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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.

9781603580298_l

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

Megachile bee
A leafcutter bee drawn to a borage flower.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year was a lot of things that weren't good, but one silver lining for me was that it was also the year of the bee.

You might remember I signed up for Shutterbee, a joint citizen science program sponsored by my alma mater Saint Louis University's Billiken Bee Lab, Webster University, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Zoo. Through the volunteer program, participants at 165 homes tracked and photographed bees in our backyards using a set scientific protocol, uploading our findings to iNaturalist for cataloguing and further study. The goal of the program overall is to "understand how landscape features and land management decisions affect bee diversity and behavior," according to researcher Dr. Nicole Miller-Struttman. The bee scientists running the study are also trying to determine whether or not citizen photographic surveys could take the place of the tried-and-true practice of surveying bees through net collection.

Here's what one of the uploaded bee records looks like, with the following elements included: bee photo, an "Sbee" tag to identify the entry to program researchers, the length of my survey (30 minutes), and the name of the plant the bee was foraging.

Shutterbee entry

The results of this year's study? 

  • I myself completed 8 observation rounds, following the protocol to survey our garden about every two weeks over three months in the summer. I catalogued a total of 73 bees across 22 different species. 
  • The Shutterbee participants as a whole spotted 8,309 bees across 83 different species during the 2020 survey.
  • The program's all-time total is 10,878 spottings across 83 species.

While I did spot a number of non-native Western honeybees, aka Apis mellifera, especially in the beginning when I was still learning to differentiate, the vast majority of my finds were native bees. This is important because 87 percent of flowering plants depend on creatures for pollination, many of them having evolved together, like the orchid and the orchid bee. We absolutely depend on native bees for our food supply, too. One example is the squash bee, which pollinates squashes and other edible plants in the same family, such as cucumbers. These two species also evolved together. Some common bee names give you a hint about the interrelationship between the bee and the flowers it pollinates, such as the hibiscus turret bee and the morning glory turret bee. I spotted both in our garden, and we grow both flowers that are their namesakes.

Hibiscus turret bee
HIbiscus turret bee, or Ptilothrix bombiformis, on our native hibiscus.
Morninggloryturretbee
Though this is Melitoma taurea, or Morning glory turret bee, here it's also enjoying the hibiscus flower.

My most exciting find? The American bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus, a threatened species that was once numerous but is now in serious decline: by 98 percent since the 1990s, according to a presentation given by Shutterbee researcher Emily Buehrle. The decline is due to a host of factors, from the overuse of pesticides to habitat loss and the effects of climate change. We have a lot of sunflowers, which is this bee's favorite food, but I photographed it on a native plant called Lobelia siphilitica, or blue lobelia. For me, this is heartening, as I don't know that we'd have had this rare bee sighting back when our yard consisted of nothing but turf grass and non-native, invasive plants.

Bombus pensylvanicus1
American bumblebee, which is listed under threatened status.

Another singular bumblebee spotting for me was the native Bombus griseocollis, or Brown-belted bumblebee, which showed up one day in June to gather nectar from the native hydrangea then in full bloom.

Brown-belted bumblebee
Bombus griseocollis, or Brown-belted bumblee, on native hydrangea.

I also had just one chance to capture the Bicolored striped sweat bee. The glimpse of its metallic green thorax gave me quite a thrill when I spotted it on a sunflower in early August.

Bicolored striped sweat bee
Bicolored striped sweat bee, or Agapostemon virescens, on a sunflower.

The most commonly spotted bee in our garden last year was the Eastern carpenter bee, or Xylocopa viriginica, a native bee that is a good pollinator for blueberries as well as a wide range of native plants. It's a large, easy bee to spot, resembling a bumble bee in its sound and sight, with a signature black dot on the thorax surrounded by yellow fuzz.  

Eastern carpenter bee
Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, on native swamp milkweed.

Of note is the frequency with which I spotted the Modest masked bee. This tiny bee visited a native plant that is a bit of a conversation piece itself, Rattlesnake master, or Erygnium yuccifolium, which blooms with spectacular white pom-pon flowerheads.

Modest masked bee
Modest masked bee, Hylaeus modestus, on native Rattlesnake master.

My favorite bee, though? That would be the Eucerini, or long-horned bee. I was treated to their sight pretty much all summer, as they love the same plucky flowers I do, the sunflowers, of course, and the brown-eyed Susans. They brightened my day with those crazy long antennae, moving with a sense of frenetic urgency as they become doused in pollen. They make me smile.

Long-horned bee
Rudbekia hirta, a North American native, is a popular foraging plant for this long-horned bee in the tribe Eucerini.

The preliminary study results from this past year were a bit surprising, as they suggest that the non-native Western honeybees are taking advantage of more diverse flower gardens by broadening their foraging; whereas, four large native bees pulled out for comparative analysis are not changing their behavior. However, there was some boost for areas with fewer impervious surfaces, earth instead of asphalt. Shutterbee is a multi-year program, and more data is needed to assess both the impacts of conservation efforts on bee population and foraging behavior and the ultimate efficacy of citizen science data collection. I look forward to participating again this year.

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A Three-Year Transformation: Dragon Flower Farm 2017-2020

July 2020 2
Dragon Flower Farm, July 2020.

By Lisa Brunette

This fall marks three years since we purchased our home - a 1904 World's Fair-era house on 1/4-acre just outside the St. Louis city limits. Those of you who've followed this blog since then - or even before that time - have witnessed a series of trials and triumphs as we've worked incredibly hard and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. While the to-do list continues, and with gardening it seems the work is never done, we feel we've already achieved much toward our vision: a productive, wildlife- and pollinator-friendly garden bursting with native plants, beneficial non-natives, and edibles.

When we bought the property in fall 2017, we got a great deal, likely in part because the backyard was what you might call a problem situation.

August 2017 1
August 2017.

To the left you can see the zigzagging chainlink fence and the way the whole property butts up against the neighboring apartment building parking lot. Bonus: A view of the dumpsters! The yard was a relic of mid-century landscaping values, with big fat circles of day lilies, hostas, and euphorbias, at that point overgrown with weeds and spilling into the grassy areas, which were also mostly weeds. I think a lot of potential buyers took one look at this yard and saw themselves having to do a lot of awkward mowing, not to mention constantly hacking away at nuisance foliage. Here's the view straight out the back door.

August 2017 2
August 2017.

That first year, we didn't do anything radical to the yard, or the house, for that matter, as we were still getting to know the place. It's a good idea to sit with a big project property like this, if you're living in it yourself, to come to understand it fully before diving in with major fixes. It was a chore, but we mowed the lawn and beat back the invasive overgrowth as best we could.

August 2018 1
August 2018.

Our first step in the fall of 2018 was to invite experts from the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program to conduct a site visit. Based on their recommendations, we chose to remove our serious problem plants first, which at that time comprised the majority of the greenery. The chainlink fence was overgrown on every single side with noxious invasive plants, and these were taking over the 1/4-acre. The three culprits were: 1) winter creeper, 2) Japanese honeysuckle, and 3) sweet autumn clematis. These have been eradicated, though we continue to remove seedlings of all three to this day.

August 2018 2
August 2018.

Next we installed a 6-foot cedar fence around the entire backyard, to provide privacy and security, as well as screen the view of the parking lot full of cars next door (and the dumpsters). The fence turns out to have had the added benefit of protecting our plantings from deer. You wouldn't have thought there'd be a deer issue in suburban St. Louis, but I've spotted them at a nearby pocket park. Not that we would mind deer, but without the fence we would have had to devise another strategy to keep deer from the edibles and other plants.

That fall we also put in the first set of trees and shrubs and began the long process of sheet-mulching the turf grass, as it was our intention to convert the entire grounds to mixed plantings, with little to no grass. We used a layer of cardboard with a generous helping of mulch on top. We scavenged most of the cardboard from our neighbors' recycling bins the night before pickup day and ordered the mulch in bulk for the cost savings. In process, sheet-mulching looks like this.

April 2019
April 2019.

See my how-to on sheet-mulching, which is really easy, especially if you're talking about a small plot of land. But here's a glimpse of what it entails for a project of this scale. To mulch a 1/4-acre, you need a lot.

May 2019
May 2019.

We continued to sheet-mulch the lawn throughout the fall, winter, spring, and summer of 2018-19, so that by August of 2019, we had more than half the ground covered. Here's a panoramic image showing the wraparound fence, newly installed trees and other plants, and the sheet mulch.

August 2019 1
August 2019.

While laying cardboard and shoveling mulch on top of it, especially over this much area, was a lot of hard work, we have no regrets about the decision. This summer Anthony (who won't let me mow, not that I insist) didn't have to mow the backyard at all, and he didn't miss it. (He's not one of those guys who likes to mow grass.) Besides, without the grass to compete with, our native violet ground cover took over on its own, and we like it a lot better than grass.

During this time, we also added a long list of native trees, shrubs, and flowers, using thrifty resources provided by programs like the Missouri Department of Conservation's seedlings program, Grow Native! sales, and the free offerings of our local Wild Ones chapter. These plants filled out the landscape, taking the place of the invasives and attracting wildlife and pollinators in droves. 

Bees on monarda
Eastern carpenter bees on monarda.

Our first official edible from the garden? Wild cleavers, which I harvested in spring 2019 for tea (it's an awesome tonic for reducing swelling and water retention). Next came basil that summer.

By winter 2019, we had all but one small back strip converted from turf. This spring, we let it go wild while we focused on sowing food plants in those sheet-mulched areas, which by that point were ready for more tender plantings. We also built a squash tunnel, a rain garden, two hugelkultur mounds, and a wooden trellis. The trellis supports two varieties of our native passionflower, which spoiled the bees all summer and has already yielded edible fruit. It grew by leaps and bounds, too, from a slip of a seedling to a full-grown vine in one season. Here's a pic I took last week from the second floor of our house so you can see the vine already topping the trellis.

October 2020 3

This year we made great use of our spring ephemerals, turning them into everything from tea to infused vinegar, and we had a decent harvest of veggies and herbs, bringing in potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cucumbers, horseradish, asparagus, chervil, basil, sage, marjoram, oregano, arugula, kale, borage, cilantro, coriander, turnips, lettuce, carrots, and at least a few tomatoes all total across the early spring, summer, and late summer growing seasons. We learned a lot through the process and look forward to a better 2021.

Pickles 2020
Homemade pickles, summer 2020.

Even people who were skeptical about our project are amazed by what we've already achieved, using words like "oasis" and "sanctuary" to describe the feeling of being in our garden. But in case that's not enough endorsement for you, here it is, by the numbers:

  • Invasive plants removed: 5 species
  • 'Statue' plants removed: 3 species (statues, while not invasive, provide little benefit to humans, animals, or pollinators)
  • Turf removed: 95% of backyard, comprising most of the 1/4-acre
  • Native plants saved or encouraged: 15 species
  • Non-native beneficials saved or encouraged: 4 species
  • Native trees and shrubs planted as seedlings: 23 species
  • Native flowers and grasses planted as seedlings: 29 species
  • Native flowers and grasses sown as direct seeds: 9 species
  • Bees counted: 25+ species
  • Birds counted: 30+ species
  • Butterflies counted: 20+ species
  • Wildlife counted: 7+ species
July 2020 3
July 2020.

We've done a good job of remaking the space as a beneficial habitat, but there's still so much we can do to improve. Only about 5% of our overall food intake comes from Dragon Flower Farm. While we know it's unrealistic to think we could ever achieve total sustainability, we know we can do better than that. We've thought about adding chickens, guinea fowl, or even rabbits to the mix since we are meat eaters. Currently, we get our meat from local ranchers we've met at a farmer's market, and that's a good source for us as we don't have the time to devote to animal caretaking.

October 2020 1
A view from above, taken last week, October 2020.

So the mission for next year is to increase the space we devote to annual vegetables, as well as our own skill and proficiency at growing them. While native plants are incredibly easy to take care of, annual food crops are much more involved. I'll end by asking you to wish us well with the perennial onions and garlic we just planted here in fall. May they yield a bumper crop of food next June.

Onion planting 2020

October 2020 2
Finishing up the onion bed.

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50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

Achemon_sphinx
Achemon sphinx moth larvae (caterpillar), on native grape.
 

When it comes to providing more habitat for pollinators, it really doesn't take much to see results. My brother's been amazed to find monarch caterpillars after adding one milkweed, and swarms of bees supping from a sole aster. Here at Dragon Flower Farm, it's only been two years since we kicked off this project in earnest, and we already feel as if we live in a nature preserve. All of the photos here are from this spring and summer.
 
Black_Swallowtail
The larvae, also called instar, for black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.
 
To illustrate that pollinator-friendly yards are easy-peasy to create, I've penned this parody for you, inspired by both the Paul Simon original and the play on the song that aired on The Muppet Show when I was a kid, "50 Ways to Love Your Lever." I apologize in advance for the excessive corniness, but hey. I live in the Midwest now.
 
Monarch
Monarch larvae on Asclepius incarnata (swamp milkweed).

50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

The problem is all inside your yard, I say to you
The answer is to see it ecologically 
I'd like to help you get more than a bird or two
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
 
I say I don't mean for this to sound at all lewd
After all, it's earnestness that guides me not a desire to be rude
But I'll repeat myself at the risk of starting some feud
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Tussock_moth
The white-marked tussock moth, at larvae stage, on Amorpha fruticosa (false indigo bush).
 
It's time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_into_chrysalis
Monarch positioning for chrysalis stage.
 
I say it thrills me to see you've made it this far
I hope there is something here that will help our little instar
That word might confuse you but it just means caterpillar
You know, the fifty ways
 
I say feel free to sleep on all of this tonight
And I believe in the morning you'll know my words are right
But don't freak out too much when you know you've seen the light
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis.
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
You just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_butterfly

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