Practical Gardening

Red Rocket Peppers

Gardening is of light and shade, moisture and soil health, seed genetics and cultivation. It is an endeavor in which we can invest personal effort and a few resources to see practical results.

We garden in complex creation, only partly of our own making. Imbued with elements, animals, insects and microorganisms we don’t fully understand, this year’s garden plots brought new understanding, a bountiful harvest and a busy kitchen.

Gardeners become the verb “to garden,” and if lucky, become inseparable from the process of growing and cooking food. What was once new knowledge becomes embedded in daily actions that appear intuitive. We become the syntax of food production. Words can’t do justice to what gardeners experience and learn over decades. One sees it only in practice.

Pear Harvest 2017

Last night I rushed into the house after work at the home, farm and auto supply store to change clothes, get the ladder, and pick pears before they all drop. We planted the tree at our daughter’s high school graduation party and have had some almost every year since they bore fruit. The season is very short as are our lives. We plan to enjoy the sweetness of fresh pears as long as we can.

Red Delicious apples are not fully ripe. I ate one while rushing around the back yard chasing pears and sunlight. Sugars are beginning to dominate starches and a couple more weeks on the tree will serve them well. After that it will be a mad rush to pick and preserve them. It could be another 1,000 pound harvest.

Second Growth Broccoli

There were beautiful second growth broccoli heads, about eight of them. I broke them off by hand, cut and peeled the stems for work lunch.

There were more Red Rocket peppers. I harvested the reddest ones, leaving many more to ripen. In the kitchen I took the others from the baking sheet in the oven (oven turned off) and carefully spaced them on the five trays of the dehydrator. I’ll dry them until they are ready to grind into red pepper flakes.

Someone brought cucumbers to the orchard on Monday. I took half a dozen (there were an inch thick and 5-6 inches long) and combined them with what was already in the ice box to make a second batch of fermented dill pickles. It takes 10 days if everything goes according to plan. Fingers crossed.

Monday I picked up two crates of tomatoes and two dozen quart Mason jars at Kate’s farm for canning. This is part of our barter arrangement in which she provides tomatoes, I process them, and we split them resulting canned goods. I sorted them Tuesday morning before my shift. Once spread out they filled four and a half crates instead of two.

I made ground tomatoes from the ones with bad spots as a base for pasta sauce. Here’s the process: Wash, trim and quarter the tomatoes then pulse in a blender until the big pieces break down. Put the blended tomato pulp in a juice funnel to separate liquid from the flesh.

After an hour, the split was 50 percent juice to 50 percent flesh. I put the results in jars and stored them in the ice box. I’ll can the juice and make pasta sauce while I work in the kitchen tonight or tomorrow night.

With two paid jobs and diminishing daylight there’s not much gardening time in my schedule. The lawn needs mowing and I plan to plant garlic in a week or two and there’s work to do preparing the soil.

It’s a rush until first frost, after which I may be able to slow down — but I doubt it.

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Picks for Sept. 12 School Election

Sample Ballot for Sept. 12 School Election

It’s easy to pick three school board candidates from the four running in the Solon Community School District.

I’ll be voting for Rick Jedlicka, Nicole Pizzini and Tim Brown.

Nothing against Coons, who served previously on the board.

Pizzini is the only new person running. She’s a known entity in the community and the board needs new people and new ideas in the wake of the long capital expenditure cycle just concluded with the opening of the new Solon Middle School last week. Pizzini is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Ambrose University. Her academic experience combined with a clear, well-articulated interest in the district makes her a solid choice for one of our three votes.

Rick Jedlicka, former Solon mayor and current school board member, is well known and respected in the community. Tim Brown has been part of board planning during the recent capital expenditure cycle and re-electing him adds continuity to the next board.

It’s that simple for me.

Also on the ballot is an extension of the current $60,000,000 bonding authority for Kirkwood Community College. This is the second time in six years Kirkwood asked for an extension of the ten-year authority first passed in 2005. It is the only item on the ballot beside the school board candidates. Extending the current $0.25 per $1,000 valuation until 2032 is for me an easy yes.

I plan to vote on election day, leaving open the option of changing my votes based on new information. It’s possible, but doubtful anything would come to light that would change my vote.

My hope is the turnout is much better than in previous elections.

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Three Cup Day

Bur Oak Acorn

Today will require an extra cup of coffee.

This week is the biannual vendor show at the home, farm and auto supply store. We’ll be short staffed today and tomorrow while associates from Iowa and Wisconsin travel to Dubuque to attend seminars and discuss products and process with our vendors.

If it’s like last year, my work queue will build up and I won’t dig out until Thanksgiving. The days will pass quickly and my aura may be colored in shades of grumpiness.

Coffee helps.

This weekend — Labor Day weekend — is the unofficial end of summer and I’m ready to glean most of the garden leaving only kale and peppers until first frost arrives in October. I secured seed garlic from one of the farms and will plant in September. The garden has been successful, the most successful in memory. It has been encouragement to plan for next year.

Saturday and Sunday I made a large pot of vegetable broth with items mostly from the ice box: kale, collards, chard, celery, three kinds of summer squash, carrots and onions. The resulting product was dark and rich.

I made rice with the broth, poured some in canning jars, and made a big batch of lentil-potato-barley soup for work lunches. I used eight or ten leeks in the soup which made it slightly sweet. Growing leeks creates a wonderful availability for the kitchen.

Last night I picked tomatoes, peppers, celery and leeks while the water bath canner came up to temperature on the stove. I ate a Red Delicious apple from the tree. It was slightly sweet and mostly starchy. It is time to begin monitoring the fruit’s progress. The pear tree is close to ripe and will be picked this week.

There is plenty of kitchen work ahead.

So begins another day in the final lap of a working life. I’m heading to the kitchen where I’ll make a second pot of coffee before work. The hot beverage doesn’t resolve our challenges. It makes them more tolerable.

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Hurricane Weekend

Hurricane Harvey from the International Space Station on Aug. 25, 2017. Photo Credit – NASA European Pressphoto Agency

Rain tapped the bedroom window this morning on the fringe of Hurricane Harvey.

It was a reminder of our connection to the oceans. They are absorbing heat from the atmosphere on a planet experiencing some of its warmest days in living memory. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and the result is intense storms like the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey.

In Iowa we adapt easily to hurricanes because of our distance from the coast. Needed rain benefits our gardens and farms. It recharges our surface aquifers. As the weather pattern moved over it seemed normal, not as devastating as it was when Harvey made landfall in Texas Friday afternoon.

Overcast skies and a slight rain depressed attendance at the orchard on Saturday. There were enough visitors to keep busy, especially in the afternoon when the sun came out. Sales seemed steady if light.

One of my favorite August apples is Red Gravenstein, a Danish cultivar. It was introduced to western North America in the early 19th century, according to Wikipedia, perhaps by Russian fur traders, who are said to have planted a tree at Fort Ross in 1811. Red Gravenstein is tart, juicy and crisp — great for eating out of hand.

The cider mill made the first press of apples for the sales barn. The gallon and half gallon jugs sold well. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the changing flavor of our cider as we move through the apple harvest. I bought a gallon of cider and a dozen Red Gravenstein apples at the end of my shift.

I’ve been reading recipes for tomato catsup in old community cookbooks. After reviewing a dozen or so I went to the kitchen and created this sauce from the abundance of red bell peppers and tomatoes:

Red Pepper Sauce


Half dozen cored and seeded red bell peppers cut in quarters
Equal amount by weight of cored tomatoes one inch dice
One cup of malt vinegar
One teaspoon salt
One tablespoon refined sugar.


Pour the vinegar into a saucepan and bring to a boil.
Add tomatoes and peppers.
Add sugar and salt.
Bring back to a boil and cook for 10-20 minutes until the vegetables are soft.

Strain the mixture. Retain the liquid to use as vinegar in salad dressings.
Run the vegetable mixture through a food mill and either serve immediately or bottle and refrigerate.

Recipe notes

To make a thicker sauce, either reduce it in the saucepan or add tomato paste.
I used malt vinegar because it was on hand. Absent malt vinegar I’d use homemade apple cider vinegar.

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Low Wage Grind

Gardener’s Breakfast

A co-worker asked if I needed to borrow another water bath canner to survive the season.

This year’s abundance of vegetables has been stunning. There is a lot to preserve including apples, pears, celery, peppers and a couple dozen pints of tomatoes.

I said no.

By the time I get home from a shift — either at the home, farm and auto supply store or the orchard — and start in the kitchen, I’ve found barely enough time to prep seven containers for a water bath batch. Although it seems like a second canner would increase production, the most time-consuming home canning work is done before turning on the stove. At best, we can only capture a part of seasonal abundance in jars. A second canner doesn’t resolve the issues created by low wage work and the time it absorbs in our days.

Canning Soup and Jalapeno Peppers

Being a low wage worker is an economic grind. One knows there will never be enough money to pay for what we need. Financial friction wears us down. Avoiding spending on anything not related to basic survival becomes a primary focus. This may seem negative, and it’s not all good. However, it’s a life with as much potential as any I’ve experienced. That’s not saying a lot for our society.

There is dignity in work whether it is paid or not. Each jar of applesauce put up contributes to our lives. In the twilight of a career as a wage worker life changes. Youthful ambition wears down. Unpaid work becomes more important to sustainability and displaces paid work in our days. There are expenses to be paid and they shift as full retirement approaches. Figuring out how to adjust and what to emphasize in a society wanting participation is challenging. Developing resilience under the weight of social responsibilities becomes key to sustainability.

After what for him is detailed consideration, our president chose perpetual war in Afghanistan as he announced last night. Dealing with constant negative information about the 45th president has become a grind as well. While Obama chose perpetual war, there were redeeming aspects of his presidency, including a sharing of important issues. There was a sense the country was heading is a positive direction, despite his many legislative setbacks. There is none of that with President Trump. We go deeper into the grinder.

A low wage worker withdraws into a small circle of family and friends. In so doing our circle of influence shrinks on its way to irrelevance. What remains is work: low wage jobs, fixing the toilet, cooking breakfast, cleaning the house, and tending the garden. Such activities fill our days and hinder our relevance in political life. At the same time, there is work in society that needs to be done.

To work on resilience, persistence and engagement is as important as anything we do. It sustains our lives in a turbulent world.

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Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

Bell Pepper Seconds

A gardener and farm worker has access to lots of summer vegetables, especially “farm seconds.” It is difficult to use them up before they turn to compost.

The recipe for roasted red pepper and tomato soup is simple and the results are sweetly tasty. It was born of an abundance of bell peppers and tomatoes.

I wouldn’t expect anyone to go to the market and buy ingredients for this dish. If one has the peppers and tomatoes, almost everything else is on hand in a well stocked kitchen.

Roasted Red Peppers

Make a batch or two of roasted bell peppers for the soup and to use in other dishes.

Preheat the oven to 450 Degrees Fahrenheit with the shelf in the middle position.

Cull the best red peppers from the lot, halve them and remove the membrane, core, seeds and any bad spots. Using a melon baller makes it super easy and more precise in removing all of the membrane. Peppers needn’t be perfectly halved. Put them skin side up on a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet with sides. Nestle them close together to get as many as possible on the baking sheet.

Bake at temperature for 25 minutes and remove from the oven.

Using tongs, move the roasted peppers to a bowl and cover it with a plate. This process helps loosen the skin. Let them sit until they can be handled without burning fingers.

One-by-one take the pieces of pepper and remove the skin. Place them in a refrigerator dish and refrigerate until ready to use.

Roasted red peppers are an ice box staple during pepper season. For longer storage there are recipes for oiling and preserving them. They are so sweet and tasty they won’t last long in most households.

Roasted Red Peppers Before Removing Skin

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

This recipe makes two quarts, enough to serve four – five people.

Add one cup vegetable broth to a Dutch oven and bring to a boil.


  • Equivalent of 5-6 large tomatoes, one-inch dice.
  • Enough roasted red peppers to approximately equal the weight of the tomatoes, maybe a little less.
  • Two tablespoons salted butter.
  • One six ounce can prepared tomato paste.
  • One teaspoon each dried spices including smoked paprika, granulated garlic and thyme. Fresh is better if you have it. Double the amount if you do. Herbs and spices are always to taste.
  • One tablespoon dried basil. Fresh basil is better. Double the amount if you have it.
  • Two tablespoons dried onion flakes.
  • One tablespoon sweetener. I used sugar because it was in the pantry.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Teaspoon of red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper or your favorite pepper spice (optional).

Stir to incorporate the ingredients, bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Cook until the tomatoes begin to soften. Don’t cook the tomatoes to death. You will want some bits of recognizable tomato granules in the final product.

Either transfer the mixture to a blender or use an immersion blender to smooth it to a pleasing texture. As mentioned, I like little bits of recognizable tomato and pepper.

Add one cup half and half and stir constantly until the soup is well-mixed and up to temperature.

Serve hot, garnished with fresh basil, a dollop of sour cream or snipped chives. Whatever looks appetizing and is available.

This recipe was fun to make and better than manufactured roasted red pepper and tomato soup in aseptic containers. Leftovers, if any, will keep for a couple of days.

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Work, Kitchen, Garden

Peach Crisp at the Orchard

The text message came while I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store. I saw it on my afternoon break.

“If you want to start tomatoes there is a crate on the packing shed floor you could pick up on way home from work,” Farmer Kate texted. “I’m not home but if you need help finding them let me know.”

We barter my labor canning for her tomatoes. Ready or not, the next aspect of the local food season begins with its quick-paced rush to beat spoilage.

When I picked up the tomatoes there was also a crate of bell pepper seconds unclaimed by CSA members. A farm worker offered them and I put the crate in the back of my Subaru.

On the way hope I spotted the librarian leaving the library for her car and swung by to offer some peppers. My sister in law was at our house when I arrived home. I offered her some too. They are so sweet — unlike what’s available at the grocery store. A gift to be shared.

The garden is coming in with more apples than can be picked before they drop. Pears are almost ready, there are tomatoes, celery, hot peppers, basil and more waiting to be harvested and processed. There will be more cucumbers for pickling. Sweet corn will run another week or two at the roadside stand and we want to put some up. Every night after work and most mornings before, I’m in the garden harvesting or in the kitchen making dishes and preserving the harvest. Right now tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and apples are in the house waiting to be processed. It’s a mad rush.

It’s also a good life. Staying busy with useful work blocks out negativity from other sectors of society. It’s cultured and produces the tangible benefits of relationships, knowledge and good food for our table and those with whom we share.

For the rest of August and September, it’s work, kitchen, garden for me.

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