Lisa Brunette Feed

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.

The flora is waking up here at Dragon Flower Farm after a long sleep. I wish I could say we are, 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

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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.

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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After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, the Importance of Staying Put

Houseplant1

With all this homebound time suddenly at my disposal due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, I recently spent a day repotting our houseplants. This is a routine, mundane activity that most people do every couple of years or so, but the truth is, I've never done it before.

Throughout my entire adult life, I've moved every two to three years, so by this time, I'm usually trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my houseplants rather than adjusting their growth space for the long haul.

I'm apparently not alone in my life of frequent relocations, though I am an extreme example. Americans have historically been a fairly mobile people, with as many as 45 million people up and moving at our peak in 1985, or between 20 to 25 percent of the population that year. 

There are a lot of reasons people move, and mine have run the gamut:

  1. To attend college in 1989, I moved across the Mississippi to St. Louis.
  2. Changes in roommate situations, marital status, jobs, and income meant a whopping 11 separate moves around the St. Louis region between 1993 to 2000.
  3. To attend graduate school, which is how I ended up in Miami, Florida, in 2000.
  4. To take a job in another state, which is why I moved from Florida to Washington state in 2002. 
  5. The chance to buy a house for the first time in 2003 meant a move from renting to owning.
  6. Another job change occasioned my move from Tacoma to Seattle in 2005.
  7. A divorce, which is why I sold my house in Seattle in 2009 and moved into an apartment.
  8. Another change in marital status meant a switch from one apartment to another.
  9. A second chance to own a home, which is why Anthony and I moved from Seattle in 2015.
  10. And finally, a job opportunity in 2017 brought us to St. Louis.

Houseplant4

That's my highly mobile adult life. But I was a military brat, too. As a child, I lived in nine different homes in six different states. My education took place in eight separate schools, and my fourth grade year alone was spread across three schools.

So there's never really been a sense of rootedness or home for me. I lived in Seattle for a decade, in the Ballard neighborhood all that time, so it came close. But that was chunked up over two apartments and a house I had no choice but to sell, so even that was disrupted and impermanent. Plus, I could never shake the feeling in Seattle that I was an outsider, from somewhere else. Being priced out of the real estate market there despite a solid career as a game writer didn't help matters.

St. Louis does often feel like home to me because I lived here for a decade before, during undergrad and the first years of my career spent at the St. Louis Science Center, an iconic local fixture. In a strange way, because I've lived in so many of St. Louis' great old neighborhoods - places like Dogtown, South Grand, the Central West End, and the Loop - even though that decade was also migratory, I feel like St. Louis is really a part of me. Having family in the area helps make it feel like home, too.

Houseplant3

But I miss our family and friends in Washington state, so that sense of home here is tinged with the bittersweet feeling of missing home back there.

As you might have noticed when you checked out that U.S. Census Bureau report I linked to above, our cultural mobility rate is waning. There's a cost to all the frequent moves, from the actual cost of moving itself, which ain't cheap, to the lack of cohesion in our families and communities that can result. It's possible our desire to pull up tent stakes is decreasing as our wages stagnate, resources dwindle, and opportunities in other locales lose their luster. And maybe we crave more stability, to regain what we've lost in all that movement.

The Chinese have a saying, "One move is like two house fires." Constant relocating has definitely taken its toll on me, so the butt root has been firmly planted in Midwest soil, and Anthony, who's moved a good deal himself, feels the same. As we approach the third anniversary of our lives in St. Louis, at the home we're calling Dragon Flower Farm, we're enjoying planning for the long-term, for the first time.

Houseplant2

That means a business we can run together, strengthening family and community ties, and a garden we can see come to full fruition. Having left so many green growing things behind over the years, I'm taking comfort in the future promise of our newly established orchard and perennial edibles, all supported by the native plants - those awesome symbols of permanence and environmental health - that will draw and feed pollinators and insects, restore topsoil, and hold rainwater.

With all the uncertainty ahead - economic, social, global - all we can do is make changes in our own spheres over the things we can control.

The day I repotted my houseplants, I also started some seeds indoors. May they take root, grow, and feed us well.

Seeds1
All photos mine, of our houseplants and seeds.

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Giveaway! Win a Signed Copy of Doug Tallamy's 'Bringing Nature Home'

Bringing Nature Home

Last night we attended a Partners for Native Landscaping event at the Missouri Botanical Garden: "Nature's Best Hope." The event featured native plant expert Doug Tallamy, with a presentation based on his latest book. If you haven't read Doug Tallamy, I highly recommend him. His first book, Bringing Nature Home, helped spawn a rapidly growing movement to focus on native plants in home gardens. With his latest book, he expands upon that to imagine what we could do if we stitched together the fragments of true nature we have left by converting other public and private swathes of land to native plant ecosystems. It's a compelling, inspiring argument.

To help promote these ideas, we're giving away a free, signed copy of Bringing Nature Home. All you have to do to be eligible to win is subscribe to our newsletter. If you're already subscribed, you're automatically in the pool, but please do tell your friends! The drawing happens on March 31, 2020, so sign up before that cutoff date.

Tallamy's lecture at the Botanical Garden was sold out, and today's full-day workshop on native plants is as well. At the reception before last night's talk, Anthony and I had a nice long chat with Marsha Gebhardt, president of the St. Louis chapter of Wild Ones. She mentioned that she and the other Wild Ones leaders (all volunteers) feel like "victims of their own success," as their events are so popular, they're investigating larger meeting venues and generally feeling the growing pains of a swelling membership base.

It's great to see the enthusiasm for native plant gardening, and we hope it continues.

I do want to share an observance I've made after spending a good deal of time self-studying both permaculture and native plant gardening: Permaculturists and native plant proponents need to work together. I see a lot of the same arguments being made by both, which is a key place to have a discussion. But then they're sometimes working at odds due to blind spots on both sides:

  1. Permaculturists can actually do damage to their own and connected ecosystems with their use of invasive species. For example, autumn olive might be a great choice for soil remediation and people food, but even if it's slashed and mulched later, birds could have spread its seeds to sensitive natural areas. It's also just not going to do much in terms of attracting and feeding pollinators and interrelated species.
  2. Native plant gardeners miss the importance of growing one's own food and other human use products, which can mitigate the damage of the agricultural food system. For example, if you're buying 100% of your groceries from a store that trucks most of its supply in from out of state and out of country, you're part of a system that depletes topsoil at alarming rates and poisons a dwindling watershed, no matter what good you're doing in your own yard with native plants.

We're managing our best at Dragon Flower Farm to bridge the two camps, taking the tried and tested practices from both and applying them to our 1/4-acre. I'm sure we'll make mistakes, and we don't claim to be purists by any stretch of the imagination, but we try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We wish you well in your own efforts at sustainability and lifestyle gardening, and as always, tell us what you think in the comments below. Good luck on the giveaway, too!

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We're Featured on the Wild Ones St. Louis Blog!

Logostlouisrgb5

Last week the St. Louis chapter of the national organization Wild Ones honored us with mention on their blog. The post titled "New Member Lisa Brunette: Her Creative Telling of Our Shared Story" went live on Feb. 11th and was mailed out in a newsletter to Wild Ones St. Louis members.

Wild Ones promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. The St. Louis chapter is one of the largest and most active chapters in the Wild Ones network, and it's run by an all-volunteer staff. We joined in early 2019 and have benefited a great deal already from the group's workshops, lectures, home tours, and seed exchanges. 

The native plant movement is part of what inspired our work at Dragon Flower Farm. While I'd previously incorporated native plants into my gardens in the Pacific Northwest, the 1/4-acre native plant food forest we're now developing in the Midwest is quite an ambitious undertaking - one we couldn't do without resources like Wild Ones. It's a privilege to be members.

We encourage you to join a chapter - Wild Ones has 50+ chapters in 18 states located throughout the Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern U.S. And if you're in the St. Louis area, we hope to see you at some of their events. (Shout out to all my Pacific Northwest readers - you're invited to start your own Wild Ones chapters.)

The native plant movement is gaining huge momentum... just today we saw they've broken ground at the world-class Missouri Botanical Garden on a native plant garden. With noted lecturer Doug Tallamy's latest book out this month, the buzz will continue... and it's not just about bees!

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