No-Grass Lawn Feed

Poppies and Whimsy on the St. Louis Native Plant Tour

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View of a woodland bubbler in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra, also featured in Doug Tallamy's book, Nature's Best Hope.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I attended the St. Louis Native Plant Tour for the first time this year. It was a masked, socially-distanced, outdoor (of course) affair in early June, with a wide range of gardens to view. A joint offering by both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Wild Ones St. Louis, this year's tour included nine residential gardens located across the St. Louis metropolitan area, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. We made it to six of the nine.

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Celadine poppy growing in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra.

I've talked about the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program on the blog before - most recently when we scored platinum status for our own garden. Many BCH gardens were included in the tour, with a nice smattering at every level, from silver through gold and up to platinum. One of our favorites on the tour was Dan and Mary Terpstra's woodland oasis. It's easy to see why this .62-acre property has achieved platinum status - and why it attracts so many birds - 150 species and counting.

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View across the woodland toward the gazebo in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Here's a video of their pond, which features a bubbling cascade into a naturalized area for native water-loving plants.

 

While the Terpstras obviously take conservation seriously, they haven't neglected the whimsical aspects of gardening.

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Garden art tucked into a rock in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Speaking of garden whimsy, while the Terpstra's property offers a stunning example of what can be done, my favorite of the tour was actually the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky, which had whimsy in spades.

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In the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky.

This garden clocks in at the BCH gold level and comes with a wonderful personal story, to quote the tour brochure:

Established in 2010, Carolyn's Garden is a living memorial to Christina's mother, an avid gardener. Diagnosed in 1996 with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, she proved doctors wrong, living with the disease until 2011... a testament to being a lifelong gardener.

Many of the plants in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden were transitioned there from her mother's garden over in Illinois.

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A pathway beckons in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.
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A glass ball emerges from penstemon in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.

Another highlight was getting to tour the garden belonging to Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, which features this lovely water bubbler.

Now, a note about these bubblers, though: You don't need them. While it's true that birds are attracted to the sound of bubbling water, the problem with bubblers is they need a power source in order to, well, bubble. And that means a) you have to be able to afford to install (or have installed) an electrical bubbler connected to your home's power system and b) you're adding to your home's draw on the electric grid, not the best option, eco-wise, unless it's also solar-powered. Our garden achieved platinum status without a bubbler; as mentioned previously, we have four bird baths, all fashioned out of repurposed items and not costing a dime.

Here's a perfectly nice non-bubbling bird bath, also in the Weaver garden.

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In the Weaver garden.
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Shade-loving Virginia sweetspire in the Weaver garden.

One of the best aspects of garden tours like this one is you get to see first-hand fine examples of plants that thrive in challenging areas, such as deep shade (above) or intense sunshine, like these native prickly pears.

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In the garden of Susan and René LaVoise.

While honeybees are not native to North America, it was cool to spot these beehives in the garden of Jim and Judy Stroup, where we started our tour.

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Beehives at the Stroup garden.

And last but certainly not least was the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka, avid conservationists whose gold-certified property features many a bee hotel in addition to bird bottles, bird and bat houses, and more than 30 woody native plant species and 95 wildflower species.

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A stunning array of bee hotels in the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka.
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The common name of this native plant is 'Indian pink,' though it's neither pink nor from India!
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Ninebark growing in the Tylka garden.
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This smooth sumac grows in part-shade in the Tylka garden.

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Goes Platinum!

Lisa and Anthony BCH Platinum
Here we are, proudly showing off our new 'platinum level' yard sign. Photo courtesy Dan Pearson, of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

By Lisa Brunette

Back in the fall of 2018, we signed up for the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home (BCH) program. A couple of "habitat advisors" came out to survey our garden, and they provided us with a list of recommendations for making it more wildlife- and pollinator-friendly. It was a long list, too: Our one-quarter acre was comprised of mainly invasive plant species run amok, a huge expanse of turf grass, and a smattering of exotic ornamentals that did little to feed native insects and critters. Everyone agreed there was much work to be done.

The BCH program certifies participant gardens in three tiers - silver, gold, and platinum. Most people slowly make their way through the levels, many staying at silver or gold for some time. Less than 2 percent of gardens in the program have achieved platinum status. But ours got there this spring!

That's right; we leapfrogged right over silver and gold and landed on platinum with our very first certification.

Admittedly, due to COVID-19, the BCH advisors could not come out to survey the garden through all of 2020. So we had 2 1/2 years to get to platinum. But our friends at the Audubon Society say it's "amazing" that we've reached the highest level in less than 3 years, a rarity. From their final assessment report:

Your backyard has undergone an astonishing transformation to a wonderland that invites people in to explore its treasures. Congratulations on platinum certification.

BCH Platinum Sign

How did we do it? By following the Audubon Society's recommendations very closely, and supplementing them with a crash-course in permaculture techniques.

BCH's criteria begins with an account of the invasive species present in your garden. When we bought the property, much of the greenery onsite made the Audubon Society's list of "thug" plants:

  • Winter creeper 
  • Japanese honeysuckle, both vining and bush (don't call this one 'honey')
  • Sweet Autumn clematis (not very sweet, as it turns out)
  • Tree of heaven (better to think of it as tree of hell)

Here's a photo to show just how thick and well-established the honeysuckle was. Honeysuckle grew over nearly the entire garden perimeter; this is just one side.

Honeysuckle 2018

It was a painstaking process, but we removed all of the invasive plants. Here's the same spot as above, in mid-removal.

Honeysuckle-be-gone2018

We continue to control invasive species by pulling out any seedlings that try to gain a toehold. All 4 thugs listed above are on our regular weeding rotation. As we removed all of those, another invasive showed up to test us: star of Bethlehem. We didn't know what it was at first, but when we finally ID'd it, out it went as well.

The second set of criteria for achieving conservation status with BCH is to plant native species, and to do so along all four canopy layers in order to get to the platinum level. This dovetailed well with my independent study of permaculture, which also draws on the power of canopy layers to create healthy ecosystems.

Our native layers begin down at your feet, with a lovely ground cover mix of wild violets and geraniums. These rushed in once we suppressed the turf lawn through sheet-mulching. Here's how they looked this past April, now well-established, thriving, and providing a key food source for fritillary butterflies. So much better than grass!

Violets in spring 2021
Our native ground cover mix of violets and geraniums.

The next two layers are in the middle, and that means tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees. We capitalized on the $1-per seedling offerings of our own Missouri Department of Conservation as well as native plant and seed sales, not to mention outright giveaways, sponsored by Wild Ones St. Louis, the Audubon Society, the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Forest ReLeaf.

One of my favorites is the nitrogen-fixing shrub Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo. I learned from a Gateway Greening lecture back in 2018 that if you add these to your orchard, the nitrogen-fixing ability boosts the health of your fruit trees. We have several distributed amongst our pear, apple, and plum trees. They also attract pollinators in droves, and the purple spikes are lovely.

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Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo, is a beneficial native plant for the home orchard.
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A brown-belted bumblebee on false indigo.

Of course, the wildflowers are everyone's favorite, whether pollinator or person. Our purple coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, bee balm, evening primrose, and others are as crucial to our conservation garden as they are beautiful. This 'Balvinrose' yarrow was a rescue from a big-box gardening center. I wasn't sure it would make it, but set down in the right place, and it's thriving.

Balvinrose yarrow

Not only does it thrill with its delicate, lacy leaves and eye-popping fuchsia flowers, but the tiny bees like this metallic sweat bee love it for the pollen and nectar.

Small bee on yarrow

The fourth canopy is tall trees. Ours is comprised of a forest grove of sycamore, oak, tulip poplar, black gum, red cedar, and persimmon, which once mature will range in height from 35 to 125 feet. We planted these in our northeast corner, where they won't shade the sun-loving plants but will provide a natural screen from the neighboring apartment building. Lucky for us, that site is entirely free from power lines.

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A tulip poplar, springing up amid tulips.

We also received high marks on the next three criteria in the BCH program:

  1. Wildlife stewardship - We offer bird baths and houses, a bat house, a rock snake habitat, and a brush pile that rabbits have made into their warren. We've planted flowers to specifically feed hummingbirds and pollinators, and we provide habitat for songbirds. Chaco, as you know, is indoor-only, and the birds are all the better for it.

  1. Stormwater management - We installed a French drain, double rain barrels, and a rain garden. Our whole enterprise is organic, with no pesticide use (outside of one application in 2018 to kill invasives) and no outside inputs for fertilizer (we use compost).
  2. Education and volunteerism - Besides my volunteer work as a citizen scientist in the Shutterbee program, we also support all of the organizations you see in the sidebar, and we think of all the gabbing we do about our garden on this blog as education, too.
Rain barrels
My brother Chris scored these rain barrels for us when his neighbor moved last spring and didn't want to take them with him.

Here's a 'before' picture out the back stoop in 2017, when we bought the place.

Back stoop 2018
Nothing but lawn... and more lawn... and maybe some ornamentals, planted in big, fat circles.

And here's a recent photo, from July 2021.

Back stoop 2021
Canopy layers, an orchard, an herb mound, and 77 percent of the property is "naturescaped."

We love our garden, which not only provides food for wildlife and pollinators but feeds us, too - both our bellies and our souls.

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How You Can Help the Bees This Spring: Shutterbee, Pollinator Planting

 


How You Can Help the Bees This Spring: Shutterbee, Pollinator Planting

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By Lisa Brunette

As the bees come out this spring, your thoughts might return again to how to help these crucial pollinators. And when I say help them, I really mean help ourselves, since we utterly depend on them to pollinate our food plants. Well, here are two ways you can do this right now: 1) by participating in a backyard bee survey called Shutterbee and/or 2) simply planting more pollinator-supporting plants this spring.

Shutterbee

The citizen-science program to study backyard bee populations - AKA 'Shutterbee' - is now open for registration! Participants like me who are returning from last year have already taken our refresher courses, and we're getting ready to begin bee surveys again in May. But if you live in the St. Louis area and would like to sign up for the first time, now's your chance. 

A reporter for the Webster Journal conducted a video interview with me about Shutterbee this spring.

I've also written about Shutterbee previously:

10,000 and Counting: How the Bees 'Almost' Redeemed 2020

Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

To sign up, all you have to do is register. To learn more about Shutterbee, visit the program website. Shutterbee researchers also publish a Bee Brigade Bulletin full of gardening advice and fascinating bee research tidbits. 

If you're worried about getting stung, I suggest putting those fears aside, as Shutterbee focuses on rather harmless native bee populations. Honeybees may send some running for the hills for fear of being stung, but most native bees are harmless, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” said MDC Community and Private Land Conservation Branch Chief Bill White. 

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Mining bee on Hansen's bush cherry blossom.

Bee-Friend Native Pollinators

One easy thing you can do to support native bee populations is plant more pollinator-friendly plants. Native bees are doing their agricultural duty by pollinating flowering plants that provide food, fiber, and even medicines, and the more we can do to support them, the better.

MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank explained that native bees, such as the bumblebee, are effective pollinators because of a technique called buzz pollination.

“It’s a vibrating movement involving their wing muscles that allows the bumblebee to free pollen from the anther, the flower’s pollen-producing structure,” Shank said. “This strategy causes the flower to explosively release pollen. There are some flowering plants that will release pollen only through buzz pollination. One favorite, the tomato plant, requires either buzz pollination or visitation by a larger bodied bee, such as the bumblebee.”

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Eastern carpenter bee on native passionflower vine, which produces edible fruit.

Bee a Friend

There are several ways the public can support native bees. Shank said the best way is to get floral.

“It’s all about the flowers,” Shank stressed. “Provide native companion plants, and especially those with colorful blossoms, because color attracts bees.”

Companion planting, in which one plant helps the growth of another, can help facilitate the pollination of fruits and vegetables. For example, planting bee balm can help pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Other examples of flowering companion plants include sunflowers, wild hyacinth, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover, and common milkweed.

There are several options of flowering trees and shrubs, too.

“Redbud, American plum, and golden currant are great for pollinators,” said White.

It's a good idea to plan for blooms throughout the year. The first native plant to bloom in Missouri is the American witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, which produces ribbony orange-and-yellow blooms as early as February. They give off the strong scent of cloves. What could possibly pollinate these flowers so early has been a bit of a puzzle for botanists, but research shows native bees carried the highest percentage of witch hazel pollen of all possible pollinators, once again showcasing the importance of native bees.

American witch hazel
American witch hazel, an important plant in the Midwestern native landscape.

Shank noted that providing more flowers can also mean not mowing the lawn as much.

“Clover, violets, and dandelions are some common lawn plants that provide vital food for bees – especially in the spring before most flowers appear,” Shank explained. “Delaying mowing or mowing higher can help bees by letting the plants grow. Even allowing access to the ground by not mulching every inch can help. Some bees need access to the soil to excavate their nests.”

No Yard? No Problem!

Shank said residents who live in urban areas without access to a yard can still be a big help to native bees.

Surprisingly, St. Louis, for example, has one of the most diverse bee populations in the Midwest, with more than 200 species found in the city limits alone.

 “You can offer bees native flowers in a planting box or pot,” Shank explained. “Getting involved in a community garden or helping plant at a nearby park is great, too.”

For those without a green thumb, it may be tempting to buy the bee houses or hotels being offered in stores. However, the real need is not nesting sites, but native flowering plants. Many of the commercially available bee hotels contain the wrong length of tubes or wrong diameter for many native bees. Find out how to build your own by following the guidelines offered by the Xerxes Society.

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Our Garden, Featured in a Story on Shutterbee

Our garden was featured recently in a story about Shutterbee, the citizen science program to study bees and determine the effects of native plant conservation efforts on local populations. Lisa volunteered as a bee surveyor last summer, making eight observations rounds for a total of 73 bee sightings across 22 different species. One of those sightings was of a threatened species, Bombus pensylvanicus, or American bumblebee, whose numbers have declined 98 percent since the 1990s.

You can read the full story on the Webster Journal website, including video footage of not just our bee-friendly garden but several other bee survey sites and the Shutterbee lab. The interview gave Lisa an opportunity to talk about the benefits of volunteering in such a study:

For me it was realizing, you know, it's not actually that hard to make a difference, to do something like this and see the results of it.

For Lisa, the interview was likewise a nice opportunity to take time out on a lovely spring day to chat with a budding young journalist about nature and the bees.

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What Is Permaculture Gardening? And Why Does It Matter?

Passionflower Vine

By Lisa Brunette

I've been tossing around the word 'permaculture' to describe some of the activities Anthony and I are engaged in here on the suburban farmstead. As it's not a mainstream way of gardening (or way of life) yet, I thought it might be helpful to define it.

Permaculture is a portmanteau for the words "permanent" and "agriculture." The idea begins with the conviction that modern humans are not growing things on this planet in a permanently sustainable manner. Especially since the advent of fossil fuel technology and its resultant slew of fertilizers, soil amendments, and chemicals meant to kill off insect pests, we've been poisoning the environment, depleting the soil, and destroying our water supplies. The problems continue with practices like monocropping, or growing large tracts of nothing but one plant, aggressive tilling of the soil, and letting farmland lie fallow and sterile, without putting anything back in during the seasons it's not in use to grow food.

Turnip

I first heard of permaculture when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, where it's a bit of a buzzword. Somewhat ironically, however, it wasn't until I moved back to the Midwest that I began to practice it in earnest. 

I say 'somewhat' because it's not as if people in the Midwest aren't doing permaculture. There's Midwest Permaculture Center in my neighboring state of Illinois, and some folks here have been effectively practicing permaculture all their lives and just haven't ever labeled it as such. One of the best permaculture solutions I've ever encountered - a super-smart, inexpensive, completely non-toxic method for combatting cedar rust - came from a fellow Missourian.

Nyssa sylvatica

So, OK, I've outlined the practices that permaculture is calling out as wrongheaded. But what do we do instead?

As it turns out, a whole host of things, and most of these things are very ecosystem-specific. What I've learned in my four years' deep dive into all things permaculture is that you have to adapt and tailor it to your situation, your home, your region, your weather systems, soil type, etc., etc. But that said, there are some universal takeaways. I'll touch on them here, with some book recommendations embedded for your further exploration.

Soil

We seem to be coming to a consensus that the earth beneath our feet is the key to everything. I've talked about the soil before when I gave some tips on sheet-mulching. But I'm learning new, exciting facts about dirt all the time! Just last week, it was that the fungus-to-bacteria ratio in your soil could be a much better method for judging soil quality than the mainstream practice of assessing ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the ol' NPK metric) and amending the soil accordingly. But don't let that science-y tone put you off, as the F:B ratio thing is really pretty simple: For more fungal activity, you want to use a mulch that promotes mycorrhizal growth, such as wood chips. For more bacteria, you'd use compost. Brassicas and mustard like much more bacterial activity, and most vegetables like a slightly more balanced ratio of 3 fungal to 4 bacterial.

Lisa digging in dirt

I guess the key takeaway is that permaculturists look for ways to improve the soil that mimic natural systems. When I'm hiking through the forest, I see a layer of dead leaves each fall that decompose, feeding the forest trees and plants. No one comes through and tills the soil. The forest is a healthy ecosystem. While we can't grow most food plants in a regular deciduous forest, we can mimic natural systems with thick mulches that replenish the soil, plants that are grown solely for the purpose of feeding the soil and/or chopped to "mulch in place," and layers of plantings that harness the power of a forest but focus on food we humans can eat, hence the term "food forest."

For an excellent introduction to soil, read Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. While I don't agree with his stance on native plants, the symphonic description of soil bowled me over.

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Native Plants

The best permaculturists use many native plants, as natives have evolved over millennia along with beneficial, native insects to exist in the given environment without a lot of human intervention. Now, there are permaculture practitioners who advocate the use of some exotic invasive plants, but I am not in that camp. To my thinking, the benefits of any particular invasive are far outweighed by the potential damage that invasives can do. Since invasives can easily spread through seed carriage from birds and animals, to me it seems irresponsible to use invasive plants (sort of like second-hand smoke). There's always a native or at least non-invasive introduced plant alternative that will accomplish the same thing anyway.

Echinacea

Of all the plants we've grown, the native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers are by far the easiest. You don't need to do anything to amend the soil, nor do you need to till it. Just put in the plant, or sow the seed, and you've got fairly instant success - though patience is key, as natives grow by the rhythm, 'first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap.' Many natives are edible and medicinal, too. We've used that criteria for selecting our natives and have never been at a loss. Our native food/medicinal plants include paw paw and persimmon trees, violets, blueberries, blackberries, plums, cedar berries, hibiscus, passionflower, sunflowers, echinacea, rudbeckia, hyssop, New Jersey tea, chokecherry, serviceberry, and more.

If they aren't edible or medicinal, they're at least host plants for beneficial pollinators and other wildlife, such as our sycamore, tulip, and black gum trees, as well as our native violet ground cover.

Though he doesn't call himself a permaculturist, and he has less of a focus on edible/human use plants than I'd like, Doug Tallamy is a leading advocate for native plant gardening. His book Bringing Nature Home is a must-read.

 

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Canopy Layers and Polyculture Guilds

Speaking in terms of that hike through the forest I mentioned earlier, the other thing we notice is that plants grow in distinct canopy layers. First, there are roots, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes growing into the dirt, followed by low ground covers colonizing the soil surface. Next are knee-high plants and grasses, followed by shrubs and small trees in the understory. Finally, tall trees make up the canopy overhead. Permaculturists mimic the layering found in nature by designing gardens in the same way.

For example, in our garden, we've planted (or simply encouraged) the aforementioned sycamore, black gum, and tulip trees for the high canopy, and they're joined by a Shumard oak, Eastern red cedars, and several persimmons. Next is the understory, made up of paw paws, serviceberry, an old lilac, a rose bush, and fruit trees. Next are blackberry vines, blueberry and gooseberry shrubs, elderberries, chokecherry and serviceberry trees, hazelnuts, witch hazel, and others. Then down to the perennial vegetables asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, as well as annual vegetables. Finally, we have a ground cover of violets and geraniums, as well as plants with edible roots.

Evening primrose

Polyculture guilds are more complex, but the one everyone references first is the three sisters: squash, corn, and beans. The point is that the three plants are interdependent. Corn provides a trellis for beans, beans provide nitrogen to the corn, and squash shades the soil over their roots. In our garden, we've created fruit tree guilds with, for example, alliums, witch hazel, evening primrose, borage, and other plants interplanted in the orchard. You might also think of simple companion planting, such as peas, lettuce, carrots, and beets planted in proximity to support each other. We planted an oak where its leaves will fall on a bed of blueberry bushes, the acidic oak leaves providing a natural mulch for acid-loving blueberries, and we won't even have to rake them into place!

Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening is kind of the bible of permaculture, or one of them, anyway, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it. 

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Permaculture encompasses more than gardening as well - it's a whole way of life. I'll tackle other permaculture aspects in a future post, but I hope for now you're excited to dive in, checking out some of the books above. Also want to shout out to my online permaculture community, Permies.com, where you can discuss these topics with likeminded folk. It's been a great resource for me. And if you're in the St. Louis area, I recommend checking out the tremendous offerings from Gateway Greening - from low-cost seeds to a handy planting calendar to helpful how-to videos. Welcome to permaculture!

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