Kitchen Garden

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.

Kitchen Garden

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.

Kitchen Garden

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.

Living in Society

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.

Kitchen Garden Writing

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.

Kitchen Garden

Rainy Morning

Work Bench
Work Bench

LAKE MACBRIDE— The forecast was rain and raining it is. The debate was whether to don my wax jacket and rubberized boots and venture out to clear last year’s tomato plot in the garden. It was not really a debate, but an internal dialogue balancing the need to get the garden ready for planting and the common sense notion that we should be in out of the rain. Not sure which side will dominate, but I’m leaning toward going outside. Actually I did go outside and explored the garden. It was showering small pellets of ice, not big enough to be hail, but not snow either. After checking yesterday’s work and the tomato patch, I headed back to the house.

Watering Station
Watering Station

I’m hauling the trays of seedlings to the garage, one at a time to water them. We use our bedroom window for exposure to sunlight, and am watering the trays from the bottom.  The soil has been continually moist, and the seedlings are growing. The idea seems to be working.

There is always work to support the garden, rain or no, although the continued cold and rainy weather feels like another setback. One feels this year’s garden is either going to be the greatest one ever, or a complete disaster, as long as the weather continues the way it has been.

Kitchen Garden

Garden Work

Three Rows Planted Today
Three Rows Planted Today

LAKE MACBRIDE— Today was the first real work session in the garden and I cleaned up two of the plots, built my burn pile, evened out the ground near where the backhoe dug to fix the waterline leak last fall, and planted Cherry Belle Radishes, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach and Purple Top White Globe turnips. The arugula and lettuce seeds have sprouted and survived the gully washer of a rain a few days ago. There are chives ready to cut, and the garlic patch is growing well. Three types of bulb flowers are growing, and after they flower, will be transplanted somewhere else. That is, except for the daylilies, which will be dug and transplanted as soon as I get around to it: nothing can kill those things.

A neighbor messaged me on Facebook, and a group of us is planning to go in on a rototiller rental. I usually dig by hand, but am okay with community projects like this. Partly, it means three plots have to be turned by spade to get ready for the rototiller in two weeks.

Last week, an experienced gardener said we had missed the opportunity for spring turnips, but I don’t know. I planted a row today, and will likely do another in a week or so. She said if one misses spring turnips, the date is July 25 for turnip planting. I’ll reserve some seeds for then and attempt a double crop.

It feels good to work in the sun and soil in the morning.


Earth Day 2013

1970 Earth Day Button
1970 Earth Day Button

LAKE MACBRIDE— There is little new to say this Earth Day. It’s not that I’m down about it, but most everything has been said before.

What started in high school as a way to participate in a national environmental movement by selling green and black buttons leading up to April 22 has become institutionalized in a way that takes the punch out of things.

Government and corporations have Earth Day activities, and not as many of them this year compared to last. It is a sign that corporate reputation management is at play more so than the grassroots efforts of men and women who want to see our government act on the Keystone XL pipeline, reduce the use of hydrocarbon and nuclear fuels, and preserve our air, land, water and biodiversity.

Earthrise 1968
Earthrise 1968

There are a lot of things individuals can do to reduce, reuse and recycle, and many people do them year around. What is lacking today is the political will to reduce CO2, methane, mercury, and other emissions. Our culture is driven by corporations more than government, and the business models upon which they operate continue to consider the atmosphere the same way we do an open sewer. That has to change if human society is to survive. It’s not just me saying that.

It has been a long struggle to get environmental issues to have parity with war and peace, economic progress, social justice, and man’s inhumanity to man. Environmental issues are not at parity yet, but should be.

What we know today is that the time for individual efforts is past. Only by joining together with like-minded colleagues will change be possible, and there is no agreement on what change is desirable, nor a path to determining how to proceed.

For a while, we must stop talking, stop thinking… and consider where our lives on the planet place us. Earth Day or no, many will reduce, reuse and recycle as these behaviors have become part of our daily habits. It is not enough.

On Earth Day 2013, I plan to dig in our garden, and let the work produce a sweat as I plant spinach, radishes and turnips. A brief retreat from talking and thinking, appreciating the irony that it was agriculture that started the release of greenhouse gases that led us to today.

What is the greater good when it comes to the environment? I don’t know, but more than seven billion others on the blue green planet have a stake in an answer. It’s time to renew our efforts to find one.

Kitchen Garden

Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice
Red Beans and Rice

LAKE MACBRIDE— Welcome new readers of On Our Own: Sustainability in a Turbulent World. Since I opened the site up to search engines, people from all around the U.S. have been taking a look and liking and following my posts. I sincerely appreciate the interest, as it inspires me to do a better job when I post here. Believe it or not, I spend time crafting the prose to develop my own voice from a perspective grounded in rural Iowa. One would think there would be fewer typos with all of that so-called writing.

By far, the most immediately positive post was my recipe for Buttermilk Biscuits. Recipes are a solution to problems in life, in this case, how to make a buttermilk biscuit that was light, crunchy and split into layers, and didn’t require the purchase of a quart of buttermilk at a time. If I knew recipes would be so popular, I would have posted more of them. Knowing how to do something, cooking included, is a step along a path of sustainability, so going forward, I’ll post recipes that solve problems in the kitchen from time to time.

Sometimes recipes are a conundrum. Red beans and rice is one of those. The dish is different things to different people, and mine is partly a remembrance of many Saturdays in a motel in Thomasville, Georgia, where I discovered the food network, and Emeril Lagasse’s version of Louisiana cooking. He taught me about the trinity— onion, bell pepper and celery— and my version showcases this basic ingredient. My red beans and rice is also about Midwest semi-vegetarian cooking, and it has become a way of weekend cooking to make extra portions for weekday luncheons. It goes like this:

Heat a dutch oven over medium high heat for a couple of minutes.
Add two to three tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, enough to generously coat the bottom of the pan.
Add crushed red pepper flakes to taste, about a teaspoon for starters, and cook them a minute or so.
Add one yellow onion, one bell pepper and two stalks of celery, medium dice, and sauté for a minute or so.
Season with salt, garlic powder, a prepared dry seasoning with hot peppers in it, and add three bay leaves. Add a few splashes of Louisiana-style hot sauce if available.
Continue cooking until the vegetables are soft.
Squeeze in the juice of a lime and stir.
Add one pint canned, diced tomatoes (fresh if you have them), one cup brown rice, one 15 ounce can prepared red beans (drained and washed), and a pint of home made soup stock. Add several sprigs of fresh thyme.
Stir, bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to just above a simmer. Cook until the moisture is absorbed and the rice is done.
In a separate frying pan, brown eight ounces of seitan in a couple of teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil and cook with thinly sliced spring onions. Set aside.
When the Dutch oven mixture is finished, and all the moisture is gone, re-season as appropriate. Add the seitan mixture and stir gently.
Serves five or six as a main course, more as a side dish.

Thanks again for reading my posts. I hope you will check back often.

Work Life

Plasma Sales and Politics

LAKE MACBRIDE— The Cumulus radio station in Cedar Rapids was advertising how a person could earn up to $340 per month selling their plasma. It’s enough money that it was worth a look to see if plasma sales could fit into our bottom line. It sounds kind of grim, but people do it all the time.

Plasma is the pale, yellow liquid portion of blood that helps our bodies control bleeding and infection. When one donates plasma, our blood is removed and the plasma separated before blood is returned to our body. We generate more plasma within a couple of days so twice a week donations are usually possible.

Donating takes about an hour and plasma collection centers make it easy with a straight forward, step-by-step process. Importantly, they explain how payment is loaded on a debit card. It is literally using one’s body as an ATM.

Several self-employed and low-wage earners in my circle use plasma sales to supplement monthly income. Got a toothache? Better schedule some sessions at the plasma center to get dollars to pay the dentist. One suspects residents of our nearby college town use the cash for cigarettes, sugary drinks and beer, but in any case, plasma sales can be a reliable and steady source of income if one meets the requirements for donating.

The money could be put to good use. For example, it could be used for political donations. That way, when a political telemarketer called, I would know my approximate annual budget, and be able to say, “Yes. I’ll donate that $100, which will take me four plasma sessions.” Politics would literally be based on blood money then.

We could go a step further and say that all financial contributions to politicians had to originate in plasma sales. There would be a natural limit to how much a person could donate, and a restriction could be placed on corporations that said something like, corporations can make political contributions, but such contributions must be paid via the plasma of shareholders, imposing a natural limit to money spent by corporations during political campaigns. I bet corporations would exercise their free speech differently under such a rule.

If my modest proposal about political contributions through plasma sales seems a bit edgy, I am pretty sure it would work. Importantly, it would set a human limit on political contributions. Having skin in the game would take on a whole new meaning. Most Americans are asleep at the wheel of politics, and would not contribute, so there is little danger of a glut of plasma on the market.

If times get tough, I’ll re-visit adding a plasma sales income line to our household operating budget. For now, I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.