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.

 

Small victories

In ten years of growing food, this is by far the most challenging season we’ve ever experienced. Between punishing hail, voracious deer, late snows, devastating winds, crafty rodents and ten million grasshoppers (I’m certain the locusts are on their way), we feel we’ve taken everything the world can throw at new farmers. We might be down, we might be bruised, but we’re not out yet. And in that spirit, how about we count up some wins?

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Thanks, sunflowers, for cheering us on with your bright faces.

Our farm is awash in sunflowers right now, not one of which we planted. They weren’t here last year when we moved in (historic drought?), but we’re so glad to see them this year. Hopefully they’ll continue to self-seed and their cheerful countenances will be part of every summer here.

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Coming home to roost

One of the many reasons we were drawn to Quiet Farm was its collection of rather ramshackle yet usable outbuildings. Since keeping chickens for eggs (and entertainment) was always a top priority, renovating the chicken house was definitely high on our project list.

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The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

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The original nest boxes on the far wall indicate that this may previously have been used as a henhouse.

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Lessons learned

Hello again, and please forgive us our recent absence. We’ve taken a small summer hiatus – not because we’ve actually been on vacation, but because for a period of time there we didn’t have many nice things to say about farming, and we didn’t want our space here to sound whiny and negative. We’re genuinely thrilled to be farming, even when we aren’t.

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One of early summer’s low points.

It’s been just under one year since we found Quiet Farm, and what a year it’s been. There have been highs and lows and successes and failures. And now that we’re one year wiser and can officially call ourselves farmers, we’re working hard on learning from our experiences. We always say that we’re allowed to make as many mistakes as we want, but we have to make different mistakes. If we make the same mistakes over and over, then we obviously haven’t learned anything.

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Farm update: July 8

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This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

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Deer diary, vol. 2

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Tools at the ready for constructing an H-brace.

Early this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife delivered our game fencing materials. They also included a thin pamphlet with a few helpful suggestions on how to construct said fence – not really what we’d call “instructions.” As we’d never built even a simple fence before, this meant a lot of time on the University of YouTube. Our game fence is nine feet tall and composed of wood posts, metal T-posts, two strands of grid wire fencing and three strands of barbed wire. That’s a lot just to keep deer out – and each component has to be installed separately.

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Once we’d set our wood posts in concrete, we went around building H-braces at corners. H-braces (seen above on the left and right sides of the gate) are required when the fence turns a corner to keep it supported. The H-braces seem relatively simple – you just notch the vertical posts, insert a horizontal post, then use massive nails (3/8 inch by 12 inches!) to secure the horizontal to the vertical. As with all aspects of this fence, though, this is simpler on paper than in reality. Notching the fenceposts required climbing on a rickety stepladder on very rocky and uneven ground and holding a reciprocating saw at an awkward angle while trying not to fall off the ladder. Not at all OSHA-approved.

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Four completed H-braces on either side of our corral gate.

With the posts successfully notched, we set about connecting the horizontal to the vertical. Driving the heavy, thick nails in proved to be yet another challenge. After hours of frustration, we finally bought an extra-long drill bit so we could pre-drill the holes for the nails. This was an important lesson learned: don’t try to do something the hard way if a power tool can make the task easier.

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Looking southwest at our pasture gate.

H-braces then have to be wrapped with nine-gauge wire in order to stabilize the posts. As with the nails, this was much easier in theory than in practice. The wire was delivered to us in huge coils which were absolutely unmanageable – no matter where you wanted the wire to go, it was set on uncoiling the wrong way somewhere else, usually slapping you in the face along the way. We each bear our fair share of fence scars.

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Using a come-along and a wood clamp to stretch the grid fencing.

Now that the H-braces are up and wrapped, the two strands of grid fencing have to be installed. We could have opted for one-strand fencing, but the fencing comes in 330-feet rolls and the two of us could barely lift one of the smaller rolls. So we chose to wrap two strands, which most small farms do. It takes longer, but it’s much easier for two people to handle.

We unrolled the coils along the fence line, then used a come-along and N’s very crafty wood plank clamp to stretch the fencing. It’s imperative that the fencing be as tight as possible, but because our posts aren’t exactly straight, we had to adapt a bit. We’ll call it “accounting for the curvature of the earth.” Once in place, the fencing was secured to the wood posts using thick staples, and to the T-posts using clips.

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Using the wood clamp and the ATV hook and cable to install the top row.

Installing the top row offered additional challenges, since we had to hold up hundreds of feet of fencing while stretching and then securing it. Our ATV’s hook and cable set-up helped a great deal here, as did some sturdy chains attached to our wood plank clamp.

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We were pleased (and surprised!) to find that all of our fencing materials were made in the USA.

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Waiting for barbed wire along the top and bottom.

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Nearly finished!

The complexity of the fence might seem like a bit much just for some deer…but we have watched these animals easily leap a six-foot fence from a standstill. The power in their strong legs and their lean bodies is remarkable, and the fence has to be nine feet tall to have any hope of keeping them out, especially when they’re moving at a full, panicked run.

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Dear deer: the Quiet Farm salad bar is officially closed. Go torment someone else.

Building our game fence is the most extensive, complex and difficult project we’ve tackled yet here on Quiet Farm, and we are so proud of the results. The fence isn’t perfect, but we did it ourselves for about one-tenth what it would have cost to hire a fencing company, and we learned so much along the way. This sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency is why we’re out here.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Farm update: May 20

Our average last frost date here at Quiet Farm is May 13; as a rough guideline, this means that it’s generally safe to plant warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers and so on) outside after this date. Except that we had about an inch of light, fluffy, powdery snow plus some shockingly low overnight temperatures this past week, and if we’d had all of these plants outside they would have died a chilly death. While some vegetables can handle low temperatures, our summer stars want heat and more heat, so ours are still safely tucked away in the sunroom. What do we learn from this? Always check the forecast, and never trust Colorado weather to do what you expect.

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These seed potatoes are bred for the Rocky Mountain West.

We’re expecting another week of cool, wet weather, which makes it impossible to pour concrete for our fence posts. But there is always something that can be planted, even if it’s not tomatoes and peppers. Our locally-grown seed potatoes have been planted in “potato towers,” which we constructed from galvanized fencing and layers of newspapers, compost and straw. I planted a little over a pound of each variety; theoretically each pound planted should yield about ten pounds of fresh potatoes in maybe July or August. I’ve never planted potatoes in towers so am excited to see how this experiment turns out! (If you want to plant potatoes, buy certified seed potatoes and don’t plant those from the grocery store – they’ve typically been treated to prevent sprouting and therefore won’t grow.)

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Farm update: May 6

It’s been mostly cool and rainy this week. We’re of course grateful for the moisture and lower temperatures, which might keep our snowpack in place longer, but the weather has literally put a damper on our excavator plans. Never mind, though; there are always plenty of other things to do!

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A male black-chinned hummingbird getting its sugar fix.

One of our most successful ventures recently has been installing hummingbird feeders around our house. We’ve been utterly astounded at the sheer number of hummingbirds that have appeared, including both the black-chinned and broad-tailed varieties. They’ve apparently informed all their friends that the bar is open!

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The cranes are here!

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There are so many benefits to living where we do now, including but not limited to lots of fresh, local fruit in the summer. But just now, coming off a long, dark winter, we’re most excited to see one of the true harbingers of spring: the greater sandhill crane on its annual migration between New Mexico and the Yellowstone ecosystem (northern Idaho and Montana).

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Greater sandhill cranes are big, gorgeous, elegant birds; adults stand about four feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan. They’re most easily recognized by their sooty gray coloring and the red patches on their eyes and head, and that they flock by the thousands. Their plumage can take on a rusty red sheen, because they often preen by rubbing their feathers with iron-rich mud.

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In Colorado, a flock of about twenty thousand birds gathers in February and March in the San Luis Valley, where they rest and forage before heading further north. About five thousand of these birds then make their way straight over Delta County, where we live, often stopping at Fruitgrowers’ Reservoir just to the east of our farm.

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Greater sandhill cranes are the oldest birds still living today; fossil records from two and a half million years ago indicate that they’ve changed hardly at all. Rock art and other artifacts in the San Luis Valley show that cranes have been important to the region’s people for as long humans have inhabited the area. Their annual migration is a sure sign that we’ve survived another winter, and spring is on its way.

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Sandhill cranes sleep in shallow, calm water to keep themselves safe from predators, so a reservoir like Fruitgrowers’ is a perfect stopover location. These birds are opportunistic feeders; they most often eat plants and grains, but they’ll also feast on invertebrates and small mammals, if available. The Western Slope and the San Luis Valley offer thousands of acres of fallow cornfields in which to forage.

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The cranes are most active at dawn and dusk when they “commute” to and from their daytime feeding grounds. The population along the Platte River in Nebraska is so large – half a million birds – that the cranes’ noise can drown out normal conversation. Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call, and the birds can frequently be heard even when they can’t be seen. The cranes are often spotted along the same transitory route in fall, but they rarely stop over in Delta County. Local experts believe this is because the reservoir is dry in the autumn, so there is no place to for the birds to sleep safely.

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Although sandhill cranes aren’t quite as demonstrative as the famous dancing prairie chicken, the birds will perform for their prospective mate. Sandhill cranes mate for life and can live up to twenty years, a remarkable lifespan for a wild bird. These cranes don’t nest here in Colorado but instead lay their eggs up north; the female typically lays two eggs and the male guards the nest. It takes a month for the eggs to hatch and two months for the chicks to reach maturity, although only one chick usually survives.

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We are thrilled to share space with these magnificent birds, and we look forward to their migration every spring.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing the cranes in huge numbers, the two best locations are Monte Vista in southern Colorado and along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Both are definitely worth the trip!

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