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A Three-Year Transformation: Dragon Flower Farm 2017-2020

July 2020 2
Dragon Flower Farm, July 2020.

By Lisa Brunette

This fall marks three years since we purchased our home - a 1904 World's Fair-era house on 1/4-acre just outside the St. Louis city limits. Those of you who've followed this blog since then - or even before that time - have witnessed a series of trials and triumphs as we've worked incredibly hard and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. While the to-do list continues, and with gardening it seems the work is never done, we feel we've already achieved much toward our vision: a productive, wildlife- and pollinator-friendly garden bursting with native plants, beneficial non-natives, and edibles.

When we bought the property in fall 2017, we got a great deal, likely in part because the backyard was what you might call a problem situation.

August 2017 1
August 2017.

To the left you can see the zigzagging chainlink fence and the way the whole property butts up against the neighboring apartment building parking lot. Bonus: A view of the dumpsters! The yard was a relic of mid-century landscaping values, with big fat circles of day lilies, hostas, and euphorbias, at that point overgrown with weeds and spilling into the grassy areas, which were also mostly weeds. I think a lot of potential buyers took one look at this yard and saw themselves having to do a lot of awkward mowing, not to mention constantly hacking away at nuisance foliage. Here's the view straight out the back door.

August 2017 2
August 2017.

That first year, we didn't do anything radical to the yard, or the house, for that matter, as we were still getting to know the place. It's a good idea to sit with a big project property like this, if you're living in it yourself, to come to understand it fully before diving in with major fixes. It was a chore, but we mowed the lawn and beat back the invasive overgrowth as best we could.

August 2018 1
August 2018.

Our first step in the fall of 2018 was to invite experts from the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program to conduct a site visit. Based on their recommendations, we chose to remove our serious problem plants first, which at that time comprised the majority of the greenery. The chainlink fence was overgrown on every single side with noxious invasive plants, and these were taking over the 1/4-acre. The three culprits were: 1) winter creeper, 2) Japanese honeysuckle, and 3) sweet autumn clematis. These have been eradicated, though we continue to remove seedlings of all three to this day.

August 2018 2
August 2018.

Next we installed a 6-foot cedar fence around the entire backyard, to provide privacy and security, as well as screen the view of the parking lot full of cars next door (and the dumpsters). The fence turns out to have had the added benefit of protecting our plantings from deer. You wouldn't have thought there'd be a deer issue in suburban St. Louis, but I've spotted them at a nearby pocket park. Not that we would mind deer, but without the fence we would have had to devise another strategy to keep deer from the edibles and other plants.

That fall we also put in the first set of trees and shrubs and began the long process of sheet-mulching the turf grass, as it was our intention to convert the entire grounds to mixed plantings, with little to no grass. We used a layer of cardboard with a generous helping of mulch on top. We scavenged most of the cardboard from our neighbors' recycling bins the night before pickup day and ordered the mulch in bulk for the cost savings. In process, sheet-mulching looks like this.

April 2019
April 2019.

See my how-to on sheet-mulching, which is really easy, especially if you're talking about a small plot of land. But here's a glimpse of what it entails for a project of this scale. To mulch a 1/4-acre, you need a lot.

May 2019
May 2019.

We continued to sheet-mulch the lawn throughout the fall, winter, spring, and summer of 2018-19, so that by August of 2019, we had more than half the ground covered. Here's a panoramic image showing the wraparound fence, newly installed trees and other plants, and the sheet mulch.

August 2019 1
August 2019.

While laying cardboard and shoveling mulch on top of it, especially over this much area, was a lot of hard work, we have no regrets about the decision. This summer Anthony (who won't let me mow, not that I insist) didn't have to mow the backyard at all, and he didn't miss it. (He's not one of those guys who likes to mow grass.) Besides, without the grass to compete with, our native violet ground cover took over on its own, and we like it a lot better than grass.

During this time, we also added a long list of native trees, shrubs, and flowers, using thrifty resources provided by programs like the Missouri Department of Conservation's seedlings program, Grow Native! sales, and the free offerings of our local Wild Ones chapter. These plants filled out the landscape, taking the place of the invasives and attracting wildlife and pollinators in droves. 

Bees on monarda
Eastern carpenter bees on monarda.

Our first official edible from the garden? Wild cleavers, which I harvested in spring 2019 for tea (it's an awesome tonic for reducing swelling and water retention). Next came basil that summer.

By winter 2019, we had all but one small back strip converted from turf. This spring, we let it go wild while we focused on sowing food plants in those sheet-mulched areas, which by that point were ready for more tender plantings. We also built a squash tunnel, a rain garden, two hugelkultur mounds, and a wooden trellis. The trellis supports two varieties of our native passionflower, which spoiled the bees all summer and has already yielded edible fruit. It grew by leaps and bounds, too, from a slip of a seedling to a full-grown vine in one season. Here's a pic I took last week from the second floor of our house so you can see the vine already topping the trellis.

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This year we made great use of our spring ephemerals, turning them into everything from tea to infused vinegar, and we had a decent harvest of veggies and herbs, bringing in potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cucumbers, horseradish, asparagus, chervil, basil, sage, marjoram, oregano, arugula, kale, borage, cilantro, coriander, turnips, lettuce, carrots, and at least a few tomatoes all total across the early spring, summer, and late summer growing seasons. We learned a lot through the process and look forward to a better 2021.

Pickles 2020
Homemade pickles, summer 2020.

Even people who were skeptical about our project are amazed by what we've already achieved, using words like "oasis" and "sanctuary" to describe the feeling of being in our garden. But in case that's not enough endorsement for you, here it is, by the numbers:

  • Invasive plants removed: 5 species
  • 'Statue' plants removed: 3 species (statues, while not invasive, provide little benefit to humans, animals, or pollinators)
  • Turf removed: 95% of backyard, comprising most of the 1/4-acre
  • Native plants saved or encouraged: 15 species
  • Non-native beneficials saved or encouraged: 4 species
  • Native trees and shrubs planted as seedlings: 23 species
  • Native flowers and grasses planted as seedlings: 29 species
  • Native flowers and grasses sown as direct seeds: 9 species
  • Bees counted: 25+ species
  • Birds counted: 30+ species
  • Butterflies counted: 20+ species
  • Wildlife counted: 7+ species
July 2020 3
July 2020.

We've done a good job of remaking the space as a beneficial habitat, but there's still so much we can do to improve. Only about 5% of our overall food intake comes from Dragon Flower Farm. While we know it's unrealistic to think we could ever achieve total sustainability, we know we can do better than that. We've thought about adding chickens, guinea fowl, or even rabbits to the mix since we are meat eaters. Currently, we get our meat from local ranchers we've met at a farmer's market, and that's a good source for us as we don't have the time to devote to animal caretaking.

October 2020 1
A view from above, taken last week, October 2020.

So the mission for next year is to increase the space we devote to annual vegetables, as well as our own skill and proficiency at growing them. While native plants are incredibly easy to take care of, annual food crops are much more involved. I'll end by asking you to wish us well with the perennial onions and garlic we just planted here in fall. May they yield a bumper crop of food next June.

Onion planting 2020

October 2020 2
Finishing up the onion bed.

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