Weeding the Onion Patch

Kohlrabi greens with spring onions and garlic, steaming in vegetable broth.

I’m determined to grow shallots and onions this year. I took the solar powered radio to the onion patch, took down the fence, and weeded until it was done.

The onion starts purchased from the home, farm and auto supply store are growing but not yet forming bulbs. The shallots growing from seed look like they will be something, and soon three varieties of storage onions started from plants will need thinning so there is room for them to grow.

If the garden produces storage onions it would be for the first time. I’m following the guidance of my mentor so there’s hope of success in the form of a bin full of onions stored near the furnace over winter.

A few dozen onions from 2019 remain in the bin. I am so confident of onion success I’m planning to caramelize a big batch of them and transition to reliance on what I grow. More than anything, onions are a mainstay of our kitchen and growing them a key part of making our kitchen garden more relevant.

Among the weeds I found was lamb’s quarters, which grows in abundance without doing anything but planting other things. Lamb’s quarters grows everywhere in Iowa on its own. While culinarians forage these leaves to include in gourmet preparations, in a kitchen garden a cook needs only so many greens. I ate a few of the tender top leaves and composted the rest. They are a tasty green, less bitter than some I grow intentionally.

Around the country protests continue in the wake of videos of the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported large turnout for demonstrations in nearby Cedar Rapids and Iowa City last night. No one knows how long demonstrations will continue or how long it will take government to act on them. The expectation is government will act.

In 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and ensuing riots in American cities, it took six days for President Johnson to respond by signing the Civil Rights Act. I don’t see any such action coming out of the Trump administration whose reaction has been to build a fence around the White House and seek to retain power by winning the Nov. 3 election.

While we need to eat, the progress of my onion patch may be the least of our worries. What happened to George Floyd shouldn’t happen to anyone. There is systemic racism in the United States, and we must each do something to address it. What will be the enduring legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement? With our current federal government that remains an open question.

Cooking Garden

Volley of Lightning Strikes

Lake Macbride State Park, June 2, 2020

The day began with a loud volley of lightning strikes west of the house. I don’t recall hearing so many at once. When hail pelleted the windows it felt like were in for the worst.

It didn’t last long and there was no damage to the garden or anything else I inspected after the clouds moved on.

Thus began another warm, wet day in Big Grove Township.

The morning work project was to organize the garage so both vehicles could be parked inside. Mission accomplished.

I found a cooking preparation for Fordhook chard that can be applied to other leafy green vegetables with great results:

Bring half a cup of vegetable broth to a boil in a Dutch oven. Clean the leaves from the stem of the chard. Finely slice the stems, three spring onions, three cloves of garlic, and add to the Dutch oven. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add roughly chopped leaves and cover. Cook for 2-3 minutes in the steam then stir to get the other side cooked, a couple more minutes. When the chard decreases in volume mix the leaves and bits and pieces and serve. Makes two servings.

When the garden has many varieties of leafy green vegetables a basic kitchen preparation like this is important.

We are not out of the impact of video footage depicting the murder of George Floyd being released in social media. While there are no demonstrations here, the crowd of protesters in the county seat grew to about a thousand on Wednesday. The president’s amateurish way of handling the crisis will prolong more than end the violence. We can all feel the vacuum of leadership sucking.

The coronavirus rages. 106,198 people died of COVID-19 in the United States as of yesterday. No end to the pandemic is in sight, although there is hope for a vaccine. The plan after a successful vaccine is unclear. The president’s failed leadership is evident: he should set expectations and take bold action to assist with the response. He has done neither. Meanwhile, society is deteriorating into chaos with one state legislator saying yesterday to a group that opposes mandatory vaccination laws, “COVID-19 isn’t even killing anybody.”

On the state park trail near where I live most people don’t wear protective equipment. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources does not require it although they request people otherwise maintain social distancing. Joggers, hikers and bicyclists haven’t been wearing facial masks, although I spotted a family group wearing them while taking a hike.

My activities outside home are restricted to grocery shopping, drug store visits, gasoline purchases, medical visits, and a shift per week at the farm. The farm crew moved on site at the beginning of the pandemic and has been self-isolating since then. I work alone in the greenhouse when I’m there. Other than at the farm, I wear one of my homemade face masks whenever I’m with people anywhere else.

I have been participating in TestIowa, the statewide COVID-19 response application. The app suggested I was eligible to be tested so I went to a drive-up clinic at nearby Kirkwood Community College. The result was negative. After visiting clinics for a diabetes follow up I made a list of conditions I’m experiencing. There were a dozen. I’m at a loss to say when all that happened but I feel pretty good. Feeling good likely hinders the effort to address these conditions as well as I otherwise might.

As spring turns to summer I’m ready for change. It’s a time when the morning thunderstorm is both familiar and frightening — a time to persist in doing what’s right for our family and for the broader society.


Spring Garden Review – 2020 Planning

Garden on May 31, 2020.

We’re taking a break after spring planting.

At the farm the major crops for the CSA vegetable shares are in. We took time off from new seeding and begin fall crops next week. At home initial garden planting finished yesterday and a few sections have been replanted. Every available spot in our seven plots has been planted — the best space utilization since we moved here in 1993.

Time to consider some lessons learned. This post is about planning and I hope there will be others about technology, seed starting and other aspects of gardening in the near future.

With the exception of adding two apple trees near the west entry to the garden the layout remained the same as last year. Seven plots with three in specialty crops (tomatoes, onions and garlic) and four divided into rows with three-foot sections in each to separate varieties.

Since I began starting seedlings at the farm a few years ago I produce more than I need. This results in a tendency to use them, over-planting some leafy green vegetables which produced in abundance yielding restricted space availability for other crops. Family and friends can only eat so many leafy green vegetables.

I put in a lot of broccoli for freezing (33 plants), more kohlrabi than we will use, and varieties I don’t normally grow (mustard greens, two kinds of chard, okra, collards) because I got free seeds at the home, farm and auto supply store. I’m glad for the experience growing these varieties yet intend to harvest everything in one section of greens this week and replace it with more desirable tomatoes, many of which are mystery tomatoes from a wide variety of free packets from work. Even though the plan was to reduce the number of tomato plants because I canned a lot of them in 2019, I’m gravitating back to the number of plants I had because of the abundance of greens and tomato seedlings.

The main tomato patch is planned by variety (slicers and plums) although I got which is which mixed up when preparing the seedlings for transplant. There are also five plantings of cherries in another plot. Tomatoes make a great gift, so if they all produce, there will be no problem finding homes for them if the canning jars and freezer are full.

Each year I get a little smarter about deer deterrence. In addition to fencing everything with four foot chicken wire, I’ve used two tactics. I position plants deer like furthest away from the fence. This year I put the okra in the center of a plot so they can’t reach over the fence and eat the leaves. The high fence (five feet with an exposed section at the bottom) around the tomato patch also serves to keep them away from eating tender shoots and has improved production. I also use what I call gang planting. That is, I plant rows closer together so deer do not have a place to land if they jump the four foot fence. This year I spaced the rows more properly to enhance production. We’ll see how that goes. Since I began working on these issues, deer have been a minor inconvenience rather than a problem. I appreciate their help cleaning up fallen apples when there is fruit.

There are the questions of rabbits and small rodents. The main trouble with rabbits is when the new bunnies are born and they get into everything. Mature rabbits tend not to dig under the fences, partly because I don’t regularly mow the lawn or use any kind of spray or fertilizer. There is plenty for them to eat more readily available. The undisciplined litter of bunnies is unaware of these “rules.” Their reign of terror on the vegetable patch is short because predators reduce the population quickly. Thus far I live and let live with rabbits, although am skeptical that will be a long term condition of gardening. We keep a watchful eye on each other.

Planting potatoes in containers eliminated the problem of burrowing rodents eating into the tubers before I dug them. They continue to nibble at bulbous roots like beets, radishes and carrots in the rows. I’ve come to accept it as resolved through detente and just live with the damage. At such time there is not enough left for our family from their foraging my attitude could change. I rarely see the rodents although I am aware of their presence. They broke into the sealed compost container for kitchen waste.

The last planning issue is bigger, beginning with trees I situated in the garden that got away from me — the locust tree is dying, and the three oak trees planted the year our daughter graduated from high school (one for each of us) need to be thinned to one. The shade they provide has protected crops in the blistering sun of planetary warming and in times of drought. They became part of the overall garden design although that was adaptation rather then planning.

I have big ideas. One fall I’ll clear the plots early and take the locust down and cut two of the three oaks as they are planted too closely together and have grown too tall to transplant them. At the same time I may hire a landscaping firm to create a deer-proof enclosure and re-structure the plot layout to improve space utilization. That would enable me to get rid of a lot of the chicken wire. I’ll also build a shed to store garden tools so I don’t have to continuously wear a path (now visible from space) from the garden to the garage. These things have been delayed because of financial constraints. Soon we may be in a position to act on them.

Thirty seven years of gardening leads me to this formal reflection about what I’m doing. Next up will be technology which is making a big, positive impact in getting the plots planted and will hopefully improve yield.

Garden Politics Social Commentary Writing

News, Retreat, Action

Home Garden May 30, 2020

When the news goes to hell, like it did on Friday, I retreat.

In an on line chat about poetry I wrote a follower, “Hope things are going better in Canada than they are here.”

“They are, very much so here in B.C.,” he responded. “I’m not a flag waver type but this present moment produces a real sense of refuge.”

On Friday moving to Canada was not out of the question.

To where did I retreat? I worked outdoors from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturday. I harvested grass clippings for mulch, put in the seventh garden plot, and called initial garden planting done.

I picked kale and delivered it to one of the library workers. Our public library remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic yet they continue to run limited operations behind locked doors. Next week they begin curb side materials pickup as they determine how best to reopen. The local newspaper featured a photograph of the librarian wearing a mask in from of the building. Our library is the most obvious local indicator of the progress of the pandemic and economic recovery.

Once again, a video shared in social media — the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis — sparked demonstrations and violence broke out in cities around the United States. Coverage dominated the news, eclipsing every other story, including the coronavirus pandemic which has now resulted in more than 100,000 U.S. deaths according to official statistics. It is a sign of the times I didn’t hear of Saturday’s demonstrations in the county seat, or in nearby Cedar Rapids until after working in the garden. There were no demonstrations where I live.

The thing about a retreat is it has a fixed beginning and end point, leaving us with the question what do we do next? It’s not complicated.

Above everything else, addressing the lack of leadership in our current government is a priority. That means voting the Republicans out of office in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles. It is difficult to see how any substantial change will be possible, in any area of society, until that is done. I’d much rather be writing about the climate crisis, income inequality, and social justice. For that to have meaning, we need leadership to set different priorities and move the country toward solutions. We can point out solutions to the climate crisis and income inequality, and that black lives matter all we want. To make a difference, our only hope is to change our government.

My last paycheck from a job was in April after retiring from the home, farm and auto supply store. Our expenses came down dramatically during the pandemic so there was money left from our pensions to pay down debt and donate to political campaigns. We’ll be doing more of that. Better than that will be to develop a positive message about who we are as Iowans and as Americans and to share that broadly. Living with a demagogue as president has been frustrating. We have to believe our best days are ahead of us and take action to work toward that end.

Social Commentary Writing

A Death During the Pandemic

Sunrise May 27, 2020

No one wants to die early of COVID-19. This morning Johns Hopkins University reported there have been 1.7 million diagnoses of the disease in the United States and more than 100,000 people died because of it in less than four months.

May the souls of the departed rest in peace. May their families and friends find comfort as we go on with our lives.

I participate in TestIowa, the State of Iowa’s on line COVID-19 testing program. On Monday I was approved for testing and made an appointment at a drive-through test site 11 miles from home. Yesterday I arrived early for my appointment and there was no waiting. The site was well organized with lots of staff, including a half dozen uniformed Iowa National Guard soldiers directing traffic and maintaining security. The site could handle lot more tests than they were. The deep nasal swab used to take a culture was uncomfortable yet tolerable. The results should be posted to my on line portal by Saturday. This post is not about me.

I’m thinking about George Floyd who died after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck while he was being arrested. In a time of ubiquitous cameras and recorders the incident was captured on video multiple times and posted on the internet. It rightly provoked outrage. Four police officers were fired after Floyd’s death yet that shouldn’t be the end of it. Why weren’t they arrested? We know the answer. There was no justice for George Floyd. He did not deserve to die.

While passing the milestone of 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus garnered attention yesterday we cannot forget the systemic racism that permeates our culture. Americans are not free unless all of us are free. The death of another black man in the hands of police is evidence we are bound to racism that shows itself only rarely. Its roots run much deeper.

How do we address that? I don’t know but unless we recognize racism for what it is in our lives there will be no addressing it. We have to do more than react when another black man dies. That death tally is not being closely followed yet it is as important and more enduring than the coronavirus.

May George Floyd rest in peace.

Home Life Social Commentary

Pandemic Turning Point – What’s Next?

Lilacs in bloom.

Friday J.C. Penney filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, another victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

To say I disliked the in-store experience is an understatement. To say how much I loved the on-line experience is impossible. They are a great alternative to Amazon where we can find affordable attire. Fingers crossed they come out of bankruptcy.

What will a retail experience look like on the other side of COVID-19? I don’t think anyone knows.

I’m reading another Obama administration memoir, this one by Ben Rhodes. I also read Samantha Power, David Plouffe, Jill Biden and Michelle Obama. On the bookshelf waiting is Susan Rice… I’m just passing time though, until the big guy’s book is finished and released.

It’s hard to believe the Obama administration existed at all in the age of Republican control. It’s like an Arthurian legend we lived through except now it is transformed into myth. So much so it’s easy to believe it never happened. It did happen and the memoirs serve to remind us of another possibility than the one dominated by a needy president.

I stopped and stood outside the garage breathing the fragrance of lilacs. They are close to full bloom and won’t last much longer. It is difficult to stop and experience flowers yet we must. A lot depends on the fragrance of lilacs.

I participated in a Zoom conference with friends yesterday afternoon. We are on the last mile of cable with our internet provider and the connection is sometimes inconsistent. After being dropped five times during the call I gave up. It was good to see everyone again, even if intermittently.

Life on the other side of COVID-19 will be different. For me, it precipitated full retirement and that change alone is big. There’s more though, and not just about one person’s experience of the pandemic. If anything, we are getting used to living with less. That should be good for us, and good for society. I’m confident J.C. Penney will try to adapt to the new reality. If they don’t, the world will be the less.

Social Commentary

Meditation on the Coronavirus Pandemic

Fresh arugula from our garden.

“PPE is the scariest part,” an emergency room physician said during a conference call yesterday.

They wear an N95 mask until it wears out. They use one isolation gown per shift, introducing a risk that COVID-19 is transmitted from patient to patient by attending medical staff.

It is unbelievable that in the United States, during a pandemic, medical staff in a local hospital cannot get adequate personal protective equipment.

Where are our priorities?

I understand “flattening the curve.” It was an easy decision for the two of us to stay home as soon as the president and governor called for us to do so. If we don’t get sick, more hospital beds, ICU units, and ventilators are available for others. It’s not a long-term solution to the pandemic but it prevents hospitals from becoming swamped with patients, especially if more people do it.

As pensioners our lives are financially predictable and likely better for having to leave the property less often. The coronavirus pandemic became the tipping point in my career as I phoned the home, farm and auto supply store last Tuesday while on a COVID-19 leave of absence to announce my retirement. While we worked hard to get to this point in our lives, we don’t take it for granted. The challenge is determining how else besides sheltering at home we can contribute to society.

There is politics. We must summon the political will to change our governance to address not only the pandemic with its health and economic disruption, but the climate crisis, environmental degradation, economic injustice, an expensive and inaccessible health care system and more. That means all of us contributing to electing candidates with the backbone to do more than current office holders have. Political change is always an uncertain endeavor yet I feel a wind beginning to fill our sails.

How long should we shelter in place? It’s hard to say because of the opacity of the federal government. In March, administration models for the pandemic indicated between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans would die. The Washington Post yesterday indicated that’s about right. If we don’t address spread of the disease more than we have it could be worse.

The IHME model projects 1,513 Iowa deaths from COVID-19 by Aug. 4. The May 3 report was 188. The same model projects 134,475 U.S. deaths by Aug. 4. It’s no consolation to know the 1918 influenza pandemic was more severe with an estimated 675,000 U.S. deaths over its course.

Yesterday Steve Mnuchin announced the U.S. Treasury Department plans to borrow nearly $3 trillion between April and June to bankroll the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. While the number is bigger than I can imagine it’s no surprise this increase in our national debt was coming. It makes me wonder about the stimulus bills.

These were junk bills, hastily created and influenced too much by lobbyists. They provided little real hope for people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. I’m not impressed that we received an “economic impact payment.” I’m even less impressed that the president wasted resources by sending me his explanation of what’s going on during “this time.” Further into the descent of lesserdom, I’m not sure taking out a large loan was a good idea. The only conclusion I can draw is the politicians don’t know how to help real people.

My intent is not to complain. I present above a positive image of our garden arugula. Planted March 2, it is the best crop I’ve yet grown in terms of quality and quantity. Salads, pasta dishes, and arugula pesto are in process before this patch is finished. I have another batch of seedlings growing in the greenhouse for the next wave. Typical of these times, the best work we do is on our own. That’s not good enough to get ourselves out of the societal pickle we’re in. We will be stronger if we can come together in building a better future after the pandemic.

Yesterday a fight broke out near a liquor store in India as the government lifted stay at home restrictions. There is also pent up demand to do things here. My prediction is when the U.S. opens up, and people believe it is safe to return to normal, tattoo artists will be very busy.


Climate Change in 2020

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

I noted the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a letter to the editor.

“That’s it?” I asked myself this morning.

Next I reminded myself the essential environmental task between now and the general election is to remove as many Republicans as possible from office nationally, in Iowa, and locally.

When I attended Al Gore’s slideshow presentations and the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training I held certain assumptions about how government would work. What may have been isn’t or has been tossed out the window in the time of Donald Trump’s political leadership.

When I say we should “Act on Climate” it means getting involved in politics to elect people who will address the climate crisis. None of us can do much alone.

Our choices are few but to do the work of getting people to vote. Six months from the election Democrats can feel the wind at our backs. Nonetheless it will be a hard sail to shore and a foundation on which we can begin to face the challenges of the climate crisis more directly.

Cooking Garden

Planning A Vegetable Garden

Pear Blossoms

Since retiring on Tuesday there has been one good day to work outside.

Tuesday and Wednesday were cool and dark with scattered showers. I read two books, reworked the family budget, and spent most of my time indoors.

Thursday was a glorious spring day when I measured and cleared the remaining three garden plots and planned the sequence of events and layouts. Today looks equally nice and an opportunity to start direct seeding and planting from the greenhouse.

This year may be the best yet start to the garden. I’m hopeful even though a lot of weeding and combating pests lies ahead.

There will be spring garlic from the volunteer patch and arugula planted March 2 is ready to harvest. I’m reviewing cook books for ideas, seeking a spring pasta dish as a chance to combine fresh arugula and last season’s garlic. Repetition is anathema to having a kitchen garden so a key ingredient will be spontaneity.

Mario Batali has a recipe using fresh mushrooms cooked in sweet vermouth with ten cloves of garlic. It sounds good. I have the garlic, but no vermouth and only canned mushrooms from the wholesale club. A recipe I remember from television is Jaime Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo making pasta using wild rocket they found growing in London. The spontaneity of their process is more what I’m after. Deborah Madison has a recipe called spaghetti with overgrown arugula and sheep’s milk ricotta. It’s closest to the ingredients on hand. Where our ice box is lacking and could improve is by having some pecorino or any kind of ricotta cheese. I make this once a year, so I’m in no hurry to get into the kitchen. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ll use whatever ingredients are on hand.

Another spring-use-it-up recipe is a quick version of eggplant Parmesan. When the eggplant harvest comes in, I cut large ones into half-inch disks, roast and freeze them. Every so often I get fresh mozzarella pre-cut in disks from the wholesale club. Canned tomatoes are always in abundance and these three things together make a dish.

Make a simple tomato sauce using canned tomatoes (reserving the juice for soup), basil, dried onions and dried garlic. Whatever you like is fine, even a prepared pasta sauce. Place a few tablespoons of tomato sauce to coat the bottom of the baking dish. Seat frozen eggplant disks in the sauce and cover them with more sauce. Next, a disk of fresh mozzarella on each piece of eggplant. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the top and bake in a 400 degree oven on the low-middle shelf. It’s ready as soon as the mozzarella begins to brown. I usually make individual servings in small baking dishes.

A last spring tradition for today is vegetable soup using fresh greens and whatever is in the freezer that needs using up. I always begin with onions, carrots, celery and bay leaves. Key ingredients were a bunch of fresh greens roughly chopped, a quart of canned tomatoes, two quarts of vegetable broth, frozen sweet corn, frozen grated zucchini, and a quarter cup each of dried lentils and barley. There are few rules other than starting with mirepoix and whatever diners like and needs to be used up. It made about a gallon of soup.

Living with a kitchen garden is the center of so much. When arugula, garlic and spring onions start to come in we are ready to break the long winter absence of fresh vegetables.

Work Life

Retirement in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Detail of Garden Plot #4

I decided not to return to the home, farm and auto supply store after my voluntary COVID-19 leave of absence.

Whatever the cultural resonance of the word “retirement,” I’ll take my leave from the workforce without fanfare, without the customary sheet cake, and fade into the background of our life in Big Grove Township.

It’s been a good run. Whatever uncertainty lies ahead, I’m fortified by decades of experience in business and in living — the latter making the difference.

More than anything, our Social Security pensions make retirement possible. I made my first contribution to Social Security in 1968, thinking retirement was in the distant future. All along the way, in every job I held, I paid in. I paid in on my last paycheck on March 17. Of all the government programs that exist, Social Security, and its methodology of enabling even the lowest paid worker to save for retirement has been there. I hope it endures not only for my lifetime but for every American into a future as distant from today as is the teenage boy I was when I started.

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