The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

heirloom-tomatoes-05-sml.jpg

Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

heirloom-tomatoes-04-sml.jpg

Our ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes, sadly still unripe even in early September.

The word heirloom doesn’t have any sort of legal definition in the U.S. when it comes to crops. In terms of plant botany, however, it’s generally accepted that an heirloom is a particular variety that’s existed for fifty years or more (World War II is the most common demarcation line), and is often one that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Decades and centuries ago, people immigrated to other countries with very few possessions; if they had seeds, they were often treated as precious jewels – sewed into skirt hems and luggage linings – because those seeds represented the start of a new food source and a new life. We obviously don’t treat seeds nearly as well today, but there still exists a small subset of gardeners who save seeds with the express purpose of keeping certain obscure plants alive. An heirloom by its very definition is not hybridized and non-GMO.

The ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes above aren’t a true heirloom, although they will be eventually. This tomato was developed by Dr. Jim Myers at Oregon State University (go Beavs!) as part of a breeding program searching for higher anthocyanins in fruit. That gorgeous, glossy dark purple color means the tomato has more antioxidants; it’s open-pollinated, so while not old enough for heirloom classification yet, the seeds will breed true if saved.

(For clarity’s sake, know that in plant breeding, hybrid does not necessarily mean GMO; there are no GMO tomatoes available commercially as of this writing. That is subject to change in the not-too-distant future.)

Heirloom Tomatoes 02 sml

The uniformity makes these hybrids perfect for grocery store displays.

Hybrids, on the other hand, have been developed through years and years of plant breeding for very specific reasons, and flavor is rarely a consideration. Ripe tomatoes are dangerously perishable, so commercial tomato growers want to pick hard, unripe, green tomatoes and let them ripen en route to market or at the store, courtesy of ethylene gas treatments. Grocery stores and food-service outlets demand symmetrical, uniform tomatoes of identical shape and size, both for shipping and displays. And consumers have long demonstrated by their consistent purchases of tasteless grocery store tomatoes that they don’t care about flavor, either – they just want perfect red tomatoes. This has obviously created an ideal market for bland, mealy ‘tomato-like fruits’ seen everywhere from fast-food hamburgers to caprese salads in January. What is the point, really, of eating something that looks like a tomato, but tastes like nothing? If we want better, we should ask for it.

Heirloom Tomatoes 01 sml

Not at all uniform. Delicate and easily damaged. Not traditionally attractive. But the flavor? Unreal.

When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, we have actually started asking for better. Certain high-end grocery stores now stock heirlooms seasonally, and small-scale growers do a roaring trade at farmers’ markets. These precious delights usually can’t be shipped far; they have thin skins and are picked as close to ripeness as possible, which means that they’re subject to damage. They’re also wildly inconsistent in size and shape and color, and they often show seams and cracks that may deter standard perfection-focused shoppers. For people doggedly in pursuit of flavor, however, there is simply no comparison. Heirloom tomatoes, depending on the variety, might be sweet or acidic or spicy or tangy or smoky and absolutely dripping with sultry juice. They taste like the past, in the best possible way. They taste like a tomato should taste.

Heirloom Tomatoes 03 sml

Eaten for supper at our house three to four times a week, when available.

If you are lucky enough to grow or buy heirloom tomatoes, I beg you to do nothing more than slice thickly, place on a deep platter, drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Sliced basil or red onion slivers can be added but are entirely optional. Let the tomatoes sit for a few minutes so the salt sinks in. Everyone serves themselves, with a few grinds of black pepper, if desired, and then the cook gets all the delicious juices that have accumulated at the bottom of the platter; bonus points if you’ve got homemade bread to soak those up. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t for cooking or canning or anything but eating raw and fresh, at room temperature, for as long as the season will allow. (And never, ever, ever refrigerate fresh tomatoes. It makes them mealy and horrible – not that you’d notice, if they came from the grocery store initially.)

Heirloom Tomatoes 06 sml

Saving tomato seeds is easier than you think.

Heirlooms are expensive because they are so fragile and so perishable, and because they generally don’t have disease- or insect-resistance bred in, so they’re more susceptible to loss. In my opinion, they’re worth all the effort and expense. There’s a time and a place for hybrids, too, even in the home garden – I buy hundreds of pounds of field-grown hybrid tomato seconds from local farms primarily for canning and preserving; in these applications, their consistency, productivity and yield makes up for the heirlooms’ fickle, prickly behavior. For sheer deliciousness, though, heirloom tomatoes cannot be beat.

If you’ve grown some spectacular heirlooms this year, save your seeds. Hybrid crops typically won’t breed true to type – such is the nature of hybridization – so it’s only worth saving seeds from tomatoes you know to be unhybridized. Place the seeds in a clean jar and add a little water. After a few days, the seeds will start to ferment – this mold actually helps protect the seed until it’s time to grow again next season. Once the seeds have fermented, rinse and separate them gently and store in labeled bags or jars in a dark, cool, dry place. You can even start a seed swap and trade with other gardeners for unique, hard-to-find varieties.

Do you have any favorite tomatoes you’ve grown or sampled? Please share in the comments below. (And then send us some seeds.)

P.S. Want to learn more about heirloom vs. hybrid tomatoes? Try this, this or this.

 

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?

Sunflowers 01 sml

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.

Continue reading

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.

Chicken House 01 sml

The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

Chicken House 02 sml

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

Although the chicken house was moderately sturdy, it definitely called for renovation before we brought hens home. The roof required replacing, the foundation needed to be defended against predators and the interior demanded a good cleaning.

Chicken House 06 sml

With the roof removed and much of the junk cleaned out.

Chicken House 05 sml

Repurposed corrugated steel panels ready for the roof. They’re weighed down with rocks so they don’t blow away.

Our goal with all of our renovation projects is to salvage and repurpose materials whenever possible, and to learn something as we do it. It would be much easier to accomplish everything by constantly buying new supplies at the big-box home improvement stores, but that level of excessive consumption doesn’t fit with our lifestyle and typically stifles creativity, as well. We’re trying hard to do as much as we can with what we have on hand.

Chicken Roof 00 sml

How to install a chicken house roof, in four easy steps.

After removing the existing roof, we laid plywood sheets, covered them with tarpaper, then reinstalled the metal panels. Here’s a pro tip: don’t try to do this on a windy day; we nearly donated all of our roofing materials to our neighbors. Thus far the roof has remained perfectly watertight, but winter will be the real test, especially if we have the heavy snowfall we experienced last year.

Chicken House 09 sml

Trenching the chicken house to bury wire.

There are many, many creatures here who would love a fresh chicken dinner, so keeping the chickens both dry and safe is essential. Because raccoons, foxes, skunks and whistle pigs can all dig, we trenched around the house and buried wire fencing about a foot deep. The fencing is also secured two feet up the walls of the house.

Chicken House 04 sml

Just some of the hardware discovered during this project.

Chicken House 07 sml

Our roost, built from repurposed lumber. 

Chicken House 08 sml

Nearly finished!

We bought old windows from a nearby vintage shop and installed them to provide both light and ventilation. It’s actually much more difficult to keep chickens cool than warm; their feathers provide natural insulation and they don’t sweat like humans do, so it’s imperative that they have access to fresh air when it’s hot. On the other hand, cold, damp drafts can make them sick, so the house needs to be pretty airtight during winter.

Chicken House 10 sml

All done except for paint. The lush growth and gorgeous light proves this is a spring photo.

We collected rocks (we have plenty!) and stacked them up on top of the wire mesh around the base of the house for an additional layer of protection against digging predators. The old wire spools and branches provide shade and shelter for the birds.

Chickens Roost 01 sml

Twelve chickens, tucked up snugly on the top roost bar.

Chickens like to sleep on an elevated perch; they’re descended from jungle fowl, so they’d naturally sleep in trees. Our roost has four bars, but invariably most of the birds end up on the top rung, with one or two lower-ranking birds on the next rung down. Remember, pecking order is a very real thing, and every chicken knows exactly where they fit in the hierarchy.

Chicken House 01 sml

Freshly painted with a new coat of sharp red paint! (Look closely to the right of the house and you can see where the paint sprayer exploded.) 

Our final task was to give the house a fresh coat of paint, both for aesthetics and to protect the aged wood from our harsh weather. Our trusty paint sprayer didn’t like the thick exterior paint or the extreme summer temperatures, so there’s quite a lot more red paint “decorating” the area than we’d like. Nevertheless, the refurbished chicken house is keeping our birds safe, protected and dry and hopefully will for years to come.

Next up on the project list: lots of canning and preserving, plus installing our beetle-kill floors in the master bedroom and closet. Always something in the works here on Quiet Farm!

The Farm Series: I-Guana Farm

As we’ve discussed previously, Quiet Farm is located in the “fruit basket” of Colorado. The Western Slope produces Colorado’s revered Palisade peaches, along with apples, cherries, plums, apricots, table grapes and wine grapes. Fruit grows so well here because the climate doesn’t experience the significant diurnal swings common on the Front Range. (In February 2018, the temperature in Denver dropped 72 degrees in forty hours.) Fruit trees, especially once they’re in flower, cannot survive extreme temperature shifts, so harvesting fruit on the Front Range is hit-or-miss. It’s hit-or-miss over here, too, as all farming is, but with a lot more hits than misses.

I-Guana Farm 03 sml

Last year – our first year as official Western Slope residents – we ate ourselves silly on local peaches, plums, cherries and apples. The apricots, though, were lost to a late spring freeze, so while a few orchards had a very small amount of fruit to sell, it wasn’t widely available and we missed out entirely. This year, between our record snowfall and ideal spring weather, the fruit growers in our area have a bumper crop of just about everything, with apricots no exception. We’re even seeing wild apricot trees, heavy with fruit, growing on roadsides around us. It’s been a banner year.

Continue reading

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.

Hail 01 sml

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.

Continue reading

Farm update: July 8

Hail 04 sml

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.

Continue reading

This week in flowers

There are lots of amazing aspects of living where we do now, but one of the most rewarding has to be watching the farm change with the seasons. Since we’re still learning our land, we’re constantly surprised by plants or blooms or bushes that appear seemingly overnight. Summer is here, and we’ve got lots of lovely flowers all over.

QF Flowers 07 sml

‘English Munstead’ lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), fragrant and bee-friendly.

QF Flowers 03 sml

A gorgeous pink shrub rose, variety unknown.

Garlic Bed 02 sml

Fava bean plants (Vicia faba) have beautiful black-and-white blossoms.

QF Flowers 04 sml

Cheerful yellow blooms, probably in the daisy (Asteraceae) family?

QF Flowers 05 sml

This arugula (white flowers) and mustard (yellow flowers) have both nearly gone to seed; we’ll let the pods dry on the plant so we can collect and save the seed for next spring.

QF Flowers 02 sml

We’ve found volunteer sweet peas (Lathyrus latifolius) all over! The chickens particularly like nestling under the plants for shade.

QF Flowers 08 sml

Another tenacious shrub rose, putting out splendid blooms without any intervention from us.

QF Flowers 06 sml

The beginnings of our pollinator-friendly perennial wildflower garden (thanks, Jim!)

Have a lovely week, friends!

 

 

Deer diary, vol. 2

Game Fence 08 sml

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.

Game Fence 14 sml

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.

Game Fence 13 sml

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.

Game Fence 12 sml

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.

Game Fence 15 sml

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.

Game Fence 16 sml

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.

Game Fence 20 sml

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

Game Fence 18 sml

Waiting for barbed wire along the top and bottom.

Game Fence 17 sml

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.

Game Fence 19 sml

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: June 10

Seedlings 02 sml

Still relatively safe on our west deck.

Why aren’t these plants in the ground, you say? Because our fence still isn’t finished. I know, I know…we’ve been going on about this game fence for what seems like decades; trust us, it’s twice as long when you’re actually building it. And we’re progressing, we really are – but it isn’t complete. And so these seedlings wait patiently on our sun porch, getting leggier and more rootbound every day. We’re glad this is a year focused on building infrastructure and learning, because if we actually had to harvest these crops on a specific schedule in order to make money, our season would already be shot. Most of them will thrive once they’re finally planted into raised beds, but some, like the pak choi, have already set flowers and are on their way to going to seed, so their life cycle is nearly complete. Had we known the pest pressure we’d face here, we would have started building the game fence last fall. Live and learn.

Whistle Pigs 01 sml

Look carefully…there are at least four visible in this photo. And probably four hundred hidden in the rocks.

Speaking of pest pressure, our resident whistle pigs have had a wildly successful breeding season. Not familiar with whistle pigs? They’re part of the large marmot family (Marmota monax), commonly known as ground squirrels, and they’re related to woodchucks, gophers and prairie dogs. They do actually whistle to warn their brethren of impending doom (like when we stroll down the lane to pick up the mail) and they live amongst our extensive rock collection. While they haven’t done much damage to crops yet (mostly because there aren’t any – see above), we do believe they’re orchestrating a stealthy and coordinated campaign to creep ever closer to the vegetables. They are exceptionally quick despite their awkward bulk, and they have lush, glossy pelts – perfect for a fashionable winter hat! Right now we’re offering a special: come collect one rock, and you get a free whistle pig. (Some trapping required.)

Continue reading