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.

Kochia (Bassia scoparia) is technically an invasive weed but is also used as a forage crop.

Look, I’ll just cut right to the chase: the film is gorgeous. Truly spectacular. The Chesters’ property, rechristened Apricot Lane Farms, is over two hundred magnificent acres; they “grow more than 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables, and humanely raise sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks on pastures and within our orchards.” While we and the Chesters might all technically consider ourselves ‘farmers,’ our experience (and our farm!) differ considerably from Apricot Lane. And if guests visit Quiet Farm expecting the iconic Apricot Lane visuals (only $150 for the VIP tour!), they’re bound to be sorely disappointed.

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is troublesome for us; the sharp, poky seedheads are stuck in our socks all summer.

The carefully-curated golden hour drone shots of Apricot Lane show hillside after hillside, swale after swale, meticulously planted and beautifully managed and without a single seedling out of place. And certainly no weeds to be seen! Some very casual Internet research indicates that the Apricot Lane farmland alone is likely worth about three million dollars, if not more; maintaining a property like this is a staggering amount of work, and one that cannot be accomplished without a large crew and plenty of specialized machinery. Quiet Farm is less than a tenth the size of Apricot Lane, with neither a crew nor much machinery.

Its remarkably strong taproot makes common mallow (Malva neglecta) challenging to eliminate by hand.

Quiet Farm is, perhaps, a bit wilder than Apricot Lane. A bit less manicured, maybe. Or you could say with brutal honesty: “entirely overrun by weeds.” And it would be easy for us to watch The Biggest Little Farm and feel more than a little disappointed in what we’ve accomplished in our three years on Quiet Farm. It would be easy for us to think that we’re failing at farming and failing at managing our land, and I’ve certainly been guilty of falling into this trap. I try to remember, however, that my limited time and energy is best spent focused on our property, not on what others are doing. And I know for a fact that our land is in better shape now than when we bought it, and that’s always our ultimate goal.

Please don’t spray your dandelions; they’re an important food source for pollinators.

Here’s the truth of it all: we are rich in weeds here at Quiet Farm. We are farming in a harsh, arid high-plains desert, not the verdant agricultural paradise known as southern California. We are subject to wildly fluctuating temperatures, severe lack of moisture and desiccating winds, and any plants (or people!) that survive here must be tough. Anyone who has read about the Dust Bowl knows that the main cause of that needlessly tragic period was basically the tilling of the Great Prairie – essentially, with the advent of mechanization, farmers removed all of the plants holding down that valuable topsoil. We are determined not to repeat that mistake here on our land, so unless the weeds are directly impacting a plant we’re growing, they stay. We’d rather have any plant in the soil – even if it’s technically a weed – than bare ground. And of course, a weed is merely a plant growing where you don’t want it. (There are a few exceptions that we will always remove, namely Mexican puncturevine, also known as sandbur or goatheads, and any thistle, only because they hurt like hell when you cross them.)

Usually we have lovely fields of blue mustard, but not in this drought year.

Ironically, many of the weeds and other plants now classified as noxious or invasive were intentionally introduced as “fast-growing ground cover” and sold at garden centers here for decades (Russian olive trees and the spurge family are two great examples). Others are highly nutritious and would have likely been prized by settlers and homesteaders, including purslane, mustard and lamb’s quarters. There’s a valid argument that we’d all be much healthier if we occasionally foraged for native wild greens, only because their nutrition content is dramatically higher than our cultivated greens (which we don’t eat enough of, anyway). Weeds, of course, aren’t necessarily weeds to everyone: at the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Manhattan, purslane is often sold for upwards of $20 a pound. Because of the exceptional drought that we’re experiencing we found that our purslane and mustard didn’t make much of an appearance this spring, but we’re hoping to see them again in future years.

Our spiky, dangerous nemesis: cotton or Scotch thistle.

We have a stack of booklets and pamphlets, mostly produced by our favorite local land-grant university, that provide information about noxious weeds and how to manage them. The solution, invariably, is heavy, intense spraying with broadleaf poisons like 2,4D and glyphosate. These delightful (and expensive!) Big Ag products are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, toxic to birds, wildlife and aquatic life and likely destroy bee populations, as well. Why would we uproot our entire lives to move to a small farm and focus on growing our own food so that we could then douse ourselves and our animals in Agent Orange? All weeds will eventually adapt and gain resistance to any herbicide, no matter how much we use. And once the weeds are thoroughly eradicated, which will never happen, what are we supposed to plant in their place – a thirsty monocrop of Kentucky bluegrass? We barely have enough water to keep our edible plants alive, much less pointless turfgrass. So we pull weeds by hand when they’re interfering with our crops and throw them to the chickens; otherwise, we live peacefully with the plants on our land (except for the goatheads, which destroy our shoes and our bike tires).

Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) are prolific and incredibly nutritious.

I sound jealous and disgruntled, of course, because Apricot Lane Farms is really just so unbelievably gorgeous, and some days all I can see here are the unkempt, straggly weeds that seem to be everywhere. We are genuinely happy that a film like The Biggest Little Farm garnered lots of attention – any media that addresses our deeply compromised food supply is a net positive, in our opinion. But nothing in that film bears any relation to our little farm, and I’d argue that two hundred acres outside of Los Angeles – while certainly not a ten-thousand-acre monocrop corn/soy operation in Iowa – isn’t exactly a “little” farm, but more like a multimillion dollar farm theme park, complete with gift shop. Just like anything else on social media, it’s important to remember that there is quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work that isn’t mentioned, and two people can’t manage that property on their own, though the film implies that the Chesters do just that. I’d like to know a lot more about their weed eradication practices.

Likely something in the dock family? Feel free to weigh in with a plant ID.

We’ll never successfully hand-weed our entire acreage. And no matter how long we’re here, Quiet Farm will simply never be Hollywood-ready, and it won’t ever look like Apricot Lane. That’s just how it is. So if you should ever visit us, remember not to make comparisons with any heavily-edited farm documentaries you might have seen. Don’t forget to browse our gift shop, where you can buy a fair-trade logo tote bag handwoven from bindweed, mallow and cheatgrass (careful, it’s a bit sharp). Goatheads are always a free gift with every purchase because they’re already stuck in the soles of your shoes.

Farm update: March 22

We are sorely disappointed to report that we did not receive even one paltry inch of snow from the massive spring storm that walloped Denver and the Front Range last weekend. To add insult to injury, snow was in the forecast again today, to no avail – I promise you that it is clear and dry outside right now. We joke regularly about checking (In)AccuWeather on our phones, where it’s always “currently snowing in Delta County” – no. No, it isn’t. We have learned from our time here to only trust the weather that we can actually see and feel. All other promises and forecasts ring hollow.

So what we’re not doing on the farm right now is plowing or shoveling snow. But here are a few other things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d care to see.

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Winter descends

“In a year that stripped life to bare fundamentals, the natural world has become our shared story. Seasons have offered the rare reminder that the world moves on even as our sense of time blurs.”

“The undeniable hardship of this winter is a reminder that for much of human history, particularly in colder climates, winter was a season simply to be survived. Winter is a primal time of death and loss, and a time for grief. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human.”

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Farm update: November 9

There’s no question that it’s been one hell of a week. Scratch that: it’s been one hell of a year. Over here at Quiet Farm, though, we carry on planting, tidying, baking, canning, caring for our animals and preparing for winter. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently, if you’d like to see.

Ready for a long winter’s nap.

We planted our 2021 garlic crop this week; it’s tucked under a warm, cozy blanket of compost, alpaca manure and straw. Garlic is a unique annual crop in that it stays in the ground for about nine months, but during that time it requires almost no maintenance beyond occasional watering. As usual, we’d separated this year’s garlic harvest and saved the largest cloves for planting; thanks to garden magic, each individual clove grows into a full head. We planted about one hundred and fifty cloves in two new beds, then a friend texted with an offer of extra garlic that she had over-ordered (thanks, Judy!), so another seventy cloves went into an additional row. Every year I run out of garlic before the July harvest, and every year I vow to plant more. Will over two hundred heads be enough for next year? Stay tuned, and vampires beware.

Simple. Elegant. Gorgeous. (Also filthy.)

My winter will hopefully involve lots of sewing and reading, and N will focus his time and energy on this rescued beauty. For all you gearheads out there, this is a classic example of American motor muscle: a Ford 289 small-block V8 manufactured in the summer of 1964; it likely came out of a Mustang or a Galaxie. At the moment, it needs a lot of cleaning and possibly a replacement part or two, but who knows what it could accomplish once restored to its former glory? While electric cars might be all the rage, there is much to be said for the elegant simplicity of a powerful internal combustion engine. (We obviously love beautiful 1960s Americana here; see also the recently-acquired Singer Touch ‘N’ Sew.)

So thrilled with our dry bean harvest!

I may well be more proud of the beans we grew than just about any other crop. While I love growing vegetables, with each passing year (especially when there’s a pandemic and associated food scarcity!) I am more and more committed to growing long-term food storage crops like grains and beans. We planted just one small row of these ‘Peregion’ beans this season, and though I doubt I have more than a few pounds of homegrown beans for the winter, I know that I’ll be expanding on the varieties we grow next season. Dry beans are easy to grow and to store, require very little post-harvest processing and punch well above their weight in terms of nutritional value. Plus, they’re delicious! We hope to grow a lot more beans here at Quiet Farm.

Flying the coop.

Domestic chickens are the closest living relatives of the T.Rex (that’s true) and have similarly tiny brains. Here, one of our genius hens decided to make her way to the top of the chicken house, but was understandably somewhat perplexed as to how she might get down – although she did finally make the leap. Little does she know that the roof offers zero protection from raptors, of which we have many, and actually makes a perfect runway for a hungry hawk searching for a tasty chicken meal. If she continues her high-flying adventures, she’ll learn that lesson the hard way.

This is how we roll.

True confession time, friends: all November and December issues of food and entertaining magazines (Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart, etc.) received at Quiet Farm usually go straight into the library donation bin without even being opened once. Such is the extent of my loathing for the end-of-year holidays and all the attendant expectations, “must-have foods,” waste and excess! This year, however, a customer requested soft, fluffy dinner rolls, and I wanted to experiment with a few different iterations. Plus, I was completely sold on this caption: “If food could give you a hug, these rolls definitely would.” As we face the end of one of the most difficult years any of us have ever experienced, is there anything we all need more than a giant, warm, comforting hug? I think not. (P.S. The rolls are a bit labor-intensive but excellent, and they work at altitude. Worth your time.)

Wishing everyone a calm, restful and healthy week.

Fantastic beasts

As we’ve mentioned previously, we want rich, abundant, diverse life here at Quiet Farm. We can best accomplish this by planting a wide variety of different plants (rather than a monoculture), by avoiding chemicals, sprays and poisons and by learning to live with socially-unacceptable “weeds.” Here are a few beautiful creatures that have been spotted on our farm recently!

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Two-tailed swallowtail butterfly (Papilio multicaudata).

Butterflies (and moths, to a lesser extent) are hugely important pollinators and are indicative of healthy ecosystems, so we’re always happy to see them flitting about the farm. The presence of butterflies typically indicates a healthy environment for other unseen invertebrates, too. This two-tailed swallowtail, which expired in our garlic bed, is particularly gorgeous.

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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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Bumble Bee 01 sml

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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: April 27

Hello there. How are things in your world? It’s an odd and unsettled time, to be sure. Here at Quiet Farm we’re keeping our heads down and our hands busy as we navigate the seasonal weather shifts that have us careening from wind to rain to sun to hail and back again, all in the space of a few minutes.

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House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus).

Spring is underway, slowly but surely, and our diverse bird life reflects that. The bald eagle pair we’d been keeping an eye on has vanished, presumably for colder climes; now the gorgeous call of the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) marks our days. Watching the scrappy magpies fight off aggressive egg-stealing ravens is decent entertainment, too.

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Chick lit

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an article about how, in addition to guns, seeds, toilet paper and yeast, Americans have “stress-bought all the baby chickens.” For the record, N and I would like to point out that raising chicks was always in our 2020 plan, even before this pandemic wreaked havoc on the universe. And so it happens that ten chicks now reside in a makeshift fort in our sunroom, deftly constructed of cardboard, repurposed pallets, a vintage metal fireplace guard, free Harbor Freight tarps, and salvaged window screens. This chicken palace is a thing of architectural beauty, make no mistake.

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Bielefelder

What distressed me most about that NYT article – and to be fair, this happens every Easter – is how many people buy chicks (and puppies, and kittens…) without thinking beyond their cuteness stage. Do you know anything about keeping chickens? Where do you plan to house them? How will you keep them safe from predators? What if you end up with a rooster, which are illegal in most municipalities? This flock will be our fourth, and before we had chickens at our old house we did a ton of research on how to keep them safe, healthy and happy.

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Winter on the farm

In nautical terminology, “the doldrums” refer to an actual place – waters near the Equator where sailing ships were often stuck for days or weeks in windless seas. In common parlance, however, the doldrums mean “a state or period of stagnation, inactivity or depression.” And so here we are in deepest winter.

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Our dormant raised beds, slumbering under snow.

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Farm update: January 6

Hello there, and a very happy new year to you and yours. If you’re here for the first time, welcome! If you’re returning after our hiatus, thanks for coming back! We look forward to sharing a new year of food and farm adventures with you.

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Our updated Snow Management Plan in action!

Last winter – our first winter at Quiet Farm – our area received an unprecedented amount of snow. Our inaugural Snow Management Plan was…ineffective, shall we say; we had no tractor and no plow and no way of getting out of our quarter-mile driveway with a foot of snow on the ground. At one point, we resorted to begging a friend with a truck to flatten the snow by driving up and down our lane so we could at least leave the farm (thanks, Joe!). Needless to say, that was not a sustainable long-term solution.

This winter we haven’t had nearly as much snow, but we do have a plan – a detachable plow for our ATV. And so far, the ATV plow has worked like a champion. We’re even thinking of purchasing other implements for the ATV, so that we can use it like a mini-tractor, since we’ve been unsuccessful in finding a reasonably-priced midsize tractor to manage our pasture. Stay tuned.

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