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

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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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So Much Fungus Among Us! Tips on How to ID the Mysterious Mushroom

Amanita Orange 2019
Spotted on the trail near the World Bird Sanctuary here in Missouri near the Meramec River.

Twenty nineteen was a really wet year for us in the Midwest. As a result, we experienced a bit of mushroom mania that began in spring and lasted clear through the fall. To pay tribute to both the magnificent mushroom and the fantastic fungus, today I've asked former wildlife biologist and author Ellen King Rice to collaborate with me on a special guest post. Here I've compiled images from Dragon Flower Farm as well as from walks in the woods. The plan was to have Ellen ID the fungus among us, but that proved a little bit tougher than either of us anticipated. So if you've got some IDs for us, please share in the comments below!

With this project I was asking Ellen to stretch outside the Pacific Northwest territory she knows best and explore the mycology of the Missouri river bluffs around St. Louis, where I frequently hike, and the suburban 1/4-acre that is our little farmstead. Because the process for identifying fungus must be quite thorough, as there's the risk that they can be poisonous, and here I was asking Ellen to ID them on the basis of a photo or two, we decided to turn this piece into a how-to instead. So along with some successful IDs and fun facts, Ellen will share some ID-ing tips.

LB: Let's start with the photo above. I believe that marshmallow fluff-meets-wart stuff on top, paired with the bright orange cap, signal the poisonous amanita. Am I right?

EKR: Some mushrooms begin growing inside an egg-shaped "leathery" sack. As the mushroom pushes up, the sack breaks apart and becomes blotches or spots on the new mushroom’s cap. The "warty" cap and the "egg cup" base are indeed hallmarks of the amanita group of mushrooms. Some of the amanitas are terribly poisonous. Some are psychoactive. A few are edible. Which leads us to the number one rule of mushrooming: Don't eat fungi until you are an absolute first-class champion at identifying the genus and species you are hunting.

But mushrooms are not nuclear waste or some spy-novel deadly dynamite. You won’t be poisoned by a mushroom if you photograph it or handle it! 

LB: Ah, so that's where the "wart" comes from; fascinating! And thanks for the balanced approach to identification. I assumed all amanitas were poisonous, so it's interesting to hear that some are actually edible. Still, the risk is pretty great, so I for one wouldn't eat anything that looks like this. Better to admire its remarkable orange hue. 

Speaking of orange, regular readers of this blog know how much I love that color, and the next fungus is in keeping with that bold preference. What's going on with this beauty?

Orange_Fungus_2019
From another Missouri hiking trail in the Meramec River area.

EKR: This fungus as well as the next three lead us to the challenges of identification. Like Sherlock Holmes, we need to pay attention to a lot of details to know the entire story of "what’s going on." While I can't with confidence identify these three, I'll instead list some ways to start Sherlocking, with pros and cons for each.

Here's my first suggestion: Use a field guide. Every region of North America has a mycological field guide. The biggest "con" for field guides is that these books are often organized by spore print color. The fungal finder is supposed to take a sample of the fungus home, lay a cap section on colored paper overnight, check the color of the dropped spores the next day, and then go to the correct section of the field guide to begin the identification process. Whew! Not always easy or possible, especially if there are pets or small children in the home. Pro: Sometimes one can page through the photos of the field guide and "bingo," quickly land on a photo that looks just like our find (Keep looking! Sometimes many things are nearly identical!).

LB: That's great. I have a laminated, map-style field guide for North American birds on a stand next to my back windows, which look out onto the bird feeders. It's been instrumental in our identification of about 20 different birds so far. I've used more elaborate field guides both in the Pacific Northwest and Florida, and I need one for the Midwest now that I'm back here. I don't own a guide to fungus, but I'll put that on my wish list, too.

Next up is this incredible 'tree condo' my brother and I happened upon one day in the woods. The first photo shows the whole 'condo,' and the second gives a zoom in. By the way, check out all that velvety moss we've got here in Missouri. To me it rivals the Pacific Northwest - at least in early spring, when these were taken. By summer, it dries up pretty well, even when it's wet like this past summer was. I think that might be due to the heat.

Tree Condo Fungus1 2019

Tree Condo Fungus2 2019

LB: The rest of the photos were all taken at Dragon Flower Farm. I should preface the first crop by letting you know we had a ton of bark mulch on our land, making use of the sheet-mulch method. So I think this curious flora was born of rotting wood chips. The first to arrive in spring were these, which I've dubbed 'fungus cups,' but that's probably wrong.

Fungus Cups 2019
At Dragon Flower Farm.

EKR: It's definitely a cup fungus. I suspect it might be Peziza repanda, the Palomino cup or a close relative -  but I’d have to look at Peziza literature and see if does grow in your area... That could take some time. 

LB: Oh, you've done so much already, Ellen! Why don't you give us another tip for how to manage this ourselves.

EKR: Go on a mushroom club outing. The pros are you’ll meet some nice people, and you may quickly learn half a dozen of the most common fungi in your area. The cons, however, are that the dogs need to stay at home, and not every outing may be kid-friendly. You’ll also be working with a group, so it may be slower or faster than you like. 

LB: That's a great idea and something I've personally never done. I've seen quite a few opportunities to go on birding walks with experts who can share tips, but I've never seen anything like that for fungus. I'll have to investigate!

From our cup fungus, we move to what I've been calling 'spore pads,' paired with what I think is slightly different, so I've named them 'spore pops.' What are these strange, alien things, Ellen?

Spore Pads 2019
When the caps pop off, you can see little seed-like capsules inside. Also, more orange! Nature loves orange.
 
Spore Pops 2019
These are darker in color, and the seed-like capsules inside are almost black.

EKR: I feel completely confident about identifying these. They are bird’s nest fungi, a distinctive group. Browse the photos here to see several species that have this wonderful nest-with-eggs look. 

LB: The pictures you linked to over at iNaturalist are amazing. I'll look for these again this year. They are pretty special.

The last series is more traditionally mushroom-shaped, and wow, did they grow to huge sizes. I asked my husband, whose hands are way bigger than mine, to pose his mitt next to them for comparison.

Hand Colony 2019
Mega mushroom mania!

EKR: I'll take this opportunity to offer my last bit of ID-ing advice: Use iNaturalist. This is a website/smart phone app that uses photo recognition software to suggest names for what you’ve just photographed. This site also has tons of information about species' ranges, seasonality, and other details. However, you should take it with a big grain of salt. It may tell you that blurry picture of a brown mushroom is a bunny or a deer. The "suggestion" is exactly that - a starting place to learn more.

LB: I've been using PlantNet, with very mixed results for exactly the reason you cited. It hasn't helped at all in trying to identify any of the above, not even the amanita, which you'd think would be clear cut. That's partly why I reached out to you. I'll try iNaturalist to see if it's any better. The most useful resource I've found is the Plant Finder index on the Missouri Botanical Garden website. You can't ID from a photo alone, but I think I've learned more about plants from this digital resource than any other. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't seem to be as robust in coverage of fungi as it is flora.

I'll share a few more photos; perhaps readers will recognize them. I believe the two photos below depict the same type of 'shroom, top and bottom.

Mushroom Cap  and Violets 2019
Caps peeking out between our native violet, Viola sororia.
 
Mushroom Gills 2019
Mushroom gills. These grew in a bed mulched with pine sawdust.

LB: The last image is of one I've never seen before. The cap was slightly transparent; you can see the green of the leaves through it.

Transparent Fringe 2019

LB: Perhaps you lovely readers can help out with some IDs in the comments section below. I do enjoy how this piece morphed into a how-to, though. Thanks for the tips, Ellen!

EllenKingRice

A wildlife biologist by training, Ellen King Rice is author of a three-book, fungus-themed mystery series: The EvoAngel, Underworld, and Lichenwald. In her fiction and non-fiction both, she is particularly fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes and believes that we don't know near enough about the thousands of fungal species that exist all around us. She lives near Olympia, Washington. Find out more at www.ellenkingrice.com.

As with all our content, this post was not sponsored, and we received nothing in exchange for the references made here.

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Our Best Antique Mall and Freebie Finds of the Year

Chairs side by side

In this post I'll walk you through some of our most resourceful, DIY sleuth-shopping and decorating moments of the past year. Ready?

Who doesn't love "free"? The above chairs were a curb pickup find from our neighbors down the street. The seats were a bit spongy from being left out in the rain, and the paint had mostly peeled off, but we freshened them up with a bit of spray paint in a new color from Rust-o-leum called 'ink blue.' This is not a sponsored post. I just thought I'd mention the color right off the bat instead of waiting for you to ask. The new spray paint colors make it really hard for me to pass the paint aisle without dreaming up new projects right there in the store and taking a few cans home with me.

Paint

Also I just learned from posting the above pic, (taken to illustrate to Anthony which kind and color to get from the store when I ran out) that Rust-o-leum is spelled Rust-oleum. The more you know.

Here's how the full set looks on the porch. The table in the middle is actually a thrift store find, not part of the curb pickup score. That shows you that in a common material like wicker, you can fake a set from separate pieces easily.

Chairs_front porch

So there you have it: An entire suite of porch furniture in a trendy color for the price of a few cans of paint. I'd like to have gone further with this and cut out both the paint toxicity and the cost with a DIY natural substance, if anything would do the trick. Feel free to post recommendations below.

Another find came from Facebook, the source of a set of three of these Midcentury gliders. The whole set was 100 percent free; all we had to do was pick them up, curbside.

Glider
You can while away the hours rocking in this thing, sipping mint juleps...

They don't make 'em like this anymore. The frames are sturdy steel. The glide is smooth and steady. Each of the wooden slats is held on with a washer-and-bolt combo that will make restoring these beauties easy. I'm thinking of spray-painting the frames (unless you give me a good eco alternative) and sealing the wood against further wear. But I don't think I'll stain the wood; the patina is pleasing as-is. What's your vote on the frame color? I'm thinking:

  1. Blue ink, like the chairs above
  2. Aqua, like the mesh table top in the paint can pic above
  3. Dark turquoise, like the planter below (I think it's called 'Lake')
  4. Bright yellow, because why not
  5. Some other color you could convince me to try

Weigh in by posting your vote below.

Another Facebook deal was a pair of birdhouses for $10 (US). They're handmade and a bit whimsical, and while no birds have taken up residence in them yet, they're a nice part of the scene in the garden. 

Birdhouse

Completing the front porch mission is this cute wicker planter, which came from a booth at Treasure Aisles Antique Mall here in the St. Louis area. It wasn't free, and I can't remember the exact price, but it was less than $30 (US). I think part of the reason it was a good deal was because of the original paint color, pretty much puke pink.

Planter_before

You know what's next: the refresh. Here it is after I applied that aforementioned dark turquoise, with native Missouri primrose planted in the pots. This sits between our front door and the blue wicker chairs above.

Planter_after

Moving inside the house now, I want to share a pic of this cutie-pie serving dish I picked up at South County Antique Mall. It's a very collectible 1963 vintage piece from the Sears Harmony House 'Honey Hen' set. Such a nice thing to have on the table for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving tureen

When it comes to tales about fishing for finds, there's always the story of the one that got away. Here are two pieces I passed on but sort of wish I hadn't.

First, this basket stand is amazing, but I wasn't sure what I'd do with it in exchange for the real estate it would take up. Of course our friends and followers have suggested a dozen great uses ever since, such as yoga mat holder and blanket cozy.

Basket_stand

Finally, this stunning, rubby ducky-yellow flip clock is not really my decor style, but I totally wish it was. It's so rad!

Yellow clock

What are your great finds of the year? Post pics or links below!

This post was not sponsored, and we did not receive anything in exchange for the product and business references here.

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Garden Stars of the Year: How to Win with Native Plants

Shumard Oak
Fall color on a shumard oak (Quercus shumardii).

It's been an intense year of mulching and planting. We covered the bulk of the 1/4-acre in sheet mulch in 2019. But we also had opportunity to put in seeds, seedlings, and young plants in some of the areas that had been sheet-mulched in 2018 and were ready to work. While it was too early in the lawn-conversion process for us to sow any annual vegetables or herbs this year, we did put in three perennials: asparagus, horseradish, and rhubarb. I'm sad to report that while the asparagus patch and horseradish plot are alive and well, the rhubarb didn't make it. Ah, well. The real stars of the garden this year are the Midwestern natives.

Milkweed Seed Pod 2019
Milkweed vine seed pod.

Our twofold mission is to plant both natives and 'human use' flora, and the native plants have not disappointed. While the rhubarb gasped and expired, and the blueberries* have continued to struggle, the natives have taken hold and flourished, pretty much without exception. As an added bonus, we've been able to obtain many of them for free - either as volunteers or gifted starts and seeds.

Milkweed on Rose 2019
Milkweed vine seed filament on rose. 

Welcome Your Volunteers

The volunteers came of their own accord. Like the milkweed vine seed in the photo above, they were brought in on the wind or carried by birds or animals. Sometimes that means they were actually, um, pooped out, but that's part of the life cycle process; in fact, some seeds are designed to be distributed this way and won't germinate unless they are subjected to scarification or acidification first, to mimic transport through a bird's digestive tract or the frost and thaw cycles a seed survives through during the winter before germinating in the spring.

Sycamore 2019
A volunteer sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).

Receive Your Gifts

The gifted native plants were surprisingly easy to find. The first batch came from a seed exchange hosted at a local brewery. We also joined and attended several Wild Ones garden tours, plus a seed exchange, a fantastic source for seedlings and seeds. Just starting out with a blank canvas at first, we could not bring anything to offer in exchange, but there are always so many seeds and seedlings on hand, and none of the Wild Ones members minded. Besides, our turn to donate came sooner than expected...

EB117D41-E4C3-4216-8AF3-14D76149A2F9
Swamp milkweed (Asclepius incarnata) blooms, popular with bumblebees.

We picked up the above swamp milkweed in early summer as a tiny seedling gifted at a Wild Ones event, and over the course of the year, it exploded into a sizable bush that attracted pollinators in droves. Another tiny Wild Ones seedling, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), took immediately to a site with poor, rocky soil, bloomed its head off, and likewise drove the bees mad with love.

Hyssop 2019

Encourage Self-Sowing

The next step with these now-established natives is to let them self-sow. I'm hopeful this happens with minimal intervention, though I have helped things along by spreading seeds around, like with this old field goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), another freebie. All three plants picked up as free seedlings at Wild Ones garden tours exploded with growth, so I was able to collect their seeds and offer them back to the community at the fall seed exchange.

Field Goldenrod Seeds 2019

Take in the Fall and Winter Beauty

While a garden in summer delights with its color and scent, sights like the seed heads above in winter bear a quiet, elegant beauty. My brother and I often hike during these "off seasons" for just this reason; besides, forest vistas are more impressive with the leaves off the trees, and we often have the trails to ourselves. It's also a good idea to leave your garden in as natural a state as possible through the winter, saving the cleanup for spring. That way you provide food for fauna through the cold, lean months, and beneficial insects have shelter.

By the way, if I haven't convinced you yet on the virtues of milkweed vine (aka, honeyvine), let me tell you that a cheer went up, loud enough to attract our neighbors' attention, when we discovered a monarch caterpillar in the leaves of one this fall. 

Monarch caterpillar 2019

Planting in fall and winter is best for native plants, as it more closely mimics their behavior in natural ecosystems. You can plant seeds anytime from November to February for most native Midwestern plants. I picked up 12 packets of seeds at an exchange in late November, and due to the rush of work and holiday activities, I didn't have a chance to put them in until this week (between Christmas and New Year's). But with 2-3 months of freezes and thaws ahead, that should stoke them pretty well.

Last year I didn't know enough about how native seeds work, and I waited until spring to sow them. Only two came up: hibiscus (Hibiscus lasiocarpos) and common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca). Neither of them bloomed this year. I've heard that seeds can sometimes take more than a year to germinate and am hopeful this spring brings better results.

Score Big at Native Plant Sales

While growing from seed is highly rewarding, for trees and shrubs, it's nice to have an established plant to give you a head start. I took advantage of numerous fall native plant sales sponsored by Forest ReLeaf, the World Bird Sanctuary, my local garden center, and for fruit and nuts, the Missouri-based Stark Bros. Non-profits are awesome sources, as it is often their mission to educate and encourage the public about native plants, and local garden centers and suppliers can help guide you with the best natives for your zone and topography.

Elderberry 2019
An elderberry bush from Stark Bros.

One of the tactics I've employed to good effect is to pay attention to how flora behaves in natural ecosystems and try to mimic them. On my hikes in Missouri and Southern Illinois, I make note of where natives are doing well and why. For example, I know from hiking around the Meramec River that elderberries grow in the moist, forested areas where pawpaws thrive. At Dragon Flower Farm, we've created a shady woodland like their natural habitat in a wet area where drainage is a problem between our house and the neighboring building, set only a few feet apart. A crop of native sensitive fern do well there, so we've added pawpaws, elderberry, and a companion, indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa).

Indigo bush 2019
Indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) is not only lovely but a nitrogen-fixer that's great for the nearby fruit bushes and trees.

Record Your Plantings

In order to gauge your progress and keep track of what's going on, you might want to make notes. I like to keep a journal where I staple or tape in the pot tags from everything I plant. Staples or tape allow me to read both sides of the tag, where good info like companion plants and growth size are often listed.

Plant journal sp2019

A plant journal might be too old-school for you. You could also try taking a photo of the plant in its place with the tag posed so you don't forget what's planted where, as below.

Plant Tag Photo 2019

In 2019, we planted:

  • 23 packets of native seeds for grasses and flowers, 
  • 24 native seedling starts for grasses and flowers,
  • 8 native shrubs, and
  • 6 native trees

Thanks for your interest in our Dragon Flower Farm project, and we hope this post is useful for anyone getting started on the native plant journey. Please tell us about your own experiences in the comments below.

*While blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are native in origin, most planted in gardens are cultivated varieties that differ from their wild ancestors.

This post was not sponsored, and we have not received anything in exchange for the references to organizations and businesses here.

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Mulch Ado About 'Nothing' - How to Convert Your Lawn in 5 Steps

Mulch6
A driver for St. Louis Composting dumps a load of mulch at Dragon Flower Farm. All photos mine unless noted.

Our modern prejudices have turned "dirt" into not much more than a four-letter word. Dirt connotes something of absolutely no value - or else something distasteful, a thing that's been sullied against its more preferred state of pristine perfection. Of course there's also the sexy connotation of "dirty." Still, dirt is hardly ever seen as something good unless it is a subverted turn-on. "Dirt poor" is somehow even less desirable than simply poor; no one wants to be a "dirt farmer," and "hitting pay dirt" is the equivalent of being able to turn worthless straw into gold.

But as with a great many things, we seem to be realizing dirt's true worth just as we're losing it. Increasingly, along with fears about overpopulation and climate change, eroding topsoil is of great concern, more and more people talking about the importance of soil health. "You're nothing but dirt" is never meant as a compliment, but, we're beginning to realize, maybe it should be.

When it comes to dirt and your average backyard gardener, the traditional route to better results is to amend what you've got with fertilizer. But I've always favored organic methods, so I've never added bags of synthesized nutrients to my soil. The closest I've come was in the early 2000s, when I added a substance called TAGRO to my yard in Tacoma, Wash. TAGRO is pasteurized wastewater biosolids. Yup, that's a hefty euphemism for "people poo." But hey, what used to be called "night soil" has been a thing for centuries, and the brilliant folks working for the City of Tacoma have just found a way of making that an awful lot nicer

Mulch8
Our pickup truck, getting loaded down with mulch at St. Louis Composting. Photo source: Jason Ives.

Still, it's a shit-ton of work to have a truckload of TAGRO dumped in your driveway and then have to distribute it by wheelbarrow and shovel all over your yard every year or so. And even though that particular soil amendment is environmentally friendly, it doesn't really mimic the decomposition process you see in a healthy ecosystem, such as a forest. So when I stumbled upon The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book at a Tacoma Library book sale, my gardening life was forever changed.

A renegade in the gardening world, Stout launched a mulching movement in 1971 with her claim that all you have to do to achieve a no-work garden is keep a thick layer of mulch on your ground year-round. But over the years, this has trickled down as only a decent appreciation for mulch, which almost everyone agrees discourages weeds and helps keep moisture in the ground, minimizing the need to water. But most people stop there, spreading an inch or two of beauty bark or some such thing, believing they've done their mulch duty. Oh, but it's so mulch more.

Stout herself recommended an 8-inch thickness of mulch, and beauty bark, which has often been dyed and treated and is of little nutritive value, probably would have made her scoff. She recommended freely available, natural material such as hay, straw, leaves... as she described it, "any vegetable matter that rots." That whopping 8 inches makes a big difference. Stout claimed that the seeds in hay didn't stand a chance, as the thick layers prevented them from germinating.

Before I read Stout's book, I'd been experimenting around with mulch myself. I tried a very thin layer of hay from a freebie bale, and all of the seeds sprouted, turning my front garden into a scraggly hayfield! I've been off hay as a mulch ever since (probably unfairly), and while I now always lay down at least 4-6 inches of mulch rather than the ideal 8, I can attest to the virtues of a thick mulch layer.

Ruth Stout
The vintage 1971 cover. Photo source: Amazon.

One of the best uses of mulch in my experience is in converting an area of turf grass to nice gardening soil. I use what some people now call the "sheet-mulch method," which is basically a decomposable barrier layer, such as an old wool carpet or cardboard boxes, underneath a thick mulch. I've done this three different times at three different homes over the past nearly twenty years, and the result is always amazing. I can't stress this enough. It's an affirmation of the natural decomposition cycle, proof that nature knows best.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Cut the grass, but don't use a lawn mower bag. Leave the cut grass on top of your lawn. Every bit of green is a juicy dose of elemental-packed living material that will feed your mulch. Grass, in fact, is high in nitrogen.
  2. Spread a layer of cardboard boxes over the top of the lawn. You can throw weeds, twigs, leaves - anything organic - on there, too. As long as you can smoothly smother them with cardboard boxes, it's all good. If the cardboard is thin, I only cut the flaps, fold, and leave it double-thickness. If you get premium, thick boxes like what they ship new toilets in, use a box cutter to slice down one side fold and spread out the cardboard. It will cover more ground this way. You want to make sure your coverage is seamless, without any cracks or holes where grass can poke through. You shouldn't see any grass when you're done. If you're butting up against a cement or brick walkway, extend the edge of the box onto the walkway a bit to decompose any grass growing over it. You can always push it back later.
    Mulch2
    The sheet-mulch process in action. Taken this summer as we continued to mulch over the rest of the 1/4-acre lawn.
  3. Don't bother to remove packing tape, as that's too time consuming. The voracious microbes, insects, and other critters in the soil you're making will eat the box and sort of "spit up" the tape strips months later, and you can go collect them out of your yard then. It's really no big deal.
  4. Next, spread your mulch over the top of the boxes, to at least my 4-6 inch preferred thickness. If you can go 8, why not? I could devote a whole blog post to the topic of which kind of mulch, but for now I'll just say source something of high quality. I've never used bagged mulch from a chain store. In the Pacific Northwest, mulch made from city maintenance on parks and public spaces was readily available to me (and sometimes free) through local municipalities, but here in St. Louis that is sadly not the case, so we purchase from St. Louis Composting, which offers several mulch varieties at a very reasonable price. We've tried both bark and leaf. Now just like you didn't want to see any grass poking out from under the cardboard, you don't want to see any cardboard peeking out from under the mulch. Cover that stuff!
  5. Lastly, be patient. It's best to set down your sheet-mulch in the fall, wait for the decomposition miracle to occur through the winter, and voilá, you're ready to plant.

Again, this works so well I can't for the life of me figure out why gardeners still opt to either a) till the soil so deep that you're burying the grass under upended dirt or 2) strip off the turf layer and then place a weed-choking layer of black plastic or cloth over the dirt instead. I suppose if you can't stand to wait just one season, the sheet-mulch method isn't for you, but if you can't plan ahead at least that long, then I have to wonder why gardening is of interest at all. Gardening is all about planning ahead.

Mulch9
Our first batch of sheet mulch at Dragon Flower Farm.

I've even had otherwise reliable sources such as a prominent conservation group recommend a combination of glyphosate and black plastic to me in order to convert turf, and this just boggles my mind. That method is a lot harder, less environmentally friendly, and in my opinion, it means you're back to square one when you lift the black plastic and find a nutrient-deficient bed of stripped-off, hardpan clay or what-have-you underneath. With the sheet-mulch method, you're turning the undesirable grass into decomposing green matter that feeds the dirt you will later plant with something more desirable.

Now let's talk about weeds. If you follow my instructions above, weeds will not be a problem. I promise! We only had to mildly weed in the spring after sheet-mulching all fall and winter, and once we fill in the space with plants, I bet the weed meter will drop to near zero. Many of the plants that found our non-turf earth weren't weeds at all but desirable volunteer natives: a sycamore tree, a ground cover of violets, milkweed vine, virginia creeper, a lovely flowering spurge, and sensitive ferns. These plants provide exponentially better food and shelter for pollinators than ornamental exotics, so the fact that the sheet-mulched ground provided an encouraging foundation for them is a great sign.

Here's how the back forty looked mid-mulch, with only a portion of the left side covered.

Mulch5

And here's where we are now, the 'almost after' picture. We'll get that final strip... soon. The greenery you see growing through the mulch is Viola sororia, or common blue violet, a Missouri native beloved by butterflies. It's also edible!

Mulch1

In the Pacific Northwest, where I lived for 15 years, it's common for homeowners to opt to go lawn-free. Here in the Midwest, not so much. I think the case against grass has already been thoroughly made by others, but if you've read this far even though you're clinging to your lawn, maybe you should just try googling, "Why should I get rid of my lawn" and take a trip down that delightful rabbit hole.

It's been a lifetime since Ruth Stout wrote her wonderful book, and while you can still get a copy, and you should - as it's a great read - there's been some exciting discoveries about dirt since then. Soil is on a lot of people's lips these days - yes, sometimes literally. I'm slowly making my way through a surprisingly dense, but not thick, paperback by Toby Hemenway, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. The no-nonsense Midwesterner in me had to look past the Gaia bit in order to give it a try, and I'm glad I did. While Hemenway is way more (seemingly intentionally) provocative on the subject of native plants than need be, like me, he picks up on the way our language has maligned "dirt" in the opening to his chapter on soil. (Maybe we're two minds who think alike, or maybe it's just ridiculously obvious that dirt's been treated like dirt for too long.) His treatise on soil blew my mind as a symphonic description of what exactly is happening after you place that layer of cardboard and mulch. I leave you with this excerpt:

The soil organisms in a properly tended garden will furnish almost all the fertilizer that plants need. As the life in the soil eats, excretes, reproduces, and dies, it works an almost alchemical change on organic matter and minerals in the ground. Through soil organisms, nutrients are broken down, consumed, transformed, rebuilt into body parts and energy-containing molecules, and broken down once more. And during these many-vectored flows of matter, a small surplus of nutrients constantly trickles to the plants. Just as bankers and merger specialists make their fortunes by skimming money from the colossal flows of commerce, so too do plants derive their sustenance by absorbing the surplus nutrients that whirl out of soil organisms' life cycles. Fertility comes from flow. A more vigorous soil life heaves more nutrients into the flux for plants to divert, releasing a surplus of fertility during the cycle from raw material to living body to waste and back again. Here, as in so much of the ecological garden, the process, the activity, the relationship, is paramount. Healthy soil and plants are created not by the simple presence of nutrients and soil life, but by the briskness and depth of their flows and interconnections. Savvy gardeners know this and will do all they can to feed the life of the soil. (72-73)

What's the dirt on your dirt? Share in the comments below.

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