Native Plants Feed

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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The Trials and Triumphs of Sowing from Seed

Dill
The umbels of dill flowers.

By Lisa Brunette

Every food plant you see pictured here in this post was grown from seed. Unfortunately, for every one of those, there's another plant that was supposed to have grown from seed but did not.

One of our bummers this summer is that only about half of the seeds sown this spring germinated. It's a good thing our survival didn't depend on the success of those seeds, or we'd have more than a pandemic and a constant stream of social outrage to worry about here in 2020.

Still, we're pretty thrilled with the Dragon Flower Farm all the same. We've had a bumper crop of kale from just one packet of seeds, and before the arugula bolted, it was mighty tasty.

Arugula_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on arugula flower.

Seed sowing is a bit of a roller coaster ride. It's a thrill-a-minute to watch seedlings sprout up where you did nothing more than place a bit of fluff in the dirt. It seems audacious and incredible, and you wonder why everyone isn't putting seeds in the ground everywhere, every day. But when only maybe a few out of a whole packet germinates, it can feel like when you go on one of those rides that's so short, it's over before it even began. Is that it? You wonder. What did I do wrong? Even worse is when you carefully place a whole packet of seeds in the ground and get nothing, as if you waited in line for an hour only to have the ride shut down once you hit the turnstyle.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

This was the first year I've ever set out to grow a substantial kitchen garden. All of my past gardening forays were either rehabilitative (I'm pretty good at rescuing f'd up landscapes) or cut short, as I left the gardens just as I was getting started (read about my lifetime of frequent moves here). I'm also doing things differently by fusing the native plant garden approach with permaculture techniques. So I expected to make a lot of mistakes, and to largely learn by doing. While there are a lot of books out there, for both native plant and permaculture gardening, so much of what you do is site-specific and theoretical. You're working with nature, too, and she's got a mind of her own.

Nasturtium
Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.'

I've been puzzling over what went wrong and have a handful of lessons learned that I'll share here, as I still think sowing from seed is the move, in so many ways. It's tons cheaper, and if you get into seed saving, you pretty much have a continuous food loop without having to buy new seeds or plants. Don't let my dismal 50 percent success rate dissuade you; I'm not giving up by any means! But here's what I'm thinking about.

  • Probably the seeds didn't get enough water. We had a long dry spell, and coupled with a crushing amount of work at the day job, I just didn't get out there to hydrate them often enough.
  • The rabbits ate most of the early-season seedlings, as there wasn't much else growing for them at the time. Peas, lettuce, carrots - it was all tasty food for rabbits, and we didn't have enough protection to ward them off.
Borage_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on borage flower.
  • I don't believe the ground was quite 'ready' for all the tender annuals. We had a layer of newish, still-decomposing mulch, grass, and cardboard over the top of that lovely Midwestern clay you hear gardeners bemoaning. Our soils are actually the perfect Ph for growing most food plants, but that clay needs to be aerated, somehow, and since I'm going entirely no-till, I didn't want to dig it up. I'm still working on this one, but I think it basically comes down to a long-term investment in building up the soil.
  • Some seeds could have benefited from a little prep beforehand. Too late I read that beet seeds do well with a soaking in water. I'd done that with all of the nasturtiums, and they germinated in due time, at a fairly good rate.
Squash_Flower
Squash flower.
  • We didn't get the seeds and seedlings (started indoors) out there in time. I'm still adjusting to the growing season here, and I hesitated too long in spring, with that Prince song "Sometimes It Snows in April" playing in my head. Hence, bolted broccoli and arugula.
  • Speaking of seedlings, I don't have a great place to start seeds indoors because #Chaco. Our little monkeycat won't leave potted baby growing things alone, so they were a little spindly because I tried to get them going in a weird spot where I could keep them barricaded and netted.

Sure, blame it on the cat, he says.

But the cool thing is, here in USDA Zone 6a, I've got another chance at the broccoli and carrots, starting... now. I've got more seed packets coming, my friends, and I know just what to do with them... At least, I think so?

Cilantro_Flower
Cilantro flowers.

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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flowers
Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flower

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I have considered carefully how much of the garden we want to allocate to native plants that aren't a direct food source for ourselves vs. traditional orchard and vegetable plants that do feed us. So far we've tried to learn as much as we can about native edibles and have designed the garden to include them.

But it was exciting to learn through the Shutterbee program (read more about that here) that native bees can make great use of traditional vegetable and herb flowers as a pollen source. That's right: As part of my training as a citizen scientist conducting bee studies in my own yard, I was instructed not to overlook the vegetable patch and herb garden. 

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

Most efforts to promote pollinator habitats focus on native flowers such as milkweed and coneflower, which are terrific additions to the garden that we've definitely incorporated. But this is the first I've heard that food plants could support native bees! That's an exciting finding because it means the annual vegetables we're growing get an added "stacked function." In permaculture, that means it has more than one use in the garden - here as both food source for us and a pollen and nectar source for bees. There's even a specialized 'squash bee' that is so-named because it prefers the flowers of squash plants.

For my first official foray into the farmyard to record bees, I was pleased to find that indeed, native bees were busy taking advantage of the flowering vegetable plants. I'd left the arugula standing when it bolted in the summer heat, and it's popular with tiny sweat bees.

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

So that's one more compelling reason to grow food in your yard. The list was already pretty long, but here's what we've got now. By growing your own food, you will:

  1. Save money, especially if you grow from seeds. You could also get a secondary set of money savings from a reduced need for medicinal interventions, whether that's from traditional medicine or alternatives.
  2. Eat healthier, as your food won't lose integrity via shipping and storing, and if you grow organically, you'll cut out pesticide contamination. You're also likely to eat more veggies because they're fresh and tasty.
  3. Get more in touch with the cycle of life as you take part in it as a mulcher, composter, and seed-sower.
  4. Enjoy a motivating daily workout as you put sweat equity into something that yields more than a toned physique.
  5. And now we can add: Help pollinators by providing them a much better food source than turf grass!
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber - I use it in salads and to flavor water

Of course, if you want pollinators to take advantage of the flowers, you need to leave them there. The broccoli I started from seed indoors mostly faltered, but a few took off, and then quickly bolted (next year, we try a different approach). The flowers are pretty, so why not let them go? Ditto the chervil and arugula, both of which love cool weather and are pretty much done now that it's 90+ degrees here in June. That reminds me, the arugula is about to go to seed, so I better get out there and snag the remaining leaves...

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

Leafcutter Bee on Rudbekia
A leafcutter bee on our yellow coneflower.

By Lisa Brunette

This spring I joined with 186 other participants in a research project called Shutterbee. Without needing to meet in person, we will conduct a study of the bee populations in our gardens. It basically works like this:

  • Shutterbee ecologists train us in their research techniques and protocol.
  • We learn how to identify, photograph, and record our bee populations using a phone app called iNaturalist.
  • Every two weeks, we spend at least 20 or 30 minutes taking a walking survey of our gardens, photographing bees using the protocol.
  • We then upload our findings to iNaturalist for both Shutterbee's and the general community's ID and record.

I've already gone through the two-stage training sessions, about five hours of education and practice spread over two weekends. Due to COVID-19, the trainings were held online, making this low-touch research project even less-touch. Researchers at Webster University and Saint Louis University are trying to determine whether non-invasive photo surveys can adequately take the place of traditional netting. Normally, bee researchers head out into the field, capturing bees with nets for study. This project explores whether or not photo surveys by citizen scientists can take the place of netting, or at least contribute to it. 

Bee on Wild Garlic
This bee on wild garlic is still awaiting ID.

The answer to that seems to lie with us, the program participants. Based on previous years, what researchers have seen is that while the richness and diversity of bee recordings carries across to the citizen scientist findings, we amateurs in the field often miss the rare bee sightings. So Shutterbee has asked us to keep an eye out for bees that seem to break the bee mold, so to speak. For me, being a good citizen scientist means learning as much as I can to think and act like an ecologist, getting to know the bees in my garden and the plants they prefer.

Shutterbee
The Shutterbee logo, designed by students at Webster University.

The focus of this study is native bees, not the honeybee, which is a non-native, domesticated insect considered by many to fall into the livestock category. While colony collapse disorder in the European honeybee population is of concern to agriculture, it's the decline in native bee populations that fuels this research project. Native pollinators are important because:

  1. 87% of flowering plants are animal-pollinated
  2. 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators
  3. Many of our most nutritious foods need pollinators*
Bee on Wild Hydrangea
A native bee in the family Megachilidae, on wild hydrangea.

I've already learned a lot from this study, such as how to tell bees from flies or wasps. You might think that's a simple task, but you should think again. Many flies have evolved to mimic the look of bees as a defensive mechanism.

Daisy fleabane
Looks like a bee, but it's a hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher,' here on daisy fleabane growing in our wild patch.

After a few test-walks through the garden, I've also learned that all the work to remove invasive plants and exotics and replace them with native plants is worth it. During my surveys, it was the flowering natives that drew the bees for me to photograph, as shown in all of the photos on this page.

I'm excited to take part in this program, offered jointly by Webster University and Saint Louis University. I served as visiting professor in the game design department at Webster during the 2017-18 school year, and one of my students was our first full-time hire at Brunette Games. Not only is Saint Louis University my undergrad alma mater, but we also recently hired two more students from SLU's English department to our Brunette Games staff.

Ligated furrow bee on Rudbekia
The yellow coneflower is popular. This visitor is a ligated furrow bee.

Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann has been an awesome educator and evangelist so far in her leadership of Shutterbee, and I look forward to meeting everyone in the program in person, hopefully, in the future. If you're in the St. Louis area and interested in participating, you still can next year. While the program is at capacity for now, it's a multi-year study, and Shutterbee plans to train more people in 2021.

What's buzzing in your garden? Post your bee pics below!

* According to educational materials distributed by Shutterbee.

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Daisy fleabane
A 'margined calligrapher' on daisy fleabane.

By Lisa Brunette

We're nearing the end of year three here at the Cat in the Flock farmhouse, and that means a lot of the native plants we've either added ourselves or that have seen fit to volunteer are blooming. The saying with natives goes, "First year sleep, second year creep, and third year leap," and we're now in the leap year on many of these flowering plants.

Remember that last patch of grass we needed to mulch over? Well, I decided to let it go wild instead, just to see what it would do. In that back part of the farmyard, there wasn't much grass anyway. The above native daisy fleabane grew up everywhere of its own accord and seems to be a favorite of the hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher.' Yeah, I know it looks like a bee, but it's not. See the bulbed-out eyes? That's a telltale sign it's a fly. I also have confirmation from a few sources on iNaturalist. The leaves of fleabane are edible; they taste a bit like radish.

Amorpha fruticosa
False indigo bush, or Amorpha fruticosa.

I first learned of Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo bush, at a free 'Plants and Pints' presentation at a local brewery. This was in the fall of 2018; the talk was called "Creating a Healthy Orchard Ecosystem," given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening. He pointed out the nitrogen-fixing habit of this plant and recommended adding one for every two fruiting plants, a rule of thumb we're following in the home orchard, where we now have two apple trees, two pear trees, two cherry bushes, three blackberry vines, and so far four false indigo bushes. 

Amorpha fruticosa is a cool-looking plant, with those bottlebrush purple blooms. Over at Southern Meadows blog, you can read more about its attributes.

Monkey face flower
Allegheny monkey flower, or Mimulus ringens.

Last fall I scored a number of native plants on markdown sale. They were all past the bloom stage, so I had no idea what they would look like when the flowers came in, but I at least knew from its name that Allegheny monkey flower would resemble a monkey's face. Mimulus ringens, you do not disappoint! This one is well-sited in the shrub layer underneath our old lilac bush, where it's quite healthy.

The next pairing is sort of a mystery to me. I'm not sure if the yellow coneflower is the result of seeds I sowed exactly one year ago, in June 2019, or if it's a volunteer. My notes say I sowed monarda (bee balm) seeds in that spot, but maybe they weren't monarda. Clearly, coneflower would rather grow there instead. It looks marvelous with the pale yellow flowers of potentilla growing beneath it. Interestingly, both plants are known for their medicinal qualities, so their presence in the kitchen garden area makes total sense. Sometimes, plants are smarter than we are.

Yellow coneflower and potentilla
Mystery coneflower and potentilla.

Back in early spring of 2019, I picked up a small wild hydrangea at a native plant sale at the Butterfly House here in St. Louis. You might remember my post about all the spring bulbs coming up at the Butterfly House and my excitement about the native plant finds. Here's what the hydrangea looked like exactly one year ago, in June 2019. It's next to an insect hotel that fits in the palm of your hand.

Hydrangea 2019
Wild hydrangea, exactly one year ago.

This year, it's exploded with growth, nearly blocking the view of the air conditioner I was hoping it would conceal. Note it's covered in blooms. I've had to move the Japanese lantern three times as its growth keeps swallowing it up.

Hydrangea 2020
Wild hydrangea now.

Hydrangea is of course known for its lovely blooms, and the native variety doesn't hold back. It's just getting started here in mid-June.

Hydrangea bloom
Hydrangea aborescens starting to bloom.

This last native I have to admit is a new, exuberant purchase, and it went into the ground in full bloom. I had seen white milkweed in a catalog, so when I stumbled upon Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet' at my local garden center, there's no way I could leave it there. Since most of my plants have been grown from 100 percent free seeds or starts, I consider a sizable potted plant like this a real splurge, but so far totally worth it.

Asclepias incarnata Ice Ballet
Milkweed is the only food for the Monarch butterfly.

Are you surprised to find that native plants can provide such a lovely range of blooms? It's a win-win, as they add beauty to your life, and they feed crucial pollinators in two ways: 1) by providing them with nectar from the flower and 2) by providing their larvae - such as butterfly caterpillars - with their preferred food (the leaves). Milkweed, for example, is the only food eaten by Monarch butterfly larvae, so without it, they won't survive. The 'Ice Ballet' I added here is one of three milkweed plants in the garden; the other two both came to us free from Wild Ones events, one as seeds and the other as a start.

What's new and native in your garden?

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