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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Farm update: February 24

Greetings! We are currently stuck in that awkward phase between winter and spring. Some days it’s all teasing warmth and perfect blue skies, and some days it’s bleak and grey with icy, biting winds. Most of our snow is gone, though we expect (and hope for) one or two more storms, at least. It’s a changeable season, but spring is definitely in the air and we’re starting to hear more songbirds and see new growth everywhere we look. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently.

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A prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) in one of our towering cottonwoods.

We still haven’t captured a photo of our shy Northern harrier, seen regularly hunting mice in our pasture on sunny afternoons, but N did snap this lovely photo of a prairie falcon. The prairie falcon is about the size of a peregrine falcon, but with a much different hunting style (low swooping over the ground, rather than rapid dives). Unfortunately for the songbirds we’ve been hearing, much of the prairie falcon’s winter diet is the Western meadowlark, but we hope this one will focus more on our ground squirrel population. As with all falcons, the female is substantially larger than the male. 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.

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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.

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Downsizing

An announcement: we’re on the road again. Four weeks ago, we sold our house. Three weeks ago, we bought a vintage (“vintage” is an official rebranding of just plain “old”) Class A motorhome. Two weeks ago, we moved out of our house into our RV, and now we’re full-timers.

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Above: our first home. Below: our second home. 

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Please forward our mail to this address. Thank you.

Selling our first house wasn’t easy, by any stretch. People do this all the time, yet for us it seemed a monumental task. We disliked every part of the process, from working with real estate agents to staging the home (goodbye, cherished family photos!) to disappearing on command during showings and open houses to negotiating complicated repair and inspection requests. Signing the papers at closing was painfully bittersweet. Ultimately, though, both the worst and the best part of the entire tedious process turned out to be the sorting, the culling, and the discarding.

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Keep going

Today’s life lesson is simple but essential: keep going. Keep going even when things aren’t working out, when your carefully laid plans have imploded, when you feel like an abject failure at pretty much everything. I’m pretending this is a post about how you should keep cooking even when recipes aren’t turning out right, and it is, but it’s also just a reminder that in life you can either crumple to the ground in a heap, or you can keep going.

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These breadsticks look pretty, but they posed a major risk to dental work.

There exists a perception that professional chefs cook everything perfectly all the time, and I’m here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I go through phases where it honestly seems as though nothing in the kitchen works properly. Recipes that should work don’t, recipes that I’ve made hundreds of times without fail suddenly turn out poorly, and nothing tastes right. It would be easy to just storm out of the kitchen.

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This probably boiled over mere seconds after the shot was taken.

Recently, for example, I’ve made three different breadstick recipes with lousy results all three times. I overfed my treasured sourdough starter with whole-wheat flour and increased the acidity so much that it’s like a biological weapon is lurking in my sunroom. In an attempt to use up my pantry stores, I made a Key lime and ginger tart that didn’t set at all, even after six hours in the refrigerator. It tasted delicious, but the presentation was appalling. (There are no photos of this event.)

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Trying to salvage overproofed pizza dough left over from bread class…

But these occasions are precisely the times when you just have to keep going. When you have to work harder to figure out exactly what went wrong, and how you can improve it next time. When you have to acknowledge that not every single thing you cook will be perfect every time, but trust that the learning is in the process. It’s why I recommend keeping a kitchen journal and taking notes on just about every single recipe you make.

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…and it actually worked!

We live in an age of immediate gratification. We expect things to happen instantaneously and perfectly, and we no longer know how to fail. This is an especially challenging concept for home cooks, especially people who come to cooking later on in life. Those of us who started cooking young – with this recipe, most likely – remember mistaking a tablespoon for a teaspoon and producing salty, inedible cookies. We laugh about it now and count it as a learning experience. Yet if we made that same mistake as adults, we’d castigate ourselves for our stupidity and perhaps give up on baking altogether, because we didn’t get it right the first time.

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In cooking, as with just about every worthwhile skill, the devil is in the countless hours of practice. No one starts out as a brilliant chef, just as athletes don’t start out as Olympians. When you’re just beginning in the kitchen, you might be disappointed with the results, but it’s imperative that you keep going. You will learn how to season, how to adjust recipes, how to trust your own palate. You will learn how to prepare food that you like and you’ll gain confidence every single time you cook. You will get better. But in order to do that, you have to keep cooking – and that’s tough, especially when perhaps your efforts aren’t received with enthusiasm by your household. (And if that’s the case? Invite your family into the kitchen and make meal preparation a household activity, so that everyone can share in both the effort and the result.)

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A very simple tofu and bok choy stir-fry with brown rice…and one of my favorite things I’ve cooked recently.

So please, friends, don’t give up. Don’t get weighed down with disappointment over kitchen experiments that aren’t a roaring success. Keep going. Try something new, fail well, make notes about it and get up and do it again. And above all else, please keep cooking.

P.S. I wrote a guest blog on this very topic over at Healthy Baby Fit Mom! Read more here!

P.P.S. Read a brilliant post about the concept of “constructive growth” and being a “tenacious loser” here; thanks to Karen for sending this link!