Farm update: June 6

Hello, friends. Here are a few things we’ve been up to on the farm lately, if you’d like to see.

Look! Asparagus!

We are excited to announce our first official asparagus harvest. ‘Harvest’ is likely a bit of a misnomer, as virtually all stalks were snapped off and consumed fresh in situ, but still an event worthy of note. Asparagus is most commonly planted from crowns, which are often purchased at two or three years old and therefore more expensive; we started asparagus from seed two years ago (with a replant last year) which is markedly less costly. Starting from seed, however, is definitely not the way to go if you’re looking for rapid results. We now have eight healthy crowns and they’ll continue to produce for at least ten years, if not longer. Next year we’re very much looking forward to harvesting enough asparagus to actually use in a salad or pasta!

We love bees! Bees love dandelions! Therefore, we love dandelions!

Loathed by suburban homeowners nationwide, dandelions are yet another example of something in nature that wants to help us live healthier lives, but we insist on poisoning it so that we can maintain a biologically dead non-native bluegrass carpet. Not only do they provide the bees with one of their earliest foods, typically long before other pollen sources are available, but this year the dandelion greens were especially tasty. Dandelions have been used in traditional medicine for centuries; they’re rich in numerous vitamins and minerals, plus they fight inflammation and are packed with antioxidants. As long as you’re harvesting in an area that hasn’t been sprayed, the entire plant is edible; the root is often made into a tea, and the greens are delicious cooked or raw.

Here’s Fiji, looking remarkably cooler after his beauty salon visit.

The alpacas were sheared this past week, just in time for summer’s intense heat. You may well remember that we were more than just a little nervous about our first shearing experience last spring; that went smoothly, thanks to the calm professionalism of our shearer, Luke. This year’s shearing was also handled by Luke in record time and with no injury to beast nor human, and the animals will be far more comfortable this summer. Our motley and feral crew will never win any prizes, to be certain, but we know full well that they’re living a good, safe, healthy life here with us.

We dug this hole out by hand. It’s a lot deeper than it appears.

We have six frost-free ag taps on the farm; they’re connected to our domestic water and are designed to provide water to plants and animals even in the dead of winter. We also use ours to operate our drip system when we’re not running irrigation water, so it’s essential that they’re all in good working order, particularly during the growing season. Our primary tap started leaking last fall, and we dug it out, removed the tap, insulated the line with alpaca fleece and capped it for the winter. After pricing out a replacement, we opted to cannibalize one of our existing taps, one north of the house and little-used. This required digging a second two-foot-deep hole – by hand, of course – and relocating the entire apparatus. All our repairs seem to have held strong, so now it’s time to fill in those treacherous holes. As always, with each small success we gain ever more confidence in tackling all manner of farm projects.

And finally, if you’re searching for a spectacular celebration of the natural world, may I wholeheartedly recommend this.

We have much planting to do. Wishing you a peaceful week.

Farm update: September 20

Autumn is very much on its way here at Quiet Farm. Overnight lows plunge to the mid-40s, though our daytime temperatures remain in the mid-80s. The plants are all starting to look a bit tired, a bit yellowed, a bit lackluster. The seasonal transition has begun, and we are looking forward to the slower rhythms of late fall and winter. This remains an exceptionally busy time for us; here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see.

One day’s harvest of an easy twenty-five pounds.

Despite a rough start, we’ve had a spectacular year for tomatoes. We planted about sixty tomato plants of about fourteen different varieties, and our yields have been simply staggering. We’ve grown full-size heirlooms that I never thought possible, believing that our growing season was simply too short, and the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes have done well too. Every night for weeks now there’s been a fresh tomato salad with supper, and we’ve put up sauce, soup and salsa for a warm and nourishing winter. I never, ever tire of fresh tomatoes, and since we don’t eat storebought tomatoes, we’re getting our fill now. We will miss these gorgeous things until next summer.

Spotted on an evening irrigation check.

As we’ve spoken of many times here, we focus our efforts on improving our land and our soil, and one of the best ways we can do that is by encouraging both native plants and the pollinator population. Monarch butterflies are an iconic pollinator species; the western U.S. monarch population is currently traveling south on its fall migration. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) shown above feeds exclusively on milkweed; once the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, it has a much more varied diet. Unfortunately, milkweed is also toxic to livestock, so ranchers regularly treat pasture milkweeds with toxic herbicides – which is why the monarch population is declining, because the larvae cannot survive without these plants. We keep camelids here at Quiet Farm, and have spent hours worried about our animals becoming ill from consuming milkweed in our pastures; obviously, we’re not going to spray and we don’t particularly want to pull all these host plants.

After extensive research, our solution – for the moment – is to let things stand as they are. Hardy alpacas and llamas, native to the high Andes, aren’t nearly as delicate as domesticated cattle and sheep, so are far less likely to become sick. Plus, we’re intentionally cultivating a mixed pasture, with lots of different plants for our animals to graze; the likelihood of any of our animals eating enough milkweed to become seriously ill is slender indeed. There are never perfect methods of pasture management, but we’re working hard at figuring out what we can do to maintain balance.

Beautiful photo. Terrible plant. Just look at its horrible weaponry!

One thing that is very much not in balance is our puncturevine population. The farm is absolutely overrun with this heinous plant this year, and we’ve spent countless hours trying to eradicate it – pulling by hand, obviously, as dousing the entire farm in glyphosate is clearly not an option. Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) is an invasive weed, uniquely adapted to our desert climate, that grows where few other plants will; most infuriatingly, the seeds can remain dormant in the soil for seven to ten years. While we’re happy to let neutral weeds, like purslane and mullein, grow freely, the puncturevine burrs are harmful to humans and animals – and bicycle tires, too. For reasons unknown to us, this year conditions were absolutely perfect for puncturevine to take over our land and so it has. We are hoping that we’ve removed most of it, but we know that some of those viciously sharp little seeds are simply biding their time until next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. The battle continues.

The Quiet Farm pumpkin patch.

We’ve done well with winter squash this year, though as usual there are some squashes that didn’t exactly breed true – always a risk with saved seeds and limited isolation practices. Squash plants are a reliable harbinger of fall; ours usually start showing signs of powdery mildew, and the vines themselves start to fade and turn a bit crispy. I usually trim immature fruit so that the plant devotes all its energies to ripening the larger fruits, but this year I’ve mostly left the squash patch to its own devices. Depending on the variety, most pumpkins start out dark green with stripes; the fruits turn the classic bright orange in the same way leaves change color on deciduous trees. These jack o’lantern pumpkins yielded nicely; they’ll be cured for winter storage and won’t be carved but instead used for soups, curries and muffins.

As with other annuals, the bean plants will also clearly demonstrate that they’re nearly finished for the season. These are labeled as ‘Aztec White’, but based on the small size I suspect they’re more along the lines of a true navy bean. Dry beans can stay on the vine until frost threatens, a huge bonus for the time-starved farmer; if there isn’t time to shell the beans immediately, they can be tossed into repurposed feed sacks and stored in a cool, dark, dry place, away from pests and damp. Shelling dry beans is a perfect project for a crisp, late fall day, when the more pressing tasks have been completed! Once they’re shelled I’ll hopefully have a better idea of the variety, although when it comes to heirloom beans I’m not hugely bothered about specifics, especially when seeds are freely shared amongst local growers. If the beans grow well and taste delicious, that’s really all that matters.

Farm candy.

And to end on a sweet note, we’re pleased to share that our raspberry patch is finally producing. It’s taken us a couple of years to get these canes established, but we’re now harvesting enough raspberries to actually bring a few inside, rather than just eat them all in the field. We’re hopeful that we’ll have a few more weeks before a hard frost, so that all of the unripe berries will have a chance to ripen, but we’re thrilled with anything we get – these are like candy. As with tomatoes, the difference between just-picked raspberries, still warm from the sun, and those sitting in the cold case at your local supercenter is night and day, and we’ll eat our fill for as long as we possibly can.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

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.

A word on weeds

Soft and fuzzy common mullein (Verbascum thapsus).

A couple of years ago, a film titled The Biggest Little Farm was released in the U.S. It received quite a lot of publicity, especially unusual for a farm documentary, and was shown at film festivals and charity screenings across the country. The film opened shortly after we purchased Quiet Farm and was mentioned to us by scores of friends and acquaintances, so of course we had to watch it. The story follows John and Molly Chester as they attempt to regenerate an abandoned farm outside of Los Angeles.

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Gone to seed

We talk a lot about saving seeds here at FQF, and since fall is definitely underway, they’re on our minds more than ever at the moment. In addition to all of our canning and preserving projects and other preparations for winter, collecting and storing seeds is a big part of our autumn task list.

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Collect your sunflower seeds before the birds and squirrels do!

We use the idiom “go to seed” to refer to someone or something that’s let itself go. It’s become messy or unattractive or disheveled or unkempt; it no longer appears tidy and neat. It’s obviously a phrase of agricultural origin, and this is the time of year when it takes on significance in the garden, as most annuals are coming to the end of their natural lives. In their quest to reproduce, the plants have gone to seed: typically they flower first, then the flowers produce seeds, which are spread by wind, insects, animals or human intervention.

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Lettuces are one of the easiest plant families from which to save seeds.

It’s unfortunate, truly, that so many gardeners are offended by the appearance of plants gone to seed, and especially in perfectly manicured suburban settings are likely to rip plants out at the first sign of flowering. Letting plants proceed through their natural life cycle teaches you a lot about botany and helps you become a better grower. Plus, if you’re careful and diligent, you can start building your own unique seed bank, which will both save you money and improve plant diversity.

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This week in flowers: September 7

Slowly but surely, summer is giving way to fall – or winter, really, considering Tuesday night’s forecast. From a high today of just above 90, the thermometer will plummet sixty degrees to a projected hard freeze Tuesday night, and possibly snow, too. This shockingly early first frost (it usually occurs in the first or second week of October) is on-brand for the utter debacle that is 2020, and it will likely kill all of our tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, flowers and delicate herbs. None of these plants are even close to finished for the season, so our overall yields will be cut in half, at least. It’s a terrible, heartbreaking situation for any farmer, and we’re no exception.

At the moment, though, we still have lots of blooms on the farm, and it’s fascinating to watch the flowering plants shift with the seasons. Here are a few we’ve spotted recently (see blossoms from earlier this season here and here). After Wednesday morning, all of these will have vanished.

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This week in flowers: June 1

We’re working hard at creating space for a diverse array of organisms at Quiet Farm. We want plants blooming and flowering and setting seed, plants in every stage of life, throughout the season. We want our plants and trees to provide food and pollen and a home for all manner of things. We want to be a welcoming haven for songbirds and bees and insects and hummingbirds and toads and raptors and every other winged and crawling creature. We want not monoculture but polyculture, a place that mimics a natural ecosystem as closely as possible. We want life, and lots of it, everywhere we look and listen.

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If we spent all our time spraying poisons and pulling “weeds,” or removing plants that didn’t fit a perfect garden aesthetic, we’d have none of this. No birdsong, no beneficial insects, no pollinators. Instead, we have a farm that bursts with color and vibrancy and life.

The world is furious and raging right now. In response: plant something colorful. Grow something delicious. Create something beautiful. Cook something nourishing. Wishing you and yours a calm, peaceful and healthy week.

Farm update: May 11

It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and feels more like late July than early May. We seem to have skipped straight from a parched winter into an equally arid summer, missing the soft green lushness of spring entirely; the peas and radishes survived frost damage only to turn bitter and pithy from sun scald. Last year we had rain almost every single day in May, and this year it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Early reports indicate that the mountain snowpack is melting far too quickly, thanks to this premature summer, and our primary focus these days is on keeping all of our plants irrigated. Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently.

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Our gated irrigation pipe at work. 

All of our irrigation water comes from snow on the Grand Mesa. When the snow thaws each spring, the snowmelt makes its way down the mountain through an intricate series of ditches, headgates, creeks and pipes. We’re focused this year on regenerating our pasture, so have started flood-irrigating our land to see what grows. Later this season we’ll remark our pasture (cut channels that direct the water) and hopefully seed it with perennial grasses, too. Eventually we’ll use the land for rotational grazing, likely a grass-fed steer or two. Flood irrigation requires a lot of work – the water has to be “moved” by opening and closing valves and gates along the pipes – but it’s the system we have, so we’re learning how to use it to the land’s advantage.

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Farm update: March 9

How are you doing? It’s probably been a whipsaw week where you live, too. Here we are trying our best to stay busy and avoid the headlines (easier said than done). A few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

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The bees love coffee as much as we do!

One sure sign of warming weather (which is coming far too early, in our opinion) is enhanced bee activity. On warm, sunny days we’re seeing lots of bees buzzing in the compost pile (they particularly love our spent coffee filters) and also near one of our big trees that’s in early bud. The apple trees in the surrounding orchards haven’t bloomed yet, but it’s always nice to know that our resident bee population survived another winter.

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This week in flowers: July 1

There are lots of amazing aspects of living where we do now, but one of the most rewarding has to be watching the farm change with the seasons. Since we’re still learning our land, we’re constantly surprised by plants or blooms or bushes that appear seemingly overnight. Summer is here, and we’ve got lots of lovely flowers all over.

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‘English Munstead’ lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), fragrant and bee-friendly. Continue reading