Dragon Flower Farm Feed

How to Harvest and Use Lilacs and Violets

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

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

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

Violets

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

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

Harvesting violets

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

Drying violets

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

Violet tea

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

Violet vinegar

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

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

Lilac harvesting

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

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

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

Violet syrup2

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

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

Violet syrup3

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

Violet syrup4

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

Lilac drink2

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

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

Lilac witch hazel

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

Lilac oil1

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

Lilac oil2

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

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How to Build a Squash Tunnel out of Bamboo - for Almost Nothing!

Arch_Anthony1

By Anthony Valterra

My father is a very handy man. He's the type of guy who sees a brick patio and thinks, "I could do that." And then he figures out how to do it. And actually does it. And it looks awesome. As his son, it is both heartening to see what can be done and discouraging when you see how often your attempts at doing something awesome falls short. But as my grandfather used to say, "It's good enuf fer who it's fer." It took me years to translate that from his Oklahoma twang to my more prosaic American standard into, "It is good enough for whom it is for." I always liked Grandpa's attitude towards life.

So, it is with this familial background that I announced with a casual and cavalier attitude that I would build a squash tunnel for the Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea how. But we have the Internet, and I undertook some research. These days, however, it seems like there is nothing you can't buy pre-made. 

8596276_TitanSquashTunnel_art_titan-squash-tunnel-trellis-zucchini-butternut-acorn

This one is available from www.gardeners.com. No, we don't have any kind of arrangement with them. I'm just offering this as an example of a squash arch that's pre-made.

But with a limited budget, and with a DIY attitude, we decided to forego purchasing in favor of building. Most people build squash tunnels from things like cattle panels.

2016-03-29-17.34.53resize

An example from another site - also no affiliation.

The cattle panel versions seem to be very functional, and we were leaning that direction for some time. In fact, we may have used that method if the shelter-in-place quarantine had not occurred. We were about to pull the trigger and go to our local big box garden/home supply store, buy some cattle panels, and go for it. But once the virus hit, we avoided going out to large, crowded stores, and the whole thing became a bit trickier and more DIY. One solution is the rustic, "let's-tie-some-sticks-together" look.

Thumb_IMG_2405_1024

This example comes from a site called Domisse Landscapes. (Nope, no baksheesh on this link either, not that we aren't open to that if someone wants to support this blog endeavor.)

That struck me as just a bit too rustic. I was hoping for something in the middle. Lisa and I were out for a walk, and we passed by one of our neighbors, who has a large grove of bamboo growing on the side of his property. Bamboo grows really fast. So, he has to cut it back a couple of times a year. He just has the city come and pick it up as yard waste. We'd already snagged a few of his excess bamboo canes previously, using them as tree stakes. And then the light went on - bamboo is great building material! He has all kinds of lengths and thicknesses. And since the shutdown, yard waste has not been picked up (with reduced staff and more garbage and recycling material being produced by everyone staying home, the city's workers were overwhelmed, and so they temporarily suspended pick-up). Well, talk about your win-win. He was thrilled to have us haul away all of his bamboo, and we got free building material.

Arch_Bamboo
You need close to 30 canes to do this right. Any leftovers can be repurposed as garden stakes.

Now, all I had to do was figure out how to build a squash tunnel using bamboo. No biggie, right? Here is what I came up with. Will it work? I guess we will all find out by the fall. It will either collapse from the weight of the plants on it, be blown away in a storm, or be standing and provide some lovely images. Stay tuned to find out which scenario plays out.

First things first - what tools and supplies did I need? Well, other than the bamboo itself, this is literally all I needed.

IMG_1171
Saw, tape measure, twine, hand cutters, and a rubber mallet.

So the arch, all total, can be had for the cost of twine, provided you get the bamboo for free and already have these tools. Now here's how I built it.

I laid out two bamboo rods that were going to be my base supports to get an idea on the length of the tunnel.

IMG_1154

I then cut 6 pieces of bamboo into one-foot lengths, with a sharp 45-degree cut.

IMG_1149

These were going to become my stakes. They were surprisingly easy to drive into the ground. Using my hand and bodyweight, I could push them 6 inches into the ground and then use the rubber mallet to drive them down until about 2-3 inches stuck up above the ground. I then lashed the base supports to the stakes with the twine.

IMG_1156

Then I cut the side vertical supports the same way I cut the stakes - with a 45-degree end. This allowed me to drive them into the ground using just my bodyweight next to the stakes. 

IMG_1159
Overhead view - the sharp end will be driven into the ground next to the stake.

Once the vertical supports were in place, they were strengthened with horizontal supports on each side, which was lashed to the standing vertical support.

IMG_1164

Here you can see the vertical support driven into the ground and tied to the stake at the bottom and the horizontal support lashed to higher up.

All that was left to do was to bend the vertical support bamboo to form the arch and tie them together. If there is a place where this falls apart, it is here. I wish I had started this project as soon as I had the bamboo when it was still green and very supple. But I waited a few days and the bamboo had begun to dry out and become more brittle. It still bent, but I think it might be more likely to break.

Arch_Full1

The full arch. I put another horizontal brace at the very top where the two sides of the arch meet for more support. We chose to leave some of the leaves on because we thought they looked nice. But as the bamboo dries, they may just fall off or be stolen by birds for their nests. We'll see. The real question is... will it support our squash? That is unknown. It also might be that the horizontal bracing is too high off the ground for the squash to reach, and there may just need to be more bracing on the sides for the squash to grow on. But that will be an easy addition if needed.

IMG_1172

Lisa inside the tunnel. This clearly shows the first horizontal brace might be too high up. It is about thigh-high on Lisa. We may need to put another one below it about halfway to the ground. And perhaps one above it as well. Stay tuned!

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What's Happening Now on the Farm, Quarantine Edition

Robin's egg
At first I thought one of the neighbor kids tossed a plastic Easter egg into our yard, but it turned out to be a real robin's egg.

By Lisa Brunette

It's been a strange spring in a lot of ways. The season has seemed to last a lot longer than usual - our utility bill was cut in half over the last month because we've needed neither the furnace nor the A/C. Spring here in Missouri can sometimes go by in a blip so that you barely have any windows-open days before it's time to shut the place up and turn on the A/C. So a long spring is a welcome thing. But up until this week, it's been dry, unlike last year's mushroom-encouraging daily deluges, so we've been grateful for the rain barrels to water the direct-sow seeds going in now.

FrogPond
This is as close as we get to a pond at Dragon Flower Farm, unless you count our rain garden ditches.

Of course the strangest aspects have been the fire that happened one building away and the pandemic, as if one apocalypse at a time isn't enough. We were lucky with that fire. And because Anthony and I run the game-writing business out of our home, with clients all over the world who collaborate with us remotely and mostly online anyway, not much has changed for us work-wise, despite the strict quarantines. We miss the chance to meet with our growing team in person, but otherwise, we've been lucky that the pandemic hasn't affected our livelihood too much.

What it has affected - besides the fact that we can't find toilet paper anywhere - is our social life, which is now limited to each other and the cat. We love the time to just 'be' together, for sure, and we're both homebodies, so this suits us fine. Without the opportunity to see extended family and go out with friends, we've focused on activities here at Cat in the Flock and Dragon Flower Farm. Here's a run-down.

And the Winner Is...

Anne Harrington of Seattle, Washington, won our Bringing Nature Home giveaway. Here she is posing with her signed copy of Doug Tallamy's book. Congratulations, Anne!

Winner
Love that she had this pic taken in front of those gorgeous windows, with a garden beyond.

Water, Water Every Pear

The very day the fire broke out, we'd spent the whole of the day working on the farm. Our main task was to bury a drainage pipe and dig out a larger ditch for the outflow. The pipe used to extend from the bottom of a gutter, but now it's the rain barrel overflow. 

Drain pipe
It's so nice to hide that pipe after a couple years of looking out the back window and seeing... a big pipe in the yard.

You might remember the 'blueberry moat' I mentioned in a previous post. We're experimenting with some permaculture methods for retaining water in the soil (water catchment). So the above drain plus the one installed between our house and the flat next door both now let out into a ditch we dug and filled with water-loving native plants (buttonbush and rose mallow). Here's the proof that water pools in the ditch during rainfall.

So... we don't know if this all works or not, but some smart permaculturists have made compelling arguments, and why not try it out? We'll let you know if we think it's successful. Have any of you opted for something like this? Let us know in the comments below.

The buttonbush and rose mallow were seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation, part of a 24-count order I put in last fall. Each seedling was only USD $1 a piece, a super steal. Many of these native plants are edible, too, such as the blackberries and wild plum. Here's the bucket full of seedlings the day they all went in.

Spring planting
All thanks to our local native plant org, Wild Ones, for sponsoring a group purchase from MDC, which only sells in bulk quantities.

So Mulch to Consider

We're closing in on a major achievement: The entire back 40 has almost been completely covered in sheet mulch. There's only this one strip in the southernmost corner still to do.

Back strip mulch
By the way, yes, that is a bat house up on the telephone pole.

We actually ran out of the mulch from St. Louis Composting but were able to get free leaves from our neighbors instead. They take longer to break down but seem to be working very well otherwise. Stay tuned...

Arch You Curious?

Building bamboo arch
Hottie.

We recently spent a day constructing something out of bamboo we got for free from a neighbor. Originally we'd planned to make this out of cattle panel, but then I realized bamboo would work just fine. Anthony will elaborate on his brilliant design-and-build project in an upcoming post.

A more permanent structure also went in recently, and that's our new pergola. It came in pieces as a kit I ordered online, and Anthony and I quickly realized we possessed neither the tools nor the talent to do this ourselves. Fortunately my brother Chris stepped up with both things and saved our butts.

Pergola
If it weren't for my brother Chris, this would still be a bunch of parts scattered across the yard.

Can't Leaf It Alone

Structures aren't the only things popping up here at the farm. A great many plants have poked up out of the ground, and some of the seedlings that looked like mere sticks all winter are leafing out. Here's the elderberry bush, an edible native plant.

Elderberry
Elderberries grow in abundance in Missouri. I've seen them near the Meramec River, with the paw paws.

We now have three native persimmons, which in my opinion constitutes a grove. One is a grafted male/female tree from Stark Bros., another is an MDC seedling, and the one pictured here is from Forest ReLeaf, another excellent source of native plants. The persimmons should pollinate each other, and in some number of years give us delicious fruit, much better than the Asian varieties in the grocery store. 

Persimmon in spring
We can't wait to eat persimmons from our own trees!

Last fall we put in a tulip tree, or tulip poplar, and at the time I didn't even realize I'd planted a tulip tree in a bed of tulips! It's growing to beat the band already. In the below photo, you can see its signature leaf shape (alternate, pinnately veined) backed by tulips in bloom. Liriodendron tulipifera is one of the tallest of the native trees, capable of reaching a height of nearly 200 feet. Ours is sited in the front yard, clear of any telephone poles or other obstacles.

Note one of the reasons I chose the tulip tree is because I watched my own father kill one when I was in high school. He was afraid it would fall on the house, which seems paranoid and unlikely in retrospect, or maybe that was just his excuse. He had the tree cut down, and then he spent the next few months destroying the stump by burning trash in it. Yeah, he was that guy. So planting a tulip tree is my way of balancing against that misguided act.

Tulip tree in the tulips
Such a pretty leaf.

Another tree addition is this beautiful shumard oak, Quercus shumardii, which could reach a height of 100 feet and will eventually give us acorns. Oaks are the superstars of the tree world, as they serve the needs of the largest number of native insects. So many pollinators and other wildlife depend on oaks for their survival that if you had to pick just one native plant to add to your yard, let it be an oak tree.

Shumard oak
Love how the leaves appear red when they emerge in the spring and turn red again in autumn before they fall.
Shumard oak2
Such a beautiful, beneficial tree, supporting a great number of wildlife and pollinators.

Moving from tall and stately to small and serene, I give you the sensitive fern frond, unfurling. This native freebie grows in our shadiest spots at Dragon Flower Farm.

Sensitive fern frond
Love. Those. Curls.

Your Herbal Hookup

I want to alert you to the exciting news that certified herbalist Amanda Jokerst has opened her online store, where you can purchase Forest & Meadow herbal products and other items mentioned in this blog post on healing with herbs. We share this news with you as independent fans of Forest & Meadow. We don't receive anything in return for this plug. That goes for all the other businesses and non-profits we're always mentioning on this blog as well. This is a labor of love, folks! Our only revenue source would be the ads you see in the margins, and those haven't yielded any funding (yet?). Feel free to click on them to see if that helps!

Herbs1
Just a small sampling of the amazing products available for the first time online.

The Last Page

I reached a personal milestone in our Dragon Flower Farm work when I recently filled the very last page in the gardening journal that I started two years ago, when the whole process began. Fittingly, there was just enough room to tape in the empty packet from a bunch of comfrey seeds, a permaculture powerhouse plant.

Last page

Thanks again for tuning in. Anthony and I hope your to-do list is short and your friends list long. Stay safe out there, my peeps!

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Spring 'Bloom Bomb' at Dragon Flower Farm

Flower layers

By Lisa Brunette

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

Lilac blooms

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

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

Violets

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

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

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

Henbit dead nettle

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

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

Tulips yellow and red

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

Apple flower buds

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

Cherry bush blossom

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

Hazelnut

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

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

Serviceberry bloom

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

Native bee on chokecherry

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

Peony

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

Azalea

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

Azalea 2

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

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

Hyacinth

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

Star of Bethlehem

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

Horseradish

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

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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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