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.

Farm update: June 6

Hello, friends. Here are a few things we’ve been up to on the farm lately, if you’d like to see.

Look! Asparagus!

We are excited to announce our first official asparagus harvest. ‘Harvest’ is likely a bit of a misnomer, as virtually all stalks were snapped off and consumed fresh in situ, but still an event worthy of note. Asparagus is most commonly planted from crowns, which are often purchased at two or three years old and therefore more expensive; we started asparagus from seed two years ago (with a replant last year) which is markedly less costly. Starting from seed, however, is definitely not the way to go if you’re looking for rapid results. We now have eight healthy crowns and they’ll continue to produce for at least ten years, if not longer. Next year we’re very much looking forward to harvesting enough asparagus to actually use in a salad or pasta!

We love bees! Bees love dandelions! Therefore, we love dandelions!

Loathed by suburban homeowners nationwide, dandelions are yet another example of something in nature that wants to help us live healthier lives, but we insist on poisoning it so that we can maintain a biologically dead non-native bluegrass carpet. Not only do they provide the bees with one of their earliest foods, typically long before other pollen sources are available, but this year the dandelion greens were especially tasty. Dandelions have been used in traditional medicine for centuries; they’re rich in numerous vitamins and minerals, plus they fight inflammation and are packed with antioxidants. As long as you’re harvesting in an area that hasn’t been sprayed, the entire plant is edible; the root is often made into a tea, and the greens are delicious cooked or raw.

Here’s Fiji, looking remarkably cooler after his beauty salon visit.

The alpacas were sheared this past week, just in time for summer’s intense heat. You may well remember that we were more than just a little nervous about our first shearing experience last spring; that went smoothly, thanks to the calm professionalism of our shearer, Luke. This year’s shearing was also handled by Luke in record time and with no injury to beast nor human, and the animals will be far more comfortable this summer. Our motley and feral crew will never win any prizes, to be certain, but we know full well that they’re living a good, safe, healthy life here with us.

We dug this hole out by hand. It’s a lot deeper than it appears.

We have six frost-free ag taps on the farm; they’re connected to our domestic water and are designed to provide water to plants and animals even in the dead of winter. We also use ours to operate our drip system when we’re not running irrigation water, so it’s essential that they’re all in good working order, particularly during the growing season. Our primary tap started leaking last fall, and we dug it out, removed the tap, insulated the line with alpaca fleece and capped it for the winter. After pricing out a replacement, we opted to cannibalize one of our existing taps, one north of the house and little-used. This required digging a second two-foot-deep hole – by hand, of course – and relocating the entire apparatus. All our repairs seem to have held strong, so now it’s time to fill in those treacherous holes. As always, with each small success we gain ever more confidence in tackling all manner of farm projects.

And finally, if you’re searching for a spectacular celebration of the natural world, may I wholeheartedly recommend this.

We have much planting to do. Wishing you a peaceful week.

Farm update: October 18

And in the space of a few days, our season went from lush abundance to a frozen wasteland. Such is the nature of growing food at over six thousand feet in a high-plains desert.

Our first hard frost arrived this past week, and with it a few light dustings of early snow. Up on the mesa we were thrilled to see a solid fifteen inches show up on the Sno-Tel! All of our irrigation water, of course, comes directly from the mesa, so we are always in favor of as much winter moisture as possible to boost next year’s irrigation allotment.

Our sunroom looks like an unusual farmers’ market!

Temperatures dropped into the high 20s overnight, which is far too cold for summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. (Don’t worry, the kale is fine. The kale is always fine.) Prior to the freeze we harvested everything we could – nearly four hundred pounds on Monday alone; now comes the task of preserving all of that food to enjoy through winter and spring. The cruel irony, of course, is that once the storm passed we quickly returned to bright bluebird skies and comfortable daytime temperatures in the mid-60s, which likely means we would have gotten at least another two or three weeks in the growing season. But when a hard freeze announces that you’re done, then you’re done – and there’s not much arguing.

One of our gated pipes with the season’s final run.

Our irrigation season runs through the end of October, but we balanced our account this year to fortuitously end just before the cold snap arrived. Running irrigation later in the season is already a chilly task; combine that with a hard freeze and it can be downright miserable. We were very pleased with how we managed our irrigation in a drought year and though of course we hope for higher water shares next year, we know that with smart planning we can make even a low allotment work for our land. It’s incredible how much we’ve learned in only three short years here.

A friend’s trial orchard, where new apple varieties are tested.

Prior to the hard freeze we’d picked nearly two hundred pounds of local apples for winter storage. One box has already been transformed into applesauce; the remainder will stay reasonably fresh in one of our insulated but unheated sheds. This delicious fruit will provide snacks all throughout the winter; I’ll also bake with the apples as well as dehydrate a few pounds for adding to granola. As always, the bounty of incredible local fruit is one of the greatest benefits of living where we do.

Adelaide, Paris, Paihia and Fiji contemplating the change in seasons.

Although the damp, freezing weather makes the corral a bit of a sloppy mess, the animals are entirely unfazed by the cooler weather. They’ve put on quite a bit of fleece since their shearing, so they’re ready for winter, too.

And with that, we’re off to sort produce for canning. Wishing you a calm and peaceful week, friends.

Farm update: July 12

How are you? How is your July thus far? It’s high summer here at Quiet Farm and we spend more time outdoors than in – always, always wearing long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed hats and plenty of SPF 50 (only reef-safe zinc, though we’re nowhere near a reef!) on any exposed skin. Skin cancer is not to be taken lightly, especially since we’re more than a mile closer to the sun. Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Sunchokes along the eastern edge of our game fence.

Each growing season, I aim to plant at least one new fruit, vegetable, herb or flower. Last year it was fennel (and unintentionally this year, too, since it self-seeded) but this year’s choice was sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus). Sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they’re native to North America, not Israel) are in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and the plants produce showy yellow flowers and an edible tuber. They’re not well known in the U.S.; even in France they’re grown primarily for animal feed. But! The crisp, white-fleshed tubers are rich in inulin (a dietary fiber) and are absolutely delicious when roasted and salted like potatoes. I might even try some sunchoke chips in the dehydrator! I’m excited to harvest these later this season, especially because once established, they’ll likely need no water and no maintenance, and will hopefully continue to produce a nutritious winter storage crop all on their own.

Nice buns.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than one minute knows that I am constantly trying to convince the entire world to bake their own bread. Really, you should! So easy! So satisfying! So much healthier and tastier than store-bought! But perhaps you find large burnished sourdough loaves to be somewhat intimidating? No problem. Start simple, like hamburger buns. I know that I’ve just missed the Fourth of July, a classic burger holiday if ever there was one. But if you start practicing now, you’ll have mastered homemade burger buns by Labor Day! (Only joking, because you don’t need any practice at all; buns are really easy.) Use this reliable recipe – I did not make any alterations for altitude – and bake a batch to tuck in your freezer for future grilling opportunities. The recipe yields eight large; I make sixteen if I want to serve sliders. Please, try this and let me know if you have troubles – I’ll help you sort them out!

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Broad-tailed hummingbirds at the feeder.

Our migratory hummingbird population is thriving; if we remain still, we’re able to see them up close on our feeders. We observe two species most commonly here – the broad-tailed (Selasphorus platycercus) and the black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), and only very rarely a rufous (Selasphorus rufus). The hummingbirds are so much fun to listen to as they dive and swoop like miniature fighter jets. We’ve even discovered a tiny nest precariously perched on the twinkle light strands on our front porch; we’ve left it alone for the moment in the hopes that there might be viable eggs in it. Although we have dozens of incredible bird species here at Quiet Farm, the fast and spirited hummingbirds are definitely one of our favorites.

Fresh, crisp, satisfying and most of all – cold.

Despite the slider rolls above, supper is entirely abandoned more evenings than not here at Quiet Farm. When it’s pushing 100 degrees at 5:30PM and we’ve been out irrigating all day, the very last thing I want to do is turn on the oven or the stove. Enter the cold noodle salad, remarkably simple and infinitely variable. I cook the noodles in well-salted water first thing in the morning, when it’s (relatively) cool. Drain and toss the still-warm noodles in sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chile sauce if you like things spicy. Shred a whole mess of vegetables, whatever you have on hand – carrots, cabbage, snap peas, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower – and toss with a bit more soy and vinegar. Chill everything. When it’s time to eat, make yourself a beautiful, colorful plate and garnish with lots and lots of fresh herbs – I like a mixture of Thai basil, cilantro, scallions and mint. Add more soy or sesame oil as desired. Chopped salted peanuts are great, too! You could serve this on a bed of fresh greens, you could top this with crispy tofu or strips of a simple scallion omelette, or you could just eat it as is. One of my very favorite low-effort/high-flavor summer meals. (P.S. When you’re making something that will later be eaten cold, remember to have a generous hand with the seasoning. Cold dulls flavor, therefore it doesn’t taste as intense. Be lavish with salt and herbs!)

Adelaide apologizes for not tidying up all the hay on her face before this photo was snapped.

And finally, our animals are thrilled with their new haircuts. Although they have access to shade, they still spend their time happily grazing away in the pasture. Even on the hottest days, when we’re melting and seeking out any cool spot we can find, they’re happy to be out in the sun. Last summer was a different story, and we’re so pleased that we were able to get them sheared so they can be more comfortable during this brutal season.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead, friends.

Farm update: March 1

Hello there, and welcome to March. (March?!? Really? We are completely not prepared for all of our spring tasks yet.) Also, welcome to the nearly one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns. A year of this madness. How is everyone doing out there? The “pandemic wall” is a real thing, make no mistake, and I think a lot of us have hit it. Hard.

The images in this post might convince you that we’re buried in snow over here at Quiet Farm; sadly, that is not at all true. We have gotten a bit of snow both here and up on the mesa, and of course we’re grateful for every last flake, but it’s still looking as though it’s going to be a painfully dry year. As always, the only thing within our control is how we use the water we do have, so we’ll be focusing our efforts on making sure that not a drop goes to waste.

Paris secured in our makeshift crush before the vet’s arrival.

One great accomplishment that we’ve had recently is to successfully geld one of our male alpacas, Paris. His behavior had become increasingly aggressive and since we are not running a breeding program, there is no reason to keep an intact male on the farm. We were able to safely secure him in a “crush,” and our terrific local vet took care of the rest. It takes about sixty days for all the testosterone to leave his system, but his aggressive behavior has definitely lessened since the fateful day. We’re also pleased to announce that we’re on the mobile shearing schedule for the spring, so the alpacas will be getting a tidy cut in late May or early June, which will make them much more comfortable this summer. We are working on halter-training all the animals so that we can handle them in a safe and calm manner – this is much easier said than done, and frequently both humans and alpacas stomp off in frustration and tears. (Okay, maybe not the alpacas. Definitely the humans.)

Our game fence is good for more than just keeping out deer!

I’m also proud to announce that I’ve finished a patchwork quilt I started late last year. I won’t lie: I made approximately ten million mistakes on this quilt and learned so much about what not to do in quilting. I also unknowingly caused a lot of my own problems by designing a somewhat complicated pattern that required an excessive amount of piecework and stop/start stitching. (It’s only my fourth full-size quilt, however, so perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. I am very much a novice.) I read an article recently about different crafting hobbies people had taken up during the pandemic; one woman tackled a complicated shawl using fairly advanced knitting techniques. She wrote, “I almost quit a lot of times. But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times – it was a good emotional process for me. The challenge was a great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.” That accurately sums up my feelings about making this quilt – and I’m already excited about starting my next one.

Snowshoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout!

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much we adore our local library system; to make us love them even more, they’ve started loaning snowshoeing equipment! We’re about twenty minutes’ away from some of the best snowshoe/cross-country trails in the West, and borrowing equipment and just running up the mountain for a couple of hours has been a terrific break. (Even better: many of the trails ban loud, obnoxious snowmobiles.) We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to go a few more times before the demands of spring on the farm limit our time away.

This is an ideal afternoon snack with a strong cup of PG Tips.

There’s been more comfort baking than usual ’round these parts lately. One favorite is a long-ago classic that I’ve resurrected because for once I have a massive bag of spelt flour and plenty of fresh rosemary on hand: this rosemary-chocolate olive oil cake, originally from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. This may not be to everyone’s liking – rosemary isn’t frequently used in desserts – but I love it and don’t find the piney herb flavor overwhelming at all. The cake is tender, delicate and not too sweet, and is a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend a good-quality 70% dark chocolate bar here, cut into rough chunks, plus a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for extra crunch and texture. (For high-altitude bakers: I reduced the baking powder to 1 tsp. but didn’t make any other changes.) As with most things I bake, more than half of this cake promptly went straight into the freezer as a gift to my future self.

Stay calm and stay sane out there, dear friends. The best thing we can do is just to keep going.

Farm update: September 28

Aspens Fall

How are things in your world, friends? It’s officially autumn here, with clear bluebird days and crisp, cool nights; the destructive Pine Gulch fire, sparked at the end of July about seventy miles away, is thankfully entirely contained. Our neighboring orchards are nearly all harvested, and our task list is packed with tidying, organizing, preserving, cleaning and stocking up for what we hope is a very snowy winter.

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Hay for animal feed has to stay dry at all costs.

The winter feed for our alpacas and llama has been delivered and safely stored in our de facto hay barn. As this is our first year with the animals, we had to guess on quantities and are hoping that we won’t find ourselves out of hay in frigid January with no green pasture on the near horizon – in a situation like that, a hay farmer will be able to charge us whatever he wishes, and rightfully so. Our llama, Kingston, has already figured out that with some crafty contortionist maneuvering he can reach the fresh bales through the corral panels. Bless his tenacity, and his flexible neck.

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Let’s learn about alpacas and llamas!

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It’s a creative remake of The Sound of Music.

Some of you may recall that we expanded the Quiet Farm team a few weeks ago. We now have five alpacas and one llama on our farm, and they currently spend the majority of their time grazing placidly on our pasture. We’re new to livestock, and are doing as much research as possible, and we thought you might be interested in learning more about our new residents, too.

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See you at the old watering hole?

First, what even are these odd creatures, anyway? Llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Vicugna pacos) are both members of the camelid family, along with their wild cousins, viçunas and guanacos. (Collectively, this group is known as lamoids.) Camelids actually evolved in North America; some of their ancestors migrated to Africa to become the desert camels we’re familiar with. Other ancestors migrated south to what is now South America and evolved into the llamas and alpacas we associate with indigenous tribes of South America. As bison were essential to the Native Americans, so were llamas and alpacas to the indigenous peoples. These animals provided food, fiber, grease, draft power, fertilizer, fuel, leather and protection.

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Meet the team

In an unexpected turn of events, five alpacas and one llama have joined us. We’re excited to present the newest members of the Quiet Farm team!

Alpaca Paris 01 sml

Paris

Alpaca Pahia 01 sml

Paihia

Alpaca Kona 01 sml

Kona

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Fiji

Llama Kingston 01 sml

Kingston

Alpaca Adelaide 01 sml

Adelaide

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Yes, they most definitely should be sheared. But since they’re basically feral, we all need some time to get to know each other before we tackle personal grooming. Never a dull moment here at Quiet Farm.

P.S. They’re named for places N and I have lived – three locations each.