Four days into the main apple tree bloom it looks to be a banner year. No hint of frost since blossoms opened and plenty of native pollinators work the flowers. Yesterday flower petals began to fall to the ground, indicating successful pollination.
I planted these trees on Earth Day in 1995. It was a roll of the dice because a gardener never knows how they will fare in Iowa. The Red Delicious was a cultivar taken from the original one discovered in Iowa. For $18.75 each in 1995, the trees have returned many times the purchase price. They already exceeded their life expectancy of around 25 years for a semi-dwarf tree, so anything else is a bonus.
The goal this year is to put up at least 24 quarts of apple sauce, a dozen pints of apple butter, Refill the half-gallon jars of apple cider vinegar, make a couple of gallons of sweet cider, and fill the refrigerator drawer with the best of the crop for storage.
A lot can happen between now and harvest, with wind storms representing the biggest threat. The Red Delicious tree lost several major limbs, including the northern half of the tree during the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho. It is blooming today like there is no tomorrow. One never knows if that is a reaction to imminent death, or just another year. In any case, the new Zestar! and Crimson Crisp trees planted in 2020 are coming along. I might get a real crop from them this year.
Yesterday I planted the row of herbs and vegetables with row cover. From time to time, I looked up at the blooming apples trees and what they represent: another year’s spring promise.
On Saturday I made the last trip to the orchard this season. There were lots of Gold Rush on the trees and I picked 32 of them. The refrigerator bin is now full of apples, enough to last into 2023.
There are also a few Honeycrisp and Snow Sweet apples in the bin, yet Gold Rush is the main event for storage. They keep surprisingly well for fresh eating. As long as the orchard continues to operate, I needn’t plant my own trees.
It is noteworthy the fate of orchards isn’t always growing apples and other fruit. When we were married, well before Wilson’s Orchard and Farm was planted, we went to the Sand Road Orchard south of Iowa City. A family of Dutch immigrants operated it and featured Dutch chocolate as an added item for sale. The property was sold for development. It appears Wilson’s Orchard and Farm is sustainable. It is always an open question when development seeks to fill in all the blank spaces on the fringes of the county seat, and farming can be a dicey business.
We live in the present, and this year there are Gold Rush apples.
My spouse has been at her sister’s home for three days now. The main change is the quiet, which I don’t relish. My diet has turned to using more hot peppers along with the contents of the pantry, refrigerator and freezer.
I ground up most of the remaining hot peppers from the garden and froze them in a cupcake pan. The small portions are just right to use in dishes that call for hot peppers. I also froze the remaining fresh parsley in the cupcake pan, covered with water. A couple of these parsley cakes will go well in winter soups. There are two bags of Winterbor kale and with the warmer weather there may be another harvest. I have to use up the sweet bell peppers, yet there were so many of them this year, if a few go bad I’ll tolerate it. I struck the third garden patch yesterday. Four more to go.
Laundry is caught up, even the garage rags. Rain is forecast today. That may enable me to burn the brush pile tomorrow. For now, there is plenty to do before she returns home later this week.
I worked for seven seasons at what is now Wilson’s Orchard and Farm near Iowa City. At the time it was mostly an apple orchard with seasonal imports of cherries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries from other farms.
During the coronavirus pandemic they expanded their offerings and yesterday announced they bought a 115-acre farm near Des Moines as a further expansion of what is proving to be a successful local food concept.
The grand opening of the Des Moines farm is spring 2023 with the strawberry season. Paul Rasch, owner and grand poobah of the farm described his first strawberry crop in Iowa City to me as “money.”
I don’t know if the proposed transition is possible, yet it may be our best hope to break the cycle of growing row crops in Iowa. Wilson’s Orchard and Farm is an idea whose time has come.
Here is the announcement video released this week that describes Paul’s vision of an Iowa food system transformed.
We spotted an apple in our trees from the kitchen window. I investigated and four Earliblaze apples were ready to pick. A handful of Red Delicious need ripening. The scent of autumn is in the air.
I drove to Wilson’s Orchard and picked Ginger Gold, Burgundy, Sansa, and Red Gravenstein apples. Trees were loaded with fruit and no one else was picking. It was like paradise without the serpent.
Our apple buying is pretty regimented. In the eight years I worked at the orchard I learned where the apples live and the order in which they ripen. I usually skip most of the early season apples, although I planted a Zestar! tree at home for future early use. When Ginger Gold is ripe, It’s time to start traveling to the orchard and get my exercise walking up and down those hills. I mostly know where all the varieties grow.
My favorites are Burgundy, Crimson Crisp, Honeycrisp, Gold Rush, and the various Jonathan varieties. I also like Red and Golden delicious picked from a tree. Who can stomach the ones sold at the grocer? Although the orchard reduced the amount of trees in the u-pick section, plenty of varieties continue to grow there. It looks to be an excellent harvest this year.
There is no mistaking the rapid approach of autumn. The beginning of the apple harvest, along with the appearance of squash bugs, withering cucumber vines, and weeds getting overgrown are telling a story if we would but listen.
Despite this year’s challenges, the cycle of renewal and growth continued for another year.
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.
Inconsistent winter weather disrupted fruit tree plans. On Wednesday snow melt began flowing in the gutters and downspout. It felt safe enough to make a trip through melting snow pack to the composter near the garden. A slushy mix returned to the end of the driveway. Weather has been weird.
It takes several days of subzero temperatures in a row to prune fruit trees. I prefer a week of ten or twenty below zero yet we haven’t had that. I also seek to harvest scions, (pencil shaped fruit tree cuttings) to graft on root stock. I would save the Red Delicious apple tree which was damaged in the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho. It served us well while it was whole. Trees need dormancy for scions to work and we haven’t had that either.
This week has been a fake spring. It’s still winter, for Pete’s sake! Yet the buds on trees look healthy, like they are ready to sprout. The lilac bushes were leafing just last month. I wouldn’t mind spring’s arrival yet I want a winter too.
At least the onions and shallots planted Jan. 6 are germinating.
We bunker in to avoid the coronavirus and wait for a deep freeze and dormancy it would bring. These days have been good for writing.
It is difficult waiting for winter and fruit tree work when what we really want is a normal spring. Today, I’d settle for a normal winter so I can harvest scions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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