Farming Garden

Gardening In Between Times

Blue Wind Broccoli

June’s last day marks the beginning of my hiatus from farm work.

The orchard’s chief apple officer confirmed they need me in the sales barn this year. My manager emailed me back to set a starting date. Apple season is set and I can focus on other things in July.

For the first time this year I made a “project run” to the commercial center in Coralville. I picked up a replacement faucet handle, a new light/vent fan part for a bathroom, some topsoil and grass seed to fill in the depression over the septic tank, a new bird feeder and a shepherd’s hook, and eight more 6-foot stakes to protect tomatoes from deer. I hope there will be more trips like that.

Weeding the garden is a never-ending task. I focused on the plot with beans and a variety of crops. Even the parsley seeds sprouted and I removed competition so they will grow to maturity. I saw several Japanese beetles in the basil so I harvested the big leaves. I also harvested kale, broccoli, green onions, radishes, parsley, beets and sugar snap peas. The ice box is crammed with containers of fresh greens and other vegetables. With my spouse visiting her sister for a few days I will be eating a lot of greens for a while.

I planted Table Queen Acorn squash (Ferry – Morse, 75 days) and Honey Bear Acorn squash (Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 85 days) in newly claimed space. Acorn is our favorite winter squash so here’s hoping they succeed.

The lawn was a field of clover which I harvested with my John Deere mower and grass catcher. Rabbits will find something else to eat, hopefully not my garden. I piled the clippings in the transition space near three oak trees I planted from acorns and will decide which vegetables get protection next. When weather turns hot, the lawn doesn’t produce as much, so it will be a couple of mowings before the garden is fully mulched.

My clothing was drenched with sweat by the time I finished the lawn. I hung my t-shirt and jeans to dry, took a shower, and focused on kitchen work the rest of the day. Processing today’s harvest took the most time.

I like this in between time for a lot of reasons. It’s a chance to let the dust of the first half year settle and figure out what is most important to sustaining a life in a turbulent world. Just like weeding, the non-productive energy-suckers need to be removed to free up what’s most valuable.


Big Weekend in the Garden

Three rows of tomato plants.

I returned nine empty seedling trays to the farm Sunday morning before my soil blocking shift.

The empty trays reflected clear weather and dry enough soil for planting. I had been worried seedlings would get root bound. I think I made it into the ground in time. I hope so.

The last three days have been devoid of rain with mild temperatures. I worked outside a total of 15 hours, finishing initial planting in six of seven plots. Now I must find spots for garlic planting in late July, Ancho and Guajillo chilies, eggplant and winter squash. I retained several trays of extra seedlings in case there are failures. Starts of basil, parsley, cilantro and broccoli are ready for the second wave of those varieties.

Putting in tomatoes is a big production. I cleared a plot that had been inactive since fall. I dug two-foot wide trenches for the seedlings and prepared the ground with a hoe and rake, putting down fertilizer before raking. A big part of tomato planting is sorting seedlings grown in the greenhouse, seeing how they germinated and counting varieties. In the end I made 47 planting areas with one or two plants per cage in 21 varieties.

Row of Green Beans

This year I separated the cherry tomatoes into their own spot with more space between plants. The idea is to use that space to gather bowls of multi-colored fruit for the kitchen and for gifts. They are already blossoming.

Main crop slicers will be Brandywine and German Pink, both available from the Seed Savers Exchange. Plum tomatoes included Amish Paste, Roma, Speckled Roma and Granadero. I planted six varieties of cherry tomatoes with orange, red, yellow and white colored fruit. If the plots grow there will be plenty of tomatoes for fresh eating, gifts, freezing and canning.

Another big project was planting cucumbers. Planning included seed selection (Northern Pickling, Little Leaf Pickling, Jade and Marketmore) and downsizing the space from last year. I use 2 x 4 inch welded wire fencing to support plant growth and put seedlings close together. Everything survived the transplant. If plants are successful, there should be plenty of fresh and pickling cucumbers.

The last big planting was hot peppers. I made a patch of 15 plants and everything survived transplant. I have extra seedlings if some should fail. I selected jalapeno and Serrano for fresh eating and Bangkok, Red Rocket, Cayenne and Red Flame for drying. I also have Ancho and Guajillo chilies ready to plant once I figure out where. This will be an experiment in Mexican cooking if successful.

Spending time in the garden enabled me to watch the beans grow. From early Friday morning until late that night plants pushed out of the ground until the row was filled in. The same was true for the red beans, although they were a day later. It is something to watch the garden grow.

By Sunday afternoon I needed a nap. Today I’m rested and ready to get back into the garden for as long as the sun shines. The stress of too much rain is changing to worry about drought. We’re not there yet.

Environment Garden

Garden is Growing

Cherry tomato planting area: Clementine, Taxi, Jasper, White cherry, grape, Matt’s wild cherry

I ran into a couple of neighbors at the well house while receiving a shipment of chlorine for our water treatment plant. They were checking to see if the dehumidifiers had dried out the well pit after the rain. They had.

We got to talking about the wet spring, polar vortex and the weather generally and predicted we’ll be going into drought next. None of us were kidding.

Other than that I spent the day in our yard and garden. I finished planting the fourth of seven plots and have about a third of number five in. As long as the weather holds I’ll keep after it. The soil is a combo of dry and muddy which is the best we can do this spring.

It’s been five days since I left the property with my car. Spiders made a web in the wheel well.

I planted these seeds in the fourth plot on June 3:

Hidatsa Red Beans, Seed Savers Exchange, 80-100 days.
Emerald Okra, Ferry — Morse, 58 days.
Clemson Spineless Okra, Ferry — Morse, 58 days.
Cilantro, Ferry — Morse, 45 days.
Extra Triple Curled Parsley, Ferry — Morse, 70-80 days.
Hercules Main Crop Carrots, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 65 days.

I’ve never grown okra before, so fingers crossed. For the plant to be productive, once it starts fruiting, pods are to be picked once they are three inches long. Gotta get from seed to plant before I worry too much about that. The two rows of beans are a lot. The main purpose is to increase soil nitrogen for next year… and of course we’ll eat or preserve them. It’s the first time planting red beans for drying and storage. I have seedlings of cilantro and parsley, so this patch is for later on, assuming they germinate. There are never enough carrots.

Monday breakfast of scrambled eggs and sauteed bok choy with spring garlic, topped with green onions (scallions).

I picked the first green onions and used them for breakfast. There is a lot going on outside.

I left some of the volunteer garlic in the ground so we can get scapes. If my garlic stock from last year lasts, I’ll plant them as seed later in the summer to supplement the volunteers.

I inspected the apple trees and they fruited nicely. Apples form clusters of five blossoms which get pollinated if we’re lucky. When the fruit forms and starts tipping up, and the calyx closes, you know there will be a fruit. When we get to this point it is the time to cull the extra or non-productive fruits so the ones left will get decently sized. Because this pollination persisted for so long, I believe nature took care of the culling for me and rejected later pollination because the fruits are nicely spaced on the lower branches. That would be your folk-apple theory.

I’ll have to check in with the chief apple officer at the orchard when I next see him. I hope that’s soon.


June 1 was a Garden Day

Experimental row tillage to minimize damage to soil structure.

It was finally a day to spend outside in the yard and garden.

I planted Kentucky Wonder Bush beans (Seed Savers Exchange, 65 days) and transferred beets, arugula, lettuce and parsley into a single row next to the summer squash planted the previous day.

The garden plots have not dried out as well as I’d like. The urgency to get things in the ground had me doing the best I could to dig the semi-muddy soil and move seedlings and plant seeds in garden rows.

I’m using a technique I call “row tillage,” in which I dig more narrow rows to plant. I turn the soil with a spade, break it up with a hoe and then break it down further with a garden rake. Because the soil was still muddy, it didn’t break down as easily as I hoped but it got the job done. Hopefully soil structure is less damaged than if I were to dig up and rototill the entire plot. Because I mulch, there is no concern about weeds by leaving part of the plot untilled. If I had a mechanical tiller, I’d use it in the narrow rows. I may get one as I age or if garden tool-wielding bothers my shoulders or back. The technique worked last year with tomatoes, so I plan to use it more this year.

Culled hot pepper seedlings.

Culling hot pepper plants to pick the best starts is important. This year I plan rows with six ancho and six guajillo chili peppers. Seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds germinated well so there are extras. The rest — cayenne, jalapeno, Bangkok, Serrano, Red Flame and Red Rocket — will be planted two of each in a big bed. Ancho and guajillo are an experiment in Mexican cuisine. I use jalapeno and Serrano fresh and dry the rest. If the seasons proceeds well there should be plenty of them all.

Harvest was more turnips, parsley, beet leaves, and lettuce. I’m ready to spend another day and the forecast is clear skies. After a bit of desk work, I’m ready to make June 2 a gardening day as well.

Cooking Garden

Thursday Between Storms

Onion Starts in Containers

The morning was brilliant. Not only the sun, but life all around us as I worked in the garden on what has become a rare sunny morning this season. The sky is now clouding up with scattered thunderstorms forecast this afternoon. We are in between storms.

I direct-planted Early Scarlet Globe Radishes from Ferry-Morse, 25 days. I also planted the last of the onion starts from the farm for scallions.

The ground is saturated. I took down the chicken-wire fence around the early spring plantings and water was evident near the surface — under the grass in the walkway around it. It felt squishy.

Footprint between turnips and carrots.

The plot urgently needed weeding. I obliged, filling my bushel basket with weeds several times. I harvested the last of the first radishes, turnips, arugula and four kinds of lettuce. Even with competition the original plantings are looking great: beets, turnips, sugar snap peas, lettuce, arugula and carrots. While ground moisture made it easier to weed, by walking on it I added to compression that already existed. The plants look robust but I’m not sure how the excess ground moisture will impact yield.

In the kitchen I’m planning some kind of turnip-arugula dish with dinner. A classic is shaved turnips with arugula tossed in a dressing of homemade cider vinegar, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper. I have plenty of turnips, but only two cups of arugula. (I had forgotten I planted arugula). The other option is to braise the turnips in butter then toss them with the arugula and maybe some other kind of cooking greens. Seems the dish would need garlic. Maybe I could make a dressing with the cooking remains, minced garlic and some cider vinegar. Or maybe I could toss the whole works with some of the lettuce harvested today. While there’s no certainty, there are possibilities. This is how a kitchen garden works.


I’m not giving up on the garden. I considered mud planting the celery then thought the better of it. The ground is just too wet. So I wait.

It is surprising how just a few hours in the garden finds work for idle hands, clearing the fog of storm-related stress away. I’m not sure when the weather pattern began but is has been weird since the beginning of January. I expect we are only seeing the beginning of the weirdness. That is no reason to stop living.

I planted reserved seedlings of Blue Wind broccoli where others had failed. The plot is under the locust tree and one corner of it may be a problem for anything to grow. We should get some broccoli, and if the slow-starting seedlings mature, it will be in progression. We love fresh broccoli.

I find myself referring to these garden posts frequently to review when something was planted. There is value in trying to remember what I did on Thursday morning. There is hope of a delicious dinner made partly by the work of my hands. That’s why I am a gardener.


Gardening in a Wet Spring

Western Sky at Sunrise – Sundog Farm

Whether or not we get a garden in this year the stakes are not high.

Much as I enjoy produce resulting from my labor, I could get along without it a for a year, or two, if I had to. We are part of a strong food ecology and unlikely to go hungry or want for fresh vegetables.

Eventually the ground will dry enough for planting and what has become a dozen trays of waiting seedlings will find a home. There have already been some successes: the kale looks great, radishes have been good, and the sugar snap peas will produce an abundance. I’ll do what I can, when I can, reflecting the position of most gardeners in my area.

The marker for end of spring is moving my vehicle back inside the garage. We are weeks away from that.

On Sunday I planted what will be the last tray of seedlings at the greenhouse. My work there wraps up at the end of June and already I am on every other week duties. Where did the first five months of 2019 go?

I planted,

Cilantro, Ferry — Morse, 45-75 days.
Imperial Broccoli, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 71 days.
Genovese Basil, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 68 days.

The Blue Wind broccoli planted earlier has been a disappointment with less than half of the seedlings planted now growing well. Blue Wind plays a role in larger operations as an early broccoli. We’ll see what it produces, but unless the heads are spectacular, it will be the last of this experiment. Late planting of Imperial will better serve our needs.

In other failures, tomatillos have done little. I may get one plant from the starts. Heirloom tomato starts were iffy, with a couple producing only one or two plants. Rosemary germinated, but growth hasn’t taken off. These failures combined with late, iffy planting take a toll. In the end it’s part of being a gardener.

I pulled apart last year’s tomato patch and mowed it flat. The plan is for cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant and sundry crops to go in there. The soil isn’t turned yet and won’t be until I get the previous plot planted.

While I’m struggling to get a garden in, larger scale conventional farmers are having a time of it. Spring rain has gone on so long some are debating whether to put in a crop at all. I posted a link to a story about the issue by Thomas Geyer in the Quad-City Times. My post made over 3,500 impressions on Twitter. Find the article here.

People who rely on their farms for a living have had a struggle of a spring. My friend Carmen at Sundog Farm wrote the following to her CSA members:

As I’m sure you’ve noticed there have not been very many windows of sunshine in between rainstorms over the past month and half, so we’ve been seizing every opportunity when its dry enough to get in the field to plant. Despite the limited opportunities and that planting sometime ends up looking more like wallowing in the mud, we’ve actually been pretty happy with our progress! We’ve also been grateful to have hoop houses where we’ve been producing most of the spring crops, and where we can plant even when it’s wet outside. We are a little behind in getting plants in the ground, but so far we are pretty close to where we want to be and hoping for the best!

Some seasons hoping for the best is what is possible.

Garden Local Food

Too Much Spring Rain

Seedlings Waiting for Dry Soil

On a glorious spring Monday I began spading the next garden plot. The soil was too wet to work so I stopped after four feet.

Excessive spring rain not only affects gardeners, farmers are feeling it too. Vegetable growers were either “mud-planting” or not planting at all. Less than half the anticipated corn crop was planted by May 12, according to Iowa Public Radio. It’s only the fifth time in the last 40 years that has happened.

I planted spring onions, Daikon radishes (KN-BRAVO, 49 days) and Rudolf round (24 days) and D’Avignon (21 days) radishes in three in-ground containers.

The apple blooms continue, although when the wind blows it is a snowstorm of petals creating drifts under the trees. This year has been one of the longer blooms I remember. There are so many blossoms it wouldn’t be bad if some of them didn’t pollinate, sparing me the chore of thinning the buds once they form. The good news is after the long growing season, there should be apples.

After my soil blocking shift Farmer Kate have me a guided tour of her farm. I took photos, which can be found on my Instagram account here. She farms about nine acres in large plots. A lot of it is planted and what isn’t remains in cover crops until its time. Although I’ve worked at Wild Woods Farm for a couple of years, this was the first time I saw the entire acreage.

I started a tray of seeds that didn’t germinate well at the greenhouse. Yellow squash and tomatillo seeds did not germinate at all at the greenhouse. The squash looked a bit funny when I planted them, so I’m trying again. I also used up the arugula seeds, and planted a few blocks of okra and pumpkin as an experiment. Like many things in gardening, we experiment and watch the results.

I’m ready for the second wave of planting as soon as the ground dries. Then it will be a mad dash to get everything in. Even though rain holds us back, the season’s not hardly begun so there’s hope of a bountiful year in the garden.


Cukes, Zukes and Yellow Squash

This Year’s Last Seedling Trays, Zucchini, Cucumbers and yellow squash.

When I returned from the farm Sunday afternoon I transplanted a dozen broccoli plants in the garden. Reserving a couple to replace failures, I gave the rest to my neighbor.

Continuing the minimal tilling experiment, I placed broccoli seedlings in a plot where cucumbers produced in abundance last year. I didn’t remove the plastic and used the same holes. The plot is shaded by the locust tree, so I’m not sure how this will turn out. Fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

At the greenhouse I seeded cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash, which is likely the last starts. Most everything else will be seeded directly in the ground in May.

I brought home a tray of lettuce and spinach for transplanting.

I seeded,


Northern Pickling, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 48 days.
Little Leaf, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 57 days.
Marketmore 76, Ferry – Morse, 68 days.
Tasty Jade, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 54 days.


Raven, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 48 days.
Elite, Ferry – Morse, 55 days.
Dark Green, Ferry – Morse, 55 days.

Yellow Squash

Dixie Hybrid, Ferry – Morse, 41 days.
Early Summer Crookneck, Ferry – Morse, 53 days.
Early Prolific Straightneck, Ferry – Morse, 50 days.

While inspecting the apple blossoms yesterday I spotted leaves growing from the stump where another apple tree was blown over in a straight line wind. I staked and put a cage around it to protect from being eaten by deer and from the mower. Not sure what’s next, but it was a very early apple and I may grow it to maturity if that is what it turns out to be.

The spring share for which I bartered at Local Harvest CSA begins today and runs for five weeks. I’m looking forward to a salad made with fresh, local lettuce and cooking greens for a pasta dish.

The next step in the gardening season is upon us.


Easter in the Germination Shed

First Spring Flower in Our Yard

Seven of us worked in the germination shed at Sundog Farm on Easter morning.

The farmers were preparing dinner for their extended family. I brought them two quarts of home made vegetable soup for lunch in case they hadn’t thought about it with all the meal preparations. It was well received.

My broccoli is ready to plant, however, I seeded it in a tray with parsley, which is not. I brought the tray home to figure out how to make both plants grow optimally. Marginal planning on my part.

The peppers planted two weeks ago have not germinated which is slightly concerning. Peppers take longer but I’d hoped the plants would be emerging today. Tomatoes planted last week haven’t germinated either. That is to be expected.

Everything else is coming along, and the peppers may be coming along, only I don’t know it.

I planted,

Red Ace Beets, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 50 days.
De Milpa Tomatillos, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 70 days.
Bellezia Arugula, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 51 days.
Fairy Tale Eggplant, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 65 days.
Galine Eggplant, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 65 days.

This is the first time planting beets in trays. It is a common practice so I’m giving it a go. There are now eight trays in the germination shed with the next up for planting being spinach and lettuce, maybe next week.

Arugula has tiny seeds. A gust of wind blew through the germination shed taking a batch of arugula seeds with it. Luckily there were more in the packet.

The other experiment this year is tomatillos. I had some from CSA shares last year and they keep in the ice box for a very long time. They are a great alternative to tomatoes for making salsa.

It was a clear, beautiful day, the kind farmers and gardeners want.


Kale Planting

2019 Kale Bed with 21 plants ready for mulch and fencing.

Temperatures were ideal for yard work so I prepared the bed for kale.

It is important to get kale right because once established, it will produce leaves until November. Sometimes it even over-winters. It is worth the time to measure and plant according to the package instructions.

I put 21 seedlings in the ground and reserved a dozen in case some don’t survive. A neighbor wants some, and after that, I’ll snip the leaves and make a kale salad or two with the leftovers.

My process has a lot of steps after picking up the seedlings at the greenhouse.

  • I run the lawn mower over the plot to remove any tall grass.
  • This year I did a burn pile on this plot so using a garden rake I spread the ashes evenly over the surface.
  • Turn over the soil in bites the size of the spade. Do this by hand. A long-handled spade works best.
  • Spread fertilizer (composted, granulated chicken manure) evenly over the top. For a 10 x 12-foot plot I used a gallon and a half.
  • Using the garden rake, break up the clods of dirt until they are fine enough to rake somewhat smoothly.
  • Make a slight trench with rows three feet apart. Use a yard stick or measuring tape.
  • Using a hand cultivator, break up the dirt in the trench six inches either side of center.
  • Using a plastering brick laying trowel, knife the blade into the ground and pull the soil back until the seedling will fit in. Put in the seedling, then fill the hole by hand with loose soil. Measure distance to the next hole in the role as length of the trowel plus the length of blade. Finish planting.
  • Next I use six inch sections of field tile to protect the seedlings. These will be removed once the stem grows larger. Press each tile section into the ground. The idea is to prevent ground crawling and walking pests from biting the tender young plants.
  • Use the garden rake to even our the surface and remove compressed areas where the gardener knelt during planting.
  • Using metal fence posts, pound them into the ground with a post-driver.
  • Put up chicken wire ensuring to get the bottom to firmly touch the ground. Be sure to leave a place for a gate so you can access the ripe kale.
  • If mulch is available, mulch deep and completely. Return later if mulch is not available.
  • Finally water the entire plot thoroughly.

Sounds a bit complicated, but the process has served well during the last few years.

It was a great day to be out in the garden.