Lisa Brunette

Free Food from Your Yard: Mushrooms!

Reddening lepiota

By Lisa Brunette

One of the benefits of removing the turf grass in our entire backyard - which constitutes the majority of the 1/4-acre plot - is that we have a lovely carpet of native violets growing over most of it. I've raved about viola sororia previously on the blog, and the best part is that the violets arrived of their own volition, free of charge. With them, came edible mushrooms.

Pictured above is Lepiota americana, AKA 'reddening lepiota.' This gilled cap mushroom seems to be a natural companion to the violets, as all spring and summer, we found them growing in clusters nestled under and amidst the violet leaves.

We'd first noticed reddening lepiota last year, but we didn't know they were edible and thought better than to try eating them without more information. I included them in this Q&A with wildlife biologist/author Ellen King Rice - you can see how the cluster dwarfs Anthony's hand in a photo about half-way down. That convo with Ellen was a great start in getting the info we needed, as it put me in the mindset to purchase a Missouri-specific wild mushroom ID guide, to which I gave two thumb's up in a followup post. This is it in case you want to rush right over to the MDC Store and buy one right now.

Mushroom ID guide

And you should, if you live in Missouri or plan to visit and do a little foraging while you're here. If you're one of our readers from the East or West Coasts, you're better off with a regional specific guide for your area. 

Note we don't receive anything in exchange for this endorsement of this MDC publication. All of our props, kudos, and reviews are 100 percent objective, with no sponsorships or payments made in exchange for sharing our opinion. You're welcome!

So now we know with complete certainty that the mushroom pictured above is a) Lepiota americana and b) safe to eat. We've dined on them all spring and summer, and THEY ARE DELICIOUS. Let me tell you, there's nothing that makes you feel like you've got this whole survival thing down better than foraging in your own backyard. But we didn't go about this cavalierly. Let me walk you through the rather robust process.

Step 1: Try an ID App

Early on, I posted some photos of the mushroom in question to iNaturalist and got a positive ID for Reddening lepiota. I love iNaturalist and use it pretty much weekly to ID flora and fauna (177 observations, and counting!). It's also our main tool for the Shutterbee study. But I didn't stop at iNaturalist. That would have been dangerous, as the app has limitations and can give you a false result.

Step 2: Consult a Guide Book

Next, I went to the guide book to see what it could tell me about reddening lepiota. According to author Maxine Stone, it's edible, but she recommended exercising some caution, as it can easily be confused with a lookalike known as green-spored lepiota, which is poisonous.

Whoa, right? Nature doesn't mess around. Two mushrooms, similar in appearance, growing in the same part of the world, one is safe (and tasty), but the other is poisonous - not enough to kill you, but it will make you super sick. Stone points out two areas of differentiation between them: 1) Reddening lepiota bruises red and 2) it leaves a white spore print. Which brings me to step 3.

Step 3: Take a Spore Print

I know this sounds all science-y, something only botanists should do, but taking a spore print turns out to be easy like a summer breeze. All you do is separate the cap from the stem and turn the cap gills-down onto a piece of paper or other surface the spores can 'print.' Then you wait for the spores to drop - this can take anywhere from a few hours to 24. Since reddening lepiota prints white, Stone recommends black construction paper. Luckily, we have a black cutting board that works perfectly.

Spore print

Isn't that amazing? Some people turn mushroom spore prints into art, and you can see why. 

Step 4: Ask an Expert

The print supports with clearly white spores that the mushroom is likely Lepiota americana. At this point, I had 3 sources: iNaturalist, the Missouri's Wild Mushrooms guide, and the spore print. But since eating mushrooms from the wild, or in this case, the wild out your back door, carries a certain amount of inherent risk, Stone recommends reaching out to an expert, too, for an ID confirmation. So I did what she suggested and found our local mycological society, which brought me to an expert... named Maxine Stone, the author of the guide.

She was really lovely, responding right away, with a 'likely' confirmation on my reddening lepiota ID, with the caveat that she couldn't make a 100 percent positive ID in person due to the coronavirus lockdown. But at this point, Anthony and I felt we'd covered the bases pretty well.

Step 5: Try a Small Sample

We ate just one or two bites at first, waiting 24 hours to see if we suffered any ill effects; there were none, so after that it was mushroom on the menu.

Funny thing: Stone's book lists edibility on a four-point scale, with "choice" being highest. Lepiota americana is noted as two stars, or "good." This was our first foray into eating anything other than grocery store mushrooms, and we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. The taste is unlike anything we've had before, with a meaty, musky richness that explodes on your tongue. We can't wait to get our hands on one of those 'choice' mushrooms...

We simply sauté them in butter in a cast iron skillet. They redden similarly to portobello mushrooms (another ID confirmation) but have more flavor, in our opinion.

Sauteed mushrooms

So there you have it: Free food from the yard, as a result of getting rid of our lawn. These just didn't appear when we had nothing but grass.

Please note that you should follow all five steps above and exercise extreme caution if you attempt to eat mushrooms found anywhere outside. We continue to take spore prints of EVERY HARVEST on that black cutting board, just to make sure we don't inadvertently pick up a poisonous green-spored mushroom instead. We can gather a crop in the morning and have spore prints by lunchtime.

Mushroom haul

Best of luck with your own foraging forays, whether out your back door or in the wild. Be safe, be smart, and stay curious, my peoples!

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When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside

Double rainbow
View outside through the window of my spare room/home yoga studio.

By Lisa Brunette

In March of this year, the hot yoga studio I attended closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing my practice homeward. This was the case with yoga studios across the United States, of course. Our spare bedroom was already set up for my daily physical therapy, so I tweaked it for yoga. Since I'd been practicing the style formerly known as "Bikram," which is the same 26 poses done every session, it was relatively easy to make the shift to home, as I had the sequence memorized. I even purchased a space heater to take the chill off the room, though it doesn't even come close to the 104°F temp of your average hot yoga studio.

Like many studios, I'm sure, mine quickly began offering livestream yoga classes... but I declined to take them. They offered them via Facebook, and as I'd left that platform entirely in September of last year, I didn't want to log back on just for yoga classes. I also felt as if enough of my life happened via video screens, since as a game writer with a home-based business and clients all over the world, I spend a good portion of my days talking with clients through video monitors. Some of these people I've never even met in real life, yet we've worked together for years.

I didn't want yoga to be one more in a growing list of things that happens through a screen.

So I made the home practice work, and it did for awhile. But when the weather turned nice, and I launched into spring vegetable gardening in a bigger way than I ever had before, I found my yoga practice waning... and then it ceased altogether.

Damselfly
The ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly native to the U.S. My brother Jason snapped this photo on one of our hikes this summer.

Did that spell doom for my health and well-being? Not at all. I walked, hiked, rode a bike, and gardened. In place of meditation on a mat, I enjoyed a walking meditation. Instead of sweating it out in eagle pose, I was outside with the red-shouldered hawks who nest in the trees across the street and frequently touch down in our backyard. I soaked up vitamin D from all that sunshine, I breathed in air that hadn't recirculated through an HVAC system, and I saw the natural world change from spring to late spring to early summer and now to summer's end, with successions of blooms and leaves and different kinds of plants, animals, and insects living out the cycles of their lives.

Rabbit

I had a kind of "dances with rabbits" moment this spring, when two parenting eastern cottontails - one I recognized as a previous visitor because of its distinctively mangled ear - frequented my backyard with their three rambunctious offspring. Actually, I think they literally built their warren in the middle of a brush pile we'd left in a corner of the yard. Perhaps between the hospitable environment we'd created for them and my habit of spending long hours quietly working in the garden, the whole family became comfortable with me. They stayed in the yard with me for some time, the parents regarding me with apparent curiosity - and wariness, at least at first - and the youngsters frolicking around, seemingly oblivious. They were fun to watch as they made up what looked like fun games. One would surprise the other, getting a "shoot up straight into the air" reaction, and then the tables would turn as the other bunny did the surprising next time.

After several hours of occupying the yard together, the rabbits did something strange: They slowly moved closer to me. All five of them were eventually within six feet of me at once, all of us just squatting there in the garden, enjoying... life. They weren't eating or playing or running around then, just sitting, quiet and still, regarding me with their deep eyes. A spell seemed to descend on the six of us, as I sat quiet and still as well, stopping my work, regarding them in return. It was as if we shared one presence together. I'll never forget it.

Sure, you can take a cynical tact about rabbits eating your garden food, and they did gobble up a fair amount of seedlings in early spring. Maybe they felt grateful to me for the yummy treats. But as soon as their preferred food, white clover, popped up, they left my plants alone. I quite like having them around, and that moment in the garden was kind of, well, magical.

Another day, I came upon a deer as I hiked through the woods. We watched each other for some time, even while other hikers passed through, not even noticing the deer, before the deer moved further into the woods, away from the path.

I nearly bumped into a raccoon one morning in my own backyard, both of us surprised to see each other.

These two ailanthus moths took my breath away when I discovered them like this on the underside of pineapple mint leaves.

Moths

This summer I helped a snapping turtle cross an asphalt strip in a local park, moving it out of the path of cyclists and joggers. Normally I leave wildlife alone, but this turtle move is recommended by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Snapping turtle

I've come across opossums and chipmunks, many a butterfly and bee, and once, a rather frightening-looking insect called a 'hanging thief' robber fly. In the evening, you can watch dragonflies and bats, circling overhead. They elude my camera, but hummingbirds have found a habitat here at Dragon Flower Farm, too.

Chipmunk on stupa
The eastern chipmunk, a new resident this year at Dragon Flower Farm.

While all this nature bathing is good for the body and soul, yoga is still amazingly good for you. It's helped me heal from trauma and car accidents, maintain a healthy weight, and counteract the effects of scoliosis. I've also used yoga to de-stress and feel more centered. Its power has been established over thousands of years, and it is not to be dismissed. 

I do crave the benefits of yoga, but now I consider what I've missed in a lifetime of exercise done primarily indoors. Not that I haven't practiced yoga outside - I've taken a few classes in parks in my day. But the vast majority of yoga classes - at least in the U.S. - occur inside. Sure, you can supplement with running outside, as I did for many years, or walking or swimming. But yoga is a studio activity, and that means thousands and thousands of hours logged inside over my 26-year practice, in addition to the time I already spent working, sleeping, and relaxing indoors.

Stick teepee
In a park nearby.

This year, I'm grateful for a deeper connection to the outdoors - on my own 1/4-acre, in a nature strip at a nearby park, and when I have the time, on the hiking trails here in the Missouri woods, grasslands, and wetland preserves. As I welcome yoga back into my life this fall, I don't want to miss any of nature's magical moments, even as I'm reaping the many benefits of a lifetime of practice. 

Sunset

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The Secret to Our Six-Pack Marriage

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By Lisa Brunette

This month marks our sixth anniversary; here we are at our wedding in Seattle back in 2014. I chose this image to front the post because it captures the secret to our success as a couple: We both have a good sense of humor, and we're not afraid to laugh at ourselves, either.

You'd have to be able to chuckle in the face of adversity to weather the slings and arrows of the past six years. It's been a tremendous time of change as we've taken on challenges that seem more befitting twentysomething newlyweds, rather than second-time-around middle-agers like us.

While we married six years ago, we've been a committed couple for nine, and in our first year together, we lost Anthony's mother, A. Grace, to pancreatic cancer. A truly independent soul, she'd wanted to change her name to just "Grace," but authorities said she had to at least have an initial along with it, so she chose A, and when asked, she would say it stood for "Amazing." So it was with a sense of charmed destiny that we held our wedding at a spiritual center where we'd found community, its name the same as hers.

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Grace made a deep, lasting impression on me in our short time together. Perhaps as a way to keep her with me, I named a major character in my novel series after her. The Dreamslippers series launched the month before our wedding.

A mere five months after our honeymoon, Anthony and I made the decision to move away from Seattle, the place we'd both called home for a decade. As a federal grant manager, his gigs were all term-limited to the length of the grant, usually two to three years, and his grant ran out. Not finding opportunity in Seattle, he cast a wider net, and a position presented itself in a little town called Chehalis.

It was both difficult and easy to leave Seattle. Difficult because of family - my stepson, then in high school - and friends it would be tough to be further away from. But Chehalis is only an hour and a half from Seattle, so we reasoned that these days, that's basically commuting distance, with regular train service between to ease the matter. Still, the decision was not taken lightly. Here we are with Zander at our wedding. 

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And here are my sisters in crime, with whom I shared many a drink and a laugh during years of losing loved ones, divorce, career drama, dating at middle age, and just living, the four of us exploring together all that Seattle has to offer. It hurt to leave them.

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So, in what way was leaving Seattle an easy decision? Anthony and I had been priced out of the housing market, and as Gen Xers, we'd consistently got the short end of the stick, surviving long periods of war, recession, and the dissolution of that nice little thing called pensions, with Social Security not likely to be there for us when we need it. Anthony and I were in our forties and staring into a future that showed little promise of that thing our parents' generation enjoyed: retirement. 

We'd also seen the city change dramatically in our decade as Seattleites, and not usually for the better. I describe this in two farewell pieces I penned for the blog - Bye-bye, Bartell... And Seattle, Too and Seattle, A Love Letter.

We were able to buy a house in Chehalis, a burg of only 7,000 people located at the midpoint between Seattle and Portland.

My working life changed tremendously with the move. I continued to write and edit for the game company where I'd managed a team for the previous four years, but I stepped down from the role as supervisor, passing the baton to my number one hire. I worked 3/4-time and remotely, with once-a-quarter visits to the office. I now also had the responsibility of novelist, as Cat in the Flock had proved just successful enough to push me to write followup books in the series. 

Here's my work crew at our wedding.

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When Anthony first introduced me to Chehalis, I had been very skeptical. It's in a county with a relatively high unemployment rate, and its landscape has been ravaged by meth. But the rural vibe had a certain appeal, and what sold us on the plan was the cute Craftsman house we were able to purchase for a mere fraction of the price it would have fetched in Seattle. We found there a friendly, supportive community, and for awhile, it looked like we might stay.

But then that light bulb of an idea blinked off, in a hurry.

I'd made a solid decision to exit the game company after five years, bolstered by the success of my first novel. Unfortunately, a year after Cat in the Flock released, the self-publishing bubble burst. So I turned to the freelance writing that had provided an income in the past, both journalism and game writing. However, another problem surfaced: Anthony's grant would come to an end, and contrary to what his boss had promised him during the hiring process, she was not going to retire and vacate her (permanent) position. Also, the college president who'd foreshadowed great things for Anthony was, um, fired. With few job prospects in our vicinity, we were in danger of soon finding ourselves without health care and other benefits. Efforts to turn up other opportunities failed.

We'd also, truth told, had a rough time of it in Chehalis. Zander fell into some wrong crowds back in Seattle, and we had to resort to some pretty drastic interventions in order to get him back on track. Of course we blamed ourselves even if it wasn't our fault, and it didn't help that the kid's mother tried to cast blame on us as well. We moved him to Chehalis with us, and he finished his last year of high school there. We also suffered a series of major health problems, and unfortunately discovered that Chehalis' medical offerings left a lot to be desired as we found ourselves taking frequent (and expensive) jaunts to Seattle to see specialists we wouldn't have to report for malpractice.

I know, this all sounds a bit too grave. Here, look at this fun piñata pic from our wedding!

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Fortunately, our extensive efforts to circle the wagons around Zander paid off. We're the proud parents of a hard-working, upstanding, promising young man. He's enrolled full-time at University of Washington and works as an assistant manager in a grocery store. During this very trying spring, he donned a mask and continued on as an essential worker. He also turned out to support his community during the protests that held Seattle for much of the spring. He visited us for two weeks this summer, one as our official intern at Brunette Games.

But back to Chehalis. With the books not earning an income and the full-time job prospects for us both slim, Anthony and I again began to plot our next move. We scoured the scene for opportunities in Walla Walla, his home town, and St. Louis, mine. We got a hit in St. Louis.

After I spotted the university's call for applicants to teach game design in late spring 2017, things moved rather quickly. They offered me a position as visiting professor, and I'd need to start work in St. Louis in July. That left us no time to sell our house, get Zander off to college, pack up, and make the cross-country journey. It proceeded about as awkwardly as you can imagine, with Anthony and I living apart for three months, me trying to string together affordable Airbnbs and having some truly awful experiences (drug deals, broken appliances, and dirty dishes, oh, my!), and the two of us having to put our Chehalis home onto the rental market when it wouldn't sell.

Feeling blue again? Check out this place setting from our wedding.

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I wish I could tell you that St. Louis and this teacher gig were the answer to our prayers, but they were... most decidedly... not.

Fortunately for me, two of the games I'd consulted on and written as a freelancer gained attention, one for its experimental innovation and the other for its commercial success. Suddenly, I had opportunity out the ying-yang, just at a time when I realized the university had overstated its promise of release time for such professional pursuits. Soon I'd have not just a full-time job's worth of game writing on my hands, but enough to hire additional help. Still, I loved teaching, and I had really wanted the university role to work.

But in early 2018, I withdrew my candidacy for tenure. It had become clear that the department's toxic environment would only bring me intense frustration in the years ahead. I also had no respect for the other visiting professor in our rather new, rather small program, and I did not relish the idea of trying to work with him for the long haul.

I ended up dodging a bullet. By spring, my office was barraged with complaints against that other professor, one of them a very serious allegation of sexual harassment. I don't want to spend more ink on this than I already have, so let's just say that I was monumentally relieved that I'd already made the decision to leave. That individual is no longer working at the university, thank goodness, but the fallout will be long-lasting.

Now I know you really need to see this pic of what a little girl looks like when she sees the bride for the first time.

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So in 2018 I hired some of my former game design students, as well as the Seattle-based editor of my books, and we were off to the races as Brunette Games, official. We've been thick with clients and games ever since. By 2019, I was already overwhelmed with the demands of running a business as well as a team, so I cast a sideways glance at Anthony, who worked for a micromanaging boss he didn't respect. He'd landed a position at a local non-profit, but obviously, it was the wrong fit. 

He had a decade of experience in grant management, preceded by a decade in the game industry as a brand manager. We'd already taught together when, in my final semester at the university, we linked my course in narrative design with his course in tabletop games, and it was a huge success. We had a solid marriage built on trust and communication. Surely we could work together, too.

It's been a year and a half since Anthony joined Brunette Games, and we have no regrets. I'm not going to sugarcoat how excruciatingly stressful it can be to go into business for yourselves, but somehow, it's easier knowing you have each other's backs. 

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I call this our "six-pack" marriage for the six years packed full of major life events, and not any other reason. We certainly aren't sporting six packs here, and since we've both lost the ability to drink, we can't count on a six pack to ease our pains. 

But we can crack a joke like anyone's business. We never forget to laugh, or to reach for each other's hand.

P.S. Who took our lovely wedding photos? Alexandra Knight Photography.

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Information Is Good, Even If the Results Are Not - Spring 2020 Growing Season Report Card

Cucumber from Flower
Cucumber growing from flower.

By Lisa Brunette

If I had to sum up my first real vegetable garden season here at Dragon Flower Farm in one phrase, it would be this: It's all information, and information is good.

First, let me just say that I'm proud of my resourcefulness in trying to grow most of our vegetables from seed. This was a huge cost savings, as I avoided losing expensive starts when things didn't work out. Because we're members of the Missouri Botanical Garden, I picked up most of my seeds on a Member's Day discount of 30% off at the Garden shop. These were organic, non-GMO, open-pollinated, untreated seeds put out by Botanical Interests. The rest I purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, a wonderful organization doing its part to "conserve and protect America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage." 

For those keeping track, I'll note the seed sources below with the abbreviations BI (for Botanical Interests) or SSE (for Seed Savers Exchange).

Here's what worked.

Chervil. This was one of the first seeds (BI) to hit the soil, as early as March 7, and it was amazingly prolific. If you've never tried Anthriscus cerefolium, let me introduce you to this wonderful early spring herb. It tastes a bit like a basil-y licorice and makes a delicious pesto. Anthony loves it. When it dies out in early summer, it turns a lovely deep red. All hail, chervil!

Chervil Pesto
Anthony making chervil pesto.

Arugula. On a crisp, clear day at the tail end of March, I planted a big, 3-gram packet (BI) of Eruca vesicaria, also known as rocket. It germinated within five days, the rabbits avoided it, and we had a great arugula harvest - until in short order, it bolted. The high was 66°F and the low 46° when I sowed the seeds. Next year I will try sowing in mid-March instead of waiting those extra two weeks. Even though I planted them next to the fence where they would get some shade late in the day, it just got too hot for them too early in the season. But at least the flowers are edible.

Arugula Harvest
Arugula harvest, including flowers.

However, I'm about to get a second, fall harvest from the same plants. After they went to seed, I shook the seeds into the earth, bent the plants over for a week, and then covered them with a tarp for another three weeks. When I lifted the tarp, the plants had died down. I pushed them aside as a mulch, leaving a row clear for the new seedlings, which have sprouted in great numbers. This move was inspired by a talk given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening, who suggesting using a tarp to squelch a cover crop and then planting directly into the dead plant matter.

Arugula Mulch-in-Place
Arugula, mulched in place.
Arugula Sprouts
Arugula sprouts.

Kale. On April 5 (high 53°F, low 46°), I sowed a huge, 10-gram kale blend pack (BI). These went into another part-shade area, near the base of the elderberry bushes; I read somewhere that they are companion plants. This kale has outperformed every other edible annual except chervil, with a high rate of germination and continuous production all summer. It's just now petering out. 

Nicola potatoes. By April 8, the temperature spiked already to 90°F, and it was on this day that I planted the first batch of seed potatoes (SSE). They did very well planted in a bed that had been mulched the previous fall with leaves (obtained free from neighbors). We only hilled them once, to about 6 inches, as suggested by Paul Wheaton of Permies.com. I just harvested about 3 gallons from one bag of seed potatoes. I don't have anything to compare this yield to, but to me, it was exciting to see all those potatoes.

First Potato Harvest 2020
Spread out to cure.

Borage. As far as robustness goes, this plant gets the blue ribbon. We've had huge borage plants all summer after sowing seeds (both BI and SSE) on April 15. They're a bee magnet, and we've enjoyed the edible flowers (taste like cucumber) in salads and as a water flavoring. We tried the leaves as a sautéed green but were not impressed with that use. It also has medicinal properties, so I might harvest for that.

Sunflowers. These are so easy to grow here in Missouri! I believe the squirrels planted one (our neighbor grows them) that bloomed last year by the back shed. I spread the seeds from that one last fall, and this year, we had a huge patch of sunflowers, all for free. To that patch, I added the variety 'Orange Sun' (SSE), which is just now blooming. I've been dutifully harvesting the seed heads, leaving some for the birds. The goldfinches make quite a meal of them.

Sunflower Close-Up
Sunflowers, originally planted by squirrels.

Scarlet Runner Beans. After first getting devoured by rabbits when they sprouted (SSE), these have rebounded and are in flower right now, making the hummingbirds happy. They've wound all the way up our flagpole. Planting them May 15 seems to have been a good move, but they need protection from rabbits, at least until established; they're leaving them alone now.

Flagpole Beans
Scarlet runner beans, twining up our flagpole.

Lettuce. This went in on May 16 (high 80°, low 64°), which also seems to have been too late. I could have sown it in early March, according to this St. Louis-specific gardening calendar, which I now have in my arsenal. We had some great lettuce harvests until they bolted, too quickly. I used a mesclun mix (BI), but it was heavy with a couple of varieties that were too prickly to eat, and it also contained a good deal of arugula, which duplicated that patch. For the fall season sowing, I'm avoiding the mix.

Cilantro, Dill, and Lemon Basil. I sowed all of these (BI) on June 7, and they did marvelously well, the dill coinciding with the cucumbers nicely for use in pickling. Lemon basil is amazing in pesto. I'm actually not a huge fan of cilantro, so I let it go to seed, and I've harvested a ton of coriander seeds. I think these all could have gone in a tad earlier, though.

Bee on Dill
Bee on dill flowers.

I realize that's not a lot of successes, but considering we made no soil amendments whatsoever, and this was a first attempt in this climate zone, it's not bad. The soil had been turf grass converted through sheet-mulch method to garden space. So it was basically clay soil with a layer of decomposed grass, cardboard, and mulch as a thin topsoil. We did have a small amount of compost. We watered with diluted compost tea around the vining plants on the squash arch and in the cabbage patch, and we spread compost in just a handful of spots.

A few things did... OK.

Amish Snap Peas. Delicious, and the rabbits thought so, too. We finally got some after the rabbits moved on to better fare later in spring. Next year, I'll get more packets, too, as one (SSE) didn't do it, and protect them better. I'll also sow with the chervil in early March.

German Chamomile. Again, one packet (BI) not enough, but this is very nice to have.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

Sage and Rosemary. The saddest seed loss was that none of the perennial herbs germinated, except for a couple of sage plants and two rosemary seedlings. All of the seeds were Botanical Interests except the rosemary, which was from Seed Savers.

Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.' After a good soaking overnight, these seeds all germinated, but they either needed to be sown earlier than April 30, watered better, or both. 

Sweet Potatoes. These actually came from Stark Bros. (where I've purchased many of our fruit trees) as sprouts. The rabbits chomped them down when they went in May 1, but they've since recovered very well, at least judging by what's above ground. We'll see how the harvest is this fall.

'Waltham' Butternut Squash. Two ginormous ones grew from one seed packet (BI) sown May 15 and graced the bamboo arch before it toppled in a severe storm this week (more on that later). We saved them, don't worry.

Squash on Arch 2
Waltham butternut squash on bamboo arch.

Cucumbers. We sowed the 'A&C Pickling' variety (SSE), and they've mostly come in misshapen. But we have managed to get some pickles out of the bunch. These and the squash above could have gone earlier in May.

Red ('Red Acre') and Green ('Copenhagen Market') Cabbage. I've been babying these things ever since sowing seeds (BI) on June 7, way too late, as it turns out. Next time, we sow in early March. A crop of the reds expired during a dry patch, and I replaced them with another set, which I've watered and composted around. They looked really promising until this week, when it seems some insect has discovered them and is making lacework of the leaves just as they're beginning to ball.

Ground Cherries. I didn't think these seedlings (SSE) survived my transplanting, but four of the plants did, and they are doing quite well. These native plants bear fruit that resemble tiny tomatillos, and they taste like a cross between a pineapple and a cherry tomato. Definitely a keeper, and their low habit trails well over our violet ground cover.

After that comes the clear failures, of which there are admittedly many.

Sadly, there were a ton of perennial herbs that never germinated: lavender, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, oregano. None of the bulb onions worked out, and neither did the chives, though we did get a handful of spring scallions, which I grew in part shade. The sorrel was devoured by rabbits. Two attempts at beets failed, though we did get a handful in the second attempt (Chioggia style, with stripes, as in the below image). The carrots grew tops but not roots, the lovage didn't sprout, the turnips made a poor showing, and the comfrey seeds simply ignored me. I don't know why amaranth, which seemed to suggest such wonder, decided life wasn't worth trying. Parsnips made a liar out of whoever told me they like compost, and the broccoli, rue, and St. John's wort all failed to transplant.

Chioggia Stripes
One of the few beets.

What grade would you give us on our gardening report card? I'm going with a C.

Maybe that sounds harsh. After all, we got some food out of our backyard! Not many people can say that. But I feel like a C is fair. It's passing, with plenty of room for improvement. The biggest question is, can we make the A-list without purchasing soil amendments? It was good this first time to see what we can do first on a bare minimum. But next year? We shall see.

Sunrise over the Farmyard
Sunrise over Dragon Flower Farm.

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The Struggle Is Real, the Solution Surprising: What to Do About Galls

Gall2

By Lisa Brunette

It looks like a life form from another planet. But it's definitely terrestrial. Remember that row of evergreen screen trees we planted along our fence line? That was in the fall of 2018, when we had a little help installing a row of nine mature eastern red cedar 'Taylor' trees. This past spring, I discovered massive galls attached to the twigs of many of those trees.

The galls are quite a lot to take in when you first notice them, even in their dry state, as in the above photo. I guess it's a natural human reaction to become simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by things like that, sort of like when you keep flipping through an illustrated book on tropical skin diseases, unable to look away. We've all been there. So it was with equal measures of horror and curiosity that I began to monitor the gall situation. They first appeared in the middle of our rainy spring, and believe me, they are even more startling during wet weather, when the "teliohorns," as they're called, swell and ooze.

Gall1

It's not just a girl thing, either. My brother came by during this time, and he thought I should cut them off the trees, immediately. Anthony was likewise a bit disturbed.

But trying to remove the galls would only spread the spores. While some tree galls are the result of insect activity (feeding or laying eggs), the ones taking up residence in our cedar trees are a type of fungus. The fungus produces growths on the cedar's twig tissues, similarly to warts on human skin. Yeah, does that make it better for you?

If removing the galls isn't the right move, what should you do? The answer: nothing. The fungus doesn't actually hurt the cedar trees. They carry on as if they can spare a few twigs, no problem. So as long as you can handle the sight of those oozy teliohorns emerging out of a shiny sphere like some kind of alien invasion in your garden, it's all to the good.

But this thing isn't called 'cedar-apple rust' for nothing. The issue is the fungus has a two-host life cycle, and the second host is usually a plant in the rose family, particularly apples. 

Now, I had been warned about combining eastern red cedar with an orchard for this very reason, but I'd avoided any issues by choosing disease-resistant apple varieties, such as Arkansas black. It has withstood the spore invasion valiantly. 

But then... I slipped up.

Cedar rust on leaves

I bought a Rome beauty on an impulse, momentarily forgetting it is susceptible to cedar-apple rust. In my defense, it is a good pollinator for the aforementioned Arkansas black, and more suitable as an off-the-tree eating apple than the black, which can be hard and tart. But, yeah, when the galls moved in, the Rome beauty's leaves picked up the rust.

Unfortunately, so did one (but not both) of our serviceberries. I didn't even know cedar rust could infect serviceberries. That one sunk me low. Have you ever eaten a serviceberry? They are delicious, kind of like a combo strawberry/blueberry, only sweeter, but not when they're covered in rust. Just the sight of those teliohorns oozing out of a berry is enough to put you off. Sorry I don't have a photo; I was too sad to take one.

I did not want to use a fungicide to combat the rust since our garden is 100 percent organic; besides, by this point, the rust had already infected the leaves, so it was too late since fungicides work only as a preventative.

Then I remembered an interesting post I'd tripped across previously on a permaculture forum called Permies.com... something about using plumber's tape to combat cedar rust. I retraced my steps and found the post again: It was by someone in the Midwest, in Missouri as well, in fact, who discovered that his home's cedar shingles did not develop cedar rust even when he tried to inoculate them with the fungus. He surmised that the shingle's resistance stemmed from the introduction of metal-frame windows, which act as a kind of fungicide, due to the oxidation from the aluminum, zinc, titanium, and trace lead in the metal windows. He was able to reproduce this effect on his fruit trees with plumber's tape:

...If I attach a piece of plumber's tape (about four inches worth) to the top of the tree, the tree does not develop the fungus.  Plumber's tape is made primarily of lead, zinc and aluminum.  The rain causes the tape to slowly, ever so slowly, rust and the oxidized compound is slowly distributed over the central trunk and the top branches.  Because of the nature and shape of the tree, this same "rust" gets dusted all over the rest of the tree.  Result - just enough anti-fungal action to stop the Cedar/Apple fungus. 

What the hell, I thought, might as well try it. I ordered a coil of plumber's tape and a pair of tin snips and went to work. 

I don't know - this might have saved the Rome beauty! Once I placed the plumber's tape on the tree, the rust ceased to spread. It was early spring at this point, and all of the tree's new growth came in 100 percent without rust, including our first apple. In the next two photos, you can see the rust on the leaves below the tape, but not above it, and the apple is free of rust.

Plumber's tape

Apple

Boosted by that success, Anthony and I took the time to wrap every cedar tree plus every susceptible fruit tree (not just the serviceberry and apple, but the persimmon, too) in plumber's tape. All of the trees are now healthy, and any sign of rust from the spring has given way to fungus-free new growth.

The method checks out as safe; here's this from the original poster on Permies.com:

I have not been able to detect any heavy metal depositing in the soil around the trees (or the house for that matter).  This is a good thing, because I don't want to contaminate my soil.

As you can imagine, I'm quite relieved to see this seemingly crazy, home-grown solution worked. For a while there, I worried we would have to remove all of the cedars. They were planted in a dry, rocky strip that once served as a gravel drive to a garage that is no longer standing, and they took to it with vigor; most other trees would not. They also have high value both to wildlife (as both food and shelter) and to us (as a privacy screen and source of food and medicine, and potentially, wood).

By the way, as an interesting side note, the fungus only took up residence in the 'nativar,' a somewhat cultivated variety called 'Taylor,' but not in either of the true native Juniperus virginianas.

I'm not sure if we'll see the galls return or not next spring, and if they do, whether or not the spores will infect the fruit trees. Our other defense is an increasingly biodiverse 'food forest,' which should also help buffer against the rust. But in the meantime, I humbly give respect to the evolutionary process that produced Gymnosporangium juniperivirginianae. I appreciate its strange... dare I say? Yes: beauty.

Gall 3

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