Living in Society


Wildflowers on the Lake Macbride State Park trail, May 26, 2021.

Fourteen months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it was time to get the newer car serviced. For the most part, the 2002 Subaru sat in the garage or driveway during the pandemic. Wednesday I drove it to town, dropped it at the shop, and walked home along the Lake Macbride State Park trail. It was a near perfect day for a long walk, with clear skies and ambient temperatures in the mid 70s.

Rain is today’s forecast, as it has been for the last two weeks. We haven’t gotten much rain, only enough to retard gardening progress. It looks like drought will be more Iowa’s problem this growing season, although there has been enough moisture here.

In an effort to stop taking a post-operative opioid pain killer, I skipped a dose yesterday afternoon. I’ll likely skip another dose at 11 a.m. today and if the pain is subsiding, switch back to Ibuprofen (or nothing) before bedtime. It was useful to have access to a strong pain killer.

I’ve been mostly out of the garden since I put the tomatoes in and need to finish up initial planting with Guajillo chilies, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, cantaloupes, and acorn squash in plot seven. I also need to weed… a lot.

I’ve been reading Mark Bittman’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal. It presents a broad history of food in society, focusing on the detrimental aspects of agriculture. I’m reading the chapter on branding — the rise of Chiquita, Campbell’s, Heinz, Kraft and others. In my autobiography there is a section about the rise of grocery stores and branded prepared foods, so Bittman provides a great background for that work just when I need it. The current average rating on Goodreads is 3.88 which seems about right. I can’t say there is much new to me in the book yet he does part of my research for me.

At 9 a.m. this morning there is a 100% chance of rain, according to my weather application. As soon as the sun rises at 5:36 a.m., I plan to grab my spade and turn over as much of plot seven as I can before it starts. After being waylaid for a week, I’m ready to get back to the garden.

Kitchen Garden


Water bath canning.

The first batch of vegetable broth is canned and stored. I am well on the way to meeting a 24 quart budget.

Two different batches went into this water bath canning session. The colors were different because of different greens used. I thought of marking them in vintages as is done with wine, yet that may be a step too far. It’s only broth.

My garden is producing enough leafy green vegetables that the challenge will be using them up. I’m ready to go on my own after the last farm share on Monday. I appreciate the spring CSA share as a bridge between winter and my garden becoming established. Their high tunnels make it possible. I could likely do without it but that would mean changing behavior of nine years — it would be too much coming out of the pandemic.

I strained my shoulder and was waylaid for a couple of days. Luckily it rained so I didn’t feel I was losing garden productivity. I treated with rest and Ibuprofen and the injury does not seem permanent. Can’t say it’s as good as new, because at age 69, who would believe it?

Since the World Health Organization declared the global pandemic on March 11 last year I gained three pounds. I feel healthier than I have in years, although am cognizant of age’s fragility which produces strains and minor aches and pains. I’m doing okay and hesitate to add the dreaded phrase, “for my age.”

Friday afternoon I made black tea with lemon balm. It was surprisingly refreshing. I buy the cheapest bagged tea leaves at the grocer and they make the best iced tea. I use the ones without strings. The lemon balm came with the farm share and I added it to three tea bags in our Brown Betty before pouring the water. It made a scant two quarts.

With nine days left until Memorial Day, finishing initial garden planting is within reach. I started some winter squash in trays yesterday and the rest of what I start indoors from seed will be for succession planting. I’m already on the third round of lettuce and spinach, second of broccoli and cauliflower. With the isolation created by the coronavirus pandemic, it is expected to be a great gardening year.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Garden Gallery

Oak trees in the vanishing point.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Shift

Stump from a Bur Oak tree damaged by the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho.

Weather is shifting enough to start planting warm weather crops. This passage from the farm’s weekly newsletter explains:

We were full steam ahead last week trying to get all of our cooler season crops like broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, fennel, and herbs planted before the long-awaited rain we got over the weekend. We always wait until at least May 15th to plant warm season crops that can’t handle colder temperatures or frosts, so it’s important to us to stay on top of planting all the cool season crops and field preparation ahead of that date. That way when May 15th rolls around we can really focus on planting the huge number of plants that suddenly need to go in the ground to give them the longest season possible as well as getting them established before it gets too hot.

Carmen Black, Local Harvest CSA, May 10, 2021.

My small greenhouse is packed with plants and the weather forecast looks like Wednesday is the last reasonable chance of frost. I ordered some weed suppression fabric from my Maine-based supplier, spaded plot #6 for tomatoes, and made sure everything in the greenhouse was watered and ready to go into the ground. There is a lot to do and the next three weeks will be pretty intense.

The challenge will be determining where to put everything. I have a general idea, and the plots with single crops (onions, garlic, tomatoes) are easy. Fitting all the squash, cucumbers and zucchini into spots where they can spread is a tough decision. I sat on my stump considering this more than a few time over the last month.

One of three Bur Oak trees I planted as acorns blew askew during the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho. It had to be taken out and I did. Rather than cut the stump to ground level I left it tall so I could sit on it when I need a rest. I use it more than anticipated, although more as a thinking place. It has been a nice addition to the garden.

The garden tasks ahead are clear. In between a debrief from the recent Climate Reality Project virtual training this morning, and the special convention in the county seat to nominate a candidate for supervisor tonight, I hope to accomplish a lot. I wish the rest of my life were that clear.

Now that the weather shifted it’s go time.

Kitchen Garden

Planting Annuals

Garden Plot #5, ready to plant.

Ambient temperature reached 38 degrees overnight, indicating we are not out of the frost zone yet. In Marion, just north of us, it hit 33 degrees. Despite this reality, the following appeared in the Saturday newspaper:

Mother’s Day has a twofold purpose in this part of Iowa. It’s a time to honor moms and it is time to plant your annuals as the fear of a late frost is over. I think.

At least it looks like this May is going to be sunny and warm without any dips to freezing.

So if you haven’t already, it is time to scope out the garden centers, find what you want, and a few more you couldn’t resist, and enjoy planting.

Judy Terry, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 8, 2021.

Gardening as consumerism? Blech!

I buy plenty of supplies for the garden. However, I haven’t been in a garden center since I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store. My work was to receive merchandise and set up display areas, not to shop. Things I need from a garden center makes a very short list.

People have to get their seedlings somewhere, so I don’t begrudge folks who frequent garden centers. I encourage people to plant something, even if in a container on a patio. I also understand newspapers appeal to a certain type of resident. The paper dipped below 10,000 subscribers and had to begin once a week free distribution to meet advertising contracts. They may need articles like Ms. Terry’s to prop up sagging circulation. I’m okay with that, too. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

My little greenhouse remains full despite planting yesterday. Into the garden went Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, spinach, tomatillos and okra. I planted the okra and tomatillos in drainage tile so they will be protected or easily covered if it does freeze. Everything else should withstand the cold.

My garden fencing is a mess driven by trying to recycle previous years’ mesh. I’m committed to reorganizing it because I need two rolls of the welded wire fencing for the tomatoes and a third, which is heavy duty, to make more tomato cages. That is a big project by itself.

For now, though, we wait for danger of last frost to pass.

Kitchen Garden

Discarding Recipes

Blue Spruce tree, April 27, 2021.

As we enter the spring harvest season the food we prepare in the kitchen gets different. There is an improvised quality to everything because in turning away from the pantry, ice box and freezer, fresh ingredients are incorporated into most every meal. It creates variation and deliciousness.

Our dinner stir fry included Bok Choy, cutting celery and spring garlic. This morning’s breakfast was a pan casserole using leftover rice, Kogi and Broccoli Raab. All of these vegetables were from our spring share at the farm. I take advantage of their high tunnels for early greens.

On my daily garden walkabout I checked under the row cover and everything’s doing well. In fact, it is some of the best-looking lettuce I remember growing. I need to learn to grow better lettuce and after a couple of days, it looks promising for this year.

I cut back the dead leaves from the recent frost on broccoli, kale and collards yesterday. They all are regenerating and ultimately survived the frost. I added mustard greens to the row and will wait until after last frost to add chard plants. looks like there will be no shortage of kitchen greens.

The frost killed most of a row of yellow onions so I replanted. This morning the new starts look well. Onions are such an important part of our cuisine, they warrant careful attention.

Celery, leeks, and a patch of spring onions survived transplant and I need to mulch. The lawn is at a point to mow: the first clippings will mulch the celery. There are never enough grass clippings.

Like last night’s stir fry the recipe book is out the window as we live in each moment. I’ve been cooking enough to know what to do, which ingredients to leverage in our cuisine. An anthropologist might be able to describe what I do better. I don’t feel any urge to do much that doesn’t come naturally and based on long learning. Don’t need recipes for that.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Burn Pile

Spring burn pile April 22, 2021.

Thermal energy came from the pile of white ashes on this year’s tomato patch. It warmed my hands. The embers will exhaust their fuel soon and I’ll spread them on the ground after they cool. Tomatoes will be the last to be planted in a few weeks.

The burn pile was mostly branches from the felled oak tree. Yesterday I cleared three garden plots for spading, tilling, and then planting: more steps on the path to a productive garden.

It looks like Tuesday night’s hard frost killed most of the beets and damaged broccoli, kale and collards. I have plenty of seeds and seedlings for replanting. First we’ll see if the bigger plants recover before yanking them out.

The Washington Post published an article about transportation and the shift to electric vehicles. It gave reasonable consideration to the operating costs of such vehicles, and the trade offs between operating a gasoline powered vehicle and going electric. I found if the car gets parked most of the time, very little gasoline is burned.

Thus far in 2021, I spent $36 on gasoline; in all of 2020, $492; and in 2019, $930. The coronavirus pandemic curtailed our driving and reduced how much gasoline we purchased. Unless one of us returns to working a job, the gasoline we burn for transportation should be minimal.

All the same, the news in the Post article about the inefficiency of internal combustion engines was eye-opening.

Most internal combustion engine cars are so inefficient that the vast majority of energy produced by burning gas gets lost as heat or wasted overcoming friction from the air and road. In other words, instead of filling my car’s 16.6-gallon tank, I might as well put 14 gallons of that gas in an oil drum, light it on fire and watch the smoke drift upward.

Washington Post, March 30, 2021.

When you put it that way, of course we’ll look at buying an electric car. We need to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as we can.

When I burn brush on a garden plot I’m releasing carbon into the atmosphere, along with returning minerals to the soil. However, what I’m doing is already part of the carbon cycle and therefore a renewable process. University of Iowa chemistry professor Betsy Stone explained it to me:

“It’s considered to be a renewable fuel because we have that carbon cycle going on,” Stone said. “With fossil fuels, we’re releasing fossilized carbon. It goes into the atmosphere and takes millions of years to get back to fossilized form again.”

Paul Deaton, Iowa City Press Citizen, Oct. 7, 2015.

I cut the stump of the oak tree tall so I could sit on it while contemplating the garden or needing a rest. Yesterday, while figuring out where to plant things it occurred to me burning brush was a good thing. I also thought we should probably get an electric vehicle.

While the first burn is done, I’ll be sitting on that stump coming up with ideas more often. Some of them will make their way into doing things.

Kitchen Garden

Editor’s Desk #8

First kale harvest, April 11, 2021.

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

This year’s garden work is just beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Society

With People Again

Sundog Farm on March 28, 2021.

Sunday was my first shift of soil blocking at Sundog Farm this spring. Besides shopping, medical appointments, and trips to government offices, it was the first time out since being restricted by the coronavirus pandemic a year ago. There were people (wearing masks) and animals (who weren’t)… and four dogs!

To see a short video of farm life on Sunday, click here.

It was partly cloudy with intermittent snow flurries. We worked outside with me making 35 soil block trays (4,200 seedling blocks) and a varying seeding crew of four or five, socially distanced across the concrete pad, planting broccoli, kale, mustard greens and other early vegetables. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, I worked mostly alone in the greenhouse. Sunday felt a bit more normal. The farmer and I negotiated our barter agreement and will continue discussions next weekend.

While it was relatively easy for me to get the COVID-19 vaccine, it has been a struggle for the farm workers who are mostly 20-somethings. I’ve had two doses and they had one. Both the state and federal government could do more to get rural Iowa vaccinated.

It’s good to be back to work, though. Here is a photo of my first tray of soil blocks for the season.

Tray of 120 soil blocks. March 28, 2021.

Spring in Louisville

Spring flowers pushing up

Editor’s note: This was gleaned from a March 20, 2009 post on my Facebook page. My work in transportation and logistics exposed me to the deepening relationship between Chinese manufacturers and American markets during the 1990s. It was in Louisville I attended some Elite Eight basketball tournament games while attending the truck show. I also attended concerts arranged by show management with Alabama, Kenny Chesney and Reba McIntire. While geared more toward independent contractors and small companies, I was able to meet with staff from our company’s major suppliers.

During our descent, I saw the white flowering dogwood spread over the city. Grass was green and skies clear, a great day for flying and learning about the culture of trade shows. Our host sent his concierge to pick us up at the airport and deliver us to the Mid-America Truck Show.

This trade show is a chance for manufacturers, insurance companies, massage therapists, truck stops, software companies, advertising outlets and everyone who seeks the dollars found in trucking to show up. Back in the 1990s, we bought a copy of the attendees list, and discovered that the vast majority of attendees come from within a 250 mile radius to the show. It is a big event, and local in focus.

Some folks plan to buy their new truck here. Hawkers demonstrate how to reduce knee and back pain. Recruiters hope to take a driver application. Truck stop operators hope to meet up with clients. There are too many booths to take it all in.

What I did notice was a number of booths set up by Chinese companies. In one, I found Buzz, a ten-year acquaintance, introducing the Chinese manufacturers to his American contacts. In others, five or six Chinese sat in small circles in the booth in front of their wheels or oil seals, looking like they were isolated from this sea of truckers, tattoos, and facial hair. That they were here is a sign of the times, and if their behavior seemed odd this time, I am confident that they will learn how to work this crowd. One of my traveling companions said that he was surprised to see the Chinese here, instead of working the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) crowd: that is where their best impact could be made.

The Louisville Truck show is our industry writ large. It was okay to see it yesterday, for what may be my last time. Louisville in Spring is, for me, more about the dogwood.