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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Starting seeds

Welcome to March! Our spring is shaping up to be a bit too premature and a bit too warm and a bit too dry for our liking; we’d like to see quite a lot more moisture. This time last year, we still had at least four inches of snowpack on the ground; this year, zilch. Also last year, we were adorable, eager, optimistic, first-year farmers, and we started our seeds way too early. This year, we’re hardened, grizzled veterans, so we know better. And next year? Watch out.

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If you’re going to grow anything outside, the single most important piece of information you need is your average first and last frost date. This statistic is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; weather stations all over the country send data to the USDA, which in turn calculates average first and last frost dates. These dates are essential because most (but not all) annual food crops will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Here at Quiet Farm, our average last frost is May 13, and our average first frost is October 4 for a 143-day growing season; this means we’re almost assured not to have frost between these dates. Keep in mind, however, that this is an average, not a guarantee – you’re safer assuming that frost is possible one to two weeks on either side of these dates. (The location of weather stations varies widely and can sometimes be inaccurate, so check where your closest weather station is located to ensure you’re getting the best information. Plus, the climate emergency is totally destroying the consistency and reliability of these dates. It’s all pretty much guesswork from here on out.)

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Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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This week in flowers: July 1

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. Continue reading

Farm update: April 8

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The hills are alive…with weeds! But we call them “wildflowers.”

The snow is finally gone at this elevation, even though plenty can still be seen on the mesa. Our pasture is coming back with a vengeance, and we spend our days walking the land, looking at what plants are coming up and trying to decide whether they’re helpful or harmful to us. Since we bought Quiet Farm at the end of a blistering summer in the midst of a hundred-year drought, pretty much everything was crispy and dormant. We hadn’t yet determined what bushes and trees might survive, and what would need to be removed. We’re giving everything a generous opportunity to stage a spring comeback before we tear it out.

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Farm update: April 1

Spring is finally here…with the exception of a small blizzard that blew in Friday evening, of course. The weather right now is capricious – gorgeous one minute, hurricane-like the next. But we haven’t yet spent spring on our farm, so we’re ready for all of it. Here’s what we’re up to these days!

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Why the long face?

Despite this photo, our pastures are greening up rather nicely, so we have a new resident at Quiet Farm. Temporary Pony belongs to our neighbor, and since we have grazing land available and no animals to graze it, Temporary Pony lives at Quiet Farm until she goes to her new home later this spring. She is a lovely, spirited horse who likes to sprint along the fence line, and she also runs straight at you full-bore when you’re out in the field – heartwarming and yet terrifying at the same time. It’s a pleasure to have an actual animal here; it makes our farm feel much more legitimate!

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Farm update: October 8

Hi! How was your weekend? We survived our first Applefest and we think we’ve made all of the necessary repairs on our irrigation system so that we can call for water in two weeks (more on that soon). I made yogurt, but I’m still searching for a source of truly local milk that I can get basically straight from the cow. Most of the cattle around here, however, are raised for meat, not dairy, so I’ll keep on looking. Here a few other things we’re up to:

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It was all very dramatic here for a time.

We were thrilled to have nearly a week of cool, damp weather (the mesa got its first snowfall!). This is such a rarity over here that you could almost hear the valley’s farmers cheering when the rains came. The high winds destroyed our flagpole (N rescued the flag) and the heavy rains helpfully identified some heretofore unknown leaks in our house, but we are still inestimably grateful for the moisture. Even the pasture came back a bit, with tiny green sprouts everywhere. Water is life, make no mistake.

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Quiet Farm’s first official crop! I’ll sell them as fancy microgreens and charge a fortune.

Speaking of tiny green sprouts, I attended a women’s farming conference last weekend in Estes Park and I planted some arugula before I left so that I could say in all honesty that I’m a farmer! Spicy, peppery arugula is one of our favorite greens, and it grows so well, especially in spring and fall, that I used it to test the soil fertility in an existing makeshift raised bed shoddily constructed (not by us) from cinderblocks. The arugula sprouted beautifully – along with tons of grass and possibly some thistles. Since there is no grass (or thistles) nearby, I’m at a loss to explain this, but now I have to painstakingly weed my tiny arugula. Pro tip: know your soil before you plant. This is not a good use of farm time.

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Local sunflowers drying for seed harvesting.

This spring I attended a seed saving class, and I’m looking forward to participating in an even more intensive teacher training in a few weeks. Saving seeds is an important part of food sovereignty; if we really want to opt out of our industrial food complex, we need to own the seeds, too. So we’re working on building up our own Quiet Farm seed bank, and we’re collecting, drying and storing seeds whenever we can. Once we grow our own vegetables, grains and herbs, seed saving will become an even bigger task each fall.

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Our compost pile. It’s not pretty, but it’s so valuable.

Just about any gardening or small-scale farming book you’ll ever read will extol the virtues of compost, and we’ve got ours started. We identified an otherwise unusable plot about equidistant between the kitchen and the future raised beds, so it’s easily accessible to all. We began with lots of old straw bedding and manure from the animal pens; we’ll need to clean the pens out anyway before we purchase our goats and it makes a beneficial addition to the pile, especially since the manure is well-aged. All of our kitchen waste, leaves, weeds and other organic material go in, too. At the moment we’re watering it frequently because it’s been so dry, but we’re hoping for a long, wet winter and it will be perfect for building up the fertility of our raised beds next spring. As a rule, never let even a scrap of organic material leave your property.

This week we plan to tear up the oddly rumpled carpet in our sun porch and replace it with some durable and water-resistant flooring, since it will shortly become a mud porch. We’ll repair two broken window mechanisms and patch our newly discovered leaks. We may take down a couple of dead trees, and hopefully establish our woodpile, too. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely week!

Sowing the seeds

As recently as three or four generations ago, the vast majority of seeds planted in home gardens were saved from year to year. Gardeners learned what plants thrived in their unique microcosm, and they might have saved seeds from the earliest beans, or the largest cucumber, or the most delicious tomato. Season after season, these saved seeds protected plant diversity, acted as a hedge against famine and in many cases were so treasured that they were sewn into hems of immigrants’ clothes when they traveled – voluntarily or not – to new lands.

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A few samples from the Quiet Farm seed bank.

Now, we think nothing of buying seed packets every growing season. Wintertime brings glossy seed catalogs to the mailbox, filled with mouth-watering descriptions of intensely flavorful tomatoes, trendy kalettes, or spicier peppers. We page through these during the dark, cold days, eagerly anticipating the chance to get our hands in the soil once again, and often we order much more than we need. Most home gardeners have a wealth of seeds left over from previous years, and even this abundance doesn’t stop us from buying just a few more. They’re just tiny packets, we reason. A few more couldn’t hurt.

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