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.

Farm update: June 8

“Good morning. Concentration is hard to come by these days, amid the nation’s strife. We are living through a tough and chaotic and wrenching time, filled with fury and an abiding sadness. We’re unsettled. We’re tense. We’re divided. The emotions arrange themselves in combinations that make it hard to work, to read, to watch, to listen, much less to think.

Cooking can help. The act of preparing food is a deliberate and caring one, even if you’re just making yourself a bowl of oatmeal at the end of a long night of worry. The way you sprinkle raisins over the top is an intentional act of kindness to yourself. So what I’m doing now, amid my restless skimming of nonfiction and news, thrillers and literature, poems that don’t bring solace: I read recipes, think about who in my family they might please, and I cook.”

-Sam Sifton, The New York Times

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So much effort, yet so worth it.

While I was flipping through the April issue of Bon Appétit, N saw this recipe and asked me to make these “camouflage brownies.” And so I did. They required approximately seventeen different bowls, forty-two utensils, nine measuring devices and three separate batter components. (When a professional chef tells you a recipe is complicated and elaborate, believe her.) But the end result? Amazing. We don’t eat a lot of sweets, so we devoured this pan a little quicker than good sense would indicate, and it was entirely worth it. And I had to buy the cream cheese in a two-pack, so we’ll probably see these again in our kitchen very soon.

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Farm update: May 11

It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and feels more like late July than early May. We seem to have skipped straight from a parched winter into an equally arid summer, missing the soft green lushness of spring entirely; the peas and radishes survived frost damage only to turn bitter and pithy from sun scald. Last year we had rain almost every single day in May, and this year it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Early reports indicate that the mountain snowpack is melting far too quickly, thanks to this premature summer, and our primary focus these days is on keeping all of our plants irrigated. Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently.

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Our gated irrigation pipe at work. 

All of our irrigation water comes from snow on the Grand Mesa. When the snow thaws each spring, the snowmelt makes its way down the mountain through an intricate series of ditches, headgates, creeks and pipes. We’re focused this year on regenerating our pasture, so have started flood-irrigating our land to see what grows. Later this season we’ll remark our pasture (cut channels that direct the water) and hopefully seed it with perennial grasses, too. Eventually we’ll use the land for rotational grazing, likely a grass-fed steer or two. Flood irrigation requires a lot of work – the water has to be “moved” by opening and closing valves and gates along the pipes – but it’s the system we have, so we’re learning how to use it to the land’s advantage.

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One potato, two potato

Last year we planted potatoes for the first time and achieved a reasonable level of success for a freshman effort, though our part of Colorado isn’t at all suited for potato growing. To our south and east, however, you’ll find the San Luis Valley: the second-largest fresh potato-growing region in the country and justifiably famous for the crop. Their loose, sandy soils are much better for potatoes than our heavy, rocky clay.

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Last season’s potato towers.

But like any stubborn farmer, we love being told what we can’t grow, so that we can try it anyway. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t be planting potatoes in the ground and so opted for potato towers: layers of soil, compost, newspaper and straw in a wire cage, with seed potatoes nestled gently in between. We planted about one and a half pounds of seed potatoes in each of three potato towers, and yielded about twenty pounds of potatoes in total – not bad, considering the minimal growing space and effort required, but not the thirty-plus pounds we were hoping for. And some of the potatoes were really tiny, like the size of marbles. Not very practical.

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Gardening for beginners

The aftermath of both September 11 and the 2008 economic collapse brought a renewed interest in home gardening, and our current catastrophe looks to be no different. Garden centers have started operating online, seed companies are back-ordered for the foreseeable future and lots of people are reviewing their HOA regulations and eyeing available space in their suburban backyards. While it might not be practical to expect a backyard garden to provide all necessary food for a standard American family (how do you grow dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, anyway?), gardening offers an active yet meditative experience, an immense sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and a deeper appreciation for how much work it takes to grow food. With that in mind, we offer a few basic tips for people looking to start their own garden.

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The current seed-starting set-up in our sunroom, expanding by the day.

Start small, and plant what you’ll actually eat. In moments of stress or panic (or when we suddenly have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands) we might be tempted to dig up our entire backyard and start an urban farm. This is great in theory, but if you’ve never grown a single basil plant before, we highly recommend that you start small – maybe just a couple of herb pots or a tidy little container garden on a sunny patio. It’s easy to think big and abundant, but when things return (somewhat) to normal, whenever that may be, you may not have the necessary time to devote to your garden. You can always expand if it turns out you love growing food.

Also in the interest of keeping things manageable, plant what you’ll actually eat. I’ve decided this year that I’m no longer going to devote precious garden space to eggplant, because although we don’t hate it, we don’t love it, either. And our vegetable real estate is exceedingly valuable – more so every year – and I want to plant things we adore, like tomatoes and peppers and interesting culinary herbs. When you’re choosing what you’ll grow, make sure you have a selection of vegetables and herbs that are relevant to your household, and if possible, try one new variety that you’ve never eaten before.

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Starting seeds

Welcome to March! Our spring is shaping up to be a bit too premature and a bit too warm and a bit too dry for our liking; we’d like to see quite a lot more moisture. This time last year, we still had at least four inches of snowpack on the ground; this year, zilch. Also last year, we were adorable, eager, optimistic, first-year farmers, and we started our seeds way too early. This year, we’re hardened, grizzled veterans, so we know better. And next year? Watch out.

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If you’re going to grow anything outside, the single most important piece of information you need is your average first and last frost date. This statistic is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; weather stations all over the country send data to the USDA, which in turn calculates average first and last frost dates. These dates are essential because most (but not all) annual food crops will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Here at Quiet Farm, our average last frost is May 13, and our average first frost is October 4 for a 143-day growing season; this means we’re almost assured not to have frost between these dates. Keep in mind, however, that this is an average, not a guarantee – you’re safer assuming that frost is possible one to two weeks on either side of these dates. (The location of weather stations varies widely and can sometimes be inaccurate, so check where your closest weather station is located to ensure you’re getting the best information. Plus, the climate emergency is totally destroying the consistency and reliability of these dates. It’s all pretty much guesswork from here on out.)

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Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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You can pickle that

Are you swimming in zucchini and other summer squashes right now? We are, and grateful for it; if not for squash and kale and basil, I wouldn’t have grown much of anything this season. But what to do with all that zucchini, once you’ve grilled it in thick slices and tossed it with pasta and made overly-sweet not-at-all-healthy zucchini bread and so on? Those plants keep producing, even the surprise volunteers that showed up in the potato towers and the compost pile. Well, you could pickle that.

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What to do when the zucchini are threatening to take over.

The Quiet Farm household isn’t a huge fan of traditional cucumber dill pickles. I’ve tried them all the ways over the years – even traditional barrel fermentation, which meant that I once dumped five gallons of moldy, slimy cucumbers and their brine into our overwhelmed compost pile back at our old house in Denver – and it’s never been something that we’ve loved. (One of my sacrosanct rules of preserving: only make what you’ll actually eat.) Our altitude means that canned vegetables have to be processed much longer in a boiling water bath so pickles are almost always soggy; limp, overcooked cucumbers aren’t my thing. Also, even though I adore sharp, acidic flavors, standard vinegar pickles are sometimes just…too much.

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The Farm Series: Rebel Farm

Friends, we don’t want you to think that all we do is trek around wintry European countries, eating schnitzel and drinking wine. No, sometimes we also visit delightful urban hydroponic farms and we eat handfuls of just-harvested fresh greens. Balance. It’s all about balance.rebel-farm-01-sml.jpg

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Rebel Farm, run by Jake and Lauren, is a 15,000 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse on the border of Denver and Lakewood. For those readers who live in Colorado, you may well wonder how these fine folks can afford to grow lettuce, rather than weed, considering that just about every greenhouse in the state has been snatched up by the marijuana industry. In the case of Rebel Farm, however, the greenhouse is perfectly situated between two schools – which means it cannot be a grow operation, and instead it can grow food. Brilliant.

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Purple kohlrabi, sadly underappreciated by CSA members everywhere.

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Tangy, citrusy red sorrel.

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If you’re not familiar with hydroponics, don’t feel alone. In its simplest form, hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. The plants can be planted in gravel, sand or other inert materials, or their roots can be suspended in a nutrient-rich water mixture. There are lots of different ways to grow hydroponically; Rebel Farm uses the NFT, or nutrient film technique, method.

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