Why 'Cat in the Flock'?

Cat in the Flock LIFESTYLE w_CAT 2020

A cat in the middle of a flock of birds can be a threat... or not, if the cat puts its teeth and claws away and just watches. It's an apt metaphor for our role as beings in the middle of nature: We can either choose to stow our claws and teeth or bare them, threateningly. Anthony and Lisa also know that much of what you'll read out there about home, garden, and health is based on rampant consumerism, and it's neither good for you nor the planet, and that goes for a lot of so-called eco-friendly pursuits. So we think of Cat in the Flock as "lifestyle with teeth," seriously cutting against that trend.

And we recognize that people are, frankly, natural predators. We take and use and exploit, rarely giving back. But we want to encourage a greater harmony with all things, to ask our fellow humans to join us in treading more lightly, and to work toward greater independence, sustainability, and self-sufficiency in the process. As we sit quietly amidst the tempting flock, we invite you to do the same. Read more about our project on the About page.

Cat in the Flcok Banner 2.0


Introducing... Brunette Gardens!

Brunette Gardens Mast

By Lisa Brunette

When I launched www.catintheflock.com back in 2014, my intent was to use it to promote my debut mystery novel of the same name. Cat in the Flock was a super success, enough to warrant two followup books, and over the next three years, I posted plenty of updates chronicling the public readings, book launches, and other events around the Dreamslippers Series, including a lot of support for my fellow mystery authors in the form of book reviews, interviews, and sneak peeks at their latest work.

But from the very beginning, a second interest of mine inserted itself, and eventually, it overtook the original intent of this blog. Thus the pivot from author blog to lifestyle blog. I guess my years as a lifestyle editor would never let me go, and the role finally grabbed permanent hold!

It's been a fun couple of years writing the 'Lifestyle with Teeth' version of Cat in the Flock. But now it's time to spin it off into its own space.

Brunette Gardens houses the lifestyle content from this site now, with more to come. What began as occasion posts on garden, home, and well-being has grown into a full-blown preoccupation. And my husband, Anthony, has joined me as a contributor, along with a gang of gregarious guest authors. We look forward to sharing tips and tales from our homestead habitat, and more!

Now that I've nearly completed the delicate surgery to migrate the lifestyle content from this blog over to www.brunettegardens.com, I know how confusing change can be, so I've prepared for you this handy FAQ!

FAQ

What happens to Cat in the Flock?

The website www.catintheflock.com will still exist, but it will return to its original intent as a website providing information about the Dreamslippers Series. Blog posts will likely be very infrequent.

Will I still get your newsletters?

Yes, if you're already signed up for our newsletters, you will continue to get them, but they will come from Brunette Gardens, and they will be solely focused on lifestyle content, without any poetry or mystery fiction posts. I've streamlined the content as well for a threefold focus on garden, home, and well-being. That means that travel was sacrificed in the process; these days we don't travel much ourselves, and we realized that neither do our readers. We also feel very conflicted about promoting air travel especially because of its tremendous carbon footprint. So travel had to go, along with a guest blogger dedicated to that topic and a couple of affiliate partners. It was a tough decision, but we think it's best.

If you're not signed up for the newsletter, you can do that now!

Will this transition hurt at all?

Well, Mercury is currently retrograde... so no promises... BUT, we've done everything we can to make this changeover as seamless as possible for our followers. One thing we've lost is Disqus as our comment service provider. They've altered their terms of service, and we frankly cannot afford their fees. But I'm very sorry to say this means that if you commented on Cat in the Flock in the past few years via Disqus, your comments did not make it over in the blog migration. My apologies! 

Why, Lisa? Just... WHY?

I realized in my quest to economically "repurpose" an existing website as a lifestyle blog, I created yet another branding issue. This seems to be the bane of my existence (and is a clear indication that I am no marketing expert), but Cat in the Flock already had a branding issue as a debut novel because everyone thought it was pet noir. (It's not. The main character's name is Cathedral, and she goes by 'Cat' instead). Cat in the Flock... Lifestyle with Teeth also confused people, who thought we were a blog about cats. (If Chaco had his way...)

Were you ever really a Brunette? 

If you've only been around in the past few years, you know me as the silver-haired vixen I am today. But for most of my life, I was a literal Brunette.

Lisa Side by Side
For me, Brunette Gardens marks a commitment to the mission and core values of this enterprise. It's an exciting step, and I'm honored that you're willing to take it with me.

 


This Is What Environmental Stewardship Looks Like When You're Farming: Eckenfels Farms

Eckenfels Sue
Sue Eckenfels, taking time out on a Sunday to give us a tour of their farm.

By Lisa Brunette

We purchase most of our meat directly from farms, a practice we began in 2015, when we lived in Chehalis, in Washington state. Back then our beef came from the Olsons, just outside of that small town. Here in Missouri, we had to source meat anew, so we hit the local farmer's market and found two excellent locals: Eckenfels Farms and Farrar Out Farm.

Eckenfels Sign
A colorful sign entices you to explore the rolling hills beyond.

We've been buying meat in bulk quantities from both farms for four years now, so I figured it was about time to visit... at least one of them! The Eckenfels Farm is located in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and with that tiny burg's proximity to primo hiking spots (my big draw) and its National Historical Park (to feed Anthony's history obsession), we couldn't not go there. Besides, we just really enjoyed chatting with Bob and Sue Eckenfels at the farmer's market. So we scheduled a trip to charming Ste. Genevieve, and the couple graciously agreed to give us a tour of their farm during our stay.

Eckenfels Wagu
Eckenfels' herd is pasture-raised.

Eckenfels Farms is a "Century Farm," meaning it's been in the same family for 100 years or more. In this case, the Eckenfels have been farming their 300 or so acres for 170 years. But Bob will quickly tell you of neighboring farms that have been around for 200 years, an important marker, as Missouri celebrates its state bicentennial this year. In a place like Ste. Genevieve, history is a long game. As Missouri's first European settlement, its roots stretch back to at least 1750, and some of the historic homes you can tour as part of the National Park Service site are one of only a handful of remaining examples of rare French architectural techniques.

Eckenfels Pond
Pasture stretching down toward a pond at Eckenfels Farms.

A few fun facts about Eckenfels Farms:

  • Winner of the beef industry's 2009 Region III Environmental Stewardship Award
  • Herd is free-range, grass-fed, with no antibiotics, hormones, or unnatural growth stimulants
  • Practice rotational grazing on a mix of fescue, over-seeded millet, rye, and clover as warranted, with native warm-season grasses providing food during the hottest summer days when the fescue doesn't do well
  • Raise South Poll cattle, well-adapted to Missouri's heat and humidity
  • Animals have continuous access to well water
Eckenfels Wagu Watering
The herd gathering at one of several wells.

Though it was a steamy day in late August, the temps climbing into the 90s, we enjoyed the chance to get up close and personal with the animals who become our nourishment. The Eckenfels were kind enough to drive us out to see their pasture-fed herd of 50. Their South Poll breed is so docile and easy that we were able to gather around them in close proximity while provoking only curiosity in the cows. 

Eckenfels Wagu Mama
A cow regards me with what I took to be some level of interest. The South Poll breed is known as the "Southern Mama."

Bob runs a superior operation, as evidenced by the recognition the farm has received, but you can also see it in the health and beauty of the herd. Grass-fed diets are better for the animal and for us, too. Grass-fed beef is leaner, with fewer calories, but it contains more nutrients. "If all Americans switched to grass-fed meat, our national epidemic of obesity would begin to diminish," as the Eckenfels explain to their own website visitors. Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed.  

Eckenfels Tour
Bob and Sue on the tour, with my husband, Anthony, staying in the shade in the cab.

Cows are meant to eat grass, not grain, and they're healthier on their natural diet, in less need of medical intervention. Attention is also paid to the pasture itself, as Bob employs several techniques to ensure a healthy pasture environment. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Cattlemen's Foundation awarded Eckenfels an award for environmental stewardship, citing the following practices:

Eckenfels plants his crops using no-till, which has proven to increase his returns and minimize erosion. He has utilized rotational grazing by cross fencing his fields using a combination of barbed wire and electric fence to maximize production. He’s also fencing his ponds to exclude livestock. By implementing these conservation practices, Eckenfels Farm provides wildlife habitat and improves pastures. 

Eckenfels Bob Anthony
Bob and Anthony.

Calling Bob a "progressive adopter of new ideas and technologies that benefit and protect soil and water resources," the industry groups sponsoring the award praised him for a number of initiatives, such as installing ponds and stream buffers, creating quail habitats, and volunteering to educate others on conservation principles and practices. And of course this is a family effort; Bob's son Matt is already a key part of the farm, daughter Kayla can often be found staffing the farmer's market booth, and both of their other children have been involved at one time or another. All four live either on the farm or in close proximity. Eldest Matt has even custom-built a grain silo home.

Eckenfels Silo House

Farm life is not without its challenges, as you can imagine. The Eckenfels have struggled with a lower water table from which to draw well water. Consolidation in the slaughterhouse industry has led to disadvantages for small independent farms like this one. And while clearly fixtures in the Ste. Genevieve community, you can't actually purchase Eckenfels meat at any of the town's stores, or even find it in restaurants. This strikes me as a sorely missed opportunity, as someone who's used to Seattle restaurants and specialty grocery stores routinely listing just such an "origin story" for their meat as the Eckenfels give in spades. Bob and Sue drive the hour to St. Louis a couple times a week to sell to customers there instead.

Eckenfels Wagu Walk
Using corridors like this one, Bob rotates the herd to different parts of the pasture, giving it a chance to regenerate between grazings.

It was personally quite satisfying to get my farm fix with this tour, and I thank the Eckenfels for their hospitality and time. While unlike both Bob and Sue, I didn't grow up on a farm, I have often wished I had. Instead, I've had to live vicariously through others as a writer who chronicles this work, whether as editor of the oldest independent fishing publication on the West Coast, author of a book about a century-old dairy farm, or the writing I do as a volunteer for this little old blog. I hope you enjoy my stories.

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The Best - and Perhaps Last - Cat Toy You'll Ever Buy

Leather_spider
A handmade cat toy. Image courtesy DementedDesignsShop on Etsy.

By Lisa Brunette

Let me introduce you to what we around the farmhouse like to call "the leather spider." Now, Chaco has typically been pretty hard on any toy I've ever brought home, usually breaking it the same day the toy arrives. It's rare that any make it past a few days of play. But I don't actually blame Chaco for this; he's just doing what cats do. The problem is, like too many things these days, most cat toys are cheaply made out of low-quality materials. They ain't built to last. 

Chaco's life changed for the better, however, the day our handmade leather spider arrived. It's lasted not hours, not days, not weeks, but MONTHS. Yep, that's right. I ordered it back in February, and it's still good as new. Good. As. Freakin'. NEW. Take that, cheap world of things!

Chaco_play
Chaco action shot!

The toy is handmade, the "spider" part fashioned out of leather. The wand is wood, and then there's a string made out of sturdy nylon, with a vinyl cap. Usually with a "thing-on-a-string" toy like this, it seriously takes hours if not minutes for Chaco to rip the thing off the string. But this one's still intact after more than six months of frequent play.

It's high-quality, and I think because the "spider" part is leather, it approximates real prey better than most cat toys. While Chaco has often grown bored with other toys, this one he never tires of, and he asks for it pretty much every day, by sitting next to the closet where we keep it and looking up at it, then us, longingly.

Leather_spider2
Image courtesy DementedDesignsShop on Etsy.

Now the leather spider probably costs more than the typical cat deelibob you'd find hanging in the big box store, but add up all the deelibobs you buy each year, replacing them when they constantly break, and I guarantee you this one's a better buy all around at USD 13. Besides, you're supporting a small, independent maker of fine quality things when you purchase the toy from Etsy.

You're also supporting this blog and its free content. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission from qualifying purchases of this cat toy. We are happy to turn you onto "the leather spider" and find it actually kind of satisfying to rave about it here. It's a product we personally love, and so does Chaco!

We wish you and your cat hours of ceaseless joy.

Chaco_play2

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Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem


The Strange Case of the Bloomin' Onions

Potato onion flower about to open 21
Potato onion flower, just beginning to open.

By Lisa Brunette

We made an unsuccessful attempt to grow Walla Walla sweets in 2020 - Anthony grew up in 'the city so nice, they named it twice' - but that arid landscape is quite different than our steamy Midwestern climate. I cast around for an onion variety that would work much better here, and you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled upon a variety of perennial onions. Most vegetables, and most onions as well, are annuals, meaning you have to replant them as seeds each year to get a new crop. But perennial onions, also called potato or multiplier onions, are the gift that keeps on giving. Reserve some of the bulbs, replant them each year, and they'll multiply into neat little bunches of more bulbs! This makes potato onions a perfect permaculture plant, by the way. 

Potato onion stalks 21
Here you can see the cluster at the base of the stalks.

We planted a crop of these last fall - on October 25, to be exact, a week before the garlic cloves went in - and we had a decent harvest this July. They're delicious onions, mild and tangy. I had ordered 16 ounces, which gave me 20-30 bulbs, and the yield was... OK. If you're wondering, no, I did not amend this soil with the mix of pine sawdust (soaked in urine) and coffee grounds as I did the garlic cloves. The onions were planted in a bed that had previously been potatoes, though, and some of that matter from the potatoes and their plants had decayed in the bed, which probably helped some, along with the decayed leaf mulch we'd used to sheet-mulch over the grass in that part of the yard. I also amended the bed with compost tea.

What happened before harvest, however, is the strange part of this case: the onions put up flower stalks, forming seed heads.

Potato onions flowering 21
Potato onions, beginning to form buds.

For the potato onion, this is apparently a rare and special event. Gardener Kelly Winterton has written a booklet on his many attempts to get potato onion seeds, and you can see this pursuit is apparently one with a high likelihood of failure. But it's worth trying for, as the bulbs that form from these seeded plants are much bigger than the rather small clusters of multiplied onions. So it's strange, wonderful, and felicitous that I was able to get seeds on my very first attempt at growing potato onions.

Potato onions and seeds 21
Harvested bulb clusters, and some of the seed heads.

The stalks were battered by several successions of summer thunderstorms, and then we were planning to head out of town (to Walla Walla, coincidentally) right when the seeds would have ripened, so I harvested most of the seed heads when we harvested the onions in mid-July. 

Potato onion seed heads 21
A nice harvest of potato onion seeds.
Potato onion seed head closup 21
Close-up of a seed head.

These are now drying in a muslin bag hanging in the basement. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, I don't have a greenhouse or other space in which to start seeds during the late winter months indoors, but my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou has offered to grow the seedlings in her greenhouse porch in exchange for some of the plants. With the promise of much bigger bulbs, it's definitely worth it to try. Wish us luck! In the meantime, we'll all enjoy our regular ol' potato onion harvests this year.

What's your favorite onion to grow? What works best in your part of the world? Have you tried perennial onions?

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65 Bulbs of Garlic on the Wall...

Garlic hanging 21
Garlic nestled in among the basement rafters, with hyssop, dandelion, and other drying herbs.

By Lisa Brunette

"Take one down, pass it around..." OK, so we didn't exactly begin with 99 bulbs of garlic, but 65 is a lot of garlic bulbs to have on hand. Our basement smells like a pizzeria!

We harvested this bumper crop just before the 4th of July: 65 bulbs of 'Silver rose' garlic, a soft-necked variety. Soft-necked varieties store longer and can be braided. They also do better in our Missouri climate than the hard-necked. We put the cloves into the ground on October 31 (ooo, Halloween!). The order had been for 60 cloves to plant, so how we ended up with 65 bulbs at the end is unclear. Maybe there were a few extra in the order? At any rate, we had more than a 100 percent return on our investment on that batch.

This was actually only half our garlic crop, though; the other half did not germinate at all. Not a single clove. I had also ordered and planted a batch of 60 cloves of the 'Early Italian' variety, and that crop was an abject failure.

What was the difference, besides variety?

Garlic bulb 21
'Silver rose' garlic bulb.

I used a slightly different technique on the Silver rose, and that might have done it. I amended the soil with my secret ingredient: a mixture of coffee grounds and pine sawdust with a little added nitrogen in the form of cat urine. 

Yeah, that's right. Cat urine. Are you appalled? Don't be.

You see, for Chaco's litter box, we use pure pine pellets. It's hands-down the best cat litter I've ever used; it doesn't smell bad, and the urine basically gets absorbed by the pellets, which then break down into pine sawdust. We then truck the sawdust outside to a pot, where it can be used when needed to amend the garden soil. It always gets turned into the soil, where the sawdust breaks down completely, the pine and remnant urine nourishing the soil. Sawdust is never evident on the food part of the plant at harvest. 

Urine is rich in nitrogen, and I know of at least one gardener, my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou, who uses her own as a soil amendment, with good results. I'm not opposed to her method at all, as urine is sterile in healthy individuals, but I already have a ready supply of Chaco's urine, and I like the idea of making good use of it and diverting it from the waste stream. I also know Anthony and I don't have the time to devote to collecting and dispersing our own pee.

Garlic almost ready to harvest in June 21
Garlic almost ready to harvest.

Anthony adds the coffee grounds to the pot of sawdust outside each day when he dumps out his coffee pot from the day before, instead of running the grounds down the disposal or just tossing them into the trash.

I did not use the sawdust-and-coffee grounds mixture on the 'Early Italian' beds, the failed crop. Both beds also received a good dosing of compost tea.

I honestly can't remember if I designed this experiment on purpose or if I simply ran out of the sawdust mix. But we have an experiment nonetheless. At least of sorts. There could be variations in the soil across the different beds, though they were right next to each other. The different varieties alone could have produced the radically variant results, too. Maybe the 'Silver rose' is more suited to my soil conditions. It's a lovely variety, so named for the mottled red-and-pink hue on the inner clove papers.

Garlic ready to harvest 21
Garlic at harvest time, when the bottom leaves go brown.

But the point here is we have enough garlic for the winter, and then some, and I've successfully used spent kitty litter as a soil amendment, which diverts it from the landfill and provides a cost savings to me since I don't have to purchase fertilizer. It's a perfect permaculture loop, too, since I'm using what's produced on-site, without any outside inputs (well, except for the pine pellets in the first place).

By now you might be asking, "What about the cat poo?" That gets removed daily and placed in a hot compost, where it breaks down over a minimum of six months. No poo ever goes into the garden, at least not while it's still, um, poop.

Garlic scapes 21
Garlic scapes on soft-necked garlic.

One odd thing that happened: The 'Silver rose' garlic grew scapes (above) just prior to harvest, which I was informed soft-necked varieties wouldn't do. If anyone can shed light on this matter, please do so in the comments below. The scapes were delicious, by the way.

Garlic harvested 21
A harvested bunch.

One caveat to my garlic success story is that the sawdust/coffee mix isn't a cure-all. Last month I told you about this year's failed potato crop; well, I'd amended that bed with the mix, too, and it wasn't enough to save it. Claire and I are discussing this amongst ourselves, and let's just say that the grand experiment continues!

What grew well in your garden this summer? Any exciting discoveries to report?

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