Farm update: July 26

And here we are at the tail end of July, scrambling to complete everything that needs doing. Each night before sleep finally arrives I focus on designing bright, colorful quilt patterns in my head – calming mental Tetris – rather than running through all of the tasks I didn’t complete during the day. The tomatoes need to be pruned and re-staked, again. The arugula and lettuce seeds need to be harvested, the straggly plants composted and the beds reseeded. The garlic needs to be pulled and cured. The mallow, bindweed and puncturevine are threatening a total takeover. And on and on and on. I feel a thousand miles behind on everything, and I remind myself to complete one task at a time. Also, I regularly remind myself to enjoy the moment I’m in, rather than race on to the next without even pausing for breath. (Easier said than done, no?)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Admiring our seasonal plants is a great way for me to stop my frenzied rushing for just a moment. Many of our flowering perennials didn’t bloom this year, thanks to the drought, but we do still have a few. Echinacea, or coneflower, is one of my favorites, and the bees love it, too. (Our pollinator population is also greatly diminished this year, likely due to the lack of blossoms in the neighboring orchards.) Echinacea has been touted for years as an herbal remedy for just about any ailment, including the common cold, but legitimate scientific studies on this are lacking in substance, to say the least. Still, the coneflowers grow well here and I’m hopeful that I can expand their presence on the farm in future years.

Just one day’s harvest…

Late July and August are the months we eagerly await all year – when the vegetables start rolling in. The flipside of that, of course, is that then you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do with all of that glorious food. Onions and kale are easy to deal with; they are garden stalwarts and stay fresh for weeks. Carrots and beets need to have their greens removed, at the very least; I usually don’t wash them until just before I’m ready to use them. The zucchini, of course, is where things start to feel overwhelming. Anyone who has planted zucchini knows full well that through some mysterious garden trickery you can check the plants twice a day and still end up with overgrown monsters. I like to harvest the squash when small and use it in salads, galettes and pastas; I also shred and freeze it for muffins. And our tomatoes are just now starting to come on; we’ve had a couple of early Juliets, plus a Lemon Boy and a Black Krim. The real bounty will start showing up in about ten days, and as with every year, I’m looking forward to an absurd excess of tomatoes. They never go to waste here.

So fresh! So crisp! So delicious!

We had a ridiculously abundant crop of peas this year! I adore fresh peas, but they often struggle here because we typically move so quickly from winter to summer, and peas generally like cooler, more moderate temperatures. This year, however, the plants just kept on producing, even when the temperatures accelerated into triple digits. Many, many peas were simply eaten fresh outside as a garden snack while doing chores, and many more made it inside for salads and stir-fries. The plants are mostly finished now, the peas starchy and the vines slowly crisping and browning, and all the peas still hanging will be dried and saved for seed. This year was such a roaring success that I’m very seriously considering giving the peas their own special home next to the raspberry beds, and saving the space in the raised beds for other spring crops like carrots and onions.

Neatly stacking hay bales is definitely a cardio workout.

We are thrilled to have our winter hay stores for the animals laid in. We completely guessed at the number of bales we bought last year – never having overwintered livestock – and actually came pretty close in our estimate! The animals are mostly on pasture right now but get hay in the evenings; come winter, however, this will be all the food they have. The drought has forced many producers to cull their cattle and sheep because the land can no longer support that many head, and the lack of water means that hay is obviously much more costly, too. Our hay cost fifty percent more than last year; in all honesty, we were prepared to pay double. Our focus, as always, is on ensuring that we don’t overgraze our pasture and that we always have emergency feed reserves stockpiled.

Our sunflowers are cheerful and abundant, too.

And with that, we’re off to tackle our neverending task list. Do tell, though – if you have an excess of zucchini, what are your favorite ways of using it up? I always enjoy hearing how others move through an abundance of garden produce.

Wishing you a lovely week, dear friends.

Farm update: July 12

How are you? How is your July thus far? It’s high summer here at Quiet Farm and we spend more time outdoors than in – always, always wearing long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed hats and plenty of SPF 50 (only reef-safe zinc, though we’re nowhere near a reef!) on any exposed skin. Skin cancer is not to be taken lightly, especially since we’re more than a mile closer to the sun. Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Sunchokes along the eastern edge of our game fence.

Each growing season, I aim to plant at least one new fruit, vegetable, herb or flower. Last year it was fennel (and unintentionally this year, too, since it self-seeded) but this year’s choice was sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus). Sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they’re native to North America, not Israel) are in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and the plants produce showy yellow flowers and an edible tuber. They’re not well known in the U.S.; even in France they’re grown primarily for animal feed. But! The crisp, white-fleshed tubers are rich in inulin (a dietary fiber) and are absolutely delicious when roasted and salted like potatoes. I might even try some sunchoke chips in the dehydrator! I’m excited to harvest these later this season, especially because once established, they’ll likely need no water and no maintenance, and will hopefully continue to produce a nutritious winter storage crop all on their own.

Nice buns.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than one minute knows that I am constantly trying to convince the entire world to bake their own bread. Really, you should! So easy! So satisfying! So much healthier and tastier than store-bought! But perhaps you find large burnished sourdough loaves to be somewhat intimidating? No problem. Start simple, like hamburger buns. I know that I’ve just missed the Fourth of July, a classic burger holiday if ever there was one. But if you start practicing now, you’ll have mastered homemade burger buns by Labor Day! (Only joking, because you don’t need any practice at all; buns are really easy.) Use this reliable recipe – I did not make any alterations for altitude – and bake a batch to tuck in your freezer for future grilling opportunities. The recipe yields eight large; I make sixteen if I want to serve sliders. Please, try this and let me know if you have troubles – I’ll help you sort them out!

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Broad-tailed hummingbirds at the feeder.

Our migratory hummingbird population is thriving; if we remain still, we’re able to see them up close on our feeders. We observe two species most commonly here – the broad-tailed (Selasphorus platycercus) and the black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), and only very rarely a rufous (Selasphorus rufus). The hummingbirds are so much fun to listen to as they dive and swoop like miniature fighter jets. We’ve even discovered a tiny nest precariously perched on the twinkle light strands on our front porch; we’ve left it alone for the moment in the hopes that there might be viable eggs in it. Although we have dozens of incredible bird species here at Quiet Farm, the fast and spirited hummingbirds are definitely one of our favorites.

Fresh, crisp, satisfying and most of all – cold.

Despite the slider rolls above, supper is entirely abandoned more evenings than not here at Quiet Farm. When it’s pushing 100 degrees at 5:30PM and we’ve been out irrigating all day, the very last thing I want to do is turn on the oven or the stove. Enter the cold noodle salad, remarkably simple and infinitely variable. I cook the noodles in well-salted water first thing in the morning, when it’s (relatively) cool. Drain and toss the still-warm noodles in sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chile sauce if you like things spicy. Shred a whole mess of vegetables, whatever you have on hand – carrots, cabbage, snap peas, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower – and toss with a bit more soy and vinegar. Chill everything. When it’s time to eat, make yourself a beautiful, colorful plate and garnish with lots and lots of fresh herbs – I like a mixture of Thai basil, cilantro, scallions and mint. Add more soy or sesame oil as desired. Chopped salted peanuts are great, too! You could serve this on a bed of fresh greens, you could top this with crispy tofu or strips of a simple scallion omelette, or you could just eat it as is. One of my very favorite low-effort/high-flavor summer meals. (P.S. When you’re making something that will later be eaten cold, remember to have a generous hand with the seasoning. Cold dulls flavor, therefore it doesn’t taste as intense. Be lavish with salt and herbs!)

Adelaide apologizes for not tidying up all the hay on her face before this photo was snapped.

And finally, our animals are thrilled with their new haircuts. Although they have access to shade, they still spend their time happily grazing away in the pasture. Even on the hottest days, when we’re melting and seeking out any cool spot we can find, they’re happy to be out in the sun. Last summer was a different story, and we’re so pleased that we were able to get them sheared so they can be more comfortable during this brutal season.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead, friends.

We speak for the trees

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

Our farm had been mostly abandoned for a number of years prior to our purchase, and even with three years of hard work, there is always more to be done. One task that we try to accomplish every year is to plant more trees – although we did opt out this year because we knew that water would be in such short supply. We still have trees to care for, of course, and if this drought cycle ever eases (looking unlikely, in all honesty) we’ll definitely plant more trees. Every project we choose is focused on improving our land, for us and for the future.

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Our Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) saplings, ready for planting.

Trees are an incredible weapon against the climate crisis, yet we don’t call them into service nearly often enough. Any homeowner knows how valuable trees are in keeping houses cool in summer, and many cities have started planting trees in public spaces as a natural heat sink against all that concrete. With so many new housing developments cropping up, however, trees are mowed down and then halfheartedly planted again as an afterthought, and often left to wither and die without proper care. And of course it takes years, if not decades, for the shade canopy to grow. Healthy, mature trees are a valuable asset to any property; we’re working hard to save the ones we have and add as many more as possible.

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Planting our Eastern red cedar windbreak along the southern line of our game fence.

One of the very best things we’ve discovered since moving to the farm is the CSU Seedling Tree Program. This is a joint project of the Colorado Forest Service and Colorado State University, and it provides seedling trees, bushes and other perennials to homeowners at an exceptionally low cost. We’ve used the program twice now with great success, and will definitely participate again. The only downside is that many of the tiny seedlings are sold in packs of 25 or 30 – meaning you either need a lot of land, or you need to make share arrangements with friends and neighbors. It’s also essential to plan in advance, as the sale opens in November (trees arrive the following May) and plants sell out quickly.

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A damaged garden hose makes great drip line!

The biggest advantage to purchasing plants from this state program is that everything is grown in Colorado, meaning it will likely survive our harsh conditions if properly cared for. Additionally, there is a helpful information sheet that shows which plants will grow best where; some are suitable for up to seven thousand feet – perfect for us! – and some can tolerate the higher mountain elevations. The program also provides planting guides and lots of other useful tips to keep the trees healthy.

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One of our Nanking cherry trees, heavily mulched with an alpaca fleece blanket.

Quality trees are expensive. They’re rightfully expensive because they took a lot of labor and care and investment to grow. Many people don’t realize that while big-box stores might be cheap, they’re not necessarily going to sell plants suitable for that particular area; those national purchasing decisions are made months, if not years, in advance, by some corporate executive at the head office in some vague place a thousand miles and many weather patterns away from Colorado’s arid high-plains desert. If you’re spending good money on trees, it makes sense to choose trees that are appropriate for your space. Figure out where you want to plant – is it sunny? Shaded? What sort of soil? What’s the elevation? Do you want a deciduous option? Is there good drainage? Will it impact overhead wires? Near sewer lines? Once you’ve got the site narrowed down, do some research about your hardiness zone and what might suit your needs. Go to a reputable local nursery that knows what works in your climate, not some impersonal big-box store looking to offload ten thousand Meyer lemon trees because they didn’t sell in Arizona.

We caged the saplings to protect them; somehow, this one was missed when we removed the cages. It has since been freed and is growing nicely.

Once you’ve chosen your trees, make sure you know how and when to plant them. Here, we can plant some things in spring and others in fall, and it makes a big difference for the tree’s long-term success. Follow the planting instructions from the nursery, if they’re trustworthy; you can also check with your local Extension office. (Pro tip: when you know you have trees arriving, prepare your planting holes well in advance so that you can plant your trees as soon as possible. It rarely benefits a tree to keep it in its pot for any longer than necessary.) Make sure your spacing and placement account for the tree’s eventual canopy spread and possible interference with overhead obstructions.

We think some of our fruit trees have an aphid infestation; the presence of ladybugs is a good sign that nature is usually capable of defending itself if left alone.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in Colorado is not to water in seedlings thoroughly in the first year, or during dry winters. Especially in this climate, little saplings will often suffer from severe transplant shock and will need far more water than you might think. If your land isn’t set up with drip irrigation or some other similar system, it’s imperative that you figure out how those tiny trees will get the water they need. Although our orchard is on drip, many of our other trees are watered by hand, and especially this year we’re giving them a deep soak with every week’s irrigation run. Those roots will never establish properly if the tree is drought-stricken in its first year.

We’ve lopped the crowns off some of our struggling mature trees; most are showing growth again at the base.

Many homeowners think that it would be great fun to plant fruit trees for fresh, homegrown fruit, but be aware that fruit trees have their own set of challenges. The Front Range is particularly harsh on fruit trees because of the dramatic diurnal temperature swings; the main reason Colorado’s fruit industry is centered on the Western Slope is because we rarely experience those. (With the obvious exception of last October’s horrible freeze, which is why we have no local fruit this year.) And if your trees do bear fruit, they’ll bring pests (wasps! deer!) along with them. The majority of our fruit trees are outside our game fence, and we know that expanding that fence will be something we’ll need to tackle sooner rather than later if we ever want to harvest our own plums and Nanking cherries.

We didn’t think our Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) survived the winter, but it is thriving!

There is a perfect tree for every situation, but it might take a bit of effort on your part to figure out exactly what that tree is. Trees add so much intrinsic beauty and value to our world that it’s our responsibility to plant them wherever we can. If possible, dear friends, please consider planting trees where you live, work and play. We don’t plant trees for ourselves, we plant trees for future generations – and since we have rather a lot to apologize for, planting a few trees seems to be the least we can do.

P.S. If you’re not familiar with the title reference, it’s paraphrased from this classic, which was first released in 1971 and was well ahead of its time. It was banned in a California school district in 1989 because it was thought that it would “turn children against the logging industry.” Maybe it was the devastating and rapacious clearcutting of old-growth forests that actually turned people against the logging industry, and not a silly children’s book?