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Kitchen Garden

2022 Garden Summary

Garden on May 31, 2021

The gardening season flashed by. The main issue this year was weeding: I didn’t keep up. Nonetheless the garden produced an abundance of vegetables and the integration of garden with kitchen and our local food bank yielded less wasted produce. Despite the failures, things are heading in a positive direction.

Suppression of weeds is done mostly by landscape fabric and grass clippings. I tried reusing landscape fabric from last year, yet it allowed too many weeds to penetrate the porous membrane. Likewise, my yard doesn’t produce enough grass clippings to mulch all the plants. This fall I plan to harvest enough grass clippings to over winter the garlic and then figure out what to do about next year.

Among the most successful crops were garlic, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, herbs, eggplant, leafy green vegetables, and potatoes. Almost everything I grew under row cover did well. Marginal crops were celery (which didn’t get as big as I like it), peas (not enough yield), and tomatillos (did not grow large enough). Failures were onions, cauliflower, and beets, which produced no crop at all.

This was an off year for apples, although I harvest some of each of four kinds. I need to do something different to grow pears that are shaped the way they should be. The pears are one of the sweetest things we eat all year. Even with their deformities they are satisfying.

There was a lot of learning, although my experiences get incorporated with others I’ve had and are hard to attribute to a single season. More than anything this year, I noticed the abundance of insect life. I saw many more species than in previous years. I don’t know if they have been there all along or are expanding into the environment provided by my overgrown weeds. In any case, there seemed to be more beneficial insects and less enemies and that’s a good thing.

The weeds attracted significant small bird life. They perch on the tomato supports and fencing to feed on weed seeds and insects. The birds are particularly welcome.

The garden is big enough to offer a varying landscape for wildlife. Deer no longer jump the fence to eat plants. Rabbits are staying away as there is plenty of clover and other food in the yard for them. The presence of rodents is minimal (planting potatoes in containers helped). Squirrels are busy harvesting acorns from the oak trees. In many respects, this is what I have been working toward.

It is time to begin deconstruction of the garden and store the stakes and fencing. Soon it will be time to order seeds for next year. I need a solid few days to consider what happened this year and improve on next. It is a cycle, one in which we enjoy being a part. The 2022 garden was a success.

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Kitchen Garden

TikTok Cooking

Pasta with cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil, red chili flakes, salt and pepper inspired by social media posts on TikTok.

Between order by mail book clubs, online retailers, book stores, yard sales, and thrift stores, I acquired hundreds of cookbooks. With the rise of the internet I don’t need any of them.

The attraction of browsing hundreds of cookbooks may serve some writing project, but it is not how we live now. It’s not how we cook. What matters more is producing local food, with fresh and local ingredients as an expression of character and personality, rather than that of the scion of a family kitchen disconnected from here and now.

Cookbooks Galore by Paul Deaton, Aug. 5, 2013.

The brilliance of the TikTok cooking method is it reduces common dishes to a couple of minutes of video, freeing creative energy as we work in the kitchen. The recipe that produced the dish in the photo was not really a recipe but a technique of using available ingredients in the height of gardening season. The proof is TikTok pasta met expectations as a dish: in its flavors, as a way to use excess produce, and in its ease of preparation.

When my end of days arrives, I can’t take any cookbooks with me. With TikTok cooking, no worries. I can recycle my cookbooks now to others who might use them.

God’s in his heaven— All’s right with the world!

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Kitchen Garden

First Year for San Marzano Tomatoes

Bowl of San Marzano tomatoes.

Now that I’ve grown San Marzano tomatoes, the challenge is what to do with them. I peeled and water bath canned the first couple of batches. That’s something: a lot of work for the yield. There have been fresh pasta sauces, salsa, and plain San Marzano tomato sauce. There is a lot to like about this variety of tomato and the exceptional flavor is just the beginning.

I didn’t know if my Iowa garden would grow Sam Marzanos as good as what is available from Italy in tin cans at local grocery stores. Canned tomatoes from the store are convenient. Mine are fresh and good enough to grow again next year. In our household, flavor wins over convenience almost every time.

I planted a row of twenty plants in ten cages on the west side of the tomato patch. It ensured there would be a substantial quantity and they would get adequate sunlight. That plan worked and there is lots of good-looking fruit through the season.

Where I landed for those not used fresh is straight forward: tomato sauce for canning or freezing.

My process to produce the sauce is one I developed over years. After washing and sorting the tomatoes, I core them, cut off bad spots and place them in a big stainless steel pan with a half cup of tomato juice or water. I bring them to a boil and then let them cook for two or three minutes until the skins are loosened. I turn off the burner and let them cool on the stove top for an hour or two.

Next, I scoop the parboiled tomatoes into my funnel and let them drain the tomato water. This takes an hour or so for most of it to seep out. Finally, I spoon the mixture into a blender and blend until as smooth as possible. Now we’re ready for use, canning or freezing.

A couple of notes:

No seasoning at this stage.

I no longer remove the skins in order to keep their nutritional value in the sauce. Blending chops the skins so they are hardly noticeable.

Well-ripened tomatoes produce the best flavor. If they come in from the garden and need ripening, it serves the goal of peak flavor to let them finish ripening on the counter.

The sauce is not really cooked. It is an ingredient for future dishes like pasta sauce and chili. San Marzanos benefit from a long, slow cooking process. That will come when I use the tomatoes in a dish.

Finally, I water bath can some jars of tomato sauce. In late summer an active kitchen garden is lacking refrigerator and freezer space. Having the tomato sauce in shelf-stable jars helps alleviate the space problem.

I will continue to process San Marzanos as a separate variety until they are gone. With the mix of canned wholes and sauce of this and other varieties we will be well on the way to year-round tomatoes in the kitchen.

It’s where we like to be.

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Kitchen Garden

Apple Season 2022

Apples from the garden and from Wilson’s Orchard on Aug. 26, 2022.

We spotted an apple in our trees from the kitchen window. I investigated and four Earliblaze apples were ready to pick. A handful of Red Delicious need ripening. The scent of autumn is in the air.

I drove to Wilson’s Orchard and picked Ginger Gold, Burgundy, Sansa, and Red Gravenstein apples. Trees were loaded with fruit and no one else was picking. It was like paradise without the serpent.

Our apple buying is pretty regimented. In the eight years I worked at the orchard I learned where the apples live and the order in which they ripen. I usually skip most of the early season apples, although I planted a Zestar! tree at home for future early use. When Ginger Gold is ripe, It’s time to start traveling to the orchard and get my exercise walking up and down those hills. I mostly know where all the varieties grow.

My favorites are Burgundy, Crimson Crisp, Honeycrisp, Gold Rush, and the various Jonathan varieties. I also like Red and Golden delicious picked from a tree. Who can stomach the ones sold at the grocer? Although the orchard reduced the amount of trees in the u-pick section, plenty of varieties continue to grow there. It looks to be an excellent harvest this year.

There is no mistaking the rapid approach of autumn. The beginning of the apple harvest, along with the appearance of squash bugs, withering cucumber vines, and weeds getting overgrown are telling a story if we would but listen.

Despite this year’s challenges, the cycle of renewal and growth continued for another year.

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Kitchen Garden

Acorn Season in Iowa

Bur Oak acorns forming.

The remaining two Bur Oak trees in the garden made an abundance of acorns this year. They are weighing down the branches so they almost touch the ground. Acorns are welcome nutrition for squirrels who took up residence in trees I planted after moving to Big Grove in 1993. These particular oak trees were planted from acorns harvested the year our daughter graduated high school and left home. There were three trees, one for each family member, but the August 2020 derecho took one of them out.

The plan is to remove one of the remaining two after the garden finishes this year. It will allow the final one to grow to maturity. By the time it does, I’ll likely be too old for much gardening yet I hope to be able to appreciate its native glory.

It took an hour to harvest tomatoes yesterday. There were two and a half gallons of San Marzanos, a milk jug full of mixed cherry tomatoes, and a bushel of slicers. Today’s plan is to clean them all, remove the imperfect ones to make tomato sauce, and organize what’s left for optimum storage and use in the next couple of days. Tomatoes planted under the oak trees are looking better, so there will be a harvest of plums and Amish paste for canning. This season is running late across the garden.

While I reached into tomato cages to take fruit from the vines I thought about next year. I plan to continue the trellis system for cherry tomatoes and plant two additional long rows, one of mixed slicers and one of San Marzanos, Granaderos, and Amish Paste. The trellis will be longer, as we are using more cherries in the kitchen. It needs to be more sturdy so I may invest in t-posts for the upright supports and place them closer together. They will be flanked by the other two rows, which in turn will be flanked by bell peppers on one side and a mix of eggplant and hot peppers on the other. That would allow focus on that particular garden patch at the same time of year. One can tell fall is not far away by this contemplation of next year.

Where the garlic will go this fall is not decided. This year’s crop continues to cure in the garage and the heads used have been healthy and tasty. I planted 100 head last fall and it produced plenty for the kitchen. Almost every seed planted yielded a head. When the curing process is finished, I’ll save the best heads for seed. This garlic originated on Susan Jutz’ farm and has been planted year after year for a very long time. It has good characteristics and stores well.

Soon I will mow the harvested garlic patch and use the plot to store grass clippings. With the recent rain, the yard grass is long and will make plenty for storage. I also need to tear down the failed onion patch and prepare it to store fencing. I need a sunny afternoon for this work.

We move through the gardening season so quickly any more. In late August, the work continues to be about tomatoes, peppers, greens, celery, and eggplant. Cucumbers and zucchini are about done. I hope to plant lettuce before the week is done. Acorns forming on oak trees are the sign I had better get going.

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Kitchen Garden

Donating Potatoes

The rest of the potato harvest. It was a good crop.

In August there is plenty of extra garden produce for donations to the local food pantry. Potatoes are popular and I could easily have donated this whole bin. They all would have been taken. Potatoes are elemental.

After a period of rodents eating potatoes while they were still in the ground, I decided to plant in containers. That solved the problem. When I think of the future, I should plant six instead of four containers so I have more to donate. What we have will serve us until they are gone before the end of the year.

We cook potatoes in four primary ways: roasting; grated to make hash browns; as an ingredient in soup; and boiling. All of the smallest ones are used for soup. Every once in a while I use boiled potatoes to make potato salad. Whatever I make with potatoes gets eaten up because they are especially good.

I used to leave the containers buried and replant in the same location each season, using a little composted chicken or turkey manure as fertilizer. This year, I moved them and used soil from the two composters. The production was robust. Given the small amount of time and care it takes to grow potatoes, it is well worth it to have a fresh, great-tasting vegetable. Digging up the containers and harvesting potatoes has become a milestone in the garden season.

The food bank is a nice option to get what I produce into the hands of people who need it. The garden is at the point there are too many cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers. There will never be too many potatoes. It’s hard to believe a few years ago we didn’t have a food bank. It has become a vital part of the community in which we live.

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Kitchen Garden

Long June Days

Wildflowers on the state park trail June 7, 2022.

We have been blessed with some perfect June days. Temperatures have been moderate and when it rained, it was the gentle kind that nourishes everything it touches. We can’t get enough of these long, beautiful days.

The garden is producing an amazing amount of greens: arugula, spinach, chard, collards, kale, mustard, turnip, lettuce and others. The season is only just beginning.

I’m halfway through the garlic scape harvest. Everything planted the last few weeks has taken and the greenhouse is emptying. There is weeding to do, a lot of it. At the same time there is a brief caesura. I can breathe.

We need these long, June days.

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Kitchen Garden

Spring Seasoning

Herbs, spices, seeds, and flavorings arranged on the counter.

When the world seems to be falling apart on a path toward chaos, then oblivion, we draw into family. My spouse and I set a meeting to go through herbs, spices, flavorings, extracts, sweeteners and seeds. That’s right! We put it on our calendars and everything. I baked a vegan rhubarb-applesauce cake before we began and that helped us along.

We both use the kitchen and things had gotten out of control. We were determined to remedy that. It turned into a two-day project during which we learned something about ourselves.

There were so many items tucked away in multiple places, just collecting them in one place was a major project. A few found their way from Indiana to Iowa in 1993 when we moved to Big Grove. Others migrated from our child’s kitchen in Colorado ten years ago. I had two shelves in the pantry where I crammed jars and bottles since I built the shelves. Over the stove, in the cupboard, in the turnabout, stuff was everywhere. We truly had no idea what we had in case a recipe called for something.

We set no firm time-line for disposition. If the item was unique, or we hadn’t used it in a while, we were more likely to keep it for potential use. There were a number of containers with no expiration date. There were also those I grew in the garden or foraged. We tended to dispose of bottles with a best by date of 2009 or earlier when it had one. The oldest was dated 2002. It was not an absolute rule. What mattered more was the aroma of each bottle gauged against future use. At the end of the first day, I had a five-gallon bucket full of discarded herbs, spices and flavorings for compost. The compost pile will be fragrant in a different way for a while.

This seemed like a bigger project than it should have been yet it is only the beginning of downsizing the number of possessions in our household. The project created many different interactions between us and the end result was positive. Practice makes perfect, they say.

Organization might help us maintain a grip on what’s in the pantry so our meals can be better for the knowledge. It was a positive way to spend an afternoon. There is plenty of negativity away from our little enclave. We were able to avoid it for a while. The fresh cake helped.

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Kitchen Garden

2022 Garlic Transition

Last garlic bulb.

The last bulb of garlic from the 2021 garden is ready to use. By the time we consume it, scapes from the new crop will be available. This is where a gardener wants to be.

Since I began following the garlic-growing practices of my farmer friends, it has been an unmitigated success. Using seed from the farm, I grew my own seed for the following year crops with plenty for the kitchen. I also increased the size of the garlic patch this year. The plants looks healthy and should be ready to harvest in July.

I cut all the scapes to encourage the bulbs to grow large. Scapes serve as a replacement for garlic until the harvest.

Next steps in the cycle are to clear off the table in the garage and convert it into a drying rack later this month. Garlic is an important vegetable in a kitchen garden. Once one learns how to cultivate it, it is clear sailing to great culinary dishes.

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Living in Society

Slowing Down

Apple blossoms.

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.