Garden Writing

Clearing the Garden

First Brush Pile Fire of 2020 Gardening Season

It took five and a half hours to plant two apple trees on Saturday.

I need to move the support stakes as I put them too close to the trunk. Hopefully they will be easy to remove as they have been in the ground less than 24 hours.

I planted bare root trees that arrived Friday from Cummins Nursery, Ithaca, New York:

Zestar! on G.210 root stock.
Crimson Crisp (Co-op 39) on G.202 root stock.

Here’s hoping for apples in a couple of years.

I burned the first brush pile on the to be planted kale plot. It was a clean burn. After sunrise I will spade and till the plot. I also want to plant potatoes in containers and sow peas, beets, carrots, radishes and turnips. If there is time, transplant the first batch of spinach seedlings. There is a lot on the gardening agenda as spring has arrived.

How should I use the time after waking until sunrise, not just today, but going forward? I’m not sure. Other than to continue doing what I am, it is difficult to envision changes from routine as much as they may be needed. I’m too unsettled to contemplate change.

People say it is normal to experience anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Knowing I’m normal is not reassuring and has made for restless nights.

The remedy will be to get lost in the work of putting in the garden. If I work longer shifts, maybe I’ll be tired enough at day’s end to sleep through the night. I’m a little sore from yesterday’s work as my spring conditioning regime in the garden begins. Engagement in a project has worked to relieve tension in the past.

It doesn’t help that I’m reading Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s new book exploring why capitalism is proving fatal for the working class with an uptick in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans from what the authors call “deaths of despair.” There have been enough alcohol, opiod and suicide deaths in this group to reverse the 20th century trend of longer life expectancy. Other wealthy countries continue to see an increase in life expectancy in the new century. Americans do not. I’m looking forward to reading Case and Deaton’s analysis.

All this is not to say I find despair in daily life, I don’t. However, change is on the horizon. Unlike with the sunrise coming in an hour, it’s hard to know what to expect. I affirm today will be a gardener’s day with everything that means. That should be enough to move past the coronavirus engendered anxiety into something more meaningful.

I’m doing the best I can.


Rainy Spring Dream

Harvesting Spinach – 2013

The forecast was 100 percent chance of rain so I worked on the garden in the garage. I re-seeded dill and cilantro that didn’t germinate. I gave up on the shallots and onions which did not grow the way they should inside our home.

I planted new trays made from small shipping boxes lined with aluminum foil. The box of foil was printed with the date 1972. The improvised flats will serve. I planted:


Marketmore 76, Ferry-Morse, 68 days.
Tendergreen (a.k.a. burpless), Ferry-Morse, 55 days.
Lemon, Ferry-Morse, 65 days.
Little Leaf Pickling, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 57 days.
Tasty Jade, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 54 days.


Buttercrunch, Ferry Morse, 65-70 days


Matador, Ferry-Morse, 45 days.

There is a to-do list once the rain finishes and the ground dries out enough to till.

I text messaged the farm about Sunday’s seeding session and we called it off. The greenhouse is full. It’s too cold to put seedlings outside on wagons to harden. We texted back and forth for a while.

Text messages and phone calls are a part of farming that goes on regardless of the crop, almost every day. We stay semi-synchronized, although with a garden I’m very flexible.

My multi-colored Swiss chard didn’t germinate at all. The Fordhook chard didn’t germinate very well. If the seedlings that germinated survive transplant there will be enough chard from the garden for the kitchen. Celery takes the longest time to germinate and the report was it did. Things are looking good. There will plenty of green vegetables to transplant.

Yesterday they tilled and seeded carrots, peas, beets and spinach in the ground. I start my spinach and some beets in trays, but need to plant in the ground as soon as I can get in. Maybe over the next few days. After that, the next step is potatoes, then onions after the ground dries.

While working in the garage I began to dream.

I went on a reconnaissance mission to one of the training areas we used in Germany. I don’t recall where but I got to know Hohenfels, Baumholder, Fulda, Hofbieber, Dipperz and villages at the eastern entry point to the Fulda Gap.

My driver was Cheyenne and had just returned from leave where he attended a Sundance in Montana. I asked him if he ate peyote. He said he had. The driver was an E-1, the lowest enlisted rank. We had busted for getting into a fight and demoted him. He’d been our driver for almost a year. He was the best and the best we had. The peyote buttons remained between him and me. Our battalion commander didn’t want officers driving themselves, so he drove the M-151 quarter ton jeep.

Soon after I arrived in garrison the company motor pool sergeant who gave me a license to operate any piece of equipment in our unit. I’d had familiarization training at Fort Benning and qualified as a jeep driver at Fort Jackson, but the battalion commander was right, I didn’t know jack about fixing the jeep should it break down.

We drove up a ridge high above a valley whose name I can’t recall. It was a beautiful and calm place for reflection. I took notes and viewed the terrain through a pair of binoculars. We watched the clouds blow east up the ascent and over the ridge mid morning. As the valley cleared I finished the work we had come for and then drove back into a village to find lunch.

I don’t know why that experience came to me while planting cucumbers and lettuce. I’m thankful to have had it. It was a fitting dream while doing what I could to advance the garden.


Spring is Here

Greenhouse with first trays from the farm.

I planted the packets of Garlic Chive seeds near the front steps. I don’t know if they will grow, but I cleaned the space and thought it might work. If they do grow they will be used in the kitchen.

Garlic Chives, Ferry-Morse, 120 days.
Allium tuberosum, Burpee Seeds, 80-90 days.

I’m satisfied the portable greenhouse will meet my needs. There are some things to which I must adapt, such as internal temperature regulation and changing moisture levels. From working at the farm for eight years I’m familiar with those issues and don’t expect to have many failures. A strong wind could budge it from the buckets of sand that hold it down. For now, it’s holding its own.

The nursery emailed my two new apple trees are scheduled to arrive on Friday. I submitted a ticket for the One Call folks to mark the utilities. I was here when each utility line was laid so I already know where they are and have planned my planting accordingly.

A burn pile is started on the plot where I’ll plant kale. The kale seedlings are back from the farm and they will be ready to plant after a couple weeks in my greenhouse. Last year I planted 21 plants. This year it will be a smaller number divisible by three varieties, maybe 15 or 18. Unused seedlings will be save for extra, given to neighbors and the leaves cut for a traditional post-planting kale salad.

Cut seed potatoes rest in a tray in the garage. Oral history says let them season to the air for at least four days before planting. I have Kennebec and some variety of red potato. They are planned for the containers this year. I have to remember to give them plenty of water as last time the tubers were in dry soil when I dug them — smaller than expected.

There will be two production plots in the garden. By that I mean a variety of crops will go in them. The big crops are kale, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, cucumbers and broccoli. Each of them will have significant space of their own. Everything else must be in rows of as many plants needed for the kitchen.

The tomato space will be smaller by a third this year. Enough grew last year to keep us in canned tomatoes for another year. I don’t need as many so they will mostly be for eating fresh.

With warmer ambient temperatures I’m spending a little time outside each day. I’m beginning to have a vision of what the garden might be.

Garden Home Life

Planting During Green Up

Storm Brewing

Green up is all around and it’s time to get tomatoes and peppers planted.

Sunday, in a long session, I planted tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and eggplant — hopefully enough seedlings for our garden with leftovers to share with neighbors. I planted from seed:

Bell peppers:
Pepper Quadrato D Asti Rosso, Ferry-Morse, 95-110 days.
Garden Leader Monster Bell, Ferry-Morse, 75 days.

Hot Peppers
El Eden (Guajillo), Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 65 days green, 85 days red.
Baron (Ancho), Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 65 days green, 85 days red.
Red Rocket, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 55 days green, 75 days red.
Pastilla Bajo, Ferry-Morse, 80-90 days.
Serrano Chili, Ferry-Morse, 73 days.
Bangkok, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 75 days green, 95 days red.
Long Thin Cayenne, Ferry-Morse, 72 days.
Jalapeno Mild, Ferry-Morse, 72 days.

Slicers and Plums
German Pink, Seed Savers Exchange, 85 days.
Martha Washington, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 78 days.
Black Krim, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 80 days.
Amish Paste, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 85 days.
Speckled Roman, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 85 days.
Granadero, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 75 days.
Brandywine, Seed Savers Exchange, 80 days.
Abe Lincoln, Ferry-Morse, 70-77 days.
Big Rainbow, Ferry-Morse, 80-102 days.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Ferry-Morse, 80-95 days.
Box Car Willie, Ferry-Morse, 80 days.
Pruden’s Purple, Ferry-Morse, 67-85 days.
Big Red, Ferry-Morse, 85 days.
Mortgage Lifter, Ferry-Morse, 83-90 days.

Jelly Bean, Ferry-Morse, 70 days.
White Cherry, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 59 days.
Red Pearl, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 58 days.
Matt’s Wild Cherry, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 60 days.
Jasper, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 60 days.
Citrine, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 60 days.
Taxi, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 64 days.

Galine, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 65 days.
Early Long Purple, Ferry-Morse, 75 days.
Black Beauty, Ferry-Morse, 85 days.

Tomatillo Purple, Ferry-Morse, 75/85 days.

We had a wind storm last weekend and it shook the portable greenhouse so much the two trays on the top shelves fell to the ground. I was able to salvage much of what fell down. The three varieties of leeks will be difficult to distinguish when I plant them, because they went all over the place. Note to self: bring the trays inside during windstorms.

Garden Local Food

Onion Experiments

Onions planted in soil blocks.

Growing large storage onions has been challenging. I yearn to grow large onions and use them throughout the year.

Spring onions? No problem. Larger red, yellow or white, the kind we most use in the kitchen, have eluded me.

I’m determined this year will be different. Toward that end I’ve launched some experiments to see how I can do better.

Friday, Feb. 7, I planted Talon Yellow and Red Burgundy onions at home from seed. After six weeks the yellow germinated, the red did not. After chatting on line with another grower, they pointed out fresh onion seed is important. The Talon Yellow seeds were this year’s crop from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Red Burgundy were end of season discards at the home, farm and auto supply store. Lesson learned: get fresh onion seeds.

That same day I split my Matador shallot seeds with the farm. They are growing their half in the same environment as the rest of their onions, I started mine in a tray at home. Mine don’t look that healthy although they germinated. If the targeted planting time is mid-April, there is time for them to grow and hopefully survive transplant. I’m looking forward to comparing results.

I bought red, yellow and white onions starts from the home, farm and auto supply store. These are the same variety I bought every year since working there. I divided them roughly in half and planted some in soil blocks to give them a head start, and reserved the rest to plant in the ground as soon as it is tillable.

This year I ordered some onion plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They are to be shipped in a couple of weeks and then direct planted in the soil. The varieties are Ailsa Craig, Patterson and Redwing. While more expensive than seed at about 30 cents for each plant, I’m hoping to find something that works in trying it. I would much rather grow everything from seed yet I want other options as back up.

Finally, this morning, I planted six 3 x 3 containers with White Lisbon Bunching Onions from Ferry-Morse (60-110 days). I mixed both pelleted and non-pelleted seeds and broadcast them in the pots. If they germinate and grow, I’ll transplant the entire pots as groups of spring onions. It is a month behind where they should have been started, so we’ll see what happens.

The last part of my experiment is twofold. I am researching types of soil nutrients which support onion growth. My normal process is to hand till composted chicken manure into the soil before planting. If the several garden books in my library suggest another approach, I may try it as long as it is not a commercial, chemical fertilizer. This year I bought a small tiller which will break up the soil more thoroughly than handwork.

I am also planning a disciplined approach to watering and weeding the crop once it is in the ground. Because of our climate, I plan to mulch the crop to retain moisture in the soil. Weeding and regular watering has proven to be challenging, partly because weeding gets away from me and partly because my approach to watering is sparing. With a framework of “experimentation” perhaps I can do better.

I know growing storage onions is possible as I get them from the farms each year. With effort, maybe I can grow my own.


Spring Song

Spring on Lake Macbride

The surface of the ground crunched as I walked the compost bucket out to the bin. The ground was frozen.

Grass has been greening up with the recent rain and ambient temperatures above 70 degrees. The frosty morning wasn’t a permanent setback as green grass was visible through the glaze of frozen rain.

Farmers have produced first batches of maple syrup, so it’s undeniable spring is close by. This in-between time on the margin of winter is unsettling. I want to get going on the garden… but not yet.

The sound of bird songs returned. Voices of children playing outdoors are evident. The trickle of water in the downspout informs us of the spring melt, that despite crunching under my boots it won’t be long.

This is my spring song.


Garden Notes — June 20, 2019

Open air composter

An innovation I discovered at a political event was an open air composter made from shipping pallets.

At Jean and Jix Lloyd-Jones home they had a composter similar to what’s in the image outside their kitchen door leading to the yard.

During the last few years I secured some pallets and made one. It works great for all the greenery I harvest and weed from the yard and garden. It was time to use the compost in the bin so I re-built the device on a different spot, replacing the pallets that were being composted from exposure to the ground. While portable, it’s a permanent fixture in the garden.

This year some garden experiments are worth noting.

For the first time my arugula is producing well. What got me going is starting the tiny seeds in soil blocks then transplanting the seedlings to a garden row. In the past I broadcast them and picked the leaves from a mess of weeds that joined them. The taste of fresh arugula is something distinct and I’m thankful to have figured out how to grow it.

As readers may recall we missed the March 2 planting date for Belgian lettuce and punted. The idea is to make an early patch of lettuce from which leaves could be harvested. I got the seeds as remainders of last season at the home, farm and auto supply store. Because of delayed planting the starts from the greenhouse produced better results while the sown seeds got lumped together rendering the patch difficult to manage. The lettuce process requires further refinement and will begin with more careful selection of varieties from a seed catalogue. I will likely plant Belgian lettuce again since that’s a tradition passed down from Grandmother, but with more reliance on conventional process using the greenhouse.

I added Hakurei turnips to my standard purple top white globes. They produced early, in abundance. They make a great snack or sliced thin and mixed with arugula, a delicious salad. Multiple varieties of turnip proved to be a good thing.

I changed how I used buried containers this year. I planted successions of radishes and used one for daikon radishes which continue to mature. When the radishes were done in one container, I planted basil seedlings. I also planted onions starts in succession for green onions. The production has been better than the potatoes of past years (which were the reason for getting the containers). If I want potatoes I will acquire them from a farmer friend through one of my barter arrangements.

I broadcast okra seeds in a two by three-foot section and they successfully germinated. The first thinning is done and another will be needed once the best plants self-identify. I put them along a fence, but am a little concerned with that decision because deer love okra. We’ll see how it goes. The germination was remarkable.

A main learning is to allow more space between garden rows, but gardeners likely know that. There will be more lessons as the season progresses.

Cooking Local Food

Spring Cooking Day

First Harvest of Blue Wind Broccoli

The rush to use ingredients is upon us and the garden isn’t even fully planted.

After watering I made the rounds of six garden plots and harvested radishes, turnips, spring onions, lettuce, broccoli and kale… lots of kale.

I had planned to take a big box of kale to a political event in Cedar Rapids yet forgot it on the folding table in the garage. Upon my return home I bagged it for delivery to library shift workers later today. For now, there is always a home for kale. It looks really good before the bugs and worms start to eat it.

Blue Wind broccoli is an early variety that requires close monitoring to pick it at its peak. Reserving some florets to be added to salads, I steamed it as a side dish for dinner. In fact a lot of kitchen work happened yesterday.

The first thing I did after waking was make pesto with fresh basil. It was the beginning of a day of cookery.

For breakfast I made a casserole using leftover brown rice and fresh spinach. While the casserole was baking I filled the Dutch oven with carrots, celery leaves, onions and turnip greens to make what has become a traditional spring vegetable broth. For dinner I heated a veggie burger and served it with the broccoli and kale.

My go-to kale recipe is simple. I de-stemmed and tore seven or eight kale leaves into 2 x 2 inch pieces in a stainless steel bowl. I heated a wok and added a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. I diced half a large onion and sauteed until translucent. I added five cloves of roughly chopped garlic and a quarter cup of pine nuts, cooking until the vegetables were tender and the aroma of garlic rose from the wok. Handful by handful I added the kale while stirring constantly. Once it was all in the wok I added vegetable broth to help cook the kale down. Once the liquid evaporated, I seasoned with salt and pepper to make two servings.

Perhaps the best meal of the day was lunch for which I toasted a slice of bread and spread pesto on it, serving with a cup of cottage cheese — simple pleasures in a time of abundance. We have to pace ourselves to see that as little as possible goes to waste.

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.