Dragon Flower Farm Feed

Chaos Is a Garden

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Peonies on a floor of wild violets seen through a thicket of wild garlic.

By Anthony Valterra

Chaos isn't a pit.
Chaos is a ladder.

- Little Finger, Game of Thrones

...the idea that paradise is a walled garden is an echo back to the chaos and order idea… Walls, culture, garden, nature… The proper human habitat is a properly tended garden...

- Jordan Peterson

As we work on the Dragon Flower Farm, we are also developing our philosophy around what we are doing, and why. At this point (and it will likely change) I would say it is a philosophy of the mean - the middle way, if you will. One aspect of that philosophy is the role of chaos. In Jungian thought, the forest represents the primeval, the chaotic, nature red in tooth and claw. The home represents order, civilization, humanity's dominion. The garden is the place where the two intersect. It is ordered, but it is still influenced by the power that resides outside of its walls. 

Generally speaking, our culture tries to push that chaotic force as far away from ourselves as possible. We use chemical pesticides to kill insects we don't want, we erect barriers to keep out animals we label pests, and we root up plants we call weeds. That is one extreme. On the other side of the garden wall, we have people who are advocating never weeding anything, letting everything grow as it will, and the only intervention being the introduction of plants that are desired. We fall somewhere in the middle.

DFF (Dragon Flower Farm) is trying to ride the edge of order and chaos. We believe that it is possible to have intention in planting, engineering, and maintaining your garden, while still understanding that you are not really in charge. Nature will surprise you with volunteers, odd combinations of plants, and even insect populations that you did not expect. You can pour huge amounts of energy and resources attempting to fight against nature, or you can have a little humility and journey with her. Maybe you will even see some beauty that you could not have planned.

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Daffodils growing up through sedum - completely unplanned.

We have an intent for our space. We are trying to grow a significant portion of our own food. Ironically, we began this project way before COVID-19. But the pandemic has sharpened the seriousness of this goal. We are also attempting to support our native flora and fauna. Pollinators are particularly important, and growing native plants supports those insects, which supports our goal of growing our own food. Finally, we are trying to be good environmental stewards of our space. We avoid the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. But in all of these endeavors, we do not hold ourselves up as pristine. We do not see ourselves living only on the food grown on our land, we have non-native plants in the yard, and we have used outside inputs such as mulch from another source. 

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A sycamore volunteer plant - maybe the act of a squirrel, or a bird, or maybe it drifted in on the wind. 

Our culture tends to favor order over chaos in the natural world. We want our plants and animals to conform to our needs and wants. To a traditional gardener, our space would probably look chaotic (sorry, Dad!). On the other hand, we fly in the face of many non-traditional philosophies. We are more than willing to uproot winter creeper, tree of heaven, and bush honeysuckle. This makes the native plant people happy but gets us a frown from some permaculture purists. However, we are OK with some non-native volunteers, which reverses the praise/frown equation just mentioned.

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One pod is local praying mantis; the other is a non-native, introduced mantis species; both are welcome at DFF.

How do we decide? We're guessing. But we know that we are not really in charge. Nature will abide. We can only do our best in the short time we are here and hope to pass on something to the next generation - a bit of wisdom, some life lessons, and maybe a small patch of healthy land.

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How about this little bundle of chaos? Native? Invasive? Food? Stay tuned to find out!


Mushrooms Become Less Mysterious - with the Right Field Guide

Missouri's Wild Mushrooms

By Lisa Brunette

Back in January, I'd asked mystery author and wildlife biologist Ellen King Rice to help me ID some of the mushrooms I'd found growing in the woods, as well as here at Dragon Flower Farm. As you might recall, we ended up turning the post into a series of tips on how to ID mushrooms, which is something no one should take casually, at least if you're looking to eat them.

One of Ellen's tips was to get a good field guide. This spring, I came across the perfect field guide for my mushroom madness: Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, by fellow St. Louisan Maxine Stone. The book is a great reference guide for ID-ing mushrooms, and it includes 24 recipes for using common edible mushrooms found in Missouri - delicious-sounding dishes like barley and blewit salad and candy cap sauce.

Missouri's Wild Mushrooms is published by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), an agency I can't say enough good things about. For one, they do amazing things to help propagate the use of native plants. Through their annual seedling program, I just scored 24 seedlings for a buck a piece - yes, that's only USD 24 for 24 small trees and shrubs - including blackberries, pawpaw, and white fringe tree. They also host a wide range of fun, educational events to teach the public about everything from how to tap maples for syrup to the best spots to catch a glimpse of bald eagles in winter. This is in addition to their ongoing mission to conserve and preserve Missouri's natural world.

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MDC puts out an award-winning magazine called Missouri Conservationist - I read mine cover-to-cover every month - and they also publish a series of books, of which Missouri's Wild Mushrooms is just one. You can order MDC books in-person at conservation and nature centers or online; check out their full offering at the MDC Nature Shop. I use their Nature Notes journal to keep track of our progress at Dragon Flower Farm.

Also on wildlife biologist Ellen King Rice's advice, I've downloaded the iNaturalist app, though again, its value is limited. Now armed with that and mushroom expert Maxine Stone's excellent wild mushroom field guide, I will revisit the mushrooms in the previous post and see if I can't get some closer IDs.

Amanita Orange 2019
Photo taken in 2019 at a trail near the World Bird Sanctuary.

The first one is an iconic Amanita, most likely muscaria, although iNaturalist says it's Amanita cesarea. Most of the photos I'm finding of cesareas don't have the white flecks of fungus on top, though, so I'm going with Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. According to the MDC, Amanitas account for 90 percent of mushroom-related deaths. In Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, Stone lists the Amanita bisporigera, or "destroying angel," as the top poisonous mushroom to avoid in Missouri. "Ingesting one cap of a destroying angel can kill a man," says the MDC.

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Destroying angel. Photo courtesy MDC.

Yeah, so fine to look at and even touch - according to Stone, you can't get poisoned unless you eat them - but I wouldn't even think of tasting anything that looked remotely like either of these - amanitas are a no go.

Stone says the "lookalike" mushrooms are where a lot of people can go wrong, too. She shows which ones to watch out for in particular. She also cautions against eating mushrooms you find in your yard or the wild first without consulting a mushroom expert. Where to find one of those? Here in Missouri, she suggests the Missouri Mycological Society. But lots of states have mushroom societies; here's a full list.

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Photo taken in 2019 near the Meramec River.

This specimen looks very much like a cinnabar polypore, Pycnoporus cinnabarinus, judging by the guidelines in Stone's book. It has no lookalikes - which aids in identification. Though beautiful, the cinnabar polypore is not considered edible.

If I had a sample, rather than just this image, I could make a spore print to lock in the ID. Stone walks you through the process in her book, and it's fairly simple - basically setting the cap gills-down on a piece of white paper and waiting anywhere from two to 24 hours for the spores to drop. Plus, as Stone points out, "Your spore print may be a beautiful piece of art and even frameable." I can't wait for some mushrooms to pop up so I can try this!

Tree Condo Fungus1 2019
Also taken 2019, near the Meramec River.

Note all 'fruiting bodies' appearing aboveground are technically mushrooms; whereas, fungi grow mainly underground, so what you see in these two photos really are mushrooms. As pictured above, they grew in a large group, or condo, as I called it. Here's a closeup.

Tree Condo Fungus2 2019
Very likely this is dryad's saddle.

Like the cinnabar polypore, this is another 'pored bracket' type of mushroom. These can grow both singly or in layered groups. This one looks very much like the dryad's saddle, Polyporous squamosus, which is edible. But again, I'll take a spore sample first before cooking this up if I encounter it again. Another good tip from Maxine Stone is to keep a little bit of any mushroom you eat in case you need it for ID purposes in the event that someone reacts to it. Even if they're safe to eat, some people are more sensitive than others.

This last series of mushrooms - which all grew here at Dragon Flower Farm - are obviously the gilled cap-type, or Agarics. 

Hand Colony 2019

Mushroom Cap  and Violets 2019

Mushroom Gills 2019

None of the gilled cap mushrooms in Stone's guide look like these, unfortunately. The closest is the edible meadow mushroom, but the cap isn't a good match. iNaturalist says it's in the genus 'Leucoagaricus,' of which there are 90 species. The one native to North America, Leucoagaricus americanus, is edible. Again, I'd have to have a sample and take a spore print to be sure, but that's a likely guess. Maybe I'll also reach out to Maxine Stone and ask...

Fungus Cups 2019
Cup fungus, here at Dragon Flower Farm in 2019.

Lastly are the delightful cup and bird's nest fungi, which Ellen ID'd easily in our previous mushroom post. None of these are edible, but Stone agrees they're a treat to find, and I bet if you're on a mushroom hunt with the kiddos, this would be a popular one to ID.

Spore Pops 2019
Bird's nest fungi, Dragon Flower Farm, 2019.

Thanks for sticking with me on this mushroom journey. I'm curious whether any of you are getting out into the woods these days. With the lockdowns now extended to state parks, preserves, and other natural areas, it's been tough for me to find a way. We've had a long spate of dry weather - one day the temperature soared to 88° already. But we're looking at a very rainy week ahead, so maybe we'll get the same mushroom-and-fungi extravaganza we got last year here at Dragon Flower. As Maxine Stone says, "Missouri is a great place to find all kinds of wild mushrooms." What's popping up out of the ground in your state? Tell us in the comments below.

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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.

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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. 

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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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The First Signs of Spring - and a New To-Do List - at Dragon Flower Farm

First Daffodil 2020
Our first daffodil of the season pops up in a shady corner near the HVAC unit.

By Lisa Brunette

The flora is waking up here at Dragon Flower Farm after a long sleep. I wish I could say we're waking up from a long sleep, too, but the truth is we're merely shifting from hard-work-inside to hard-work-outside. It's the same with the fauna. As I mentioned in the post on bird baths, our feeders were super active all winter. In addition to the usual flocks of house sparrows, house finches, and European starlings, we experienced frequent visits from cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, woodpeckers, and even the white-throated sparrow, a treat to watch for its two-footed, back-and-forth dig move in the dirt under our feeders. Like the birds, we're flush with motivation to make the most of springtime; while we marvel at the awakening garden, several projects are keeping us busy during this shelter-in-place.

Daffodils are a traditional harbinger of spring in St. Louis, where they explode in profusion beginning in mid-March. We're still discovering new ones popping up after a few years' recovery from the denuding the property underwent before a developer listed it for sale in 2016-17. As with a lot of the other plants we've kept, they seem much more robust now that we've rehabilitated the damaged landscape by removing invasives and turf grass and adding sheet-mulch to replenish the soil.

A word about ornamental bulbs: They're vastly overused, especially considering how little they give back to the living things around us. Unlike the native plants we're focusing on at Dragon Flower Farm, they are not sources of nectar, pollen, or food for most pollinators and insects, so they're essentially living statues in the garden. Still, from a permaculture perspective, they can serve a purpose, and for us that's to discourage critters from gnawing down our tender seedlings and transplants. We have a tough time keeping the rabbits from decimating our fruit bushes and trees, so we're moving the bulbs to encircle anything we don't want the rabbits to eat. This is working so far; rabbits find ornamental bulbs distasteful. 

Daffodil 2 2020
The one's making an appearance for the first time in three years.

Speaking of rabbits gnawing on tender young woody fruit bark... we recently dug a moat around our blueberries. This is not actually meant to keep the rabbits away but to keep water around the blueberries. It's an experiment and part of our ongoing self-education in permaculture principles. I got the idea from watching the entire playlist put out by Midwest Permaculture. In a few of the videos, you'll see a moat around a tomato patch, and there's also an ongoing series of presentations on the importance of retaining water through rain gardens, ditches, and water-loving plants.

Hopefully, this will help reduce the amount of water we need to extract from the county's water supply. I also sowed chervil and lavender around the blueberries - both companion plants that should help create a small guild of supportive interconnections. Still, Anthony and I have to laugh at ourselves. In my best Ron White voice, I turned to him during this process and deadpanned, "I'm spending a beautiful Saturday digging a moat in my backyard, and I don't really know why."

Blueberry moat 2020
Yep, it's a moat. Around the blueberries.

While we certainly want more water in some areas, we actually have a bit of a water problem in others, mainly our basement. You might remember our French drain from a couple of years ago; well, it hasn't at all solved the problem. Our next least-expensive option was to replace the old, easily-clogged gutters on our house. We did just that in early spring, also taking the opportunity to rig up a rain barrel system, which my brother recently scored for us from his vacating neighbor. Both barrels have pretty much been entirely full since installation, which just goes to show you how much water runs off your property all the time - in our case down toward the damaged, urbanized River Des Peres and out to the Mississippi.

Rain Barrels 2020
Who knew rain barrels could be so beautiful?

The next thing on our list water-wise is to bury that flex pipe, which isn't very nice to look at. I'd like to have it drain into another rain garden area, joined by the pre-existing French drain pipe that already lets out there. The entire landscape slopes down toward the south, so I'm thinking about a serpentine path that would slow the runoff. We'll see.

A wide variety of sources - from the Missouri Department of Conservation to Wild Ones to the Audubon Society to our native plant hero Doug Tallamy - all recommend delaying your spring cleanup as long as possible. So we left the leaf litter, spent vines, and dried-out perennial stalks all winter and are only tackling it in necessary spots right now. The reason? A great many flora depend on that plant material, whether it's red bats sheltering in dead leaves or insect larva needing a first meal. Besides, decaying plant matter is basically free, organic fertilizer. When we do remove it, like we did around the sedums lining our front walk, we do so gently and repurpose it nearby as mulch, as shown below.

Front Walk 2020

The daffodils aren't the only plants trumpeting spring. Our lilac will bloom out in the next few weeks; alas, the blooms only show themselves for a short time. We hope to harvest as much as we can to dry in bunches, and maybe we'll also have the time to make some lilac syrups, infusions, and other concoctions. It's a terrifically useful flower.

Lilac Buds 2020

The daffodils and lilacs do point out a flaw in most suburban landscape design. When we moved in, our garden had been designed in the all-too-common mainstream method, which meant exotic ornamentals and invasive plants. Only the volunteers were true natives - the sensitive ferns and violets - and the violets had to be mown, as they were interspersed with lawn. This meant everything bloomed in spring, like one big flower detonation followed by nothing else. Pretty disappointing, in my opinion. I see this in a lot of Midwestern yards, unfortunately. So the spring here is incredible - there's no doubt about it - but the rest of the year could use more bloom.

Last week I talked about what it's like to begin to feel settled enough in a place to plan for the long haul. One of the most thrilling sights this spring is to see the thriving serviceberry (Amalanchier arborea) budding out. We put it in the ground in the fall of 2018 in our first wave of native plantings.

Serviceberry Spring 2020

Happy spring, y'all!

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Easy DIY Bird Baths for Your Stay-at-Home Pleasure

Bird Bath Plant Stand
DIY bird bath, 100 percent found items.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I tended to be fairly home-oriented even before the coronavirus hit and made us homebound by executive order. Fortunately, this emphasis on the home sphere has enabled us to shift into the shelter-in-place with relative ease because there's plenty of drama going on right in our own backyard. With three bird baths, three platform feeders, and a suet feeder poised within view of our back windows, we've got a 24/7 wildlife study right here.

While taking walks in our neighborhood, we've noticed a lot of clever kids' activities, such as chalk artistry and scavenger hunts, and seriously, the admirable spirit of St. Louis is evident all over town. But most of the yards we pass are either devoid of bird feeders, or if they do have them, they're empty, and there are no water offerings to be seen.

There's definitely a missed opportunity here:

  1. It's really easy to provide a habitat for backyard birds, starting with a basic bird bath.
  2. An observable bird habitat would make a fantastic learning activity for homebound kids, combining aspects of biology, ecology, and the arts.
  3. With bird habitat loss increasing exponentially, their survival - and subsequently, ours - literally depends on the habitat space we can provide in our yards.

It's the first item on the above list I want to tackle in this post. For specific kid activities, check out 15 Fun Backyard Bird Watching Activities for Kids over at A Day in Our Shoes blog. Number three above warrants your attention, and I highly recommend two books by Doug Tallamy: Bringing Nature Home (see this giveaway on our blog) and his latest, Nature's Best Hope.

Mourning doves bird bath
A pair of mourning doves enjoying the water.

Now onto the bird baths! As you can see in the two images above, you can make a perfectly good bird bath with castoff items you might have lying around in your basement or garage. I made my first one using a plant stand and the lid to a frying pan we no longer used. (Side note: This was a "non-stick" pan that was no longer "non-stick." We don't buy these anymore for this very reason; they don't last. Hence our three-part series on cast iron.)

Contrary to misperception, you do not need to fork out a lot of dough for a heated/electrical bubbling water system. While I'm sure as some folks argue, birds like the sound of trickling water, all manner of birds regularly use our DIY water 'features' like we're an oasis in the middle of the desert. There's just no need to lay out a lot of cash for some fancy system that isn't sustainable anyway in terms of electricity and water use.

If you really must have water movement in your feature, you can get an inexpensive solar fountain, like the one below. The problem I had with it is that the suction cups aren't very good at keeping it stationary, so it floats to the top, making it an unsuitable perch for small birds. You can see I tried to weight it down with rocks, but that didn't last. This bath was only used by the occasional large bird - robins or crows.

Still, these can be quite pleasing if you do get the right bowl to place them in. Here's one in a neighbor's front yard, with a more elaborate base. At the time of this photo, anyway, the suction cups seem to be working on the glass bowl surface. (Funny how our nonstick pan only works when you don't want it to.)

Solar Fountain on Vase

That photo was taken last summer, when you're more likely to find water features, but the bird bath disappeared through the winter, probably because the glass bowl is likely to freeze and become damaged. It has yet to reappear. Most people think of feeding and watering birds when they probably need it least, during the growing season, when there's more for birds to eat and drink otherwise. However, our feeders and bird baths were super active all winter. The wildlife seemed particularly in need of it then.

I kept the bird baths stocked with water without fail through the coldest part of the season. While the water froze and then thawed again continuously, the glass pan lids never cracked, maybe because they're rimmed in metal, or else the glass is tempered to withstand the stress of cooking. I placed rocks in the middle of the lid, and these help thaw the water faster as well as give small birds a place to perch. They much prefer shallow water, and pot lids are perfect! Here's one fit into a breeze block, with a larger rock set next to it for additional perch surface.

Breezeblock Bath

Birds will peck and scratch at the ice as it melts, extracting moisture as they can. It's a cool thing to see in the dead of winter when the flora is mostly dormant.

For the deeper pan bottom, I came up with a better solution so that birds of all sizes can access the water: placing a large rock plus several smaller rocks for a sturdy perch. This one is currently the most popular bird bath because it's set underneath the rose bush, providing a handy place to duck for cover, even in winter.

Brick Bird Bath
Note it's propped up on bricks, with rocks around to help naturalize it in the setting.

One thing to keep in mind is that you do want to clean the bird bath every once in a while. The frequency you'll need to clean it depends on how often it's used and in what volume, as well as on how much plant matter gets into the bath. In fall, I cleaned it as often as every few days, and in winter, I could let as many as two weeks go by. The Audubon Society recommends cleaning it with nine parts water and one part vinegar but avoiding synthetic cleaners, which can strip essential oils from bird feathers. 

Bird Bath Needs Cleaning
Time to clean this one.

I got the idea to repurpose the frying pans from a recommendation to use trash can lids (from the St. Louis Audubon Society), suggested because they are the right shallow depth for a bird bath. But I didn't like the idea of trash can lids in my garden; they're usually plastic and unsightly, and I didn't have any on hand and didn't want to buy them just for this purpose. But thinking about lids put me onto the frying pans I had in a giveaway box in the basement.

As an added element, you can think about providing birds with a patch of bare ground for dirt baths, too. Bathing in dirt is an important part of a bird's self-care regimen, if you will. It allows them to slough off parasites and absorbs excess oils, keeping their plumage clean and healthy. If you do this, the bees get a bonus as well; many native bees need dirt, and as this bee study at Saint Louis University shows, it makes a huge difference in their population numbers. 

I leave you with this video, which captures the popularity of our water features and feeders, with some fun dirt-bath action to boot. Happy birdwatching!

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