No-Grass Lawn Feed

Chaos Is a Garden

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Peonies on a floor of wild violets seen through a thicket of wild garlic.

By Anthony Valterra

Chaos isn't a pit.
Chaos is a ladder.

- Little Finger, Game of Thrones

...the idea that paradise is a walled garden is an echo back to the chaos and order idea… Walls, culture, garden, nature… The proper human habitat is a properly tended garden...

- Jordan Peterson

As we work on the Dragon Flower Farm, we are also developing our philosophy around what we are doing, and why. At this point (and it will likely change) I would say it is a philosophy of the mean - the middle way, if you will. One aspect of that philosophy is the role of chaos. In Jungian thought, the forest represents the primeval, the chaotic, nature red in tooth and claw. The home represents order, civilization, humanity's dominion. The garden is the place where the two intersect. It is ordered, but it is still influenced by the power that resides outside of its walls. 

Generally speaking, our culture tries to push that chaotic force as far away from ourselves as possible. We use chemical pesticides to kill insects we don't want, we erect barriers to keep out animals we label pests, and we root up plants we call weeds. That is one extreme. On the other side of the garden wall, we have people who are advocating never weeding anything, letting everything grow as it will, and the only intervention being the introduction of plants that are desired. We fall somewhere in the middle.

DFF (Dragon Flower Farm) is trying to ride the edge of order and chaos. We believe that it is possible to have intention in planting, engineering, and maintaining your garden, while still understanding that you are not really in charge. Nature will surprise you with volunteers, odd combinations of plants, and even insect populations that you did not expect. You can pour huge amounts of energy and resources attempting to fight against nature, or you can have a little humility and journey with her. Maybe you will even see some beauty that you could not have planned.

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Daffodils growing up through sedum - completely unplanned.

We have an intent for our space. We are trying to grow a significant portion of our own food. Ironically, we began this project way before COVID-19. But the pandemic has sharpened the seriousness of this goal. We are also attempting to support our native flora and fauna. Pollinators are particularly important, and growing native plants supports those insects, which supports our goal of growing our own food. Finally, we are trying to be good environmental stewards of our space. We avoid the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. But in all of these endeavors, we do not hold ourselves up as pristine. We do not see ourselves living only on the food grown on our land, we have non-native plants in the yard, and we have used outside inputs such as mulch from another source. 

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A sycamore volunteer plant - maybe the act of a squirrel, or a bird, or maybe it drifted in on the wind. 

Our culture tends to favor order over chaos in the natural world. We want our plants and animals to conform to our needs and wants. To a traditional gardener, our space would probably look chaotic (sorry, Dad!). On the other hand, we fly in the face of many non-traditional philosophies. We are more than willing to uproot winter creeper, tree of heaven, and bush honeysuckle. This makes the native plant people happy but gets us a frown from some permaculture purists. However, we are OK with some non-native volunteers, which reverses the praise/frown equation just mentioned.

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One pod is local praying mantis; the other is a non-native, introduced mantis species; both are welcome at DFF.

How do we decide? We're guessing. But we know that we are not really in charge. Nature will abide. We can only do our best in the short time we are here and hope to pass on something to the next generation - a bit of wisdom, some life lessons, and maybe a small patch of healthy land.

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How about this little bundle of chaos? Native? Invasive? Food? Stay tuned to find out!


The First Signs of Spring - and a New To-Do List - at Dragon Flower Farm

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Our first daffodil of the season pops up in a shady corner near the HVAC unit.

By Lisa Brunette

The flora is waking up here at Dragon Flower Farm after a long sleep. I wish I could say we're waking up from a long sleep, too, but the truth is we're merely shifting from hard-work-inside to hard-work-outside. It's the same with the fauna. As I mentioned in the post on bird baths, our feeders were super active all winter. In addition to the usual flocks of house sparrows, house finches, and European starlings, we experienced frequent visits from cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, woodpeckers, and even the white-throated sparrow, a treat to watch for its two-footed, back-and-forth dig move in the dirt under our feeders. Like the birds, we're flush with motivation to make the most of springtime; while we marvel at the awakening garden, several projects are keeping us busy during this shelter-in-place.

Daffodils are a traditional harbinger of spring in St. Louis, where they explode in profusion beginning in mid-March. We're still discovering new ones popping up after a few years' recovery from the denuding the property underwent before a developer listed it for sale in 2016-17. As with a lot of the other plants we've kept, they seem much more robust now that we've rehabilitated the damaged landscape by removing invasives and turf grass and adding sheet-mulch to replenish the soil.

A word about ornamental bulbs: They're vastly overused, especially considering how little they give back to the living things around us. Unlike the native plants we're focusing on at Dragon Flower Farm, they are not sources of nectar, pollen, or food for most pollinators and insects, so they're essentially living statues in the garden. Still, from a permaculture perspective, they can serve a purpose, and for us that's to discourage critters from gnawing down our tender seedlings and transplants. We have a tough time keeping the rabbits from decimating our fruit bushes and trees, so we're moving the bulbs to encircle anything we don't want the rabbits to eat. This is working so far; rabbits find ornamental bulbs distasteful. 

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The one's making an appearance for the first time in three years.

Speaking of rabbits gnawing on tender young woody fruit bark... we recently dug a moat around our blueberries. This is not actually meant to keep the rabbits away but to keep water around the blueberries. It's an experiment and part of our ongoing self-education in permaculture principles. I got the idea from watching the entire playlist put out by Midwest Permaculture. In a few of the videos, you'll see a moat around a tomato patch, and there's also an ongoing series of presentations on the importance of retaining water through rain gardens, ditches, and water-loving plants.

Hopefully, this will help reduce the amount of water we need to extract from the county's water supply. I also sowed chervil and lavender around the blueberries - both companion plants that should help create a small guild of supportive interconnections. Still, Anthony and I have to laugh at ourselves. In my best Ron White voice, I turned to him during this process and deadpanned, "I'm spending a beautiful Saturday digging a moat in my backyard, and I don't really know why."

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Yep, it's a moat. Around the blueberries.

While we certainly want more water in some areas, we actually have a bit of a water problem in others, mainly our basement. You might remember our French drain from a couple of years ago; well, it hasn't at all solved the problem. Our next least-expensive option was to replace the old, easily-clogged gutters on our house. We did just that in early spring, also taking the opportunity to rig up a rain barrel system, which my brother recently scored for us from his vacating neighbor. Both barrels have pretty much been entirely full since installation, which just goes to show you how much water runs off your property all the time - in our case down toward the damaged, urbanized River Des Peres and out to the Mississippi.

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Who knew rain barrels could be so beautiful?

The next thing on our list water-wise is to bury that flex pipe, which isn't very nice to look at. I'd like to have it drain into another rain garden area, joined by the pre-existing French drain pipe that already lets out there. The entire landscape slopes down toward the south, so I'm thinking about a serpentine path that would slow the runoff. We'll see.

A wide variety of sources - from the Missouri Department of Conservation to Wild Ones to the Audubon Society to our native plant hero Doug Tallamy - all recommend delaying your spring cleanup as long as possible. So we left the leaf litter, spent vines, and dried-out perennial stalks all winter and are only tackling it in necessary spots right now. The reason? A great many flora depend on that plant material, whether it's red bats sheltering in dead leaves or insect larva needing a first meal. Besides, decaying plant matter is basically free, organic fertilizer. When we do remove it, like we did around the sedums lining our front walk, we do so gently and repurpose it nearby as mulch, as shown below.

Front Walk 2020

The daffodils aren't the only plants trumpeting spring. Our lilac will bloom out in the next few weeks; alas, the blooms only show themselves for a short time. We hope to harvest as much as we can to dry in bunches, and maybe we'll also have the time to make some lilac syrups, infusions, and other concoctions. It's a terrifically useful flower.

Lilac Buds 2020

The daffodils and lilacs do point out a flaw in most suburban landscape design. When we moved in, our garden had been designed in the all-too-common mainstream method, which meant exotic ornamentals and invasive plants. Only the volunteers were true natives - the sensitive ferns and violets - and the violets had to be mown, as they were interspersed with lawn. This meant everything bloomed in spring, like one big flower detonation followed by nothing else. Pretty disappointing, in my opinion. I see this in a lot of Midwestern yards, unfortunately. So the spring here is incredible - there's no doubt about it - but the rest of the year could use more bloom.

Last week I talked about what it's like to begin to feel settled enough in a place to plan for the long haul. One of the most thrilling sights this spring is to see the thriving serviceberry (Amalanchier arborea) budding out. We put it in the ground in the fall of 2018 in our first wave of native plantings.

Serviceberry Spring 2020

Happy spring, y'all!

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Giveaway! Win a Signed Copy of Doug Tallamy's 'Bringing Nature Home'

Bringing Nature Home

Last night we attended a Partners for Native Landscaping event at the Missouri Botanical Garden: "Nature's Best Hope." The event featured native plant expert Doug Tallamy, with a presentation based on his latest book. If you haven't read Doug Tallamy, I highly recommend him. His first book, Bringing Nature Home, helped spawn a rapidly growing movement to focus on native plants in home gardens. With his latest book, he expands upon that to imagine what we could do if we stitched together the fragments of true nature we have left by converting other public and private swathes of land to native plant ecosystems. It's a compelling, inspiring argument.

To help promote these ideas, we're giving away a free, signed copy of Bringing Nature Home. All you have to do to be eligible to win is subscribe to our newsletter. If you're already subscribed, you're automatically in the pool, but please do tell your friends! The drawing happens on March 31, 2020, so sign up before that cutoff date.

Tallamy's lecture at the Botanical Garden was sold out, and today's full-day workshop on native plants is as well. At the reception before last night's talk, Anthony and I had a nice long chat with Marsha Gebhardt, president of the St. Louis chapter of Wild Ones. She mentioned that she and the other Wild Ones leaders (all volunteers) feel like "victims of their own success," as their events are so popular, they're investigating larger meeting venues and generally feeling the growing pains of a swelling membership base.

It's great to see the enthusiasm for native plant gardening, and we hope it continues.

I do want to share an observance I've made after spending a good deal of time self-studying both permaculture and native plant gardening: Permaculturists and native plant proponents need to work together. I see a lot of the same arguments being made by both, which is a key place to have a discussion. But then they're sometimes working at odds due to blind spots on both sides:

  1. Permaculturists can actually do damage to their own and connected ecosystems with their use of invasive species. For example, autumn olive might be a great choice for soil remediation and people food, but even if it's slashed and mulched later, birds could have spread its seeds to sensitive natural areas. It's also just not going to do much in terms of attracting and feeding pollinators and interrelated species.
  2. Native plant gardeners miss the importance of growing one's own food and other human use products, which can mitigate the damage of the agricultural food system. For example, if you're buying 100% of your groceries from a store that trucks most of its supply in from out of state and out of country, you're part of a system that depletes topsoil at alarming rates and poisons a dwindling watershed, no matter what good you're doing in your own yard with native plants.

We're managing our best at Dragon Flower Farm to bridge the two camps, taking the tried and tested practices from both and applying them to our 1/4-acre. I'm sure we'll make mistakes, and we don't claim to be purists by any stretch of the imagination, but we try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We wish you well in your own efforts at sustainability and lifestyle gardening, and as always, tell us what you think in the comments below. Good luck on the giveaway, too!

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

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Last week the St. Louis chapter of the national organization Wild Ones honored us with mention on their blog. The post titled "New Member Lisa Brunette: Her Creative Telling of Our Shared Story" went live on Feb. 11th and was mailed out in a newsletter to Wild Ones St. Louis members.

Wild Ones promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. The St. Louis chapter is one of the largest and most active chapters in the Wild Ones network, and it's run by an all-volunteer staff. We joined in early 2019 and have benefited a great deal already from the group's workshops, lectures, home tours, and seed exchanges. 

The native plant movement is part of what inspired our work at Dragon Flower Farm. While I'd previously incorporated native plants into my gardens in the Pacific Northwest, the 1/4-acre native plant food forest we're now developing in the Midwest is quite an ambitious undertaking - one we couldn't do without resources like Wild Ones. It's a privilege to be members.

We encourage you to join a chapter - Wild Ones has 50+ chapters in 18 states located throughout the Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern U.S. And if you're in the St. Louis area, we hope to see you at some of their events. (Shout out to all my Pacific Northwest readers - you're invited to start your own Wild Ones chapters.)

The native plant movement is gaining huge momentum... just today we saw they've broken ground at the world-class Missouri Botanical Garden on a native plant garden. With noted lecturer Doug Tallamy's latest book out this month, the buzz will continue... and it's not just about bees!

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

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

By Lisa Brunette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The vintage 1971 cover. Photo source: Amazon.

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

Here's how you do it:

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

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

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Our first batch of sheet mulch at Dragon Flower Farm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is not sponsored, and we received nothing in return for our references to any of the named products.