The gutters overflowed with water in a recent rain storm. During the following heat and humidity I climbed the ladder to have a look. Sure enough both sides were plugged with leaves and maple tree seeds. It took less than a minute per side to clean them.
While up there I inspected the roof. The south peak is showing wear, as it is windward. The roof will be good for a while longer. It was the only planned ascension this year.
I go indoors when the heat index is in the 90s. Ten or more years ago it didn’t bother me to work hour after hour in heat and humidity. With a cooler of water bottles on ice, I had everything needed to work straight through. The record drought in 2012 raised my awareness. I began needing a break from the heat about every hour or I would get dizzy. Now I don’t push it. If the forecast is in the high eighties and it’s humid I find indoors work to do.
It’s not like the lawn needs mowing. While the two recent rains greened things a bit, most of the grass remains dormant. I don’t like mowing when it is in this condition. The number of yard and garden tasks is backlogging into a real project. There is no reason it can’t wait until the ambient temperature is cooler.
Perhaps the worst thing about drought-like conditions, combined with a resurgence of the coronavirus, is the isolation. I have intense desire to be with people. Like with the heat and humidity, I’m taking no chances and staying home.
There will be a fall, I’m certain. It will get cooler. I will work in the yard again. In the second year of the pandemic I yearn to do things with people. I’ll be ready when inhospitable conditions abate.
We knew fall was arriving last week when someone published the school bus pickup and delivery times on our community Facebook page. K-12 schools start tomorrow in our district.
The Iowa legislature and governor expressed an interest in dictating how schools would approach the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. They issued a written dictum through the Iowa Department of Public Health. Click here to see it. My main takeaway is that everyone should wear a mask and get vaccinated if they can, although neither can be mandated by the local school board. IDPH has adjusted COVID-19 surveillance to follow the influenza model, focusing on outbreaks and vulnerable populations.
We’re ready for fall with four home test kits for COVID-19 resting on the stairs for potential use. We restricted activities outside home during the return of students at a nearby university and the surge in hospital admissions for COVID-19. If there’s one thing we learned during the pandemic it is isolating from others is a good way to prevent respiratory disease, including COVID-19.
Political campaigning takes a holiday during summer. With Iowa Democrats seeking to regain some of the ground lost in 2020, activity is percolating to our attention. There is a U.S. Senate primary coming, with four announced candidates. There is one for governor with two. Yet most political activity remains unseen as summer ends.
As of this writing, our congressional district has neither been adjusted after the U.S. Census, nor identified any candidate for congress. The Iowa Legislative Services Agency is working on a redistricting map after last week’s arrival of U.S. Census data, and a candidate for congress or two make preparations to announce their campaigns for the June 2022 Democratic primary election. There is plenty of time to engage in campaigns. Most voters are loathe to do it and the recent trend is to wait until the last possible moment to evaluate candidates and cast a vote.
The garden reached the high water mark and the rest of the season is finishing tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers; taking greens as needed in the kitchen; and working toward a couple more crops of lettuce. The season will end with Brussels sprouts and Red Delicious apples in late September or October.
The calendar says autumn begins on Sept. 22 yet we’ve already begun to make the turn. I’m thinking about where to plant garlic, how to deal with apples still on the trees, and how to engage in politics this cycle. Comme d’habitude, I’m taking some time for myself until the Labor Day weekend. It looks to be a busy fall.
Between showers I hope to accomplish some gardening tasks yet most of the day will be spent indoors: in the kitchen, garage, and at my work desk. There’s always something to do.
The Washington Post reported the White House is preparing for a fall resurgence of the coronavirus. My analysis: we couldn’t wear masks in public for 3 months so now we will have to wear them for a couple of years until a cure is identified and implemented.
The president held a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday with 6,200 attendees. Some number of those were paid actors, campaign and White House staff, plainclothes security and the like. By the way, who pays people to attend a political rally?
In pages of commentary, few pointed out that people getting together for a big political rally during a pandemic would not be supported by those with common sense. The lower than expected turnout is evidence people continue to protect themselves first. Tomorrow he is holding another rally in Arizona where the number of diagnosed cases of COVID-19 spiked over the weekend. I don’t know much about who is running his campaign but these pandemic rallies can only reflect poorly on the president and raise the question, why is he holding them? There is no good answer.
I’m anxious to move on from writing about the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic affected almost every part of my life and frames what I do going forward. All the same, the circle of people with whom I have contact is small. It includes my spouse, the farmer where I worked this spring, and neighbors I encounter at home and while trail walking. I tested negative for COVID-19 on June 16, but if I were positive it would be pretty easy to trace my contacts because they are so few. I don’t like the lack of broader contact with people.
Yesterday at the farm, Carmen came to the greenhouse and took a chair for a conversation while I worked. In the time before the coronavirus there would have been a seeding crew working alongside me. The greenhouse used to be a bustling place. With the pandemic it’s been just me with a couple of check ins from Carmen during my shift. The work gets done yet I yearn for the conversations with a variety of workers. We discussed a long list of farm and garden topics during my last shift of the season.
I spent one day in the field this year. My special project was learning to better grow peppers. Part of that was planting pepper seedlings with Carmen’s sister. The rest of the crew worked the same field and maintained social distancing while Maja and I worked and talked. It was a highlight of the spring.
The sound of rainwater falling in the drainpipe started. Maybe I won’t get out to the garden to check on broccoli, trim the tomatillo plants, and pick some greens. We’ll see how the day unfolds. Living in the actuality of it may be the best I can do on this stormy day.
In a couple of hours I’m heading to the farm for the last shift of soil blocking this year. After that the rest of the year is a blank slate.
I’ll be writing something on it, to be sure.
Yesterday was a quiet day in Big Grove Township. After working the garden, processing the harvest, exercising, and cooking dinner, I figured out how much of my pension would be left when the next check comes and donated to Democratic candidates Joe Biden, Theresa Greenfield and Rita Hart. A person’s gotta do something.
Some of the local grocery stores are recalling bagged lettuce because of contamination by the parasite Cyclospora. I’m picking up lettuce at the farm today, enough to hold us over until the next wave is ready in the garden. The crew takes appropriate precautions to ensure our food is safe, so I have little worry about what we eat when it comes from the farm.
2020 has been a hella way to transition. The coronavirus pandemic pushed me into retirement. With a pension that pays basic bills, I can test pilot a financial structure in which I no longer trade labor for dollars. It’s like universal basic income, only just for us in the disorganized mess U.S. society currently seems to be. For the longest time I directed my life to this place. I did not expect to make it here.
I think I forgot to take my prescription medicine before sleeping last night but feel okay this morning. Feeling good is an existential threat. It causes us to take risks we may otherwise not have taken. There is a four-day spike of COVID-19 cases in our county. Initial analysis by elected officials is most of the cases are young adults. In other words, people who live as if there is no tomorrow and they are invincible. They feel good now and cast aside recommendations by our public health staff (if they are even aware of them). I prefer to have a list of conditions which moderate my risk taking. I need to do something to remember to take my pill before going to bed.
Humans have no choice but to move forward. We cherish nostalgia yet it’s not enough to sustain us. We enjoy stories yet there is a difference between a narrative and what really happens. I believe it is possible to understand reality. When I suggested on social media I might view The Matrix, a friend posted a reply, “Jeezus, take the red pill already.” That’s fine, I think I did, but can’t remember. Instead of taking it again I’ll initiate the next step forward.
This year has been an amazing year for garden tomatoes.
21 varieties with a total of 47 plantings produced beyond expectations and our household’s ability to use them. There are so many I took two crates to the orchard for folks to can, freeze, eat and share. I took flats of them to meet ups and shared them with neighbors and friends via Facebook.
Here are some tomato notes for fans.
As we reach peak tomato season neighbors complain about deer. This comment from a friend in our township is typical,
How do you keep the deer away. They graze on ours. They take a bite, decide they don’t like it and drop it on the ground. Then onto the next tomato. Bite, pick, yuk, drop, and repeat until no tomatoes are left.
My symbiotic relationship with deer includes a custom designed deer fence using common materials. I install a 4-foot chicken wire enclosure mounted on posts so the top of the wire is 5 feet from the ground. I plant the rows 36 inches apart — close enough for me to get in, and close enough together to discourage deer from jumping five feet high to get in. I leave enough space so I can move between the fence and the tomatoes. This is my second or third year of using the method and it works keeping the deer from ripe tomatoes, leaving more for humans.
There are so many varieties of tomatoes! I listed seeds planted in this earlier post. The selection process was intended to produce plenty in three categories: cherry, slicers and canning tomatoes. I had plenty of seedlings from the greenhouse, allowing selection of the best starts. If three trays of 120 blocks seemed like a lot at the time, it produced what was needed for the beds.
For the second year I dug 3-foot trenches for tomato planting instead of digging and breaking up entire plots. I conditioned the soil with composted chicken manure and finished with a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth. The latter was intended to retard progress of tomato-loving insects.
When there wasn’t rain, I watered with a garden hose daily, mostly in the morning. Half a dozen plantings on the north side of the plot developed blossom end rot. I suspect the problem was a mineral deficiency in the soil rather than inconsistent moisture. I had enough grass clippings to mulch the tomatoes to prevent weeds and retain excess moisture.
Stars of the show
Tomatoes with the best results and great flavor included,
Cherries: Clementine, Grape, Matt’s Wild, Jasper, Taxi and White Cherry. The sweetest were White Cherry, Jasper and Matt’s Wild.
Canning: Granadero produced many perfectly shaped, flavorful plum tomatoes. Amish Paste was also a strong performer. Speckled Roma was the most flavorful in this category. Other varieties of small, round tomatoes filled out the crop for canning needs.
Slicers: German Pink and Martha Washington produced the best large slicers. Black Krim was unique with its dark color and tasty flesh. The Abe Lincoln plants produced consistent small round tomatoes which I used to dice for tacos and for canning.
Eating and cooking fresh: What else is there to say but tomatoes on or in everything!
Sauce: With so many tomatoes in the house they had to be culled every couple of days for bad spots. These were trimmed and cut into large chunks to simmer until the flesh was soft and skin loosened. Next I put the whole lot into a funnel strainer and drained out tomato water. The garden produced a lot of this by-product so after canning 24 quarts of tomato water to use mostly in soups and for cooking rice, I discarded the rest. Once the water drained out, I used the wooden mallet to press out tomato sauce which I froze in one quart zip top bags to use later for pasta sauce and chili.
Diced tomatoes: I canned enough pint and quart jars of diced tomatoes to get us through the next year. I rotate stock so oldest ones are used first and still have a couple of jars from 2016 and 2017 to use first. Diced tomatoes include the skin for its nutrients.
Whole tomatoes: This year I took the skin off small round and plum tomatoes and canned them whole. There are about 24 quarts and 24 pints to last a year or more.
The 2019 garden was an unmitigated success in the tomato category. It is a feature of late summer in our household.
I had planned gumbo for a few weeks. Yesterday was the day.
Gumbo is a natural dish for our kitchen in late summer. There are plenty of onions, celery stalks, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and okra available from the garden. It is an easy dish to prepare after learning how to make a roux. Ingredient availability was not the issue.
I bought veggie sausages from the local food coop, harvested enough tender okra pods, and opened the hand-written recipe book to the page. I was ready.
I couldn’t, then sliced the okra, put it in a zip-top bag and tucked it in the freezer along with too many other bags of okra already there.
Not sure why I couldn’t, I recalled T.S. Eliot who put it thusly in “The Hollow Men:”
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
During a month of reminders about end of life, my retort, “it’s not that damn long.”
My work cycle begins again this afternoon with a shift at the orchard for family night. After taking off work there, and at the home, farm and auto supply store, for a week, I’m ready to be among co-workers and guests again.
One hopes I will make gumbo before the end of summer vegetables. Maybe not yesterday, but it’s the best time of year for it. It would be a shame to waste our brief time among the living without it.
I want to write a nice summary of this year’s garden including successes, failures and lessons learned.
Instead of crafting something usable, I visited two of the farms where I work.
Knowledge lives within us more than in written words. Life doesn’t always proceed in a linear manner despite predictable changes in season.
Yesterday was about dealing with the abundance of Red Delicious apples ripening on the tree. I plan to give excess — about 350 pounds — to my friend Carmen for the winter share in her CSA.
At the orchard we did a taste test: the apples were too starchy. Then to Sundog Farm where we discussed how much for each share and a process for delivery once they ripen. I think we are set.
Over the years I’ve been able to develop a network of master gardeners, farmers and growers to provide feedback on what happens in our garden. I am a better gardener because of this work. I’ve come a long way since getting started with the process in 2013.
Two things added a unique layer to summer gardening: my spouse’s five-week trip to her sister’s home in July, and the 26-day interim between Mother’s death Aug. 15 and her funeral Monday. Both were unexpected and made a unique mental frame for what was already a weird gardening season.
While Carmen and I walked about her farm she showed off her lettuce patch in a high tunnel, and the abundance of tomatoes a crew was harvesting. We had a conversation about diversification. This year was a big tomato year for both of us, although that’s not been the case for everyone. We planted many varieties of tomatoes and while she has members to take the excess, my canning, freezing and eating has physical limits which will soon be reached.
I moved the cherry tomatoes to their own patch this year and it’s a better idea. They are all good, but my favorites were Jasper, Matt’s Wild Cherry and white cherry. I planted two rows of four plants and next year I will only plant one row to make it easier to harvest.
Among my trials this year were okra (easy to grow and a little goes a long way in our kitchen), Guajillo chilies (if they ripen well I’ll get a crop for making pepper sauce for tacos), Poblano chilies (did not produce much), red beans (I mistook pole beans for bush beans so they had trouble), and planting beets in flats before transplanting them to the ground (produced much better beets than sown seeds). I planted two types of broccoli in succession, but the second variety (Imperial) didn’t produce.
We had basil, parsley and cilantro in abundance. Basil goes into tomato dishes and parsley and cilantro are for eating fresh. Fresh cilantro is an important addition to tacos. I made a good amount of basil pesto and froze it. Even with lots of uses for basil, I let the second raft of plants go to seed because there was too much.
If there was a single most important lesson in gardening this year, it was to better tune what I grow to our cuisine. I’m not exactly sure what that means but Carmen and I discussed and agreed that is important for a gardener. As our family cuisine makes a transition, this will gain relevance when planning next year’s garden.
So that’s the story of the 2019 garden, which isn’t done.
If August was a tough month, this summer has been one of the best in recent years.
Moderate local temperatures with reasonable relative humidity, rain enough to help the garden grow, and friends meeting the challenge of growing flowers and vegetables in a changing climate, all helped us feel comfortable.
July was notable for being the hottest month for the planet since record-keeping began, according to the U.S. government. Regional variation made Iowa tolerable, perhaps a harbinger of the impact of humans living on the planet continues its steady deterioration of our biome.
Despite favorable weather it was hard to get off the starting blocks in August on scores of projects needing attention.
It will soon be time to turn the page.
For the time being I’m eating cherry tomatoes and enjoying the last weeks of this glorious summer.
A main feature of the vacant lot we bought in 1993 was its proximity to Lake Macbride State Park.
When we need exercise, or just want to get away from the house, it’s a short walk to the trail that runs five miles from our nearby city to the main park entrance. In August the park is filled with wildflowers, insects and other flora and fauna of living in Iowa. There is as much to observe as there is to escape in quotidian life.
A trail walk can reset our lives each time we venture out.
Two weekends into my seventh season at an apple orchard I continue to enjoy the work and its customer engagement.
A family drove over from Chicago, one stopped on their way back to Rochester, Minn., and regulars return with the micro-seasons within a procession of a hundred apple varieties. Every chance we have to converse is a window into lives where with at least one common interest. It is the beginning of something positive.
A trail walk can get us centered and ready for such engagement.
With late planting and heavy spring rain the garden has been a mixed bag. A highlight of every year is arrival of tomato season and planning the use of what I expect will be a good crop.
The first tomatoes have ripened, and now we wait for the slicers and plums.
We eat them fresh, give some away, and prepare canned sauce, juice and diced with the rest.
As my worklife slows down, it seems there is more work to do in the yard and garden. Growing tomatoes doesn’t seem like work.
My last summer post for Blog for Iowa runs Friday and I am ready for what’s next, including a return to my usual topics in this space. I cross post here what I write elsewhere so a trickle of BFIA articles will continue until they all have been posted.
I begin work at the orchard this weekend for the seventh consecutive season. Hopefully we’ll have ripe apples and great conversations with our guests. It is blueberry season in Michigan and this weekend we will offer them fresh for the last time this year. We’re hoping Pristine, Jersey Mac and Viking get ripe by the weekend so our guests can pick them.
In July I signed up for a nutrition class paid for mostly by Medicare. The goal is to watch my blood sugar levels and develop better eating and exercise habits. A by-product of the classes has been losing ten percent of my body weight. I feel better and hope to stave off diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, eyesight deterioration, influenza, pneumonia and the like. Fingers crossed. I still have a lot I want to do and good health is an important prerequisite.
As the sun ascends on another brilliant Iowa day the garden needs watering, and I want to get a trail walk in before leaving for the home, farm and auto supply store. There is a long to-do list needing attention as well. Thanks for reading.