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.

We grow three traditional raspberry varieties plus ‘Anne,’ a yellow cultivar.

Our four rows of raspberries produced spectacularly this year! Early in the season we actually thought we’d lost these plants, but they rallied and for a period of weeks in September we were harvesting a pound or more every morning. Considering the cost of fresh organic raspberries in supermarkets these days, our own homegrown abundance qualified as a cash crop! The rows have some holes where canes have died, so we’ll replant these in the spring and would like to introduce blackberries, too.

Ripe ground cherries are bright yellow with a papery tan husk.

We grow many familiar fruits and vegetables, but we like growing unusual things too. Ground cherries (also called pineapple tomatillos or husk cherries) are absolutely delicious, drought-tolerant and easy to grow. Unlike traditional tomatillos, which grow on tall vining plants similar to tomatoes, ground cherries grow – as you might imagine – on the ground. The tiny fruits are sweet-tart, crisp and delicious, especially once the papery husks have turned from green to beige. They’re also a terrific source of Vitamin C! I’ve saved a lot of seeds this year and am hoping to substantially expand our plantings of this unusual fruit next year.

Quick pickles are so easy and rewarding to make.

Our sweet and hot peppers produced remarkably well. I’ve never before harvested so many green peppers pre-frost – like the tomatoes, these were late starters – and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how well these green peppers have ripened to red. This weekend I quick-pickled a mix of sweet and hot peppers for a bright, tangy, fresh condiment to use on soups and beans. Many of our hot peppers are dried and turned into chile powder; some are fermented into Tabasco-style hot sauce. Capsaicin is never in short supply here.

A colorful calendula mix bordering one of our raised beds.

We’ve expanded our flower plantings to create beneficial habitat for pollinators, naturally repel insects and because they’re just such a joyous visual pleasure. We primarily grow a mix of calendula, marigolds and cosmos; they’re drought-tolerant and easy to grow, but will be adding hollyhock and zinnia next year. Our area showcases gorgeous self-seeding orange poppies every spring; we’ve not yet had success with these, but I’m hopeful that 2023 will be our year. Flowers bring such simple, uncomplicated joy to our lives here on the farm that I want to plant them everywhere.

Aphids run amok on kale leaves.

This season had some serious challenges, too. Our growing season started late thanks to cool temperatures well into June; the tomatoes were therefore badly stunted and didn’t start producing until early September. We also experienced our first bout of tomato viruses; in our high-plains desert climate, viruses are thankfully rare but this means we don’t have much useful experience in identifying or treating. Our best guess is that many of our plants suffered from beet curly top virus (BCTV) which is insect-vectored and was apparently endemic in our area this year. As a result of this infestation, many of our one hundred tomato plants either didn’t produce at all or produced only a handful of small, inedible fruits. We also struggled with soil nutrient issues, and as a result will be moving all tomato plants to a different growing area next year in order to let the soil rest. After last year’s utterly staggering tomato harvest, this year definitely felt like a bit of a letdown – but it’s also a good reminder that crop rotation and soil health matter – a lot. We successfully grew a few new tomato cultivars, including Amana Orange, Principe Borghese and Evergreen, all of which performed well enough to be added to our seed bank.

And of course the aphids went crazy on the brassicas, as shown above.

Silvery squash bugs and their thousands of coppery eggs are easy to recognize.

While we’re on the topic of crop rotation, we also learned the hard way that moving the squash plants just a few yards to avoid the devastating squash bugs we first noticed last year DOES NOT WORK. Because of climate change, squash bugs are now proving much more of a problem – their larvae can actually overwinter in the soil, as winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill them (much like the mountain pine beetle). So the terrible squash bugs that we had at the end of last year were a far bigger problem this year, as they were absolutely everywhere. As a result, squash yields were far lower than expected; on the positive side, I learned how to identify and handpick the coppery eggs off the leaves. As with the tomatoes, we’re relocating the entire patch west of the animal corral next year in a valiant attempt to eradicate our hungry nemesis. I’m not too sad about the loss of the zucchini, but the winter squashes do play a key role in our off-season diet so our poor yields are disappointing, to say the least. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and can improve next year.

Definitely not thrilled about this paparazzi experience.

We’ve had some unusual wildlife encounters recently, including a bear, a great horned owl, feral cats, numerous hawks and raptors, badgers and this little guy – the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). Fun facts: the porcupine is North America’s second-largest rodent after the beaver (Go Beavs!) and the scientific name translates to ‘quill pig.’ They can climb trees and are excellent swimmers. You will likely be the most popular person at your holiday gatherings when you bust out these super-useful trivia tidbits. (Porcupines are also primarily nocturnal, so all credit to N for capturing this incredible photo!)

Such funny creatures – inquisitive yet skittish.

And finally, our four rescue alpacas and our stoic, elegant llama (can you spot him?) remain content, healthy and as stand-offish as ever. We’re so glad to have them, even if our dreams of an alpaca petting zoo will likely never come to fruition.

Thanks for reading, dear friends. We love having you here, too.

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.

We have an abundance of starts for sale!

Here on the western edge of Colorado we didn’t get quite as much of that storm’s moisture as we would have liked, but in the state’s driest county we’re always grateful for anything we do get. And since we, too, experienced freezing temperatures this week, perhaps our readers here need to replace their summer crops? Never fear: we have hundreds of spectacular, unique heirloom tomato starts, all from our own saved organic seeds, plus pollinator plants, herbs and much more. Everything we grow is completely organic and well-suited to our challenging high-plains desert environment. Send us a message if you’d like to learn more about any of the plants we’re offering for sale this year.

Have a peaceful week, friends, and best of luck with your planting wherever you may be!

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.

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.

Farm update: September 20

Autumn is very much on its way here at Quiet Farm. Overnight lows plunge to the mid-40s, though our daytime temperatures remain in the mid-80s. The plants are all starting to look a bit tired, a bit yellowed, a bit lackluster. The seasonal transition has begun, and we are looking forward to the slower rhythms of late fall and winter. This remains an exceptionally busy time for us; here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see.

One day’s harvest of an easy twenty-five pounds.

Despite a rough start, we’ve had a spectacular year for tomatoes. We planted about sixty tomato plants of about fourteen different varieties, and our yields have been simply staggering. We’ve grown full-size heirlooms that I never thought possible, believing that our growing season was simply too short, and the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes have done well too. Every night for weeks now there’s been a fresh tomato salad with supper, and we’ve put up sauce, soup and salsa for a warm and nourishing winter. I never, ever tire of fresh tomatoes, and since we don’t eat storebought tomatoes, we’re getting our fill now. We will miss these gorgeous things until next summer.

Spotted on an evening irrigation check.

As we’ve spoken of many times here, we focus our efforts on improving our land and our soil, and one of the best ways we can do that is by encouraging both native plants and the pollinator population. Monarch butterflies are an iconic pollinator species; the western U.S. monarch population is currently traveling south on its fall migration. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) shown above feeds exclusively on milkweed; once the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, it has a much more varied diet. Unfortunately, milkweed is also toxic to livestock, so ranchers regularly treat pasture milkweeds with toxic herbicides – which is why the monarch population is declining, because the larvae cannot survive without these plants. We keep camelids here at Quiet Farm, and have spent hours worried about our animals becoming ill from consuming milkweed in our pastures; obviously, we’re not going to spray and we don’t particularly want to pull all these host plants.

After extensive research, our solution – for the moment – is to let things stand as they are. Hardy alpacas and llamas, native to the high Andes, aren’t nearly as delicate as domesticated cattle and sheep, so are far less likely to become sick. Plus, we’re intentionally cultivating a mixed pasture, with lots of different plants for our animals to graze; the likelihood of any of our animals eating enough milkweed to become seriously ill is slender indeed. There are never perfect methods of pasture management, but we’re working hard at figuring out what we can do to maintain balance.

Beautiful photo. Terrible plant. Just look at its horrible weaponry!

One thing that is very much not in balance is our puncturevine population. The farm is absolutely overrun with this heinous plant this year, and we’ve spent countless hours trying to eradicate it – pulling by hand, obviously, as dousing the entire farm in glyphosate is clearly not an option. Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) is an invasive weed, uniquely adapted to our desert climate, that grows where few other plants will; most infuriatingly, the seeds can remain dormant in the soil for seven to ten years. While we’re happy to let neutral weeds, like purslane and mullein, grow freely, the puncturevine burrs are harmful to humans and animals – and bicycle tires, too. For reasons unknown to us, this year conditions were absolutely perfect for puncturevine to take over our land and so it has. We are hoping that we’ve removed most of it, but we know that some of those viciously sharp little seeds are simply biding their time until next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. The battle continues.

The Quiet Farm pumpkin patch.

We’ve done well with winter squash this year, though as usual there are some squashes that didn’t exactly breed true – always a risk with saved seeds and limited isolation practices. Squash plants are a reliable harbinger of fall; ours usually start showing signs of powdery mildew, and the vines themselves start to fade and turn a bit crispy. I usually trim immature fruit so that the plant devotes all its energies to ripening the larger fruits, but this year I’ve mostly left the squash patch to its own devices. Depending on the variety, most pumpkins start out dark green with stripes; the fruits turn the classic bright orange in the same way leaves change color on deciduous trees. These jack o’lantern pumpkins yielded nicely; they’ll be cured for winter storage and won’t be carved but instead used for soups, curries and muffins.

As with other annuals, the bean plants will also clearly demonstrate that they’re nearly finished for the season. These are labeled as ‘Aztec White’, but based on the small size I suspect they’re more along the lines of a true navy bean. Dry beans can stay on the vine until frost threatens, a huge bonus for the time-starved farmer; if there isn’t time to shell the beans immediately, they can be tossed into repurposed feed sacks and stored in a cool, dark, dry place, away from pests and damp. Shelling dry beans is a perfect project for a crisp, late fall day, when the more pressing tasks have been completed! Once they’re shelled I’ll hopefully have a better idea of the variety, although when it comes to heirloom beans I’m not hugely bothered about specifics, especially when seeds are freely shared amongst local growers. If the beans grow well and taste delicious, that’s really all that matters.

Farm candy.

And to end on a sweet note, we’re pleased to share that our raspberry patch is finally producing. It’s taken us a couple of years to get these canes established, but we’re now harvesting enough raspberries to actually bring a few inside, rather than just eat them all in the field. We’re hopeful that we’ll have a few more weeks before a hard frost, so that all of the unripe berries will have a chance to ripen, but we’re thrilled with anything we get – these are like candy. As with tomatoes, the difference between just-picked raspberries, still warm from the sun, and those sitting in the cold case at your local supercenter is night and day, and we’ll eat our fill for as long as we possibly can.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

The height of the harvest

“Things are somewhat ugly out there. I couldn’t have imagined in the spring that we’d be suffering Covid (and fools) this long after a vaccine was announced, but here we are. One really fine manifestation of this has been to appreciate the things that are going right. Not as planned, but still in the right direction. Gardening and farming help a lot. Whether you pop a bean in a clay pot with some soil or you are farming thousands of acres, producing food is pretty cool and we’re lucky to be helping nature, in the garden and on the stovetop!” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

Hello there, friends. As you might imagine, it is an exceptionally busy time on the farm. August and September are the months we wait all year for and the abundance is staggering. These are the days when all of the hard work done in early spring really comes to fruition, but the workload is staggering, too. In addition to harvesting each day, we also need to preserve the harvest, plant fall crops, collect seeds and start thinking about fall clean-up tasks and winterizing the farm. We’re still irrigating two days per week, too, which eats up a lot of time. No matter the long hours, though, the incredible food we’re growing makes it all worthwhile.


These squash bugs are having one heck of a party.

Every growing season we face different challenges – the weather, the water and the pests all vary from year to year. Ideally, though, we’re learning from each experience and are better equipped for future troubles. This year we were surprised to discover the common squash bug (Anasa tristis) attacking our summer squash. Despite our never-ending drought, our relentless winds and our high altitude, we do have one great advantage in farming where we do – insects are rarely (if ever) a major problem. I’ve never dealt with squash bugs before, and by the time I discovered them, they’d done a huge amount of damage. I researched organic control methods and laughed out loud at one not–at-all-helpful suggestion: “carefully remove each bug by hand.” (Let me tell you what I do not have time for right now: removing individual bugs by hand.) And so, I opted for a broader form of retaliation: I clear-cut the Costata Romanesco plant back to its roots, leaving only the two huge squashes that I’m saving for seed. I do think that the ‘overgrown tropical jungle’ aspect of this particular plant contributed to this infestation, since the bugs often shelter at the plant’s base, so I need to consider this for future plantings. Also, if we should be so unlucky as to have a mild winter the larvae will likely not be killed and I’ll encounter the same problem again. Therefore, crop rotation and careful attention before the bugs get out of hand are definitely on next year’s to-do list.

Blossom end rot is easy to identify.

One garden ailment that I am painfully familiar with is blossom end rot, commonly referred to as BER by horticulturalists and farmers. BER isn’t technically a pest or a disease; rather, it’s a physiological disorder caused by insufficient calcium uptake. Although BER can affect peppers, squash, cucumbers and melons, I’ve only ever encountered it in tomatoes. Though there can be various causes, in my growing experience, BER is most often caused by inconsistent watering – both too much and too little – which can definitely be an issue in our growing area. As an example: for the past few weeks we’ve been running our regular Wednesday/Thursday irrigation schedule, but then have also experienced dramatic midnight thunderstorms which of course soak the plants even further. BER usually appears when the fruit is about half-size, and the spot at the base will turn leathery and spongy and eventually cause the entire fruit to rot. BER won’t hurt you, and you can cut out the affected areas, but I usually throw affected fruits straight to the chickens. As always, keep good records – you may find that certain species are more affected by BER in your garden than others. This year, I’m only seeing it in the Jaune Flammes shown above, and not in other varieties, and only in one raised bed – which indicates that the drip irrigation in that particular bed may also need a closer look. Paying attention to what’s going on with your plants will usually teach you everything you need to know.

Tomatillos are one of our favorite summer staples.

Do you grow tomatillos? I feel like they’re not very well known outside of the American Southwest, but I adore them and grow them every year. They’re in the same nightshade family (Solanaceae) as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes, and they’re also closely related to ground cherries and Cape gooseberries. They grow on plants similar to tomatoes and often need to be staked, because they’re quite sprawling and unkempt, but they’re prolific, hardy, drought-tolerant and delicious. Tomatillos are crisp and tart and usually ready to eat when the papery husk turns from bright green to a paler beige, or when they fall off the plant. Most of ours end up in salsa verde, but they make a wonderful sauce for enchiladas and a great addition to spicy soups, vegetarian tacos or green chile. Plus, they’re rich in fiber and vitamins C and K, too!

Blistered shishitos are often a pre-dinner snack.

Our shishito peppers have done well this year, which is terrific news because I haven’t had any success with this crop since we moved here. Shishitos are native to Japan, likely bred from the Spanish padrón pepper, and harvested green at about two inches long. We enjoy them in the most common fashion, seared in a screaming-hot cast iron skillet, dusted with flaky salt and nanami togarashi seasoning, then eaten whole out of hand (except for the stem). Shishitos are considered a “Russian roulette” pepper, in that they’re mostly quite mild but about one in ten will be eye-wateringly hot. This has a lot to do with their growing conditions, however, and ours have been pretty tame so far this year. As usual, I’ve left one pepper on the plant for the entire season so that I’ll have viable seeds for next year.

A great reason to dust off the angel food cake pan!

In addition to harvesting and preserving our own crops, this is also high time for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from other local farmers. We don’t grow sweet corn here at Quiet Farm; it’s a wind-pollinated grass, needs a good amount of land, and is virtually impossible to grow organically. Instead, I typically buy a case (about fifty ears) from a grower just down the road in Olathe, which is of course famous for its sweet corn. I grilled two-thirds of the ears and left the rest raw; all of the kernels, cooked and raw, were cut off the cob and frozen in small zip-top bags for adding to soups and chowders this winter. A few ears were saved for enjoying fresh, but most of this box went straight into the freezer as quickly as possible – corn does not improve once it’s been picked. I hope you were able to enjoy lots of fresh corn this summer, too.

One of the highlights of living where we do.

We’ve mentioned more than once this year that our local stone fruit growers were devastated by an early freeze last October, and many had no fruit at all. We were able to get out to pick a few peaches and have been enjoying them every day since. When I say “a few peaches,” what I actually mean is more than two hundred pounds – most went into the canning pot (fifty quarts), many into the dehydrator and the remainder into jam. This could well be our last year for peaches; we know many growers who are pulling out their peach trees because the heartache and stress simply isn’t worth it. And the orchard where we go to harvest is likely being sold soon, and it’s doubtful that a u-pick will be part of the new owner’s business model. Change is hard but inevitable, especially in the era of climate disruption – but at least we’ll have local peaches this winter.

As the world seems to spin more and more out of control each day, all we can do is focus on controlling what we can – and for us, that’s our land, our animals, what we grow and what we eat. We are doing our very best out here and hope you are, too, wherever you may be.

Farm update: July 26

And here we are at the tail end of July, scrambling to complete everything that needs doing. Each night before sleep finally arrives I focus on designing bright, colorful quilt patterns in my head – calming mental Tetris – rather than running through all of the tasks I didn’t complete during the day. The tomatoes need to be pruned and re-staked, again. The arugula and lettuce seeds need to be harvested, the straggly plants composted and the beds reseeded. The garlic needs to be pulled and cured. The mallow, bindweed and puncturevine are threatening a total takeover. And on and on and on. I feel a thousand miles behind on everything, and I remind myself to complete one task at a time. Also, I regularly remind myself to enjoy the moment I’m in, rather than race on to the next without even pausing for breath. (Easier said than done, no?)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Admiring our seasonal plants is a great way for me to stop my frenzied rushing for just a moment. Many of our flowering perennials didn’t bloom this year, thanks to the drought, but we do still have a few. Echinacea, or coneflower, is one of my favorites, and the bees love it, too. (Our pollinator population is also greatly diminished this year, likely due to the lack of blossoms in the neighboring orchards.) Echinacea has been touted for years as an herbal remedy for just about any ailment, including the common cold, but legitimate scientific studies on this are lacking in substance, to say the least. Still, the coneflowers grow well here and I’m hopeful that I can expand their presence on the farm in future years.

Just one day’s harvest…

Late July and August are the months we eagerly await all year – when the vegetables start rolling in. The flipside of that, of course, is that then you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do with all of that glorious food. Onions and kale are easy to deal with; they are garden stalwarts and stay fresh for weeks. Carrots and beets need to have their greens removed, at the very least; I usually don’t wash them until just before I’m ready to use them. The zucchini, of course, is where things start to feel overwhelming. Anyone who has planted zucchini knows full well that through some mysterious garden trickery you can check the plants twice a day and still end up with overgrown monsters. I like to harvest the squash when small and use it in salads, galettes and pastas; I also shred and freeze it for muffins. And our tomatoes are just now starting to come on; we’ve had a couple of early Juliets, plus a Lemon Boy and a Black Krim. The real bounty will start showing up in about ten days, and as with every year, I’m looking forward to an absurd excess of tomatoes. They never go to waste here.

So fresh! So crisp! So delicious!

We had a ridiculously abundant crop of peas this year! I adore fresh peas, but they often struggle here because we typically move so quickly from winter to summer, and peas generally like cooler, more moderate temperatures. This year, however, the plants just kept on producing, even when the temperatures accelerated into triple digits. Many, many peas were simply eaten fresh outside as a garden snack while doing chores, and many more made it inside for salads and stir-fries. The plants are mostly finished now, the peas starchy and the vines slowly crisping and browning, and all the peas still hanging will be dried and saved for seed. This year was such a roaring success that I’m very seriously considering giving the peas their own special home next to the raspberry beds, and saving the space in the raised beds for other spring crops like carrots and onions.

Neatly stacking hay bales is definitely a cardio workout.

We are thrilled to have our winter hay stores for the animals laid in. We completely guessed at the number of bales we bought last year – never having overwintered livestock – and actually came pretty close in our estimate! The animals are mostly on pasture right now but get hay in the evenings; come winter, however, this will be all the food they have. The drought has forced many producers to cull their cattle and sheep because the land can no longer support that many head, and the lack of water means that hay is obviously much more costly, too. Our hay cost fifty percent more than last year; in all honesty, we were prepared to pay double. Our focus, as always, is on ensuring that we don’t overgraze our pasture and that we always have emergency feed reserves stockpiled.

Our sunflowers are cheerful and abundant, too.

And with that, we’re off to tackle our neverending task list. Do tell, though – if you have an excess of zucchini, what are your favorite ways of using it up? I always enjoy hearing how others move through an abundance of garden produce.

Wishing you a lovely week, dear friends.

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: 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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