Insects Feed

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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Chaos Is a Garden

IMG_1111

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.

IMG_1110

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. 

IMG_1139

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.

IMG_1141_1143sm

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.

IMG_1146

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


Insect Week at the Dragon Flower Mini-Farm

 

Grasshopper on mailbox
Is it trying to intercept our mail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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