Lisa Brunette is an award-winning novelist, journalist, game designer, and longtime blogger. Originally from the Midwest, she spent 20 years in "outer space," otherwise known as Miami and the Pacific Northwest, but now she's returned to her roots... to dig in the soil and define good living for herself.
A curious thing happened this spring here at the Dragon Flower Farm. All manner of daffodils sprouted up and rung their little bells to signal the change of season. It was curious because this is our second spring here at the farmhouse, and last year, we didn't get this kind of show. We think the latency might be because the year we bought our house, the developer who flipped it had basically razed the grounds down to nothing but short grass and nubs. Since bulbs won't flower again if you cut their leaves too early, they might have gone into a bit of shock from that defoliation and needed time to recover. The neighbors told us the yard used to be full of flowers every spring, and now we can see it for ourselves!
Daffodils are of course a classic harbinger of spring, and that's definitely true in St. Louis, where they grow in abundance. Living here again and experiencing the full four seasons in all their extremes has put me back into that mode of feeling a rare joy to see them as winter gives way to spring. To have them suddenly come up like crazy on my own property amped up the good feelings considerably.
The orange-tinged beaut pictured above is growing in huge clusters near the front stoop and in the back where we tore out the old chainlink fence in the fall. I'd never seen one like it, so I took to Instagram for some ID help from our followers. Jason Delaney of @phsdaffodils informed me it's a double daffodil called Narcissus 'Tahiti.' Hybridized by the great Irish daffodil breeder J. Lionel Richardson, 'Tahiti' was introduced in 1956 and is "one of the most awarded double daffodils in the garden and exhibition sectors," according to Delaney. So we have a prestigious daffodil growing right here on the farm.
Delaney's Insta feed will make any daff lover salivate, by the way. In addition to his own version of the 'Tahiti,' he posted THIS INCREDIBLE FREAK OF A FLOWER whose name 'Sunny Girlfriend' doesn't even begin to do it justice.
I. Want. That. Flower.
It's a really gorgeous spring here in the River City, so let me show you more from out and about. My brother Jason is over in Illinois (St. Louis is a "bi-state area," for those of you who don't know. We're on the Missouri side, but Illinois is just across the Mississippi River, so our culture hugs the riverbanks on either side.) He sent this pic from his own yard, the classic yellow daffodil.
Jason and I also went hiking one afternoon recently, and we came across a cluster of daffodils that had naturalized in the middle of the woods. This was on a hiking trail on the grounds of the World Bird Sanctuary, which is worth a visit even if you can't manage the two-mile hike through the hills around it. These daffodils are pure white with just a small red rim on a yellow-centered corona. Gorgeous, no?
Here's one growing in shade behind our house, a smaller flower than Jason's but still in that classic style. There are more than 14,000 daffodil cultivars, so I don't have the ID on this one nailed down, but it could be Narcissus 'Akala.'
This weekend, my husband and I met my sister and her family at The Butterfly House, where they were having a native plant sale. Speaking of natives, of course daffodils are not native to Missouri, but... what can I say? It's springtime, and they're beautiful. We have a quarter-acre to fill, and if there are already some daffodils (and other bulbs) taking up a few slivers, I think that's OK. We're not purists. Anyway, both my sister and I bought a few native plants, and I'll talk about those selections in a later post. But for now, the garden around the Butterfly House was in full spring glory, and that meant bulb flowers.
The subtle pastels put us into an Easter-y mood, especially with my nieces, aged 5 and 7, along with us. The five-year-old is all unicorns and ballet tutus, but the seven-year-old prefers a fire-breathing dragon, or Darth Vader if we're really getting into it. So pastels for one and bold primaries for the other.
The Butterfly House is part of the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, and it shows in the grounds, which are a lovely frame for the butterflies within. If you visit St. Louis, you have to check out both these places.
Back to the scope of farms and yards... While we're amazed here to have a few clusters of 'Akala' and her showier cousin, 'Tahiti,' some of the people I know are being treated to vast swathes of daffodils on their land, such as this array in the suburban property of my friend the mystery writer Pam De Voe.
Says Pam of her yard:
Ours is not the typical suburban manicured backyard. We do keep the front yard neatly mowed, etc., for our community, but I like a more natural look, and we can get away with that in the back.
If you like mysteries, you should check out Pam's work. She has a new one out in her Ming Dynasty Series called No Way to Die, and this Easter weekend only, the ebook version will be 100 percent free at this link.
What's getting YOU going this spring? We never tire of flower shots, and we love to hear of folks' struggles and triumphs in the dirt. Feel free to share below.
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Our house turns 115 this year, and that's something to celebrate. Built in the year of the iconic St. Louis World's Fair, she's a solid, sturdy old gal with a few frills and flounces that tell you her history. Let me give you a tour.
The first thing you notice are the ball finials flanking the front porch. They're original to the house; in the above photo you can see them in relation to a hot air balloon, as I took it last fall during the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. The finials are definitely conversation-starters. Recently I was out front conducting spring yard cleanup and a passerby started talking to me about them as if she were continuing a conversation we'd left off previously. They're painted white to match the white vinyl siding, and let me speak on that topic for a moment. We hate the vinyl siding, though it's conveniently maintenance-free, and the porch itself is recycled plastic. Since we can't paint either of those, the big white house will remain so, but the wooden ball finials can be painted, and painted they shall be, along with the front door, which for now is brown.
Yeah, there's a lot of brown in the Dragon Flower Farmhouse. If this were the brown of wood, either left natural or stained, we wouldn't mind at all. But it's brown paint.
Someone--a previous owner or perhaps the contractor who flipped the place--streak-painted brown on top of a dark (and from the looks of it, ancient) wood stain. The overall effect isn't good.
We think this persistent brown paint situation is partly why we were able to get the house for a good deal in a neighborhood that has strongly appreciated since the real estate recovery. Since there are no windows on one whole side of the downstairs due to the close proximity to the neighboring four-family flat, and the hardwood floors are also a dark hue, the brown paint makes for a dim living room experience.
It's everywhere on the first floor, except for the kitchen, thank goodness. Some of the previous reno upgrades were good choices, as kitchens really make or break a home.
The other reasons we got a good deal? 1) We purchased in November, when the market starts to cool, 2) the basement showed signs of serious leaking, 3) there are train tracks across the street (we see this as a plus, honestly, but others might not), and 4) there's an apartment balcony overlooking the yard, which I've already discussed here a lot when talking about the big fence project.
Besides the potential for a good deal, which was really important to us when buying a house here in (late) middle age, the house captured us with her charm. Her issues could be solved. But the period details and overall great shape she was in despite her age drew us in. My husband said, "This feels like an old farmhouse," and that was it.
You already know about the outside victories--the fence and the French drain. We haven't had a lot of time for the inside, but honestly, we're lucky in that there's not that much to do, and we've already begun to tackle the brown problem. Here are before and afters of the front door and living room windows.
Other than that, we've been enjoying decorating both generally and for the holidays. The old girl lends herself well to holiday decor, and even though that's not something I did very much during my long sojourn in the Pacific Northwest, I've picked it back up here in the Midwest and might have even gone a little bit berserk (at least by my standards) this past Christmas.
My decorating style is what you might call "eclectic." I love mixing old and new, and I love color. Apparently, I can never get enough turquoise, and orange is firmly in my wheelhouse. I once painted the entire exterior of my house orange, back when I lived in Tacoma. I never could figure out why people insisted on drab house paint when the drool-y grey skies made me ache for something more vibrant. The coup de gras was the sunburst pattern on the mid-century modern ranch home's garage door.
My husband Anthony is present in all of the home decorating decisions. He often comes up with spot-on solutions I can't see. I believe our styles have come together and melded into a new version that is very collaborative. One of my pet peeves is going into someone's home and seeing one half of the couple totally absent in the decorating presentation. Usually with hetero couples, that's the guy. It's not always her fault; dudes tend to check out when it comes to how to make a home. But I've also seen the male vibe completely squelched by too much lady vision. Maybe it's cool; he's got the man room and doesn't really care, but I think it's a little sad? I just prefer to engage with the person I'm planning a life with and really make a life together. My ex-husband (of the orange house era above) and I did this, too. He's an artist, and in his case it meant taking some colorful risks that didn't always work out, like that time we painted a ceiling slate grey and the walls marigold yellow. :) But that's OK. You gotta try, right?
My current evolution is considerably more restrained, as evidenced by this pop of orange in the stairwell.
Anthony and I are a much more mature (and, um, compatible) couple, and the Dragon Flower Farmhouse reflects that. He's encouraged my more historic, classic, antique-loving side, and I've opened him up to exciting color combinations and a general modern aesthetic. I love introducing a few more pieces with a fantasy feel to appeal to my beloved gamer geek, such as an antique brass candlestick shaped like a cobra or an original ink print of a raven queen. I won't insist on anything he totally vetoes, and he will defer to my judgment about design rules when they're important.
This pink-themed mantel in the photo below is one triumphant example, as it's built around a painting his mother, A. Grace, bequeathed us when she died. The '60s glass holding feathers is from a thrift store, and it bears Anthony's sun sign, Capricorn. There's the cobra candlestick I gave him for his birthday, which, second-hand, cost me less than $45, but I've seen it in a pair on eBay for $500. The green vase was an antique mall find and is signed by the sculptor, and the mounted print block on the far right I got for about $10 on clearance at World Market. The green bowl is a great example of Japanese kintsugi, a treasured gift from Anthony, and the small chest is his. We found the conch shell buried in our backyard, and the pink bloom grew in the front. While I'm styling the mantel according to design tips and principles, what's important to me is the meaning of each piece.
Speaking of design rules... I feel it's only right to pay tribute to my rule muse, Emily Henderson. I've been fangirling this amazing designer for a few years now, and the bit of balance and good styling you do see in the photos above are to her credit. It's not that I was a total design dweeb before I discovered EHD, but good rules of thumb can really make a difference, explaining, for example, how to style a mantel, the proper way to hang curtains, or what height to place your art. I'm much more into color than Henderson is (she hates orange!), and I at first rejected her blue-trending aesthetic, but everything she says makes so much sense. When I make a point to follow her rules, I get great results. I've even started introducing more blue into my life and am considering painting the dining room some blue hue. It helps that it's one of Anthony's favorite colors.
I first came across the EHD blog through a search for images of "gold" used in a bedroom. I'd found a mint-condition mid-century modern laundry hamper in an amazing gold lamé-like material but didn't quite know how to make it work. Here's the EHD photo that stopped me in my tracks at the time.
I tried to use this as an inspiration on my much, much more limited budget. I think the biggest stumbling block was the lack of funds for those gorgeous gold silk drapes. Faux silk wouldn't work because it's unlined and too sheer, and the light-blocking compromise I made ended up looking more mustard-y than the gold I was shooting for. And tragically, the gold hamper that started the whole thing was a casualty in our big move from Washington state to Missouri in the fall of 2017. The best-laid plans... But that's OK. I still liked the room.
It's all good. I didn't want an exact copy of EHD's room anyway and had been using it mainly for inspiration, which is how I feel about the interior design world as a whole. I like to learn the rules and take inspiration from everywhere but then decide for myself what I can do, given my budget, and what I want to do for my own enjoyment.
Thanks so much for sharing images of your home. You've done a beautiful job.
I was surprised to get a reply at all, as I'm sure they receive like billions of emails a day, so that was a graceful, nice thing to have happened. I'm still blushing from the compliment!
We've rearranged rooms to accommodate a home office since I took these photos, so it's changed yet again. I'll show those later on.
Thanks for sticking with us here as we plant a butt-root in Midwestern soil. We've both had pretty nomadic existences as adults, so we're looking forward to feelings of permanency and seeing the long-term fruits of our labors, both inside and outside.
Where does your design inspiration come from? Please share your favorite blogs, websites, books, and other sources below! We're always looking for more.
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Whoa?! My stepson, Zander, must have been practicing yoga since birth to have such an advanced Reverse Prayer Pose, right? He should totally be an Instagram yogi star. #yogapose #yogafit #yogabody #yogafitness #yogaaddict #yogagram #yogaholic
Aaaaactually, no. The only yoga Zander's done in his 19 years were a handful of acroyoga classes his dad and I dragged him to years ago. (His favorite pose was one where his father carried him around like a backpack.)
Zander is what you call "double-jointed." That's honestly a bit of a misnomer, though, as there's no 'second' joint. A better way to describe his structure is to say he is hypermobile, which simply means the range of motion in his elbows and shoulders extends far past the average person's. About 10 to 25 percent of the population exhibits such hypermobility.
Hypermobility is a huge advantage in advanced yoga poses, as it can enable a beginner like Zander to pop right into a visually stunning pose like Reverse Prayer, without years of practice and the stretching and strength-building that come with it. If you're hypermobile, think of it as a gift.
But if you aren't, and most of us simply are not, don't compare yourself to those who are. Try to do Reverse Prayer yourself, and maybe your hands don't touch together, or it's best for you to grab your elbows behind your back instead, as trying to force your arms and shoulders into what Zander's got going on leads to pain.
Here's my take on the same pose. I've been practicing for 25 years and have done Reverse Prayer probably thousands of times. At first, I could only reach behind my back far enough to grab my elbows. Eventually, I was able to touch the fingers together, and then finally, more of the hand. But this is about as good as it will ever get for me. Because of limited range of motion in my shoulders and relatively short humerus (upper arm) bones, there's simply no way I will ever get my hands up between my shoulder blades as Zander was able to perfect on day one.
And that's OK. The important takeaway here is that Zander didn't do anything to earn his stunning Pashchima Namaskarasana. He was born with hypermobile joints. So why would I hold him up as an example by which to judge my own pose? Ditto a lot of the yogis in photos you see that show some impossible pretzel-twisting feat. Their poses may take your breath away, but they might be impossible for your body's structure, no matter how dedicated a yogi you are.
Here's another way to look at this whole thing.
Compression of my cervical vertebrae prohibits me from closing the throat bandha any more than this. I simply can't touch my chin all the way to my chest. No amount of yoga will ever change this. It's how I was born.
Compression is pretty much bone hitting bone, and it can't be altered through yoga or any other exercise. In the photo above, it's the compression of my vertebrae that won't permit flexion any further for me to get my chin to my chest.
In the other direction, however, I have much more range of motion, slightly more than my husband, Anthony.
So just because you have a limitation in one area doesn't mean you have it in all areas. Quite the contrary! I have a really wide range of motion in my femur (upper leg)/hip socket joint, allowing me to get my femur parallel to the floor in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), now that I've also built up the strength to support it. I can also touch my chest to the floor in Seated Angle Pose, at least most days, when I'm fully warmed up. Some of my fellow yoga teacher training classmates will never be able to do this, and that has nothing to do with their effort, dedication, or desire.
This whole bone structure difference thing isn't limited to yoga, either. It has bearing on other exercises as well. My friend Allyson Miller, who loves herself a gym workout, says:
Recently I came to understand that my long thighs/femurs are the reason I struggle to do squats in a narrow stance. I found a video where a professional trainer explained it, and I felt a lot better. For years I thought I was just clumsy, but certain exercises are borderline impossible for me. I have to have a wider stance to maintain good form.
She shared with me this article from the Glute Guy on how femur length and other structural factors affect squat mechanics and this one from the Barbell Physio on how to adapt the squat technique to better fit different body types.
I hope these examples will help you understand your own body and its built-in advantages and limitations. If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend the Anatomy for Yoga DVD by Paul Grilley. We're studying it in my yoga teacher training, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it's blowing my mind. If you teach yoga, YOU NEED TO WATCH THIS VIDEO.
Before I sign off here, let me remind you not to compare yourself unfavorably (or even favorably, for that matter) to anyone else, whether Insta yogi star or the person on the mat next to you in class. Chances are they've got some bone-length or other I-was-born-this-way advantage you don't have, and vice-versa. I leave you with these side-by-side images; remember, Zander on the left has less than a year of yoga experience, and I've been practicing regularly for 25.
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Note: This is the first in a series on gardens that have inspired us. First up is Anthony Valterra (the other half here at Dragon Flower Farm, in case you didn't know), giving a lovely snapshot of a garden I've admired ever since we met, as it's in the fam. - Lisa
I don’t have any clear memory of a time when my father wasn’t gardening. Even when we were renting small houses on the outskirts of Walla Walla, Washington, we at least had a vegetable patch. Every year I remember watching my dad buy and plant seeds. Of course, our family also canned fruit, made salsa, and had a root cellar. My father was the son of dairy farmers and my mother the daughter of very poor immigrants. It makes sense that they would continue to see the dangers of the world being mitigated by a small garden and some canned foods on a shelf under the house.
But as time passed, both my mother and father moved from gardens that were purely practical to ones that were a combination of practical and decorative. My parent’s divorced, and although my mother continued gardening, for her it became a hobby. But my father, after he retired from teaching, went pro. He now runs Thompson Landscaping in Walla Walla. And he helps his current wife (my stepmother) Cyndi Thompson with her business, My Grandmother’s Garden. The two businesses are located on their property in Walla Walla, and where one begins and the other ends is probably not terribly clear to someone arriving for the first time. The small cabin that is My Grandmother’s Garden moves seamlessly into the landscape and greenhouses that is Thompson Landscapes. Dear old dad has even had a bit of national recognition with a pictorial of his and Cyndi’s home in Sunset Magazine (about 1989). We're hard-pressed to find a copy, but here's a shot my wife recently took of the entrance to My Grandmother's Garden to make up for it.
After I had gone off to college, Dad’s interest in and skill at gardening and garden art kept developing. His skill with layout and plants was always good, but it quickly become noted enough for him to be contracted to landscape local wineries, the local community college, and private homes (often of the people who owned the wineries – lots of money there). But one of the more ironic twists in my father’s gardening journey was his discovery that dried grapevines make a terrific artistic medium. My father taught junior high and coached. All his life he has been an avid sports fan – both professional and college. Being a teacher, and a sports fan - he would sometimes remark on the academic potential of college athletes who seemed (at least in interviews) to not be terribly bright. My dad’s go-to comment was that they were taking “basket weaving” classes.
As I said, my father grew up poor, and so he has the attitude of, "Well, why should I buy that? I can make it myself?" One of the first businesses he and Cyndi tackled was flowers for weddings. And one of the common elements of those arrangements is a "flower basket." They grew the flowers, but where to get the baskets? Dad convinced himself (and his clients) that he could weave them out of dried grapevines. And he succeeded. Thus my father found that weaving baskets was not something to be taken lightly, and also (when filled with flowers for a wedding) could be very lucrative.
Now in his late 70’s, my father has slowed down. The garden around his home is still immaculate. It is filled with gorgeous flowers, grasses, and trees. He does have some edible plants, but they are mostly planted for their appearance - such as an exquisite dwarf lemon tree - rather than to be eaten. His garden attracts all manner of pollinators and even the occasional wild animal (moose, fox, deer, rabbits have all been seen wandering onto the property). He still has large greenhouses where he grows plants both to sell and for landscaping. But nowadays he spends most of his time designing, and he lets younger hands lift the heavy trees and do the planting.
But if you ever get out to Walla Walla (and trust me, the only reason you would wind up in Walla Walla is if that was your destination) – it is worth a short trip down 3rd street to see My Grandmother’s Garden and Thompson Landscapes.
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Aren't these roses lovely? They're one of the few plants in the Dragon Flower Farmyard that we were able to keep, since they aren't invasive or nuisance plants that steal resources from native plants, pollinators, and animals without giving anything in return. Not that they're GREAT or anything, from an ecological point of view. They're still ornamental and exotic. But at least they're not on the Missouri Conservation Department's list of thug plants, as were the winter creeper (now gone) and Japanese honeysuckle (also gone).
Last time here on the blog, we chronicled the tremendous effort that went into removing those invasives. They took up most of the yard's greenery and had grown into and around a legacy chainlink fence as well.
This time I'm here to share the last chapter of the fence-install story, and it's a shocker.
For financial reasons, we split the fence job, completing the side between us and the apartment building during the summer and opting to finish in November. I wasn't sure they could dig the posts in as late as the week after Thanksgiving, but our friends at Just Wooden Fences said it would be no problem.
In between, we had Horstmann Brothers Landscaping remove the honeysuckle, and what lay in wait underneath kind of horrified us.
You already saw the chainlink fence on the southeast side of the property, and it was eyesore enough, not to mention tough to remove since the winter creeper (which is supposed to be a GROUND COVER) had woven itself up through the chainlink so that the fence and the creeper had essentially become one.
We assumed the fence on the rear and northwest sides would be the same. But we were wrong. It was much, much worse.
Yeah, it looked like the edge of the demilitarized zone. Images of the Gestapo came to mind.
Although the honeysuckle vine was invasive, it had served as a rather attractive green screen. Taking it out left a large swath of bare, ugly fence topped with barbed wire.
But why? Who or what had they kept in? Or out?
We'll never know. But that fence had to GO.
By the way, in the above photo, you can also see the tremendous round mound of ditch lilies, reviled by many but actually pretty harmless, as far as plants go. A big circle of orange ditch lilies doesn't do much for us, aesthetically or self-sufficiency-wise, but I understand they ARE fully edible, so maybe we'll keep some around and experiment.
Again, you can imagine what a relief it was when the fence posts went up.
We felt really exposed after the honeysuckle came down and before Just Wooden Fences began work, but once the fence started to take shape, the farmyard began to feel a lot cozier. And we got a ton of compliments from our neighbors on all sides.
The cedar really is lovely in its natural state, and I wish we could leave it that way, but of course if we didn't stain and seal it, the planks would weather to a dull grey in no time. The fence also wouldn't last as long.
By the way, here above is another view of the french drain installed by Horstmann Bros. The drain is underneath these rocks, between our house and the four-family flat next door. We have had ZERO leaks in the basement since the drain went in, despite torrential downpours, a foot of snowmelt, and generally a ton of moisture all winter long. The farmyard is basically one big mudscape right now. But the basement's dry! Yay!
Here's my handsome husband, Anthony, surveying the job, mid-install. Behind him you can see the empty spot near the corner of the yard where we had Horstmann remove a willow tree that had been badly sited beneath power lines and then aggressively topped off. The tree was ill-grown and damaged, half of it succumbing to disease.
Here's where the new fence joins the section installed in the summer. You can see how the stain gives the wood a golden hue. I still like the look of the raw cedar better, myself, but the golden version is lovely, too, and totally worth it to protect the fence, which is quite an investment!
Next time, I'll share details on our first plantings, which happened all through the late fall and early winter, too. I guess this is surprising to people, since most do all their planting in spring, but it's actually better to plant many trees and plants in the fall and winter, when they are dormant.
Thanks again for your interest in our urban farm project, and please tell us what you think in the comments below. Are you pro-fences? Anti? I know some people think of them as unnecessary barriers, but we wanted the privacy, security, and visual screen only a fence affords.
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