Farm update: June 14

Hello there, and how are things in your world? Here at Quiet Farm it’s hot, dry and smoky. The Pack Creek Fire, burning southeast of Moab, Utah – started by an unattended campfire! Thanks, thoughtful and responsible campers! – has filled our blue skies with thick smoke and turned our sunsets into a terrible neon orange ball of scorching flame. We’re forecast to spend the week ahead melting under triple-digit temperatures, and we plan to only be outside for the bare minimum of tasks between noon and six o’clock. This week will be all about survival – ensuring that we, and all of our plants and animals, have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.

A few activities we’ve been up to recently on the farm:

Look at all those vitamins!

Our harvests lately have been greens, greens and more greens – no complaints, since we eat salad every day. The arugula, kale, spinach and mixed lettuces have all been crisp and delicious this season, but this week’s furnace-like temperatures will put an end to that abundance; as a rule, most lettuces and greens do not care for excessive heat and often turn unpalatably bitter. I’ve harvested just about every leaf out there; as usual, I leave a number of plants to intentionally go to seed for future plantings. I regularly replant salad greens underneath the tomatoes; by the time the greens are up, the tomato plant will shield the tender leaves from the scalding summer sun. We’re also harvesting garlic scapes (the squiggly things on the left side of the photo) to encourage the garlic plant to put all its energy into the underground bulb. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salad dressing or stir-fried. And we’re picking strawberries, too, which are spectacular and have never once made it all the way into the house except for this photo, after which they were promptly devoured.

Installation is the reverse of removal.

If you are the type of person who likes to tinker and solve complex puzzles and problems, we highly recommend that you buy a small farm then stock it with all sorts of vintage machinery and things. You will never be bored! The detail shot above is from a salvaged Honda pump. N is breaking it down, cleaning it and putting it back together in an attempt to add it to our quirky and bespoke irrigation system. We have our first water run scheduled for this week, and we are constantly working on improving our irrigation efficiency, especially since our “exceptional drought” is no longer the exception and is likely here to stay.

Such a cheerful splash of color in our arid desert landscape.

Most of our farm’s perennials, including lilacs and sweet peas, failed to bloom this year thanks to the lack of water. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), however, are a desert native and therefore totally unfazed by the climactic extremes we’re experiencing. Prickly pears are found all over Colorado and the southwestern deserts; they’ve long been a favored food of the area’s indigenous peoples. The fleshy pads are known as nopales; the flower and the fruit are both edible, too. Fun fact: it is totally illegal to harvest cacti on federal or private land unless you’ve been granted a BLM-issued permit or the owner’s permission! Sadly, many people ignore this and the desert is quickly being stripped of its cacti by collectors. Some of these specimens can be five hundred years old, so “they’ll regrow next year” doesn’t hold up. Collectively, humans are not very good at practicing the Leave No Trace principles, and our environment suffers greatly as a result.

Trash into treasure!

This past weekend our wonderful local arts center held its second annual ReFind Festival, which essentially involves turning trash into art. It’s a brilliant concept, and we’re always happy to participate in this fundraiser. This year, N transformed two old wooden windows into the perfect frames for his classic car photography; I turned vintage Levis into an apron and even convinced my sister to join the fun – she created this beautiful wooden jewelry box. (Great job, S!) We are proud to have this vibrant arts center in our small town and look forward to future upcycling festivals. (Here’s what we made last year!)

The only rhubarb scones we’ll have this season, sadly.

Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to discover that my ten or so rhubarb plants had survived the winter; they started putting on strong growth and I envisioned a freezer full of rhubarb for summer and fall baking. The rhubarb plants are outside of the game fence because the leaves contain high concentrations of oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans and animals – so rhubarb should, in theory, be deer-resistant. Sadly, the drought (which is clearly impacting every single aspect of our existence here in western Colorado) meant that the deer didn’t have enough forage and were desperately eating anything they could find; this included the rhubarb. I didn’t cage the plants soon enough, so every time they’d put on a bit of growth, the hungry deer would mow them to the ground again. Suffice it to say, I managed to harvest just enough rhubarb for one batch of scones, and I added strawberries because they’re such a natural pairing. The scones were fabulous, and next year I’ll know to protect the plants better. (I used this recipe as my starting point, even though the recipe title is supremely annoying; for those at altitude, I reduced the baking powder by half.)

With that, we’re going to grind on with the world’s lengthiest cabinet refinishing project. More on that to come! Stay cool and hydrated this week, 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.

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.

Gardening book club

The world feels far too heavy and sad, particularly here in Colorado, for some absurdly cheerful post about alpacas or chickens or whatever we’re doing on the farm. Instead, we’ll offer a brief round-up of some favorite gardening books, in the hopes that you might be inspired to search these out at your local library or favorite independent bookseller. As with cooking, there is always something new to learn about gardening and growing food, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And as with cooking, where feeding hungry people nourishing, healthy food feels like an act of pure hope and a direct rebellion against the stupid, meaningless tragedy of the world, so does planting a seed or a sapling.

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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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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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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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Let’s learn about alpacas and llamas!

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It’s a creative remake of The Sound of Music.

Some of you may recall that we expanded the Quiet Farm team a few weeks ago. We now have five alpacas and one llama on our farm, and they currently spend the majority of their time grazing placidly on our pasture. We’re new to livestock, and are doing as much research as possible, and we thought you might be interested in learning more about our new residents, too.

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See you at the old watering hole?

First, what even are these odd creatures, anyway? Llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Vicugna pacos) are both members of the camelid family, along with their wild cousins, viçunas and guanacos. (Collectively, this group is known as lamoids.) Camelids actually evolved in North America; some of their ancestors migrated to Africa to become the desert camels we’re familiar with. Other ancestors migrated south to what is now South America and evolved into the llamas and alpacas we associate with indigenous tribes of South America. As bison were essential to the Native Americans, so were llamas and alpacas to the indigenous peoples. These animals provided food, fiber, grease, draft power, fertilizer, fuel, leather and protection.

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This week in flowers: July 13

Friends, it’s truly a surprise anything is blooming right now, considering our punishing temperatures – high nineties every day! – and total lack of moisture. Also, please send tax-deductible donations to help pay our extortionate water bill. But! We do have a few bright spots of color around the farm that we thought we’d share.

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Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a member of the marigold family.

We planted a number of different flowers, including calendula and marigolds, in our raised beds to both provide visual interest and to attract beneficial pollinators. Although calendula doesn’t love our intense summer weather, most seem to be doing reasonably well and will hopefully bloom again in fall’s cooler temperatures.

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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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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.