Kitchen Garden

Hard Day and Easy Night

Lettuce Harvest

After hours in the kitchen garden much remained to be done after Saturday.

Garden work began at 6 a.m. I moved to the kitchen at 3 p.m. and worked another four hours.

I was steadily busy throughout waking hours with only water breaks to sustain me.

I harvested kale and weeded the plot, replanted a failed tomato plant, weeded carrots, dug up two small plots to plant cayenne pepper and eggplant, harvested collards and put temporary fencing around them. I mowed the fifth plot and spaded soil in about a third of it. With the near 90 degree temperatures, I picked lettuce before it had a chance to bolt.

In the kitchen I cleaned lettuce, collards and kale and made dinner of a big salad. I steamed and froze the collards and emptied the ice box of every bag of greens and went through them. The goal was to make soup stock with the cooking greens. It was a dish too far. Organized, they went back into the burgeoning ice box.

Green Vegetables from the Ice Box

The highlight of the day was unexpected. The sugar snap peas are four feet tall and began to flower along the tops — as if an artist daubed white paint on a canvas, impressionist-style. I stopped and looked from different angles as sunlight faded flowery details. Beautiful.

Roadside Kale Distribution

I harvested 12 kale plants and weeded the plot. It yielded two full tubs and more. I made a box of 24 leaves for the library workers and washed the small scarlet leaves to put them away.

I put some of the abundance by the road for neighbors and passers by to take. It was the city-wide garage sale day so the expectation was bargain-seekers would find this spot. It was gone in less than 15 minutes.

After a shower and clean sheets I slept eight straight hours.

On the plus side I was so engaged in our kitchen garden there was little time to think about much else. At the same time it was difficult not to feel like little got done despite evidence to the contrary.

Well-rested, the weekend cycle of watering, weeding and planting starts again. It’s what we do to sustain a life in a turbulent world.

Kitchen Garden

Harvest Saturday

First Kale

Four of six garden plots have been planted and are doing well.

Weeds are also doing well.

I’m waiting for a break in the weather to coincide with my work schedule to finish the planting and mulching. This annual conflict was complicated by feeling under the weather on Sunday. I called off work at both farms and stayed indoors recovering. It felt like a lost day.

Saturday I harvested radishes, the last of spring spinach, some turnip greens for salads, and a tub of kale. We officially have more greens than can fit in the ice box.

Spring Vegetable Broth

To use up some greens I made a batch of vegetable broth and canned it. During the next six weeks I hope to can 36 quarts for use throughout the year. There should be plenty of raw material, although carrots are last year’s crop and almost gone, Vidalia onions are from Georgia, and celery is from Earthbound Farms in California.

I’m not an extreme locavore and feel no guilt using a few imported items for a dish. My cooking style is derived from a local food culture which includes my garden and the farms where I work. Above all else, it is about using what is on hand in the ice box and pantry — a lesson learned from some of the best cooks I’ve met. If some non-local ingredients are needed and on hand to supplement a recipe, I’m okay with that. Besides, there aren’t Iowa carrots or celery to be had this time of year.

What to do with all the kale?

I reached out via email to find a home for some kale while it is still fresh. The rest will be preserved if I can make time after work.

I use three methods of preservation: freezing, canning and dehydrating. Until we get a separate freezer our capacity for freezing is minimal and saved for other favorites like broccoli, corn and bell peppers. I haven’t tried canning kale before, and the best use of canned kale seems to be soups and stews. I dehydrated in the past, then flaked it in a food processor or blender and stored it on the pantry shelf. Kale flakes are for soup.

A tentative plan is to take the kale remaining after the give-away and can a dozen pints to use in soups as an experiment. The rest will go into the dehydrator in batches. There is an urgency to getting this done as I planted enough kale to harvest a tub every week from now until late October. Keeping up with processing the crop will be a key dynamic in our kitchen-garden.

The 15-day forecast is for rain next weekend, so hope of getting the garden in before Memorial Day doesn’t seem realistic. Will have to find bits and pieces of time during the week to start turning soil in the last plots, and replanting where the early crops are finishing.

Importantly, I’m not freaking out over the amount of work in front of me. A person can plant only one plot at a time. Sanity comes from focusing on the gardening task at hand and executing it as well as we know how. We need sanity in this sometimes insane world.


First Share

New Seedling Cart with a Pallet from the Farm

After work at the home, farm and auto supply store I drove to the farm and picked up the first spring share. In it were spinach, baby kale, Bok Choy, Choi Sum, broccoli raab, rhubarb, oregano and garlic chives.

Already my mind is swirling with cooking ideas.

I’ll prepare a breakfast omelet using greens seasoned with oregano and garlic chives. Most of the oregano will be dried and flaked for cooking. Garlic chives will be processed with cream cheese for a sandwich spread. In the mix is rhubarb jam, spinach casserole, and sautéed greens. There will be lots of cooking with this week’s abundance.

It’s the next stop on along the annual circle of local food.

While at the farm I sorted through a stack of pallets used to deliver straw and hay and found two to bring home. I made a wheeled cart for summer crop seedlings finishing before the big May planting. The other will be used to organize the garage until Memorial Day. I’ve requested May 6 – 14 off work at the store to get planting done.

For the moment, life is about the weather — seeing how it unfolds and checking my weather app for forecast updates. It is also about forgetting the fray of politics for a while to become a practitioner of something useful — not only in Iowa but globally.

Kitchen Garden

Season’s New Hope

Sundog Farm in Late Winter
Sundog Farm in Late Winter

My first work day at Local Harvest CSA, was spent organizing for the season and soil blocking for the first seedlings.

I made two trays for myself as part of the barter deal with the farmer.

In one I seeded basil, Conquistador celery and Tall Utah celery. In the other was four kinds of kale: Dwarf Vates Blue Curled Scotch, Scarlet, Darkibor and Starbor. The growing season is here.

Basil and Celery
Basil and Celery

We never know the outcome of gardening. Tall Utah celery seeds are very small. It was difficult to get only one or two into each dibbled cell — I didn’t. I bought them on special from the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa where they don’t pellet seeds. Like with so much about gardening it is another experiment to see what grows well and tastes delicious. The pelleted Conquistador celery seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine were easier to plant. A controlled germination house environment should encourage the best from these seeds. We’ll see how it goes.

3,120 Soil Blocks
3,120 Soil Blocks

Soil blocking is endemic to Community Supported Agriculture projects. Like much of our work, it is done by hand. Getting the moisture content of the soil mix right is a constant challenge. It is dry as it comes out of the bag into a tub. Watering is done in stages, testing the moisture content after each round of turning with a transfer shovel. Moisture management continues as the soil blocks are made. The pressure of the soil block tool squeezes moisture from the mixture as the blocks are made. It makes the soil mix wetter. It took 3.83 hours to get organized and produce the first batch of trays. As the season progresses, I’ll get faster.

The farmer went to town to get some supplies for the germination shed leaving me alone with two dogs and partly cloudy skies. I took a moment to breathe the fresh air and look at the sky. Hope springs from days like this. New hope for a successful season.


Erasing the White Board

To-do List
To-do List

Snow fell in darkness leaving a thin blanket of white.

The pin oak tree began shedding last year’s foliage indicating warm weather activated new leaf buds and pushed out the old.

Seems weird to rake leaves in February. More to the point, it’s not normal.

In a couple of hours I return for a fifth season at Local Harvest CSA. The main spring task is soil blocking 72 and 120 cell trays for seed starting in the germination house. Part of my arrangement is keeping some of my own seedlings there. When I’m finished with the farm’s trays, I’ll make one 72 and one 120 tray for myself and seed them with kale, celery and basil. I’m hopeful they will do better than in the south-facing window in our bedroom. Getting my hands dirty with soil is a great way to get ready for spring, three weeks away by the calendar.

Other chores on my white board include doing taxes, computer file backup, cleaning the car, preparing the garden for spring and Belgian lettuce planting this week (traditionally March 2). I made extra servings of spaghetti with tomato sauce for lunches and want to make a batch of taco filling for breakfast on work days at the home, farm and auto supply store. There’s also more writing projects.

During a Climate Reality Project conference call on Thursday, a friend from Waterloo and I decided to work on a project with other friends from Waterloo-Cedar Falls. I’ve done two presentations there and look forward to more meaningful work. We’re planning luncheon, maybe next weekend.

This last lap in the workingman’s race looks to be action packed with local food, environmental and cash producing projects coming into focus.

Night’s snowfall melting in the sun makes way for budding plants in a grey and brown landscape. It is almost time to wipe the whiteboard clean and begin anew.

Kitchen Garden Living in Society Social Commentary

High Summer Harvest

Cherry tomatoes, Fairy Tale eggplant, green beans and a pickling cucumber harvested July 16, 2016
Cherry tomatoes, Fairy Tale eggplant, green beans and a pickling cucumber harvested July 16, 2016

Photographs of kale can only be interesting for so long.

The leafy green and purple leaves are producing in abundance — so much so I pick only what is needed, removing imperfect leaves from the plants to the compost heap.

Seven kale leaves stand in a jar of water on the counter to keep them fresh and ready to use.

If summer were only about kale, this one would be an unmitigated success.

Something else is going on.

This week I conversed with a group of twenty-somethings about the new application for smart phones, Pokémon Go. It was the most animated they had ever been. I asserted the application represented the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. They didn’t dispute it. One had already tried the game and moved on to something else. Apparently there are not that many Pokémon to find in rural Iowa.

The continuous stream of violence manifest its latest event Thursday with a terrorist attack in Nice, France. More than eighty people were killed and as many as 300 injured as a lone driver drove a large truck through a crowd gathered to view a Bastille Day fireworks display. The terrorist made it two kilometers before he was shot dead by law enforcement. French President Francois Hollande seeks to extend the existing state of emergency put in place after the November 2015 attacks in Paris.

In American political news, the Republican top of the ticket is set with Indiana Governor Mike Pence named presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate. The less said about this pair the better. Suffice it that I disagree with them on just about everything. The national political conventions are imminent, with the Republicans this week and Democrats the following. Something unexpected might happen at either convention.

In a strange turn of events, twice failed U.S. Senate candidate Tom Fiegen made a post on Facebook that blogger Laura Belin re-posted:

FB Post Belin

Belin makes sense if Fiegen, not so much. The episode represents further coarsening of Iowa politics. Fiegen likening an effort to persuade him on his presidential vote to sexual advances is plain weird. I know I wouldn’t want to get in the back seat with him on a dark gravel road. Whatever virtue he may have had vaporized after he quit being his own person and hitched his campaign wagon to Bernie Sanders. His current, post being a Democrat, rants serve as an example of how low politics has gotten. I know my mother said if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything, but Fiegen lives in our house district and may foment more ill will. I hope not.

Lastly, this week Deadhorse, Alaska set a record high for any Arctic Ocean location. Is it climate change? How could it not be.

At least for now there is plenty to eat and fewer photographs of cruciferous vegetables.

Kitchen Garden

Kale in Sunlight

Kale Seedlings Sunning
Kale Seedlings Sunning

Yesterday was a spring day as good as it gets. I took advantage of it and worked outside.

The kale seedlings have been slow-developing, so I put them in direct sunlight. The day’s growth was noticeable. I transplanted the scarlet variety into bigger pots to give them room to grow. They were laggards of the three varieties and best liked in my distribution network. Indoor bedroom germination has never been optimal, but a few hours in sunlight made a difference. More seedling sunning is planned today.

Yesterday’s garden work included planting three kinds of onions, basil seeds, Easter egg radishes, leaf spinach and arugula. I’m moving on to conditioning the soil for everything else.

A sign of the times, I planted the last seeds in pots: zucchini to get a head start for early May transplanting. It won’t be long before the danger of frost is past and everything can go into the ground.

Something is growing in the carrot planters, but I’m not sure it is carrots. Will wait until the leaves show what they are.

The first cut of lawn is the best. The unevenness of early growth gets smoothed over to produce a transient, semi-manicured look. There is a lot of trim work to do, with minor clean-up. The clippings fell where they may providing mulch for the expected long and dry spell. I’m first to admit I don’t care for lawn mowing. The restrictive covenants require me to do it about twice a month.

The apple trees won’t have a good year. Two of them have zero blooms and the Red Delicious has only a couple dozen. The pear tree should bear fruit based on the abundance of blooms. There were plenty of pollinators flying around, including a bumblebee trying to fly up my pants leg.

I gave some excess onion sets to a neighbor and she reciprocated with some “walking onions.” They were ready to eat, but I stuck them in the ground next to one of the composters.

There is always more to do in a garden. We are thankful for each day of clement weather and sunlight.

Kitchen Garden

Stand In The Kitchen

Scarlet Kale
Scarlet Kale

The word “cooking” was on the calendar this afternoon. I went into the kitchen at the appointed time and stood there.

After a while I turned the radio to National Public Radio news, and stood there.

I stood there and let the quiet of a placid summer afternoon sink in.

Filling a wide-mouth Mason jar with ice, I drew filtered water from the icebox and drank.

I refilled the jar.

The green beans had gone bad, so into the compost. A moldy squash was removed to the compost bucket.

There were too many cucumbers, so the small ones were made into sweet pickles (I hope).

When I selected Brandywine tomato seeds last winter I had no idea the fruit would be so good. A dozen were lined up on the counter in the order of ripeness. I took the biggest one and made two slices from it. I diced one more that was injured from growing between wires on the tomato cage and piled it on top. With salt, pepper and feta cheese, it made two meals by itself.

I cleaned and picked over a crate of kale and found a couple of green worms on the leaves. The predators have arrived. Removing my guests, I tore the leaves and filled up the salad spinner. The kale dried on the counter.

I stood there a while longer, but now I knew. The other dish would be a kale stir fry.

Slicing half an onion, seven cloves of garlic, and a yellow squash, I sauteed them in extra virgin olive oil until tender. Then I piled on the kale and stirred gently. First it turned bright green, then it wilted. It cooked down to two servings, which was just right.

The meal was satisfying, and unexpected. Which is what happens if one would but stand in the kitchen and live.


Taking Local Out Of Local Food

Kale Salad
Kale Salad

Ingredients for this kale salad were grown within 100 feet of our kitchen. It is as local as food gets.

We enjoy garden produce in high summer — when nature’s bounty yields so much food we either preserve or give it away. Any more our household gives away more than it preserves because the pantry is well stocked with previous years’ harvests.

Friends and family talk about the “local food movement.” In Iowa it is being assimilated into lifestyles that gladly incorporate ingredients from all over the globe. This assimilation has taken the local out of local food.

From an intellectual standpoint, it wouldn’t be hard to replace food grown in China, Mexico, California and Florida with crops grown here in Iowa. The number of acres required is surprisingly small. For example, local farmer Paul Rasch once estimated it would take about 110 acres to keep a county of 160,000 people in apples all year. The political will to encourage home-grown solutions in the food supply chain doesn’t currently exist. Until it does, rational, local solutions to food supply remain in the ether of unrealized ideas.

A vendor at the Iowa City Farmers Market was recently suspended for violating a rule that produce sold there must be grown by the vendor. Just walk the market and ask booth workers from where they hail. Often he/she is an employee or contractor working for a farm seeking coverage around many Eastern Iowa farmers markets. Too often they are anything but local growers. What’s been lost in this commercialization of local food is the face of the farmer.

Knowing where one’s food comes from is a basic tenant of the local foods movement. I enjoy working with local growers on a small acreage to produce food for families. At the same time, I seldom purchase a box of cereal from the supermarket even though I’ve seen the grain trucks queue up to unload at the cereal mills in Cedar Rapids.

For example, my garden doesn’t produce enough garlic for the year. I’d rather buy a supplemental bag of peeled garlic cloves produced at Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, Calif. than cloves lacking discernible origin at a farmers market. I know how Christopher Ranch produces their garlic. Absent the face of the farmer, there is value in understanding food origins, and that means some percentage of a household’s food supply will not be local.

There is a lot of marketing hype around “organic,” “GMO-free,” and “gluten free” foods, and this has to be impacting the customer base of local food producers. If consumers feel they can get a reasonably priced, “healthy option” at the supermarket, why make an extra trip to the farmers market, except for the occasional special experience? Why wouldn’t one pick up a bag of Earthbound Farms organic carrots when local growers can never produce enough to meet demand? At the same time, marketing hype is just what the name suggests.

Food security and sustainability are complicated. Before the local foods movement came into its own, it already is being assimilated faster than one can say snap peas. From a consumer standpoint the local came out of local foods some time ago, and it may not be back.

Kitchen Garden

Mulching the Kale

The Kale has been Mulched
The Kale has been Mulched

The kale is mulched and ready for a long season of production. I harvested a bushel today and most of it went to friends at the library. We already have more than enough  in the ice box, and with so many plants this year, we can be picky about what we eat.

Underneath the grass clippings is a layer of newspaper. Once it is dampened down and moistened, weeds will have trouble poking through. It should be worth the extra effort because the way the plants are growing, with the pick leaves from the bottom strategy, we should be in kale through November.

Broccoli Seedlings
Broccoli Seedlings

Since rabbits got to my broccoli, I planted more seeds for a second crop. I put the starter tray outside and the seeds are germinating more normally than they did in the bedroom window. There is something to the idea that light is the key to growing broccoli and I’ll re-think how I do it next year.

Yesterday I got out the ladder, climbed on the roof and cleaned out the gutters. While up there I noticed how many pears were forming at the top of the tree. It is going to be a puzzle to harvest those when ready. They were growing higher than my head while standing on the roof.

There’s more to life than gardening, but the green beans for dinner last night, and the promise of carrots, kale and fresh tomatoes keeps me working at it steadily.

It’s all part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.