Three generations in the garden. From left to right, myself, Zander (my son) and Don (my father).
Note: This is the first in a series on gardens that have inspired us. First up is Anthony Valterra (the other half here at Dragon Flower Farm, in case you didn't know), giving a lovely snapshot of a garden I've admired ever since we met, as it's in the fam. - Lisa
I don’t have any clear memory of a time when my father wasn’t gardening. Even when we were renting small houses on the outskirts of Walla Walla, Washington, we at least had a vegetable patch. Every year I remember watching my dad buy and plant seeds. Of course, our family also canned fruit, made salsa, and had a root cellar. My father was the son of dairy farmers and my mother the daughter of very poor immigrants. It makes sense that they would continue to see the dangers of the world being mitigated by a small garden and some canned foods on a shelf under the house.
But as time passed, both my mother and father moved from gardens that were purely practical to ones that were a combination of practical and decorative. My parent’s divorced, and although my mother continued gardening, for her it became a hobby. But my father, after he retired from teaching, went pro. He now runs Thompson Landscaping in Walla Walla. And he helps his current wife (my stepmother) Cyndi Thompson with her business, My Grandmother’s Garden. The two businesses are located on their property in Walla Walla, and where one begins and the other ends is probably not terribly clear to someone arriving for the first time. The small cabin that is My Grandmother’s Garden moves seamlessly into the landscape and greenhouses that is Thompson Landscapes. Dear old dad has even had a bit of national recognition with a pictorial of his and Cyndi’s home in Sunset Magazine (about 1989). We're hard-pressed to find a copy, but here's a shot my wife recently took of the entrance to My Grandmother's Garden to make up for it.
'Seamless' is not hyperbolic.
After I had gone off to college, Dad’s interest in and skill at gardening and garden art kept developing. His skill with layout and plants was always good, but it quickly become noted enough for him to be contracted to landscape local wineries, the local community college, and private homes (often of the people who owned the wineries – lots of money there). But one of the more ironic twists in my father’s gardening journey was his discovery that dried grapevines make a terrific artistic medium. My father taught junior high and coached. All his life he has been an avid sports fan – both professional and college. Being a teacher, and a sports fan - he would sometimes remark on the academic potential of college athletes who seemed (at least in interviews) to not be terribly bright. My dad’s go-to comment was that they were taking “basket weaving” classes.
Lisa tells me these are not grapes. Shows what I know.
As I said, my father grew up poor, and so he has the attitude of, "Well, why should I buy that? I can make it myself?" One of the first businesses he and Cyndi tackled was flowers for weddings. And one of the common elements of those arrangements is a "flower basket." They grew the flowers, but where to get the baskets? Dad convinced himself (and his clients) that he could weave them out of dried grapevines. And he succeeded. Thus my father found that weaving baskets was not something to be taken lightly, and also (when filled with flowers for a wedding) could be very lucrative.
A friendly visitor.... wild grasses... and a Honeysuckle Trumpet (not all Dad's plants are natives)
Now in his late 70’s, my father has slowed down. The garden around his home is still immaculate. It is filled with gorgeous flowers, grasses, and trees. He does have some edible plants, but they are mostly planted for their appearance - such as an exquisite dwarf lemon tree - rather than to be eaten. His garden attracts all manner of pollinators and even the occasional wild animal (moose, fox, deer, rabbits have all been seen wandering onto the property). He still has large greenhouses where he grows plants both to sell and for landscaping. But nowadays he spends most of his time designing, and he lets younger hands lift the heavy trees and do the planting.
But if you ever get out to Walla Walla (and trust me, the only reason you would wind up in Walla Walla is if that was your destination) – it is worth a short trip down 3rd street to see My Grandmother’s Garden and Thompson Landscapes.
Aren't these roses lovely? They're one of the few plants in the Dragon Flower Farmyard that we were able to keep, since they aren't invasive or nuisance plants that steal resources from native plants, pollinators, and animals without giving anything in return. Not that they're GREAT or anything, from an ecological point of view. They're still ornamental and exotic. But at least they're not on the Missouri Conservation Department's list of thug plants, as were the winter creeper (now gone) and Japanese honeysuckle (also gone).
This time I'm here to share the last chapter of the fence-install story, and it's a shocker.
For financial reasons, we split the fence job, completing the side between us and the apartment building during the summer and opting to finish in November. I wasn't sure they could dig the posts in as late as the week after Thanksgiving, but our friends at Just Wooden Fences said it would be no problem.
We assumed the fence on the rear and northwest sides would be the same. But we were wrong. It was much, much worse.
Yeah, it looked like the edge of the demilitarized zone. Images of the Gestapo came to mind.
Although the honeysuckle vine was invasive, it had served as a rather attractive green screen. Taking it out left a large swath of bare, ugly fence topped with barbed wire.
But why? Who or what had they kept in? Or out?
We'll never know. But that fence had to GO.
By the way, in the above photo, you can also see the tremendous round mound of ditch lilies, reviled by many but actually pretty harmless, as far as plants go. A big circle of orange ditch lilies doesn't do much for us, aesthetically or self-sufficiency-wise, but I understand they ARE fully edible, so maybe we'll keep some around and experiment.
Again, you can imagine what a relief it was when the fence posts went up.
We felt really exposed after the honeysuckle came down and before Just Wooden Fences began work, but once the fence started to take shape, the farmyard began to feel a lot cozier. And we got a ton of compliments from our neighbors on all sides.
The cedar really is lovely in its natural state, and I wish we could leave it that way, but of course if we didn't stain and seal it, the planks would weather to a dull grey in no time. The fence also wouldn't last as long.
By the way, here above is another view of the french drain installed by Horstmann Bros. The drain is underneath these rocks, between our house and the four-family flat next door. We have had ZERO leaks in the basement since the drain went in, despite torrential downpours, a foot of snowmelt, and generally a ton of moisture all winter long. The farmyard is basically one big mudscape right now. But the basement's dry! Yay!
Here's my handsome husband, Anthony, surveying the job, mid-install. Behind him you can see the empty spot near the corner of the yard where we had Horstmann remove a willow tree that had been badly sited beneath power lines and then aggressively topped off. The tree was ill-grown and damaged, half of it succumbing to disease.
Here's where the new fence joins the section installed in the summer. You can see how the stain gives the wood a golden hue. I still like the look of the raw cedar better, myself, but the golden version is lovely, too, and totally worth it to protect the fence, which is quite an investment!
Next time, I'll share details on our first plantings, which happened all through the late fall and early winter, too. I guess this is surprising to people, since most do all their planting in spring, but it's actually better to plant many trees and plants in the fall and winter, when they are dormant.
Thanks again for your interest in our urban farm project, and please tell us what you think in the comments below. Are you pro-fences? Anti? I know some people think of them as unnecessary barriers, but we wanted the privacy, security, and visual screen only a fence affords.
Last year was an epic one for me personally, with the launch and steady ramp up for Brunette Games. I like judicious, nimble startups, testing and tweaking as I go, which is why I didn't opt to spend a lot of resources on flashy things like a new web site and branding last year. Since I found myself knee-deep in inquiries without those things, I thought it best to focus on what makes a business successful: its people. And I'm glad I did. I'm smack dab in the Midwest quietly building the best narrative team in the casual game business ;).
But now we're at that flex point where the original blog, Cat in the Flock, can no longer contain Brunette Games. So it's time to split the sites.
As you can see from last week's countdown of the top 10 blog posts of 2018, our game content is popular--but so are our lifestyle stories, such as the ongoing saga of Dragon Flower Farm. We can see the quirky connections between these two topic areas, as I tried to articulate last week:
...the real-world design play we engage in with the farm mirrors the virtual farms and gardens of the games we love to play and design, such as Gardenscapes, Matchington Mansion, My Beauty Spa, FarmVille 2, and more. One inspires the other.
This cross-inspiration is really me. I'm a total generalist with a lot of varying interests and an abiding curiosity about SO MANY THINGS. I tend to resist compartmentalizations.
HOWEVER, we admit it's a bit of a leap to put the two disparate worlds of gaming and lifestyle together (unless you've practiced D&D-themed yoga?). Some readers might just want advice on how to craft better game storylines, without the updates on how the farm is doing. Other readers have been with me since the Dreamslippers days and are only mildly curious about my game work--bless you for your loyalty and ongoing support--but I don't want to inflict you with a lot of game industry stuff if that's not really your jam.
Supporting the site are a new Instagram account (@brunettegames) and Facebook page. We will also send out an email digest for readers who prefer to get their blog content in one monthly wrap-up. Here's the really important part:
We will migrate all Brunette Games clients past and present to this list, along with anyone else who looks to us like obvi gamer types. If you don't think you fall into those categories and would like to sign up for the Brunette Games list anyway, please do so here.
Last week I wrote about my dramatic transition from professor to CEO over the course of 2018, so by now you've got a sense of how epic the year was. But in addition to working on nine different games for six different clients, the Brunette Games team also managed to bang out a blog post each week. You might be surprised which ones rose to the top. We were! I'm particularly excited to see one of my team members' game reviews rise to the #3 spot, as it shows there's readerly interest in the full range of voices that make up Brunette Games. I look forward to bringing many more posts from Dexter, Elisa, and Tamsen to you in 2019. Now on to the list.
...Drumroll, please... These are the top ten, in reverse order. You know, like a countdown.
This one surprised me, as it seemed hyperlocal on two levels, first because PixelPop is a relatively small (but growing!) game con, and second because of my indulgence in alma mater nostalgia with the SLU bit. But it was gratifying to showcase some up-and-coming developers here, and the popularity of this post is testament to their growing platforms.
Little-known fact: I'm responsible for Rex Houston in the hit game Matchington Mansion. Antagonists are important!
During the spring and summer, I created two presentation workshops and presented at four different events. One of the workshops was on the why and how of game storytelling, and I broke that into two posts for the blog, which came in here at #9 as well as #6. I was really glad to find both of these in the top ten, seeing as how designing game storylines is why we even exist.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the top ten list is that two of the posts here are about my side project, Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea whether or not anyone would want to read about this quarter-acre urban farm experiment. But our struggles with privacy fencing and eradicating invasive plants really resonated with readers. To me, the real-world design play we engage in with the farm mirrors the virtual farms and gardens of the games we love to play and design, such as Gardenscapes, Matchington Mansion, My Beauty Spa, FarmVille 2, and more. One inspires the other.
Speaking of which, this post about our deep eradication of a massive overgrowth of honeysuckle vine is actually one of my favorites. I kind of let myself loose on this one, and I think it shows. It was also great to spread the love to both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Horstmann Brothers Landscaping, which helped us so much in planning and pruning.
Clementine, a brilliant and memorable game character. Source: Wikipedia.
We're back to my two-part series on game storytelling, with this one on "why" doing a couple of notches better than than the other one on "how." That's interesting, since you'd think the question of why story matters in games would be put to rest by now, BUT APPARENTLY NOT.
One of my favorite classroom activities was inspired by a romance story I wrote for a bingo game. Yep. I believe the quirky fun of this one drew readers in, especially since it's a bit outside genre for me, after focusing for years on mystery games and books (although the Dreamslippers enjoy their share of romance).
In the intro above, I mentioned that one of the top 3 posts of the year was written by someone else on the team, and that's Dexter Woltman, whose brilliant review of Lifeline: Crisis Line proves that high-quality content will find an audience. I also think that the intersection of mystery novel and game here naturally appeals to an audience many of whom have been with me through the Dreamslippers days. I love Dexter's thoughtful voice, which is part of why I hired him, and I can't wait to see what else he can do.
The first post of 2018 occupies the number two spot on the list, and that surprised me, too. Maybe y'all just like a year-end recap, or maybe the dramatic 'end of the dream' headline made you click. Either way, it's always hard for me to write these more personal reflections on my work life, and I had to fight cringing when I saw this one's ranking. It is really something to read it in light of last week's post on my transition from professor to CEO, though. As a writer, I've weathered some shifting winds, that's for sure.
And NOW... for the top of the top blog post in 2018...
In-development game art for the Crime Stories series.
Yay! I was so psyched to see this get the top spot, as it's pretty much the most exciting collaboration of my game design career. This mystery-themed, interactive, story-driven series takes all of the elements of narrative and game and combines them into one super project. I can't wait to share more.
So... we'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Did anything on this list surprise you? What were your favorites? What would you like to see in 2019?
First, I want to say thanks for your interest in our little farm project. I wasn't sure if this content would gain an audience, so when my last post on the Dragon Flower Farm basically BROKE THE BLOG, I was pretty pleased. Because that means I have a reason to keep writing about it!
So last time we walked you through stage one, which was to remove an eyesore of a zig-zag fence, as well as some truly noxious weeds. I mean, invasive plants. That winter creeper was on the list of "thug plants" identified by the St. Louis Audubon during their site assessment this summer, and we don't miss it. I wish I could say that was the last of the invasives, but no...
Wait. Maybe I should back up and explain what I mean by "invasives" and why we would label some plants "thugs," as if they're getting all tatted up (not that tattoos are naturally a sign of thug life) and hiding unregistered firearms under their mattresses (if you're doing this, I have no defense for you). There is literally a whole class of plants that don't play by the rules at all. They don't take turns, they don't share space, and they hoard all the food, light, air, and water for themselves. On top of that, they spread through any means necessary, proliferating more like a virus or a parasite than a plant.
I know this is going to sound bad in a really un-PC way, but this invasion thing happens most often with exotic ornamental plants that aren't from here. But plants are not people, people, so please don't be offended, as I don't believe this applies to people AT ALL. Now on to the plant problem. Because these exotics have been uprooted and set down in a foreign environment, they are no longer subject to their natural predators or other growth-stabilizing factors, such as climate. And they go insane, crowding out native plants, taking over whole forests, and becoming a general nuisance.
Yes, even the pretty ones.
Perhaps you were drawn in by the delicate, orchid-like petals of the flower in the photo at the top of this post: Japanese honeysuckle, AKA Lonicera japonica. It's quite lovely, this plant. In its native environment, I'm sure it makes for a wonderful garden vine. Its dark green, ovate leaves foreground the vanilla cream-to-pale yellow flowers that appear in May. The scent they give off is intoxicating, a heady, thick sweetness you can practically taste. In fact, you can taste it; pull the pistil out and touch its end to your tongue, and it's like a dab of sugar. In fall, the flowers give way to bright red berries.
But here in the Midwest, its beauty is a betrayal. It takes up valuable real estate, covering whole forests in dense vine, while offering very little to native butterflies and other pollinators in return.
In our back forty, or, um, quarter acre, it covered most of the remaining chain link fence, which means it spanned about 2/3rds of the property line. That's a lot of vine, and it ALL HAD TO GO.
I'd had my suspicions about honeysuckle--but they were accompanied by fond memories of sipping that dab of sugar from the pulled pistils. I had associated honeysuckle WITH the Midwest. Yeah, that's how invasive it is. So when the reps from the Audubon Society recommended removing it, that was a lot to absorb.
Initially, we tabled its removal. But then we found out that the best time to rid yourself of honeysuckle is in the fall, once the native plants around it have gone dormant.
Still. That's a LOT of vine to remove. We'd go out there and stare at it, scratching our heads...
...and come up with no gumption whatsoever. And if there's one thing I've learned over four separate bouts of home ownership, it's that one must have gumption for this kind of task.
Lacking it ourselves, we decided to call in reinforcements.
Horstmann Brothers came to the rescue, with plenty of gumption to spare. I realize we're lucky not to have to deal with the dreaded vine ourselves and that not everyone can hire help like this. For us, it was worth it, as we didn't have any of the tools they had, and while we could have rented them, we believe there's a time and place to let an expert in to do the job better than you can, and this was definitely one of those times, and one of the most obvious places.
That vine WAS A MO. And I'm not talking about Missouri here. It had apparently been planted back when Lonicera japonica had first been introduced to the Midwest in 1806 and had been given free rein to spread itself, unimpeded, ever since.
But it was no match for the awesome two-man crew from Horstmann. These guys had the tools, and they had the talent (yes, that was totally a Ghostbusters ref). I can't say enough good things about them, and I'm getting nothing in exchange for this praise. We'd tried out a different company (that will go nameless) prior to this one and WERE NOT IMPRESSED. These guys did twice the amount of work with half the staff. Seriously.
Horstmann removed the vine entirely, along with a lot of other sad-face-making plant situations, such as a diseased, dysfunctional willow tree that had been poorly placed directly under a power line and then aggressively cut back every year (please, for the love of God, site your plants appropriately, people). We treated the honeysuckle roots/stumps ourselves (i.e., my husband did it) with glyphosate, as recommended by everyone and their cousin in the plant business. My personal feeling, especially as someone who struggles with allergy/autoimmune issues, is that there are already more than enough chemicals in the world, but since we couldn't very well conduct a controlled burn here in the suburbs, where they won't even let us build a fence over 6 feet tall, we had to settle for chemical means. Even though Horstmann cut the vine down to the roots, it will of course spring back with vengeance if it's not killed. We will probably be fighting this foe the rest of our farming lives, even with the chemical intervention.
While we had Horstmann on hand, we also asked them to create a drainage swale to move water from between our house and a neighboring building and out into the farmyard, where we'll plant a rain garden. This should hopefully solve a leaky basement problem. I like this approach, solving drainage issues using ecological solutions that are also cost-effective, as we didn't have to spring for an expensive sump-pump or basement remediation.
Here's where the water now drains, into a cache of rocks. My niece, who's on the spectrum and has a delightfully unique way of viewing most things, sees this as a "rock nest." Last time she was over, she laid out a perfect pattern of twigs along the perimeter. Now I can't not think of this as a rock nest.
We found Horstmann on a list of landscapers recommended by the St. Louis Audubon Society. I know I keep mentioning this group, but they've really been helpful in getting the right plan in place for the DRAGON FLOWER FARM; I'm really impressed with their Bring Conservation Home program and want to shout it to the rooftops until every MO citizen participates. I feel frustrated much of the time about the loss of ecosystem and bird habitat and not just out of a love for birds, though how could you not love birds, but because we NEED birds and other pollinators to ensure our own food supply. I often feel powerless over climate change and environmental degradation, but here is something I can do in my own backyard. It's that simple.
I realize I've been busy showing you nothing but REMEDIATION and INFRASTRUCTURE, and that you might be wondering when I'm going to get to the fun part, where we plant things. That's exactly what I've been wondering, too. But don't worry... fall's actually a good time to plant, so I'll have deets about that soon(ish). Thanks again for your interest in our farm!
By the way, you might notice I dropped "mini" from the name DRAGON FLOWER FARM. It was too cumbersome, and who's to say what's mini, anyway? This is our mighty farm!