No-Grass Lawn Feed

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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Free Food from Your Yard: Mushrooms!

Reddening lepiota

By Lisa Brunette

One of the benefits of removing the turf grass in our entire backyard - which constitutes the majority of the 1/4-acre plot - is that we have a lovely carpet of native violets growing over most of it. I've raved about viola sororia previously on the blog, and the best part is that the violets arrived of their own volition, free of charge. With them, came edible mushrooms.

Pictured above is Lepiota americana, AKA 'reddening lepiota.' This gilled cap mushroom seems to be a natural companion to the violets, as all spring and summer, we found them growing in clusters nestled under and amidst the violet leaves.

We'd first noticed reddening lepiota last year, but we didn't know they were edible and thought better than to try eating them without more information. I included them in this Q&A with wildlife biologist/author Ellen King Rice - you can see how the cluster dwarfs Anthony's hand in a photo about half-way down. That convo with Ellen was a great start in getting the info we needed, as it put me in the mindset to purchase a Missouri-specific wild mushroom ID guide, to which I gave two thumb's up in a followup post. This is it in case you want to rush right over to the MDC Store and buy one right now.

Mushroom ID guide

And you should, if you live in Missouri or plan to visit and do a little foraging while you're here. If you're one of our readers from the East or West Coasts, you're better off with a regional specific guide for your area. 

Note we don't receive anything in exchange for this endorsement of this MDC publication. All of our props, kudos, and reviews are 100 percent objective, with no sponsorships or payments made in exchange for sharing our opinion. You're welcome!

So now we know with complete certainty that the mushroom pictured above is a) Lepiota americana and b) safe to eat. We've dined on them all spring and summer, and THEY ARE DELICIOUS. Let me tell you, there's nothing that makes you feel like you've got this whole survival thing down better than foraging in your own backyard. But we didn't go about this cavalierly. Let me walk you through the rather robust process.

Step 1: Try an ID App

Early on, I posted some photos of the mushroom in question to iNaturalist and got a positive ID for Reddening lepiota. I love iNaturalist and use it pretty much weekly to ID flora and fauna (177 observations, and counting!). It's also our main tool for the Shutterbee study. But I didn't stop at iNaturalist. That would have been dangerous, as the app has limitations and can give you a false result.

Step 2: Consult a Guide Book

Next, I went to the guide book to see what it could tell me about reddening lepiota. According to author Maxine Stone, it's edible, but she recommended exercising some caution, as it can easily be confused with a lookalike known as green-spored lepiota, which is poisonous.

Whoa, right? Nature doesn't mess around. Two mushrooms, similar in appearance, growing in the same part of the world, one is safe (and tasty), but the other is poisonous - not enough to kill you, but it will make you super sick. Stone points out two areas of differentiation between them: 1) Reddening lepiota bruises red and 2) it leaves a white spore print. Which brings me to step 3.

Step 3: Take a Spore Print

I know this sounds all science-y, something only botanists should do, but taking a spore print turns out to be easy like a summer breeze. All you do is separate the cap from the stem and turn the cap gills-down onto a piece of paper or other surface the spores can 'print.' Then you wait for the spores to drop - this can take anywhere from a few hours to 24. Since reddening lepiota prints white, Stone recommends black construction paper. Luckily, we have a black cutting board that works perfectly.

Spore print

Isn't that amazing? Some people turn mushroom spore prints into art, and you can see why. 

Step 4: Ask an Expert

The print supports with clearly white spores that the mushroom is likely Lepiota americana. At this point, I had 3 sources: iNaturalist, the Missouri's Wild Mushrooms guide, and the spore print. But since eating mushrooms from the wild, or in this case, the wild out your back door, carries a certain amount of inherent risk, Stone recommends reaching out to an expert, too, for an ID confirmation. So I did what she suggested and found our local mycological society, which brought me to an expert... named Maxine Stone, the author of the guide.

She was really lovely, responding right away, with a 'likely' confirmation on my reddening lepiota ID, with the caveat that she couldn't make a 100 percent positive ID in person due to the coronavirus lockdown. But at this point, Anthony and I felt we'd covered the bases pretty well.

Step 5: Try a Small Sample

We ate just one or two bites at first, waiting 24 hours to see if we suffered any ill effects; there were none, so after that it was mushroom on the menu.

Funny thing: Stone's book lists edibility on a four-point scale, with "choice" being highest. Lepiota americana is noted as two stars, or "good." This was our first foray into eating anything other than grocery store mushrooms, and we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. The taste is unlike anything we've had before, with a meaty, musky richness that explodes on your tongue. We can't wait to get our hands on one of those 'choice' mushrooms...

We simply sauté them in butter in a cast iron skillet. They redden similarly to portobello mushrooms (another ID confirmation) but have more flavor, in our opinion.

Sauteed mushrooms

So there you have it: Free food from the yard, as a result of getting rid of our lawn. These just didn't appear when we had nothing but grass.

Please note that you should follow all five steps above and exercise extreme caution if you attempt to eat mushrooms found anywhere outside. We continue to take spore prints of EVERY HARVEST on that black cutting board, just to make sure we don't inadvertently pick up a poisonous green-spored mushroom instead. We can gather a crop in the morning and have spore prints by lunchtime.

Mushroom haul

Best of luck with your own foraging forays, whether out your back door or in the wild. Be safe, be smart, and stay curious, my peoples!

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The Trials and Triumphs of Sowing from Seed

Dill
The umbels of dill flowers.

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

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

Arugula_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on arugula flower.

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

Chamomile
German chamomile.

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

Nasturtium
Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.'

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

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

Sure, blame it on the cat, he says.

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

Cilantro_Flower
Cilantro flowers.

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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

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

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

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

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

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

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

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* According to educational materials distributed by Shutterbee.

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