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A Peek at Our Peony, and Some Free Plants!

Peony bud

By Lisa Brunette

I've got a short one for you this time - I know; you're probably like, "Really, Lisa? Because you're a big fan of those longform blog posts (TL;DR)." But this time I just want to do two things: 1) Show you our beautifully rehabilitated peony and 2) offer you some free plants.

So the peony had been a sickly, struggling thing for the past three years, and in 2019 I was sure it had finally succumbed to blight. But we mulched around it and decided to give it a chance. Well, this spring, it sprang back to life with great promise, as you can see in the awakening bud above. But peony buds are a really slow tease, taking their time to come to full bloom.

Peony opening

When it finally opened, it was a visual and aromatic treat. While I knew their short-lived but storied flowers were legend, I hadn't realized peonies smelled so good.

Peony 2020

They made for a lovely cut flower when we finally opened up from quarantine here and had the whole fam damly over for Memorial Day. Chaco agreed, and luckily, peonies pose no threat to the kitty. In fact, his taste for the peony water is smart, as the petals have been used to flavor water since antiquity.

Peony with Chaco

Peony: short-lived but spectacular, safe for cats, and, as it turns out, immensely useful for humans. We have such a small bush, with only about five flowers in total, but if we ever get more, we can use the petals in many of the same ways we use rose petals. It's even been used medicinally.

Now for the free plants!

You might recall from a previous post that we have about 100 yellow bearded irises here at the Cat in the Flock farm. As much as we enjoy the sight of them in late spring, they're limited to that, aesthetics. We can't use them because they're toxic to humans, and we can't even bring them into the house as a cut flower because they're toxic to cats, and Chaco is like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials. 

Iris 2020

So if you're in the St. Louis area, come on by, and I'll give you some free rhizomes. They're done blooming now, and I'm happy to pot them for you to take home. Just email me at this handy link.

See? I told you it'd be short!

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5 Cool Uses for Rose Petals

Knockout Rose Bush 2020
So. Many. Roses.

By Lisa Brunette

We inherited three 'knock out' rose bushes, well established by the time we moved here in 2017. Three is a more than enough for us, especially considering this ridiculously common ornamental doesn't produce rose hips, and most pollinators don't seem to take much notice of it, either, except for the domesticated European honeybee. We removed one of the rose bushes last fall and trimmed back the remaining two, and lo and behold, this spring they exploded with more blooms than we'd ever seen before.

The roses are pretty, for sure, and they seem to be more fragrant this year, too. But we as a species are far past the point where we can allow sizable real estate to be taken up by living statues, no matter how pretty or fragrant. Should the knock out rose go - or stay? On the plus side, it was cultivated to be disease-resistant and hardy, and it's clearly flourishing even though we haven't done anything to it besides trim it back and mulch around it.

But it isn't a native, not like the wild roses that have evolved in tandem with local pollinators. So for example, caterpillars haven't had eons to adapt methods of getting past the rose's resistance to them (and it's been bred to further resist them anyway). So the remaining question for us is: Can we use it?

Rose Petals
Much more useful than just potpourri.

If we can derive some culinary, medicinal, or other human use from this plant, then it warrants its space at Dragon Flower Farm. I knew from reading the novel Like Water for Chocolate that you can eat rose petals, so I started from that assumption. Tita's famous quail-and-rose-petal sauce recipe aside, I found and tested five cool uses for America's national flower.

#1 Just toss the petals into a salad.

Maybe this is obvious, but if they're edible, you know, you can simply add them to your mixed greens and chow down. Don't use petals that have been sprayed with pesticides, of course. We're 100 percent organic, and you could be, too. If your rose petals are clean, give this a try; they're high in vitamin C. Some say the more fragrant they are, the better the taste. We've tossed them into mixes with baby kale, shredded carrot, sunflower seeds, and green olives, and they're delicious.

#2 Pickle them.

I love pickled food, so pickled rose petals immediately intrigued me when I saw this recipe over at the Martha Stewart blog. I followed it to a T and have to say pickled rose petals is my new go-to. My only complaint is that the recipe - part of one of those slideshow thingies - ends abruptly without mentioning whether or not you have to refrigerate the petals or how long they'll last. FYI, I put mine in the fridge, and three weeks later, they're still fine.

Rose Petal Products
The sum total of my rose-petal haul.

#3 Make rose water.

Rose water might make you think of your grandmother's perfume, at least if you're as old as I am, but it's so much more. You can use it in food dishes, as a culinary accompaniment, in yogurt lassi, and, of course, as a refreshing, non-chemical fragrance. It's easy to make, too: Just pour boiling water over rose petals in a jar and seal, and you've got it. Again, especially with the outdoor temps here now into the 90s, I keep mine in the fridge.

Rose Water
It's lovely to look at and smell, but useful, too.

#4 Infuse - and naturally dye - your vinegar.

If you've been following along with this blog regularly, you've already seen me use both violets and lilacs to dye and infuse vinegar. I was curious to see what would happen with rose petals, and woo hoo, our favorite little valentine didn't disappoint. Note: I recommend using a high-quality vinegar for this, organic and containing the naturally occurring organism referred to as "the mother." Why? Because you're going to want to eat a lot of it, making salad dressing and adding it as you cook, and your body will thank you for it.

Rose Vinegar
It's like Barbie vinegar!

#5 Brew rose petals as tea.

I realize you might think of this as a repeat of the rose water above, but it's meant to be more medicinal than beautifying, and rather than drink rose petal tea on its own, I've opted to pair it with another plant.

First, I want to introduce you to a concept called the "Doctrine of Signatures," which I initially heard of from the author Tammi Hartung of Desert Canyon Farm but have subsequently come across in a variety of sources. This is an ancient tradition that suggests what a plant looks like tells you what it's good for. For roses, that means the heart-shaped, velvety red petals promote heart opening. So Tita's rose-petal sauce wasn't just fictional license.

Roses have also been used to soothe the stomach and bring on a sense of calm. I decided to pair them with the definitely heart-shaped violet leaves growing here in profusion, and it was fun to find out that violet leaves have been used to promote heart health, too, also backing up the doctrine of signatures.

Here's how you make my 'Heart's Ease' tea blend. First, dry the petals, which you can manage in a dehydrator or by spreading them out in a wide, shallow basket. I layered them with the violet leaves in a dryer rack I fashioned out of netting and a garden flat box.

Violet Leaves Drying

Of course, Chaco was really grateful for this lovely bed I'd created for him.

Chaco on Violet Leaves

Once I removed the cat, started over with new violet leaves, added the rose petals, and placed the whole rack in a place where Chaco couldn't get to it, it took about two weeks for the mixture to fully dry. I then placed it into clean jars, labeled with both ingredients, the suggested use, and the date.

So, what's the verdict? Are these multiple uses for rose petals enough to justify keeping the knock out? What others can you suggest? List them in the comments below! Another option is to replace the knockout with a native rose or another one that will provide us with more rose hips...

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Fire! In the Middle of One Apocalypse, We Get Another

Anthony_Backyard
This is the point where Anthony realized wetting down our fence was no longer the move. We'd just been advised to vacate.

By Lisa Brunette

It's been three weeks since the fire, but it still smells like smoke at Dragon Flower Farm.

I was sitting on the couch with my cell phone, on hold with a service provider, listening to the recorded Muzak. I had already showered and changed into PJs. It was early Sunday evening, we'd spent the day working on the farm project, and Anthony was in the kitchen, cooking. 

I smelled smoke and called out to Anthony about it, thinking it might be dinner. It was a nice day, though, and the windows were open, and suddenly, I heard people yelling. I also heard another sound: like a loud electrical burst. Then I noticed the smoke and got up to look out our back window. The neighbors next door often have bonfires out of a metal fire pit back there, and occasionally those fires have roared a bit too large for my comfort, especially since their pit sits on grass lawn. So I thought at first it was that. But then I noticed heat waves far too big to be caused by a fire pit.

Smoke_Backyard
View from our backyard.

My heart pounding, I hung up on my still-on-hold call and tapped in 911. I gave Anthony the phone, as he was still in street clothes, and he walked over to get a closer look at the building where the fire was. I ran upstairs and changed out of my PJ bottoms into the first pair of pants I could find. I threw a jacket over my pajama top. 

If you've ever experienced a panic situation, maybe you know what this is like. Some other part of your brain takes over, assessing and prioritizing. It told me I didn't have time to change the PJ top. But then the order of things gets fuzzy for me as I look back now. I remember my heart pounding, a bitter adrenaline taste in my mouth.

At one point I looked outside the upstairs window and saw a huge piece of burning building fly into a pile of leaves. I grabbed the fire extinguisher. My husband was there in the backyard, hosing down our fence. The burning piece in the pile of leaves, thankfully, had gone out. But the fire was engulfing the back side of the house one building over, way too close. If it caught our neighbor's wooden deck, we'd be next, as there's barely a shoulder's distance between our two buildings. Our house is wood frame.

Here's a video taken by our neighbors on the street behind us. You can see they had a better view of just how bad this thing was.

There was a moment when the fire roared and we realized there was nothing we could do to stop its spread. A sickening, helpless feeling came over me. I prayed for the fire trucks, with their lifesaving water hoses. Anthony had not been able to get through on 911. But he'd seen that several other witnesses also had cell phones and hoped that someone got through. Soon the first fire truck arrived, and let me tell you that is the strongest sense of relief I've ever experienced.

Fire_Truck
In the time before the fire trucks arrived, I felt helpless, as there was nothing I could do to save my home.

At some point I ran outside and told a police officer on the scene about the string of wooden decks in back, asking him if we needed to vacate. He said, "I would definitely do that, yes."

My lizard brain took over again, and I decided the only priorities were Anthony and Chaco, our cat. I told my husband we needed to leave, which I know was a hard moment for him, captured in the image at the top of this post. I'm surprised I had the presence of mind to snap that pic, but maybe my ecstasy of relief at the arrival of the fire engines had calmed me. Plus, I've always retained a bit of the journalist in me somewhere, so some part of my brain said this was a moment I wanted to get down.

Fire_News
Fire departments from seven different municipalities responded to the alarm.

Getting Chaco meant grabbing my purse for my keys, as I realized we had not taken the time to get him a new cat carrier, and the last time we'd used his cloth one, he had successfully broken out of it at the vet. I would have to get him in the carrier and then into the car. By this time, the street was filled with fire engines from as many as seven neighboring municipalities, and the last thing we needed was for our skittish mini-cat to get lost in the fray.

It took some time to locate the cat carrier and then get him into it and into the car.

Luckily for us, we had the time. While that fire grew to an engulfing, raging size with alarming quickness, the fire departments were on scene and battling it before it could spread. Thanks to them, no one was hurt, and only one building was damaged. 

Ladder_Window

Everyone who lived in the four-family flat escaped unharmed, but the fire gutted their apartments, destroying everything they owned, only the brick structure remaining.

The fire blew out the windows in the building next door to us and melted the siding off the home on the other side. It blistered that wooden deck we worried would catch fire.

That was all just really too close.

Before the fire was extinguished, I worried about how we'd cope with losing both our home and business, since we work out of a home office. My anxiety was pushed even higher at the thought of having to continue to quarantine without a home to stay locked down within. My heart goes out to our neighbors, who've lost their homes during an already difficult time. We're glad to hear they received some emergency support from the Red Cross, and that all of them had a place in town they could go to stay.

In the middle of one apocalypse, they got another. After pandemic and then fire, what's left?

But it's always good to remind ourselves of how fortunate we are, and that goes for many of us in dealing with the pandemic. Anthony and I are very lucky we can continue to work through the quarantine, and are relieved that no one we know has suffered from COVID-19. We're also grateful to live in a place and time in which a formidable fire foe can rear its fearsome fury, and a legion of water warriors arrives to vanquish it... just... like... that.

Back_Deck

Our neighbors reported the fire was started by an accident with a barbecue grill. The enclosed porch on the back of the flat was reduced to char. Once the blaze was extinguished, firefighters pulled down what remained of the porch, just skeletal burnt debris. Here's how the back of the building looked the next morning.

Back_After

In addition to the prospect of having to rebuild our homes and livelihood if we'd lost it all in the fire, we also hated the idea of losing all that we've done at Dragon Flower Farm - the past three years' work to create something wonderful here we can both be proud of. We're grateful we haven't had to sacrifice that either.

Chaco, by the way, was unharmed. And he did break out of his carrier. At some point during the night, we looked over to see him perched on the dashboard of our car, taking in the whole scene. It was a surreal sight!

We learned through this experience that our disaster preparedness needs some tweaks. We've got a better cat carrier now, and it's in the coat closet within easy reach. We're also working on a "go bag" and other measures.

Front_Dusk

It's worth taking a moment to recognize the people who put themselves in danger in order to help others. It's quite a calling to be a firefighter. The rest of us could only stand on the sidelines - trying our best to maintain social distancing - and watch in awe as they did their swift, expert work to squelch the fire. 

I know our local fire firefighters had actually been hoping to pass a measure this spring for increased funding for equipment, but the election has been delayed due to the shelter-in-place order. We reached out to the fire department to see if we could donate, and they suggested we give to The Backstoppers, so we have. Their mission is to provide:

Ongoing needed financial assistance and support to the spouses and dependent children of all police officers, firefighters and volunteer firefighters, and publicly-funded paramedics and EMTs in our coverage area who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The flat's brick structure is still standing, and there's every indication they will eventually rebuild. But for now, we have this view over our pear tree. It's a reminder of how close we came to disaster.

View_Backyard

But hope springs eternal here at Dragon Flower Farm. We're counting our blessings this season and looking forward to summer, and all that comes after.

Note: The fire was covered in 40 South News, and a local filmmaker created a short documentary of the event:

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This Banner Is for the Birds!

Cat in the Flcok Banner 2.0

You might have noticed: We updated our blog banner... again. Here's the story.

Back in January, we had swapped out my fantasy author avatar in favor of the image of a cat disrupting a flock of birds. Those of you who've been coming to www.catintheflock.com since the early days of the Dreamslippers series probably guessed where that image came from - it was the original cover of my first book, which bears the same name as this blog. (Shout out to our commenter Ali's Grammy, who was the first to guess the image's origin story when we posted on the blog about it back in January). The original Cat in the Flock book cover was designed by yours truly, and by yours truly, I mean Anthony did it, not me. His Photoshop skills are better than mine. The cover looked like this:

FINAL COVER ART CATINTHEFLOCK

It worked rather well as a DIY cover, sure. But when pro cover artist Monika Younger took over and redid the first book - and designed the three subsequent covers after that (two sequels + the boxed set) - we were totally thrilled. Anyway... back to the banner. 

When I pivoted the Cat in the Flock blog into the lifestyle arena last year and then decided to change up the banner at the start of 2020, the image of a cat disrupting a flock of birds seemed right. After all, I wanted Cat in the Flock: Lifestyle with Teeth to be a disruptor in the lifestyle space. What I don't want to do with this blog is fill it with "content" that is thinly-disguised advertisements or blather on about high-end renovations, vacations, products, or "experiences" that most of us regular people could never afford. I've been there, my friends: You discover a quirky, fun, refreshingly DIY blogger only to have her make it big and drop the flea market find posts, go on for months and months about a million-dollar home design with high-end fixtures, and clog up her blog with annoying video popups.

We're all about repurposing here, and reusing the cat in the flock image also seemed like a fun way to call back to my first published novel, in that 'easter egg' kind of way.

Cat in the Flock LIFESTYLE w_CAT 2020

HOWEVER, pretty much right away, I began to worry that the cat-attacking-birds imagery wasn't going to be a good fit for the blog long-term. There's disrupting, metaphorically speaking, and then there's a literal cat attacking birds.

And, well, we couldn't really have that

Chaco, our Dragon Flower Farmhouse cat, is strictly indoor-only. I know some people think cats need the freedom to roam, but this is, first and foremost, for his protection. He is a special breed called a Devon rex. They are much smaller (one-half to one-third smaller) than the typical domestic cat, and they also have a very innocent, curious, friendly disposition. This doesn't mesh well with the realities of life all around us: a family of red-shouldered hawks roosting in nearby trees, possums and rabbits that are three times Chaco's size, a street that gets fairly busy during morning and afternoon rush hours (or did, before the quarantine). 

Devon rex's are also famously referred to as being very much like "a monkey in a cat suit," and that fits Chaco really well. You've just never seen a cat with a stronger climbing drive. Last year he mysteriously tore his ACL... we can only guess during one of his many antics here in the home. We've actually had to monkeycat-proof the house.

Chaco_Up_High
This is Chaco's high-five, up high.

So that's reason enough to keep him indoors, but the birds are also of concern. Grave concern.

According to a study conducted in 2013 and published in the journal Nature Communications, cats kill billions of birds per year. Since birds are basically "vanishing from North America," doing everything we can to reduce negative impacts on birds is important - even if it means curtailing Fluffy's freedom. This is kind of a big thing for even some of my most environmentally-minded friends to wrap their heads around.

Maybe there are things you can do to allow the cats outside... Garden writer Tammi Hartung says in The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Garden that she only lets her cats out when she's also outside and can monitor them, and that works for her. There's also at least one type of collar that can foil cats in their pursuit of birds. But for us, it really is better to keep the little furry prince indoors. 

Chaco_Zipped_In
He's pretty content with his life inside... my vest.

The cats-outside debate aside, we want to do everything we can to promote responsible attitudes toward birds and other pollinators - not just because we like having birds around for our own enjoyment and quality of life, but because birds and insect pollinators are critical to our food production, and therefore, they're necessary for our own survival.

Hence, the new banner. Maybe it's not enough; maybe encouraging any interactions between cats and birds - no matter how fantastical or metaphorical - isn't good. But at least our intention is clear. It's all for the birds, folks. Thank you for paying attention.

Cat in the Flcok Banner 2.0

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