Blooming Plants Feed

Our Garden, Featured in a Story on Shutterbee

Our garden was featured recently in a story about Shutterbee, the citizen science program to study bees and determine the effects of native plant conservation efforts on local populations. Lisa volunteered as a bee surveyor last summer, making eight observations rounds for a total of 73 bee sightings across 22 different species. One of those sightings was of a threatened species, Bombus pensylvanicus, or American bumblebee, whose numbers have declined 98 percent since the 1990s.

You can read the full story on the Webster Journal website, including video footage of not just our bee-friendly garden but several other bee survey sites and the Shutterbee lab. The interview gave Lisa an opportunity to talk about the benefits of volunteering in such a study:

For me it was realizing, you know, it's not actually that hard to make a difference, to do something like this and see the results of it.

For Lisa, the interview was likewise a nice opportunity to take time out on a lovely spring day to chat with a budding young journalist about nature and the bees.

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Happy National Poetry Month! Welcome to Our Great Poetry Giveaway.

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As a welcome gift in honor of National Poetry Month, all new subscribers to our blog newsletter throughout the month of April will automatically receive a FREE ebook copy of Lisa Brunette's award-winning book of poetry, Broom of Anger.

Both new and existing subscribers will also be entered into a drawing to win one of two free signed print copies of Broom of Anger. Drawing to be held in May. The poems in the collection are themed on nature, yoga, trauma, and the healing process. The title is an homage to the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who famously said, "Grab the broom of anger, and drive off the beast of fear!"

So tell your friends to subscribe, and stay tuned for the results of our giveaway! You can also check out some of the poems from the collection as published here at Cat in the Flock:

Moving Away

August

The Open Door

The God in Me Salutes the God in Her

Noticing

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What Is Permaculture Gardening? And Why Does It Matter?

Passionflower Vine

By Lisa Brunette

I've been tossing around the word 'permaculture' to describe some of the activities Anthony and I are engaged in here on the suburban farmstead. As it's not a mainstream way of gardening (or way of life) yet, I thought it might be helpful to define it.

Permaculture is a portmanteau for the words "permanent" and "agriculture." The idea begins with the conviction that modern humans are not growing things on this planet in a permanently sustainable manner. Especially since the advent of fossil fuel technology and its resultant slew of fertilizers, soil amendments, and chemicals meant to kill off insect pests, we've been poisoning the environment, depleting the soil, and destroying our water supplies. The problems continue with practices like monocropping, or growing large tracts of nothing but one plant, aggressive tilling of the soil, and letting farmland lie fallow and sterile, without putting anything back in during the seasons it's not in use to grow food.

Turnip

I first heard of permaculture when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, where it's a bit of a buzzword. Somewhat ironically, however, it wasn't until I moved back to the Midwest that I began to practice it in earnest. 

I say 'somewhat' because it's not as if people in the Midwest aren't doing permaculture. There's Midwest Permaculture Center in my neighboring state of Illinois, and some folks here have been effectively practicing permaculture all their lives and just haven't ever labeled it as such. One of the best permaculture solutions I've ever encountered - a super-smart, inexpensive, completely non-toxic method for combatting cedar rust - came from a fellow Missourian.

Nyssa sylvatica

So, OK, I've outlined the practices that permaculture is calling out as wrongheaded. But what do we do instead?

As it turns out, a whole host of things, and most of these things are very ecosystem-specific. What I've learned in my four years' deep dive into all things permaculture is that you have to adapt and tailor it to your situation, your home, your region, your weather systems, soil type, etc., etc. But that said, there are some universal takeaways. I'll touch on them here, with some book recommendations embedded for your further exploration.

Soil

We seem to be coming to a consensus that the earth beneath our feet is the key to everything. I've talked about the soil before when I gave some tips on sheet-mulching. But I'm learning new, exciting facts about dirt all the time! Just last week, it was that the fungus-to-bacteria ratio in your soil could be a much better method for judging soil quality than the mainstream practice of assessing ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the ol' NPK metric) and amending the soil accordingly. But don't let that science-y tone put you off, as the F:B ratio thing is really pretty simple: For more fungal activity, you want to use a mulch that promotes mycorrhizal growth, such as wood chips. For more bacteria, you'd use compost. Brassicas and mustard like much more bacterial activity, and most vegetables like a slightly more balanced ratio of 3 fungal to 4 bacterial.

Lisa digging in dirt

I guess the key takeaway is that permaculturists look for ways to improve the soil that mimic natural systems. When I'm hiking through the forest, I see a layer of dead leaves each fall that decompose, feeding the forest trees and plants. No one comes through and tills the soil. The forest is a healthy ecosystem. While we can't grow most food plants in a regular deciduous forest, we can mimic natural systems with thick mulches that replenish the soil, plants that are grown solely for the purpose of feeding the soil and/or chopped to "mulch in place," and layers of plantings that harness the power of a forest but focus on food we humans can eat, hence the term "food forest."

For an excellent introduction to soil, read Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. While I don't agree with his stance on native plants, the symphonic description of soil bowled me over.

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Native Plants

The best permaculturists use many native plants, as natives have evolved over millennia along with beneficial, native insects to exist in the given environment without a lot of human intervention. Now, there are permaculture practitioners who advocate the use of some exotic invasive plants, but I am not in that camp. To my thinking, the benefits of any particular invasive are far outweighed by the potential damage that invasives can do. Since invasives can easily spread through seed carriage from birds and animals, to me it seems irresponsible to use invasive plants (sort of like second-hand smoke). There's always a native or at least non-invasive introduced plant alternative that will accomplish the same thing anyway.

Echinacea

Of all the plants we've grown, the native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers are by far the easiest. You don't need to do anything to amend the soil, nor do you need to till it. Just put in the plant, or sow the seed, and you've got fairly instant success - though patience is key, as natives grow by the rhythm, 'first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap.' Many natives are edible and medicinal, too. We've used that criteria for selecting our natives and have never been at a loss. Our native food/medicinal plants include paw paw and persimmon trees, violets, blueberries, blackberries, plums, cedar berries, hibiscus, passionflower, sunflowers, echinacea, rudbeckia, hyssop, New Jersey tea, chokecherry, serviceberry, and more.

If they aren't edible or medicinal, they're at least host plants for beneficial pollinators and other wildlife, such as our sycamore, tulip, and black gum trees, as well as our native violet ground cover.

Though he doesn't call himself a permaculturist, and he has less of a focus on edible/human use plants than I'd like, Doug Tallamy is a leading advocate for native plant gardening. His book Bringing Nature Home is a must-read.

 

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Canopy Layers and Polyculture Guilds

Speaking in terms of that hike through the forest I mentioned earlier, the other thing we notice is that plants grow in distinct canopy layers. First, there are roots, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes growing into the dirt, followed by low ground covers colonizing the soil surface. Next are knee-high plants and grasses, followed by shrubs and small trees in the understory. Finally, tall trees make up the canopy overhead. Permaculturists mimic the layering found in nature by designing gardens in the same way.

For example, in our garden, we've planted (or simply encouraged) the aforementioned sycamore, black gum, and tulip trees for the high canopy, and they're joined by a Shumard oak, Eastern red cedars, and several persimmons. Next is the understory, made up of paw paws, serviceberry, an old lilac, a rose bush, and fruit trees. Next are blackberry vines, blueberry and gooseberry shrubs, elderberries, chokecherry and serviceberry trees, hazelnuts, witch hazel, and others. Then down to the perennial vegetables asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, as well as annual vegetables. Finally, we have a ground cover of violets and geraniums, as well as plants with edible roots.

Evening primrose

Polyculture guilds are more complex, but the one everyone references first is the three sisters: squash, corn, and beans. The point is that the three plants are interdependent. Corn provides a trellis for beans, beans provide nitrogen to the corn, and squash shades the soil over their roots. In our garden, we've created fruit tree guilds with, for example, alliums, witch hazel, evening primrose, borage, and other plants interplanted in the orchard. You might also think of simple companion planting, such as peas, lettuce, carrots, and beets planted in proximity to support each other. We planted an oak where its leaves will fall on a bed of blueberry bushes, the acidic oak leaves providing a natural mulch for acid-loving blueberries, and we won't even have to rake them into place!

Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening is kind of the bible of permaculture, or one of them, anyway, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it. 

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Permaculture encompasses more than gardening as well - it's a whole way of life. I'll tackle other permaculture aspects in a future post, but I hope for now you're excited to dive in, checking out some of the books above. Also want to shout out to my online permaculture community, Permies.com, where you can discuss these topics with likeminded folk. It's been a great resource for me. And if you're in the St. Louis area, I recommend checking out the tremendous offerings from Gateway Greening - from low-cost seeds to a handy planting calendar to helpful how-to videos. Welcome to permaculture!

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The Winners of Our 'Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener' Book Giveaway

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Winner Lynne Griffin, of Aurora, Colorado, USA.

We're pleased to announce the winners of our book giveaway. Two lucky subscribers each received a signed paperback copy of Tammi Hartung's book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener. Winners Lynne Griffin and Lila McClellan are avid gardeners and nature lovers, and they also both live in Colorado, a landscape that can be a challenge as much as it is a joy for gardeners. We're excited to share their stories and images with you.

Lynne Griffin of Aurora, CO

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In Lynne Griffin's garden, a monarch on purple coneflower.
 
Our first winner talks about what it's like to garden in Colorado. As it's also where Tammi Hartung herself runs Desert Canyon Farm, Lynne is in good company. Lynne explains:
Since we have a fairly short growing season in Colorado, we normally start the seeds indoors in March and plant during the Memorial Day weekend, after the ground has warmed. We put in the usual vegetables; multiple varieties of tomatoes, multiple types of squash, cucumbers, cabbage, beets, etc. We also grow several herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, etc. 
 
Our flower gardens are literally for the birds and the bees. Our yard has lots of native species of flowers to help keep everyone happy. We have several seed feeders as well as multiple bird baths. Since we're birders, we just love watching all of them visit.

Living close enough to visit Desert Canyon Farm, Lynne was already a fan of Tammi Hartung but had never read this book. She's now a regular reader of Cat in the Flock, too, and we're really glad to have her. "Many thanks for mailing Tammi Hartung's wonderful gardening book," says Lynne. "I've started reading it and am greatly enjoying all of her advice and wisdom." 
 
More pictures of her garden.
 
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Lynne makes birds welcome with a bird bath and feeders, in addition to native plants.
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We love the solution to the backend slope, with a grouping of native trees and plants set off by a rock wall.

Lila McClellan of Coaldale, CO

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Lila McClellan is an accomplished painter and photographer in addition to gardener; you can see her breathtaking work over at Wolf's Head Art. Before COVID-19, she took a whole season of classes offered at Desert Canyon Farm, drawn to Tammi Hartung's focus on living in harmony with nature. "I am looking forward to reading this latest book and using her techniques for helping the wildlife and pollinators," says Lila. "Thanks so much."
 
Lila already does quite a bit to make her garden wildlife-friendly, whether that's placing perching spots - in this case, crystals - in her bird baths to enable small insects to sip there in addition to the birds, or putting in bluebird houses. But she's excited to find new ideas in Tammi's book.
 

While Lynne's garden has more of a suburban feel, Lila's is a bit more rugged. Her struggles with the harsh Colorado environment are sometimes profound:
Living at the foothills of 12,000-foot mountains has its challenges. I mostly plant natives that are adapted to this climate of harsh winds, extreme temperatures, and the multitude of animal life and insect populations. I know gardening starts with the soil, so, I've been paying closer attention to this and began making my own compost with worms and an insulated compost bin. We also have 11 ducks that help by adding lots of fertilizer and eating the bugs (especially those voracious grasshoppers). We also mulch the outdoor beds with their 'used' straw when we clean out the duck pen in the spring and fall.
 
Ducks and wall
The bird bath gets some visitors in Lila McClellan's garden, at the foot of the mountains.
 
Lila's biggest foe isn't the lack of water or the shorter growing season, though. It's the weather itself:
The number one problem I have is the WIND! It can be discouraging to amend the soil and watch it blow away on windy days. I also wonder how the plants survive when they go sideways instead of up. My husband built a seven-foot wall on the south side of our yard to block some of the wind, which helps a lot. This summer, I will be putting up paver stones to make two-foot walls on some of the beds. I installed a soaker hose watering system a few years ago, which is a tremendous help since it saves water and time. Some wells near my house can go dry when there is a severe drought situation, but we haven't had that problem.
 
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Spirea, growing in Lila's garden.
We decided to use the wind to our advantage; this summer, my husband will be installing a wind turbine to power the electric in our geodome greenhouse that we finished last fall. To keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, we have a swamp cooler and a heater, which will greatly extend our growing season for herbs and produce. Living in/with nature is an ongoing process as the seasons change. I enjoy the challenges and rewards and am thankful and in awe of the plants that survive. 
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Lila's domed greenhouse, soon to be powered by the wind.
 
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Beets and chickweed.
 
Congratulations to Lynne and Lila on their wins, and we hope they both enjoy Tammi's book as much as we did.

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The Garden in Winter, 2021: Pruning Trees, Just Noticing

Ice on dill umbel.
Ice on dill flower umbel.

By Lisa Brunette

We tend to think of gardening as a strictly warm-weather activity, not something to do during the winter months when the garden goes dormant, especially in climates that enjoy a full-on cold season, like here in the Midwest. During the decade I lived in the Seattle area, I found a certain quiet solace in the months of seemingly unending rain, as the winters were mild, the landscape electric green with moss. Here the green gives way to brown, and then white. That's a different kind of beauty, equally welcome.

There's good reason to take a cue from nature and have a rest ourselves. So for the most part, I've put the hard gardening work aside, and I'm just out noticing things. Like how lovely these dormant plants are after an icy cold snap.

Ice on  sedum flower.
Ice on sedum flowerhead.

But there are things to do in the winter garden, such as prune trees. I've been out there on milder days, trimming back an overgrown knock-out rose bush, as well as taking care of errant suckers and misshapen limbs growing into each other's paths on the fruit trees. I'm taking a light hand with these, however. After reading a lot across the full-spectrum debate about whether to prune or let nature take its course, I've decided on a just-right-of-center road. Or maybe just-left-of-center? I'm not sure what's left and what's right when it comes to trees. What I do know is extreme permaculturists say don't prune them at all, yet the mainstream orchardists tell you to get out there and hack away. I've opted to let the tree tell me what it needs.

Yeah, I'm not joking: I stand there and listen, sensing. I tune in for the shape of the tree to emerge. I cut suckers. I cut branches that cross paths, interfering with each other. Besides that, I leave the tree alone.

While pruning is best done while the trees are dormant, the truth is, there's not much else one can do this time of year. Outside, at least. Inside, of course, there's a pile of seed catalogs and planting charts galore! But only if you're a nerd like me.

Bird bath in  snow.
One bird bath...
Ice on bird bath.
Two bird baths.

Besides the sheer beauty of the garden in winter, another thing to notice is that a great many creatures continue to call the place home. The Dark-eyed junco is a winter visitor to the feeders and bird baths, so much so that some here in the Midwest call them our "snowbirds." 

Like the bird feeders, our bird baths operate year-round, with plenty of takers as soon as the ice and snow melt. Mourning doves in particular like to chip away at the ice as it's melting. One morning the sleet froze in painterly drips all over everything.

Ice on birdhouse.
Gourd birdhouse.

A fresh snow dusting offers the perfect opportunity to see who's frequenting the garden, judging by the tracks they leave behind. One thing I learned from this is that the rabbits use the paths I've created in the garden. Or maybe we just agree on where the paths should be. Here's a set of fresh rabbit prints, crisply outlined in the snow.

Rabbit tracks in snow.
Wabbit tracks!

You might recall my 'dances with rabbits' moment, as described in "When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside." Rather than cursing their existence, especially when they eat my food plants, I've opted to learn as much about them as I can by observing them. We have a brush pile a family uses as a warren. They help me out by pooping in the garden, and since I don't have any domesticated animals, it's the only manure my garden gets. One day this winter, I saw a nice pile of rabbit pellets right at the base of the apple tree. Free fertilizer.

After taking note of them for a year, I know exactly what they like to eat and when, and it's all part of that aforementioned nerdy planting chart. Early in the spring, when we plant tender peas and lettuce, which rabbits love, at a time when their other food choices are slim, I will cordon the food plants off with fencing. 

The rabbits aren't the only ones making tracks.

Critter tracks in snow.
Lots of critters, leaving their mark.

Squirrels are abundant, of course, and this time of year our grey squirrels get white tufts on their ears, as if they've grown winter earmuffs. Where are the raccoons, chipmunks, opossums, moles, groundhogs? Maybe their tracks are in the mess above, or maybe they're dormant this time of year. I guess I'll have to research that. I look forward to seeing them again in spring if so.

But for now, I'm pretty content to keep the feeders stocked with seed and the bird baths clean, to look out the window at the scene, or to bundle up for a wander outside, just to see what there is to notice. Like the garlic, I can wait till spring for the real work to begin again.

Garlic in snow.
The garlic bed, snug under a covering of snow. They're fine, though. Garlic can handle a good snow covering. They'll resume growing in the spring and be ready to harvest in June.

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