Bees Feed

50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

Achemon_sphinx
Achemon sphinx moth larvae (caterpillar), on native grape.
 

When it comes to providing more habitat for pollinators, it really doesn't take much to see results. My brother's been amazed to find monarch caterpillars after adding one milkweed, and swarms of bees supping from a sole aster. Here at Dragon Flower Farm, it's only been two years since we kicked off this project in earnest, and we already feel as if we live in a nature preserve. All of the photos here are from this spring and summer.
 
Black_Swallowtail
The larvae, also called instar, for black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.
 
To illustrate that pollinator-friendly yards are easy-peasy to create, I've penned this parody for you, inspired by both the Paul Simon original and the play on the song that aired on The Muppet Show when I was a kid, "50 Ways to Love Your Lever." I apologize in advance for the excessive corniness, but hey. I live in the Midwest now.
 
Monarch
Monarch larvae on Asclepius incarnata (swamp milkweed).

50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

The problem is all inside your yard, I say to you
The answer is to see it ecologically 
I'd like to help you get more than a bird or two
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
 
I say I don't mean for this to sound at all lewd
After all, it's earnestness that guides me not a desire to be rude
But I'll repeat myself at the risk of starting some feud
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Tussock_moth
The white-marked tussock moth, at larvae stage, on Amorpha fruticosa (false indigo bush).
 
It's time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_into_chrysalis
Monarch positioning for chrysalis stage.
 
I say it thrills me to see you've made it this far
I hope there is something here that will help our little instar
That word might confuse you but it just means caterpillar
You know, the fifty ways
 
I say feel free to sleep on all of this tonight
And I believe in the morning you'll know my words are right
But don't freak out too much when you know you've seen the light
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis.
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
You just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_butterfly

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When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside

Double rainbow
View outside through the window of my spare room/home yoga studio.

By Lisa Brunette

In March of this year, the hot yoga studio I attended closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing my practice homeward. This was the case with yoga studios across the United States, of course. Our spare bedroom was already set up for my daily physical therapy, so I tweaked it for yoga. Since I'd been practicing the style formerly known as "Bikram," which is the same 26 poses done every session, it was relatively easy to make the shift to home, as I had the sequence memorized. I even purchased a space heater to take the chill off the room, though it doesn't even come close to the 104°F temp of your average hot yoga studio.

Like many studios, I'm sure, mine quickly began offering livestream yoga classes... but I declined to take them. They offered them via Facebook, and as I'd left that platform entirely in September of last year, I didn't want to log back on just for yoga classes. I also felt as if enough of my life happened via video screens, since as a game writer with a home-based business and clients all over the world, I spend a good portion of my days talking with clients through video monitors. Some of these people I've never even met in real life, yet we've worked together for years.

I didn't want yoga to be one more in a growing list of things that happens through a screen.

So I made the home practice work, and it did for awhile. But when the weather turned nice, and I launched into spring vegetable gardening in a bigger way than I ever had before, I found my yoga practice waning... and then it ceased altogether.

Damselfly
The ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly native to the U.S. My brother Jason snapped this photo on one of our hikes this summer.

Did that spell doom for my health and well-being? Not at all. I walked, hiked, rode a bike, and gardened. In place of meditation on a mat, I enjoyed a walking meditation. Instead of sweating it out in eagle pose, I was outside with the red-shouldered hawks who nest in the trees across the street and frequently touch down in our backyard. I soaked up vitamin D from all that sunshine, I breathed in air that hadn't recirculated through an HVAC system, and I saw the natural world change from spring to late spring to early summer and now to summer's end, with successions of blooms and leaves and different kinds of plants, animals, and insects living out the cycles of their lives.

Rabbit

I had a kind of "dances with rabbits" moment this spring, when two parenting eastern cottontails - one I recognized as a previous visitor because of its distinctively mangled ear - frequented my backyard with their three rambunctious offspring. Actually, I think they literally built their warren in the middle of a brush pile we'd left in a corner of the yard. Perhaps between the hospitable environment we'd created for them and my habit of spending long hours quietly working in the garden, the whole family became comfortable with me. They stayed in the yard with me for some time, the parents regarding me with apparent curiosity - and wariness, at least at first - and the youngsters frolicking around, seemingly oblivious. They were fun to watch as they made up what looked like fun games. One would surprise the other, getting a "shoot up straight into the air" reaction, and then the tables would turn as the other bunny did the surprising next time.

After several hours of occupying the yard together, the rabbits did something strange: They slowly moved closer to me. All five of them were eventually within six feet of me at once, all of us just squatting there in the garden, enjoying... life. They weren't eating or playing or running around then, just sitting, quiet and still, regarding me with their deep eyes. A spell seemed to descend on the six of us, as I sat quiet and still as well, stopping my work, regarding them in return. It was as if we shared one presence together. I'll never forget it.

Sure, you can take a cynical tact about rabbits eating your garden food, and they did gobble up a fair amount of seedlings in early spring. Maybe they felt grateful to me for the yummy treats. But as soon as their preferred food, white clover, popped up, they left my plants alone. I quite like having them around, and that moment in the garden was kind of, well, magical.

Another day, I came upon a deer as I hiked through the woods. We watched each other for some time, even while other hikers passed through, not even noticing the deer, before the deer moved further into the woods, away from the path.

I nearly bumped into a raccoon one morning in my own backyard, both of us surprised to see each other.

These two ailanthus moths took my breath away when I discovered them like this on the underside of pineapple mint leaves.

Moths

This summer I helped a snapping turtle cross an asphalt strip in a local park, moving it out of the path of cyclists and joggers. Normally I leave wildlife alone, but this turtle move is recommended by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Snapping turtle

I've come across opossums and chipmunks, many a butterfly and bee, and once, a rather frightening-looking insect called a 'hanging thief' robber fly. In the evening, you can watch dragonflies and bats, circling overhead. They elude my camera, but hummingbirds have found a habitat here at Dragon Flower Farm, too.

Chipmunk on stupa
The eastern chipmunk, a new resident this year at Dragon Flower Farm.

While all this nature bathing is good for the body and soul, yoga is still amazingly good for you. It's helped me heal from trauma and car accidents, maintain a healthy weight, and counteract the effects of scoliosis. I've also used yoga to de-stress and feel more centered. Its power has been established over thousands of years, and it is not to be dismissed. 

I do crave the benefits of yoga, but now I consider what I've missed in a lifetime of exercise done primarily indoors. Not that I haven't practiced yoga outside - I've taken a few classes in parks in my day. But the vast majority of yoga classes - at least in the U.S. - occur inside. Sure, you can supplement with running outside, as I did for many years, or walking or swimming. But yoga is a studio activity, and that means thousands and thousands of hours logged inside over my 26-year practice, in addition to the time I already spent working, sleeping, and relaxing indoors.

Stick teepee
In a park nearby.

This year, I'm grateful for a deeper connection to the outdoors - on my own 1/4-acre, in a nature strip at a nearby park, and when I have the time, on the hiking trails here in the Missouri woods, grasslands, and wetland preserves. As I welcome yoga back into my life this fall, I don't want to miss any of nature's magical moments, even as I'm reaping the many benefits of a lifetime of practice. 

Sunset

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Information Is Good, Even If the Results Are Not - Spring 2020 Growing Season Report Card

Cucumber from Flower
Cucumber growing from flower.

By Lisa Brunette

If I had to sum up my first real vegetable garden season here at Dragon Flower Farm in one phrase, it would be this: It's all information, and information is good.

First, let me just say that I'm proud of my resourcefulness in trying to grow most of our vegetables from seed. This was a huge cost savings, as I avoided losing expensive starts when things didn't work out. Because we're members of the Missouri Botanical Garden, I picked up most of my seeds on a Member's Day discount of 30% off at the Garden shop. These were organic, non-GMO, open-pollinated, untreated seeds put out by Botanical Interests. The rest I purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, a wonderful organization doing its part to "conserve and protect America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage." 

For those keeping track, I'll note the seed sources below with the abbreviations BI (for Botanical Interests) or SSE (for Seed Savers Exchange).

Here's what worked.

Chervil. This was one of the first seeds (BI) to hit the soil, as early as March 7, and it was amazingly prolific. If you've never tried Anthriscus cerefolium, let me introduce you to this wonderful early spring herb. It tastes a bit like a basil-y licorice and makes a delicious pesto. Anthony loves it. When it dies out in early summer, it turns a lovely deep red. All hail, chervil!

Chervil Pesto
Anthony making chervil pesto.

Arugula. On a crisp, clear day at the tail end of March, I planted a big, 3-gram packet (BI) of Eruca vesicaria, also known as rocket. It germinated within five days, the rabbits avoided it, and we had a great arugula harvest - until in short order, it bolted. The high was 66°F and the low 46° when I sowed the seeds. Next year I will try sowing in mid-March instead of waiting those extra two weeks. Even though I planted them next to the fence where they would get some shade late in the day, it just got too hot for them too early in the season. But at least the flowers are edible.

Arugula Harvest
Arugula harvest, including flowers.

However, I'm about to get a second, fall harvest from the same plants. After they went to seed, I shook the seeds into the earth, bent the plants over for a week, and then covered them with a tarp for another three weeks. When I lifted the tarp, the plants had died down. I pushed them aside as a mulch, leaving a row clear for the new seedlings, which have sprouted in great numbers. This move was inspired by a talk given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening, who suggesting using a tarp to squelch a cover crop and then planting directly into the dead plant matter.

Arugula Mulch-in-Place
Arugula, mulched in place.
Arugula Sprouts
Arugula sprouts.

Kale. On April 5 (high 53°F, low 46°), I sowed a huge, 10-gram kale blend pack (BI). These went into another part-shade area, near the base of the elderberry bushes; I read somewhere that they are companion plants. This kale has outperformed every other edible annual except chervil, with a high rate of germination and continuous production all summer. It's just now petering out. 

Nicola potatoes. By April 8, the temperature spiked already to 90°F, and it was on this day that I planted the first batch of seed potatoes (SSE). They did very well planted in a bed that had been mulched the previous fall with leaves (obtained free from neighbors). We only hilled them once, to about 6 inches, as suggested by Paul Wheaton of Permies.com. I just harvested about 3 gallons from one bag of seed potatoes. I don't have anything to compare this yield to, but to me, it was exciting to see all those potatoes.

First Potato Harvest 2020
Spread out to cure.

Borage. As far as robustness goes, this plant gets the blue ribbon. We've had huge borage plants all summer after sowing seeds (both BI and SSE) on April 15. They're a bee magnet, and we've enjoyed the edible flowers (taste like cucumber) in salads and as a water flavoring. We tried the leaves as a sautéed green but were not impressed with that use. It also has medicinal properties, so I might harvest for that.

Sunflowers. These are so easy to grow here in Missouri! I believe the squirrels planted one (our neighbor grows them) that bloomed last year by the back shed. I spread the seeds from that one last fall, and this year, we had a huge patch of sunflowers, all for free. To that patch, I added the variety 'Orange Sun' (SSE), which is just now blooming. I've been dutifully harvesting the seed heads, leaving some for the birds. The goldfinches make quite a meal of them.

Sunflower Close-Up
Sunflowers, originally planted by squirrels.

Scarlet Runner Beans. After first getting devoured by rabbits when they sprouted (SSE), these have rebounded and are in flower right now, making the hummingbirds happy. They've wound all the way up our flagpole. Planting them May 15 seems to have been a good move, but they need protection from rabbits, at least until established; they're leaving them alone now.

Flagpole Beans
Scarlet runner beans, twining up our flagpole.

Lettuce. This went in on May 16 (high 80°, low 64°), which also seems to have been too late. I could have sown it in early March, according to this St. Louis-specific gardening calendar, which I now have in my arsenal. We had some great lettuce harvests until they bolted, too quickly. I used a mesclun mix (BI), but it was heavy with a couple of varieties that were too prickly to eat, and it also contained a good deal of arugula, which duplicated that patch. For the fall season sowing, I'm avoiding the mix.

Cilantro, Dill, and Lemon Basil. I sowed all of these (BI) on June 7, and they did marvelously well, the dill coinciding with the cucumbers nicely for use in pickling. Lemon basil is amazing in pesto. I'm actually not a huge fan of cilantro, so I let it go to seed, and I've harvested a ton of coriander seeds. I think these all could have gone in a tad earlier, though.

Bee on Dill
Bee on dill flowers.

I realize that's not a lot of successes, but considering we made no soil amendments whatsoever, and this was a first attempt in this climate zone, it's not bad. The soil had been turf grass converted through sheet-mulch method to garden space. So it was basically clay soil with a layer of decomposed grass, cardboard, and mulch as a thin topsoil. We did have a small amount of compost. We watered with diluted compost tea around the vining plants on the squash arch and in the cabbage patch, and we spread compost in just a handful of spots.

A few things did... OK.

Amish Snap Peas. Delicious, and the rabbits thought so, too. We finally got some after the rabbits moved on to better fare later in spring. Next year, I'll get more packets, too, as one (SSE) didn't do it, and protect them better. I'll also sow with the chervil in early March.

German Chamomile. Again, one packet (BI) not enough, but this is very nice to have.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

Sage and Rosemary. The saddest seed loss was that none of the perennial herbs germinated, except for a couple of sage plants and two rosemary seedlings. All of the seeds were Botanical Interests except the rosemary, which was from Seed Savers.

Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.' After a good soaking overnight, these seeds all germinated, but they either needed to be sown earlier than April 30, watered better, or both. 

Sweet Potatoes. These actually came from Stark Bros. (where I've purchased many of our fruit trees) as sprouts. The rabbits chomped them down when they went in May 1, but they've since recovered very well, at least judging by what's above ground. We'll see how the harvest is this fall.

'Waltham' Butternut Squash. Two ginormous ones grew from one seed packet (BI) sown May 15 and graced the bamboo arch before it toppled in a severe storm this week (more on that later). We saved them, don't worry.

Squash on Arch 2
Waltham butternut squash on bamboo arch.

Cucumbers. We sowed the 'A&C Pickling' variety (SSE), and they've mostly come in misshapen. But we have managed to get some pickles out of the bunch. These and the squash above could have gone earlier in May.

Red ('Red Acre') and Green ('Copenhagen Market') Cabbage. I've been babying these things ever since sowing seeds (BI) on June 7, way too late, as it turns out. Next time, we sow in early March. A crop of the reds expired during a dry patch, and I replaced them with another set, which I've watered and composted around. They looked really promising until this week, when it seems some insect has discovered them and is making lacework of the leaves just as they're beginning to ball.

Ground Cherries. I didn't think these seedlings (SSE) survived my transplanting, but four of the plants did, and they are doing quite well. These native plants bear fruit that resemble tiny tomatillos, and they taste like a cross between a pineapple and a cherry tomato. Definitely a keeper, and their low habit trails well over our violet ground cover.

After that comes the clear failures, of which there are admittedly many.

Sadly, there were a ton of perennial herbs that never germinated: lavender, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, oregano. None of the bulb onions worked out, and neither did the chives, though we did get a handful of spring scallions, which I grew in part shade. The sorrel was devoured by rabbits. Two attempts at beets failed, though we did get a handful in the second attempt (Chioggia style, with stripes, as in the below image). The carrots grew tops but not roots, the lovage didn't sprout, the turnips made a poor showing, and the comfrey seeds simply ignored me. I don't know why amaranth, which seemed to suggest such wonder, decided life wasn't worth trying. Parsnips made a liar out of whoever told me they like compost, and the broccoli, rue, and St. John's wort all failed to transplant.

Chioggia Stripes
One of the few beets.

What grade would you give us on our gardening report card? I'm going with a C.

Maybe that sounds harsh. After all, we got some food out of our backyard! Not many people can say that. But I feel like a C is fair. It's passing, with plenty of room for improvement. The biggest question is, can we make the A-list without purchasing soil amendments? It was good this first time to see what we can do first on a bare minimum. But next year? We shall see.

Sunrise over the Farmyard
Sunrise over Dragon Flower Farm.

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The Trials and Triumphs of Sowing from Seed

Dill
The umbels of dill flowers.

By Lisa Brunette

Every food plant you see pictured here in this post was grown from seed. Unfortunately, for every one of those, there's another plant that was supposed to have grown from seed but did not.

One of our bummers this summer is that only about half of the seeds sown this spring germinated. It's a good thing our survival didn't depend on the success of those seeds, or we'd have more than a pandemic and a constant stream of social outrage to worry about here in 2020.

Still, we're pretty thrilled with the Dragon Flower Farm all the same. We've had a bumper crop of kale from just one packet of seeds, and before the arugula bolted, it was mighty tasty.

Arugula_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on arugula flower.

Seed sowing is a bit of a roller coaster ride. It's a thrill-a-minute to watch seedlings sprout up where you did nothing more than place a bit of fluff in the dirt. It seems audacious and incredible, and you wonder why everyone isn't putting seeds in the ground everywhere, every day. But when only maybe a few out of a whole packet germinates, it can feel like when you go on one of those rides that's so short, it's over before it even began. Is that it? You wonder. What did I do wrong? Even worse is when you carefully place a whole packet of seeds in the ground and get nothing, as if you waited in line for an hour only to have the ride shut down once you hit the turnstyle.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

This was the first year I've ever set out to grow a substantial kitchen garden. All of my past gardening forays were either rehabilitative (I'm pretty good at rescuing f'd up landscapes) or cut short, as I left the gardens just as I was getting started (read about my lifetime of frequent moves here). I'm also doing things differently by fusing the native plant garden approach with permaculture techniques. So I expected to make a lot of mistakes, and to largely learn by doing. While there are a lot of books out there, for both native plant and permaculture gardening, so much of what you do is site-specific and theoretical. You're working with nature, too, and she's got a mind of her own.

Nasturtium
Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.'

I've been puzzling over what went wrong and have a handful of lessons learned that I'll share here, as I still think sowing from seed is the move, in so many ways. It's tons cheaper, and if you get into seed saving, you pretty much have a continuous food loop without having to buy new seeds or plants. Don't let my dismal 50 percent success rate dissuade you; I'm not giving up by any means! But here's what I'm thinking about.

  • Probably the seeds didn't get enough water. We had a long dry spell, and coupled with a crushing amount of work at the day job, I just didn't get out there to hydrate them often enough.
  • The rabbits ate most of the early-season seedlings, as there wasn't much else growing for them at the time. Peas, lettuce, carrots - it was all tasty food for rabbits, and we didn't have enough protection to ward them off.
Borage_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on borage flower.
  • I don't believe the ground was quite 'ready' for all the tender annuals. We had a layer of newish, still-decomposing mulch, grass, and cardboard over the top of that lovely Midwestern clay you hear gardeners bemoaning. Our soils are actually the perfect Ph for growing most food plants, but that clay needs to be aerated, somehow, and since I'm going entirely no-till, I didn't want to dig it up. I'm still working on this one, but I think it basically comes down to a long-term investment in building up the soil.
  • Some seeds could have benefited from a little prep beforehand. Too late I read that beet seeds do well with a soaking in water. I'd done that with all of the nasturtiums, and they germinated in due time, at a fairly good rate.
Squash_Flower
Squash flower.
  • We didn't get the seeds and seedlings (started indoors) out there in time. I'm still adjusting to the growing season here, and I hesitated too long in spring, with that Prince song "Sometimes It Snows in April" playing in my head. Hence, bolted broccoli and arugula.
  • Speaking of seedlings, I don't have a great place to start seeds indoors because #Chaco. Our little monkeycat won't leave potted baby growing things alone, so they were a little spindly because I tried to get them going in a weird spot where I could keep them barricaded and netted.

Sure, blame it on the cat, he says.

But the cool thing is, here in USDA Zone 6a, I've got another chance at the broccoli and carrots, starting... now. I've got more seed packets coming, my friends, and I know just what to do with them... At least, I think so?

Cilantro_Flower
Cilantro flowers.

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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flowers
Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flower

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I have considered carefully how much of the garden we want to allocate to native plants that aren't a direct food source for ourselves vs. traditional orchard and vegetable plants that do feed us. So far we've tried to learn as much as we can about native edibles and have designed the garden to include them.

But it was exciting to learn through the Shutterbee program (read more about that here) that native bees can make great use of traditional vegetable and herb flowers as a pollen source. That's right: As part of my training as a citizen scientist conducting bee studies in my own yard, I was instructed not to overlook the vegetable patch and herb garden. 

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

Most efforts to promote pollinator habitats focus on native flowers such as milkweed and coneflower, which are terrific additions to the garden that we've definitely incorporated. But this is the first I've heard that food plants could support native bees! That's an exciting finding because it means the annual vegetables we're growing get an added "stacked function." In permaculture, that means it has more than one use in the garden - here as both food source for us and a pollen and nectar source for bees. There's even a specialized 'squash bee' that is so-named because it prefers the flowers of squash plants.

For my first official foray into the farmyard to record bees, I was pleased to find that indeed, native bees were busy taking advantage of the flowering vegetable plants. I'd left the arugula standing when it bolted in the summer heat, and it's popular with tiny sweat bees.

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

So that's one more compelling reason to grow food in your yard. The list was already pretty long, but here's what we've got now. By growing your own food, you will:

  1. Save money, especially if you grow from seeds. You could also get a secondary set of money savings from a reduced need for medicinal interventions, whether that's from traditional medicine or alternatives.
  2. Eat healthier, as your food won't lose integrity via shipping and storing, and if you grow organically, you'll cut out pesticide contamination. You're also likely to eat more veggies because they're fresh and tasty.
  3. Get more in touch with the cycle of life as you take part in it as a mulcher, composter, and seed-sower.
  4. Enjoy a motivating daily workout as you put sweat equity into something that yields more than a toned physique.
  5. And now we can add: Help pollinators by providing them a much better food source than turf grass!
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber - I use it in salads and to flavor water

Of course, if you want pollinators to take advantage of the flowers, you need to leave them there. The broccoli I started from seed indoors mostly faltered, but a few took off, and then quickly bolted (next year, we try a different approach). The flowers are pretty, so why not let them go? Ditto the chervil and arugula, both of which love cool weather and are pretty much done now that it's 90+ degrees here in June. That reminds me, the arugula is about to go to seed, so I better get out there and snag the remaining leaves...

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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