown, cracked and dry clay soil. Henrí had produced an impressive crop of peaches that spring, but his dry branches now began to bend and crack under the weight of a terrific crop. Henrí knew he would be forced to sacrifice some of his fruit if he didn’t get water soon, but he noticed his love didn’t seem to care about the fruit falling in worrisome numbers to the ground below. Henrí simply could not understand. Worse yet, he grew frustrated.

Like most lovers, Henrí wasn’t ready to give up and move on, even though it seemed as if his love had done exactly that. He would fight for the attention of his love, even though she now seemed to treat him as nothing more than an afterthought. Henrí did everything a peach tree could possibly do to gain the attention of his lover. He would have stood on his head if a peach tree could do so. But not even Henrí the Peach could pull something like that off.

Still, Henrí desperately wanted to demonstrate his love and affection in the hope that his love would notice and care for him once again. During a rare trip out to the garden, she walked closely enough where he thought he could just reach out and caress her with a soft branch and leaf. It would be his way of saying how much he still cared for her, how much he missed her love and attention and how much he wanted her back.

But Henrí didn’t realize that the lack of care and water that season had turned his once soft and supple branches into hardened and sharpened sticks. Instead of a caress, he managed to poke her so hard with a sharpened branch that it tore the skin on her arm, leaving an angry red welt. As she pulled her arm away in anger, her reaction wasn’t what Henrí had hoped for, or the hurtful words that followed.

“You stupid, ugly thing,” she exclaimed in a nasty and angry tone that Henrí had never heard before. “I’m so sick of you. I just can’t stand you anymore.”

The words tore at his heart, had Henrí had such a thing. Tears began to fall. Peach trees aren’t supposed to have hearts, memories or even cry for that matter. They certainly aren’t supposed to feel emotions like love either, but Henrí the Peach was one of those special trees that did feel emotion and felt terrible about the pain he had caused. “Je suis désolé mon amour,” he exclaimed (“I am sorry my love). But she could not hear him because peach trees cannot speak. He only felt a great sorrow for the pain he had caused his one love in life.

Time has a way of passing. His love continued to spend less and less time in the garden. What had once brought her happiness now seemed to only bring tears and pain. The visitors who once fawned over him visited less and less. Henrí dealt with the loneliness and pain of abandonment the best way he could, by delivering a crop of only the best peaches.

He didn’t notice, of course, but due to a lack of water and care, his peaches were much smaller than in previous years. They were also pockmarked, bruised and beaten from numerous diseases and pests that Henrí did his best to fight off. But when harvest time came, no one came to visit. The peaches that were once desired by all, no longer commanded an audience. Slowly, one by one, his peaches rotted on the branch and fell to the cracked, brown clay soil below. There would be no more pies. There would be no more cobbler. While Henrí could not understand why the love of his life had changed in the way she did, he vowed to do even better.

But, what Henrí failed to realize is that his love had moved on in life. Life changes people, which can be both good and bad. Henrí was doing his best to recapture the love, attention and adoration he had once received. What Henrí failed to realize is that he could only be Henrí the Peach. This wasn’t a bad thing. Henrí had spent the better part of his life impressing those around him. But what he could not control is change.

Change was coming. It was coming in ways that he would not understand.

As Henrí fell into his deep winter slumber that fall, he vowed to do better. He would do his best to conserve the rainfall that dropped over the cold winter months. He could do without the best water. He would make do with what he received. He vowed to fight off the pests and disease that had made such a mess of the previous year’s crop. During the tears of sorrow and lost love that came more often now, he vowed to do better and win back his love.

When Henrí awoke that next spring he immediately noticed a difference. The flowers, butterflies and honeybees had returned. His watering system that had been hopelessly broken the year before had been repaired. Most of all he noticed his love dancing about the garden again, as happily as she had ever been.

Henrí bloomed with a love that he hadn’t felt for many years. His love had returned. His love once again danced around him. The visitors who had stopped coming a year ago had returned. Henrí felt life returning to normal. Everything was right in his world again.

But what he failed to notice is that he was sharing his space and water with another. And he slowly came to realize that another peach tree sat patiently in a container nearby. Worse yet, Henrí began to understand that the love who once whispered and sang her love for him had found the love of another.

“Isn’t this the most beautiful white peach you’ve ever seen,” she would croon to anyone who would listen. “White donut peaches are the best peaches under the sun,” she would brag. It was almost as if Henrí was invisible. Though he still dominated the garden he was in, he was no longer the center of attention. If anything, Henrí was invisible. In the eyes of his love, he no longer mattered.

His love didn’t speak of him much nor pay him much attention as she had in years past. But the few words he did hear were not encouraging. Henrí was “in the way” as he would come to understand. Despite his magnificent production of years past, despite his love for her, Henrí had been replaced. As he began to comprehend that his love had eyes for another, the jealousy and anger began to grow.

But the worst injustice, at least in the eyes of Henrí the Peach, was still to come.

The group of men with power tools arrived in the garden one day without warning. They weren’t there for the peaches. It was June you understand. The peaches that Henrí produced wouldn’t ripen until August at the latest. But his rival, the white donut peach, was already producing ripened fruit that the workers and many others had come to sample.

The first cut is the deepest. Henrí felt the pain but couldn’t understand what was happening to him. The loud noise he heard blocked out just about everything. But something was happening to Henrí the Peach that he couldn’t quite understand at first. It was only at the last minute did he understand that the loud noise he heard was that of a chainsaw. The pain he felt was the sharpened blade of a power saw cutting him down at the stump.

At first he could not believe the injustice he had been subjected too. This was his yard! This was his garden! How could the love of his life allow this to happen? It was then that Henrí noticed his love a short distance away, clapping with joy as he was slowly cut down. It was then when all pretenses of the French language and origin dropped and Henrí began to cry out in plain English: “But wait,” he silently cried! “I am Henrí the Peach,” he exclaimed. “My peaches are award winners,” as he thrust forward the branch that Mrs. Willoughby had pinned a first place county fair medal on years earlier.

But what Henrí failed to realize is that time and nature had done its damage to the first place prize ribbon that had hung on his proud branches for so long. The wind and rain of multiple winters had long ago washed away any wording or glitter that his award ribbon once contained. All that remained were tattered remains of a dull and dirty scrap of paper that nobody recognized as nothing more than trash.

The essence of Henrí barely had time to rush into the trunk and root systems of a once proud tree that now fell to the ground with a loud groan and crash. He watched as the men with power tools proceeded to slice up and stack every last branch. Henrí knew his fate. His once proud branches were stacked neatly near a fire pit in the corner of the garden. He would be next summer’s fire pit fuel. The branches that once produced the finest peaches in all the land, would soon roast over an open flame.

As Henrí the Peach sunk lower into the root system to ponder his fate, the men with power tools finished the professional job they had started with a stump grinder. As they worked to eradicate every last trace of Henrí, he realized that the wood chips from his stump would serve as the compost that the fancy white donut peach would need to not only survive, but thrive in its new setting.

The men with power tools left later that day. Dust and wood chips scattered the ground where the great Henrí the Peach once grew. The fancy white donut peach stood in the same hole that once contained the remains of his mighty stump – the same stump that his love at one time leaned against as she sang her garden songs of love.

Henrí survived the initial onslaught, but now came to fear the woman he once loved with all his heart, had peach trees had such a thing. If he dared allowed his root system to send up even a single leaf’s worth of growth, it was hacked into pieces and sprayed with a substance that stung his remaining roots. Henrí knew to stay below the surface and could only watch his love sing the praises of another. The fight to stay alive for his love grew into a daily struggle, as the fancy white donut peach grew to a size where it began to consume the water and nutrients that had once been reserved for Henrí the Peach.


Henrí isn’t sure when he died or if he did die, but one day he realized that he was no longer in the garden that once contained his very essence. As he slowly became aware of the conditions around him, Henrí didn’t recognize the setting he was in nor the garden. Worse yet, by the time Henrí did become aware of the environment around him, he would fall into a deep slumber, only to reawaken in another strange place.

At first, he could not understand where he was. It felt like a peach tree but it wasn’t his tree. He shared it with another or sometimes, several others. They were all peach varieties just like Henrí, but also unlike him. After all, time may have passed, but the peaches that Henrí bore were still unique.

Henrí can’t remember how long it took before he finally understood, but it must have been a period of several years. His very essence was contained in a series of peach trees that were planted on different farms or in different gardens. He survived in the cuttings that growers had taken from his magnificent tree years earlier, which had been grafted to other peach trees. Henrí was glad to discover that he had not been forgotten. His fruit was just as prized now as it ever had been.

As for the love that sang to him and nurtured his soul through the years, his memory had faded to the point where he could no longer remember her name and not even her face. Henrí knew that she never visited him again, but did remember her love with a fondness that would never die. Because nobody ever forgets a true love or the joy and pain that a true love can bring.

Henrí could only realize that, at one time, he was loved and he was cherished. He remembered the good times with great relish, and tried not to dwell on the pain and tears of the past. His only wish, had peach trees had such a thing, was to feel her caress on his branches once again and hear her songs of love.

A love like this comes but once in a lifetime. While the tears and pain of loss did not come as often as they once did, from time to time the old sorrow came to visit. For we all feel the sorrow and tears for a deep love that comes to an abrupt end. That is especially true for Henrí the Peach.

The Flowers of Spring

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Honey Crisp Apple Tree in Full Bloom
"April Showers Bring May Flowers," my mother once crooned. She usually started screeching after a surprise rain storm wiped out whatever her youngest boy had planned for the day -- an event that was usually outside. Because, what boy wants to be stuck inside when the sun is shining outside?

Thank God our house had some thick walls -- because mom's singing was pretty brutal. Brutal enough to drive a boy into a garage in an attempt to find some auditory relief. Perhaps that's the way she wanted it. Perhaps I'm not giving mom enough credit...

Granny Smith Apple in Bloom
Spring is special because it brings a bounty of flowers to the Bird Back 40. And, in our case, every single tiny flower brings the promise of a fruit payoff later this summer. I've come to that age (OLD), where I appreciate the finer things in life. And nothing brings greater joy than a Honey Crisp Apple tree doing it's best Granny Smith Apple imitation.

This is year five for the Honey Crisp. It's delivered exactly one eye-popping crop so far -- and that came in year two. The dreaded Fire Blight would strike in year three, wiping out an entire crop. And last year? Last year the Honey Crisp bloomed in exactly one spot. That's a crime, because the Honey Crisp Apple is that good.

Duke Avocado Tree in Bloom
But this year is somewhat different. This year is somewhat exciting. The temperamental Honey Crisp is covered with blooms and honey bees. The Fuji Apple is also blooming heavily -- a first for this tree as well. And the Granny? The Granny Smith apple was meant to bloom. It always blooms. When doesn't a Granny bloom? If you're looking for a good pollinator tree, look no further than the Granny. That tree is rather ridiculous. It blooms early. It blooms mid-season. It blooms late. Even after you think the Granny is done blooming, surprise! There's another set of buttery pink blossoms.

The story is pretty much the same across the Bird Back 40. The blossom period for the peaches and nectarines is just about over. The thorn less blackberry vines are in full bloom. The Shuksan strawberry plants are going to town. Even the Duke Avocado tree is covered with more blooms and bees than I can possibly count. Step anywhere near that tree and you'd swear there was a beehive hidden somewhere in there.

Duke Avocado Blooms
But the most surprising development isn't the surprisingly heavy crop of Royal Rainier Cherries. It's not the myriad of mandarins that are covered with a carpet of white. No -- the most surprising development was the number of blooms on the Harrow Delight Pear tree. I planted this tree three years ago. I dutifully chopped it in half to knee level to encourage low branch development. And I was told it could take 4-5 years before the Harrow Delight produced its first crop.

Instead, the Harrow Delight bloomed in year three and set a nice crop of pears. This is important because I fell in love with the Harrow Delight at a Dave Wilson Nursery fruit tasting event held several years ago at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. Even though the wife that is Venus were sampling a bevy of different fruits on this particular day, one item stood out among all the others. I kept going back for more. It was the Harrow Delight Pear.

Harrow Delight Pear in Bloom
The Harrow Delight is one of two varieties planted in a raised bed that are supposedly resistant to the scourge upon fruit kind known as Fire Blight. It was introduced in 1982 from the Harrow Agricultural station in Ontario, Canada. The Blake's Pride Pear, which is also billed as Fire Blight resistant, was developed by Richard Bell with the ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia in 1998.

Unfortunately, I will have to wait on the Blake's Pride as it did now flower this spring. The old-fashioned Bartlett Pear, which is not resistant to blight and is planted in the same raised bed as the other two varieties, flowered heavily this year.

Harrow Delight Pears
No sign of the dreaded blight yet this year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and trying a new organic solution of water and apple cider vinegar to keep the blight at bay. I do have something stronger, BUT, I really don't like what this particular chemical did to the fruit composition last year. So it stays on the sideline.

Half the work of growing home-grown fruit takes place in the spring. Is the area clear of weeds (weeds steal water)? Has the appropriate fertilizer been applied? Is it getting enough water? Are the fruit trees protected from various ills, like blight, that can strike in the spring?

If the answer to all four questions is "YES," congratulations. You should have a tree full of fruit. Of course, a million and one things could happen between now and harvest time that could spoil that tempting looking crop. As backyard fruit growers, this is the cross we bear.

So -- congratulations. Springtime has arrived. The fruit trees are in full bloom. The honey bees are out in force. And, so far, mom hasn't been tempted to start crooning "April Showers Bring May Flowers."

Steaks in the Summer Garden

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Heirloom Tomato Seedlings
We're planning to grow steaks in the Bird Back 40 summer garden this year. How about you? Can you spot the tiny steak starter plants in the photo to your right? They are right in front of your nose. They don't look all that special -- but come this summer -- hopefully the wife that is Venus will be digging into her favorite cut of prime rib.

How does one grow steaks in a garden you ask? Plant a moo-moo cow in the raised garden beds perchance? Set aside a portion of the Bird Back 40 for some moo-moo cows? They'd get along great with Lenny the Giant Maine Coon cat, wouldn't they? Probably not -- so perish the thought.

Steak House Hybrid Tomato Seed
No -- the steaks we're growing this year -- a first for us by the way -- are of the vegetable or fruit variety. It's called the Steak House Hybrid. It's the latest introduction from Burpee Seed, and I must warn you, it's ridiculously expensive. How expensive? Stupid expensive. As someone has to be as stupid as yours truly to lay down $7 for a packet of magic beans.

Yes -- I will admit -- I paid $7 for Burpee's latest creation. They promised a seed packet with 25 seeds. Yet -- someone has a serious math problem in that seed operation because when the package finally did arrive, it contained a total of six or seven seeds. That's right, a buck a seed. This better be worth it.

Tomato Seed Selections from Tomato Growers Supply
Burpee claims that it is. "Meet the biggest tomato ever bred," the advertising claims. "And it’s not just bigger but better. Tipping the scales at up to three lbs. plus, broad-shouldered tomato titan is bigger than Big Daddy, and loaded with true heirloom tomato flavor and head-spinning fragrance. Indeterminate plants produce gorgeous, humongous fruits."

With advertising like that, who can resist? The Steak House Hybrid is one of 40-50 varieties that we're growing from seed this year. Planted two weeks ago, most of everything has sprung to life. This includes numerous peppers, which should have been planted a month earlier, but, uh, I'm late. OK, so sue me.

Solar Flare Tomato Seed: Wild Boar Farms
Some of these varieties are new. Some are old favorites. Every tomato garden must now include a Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, the brainchild of Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms. If that's not a gardening law, it should be.

Other old-time gardening varieties include the always amazing, but sometimes tempermental, Azochka (tastes like bacon!). Look closely and you will find a Druzba, Green Zebra, Caspian Pink and Brandywine.

Ah -- but the Steak House Hybrid isn't the only "meat" feature in this year's summer garden. And no summer garden is complete without other tasty summer vegetables. Nope -- you've got to have a patch of basil here and there. Peppers are a must. And who can forget about tasty eggplant?

Seed Starting Station
So -- it's not just steaks -- but meatballs as well. This is yet another Burpee selection -- an eggplant they like to call "Meatball." So -- what's so special about "Meatball?" I have absolutely no clue. This is the first time I've grown it.

But if you were to believe the fine folks at Burpee: "Meet the mightiest, meatiest eggplant ever. Imagine fresh, home-grown, vine-ripened MEAT! That's Meatball."

Do you believe them? Meh -- me too. We'll see what happens.

Our "seed rack" contains about 140 starter plants this year. That represents the most we've ever started from seed. Can we fit 140 starter plants into the Bird Back 40? Only if I knock down the neighbor's fence and take over his backyard -- something he probably wouldn't like.

But, starting too many plants is a tradition here. Besides, they always do find a home. If not in our garden, somewhere else. I mean, look, who can pass on a tomato named after a STEAK and even the hardiest eggplant hater would pause at something called a MEATBALL.

It's 2016 in the Bird Back 40. The carnivores are taking over.

Big Pink
Black Krim
Campbell’s 1327
Cascade Lava
Caspian Pink
Green Tie Dye
Green Zebra
Italian Sweet
Lemon Boy
Marisol Purple
Mint Julep
Oaxacan Jewel
Pink Berkeley Tie Dye
Pink Boar
Pork Chop
San Marzano
Sky Reacher
Solar Flare
Sweet 100

Dark Opal
Large Leaf
Siam Queen