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.

Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States, Mary Ann Newcomer

This book’s territory includes Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and northern Nevada, as well as Oregon and Washington and parts of southern Canada. Obviously, that’s an immense region – more than one million square miles of the North American continent – and it’s impossible to provide accurate growing information for every microclimate within that region. Our weather is vastly different from Oregon and Washington! I still like this book a great deal, though. It’s reasonably simple, direct and easy to understand for beginning gardeners. It covers gardening tasks for each month, assigns various chores to keep the garden neat, tidy and healthy, and gives helpful information about possible pests and disease troubles. Not everything in the book will necessarily be relevant, but it’s worth seeking out if you live within this area.

Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman

It is impossible to find enough superlatives to describe Eliot Coleman and his influence on the organic farming community; he is regularly referred to as “The Godfather” of organic growing and I think that’s an apt description. Coleman followed in the footsteps of Scott and Helen Nearing, the original back-to-the-landers, and still grows year-round in Maine’s exceptionally harsh climate. He invents tools, counsels young farmers and preaches against the ever-growing influence of Big Ag with every breath and every action. All of his books are terrific and worth seeking out; we’re in the early stages of discussing season extension options (high tunnels and so on) here at Quiet Farm so Four-Season Harvest is definitely a key reference book.

Guide to Rocky Mountain Vegetable Gardening, Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough

This book covers Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, and while there is some helpful material about our diverse and incredibly challenging growing climate, it’s also clear that the authors do not adhere to organic growing practices. Speaking only for ourselves, then, a lot of the information has to be immediately discarded. An example:

“If you are considering planting next spring in an area that is now lawn, kill the grass before you till it under…spray the future garden area with a broad-spectrum herbicide such as glyphosate, commonly sold as Round-Up.” (***Note: you can actually save a lot of time by just spraying the Round-Up directly into your mouth, which is where it will end up anyway if you adhere to this advice. Since glyphosate is definitively carcinogenic, I wouldn’t get it within a hundred feet of my edible crops.)

The authors both teach at Montana State University, which, as a land-grant institution, will of course be heavily funded by Big Ag and its criminal brethren. That said, you can still find some useful tips in here – but you’ll need to make an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Epic Tomatoes, Craig LeHoullier

I picked this book up on a whim at our local library and absolutely loved it. As the title might suggest, it’s entirely devoted to tomatoes – but since tomatoes are far and away the most popular vegetable for home gardens, they do deserve their own book. The book contains gorgeous full-color photos, tons of information on varieties both heirloom and hybrid, and lots of suggestions for enjoying and preserving the harvest. It includes fascinating heirloom origin stories and vintage seed advertisements, and it also mentions many of the author’s particular favorites. One of these, ‘Mexico Midget,’ will be a new trial variety at Quiet Farm this season – the fruit is reportedly only the size of a pea but bursting with intense flavor! We’re looking forward to testing these.

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith

If I only owned one vegetable-growing book, it would be this one, and this is the book I gift to new gardeners. It’s cheerful, inspiring and fun to read, and of course packed with useful information. As with most gardening books that aren’t written specifically for our intense high-plains desert environment, some of the growing tips won’t work for us – but the flip side of that is that we don’t encounter many of the pests and diseases that more humid climates struggle with. This is a solid, well-researched, well-organized book that should be in every gardener’s library.

The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, Tanya L.K. Denckla

This is a simple, quiet gardening book; it’s light on photos but rich with relevant information. In addition to vegetables, it also covers many common fruit and nut trees, which is useful for aspiring homesteaders. The book’s title indicates its focus on organic practices; the extensive sections on various pests and diseases give numerous options for organic control methods, which is immensely helpful instead of just a suggestion to grab some powerful annihilation spray. This book isn’t at all flashy, but it contains a wealth of beneficial guidance.

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson

This might be my favorite gardening book of all, even though it’s not really a gardening book in the way the other titles here are. Instead, it’s more a heartfelt meditation, a love letter to the soil and the seeds and the plants and the microbes that sustain us. The author, Wendy Johnson, is a Zen meditation teacher and a spectacular writer.

“As you work, follow your affection and take your time. Let the garden itself and your love of the garden direct your groundwork. Remember that the terms of a lasting agriculture are never only human terms but nature’s terms as well. Love these terms unconditionally, without trying to bargain with them, explain them, or make them behave. Trust the garden and your love of the garden and just continue, under all circumstances.”

Honestly, who doesn’t want to head out into the garden after reading a passage like that? Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate is for those of us who are looking for peace and calm in the garden, those of us who are using the garden as therapy, those of us who are trying so hard to quiet our chattering monkey minds. Highly recommended.

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Carol Deppe

Carol Deppe is a prominent plant breeder and a bit of a quirky iconoclast, too. She is adamantly opposed to seed ownership of any sort, and has made it her life’s work to breed and share open-pollinated seeds so that no one can truly “own” our food supply. She has written a number of books, typically focused on seed-saving and resilient gardening, and this book, like Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, is less a true gardening book and more a meditation on the practice of gardening. There is still a lot of useful information in here, but as mentioned previously, where the author gardens has a huge impact on the book’s relevance. Deppe, who gardens in Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley, loves the idea of “eat-all” greens, which she sows in thick layers in six inches of lightly-tilled soil or compost in early March, then ignores completely until harvest in May – no watering, no weeding. Spoiler alert: there is no possible way that would work here, but the theory is great to learn. Deppe is irascible and opinionated (she loathes chard in all forms and makes no secret of it) and is unwilling to start vegetables on heat mats or under grow lights. Not everything she shares might work for your particular growing practice, but there is a lot to learn from this smart, experienced author.

The Lean Farm, Ben Hartman

The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, Ben Hartman

Both of these books are certainly geared more towards the small organic farmer rather than the home gardener. That said, they’re two of my absolute favorites and I highly recommend them to people looking to learn more about lean management principles. “Lean theory” is a concept that was developed at Toyota in Japan, and now has spread across the world. Its principles can be applied to any business enterprise (or even managing a busy family and home life!) and will absolutely change the way you approach the myriad small tasks that make up your day. Just about every small organic farmer we know raves about these books, and so do we.

There are of course a million more wonderful gardening books that aren’t mentioned in this post. Do you have any recommendations? We’d love to learn more about your favorites.

Here’s to getting your hands in the soil and planting something hopeful this week, dear friends.

Farm update: October 26

Our first snowstorm arrived late last night, and with that, the 2020 growing season at Quiet Farm has officially concluded. Much of the past week has been spent preparing for this introduction to winter; though our skies will clear and temperatures will rise again later in the week, none of our annual crops will survive this cold snap. We’ve been threatened with hard freezes prior to this and have been lucky enough not to lose any plants; our season lasted far longer than expected. We’re hopeful that this early, wet storm will help the firefighters battling the numerous destructive wildfires currently raging across Colorado.

Flooding our pasture with snowmelt from the Grand Mesa.

We ran our final irrigation last week, then broke down most of our gated pipe so that we can repair any damaged gates and valves during the off-season. We have stellar water shares here at Quiet Farm, and thanks to N’s careful planning, we made our water last all season. This year was definitely a rebuilding year for our pasture, and we’re optimistic that our plans for next year’s irrigation run, which include reseeding, marking and thoughtful grazing by our herd, will yield even better results. Small farms are key to fighting climate change – if managed well, land like ours can absorb far more carbon than it emits. Establishing these “carbon sinks” across the country should be of highest priority; if this season’s devastating wildfires are any indication, the Rocky Mountain West has a tough road ahead.

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Preserving season

Fresh, local fruit is one of the great joys of living where we do.

There is much to be done outdoors – plant garlic, collect seeds, tidy irrigation – but there is much to be done indoors, too. We are in the height of harvest season, and every available surface in our house is littered with canning jars, dehydrator trays and other preservation projects in various stages of completion. Our goal is to eat locally as much as possible, and in the dark months of winter and early spring, that means we eat from the pantry and freezer – but only if we’ve done the hard work in advance.

Homemade fruit leather makes a perfect healthy and portable snack.

Obviously, no one has to preserve and store the harvest any longer, and many would think the extra work we do this time of year is preposterous. Preservation is a dying art, because we live in a magical world where any food we might want, in season or not, is available with a single click. Also, most of us don’t grow our own food, so there’s even less incentive to preserve. Where our great-grandmothers might have been obligated to can their summer vegetables in order to have anything to eat in winter, we most definitely are not. And preserving can be tedious, time-consuming work. Why, then, go through all this extra effort?

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Farm update: August 31

How are you doing out there, friends? Here at Quiet Farm we’re immensely grateful for clearer skies and cooler temperatures. We’re about seventy miles from the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, and there were days over the past couple of weeks where it felt as though we lived inside of a barbecue grill. Although the air still smells of smoke, and we don’t have our crystalline blue skies back, conditions have definitely improved. We send our heartfelt thanks to all of the fire fighters, police officers, and other emergency services personnel who put their lives on the line every single day. Thank you.

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To be eaten out of hand over the sink.

We went peach picking this past week; these are likely the last of this year’s harvest and ninety pounds are now nestled in boxes in our garage fridge awaiting processing. Colorado is most famous for its Palisade peaches, north of us in Mesa County; unfortunately – as though 2020 weren’t awful enough! – Palisade lost about eighty percent of its peach crop this year to that killing frost we had back in April. Our peach trees here in Delta County didn’t suffer nearly as badly (we did lose all of our cherries), so we’ll have local canned peaches in January that taste like liquid sunshine. (Fun fact: if you’re buying Palisade peaches on the Front Range, you should ask what orchard the fruit actually came from. Most of the peaches sold as “Palisade” this year didn’t come from Colorado, but from California. Also, in a season like this one, many of our Delta County peaches get rebranded as Palisade. Brand names sell, plain and simple.)

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Hunting with an audience.

N captured this early morning shot of our resident young fox hunting voles in our pasture. The magpies, never shy about their desire for a free meal, wait patiently in the hope that they too might share in the spoils. It’s tough to balance our ecosystem’s need for apex predators – we definitely want the fox to help control our rodent population, but we’d also like it to stay far away from our chickens. This debate is currently playing out on a much larger scale, as the Colorado ballot this November will ask whether voters want to reintroduce gray wolves, eradicated around 1940, in our part of the state. (Also please observe how beautiful that pasture looks. All credit to N for his mowing and irrigation work this season!)

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‘Marquis’ spring wheat.

We grew wheat! We opted to participate in small-scale wheat trials this year, and while much of our trial crop was demolished by deer, rabbits and squirrels, and plenty more taken out by strong winds, we did harvest a few stalks. The wheat still needs to be separated from the chaff and field notes beg to be written, plus seed must be returned to the seed bank organizing the project. If we actually grew enough to bake a single loaf of bread, I’ll be amazed – but it’s really exciting to grow grains. In decades past, most regions in the U.S. had their own uniquely adapted grain varieties, and of course this also supported the mills and bakeries required to process those grains. Those disappeared in the centralization of agriculture, but local heritage grains are staging a resurgence across the country. We want to be part of that trend, even on a minuscule scale.

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Not bad for an unintentional crop.

We also grew melons! This is amusing because we didn’t plant any melons. We do, however, have a thriving compost pile, and members of the vast curcubit family (squash, cucumbers and melons) are notorious both for cross-pollinating and for volunteering in unexpected places. This miniature cantaloupe (each is about the size of a softball) appeared in the hot pepper bed, where the serranos and cayennes are flourishing. We have five or six mature fruits now, and are excited to harvest one to see what we grew. If it’s delicious, we’ll save the seeds in the hopes we can grow it again, and we’ll have a melon bred just for Quiet Farm!

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Definitely qualifies as a meal.

And finally, our tomatoes are coming on strong. The intense heat wave we’ve just endured definitely hastened the tomato ripening schedule, though we’ve obviously needed to irrigate much more frequently. This time of year we’re likely to have a tomato salad at every meal, if only because the season is so fleeting. No recipe needed: sun-warmed tomatoes, halved or quartered, good olive oil, thinly-sliced red onion, a few grinds of black pepper, basil and a generous sprinkling of crunchy salt. Fresh mozzarella, ricotta or cotija would obviously not go amiss here. Honestly, it’s summer in a bowl and we’ll make the most of it while it lasts.

With that, we’re off to tackle a busy week that will hopefully include a hay delivery, a pre-winter fireplace inspection and more than a few canning projects. Wishing you all safety and health.

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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Farm update: October 21

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The south lawn of our house makes a peaceful resting spot.

Is it autumn where you live? Is it crisp and cool with bright scarlet and gold leaves everywhere? Is it dark when you wake up in the morning? It is here, and we’re settling into this brief transition season before winter extends its icy grip. Much of our work these days involves cleaning, tidying, preserving, covering and generally setting things in place for the colder months. We try to take advantage of these bluebird fall days for as long as we can; once the snows come, we won’t be working outside much.

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Growing garlic takes forever, but it’s worth the wait.

Ninety of this season’s largest garlic cloves have been planted in a bed newly prepared with lots of rich compost. Last year’s garlic went into an existing cinderblock bed that was here when we moved in; a few weeks ago we broke that bed down and dispersed the soil into new trenches for garlic and asparagus. The cloves will slumber quietly here over the winter, and in the spring we’ll hopefully see green garlic peeking up through mulch and snow. Every year we’ll plant more and more garlic; we eat a lot of it, of course, but since garlic adapts to its unique environment, we want a generous quantity to save for planting.

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The water runs through a culvert underneath our driveway and out into our pasture. You can see our flume in the upper right.

We ran our irrigation water for the first time this season, and it went surprisingly well. Our pasture isn’t planted right now so the irrigation run was more of an experiment to see how the water would move through our gated pipe system. We own shares in a local creek that pulls water from reservoirs on the Grand Mesa; when we want to run water we order a certain amount for a certain period and that water is deducted from our account. This run was for two days (forty-eight hours straight!) and it requires a lot of hands-on management, mainly opening and closing gates manually in the big pipes. When we’re more comfortable with our irrigation we won’t need to babysit it as much, but we’re unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mere feet from our house, and we definitely want to pay close attention to where it’s going.

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Our tomato crop redeemed itself after a rocky start.

We harvested all of our vegetables prior to our recent hard freeze and brought in just over one hundred pounds of green, unripe tomatoes. In the past I’ve never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors, but for whatever reason these are ripening quite well. They’re no longer good to eat fresh – the overnight temperatures dropped too low, so the tomatoes taste as though they’ve been refrigerated – but they’re perfect for sauces, soups and purees. A pantry stocked with canned homegrown tomatoes is a winter gift indeed.

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One of our little saplings, hopefully protected from winter weather (and deer). 

We’ve hustled recently to layer all of our fruit tree saplings with warm winter mulch. Some of our little trees look healthy and others are…struggling. We’re hopeful that the mulch blanket will keep the trees protected from our harsh winter weather, since their root systems are likely to still be quite delicate. One of our priority spring projects next year will be to put a drip irrigation system in the orchard so we can stop watering the trees by hand.

We’re back to work, friends. We wish you a good week.

 

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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