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How to Harvest and Use Lilacs and Violets

Lilac drink
A lilac-y cocktail.
Harvested lilac
Lilacs, harvested and drying.

By Lisa Brunette

We've latched onto the idea of "permaculture" here at Dragon Flower Farm, drawn to the movement's emphasis on independence through a garden stocked with human-use plants. So rather than only enjoying the sight and smell of the spring season's plethora of petals, we challenged ourselves to make use of them as well. 

Now there are tons of sites on the Internet that tackle the subject of how to make your own concoctions from botanicals, some of them even devoted to a particular flower. I'd like to show how we worked with two flowering plants, both of which we got for free:

  1. violet, a low-growing ground cover and volunteer that's native to our region
  2. lilac, an exotic ornamental that was already here when we bought the property

Some caveats about the violet: What we have growing here in abundance is viola sororia. The leaves and flowers are edible, but the flower is not aromatic, so that does limit its uses. You can think of it as beneficial for the "green" taste of the leaves and flowers, its medicinal qualities (it has been used throughout history to treat headaches, coughs, and colds, for example), and its fun, kind of amazing use as a natural dye.

Violets

Violets are an example of what permaculturists call a plant with a "stacked function." Not only can people make great use of violets for food, medicine, and dye, but they are also a useful ground cover, AND they support fritillary butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves so their larvae can feast on them when they hatch.

So, how do you get them from your yard to your pantry? Some herbal sources recommend the traditional method of drying plants, which is to hang them upside down in bunches in a dark place with good air circulation, as in the image of lilac bundles above. This seems more difficult with violets, as they're quite short, and rather than harvesting the entire plant, you can simply snip off the flowers, as we did to get this bowlful. 

Harvesting violets

If you want to be a purist about the petals, you can separate them from the green caps, but we left them on. We also harvested a crop of leaves and petals, drying them in a dehydrator to use later as tea. This is Anthony's ancient dehydrator - he's had it since college. You can see it has that look of "hippie stuff from the late 80s/early 90s." And it works great.

Drying violets

Like I said, with the sororia variety, you're talking about a "green" tea. It can be a bit blah, so you might want to mix it with something more tasteful, such as mint or chamomile. We tried it fresh, too, and it was pleasant but very mild. Still, you're getting the medicinal benefits this way, and it's a nice alternative to Asian green tea if, like me, you're sensitive to any caffeine at all.

Violet tea

Now back to that bowl of fresh violet petals. It's a terrific dye! Its best use, in my opinion, is as a natural dye for vinegar. This would have colored Easter eggs easily. All you do is drop a bunch of petals in the bottom of a jar, pour white vinegar over the top, and leave it in that handy cool, dark place for a few days. Because the vinegar can react with metal, I added a square of wax paper to the top, between the lid and jar. Nothing fancy - here's what it looks like in a reused jam jar.

Violet vinegar

Since the violets aren't aromatic, they're not particularly sweet or flavorful, either, so I later took the above vinegar and added lilac flowers to it as well, giving it a sweet kick. It's a terrific combo - violet and lilac - the violets for the purple hue, and the lilacs for the sweet flavor. I made up jars for everyone in my family and dropped them off at their homes during quarantine. It was a nice excuse to see them while observing social distancing. Since my mother likes to drink apple cider vinegar as a gut tonic, I made hers with an unfiltered variety of that vinegar. It was a bit cloudier and not as purple but still a nice hue. The flowers are really pleasant, floating in the jar. Over time, the color leaches out of them, and they go pale but still look neat.

Anthony and I also tried our hands at syrups. I started with a violet syrup but likewise realized that for the greater taste, I'd need another petal. The lilac one Anthony made turned out the best. These are a little more involved than the vinegar. First, you do need to make sure you separate the green bits from the petal, which is easier to do with lilac blossoms. This will preserve the lilac color, whereas the green makes it appear muddier.

Lilac harvesting

To make the syrup, you first have to soak the petals in hot water overnight:

  1. Heat water to boiling in a saucepan.
  2. Let it cool a minute after boiling, and then pour it over the petals.
  3. Cover the water-and-petals mixture, letting it steep overnight.

The next day, you can strain off the liquid. Here's what it looks like using just violets, with the green caps left on. You can see it's not quite the purple color I'm looking for, and part of that's because I left some green on, but we'll get a brighter hue later, I promise.

Violet syrup2

Next it's time to add sugar. You can use two cups of sugar for every one cup of flower water, or vary this if you want it less sweet. You might also try swapping out the sugar for honey or another substitute, though they will likely alter the syrup color. I dissolved the sugar over a low heat, stirring constantly. Some recipes call for a bain marie or double boiler, but that really didn't seem necessary. The sugar dissolved just fine for me without it.

Now here's the fun part, as this becomes a sort of kitchen science experiment. In the above example with the vinegar, the acidic quality of that medium triggered the color clarity. But for syrup, we're obviously not using vinegar, so we need something else: lemon juice. 

Violet syrup3

Add that to your syrup, and a change begins to occur. You can see the tinge of purple here. Now give the jar a little swirl, and...

Violet syrup4

Voila! Now this one with just violets, cap on, is a bit on the mauve side, but the lilac one came out pink. We used lilac syrup for drinks during our quarantine Easter, just Anthony and me, imbibing that flowery, springtime goodness. You can float blooms in the glass, too, for an added touch.

Lilac drink2

While it's tempting to stop at the cocktail stage and call it a day, I've got two more uses for you, both infusions using lilacs.

The first was the easiest of all. I simply took a bottle of witch hazel and added fresh lilac blossoms to it. They've given the witch hazel a lovely lilac scent. I use this as a facial toner/astringent, and now it's even more of a freshening pick-me-up as lilac-infused witch hazel.

Lilac witch hazel

Last but certainly not least is lilac-infused olive oil. For this one, it's necessary to dry the lilacs first, as the moisture in them can interact badly with the oil, and in a worst-case scenario, actually mold. But drying them by hanging them upside-down for a week or two first will do the trick. Then you can insert the lilac into bottles and pour olive oil over the top.

Lilac oil1

I let the oil-and-dried lilac concoction sit for a few days again in cool, dark location. The oil picks up the flavor and sweetness from the lilac, and it also makes for an attractive gift. I gave my mother one for Mother's Day, the same day I went over to trim her own lilac, as the blooms by then were spent, and it was a good time to prune. It was a lilac-y day!

Lilac oil2

Violets bloom for about a month or so, and lilacs for even less time, so you have to act fast when it comes to making use of spring ephemerals. But it's worth setting aside some weekend or evening hours for the task, and it's a great excuse to get outside and enjoy the cool spring season, with birds and beneficial bugs returning, and so much springing to life all around you.

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

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front Walk 2020

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

Lilac Buds 2020

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

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

Serviceberry Spring 2020

Happy spring, y'all!

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

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

There's definitely a missed opportunity here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Fountain on Vase

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

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

Breezeblock Bath

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

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

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

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

Bird Bath Needs Cleaning
Time to clean this one.

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

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

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

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

Houseplant1

By Lisa Brunette

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.

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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.

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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.

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All photos mine, of our houseplants and seeds.

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