Home Life Kitchen Garden

Gardening in the Pandemic

Pear Leaves.

Buds of leaves and flowers are beginning to burst. Spring has sprung with its sunny yet chilly good news. I planted in the greenhouse and in the ground on Friday.

In the greenhouse:

Multi-colored Swiss Chard, Ferry-Morse, 50-60 days.

In the ground:

Oregon Giant Snow Peas, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 60 days.
Super Sugarsnap Peas, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 60 days.
Hakurei Turnips, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 38 days.

I took one of the cars for a spin, literally. I drove out of the subdivision, north on the lane to the highway, and proceeded to the roundabout at the intersection leading alternately to Ely, the state park, or back to the City of Solon. I drove around a few times. My gas gauge showed full, so I drove back home. The traffic was light so I didn’t bother anyone.

Today is the ninth day since I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store. I began my 30-day unpaid leave of absence for the coronavirus pandemic on April 6. Time away from structured work will scramble life in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Unimportant things fall off. There is new focus on daily habits and patterns. Something different and hopeful will emerge from the isolation. There is no path back to my life before the pandemic. I appreciate social isolation yet recognize our common endeavors on this floating blue-green sphere. I look forward to diving back into society.

The rest of my day was spent considering how to layout the garden, working in the garden, and managing seedlings in my portable greenhouse. I expect to bring seedling trays back from the farm on Sunday so I’d better make room.

It’s been 35 days since Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds activated the state emergency operations center to prepare for COVID-19. According to the Iowa coronavirus website there have been 1,388 confirmed cases of the disease and 31 deaths. Hardest hit have been middle aged adults (ages 41-60) with 537 cases, followed by adults (ages 18-40) with 432. We don’t have detailed statistics about ages of the deceased. 506 people are recovering.

“Flattening the curve” entered common parlance. The idea is to spread contraction of COVID-19 over time so medical capacity is not overwhelmed by patients needing care. As of today, Iowa has enough hospital beds, ICU units and invasive ventilators to meet demand during the pandemic. It is early, but if caseload holds at current levels we may run out of ICU units first. We are a long way from using available hospital beds. Given the projected numbers, a tweak in the system will be needed to accommodate patients. Today, peak resource use is projected for April 30.

We don’t know how many have contracted COVID-19 because of a lack of testing beyond people who self-identify with symptoms or are diagnosed by a medical practitioner. Many have criticized the government response to the pandemic. After all, we live in a Democracy with social media. My sense is the state is doing the best they can while the shit show in Washington, D.C. provides distraction for those who want it. There is no lack of things to distract us.

The governor announced the June 2 primary election will go on. The Secretary of State announced he will send absentee ballot requests to every registered voter. This weekend we’ll print requests ourselves, fill them out, and send them to the county auditor. The only contested races here are for county supervisor, U.S. Senate, and county sheriff. Easy decisions all. The big election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

It’s hard to believe people are undecided about the direction of the country. Social media allows minority opinions to flourish and gain traction within that small universe of voters. People are bitching and moaning about various aspects of the candidates and process. But undecided? How is that even possible now that we know the choices for president? In October 2008 David Sedaris summarized my current feelings about undecided voters.

I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

Rain is forecast after 2 p.m. There is more planting to do, branches to cut into firewood and fencing to clean and mend. Making space in the greenhouse takes time, but that will be done in the garage if it rains.

It’s part of sustaining a life during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kitchen Garden

Thursday Between Storms

Onion Starts in Containers

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

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

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

Footprint between turnips and carrots.

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

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


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

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

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

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

Kitchen Garden

Garden is Planted, Dinner is Served

Six-foot Tall Sugar Snap Peas

Ambient temperature hit 91 degrees Sunday, about 20 degrees above historical average. The heat continues, drying the topsoil, creating want of rain.

An idea once held — the garden should be planted by Memorial Day — is outdated. As early crops come in, others will be planted. What’s more significant to yield than planting time is weeding, mulching — and with the heat, irrigation.

This year’s garden is four varieties of kale, sugar snap peas, radishes, beets, eight varieties of tomatoes, broccoli, three varieties of bell peppers, three varieties of hot peppers, winter and summer squash, basil, cabbage, collards, turnips, two varieties of celery, two varieties of carrots, six of lettuce, spinach, bok choy, daikon radishes, potatoes, onions, leeks, three cucumbers and of a pear and two three apple trees laden with fruit.

Our garden, combined with bartered shares in two CSA farms, will provide plenty of vegetables this summer. We should be set for a productive season.

Last night was what I had hoped for our kitchen garden.

I spot-watered plants that needed relief from the baking sun. Picking a turnip, I ate the small root and saved the greens. I picked a leaf of collards and headed inside to make this dish for supper.

Greens Hot Plate

Add high smoke point oil to a frying pan on high heat. Once the oil is hot add two cups thinly sliced Vidalia onions and season with salt, stirring constantly. (A pinch of red pepper flake would be a nice addition, allowing it to cook for a minute in the oil, but our cooking is capsaicin free until the finished dish reaches the table).

Prep greens — collards, kale, bok choy and turnip — by removing the thick stem and veins and tearing the leaves into bite-sized bits. Thinly slice the stems and add them to the onion mixture. Once the onions become translucent, add fresh garlic if you have it, although granulated works.

De-glaze the pan with vegetable broth. Stir and add the greens.

Add a quarter cup of vegetable broth and cover the pan to create steam. Once volume reduces in size to one third, remove the lid and mix the ingredients together. Re-season. Add a tablespoon of lemon juice. Continue gentle stirring until the leaves are tender.

In a large dinner bowl place a cup of warm rice. Using tongs, cover the rice with the greens mixture. Finish with thinly sliced spring onion, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and feta cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

The Best Days

Spring Garden
Spring Garden

LAKE MACBRIDE— These are the best days. Partly cloudy, temperatures around 70, low humidity and plenty of outside work. We enjoy them when we can.

It’s not to say there is complete escape from the troubles of the world. Yet, for a few moments, beneath the cloudy heavens, it is possible to forget— a reason to anticipate such times with great fervor.

Today was what local food is. There were major farmers markets in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Between the CSA and my garden, we have most of what we need for the week, so I passed. After an hour at the newspaper, I did go to the grocery store to buy provisions: dairy, out of season vegetables and a few special items— popcorn, chocolate, snack crackers. The bill was much lower than usual as a result of growing so much of our own food, combined with working down the pantry.

When I arrived home, the rest of the morning was yard work, pruning the pin oak tree and repairing the erosion near the ditch with bagged soil and grass seed. The majority of the afternoon was harvesting, planting and processing vegetables: radishes, lettuce, turnip greens and oregano.

I picked the rest of the first row of radishes and put them in a bucket. Next, I harvested all of the first planting of lettuce. This cleared a space to till the soil and re-plant two rows of radishes and the rest of the first crop of lettuce seedlings. My garden mentor said one of the biggest mistakes home gardeners make is failing to plant in succession. There will be more plantings of lettuce and radishes.

Near the herb garden I cut a gallon bucket full of oregano from the volunteer plant. Finally, I picked most of the turnip leaves, leaving only those plants that looked like the root would fill out. The turnips grow too tall, too fast, and block out the nearby spinach. I have been thinking about the turnip greens since winter.

At the end of the harvest, I had a bushel of lettuce, five gallons of turnip greens, and regular one gallon buckets of oregano and radishes. A gardener has to keep the produce moving to make optimal use of it. I spent the rest of the day processing the harvest.

The radishes were easy. I trimmed them and placed them in a glass of water. They won’t last long. The oregano was also easy. Since two plants wintered (I only had one last year), the plan is to dry the leaves and make a jar of oregano flakes for cooking. I washed the leaves on the stem, placed them on clean towels on the front step, let the sun dry them and put them on the shelves of the dehydrator to finish drying. I don’t turn the dehydrator on. The temperature is too hot for herbs.

The bigger processing projects were picking through the lettuce to find the best leaves— cleaning, cleaning drying and bagging it; and making a large pot of turnip leaf soup stock for canning. Turnips make the best base for vegetarian soup stock, although leeks, if I have them, are good too.

As the day ended, I turned off the soup, left it on the stove and went to bed. Sunday will be back to the realities of finding suitable paying work, putting up the soup stock in jars, and weeding the garden.

Kitchen Garden

Garden Work

Three Rows Planted Today
Three Rows Planted Today

LAKE MACBRIDE— Today was the first real work session in the garden and I cleaned up two of the plots, built my burn pile, evened out the ground near where the backhoe dug to fix the waterline leak last fall, and planted Cherry Belle Radishes, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach and Purple Top White Globe turnips. The arugula and lettuce seeds have sprouted and survived the gully washer of a rain a few days ago. There are chives ready to cut, and the garlic patch is growing well. Three types of bulb flowers are growing, and after they flower, will be transplanted somewhere else. That is, except for the daylilies, which will be dug and transplanted as soon as I get around to it: nothing can kill those things.

A neighbor messaged me on Facebook, and a group of us is planning to go in on a rototiller rental. I usually dig by hand, but am okay with community projects like this. Partly, it means three plots have to be turned by spade to get ready for the rototiller in two weeks.

Last week, an experienced gardener said we had missed the opportunity for spring turnips, but I don’t know. I planted a row today, and will likely do another in a week or so. She said if one misses spring turnips, the date is July 25 for turnip planting. I’ll reserve some seeds for then and attempt a double crop.

It feels good to work in the sun and soil in the morning.