Gardening book club

The world feels far too heavy and sad, particularly here in Colorado, for some absurdly cheerful post about alpacas or chickens or whatever we’re doing on the farm. Instead, we’ll offer a brief round-up of some favorite gardening books, in the hopes that you might be inspired to search these out at your local library or favorite independent bookseller. As with cooking, there is always something new to learn about gardening and growing food, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And as with cooking, where feeding hungry people nourishing, healthy food feels like an act of pure hope and a direct rebellion against the stupid, meaningless tragedy of the world, so does planting a seed or a sapling.

Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States, Mary Ann Newcomer

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

Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

Epic Tomatoes, Craig LeHoullier

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

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith

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

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

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

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson

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

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

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

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Carol Deppe

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

The Lean Farm, Ben Hartman

The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, Ben Hartman

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

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

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

Mindset book club

I think it’s fair to say that things are not going well out there. Between incessant doomscrolling and paralyzing anxiety attacks, I’m desperately searching out reading material that calms and soothes, rather than inflames and terrorizes – so I scoured our rainbow library for books that I thought fit the bill. Read on for a few suggestions.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self ed. by Ellyn Spragins

This is a lovely book, filled with precisely what the title advertises: prominent, successful women write letters to their younger selves, offering guidance, wisdom, consolation, advice and solace. I’ve thought a lot about how we’ll look back on this intensely difficult time, and what I might like to tell my own younger self. I particularly loved this quote from photographer Joyce Tenneson: “Your best work will come in moments of grace.” Perhaps we all need to focus on showing more grace to both ourselves and others.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is certainly best known for Wild, but she also wrote a gorgeous, heartbreaking advice column called Dear Sugar, which has been translated into plays and podcasts and all sorts of other media. In a dark time, the thing you need most might be to know that others have experienced pain and heartache and betrayal and trauma too, and have still survived even after all that, and that’s exactly what this book offers. Plus, there are some laugh-out-loud moments which will have you guffawing through your tears. This one hits all the right notes.

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The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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Spring fever book club

It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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The Farm Series: Colorado Pastured Pork

We’ve (sort of) relocated to the Western Slope, and we’re focused on meeting as many local farmers as possible. If we truly intend to start Quiet Farm here, and if we intend for it to grow into a thriving business, building a strong local producer network will be key to our success. To that end, when we’re not driving around looking for property, we’re visiting farms and ranches who practice the same sort of farming we plan to embrace.

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The Western Slope – specifically Delta County, where we’re currently based – has a long history of agriculture, but most of those ag products were shipped to population centers in Denver (to the east) and Salt Lake City (to the west). Now, with “local food” and “agritourism” evolving as valid ways for poorer counties to earn revenue, there is a movement afoot to encourage small farmers and other sustainable, innovative producers to make their mark here. Surprisingly, Delta County has more acres of organic farmland than any other county in Colorado (I know, we thought it was the Kingdom of Boulder, too).

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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Cookbook Club: Full Moon Suppers

It will come as precisely no surprise to any of you that I have what some might consider an excessive cookbook collection. I try to keep it pared down – honestly, I do – but then every October the local library has their annual book sale where you get to fill shopping bags for $6 each and I just lose any ability I might once have had to act like a rational adult. It’s true. And no one will ever, ever help us move.

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Not long ago, this cookbook crossed my path, and it is pure and simple and lovely. As a professional chef, I know that most cookbooks are used by home cooks, and therefore I am infuriated (not too strong a word) by gorgeous, glossy, overproduced cookbooks with fabulous photos where the recipes don’t actually work. Home cooks, especially those just starting out, don’t need perfect photos of airbrushed superstars (or blog stars) happily munching on avocado toast. What they need are clear, easy to-understand recipes that have been tested many times, in many kitchens (preferably home kitchens), with variable equipment. And possibly not all of the correct ingredients.

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The last of the season’s stone fruit. 

Annemarie Ahearn has been cooking and farming on her family’s property overlooking Penobscot Bay, Maine, since 2009. As she says,

“I had not moved to Maine on a whim. My plan was to open a cooking school for home cooks and teach people how to grow a kitchen garden. The mission of the school aligned with my personal ambition, which was to fundamentally change my daily routine. City life, while rich with professional opportunity, did not feed my soul in the way that I was hoping a more rural life would. And what better place to experience nature than on a farm, nestled between the mountains and the sea? So many skills that my grandmothers and generations prior to theirs possessed I did not know the first thing about. Chopping wood for warmth, putting up preserves for winter, catching a fish for dinner and raising laying hens for eggs were all efforts that I wanted to experience firsthand.”

The book is broken into twelve menus, appropriately themed to the twelve months of the year. Her recipes are simple, seasonal and easy to follow, and every single one pays homage to the land above all else. I can’t get the quality of Maine lobster that she has, nor fresh periwinkles, but there are plenty of recipes here that could easily be made across the country, depending on the season. We haven’t been to Salt Water Farm (yet), but we feel a definite kinship between the cooking and farming life Annemarie has forged for herself on Maine’s rocky, windswept coast and the cooking and farming life we want to build at Quiet Farm, wherever that may be.

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Please ripen before first frost hits…

I’ll be completely honest and say that I’m a little late on this post, but truly that’s only because I was (im)patiently waiting for our tomatoes to ripen so I could make a glorious summer salad. Salt Water Farm has a short growing season too; they treasure their warm-weather peaches, tomatoes and corn just as we do at nearly six thousand feet in the Rocky Mountains. You work with what you have.

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Cocktail hour is my favorite hour!

Each of the twelve menus in Full Moon Suppers starts with a paired beverage. N and I really only partake of gin-and-tonics in summer; they seem to suit the weather so well. I’ve seen a couple of recipes this summer encouraging the use of lovage in a simple syrup to add to G&Ts or sparkling water; since I have an abundance of lovage that I leave for the bees every year, I thought I might as well use it. The syrup is truly simple: combine two cups water, two cups sugar and bring to a boil. Add eight cups roughly chopped lovage, remove from heat and allow to cool completely while lovage steeps. Strain into a clean quart jar and store in refrigerator. It’s herby, grassy and deeply refreshing, whether in a cocktail or sparkling water. I’m surprised by how much I like it.

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I know that I said previously that once you finally have ripe tomatoes, you should only anoint them with olive oil and salt. But really, you should also find some amazing local sweet corn (I froze all my excess from this event) and some fresh cucumbers and you should make this salad. It has a simple vinaigrette made with lemon and mustard and honey and red wine vinegar, and honestly, it tastes like summer in a bowl. This is not a salad you’d make any other time of the year – only when the ingredients are at their absolute very best. And that window of opportunity is very swiftly closing.

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And then there’s the peach cake, although in my world it’s a peach and nectarine cake, plus I added almonds to complement the almond flour and for extra crunch. Oh, and I just served it with mascarpone rather than sweetened whipped cream. (It’s exceedingly difficult for me to follow recipes exactly.) But this one is worth the time and effort, and even though it takes forever to bake, you’ll be rewarded. The butter creates a gorgeous, rich crust, but the interior is as soft as a dream. And this would work beautifully with home-canned peaches, too, should you be so inclined, so you can make it more than two months of the year.

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Peach Almond Cake with Mascarpone

Chef’s Notes: As mentioned above, I included 1/2 cup slivered almonds in the batter; incorporate these with the dry ingredients in the first step. I used a combination of ripe peaches and nectarines, and I served the cake with just a dollop of this plus additional sliced fresh peaches and nectarines on the side. No additional alterations are needed to bake this cake in the Denver area, although above 7,000 feet you may wish to make adjustments. This cake counts as breakfast, in case you’re wondering.

For The Cake

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup almond flour
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 9 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 heaping cup sugar
  • 3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup cream
  • 4 large, pitted peaches, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp. melted butter

For The Cream

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup mascarpone
  • confectioner’s sugar for dusting
  

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment paper. Butter and flour the sides of the pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, almond flour, salt and baking powder. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip together the butter and sugar. Incorporate the eggs one at a time, whipping well. Whip in the vanilla extract. Mix in a third of the dry ingredients, then a third of the cream. Continue alternating the dry ingredients and cream in thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl in between additions.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Spread the peach slices on top and press them into the dough. Brush with melted butter. Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake has set and turned golden on top. The cake is done when you insert a toothpick into the center and it comes out clean. Allow to cool on a rack; serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Using your stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla extract until soft peaks form. Fold in mascarpone.

Serve slices of cake on individual plates with a generous spoonful of cream and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar on top.

(All recipes reprinted with permission from Full Moon Suppers at Salt Water Farm by Annemarie Ahearn and published by Roost Books, but the photographs are N’s!)