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3 Natives You Can Plant This Fall for Spring Blooms

Iris fulva open
Copper iris, a native to the Midwest that blooms in May.

By Lisa Brunette

There's nothing so hopeful as an early spring flower, defiantly emerging out of the deadened winter landscape and signaling a renewal of life. Here in the St. Louis area, that usually means daffodils. These cheery trumpets sound off in early March to lift our collective spirits.

But as much as Anthony and I like our daffodils around here - and we do, as evidenced by our apparent daffyness for them - we have to admit they don't do much to provide food for pollinators and other insects here in the U.S. Most ornamental bulbs originated in Europe or elsewhere; they did not evolve alongside our native fauna, which tends to find them either outright toxic or regard them with indifference. These bulbs are not a viable food source; they're just pretty little statues, really.

Daffodils 21
They are awfully cheery.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. A few tulip, daffodil, gladiolus, and other blooms in the spring garden can give you beauty and joy. 

But if you want to turn back the tide on habitat loss - one of the major factors cited in pollinator decline - you should put in more native plants. While a lot of people think of native summer wildflowers first and foremost, I want to turn you on to a few spring bloomers you might not know.

Copper Iris - Iris fulva

With long, slender, light green leaves topped by an audacious tuba spray of copper, this early spring bloom should be on everyone's wish list. Native to the Midwest, copper iris is slow-growing at first, like a lot of native plants, but then explodes in its third year to give you stunning flowers.

It's exciting to see the bud begin to open in late May.

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Copper iris bud.

I put in one plant from a nursery seedling in 2019, and it's already divided. The blooms are astounding!

Iris fulva blooms
Iris fulva in full bloom.

Ozark Witch Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis

The very first bloom of the spring is something of an oddity. Ozark witch hazel blooms as early as late February, with crinkled orange streamers around a yellow center. Besides the funky-looking bloom, the odd factor comes in two other ways: 1) the early bloom time and 2) the fact that what pollinates this late-winter flower is a bit of a mystery. February is bad timing for most pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as they tend to emerge later in spring. So what pollinates witch hazel? Perhaps hoverflies, which take advantage of warm winter days to forage for pollen.

Witch hazel Feb 21
When witch hazel blooms, it gives off the pleasant scent of cloves.

Ozark witch hazel is also a rare plant: Out of the entire world, it's found in only five U.S. states: Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I'm happy to say we've added three Ozark witch hazels to our garden, one from a nursery and two seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation (costing only $1 each, yo, through Wild Ones). After some initial damage from our Eastern cottontail rabbits, which found them delicious, all three are thriving, and the one from the nursery, which we planted in 2018, has not only bloomed profusely but is tall and robust enough to support squash vines, which clamber up the branches.

Witch hazel Aug 21
Hey there, squash! Why don't you climb up here and join me?

Witch hazel is a great permaculture plant because of its dual role as a support for native animals and insects and its use as a medicinal for humans. You should be familiar with witch hazel as a traditional medicine cabinet item. You can make an astringent from the bark, and it's historically been used to treat hemorrhoids, sore muscles, coughs, and other ailments. Removing the bark kills the tree, however, so sources recommend using only pruned or fallen limbs. Disclaimer: I have not yet tried to make my own witch hazel astringent, but it's on my list. Second disclaimer: I am not a health expert and am not advising you to treat ailments with witch hazel; I'm merely reporting on its historic use.

Violets - Viola sororia

Regular readers of this blog know I've waxed enthusiastic about violets before, with full recommendations on their many culinary uses, their value as a host plant for fritillary butterflies, and my enduring preference for them as a ground cover to replace turf grass. With so many beneficial aspects, and pretty little white- or royal purple-and-yellow blooms to boot, how could you not desire violets in your home landscape?

In some regions, the violets are likely to show up of their own accord, too. Yeah, that's right; this is one flower you might not have to plant yourself! Our ubiquitous violet ground cover is 100 percent volunteer and lasts from spring to fall. I've used the blooms and leaves to make everything from petal-infused ice cubes to violet sugar and violet tea. 

Viola sororia spring 21
Violets are host plants for fritillary butterflies.
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Violets (and lilacs), ready to freeze into ice cubes.

I hope these three suggestions for spring-blooming flowers you can plant this fall inspire you to the possibilities in your own garden. Happy fall planting!

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Named 'Monarch Waystation'

Monarch Waystation

We're excited to share that our garden has been designated as a Monarch Waystation by the non-profit Monarch Watch. Here's a description of the program:

Each fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to mountains in central Mexico, where they wait out the winter until conditions favor a return flight in the spring. The monarch migration is truly one of the world's greatest natural wonders, yet it is threatened by habitat loss at overwintering grounds in Mexico and throughout breeding areas in the United States and Canada.

Monarch Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. Similarly, without nectar from flowers, these fall migratory monarch butterflies would be unable to make their long journey to overwintering grounds in Mexico. The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world. (From the Monarch Watch website)

Besides the above sign, we also received a certificate of appreciation, but for us the real reward has been witnessing first-hand how the old adage is true: If you build it, they will come. Or rather, if you plant it, they will come. We've planted close to 150 native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses over the past three years, including a few varieties of milkweed, the monarch's preferred food. The results have been evident in the monarch (and other) pollinator species clearly supported by our garden.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.

Last summer, a monarch chrysalis even formed an attachment to one of our garden chairs. The chair is set under a pergola and upon wood chips instead of paving. We opted not to add "impervious surfaces," which are hardscape surfaces water can't penetrate. The increase of these types of surfaces in urban areas has contributed to runoff, stormwater, flooding, and other problems. It seems the monarchs treated the chair as if it simply blended into the natural environment, which is how we hoped the garden would be!

Here's the caterpillar going into its chrysalis stage.

Monarch caterpillar

And here's the chrysalis.

Monarch chrysalis
Chrysalis on garden chair.

Our Monarch Waystation designation comes fresh on the heels of achieving Platinum Status in the Bring Conservation Home program. Inveterate gamers (who need to level up and earn all achievements) and collectors (who need to collect aaaall the badges), of course we had to display the two signs on the fence near the entrance to our back garden. 

2 signs

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Poppies and Whimsy on the St. Louis Native Plant Tour

NPT_glimpse
View of a woodland bubbler in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra, also featured in Doug Tallamy's book, Nature's Best Hope.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I attended the St. Louis Native Plant Tour for the first time this year. It was a masked, socially-distanced, outdoor (of course) affair in early June, with a wide range of gardens to view. A joint offering by both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Wild Ones St. Louis, this year's tour included nine residential gardens located across the St. Louis metropolitan area, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. We made it to six of the nine.

NPT_celadine poppy
Celadine poppy growing in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra.

I've talked about the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program on the blog before - most recently when we scored platinum status for our own garden. Many BCH gardens were included in the tour, with a nice smattering at every level, from silver through gold and up to platinum. One of our favorites on the tour was Dan and Mary Terpstra's woodland oasis. It's easy to see why this .62-acre property has achieved platinum status - and why it attracts so many birds - 150 species and counting.

NPT_platinum
View across the woodland toward the gazebo in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Here's a video of their pond, which features a bubbling cascade into a naturalized area for native water-loving plants.

 

While the Terpstras obviously take conservation seriously, they haven't neglected the whimsical aspects of gardening.

NPT_mushrooms
Garden art tucked into a rock in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Speaking of garden whimsy, while the Terpstra's property offers a stunning example of what can be done, my favorite of the tour was actually the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky, which had whimsy in spades.

NPT_music stand
In the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky.

This garden clocks in at the BCH gold level and comes with a wonderful personal story, to quote the tour brochure:

Established in 2010, Carolyn's Garden is a living memorial to Christina's mother, an avid gardener. Diagnosed in 1996 with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, she proved doctors wrong, living with the disease until 2011... a testament to being a lifelong gardener.

Many of the plants in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden were transitioned there from her mother's garden over in Illinois.

NPT_pathway
A pathway beckons in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.
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A glass ball emerges from penstemon in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.

Another highlight was getting to tour the garden belonging to Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, which features this lovely water bubbler.

Now, a note about these bubblers, though: You don't need them. While it's true that birds are attracted to the sound of bubbling water, the problem with bubblers is they need a power source in order to, well, bubble. And that means a) you have to be able to afford to install (or have installed) an electrical bubbler connected to your home's power system and b) you're adding to your home's draw on the electric grid, not the best option, eco-wise, unless it's also solar-powered. Our garden achieved platinum status without a bubbler; as mentioned previously, we have four bird baths, all fashioned out of repurposed items and not costing a dime.

Here's a perfectly nice non-bubbling bird bath, also in the Weaver garden.

NPT_birdbath
In the Weaver garden.
NPT_shade
Shade-loving Virginia sweetspire in the Weaver garden.

One of the best aspects of garden tours like this one is you get to see first-hand fine examples of plants that thrive in challenging areas, such as deep shade (above) or intense sunshine, like these native prickly pears.

NPT_prickly pear
In the garden of Susan and René LaVoise.

While honeybees are not native to North America, it was cool to spot these beehives in the garden of Jim and Judy Stroup, where we started our tour.

NPT_beehives
Beehives at the Stroup garden.

And last but certainly not least was the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka, avid conservationists whose gold-certified property features many a bee hotel in addition to bird bottles, bird and bat houses, and more than 30 woody native plant species and 95 wildflower species.

NPT_beehotels
A stunning array of bee hotels in the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka.
NPT_Indian pink
The common name of this native plant is 'Indian pink,' though it's neither pink nor from India!
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Ninebark growing in the Tylka garden.
NPT_smooth sumac
This smooth sumac grows in part-shade in the Tylka garden.

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How You Can Help the Bees This Spring: Shutterbee, Pollinator Planting

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By Lisa Brunette

As the bees come out this spring, your thoughts might return again to how to help these crucial pollinators. And when I say help them, I really mean help ourselves, since we utterly depend on them to pollinate our food plants. Well, here are two ways you can do this right now: 1) by participating in a backyard bee survey called Shutterbee and/or 2) simply planting more pollinator-supporting plants this spring.

Shutterbee

The citizen-science program to study backyard bee populations - AKA 'Shutterbee' - is now open for registration! Participants like me who are returning from last year have already taken our refresher courses, and we're getting ready to begin bee surveys again in May. But if you live in the St. Louis area and would like to sign up for the first time, now's your chance. 

A reporter for the Webster Journal conducted a video interview with me about Shutterbee this spring.

I've also written about Shutterbee previously:

10,000 and Counting: How the Bees 'Almost' Redeemed 2020

Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

To sign up, all you have to do is register. To learn more about Shutterbee, visit the program website. Shutterbee researchers also publish a Bee Brigade Bulletin full of gardening advice and fascinating bee research tidbits. 

If you're worried about getting stung, I suggest putting those fears aside, as Shutterbee focuses on rather harmless native bee populations. Honeybees may send some running for the hills for fear of being stung, but most native bees are harmless, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” said MDC Community and Private Land Conservation Branch Chief Bill White. 

Mining_bee
Mining bee on Hansen's bush cherry blossom.

Bee-Friend Native Pollinators

One easy thing you can do to support native bee populations is plant more pollinator-friendly plants. Native bees are doing their agricultural duty by pollinating flowering plants that provide food, fiber, and even medicines, and the more we can do to support them, the better.

MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank explained that native bees, such as the bumblebee, are effective pollinators because of a technique called buzz pollination.

“It’s a vibrating movement involving their wing muscles that allows the bumblebee to free pollen from the anther, the flower’s pollen-producing structure,” Shank said. “This strategy causes the flower to explosively release pollen. There are some flowering plants that will release pollen only through buzz pollination. One favorite, the tomato plant, requires either buzz pollination or visitation by a larger bodied bee, such as the bumblebee.”

Eastern carpenter bee on passionflower
Eastern carpenter bee on native passionflower vine, which produces edible fruit.

Bee a Friend

There are several ways the public can support native bees. Shank said the best way is to get floral.

“It’s all about the flowers,” Shank stressed. “Provide native companion plants, and especially those with colorful blossoms, because color attracts bees.”

Companion planting, in which one plant helps the growth of another, can help facilitate the pollination of fruits and vegetables. For example, planting bee balm can help pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Other examples of flowering companion plants include sunflowers, wild hyacinth, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover, and common milkweed.

There are several options of flowering trees and shrubs, too.

“Redbud, American plum, and golden currant are great for pollinators,” said White.

It's a good idea to plan for blooms throughout the year. The first native plant to bloom in Missouri is the American witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, which produces ribbony orange-and-yellow blooms as early as February. They give off the strong scent of cloves. What could possibly pollinate these flowers so early has been a bit of a puzzle for botanists, but research shows native bees carried the highest percentage of witch hazel pollen of all possible pollinators, once again showcasing the importance of native bees.

American witch hazel
American witch hazel, an important plant in the Midwestern native landscape.

Shank noted that providing more flowers can also mean not mowing the lawn as much.

“Clover, violets, and dandelions are some common lawn plants that provide vital food for bees – especially in the spring before most flowers appear,” Shank explained. “Delaying mowing or mowing higher can help bees by letting the plants grow. Even allowing access to the ground by not mulching every inch can help. Some bees need access to the soil to excavate their nests.”

No Yard? No Problem!

Shank said residents who live in urban areas without access to a yard can still be a big help to native bees.

Surprisingly, St. Louis, for example, has one of the most diverse bee populations in the Midwest, with more than 200 species found in the city limits alone.

 “You can offer bees native flowers in a planting box or pot,” Shank explained. “Getting involved in a community garden or helping plant at a nearby park is great, too.”

For those without a green thumb, it may be tempting to buy the bee houses or hotels being offered in stores. However, the real need is not nesting sites, but native flowering plants. Many of the commercially available bee hotels contain the wrong length of tubes or wrong diameter for many native bees. Find out how to build your own by following the guidelines offered by the Xerxes Society.

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3 Great Gifts for Gardeners from Small, Indie Shops

Copper_label

By Lisa Brunette

Springtime is a great point in the year to remember the gardener in your life - yes, even if the only gardener in your life is you! As the soil warms up enough for seeds, and bare bark begins to leaf out, we gardeners get ridiculously busy and might not have time for self care as we're busting sod and ripping open seed packets. Even if there's no gift-excuse day coming up, like a birthday or anniversary, a sweet little basket of gardening gifts is just the thing.

With that in mind, I've put together a trio of my favorite things - gardening items I've personally, thoroughly tested and love. I recommend these without reservation, and in fact all the below links are both 1) stuff I am currently using, or exactly like it and 2) items available right now in Etsy shops. I'm including affiliate links, by the way, so if you do purchase them using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. So you can support this blog, show small, indie shops some love, and get a great garden gift, too!

Gift Idea No. 1: Name That Plant

Copper Label
As a way to train myself to learn them, I like to write the Latin names for native plants in permanent marker on these elegant copper labels.

Last week, I gave a tour of our garden to a local journalist interviewing me about the Shutterbee project, and it was really handy to have so many of our plants labeled for quick reference. I use these copper labels only to identify native perennials, which warrant the permanent treatment. They're real copper and weather well to a lovely patina as the seasons change.

You can order the same through the Etsy shop TheCelticFarm - they come in a pack of 30. Just remember to pick up a permanent marker somewhere, too.

Copperlabeletsy
Photo courtesy TheCelticFarm.

I don't bother to label annuals, as it's just not cost-effective since they're short-lived and change location each year with our rotation gardening. For those I find it's better to keep a planting chart (digital spreadsheet) and gardening diary (spiral where I paste seed packets with notes).

Gift Idea No. 2: Quick, to the Bat House!

Bat House
Our bat house.

It sucks (and I don't mean 'suck' as in vampire!) that bats got a bad rap just because of our overactive imaginations and superstitions. Bats are safe and worthy pollinators to encourage in your garden. Here's the official word from the Missouri Department of Conservation:

Bats are an important part of the natural world. Bats that feed on fruit are the primary means of seed dispersal for some species, and nectar-feeding bats are responsible for the pollination of many species of plants. In fact, more than 400 products used by humans come from bat-pollinated plants. These products include bananas, avocados, cashews, balsa wood and tequila.

Missouri bats help control nocturnal insects, some of which are agricultural pests or, in the case of mosquitoes, annoying to people. Many forms of cave life depend on the nutrients brought in by bats and contained in their guano.

In our yard, bats pollinate and eat our native passionflower vines. (We have two.) One of my favorite things to do at dusk in summer is to sit in the garden and watch as the bats come out, flittering overhead.

You can get your own bat house from JoesWoodWorksITC - this one is made out of cedar and features a double chamber.

Bathouseetsy
Image courtesy JoesWoodWorksITC.

Once you get the bat house home, here are some handy tips for how to hang it properly.

Gift Idea No. 3: Face Plant!

Face_plant

You might remember our face plant pot from "After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, The Importance of Staying Put." Besides the awesome visual pun in 'face plant,' these just look really cool because whatever you plant in the pot becomes the hair atop the face. Think ChiaPet, only a lot less kitschy.

Unfortunately, mine was a recent casualty when I accidentally kicked it while trying to perform what my physical therapist calls "that kicky thing you do with your leg." Yeah, it's something I do to manually adjust my right hip (scoliosis issues). Too bad the plant pot bit it in the process.

Luckily, Etsy has a few replacement options, most notably these rather more whimsical versions from vintagebohemianstyle.

Vintagebohemianstyle
Image courtesy vintagebohemianstyle.

You can find more recommendations on my Etsy 'favorites' page, most notably some wonderful wearable wool in the form of a 'coatigan' and some merino wool long underwear. I like to buy a lot of things out of season when it's cheaper, and wool's a good one for that tactic. 

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