Harvesting Grass for the Garden



The sound of children playing reached through still air to the parking lot where I distributed shares to CSA members. The sky was clear and children were having fun chasing balls, swinging on a swing set and playing in the grass. It lifted my spirits for that hour.

Grass Clippings

Grass Clippings

Lilacs are in bloom and apple blossoms are dropping petals as spring’s course runs through our lives. Flipping the calendar to May, there is much to get done before summer starts in three weeks.

A neighbor noticed I left the grass clippings after mowing. They wondered if they could have them, prompting this response.

Thanks for the compliment on our grass clippings.

I plan to use them on our garden as mulch in years one and two, then as compost after that.

I always delay mowing in Spring until the yard gets green and starts going to seed. Then I cut first with the mower, let them dry in the sun a couple of days if possible, and beginning tomorrow will start picking them up with the grass catcher attachment on my mower, or with a rake.

I admit they are nice, but you and I are likely the only people in the neighborhood who view them as an asset.

Over the years I stopped using lawn chemicals so there wouldn’t be runoff to the lake, and the clippings would be as artificial-chemical free as possible for the garden.

You might notice I stop mowing in October to let the grass get long for the spring mow.

I have been collecting up stuff for compost, and if I find extra, I’ll keep you in mind.

Thanks for asking, and see you around.

Cleaned Up Yard

Cleaned Up Yard

It took two and a half hours of work collecting the clippings, including a spate of time tracking down some bolts to attach the top of the grass catcher. I took a bolt, nut and washers into the hardware store in town and said, “I’d like two more of these.” Within minutes, the clerk had them and charged less than three dollars. Once home I made short work of prepping the equipment.

The sun-dried clippings went into the grass catcher easily. The secret to preventing them from clogging the intake is drying them several days and driving the tractor slowly so the right amount go into the mower each pass.

The best part of the work, other than the economics of grass clippings, was the varied smells in the yard. Apple blossoms and lilac; the sour smell of the apple pomace; spring garlic; and the waft of fertilizer from a neighbor’s recently treated yard. Not everyone eschews lawn chemicals, although maybe they should.

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Apple Blossom Time

Apple Blossoms

Apple Blossoms

It’s apple blossom time in Big Grove.

Conditions are excellent for an abundant apple crop. There are plenty of pollinators, the ambient temperature is warm and the wind is calm.

Already I’m thinking of apple cider, apple butter, apple cider vinegar, apple sauce, and, of course, fresh apples. It is a hopeful time.

This morning’s chores included watering indoor seedlings. They need transplant as some are becoming root bound. Soon—maybe 10 to 14 days—they will be in the ground, so I’m not going to transplant into a larger container in between. The seeds I planted on Earth Day are germinating and it’s all good.

The challenge is finding time to work in the yard and garden—I don’t have any brilliance on that topic.

Working three jobs provides variety in life. For that I am thankful, yet they all demand time.

In between one and the others, carving out blocks of garden work time is important—something I couldn’t get adequately done last year.

Here’s hoping the inspiration of apple blossoms and lilac blooms engenders a better garden this year.

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Early Spring Gardening

Apple Blossoms

Apple Blossoms

The fruit trees are blooming. The fragrance is sweet and rare. I stopped to breathe it in.

Pollinators buzzed, providing hope for a good crop of apples and pears, dampened only slightly by yesterday’s rain. Even the diseased Golden Delicious tree is blooming—perhaps one last crop before it becomes firewood.

The newspaper’s freelance garden writer wrote April is the time to get to work in the garden, and so I have. Spinach, peas, lettuce, radishes and turnips are up. The chives and garlic survived both winter and the spring burn. A new pile of apple pomace from the cider mill lies next to the horse manure and grass clippings, ready to turn to compost. There are plenty of weeds starting to grow, needing suppression. If I did nothing else, work in the garden would take all of my time this month and next.

In the bedroom, the tomato seedlings are about six inches tall. Seeds sprouted and are growing so that after hardening outside a day or two, they will be ready for planting.

At the farm there is less worry about frost and a more diverse crop has been planted. Broccoli, kale, onions and others are already lined up in field rows along with rhubarb and garlic that wintered. I spent part of Friday planting leeks in the field and transplanting eggplant seedlings in the greenhouse.

In many ways, April is for a gardener—last preparations for a rush to planting after the last frost. Then a season of replanting and weeding, and eventually harvesting. There are worse things in life than this.

Apple Blossoms

Apple Blossoms

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Organic Salad Greens

First Spring CSA Share

First Spring CSA Share

Is the local food movement here to stay?

Intellectually, how could it not be? The future must necessarily be one of producing food much closer to where people live, especially as transportation costs escalate, and current food sources in the California Central Valley, in South Florida, and in Texas face the extreme weather characteristic of climate change.

That said, life with food is not always about rational behavior.

Growth of organic food sales is unmistakable, with 2014 food and non-food item sales setting a new record of $39.1 billion. Organic was almost five percent of food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.

There is good and bad organic food. When we think about it, what good is it to buy organic canned black beans produced in China more cheaply than what a local farmer can sell? Is it bad that local producers use “organic practices” yet do not secure USDA organic certification of their operations?

The good news is interest in organic food helps small-scale producers generate needed sales. As organic sales go mainstream, being found in four out of five grocery stores, a crop of informed consumers is making up 18 percent of buyers, accounting for 46 percent of organic food sales. There is room for continued growth in this segment as wider availability of organic food, and mainstream information about organic foods drive people to buy them.

Each week, I hear people explain why they buy organic food. Their reasons are diverse, and don’t always make sense. The commitment is often to “eating healthy” as opposed to any sound rationale. This attitude toward organic food can become problematic, and  small-scale producers in the local food movement are particularly vulnerable. If organic is the latest fad, then long-term sustainability may be out the window for them.

Another thing people don’t mention much is as organic food becomes mainstream, large-scale players will increase their share in organic, and dominate the marketplace. Companies like Earthbound Farm Organic will become the norm, rather than the exception. Food conglomerates may establish gigantic organic food divisions as they have already done with gluten-free food. Better margins in organic food will attract capital, and small-scale farmers seem seldom have enough of that to compete.

I brought a bag of seven or eight kinds of spring greens home from the farm, reminding me of why I buy and barter for local food. I know how the farmers treat the soil, where they get seeds and rootstock, how they control pests, how they treat animals, and how they treat labor.

There is not much hope for a market based on “eating healthy.” It is not sustainable, even if organic is gaining market share.

Some of us find hope in being close to the means of production and getting our hands dirty. We also know the face of the farmer—something that gets forgotten midst the hoopla of buzzwords.

Knowing the face of the farmer is sustainable in local food systems. It is hard to replace, and it is time we got to know more of the farmers whose production we eat every day.

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Political Sidetrack

Hillary at Benghazi Hearings

Hillary at Benghazi Hearings

Suddenly sucked into the vortex of writing about politics, my reaction is to back down. It was hard not to pay some attention to Hillary Clinton’s campaign launch in Iowa last week. After all, people have been talking about it for years and there was pent up Hillary demand.

She’s on to New Hampshire now, so brief respite and on to other things.

Not quite. It is noteworthy that the D.C. paid punditry and lobby industry was out attacking and criticizing Clinton almost immediately. Heritage Action for America sent a fundraising request on announcement day last Sunday.

“If her campaign gains momentum, political consultants may encourage conservatives to compromise their principles to sound more like Hillary,” according to the email. That’s dog whistle for something I don’t understand, except they seek to raise money to support their work.

Without doing much besides launching, Hillary for America already has momentum, so Heritage may be too late.

That said, it’s time to return to more engaging topics like gardening, cooking, worklife and advocacy.

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Spring Rush to Memorial Day

Garden View of Lake Macbride

Garden View of Lake Macbride

April has gotten very busy. There are dozens of tasks to do at home and farm work has kept me busier while my warehouse work and newspaper writing continue at the same level. It seems impossible that I had eight jobs at one point last year. Working three jobs fills the time if it doesn’t produce enough money to get ahead.

Farm work has been planting, planting and more planting—in the field, in seed trays, in the high tunnel. Yesterday was lettuce greens and broccoli. The day before onions and soil blocking. Today, I will seed some trays before cleaning up to head to the warehouse.

The challenge is to find time for our own garden. When I receive next week’s work schedule a priority will be setting aside a home work day.

A livestock farmer spent yesterday preparing his fields to plant corn. His planter is maintained and ready. Another spread fertilizer, complaining of a sore throat because he had the tractor window open.

Everyone’s busy with spring. That includes me. The garden needs planting before Memorial Day. It’s five weeks away, but it seems like tomorrow.

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A Farmer and a Politician Greet George McGovern

Farm to Market

Farm to Market

Out in the country good stories get circulated. I don’t mean Liz Mair’s self-described “incendiary” piece on Hillary Clinton, or other tales of paid punditry emanating from inside the D.C. beltway and nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Here’s one that circulated earlier this week as an example:

FARMER: I’d like to see Hillary Clinton again.

ME: I thought you caucused for Obama.

FARMER: I did, but I met her. Did you hear my story about that?

ME: No, I didn’t.

FARMER: Well a friend invited me to the Democrats annual barbecue and I was in the rope line. I can’t recall whether I had just shaken Hillary’s hand or was waiting my turn. Up came George McGovern and I said, “I don’t suppose you remember me, but I ran your campaign in San Francisco.”

MCGOVERN: Of course I remember you.

HILLARY: Well I ran your campaign in Texas.

FARMER: Yeah, but we won.

I don’t tell the story as well as the farmer, but a couple of things are important.

First, who thought Hillary would be so competitive on a personal level after being a first lady and U.S. Senator? Contrary to what some people say, Hillary made a strong effort in Iowa during the run up to the 2008 caucuses. Even I got an invitation to meet her personally in a small group setting. Some of my best friends and neighbors supported her and got involved in politics—some for the first time—because of her campaign. While there is the famous memo, what gets forgotten is she disregarded the advice.

Second, it was the reforms of the Democratic party after the debacle of the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention that brought us the Iowa caucuses in their present form. McGovern had a hand in those reforms, and Jimmy Carter was arguably the first presidential candidate to leverage them in 1976, beginning with his appearance at the Iowa State Fair. There are still some Harold Hughes for President backers in our county who can tell the tale of what went on to bring about the changes in the Democratic party.

And finally, Hillary is a fighter. This link to an excerpt from the Benghazi hearings shows what kind of fighter Hillary Clinton is. Most readers have seen it before. Of the national Democrats traveling Iowa presently, Jim Webb, was Born Fighting and established an exploratory committee. Elizabeth Warren is a fighter, but is likely not running for president. Not to be dismissive of other hopefuls, but that’s it.

There are other great stories circulating in rural Iowa. I hope to have an opportunity to tell a few more.

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