Winter Lament

Onions and shallots

January and February are usually months to read books. I’m working on my fourth but it seems like I’m running behind.

Political work has taken a bite out of my time.

Ambient temperatures have been warm. Absent a cold spell of temperatures below zero, I’m planning to prune our fruit trees this coming cycle of days off. As I lean into retirement I work two days at the home, farm and auto supply store with five days in a row to do what I please. The days are filled with activity.

Sunday I’m scheduled to soil block at the farm, the first time this winter. I bought a small soil blocking tool for home use and planted onions and shallots. It’s the first time doing it at home and what the future holds as I wean myself from greenhouse use over the next few seasons.

Our ice box is getting down to carrots, turnips, bread, dairy and pickles. There are mostly jars of things. Light permeates the glass shelving, revealing what’s in the bottom drawer. Growing season is a couple of months away.

Our cooking is from the pantry and freezer. We have storage onions and potatoes and lots of garlic. Apples from our trees and the orchard have been gone a few weeks. There are plenty of canned goods. We have enough to last us until spring arrives, supplemented by weekly trips to the warehouse club and grocery store.

Winter in Iowa has changed. It’s weird. It’s not consistent from year to year. I try to adapt and still find the new experience a bit sucky. Are you winter or not? No response.

As I finish this post, a prelude to getting ready for work, I feel ready: ready for what’s next, ready for something different, ready to move on. In this winter morning I’m ready to emerge from my book-lined writing space and ascend to the kitchen, and all that happens there, midst a winter lament.

Garden Local Food

Garden 2020

Friday I planted the first seeds in trays at home. They were,


Talon, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 104 days.
Red Burgundy, Ferry-Morse, 100 days.


Matador, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 105 days.

I’m experimenting with shallots this year. My friend Simone grew them so I know they can be grown in Iowa. I’m also planting them both at the farm and at home using different techniques.

It is now gardening season.


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.