Growing a Story for the Long Haul

Bowl of Earliblaze Apples

Monday afternoons my spouse and I devote time to organizing the household, reducing clutter, and cleaning.

It’s a long-term project we do together. We schedule it on the calendar. Sometimes it means working together on a household issue. Sometimes it means moving boxes and furniture. It definitely means cleaning. Yesterday I spent an hour shredding personal papers. There’s is a lot to do.

We each have reasons for the project. Mine is to eliminate belongings accumulated in 67 years so when I’m gone those left don’t have to deal with them. In particular, I don’t want our daughter to have to spend weeks doing work I should have done. I also want a more comfortable place to live.

The project conflicts with my desire to produce new work. Yet a few hours a week won’t kill me as I slow down into retirement. As the work gets organized, there is a lot to like about it. Now or never is the time to consider all this stuff.

1995 Apple Tree Planting Record

Among recent findings was the planting record for our grove of fruit trees. Planted on April 22, 1995, I began with six varieties of trees, which over the years has been reduced to three: one Red Delicious and two Earliblaze apple trees.

Yesterday I ordered two new apple trees: one Zestar! and one Crimson Crisp. I’ll take out one of the Earliblaze trees and increase the distance between plantings. The idea is to get a succession of ripening fruit — the same thing I originally intended. The new ripening order will be Zestar!, Earliblaze, Crimson Crisp, then Red Delicious. I plan to plant one or two Gold Rush Trees, but the nursery is sold out this year. Gold Rush is a late apple that stores exceptionally well. Planting trees is a longer term commitment than a couple of seasons so I don’t mind waiting until 2021 for those.

I know more about apples today than I did when we moved to Big Grove. That’s mostly due to working at a local orchard during apple season. It changed how we view them dramatically, introducing new flavors and varieties. Whatever apples we have in our home orchard, we’ll supplement them with other local fruit. I probably think about apples more than most people.

If I were to tell my story, the seven seasons of working on farms and at the orchard would be part of it. Not only is the work a source of food, it is about culture and learning. It is about integrating our kitchen with an ecology of food that includes fewer items from the grocery store and more I grow or have a hand in growing.

Producing a crop of apples is a sign of something. To begin with, it is a long-term commitment to growing. The rest is about how the trees are cultivated and apples are used. If all I did was make hard cider with them, that would be something. I want more from life than that. I’m in it for the long haul.

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Signing the Card

Tomatoes with Bumper Stickers

SOLON, Iowa — Without fanfare I signed a caucus commitment card for Elizabeth Warren at a friend’s home last night.

The occasion was a meet up with our area’s new Warren organizer, Allison Hunt, with whom I’ll be meeting one-on-one later in the week.

I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but it is important to lay out why.

We need the strongest possible candidate to take on the Republican nominee in 2020. I believe that is Elizabeth Warren because she understands the the problems of money and corruption in our governance, she knows how to address it, and has the will and drive to do so.

I will support the eventual nominee at the July 2020 Democratic National Convention. I respect most of the people running for different reasons, especially the U.S. Senators who threw their hat into the presidential ring. Signing the card for Warren means I will work to make sure she emerges from the Iowa Caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020.

Elizabeth Warren is a woman and I’m not sure the American electorate is ready to elect a female president. We will never have a female president if we don’t elect one, so that is a non-issue for me. Her qualifications are as good as or better than any of the ten candidates who appeared in last week’s Democratic National Committee debate. We have to base our decision on qualifications and experience which Elizabeth Warren has.

Elizabeth Warren has organized for the early states as well as anyone since I became active again in 2004. With compression of the primary schedule between our caucuses and Super Tuesday on March 3, 19 states will hold presidential preference caucuses or primary elections. That means a candidate must scale up immediately, and campaign everywhere to capture a winning number of supporters. Early voting in California begins the Monday after the Iowa caucuses. The Warren campaign in Iowa set the standard and seems scalable.

Thursday, Sept. 19, Elizabeth Warren is holding an event in Iowa City near the Iowa Memorial Union. Hunt said Warren would stay until everyone who wanted to speak with her individually had an opportunity to do so. I won’t be in that queue, but I don’t need to be.

The challenge will be supporting Warren without disenfranchising Democrats who support another candidate. Like most everything, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The process begins by picking a candidate.

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Tomatoes 2019

Tomato Plant

This year has been an amazing year for garden tomatoes.

21 varieties with a total of 47 plantings produced beyond expectations and our household’s ability to use them. There are so many I took two crates to the orchard for folks to can, freeze, eat and share. I took flats of them to meet ups and shared them with neighbors and friends via Facebook.

Here are some tomato notes for fans.


As we reach peak tomato season neighbors complain about deer. This comment from a friend in our township is typical,

How do you keep the deer away. They graze on ours. They take a bite, decide they don’t like it and drop it on the ground. Then onto the next tomato. Bite, pick, yuk, drop, and repeat until no tomatoes are left.

My symbiotic relationship with deer includes a custom designed deer fence using common materials. I install a 4-foot chicken wire enclosure mounted on posts so the top of the wire is 5 feet from the ground. I plant the rows 36 inches apart — close enough for me to get in, and close enough together to discourage deer from jumping five feet high to get in. I leave enough space so I can move between the fence and the tomatoes. This is my second or third year of using the method and it works keeping the deer from ripe tomatoes, leaving more for humans.


There are so many varieties of tomatoes! I listed seeds planted in this earlier post. The selection process was intended to produce plenty in three categories: cherry, slicers and canning tomatoes. I had plenty of seedlings from the greenhouse, allowing selection of the best starts. If three trays of 120 blocks seemed like a lot at the time, it produced what was needed for the beds.

Canning tomatoes for work colleagues.

Plot preparation

For the second year I dug 3-foot trenches for tomato planting instead of digging and breaking up entire plots. I conditioned the soil with composted chicken manure and finished with a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth. The latter was intended to retard progress of tomato-loving insects.


When there wasn’t rain, I watered with a garden hose daily, mostly in the morning. Half a dozen plantings on the north side of the plot developed blossom end rot. I suspect the problem was a mineral deficiency in the soil rather than inconsistent moisture. I had enough grass clippings to mulch the tomatoes to prevent weeds and retain excess moisture.

Stars of the show

Tomatoes with the best results and great flavor included,

Cherries: Clementine, Grape, Matt’s Wild, Jasper, Taxi and White Cherry. The sweetest were White Cherry, Jasper and Matt’s Wild.

Canning: Granadero produced many perfectly shaped, flavorful plum tomatoes. Amish Paste was also a strong performer. Speckled Roma was the most flavorful in this category. Other varieties of small, round tomatoes filled out the crop for canning needs.

Slicers: German Pink and Martha Washington produced the best large slicers. Black Krim was unique with its dark color and tasty flesh. The Abe Lincoln plants produced consistent small round tomatoes which I used to dice for tacos and for canning.

Homemade Tomato Sauce


Eating and cooking fresh: What else is there to say but tomatoes on or in everything!

Sauce: With so many tomatoes in the house they had to be culled every couple of days for bad spots. These were trimmed and cut into large chunks to simmer until the flesh was soft and skin loosened. Next I put the whole lot into a funnel strainer and drained out tomato water. The garden produced a lot of this by-product so after canning 24 quarts of tomato water to use mostly in soups and for cooking rice, I discarded the rest. Once the water drained out, I used the wooden mallet to press out tomato sauce which I froze in one quart zip top bags to use later for pasta sauce and chili.

Diced tomatoes: I canned enough pint and quart jars of diced tomatoes to get us through the next year. I rotate stock so oldest ones are used first and still have a couple of jars from 2016 and 2017 to use first. Diced tomatoes include the skin for its nutrients.

Whole tomatoes: This year I took the skin off small round and plum tomatoes and canned them whole. There are about 24 quarts and 24 pints to last a year or more.

The 2019 garden was an unmitigated success in the tomato category. It is a feature of late summer in our household.

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Democrats Ready to Unite?

Before the Poll Opens

Democratic presidential candidates are roaming the state like a swarm of termites seeking an entry point into an American dream.

Thus far, Julián Castro found his way to Solon, although to my knowledge, no one else has.

This presidential election cycle seems different from 2008 and 2016 when there were open races among Democrats. What makes it different is Democrats tell me they will support the candidate who wins the nomination at the July 2020 Democratic National convention. Period.

A lot is at stake in our general elections. In Iowa with our unique caucuses? Not as much.

Things were different when the Democratic Party emerged from the disastrous 1968 Chicago convention. I could see from my perch in high school that Hubert Humphrey emerging from smoke-filled rooms was not a good thing. With leadership from George McGovern, Democrats changed the nominating process for the better, bringing, among other things, the importance of the Iowa caucuses.

While Iowa got the attention of presidential candidates this year that may not always be the case. What was Iowa and New Hampshire added South Carolina and Nevada by 2008. Now Super Tuesday on March 3, 2020 with Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Democrats Abroad, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia holding their presidential primaries compresses the whole schedule.

I haven’t picked a candidate to support this cycle. I may not before caucus. What I have embraced is a caucus process likely to change by the next presidential election.

~ Submitted to the editor of the Solon Economist

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Couldn’t Face the Gumbo

Slicers waiting for gumbo, sandwiches and conversion to sauce.

I had planned gumbo for a few weeks. Yesterday was the day.

Gumbo is a natural dish for our kitchen in late summer. There are plenty of onions, celery stalks, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and okra available from the garden. It is an easy dish to prepare after learning how to make a roux. Ingredient availability was not the issue.

I bought veggie sausages from the local food coop, harvested enough tender okra pods, and opened the hand-written recipe book to the page. I was ready.

I couldn’t, then sliced the okra, put it in a zip-top bag and tucked it in the freezer along with too many other bags of okra already there.

Not sure why I couldn’t, I recalled T.S. Eliot who put it thusly in “The Hollow Men:”

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

During a month of reminders about end of life, my retort, “it’s not that damn long.”

My work cycle begins again this afternoon with a shift at the orchard for family night. After taking off work there, and at the home, farm and auto supply store, for a week, I’m ready to be among co-workers and guests again.

One hopes I will make gumbo before the end of summer vegetables. Maybe not yesterday, but it’s the best time of year for it. It would be a shame to waste our brief time among the living without it.

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2019 Gardening Season

Sundog Farm under clouds

I want to write a nice summary of this year’s garden including successes, failures and lessons learned.

Instead of crafting something usable, I visited two of the farms where I work.

Knowledge lives within us more than in written words. Life doesn’t always proceed in a linear manner despite predictable changes in season.

Yesterday was about dealing with the abundance of Red Delicious apples ripening on the tree. I plan to give excess — about 350 pounds — to my friend Carmen for the winter share in her CSA.

At the orchard we did a taste test: the apples were too starchy. Then to Sundog Farm where we discussed how much for each share and a process for delivery once they ripen. I think we are set.

Over the years I’ve been able to develop a network of master gardeners, farmers and growers to provide feedback on what happens in our garden. I am a better gardener because of this work. I’ve come a long way since getting started with the process in 2013.

Two things added a unique layer to summer gardening: my spouse’s five-week trip to her sister’s home in July, and the 26-day interim between Mother’s death Aug. 15 and her funeral Monday. Both were unexpected and made a unique mental frame for what was already a weird gardening season.

While Carmen and I walked about her farm she showed off her lettuce patch in a high tunnel, and the abundance of tomatoes a crew was harvesting. We had a conversation about diversification. This year was a big tomato year for both of us, although that’s not been the case for everyone. We planted many varieties of tomatoes and while she has members to take the excess, my canning, freezing and eating has physical limits which will soon be reached.

I moved the cherry tomatoes to their own patch this year and it’s a better idea. They are all good, but my favorites were Jasper, Matt’s Wild Cherry and white cherry. I planted two rows of four plants and next year I will only plant one row to make it easier to harvest.

Among my trials this year were okra (easy to grow and a little goes a long way in our kitchen), Guajillo chilies (if they ripen well I’ll get a crop for making pepper sauce for tacos), Poblano chilies (did not produce much), red beans (I mistook pole beans for bush beans so they had trouble), and planting beets in flats before transplanting them to the ground (produced much better beets than sown seeds). I planted two types of broccoli in succession, but the second variety (Imperial) didn’t produce.

We had basil, parsley and cilantro in abundance. Basil goes into tomato dishes and parsley and cilantro are for eating fresh. Fresh cilantro is an important addition to tacos. I made a good amount of basil pesto and froze it. Even with lots of uses for basil, I let the second raft of plants go to seed because there was too much.

If there was a single most important lesson in gardening this year, it was to better tune what I grow to our cuisine. I’m not exactly sure what that means but Carmen and I discussed and agreed that is important for a gardener. As our family cuisine makes a transition, this will gain relevance when planning next year’s garden.

So that’s the story of the 2019 garden, which isn’t done.

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Shared Culture by the Lake

Making apple cider vinegar.

When we moved to Big Grove Township we had expectations about building a life here. These expectations spoke to our shared culture.

We built a new home, settled into the public school community and began getting to know people as I worked a career that would eventually take me to a job in Eldridge, Iowa where I managed a dedicated fleet operation for a large steel service company. At the time I thought the 55-minute drive was a reasonable commute.

While there, in a staff meeting, news of the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crashing in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania began to emerge. I was scheduled to fly to Philadelphia that morning but the flight would be delayed. That day became part of an American cultural heritage.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 were an opportunity for the country to pull together, to unite in shared values. It was squandered by our national leaders who used the terrorist attacks as sufficient reason to invade Iraq. Our disdain for the national culture has increased since then.

Participating in a national culture is made worse by growing income and wealth inequality. If comparisons of modern capitalism with the Gilded Age and the rise of Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and others is apples to oranges, Republican leadership of the U.S. government is systematically undoing every constraint on wealth and business implemented since the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. This is intentional, and under a government subject to the unlimited financial contributions of businesses. In part, we can thank the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC for unleashing the power of the wealthy in our governance.

Not only do we view the rise of the wealthy into power over our lives with disdain, we spend more time thinking about it because of new media available to us 24/7. We tend to forget our local culture, the culture we share with family, friends and neighbors — things that are shared, yet personal to us.

Mom’s funeral on Monday started an immersion into cultures I forgot existed. Greeting people from every part of Mom’s life at the visitation taxed my ability to remember. I don’t believe I come up short. At the Knights of Columbus Hall after interment I sat with three of my cousins and talked about things I’d forgotten existed. Aunt Wini’s wringer washing machine, Orsinger’s ice cream, Uncle Vince’s photography culture, Chicago steel mill culture, and more. I was able to keep up even though it has been years since I’d seen any of them. I could keep up because it is our shared culture.

Yesterday I took the crate of apples from the summer trees in our backyard and made a gallon of apple cider vinegar. By this morning the brewers yeast was working. After skimming the scum, I put the two half gallon jars on the pantry shelf to ferment. I got the mother of vinegar from a neighbor. His family had been making vinegar with it since the 19th century. The distribution of our vinegar is in a short radius with most of it used in our kitchen. I’d be willing to bet I’m one of a very small number of people fermenting vinegar in our township.

The point is we have shared cultures and the only way they exist, now and into the future, is by participating in them. The sad occasion of Mom’s passing was made better by the celebration of her life by the living. Our cuisine is made better by making our own vinegar for pickles and salad dressings. Eventually our national culture will regain its value but we are not there yet.

We chose this township based on the logistics of living. To make it meaningful we’ve had to participate in local cultures. As bad as the national culture is now, we can’t stop participating because so much is at stake. What happens near the lake ripples throughout society. If enough people engage, that could be life-changing for us, and for us all.

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