Kitchen Garden

Into the 2020 Garden

Kale Coming Back to Life. Photo on Dec. 7, 2019.

Brown leaves droop over tall stalks in the frosted garden. In the center tiny new leaves appeared.

Kale plants are growing again.

Each year the best ideas from the garden follow me into the future. From the 1983 summer in Iowa City when we planted our first tomato seedlings until today, we’ve either had a garden or have been able to forage the lot where we lived. Gardening has been a continual presence, improving each year.

In the 2020 garden there will be patches of tomatoes: one for cherries and another for slicers and plums. 2019 was a banner year for tomato quantity and quality. We canned and froze a lot so the plot will be smaller. Best new tomatoes were Black Krim, Granadero, Speckled Roma, and Martha Washington. Seeds that didn’t produce well won’t be planted, including commercial varieties Beefsteak, Roma, Early Girl, Big Boy and Better Boy. I want to get better cages, but do not want to spend the money. The main innovation regarding tomatoes was installing a four-foot chicken wire fence elevated a foot off the ground. This barrier kept deer out of the tomato patch during the past two seasons, improving yield.

I’ve been able to produce cucumbers to meet household needs. My varieties were two types of pickling cucumbers, Marketmore and Tasty Jade. In 2018 I over-produced with two patches. In 2019 I hit it about right with one. Allowing them to grow on a welded wire fence kept ground-bound critters from taking a bite out of them. A backlog of jars of pickled cucumbers is in the pantry, so next year’s planting will be about the same.

Hot peppers grow well here. After experimenting with a number of varieties, I find the most used ones for fresh are Serrano and Jalapeno. After a couple of seasons of long, red hot peppers, I need only two plants of each variety to have enough for a year of kitchen use. I make a few Louisiana-style dishes and sprinkle dried red pepper flakes on pizza. The supply of powdered chili peppers won’t run out in my lifetime. My experiment with Guajillo peppers goes into year two. I dried some red and green ones and have yet to make chili sauce with them. More production is needed to make it a viable experiment. Dried New Mexico chilies are inexpensive at the grocery store, so I’m not sure it’s worth the work to grow and process my own. Before making a decision I need to grow a bunch of them. I plan to grow only Guajillo chilies this year.

I found okra easy to grow and a few plants produce enough for a year. This was my first year growing it and I’ll skip next year. There’s plenty in the freezer.

Next year I’m reducing kale varieties to two: Redbor and Winterbor from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It is an endeavor to try something new and reduce the number of suppliers.

Success with onions has been marginal. I had no trouble producing spring onions, but the full-sized bulbs never materialized the way I wanted. I’ll try it again next year. I also plan to grow shallots from seed as an experiment. I bought an organic seed called Matador from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Onions are almost daily fare in our kitchen so next year I hope to resolve some of the challenges I faced producing them. The shallots remind me of a local grower from France who produced them in abundance: I know they will grow in Iowa.

Beets produced better when I started them in soil blocks. I never have enough of them in the kitchen so I plan to grow lots. It’s time to go much bigger with beets by planting several long rows. The same applies to radishes.

There’s a lot to think about when planning next year’s garden. With the first seed order in the house, I can turn to other areas of planning.It’s taken years, but I’m finally feeling like a gardener.

Kitchen Garden

Winter Thy Name is Denial

Squirrel Nest

What does a gardener do when winter arrives?

Despite the fact there’s snow on the ground, IT’S NOT WINTER! Please check back Dec. 21 for winter programming.

The apple harvest is finished and priorities shifted. While our orchard’s chief apple officer may favor kicking back creek-side for a post-season draw of Jameson Irish Whiskey, after apple season a home gardener must get busy doing everything neglected in better weather.

The inbox — digital and physical — overflows with unattended mail, outdoors work remains if snow melts and we get a few days of dry warmth. There’s laundry to do, winter reading to arrange, apples to preserve, a house to clean, and cars to winterize — a whole life compressed between first snowfall and January. Any remaining goals for the year need prompt action. November and early December can be a frantic rush to the finish line.

As leaves fell from deciduous trees a squirrel nest revealed itself high in our maple tree. I’ve hoped for this many years. What was a vacant, treeless place when we arrived in Big Grove has become a habitat. Wildlife sighting is frequent. In addition to newly resident squirrels, birds, foxes, raccoons, opossums, field mice and voles, deer, and every other type of animal native to the area shows up here and return. When I spend time in the garden or look through our windows to the yard I feel the community even if I’m the only human around.

I have a bottle of Jameson purchased years ago. It sits in a crate unopened because I have been too busy for kicking back and sipping. Maybe I need to take a lesson from the orchard operator and relax for a while. At least before accepting that winter will arrive and all that means.

Kitchen Garden

Meditation on Hot Sauce

Juan San Miguel’s Hot Sauce Recipe

After planting garlic last week I made hot sauce using leftover seeds: Jalapeno and Serrano peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, apple cider vinegar and salt.

The recipe evolved over time from one Juan San Miguel explained in 1977 when we both garrisoned in Mainz, Germany. Those were days before a four-foot section of assorted hot sauces became standard in supermarkets.

I lost contact with him yet the recipe persists. It is a rare day when there is no hot sauce in the ice box.

We carried the condiment in plastic milk jugs and put it on our army rations while on maneuvers in the Fulda Gap. It made our eyes water and changed regular food into edible fire. We laughed a lot in that peace-time army… and ate sandwiches of bread and hot sauce. I continue to make it mostly the way Juan taught me.

What role does tradition play in our lives? It is significant.

Who wants a life weighed down with endless traditions? I made hot sauce this year after planting garlic. Once is enough. There is little need to make it an annual tradition. If we eschew spontaneity in favor of pursuit of tradition we are the less for it.

I enjoy remembering days of subzero ambient temperatures inside tracked vehicles traversing central Germany and eating hot sauce. Juan’s wife made more than we could use on an operation, although as we returned to garrison some sought to use it up.

Obsession with tradition and it’s traveling partner ritual is not good. Like anything, a little goes a long way. If I could live without hot sauce, why would I want to?

Kitchen Garden

Post-frost Planting

Garlic Patch Oct. 15, 2019

After missing last year I planted garlic on Oct. 15. A couple of clear days dried the ground sufficiently to mow the plot, turn it, and put seeds in the ground.

I increased the number of rows from two to five which if all goes well will yield plenty of scapes and about 60 head of garlic.

Whether I’ll harvest anything next July is always a question. A gardener learns to live with unanswered questions that remain so until season’s end.

This photo highlights a developing process of minimizing the amount of ground I turn over for planting. Garlic needs space with 18 inches between seeds and 36-inch row separation. There’s no good reason to plow up all the ground in the plot. Even though the soil was cold earthworms were near the surface. That’s not to mention the unseen organisms that make soil fertile. I no longer use a mechanical tiller and do everything by hand. It’s good exercise that doesn’t use fossil fuels.

Fingers crossed there is an abundant harvest.

At a meeting of our home owners association board, I announced I’m looking to exit responsibilities as board president. I’ll finish my current term, I said. If the other board members are nice to me I might be convinced to re-up for one more three year term. That would be it. I will have lived 68 years in December and it’s time to focus on other things.

Because of the board meeting I missed the televised Democratic debate. That’s a joke. I haven’t turned on our tube-style television in years. Now that Elizabeth Warren is leading in the polling averages the knives are out. Read last week’s post here for my take on why support for Warren persists now that she is the front runner.

As responses to my email to Solon School Board candidates come in, I’m impressed by the field. Three men and three women who would each bring something positive to the board. Because of a scarcity of information about the election, yesterday’s post really took off, becoming the most viewed new writing on this blog in 2019. The majority of views are coming from Facebook, but I don’t see much discussion in my feed. What that usually means is a group in the district has latched on to my post and discussed it in a private group. Last time that happened, someone trolled me with a letter to the editor of the local paper. Any discussion will be good for what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

I’m sitting on four bushels of apples and need to get to work processing them. It won’t be today or tomorrow as I’m back at the home, farm and auto supply store. I’m blown away by the quality and quantity of this year’s crop. Years like this make gardening rewarding. On deck are more dried apples, small batches of applesauce and apple butter, more juice for vinegar-making, and baked goods for potlucks. Some of the last-picked apples will go into sweet cider, and of course some of them will be eaten raw.

It is fall in the gardening year but even after first frost we are busy planting and processing the harvest. It’s how we sustain ourselves in a turbulent world.

Kitchen Garden

October Days

Sunrise over the garden, Oct. 10, 2019.

The forecast calls for 32 degrees tonight so tomatoes and peppers need gleaning from the garden.

There aren’t many left, maybe enough to make the effort useful. While at it, I’ll pick apples I can reach as well.

It is the end days for this year’s garden.

My farmer friends have already been through their fields. They remind me the garden season is not over as kale and other greens, root vegetables, and some squash will continue to grow. They have high tunnels which extend the season. I’m in the fall share with one of them and look forward to seeing what we will receive on Monday.

Last night I made a burger that violated Anthony Bourdain’s instructions on keeping it simple. Using a veggie burger, I thawed a frozen bun leftover from a potluck in the microwave. Buttering it, I placed it butter-side down on the frying pan with the burger patty. When it toasted, I removed it from the heat and piled on mustard, ketchup, a tomato slice, lettuce and onions. It stood three inches tall when fully assembled and hit all the flavor notes. It was a positive, day-ending meal.

Political interests turn toward the school board. One incumbent and five other candidates are running for two seats in the Nov. 5 election. I don’t know any of them very well and plan to attend a forum hosted by the Solon Education Association and the Solon Parent Teacher Organization on Oct. 22. Being on the school board is a thankless, unpaid job that requires a lot of engagement. People are upset with the way the board implemented recent changes to collective bargaining law. It is important to make an informed decision.

On Our Own has become something of a public journal, especially since Mother died on Aug. 15. I’m not sure of the future direction, but for now it serves. There is a lot to engage us in a busy society. Some of that needs consideration for further understanding.

Kitchen Garden

Apple Share

Cart of Red Delicious apples harvested Sept. 30, 2019.

(Editor’s Note: This year I donated 350 pounds of Red Delicious apples to Local Harvest CSA for distribution in member shares. Here’s the note I wrote for weekly newsletter).

The apples in your share are Red Delicious variety grown from a tree planted on Earth Day 1995 by Paul Deaton in Big Grove Township.

Back yard apples are maligned for a couple of unjust reasons.

First, the State of Washington about ruined the Red Delicious, which was first discovered in Iowa, where it was called the Hawkeye by some. Growers in Washington decided this apple was the way to go because of its marketability. They went all in and devised techniques that took the flavor right out of the fruit, including picking before they were ripe, then “ripening” them in a chamber of ethylene gas before shipping. Applying science to the Red Delicious about ruined it and gave it a bad name.

Second, backyard apples have developed a number of “reasons” why people don’t want to cultivate them. If someone has an apple tree they inherited, they may make up a hundred excuses not to prune and take care of it. While these apples aren’t perfect, get a knife out, cut off the bad spots, and they make good eating if fully ripe. They make other fall apple things like crisps, cobblers, sauce, butter and dried apples.

Let’s face it, when Johnny Appleseed, born in 1774, came across the country he had one thing in mind as he planted apples by seed: enabling future settlers to make hard cider. Although the technique is making a comeback, many city-dwellers have forgotten that piece of apple lore. As long as the apple isn’t rotten, it can go into cider (press or many use a juicer for small batches) from which one can make vinegar, sweet cider or hard cider. If one is concerned about bacteria, get your cooking thermometer out and heat the cider thoroughly to about 165 degrees for ten seconds. It will kill the bad bugs and leave most of the flavor.

Hope you enjoy them!

Kitchen Garden

Apple Harvest 2019

Apple tree viewed from top of a ladder.

The view from atop the ladder was pretty good.

Monday I began harvesting Red Delicious apples from a tree planted on Earth Day 1995. This tree outlasted three others planted the same day.

Tuesday I completed a 350 pound donation to Local Harvest CSA, which has been my go-to outlet when there is an apple abundance. I kept three crates for the kitchen and many apples remain on the tree. Naturally, the best apples are furthest up and hardest to get. They don’t seem to be dropping like Earliblaze did so there is a chance to pick more… a lot more.

The question is always the same: what to do with the abundance? In the past I felt it important to use every apple possible. As a result of such compulsive cookery the pantry is well stocked with canned apple sauce and apple butter. I may can a batch of seven quarts of applesauce this year to refresh the stock rotation, but don’t really need it. With my current concerns about blood glucose levels, applesauce isn’t a go-to option for dessert even if I enjoy it.

Baked goods is an option. 2019 is busier than most years in politics so there are plenty of outlets for apple crisp, applesauce cakes and apple pies, including the county party’s annual fall fundraising barbecue. I can’t make it to the barbecue because of my work schedule but I’ll send in desserts for 24 or 36 people. I’ll also send an apple crisp to the Elizabeth Warren office in the county seat. We don’t eat much in this category, but at least one apple crisp will be for us as well as a celebratory applesauce cake.

This year I plan to dry more apples than usual. As a snack, dried apples are very sweet and something different. I have an old Ronco dehydrator purchased for a buck at a yard sale. It can dry a batch in a day or two.

I offered free apples to neighbors on our private Facebook page. I’ll fill any orders that come in on Friday. I’ll share with folks in town if they ask.

The bumper crop makes me wish we had a cider press. I’ll produce about two gallons of apple juice for additional apple cider vinegar making, but that work with a household juicer is too labor intensive to process all the apples. Maybe I can process a batch of seven quarts of sweet cider for special occasions.

When Johnny Appleseed planted his orchards, he did it for hard cider for settlers. My fermentation is to the vinegar stage, and for now I stay away from the hard stuff. That is, unless a gallon jug sits in the ice box too long and begins conversion of sugar to alcohol on its own. I’ll drink that. I’ve gotten to a place where I prepare our salad dressings using vinegar made in our pantry.

Living an apple life is pretty good. Maybe as good as it gets. It is work — the joyful kind. Thus far I’m nimble enough to scale the ladder and take in in the view for a moment before picking fruit. Apples are a way of dealing with life’s problems and an opportunity for self-improvement. I believe I’ll plant more trees next spring.

Kitchen Garden

Main Season Apples and Cookery

Left to right: Kidd’s Orange Red, Frostbite, Arlet, Robinette apples

We’re in the main season at the apple orchard.

We survived the madness of Honeycrisp weekend and can settle into some really great fruit like the four varieties of apples in the photo.

The Robinette was complexly flavored and super-delicious. That’s no apple joke.

The last two days of summer bring a lot of work. There are tomatoes to process, apples to pick, and a garden plot to prepare for garlic planting in a couple of weeks. The lawn is ready for grass collection once it dries out from the rain. Today thunderstorms are forecast so my shift at the orchard is doubtful. Outside work at home is also a bit dicey. Once the orchard shift is decided, I’ll plan the rest of the day.

Yesterday I took a quart or so of the small potatoes, cleaned and trimmed them, and put them into the slow cooker. I added carrots, onions, celery, some vegetable broth and a generous quart of tomato water to cover. By the time I returned from my shift at the orchard, it was ready to eat and so good. There are leftovers, including plenty of broth with which to start another batch of something.

I’ve been taste-testing Red Delicious apples for almost a month. The starchiness has passed and they are turning sweet. Not ready, yet close enough to start talking about containers in which to put the 350 pounds to be donated to a CSA. After that I have plenty of takers for what I don’t use in our kitchen. I plan two gallons of apple cider vinegar, a couple of gallon bags of dried apples for snacks, and a dessert for the county political party barbecue coming up next month. Will store as many as will fit in the ice box for later fresh eating. This variety is staying on the tree well, so there should be plenty.

Politics is taking more of my time. Yesterday I did a walk-through with the Solon School District to see if a facility would work for the February precinct caucus. It will. On Thursday I attended a town hall meeting with Elizabeth Warren in the county seat. The report was she stayed until 11 p.m. to meet everyone who wanted to meet her individually. Yesterday I introduced our newest Warren organizer to our local coffee shop and provided a couple of upcoming events to get on her radar. While I work on weekends until the end of apple season, the 2020 election is already ramping up.

We make a choice in life: engage in what’s good in society and work to make it better, or withdraw into our own family and lock the door against intrusions. When we enter the main season, it’s less of a choice. If we don’t work to make our lives better, there’s no one else who will.

Kitchen Garden

Tomatoes 2019

Tomato Plant

This year has been an amazing year for garden tomatoes.

21 varieties with a total of 47 plantings produced beyond expectations and our household’s ability to use them. There are so many I took two crates to the orchard for folks to can, freeze, eat and share. I took flats of them to meet ups and shared them with neighbors and friends via Facebook.

Here are some tomato notes for fans.


As we reach peak tomato season neighbors complain about deer. This comment from a friend in our township is typical,

How do you keep the deer away. They graze on ours. They take a bite, decide they don’t like it and drop it on the ground. Then onto the next tomato. Bite, pick, yuk, drop, and repeat until no tomatoes are left.

My symbiotic relationship with deer includes a custom designed deer fence using common materials. I install a 4-foot chicken wire enclosure mounted on posts so the top of the wire is 5 feet from the ground. I plant the rows 36 inches apart — close enough for me to get in, and close enough together to discourage deer from jumping five feet high to get in. I leave enough space so I can move between the fence and the tomatoes. This is my second or third year of using the method and it works keeping the deer from ripe tomatoes, leaving more for humans.


There are so many varieties of tomatoes! I listed seeds planted in this earlier post. The selection process was intended to produce plenty in three categories: cherry, slicers and canning tomatoes. I had plenty of seedlings from the greenhouse, allowing selection of the best starts. If three trays of 120 blocks seemed like a lot at the time, it produced what was needed for the beds.

Canning tomatoes for work colleagues.

Plot preparation

For the second year I dug 3-foot trenches for tomato planting instead of digging and breaking up entire plots. I conditioned the soil with composted chicken manure and finished with a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth. The latter was intended to retard progress of tomato-loving insects.


When there wasn’t rain, I watered with a garden hose daily, mostly in the morning. Half a dozen plantings on the north side of the plot developed blossom end rot. I suspect the problem was a mineral deficiency in the soil rather than inconsistent moisture. I had enough grass clippings to mulch the tomatoes to prevent weeds and retain excess moisture.

Stars of the show

Tomatoes with the best results and great flavor included,

Cherries: Clementine, Grape, Matt’s Wild, Jasper, Taxi and White Cherry. The sweetest were White Cherry, Jasper and Matt’s Wild.

Canning: Granadero produced many perfectly shaped, flavorful plum tomatoes. Amish Paste was also a strong performer. Speckled Roma was the most flavorful in this category. Other varieties of small, round tomatoes filled out the crop for canning needs.

Slicers: German Pink and Martha Washington produced the best large slicers. Black Krim was unique with its dark color and tasty flesh. The Abe Lincoln plants produced consistent small round tomatoes which I used to dice for tacos and for canning.

Homemade Tomato Sauce


Eating and cooking fresh: What else is there to say but tomatoes on or in everything!

Sauce: With so many tomatoes in the house they had to be culled every couple of days for bad spots. These were trimmed and cut into large chunks to simmer until the flesh was soft and skin loosened. Next I put the whole lot into a funnel strainer and drained out tomato water. The garden produced a lot of this by-product so after canning 24 quarts of tomato water to use mostly in soups and for cooking rice, I discarded the rest. Once the water drained out, I used the wooden mallet to press out tomato sauce which I froze in one quart zip top bags to use later for pasta sauce and chili.

Diced tomatoes: I canned enough pint and quart jars of diced tomatoes to get us through the next year. I rotate stock so oldest ones are used first and still have a couple of jars from 2016 and 2017 to use first. Diced tomatoes include the skin for its nutrients.

Whole tomatoes: This year I took the skin off small round and plum tomatoes and canned them whole. There are about 24 quarts and 24 pints to last a year or more.

The 2019 garden was an unmitigated success in the tomato category. It is a feature of late summer in our household.

Kitchen Garden

2019 Gardening Season

Sundog Farm under clouds

I want to write a nice summary of this year’s garden including successes, failures and lessons learned.

Instead of crafting something usable, I visited two of the farms where I work.

Knowledge lives within us more than in written words. Life doesn’t always proceed in a linear manner despite predictable changes in season.

Yesterday was about dealing with the abundance of Red Delicious apples ripening on the tree. I plan to give excess — about 350 pounds — to my friend Carmen for the winter share in her CSA.

At the orchard we did a taste test: the apples were too starchy. Then to Sundog Farm where we discussed how much for each share and a process for delivery once they ripen. I think we are set.

Over the years I’ve been able to develop a network of master gardeners, farmers and growers to provide feedback on what happens in our garden. I am a better gardener because of this work. I’ve come a long way since getting started with the process in 2013.

Two things added a unique layer to summer gardening: my spouse’s five-week trip to her sister’s home in July, and the 26-day interim between Mother’s death Aug. 15 and her funeral Monday. Both were unexpected and made a unique mental frame for what was already a weird gardening season.

While Carmen and I walked about her farm she showed off her lettuce patch in a high tunnel, and the abundance of tomatoes a crew was harvesting. We had a conversation about diversification. This year was a big tomato year for both of us, although that’s not been the case for everyone. We planted many varieties of tomatoes and while she has members to take the excess, my canning, freezing and eating has physical limits which will soon be reached.

I moved the cherry tomatoes to their own patch this year and it’s a better idea. They are all good, but my favorites were Jasper, Matt’s Wild Cherry and white cherry. I planted two rows of four plants and next year I will only plant one row to make it easier to harvest.

Among my trials this year were okra (easy to grow and a little goes a long way in our kitchen), Guajillo chilies (if they ripen well I’ll get a crop for making pepper sauce for tacos), Poblano chilies (did not produce much), red beans (I mistook pole beans for bush beans so they had trouble), and planting beets in flats before transplanting them to the ground (produced much better beets than sown seeds). I planted two types of broccoli in succession, but the second variety (Imperial) didn’t produce.

We had basil, parsley and cilantro in abundance. Basil goes into tomato dishes and parsley and cilantro are for eating fresh. Fresh cilantro is an important addition to tacos. I made a good amount of basil pesto and froze it. Even with lots of uses for basil, I let the second raft of plants go to seed because there was too much.

If there was a single most important lesson in gardening this year, it was to better tune what I grow to our cuisine. I’m not exactly sure what that means but Carmen and I discussed and agreed that is important for a gardener. As our family cuisine makes a transition, this will gain relevance when planning next year’s garden.

So that’s the story of the 2019 garden, which isn’t done.