Gone to seed

We’ve talked 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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Many of these collected onion seeds have already been replanted for a fall crop.

Saving seeds is so much easier than many people think; annuals are typically desperate to present their seeds to any creature who might help disperse them, so collecting is often simple. In most cases, know that you need to leave the plants alone long past the point of edibility for the greatest success. I always abandon a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, tomatillos and cucumbers on the plants for as long as possible so that these internal seeds have plenty of time to mature, no matter how big or shriveled or overripe the fruits might get. (The exception here, of course, is if a hard freeze is forecast; you’ll want to bring all fruits in in that situation.) Greens often turn intensely bitter once they’ve gone to seed, but can be replanted quickly.

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Most of these Peregion beans are destined for the soup pot this winter, but a handful will be saved for next year’s crop.

Some seeds are obvious, because they’re the part of the plant we eat: think beans and peas. To collect these seeds, let the pods dry on the plant until they rattle; then shell, bag and label. Others can be trickier; lettuces often take a while to go to seed, unless the weather is very hot; once they do finally turn, the leaves will be bitter and almost crispy, but you’ll see dozens of tiny puffballs on the top of the plant, and these can easily be collected in a paper bag once they’re thoroughly dry. You’ll want them to almost crumble in your fingers when you try to harvest; if some of the little cottony puffs have already started flying away, you’ll know it’s a good time to harvest the seeds. I think lettuce offers the best return on seeds of any edible annual; each single plant will produce thousands of seeds.

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Don’t try to plant the little packets from your favorite pizza place.

Saving seeds from other edible crops can be a bit trickier. It’s no surprise that tomatoes, the garden’s high-maintenance princess, require more attention. Tomato seeds should be fermented before storage; this extra step actually creates a sort of antibacterial coating around the seed, offering an extra layer of protection. To ferment tomato seeds, simply scrape the seeds and their gel out of the tomato with a spoon; the flesh can still be eaten. Place the seeds in a small, shallow container and cover with just a little water. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for a few days until mold has formed. (Don’t be put off by the fragrance! That’s nature at work.) Once all the liquid has evaporated and the seeds are thoroughly dry, carefully separate the seeds with your fingertips, bag, label and store.

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Save seeds from the vegetables you love! And maybe even the vegetables you don’t love! Just in case there’s a pandemic!

Saving seeds is one thing, but storing them properly is just as important, if not more so. Never blend seeds from different vegetable varieties, unless you’re intentionally looking to create something like a greens mix. Store all seeds properly labeled in individual seed bags or envelopes, and always keep your seed bank in a cool, dark and dry location, away from bugs or insects. The wildfires decimating the West right now have forced a lot of anxious contemplation of what I’d save if we had to evacuate; I’ve realized that my irreplaceable seed bank is one of those items. Seeds matter. Self-sufficiency matters. And the ability to grow our own food – without the pernicious influence of megacorporations – matters the most.

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These arugula seeds have already scattered to the four winds.

Like so many other things in the early days of the pandemic, people panic-bought pretty much all the country’s seeds for their quarantine gardens. I’d love to know how many of these impulse seed purchases actually made it into the ground, and how many remain unopened in a forgotten Amazon shipping box in a dusty closet. Considering how quickly the seed companies’ inventory vanished this spring, seed saving has become more important than ever. If you grow anything at all – even if it’s just a pot of basil on a sunny windowsill – consider letting your plants go to seed so you can collect and save that seed. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that nothing about our food system is secure, and seeds are no exception.

Farm update: August 31

How are you doing out there, friends? Here at Quiet Farm we’re immensely grateful for clearer skies and cooler temperatures. We’re about seventy miles from the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, and there were days over the past couple of weeks where it felt as though we lived inside of a barbecue grill. Although the air still smells of smoke, and we don’t have our crystalline blue skies back, conditions have definitely improved. We send our heartfelt thanks to all of the fire fighters, police officers, and other emergency services personnel who put their lives on the line every single day. Thank you.

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To be eaten out of hand over the sink.

We went peach picking this past week; these are likely the last of this year’s harvest and ninety pounds are now nestled in boxes in our garage fridge awaiting processing. Colorado is most famous for its Palisade peaches, north of us in Mesa County; unfortunately – as though 2020 weren’t awful enough! – Palisade lost about eighty percent of its peach crop this year to that killing frost we had back in April. Our peach trees here in Delta County didn’t suffer nearly as badly (we did lose all of our cherries), so we’ll have local canned peaches in January that taste like liquid sunshine. (Fun fact: if you’re buying Palisade peaches on the Front Range, you should ask what orchard the fruit actually came from. Most of the peaches sold as “Palisade” this year didn’t come from Colorado, but from California. Also, in a season like this one, many of our Delta County peaches get rebranded as Palisade. Brand names sell, plain and simple.)

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Hunting with an audience.

N captured this early morning shot of our resident young fox hunting voles in our pasture. The magpies, never shy about their desire for a free meal, wait patiently in the hope that they too might share in the spoils. It’s tough to balance our ecosystem’s need for apex predators – we definitely want the fox to help control our rodent population, but we’d also like it to stay far away from our chickens. This debate is currently playing out on a much larger scale, as the Colorado ballot this November will ask whether voters want to reintroduce gray wolves, eradicated around 1940, in our part of the state. (Also please observe how beautiful that pasture looks. All credit to N for his mowing and irrigation work this season!)

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‘Marquis’ spring wheat.

We grew wheat! We opted to participate in small-scale wheat trials this year, and while much of our trial crop was demolished by deer, rabbits and squirrels, and plenty more taken out by strong winds, we did harvest a few stalks. The wheat still needs to be separated from the chaff and field notes beg to be written, plus seed must be returned to the seed bank organizing the project. If we actually grew enough to bake a single loaf of bread, I’ll be amazed – but it’s really exciting to grow grains. In decades past, most regions in the U.S. had their own uniquely adapted grain varieties, and of course this also supported the mills and bakeries required to process those grains. Those disappeared in the centralization of agriculture, but local heritage grains are staging a resurgence across the country. We want to be part of that trend, even on a minuscule scale.

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Not bad for an unintentional crop.

We also grew melons! This is amusing because we didn’t plant any melons. We do, however, have a thriving compost pile, and members of the vast curcubit family (squash, cucumbers and melons) are notorious both for cross-pollinating and for volunteering in unexpected places. This miniature cantaloupe (each is about the size of a softball) appeared in the hot pepper bed, where the serranos and cayennes are flourishing. We have five or six mature fruits now, and are excited to harvest one to see what we grew. If it’s delicious, we’ll save the seeds in the hopes we can grow it again, and we’ll have a melon bred just for Quiet Farm!

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Definitely qualifies as a meal.

And finally, our tomatoes are coming on strong. The intense heat wave we’ve just endured definitely hastened the tomato ripening schedule, though we’ve obviously needed to irrigate much more frequently. This time of year we’re likely to have a tomato salad at every meal, if only because the season is so fleeting. No recipe needed: sun-warmed tomatoes, halved or quartered, good olive oil, thinly-sliced red onion, a few grinds of black pepper, basil and a generous sprinkling of crunchy salt. Fresh mozzarella, ricotta or cotija would obviously not go amiss here. Honestly, it’s summer in a bowl and we’ll make the most of it while it lasts.

With that, we’re off to tackle a busy week that will hopefully include a hay delivery, a pre-winter fireplace inspection and more than a few canning projects. Wishing you all safety and health.

How to start composting

Americans produce about five times as much trash per capita as does the rest of the world: a truly shameful statistic. Even while the news shows images of food bank lines stretching for miles, we still manage to waste far more food (about 40% of everything we buy) than the average human. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity; by some estimates, over half the waste in municipal landfills could be composted and used to build soil fertility. It’s also frustrating to see thousands of plastic trash bags filled with grass clippings and raked leaves headed to the landfill where they won’t decompose effectively when rebuilding the soil is one of the very best weapons we have against climate change.

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Our original compost pile.

If you’re looking to reduce your own waste stream, starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest solutions. And if you’re cooking at home more these days, as most of us are, you might find yourself producing a lot of food scraps that could be put to much better use than the landfill. Composting has long been presented as too challenging / too time-consuming / too complicated / too messy / too smelly / impossible on a small scale. If managed correctly it is none of these, and is one of the very best ways to make your own plants better, even if you’re simply growing fresh herbs on a sunny windowsill.

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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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Farm update: June 8

“Good morning. Concentration is hard to come by these days, amid the nation’s strife. We are living through a tough and chaotic and wrenching time, filled with fury and an abiding sadness. We’re unsettled. We’re tense. We’re divided. The emotions arrange themselves in combinations that make it hard to work, to read, to watch, to listen, much less to think.

Cooking can help. The act of preparing food is a deliberate and caring one, even if you’re just making yourself a bowl of oatmeal at the end of a long night of worry. The way you sprinkle raisins over the top is an intentional act of kindness to yourself. So what I’m doing now, amid my restless skimming of nonfiction and news, thrillers and literature, poems that don’t bring solace: I read recipes, think about who in my family they might please, and I cook.”

-Sam Sifton, The New York Times

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So much effort, yet so worth it.

While I was flipping through the April issue of Bon Appétit, N saw this recipe and asked me to make these “camouflage brownies.” And so I did. They required approximately seventeen different bowls, forty-two utensils, nine measuring devices and three separate batter components. (When a professional chef tells you a recipe is complicated and elaborate, believe her.) But the end result? Amazing. We don’t eat a lot of sweets, so we devoured this pan a little quicker than good sense would indicate, and it was entirely worth it. And I had to buy the cream cheese in a two-pack, so we’ll probably see these again in our kitchen very soon.

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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.

Where the water goes

There has long existed a tired stereotype of a farmer as some sort of rural idiot, a barely-literate country bumpkin who can only just string two sentences together. If there is anything we’ve learned during our nearly two-year (!) farming adventure, it’s that a successful small farmer is anything but stupid. You have to be a veterinarian and a seedsman and an ATV mechanic and a soil scientist and an entomologist. You have to dig holes, repair fences, build structures, patch hoses and outwit pests. You have to be strong, creative, resourceful, thrifty and tireless. And you have to know how to manage the water on your property, no matter how it gets there.

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The components of one of our drip irrigation kits.

One of our goals for this, our second full season of farming, is to get our irrigation dialed in. We don’t farm in a traditional American sense, i.e. hundreds of acres of the same crop (usually corn or soybeans) laid out in precise rows and neat blocks. Irrigating that sort of monocrop is relatively easy, because every plant is identical and therefore its water needs are identical, too. Once that irrigation system is established, it’s basically set-it-and-forget-it. Instead, we farm in a sort-of patchwork style all across our property: perennial herbs in this corner, a bed or two or nine here, trees over there. As a result, our irrigation is similarly patchwork, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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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: 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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Gardening for beginners

The aftermath of both September 11 and the 2008 economic collapse brought a renewed interest in home gardening, and our current catastrophe looks to be no different. Garden centers have started operating online, seed companies are back-ordered for the foreseeable future and lots of people are reviewing their HOA regulations and eyeing available space in their suburban backyards. While it might not be practical to expect a backyard garden to provide all necessary food for a standard American family (how do you grow dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, anyway?), gardening offers an active yet meditative experience, an immense sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and a deeper appreciation for how much work it takes to grow food. With that in mind, we offer a few basic tips for people looking to start their own garden.

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The current seed-starting set-up in our sunroom, expanding by the day.

Start small, and plant what you’ll actually eat. In moments of stress or panic (or when we suddenly have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands) we might be tempted to dig up our entire backyard and start an urban farm. This is great in theory, but if you’ve never grown a single basil plant before, we highly recommend that you start small – maybe just a couple of herb pots or a tidy little container garden on a sunny patio. It’s easy to think big and abundant, but when things return (somewhat) to normal, whenever that may be, you may not have the necessary time to devote to your garden. You can always expand if it turns out you love growing food.

Also in the interest of keeping things manageable, plant what you’ll actually eat. I’ve decided this year that I’m no longer going to devote precious garden space to eggplant, because although we don’t hate it, we don’t love it, either. And our vegetable real estate is exceedingly valuable – more so every year – and I want to plant things we adore, like tomatoes and peppers and interesting culinary herbs. When you’re choosing what you’ll grow, make sure you have a selection of vegetables and herbs that are relevant to your household, and if possible, try one new variety that you’ve never eaten before.

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