The season in review

It’s surprisingly cold now, in late November, although dry and clear. As always, we’d love for some of the snow blanketing other parts of the country (hello, six feet in Buffalo!) to bestow its generosity upon us here, but nothing shows in the forecast as yet. Days are crisp and blue, and nights definitely require extra quilts. The sunroom is still full of cardboard trays of slowly ripening tomatoes and peppers; this unheated room works perfectly for cold storage and allows these vegetables to ripen slowly with sunlight but without so much warmth that they’d rot. Certainly something is sacrificed in terms of flavor when crops aren’t allowed to ripen outside, but we have a reasonably short growing season here so we have to work with what we have – and it’s a lovely treat to enjoy our own fresh tomato salads well into winter.

Those cardboard trays are slowly transforming into rustic, delicate ristras and canning jars of salsa and sauce; seeds are mostly dried and packed away. The winter squash bounty hasn’t been tapped into yet; that will carry us through the coldest months and into fragile spring with warming soups and curries. New planting rows for next year have been plowed and filled with compost. The plants we pulled out have been mowed into bits to break down into compost over winter; the beds have been mulched with spent straw and next year’s garlic has been planted. In all ways, our season is gradually winding down and we’re more than ready to tuck ourselves in for a couple of months of much-needed rest.

We’re still reviewing our season, cataloguing our successes and noting what changes and improvements we plan to make for next year. This year certainly had its challenges, but it definitely offered wins, too! Read on for more about the 2022 growing season.

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The bean harvest

Our eight bean varieties from the 2022 harvest.

Here we are, dear friends, and yet again I’m singing songs of love and devotion to beans – specifically our own 2022 harvest! My total and complete adoration of dried beans is no secret. Not only are beans one of the most inexpensive yet nutritious whole foods available, but as nitrogen-fixing legumes they actually improve soil. They grow well in our tricky high-plains desert environment, they don’t require much water and they’re very low-maintenance. There can hardly be a better edible crop to grow! Plus, as the world gradually starts to realize that a meat-centric diet for nine billion people simply won’t work, beans (and other nutritious legumes and pulses) will become ever more important as plant-based proteins. We’d like to get ahead of that curve and start cultivating more edible legumes on our farm, for both our own health and our soils, so this year we planted a test crop.

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The beef tax

“We’re all paying it, every day.

In the US, taxpayers subsidize the cattle industry with billions of dollars of tax money each year. Most of that goes to pay for feed crops, but there is also a huge allocation of public land for the grazing of cows. About half the land in the entire country is just for cattle.

In addition, a significant portion of the climate problem is directly caused by the effects of bovine respiration as well as the clear-cutting of forests for grazing worldwide. It’s like someone is dumping manure on your living room carpet and asking you to pay for it.

The end result is that whether or not you eat meat, you’re paying for it.

Beef is more expensive than we realize. And it’s also significantly less convenient than we give it credit for. Climate refugees, storm-damaged assets, the loss of life and homes… these are directly caused by the one billion cows that humans raise each year.

What would happen if we simply charged a fair price for the beef and milk that people consume?

The industry has done a great job of persuading people that beef is cheap, convenient, easy, luxurious, wholesome and benign. It’s none of those things.

I wonder how long it will take us to realize just how much it costs us.”

We are focusing our laughably meager climate change mitigation efforts on electric cars and renewable energy. Until we address the bull in the room – so to speak – and deal with our filthy, wasteful, poorly managed and corrupt agriculture system, we’re going to get precisely nowhere. It’s long past time that we start paying the true cost of our consumptive lifestyles.

Credit to Seth for this post.

Hello + free class!

Hello there. It’s been a minute, no? This growing year has presented a new array of challenges and learning opportunities. We will shortly mark the fall equinox; like most (all?) farmers, we pay close attention to these seasonal transitions and how the gradual changes in light and warmth impact everything we do. Things are winding down here and we can tell that our bodies and minds are ready for the natural rest offered in late fall and winter. Humans may think they’ve evolved ‘beyond seasons,’ but the truth is, we are still agricultural beings at heart, and paying close attention to those shifting rhythms benefits everyone.

Before the much-welcomed slowdown, however, there is still lots of preserving to be done for the (hopefully long) winter ahead! And to that end, I’m teaching a free canning and preserving class this weekend at our local library. More information can be found here. If you’re in the area, please come out and say hello!

We’ll be back again soon with tales of our growing adventures, book recommendations and project highlights. Wishing you all a safe, healthy and pleasant fall.

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!

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The new normal

Spring “branch-breaker” storms do so much damage to precious trees.

If you grew up on the Front Range, you’re probably familiar with the old adage to “plant out on Mother’s Day.” The idea was, of course, that any chance of a hard frost was past, and delicate warm-weather crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant, would be safe for the summer growing season.

If you’ve lived and gardened in the Denver area over the last twenty years, however, you know the very idea of planting on Mother’s Day is pretty laughable. This year, the holiday occurred as early as it possibly can – on May 8. Between Thursday and Friday last week, the temperatures in some Front Range areas plummeted from the high eighties to the low forties, with heavy, wet snow and overnight lows well below freezing. If you chose to “plant out on Mother’s Day” and your plants weren’t carefully protected or relocated indoors, you’re likely headed back to your friendly local garden center (hi Anne, Dave and team!) to replace your summer vegetables.

Obviously, Denver weather is known to be erratic, and these massive diurnal shifts are one big reason (after overdevelopment, of course) why the Front Range no longer has a commercial fruit industry like we do on the Western Slope. But while Denver was in the grip of a monster late-spring storm, the East Coast was broiling under record high temperatures and excruciating humidity. Locally, our area has seen more than its fair share of severe weather recently, including unseasonal hard freezes that absolutely crushed peach and cherry growers. A certain number of extreme weather events are to be expected, of course, but it is no longer possible to argue that they’re the exception. They’re now the rule.

In less than a decade, Colorado has experienced two “hundred-year weather” events – the devastating 2013 floods and the scorched-earth Marshall Fire this past December. That stunning fire, of course, was precipitated by bone-dry conditions and hurricane-force winds – and followed a few hours later by about ten inches of snow. Too late, obviously, to prevent the loss of a thousand homes; the Marshall Fire quickly enthroned itself as the most expensive “natural disaster” in Colorado’s history. Is it even accurate to refer to these disasters as natural, since they’re entirely our fault?

The point is, it is no longer feasible to expect the weather to act the way it’s always acted. It is no longer possible to change the trajectory that we’re on as a population and a planet; there is absolutely no hope of achieving the 1.5 degree warming limit by 2030 and it’s foolhardy to pretend otherwise. All we can do now is adapt to our rapidly changing climate – stop building in wildland-urban interfaces, create a resilient and regionally-adapted agriculture system and learn how to live with the ‘new normal.’ Hundred-year weather events should be expected every ten years, if not more frequently, and we need to ready ourselves for these, instead of acting shocked and horrified and surprised every time they occur. We cannot continue to behave as we’ve behaved in the past and expect that the weather will accommodate us. Also, we should really, really stop irrigating the desert to raise cattle and lettuce (looking at you, Arizona) and we should outlaw Kentucky bluegrass – actually, lawns in general – in the American West. (We can’t even hide bodies in Lake Mead any longer!) The sooner we accept our harsh new reality and learn to live with it, the better off we’ll all be.

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Farm update: April 25

Hello, friends. It is the busiest time of the year on the farm and we have ten thousand different projects on at the moment. Here are a few things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d like to see.

Tomato starts before splitting.

The sunroom is packed with hundreds of starts, mostly warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers. I’ve started seventeen different tomato varieties this year, some new and some tried and true classics, plus thirteen different peppers ranging from mild and sweet to incendiary. After last year’s pepper bounty, I’m committed to expanding our production of the larger bell peppers; I believed that our growing season was too short for the full-size peppers but 2021 certainly proved me wrong. As always, the vast majority of the plants we grow are from saved open-pollinated seed so that we’re protected from the vagaries of the seed market. That said, I tried starting ‘Sungold’ tomatoes again this year; they’re a hybrid but if you’ve ever tasted these incredible gems, you know exactly why people go mad for them. I’ve obviously grown thousands of tomato plants and consider myself a pretty experienced grower, but three years in a row now my purchased ‘Sungold’ seed has failed to germinate. I contacted the seed company – a reputable Front Range outfit – about the poor germination and have yet to receive a response. Frustrating situations like this are exactly why we save our own seed, because we cannot rely upon companies to provide our food.

We will ship you a free kitten.

We live in an exceptionally impoverished county; a direct consequence of that is an absurd population of stray dogs and cats, because people do not spay or neuter their animals. In late March we unfortunately discovered that a feral cat had chosen our hay barn as a warm, protected nursery; now we have one adult cat and six kittens. While we’re happy to have some assistance in controlling the mouse population, we definitively do not keep any household pets so fate will run its course with this lot. An apocryphal quote attributed to Gandhi reads, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” In this (see also: CAFOs) and in so many other respects, the U.S. is failing entirely.

So pretty! So aggressive! So invasive!

If 2021 was The Year of the Goathead, 2022 looks to be The Year of the Thistle. We’ve written before about cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium), which is hugely invasive in our area and produces massive, thorny plants that are dangerous to humans and animals. As we work on spring cleaning and tidying around the farm, Thistle Patrol is a key task. If we can dig out the plants by the roots when they’re small, we can prevent them from becoming these treacherous four-foot monsters and of course from spreading seed to produce even more thistles. We travel around with a small shovel at the ready, prepared to vanquish our spiky foe wherever it might be found.

All the little blue tape pieces mark areas that have to be repaired. Sigh.

We are also at work on The World’s Lengthiest and Most Tedious Tiling Project, involving a complicated and not particularly interesting tale of obtuse angles, poorly manufactured countertops, a rickety garage sale tile cutter and many, many other challenges, surprises and obstructions. When (if?) we ever finish this project, it will hopefully look incredible; the road to reach that lofty point, however, still appears long and winding. Also someone in all those DIY YouTube videos should really mention that charcoal grout against white tile shows every chip, imperfection and error. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know” has never seemed so apt; we’ll chalk this one up to hard-won learning.

Will we harvest any fruit this year? Time will tell.

And finally, we’re excited to see blossoms on most of the fruit trees we planted in our first full season here. We of course live in the heart of Colorado’s commercial fruit territory, but the changing climate means that no plant is guaranteed survival any longer. Of late, we’ve endured punishing fifty-mile-per-hour winds plus overnight temperatures in the 20s; the big propane-fueled fans in the surrounding orchards have been on a few times recently in a desperate attempt to save their year’s harvest because these frigid temperatures are devastating for the fragile blossoms. The cherry trees in our area are likely gone for good, thanks to last year’s freeze. Many growers have started culling their delicate peach trees in favor of hardier apples; though peaches sell for far more per pound, the risk of losing the entire crop is also far greater. We are doing our best to adapt to a drier, hotter, windier place and to keep our plants (and ourselves) healthy while doing so.

And with that, we’re back to work! Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

Hello there

“We are bewildered at what can happen out in the world in such a short time. We are not qualified to make heads nor tails of it all, and it is humbling to be able to do so little in response. However, we do our work of peaceful and close-to-home living as best we can. Try not to depend too much on the larger greedy systems that perpetuate war and its profits. The daily points where our bodies remain connected simply and physically to the Earth still need looking after – food, shelter, warmth, family –  the seeds sown, the wood chopped, the flour ground, the dough mixed.  It’s a blessing to be given the time and space to do those things, thoughtfully and with humility.”

-Barn Owl Bakery, Lopez Island, WA, March 2022

Kale: strong, resilient, nutritious. The plant I aspire to be.

Hello there. We are here, and we hope you are, as well. In a world that feels ever more suffused with madness each passing day – e.g., the IPCC thoughtfully released its latest report three days after the invasion, thereby guaranteeing we will all continue to ignore the existential crisis staring us right in the face while we focus instead on a pointless and devastating and intentionally distracting war – we are planting seeds, tidying winter debris, plowing new beds and generally readying ourselves for another productive growing season at Quiet Farm. Collectively, we’ve careened wildly from one catastrophe to the next over the past two years, and we are all exhausted, drained, sad and anxious. Once again, getting our hands into the soil and quietly producing something real, substantial, edible and nourishing seems far and away the most useful response to the ever-increasing chaos out there.

We hope you, too, will plant something this year. We’ll be back again soon.

Farm update: October 18

And in the space of a few days, our season went from lush abundance to a frozen wasteland. Such is the nature of growing food at over six thousand feet in a high-plains desert.

Our first hard frost arrived this past week, and with it a few light dustings of early snow. Up on the mesa we were thrilled to see a solid fifteen inches show up on the Sno-Tel! All of our irrigation water, of course, comes directly from the mesa, so we are always in favor of as much winter moisture as possible to boost next year’s irrigation allotment.

Our sunroom looks like an unusual farmers’ market!

Temperatures dropped into the high 20s overnight, which is far too cold for summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. (Don’t worry, the kale is fine. The kale is always fine.) Prior to the freeze we harvested everything we could – nearly four hundred pounds on Monday alone; now comes the task of preserving all of that food to enjoy through winter and spring. The cruel irony, of course, is that once the storm passed we quickly returned to bright bluebird skies and comfortable daytime temperatures in the mid-60s, which likely means we would have gotten at least another two or three weeks in the growing season. But when a hard freeze announces that you’re done, then you’re done – and there’s not much arguing.

One of our gated pipes with the season’s final run.

Our irrigation season runs through the end of October, but we balanced our account this year to fortuitously end just before the cold snap arrived. Running irrigation later in the season is already a chilly task; combine that with a hard freeze and it can be downright miserable. We were very pleased with how we managed our irrigation in a drought year and though of course we hope for higher water shares next year, we know that with smart planning we can make even a low allotment work for our land. It’s incredible how much we’ve learned in only three short years here.

A friend’s trial orchard, where new apple varieties are tested.

Prior to the hard freeze we’d picked nearly two hundred pounds of local apples for winter storage. One box has already been transformed into applesauce; the remainder will stay reasonably fresh in one of our insulated but unheated sheds. This delicious fruit will provide snacks all throughout the winter; I’ll also bake with the apples as well as dehydrate a few pounds for adding to granola. As always, the bounty of incredible local fruit is one of the greatest benefits of living where we do.

Adelaide, Paris, Paihia and Fiji contemplating the change in seasons.

Although the damp, freezing weather makes the corral a bit of a sloppy mess, the animals are entirely unfazed by the cooler weather. They’ve put on quite a bit of fleece since their shearing, so they’re ready for winter, too.

And with that, we’re off to sort produce for canning. Wishing you a calm and peaceful week, friends.

A tomato review, vol. 2

As mentioned, we’ve had an utterly spectacular year for tomatoes. I knowingly overplanted simply because we’d gotten off to such a terrible start, and I honestly had very little faith that my scrawny, under-nourished plants would thrive. Once they received a compost tea shot, however, and then were planted out in our compost-enriched soil, all of the plants absolutely took off. In more than ten years of growing food, this is the first year where I was regularly behind on harvesting tomatoes – I simply couldn’t pick them fast enough.

To that end, we present our second annual tomato review. Each year we grow some old favorites and some new experiments to see what we might want to add to future seasons. We grow primarily open-pollinated heirlooms, both for exemplary flavor and so we can save our seeds, but we do also grow the occasional hybrid for interest and experimentation. Previously I’d only ever grown the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes, because I didn’t believe we had a long-enough growing season to produce the large heirlooms, but this magical season proved everything wrong. I’ll definitely plant the larger heirlooms again in upcoming years.

This was our first year growing Barry’s Cherry. This heirloom tomato, bred by the legendary Brad Gates, is small and pale yellow with a pointed “beak” at the end. The flavor is terrific, tangy and bright with a hint of acidity, and the plant produces unbelievable yields on huge clusters. I’d definitely grow this tomato again; my only complaint is that the fruit tends to fall off the vine with even the slightest sideways glance. This makes harvesting really challenging and would definitely render this difficult to grow in a large-scale commercial operation. For home gardens, however, it’s a great choice.

I organized the tomato photos in this year’s review alphabetically, rather than in order of preference, which does somewhat minimize the suspenseful awards-show atmosphere: Black Cherry is the 2021 Taste Winner. These seeds originated from a tomato I tasted from a friend’s garden last year, and she didn’t know the exact name, nor whether they were heirloom or hybrid. I took a chance on saving those seeds and lo and behold, now we have Black Cherry seeds in abundance. This tomato is gorgeous, with a blackish-purple coloration that indicates higher levels of anthocyanins. The flavor is incredible – that perfect blend of sweetness and acidity that I’m always looking for in tomatoes. The plants produced well, and I found that the tomatoes growing lower on the vine (i.e. out of direct sunlight) had better flavor and a darker color. Black Cherry has definitely earned its spot in Quiet Farm’s mandatory planting category.

We grew Chadwick Cherry tomatoes last year, and they’re in regular rotation now, too. They’re likely never going to win our taste test because the flavor isn’t quite as bright or sparkly as some of my other favorites, but the plants produce early and abundantly, and the tomatoes are perfect in recipes where their flavor will blend rather than dominate. This tomato is named for organic gardening pioneer Alan Chadwick, an interesting character if ever there was one.

I’ve long known about the Cherokee Purple tomato, a pre-1890 variety that was only reintroduced commercially about thirty years ago, but never thought I could grow it at 6300 feet in a high-plains desert. This season absolutely proved me wrong. We produced multitudes of huge Cherokee Purple fruit on heavy vines that should have been staked better than they were (lesson learned for next year). Like the Black Cherry above, the Cherokee Purple has rich, wine-dark coloration and a deep, almost smoky flavor. This is a certainly a full-size heirloom that we’ll grow again. (One caveat: we also grew Black Krim tomatoes this year, and thanks to an unfortunate tag mishap, it is difficult to tell which plants are which as the fruits are very similar. Perhaps our saved seeds will create a new Cherokee Krim crossbreed?)

This was our first year with Galina, a small, sunshine-yellow cherry tomato originating in Siberia. The fruit ripens early, as one might expect from a cold-climate Russian tomato, and produces well. The flavor is bright and cheerful and of course it’s lovely to have yellow tomatoes to accompany the red and green varieties for colorful salads. Galina didn’t win our taste test this year, but it’s a much more interesting tomato than Yellow Pear, a classic small yellow heirloom that we found rather bland and flat last year.

We’ve grown Green Zebra for a number of years now. The striated color is stunning, especially when paired with red and yellow tomatoes, and the flavor is terrific. It can be a little difficult to tell when Green Zebras are ripe – they actually turn slightly golden when they’re ready to be harvested; gently pressing on the bottom of the tomato is often a good indication of ripeness, if color is difficult to determine. This is a classic heirloom and one we’re happy to grow every year.

Jaune Flamme, meaning “yellow flame” in French, has quickly become one of our favorite tomatoes. It’s medium-size, about a golf ball or a bit larger, with abundant fruits and sparky flavor. Here, at least, it presents as more fiery orange than yellow, and it makes a stunning golden tomato sauce or soup. On the downside, this was the only tomato where we observed blossom end rot this year which may doom it for future plantings if the trend continues.

Juliet made its first appearance at Quiet Farm this year too. This is a small Roma-style hybrid tomato, and the plants remained relatively compact – as opposed to some varieties that have stretched and vined and tangled absolutely everywhere. Juliet ripened early but the flavor was nothing special; for me, it’s too flat and sweet without any of the acidity I seek. The fruits also fell off the plants regularly, which isn’t a plus. The tomatoes are fine in salsas and sauce, but I’d be hard-pressed to grow this again without experimenting with other interesting tomatoes first.

Lemon Boy is a rare hybrid here at Quiet Farm; a friend had extra plants that were headed for the compost, so we planted a few. The fruit is standard in size and a gorgeous, shimmering yellow that’s easy to spot when ripe. The flavor was delicious too and showed up perfectly on a salad platter against darker red and subtle green tomatoes. Although we’d be happy to grow these next year, Lemon Boy is a hybrid (the yellow version of Better Boy) so we won’t bother saving seeds and will hope to just be gifted starts again.

Lucky Tiger is an amazing tomato and was our hands-down winner in last year’s taste test. Developed by Fred Hempel, another legendary tomato breeder, Lucky Tiger has it all – stunning looks, spectacular flavor and reasonable productivity for a finicky heirloom. One seed catalog sums it up perfectly: “This tomato gets top marks for flavor: tangy, sweet and complex with tropical notes and balanced acidity.” Lucky Tiger is so impressive that it should encourage everyone to grow unusual heirlooms. This is another tomato that will definitely be planted every year at Quiet Farm.

We grew San Marzano and Roma tomatoes this year; these are both elongated paste tomatoes with meaty flesh and not too much in the way of juice or seeds. They’re typically used for sun-dried tomatoes or sauce making. Ours were mediocre at best; the plants took forever to set fruit and took forever to ripen, and only now are the plants loaded with green, unripe fruit. Spoiler alert: we don’t have enough time left in our growing season for these to yield much more. Overall, I was unimpressed. As always, I’ll save seeds but it could well be a couple of years before I’m willing to give these another shot.

This was our first year growing Supersweet 100s, although we grew Peacevine Cherry last year, which is the dehybridized version of this tomato. This is a glorious tomato, tiny and sweet and perfect for eating by the handful. It produces so abundantly and in such difficult-to-access clusters that we still have thousands on the vine that need to be harvested. This tomato is really too tiny to cook with but is ideal for eating fresh. We won’t save seeds from these, since it’s a hybrid, but will definitely grow Peacevine Cherry again.

Our final tomato this season is Virginia Sweets, another full-size heirloom that we were surprised to produce. These tomatoes are massive – well over a pound each – and gorgeous, with an unusual streaky yellow and red sunset appearance. The flavor, however, left a bit to be desired. Like sweet corn, many tomato breeders in recent years have focused on breeding sweeter and sweeter tomatoes, because that’s what the American palate seems to demand. (This is why lemon juice is now mandated in home-canned tomatoes, because too much acid has been removed and the pH is no longer suitable for long-term storage.) I’m thrilled to have successfully grown such large heirlooms, but I’d probably try another variety before growing these again, since the flavor wasn’t balanced enough for my tastes. A satisfying experiment, nonetheless!

What tomato varieties did you grow this year? Any that particularly captured your fancy? We’d love to know more about your favorites.