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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
Kale had a moment a few years back; it was suddenly – without warning – on every restaurant menu and in every recipe. It was as though kale had just been invented. Now, of course, it’s been supplanted as the trendy vegetable du jour – first by Brussels sprouts, and now by cauliflower. (I sincerely wish I’d invented “cauliflower rice;” the mark-up on those plastic packages – just for throwing it in a food processor! – is shocking.)
There are lots more varieties of kale than just what you see in the supermarket.
Like most Americans, I first encountered kale when I worked in the catering industry. Curly kale is so often a garnish on salad bars and buffets that we think of it more as decoration than vegetable. But its very hardiness – its ability to sit out on a buffet table for hours on end no matter the temperature, without wilting, is precisely what makes it so valuable both in the garden and in the kitchen.
Our average last frost date here at Quiet Farm is May 13; as a rough guideline, this means that it’s generally safe to plant warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers and so on) outside after this date. Except that we had about an inch of light, fluffy, powdery snow plus some shockingly low overnight temperatures this past week, and if we’d had all of these plants outside they would have died a chilly death. While some vegetables can handle low temperatures, our summer stars want heat and more heat, so ours are still safely tucked away in the sunroom. What do we learn from this? Always check the forecast, and never trust Colorado weather to do what you expect.
These seed potatoes are bred for the Rocky Mountain West.
We’re expecting another week of cool, wet weather, which makes it impossible to pour concrete for our fence posts. But there is always something that can be planted, even if it’s not tomatoes and peppers. Our locally-grown seed potatoes have been planted in “potato towers,” which we constructed from galvanized fencing and layers of newspapers, compost and straw. I planted a little over a pound of each variety; theoretically each pound planted should yield about ten pounds of fresh potatoes in maybe July or August. I’ve never planted potatoes in towers so am excited to see how this experiment turns out! (If you want to plant potatoes, buy certified seed potatoes and don’t plant those from the grocery store – they’ve typically been treated to prevent sprouting and therefore won’t grow.)