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.