Kitchen Garden

Editor’s Desk #8

First kale harvest, April 11, 2021.

Red Russian kale over-wintered so we had fresh kale for our stir fry dinner Sunday night. I mixed it with some Winterbor and Redbor leaves collected while re-potting plants for final growth in the greenhouse.

This year’s garden work is just beginning.

I’ve been on spring break from writing my autobiography. If asked, I am working on the book. It’s been a long spring break. More accurate is the project is stalled and in need of a completed manuscript. It’s time to set aside new writing, crank up the engine, and edit what I have: some 170,000 unedited words.

Writing the book has been like mining a vein of coal to see where it goes. I often got caught up in its adventure and that part of the process is not finished. Why write an autobiography except to experience and find meaning in memories?

I spent Sunday afternoon considering two photo albums I made years ago. One of photos taken beginning in 1962, and another of images of Father taken over the years he and Mother were married from 1951 to 1969. I didn’t write anything. I simply looked at the images and tried to remember some of the moments. This is part of the autobiographical process, but doesn’t work toward a finished manuscript. More material from the vein to be sent above ground toward the tipple.

To get things on track, I will review the outline, then go through the words written. Last winter I spent time on the first five points of the outline. I previously wrote at length about the 1980s and 1990s. I know the story ends either at the beginning or end of the coronavirus pandemic, yet how it ends is unclear. That meaning must be extracted from the tumult and tension of daily living.

I don’t argue with other writers who say a daily goal with follow-through is needed. As today’s shift begins, gardening and writing are both on the schedule. I’ll add an hour to work on a plan beyond today.

Kitchen Garden

Garden Plot #2

Second garden plot in 2021.

An image of the garden is coming into view. The first plot is garlic planted last October. The second is two kinds of peas, two kinds of radishes, two kinds of carrots, and purple and white turnips. Where the blue tarps are will become a patch of leafy green vegetables: kale, mustard, chard, collards and the like. There are five more plots to plan and their use is rapidly clarifying.

Going forward, the plots will rapidly fill with seeds and plants. One is for onions, shallots and leeks, another devoted to tomatoes, a smaller one devoted to broccoli and the two remaining must contain everything else. There is plenty of room to dig additional plots, yet that’s not on the agenda this year.

The ten-day weather forecast is for overnight lows well above freezing. While there is a danger of frost during the next six weeks, kale and collard seedlings are going into the ground today or tomorrow. If it freezes, I’ll cover the plants with an old bed sheet.

Sunday there was a high risk of grass fire in our area. I had planned to burn off one of the plots along with a brush pile. I thought the better of it. With dry conditions, low humidity, and wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour, delay was the best decision.

The shelves of the greenhouse are almost full of trays of plants. The heating pad has tomatoes and peppers germinating. The plan is coming together. It will be a rush to get everything in the ground by Memorial Day, the traditional day to finish initial garden planting.

While it was concerning ambient temperatures reached the high seventies yesterday, it appears I can get a crop this year. Fingers crossed that I will.

Kitchen Garden

Potato Planting 2021

Everything aligned to plant potatoes on Good Friday as is a Midwestern garden tradition. It began with cutting seed potatoes and curing them in the garage for about ten days.

I removed all but the lower four inches of soil in four containers. Adding two scoops of fertilizer to each (composted chicken manure), I stirred it around until the soil was broken up and the fertilizer thoroughly mixed in.

Next I arranged seven or eight seed potatoes in the soil at the bottom of the tubs. I got a yard stick and made marks eight inches above the soil. I filled them in two layers to the marks, putting a scoop of fertilizer in between layers.

After smoothing the surface, I applied ground red pepper flakes to deter digging rodents and defecating cats from getting into the soil. Next step is to get the garden hose from winter storage and give each tub a thorough soaking.

Once the potato vines begin to sprout from the soil, I’ll fill each tub to the top with additional soil. After that, the plants are monitored and watered. If Colorado potato bugs show up, I’ll pick them off and drop them into a bucket of soapy water.

This process doesn’t grow many potatoes, but the harvest is delicious and abundant enough. Importantly, it reenacts a gardening tradition inherited from my maternal grandmother.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Gardening Begins

Derecho damaged woodlands in the state park. April 1, 2021.

With a forecast low temperature of 28 degrees, I put the space heater in the greenhouse overnight. Once the temperature rises in the next couple of hours, the five-day forecast is above 40 degrees continuously. It’s time to start gardening outdoors.

It looks clear for planting potatoes today, in the Good Friday tradition. Seed potatoes are ready, and soil in the six containers needs to be worked and fertilized. Without fanfare, gardening for the 2021 season begins.

I’ll dig in the plots for cruciferous vegetables to see if it’s dry enough. If it is, I’ll seed carrots, peas and lettuce. The coronavirus pandemic had me planting seeds indoors early and I’m itching to get kale, collards, broccoli and others in the ground. One step at a time.

2021 gardening is in process.

Living in Society

Forgotten Seeds

2020 Tomato harvest.

It’s time to plant peppers and tomatoes in channel trays.

Saturday morning I took three drawers from the seed sorter and reviewed what I had. There were 25 packets of tomato seeds long past their sell-by date. They went to compost and the envelopes to the shredder. The end result is 22 varieties to plant plus tomatillos. I forgot to order Roma tomatoes.

I went on the Johnny’s web site and ordered a packet of Granadero. The shipping cost would be more than the seeds so I added a cabbage seed packet. Usually plenty of cabbage is available from the farm, so I don’t grow my own. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic-shortened work season, I did not take the fall share and a couple of cabbage heads in the ice box serve a useful fall and winter culinary purpose.

Peppers will be two varieties of bell peppers and five hot. I’m getting better at growing peppers and tomatoes.

The ground was too wet to work yesterday so I’m hoping it dries enough today and tomorrow. That means I’d better decide where things go.

Potatoes will be in containers again and we’re six days from Good Friday planting. Main questions are whether to move the containers, and what medium in which to grow them.

Placement of onions, shallots and leeks has not been determined. I grew and ordered enough starts to produce double the crop of the 2020 garden. I need more row space for easier tillage this year.

Large greens — kale, collards, mustard, chard — are planned together this year in a special plot. The seedlings are well along and these will be the first transplants just as soon as the ground is ready.

There will be another plot split between broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, and radicchio, lettuce, spinach, pak choi, and other small greens. I’ve been walking the garden daily, although a final plan is not finished.

Another day in the life of a gardener. Here’s hoping the rain relents for a few days.

Kitchen Garden

Overnight Rain

Overnight Rain, March 26, 2021.

Weather permitting, I expect to prepare part of the garden today.

While the soil is too wet to work, last year’s fencing and cages can be removed to create a space to fell two oak trees, one of which is leaning as a result of the August 10, 2020 derecho, the other needs removal to make room for the remaining one to grow unencumbered. I’m ready.

The seedling operation is ahead of previous years. The debate is whether to put the brassica seedlings directly into the ground, or re-pot them to give the roots more room to grow before transplant. I’ll likely do a mix of techniques and compare. The sprouts aren’t quite to the point of forming the third leaf yet it won’t be long.

New spinach seeds arrived yesterday. The old ones aren’t germinating properly so I bought a new packet of 1,000 Seaside Hybrid Smooth Leaf Spinach seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’ll start a couple dozen on the heating pad, and direct seed some as soon as the ground can be worked. My friends at the farm already direct seeded spinach, beets, peas and carrots.

Garlic is coming up nicely. It’s been in the ground for five months and I doubled the amount planted. I picked the best cloves for seed and hope for the best this year. We use garlic most days in our kitchen, so it is an important crop.

The beets I moved from the greenhouse to the heating pad are germinating. As soon as they appear successful, I’ll move them back to the greenhouse to wait for dry ground. The heating pad space will be to start peppers and tomatoes in channel trays. This year I’m going big with Guajillo chili peppers to make sauce for the coming year. In 2020 I experimented making my own Guajillo chili sauce and if successful this year, I’ll replace the commercial Hatch pepper sauce I’ve been using.

It’s been a challenge to use all the canned tomatoes. This year I expect to plant a lot of Roma-style tomatoes for canning and put up about 24 quarts. I’ve been freezing some tomatoes. While it’s easy, I prefer canned. Canned Roma tomatoes are becoming our mainstay for cooking chili, sauce and soups. It reflects a bit of refinement. In past years I canned any tomato I grew, skin on. Peeled Roma canned tomatoes are a much better option. I’m growing a large variety of tomatoes to eat fresh. My process is to germinate plenty and plant at least two seedlings of each type. We like the variety.

As we come out of the darkness there is hope for the day. That’s emblematic of so much in our lives during the time of contagion.

Kitchen Garden

First Day of Spring

Garden on March 20, 2021.

Saturday was a punk day because of Friday’s COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. I felt tired most of the day, took a long nap, and curtailed outdoor activities even though skies were clear and temperatures moderate. I took this photograph of the garden as the sun set. It’s a starting point for the gardening season.

Garlic is poking through the straw and everything else needs clearing. The forecast today is a high of 65 degrees, so if I feel better, I’ll be out in the garden. I need to be out in the garden.

We have three head of fresh garlic left from last year. After using it, there is a pint of pickled garlic, and a jar of commercial chopped garlic to use. If we can’t make it to scapes, I’ll buy some elsewhere to see us through.

The pandemic had us cooking more at home, resulting in flats of empty Mason jars stacking up. Maybe ten dozen have been emptied since harvest. We are almost out of prepared vegetable broth, so I plan to make seven quarts from the freezer to tide us over until turnip greens are ready.

It’s not just me. A lot of us want the coronavirus pandemic to be over. There are some positive signs. At the Friday vaccination clinic one of the people administering shots said there were less than half a dozen coronavirus hospitalizations at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. No one there was on a ventilator. Outbreaks have been reduced to close to zero at Iowa nursing homes. The media narrative changed rapidly when supplies of vaccine boosted by the Biden administration’s efforts began to arrive. The pandemic is not over, yet as we see the number of cases and deaths decline, there is hope.

Gardening continued during the pandemic. It has been a source of normalcy. As the new season begins, I’m ready to see what adventures arrive in our patch of Big Grove Township. It’s been a long, isolated winter that on this first day of Spring appears over.

Kitchen Garden

Greenhouse is Up

New greenhouse is ready.

The manufacturer made some design improvements in the small, portable greenhouse I bought to replace the one destroyed in the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho. Because I did not return to the farm in February, this space is more important to my garden.

Each day I take walkabout on the property, observing the advent of Spring. I watch overnight temperatures in case frost is forecast. If it is, I bring trays of seedlings indoors. Since the greenhouse was assembled, there has not been a hard frost.

Even though the greenhouse is nice, the prime real estate for seedlings is the heating pad bought for germination. As soon as seeds emerge and have an extra leaf, I move them to the greenhouse to make way for the next wave of starts. I’ve become accustomed to leaving seeded trays at the farm and not thinking much about them. I like being closer to germination in the new process.

All of this brings the kitchen garden one step closer to full development. I don’t know how I did without a home greenhouse for so many years.

Kitchen Garden

Late Winter Walkabout

Spring flowers pushing up

Ambient temperatures were in the low 60s on Sunday, creating a suitable environment for a yard walkabout. The report is in: Spring is coming.

The flowering bulbs were the first sign of it. Along with apple trees beginning to bud, garlic is up under the layer of straw, and lilac bushes show new growth. Most of the grass is brown and matted from recently melted snow, yet there is a bit of green scattered around the yard. The signs are unmistakable.

I assembled the portable greenhouse and moved four trays of seedlings outside. It was warm enough overnight to leave them there. I planted a flat of spinach, celery, parsley and cilantro, using up last year’s bag of soil mix. This flat went on the heating pad for germination. There remains indoor work, yet our focus can turn outdoors.

As snow continues to melt in the garden I considered where to plant early lettuce. The ground is not workable, yet soon will be. When it is the seeds can go down and there will be a lot to do.

The calendar shows 13 days until Spring. I’m already there.

Kitchen Garden

New Greenhouse

Greenhouse Pad

The specificity of the garden project is comforting. There is a clear beginning and end. The work product will be useful. It is eminently do-able in a single work shift. I crave more of that over the complicated and grand-scale projects lingering on my to-do list. I yearn for resolution of the vagaries of living in the coronavirus pandemic.

When the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho shook loose buckets of sand anchoring the portable greenhouse to the bricked pad, its time had come. The wind lifted the greenhouse straight up in the air and tumbled it into the next door neighbor’s yard, destroying it.

I bought a replacement as I’ve come to rely on having my own greenhouse to start seeds and store garden seedlings.

Snow cover melted enough to shovel the rest of the pad and install the new greenhouse. The road in front of our house is dry so I can sweep road sand into buckets to hold this one down. It will be the first outdoors project other than snow removal this year.

The coronavirus pandemic created vagaries that plague us in daily life. The governor’s most recent proclamation found me in the “vulnerable Iowan” category because I’m over 65 years of age. She encourages me to continue to limit my activities outside home, and encourages others to stay away from me. Fine. I’ve done that by provisioning in town every other week. Provisioning trips were the only time I left the property since the proclamation was released Feb. 5. Everything else we need, which isn’t much, we get delivered to home. This part is easy.

We are scheduled for a booster of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 19. The pharmacy sent a confirmation email yesterday. What happens after that is unclear. Epidemiologists say we are waiting until presence of the coronavirus in the community is limited. Not sure what that means. There is no reasonable indication of what social behavior in the post-pandemic world looks like. I’m thinking of getting rid of the personal-sized pizza pans I use for entertaining. Should I?

I look forward to sweeping up the road sand and clearing the space for the portable greenhouse. It’s something to latch onto and call finished in a day. Yet I yearn for more, for resolution of the uncertainty of our current lives. It’s not existential angst. It’s simple things like how many gallons of skim milk should I buy at the warehouse club. If things were normal, the number would be one.

I need the greenhouse space soon andplan to work on the project as winter snow melts in Iowa. After that, I’ll pick another, then another, until a sense of normalcy returns.