No-Grass Lawn Feed

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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How to Harvest and Use Lilacs and Violets

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

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

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

Violets

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

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

Harvesting violets

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

Drying violets

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

Violet tea

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

Violet vinegar

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

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

Lilac harvesting

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

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

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

Violet syrup2

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

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

Violet syrup3

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

Violet syrup4

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

Lilac drink2

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

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

Lilac witch hazel

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

Lilac oil1

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

Lilac oil2

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

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What's Happening Now on the Farm, Quarantine Edition

Robin's egg
At first I thought one of the neighbor kids tossed a plastic Easter egg into our yard, but it turned out to be a real robin's egg.

By Lisa Brunette

It's been a strange spring in a lot of ways. The season has seemed to last a lot longer than usual - our utility bill was cut in half over the last month because we've needed neither the furnace nor the A/C. Spring here in Missouri can sometimes go by in a blip so that you barely have any windows-open days before it's time to shut the place up and turn on the A/C. So a long spring is a welcome thing. But up until this week, it's been dry, unlike last year's mushroom-encouraging daily deluges, so we've been grateful for the rain barrels to water the direct-sow seeds going in now.

FrogPond
This is as close as we get to a pond at Dragon Flower Farm, unless you count our rain garden ditches.

Of course the strangest aspects have been the fire that happened one building away and the pandemic, as if one apocalypse at a time isn't enough. We were lucky with that fire. And because Anthony and I run the game-writing business out of our home, with clients all over the world who collaborate with us remotely and mostly online anyway, not much has changed for us work-wise, despite the strict quarantines. We miss the chance to meet with our growing team in person, but otherwise, we've been lucky that the pandemic hasn't affected our livelihood too much.

What it has affected - besides the fact that we can't find toilet paper anywhere - is our social life, which is now limited to each other and the cat. We love the time to just 'be' together, for sure, and we're both homebodies, so this suits us fine. Without the opportunity to see extended family and go out with friends, we've focused on activities here at Cat in the Flock and Dragon Flower Farm. Here's a run-down.

And the Winner Is...

Anne Harrington of Seattle, Washington, won our Bringing Nature Home giveaway. Here she is posing with her signed copy of Doug Tallamy's book. Congratulations, Anne!

Winner
Love that she had this pic taken in front of those gorgeous windows, with a garden beyond.

Water, Water Every Pear

The very day the fire broke out, we'd spent the whole of the day working on the farm. Our main task was to bury a drainage pipe and dig out a larger ditch for the outflow. The pipe used to extend from the bottom of a gutter, but now it's the rain barrel overflow. 

Drain pipe
It's so nice to hide that pipe after a couple years of looking out the back window and seeing... a big pipe in the yard.

You might remember the 'blueberry moat' I mentioned in a previous post. We're experimenting with some permaculture methods for retaining water in the soil (water catchment). So the above drain plus the one installed between our house and the flat next door both now let out into a ditch we dug and filled with water-loving native plants (buttonbush and rose mallow). Here's the proof that water pools in the ditch during rainfall.

So... we don't know if this all works or not, but some smart permaculturists have made compelling arguments, and why not try it out? We'll let you know if we think it's successful. Have any of you opted for something like this? Let us know in the comments below.

The buttonbush and rose mallow were seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation, part of a 24-count order I put in last fall. Each seedling was only USD $1 a piece, a super steal. Many of these native plants are edible, too, such as the blackberries and wild plum. Here's the bucket full of seedlings the day they all went in.

Spring planting
All thanks to our local native plant org, Wild Ones, for sponsoring a group purchase from MDC, which only sells in bulk quantities.

So Mulch to Consider

We're closing in on a major achievement: The entire back 40 has almost been completely covered in sheet mulch. There's only this one strip in the southernmost corner still to do.

Back strip mulch
By the way, yes, that is a bat house up on the telephone pole.

We actually ran out of the mulch from St. Louis Composting but were able to get free leaves from our neighbors instead. They take longer to break down but seem to be working very well otherwise. Stay tuned...

Arch You Curious?

Building bamboo arch
Hottie.

We recently spent a day constructing something out of bamboo we got for free from a neighbor. Originally we'd planned to make this out of cattle panel, but then I realized bamboo would work just fine. Anthony will elaborate on his brilliant design-and-build project in an upcoming post.

A more permanent structure also went in recently, and that's our new pergola. It came in pieces as a kit I ordered online, and Anthony and I quickly realized we possessed neither the tools nor the talent to do this ourselves. Fortunately my brother Chris stepped up with both things and saved our butts.

Pergola
If it weren't for my brother Chris, this would still be a bunch of parts scattered across the yard.

Can't Leaf It Alone

Structures aren't the only things popping up here at the farm. A great many plants have poked up out of the ground, and some of the seedlings that looked like mere sticks all winter are leafing out. Here's the elderberry bush, an edible native plant.

Elderberry
Elderberries grow in abundance in Missouri. I've seen them near the Meramec River, with the paw paws.

We now have three native persimmons, which in my opinion constitutes a grove. One is a grafted male/female tree from Stark Bros., another is an MDC seedling, and the one pictured here is from Forest ReLeaf, another excellent source of native plants. The persimmons should pollinate each other, and in some number of years give us delicious fruit, much better than the Asian varieties in the grocery store. 

Persimmon in spring
We can't wait to eat persimmons from our own trees!

Last fall we put in a tulip tree, or tulip poplar, and at the time I didn't even realize I'd planted a tulip tree in a bed of tulips! It's growing to beat the band already. In the below photo, you can see its signature leaf shape (alternate, pinnately veined) backed by tulips in bloom. Liriodendron tulipifera is one of the tallest of the native trees, capable of reaching a height of nearly 200 feet. Ours is sited in the front yard, clear of any telephone poles or other obstacles.

Note one of the reasons I chose the tulip tree is because I watched my own father kill one when I was in high school. He was afraid it would fall on the house, which seems paranoid and unlikely in retrospect, or maybe that was just his excuse. He had the tree cut down, and then he spent the next few months destroying the stump by burning trash in it. Yeah, he was that guy. So planting a tulip tree is my way of balancing against that misguided act.

Tulip tree in the tulips
Such a pretty leaf.

Another tree addition is this beautiful shumard oak, Quercus shumardii, which could reach a height of 100 feet and will eventually give us acorns. Oaks are the superstars of the tree world, as they serve the needs of the largest number of native insects. So many pollinators and other wildlife depend on oaks for their survival that if you had to pick just one native plant to add to your yard, let it be an oak tree.

Shumard oak
Love how the leaves appear red when they emerge in the spring and turn red again in autumn before they fall.
Shumard oak2
Such a beautiful, beneficial tree, supporting a great number of wildlife and pollinators.

Moving from tall and stately to small and serene, I give you the sensitive fern frond, unfurling. This native freebie grows in our shadiest spots at Dragon Flower Farm.

Sensitive fern frond
Love. Those. Curls.

Your Herbal Hookup

I want to alert you to the exciting news that certified herbalist Amanda Jokerst has opened her online store, where you can purchase Forest & Meadow herbal products and other items mentioned in this blog post on healing with herbs. We share this news with you as independent fans of Forest & Meadow. We don't receive anything in return for this plug. That goes for all the other businesses and non-profits we're always mentioning on this blog as well. This is a labor of love, folks! Our only revenue source would be the ads you see in the margins, and those haven't yielded any funding (yet?). Feel free to click on them to see if that helps!

Herbs1
Just a small sampling of the amazing products available for the first time online.

The Last Page

I reached a personal milestone in our Dragon Flower Farm work when I recently filled the very last page in the gardening journal that I started two years ago, when the whole process began. Fittingly, there was just enough room to tape in the empty packet from a bunch of comfrey seeds, a permaculture powerhouse plant.

Last page

Thanks again for tuning in. Anthony and I hope your to-do list is short and your friends list long. Stay safe out there, my peeps!

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