Dragon Flower Farm Feed

Dragon Flower Farm Update: Honeysuckle, You Really Suck

Honeysuckle
Beauty is not always nice.

First, I want to say thanks for your interest in our little farm project. I wasn't sure if this content would gain an audience, so when my last post on the Dragon Flower Farm basically BROKE THE BLOG, I was pretty pleased. Because that means I have a reason to keep writing about it!

In case you're all like "What is this business about a farm?," feel free to catch up by reading about our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, the aforementioned fence saga, or this inaugural post, just for funsies.

Allclear2
Never-before-seen footage of the SE side, post-chainlink removal, and pre-fence install.

So last time we walked you through stage one, which was to remove an eyesore of a zig-zag fence, as well as some truly noxious weeds. I mean, invasive plants. That winter creeper was on the list of "thug plants" identified by the St. Louis Audubon during their site assessment this summer, and we don't miss it. I wish I could say that was the last of the invasives, but no... 

Wait. Maybe I should back up and explain what I mean by "invasives" and why we would label some plants "thugs," as if they're getting all tatted up (not that tattoos are naturally a sign of thug life) and hiding unregistered firearms under their mattresses (if you're doing this, I have no defense for you). There is literally a whole class of plants that don't play by the rules at all. They don't take turns, they don't share space, and they hoard all the food, light, air, and water for themselves. On top of that, they spread through any means necessary, proliferating more like a virus or a parasite than a plant.

Wintercreeper
This wintercreeper was supposed to be a GROUND COVER. But it grew up through the fence and became a big, shaggy thug.

I know this is going to sound bad in a really un-PC way, but this invasion thing happens most often with exotic ornamental plants that aren't from here. Because they've been uprooted and set down in a foreign environment, they are no longer subject to their natural predators or other growth-stabilizing factors, such as climate. And they go insane, crowding out native plants, taking over whole forests, and becoming a general nuisance.

Yes, even the pretty ones.

Perhaps you were drawn in by the delicate, orchid-like petals of the flower in the photo at the top of this post: Japanese honeysuckle, AKA Lonicera japonica. It's quite lovely, this plant. In its native environment, I'm sure it makes for a wonderful garden vine. Its dark green, ovate leaves foreground the vanilla cream-to-pale yellow flowers that appear in May. The scent they give off is intoxicating, a heady, thick sweetness you can practically taste. In fact, you can taste it; pull the pistil out and touch its end to your tongue, and it's like a dab of sugar. In fall, the flowers give way to bright red berries.

But here in the Midwest, its beauty is a betrayal. It takes up valuable real estate, covering whole forests in dense vine, while offering very little to native butterflies and other pollinators in return.

In our back forty, or, um, quarter acre, it covered most of the remaining chain link fence, which means it spanned about 2/3rds of the property line. That's a lot of vine, and it ALL HAD TO GO.

Honeyshag
There was so much vine, it's going to take me three pics to show you all of it. This is 1...
Honeyshag2
Here's 2...
Backfenceshagjpeg
...And 3.

I'd had my suspicions about honeysuckle--but they were accompanied by fond memories of sipping that dab of sugar from the pulled pistils. I had associated honeysuckle WITH the Midwest. Yeah, that's how invasive it is. So when the reps from the Audubon Society recommended removing it, that was a lot to absorb.

Initially, we tabled its removal. But then we found out that the best time to rid yourself of honeysuckle is in the fall, once the native plants around it have gone dormant. 

Still. That's a LOT of vine to remove. We'd go out there and stare at it, scratching our heads... 

...and come up with no gumption whatsoever. And if there's one thing I've learned over four separate bouts of home ownership, it's that one must have gumption for this kind of task.

Lacking it ourselves, we decided to call in reinforcements.

Horstmann Brothers came to the rescue, with plenty of gumption to spare. I realize we're lucky not to have to deal with the dreaded vine ourselves and that not everyone can hire help like this. For us, it was worth it, as we didn't have any of the tools they had, and while we could have rented them, we believe there's a time and place to let an expert in to do the job better than you can, and this was definitely one of those times, and one of the most obvious places. 

Horstmann
The incredible two-man crew from Horstmann.

That vine WAS A MO. And I'm not talking about Missouri here. It had apparently been planted back when Lonicera japonica had first been introduced to the Midwest in 1806 and had been given free rein to spread itself, unimpeded, ever since.

But it was no match for the awesome two-man crew from Horstmann. These guys had the tools, and they had the talent (yes, that was totally a Ghostbusters ref). I can't say enough good things about them, and I'm getting nothing in exchange for this praise. We'd tried out a different company (that will go nameless) prior to this one and WERE NOT IMPRESSED. These guys did twice the amount of work with half the staff. Seriously.

Horstmann removed the vine entirely, along with a lot of other sad-face-making plant situations, such as a diseased, dysfunctional willow tree that had been poorly placed directly under a power line and then aggressively cut back every year (please, for the love of God, site your plants appropriately, people). We treated the honeysuckle roots/stumps ourselves (i.e., my husband did it) with glyphosate, as recommended by everyone and their cousin in the plant business. My personal feeling, especially as someone who struggles with allergy/autoimmune issues, is that there are already more than enough chemicals in the world, but since we couldn't very well conduct a controlled burn here in the suburbs, where they won't even let us build a fence over 6 feet tall, we had to settle for chemical means. Even though Horstmann cut the vine down to the roots, it will of course spring back with vengeance if it's not killed. We will probably be fighting this foe the rest of our farming lives, even with the chemical intervention.

Drainage pipe
You might look at this and see just a standard-issue flex pipe, but I see a dry basement. Plus, how cute are the original wooden spindles flanking our front porch? RIGHT?

While we had Horstmann on hand, we also asked them to create a drainage swale to move water from between our house and a neighboring building and out into the farmyard, where we'll plant a rain garden. This should hopefully solve a leaky basement problem. I like this approach, solving drainage issues using ecological solutions that are also cost-effective, as we didn't have to spring for an expensive sump-pump or basement remediation.

Here's where the water now drains, into a cache of rocks.  My niece, who's on the spectrum and has a delightfully unique way of viewing most things, sees this as a "rock nest." Last time she was over, she laid out a perfect pattern of twigs along the perimeter. Now I can't not think of this as a rock nest.

Rocknest
The water drains away from the house, out to this "rock nest," which will one day be framed by a rain garden.

We found Horstmann on a list of landscapers recommended by the St. Louis Audubon Society. I know I keep mentioning this group, but they've really been helpful in getting the right plan in place for the DRAGON FLOWER FARM; I'm really impressed with their Bring Conservation Home program and want to shout it to the rooftops until every MO citizen participates. I feel frustrated much of the time about the loss of ecosystem and bird habitat and not just out of a love for birds, though how could you not love birds, but because we NEED birds and other pollinators to ensure our own food supply. I often feel powerless over climate change and environmental degradation, but here is something I can do in my own backyard. It's that simple.

I realize I've been busy showing you nothing but REMEDIATION and INFRASTRUCTURE, and that you might be wondering when I'm going to get to the fun part, where we plant things. That's exactly what I've been wondering, too. But don't worry... fall's actually a good time to plant, so I'll have deets about that soon(ish). Thanks again for your interest in our farm!

By the way, you might notice I dropped "mini" from the name DRAGON FLOWER FARM. It was too cumbersome, and who's to say what's mini, anyway? This is our mighty farm!

Other farm stories you might like:

Why you should love bugs in your garden

The challenge: a privacy screen

Spring pics


Dragon Flower Mini-Farm Update: Please Fence Me In

Zigzag
It feels a bit... "open-space in a bad way."

When Anthony and I bought our St. Louis home last fall, we were well aware of its flaws. After all, those flaws gave us a below-market price for a near-pristine World's Fair-era home with loads of period charm. It's the kind of house that makes you swoon and want to break into song like Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis." For my West Coast friends, let me list some of these drool-worthy details of which you might not be familiar, since I know you have less exposure to homes built during the turn of the last century: tall ceilings and oversized windows, character mouldings, original wainscoting, copper (!) doorknobs, transoms on both outside and inside doorways, original hardwood floors, a carved bannister, and finally, a dramatic fireplace graced by a wooden shield adornment. Yeah, that's right. A shield.

The house is also in a very walkable neighborhood full of funky shops and restaurants and more yoga studios per capita than any neighborhood I encountered in the Pacific Northwest (so take that). Side note, gamers: we can walk to not one but two places to buy comic books and games--plus there's a pinball bar. I like the 'hood better than Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, where I lived for a decade, and I was a super-loyal Ballardite who thought I'd never leave. Maplewood has all the good parts of Ballard, in my opinion, and none of the bad, as it's still working class, affordable, and somehow retaining its original Route 66 vibe even though we've got an entire shop devoted to bespoke knives and a restaurant that serves "shaved kale salad."

So those are the USPs, or unique selling points, for ye who aren't addicted to HGTV. But back to the flaws. I'm sure when you weren't distracted by the 60s vintage table set (I've had that beauty for 20 years) and lovingly rehabilitated rose bush in the photo above, you undoubtedly noticed the apartment building.

Hmm... yeah, the apartment building. It's a doozy of a flaw, for sure. Here's another shot so you can get the full effect.

Leftside
Yep, that's a double-decker balcony staring right down into our yard.

A lot of people would run screaming from this, and a lot did. The house had sat on the market for nine months before we bought it.

But Anthony and I fell in love with it... and we smelled an opportunity. The lot is 1/4th of an acre, walking distance to the St. Louis city limit. Within a 10-minute drive is the world-famous St. Louis Zoo, Art Museum, and Science Center, all flanking Forest Park, which is not only hands-down the loveliest city park I've ever seen, it's larger than New York's Central Park, a fact that seems to shock even St. Louisans. The only thing that would make the home's location better would be a view of the Arch, which you can get a short walk away.

Anthony loved the property's quiet, farm-like feel. A quarter acre is a lot of land to play with, the biggest plot either of us has had across the span of adult lives spent in ten different cities, six different houses, and more apartments than we can count. Besides, we'd outgrown our last garden, a tiny in-town plot in Chehalis, Wash., in pretty short order, filling it within two years and wishing we had more room.

We discussed the matter and decided that the house's main flaw (and its smaller ones, too) could be fixed, with a little hard work and patience. And that brings me to the big reveal.

This summer, we initiated STEP ONE of our master plan, which was to remove the eyesore chainlink fence zigzagging across the left side of the yard and replace it with a 6-foot tall wooden one. We actually wanted an 8-footer, but the city of Maplewood would only permit to a max height of 6 feet. So much for property rights. Here you can see an orange broom my husband is holding up, showing where the 8-foot fence would have reached. Ah, well.

Broom1
Where's Waldo--and his orange broom?

Once the powers-that-be nixed the 8-foot option, we knew we wouldn't get the first-tier-balcony coverage we wanted, but the fence was necessary anyway to block off the wall of cars that is the apartment building parking lot, which butts right up against our property line. Not to mention an eyesore of a Dumpster that was all-too-visible from the house. And yeah, the zigzagging... which was weird and bad feng shui for sure and probably a holdover from when there was a garage at the back of the house, as the fence once skirted a gravel drive that is now buried under a layer of turf. Good times.

I hate chainlink fence. Just hate it. We were worried we'd have to remove it ourselves, but the fence company we hired removed it for us--along with a metric ton of vegetation that had to go as well.

Allclear
No more chainlink!

We got bids from 3 different companies, and Just Wooden Fences was the best fit for us. I can't say enough good things about this company. The owner, Walt Thorngren, came over to measure for the bid himself, was very helpful in going over the options, and even provided us with a list of recommended contractors and providers for other home improvement services. Walt was super-responsive throughout the process, and his crew worked quickly and efficiently, to a high level of quality.

Chainsaw
A tough job, but the crew pressed on.

We were particularly impressed that the Just Wooden Fences crew tackled a tricky situation: A very mature plant meant to be a ground cover that had grown around and through the chainlink. At first I felt guilty because removing the chainlink would definitely mean removing the plant, but during our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, we found out that the plant was none other than wintercreeper--also known as Euonymous fortunei--which is considered an invasive "thug" here in Missouri. They recommended eradicating it, so we did.

Wintercreeper
Die, wintercreeper, die!

Later, we treated the exposed stumps with an herbicide, which normally, I'm opposed to, but this plant unfairly competes with and displaces native plants and is particularly noxious in the way it spreads. After doing a lot of research, we made the tough call to treat the stumps. There's wintercreeper EVERYWHERE, so I'm sure we haven't seen the last of this little villain.

On to happier topics... I don't know if you've ever had a fence installed, but this is my first one. So you can imagine the emotion I felt when that pile of lumber the crew brought started to look like, you know, a fence!

Postsup
When the posts went up, so did my excitement!

If I'd known getting a new fence was this easy, I'd have been getting new fences all my life. Of course, what made it easy for us is that we hired a company to do the work, one that specializes in fences--JUST wooden fences! My brother installed his own fence, with my other brother's help, but they are mechanics and guy-guys who are good at that stuff. (And younger. I'm the oldest of four.) Anthony and I knew ourselves well enough to know that actually building a fence was outside our limits. As recently as this past spring, we both hurt our backs, like a couple of typically middle-aged people with desk jobs.

Crewfromupstairs
Aerial view of the awesome crew.

The fence installation only took two days: one to remove the old fence, and another to put up the new. Just Wooden Fences cleared out the chainlink entirely, gave us a referral for someone to haul away the vegetation debris, and left us with a gorgeous, brand-new fence.

Finished
I've never loved something so utilitarian like this before.

OK, so we opted to get the raw cedar, which is stunning, as you can see. But in a couple years' time, that will turn drab grey, so we needed to stain/seal it ourselves, to preserve both the color and the integrity and lifespan of the fence. That was a harder job than we'd thought, mainly because it required using an oil-based stain (yes, we realize there are latex options, but all the research says it won't last). The fumes were as noxious as that durn wintercreeper, and since I can barely stand perfume, let alone oily paint fumes, it was more than I could take. Next time, we hire someone with spray equipment to get the job done lickety-split.

Stain
My husband, the hunky fence guy. Between the construction-worker vibe and the doctor's gloves, this might be more fantasy than I can handle.

Here's the view from the dining room before and after...

Now you see the Dumpster...

Dumpster

And now you don't...

Nodumpster
Yes. This.

What a difference a fence makes, people. If you don't have a fence, I highly recommend getting one. If you're in the St. Louis area, seriously, just call Walt at Just Wooden Fences.

Finalfence
Ah....

I know, I know... you're like, wait! What about the balconies! They can still look down on you! But don't worry. We have a fix in store... stay tuned.

What do you think of the project so far? Any tips, from those of you who've been down this road? What sayest thou? Don't you want to come over now and plant some carrots????

Previous mini-farm updates:

Insect Week!

Original Yarden Photos


Insect Week at the Dragon Flower Mini-Farm

 

Grasshopper on mailbox
Is it trying to intercept our mail?

Those of you who follow me on Instagram probably noticed a recent obsession with insects. One of the great things about being back in the Midwest is that there seem to be more of them here. It was actually something my husband Anthony and I thought about when we contemplated moving to St. Louis in 2017: The bugs. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we certainly didn't miss mosquitoes. Or chiggers.

But butterflies are something else. Not that there aren't any in the PNW; there just aren't as many, or at least it seems that way to me (it's probably all the rain and cool weather). Above all, I missed that most royal of lepidoptera: the monarch. Missouri is prime monarch breeding territory, where new caterpillars gorge themselves until they turn into the gorgeous, black-vein-and-orange butterflies recognized everywhere. After that, they fly to one small forest in Mexico, a 2,000-mile journey, to overwinter, a feat made even more amazing by the fact that they've never been there before. The trip the previous year was made by their kin five generations ago.

I have fond memories of hiking at the Shaw Nature Reserve and getting dive-bombed by swarms of monarchs, and their lookalikes, viceroys. While twenty years later I have yet to experience that again, the butterflies I'm seeing while hiking and just hanging out in my yard are a truly happy sight.

 

Monarch on flower
Monarch on native bee balm at the Powder Valley Nature Reserve.

There's a Butterfly House here in Missouri, a colorful museum/info center/tribute to the lepidoptera, and perhaps more importantly, there are huge campaigns to bring back their waning food sources, the vast prairies lost to agriculture and development. Prairies here used to cover a territory the size of California, but they've been reduced by 96%. Which means that the very beings we rely on for our own food source - without pollinators, our crops won't grow - are getting starved out.

Sorry to be a downer... But now you see why the Dragon Flower Mini-Farm is so important (don't know what this mini-farm biz is? See here.) We're working up a plan to remove invasives that do little to help the ecosystem butterflies and other pollinators thrive in. We also want to include native plants in our revamp of this overgrown lot of boring, ecologically suspect grass and outdated ornamentals. 

That's why Anthony and I spent a recent Sunday afternoon with two people from the St. Louis Audubon Society, who answered our questions and shared their expertise with us. Through a totally awesome program called "Bring Conservation Home," they are giving our yard an assessment, with recommendations to make it more friendly to pollinators and other critters.

 

Praying mantis on window
OMG, this showed up in our WINDOW. Chaco the cat went berzerk.

When we nerd out on something, WE REALLY NERD OUT ON IT. So when our Audubon folks showed up, we met them with a list of questions and a paper copy of our property survey with some of the preliminary design sketched out. (I know, right? Overachieving even in the hobbies.)

It's a good thing I took notes, because some of what I thought about the yard turned out to be totally wrong. I'd been pulling out native milkweed, which monarchs LOVE, and tenderly making room for a white clematis that while lovely, acts like an invasive thug here in Missouri. It's not entirely my fault; some of the misinformation actually came from fence and landscaping contractors who bid on projects.

But one of the things our Audubon experts talked about was that insects should be welcome in a yard, not just pollinators, but other beneficials as well, from spiders to lacewings. A diverse crop of such insects is a sign of health.

When we moved in last fall, there were ladybugs everywhere. And this spring, when I saw the first firefly wink on at dusk, I knew I was home.

Want to read more on the butterfly theme? Check out my poem published by Town Creek Poetry, "Requiem for Lepidoptera."

All photos/video mine. Sources for some of the above knowledge bombs that I read and got stuck in my head: pamphlets/web sites/exhibits published and curated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, St. Louis Audubon Society, and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.

 


Blog Hiatus, Photos from the Yarden

 

Backyard
Future site of the Dragonflower Mini-Farm.

There's a lot going on here as I approach month three with my (more than) full-time game design business. So... this blog is on hiatus until September-something. But when we return, I hope to bring you fresh voices and exciting offerings based on the feedback you gave on the survey.

For now, here are photos of the "yarden," someday to become the "Dragonflower Mini-Farm." It's a 1/4-acre plot close to the St. Louis city limits. Right now it's a gargantuan amount of turf for us my husband to mow (seriously, he wants to be the mower in the fam), but in the future we hope to transform it into an organic garden of vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs, and native perennials. It's a long game that involves removal of a crazy ugly zigzagging chain link fence, planting screen trees to block the double-decker-balcony apartment building that looks down on us, and eradication of invasive honeysuckle and some awful tree called "stinking sumac." The two evil villains have formed an alliance and keep trying to take over.

I'll spare you most of THOSE sights for now, but here's some of the good stuff, especially yellow bearded iris, which seems rare to me but popped up all over the place this spring!

 

Iris
I know... it's overgrown. But look at the iris!

 

Rose
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose...

 

Yarden
It's going to be a lot of work. I meant that to sound more excited.

 

Wildstrawberry
Wild strawberry.

 

Windowcat
At dawn, from the upstairs window, cat-view.

 

Yardensnow
This past winter.

One last thing: I found some great resources to help with this project. Super psyched to see efforts in Missouri to promote and protect pollinator habitats. We're definitely going to make our yarden as pollinator-friendly as possible. Check these out:

Grow Native!

St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conversation Home Program

Ciao for now.