Small victories

In ten years of growing food, this is by far the most challenging season we’ve ever experienced. Between punishing hail, voracious deer, late snows, devastating winds, crafty rodents and ten million grasshoppers (I’m certain the locusts are on their way), we feel we’ve taken everything the world can throw at new farmers. We might be down, we might be bruised, but we’re not out yet. And in that spirit, how about we count up some wins?

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Thanks, sunflowers, for cheering us on with your bright faces.

Our farm is awash in sunflowers right now, not one of which we planted. They weren’t here last year when we moved in (historic drought?), but we’re so glad to see them this year. Hopefully they’ll continue to self-seed and their cheerful countenances will be part of every summer here.

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Coming home to roost

One of the many reasons we were drawn to Quiet Farm was its collection of rather ramshackle yet usable outbuildings. Since keeping chickens for eggs (and entertainment) was always a top priority, renovating the chicken house was definitely high on our project list.

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The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

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The original nest boxes on the far wall indicate that this may previously have been used as a henhouse.

Although the chicken house was moderately sturdy, it definitely called for renovation before we brought hens home. The roof required replacing, the foundation needed to be defended against predators and the interior demanded a good cleaning.

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With the roof removed and much of the junk cleaned out.

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Repurposed corrugated steel panels ready for the roof. They’re weighed down with rocks so they don’t blow away.

Our goal with all of our renovation projects is to salvage and repurpose materials whenever possible, and to learn something as we do it. It would be much easier to accomplish everything by constantly buying new supplies at the big-box home improvement stores, but that level of excessive consumption doesn’t fit with our lifestyle and typically stifles creativity, as well. We’re trying hard to do as much as we can with what we have on hand.

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How to install a chicken house roof, in four easy steps.

After removing the existing roof, we laid plywood sheets, covered them with tarpaper, then reinstalled the metal panels. Here’s a pro tip: don’t try to do this on a windy day; we nearly donated all of our roofing materials to our neighbors. Thus far the roof has remained perfectly watertight, but winter will be the real test, especially if we have the heavy snowfall we experienced last year.

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Trenching the chicken house to bury wire.

There are many, many creatures here who would love a fresh chicken dinner, so keeping the chickens both dry and safe is essential. Because raccoons, foxes, skunks and whistle pigs can all dig, we trenched around the house and buried wire fencing about a foot deep. The fencing is also secured two feet up the walls of the house.

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Just some of the hardware discovered during this project.

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Our roost, built from repurposed lumber. 

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Nearly finished!

We bought old windows from a nearby vintage shop and installed them to provide both light and ventilation. It’s actually much more difficult to keep chickens cool than warm; their feathers provide natural insulation and they don’t sweat like humans do, so it’s imperative that they have access to fresh air when it’s hot. On the other hand, cold, damp drafts can make them sick, so the house needs to be pretty airtight during winter.

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All done except for paint. The lush growth and gorgeous light proves this is a spring photo.

We collected rocks (we have plenty!) and stacked them up on top of the wire mesh around the base of the house for an additional layer of protection against digging predators. The old wire spools and branches provide shade and shelter for the birds.

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Twelve chickens, tucked up snugly on the top roost bar.

Chickens like to sleep on an elevated perch; they’re descended from jungle fowl, so they’d naturally sleep in trees. Our roost has four bars, but invariably most of the birds end up on the top rung, with one or two lower-ranking birds on the next rung down. Remember, pecking order is a very real thing, and every chicken knows exactly where they fit in the hierarchy.

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Freshly painted with a new coat of sharp red paint! (Look closely to the right of the house and you can see where the paint sprayer exploded.) 

Our final task was to give the house a fresh coat of paint, both for aesthetics and to protect the aged wood from our harsh weather. Our trusty paint sprayer didn’t like the thick exterior paint or the extreme summer temperatures, so there’s quite a lot more red paint “decorating” the area than we’d like. Nevertheless, the refurbished chicken house is keeping our birds safe, protected and dry and hopefully will for years to come.

Next up on the project list: lots of canning and preserving, plus installing our beetle-kill floors in the master bedroom and closet. Always something in the works here on Quiet Farm!

Lessons learned

Hello again, and please forgive us our recent absence. We’ve taken a small summer hiatus – not because we’ve actually been on vacation, but because for a period of time there we didn’t have many nice things to say about farming, and we didn’t want our space here to sound whiny and negative. We’re genuinely thrilled to be farming, even when we aren’t.

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One of early summer’s low points.

It’s been just under one year since we found Quiet Farm, and what a year it’s been. There have been highs and lows and successes and failures. And now that we’re one year wiser and can officially call ourselves farmers, we’re working hard on learning from our experiences. We always say that we’re allowed to make as many mistakes as we want, but we have to make different mistakes. If we make the same mistakes over and over, then we obviously haven’t learned anything.

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Farm update: July 8

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This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

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This week in flowers

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.

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A gorgeous pink shrub rose, variety unknown.

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Fava bean plants (Vicia faba) have beautiful black-and-white blossoms.

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Cheerful yellow blooms, probably in the daisy (Asteraceae) family?

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This arugula (white flowers) and mustard (yellow flowers) have both nearly gone to seed; we’ll let the pods dry on the plant so we can collect and save the seed for next spring.

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We’ve found volunteer sweet peas (Lathyrus latifolius) all over! The chickens particularly like nestling under the plants for shade.

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Another tenacious shrub rose, putting out splendid blooms without any intervention from us.

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The beginnings of our pollinator-friendly perennial wildflower garden (thanks, Jim!)

Have a lovely week, friends!

 

 

Deer diary, vol. 2

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Tools at the ready for constructing an H-brace.

Early this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife delivered our game fencing materials. They also included a thin pamphlet with a few helpful suggestions on how to construct said fence – not really what we’d call “instructions.” As we’d never built even a simple fence before, this meant a lot of time on the University of YouTube. Our game fence is nine feet tall and composed of wood posts, metal T-posts, two strands of grid wire fencing and three strands of barbed wire. That’s a lot just to keep deer out – and each component has to be installed separately.

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Once we’d set our wood posts in concrete, we went around building H-braces at corners. H-braces (seen above on the left and right sides of the gate) are required when the fence turns a corner to keep it supported. The H-braces seem relatively simple – you just notch the vertical posts, insert a horizontal post, then use massive nails (3/8 inch by 12 inches!) to secure the horizontal to the vertical. As with all aspects of this fence, though, this is simpler on paper than in reality. Notching the fenceposts required climbing on a rickety stepladder on very rocky and uneven ground and holding a reciprocating saw at an awkward angle while trying not to fall off the ladder. Not at all OSHA-approved.

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Four completed H-braces on either side of our corral gate.

With the posts successfully notched, we set about connecting the horizontal to the vertical. Driving the heavy, thick nails in proved to be yet another challenge. After hours of frustration, we finally bought an extra-long drill bit so we could pre-drill the holes for the nails. This was an important lesson learned: don’t try to do something the hard way if a power tool can make the task easier.

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Looking southwest at our pasture gate.

H-braces then have to be wrapped with nine-gauge wire in order to stabilize the posts. As with the nails, this was much easier in theory than in practice. The wire was delivered to us in huge coils which were absolutely unmanageable – no matter where you wanted the wire to go, it was set on uncoiling the wrong way somewhere else, usually slapping you in the face along the way. We each bear our fair share of fence scars.

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Using a come-along and a wood clamp to stretch the grid fencing.

Now that the H-braces are up and wrapped, the two strands of grid fencing have to be installed. We could have opted for one-strand fencing, but the fencing comes in 330-feet rolls and the two of us could barely lift one of the smaller rolls. So we chose to wrap two strands, which most small farms do. It takes longer, but it’s much easier for two people to handle.

We unrolled the coils along the fence line, then used a come-along and N’s very crafty wood plank clamp to stretch the fencing. It’s imperative that the fencing be as tight as possible, but because our posts aren’t exactly straight, we had to adapt a bit. We’ll call it “accounting for the curvature of the earth.” Once in place, the fencing was secured to the wood posts using thick staples, and to the T-posts using clips.

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Using the wood clamp and the ATV hook and cable to install the top row.

Installing the top row offered additional challenges, since we had to hold up hundreds of feet of fencing while stretching and then securing it. Our ATV’s hook and cable set-up helped a great deal here, as did some sturdy chains attached to our wood plank clamp.

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We were pleased (and surprised!) to find that all of our fencing materials were made in the USA.

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Waiting for barbed wire along the top and bottom.

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Nearly finished!

The complexity of the fence might seem like a bit much just for some deer…but we have watched these animals easily leap a six-foot fence from a standstill. The power in their strong legs and their lean bodies is remarkable, and the fence has to be nine feet tall to have any hope of keeping them out, especially when they’re moving at a full, panicked run.

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Dear deer: the Quiet Farm salad bar is officially closed. Go torment someone else.

Building our game fence is the most extensive, complex and difficult project we’ve tackled yet here on Quiet Farm, and we are so proud of the results. The fence isn’t perfect, but we did it ourselves for about one-tenth what it would have cost to hire a fencing company, and we learned so much along the way. This sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency is why we’re out here.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Farm update: June 3

Hello there! Has summer finally started where you live? We’re excited for warm weather and sunshine and to get all of our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other summer crops into the ground finally.

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The raspberry plants are tiny, like our fruit trees, and are protected with plastic cages.

A few weeks ago we planted forty raspberry plants, ten each of four different cultivars. We planted both summer-bearing and fall-bearing varieties, in the hopes of having fresh raspberries for months on end. We don’t expect to see any fruit this year, but raspberries typically do well in this area so we’re looking forward to bountiful future harvests. In order to plant these canes, we used the excavator to dig long, wide beds, then we filled those beds with about eight cubic yards of soil from Mount Doom. This meant around thirty-six wheelbarrow loads moved by hand – we farm like it’s the 1850s over here, friends. One day, we’ll have a tractor. One day.

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Greens this fresh make those plastic supermarket packets taste like nothing.

We were excited to harvest our first salad greens and radishes; shown here is a mixture of Buttercrunch lettuce, pak choi, red Russian kale and lacinato kale. Our greens are pretty late this year; next year we hope to have our high tunnel built so that we have fresh greens throughout the winter and early spring. Few things taste better after months of heavy, rich, starchy foods than a bright, crisp salad.

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A male Bullock’s oriole waiting for the buffet to open.

Although we love seeing the hummingbirds at our feeders, we’ve found that the local population of Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii) appreciates the easy sugar hit, too. The orioles are much bigger than the tiny hummingbirds, and when they’re on the feeders they scare the hummingbirds away. Because they’re so big, they also cause the feeders to swing wildly and spill sugar syrup everywhere, which makes a sticky mess. We haven’t yet figured out how to keep the hummingbirds coming while discouraging the orioles, even though their flashy yellow plumage is gorgeous.

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So much tidier now!

We built a new bin structure for our compost using salvaged shipping pallets; you can see the original small compost pile here. (We think pallets are one of the most useful free things you can find!) Now the compost can be kept neater, and it’s simple to throw fresh organic material into the left bin while waiting for the right side to finish “cooking.” When we get that tractor it will be a lot easier to move the finished compost onto the vegetable beds.

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Welcome home, chickens!

And then there’s this news: Quiet Farm has twelve new residents. They are a motley, ragtag bunch, who came to us because a friend was moving house. We have at least two roosters (maybe three; one is sensibly staying quiet for the moment) and an assortment of breeds. They’re still laying pretty well for older birds – certainly enough for our needs – and thus far they’ve had an exciting time exploring their new home. More on the chicken house renovation coming soon!

Have a great week!

 

Farm update: May 20

Our average last frost date here at Quiet Farm is May 13; as a rough guideline, this means that it’s generally safe to plant warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers and so on) outside after this date. Except that we had about an inch of light, fluffy, powdery snow plus some shockingly low overnight temperatures this past week, and if we’d had all of these plants outside they would have died a chilly death. While some vegetables can handle low temperatures, our summer stars want heat and more heat, so ours are still safely tucked away in the sunroom. What do we learn from this? Always check the forecast, and never trust Colorado weather to do what you expect.

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These seed potatoes are bred for the Rocky Mountain West.

We’re expecting another week of cool, wet weather, which makes it impossible to pour concrete for our fence posts. But there is always something that can be planted, even if it’s not tomatoes and peppers. Our locally-grown seed potatoes have been planted in “potato towers,” which we constructed from galvanized fencing and layers of newspapers, compost and straw. I planted a little over a pound of each variety; theoretically each pound planted should yield about ten pounds of fresh potatoes in maybe July or August. I’ve never planted potatoes in towers so am excited to see how this experiment turns out! (If you want to plant potatoes, buy certified seed potatoes and don’t plant those from the grocery store – they’ve typically been treated to prevent sprouting and therefore won’t grow.)

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Between a rock and…another rock

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Look! A photo of large rocks! Very impressive.

Fitting squarely in the category of Important Life Lessons: if you buy a piece of mostly empty agricultural property that hasn’t exactly been used as a farm, there may be a reason why. In our case, that reason is rocks. Many, many rocks. So many rocks. Big rocks and little rocks and medium rocks. Some tiny pebbles. Some the size of a small car.

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More rocks.

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