Garden Home Life

Three Spring Lessons Learned

Arugula, Basil and Lettuce
Arugula, Basil and Lettuce

LAKE MACBRIDE— The sound of rain dripping in the downspout woke me. Opening the blinds revealed a queue of cars protecting school children from the rain at the bus stop. It is an overcast day, with rain we surely need. The school bus arrived, and I moved trays of seedlings outside to harden them. Better plants be hardened by the weather than children. Life will be hard enough as they finish grade school and begin to grow up.

Spring has been a time of lessons learned in Big Grove.

Cooperation with neighbors enabled me to borrow a rototiller and till the garden as well as it has ever been at no financial cost. That benefit, combined with working together in a common enterprise, is a reminder of our local culture, and the need to nurture it.

Seeking out people with experience in similar interests can provide benefits. Working together with them is even better. The inspiration to plant more seeds in trays this year was working with experienced growers at a local farm. Seeing the success others have can inform our own successes.

Adaptation to the sometimes crazy weather was the climate reality with which we lived. The cold, wet spring retarded progress in yard and garden work. Though delayed, the trees and plantings are now thriving. It is better to focus on what progress can be made than to complain about the weather, and other things beyond our control.

Life is what we make of it is the old saw. Quotes, proverbs and sayings aren’t worth much unless we put them into practical application by doing things with others. It takes time and effort. Sometimes it takes replacing bad habits accumulated over time with something better.

Perhaps the best lesson of this spring has been the reminder that we can’t stop living. If there is any hope for social progress, it is in working together with others toward a common good— a lesson that extends beyond spring.

Local Food

Preparing Bok Choy in a Home Kitchen

LAKE MACBRIDE— Yesterday, I brought home a bag of Bok Choy from the farm. It is fresh, in season, grown locally, and the makings of a dish to be served as part of a meal.

I asked a long time chef and caterer how he would prepare Bok Choy. He said he would steam it, and serve with seafood or pork. Seafood and pork don’t work well in the Midwestern semi-vegetarian kitchen, so I pursued another option, which was to use it in a stir fried vegetable dish. The meal idea was to use the stir fry mixture as the serving base for a home made veggie burger. A quick lunch for a working man.

A couple of notes.

If there is hope for a local food movement, it lies inside thousands of home kitchens, where cooks prepare meals for themselves and their families. A home cook’s kitchen has ingredients from all over, providing an individual and local context for ingredients. For example, there are Vidalia onions in my kitchen today. They were grown in Georgia, so not local, but in season.

In the freezer is a large zip top bag of sliced bell peppers. I bought a large quantity of seconds from a local grower last year, cut away the bad parts, and sliced them into long thin pieces. I froze them on a cookie sheet and bagged them to use later for stir fry.

Preparing Bok Choy Stir Fry

Depending upon how the Bok Choy comes (mine were still attached to the stalk of a plant), separate and pick through the leaves and wash them in a bowl of ice cold water. Drain, and if you have one, dry in a salad spinner. Otherwise, towel dry. Cut the thick part of the stem below the leaf and reserve. The stems are good to eat, and take a little longer to cook than the leaves.

Dice one half a large Vidalia onion, medium dice. Prepare the equivalent of one half of a bell pepper in long strips (or use bagged, frozen ones prepared as above).  Here we go:

Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat. When the pan is hot, coat the bottom with extra virgin olive oil. Add the diced onion, stirring constantly. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Add the bell pepper and Bok Choy stems and stir constantly. When the vegetables are tender, add the leaves and stir constantly until they are wilted. Serve on a plate or bowl, with your favorite veggie burger and condiment on top.


Clearing a Field of Risks

Sheep and LambsLAKE MACBRIDE— A gardener accepts risks. Soil, insects, weeds, temperature variation, hail, frost, flood, drought, neighbors’ pets, deer, and others. No doubt, we will take those risks, and after the season’s promise is in the ground, mitigate them as best we can.

Risk management is also part of most people’s lives. In the middle of the economic spectrum, people spend a lot of money managing risk in the form of insurance. Health insurance is the biggest monthly expense in our household, and if one adds in auto insurance, dental insurance, home owner’s insurance, life insurance and others, insurance payments dominate household expenses.

Most people I know, who buy into the consumer society, are not very good at managing risk, even if they are adept at apples to apples comparisons between competing insurance policies. Gardening represents a chance to learn how to take risks.

Evaluating the weather and making decisions about when to plant specific vegetables seems part of the living dynamic of being a grower— large scale or small.

What are the risks, in life and in gardening, and are we willing to take them? For a home gardener, the risk of making a mistake is high, but the cost of mistakes are mostly very low— time spent, opportunities missed, labor invested, and the cost of seeds and seedlings. With little to lose financially, the social aspect of gardening becomes more important in risk taking.

Yesterday, I asked a grower her thoughts about planting with the current 30 day forecast. She would wait until the weekend to put squash, tomato and other seedlings out… because of the potential to reach the mid-30s later this week. “I wouldn’t risk it,” she said, mentioning the traditional May 10 last frost date. Her farm operation has a lot at stake in making the wrong call, and she exhibited a conservative approach, her judgement tempered by decades of experience as a farmer.

Getting better at risk management takes practice: studying opportunities, evaluating data, considering our experience, making informed decisions, and evaluating results. A garden, with its low financial investment, is the perfect field to get practice managing risk.

If one lives, there is risk and living is something no insurance policy can adequately protect. As a gardener, we go on living, mindful of the risks involved, but being willing to take them.

Farming Local Food

Mid-week at the Farm

Soil Blocks
Soil Blocks

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— Time at the farm represents mid-week for me. I have come to appreciate the weekend more, and finishing my farm work means only two more days until the weekend. The feeling is enjoyable.

My take-away from the farm was a feeling of contributing to something bigger than myself, and large bags of Bok Choy and lettuce for our home kitchen.

Things are moving in and out of the greenhouse at a rapid clip. Developed lettuce is planted in the hoop house, and a number of sturdy seedlings are already in the field. Each week we plant more in order to provide a steady flow of vegetables to CSA share holders. I have planted more types of lettuce than I knew existed.

The walk-in cooler is running, and filled with baskets and coolers with vegetables for this week’s share. Combine all this and a sense of purpose, with a clear, beautiful day, and how much better could life get?

Garden Local Food

Time for Garden Planting

Hardening the Seedlings
Hardening the Seedlings

When the Iowa City Farmers Market opened last year, I offered spring garlic, lettuce and radishes. This year, the cold, wet spring retarded progress in the garden. It has been a season without early produce while adapting to the climate reality.

The only question inhibiting garden planting is when will the last frost come? According to the 30-day forecast, we have had the last frost. If things turn cold, there is a box of old sheets that can be spread over the plants in the garden. It’s time to turn to planting.

The plan for my garden is sketchy at best. A gardener plays a balancing act between planning and doing. Whimsy and experimentation enter into it. Sometimes we do dumb things, and sometimes we reach for brilliance. A gardener’s process isn’t always logical, but it is hard to fail.

A home gardener can rely on the grocery store, and other growers, should something fail to produce. It is a food safety net we take for granted and it makes garden planning an expression of personality more than anything else.

Food is abundant and relatively inexpensive in Iowa. What matters more is the interconnectedness we have with other growers, large scale and small. Such relationships are the true fabric of our food system, and provide comfort and security.

One can accept that Florida, Texas, Mexico and California will continue to provide produce for the Midwest. However, when the quality and quantity of locally grown foods puts price pressure on out of state commodities, local food may gain more traction.

Planting a home garden is an important step in the local food direction.

~Written for Iowa City Patch


Garden Turning Point

Zucchini Seedling
Zucchini Seedling

LAKE MACBRIDE— Last year at this time, I offered spring garlic, lettuce and radishes at the first farmers market. This year, they are not close to ready because of the cold, wet spring. It has been a season of adapting to the climate reality.

Yesterday began the seasoning, or hardening of the indoor seedlings. The were out in the full sunlight for several hours and received a long misting from the garden hose. This morning, in my bathrobe, I ran them outside in the pre-dawn light with temperatures around 50 degrees. The only real question inhibiting planting action is when will the last frost come? According to the 30-day forecast, we have had the last frost, so some of the seedlings will go in the ground today. If things turn cold, I have a box of old sheets that can be spread over the plants in the garden. It’s time to turn to planting.

Of course, a lot of things are already in the ground. I planted onion sets yesterday— another late start— and green beans. To recap, already in the garden are yesterday’s plantings, chives, oregano, garlic, radishes, spinach, arugula, lettuce and turnips. If I accomplish anything today, it will be locating places for the major crops.

A whole plot is devoted to herbs, leafy greens, radishes and a few other items. I planted half of a plot in onions, hoping to grow more this year. I threw up a low chicken wire fence to prevent loose dogs from digging around in the bed of onions. I can cut back on tomatoes because of my work for vegetables at the CSA where I will receive a number of varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I also agreed to can tomatoes for a local grower in exchange for some of the canned goods. There should be plenty of tomatoes this year, so I adjusted by adding different varieties. This is about as far as I have gotten with the planning. As you can see, it is not much of a plan.

A gardener plays a balancing act between planning and doing. Whimsy and experimentation enter into it. Sometimes we do dumb things, like planting trees in the garden, intended to be moved later, then becoming so engaged in a job or career that they grow to 40 feet high without our realizing it. Now they are too nice to take out, and provided morning shade for the leafy green vegetables during last year’s drought. A gardener’s process isn’t always logical, but it is hard to fail.

As a home gardener, one always feels able to rely on the grocery store, or other growers, should something fail to produce. It is a social safety net we have come to take for granted. Food is abundant and relatively inexpensive in Iowa and elsewhere in the U. S., but what matters more is the interconnectedness we have with other growers, large scale and small. That is the true fabric of our food system, and it provides comfort and security the way a blanket does.

I look forward to the day when our food system is more sustainable. For now, I accept the fact that Florida, Texas, Mexico and California will continue to provide produce for the Midwest. But at some point, the cost of transportation will be too much because of the quality and quantity of locally grown foods. Planting a garden, no matter how disorganized, is a step toward sustainability.


Garden Prep Day

Garden Tools
Garden Tools

LAKE MACBRIDE— The schedule for the rototiller changed from next weekend to this shortly after writing yesterday’s post. No panic or complaints, I just got to work as soon as I found out.

First things first, a cooler full of drinks: three mason jars filled with filtered water, on ice. A solar powered radio set on the compost pile to listen to the Metropolitan Opera on public radio: a series of arias was featured yesterday. A ball cap and a pair of leather gloves completed the pre-work inventory.

The cold, wet spring delayed clearing the brush, so that had to be done first. Broken limbs and branches from the trees and lilac bushes were cut, collected and added to the brush pile. Next, I cleared last year’s growth from the remaining garden plots and piled that on. A light breeze was evident, light enough to determine it was okay to burn the brush. I did, exposing the third of three plots targeted for the dig.

When we moved to Big Grove, built our home, and established a garden, the lot was vacant, filled with a semblance of the tall grasses that once were here. The first shovel full of earth revealed the developer’s practice of skimming the topsoil and removing it. Heavy clay and hardly an earthworm was to be found below the grasses. Almost twenty years of working the soil changed all that. It is now filled with earthworms and the multitude of living things that make soil fertile.

With my long handled spade, I turned the plots slowly and methodically. The act of spading the soil connects to the memories of doing so each year. A gardener lives for this common thread to the roots of our humanity. Halfway through, my right hand started to cramp and I took a break to make dinner reservations and check in on my smart phone. When I returned, a couple of birds had landed to dine on the earthworms revealed by the digging. In all, it took three and a half hours to turn the garden plots. The rototiller arrived just as I was finishing.

The ashes from the burn pile and two buckets of corn gluten meal served to fertilize this year. I raked the ashes to spread them around the plot where the burn was, and cast the corn gluten meal over all three plots. The distribution was not as even as in the anhydrous ammonia application that was going on in a field about half a mile from here, but was more ecologically friendly.

The rototiller was an old Sears model with widely spaced tines. A neighbor had borrowed and shared it. I fired up the engine, gripped the handles, and allowed the machine to do its work. It became clear it would be the best tilling yet done in my garden. The soil was aerated, and light, and one could sense that living things would grow there. After cleaning the tiller, another neighbor came to pick it up. I raked the furrows level and cleaned up the workspace. My bird friends returned to finish their meal.

The day’s work produced three blank canvasses upon which to plant more of this season’s promise.


Garden is Calling

Last Year's Tomato Patch
Last Year’s Tomato Patch

LAKE MACBRIDE— Unexpectedly, there were no roadside deer as I drove back to Big Grove after midnight this morning. I am getting to know their grazing areas, and crossing points. Most post-midnights there are half a dozen or more encounters. Watching for them heightens my awareness of the world in which we live.

For shift workers, the last day of the week still means letting loose from the disciplines of a Monday through Friday job. The anticipation increases the last hour of the shift, when everyone is focused on finishing the day’s work and punching out. My warehouse peers did not invite me along to socialize after work, and I’m okay with that. During the wee hours of morning, I’d rather take a load off my feet, enjoy a snack and a glass of chilled water and head to bed. Actually, I’m not sure what I would do if asked into their non-work lives. Another new adventure, perhaps?

Today’s weather looks perfect for outdoors work. I’m off to the newspaper for a while, then the balance of the day is planned in the yard and garden— ending at a restaurant for dinner with out of town friends.

The list of garden tasks is long, but today I want to clear three of the plots for machine tilling next weekend. I’ll take some of the seedlings outside to season them and bring them back indoors at the end of the day. If the wind is down, I’ll burn the brush pile. Little time for computer life today. The garden is calling.


On the Body Politic

Main Street
Main Street

LAKE MACBRIDE— Would that the body politic were a human, subject to purges and nostrums that would cure what ails it. Alas, there is no cure for the body politic or our role in it. On most days we accept politics for the diverse, desultory and sometimes malodorous reflection of society it is.

That is not to say politicians are smelly. The body politic is less about public office holders, and more about us. The politicians, elected officials and those who would be, are full of good intentions, and occasionally, will take a principled stand on an issue. But more than these visible manifestations of it, the body politic is all of us in our raucous cacophony and wide spectrum of interests. Part of the dynamic is being disengaged from politicians and politics, most of the time.

To lead a reasonably normal life, one must resist tendencies driven by political activists, and focus on a more general political life. I have a few things in mind.

Engaging in politics includes campaigns, but is mostly governance. The work of elected officials is to govern after being sworn in. Vigilance of their performance and participation in guiding their actions are important in the body politic. In Big Grove, we are represented by two Republicans and three Democrats between the Iowa General Assembly and in the U.S. Congress. Whatever we want to accomplish depends upon working with all of them. When a favored candidate loses an election, some activists turn immediately to working on the next campaign to supposedly replace the undesired elected official. This behavior misses the point of governance.

It is common knowledge that a U.S. Senator or Representative must constantly raise political contributions for the next campaign. For them, the campaign never ends when they have a targeted dollar amount to raise each day. An elected official’s life includes constituency work, public appearances, and maintenance of a public presence, in person and on the Internet. All of this is a form of campaign work. People might think anyone can run for office, get elected and serve, but the large number of lame candidates who have recently challenged the incumbent in our U.S. House district is testimony to the fact that not anyone can. If elected officials must be in continual campaign mode, most of us do not.

My experience during the last five election cycles is that people are interested in politics, but not that much, at least in public. The tendency is for people to change their voter registration from partisan to no preference, so much so that no preference registrations are the largest segment of voters in many districts. This reflects the practical desire to dissociate from the body politic, even if people take general elections seriously. Some register no preference for business reasons, some to hide their political beliefs from neighbors, and others to feign an objective stance when deciding for whom to vote. It is evidence of a curious dichotomy between abhorrence of things political, combined with sub rosa engagement.

Life is more diverse than seeking the next big political campaign. Rather than the body politic, we should think of political engagement as like shingles in society. Once one has had the pox, they are a carrier for life.


Working in the High Tunnel

In the High Tunnel
In the High Tunnel

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— We soil-blocked the rest of the seed trays in the greenhouse yesterday, and planting is well underway at the CSA. My weekly work sessions give me a snapshot of  what is a much broader amount of activity in local food production. The experience is paying dividends in understanding the cycle of growth to support the market.

Used this to prepare the bed

For the first time, I worked in the high tunnel, preparing a bed for planting. High tunnels extend the growing season, producing vegetables for an early or late crop. They also serve to mitigate risk of cool temperatures, and of disease and pests. On a farm, margins mean everything, and high tunnels create an opportunity to increase them. They also create the ability for new customer offerings in the form of a spring or fall share.

My life is richer for working in a limited way on a CSA farm. It is a way of life that survives on the cusp of an agricultural landscape dominated by row crop agriculture. Like the high tunnel, the work is around the margins, and there are plenty of those for local food to be a vital force.