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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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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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There's Mulch to Learn Through Gateway Greening's 'Community Agriculture Conference'

GG14
The Gateway Greening Demonstration Garden.

by Lisa Brunette

This past week, I attended Gateway Greening's Community Agriculture Conference. It was entirely virtual and took place in the evening, so I was able to participate around my full work days. I attended most of the conference sessions, only taking a break mid-week. The conference was free, though I did kick them a donation since I get so much out of the group's offerings, and this conference was just one example. Gateway Greening has been so kind as to upload all of the conference videos to YouTube, where you can watch them free until the first day of spring, March 20.

While the conference showcased all that local St. Louis, Missouri, has to offer, the principles and practices certainly hold universal appeal. I highly recommend them to anyone, no matter where you're gardening.

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Here are my top 3 picks for what to watch, in order of priority.

1. Caring for the Life Beneath Our Feet - Dean Gunderson, Gateway Greening

Screen Shot 2021-02-26 at 6.04.30 PM

I believe this is the third presentation I've seen from Dean Gunderson, community projects manager for Gateway Greening. Just like his previous talks on how to create a sustainable orchard and how to plant late fall crops, this one gave me some fantastic takeaways. The biggest? Rather than spinning my wheels trying to get the right "chemical" makeup in my soil (that old Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium ratio), the emerging science actually says you'll get far better results if you think in terms of building the right ratio of fungal and bacterial communities in your dirt. 

2. Growing Mushrooms at Home - Henry Hellmuth, Ozark Forest Mushrooms

Screen Shot 2021-02-23 at 6.14.33 PM

We've been customers of Ozark Forest Mushrooms through our local farmer's market, so it was a real treat to get this behind-the-scenes tour of their growing operation in the Missouri Ozarks. Hellmuth's talk is definitely more skewed toward those who really want to dive deep into the world of mushroom cultivation, but it's fun to get all fungal science-y even if you're not going to create a special ventilated spore room. The exciting takeaway for me is that we can grow shiitakes on logs right in our own backyard. Can't wait to try it.

3. Organic Pest Solutions for Your Vegetable Garden - Jason Hambrick, Gateway Greening

Screen Shot 2021-02-25 at 6.07.23 PM

Hambrick is Gateway Greening's community education manager. I found his talk really helpful, especially as we strive to increase the percentage of our food that comes from the garden vs. a store, which means less tolerance for loss due to disease and predation. However, I'm unwilling to compromise organic principles, so Hambrick's tips were a great confirmation that we're on the right track. I learned some new disease-resistant varieties I hadn't known about, as well as some additional plant companions that hadn't been on my radar.

You can check out more Gateway Greening videos on YouTube. The organization also provides a handy planting calendar, for those of you in the St. Louis area (we have a copy on our fridge!). The conference happens annually, too, so there's always next year, and who knows? Maybe that one will be in person.

About Gateway Greening:

At Gateway Greening our idea is simple: to provide St. Louis with a fun, safe, and educational environment for people to connect and discover the Power of Growing Food through sustainable urban agriculture projects. 

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4 Cost-Saving, Eco-Friendly Post-Christmas Moves You Can Make Right Now

Xmas Cards
Holiday cards deserve a second life.

By Lisa Brunette

Now that the gleam of Christmas has lost a bit of its glimmer, you might be looking at your living room full of spent wrapping paper and holiday cards cluttering the mantel and mentally planning when you're going to clean-sweep the whole thing and move on. Because if there was ever a year we wanted to move on from, it's this one, right?! But before you abandon the holidays, tossing everything into recycling and jumping feet-first into 2021, here are four cost-saving, eco-friendly moves you can still make as the whole kit and kaboodle winks out.

1. Keep Your Holiday Cards

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, and other winter holiday cards are often made of high-quality materials, featuring heavy card stock, embossed imagery, and other details that are just too nice to throw away. They deserve a second life. Consider framing them as holiday-specific art, using them in arts and crafts, or even repurposing them as gift tags next year. With a scissors and hole punch, you can turn one card into several cute gift tags. This way you save money on buying separate gift tags, and you also keep the cards out of the waste stream. Even though you might think you're a good eco person because you put them into the recycling instead of trash, recycling is not really the answer, as oftentimes that card isn't being recycled at all. We need to shift more toward reuse instead.

There's also the sentimental value - while we all want to Marie Kondo our way to clarity and spaciousness, it can be a beautiful thing to sift through old cards each year, musing on all the snippets of wisdom that Grandma took the time to impart before she died or the slices of life that come through in those old Christmas letters from the 1990s. Besides, with holiday cards waning as a thing, you might find these precious missives become vintage relics in no time at all.

Bows
Repurposed ribbons and bows, with a gift tag made from a Christmas card.

2. Keep Your Bows and Strings

Along with cards-cum-gift tags, another opportunity to divert items from the waste stream surfaces when it comes to bows. If you're using fabric bows, yay you for the style points, but that should be an even greater incentive to keep and reuse them. Um, they are fabric, after all! Plus, a great many items packaged and mailed from retailers, especially before the holidays, come with nice fabric bows adorning them already, as in the image above. Every single one of those bows came from retailer packaging, even something as mundane as a package of socks! We repurpose them to wrap gifts every year. We even store them in a zip-locking type of bag that was used to ship a pair of sweatpants.

Wrapping
This especially thick craft-style wrapping paper makes great 'brown' matter.

3. Compost Your Gift Wrap

Our compost operation is continuing to run through the winter, and I recommend you keep yours up, too, if organic gardening is your jam. Since almost all gardening activity has ceased now that it's officially the dormant season, we don't have the same ready access to 'brown' material that balances out all the 'green' coming from our kitchen in the form of fruit and veggie scraps. That's where wrapping paper comes in. Though it used to be a tree, it's now dead and, in our case, literally brown. Into the compost it goes!

Xmas_Towel
In our downstairs bathroom, an antique fishing tackle box and festive hand towel.

4. Stock Up on Christmas Stuff for 2021

You'll get the best deals on Christmas ephemera in the week just after Christmas, when retailers are eager to ditch their stock and mark items down as much as 75 percent. I've pretty much never paid full price for wrapping paper or Christmas cards because I always buy them after the holiday the year previous. You can sometimes get other items at a discount as well that are really only tangentially related to the holidays. This morning, in fact, I scored a rolling pin and 12x12 baking pan along with wrapping paper and Christmas towels from World Market (not a sponsored endorsement). Anthony's birthday is in January, which can catch me off guard, following so closely on the heels of Christmas, but I've learned to use this to my advantage. Last week I 'favorited' my top picks for him on Etsy, and then this morning, I checked to see which ones were offering the best after-Christmas deal and quickly snapped up just the thing.

Speaking of Etsy and deals, now is the time to order your own set of personalized Christmas stockings, as featured previously on the blog (totally an affiliate link this time) because THEY ARE NOW 50 PERCENT OFF. Not only is this a great deal, but by shopping Etsy, you're supporting small, independent makers of unique, handmade items. If, like me, you failed to take advantage of a parent who offered to teach you to sew, and now you do not know how to sew, you can still have a handsewn thing because of Etsy.

Xmas_Mantel

The risk with my after-Christmas shopping approach is that you might lose out on certain items - ornaments seem to fly off the shelves before Christmas every time (much like they fly off our tree thanks to Chaco) - or that what's trending in 2020 might not be cool in 2021. But I note that the Christmas llama thing has been going strong for two years now and doesn't seem to be fading, and maybe that's because it's moving from trend to classic. If I have my way, it will... Besides, do you really care about what's trendy?

Happy New Year!

This post contains an Etsy affiliate link. If you make a purchase, Cat in the Flock may earn a commission.

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