Permaculture 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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Hügelkultur - More Than Just a Pretty Word

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By Anthony Valterra

Ah, the Germans, a lovely people with a lovely language. For example, did you know the German word for daisy is "gänseblümchen?" It just rolls off the tongue. The Germans created a method of gardening in which they cultivated plants on top of a constructed mound made up of logs buried in the earth. They call it hügelkultur - literally mound or hill culture. The theory is that as the logs decay, they provide nutrients to the plants growing on top of them. In addition, the mound shape provides a sort of natural rain drainage. Plants on the top that need less water get less, and those nearer the bottom get more water. You can also use the hill shape to vary sunlight. Plants on the sunny side get more light; plants on the opposite side a bit less. Finally, the hill itself is supposed to provide a bit more growing space. Imagine the mound as half of a sphere. If the mound was not there, you would be planting in a circle with an area based on the diameter of the sphere. But with the mound, you have a planting area half the surface of the whole sphere. Assuming a mound with a 10-ft. diameter, you are roughly doubling your growing space (if I did the math correctly).

Above is our first try at hügelkulture, as it stands today. We decided to make it an herb mound. It could just as well support other plants, but an herb mound is a common choice. As you can see, we did all right. We have good growth from the sage in the foreground, the marjoram at the top, and the grey santolina to the right of the marjoram. There are also a couple of young oregano plants tucked between the sage and marjoram. Not shown: the reddening lepiota mushrooms, which grew prolifically all over the yard including on the mound - delicious! More about them in this post here. Herbs that did not make it on the mound (this year) were all sown as seeds, a tough go for non-native perennials, especially here in the beginning before the logs beneath the earth had a chance to decay.

How do you make one of these mounds? I'm sure you are thinking it requires elaborate planning, detailed construction, and a great number of resource inputs. Or maybe you're looking at it and thinking, "It's a hill; how tough can it be?"

Herb mound hugel

If you have read about my squash tunnel here, and its tragic demise here, then you know I am a big believer in scavenging for resources. Fortunately, we live in the Midwest, where the same storms that brought down the squash tunnel regularly bring down trees in the neighborhood. And when workers are cutting up those trees, they are usually very happy to have you help them out by hauling off some of the debris. That's how we got the logs for the base of our hügelkulture.

Herb mound hugel 2

We took some of the logs and arranged them in a circle with the diameter we wanted for the mound.

Herb mound hugel 3

Then we buried them and placed more logs on top. Repeat this process until you have a mound - easy peasy!

IMG_1248

Once we had the mound shape, we covered it in cardboard, a layer of mulch, and planted herb starts.  As I said, they did pretty well. But in theory each year that goes by, they should do better and better. The buried logs will decay and provide nutrients to the planted herbs. The first year the logs barely had time to start the decay process so the herbs were more or less relying on the soil covering. After this winter, the logs should be breaking down nicely, and I hope we will see a much more robust hügelkultur herb mound next spring and summer.

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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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Tragedy Strikes the Squash Tunnel

IMG_5051

By Anthony Valterra

Yes, that is the tragic remains of the once... well, "glorious" might be a bit strong, squash tunnel (which included beans and cucumbers as well). Regular readers might recall the post about the construction of the tunnel - How to Build a Squash Tunnel out of Bamboo - for Almost Nothing. Ah, yes, those were times of innocence. As one can see by the above image, the squash tunnel is no more. The Midwest weather decided to toss us one of its regularly occurring storms, and the high winds did in the bamboo. I know, I know, you're thinking, "Isn't that the point of bamboo? It's supposed to bend in the wind?" Apparently, even bamboo has its limits. Ironically, before the storm hit, I was about to put together a post critiquing my own design. I'll do that briefly just in case someone else wants to tilt at this windmill. 

The first mistake I made was in scavenging the bamboo and leaving it out for a week before starting the construction. When bamboo is green, it bends very easily. And if one bends it when it's green and then lets it dry, it holds its shape pretty well. But if you wait until it has started to dry and then bend it, it becomes brittle. And then when weight (or a strong breeze) is applied to the bamboo, it is in danger of splitting.

IMG_1155

As one can see in the above photo, the bamboo was changing from green to yellow/brown. In other words, I was using this bamboo "too late."

My second mistake was attaching the side poles too far apart. I think the correct way to do it would be to have the first side pole about 6 inches above the ground. And then double the distance for each additional pole. So, the second one would be a foot above the first pole, the third two feet above the second, etc.

IMG_1160

As you can see in the above photo, the first pole is about two feet above the ground, and the second four feet from the first. This wide distance meant that the plant vines struggled to reach up the sides of the tunnel. When they did reach up, they often tangled in the small shoots that were left on the poles. Which brings us to my third mistake, leaving the small shoots and leaves on the bamboo poles. My thought was that this would be both attractive and practical in that the vines from our squash would have more to which they could attach. 

IMG_1162

The leaves on the tunnel are attractive in the above photo. However, they are ephemeral. In a couple of weeks, they will dry and fall off, leaving only the twig-like shoots coming off the bamboo poles. This would be fine, but there was an additional problem. The vines would attach to the twigs, but rather than the vines pulling themselves up, they pulled the twigs down. the result is that the vine would grow back towards the ground, rather than up the sides of the tunnel.

Even with all of those mistakes, we did have some success.

IMG_4994

Look at those gorgeous butternut squashes hanging in the air! It wasn't perfect, but it still had some great visual appeal. And in the end, we've concluded, that is the main value of squash tunnels - they look cool as heck. Oh, sure, they do create a bit more growing space. After all, the tunnel is over a cement path. But really the amount of room saved is pretty slight.

After the devastating collapse, my very smart and resourceful wife quickly scavenged the bamboo scraps and set up small tripods for the vines to grow on.

IMG_5057

Not as fabulous, but guess what? The squash did just fine on these tripods. In fact, the beans and the cucumbers seemed to prefer them. I don't think we will do another squash tunnel. Midwest storms are just too strong and too common. But we still think bamboo is a great building material for a garden. Especially if you have a neighbor who needs to regularly get rid of poles, and you can get them for free. But next year I think we will focus on smaller, more practical designs.

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Information Is Good, Even If the Results Are Not - Spring 2020 Growing Season Report Card

Cucumber from Flower
Cucumber growing from flower.

By Lisa Brunette

If I had to sum up my first real vegetable garden season here at Dragon Flower Farm in one phrase, it would be this: It's all information, and information is good.

First, let me just say that I'm proud of my resourcefulness in trying to grow most of our vegetables from seed. This was a huge cost savings, as I avoided losing expensive starts when things didn't work out. Because we're members of the Missouri Botanical Garden, I picked up most of my seeds on a Member's Day discount of 30% off at the Garden shop. These were organic, non-GMO, open-pollinated, untreated seeds put out by Botanical Interests. The rest I purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, a wonderful organization doing its part to "conserve and protect America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage." 

For those keeping track, I'll note the seed sources below with the abbreviations BI (for Botanical Interests) or SSE (for Seed Savers Exchange).

Here's what worked.

Chervil. This was one of the first seeds (BI) to hit the soil, as early as March 7, and it was amazingly prolific. If you've never tried Anthriscus cerefolium, let me introduce you to this wonderful early spring herb. It tastes a bit like a basil-y licorice and makes a delicious pesto. Anthony loves it. When it dies out in early summer, it turns a lovely deep red. All hail, chervil!

Chervil Pesto
Anthony making chervil pesto.

Arugula. On a crisp, clear day at the tail end of March, I planted a big, 3-gram packet (BI) of Eruca vesicaria, also known as rocket. It germinated within five days, the rabbits avoided it, and we had a great arugula harvest - until in short order, it bolted. The high was 66°F and the low 46° when I sowed the seeds. Next year I will try sowing in mid-March instead of waiting those extra two weeks. Even though I planted them next to the fence where they would get some shade late in the day, it just got too hot for them too early in the season. But at least the flowers are edible.

Arugula Harvest
Arugula harvest, including flowers.

However, I'm about to get a second, fall harvest from the same plants. After they went to seed, I shook the seeds into the earth, bent the plants over for a week, and then covered them with a tarp for another three weeks. When I lifted the tarp, the plants had died down. I pushed them aside as a mulch, leaving a row clear for the new seedlings, which have sprouted in great numbers. This move was inspired by a talk given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening, who suggesting using a tarp to squelch a cover crop and then planting directly into the dead plant matter.

Arugula Mulch-in-Place
Arugula, mulched in place.
Arugula Sprouts
Arugula sprouts.

Kale. On April 5 (high 53°F, low 46°), I sowed a huge, 10-gram kale blend pack (BI). These went into another part-shade area, near the base of the elderberry bushes; I read somewhere that they are companion plants. This kale has outperformed every other edible annual except chervil, with a high rate of germination and continuous production all summer. It's just now petering out. 

Nicola potatoes. By April 8, the temperature spiked already to 90°F, and it was on this day that I planted the first batch of seed potatoes (SSE). They did very well planted in a bed that had been mulched the previous fall with leaves (obtained free from neighbors). We only hilled them once, to about 6 inches, as suggested by Paul Wheaton of Permies.com. I just harvested about 3 gallons from one bag of seed potatoes. I don't have anything to compare this yield to, but to me, it was exciting to see all those potatoes.

First Potato Harvest 2020
Spread out to cure.

Borage. As far as robustness goes, this plant gets the blue ribbon. We've had huge borage plants all summer after sowing seeds (both BI and SSE) on April 15. They're a bee magnet, and we've enjoyed the edible flowers (taste like cucumber) in salads and as a water flavoring. We tried the leaves as a sautéed green but were not impressed with that use. It also has medicinal properties, so I might harvest for that.

Sunflowers. These are so easy to grow here in Missouri! I believe the squirrels planted one (our neighbor grows them) that bloomed last year by the back shed. I spread the seeds from that one last fall, and this year, we had a huge patch of sunflowers, all for free. To that patch, I added the variety 'Orange Sun' (SSE), which is just now blooming. I've been dutifully harvesting the seed heads, leaving some for the birds. The goldfinches make quite a meal of them.

Sunflower Close-Up
Sunflowers, originally planted by squirrels.

Scarlet Runner Beans. After first getting devoured by rabbits when they sprouted (SSE), these have rebounded and are in flower right now, making the hummingbirds happy. They've wound all the way up our flagpole. Planting them May 15 seems to have been a good move, but they need protection from rabbits, at least until established; they're leaving them alone now.

Flagpole Beans
Scarlet runner beans, twining up our flagpole.

Lettuce. This went in on May 16 (high 80°, low 64°), which also seems to have been too late. I could have sown it in early March, according to this St. Louis-specific gardening calendar, which I now have in my arsenal. We had some great lettuce harvests until they bolted, too quickly. I used a mesclun mix (BI), but it was heavy with a couple of varieties that were too prickly to eat, and it also contained a good deal of arugula, which duplicated that patch. For the fall season sowing, I'm avoiding the mix.

Cilantro, Dill, and Lemon Basil. I sowed all of these (BI) on June 7, and they did marvelously well, the dill coinciding with the cucumbers nicely for use in pickling. Lemon basil is amazing in pesto. I'm actually not a huge fan of cilantro, so I let it go to seed, and I've harvested a ton of coriander seeds. I think these all could have gone in a tad earlier, though.

Bee on Dill
Bee on dill flowers.

I realize that's not a lot of successes, but considering we made no soil amendments whatsoever, and this was a first attempt in this climate zone, it's not bad. The soil had been turf grass converted through sheet-mulch method to garden space. So it was basically clay soil with a layer of decomposed grass, cardboard, and mulch as a thin topsoil. We did have a small amount of compost. We watered with diluted compost tea around the vining plants on the squash arch and in the cabbage patch, and we spread compost in just a handful of spots.

A few things did... OK.

Amish Snap Peas. Delicious, and the rabbits thought so, too. We finally got some after the rabbits moved on to better fare later in spring. Next year, I'll get more packets, too, as one (SSE) didn't do it, and protect them better. I'll also sow with the chervil in early March.

German Chamomile. Again, one packet (BI) not enough, but this is very nice to have.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

Sage and Rosemary. The saddest seed loss was that none of the perennial herbs germinated, except for a couple of sage plants and two rosemary seedlings. All of the seeds were Botanical Interests except the rosemary, which was from Seed Savers.

Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.' After a good soaking overnight, these seeds all germinated, but they either needed to be sown earlier than April 30, watered better, or both. 

Sweet Potatoes. These actually came from Stark Bros. (where I've purchased many of our fruit trees) as sprouts. The rabbits chomped them down when they went in May 1, but they've since recovered very well, at least judging by what's above ground. We'll see how the harvest is this fall.

'Waltham' Butternut Squash. Two ginormous ones grew from one seed packet (BI) sown May 15 and graced the bamboo arch before it toppled in a severe storm this week (more on that later). We saved them, don't worry.

Squash on Arch 2
Waltham butternut squash on bamboo arch.

Cucumbers. We sowed the 'A&C Pickling' variety (SSE), and they've mostly come in misshapen. But we have managed to get some pickles out of the bunch. These and the squash above could have gone earlier in May.

Red ('Red Acre') and Green ('Copenhagen Market') Cabbage. I've been babying these things ever since sowing seeds (BI) on June 7, way too late, as it turns out. Next time, we sow in early March. A crop of the reds expired during a dry patch, and I replaced them with another set, which I've watered and composted around. They looked really promising until this week, when it seems some insect has discovered them and is making lacework of the leaves just as they're beginning to ball.

Ground Cherries. I didn't think these seedlings (SSE) survived my transplanting, but four of the plants did, and they are doing quite well. These native plants bear fruit that resemble tiny tomatillos, and they taste like a cross between a pineapple and a cherry tomato. Definitely a keeper, and their low habit trails well over our violet ground cover.

After that comes the clear failures, of which there are admittedly many.

Sadly, there were a ton of perennial herbs that never germinated: lavender, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, oregano. None of the bulb onions worked out, and neither did the chives, though we did get a handful of spring scallions, which I grew in part shade. The sorrel was devoured by rabbits. Two attempts at beets failed, though we did get a handful in the second attempt (Chioggia style, with stripes, as in the below image). The carrots grew tops but not roots, the lovage didn't sprout, the turnips made a poor showing, and the comfrey seeds simply ignored me. I don't know why amaranth, which seemed to suggest such wonder, decided life wasn't worth trying. Parsnips made a liar out of whoever told me they like compost, and the broccoli, rue, and St. John's wort all failed to transplant.

Chioggia Stripes
One of the few beets.

What grade would you give us on our gardening report card? I'm going with a C.

Maybe that sounds harsh. After all, we got some food out of our backyard! Not many people can say that. But I feel like a C is fair. It's passing, with plenty of room for improvement. The biggest question is, can we make the A-list without purchasing soil amendments? It was good this first time to see what we can do first on a bare minimum. But next year? We shall see.

Sunrise over the Farmyard
Sunrise over Dragon Flower Farm.

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