Category Archives: small town life

Get the Garden Growing: Memorial Day 2019

gardening at an American System-Built

It has become somewhat of a tradition that we plant our garden over Memorial Day weekend. Not only is Memorial Day the unofficial kickoff to summer and the first long weekend of the year, it’s also when it’s finally warm enough here in the upper Midwest to put plants in the ground without fear of a final frost.

We had never really intended to garden. While we both love food and frequently shop farmers markets for fresh, local produce, we’ve always seen our thumbs as more black than green. Judging by our record with houseplants, we’d be sentenced to life in prison for the neglectful death and overwatering of many a poor, unsuspecting little life. Still, former owners had a garden already plotted out and that first spring we put in a few plants as an experiment. By midsummer we were feasting on lettuces and green beans and vine ripened tomatoes. And let me tell you: after you’ve eaten a tomato fresh from the vine, you’ll never touch a mealy, tasteless tomato from the grocery store again. We’ve been putting out gardens ever since.

There seems to be something magical in this Iowa soil that makes our gardens successful. No matter what we’ve planted in the garden, it matures and produces fruits or vegetables. The only thing we’ve had difficulty growing is green beans. That failure has nothing to do with the soil, mind you. We did get a healthy harvest of green beans during our first summer of gardening. Every summer since then, however, the green bean plants are attacked by rabbits before they ever get a chance to grow. As soon as the bean seeds sprout and break ground, the rabbits come along and eat the leaves. The poor little plants never have a chance to produce a single bean.

There are some other plants that we’ve learned not to repeat. Brussels sprouts are easy, but it takes too long between planting and harvest and the plants take up too much space in the meantime. The same goes for broccoli. We’ll just stick to getting those vegetables from the grocery store.

Last year was the first garden that had a singular purpose: salsa. We planted more tomato and pepper plants that we thought necessary and ended up with crop upon crop of salsa ingredients. We froze dozens of containers of salsa and canned dozens more in jars. We’re still eating last year’s canned salsa!

And so we’re repeating that plan this year. We got the tomatoes and onions in the ground this weekend but forgot to pick up pepper plants when we were at the greenhouse. We also got a few kale plants in the ground because you gotta love those leafy greens!

Our garden definitely won’t win any prizes. We tend to take a rather haphazard approach to the task. And since we can be away for weeklong stretches, the weeds tend to get away from us, making it difficult to discern between invasive plants and something that will actually produce edibles. We’re trying to keep things as simple and organic as possible so we’re not spraying the garden with weed treatment. As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, we’ll always have a healthy harvest of dandelions!

Beautiful or not, gardening has become a seasonal treat that we both savor. After a week in the city sitting behind desks or countless hours stuck in traffic, there’s no better treat than crouching in the garden with the moos of cows carrying across the distance as we pull weeds or clip kale leaves for lunch.

What are you planning for your garden this year?

 

 

Rites of Summer: Mother-in-Law’s Rhubarb Crunch

My Mother-in-Law's Recipe Box and Rhubarb Crunch Recipe

“What’s this?” I asked our friend Joan as I pointed down at the ground. It was our first spring in the house and Joan, the real estate agent’s wife, was kindly helping us get the mess of a yard into shape. (And helping two city guys avoid a freakout over the amount of work they had just taken on with this new house!)

“Oh that’s rhubarb!” Joan said, and then furrowed her brow. “That’s a strange place to put it.”

We were standing in the front yard, pulling plants out of a bed that the previous owners had installed.

“It’s grows like a weed,” Joan said. “We used to just mow over it!”

I dug up the fledgling little plant and plopped it in a corner of the garden. Joan was right. Rhubarb is an easy plant that will thrive anywhere you put it. By the end of that summer I was able to get a few mature stalks off the plant. And we’ve had rhubarb ever since. Continue reading

A Brief History of the Owners of the Delbert Meier House

Our American System Built home, named the Delbert Meier house after the first owner, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017. One of the advantages of owning an architecturally significant house in a small town is that we’ve been able to meet every owner or descendent in the house’s 100-year history. Here’s a brief history of the ownership of our the Delbert Meier house (with some names removed to respect privacy). Continue reading

Winter Reflections on Corner Windows

You know how I was saying that I love the windows in our house? Well this is why.

Frank Lloyd Wright really knew what he was doing when he placed corner windows in his homes. Each of the three bedrooms in our American System Built Home have corner windows like this and the effect is huge. Pushing the windows to the corners of the rooms brings in some of the most amazing light. And when you first walk into a room your eyes are drawn to the corner, to outdoors, to treetops and light.

One day last week I caught this sunset just as it was shining its brilliance through the windows in the front bedroom. I paused for a moment to think about all the previous owners who have probably had moments of reflection inspired by the house’s design.

I think back to the house’s first winter in 1918. I wonder whether Mr. and Mrs. Meier admired the sunlight streaming through the windows. I wonder whether they watched the snow fall and the windows frost and thought about how happy they were to have finally moved into their American System Built Home.

I think about the kids who have probably looked impatiently out the windows in hopes that it’ll be a snow day. I imagine them pushing one of the casement windows open and reaching out to catch a few flakes as they drifted toward earth. “See, Mom,” they might have said. “It’s really coming down out there! It’ll be a snow day for sure tomorrow.”

I imagine the teachers who inhabited the house for 30 years who might have had the same feeling about snow days. Perhaps they counted on snowstorms to deliver unplanned days off that would allow them to hole up in the warmth of the house. And maybe they would see the sun setting through the windows and, refreshed by a day of rest, would feel revived for the new day ahead.

This is our fourth winter in the house and I still find myself being inspired by its beauty. I hope whoever owns the Delbert Meier house one hundred years from now knows that it has been filled with love.

All We Owe We Owe Ioway

We didn’t make it to the 2017 Iowa State Fair, alas, so we missed our chance to see the famous butter cow (literally, a cow sculpted out of butter) and her companion this year, a butter likeness of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Little House on the Prairie author’s birth. Given that this year also marks what would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, and that like Wilder he also has an Iowa connection, we wonder if he was also under consideration for this honor. After all, other buttery boys have served as milkmaids in previous years at the Fair, including a simply creamy Elvis Presley, John Wayne, and Garth Brooks.

But let us not be bitter over butter, or churn up any controversy here. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a fine and fitting choice, especially given the dairy-themed nickname her Pa famously gave her, “Half Pint.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder Butter Sculpture via USA TODAY

via USA TODAY: Sarah Pratt standing by the Laura Ingalls Wilder butter sculpture

The Iowa State Fair also brings to mind that wonderful old movie, State Fair (the 1945 version, that is), with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Especially this delightful little ditty in which they really spread it on thick – the butter, AND the good ol’ Iowa “corn”.

Given the house and half acre of Iowa we’re paying a mortgage on, we might slightly adjust the song’s title to read, “All We Owe, We Owe in Ioway.” But putting aside that IOU we owe IOWA, we do also owe Ioway our thanks for its brand of good wholesome fun, which of course is not just limited to state fairs and butter sculptures. After all, Iowa is home to several Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, if not a Butter Frank – not yet anyway. We’ll do our best to butter up the selection committee for next year’s State Fair sculpture.