The First Signs of Spring - and a New To-Do List - at Dragon Flower Farm

First Daffodil 2020
Our first daffodil of the season pops up in a shady corner near the HVAC unit.

The flora is waking up here at Dragon Flower Farm after a long sleep. I wish I could say we are, too, but the truth is we're merely shifting from hard-work-inside to hard-work-outside. It's the same with the fauna. As I mentioned in the post on bird baths, our feeders were super active all winter. In addition to the usual flocks of house sparrows, house finches, and European starlings, we experienced frequent visits from cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, woodpeckers, and even the white-throated sparrow, a treat to watch for its two-footed, back-and-forth dig move in the dirt under our feeders. Like the birds, we're flush with motivation to make the most of springtime; while we marvel at the awakening garden, several projects are keeping us busy during this shelter-in-place.

Daffodils are a traditional harbinger of spring in St. Louis, where they explode in profusion beginning in mid-March. We're still discovering new ones popping up after a few years' recovery from the denuding the property underwent before a developer listed it for sale in 2016-17. As with a lot of the other plants we've kept, they seem much more robust now that we've rehabilitated the damaged landscape by removing invasives and turf grass and adding sheet-mulch to replenish the soil.

A word about ornamental bulbs: They're vastly overused, especially considering how little they give back to the living things around us. Unlike the native plants we're focusing on at Dragon Flower Farm, they are not sources of nectar, pollen, or food for most pollinators and insects, so they're essentially living statues in the garden. Still, from a permaculture perspective, they can serve a purpose, and for us that's to discourage critters from gnawing down our tender seedlings and transplants. We have a tough time keeping the rabbits from decimating our fruit bushes and trees, so we're moving the bulbs to encircle anything we don't want the rabbits to eat. This is working so far; rabbits find ornamental bulbs distasteful. 

Daffodil 2 2020
The one's making an appearance for the first time in three years.

Speaking of rabbits gnawing on tender young woody fruit bark... we recently dug a moat around our blueberries. This is not actually meant to keep the rabbits away but to keep water around the blueberries. It's an experiment and part of our ongoing self-education in permaculture principles. I got the idea from watching the entire playlist put out by Midwest Permaculture. In a few of the videos, you'll see a moat around a tomato patch, and there's also an ongoing series of presentations on the importance of retaining water through rain gardens, ditches, and water-loving plants.

Hopefully, this will help reduce the amount of water we need to extract from the county's water supply. I also sowed chervil and lavender around the blueberries - both companion plants that should help create a small guild of supportive interconnections. Still, Anthony and I have to laugh at ourselves. In my best Ron White voice, I turned to him during this process and deadpanned, "I'm spending a beautiful Saturday digging a moat in my backyard, and I don't really know why."

Blueberry moat 2020
Yep, it's a moat. Around the blueberries.

While we certainly want more water in some areas, we actually have a bit of a water problem in others, mainly our basement. You might remember our French drain from a couple of years ago; well, it hasn't at all solved the problem. Our next least-expensive option was to replace the old, easily-clogged gutters on our house. We did just that in early spring, also taking the opportunity to rig up a rain barrel system, which my brother recently scored for us from his vacating neighbor. Both barrels have pretty much been entirely full since installation, which just goes to show you how much water runs off your property all the time - in our case down toward the damaged, urbanized River Des Peres and out to the Mississippi.

Rain Barrels 2020
Who knew rain barrels could be so beautiful?

The next thing on our list water-wise is to bury that flex pipe, which isn't very nice to look at. I'd like to have it drain into another rain garden area, joined by the pre-existing French drain pipe that already lets out there. The entire landscape slopes down toward the south, so I'm thinking about a serpentine path that would slow the runoff. We'll see.

A wide variety of sources - from the Missouri Department of Conservation to Wild Ones to the Audubon Society to our native plant hero Doug Tallamy - all recommend delaying your spring cleanup as long as possible. So we left the leaf litter, spent vines, and dried-out perennial stalks all winter and are only tackling it in necessary spots right now. The reason? A great many flora depend on that plant material, whether it's red bats sheltering in dead leaves or insect larva needing a first meal. Besides, decaying plant matter is basically free, organic fertilizer. When we do remove it, like we did around the sedums lining our front walk, we do so gently and repurpose it nearby as mulch, as shown below.

Front Walk 2020

The daffodils aren't the only plants trumpeting spring. Our lilac will bloom out in the next few weeks; alas, the blooms only show themselves for a short time. We hope to harvest as much as we can to dry in bunches, and maybe we'll also have the time to make some lilac syrups, infusions, and other concoctions. It's a terrifically useful flower.

Lilac Buds 2020

The daffodils and lilacs do point out a flaw in most suburban landscape design. When we moved in, our garden had been designed in the all-too-common mainstream method, which meant exotic ornamentals and invasive plants. Only the volunteers were true natives - the sensitive ferns and violets - and the violets had to be mown, as they were interspersed with lawn. This meant everything bloomed in spring, like one big flower detonation followed by nothing else. Pretty disappointing, in my opinion. I see this in a lot of Midwestern yards, unfortunately. So the spring here is incredible - there's no doubt about it - but the rest of the year could use more bloom.

Last week I talked about what it's like to begin to feel settled enough in a place to plan for the long haul. One of the most thrilling sights this spring is to see the thriving serviceberry (Amalanchier arborea) budding out. We put it in the ground in the fall of 2018 in our first wave of native plantings.

Serviceberry Spring 2020

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Easy DIY Bird Baths for Your Stay-at-Home Pleasure

Bird Bath Plant Stand
DIY bird bath, 100 percent found items.

Anthony and I tended to be fairly home-oriented even before the coronavirus hit and made us homebound by executive order. Fortunately, this emphasis on the home sphere has enabled us to shift into the shelter-in-place with relative ease because there's plenty of drama going on right in our own backyard. With three bird baths, three platform feeders, and a suet feeder poised within view of our back windows, we've got a 24/7 wildlife study right here.

While taking walks in our neighborhood, we've noticed a lot of clever kids' activities, such as chalk artistry and scavenger hunts, and seriously, the admirable spirit of St. Louis is evident all over town. But most of the yards we pass are either devoid of bird feeders, or if they do have them, they're empty, and there are no water offerings to be seen.

There's definitely a missed opportunity here:

  1. It's really easy to provide a habitat for backyard birds, starting with a basic bird bath.
  2. An observable bird habitat would make a fantastic learning activity for homebound kids, combining aspects of biology, ecology, and the arts.
  3. With bird habitat loss increasing exponentially, their survival - and subsequently, ours - literally depends on the habitat space we can provide in our yards.

It's the first item on the above list I want to tackle in this post. For specific kid activities, check out 15 Fun Backyard Bird Watching Activities for Kids over at A Day in Our Shoes blog. Number three above warrants your attention, and I highly recommend two books by Doug Tallamy: Bringing Nature Home (see this giveaway on our blog) and his latest, Nature's Best Hope.

Mourning doves bird bath
A pair of mourning doves enjoying the water.

Now onto the bird baths! As you can see in the two images above, you can make a perfectly good bird bath with castoff items you might have lying around in your basement or garage. I made my first one using a plant stand and the lid to a frying pan we no longer used. (Side note: This was a "non-stick" pan that was no longer "non-stick." We don't buy these anymore for this very reason; they don't last. Hence our three-part series on cast iron.)

Contrary to misperception, you do not need to fork out a lot of dough for a heated/electrical bubbling water system. While I'm sure as some folks argue, birds like the sound of trickling water, all manner of birds regularly use our DIY water 'features' like we're an oasis in the middle of the desert. There's just no need to lay out a lot of cash for some fancy system that isn't sustainable anyway in terms of electricity and water use.

If you really must have water movement in your feature, you can get an inexpensive solar fountain, like the one below. The problem I had with it is that the suction cups aren't very good at keeping it stationary, so it floats to the top, making it an unsuitable perch for small birds. You can see I tried to weight it down with rocks, but that didn't last. This bath was only used by the occasional large bird - robins or crows.

Still, these can be quite pleasing if you do get the right bowl to place them in. Here's one in a neighbor's front yard, with a more elaborate base. At the time of this photo, anyway, the suction cups seem to be working on the glass bowl surface. (Funny how our nonstick pan only works when you don't want it to.)

Solar Fountain on Vase

That photo was taken last summer, when you're more likely to find water features, but the bird bath disappeared through the winter, probably because the glass bowl is likely to freeze and become damaged. It has yet to reappear. Most people think of feeding and watering birds when they probably need it least, during the growing season, when there's more for birds to eat and drink otherwise. However, our feeders and bird baths were super active all winter. The wildlife seemed particularly in need of it then.

I kept the bird baths stocked with water without fail through the coldest part of the season. While the water froze and then thawed again continuously, the glass pan lids never cracked, maybe because they're rimmed in metal, or else the glass is tempered to withstand the stress of cooking. I placed rocks in the middle of the lid, and these help thaw the water faster as well as give small birds a place to perch. They much prefer shallow water, and pot lids are perfect! Here's one fit into a breeze block, with a larger rock set next to it for additional perch surface.

Breezeblock Bath

Birds will peck and scratch at the ice as it melts, extracting moisture as they can. It's a cool thing to see in the dead of winter when the flora is mostly dormant.

For the deeper pan bottom, I came up with a better solution so that birds of all sizes can access the water: placing a large rock plus several smaller rocks for a sturdy perch. This one is currently the most popular bird bath because it's set underneath the rose bush, providing a handy place to duck for cover, even in winter.

Brick Bird Bath
Note it's propped up on bricks, with rocks around to help naturalize it in the setting.

One thing to keep in mind is that you do want to clean the bird bath every once in a while. The frequency you'll need to clean it depends on how often it's used and in what volume, as well as on how much plant matter gets into the bath. In fall, I cleaned it as often as every few days, and in winter, I could let as many as two weeks go by. The Audubon Society recommends cleaning it with nine parts water and one part vinegar but avoiding synthetic cleaners, which can strip essential oils from bird feathers. 

Bird Bath Needs Cleaning
Time to clean this one.

I got the idea to repurpose the frying pans from a recommendation to use trash can lids (from the St. Louis Audubon Society), suggested because they are the right shallow depth for a bird bath. But I didn't like the idea of trash can lids in my garden; they're usually plastic and unsightly, and I didn't have any on hand and didn't want to buy them just for this purpose. But thinking about lids put me onto the frying pans I had in a giveaway box in the basement.

As an added element, you can think about providing birds with a patch of bare ground for dirt baths, too. Bathing in dirt is an important part of a bird's self-care regimen, if you will. It allows them to slough off parasites and absorbs excess oils, keeping their plumage clean and healthy. If you do this, the bees get a bonus as well; many native bees need dirt, and as this bee study at Saint Louis University shows, it makes a huge difference in their population numbers. 

I leave you with this video, which captures the popularity of our water features and feeders, with some fun dirt-bath action to boot. Happy birdwatching!

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After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, the Importance of Staying Put

Houseplant1

With all this homebound time suddenly at my disposal due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, I recently spent a day repotting our houseplants. This is a routine, mundane activity that most people do every couple of years or so, but the truth is, I've never done it before.

Throughout my entire adult life, I've moved every two to three years, so by this time, I'm usually trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my houseplants rather than adjusting their growth space for the long haul.

I'm apparently not alone in my life of frequent relocations, though I am an extreme example. Americans have historically been a fairly mobile people, with as many as 45 million people up and moving at our peak in 1985, or between 20 to 25 percent of the population that year. 

There are a lot of reasons people move, and mine have run the gamut:

  1. To attend college in 1989, I moved across the Mississippi to St. Louis.
  2. Changes in roommate situations, marital status, jobs, and income meant a whopping 11 separate moves around the St. Louis region between 1993 to 2000.
  3. To attend graduate school, which is how I ended up in Miami, Florida, in 2000.
  4. To take a job in another state, which is why I moved from Florida to Washington state in 2002. 
  5. The chance to buy a house for the first time in 2003 meant a move from renting to owning.
  6. Another job change occasioned my move from Tacoma to Seattle in 2005.
  7. A divorce, which is why I sold my house in Seattle in 2009 and moved into an apartment.
  8. Another change in marital status meant a switch from one apartment to another.
  9. A second chance to own a home, which is why Anthony and I moved from Seattle in 2015.
  10. And finally, a job opportunity in 2017 brought us to St. Louis.

Houseplant4

That's my highly mobile adult life. But I was a military brat, too. As a child, I lived in nine different homes in six different states. My education took place in eight separate schools, and my fourth grade year alone was spread across three schools.

So there's never really been a sense of rootedness or home for me. I lived in Seattle for a decade, in the Ballard neighborhood all that time, so it came close. But that was chunked up over two apartments and a house I had no choice but to sell, so even that was disrupted and impermanent. Plus, I could never shake the feeling in Seattle that I was an outsider, from somewhere else. Being priced out of the real estate market there despite a solid career as a game writer didn't help matters.

St. Louis does often feel like home to me because I lived here for a decade before, during undergrad and the first years of my career spent at the St. Louis Science Center, an iconic local fixture. In a strange way, because I've lived in so many of St. Louis' great old neighborhoods - places like Dogtown, South Grand, the Central West End, and the Loop - even though that decade was also migratory, I feel like St. Louis is really a part of me. Having family in the area helps make it feel like home, too.

Houseplant3

But I miss our family and friends in Washington state, so that sense of home here is tinged with the bittersweet feeling of missing home back there.

As you might have noticed when you checked out that U.S. Census Bureau report I linked to above, our cultural mobility rate is waning. There's a cost to all the frequent moves, from the actual cost of moving itself, which ain't cheap, to the lack of cohesion in our families and communities that can result. It's possible our desire to pull up tent stakes is decreasing as our wages stagnate, resources dwindle, and opportunities in other locales lose their luster. And maybe we crave more stability, to regain what we've lost in all that movement.

The Chinese have a saying, "One move is like two house fires." Constant relocating has definitely taken its toll on me, so the butt root has been firmly planted in Midwest soil, and Anthony, who's moved a good deal himself, feels the same. As we approach the third anniversary of our lives in St. Louis, at the home we're calling Dragon Flower Farm, we're enjoying planning for the long-term, for the first time.

Houseplant2

That means a business we can run together, strengthening family and community ties, and a garden we can see come to full fruition. Having left so many green growing things behind over the years, I'm taking comfort in the future promise of our newly established orchard and perennial edibles, all supported by the native plants - those awesome symbols of permanence and environmental health - that will draw and feed pollinators and insects, restore topsoil, and hold rainwater.

With all the uncertainty ahead - economic, social, global - all we can do is make changes in our own spheres over the things we can control.

The day I repotted my houseplants, I also started some seeds indoors. May they take root, grow, and feed us well.

Seeds1
All photos mine, of our houseplants and seeds.

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The Skillet Feeding You! How to Cook with a Cast Iron Skillet

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Note: This is part three in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets.

If you've read the previous two blog posts in this series (here and here), your pan is well-seasoned, and you know how to care for it. Before you start using it, the first thing you need to do is a bit weird, and it sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but you need to get to know your pan. Remember, listen to your pan more than you speak.

Cast iron skillets have personalities (no, I don't know what their D&D stats would be1). Some heat up very fast, some more slowly. Some need a lot of oil regularly; some can get by on the oil in your foods. All cast iron pans heat up unevenly. Once they are hot, they give off a nice, even heat that lasts for some time, but as they are heating, you can hold your hand above the pan and feel temperature differentials.

IMG_3353

When we first started cooking with our cast iron skillet, it seemed like food was always sticking to it, no matter how well we greased it. After doing some research, the problem became obvious. We were treating our skillet like a Teflon-coated pan. We would put it on the heat, toss in some oil, fat, or grease, and start cooking. As I mentioned above, cast iron skillets heat up slowly. And they need to be hot in order to not have food stick to them. We needed to adjust our cooking process to give the skillet a few minutes to heat up. Generally, I heat up the skillet about one notch on the heat dial above what I intend to cook food at. For example, if I am cooking a hamburger and will cook it at a "5" on the stove dial, I will set the dial to "6" for a few minutes, and then turn it down to 5 when the pan is hot. Then I will add the cooking fats and finally, the hamburger.

Next, you will need to get metal cooking utensils to use with your cast iron. First of all, you can't hurt your pan with a metal utensil like you can a coated pan. And secondly, you will want that metal-on-metal ability to get the pan cleaned of all food. Finally, cast iron can get very hot, and the last thing you want is for a rubber or plastic cooking utensil to leave traces of themselves on your lovely pan.

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Although it has been mentioned a number of times, it bears mentioning again: cast iron skillets can get very hot. And they will get hot all the way up the handle. You need to remember that and use a good thick oven mitt when handling your cast iron while cooking with it. Also, don't forget that it will be hot and it will stay hot for some time. Don't set it down on the counter to cool, or you will end up with a burnt spot on your counter. If you drop it into your stainless steel sink when it is hot be prepared to hear a loud bang as the hot pan hits and bends (temporarily) the cool sink bottom. A better option is to leave it on the stove on a cold burner to cool down for a 5-10 minutes, and then rinse it with water and clean it out.

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The final point I will make is that while I've been cooking with cast iron for about five years, I don't have a huge variety of personal experiences. I have yet to make brownies or sweet rolls or anything not savory in my cast iron. But the word on the street (the mean streets of the Internet that is) is that one should keep one set of cast iron for sweet cooking and another for savory. Just as your choice of oil for seasoning your pan can impart a small amount of taste to your foods, the theory is that the foods you cook will impart a small amount of taste to the pan and then to other foods you cook. If you have just cooked a savory dish, and you are cooking another savory dish, the taste will likely be so subtle that it will be unnoticeable. But, some people swear that if you cook a sweet dish and then a savory dish (or vice versa), the taste is distinct enough that it can be noticed. I plead ignorance on this one, but it does make some sense. I guess if you had a very sensitive palate, you might choose to have one set of pans seasoned in coconut oil for sweet cooking and another seasoned with a different oil for savory cooking.

With that, I conclude my three-part series on cooking with cast iron. As I learn more, I will put out updated posts. Also, as the Dragonflower Farm investigates other pre-fossil fuel-based technologies, I will post our experiences of those as well!

(1) OK, OK, you forced me.

Simple Melee Weapons
Weapon Cost Damage Weight Properties
Battle Pan 2 gp 1d4 Bludgeoning 3 lb. Light, Versatile (1d6), Special

+1 to your AC if you are wielding it and have no shield. However, due to the nature of the weapon, it is ineffective against heavy armor, which causes a -2 to damage rolls.

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The Care and Feeding of Your Skillet

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Note: This is part two in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets. Part one is here.

Generally, there are a few rules for cast iron skillet care and a few myths that can be dispelled. First of all, there is cleaning the pan. A well-seasoned pan, that is being used properly, should not be difficult to clean up. Hot water and a metal spatula are usually all you need. If you are cooking something that has a lot of sugar or starch (say potatoes), then you may need to break out the non-soap steel wool. But once again, you won't be "scrubbing;" you will be scraping gently. Soap is usually considered a bit of a no-no, and we don't use it. But everyone I've read says a small amount is 'no big deal.' If you are going to use soap, as I said in my previous skillet post, I would recommend something with few chemicals and/or perfumes. If you want an alternative to soap, you can try salt and a bit of oil. 

Once clean, depending on whether you want to save paper or save energy, you can go one of two directions. If you want to conserve energy, you can wipe the pan dry with a paper towel or a clean cloth. If you want to conserve paper, you can dry the pan by shaking off as much water as you can and then setting it on the stove on low heat to evaporate the remaining water. If the pan only requires some hot water to get clean, there is often a good amount of oil remaining from the cooking. If so, just wipe that into the pan, and once the pan is dry, put it away. If it took more scraping, or if you used soap or the pan looks or feels dry, then just rub a bit of oil onto the surface before you put it away.

Pans store best hung. As always, the reason is purely practical. The worst thing you can do to a skillet is to let it sit with water on it. Unless you are extremely careful, it is very easy to have a wet pan sitting on top of another pan. But not everyone has the ability to set up a pan-hanging rack like this one.

Castironhanging
This image courtesy Pixabay. All others by Anthony Valterra.

We are still working out how and where we would put something like that in the kitchen. So, for now, we are stacking our pans and being careful about drying them. This is what we have. At least they are not resting on each other. 

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Moisture really is the enemy of iron pans, so there are a few things you should avoid doing. Baking in a pan is one common way of using them. If you are making pan pizza or lasagna, then you could use the pan to bake the dish. But what you don't want to do is store the food in the pan. It may be tempting to just put the leftover pizza (leftover? How big is your pan?) into the refrigerator, still in the pan, but don't do that. The food has moisture in it, and it is sitting on the pan. As an example: here is a lovely shepherd's pie baked in a pan (no blackbirds, I swear). We had plenty of leftovers, but they were taken out of the pan and stored in another container.

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Along the same lines, a common solution for cleaning pans is to let them soak in hot water to loosen food. I would not do this longer than the length of a meal. So, if you finish cooking and before you sit down, you put hot water in your pan, and then after the meal is done you clean the pan, you are probably fine (I have certainly done this). But don't give in to temptation and leave it overnight.

Proper care of your pans will ensure that you need to re-read the first entry in this series of posts less often. But just in case, seasoning your pan can be found here. Next up, we will look at the right ways to use this well-seasoned, well-cared-for pan.

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