On the fourth day in a row of freezing and subzero weather I bundled up and pruned the pear and three apple trees. As the sprouts and branches came down, they were frozen: sap flow had ceased. That’s what we want during fruit tree pruning.
I pruned what could be reached. I used a ladder to remove a large branch that was crowding the spruce tree. With the bulky clothing I didn’t want to maneuver too much on the ladder, risking a fall. If the trees survive, there should be a crop in 2023.
Branches will remain where they fell until it thaws. In late winter or early spring, I’ll move the branches toward the brush pile, cut them up, and burn them, delivering their minerals to a garden plot. I enjoy the spring burn as much as anything I do in the garden.
A couple of hours after pruning, deer arrived to eat what they could of the fallen tender buds and first year growth. Food for them is scarce in mid winter.
I read my ninth book this month. In winter, when I’m not writing, cooking, sleeping, or shoveling snow, I’m reading. There is a list of my reading at the menu tab labeled “Read Recently.”
We have been avoiding public contact as much as possible during the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant. The county Democrats decided to convert the Feb. 7 in person precinct caucuses to online because of the surge. My spouse hasn’t been out of the house in quite a while. I go to the grocery store once every week or two. I still drink fluid milk and have to re-provision from time to time at a convenience store. I frequented about half a dozen retail stores during the pandemic and organized my shopping so I spent the least possible time inside each.
Onions and shallots are doing well on the heating pad. When it’s time to plant the first spring seedlings, they come off the heat and get a trim. Last year I started cruciferous vegetables indoors on Feb. 7, so there are a couple of weeks to take care of shallots and onions.
Deer took an after dinner rest near the spruce tree. It is a popular spot for wildlife year around. Creating a habitat is one of the successes we have had. It is an accomplishment. Each time I see deer, squirrels, foxes, birds or an opossum, I consider how little wildlife there was when we built here. Hopefully the apple trees will survive long enough for birds to nest in them a few more seasons.
A variety of dried chilies waits for me in the pantry. Yesterday I made chili sauce with the rest of the Guajillo chilies I grew, and some Hatch chilies from the grocer. It is a bit of a production yet this chili sauce is great on just about anything.
First put a kettle of water on to boil. Stem the chilies and split them to remove most of the seeds. Place them in a bowl and pour the hot water over them to enable them to hydrate. Cover with a plate to hold them under water. Soak for at least an hour or until they are flexible.
Place the chilies in a blender with a cup of the soaking liquid. Add whole garlic cloves, at least one large head. Add pepper and Mexican oregano. Blend until it is as smooth as possible.
Place a tablespoon or so of peanut oil in a frying pan and heat. Using a strainer, pour the sauce mixture into the frying pan, pushing as much through the mesh as is possible using a spatula. Set the strainer with bits of chili skin aside and stir the strained sauce.
Add a dash of salt and a teaspoon of sugar to bring out the flavor of the chilies. The idea is not to sweeten the sauce, but to make the chilies taste more fruity.
Stir and mix, mix and stir over medium low heat. Reduce the sauce until it is the consistency of a thick tomato sauce or tomato paste. Use the soaking liquid to dilute the sauce if it gets too thick. Make it the consistency you want.
Put it in a jar, refrigerate, and use it like you would any hot pepper sauce. If I had summer greens, I’d make a taco filling with it along with black beans. I’m the only person in our house who eats spicy things. All the same this Hatch chili sauce won’t last long.
The gardening season kicked off in Big Grove Township with onion and shallot planting on Thursday. I planted two varieties of shallots and five of onions. After consultation with farmer friends, I decided to start earlier this year to see if my starts had a better result for planting in the spring. The trays will rest on a heating pad until they germinate. I ordered onions starts from the seed company again as an insurance policy.
Friday was the coldest day of winter thus far. It reached ten degrees below zero and ambient temperature is expected to remain below freezing until Monday when sub-zero temps return. If the forecast holds, I plan to be pruning trees Monday as the sap will have stopped flowing by then. Like with anything relying on weather, I’ll wait to see what happens.
Friday was trash pickup day. There was no trash in the trash cart and the recycling cart was less than a third filled. Because of the cold I left them in the garage this week. We are getting good at reducing our household waste.
We have provisions enough to last a couple weeks without leaving the house. This week, the county public health department suspended COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing. They issued a press release, which said, in part,
During the past week, there has been a 250% increase in cases from the previous week. The total amount of cases in the past week reached an all-time high of almost 1,400 positive individuals. Due to this dramatic increase, Johnson County Public Health no longer has the ability to contact everyone who tests positive to conduct case investigations and contact tracing. JCPH will continue to monitor COVID-19 cases in high-risk groups and coordinate with organizations who experience a rise in cases, evaluate capacity, and keep the public informed of changes in our COVID-19 response.
Email from Johnson County Public Health dated Jan. 5, 2022.
This is what it looks like when a pandemic inundates the public health system. They can’t do their normal work because there are too many cases of COVID-19.
It is probably best, with the cold, the raging pandemic, and a full pantry and refrigerator, we stay home and bunker in. There is no lack of things to do. We want to live until spring to plant these onions and shallots in the ground. The 2022 gardening season has begun.
When there were decent heads of organic iceberg lettuce at the grocer I bought one. We usually don’t eat lettuce unless we grow it. Iceberg lettuce is much maligned and actually pretty good. It made a nice winter treat.
I placed the unopened bag on a refrigerator shelf where it rested for a week. It yielded some wilted leaves for soup and four 3/4-inch slabs like the one in the photo.
We like the lettuce my farmer friends and I grow. With implementation of row cover in my garden, the kitchen had the leafy greens most of the season. I can’t imagine buying another bag of loose, mixed greens at the market. It is never as good as home grown and recalls for contamination have been too frequent. The whole head of iceberg was just the pick-me-up needed to inspire spring planting.
Garden planning is proceeding slowly yet I know what I’m doing about lettuce. I had about twelve feet of row cover last year. Under it I planted radicchio, lettuce and herbs. This year I have materials for 36 feet of row cover.
I expect to do a better job of rotational lettuce planting so I don’t have too many heads ready at the same time. I count nine varieties of lettuce in my seed drawer. Of those, Magenta is our favorite. I also have a stack of arugula seeds, six varieties. I’d like to get to the point where arugula grows wild so no planting is required. I hear tales of chefs who dug up wild arugula (a.k.a. Rocket) and transplant it to a raised garden plot where it thrives. If I could succession plant it this year, that would be good enough for 2022.
Lettuce is a cash crop for local farmers. They sell it to restaurants and make good margin. It seems normal to pay $5 for a bag of local lettuce at the farmers market. As long as I grow my own, it’s a bargain.
Because of high winds I’ve been indoors all day. Gusts approached 40 miles per hour, began around midnight, and continued all day. A small snow drift formed across the driveway.
I had the last of the iceberg lettuce for lunch. While eating it I thought I’m ready for spring.
2021 has been a great year of progress in the kitchen garden. As the seed orders find their way to us via U.S. Postal Service, some reflection on the positives seems in order.
This has been one of the best years for apples. In our yard the three legacy trees bore abundantly and we used them for everything we needed. At the orchard (by this I mean Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, where I worked from 2013 until 2019) there was an abundant crop to supplement the two varieties that yielded here. The pantry is loaded with everything we need in terms of processed apples. We should have enough apple butter, applesauce, dried apples and cider vinegar to last two years until the next big crop. If our trees bear next year, that will be a bonus.
We had enough to take what we needed, let our neighbors pick some, and plenty for the deer once we harvested the best ones. The combination between our trees and a nearby commercial orchard meant we didn’t have to buy a single apple from the grocery store.
Each garden year begins with a couple dozen quart jars of vegetable broth. As I grow a diverse number of greens, I switch which ones dominate. Turnip greens have produced a consistently tasty broth, yet they all are good. We use this broth to cook rice, in soups, and as an alternative to using oil when frying vegetables for some dishes.
It took a few years but the integration of Guajillo Chilies into our cooking is complete. The main product is a cooked and preserved pepper combined with garlic, salt and apple cider vinegar in a food processor. Once the fresh chilies are gone, this becomes the main way I use chilies in cooking. I tried the technique with jalapeno peppers and while a little hotter, it also serves for our culinary needs.
When growing up, Mom’s cooking was pretty “American.” That is, outside the occasional Polish-style ravioli brought home from visits to LaSalle, Illinois, Polish heritage cooking was absent. That was also true of memories of my maternal Grandmother who often found paid work as a cook in settings where American cooking prevailed. It was discovery of the cook book Treasured Polish Recipes for Americans by the Polanie Club that enabled me to come to terms with my heritage.
Based on studies of the soup chapter, I developed a consistent soup recipe that uses vegetables grown in our garden. The ingredients in the book were the same as what I have been growing for years. The main characteristics of the soups are they are thickened with barley, I add lentils as a source of protein, and use onions, celery, broccoli stem, parsley, grated zucchini and other frozen vegetables from the growing season. I use whatever greens are in season, and frozen kale if they are not. I also add potatoes, turnips, and whatever root vegetables are on hand. Settling on a soup recipe has been a long time coming.
Sweet Bell Peppers
After years of experimentation I finally produced enough bell peppers to eat raw, use in cooking, and preserve in the freezer. This was a watershed year.
I grew the largest number of tomato plants ever and had plenty to eat fresh, can, freeze, and give away. The main successes were:
Developing a method to extract moisture and freeze the pulp into small servings using a cupcake pan was a breakthrough. The idea is to use a couple of tomato “buttons” to make pizza sauce for our weekly, home made pizza. I use them in everything to add a small amount of tomato sauce when needed.
I learned to grow enough Roma tomatoes so I can use them to can whole. I’m still working off a backlog of preserved tomatoes, but the system is in place for growing to match canning needs. Romas are the best to can whole.
Our local food bank welcomed my extra tomatoes. My weekly seasonal donations took the pressure off of using tomatoes in a timely manner.
I grew a wider variety of tomatoes this season, maybe 25-30 varieties. The benefit was I discovered some new favorites and we had tomatoes for every dish throughout the season.
I can extra liquid from tomatoes if I don’t use it fresh. I try to use everything and the canned liquid goes into soups.
I planted earlier than my peers in the local food movement and because of that, I had tomatoes earlier than they did. I risked frost only once or twice and using old bed sheets to cover the plants, was able to make it through without damage.
Squash, eggplant and cucumbers
I’m pleased with the way the squash came out. There was plenty of zucchini, and pumpkins and acorn squash produced beautiful fruit that tasted good. A little goes a long way with zucchini and I grew and preserved enough for soup all winter. I also froze cooked pumpkin flesh in one cup sized buttons to use in pumpkin bread.
A little eggplant goes a long way for us. I had six or seven varieties of seeds and planted some of each. I’m looking for enough to make one or two eggplant Parmesans and roasted rounds for the freezer. I had plenty this year.
The cucumber crop wasn’t as big as we’d like although it produced enough for plenty of canned sweet pickles to last us until next year. I’m on the way to striking a balance of varieties to meet our needs and this will be an ongoing experiment.
The garlic crop was the biggest yet with large heads, about 75 of them. The disease that was prevalent last year was absent this year. That’s because I was particularly diligent to pick clean cloves for seed. The main uses are fresh in cooking and in the prepared chili sauces mentioned above. I still harvest enough green garlic from the volunteer patch I planted decades ago.
There was a new celery seed this year and it produced a better crop. We eat celery fresh in season and use it in cooking. The extra gets sliced in soup style and stir fry style and we produced a lot of it this year. We’ll be eating it all winter.
I set aside a plot for cooking greens and the concept proved to be useful. We had greens for the entire season. The main change was cutting back the number of kale plants and planting chard , collards and mustard as alternatives. I also grew several kinds of cruciferous vegetables like kohlrabi and bok choy. I plan to further develop this concept.
I grew seven varieties of onions and shallots and would term it a success. It is the second year of having a big crop and the quality was quite good. I used a mixture of plants I started from seed and starts from the seed store. The starts from the seed store, along with the shallots, did the best. The challenge is picking storage varieties and then using the shorter storing onions first. This all worked out in 2021.
I successfully grew parsley for the first time. There was plenty of it to use fresh and I used the cupcake pan method to freeze some in water to add to soups during winter. I also had plenty of chives, savory, rosemary and basil. I froze many parsley stems for use in winter cooking. I feel more confident after this season and will likely expand my herb growing next season.
I bartered for some row cover and used it to grow an eight foot row of lettuce and herbs. It made a huge difference. It enabled succession planting in a way I hadn’t had before. More planning is in order for 2022 to make row covered vegetables a bigger part of the garden.
I plugged in the grow light for the first time since summer to move a flat of Ajuga plants indoors. We reclaimed them from the yard, where they spread and spread, all the way down to the drainage ditch. We transferred them from my father-in-law’s home before he died in the 1990s. At the nursery Ajuga plants are quite expensive, maybe $6 per pot. We’ll have plenty at no cost but our labor if we take care of them. They grow like weeds.
On Thanksgiving I plan to lay out the 2022 garden and prepare the first seed order. Second seed order, actually, as I already have the onions and shallots to start in late December. I hope to clear the dining room table and sit down to consider what seeds we have and what we want to grow in consultation with my spouse. It could be a family tradition, one that means something special. We’ll see how it goes as I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
We are not big on year-end holidays and usually spend them by ourselves. Once we make that decision each year, everything hinges on how we feel. There is a slate of phone calls, emails and the like. Being a vegetarian household, the deer, geese and wild turkeys are safe from us as the meat culture is absent. Most people would call what we eat “side dishes.” At a point long ago we reviewed the nutritional values and found we had a well-balanced, if nontraditional Thanksgiving meal.
I don’t know where I got this postcard yet I like it. I do garden organically, although I gave in and started using composted chicken manure as fertilizer. It improved the yield. I don’t use manufactured herbicides or insecticides, organic ones work fine. I get organic seeds when I can find them. To see the face of the farmer, I look in a mirror.
Friday morning there was a partial eclipse of the full moon. It looked awesome set in a bed of bright stars. I couldn’t get a decently framed photo so I didn’t take any. Memory will have to serve.
We have provisioned up for Thanksgiving and have everything we need. If the orchard releases Gold Rush apples today, I’ll go get some along with a half gallon of cider. If the Gold Rush are not available, I’ll stay home and make my own cider for Thanksgiving. I saved enough garden apples in case I needed them.
With the holiday season upon us, the rush to year’s end has begun. 2021 is almost over and we are ready to begin again. I’m here for that. I’m looking forward to another gardening year.
Like most people, I want a decent meal when it is time to eat. In 2012, I launched a major study of the local food scene and was not disappointed in the results coming into and out of our kitchen. By working at a number of farms, growing and expanding our home garden, and participating in legislative advocacy, I learned so much about where food originates and conditions which engender growth of a variety of fruit and vegetables.
The impact of local food systems on our home life reached its peak in development of the kitchen garden idea. Now that the work is finished, I have less interest in writing regularly about food. It is an assumed part of a background against which I pursue other interests. I’ve learned what it means to know the face of the farmer. I maintain an interest in doing so. I just won’t write about it as often. Mainly, others are doing a better job of writing about our food system.
Food is basic to a life. It is not the most important thing. I am glad for the work I did, yet I feel it is finished. It is time to concentrate on more important aspects of life. It is time to keep a focus on life closer to home.
It’s the end of apple season and with a vegan in the house, using butter in a dessert is out the window. I took the apple crisp recipe from my hand written cookbook and modified it after reading a couple of vegan recipes. The first test batch didn’t meet standards so I tweaked it and came up with this keeper.
Vegan Apple Crisp
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Shelf positioned so the baking dish is in the middle of the oven.
8 good sized apples
2 tbs wheat flour
2 tbs lemon juice
1/4 cup apple cider or juice
3 tbs arrowroot (mix together with lemon juice and apple cider)
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger (fresh if you have it)
a few grates of nutmeg
Grease the baking dish. Reserve the arrowroot mixture and mix everything else in a mixing bowl. Don’t beat it to death! Add the liquid and incorporate. Pour into the baking dish.
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup each of wheat and almond flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
dash of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Using a pastry blender mix everything together and make sure it is well incorporated. Don’t beat it to death! Sprinkle on top of the filling and bake for 30-35 minutes, making sure the topping starts to brown.
Philosophy of cookery. Peel and slice enough apples to fill whatever baking dish you want to use. Mine is 9 x 13 x 2 inches. Adjust the amount of topping to match the amount of apples. The batch can be doubled or halved. It would likely freeze well in an airtight container.
Some parts of Iowa had a frost warning last night but not here in Big Grove. At 3 a.m. ambient temperatures were in the 60s and all was well with the gardening world.
That is, except for little green worms devouring kale and collards as they do at the end of season.
Despite the kale infestation there was plenty of chard for the kitchen as I gleaned the garden Friday morning. The season is bound to be over soon, even if exceptionally warm temperatures due to climate change extended it.
There were a few tomatoes, mostly small versions of Granadero which produced well this season. The tomato patch is ready to be deconstructed, the fencing rolled up and stored for winter. The question is when I’ll feel like doing it.
Partly because of the long season there are many peppers: Guajillo, jalapeno and Ace bell peppers grew better this year than ever. I’ll prepare Guajillo chilies with garlic and apple cider vinegar as a condiment for storage in the refrigerator. The jalapenos are a bit of a surprise as they didn’t produce much earlier in the season. They are big ones, so that increases the possibilities for cooking. My jalapeno needs have already been filled so I’ll have to get creative.
At the end of Friday I picked some basil for pizza making. Basil went into the sauce and whole leaves on top in a pseudo-Midwestern version of pizza Margherita. Fresh mozzarella would have been better, but we make do with what we have. If I try this again, I will wait to apply the basil topping until about a minute before cooking is finished. The pizza was eminently edible. This from a man who at a younger age would eat leftover pizza from a box left overnight in the living room.
There is at least one more pass through the garden to get Brussels sprouts and maybe some more chard. The herbs under row cover could use another picking. There are plenty of pepper flowers but it seems unlikely they will make it to fruit. It’s been a good garden season and even the gleaning was bountiful. As fall turns to winter, I’m ready.
It may be a while before the first hard frost. Peppers, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, and greens continue to grow in the garden. I want one more picking of Red Delicious apples before letting the rest go to wildlife. Fall is in the air and hopefully rain will come with it. It remains exceedingly dry.
Wednesday I mulched the garlic patch so planting this year for next is finished. I won’t start onions and shallots until late December in channel trays under a grow lamp. As I look to 2022, this year has been a great one for our garden.
For now, accept it that fall is coming and with it a an eventual end of the growing season. We live on the edge between abundance and scarcity. Hopefully we’ll have enough food between the pantry and commercial shopping to last until spring. One never knows in a time of climate change.