Cats Feed

Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem

Potato_1
Part of last year's potato harvest.

By Anthony Valterra

Let me tell you a weird story about our cat. We had some problems with water seeping through our basement walls. When this happens, the water is muddy. Even if you clean it up, it leaves a very fine silt behind. One place that ended up having a pretty thick layer was behind the furnace. It was out of the way and hard to get to, so it just sort of built up. We fixed our gutters and created a water garden in the backyard. Our roof runoff fills some drums, and then when they overflow, it runs out to the water garden, as does a French drain to draw water away from the basement. After we did that, we haven't had any problems with water in the basement. But that silt just set back there getting dryer and dryer. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and finally found a nice pile of poop behind the furnace in that lovely soft silt. Well, I guess you can't really blame the cat. The silt is a soft as down, and the furnace makes that spot nice and warm. But still I had to clean up the cat poop and then clean up the silt. The cat went back to his litter box, and all was well.

Potato_4
I ams what I ams, says the cat.

Now I tell you that story so I can tell you this one. We dug up our potatoes last year and had an OK crop. We really don't know that much about growing potatoes, so the soil was probably not the best. We planted on ground that the previous year had been lawn. I read that there is a pest that lives well in lawn and also loves potatoes. So, a lot of our potatoes had suffered a bit. But we planted a good variety, and some came through OK. It makes you realize how important it is not to monocrop when you are trying to grow organically. Anyway, we had enough potatoes to fill a few 5-gallon buckets and felt that we had not grown enough to carry us through winter but certainly enough to reduce our potato purchases. But how do you store potatoes?

Sadly, I should know this. I grew up with parents who backyard-farmed. My dad still grows corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. I should have paid attention growing up, but I didn't. I was too busy reading the latest adventures of Daredevil, Batman, or the X-Men. I had zero interest in gardening. So I started reading various blogs trying to figure out the best way to do it. It is surprising how many ways there are to do a thing. I might write a blog post about storing potatoes and put it in a form that would have helped me. Maybe it will help others.

Potato_2
Into the bucket.

The method we ended up going with was to put the potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket in a layer. Then cover them with sand. Then another layer of potatoes and then another layer of sand until the bucket is mostly full. We read that the sand should be damp but not wet. That was likely a mistake. We think that that might make sense if you are in very dry environment, but it made our potatoes soften. I think this year we will cure them and then try the egg carton method (put the potatoes in egg cartons). We will try to keep the potatoes as cool as possible in the basement without going below 48 degrees. Likely it won't be cold enough for maximum life, but we will see how we do.

Potato_3
Little did these potatoes know what fate awaited them.

But last year it was the sand-in-the-bucket method. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and... I'll bet you know where this is going. Yep, he was POOPING IN OUR POTATOES. If I didn't love the little beast, I might have strangled him. He was pooping and peeing in the buckets and had done a terrific job of getting all the potatoes well desecrated. After a very short debate, we dumped them all.

Potato_5
The best-laid plans...

And that, dear readers, is how we lost our potato crop last year. I'm sure there is some deeper moral or philosophical lesson to be gleaned from all this. But I'm hornswoggled if I know what it is.

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Goes Platinum!

Lisa and Anthony BCH Platinum
Here we are, proudly showing off our new 'platinum level' yard sign. Photo courtesy Dan Pearson, of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

By Lisa Brunette

Back in the fall of 2018, we signed up for the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home (BCH) program. A couple of "habitat advisors" came out to survey our garden, and they provided us with a list of recommendations for making it more wildlife- and pollinator-friendly. It was a long list, too: Our one-quarter acre was comprised of mainly invasive plant species run amok, a huge expanse of turf grass, and a smattering of exotic ornamentals that did little to feed native insects and critters. Everyone agreed there was much work to be done.

The BCH program certifies participant gardens in three tiers - silver, gold, and platinum. Most people slowly make their way through the levels, many staying at silver or gold for some time. Less than 2 percent of gardens in the program have achieved platinum status. But ours got there this spring!

That's right; we leapfrogged right over silver and gold and landed on platinum with our very first certification.

Admittedly, due to COVID-19, the BCH advisors could not come out to survey the garden through all of 2020. So we had 2 1/2 years to get to platinum. But our friends at the Audubon Society say it's "amazing" that we've reached the highest level in less than 3 years, a rarity. From their final assessment report:

Your backyard has undergone an astonishing transformation to a wonderland that invites people in to explore its treasures. Congratulations on platinum certification.

BCH Platinum Sign

How did we do it? By following the Audubon Society's recommendations very closely, and supplementing them with a crash-course in permaculture techniques.

BCH's criteria begins with an account of the invasive species present in your garden. When we bought the property, much of the greenery onsite made the Audubon Society's list of "thug" plants:

  • Winter creeper 
  • Japanese honeysuckle, both vining and bush (don't call this one 'honey')
  • Sweet Autumn clematis (not very sweet, as it turns out)
  • Tree of heaven (better to think of it as tree of hell)

Here's a photo to show just how thick and well-established the honeysuckle was. Honeysuckle grew over nearly the entire garden perimeter; this is just one side.

Honeysuckle 2018

It was a painstaking process, but we removed all of the invasive plants. Here's the same spot as above, in mid-removal.

Honeysuckle-be-gone2018

We continue to control invasive species by pulling out any seedlings that try to gain a toehold. All 4 thugs listed above are on our regular weeding rotation. As we removed all of those, another invasive showed up to test us: star of Bethlehem. We didn't know what it was at first, but when we finally ID'd it, out it went as well.

The second set of criteria for achieving conservation status with BCH is to plant native species, and to do so along all four canopy layers in order to get to the platinum level. This dovetailed well with my independent study of permaculture, which also draws on the power of canopy layers to create healthy ecosystems.

Our native layers begin down at your feet, with a lovely ground cover mix of wild violets and geraniums. These rushed in once we suppressed the turf lawn through sheet-mulching. Here's how they looked this past April, now well-established, thriving, and providing a key food source for fritillary butterflies. So much better than grass!

Violets in spring 2021
Our native ground cover mix of violets and geraniums.

The next two layers are in the middle, and that means tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees. We capitalized on the $1-per seedling offerings of our own Missouri Department of Conservation as well as native plant and seed sales, not to mention outright giveaways, sponsored by Wild Ones St. Louis, the Audubon Society, the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Forest ReLeaf.

One of my favorites is the nitrogen-fixing shrub Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo. I learned from a Gateway Greening lecture back in 2018 that if you add these to your orchard, the nitrogen-fixing ability boosts the health of your fruit trees. We have several distributed amongst our pear, apple, and plum trees. They also attract pollinators in droves, and the purple spikes are lovely.

Amorpha fruticosa 2021
Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo, is a beneficial native plant for the home orchard.
Bee on false indigo
A brown-belted bumblebee on false indigo.

Of course, the wildflowers are everyone's favorite, whether pollinator or person. Our purple coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, bee balm, evening primrose, and others are as crucial to our conservation garden as they are beautiful. This 'Balvinrose' yarrow was a rescue from a big-box gardening center. I wasn't sure it would make it, but set down in the right place, and it's thriving.

Balvinrose yarrow

Not only does it thrill with its delicate, lacy leaves and eye-popping fuchsia flowers, but the tiny bees like this metallic sweat bee love it for the pollen and nectar.

Small bee on yarrow

The fourth canopy is tall trees. Ours is comprised of a forest grove of sycamore, oak, tulip poplar, black gum, red cedar, and persimmon, which once mature will range in height from 35 to 125 feet. We planted these in our northeast corner, where they won't shade the sun-loving plants but will provide a natural screen from the neighboring apartment building. Lucky for us, that site is entirely free from power lines.

Tulip poplar in tulips
A tulip poplar, springing up amid tulips.

We also received high marks on the next three criteria in the BCH program:

  1. Wildlife stewardship - We offer bird baths and houses, a bat house, a rock snake habitat, and a brush pile that rabbits have made into their warren. We've planted flowers to specifically feed hummingbirds and pollinators, and we provide habitat for songbirds. Chaco, as you know, is indoor-only, and the birds are all the better for it.

  1. Stormwater management - We installed a French drain, double rain barrels, and a rain garden. Our whole enterprise is organic, with no pesticide use (outside of one application in 2018 to kill invasives) and no outside inputs for fertilizer (we use compost).
  2. Education and volunteerism - Besides my volunteer work as a citizen scientist in the Shutterbee program, we also support all of the organizations you see in the sidebar, and we think of all the gabbing we do about our garden on this blog as education, too.
Rain barrels
My brother Chris scored these rain barrels for us when his neighbor moved last spring and didn't want to take them with him.

Here's a 'before' picture out the back stoop in 2017, when we bought the place.

Back stoop 2018
Nothing but lawn... and more lawn... and maybe some ornamentals, planted in big, fat circles.

And here's a recent photo, from July 2021.

Back stoop 2021
Canopy layers, an orchard, an herb mound, and 77 percent of the property is "naturescaped."

We love our garden, which not only provides food for wildlife and pollinators but feeds us, too - both our bellies and our souls.

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It's Time to Honor the Pets Who've Kept Us COVID Company

Chaco_portrait

By Lisa Brunette

It's been a long, hard year with this COVID situation, and let's face it: We couldn't have done it without our pets. 

While our coworkers went from the living, breathing human beings we interacted with on a daily basis to talking heads on a Zoom screen, Rover and Boots became ever-present reminders of the value of physical touch. They rested their heads in our laps, distracted us with their antics, kept our feet warm, offered a reassuring purr and cuddle. Especially for people living alone, this source of daily joy and unconditional love has been nothing short of a lifesaver.

So it's time to honor them, and what better way than with a cool modern portrait?

Chaco's been with us for about five years now, and I'm surprised to admit that we had zero framed photos of him in our house. Of course we take plenty - my recent treatise on ol' kittypants is just a small, representative sampling - but I just hadn't gotten around to framing any. And maybe it's the utilitarian Midwesterner in me - what do you need a picture of your pet for when he's right here in front of you everyday? But as it turns out, a spankin' chi-chi portrait of Chaco was exactly the thing I didn't know I needed in my life until I had one.

Chaco_portrait2

I mean, have you seen anything better? This picture makes me laugh every time I look at it. We hung it in our dining room, where I'm amused by it several times a day.

I know you're green with envy, but I'm about to cure your jealousy: You can get one of these portraits of your pet, too!

In honor of our wonderful animal companions, Cat in the Flock is happy to offer our readers 15% off these stylish, custom pet portraits. Just use the code PAWFRIENDS15 at checkout.

Here's a sample from the makers, West & Willow, this time with a dog as subject, and a white background. They have several background choices as well as different options for the frame.

White-bk

To get your portrait with the 15% discount, all you need to do is use this link to head over to West & Willow, and then use the promo code PAWFRIENDS15 at checkout. A few notes:

  • Yes, you can get a portrait for any kind of pet, whether bird, iguana, guinea pig, etc.
  • If you have two or three pets and want a group portrait of them, no problem.
  • West & Willow will work with you to create a pet memorial, if that's what you need.
  • No, you can't get human-subject portraits, even if you keep a human as a pet, ha, ha, ha.
  • Make sure you have a good quality digital photo of your pet before you begin the process. The portrait is crafted with it. We used this one for Chaco.

Chaco

Here's the link again:

West & Willow Pet Portrait - 15% Off!

And don't forget to use the code PAWFRIENDS15 at checkout.

I hope you enjoy your pet portrait as much as we enjoy ours.

Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase from West & Willow.

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Meet Chaco, the 'Indoor Only' Suburban Farm Cat

Chaco_Feet

By Lisa Brunette

I've had the privilege of sharing my home with a total of four dogs and four cats over the course of my life (though only as many as 3 pets at one time, and those were all cats). Of the lot, Chaco is definitely the most entertaining. As the lot includes a poodle who had the odd habit of 'hanging' his turds on plants instead of depositing them on the ground like a normal pet, that's saying a lot.

Chaco's a special breed called a Devon rex, and they're famously described as "monkeys in cat suits." The breed has an above-average climbing drive. This is evidenced in Chaco's need to get to the highest point in any room, consequences be damned. His only health issue is a torn ACL. The vet said we should probably scale back on his Olympic skiing events.

Chaco_Tree

A cat like this deserves to be spoiled a bit, with faux 'trees' he can climb on, of course. As he had the crazy luck to get adopted by a couple of middle-aged empty nesters, it probably won't surprise you to learn that he eats an only-raw food diet, has a an arsenal of colorful cat toys, and sleeps the day away on a heating pad.

Don't judge us too harshly on that last one, though - his breed lacks a guard coat, so he's covered only in short little corkscrew curls of fine down. He gets mighty cold, easily. It's my duty several times a winter's day to rub his ears between my thumbs and fingers to warm them. He also likes to set his cold toe beans on my neck till they toast up again. He's happiest when he's tucked inside our clothing with us.

Chaco_Vest

The short, curly hair is one of his attributes, though: He's as close to hypoallergenic as you can get in a cat. Which makes him the only cat that doesn't trigger an endless slew of mast cell reactions in me. I'm greatly thankful for this, especially because he's the most affectionate, cuddliest cat I've ever met. 

If you come over to our house, you're likely to get a 'kiss' from Chaco, as his breeder taught him to stick his face right up into yours for a smooch, and we haven't been able to break him of the habit. (Not that we've tried that hard.) He sleeps with us, of course; and he really likes the cleft of my neck between head and shoulder. If that's not available, he plops right down on my head. On more than one occasion I've felt something wet... trickling down my chin... yep. Cat drool.

Chaco_Paw

When we first got Chaco, I hadn't yet figured out what was causing my health problems, and we tried to keep him out of the bedroom in an attempt to ensure a symptom-free night's rest, just in case I did react to him. But when I was staying in an Airbnb during our lengthy wait to move into our current home, Chaco was able to push the double doors open to my bedroom, and there was no keeping him out. He took to it as if to say, There. As it should be.

Speaking of pushing open doors, he can pull them open as well. This is of course not a great trait to have in a cat, especially if you don't want your trash all over the kitchen. 

With his big eyes and ears, he has a bit of an alien look that I find simultaneously adorable and comical. He's especially goofy during play, and one of these days I promise I'll capture on camera one of his totally wacked-out 'gonna git you' poses. For now, though, you can admire him in this hat.

CatintheHat

He's indoor-only because the Devon rex breed is a miniature one, putting him at about a half or even one-third the size of a regular household domestic cat. As much as he likes to think so as he gazes out at the squirrels and rabbits and birds just beyond the window, he wouldn't be able to tough it out there on his own for very long. I mean, besides that torn ACL, he's just a lovable goof with delusions of predatory glory. He wouldn't be good for the birds anyway; a surprisingly sad number of them succumb to house cats as it is, so we don't want Chaco contributing to the problem.

Until we can erect a 'catio,' or somesuch, Chaco must enjoy the outdoors from the safety of his home. Yeah, you should hear him bemoaning the injustice of the situation if we're outside and the windows are open.

Chaco_Window

For such a small guy, he can really strike a commanding presence. Sometimes, when running the day job business plus this blog feels like a lot, I can just pretend that Chaco's the boss. 

Chaco_Boss

Chaco_Boss2

He can often make it hard to work anyway. This is a pretty common thing I've seen in other cats, the drive to distract you while you're working on something important at the computer, but Chaco's definitely the hammiest. It's like he knows exactly how to get me to laugh.

Chaco_ScreenPeek

When we adopted Chaco in 2016, it was with the express purpose of giving my stepson, Zander, the experience of living with a pet, something that was new to him. I totally believed Chaco was for Zander. But then Zander went off to college, and Anthony and I realized Chaco filled a huge empty nest for us.

There was never any question when we made the decision to move to Missouri from Washington state that Chaco would be included in that plan, even though it meant moving him via air flight... and it also meant towing my cat and all his supplies with me through a string of Airbnbs while Anthony readied our house to sell.

Chaco_StLouis

But having Chaco with us was more than worth all that. I hope this doesn't offend you, but I've often preferred the company of my pets to people, and Chaco is no exception. He's very much a part of the fabric of our lives here at the 'farmhouse,' even if he does make it impossible to start seeds indoors (he digs them up) or dry herbs on screens (he treats this as his personal resting spot). 

Chaco_Herbs

He participates in our backyard foraging by munching on the yummy wild garlic we bring inside.

Chaco_Greens

He even watches TV with us in the evenings, though he reacts a bit differently to some of the documentaries than we do.

Chaco_Bird

We're sure he thinks of us as lumbering, somewhat awkward colony mates, whose strange insistence on sleeping at night and remaining active all day must be tolerated. We try to give him the best life we can, because he puts a smile on our faces every day, giving us that warm, cuddly, interspecies connection.

We all agree that some days, the exact right thing to do is curl up in a blanket and let everything else go.

Chaco_Blanket

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Welcome (Virtually) to Our Home for the Holidays!

Xmas_Window

By Lisa Brunette

One of the fun activities Anthony and I participated in pre-COVID-19 was the holiday parlor tour here in St. Louis' Lafayette Square neighborhood. It was a treat to tour historic homes - some dating as far back as before the Civil War - all done up for the holidays. We look forward to a day when such in-person events are possible again. In the meantime, we've given the 116-year-old Dragon Flower Farmhouse a holiday makeover and invite you to tour it from the comfort and safety of your own living room.

Fa-La-La-Llama

Speaking of comfort, the below llama pillow comes out only for the holidays... I'm not sure why a pink llama says Christmas, but it certainly does. As you might have learned from our last post on the living room makeover, we've got complementary colors pink and green in the main downstairs space. Complementary means they're opposites on the color wheel, and that makes them a vibrant pairing, as in the pink pillow on chartreuse here.

Llama pillow

The llama theme is echoed in the Christmas tree, as a key ornament. I've hung this one and a couple of other ornaments behind the tree to make the smallish tree seem a bit grander, as well as fill the blank walls left when I removed an antique leather whip and two vintage family photos that didn't look right as backdrop for ol' tannenbaum.

Xmas_OrnamentWall

The tree is strung with white lights and colors that harmonize with the room's palette: pink, green, white, gold, and natural tones from straw and wood. Rather than spending a lot of money just to color-coordinate a tree, I simply split our ornament collection into two categories, these muted tones and another crop all in primary colors, which fit the smaller tree in the dining room. But before I move onto that room, I want to linger here a bit in the living room, with of course the mantel as the focal point.

This Mantel Moment

Xmas_Mantel

I really love how the mantel looks for the holidays. The candelabra on the left is a vintage 1960s Brutalist design, which I found at a tiny thrift window shop that used to be part of a sweet little café owned and run by two women in Chehalis, Wash. The mercury glass candle holders are from World Market, and the brass deer is an antique mall find. I wish I could say I made the stockings myself, but they're from Etsy. (At least I hung them with care!). Yes, Chaco gets a stocking... what did you expect? Zander has one, too, but he's staying in Seattle for the holidays. 

The cube vase on the left is a collectible piece of memorabilia - a brick from the old St. Louis Arena, a major concert and sporting venue for 70 years before it was imploded in 1999. The other vase is handcrafted by an artist, but I picked it up at an antique mall on the cheap and unfortunately don't know anything about who made it.

Here's a variation on the mantel from 2019, with the Brutalist candelabra replaced with a star hurricane lamp, and the balance shifted.

Mantel 2019

Ornament Lament

Thinking about that Arena brick puts me in the mindset to share this holiday tragedy. You see, I went to a good number of heavy metal concerts at that place back in the day, but one of the acts I did not see was Kiss. I've related the whole story previously on the blog, but basically my parents were super strict sort of beyond reason, and they would not allow me to go to this particular Kiss concert in the late 80s, which would have been something to remember and tell your kids about, you know? What I did have, however, was this amazing Kiss ornament, gifted to me by my friend Alyssa Naumann back in the 90s, after she heard my Kiss concert sob story and wanted to give me something to make up for the loss. 

Kiss Ornament

Yeah, that's a Rock and Roll Over Kiss ornament right there, and you'll notice up above I used past tense: What I did have, however, was this amazing Kiss ornament... Past tense because a day or two after I took this photo, Chaco BROKE it. My wonderful Kiss ornament, which I have looked forward to getting out each Christmas for the past 25 years, on the floor, shattered to bits. Because of the CAT.

Words were said, my friends, and a grudge was held... for at least an hour, anyway. Chaco wormed his way back in pretty quickly, I have to admit.

Sigh. 

Red Tree

Have a Ball

The Kiss ornament was on the 'red' tree in the dining room, where a brighter palette prevails, all inspired by the ironic and iconic Miss Fortunato painting, done by Monica Mason, the wife of an old colleague of mine from the St. Louis Science Center. It was part of a series on circus side show acts; Miss Fortunato is "the luckiest woman in the world," because she's so beautiful, all manner of butterflies flock to her face, as if it's a flower (obscuring her face from the viewer). This painting originated in St. Louis, has traveled with me to Miami, Florida, and Seattle, Wash., and has now returned to just a few blocks from the home where it first hung. It fits well in between the moulding detail.

Here we are, all ready for a small dinner party before the holidays. The wool felt balls are from World Market (I can't help it; I'm a fan), and the turquoise table settings are Fiestaware. The vintage side cabinet is probably from the 1940s and was left behind by the previous owner of my house in Tacoma; I added heavy caster wheels and painted it black (it had been puke pink). The top comes off but was damaged in our last move, alas. The pewter candle holders in the two paneled areas are from my sister, Amy, who had them in her home for many years and then kept them in storage after the glass hurricanes broke and her décor changed. When she saw our dining room, she realized they'd be perfect, and she is right.

Dining Room Xmas

This dining room is actually next up for renovation, as that aforementioned brown paint is on full display here, too, covering all of the window and doorway trim, as well as a chair rail that runs the length of the room, which you can see above. We're thinking about a deep blue-green, as this room faces southeast, gets plenty of light, and could handle a darker hue. I'm considering painting the walls, trim, and the above white cutouts all the same color, for a more dramatic, rich effect. Maybe even the ceiling? What do you think? My brother keeps crying 'earth tones,' but that's not really my jam.

That concludes our virtual tour. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate the holiday. And to all, may 2021 bring you peace, happiness, and the freedom and safety to go... maskless!

Note: This post contains an Etsy affiliate link, but all other recommendations are non-sponsored.

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