Blooming Plants Feed

How to Harvest and Use Lilacs and Violets

Lilac drink
A lilac-y cocktail.
Harvested lilac
Lilacs, harvested and drying.

By Lisa Brunette

We've latched onto the idea of "permaculture" here at Dragon Flower Farm, drawn to the movement's emphasis on independence through a garden stocked with human-use plants. So rather than only enjoying the sight and smell of the spring season's plethora of petals, we challenged ourselves to make use of them as well. 

Now there are tons of sites on the Internet that tackle the subject of how to make your own concoctions from botanicals, some of them even devoted to a particular flower. I'd like to show how we worked with two flowering plants, both of which we got for free:

  1. violet, a low-growing ground cover and volunteer that's native to our region
  2. lilac, an exotic ornamental that was already here when we bought the property

Some caveats about the violet: What we have growing here in abundance is viola sororia. The leaves and flowers are edible, but the flower is not aromatic, so that does limit its uses. You can think of it as beneficial for the "green" taste of the leaves and flowers, its medicinal qualities (it has been used throughout history to treat headaches, coughs, and colds, for example), and its fun, kind of amazing use as a natural dye.

Violets

Violets are an example of what permaculturists call a plant with a "stacked function." Not only can people make great use of violets for food, medicine, and dye, but they are also a useful ground cover, AND they support fritillary butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves so their larvae can feast on them when they hatch.

So, how do you get them from your yard to your pantry? Some herbal sources recommend the traditional method of drying plants, which is to hang them upside down in bunches in a dark place with good air circulation, as in the image of lilac bundles above. This seems more difficult with violets, as they're quite short, and rather than harvesting the entire plant, you can simply snip off the flowers, as we did to get this bowlful. 

Harvesting violets

If you want to be a purist about the petals, you can separate them from the green caps, but we left them on. We also harvested a crop of leaves and petals, drying them in a dehydrator to use later as tea. This is Anthony's ancient dehydrator - he's had it since college. You can see it has that look of "hippie stuff from the late 80s/early 90s." And it works great.

Drying violets

Like I said, with the sororia variety, you're talking about a "green" tea. It can be a bit blah, so you might want to mix it with something more tasteful, such as mint or chamomile. We tried it fresh, too, and it was pleasant but very mild. Still, you're getting the medicinal benefits this way, and it's a nice alternative to Asian green tea if, like me, you're sensitive to any caffeine at all.

Violet tea

Now back to that bowl of fresh violet petals. It's a terrific dye! Its best use, in my opinion, is as a natural dye for vinegar. This would have colored Easter eggs easily. All you do is drop a bunch of petals in the bottom of a jar, pour white vinegar over the top, and leave it in that handy cool, dark place for a few days. Because the vinegar can react with metal, I added a square of wax paper to the top, between the lid and jar. Nothing fancy - here's what it looks like in a reused jam jar.

Violet vinegar

Since the violets aren't aromatic, they're not particularly sweet or flavorful, either, so I later took the above vinegar and added lilac flowers to it as well, giving it a sweet kick. It's a terrific combo - violet and lilac - the violets for the purple hue, and the lilacs for the sweet flavor. I made up jars for everyone in my family and dropped them off at their homes during quarantine. It was a nice excuse to see them while observing social distancing. Since my mother likes to drink apple cider vinegar as a gut tonic, I made hers with an unfiltered variety of that vinegar. It was a bit cloudier and not as purple but still a nice hue. The flowers are really pleasant, floating in the jar. Over time, the color leaches out of them, and they go pale but still look neat.

Anthony and I also tried our hands at syrups. I started with a violet syrup but likewise realized that for the greater taste, I'd need another petal. The lilac one Anthony made turned out the best. These are a little more involved than the vinegar. First, you do need to make sure you separate the green bits from the petal, which is easier to do with lilac blossoms. This will preserve the lilac color, whereas the green makes it appear muddier.

Lilac harvesting

To make the syrup, you first have to soak the petals in hot water overnight:

  1. Heat water to boiling in a saucepan.
  2. Let it cool a minute after boiling, and then pour it over the petals.
  3. Cover the water-and-petals mixture, letting it steep overnight.

The next day, you can strain off the liquid. Here's what it looks like using just violets, with the green caps left on. You can see it's not quite the purple color I'm looking for, and part of that's because I left some green on, but we'll get a brighter hue later, I promise.

Violet syrup2

Next it's time to add sugar. You can use two cups of sugar for every one cup of flower water, or vary this if you want it less sweet. You might also try swapping out the sugar for honey or another substitute, though they will likely alter the syrup color. I dissolved the sugar over a low heat, stirring constantly. Some recipes call for a bain marie or double boiler, but that really didn't seem necessary. The sugar dissolved just fine for me without it.

Now here's the fun part, as this becomes a sort of kitchen science experiment. In the above example with the vinegar, the acidic quality of that medium triggered the color clarity. But for syrup, we're obviously not using vinegar, so we need something else: lemon juice. 

Violet syrup3

Add that to your syrup, and a change begins to occur. You can see the tinge of purple here. Now give the jar a little swirl, and...

Violet syrup4

Voila! Now this one with just violets, cap on, is a bit on the mauve side, but the lilac one came out pink. We used lilac syrup for drinks during our quarantine Easter, just Anthony and me, imbibing that flowery, springtime goodness. You can float blooms in the glass, too, for an added touch.

Lilac drink2

While it's tempting to stop at the cocktail stage and call it a day, I've got two more uses for you, both infusions using lilacs.

The first was the easiest of all. I simply took a bottle of witch hazel and added fresh lilac blossoms to it. They've given the witch hazel a lovely lilac scent. I use this as a facial toner/astringent, and now it's even more of a freshening pick-me-up as lilac-infused witch hazel.

Lilac witch hazel

Last but certainly not least is lilac-infused olive oil. For this one, it's necessary to dry the lilacs first, as the moisture in them can interact badly with the oil, and in a worst-case scenario, actually mold. But drying them by hanging them upside-down for a week or two first will do the trick. Then you can insert the lilac into bottles and pour olive oil over the top.

Lilac oil1

I let the oil-and-dried lilac concoction sit for a few days again in cool, dark location. The oil picks up the flavor and sweetness from the lilac, and it also makes for an attractive gift. I gave my mother one for Mother's Day, the same day I went over to trim her own lilac, as the blooms by then were spent, and it was a good time to prune. It was a lilac-y day!

Lilac oil2

Violets bloom for about a month or so, and lilacs for even less time, so you have to act fast when it comes to making use of spring ephemerals. But it's worth setting aside some weekend or evening hours for the task, and it's a great excuse to get outside and enjoy the cool spring season, with birds and beneficial bugs returning, and so much springing to life all around you.

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Spring 'Bloom Bomb' at Dragon Flower Farm

Flower layers

By Lisa Brunette

Ye olde farm yarde is exploding with blooms this spring, and the photo above is a good cross-section example. Here you see a native serviceberry in the foreground, with our vintage lilac behind, and a carpet of violets on the ground. Breaking up the floral hues is that smattering of electric-green hostas beneath the lilacs. Those will bloom later in summer, white flutes on tall green stalks. Here's a closeup of those gorgeous lilacs. Our neighbor next door says he gets strong whiffs of their intoxicating aroma clear up to his balcony.

Lilac blooms

The garden area here is also an example of a permaculture technique: to cultivate a layered, diverse ecosystem. That means planting at all levels, starting at below-ground with root crops and heading gradually upward to the highest canopy. Here you see only the middle layers: ground cover (violets), slightly taller vegetation (hostas), woody shrubs (lilacs), and understory trees (serviceberry). But later, a nearby persimmon will fill in the taller tree canopy, at 60 feet or so, and the sycamore and shumard oak, also nearby, will make up the upper tree canopy, at 100 feet. We've also planted seeds for a root crop, carrots growing in dappled sunlight.

The violet ground cover, by the way, is a 100 percent freebie volunteer that began to flourish once we sheet-mulched over the turf grass. We like it much better than grass. 

Violets

It's prettier than boring old turf and just as durable: You can trample all over the leaves and even the blossoms, and they just take it. Even if you do manage to flatten them down for a spell, they pop back up in no time. The other cool thing about this native midwestern ground cover is that it is the favored food plant of fritillary butterflies, according to the American Violet Society. The butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves, and when the larvae hatch, they eat the leaves.

This makes us feel even better about flipping the established practice that has most people ripping out violets, regarding them as "weeds," and spending time and money trying to grow a patch of grass. Instead, we smothered the grass and let the violets have at it. The violets are edible, too, both the flowers and leaves; we made a salad with them recently, and in an upcoming post we'll show off violets as a natural dye.

Speaking of our culture's strange habit of labeling perfectly good plants as "weeds," I want to introduce you to henbit dead nettle, also now in bloom at Dragon Flower Farm.

Henbit dead nettle

You've probably seen this dozens of times, as it's a prolific grower. But have you stopped to look at it closely? Those orchid-like blooms deserve appreciation. Henbit dead nettle is edible as well. I've snacked on a few while out in the garden, but I haven't had too many because the rabbits love them! This is actually a good thing, as they've distracted the rabbits from other plants in the garden I don't want them to eat. Henbit dead nettle is not native, but it's not invasive either, and it's useful for its edibility to both humans and animals.

I've shown you a lot of cool-hued flowers here, so let's move to the warmer side of the spectrum with some vivid red and yellow tulips. We didn't plant them, and this is the first time they've come up like this in the three years we've been here. Previously, we had one or two struggling red tulips. but now we've got all these. I bet they're thriving in part because we mulched around the tree we planted in the middle of them.

Tulips yellow and red

Now let's take a look at all the fruiting tree blooms. We put in a Rome beauty apple this spring, a pollinating companion to our existing Arkansas black apple. They're both semi-dwarf size, flanking one side of our orchard area. The Rome beauty budded out right after planting.

Apple flower buds

We also put in two Hansen's bush cherries, which bloomed after planting as well. I didn't even know cherries grew on bushes, so this was an exciting find because we can diversify our fruit crop without needing space for a whole tree.

Cherry bush blossom

Moving on from fruit to nuts, we added to our hazelnut grove with a nice-sized tree that leafed out right after planting, with husks beginning to show. Hazelnuts have a strange sex life, as this fun post will show you (21 and over only, not because of the nut sex but because it's a distillery site).

Hazelnut

The hazelnut, bush cherries, and apple trees all come from Stark Bros., the world's oldest continuously-operating nursery - located right here in Louisiana, Missouri. I've ordered many of our fruiting trees and bushes from Stark Bros., including natives like this hazelnut, our paw paw trees, a serviceberry, and elderberry bushes, as well as both pear trees and a gooseberry bush. My experience with them has been stellar, with disease-resistant varieties that have so far stood up to challenges like cedar apple rust with no intervention. It's been mulch, water, and prune, and that's it.

We took possession of this property in fall of 2017 and put in the first trees and shrubs in the fall of 2018. One of those had its inaugural bloom this spring: our serviceberry, purchased at a native plant sale sponsored by the St. Louis Audubon Society. It's lovin' life on the northeast side of our house.

Serviceberry bloom

Next is the chokecherry tree, Prunus virginiana, which I picked up at Sugar Creek Gardens back in June of last year. Sugar Creek has been an excellent source of native plants; I've also purchased paw paw and witch hazel there, and this week I gave my brother Jason an idea list for some native wildflowers from Sugar Creek (they are open for curbside pickup during St. Louis County's quarantine). The other day I spotted a tiny native bee, possibly a sweat bee, on the chokecherry's flowering bloom.

Native bee on chokecherry

Next up is the success story of a once-diseased peony. I thought it was a goner last year, when it succumbed to peony blight. But I tried to save it with a healthy organic mulch all around, and this year, it's flourishing, with zero sign of blight. It's still in bud form, but I think the buds are really attractive, so here you go.

Peony

In the 'lovely statue' category are the two azaleas crowded into the bed on the north side of our house. They bloom like mad for a few weeks in spring, but I never see any pollinators around them. Jason asked me why, and the reason is likely because the azaleas are non-native to the Midwest, so the native insects did not have hundreds of thousands of years to evolve alongside them and come to regard them as a source of food. But I guess the domesticated honeybee, native to Europe, doesn't like them either? Who loves you, azalea? Here's the Barbie pink variety.

Azalea

In all fairness, back in the Pacific Northwest, where there are some native azaleas, and overall the rainy climate and acidic soil better suits them, I bet the insects give them more notice. These two are very well established in the shady northern corner. Here's the red one, which at this time of year is more bloom than leaf. 

Azalea 2

I'm told there's an Ozark azalea native to this area, but I've never seen one to purchase. I'm keeping an eye out for it, though.

Another pretty non-native that insects here in the Midwestern U.S. ignore is this pink candy cane-striped hyacinth, which popped up as a solo act near the azaleas. Anthony says it looks like it was sculpted out of icing, like a cake decoration, but maybe he's just hungry. We haven't had any cake since the lockdown began.

Hyacinth

To rest your eyes a bit after those last three gaudy show stealers, here's a white bloom. These also popped up for the first time this spring. I didn't know what they were, but iNaturalist folk pretty unanimously ID'd it as star of Bethlehem, which is totally poisonous. It's non-native and can be aggressive, so it's on our watch list. Though like a lot of non-beneficial flora, it's very pretty.

Star of Bethlehem

Last but not least is this bloom from a perennial root vegetable: horseradish. We planted it in June of last year, right into the clay soil with no amendments, have done nothing to it but sheet-mulch around it, and it's thriving.

Horseradish

If you've made it this far, thanks for your attention as I've blathered on about the bloom bomb that's detonated on the farm this spring. As always, thanks for reading, and please post your own garden pics in the comments below. What's blooming in your world this spring?

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Chaos Is a Garden

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Peonies on a floor of wild violets seen through a thicket of wild garlic.

By Anthony Valterra

Chaos isn't a pit.
Chaos is a ladder.

- Little Finger, Game of Thrones

...the idea that paradise is a walled garden is an echo back to the chaos and order idea… Walls, culture, garden, nature… The proper human habitat is a properly tended garden...

- Jordan Peterson

As we work on the Dragon Flower Farm, we are also developing our philosophy around what we are doing, and why. At this point (and it will likely change) I would say it is a philosophy of the mean - the middle way, if you will. One aspect of that philosophy is the role of chaos. In Jungian thought, the forest represents the primeval, the chaotic, nature red in tooth and claw. The home represents order, civilization, humanity's dominion. The garden is the place where the two intersect. It is ordered, but it is still influenced by the power that resides outside of its walls. 

Generally speaking, our culture tries to push that chaotic force as far away from ourselves as possible. We use chemical pesticides to kill insects we don't want, we erect barriers to keep out animals we label pests, and we root up plants we call weeds. That is one extreme. On the other side of the garden wall, we have people who are advocating never weeding anything, letting everything grow as it will, and the only intervention being the introduction of plants that are desired. We fall somewhere in the middle.

DFF (Dragon Flower Farm) is trying to ride the edge of order and chaos. We believe that it is possible to have intention in planting, engineering, and maintaining your garden, while still understanding that you are not really in charge. Nature will surprise you with volunteers, odd combinations of plants, and even insect populations that you did not expect. You can pour huge amounts of energy and resources attempting to fight against nature, or you can have a little humility and journey with her. Maybe you will even see some beauty that you could not have planned.

IMG_1110

Daffodils growing up through sedum - completely unplanned.

We have an intent for our space. We are trying to grow a significant portion of our own food. Ironically, we began this project way before COVID-19. But the pandemic has sharpened the seriousness of this goal. We are also attempting to support our native flora and fauna. Pollinators are particularly important, and growing native plants supports those insects, which supports our goal of growing our own food. Finally, we are trying to be good environmental stewards of our space. We avoid the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. But in all of these endeavors, we do not hold ourselves up as pristine. We do not see ourselves living only on the food grown on our land, we have non-native plants in the yard, and we have used outside inputs such as mulch from another source. 

IMG_1139

A sycamore volunteer plant - maybe the act of a squirrel, or a bird, or maybe it drifted in on the wind. 

Our culture tends to favor order over chaos in the natural world. We want our plants and animals to conform to our needs and wants. To a traditional gardener, our space would probably look chaotic (sorry, Dad!). On the other hand, we fly in the face of many non-traditional philosophies. We are more than willing to uproot winter creeper, tree of heaven, and bush honeysuckle. This makes the native plant people happy but gets us a frown from some permaculture purists. However, we are OK with some non-native volunteers, which reverses the praise/frown equation just mentioned.

IMG_1141_1143sm

One pod is local praying mantis; the other is a non-native, introduced mantis species; both are welcome at DFF.

How do we decide? We're guessing. But we know that we are not really in charge. Nature will abide. We can only do our best in the short time we are here and hope to pass on something to the next generation - a bit of wisdom, some life lessons, and maybe a small patch of healthy land.

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How about this little bundle of chaos? Native? Invasive? Food? Stay tuned to find out!


How to Support Your Immune System with Herbs

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Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

Editors' note: Today on the blog, we've asked Amanda Jokerst, a certified herbalist and licensed massage therapist, to share her advice on how to stay healthy during this challenging time. We've both consulted with Amanda on our health and have been impressed with her care, experience, and especially her practical, evidence-based approach to herbal medicine and massage. In part 1, Amanda explains just why getting enough sleep, eating well, and other factors are so important. Here in part 2, she talks about specific herbs that can help, once the below steps are taken. Here's Amanda:

I'm an herbalist, so why did I relegate herbs to part 2 in this series? Because without giving time and attention to everything I outlined in part 1, herbs will be nowhere near as effective as they could be, if they are effective at all. If we aren't taking in the basic building blocks to support healthy immune system function and implementing necessary lifestyle practices such as a well-balanced diet, adequate sleep, stress reduction, and movement, we are really expecting a lot of the plants. They are not magic bullets. We have to do our part so they can do theirs.

Herbs9
This and images below by Amanda Jokerst

Now for the herbs that will support your healthy lifestyle practices.

If you're having trouble sleeping, try supplementing with magnesium glycinate, or use some sleep-supporting herbs like what's found in our Get Some Zzzzs tincture formula or the Sweet Sleep tea here at Forest & Meadow Apothecary.

Herbs8

As a supplement to using healthy coping strategies for life's stress, such as spending time outside and talking to others, you might further benefit from herbal support. I've been using my favorite nervous-system allies, which have been magnesium glycinate, ashwagandha, passionflower, and rose. And if you're needing some immediate support for your nervous system, I would suggest our Stress Less or Anxious Thoughts Be Gone tincture formulas or our Hug Your Heart or again, the Sweet Sleep teas can also be helpful.

Herbs5

Some of us turn to alcohol when we are stressed or lonely (which is totally understandable), so try reaching for an herbal ally such as skullcap, milky oats, or passionflower to soothe and support your nervous system instead. Hops tincture can be a great ally as well (especially for hoppy beer drinkers!), providing a stronger sedative effect, which may be particularly helpful for some individuals right now.

Herbs4

While exercise is key, not everyone can manage a 20- to 30-minute walk every day. If you or someone you know isn't able to engage in a lot of movement right now, try drinking some gentle lymphatic teas every day such as chickweed, cleavers, violet, or calendula.

In addition to the herbs and herbal formulas above, specific herbs can play a great role in boosting immune system.

Herbs3

Astragalus is one of my favorite immune tonics. It can help stimulate white blood cells, natural killer cells, and T-lymphocytes and increase production of antibodies and interferon, making it a great ally during cold and flu season. I often use it in my clinic for reduced immunity due to chronic infection, stress, or general lack of vitality, as well as for lingering viral infections or recurring colds and upper respiratory tract infections. Astragalus can also be a supportive in cases of chronic lung weakness.

It has a mild, slightly sweet taste that most people of every age find pretty palatable. Because it doesn't have a strong flavor, you can add astragalus to soup stocks and broths (remove it before consuming) or use a tea of it to cook rice or beans – giving a medicinal boost to your food! To prepare it as a beverage, simmer about 1 tablespoon per cup of water for 15-20 minutes. You can strain and drink it right away, or let it steep for another hour or so before drinking, taking 1-3 cups per day. We have astragalus at the shop as a bulk herb, and it's also in our Immune Tonic Tincture, Immuni-Tea, and Immune Tonic Soup Base. Note: It is advised to discontinue the use of astragalus during acute fever.

Herbs2

All of our medicinal mushrooms are what we call “immune amphoterics,” meaning they have a modulatory effect on the immune system. They are used for immune deficiency conditions such as cancer, AIDS, and chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as immune hyper-functioning autoimmune conditions. Reishi has immune-enhancing effects and is traditionally used for fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath. Shiitake and maitake both stimulate the system to bolster its ability to fight infections more quickly and efficiently.

Use 2 teaspoons of dried mushrooms to 12 oz of water, simmer for at least 1 hour, and drink 2-4 cups per day. Shiitake and maitake can also be found fresh in some grocery stores and eaten as a medicinal food. Any of these mushrooms combines nicely with astragalus for a daily immune supportive tea or as a soup base. We have reishi, shiitake (local from Ozark Forest Mushrooms!), and maitake at the shop as bulk herbs and in our Immune Tonic Soup Base.

Herbs1

Holy basil falls into the category of adaptogen, a plant that helps the body to respond to stressors in a more balanced way, and is a highly revered plant in Ayurvedic medicine. It is an immunomodulator that helps to strengthen and balance the response of the immune system, and it possesses some antiviral and antibacterial properties. Holy basil is also a helpful respiratory ally that encourages our bodies to expel bronchial mucus and can aid in the natural fever response. I also love it because it smells so wonderful. Drinking teas of plants that are high in aromatic volatile oils can serve to soothe, calm, and uplift the nervous system – something we could all probably use a bit of right now! We have holy basil in bulk, and it also features in our Cheer Up Buttercup Tincture, Holy Hibiscus Vinegar, Holy Basil Shrub, and our Hug Your Heart Tea.

Editor's note: During shelter-in-place, you can order from the Forest & Meadow Clinic & Apothecary here in St. Louis for pickup and/or schedule a virtual appointment with Amanda. An online store is coming soon as well. 

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About Amanda Jokerst

Amanda is a certified clinical herbalist trained in the Vitalist tradition of herbal medicine, a licensed massage therapist, and a certified practitioner in the Arvigo techniques of Maya abdominal therapy. She is a graduate of the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, a 1255-hour program in Vitalist Western Herbalism, botany, herbal medicine-making and formulation, flower essences, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, pathology, and herbal safety. Amanda grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and recently moved back after several years of study in various part of the country to open Forest & Meadow Clinic & Apothecary. She truly believes in the power of the therapies she practices, and says that offering this work to others is one of the most life-giving and soul-enriching things she's ever done.

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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.

By Lisa Brunette

The flora is waking up here at Dragon Flower Farm after a long sleep. I wish I could say we're waking up from a long sleep, 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

Happy spring, y'all!

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