Categories
Kitchen Garden

Apple Time in Iowa

Jonafree apples at Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, Sept. 17, 2021.

Large commercial farms in Iowa don’t grow apples the way they did. Iowa is mostly a corn, soybeans, oats and hay state when it comes to field crops. People don’t often grow apple trees at home either. Apples remain the most significant Iowa fruit crop and there are plenty around if you know where to look.

My backyard apple orchard has five trees. This year two varieties produced, Red Delicious and Earliblaze. Besides eating them fresh, I made apple cider vinegar and applesauce from Earliblaze, which were ready first and are done. I just started the Red Delicious harvest and made apple butter, and apple sauce from them so far. Preserving apples will get us through next year when the harvest is expected to be light. This year we have all the apple nutrition we can use with our own apples. Food in a kitchen garden is about more than nutrition.

To get more variety I went to a local orchard where trees are loaded with fall crop apples. Many varieties are ripe and ready to pick now. It was easy picking as the crowds had not hit them the way they will once autumn arrives Sept. 22.

“The full docket for apples this week includes Crimson Crisp, Jonathon, McIntosh, Cortland, Jonafree, Golden Supreme, Honey Gold, Honeycrisp, Song of September, Blondee, Burgundy, Bonner, Sansa, Cortland, Gala, and Ginger Gold,” according to the weekly marketing email from Wilson’s Orchard and Farm. In addition to apples, the farm began growing pumpkins and flowers which add to the scenic experience. In addition to picking apples I got in my daily exercise walking up and down the hills.

My goal was to come home with six or eight Crimson Crisp apples plus a few other varieties. (I planted a Crimson Crisp apple tree in the back yard and it hasn’t begun to fruit). I came home with a bag full of half a dozen varieties, plus some Honeycrisp for home storage. The flavors are distinctive in each, worth savoring.

People do it all the time yet I don’t know how they eat apples produced in other states and trucked into local grocery stores. Nutritionally they may meet requirements, but OMG! With all the locally grown apples and their diverse, often marvelous qualities why would you? As we eat through the ones I brought home we share and discuss each one. It is an experience of Iowa’s apple season and part of our local culture. At least it can be.

Apple time signals the beginning of autumn and the end of the growing season. It will be a rush to get everything done before snow flies. The main work of food production moves from the vegetable garden to the kitchen as bushels of apples become available. Apple time in Iowa connects us to the cycles of the season. Although the seasons have changed due to planetary warming and the greenhouse effect, we enjoy what persists during apple time.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Apple Cider Vinegar Time

Setup for juicing apples for apple cider vinegar.

Turning two five-gallon buckets of EarliBlaze apples into juice for apple cider vinegar took about three hours including set up and clean up. Three half gallon mason jars are fermenting in the pantry, and a quart and a half of juice is in the ice box. I drank some of the juice with tacos for supper. It was a good day.

There was already plenty of cider vinegar in the pantry: seven liter bottles, two half gallon mason jars and a couple of smaller bottles in the cupboard near the stove. The goal is to make some vinegar with every apple crop because some years there is no crop. It has not been a problem because vinegar keeps and apples are abundant.

Apple Cider Vinegar

I’ve been making apple cider vinegar since a neighbor gave me some of the mother passed down through his family since at least the 19th Century. I call it “ultra local” because the apples were grown a few steps from the kitchen.

I spent a couple of hours on Wednesday delivering a “Drinking Water Health Advisory” to every home on our public water system. My shirt soaked through with sweat as I walked the two miles of roads. It was good exercise even though I didn’t enjoy some of the steeper hills.

About a dozen people were out in their yards, providing an opportunity to connect. While the news I delivered wasn’t the best, all but one of them had heard of the problem I posted via Facebook and email. Most were in good spirits and appreciated knowing what was going on regarding the water system. I met via conference call with our engineer and water system operator in the morning and laid out a simple plan to address the problem. Here’s hoping for a speedy resolution.

With Tuesday’s announcement that Christina Bohannan is running for congress in Iowa’s second congressional district, I’ve been reflecting on the congressional campaigns in which I’ve been involved. I began to get active when we lived in Indiana, helping Pete Visclosky get re-elected to a third term. He retired in January this year.

Rep. Jim Leach represented the area where I grew up from 1977 to 2003. He moved to Iowa City after redistricting for the 2002 election and was elected there twice. While he was Republican, the district wasn’t as partisan as it is now. When we lived in Indiana I saw Leach hold hearings on Whitewater in the House Banking Committee, which he chaired. After that I realized it was time for him to go. When he became my congressman in 2003, I began working toward that end. In 2006 we elected Dave Loebsack to the Congress where he served until this year.

The 2020 election was a disappointment because the congressional vote was evenly split. Democrat Rita Hart contested the results, but nothing came of it. Mariannette Miller-Meeks was sworn in to the 117th Congress. We are at the beginning of another campaign.

It is time to pass the baton to the next generation in congressional politics. With the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, I did very little volunteer work in politics during the last cycle. Rita Hart made it to our precinct only during the last days before the election, with little enthusiasm for her candidacy. With the resurgence of the pandemic, I see that approach continuing. Besides, it is time to let younger, more engaged people manage campaigns. In the end I’d rather spend time politicking with my neighbors than get involved in the massive energy and expense of a district campaign.

Maybe it was the scent of the apples that evoked this political remembrance. That tasty sweetness which over time will be converted to vinegar. As I age, astringent flavor is more interesting than sweet. I crave it. I make it. I look forward to using the new batch of apple cider vinegar. I both know where it came from and the chef who makes it.

Making apple cider vinegar is part of a life worth living.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Apple Time 2021

EarliBlaze apples.

EarliBlaze apples are ready to pick. They are sweet and crunchy. I have two five-gallon buckets of them to make apple cider vinegar, although I’ve been eating down one of them and might need more.

Taking stock of the pantry, we don’t need any applesauce, apple butter, dried apples or any apple products really. Fresh eating, baking and cider vinegar will be the main uses of this August apple. A lot of them fall before they are ready to pick. Deer come each evening to help us clean them up.

When Red Delicious ripen during late September or early October, I’ll revisit the plan. I have at least one person who would like this year’s apple butter, so I may make more. Despite losing a major branch during the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho, and more during a strong wind storm this year, it will be a big crop.

I would have planted the orchard differently in the 1990s had I known what I know now about apple culture. I planted trees too closely together. The six original trees were two EarliBlaze, two Red Delicious, and one each of Lodi and Golden Delicious. Wind and disease took a toll and only one Red Delicious and two EarliBlaze remain.

The varieties I chose are not the ones I would pick today. Having worked at an apple orchard since 2013, I learned a lot about which trees do well in Iowa’s climate and how to plan continuous apple picking from late July to the first hard frost in late October. In addition, I would match the varieties to what I want to accomplish in the kitchen. Late apples are more attractive to us now and everything they mean: storage for winter, apple cider making, and of course, fresh eating. There are no do-overs for our home orchard. The main questions today are what else will be planted in our yard for fruit, and what will we do when the three trees I planted finally live their last days.

I decided to decline returning to work at the orchard this year. The reason is pretty clear. The coronavirus pandemic played a key role.

I changed my mind about working this fall and won’t be reporting for work on the 28th.

The main reason is the surge in the coronavirus pandemic in Johnson County. Hospitalizations increased close to bed capacity, there is an influx of 30,000 people to attend university (about whom we know little of their vaccination status), the University of Iowa cannot require vaccination for COVID-19, and the CDC rates our level of community transmission of the virus as substantial.

Since I wrote this, the level of community transmission has gotten worse.

In late summer, the whole garden seems to come in at once with apples being a key crop. There is pressure to deal with all of it. Not enough pressure to prevent us from enjoying the taste of summer.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

August is for Apples

EarliBlaze apples ripening on Aug. 3, 2021.

It took about an hour to harvest tomatoes. While working in the vines I heard an apple drop from one of the EarliBlaze trees every couple of minutes. Each time I picked an apple and tasted it they weren’t quite ripe. When I cut them open to view the seeds, they were not the characteristic dark brown yet.

It won’t be long. The ground is littered with what will be a meal for deer that roam our subdivision.

EarliBlaze apple seeds on Aug. 3, 2021.

Tomatoes and apples are big crops, which along with celery, garlic and onions, are money crops that will last until next year’s harvest. It is important to get these crops right. With apples, it is about waiting until they are ripe, picking them all at once, then processing them as quickly as possible.

August is for apples. The early varieties like EarliBlaze are used mostly for apple cider vinegar, fresh eating, an apple dessert or two, and if we need it, apple butter or apple sauce. They have plenty of sugar to ferment into home made apple cider vinegar. In August the Red Delicious variety continues to grow and won’t get full-sized and ripe until early October. It is important to know when to pick them and to provide the best possible growing conditions. I have never sprayed them and the Japanese Beetles have found other leaves to eat this year.

Summer stir fry.

We had stir fry for dinner last night and summer stir fry, based on what’s available from the garden, is one of the best tasting meals we eat all year. We have it once or twice a week.

Even though my work at the orchard was delayed until the end of the month, I can fill any apple gaps with what ripens there. In the next couple of years the new trees I planted will fill those gaps. Going forward, my work days are filled with canning, freezing and drying produce. It will be non-stop work from now until frost. The payoff is a freezer and pantry full of food to use until the process begins again next year.

It is the best definition of sustainability. Besides, what else is there to do in a kitchen garden?

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Back to Work

Apple tree viewed from top of a ladder.

The owner of the orchard and farm asked me to return to work as a mapper a few weeks ago. The mapper helps customers find ripe apples in the orchard during u-pick season. I first worked there in 2013 and did every year since, except for last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

I noticed on Instagram they were already picking Viking and Pristine apples so I texted him. It is typical for me to begin work there in August.

After seven messages we determined he continued to need me and that I would go over today to fill out employee paperwork. There is a new manager of the retail barn sales operation to which this position reports. There have been other changes since 2019 as the orchard and farm expanded its offerings beyond apples. I’ll need an orientation. I haven’t worked for someone else since April 2020.

This work suits me. It is two days per week with a fixed ending date of October 31 when the last of the fall apples ripen and are picked. I earned about $2,000 in 2019. You can’t live on it yet there is a use for the income. I don’t work solely for the money any more.

While cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Iowa and across the United States, I’ve been vaccinated and most of the work is outdoors. Hard to say what I’ll run into. In evaluating the risks I didn’t see many of them. After being at home for more than a year, I’m ready for regular human contact with apple seekers.

Working at the orchard adds a fruit element to home food processing. I checked my store of apple products and I’m still working off applesauce, apple butter, apple cider vinegar and dried apples from previous years. My three trees look to produce a big crop this year, and I’ll get some pears. I’ll mainly use apples from the orchard for varieties I don’t grow and use my own harvest to ferment more apple cider vinegar and eat fresh.

Work at the orchard fits well into my idea of a kitchen garden. With a continuing big harvest from the garden a greater portion of each day is spent cleaning and processing vegetables. Adding fruit makes sense. Working at the orchard provides a chance to discuss seasonal produce, cooking, and eating with other people interested in the same thing. By the time I get to October our pantry and freezer should be stocked and the household well-positioned for winter.

I believe I’ll be a better person for going back to work.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Apple Blossom Bloom

Apple blossoms on April 18, 2021

The legacy apple trees, the ones I planted in the 1990s, are loaded with buds. A few have opened, although the big bloom is yet to come. 2021 has the potential to be a great year for apples. The pear tree looks to have a big bloom as well. We are not past the last spring frost, yet I’m hopeful some of the flowers will bloom long enough for pollinators to do their work.

Even the two new apple trees appear to have blossom buds. They aren’t big enough to support much fruit without bending over like a tree in a Peanuts cartoon.

In past years I put up every apple harvested. Eventually I learned to donate part of a large harvest to the farm where I work. Members of the Community Supported Agriculture project appreciated getting them, and I didn’t have to work as hard. A person needs only so much applesauce, apple butter and apple cider vinegar.

Yesterday I planted the onion patch. About 425 starts of seven varieties, a row for each one. Last year I had eight rows, yet they were closer together which restricted growth. Spreading them out on a larger plot is a second year of experimentation in a long process of being a better onion grower. The onions harvested last year tasted great, and I expect this year’s crop to be the same. I ordered too many starts from the seed supplier, so I’ll put in a patch for green onions from some of them.

Three of seven plots are planted. Next step is to plant cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and more broccoli once I determine where. Garden work is definitely on the agenda for today.

Categories
Living in Society

Cutting Deadwood

Removing deadwood

It is not ideal to chainsaw dead branches from living trees in autumn yet that’s what I did during my morning work shift. The wounds provide an entry point for insects which may eventually kill the tree. Some of these apple trees are eventual goners, so there was little to lose.

A bee landed on one wound while I was working, making my point.

I couldn’t get to sleep Thursday night which is unusual. I was stressed about 2020 and everything that has happened. A lot of that is going around. When I finally got to sleep around midnight I slept until 4:30 a.m., later than usual.

News the president and first lady contracted COVID-19 waited for me to wake. My reaction was he brought this on himself and should have been more careful. Regular people knew that all along. The following hours were filled with other takes and by the end of the day the president was hospitalized at Walter Reed. Last report was he didn’t need supplemental oxygen.

Friday I did morning work then rode my bicycle. When I got home I spent time outdoors. Leaves on deciduous trees have ignited into color. It was glorious to be outdoors. I feel better after using the chain saw. The pruning is partly finished and a new pile of brush awaits processing. The woodpile will get taller once it is.

The natural part of each day has been calming. We could spend more time in nature and be the better for it. So much depends upon this election, though. It keeps us up at night and retards our ability to function as we once did. We must work through the challenges and maintain our own health and welfare at a basic level. It means wearing a mask while talking to neighbors in the driveway, putting mail in quarantine a couple of days before opening, and reducing the number of in-person contacts with people we don’t know.

Out of isolation something better will come, a path to a better future, I hope. Days rush by toward the election and we can’t wait for the catharsis we hope it will bring. The uncertainty is unsettling and it’s important to acknowledge that.

Saturday begins another day with a full schedule. Mostly I’ll be working on the election as the first gleaning of the garden was yesterday and the brush pile can wait.

We placed our bets that hard work will change the direction of this misguided country. We all must do our part. Most of us are doing the best we can.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

At the Orchard

Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, Sept. 30, 2020

I began work at the orchard in August 2013. It feels weird not returning this season. I was asked. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and Iowa’s lack of governmental leadership in containing it, combined with my personal risk factors, I declined the customer-facing position as mapper. Maybe next year.

A May frost during bloom took out some of the crop. Then the derecho knocked down trees and shook fruit loose. For the first time in my memory there was no u-pick operation last weekend to allow remaining apples to ripen. It won’t be the best crop. The apples I bought yesterday were grown by the chief apple officer’s brother in Michigan.

There is a crop. I hope to buy a bushel of Gold Rush at the end of the season. When I last inspected those rows they were abundant. What happens is customers start picking them before they are ripe. I’ll wait to see what’s left at the end of October when they ripen. Fingers crossed.

Our back yard apple trees are reaching the end of their lives so I planted two new ones last spring. The Earliblaze trees are slowly dying. The Red Delicious tree had a branch knocked down and the scar from where it was can’t be fixed. Since my trees alternate years of bloom we’ll see what they do next year but it’s clear they need to be replaced.

On Instagram I follow a few Europeans who post about food. Yesterday Maria Bessières posted about apples:

“Got a bit carried away this morning at the market and came home with 4 kg of apples. Now, there is a difference between an apple you get from the grocery store and the apple that grows in your garden. In Estonia apples are one of those things that you never run out of during autumn. Everyone has a grandma with an apple garden or a summer house with apple trees and once the season starts, there is no end in sight. So you make apple jams, compotes, juice, anything and everything you can imagine that uses apples. And when there are still too many of them lying around, you put bags or buckets of them outside of your garden for whoever happens to walk by to help themselves. Apples for days and days to come.”

In the United States that world of apples doesn’t exist with consistency. Supermarkets sell many apples yet we rarely buy them there. When our own trees don’t produce we visit one of the several area orchards and eat them fresh and in season. Instead of dealing with apple abundance during off years we buy them as commodities for out of hand eating or specific recipes. When we do have a crop I put them up as apple sauce, apple butter, dried apples, apple cider vinegar, apple juice, frozen apple slices, and more. During off years we work the pantry down until there is another crop. There is a predictable pattern of our personal apple kingdom. It’s reflective of a type of American individualism.

It’s already October and the orchard is into Ida Red and the Jonathan family of apples. Because of coronavirus restrictions the experience isn’t quite the same. I see them advertising for help in social media yet I’m not tempted to return until the risk of contracting COVID-19 from customers is in the rear view mirror.

The orchard is a pretty place, a fit place for walking and breathing fresh air. A change of scenery from the isolating confines of home during the pandemic. The cloudy sky doesn’t look different, then it does as we spend a couple of autumn hours at the orchard.

Categories
Kitchen Garden Writing

Clearing the Garden

First Brush Pile Fire of 2020 Gardening Season

It took five and a half hours to plant two apple trees on Saturday.

I need to move the support stakes as I put them too close to the trunk. Hopefully they will be easy to remove as they have been in the ground less than 24 hours.

I planted bare root trees that arrived Friday from Cummins Nursery, Ithaca, New York:

Zestar! on G.210 root stock.
Crimson Crisp (Co-op 39) on G.202 root stock.

Here’s hoping for apples in a couple of years.

I burned the first brush pile on the to be planted kale plot. It was a clean burn. After sunrise I will spade and till the plot. I also want to plant potatoes in containers and sow peas, beets, carrots, radishes and turnips. If there is time, transplant the first batch of spinach seedlings. There is a lot on the gardening agenda as spring has arrived.

How should I use the time after waking until sunrise, not just today, but going forward? I’m not sure. Other than to continue doing what I am, it is difficult to envision changes from routine as much as they may be needed. I’m too unsettled to contemplate change.

People say it is normal to experience anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Knowing I’m normal is not reassuring and has made for restless nights.

The remedy will be to get lost in the work of putting in the garden. If I work longer shifts, maybe I’ll be tired enough at day’s end to sleep through the night. I’m a little sore from yesterday’s work as my spring conditioning regime in the garden begins. Engagement in a project has worked to relieve tension in the past.

It doesn’t help that I’m reading Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s new book exploring why capitalism is proving fatal for the working class with an uptick in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans from what the authors call “deaths of despair.” There have been enough alcohol, opiod and suicide deaths in this group to reverse the 20th century trend of longer life expectancy. Other wealthy countries continue to see an increase in life expectancy in the new century. Americans do not. I’m looking forward to reading Case and Deaton’s analysis.

All this is not to say I find despair in daily life, I don’t. However, change is on the horizon. Unlike with the sunrise coming in an hour, it’s hard to know what to expect. I affirm today will be a gardener’s day with everything that means. That should be enough to move past the coronavirus engendered anxiety into something more meaningful.

I’m doing the best I can.

Categories
Work Life

Apple Season Seven in the Books

Showcasing 22 varieties of apples at Wilson’s Orchard, Oct. 27, 2019

On a brilliant Autumn day I finished my seventh season at Wilson’s Orchard where I work in the sales barn.

It has been a positive experience with my friends and co-workers Barb, Sara, Paul, Jack, Alex, Karen, and Kyle, as well as with the rest of our seasonal staff.

When I began work in 2013 it was for the money. Over the years weekly consultations with our chief apple officer about fruit growing have become the most valuable part of the experience. Socialization one experiences on a fall weekend with thousands of visitors seeking a recurring, positive activity is unique and needed as we age.

Rows of apple trees at Wilson’s Orchard Oct. 25, 2019

I spent more time walking among the trees this year. It is important to view where each week’s apples were and their picking conditions. It’s helpful to customers and kept me grounded in the reality of the orchard. Feedback when a customer using my directions returned from picking made the extra hour most weeks rewarding.

We grow more than 100 varieties of apples and 2019 was a great year for our crop. We finished the season with an abundant variety of apples available for customers, including some that don’t produce every year.

The operation has gotten better at managing apples. I recall years when all we had on the last weekend was Gold Rush and Enterprise. This year 25 varieties were available in the sales barn. If you’re going to manage an orchard having such a variety is an acquired and important skill.

I spent more time discussing apple selection and usage this year. As I talked about which fruit to use for applesauce, crisp and pies, I found myself tending toward traditional usage. The ways people use apples are traditional for a reason and some of the old varieties like Cortland, Jonathan and McIntosh continue to be in demand. Not every orchard grows them.

Home storage apples. My Red Delicious on the left, Wilson’s Orchard variety on the right.

It has been tough giving up every weekend from Aug. 1 until Oct. 31 to maintain this job. When it rains on Saturday or Sunday I don’t work and this year it rained a lot. Inclement weather translated into a 32 percent decrease in income in August and September compared to last year.

With seasonal work done I’ll return to get some Gold Rush apples for storage before the Oct. 31 final day of the season. Next weekend is our post-season potluck, one of the best in terms of food quality I attend. When the entire staff gathers one realizes it takes a lot of talented people to put on the show each year.

I was asked to return next year, and most likely will.