Sandy is the spark plug of our community, especially when it comes to services for senior citizens, yet more than that. We met Saturday morning at a political event at the public library. A primary election is coming up on June 7 and there is stuff to discuss.
I asked Sandy about donating garden produce to the food bank again this year. She said the food bank would welcome the contributions and local donations were an important part of providing fresh food to people who need it. “I’m trying to slow down,” she said, explaining that some younger people were now taking donations on Mondays. Sandy turned 87 last September so there is nothing to say about her slowing down, other than she earned it. No one can replace what she has done for the community. We are grateful for any time with her.
For dinner I pulled something from the freezer and noticed the item was not hard, as it should be. The thermometer registered 50 degrees, precipitating “oh noes!” I spent an hour emptying everything into five-gallon buckets for composting. A lot of work went into preserving the food. Such is life: eventually our efforts become compost.
The two apple trees planted in 2020 are in bloom. That means a few apples, we hope. When one plants trees it is hard to avoid a long-term perspective. If there are apples, we’ll enjoy them.
Home alone, I made a spicy dish for dinner: red beans and rice. There is no recipe, yet it was everything to which decades of kitchen and garden work led me. Supper was life, as good as it gets. The process of anticipation, planning, and pulling items from the freezer, ice box and pantry culminated in deliciousness. The meal was why we pay attention to flavor rather than the names of dishes or ingredients.
I didn’t know I needed spring break, yet here we are. The combination of my spouse helping her sister move to a new home, 45 mile per hour winds and cold temperatures for two days, and a form of isolated winter exhaustion led me here. Break will continue until I see my doctor later this week. I already have my blood test results and the key numbers improved from six months ago. I noted Earth Hour last night and feel rested and ready to get into the garden and yard. The winds subsided overnight.
Saturday I spent five hours participating in the county Democratic convention via Zoom. I don’t like virtual events, yet they are efficient. I’d rather be talking to political friends and acquaintances in person. The upside of a virtual convention is when it is over, there is no need to use an automobile to get home. A couple of notes.
1984 was my first Johnson County Democratic convention. Most people were nice, although I was frustrated with the process. The county convention revisited decisions made at the precinct caucuses and walked away from what voters said they wanted in favor of special interests. That burned me on politics for a while. Since then we spent six years in Indiana. When we returned to Iowa, I was not active in politics for ten years, until 2004. The virtual event was reasonably organized, yet kinda sucked. What’s a person to do? An old Polish proverb applies, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
Age is not treating some of my long-term cohorts well, at least from the images presented on Zoom. There are a number of new people, likely more than half. I’d rather step back from organized politics. I volunteered to be a delegate to the district and state conventions to make sure enough people were available to fill 74 slots. The district convention is at a nearby high school across the lakes. When it was time to ratify the slate, all slots weren’t filled. People don’t seem that engaged in politics this year, even if they should be. That may be bias created by the virtual format, yet I’m seeing the same thing in every segment of local culture.
There were ten platform amendments submitted at the convention. The platform is irrelevant, mostly because Democratic candidates for office don’t support every plank, even if they acknowledge a platform exists. Why does the county party spend time on it? The answer, I guess, is it is a way of life for party members who want a shared experience in articulating their beliefs. As a writer, I get plenty of that from elsewhere. As long as we keep the platform’s irrelevance to formal policy in mind, and don’t expect candidates to fully support it, let platformers platform.
I’m preparing to write about my senior year in college when I lived in a small house on Gilbert Court in Iowa City. Artist Pat Dooley rented it from a local businessman and managed the many residents who came and went during that six month period. It was a small, decrepit three-bedroom structure built on a stone foundation. According to Google maps, it has now been demolished.
Dooley was part of a group of writers and artists loosely referred to as “Actualists.” He did the cover art for The Actualist Anthology edited by Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray. Gray overnighted with us for a brief period before leaving Iowa for California. Many Actualists visited our house at Dooley’s invitation, where we socialized in the common room. Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, Dave Morice, Sheila Heldenbrand, John Sjoberg and Steve Toth stopped by more than once, as best I can recall.
By 1974, I finished required coursework for a major in English and needed to fill out the total number of required hours. My coursework during that final undergraduate semester included French conversation, separate classes in ancient and modern art, Harry Oster’s American Folk Literature, and early modern philosophy. I hadn’t prepared for a career during university, although the Oscar Mayer Company, for whom I worked two summers, called to offer me a job as a foreman in the Davenport meat packing plant. I declined.
There are a couple of additional days before I must get to work in earnest. Spring break, while unexpected, is not over.
Gardening season begins with a spring burn pile. Usually there are plenty of branches from winter tree pruning and windfalls. As elements return to the soil, our hope in the sustainability of life is renewed.
I lit this year’s burn pile with a single match applied to shredded paper. When I went to bed, embers were smoldering. The next day warmth radiated from the ashes even though a light rain had fallen. When the fire depletes its fuel, I’ll rake the ashes evenly over the soil and turn them into it.
I’m ready to garden.
How should I write about the garden this year? What terms should I use? What phraseology is best? What goals do I have for readers, and for myself? What is the lexicon of gardening?
This year I adopted a spreadsheet to track my seed planting, so no need to record that here. There are eight trays of seedlings started in the house. Once the weather breaks, I’ll set up the greenhouse. It is becoming routine. This is a year for recycling everything I can: ground cover, row cover, stakes and fencing. I’m seeking to optimize the gardening space to grow more food we’ll use. Over the last ten years certain plots have become predictable: garlic, tomatoes, greens, and squash. Same way with crops: there are a couple dozen we favor.
There was a sense of discovery in posts I previously wrote. I have come to know most of the crops that grow here, so discovery is mostly over. While being an adherent to a process of continuous improvement, I’m at a level where experiments are each of limited scope. For example, I’m trying San Marzano tomatoes to be used for canning this year. To detail such efforts seems a bit boring both to write and to read.
In college I read British romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Byron, and the Shelleys. I understand the depopulation of the British countryside and increase in industrial activity in cities. Boring! I keep their books yet I don’t see returning to them any time soon. I seek to engender no romantic fantasy about gardening.
Growing a garden is an economic engine. Whatever I can grow at home is something I don’t have to buy from others. Perhaps the biggest money-saver is vegetable broth made diverse greens. Broth is expensive to buy and cheap to make. The quality of homemade is hard to beat. Once I’ve written about my vegetable broth, though, what else is there to say?
The idea of a kitchen garden needs further exploitation this year. Integrating what I grow and preserve with what we use is an important feature of the process. How many jars of pickles will we need? Not as many as I have been canning. Are we better to make sauerkraut or should we manage excess cabbage in the refrigerator, using it fresh? Based on the amount of old jars of kraut on the shelf, we don’t need to make much of it. Do I need to plant more fruit trees? At my age, whatever I plant won’t be productive soon enough to do much good. There is plenty to be done in a kitchen garden. I’m not sure how much people want to hear about it.
Each day, I walkabout the yard to review daily progress and consider the garden plots and how they should be planted. That process lives in the present and no amount of writing can render it otherwise. I’m not sure I want to write it down. What I know is the brush has been burned. As soon as the weather breaks, I should dig up rows for early planting. Just getting it done is satisfaction enough.
2021 has been a great year of progress in the kitchen garden. As the seed orders find their way to us via U.S. Postal Service, some reflection on the positives seems in order.
This has been one of the best years for apples. In our yard the three legacy trees bore abundantly and we used them for everything we needed. At the orchard (by this I mean Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, where I worked from 2013 until 2019) there was an abundant crop to supplement the two varieties that yielded here. The pantry is loaded with everything we need in terms of processed apples. We should have enough apple butter, applesauce, dried apples and cider vinegar to last two years until the next big crop. If our trees bear next year, that will be a bonus.
We had enough to take what we needed, let our neighbors pick some, and plenty for the deer once we harvested the best ones. The combination between our trees and a nearby commercial orchard meant we didn’t have to buy a single apple from the grocery store.
Each garden year begins with a couple dozen quart jars of vegetable broth. As I grow a diverse number of greens, I switch which ones dominate. Turnip greens have produced a consistently tasty broth, yet they all are good. We use this broth to cook rice, in soups, and as an alternative to using oil when frying vegetables for some dishes.
It took a few years but the integration of Guajillo Chilies into our cooking is complete. The main product is a cooked and preserved pepper combined with garlic, salt and apple cider vinegar in a food processor. Once the fresh chilies are gone, this becomes the main way I use chilies in cooking. I tried the technique with jalapeno peppers and while a little hotter, it also serves for our culinary needs.
When growing up, Mom’s cooking was pretty “American.” That is, outside the occasional Polish-style ravioli brought home from visits to LaSalle, Illinois, Polish heritage cooking was absent. That was also true of memories of my maternal Grandmother who often found paid work as a cook in settings where American cooking prevailed. It was discovery of the cook book Treasured Polish Recipes for Americans by the Polanie Club that enabled me to come to terms with my heritage.
Based on studies of the soup chapter, I developed a consistent soup recipe that uses vegetables grown in our garden. The ingredients in the book were the same as what I have been growing for years. The main characteristics of the soups are they are thickened with barley, I add lentils as a source of protein, and use onions, celery, broccoli stem, parsley, grated zucchini and other frozen vegetables from the growing season. I use whatever greens are in season, and frozen kale if they are not. I also add potatoes, turnips, and whatever root vegetables are on hand. Settling on a soup recipe has been a long time coming.
Sweet Bell Peppers
After years of experimentation I finally produced enough bell peppers to eat raw, use in cooking, and preserve in the freezer. This was a watershed year.
I grew the largest number of tomato plants ever and had plenty to eat fresh, can, freeze, and give away. The main successes were:
Developing a method to extract moisture and freeze the pulp into small servings using a cupcake pan was a breakthrough. The idea is to use a couple of tomato “buttons” to make pizza sauce for our weekly, home made pizza. I use them in everything to add a small amount of tomato sauce when needed.
I learned to grow enough Roma tomatoes so I can use them to can whole. I’m still working off a backlog of preserved tomatoes, but the system is in place for growing to match canning needs. Romas are the best to can whole.
Our local food bank welcomed my extra tomatoes. My weekly seasonal donations took the pressure off of using tomatoes in a timely manner.
I grew a wider variety of tomatoes this season, maybe 25-30 varieties. The benefit was I discovered some new favorites and we had tomatoes for every dish throughout the season.
I can extra liquid from tomatoes if I don’t use it fresh. I try to use everything and the canned liquid goes into soups.
I planted earlier than my peers in the local food movement and because of that, I had tomatoes earlier than they did. I risked frost only once or twice and using old bed sheets to cover the plants, was able to make it through without damage.
Squash, eggplant and cucumbers
I’m pleased with the way the squash came out. There was plenty of zucchini, and pumpkins and acorn squash produced beautiful fruit that tasted good. A little goes a long way with zucchini and I grew and preserved enough for soup all winter. I also froze cooked pumpkin flesh in one cup sized buttons to use in pumpkin bread.
A little eggplant goes a long way for us. I had six or seven varieties of seeds and planted some of each. I’m looking for enough to make one or two eggplant Parmesans and roasted rounds for the freezer. I had plenty this year.
The cucumber crop wasn’t as big as we’d like although it produced enough for plenty of canned sweet pickles to last us until next year. I’m on the way to striking a balance of varieties to meet our needs and this will be an ongoing experiment.
The garlic crop was the biggest yet with large heads, about 75 of them. The disease that was prevalent last year was absent this year. That’s because I was particularly diligent to pick clean cloves for seed. The main uses are fresh in cooking and in the prepared chili sauces mentioned above. I still harvest enough green garlic from the volunteer patch I planted decades ago.
There was a new celery seed this year and it produced a better crop. We eat celery fresh in season and use it in cooking. The extra gets sliced in soup style and stir fry style and we produced a lot of it this year. We’ll be eating it all winter.
I set aside a plot for cooking greens and the concept proved to be useful. We had greens for the entire season. The main change was cutting back the number of kale plants and planting chard , collards and mustard as alternatives. I also grew several kinds of cruciferous vegetables like kohlrabi and bok choy. I plan to further develop this concept.
I grew seven varieties of onions and shallots and would term it a success. It is the second year of having a big crop and the quality was quite good. I used a mixture of plants I started from seed and starts from the seed store. The starts from the seed store, along with the shallots, did the best. The challenge is picking storage varieties and then using the shorter storing onions first. This all worked out in 2021.
I successfully grew parsley for the first time. There was plenty of it to use fresh and I used the cupcake pan method to freeze some in water to add to soups during winter. I also had plenty of chives, savory, rosemary and basil. I froze many parsley stems for use in winter cooking. I feel more confident after this season and will likely expand my herb growing next season.
I bartered for some row cover and used it to grow an eight foot row of lettuce and herbs. It made a huge difference. It enabled succession planting in a way I hadn’t had before. More planning is in order for 2022 to make row covered vegetables a bigger part of the garden.
Like most people, I want a decent meal when it is time to eat. In 2012, I launched a major study of the local food scene and was not disappointed in the results coming into and out of our kitchen. By working at a number of farms, growing and expanding our home garden, and participating in legislative advocacy, I learned so much about where food originates and conditions which engender growth of a variety of fruit and vegetables.
The impact of local food systems on our home life reached its peak in development of the kitchen garden idea. Now that the work is finished, I have less interest in writing regularly about food. It is an assumed part of a background against which I pursue other interests. I’ve learned what it means to know the face of the farmer. I maintain an interest in doing so. I just won’t write about it as often. Mainly, others are doing a better job of writing about our food system.
Food is basic to a life. It is not the most important thing. I am glad for the work I did, yet I feel it is finished. It is time to concentrate on more important aspects of life. It is time to keep a focus on life closer to home.
We often co-exist with an illusion we have unlimited time to live our lives. Living each moment, our fundamental outlook is there will be another. Many of us believe that each new moment has the potential to be better than the one in which we find ourselves. It may be true, yet there are limits.
When I retired April 28, 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I wasn’t ready. I looked forward to getting dressed in my uniform (jeans, a shirt with the company logo, and hard-toed boots), driving across the lakes in my 1997 Subaru, and working an eight-hour shift that had a unique yet recurring set of variables that demanded something from me but not a lot. It was a retirement job to pay bills until Social Security kicked in at the full rate. I exited the work force with eyes open to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
I want another source of steady income.
If I return to the workforce, it will be on my terms, avoiding any public-facing job because of infectious diseases living in members of the public. That was a lesson of my last employment. I spent a lot of time sick before the pandemic because of contagious people.
While transferring files from my 2013 CPU to the new one I found file folders with ideas for earning money. Some of them brought income, yet not enough to rely on them without other sources. Having retired from my main career in 2009, I spent time exploring alternative forms of employment that would help pay the bills. It was a mixed bag, the best part of which was meeting so many people. A fellow couldn’t live on it.
We have a decent home life. I improved my gardening and cooking, and I’m writing more. I am focused on being a better photographer. I don’t view any of these activities as sources of income. If I have an abundance from the garden I may sell it at the local farmers market or donate to the food bank. Freelance writing brings something in, but it is lowly paid work. I would rather enjoy this creativity for what it is: a regular decent meal with ingredients I grew, and a legacy of writing. From time to time a subject gains a broader readership, as in the recent school board election coverage. There is personal satisfaction in it and that’s enough.
I resist commercializing our home life. A life worth living has some privacy. I enjoy creative outlets provided by gardening and meal preparation, opinion pieces to newspapers, and posting photos on Instagram. I attempt to refrain from stupid stuff on Twitter, which is my main place to mouth off. I am careful about what I say and depict about our private lives on those platforms.
What will I do with this moment? Write a few more words, edit, then hit schedule so it posts at 5 a.m. comme d’habitude. I look forward to breakfast as it’s been 11 hours since eating anything. There are onions and garlic from the garden… and a half used jar of Guajillo chili sauce I made. I’ll concern myself with breakfast just as soon as I finish this post. The anticipation makes life worth living.
Some parts of Iowa had a frost warning last night but not here in Big Grove. At 3 a.m. ambient temperatures were in the 60s and all was well with the gardening world.
That is, except for little green worms devouring kale and collards as they do at the end of season.
Despite the kale infestation there was plenty of chard for the kitchen as I gleaned the garden Friday morning. The season is bound to be over soon, even if exceptionally warm temperatures due to climate change extended it.
There were a few tomatoes, mostly small versions of Granadero which produced well this season. The tomato patch is ready to be deconstructed, the fencing rolled up and stored for winter. The question is when I’ll feel like doing it.
Partly because of the long season there are many peppers: Guajillo, jalapeno and Ace bell peppers grew better this year than ever. I’ll prepare Guajillo chilies with garlic and apple cider vinegar as a condiment for storage in the refrigerator. The jalapenos are a bit of a surprise as they didn’t produce much earlier in the season. They are big ones, so that increases the possibilities for cooking. My jalapeno needs have already been filled so I’ll have to get creative.
At the end of Friday I picked some basil for pizza making. Basil went into the sauce and whole leaves on top in a pseudo-Midwestern version of pizza Margherita. Fresh mozzarella would have been better, but we make do with what we have. If I try this again, I will wait to apply the basil topping until about a minute before cooking is finished. The pizza was eminently edible. This from a man who at a younger age would eat leftover pizza from a box left overnight in the living room.
There is at least one more pass through the garden to get Brussels sprouts and maybe some more chard. The herbs under row cover could use another picking. There are plenty of pepper flowers but it seems unlikely they will make it to fruit. It’s been a good garden season and even the gleaning was bountiful. As fall turns to winter, I’m ready.
It may be a while before the first hard frost. Peppers, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, and greens continue to grow in the garden. I want one more picking of Red Delicious apples before letting the rest go to wildlife. Fall is in the air and hopefully rain will come with it. It remains exceedingly dry.
Wednesday I mulched the garlic patch so planting this year for next is finished. I won’t start onions and shallots until late December in channel trays under a grow lamp. As I look to 2022, this year has been a great one for our garden.
For now, accept it that fall is coming and with it a an eventual end of the growing season. We live on the edge between abundance and scarcity. Hopefully we’ll have enough food between the pantry and commercial shopping to last until spring. One never knows in a time of climate change.
The food system is in transition and I believe the local food movement will come along with it.
The way Americans produce and consume food, with centralized growing operations at a distance from markets, is being forced to change because of a new and different climate. I believe changes will be positive over time, although they will take adaptation which will not be pleasant. The local food movement will focus on three types of operations: specialty growers, more complex farm operations centered around key individuals or a small group, and more kitchen gardens like mine. To some extent that structure already exists.
The ongoing, long-term drought made worse by climate change is taking a toll. The water shortage is acute in the Western U.S. because there has not been enough snow melt or rain. It should be called aridification rather than drought, because the changes are likely permanent. With the continuing water crisis, reservoirs and lakes across the west are at record low levels. A reckoning is coming and it means, among other things, higher prices and disrupted food supplies.
It’s not much better in Florida, Texas and Mexico. We long recognized growing lettuce and other produce in California and Arizona, and shipping it to the Midwest and East Coast, made little sense and was expensive in multiple ways. Have you ever tasted a Florida tomato? There are better alternatives. Because vegetables are grown with shipping in mind, taste has taken a back seat.
Producing food more locally is a natural reaction to disruption in food supply. In the settler days, before we had all these fancy supply chains, it was called “making do.” More people will grow some of their own food in backyard gardens, on decks and patios, or in community gardens. Not only does the food taste better, we can control the inputs to eliminate worry about pesticides and fertilizers. In the pandemic people lost some control of external events and one way they regained it was to become more self sufficient. So many people are preserving food that it has become difficult to obtain canning jar lids.
Labor is a basic problem the local food movement cannot solve. By growing food ourselves, the labor element is removed as we each invest labor to support our garden. Labor is an assumed investment and we scale personal labor in food production to fit our ambitions and the size of our garden or farm. Produce grown like this will meet some of our nutritional needs.
53 percent of Iowa corn goes to producing ethanol. If the country moves to electric vehicles, ready or not, adaptation is coming. The simple truth is either farmers find new markets for all that corn or adapt to other crops. Expect agricultural interests to oppose elimination of ethanol. Folks have proposed some of those crop acres be devoted to different kinds of produce, the kind people eat at the dinner table. However, it’s now or never to effect mitigation of climate change. There will be no choice but to adapt and land use is only one aspect of adaptation.
Climate change is real, it is having an impact on our lives, and unless we do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — on a large scale — it is going to get worse. Local food production can be part of the solution.
EarliBlaze apples are ready to pick. They are sweet and crunchy. I have two five-gallon buckets of them to make apple cider vinegar, although I’ve been eating down one of them and might need more.
Taking stock of the pantry, we don’t need any applesauce, apple butter, dried apples or any apple products really. Fresh eating, baking and cider vinegar will be the main uses of this August apple. A lot of them fall before they are ready to pick. Deer come each evening to help us clean them up.
When Red Delicious ripen during late September or early October, I’ll revisit the plan. I have at least one person who would like this year’s apple butter, so I may make more. Despite losing a major branch during the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho, and more during a strong wind storm this year, it will be a big crop.
I would have planted the orchard differently in the 1990s had I known what I know now about apple culture. I planted trees too closely together. The six original trees were two EarliBlaze, two Red Delicious, and one each of Lodi and Golden Delicious. Wind and disease took a toll and only one Red Delicious and two EarliBlaze remain.
The varieties I chose are not the ones I would pick today. Having worked at an apple orchard since 2013, I learned a lot about which trees do well in Iowa’s climate and how to plan continuous apple picking from late July to the first hard frost in late October. In addition, I would match the varieties to what I want to accomplish in the kitchen. Late apples are more attractive to us now and everything they mean: storage for winter, apple cider making, and of course, fresh eating. There are no do-overs for our home orchard. The main questions today are what else will be planted in our yard for fruit, and what will we do when the three trees I planted finally live their last days.
I decided to decline returning to work at the orchard this year. The reason is pretty clear. The coronavirus pandemic played a key role.
I changed my mind about working this fall and won’t be reporting for work on the 28th.
The main reason is the surge in the coronavirus pandemic in Johnson County. Hospitalizations increased close to bed capacity, there is an influx of 30,000 people to attend university (about whom we know little of their vaccination status), the University of Iowa cannot require vaccination for COVID-19, and the CDC rates our level of community transmission of the virus as substantial.
Since I wrote this, the level of community transmission has gotten worse.
In late summer, the whole garden seems to come in at once with apples being a key crop. There is pressure to deal with all of it. Not enough pressure to prevent us from enjoying the taste of summer.