Permaculture Feed

The Struggle Is Real, the Solution Surprising: What to Do About Galls

Gall2

By Lisa Brunette

It looks like a life form from another planet. But it's definitely terrestrial. Remember that row of evergreen screen trees we planted along our fence line? That was in the fall of 2018, when we had a little help installing a row of nine mature eastern red cedar 'Taylor' trees. This past spring, I discovered massive galls attached to the twigs of many of those trees.

The galls are quite a lot to take in when you first notice them, even in their dry state, as in the above photo. I guess it's a natural human reaction to become simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by things like that, sort of like when you keep flipping through an illustrated book on tropical skin diseases, unable to look away. We've all been there. So it was with equal measures of horror and curiosity that I began to monitor the gall situation. They first appeared in the middle of our rainy spring, and believe me, they are even more startling during wet weather, when the "teliohorns," as they're called, swell and ooze.

Gall1

It's not just a girl thing, either. My brother came by during this time, and he thought I should cut them off the trees, immediately. Anthony was likewise a bit disturbed.

But trying to remove the galls would only spread the spores. While some tree galls are the result of insect activity (feeding or laying eggs), the ones taking up residence in our cedar trees are a type of fungus. The fungus produces growths on the cedar's twig tissues, similarly to warts on human skin. Yeah, does that make it better for you?

If removing the galls isn't the right move, what should you do? The answer: nothing. The fungus doesn't actually hurt the cedar trees. They carry on as if they can spare a few twigs, no problem. So as long as you can handle the sight of those oozy teliohorns emerging out of a shiny sphere like some kind of alien invasion in your garden, it's all to the good.

But this thing isn't called 'cedar-apple rust' for nothing. The issue is the fungus has a two-host life cycle, and the second host is usually a plant in the rose family, particularly apples. 

Now, I had been warned about combining eastern red cedar with an orchard for this very reason, but I'd avoided any issues by choosing disease-resistant apple varieties, such as Arkansas black. It has withstood the spore invasion valiantly. 

But then... I slipped up.

Cedar rust on leaves

I bought a Rome beauty on an impulse, momentarily forgetting it is susceptible to cedar-apple rust. In my defense, it is a good pollinator for the aforementioned Arkansas black, and more suitable as an off-the-tree eating apple than the black, which can be hard and tart. But, yeah, when the galls moved in, the Rome beauty's leaves picked up the rust.

Unfortunately, so did one (but not both) of our serviceberries. I didn't even know cedar rust could infect serviceberries. That one sunk me low. Have you ever eaten a serviceberry? They are delicious, kind of like a combo strawberry/blueberry, only sweeter, but not when they're covered in rust. Just the sight of those teliohorns oozing out of a berry is enough to put you off. Sorry I don't have a photo; I was too sad to take one.

I did not want to use a fungicide to combat the rust since our garden is 100 percent organic; besides, by this point, the rust had already infected the leaves, so it was too late since fungicides work only as a preventative.

Then I remembered an interesting post I'd tripped across previously on a permaculture forum called Permies.com... something about using plumber's tape to combat cedar rust. I retraced my steps and found the post again: It was by someone in the Midwest, in Missouri as well, in fact, who discovered that his home's cedar shingles did not develop cedar rust even when he tried to inoculate them with the fungus. He surmised that the shingle's resistance stemmed from the introduction of metal-frame windows, which act as a kind of fungicide, due to the oxidation from the aluminum, zinc, titanium, and trace lead in the metal windows. He was able to reproduce this effect on his fruit trees with plumber's tape:

...If I attach a piece of plumber's tape (about four inches worth) to the top of the tree, the tree does not develop the fungus.  Plumber's tape is made primarily of lead, zinc and aluminum.  The rain causes the tape to slowly, ever so slowly, rust and the oxidized compound is slowly distributed over the central trunk and the top branches.  Because of the nature and shape of the tree, this same "rust" gets dusted all over the rest of the tree.  Result - just enough anti-fungal action to stop the Cedar/Apple fungus. 

What the hell, I thought, might as well try it. I ordered a coil of plumber's tape and a pair of tin snips and went to work. 

I don't know - this might have saved the Rome beauty! Once I placed the plumber's tape on the tree, the rust ceased to spread. It was early spring at this point, and all of the tree's new growth came in 100 percent without rust, including our first apple. In the next two photos, you can see the rust on the leaves below the tape, but not above it, and the apple is free of rust.

Plumber's tape

Apple

Boosted by that success, Anthony and I took the time to wrap every cedar tree plus every susceptible fruit tree (not just the serviceberry and apple, but the persimmon, too) in plumber's tape. All of the trees are now healthy, and any sign of rust from the spring has given way to fungus-free new growth.

The method checks out as safe; here's this from the original poster on Permies.com:

I have not been able to detect any heavy metal depositing in the soil around the trees (or the house for that matter).  This is a good thing, because I don't want to contaminate my soil.

As you can imagine, I'm quite relieved to see this seemingly crazy, home-grown solution worked. For a while there, I worried we would have to remove all of the cedars. They were planted in a dry, rocky strip that once served as a gravel drive to a garage that is no longer standing, and they took to it with vigor; most other trees would not. They also have high value both to wildlife (as both food and shelter) and to us (as a privacy screen and source of food and medicine, and potentially, wood).

By the way, as an interesting side note, the fungus only took up residence in the 'nativar,' a somewhat cultivated variety called 'Taylor,' but not in either of the true native Juniperus virginianas.

I'm not sure if we'll see the galls return or not next spring, and if they do, whether or not the spores will infect the fruit trees. Our other defense is an increasingly biodiverse 'food forest,' which should also help buffer against the rust. But in the meantime, I humbly give respect to the evolutionary process that produced Gymnosporangium juniperivirginianae. I appreciate its strange... dare I say? Yes: beauty.

Gall 3

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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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Learn from Our Mistake! Ditch Those Daylilies at Dinnertime

Ditch lily
Hemerocallis fulva, daylily, ditch lily.

By Lisa Brunette

We're not at a loss for daylilies, AKA 'ditch lilies,' here at the Cat in the Flock farm. They're overgrowing a sidewalk near the house in one area and have obviously spilled over a circle in what is now the orchard, where they'd been planted with hostas. They're also popping up seemingly of their own accord in a back corner.

So when I read in various sources (most notably here but also here and here) that they could be an excellent food source - the leaves, shoots, flower buds and blooms, as well as tubers all edible - I was excited to try them. From a permaculture standpoint, if something is growing to beat the band, and we can eat the whole thing, that's a win. The negative reactions seemed minimal - only 5% of the population, according to one blogger, and others mentioned a slight possibility of mild symptoms in some people.

We'd been successfully foraging found flora from the garden for a couple of years by this point. I'd made a tea from cleavers, a tincture from wild geranium, and a salad with many an edible petal. We had eaten violet leaves and flowers without any ill effects, and we successfully ID'd and ingested without problems a mushroom called reddening lepiota, which proved to be far more delicious than grocery store varieties. So it was not without both experience and research that we went into this trial with the daylilies. We also verified that the lilies growing in our plot were indeed the common 'ditch lily,' Hemerocallis fulva, or at least we had every reason to believe they were, and harvested them fresh. Our garden is 100% organic as well, so no other contaminates were present.

Ditch lily cluster
This non-native plant grows like crazy and is really tough to eradicate.

We harvested them one Saturday morning - the 4th of July - and cooked them up according to directions published by an award-winning chef, cookbook author, and blogger, which was simply to try the flower blooms and buds, as well as the tubers, sautéd in butter with a little salt and pepper. We did this with a small handful of the tubers and a few buds and blooms.

The results were disastrous. Shortly after eating them, I felt... strange. In the middle of trying to make kale chips for a party for the 4th, I asked my husband if he could finish up, as I needed to lie down, seriously. I was knocked out with a strange sleep for an hour and a half in the middle of a sunny day, during which I neither moved nor awakened. This is strange for me, as I'm not an easy napper. When I finally woke, it was with a strong taste of those tubers in my mouth. Then I experienced a full six hours straight of violent diarrhea, with extreme flatulence. My husband also had diarrhea, though his was milder, but we had to miss the evening festivities, as the two of us basically spent the 4th of July in the bathroom. (Go ahead, make your fireworks jokes.)

Since Anthony also had a negative digestive response, and mine was so extreme, I would absolutely not recommend ditch lilies as a food to anyone. They're really not worth the potential sickness, especially since the tubers are difficult to get clean, and they're mighty tiny. It took digging up six extremely well-established plants - these things are long-lived, and ours might've been there since the '60s - to get two small handfuls of tubers. They tasted... OK. I don't know what all the fuss is about. We'd rather have a regular ol' potato, and we'd have saved ourselves an evening of absolute misery if we'd passed on these. 

Ditch lily tuber
A sample tuber.

We take responsibility for not researching enough beforehand, of course. When it comes to research, you can almost always do more. I've since gone down the rabbit hole to realize exactly why eating ditch lilies was a bad idea that never should have been suggested by those sources in the first place.

First, a word about one of Google's chief weaknesses. Its algorithm is built to give you what it thinks you want, which means it will give you whatever verifies and reinforces your search terms, rather than contradicting them. So if you search on 'daylilies edible,' it will give you results that support daylilies being edible. We see how this is a problem in politics; Facebook is the same way. The echo chambers are built for increasingly high echoes. Now if you search on 'bad reactions to daylilies,' you will get the information that cuts against their edibility. This is the opposite of how research using traditional paper media goes, where no algorithm is funneling you toward only the information that confirms your bias. 

Ditch lily buds
Ditch lily buds.

Using the daylily=negative search terms is how I finally got to some other sites, less sexy than the award-winning chef with his glowing talk of sautés. A couple of nerdier bloggers reveal just how complicated the botanical identification process can be for these flowers we call ditch lilies, for two reasons:

  1. The daylily has been cultivated by horticulturalists to a tune of 60,000 varieties, toxic alkaloids are often used in the cultivation process, and it's very difficult to verify that your daylily isn't one of these varieties. 
  2. People have had documented reactions to even the daylily cultivars deemed 'safe,' and that could be due to errant plants from the originals, but no one knows for sure.

Here's Green Deane, of Eat the Weeds: 

While daylilies are listed in virtually every foraging book as edible as I said earlier, don’t presume any daylily other than the original is edible. Many are, but don’t assume so. Have it proven. Some people also have severe allergic reactions to them. In fact, some people can eat them for years with no problem then suddenly develop an allergy. 

It's worth reading his whole post, 'Daylily Dilemma,' as he walks through the cultivar problem in detail. The other source of interest in this daylily debate is Marie Viljoen, author of the book Forage, Harvest, Feast. While she does include daylilies in her book, she offers a hell of a caveat here in this excerpted post, "Daylily Dangers and Delights":

Scrupulous foraging writers will inform you that a few people experience gastric distress after eating daylilies. It is true. I know of four people who have been sickened (the symptoms are diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting) after eating the flowers of Hemerocallis fulva. One of them is wild foods author Dr. John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants. He and a friend became ill after eating a flower and six raw buds. This has not happened to me, or to countless people who have eaten them with no ill effect. Understanding why it happens is a real head scratcher. It is worth putting it into a broader context. Not all toxicities are the same, and there are several factors to consider before you sit down to dinner. (emphasis hers)

Viljoen also elaborates on not just the cultivar problem but another botanical cultivation aspect, which is that some species are diploids and some triploids (referring to the chromosone structure), so that you have in the end a whole host of caveats: "Avoid the diploid wild species. Avoid the horticultural cultivars. And eat daylilies (or any new food) in moderation," she says (again, her emphasis). The best Viljoen can do is refer to a head-scratching need for more scientific study. And what does 'in moderation' mean? The wild food expert she mentions was sickened from just one bloom and a handful of flower buds.

Ditch lily row

Given the better-than-average possibility that the daylily you encounter is, in fact, not safe to eat, so much so that experts themselves have ingested them and fallen ill, I just don't see the benefit here at all. So let me reiterate: I would absolutely not recommend ditch lilies as a food to anyone. That is all.

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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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A Peek at Our Peony, and Some Free Plants!

Peony bud

By Lisa Brunette

I've got a short one for you this time - I know; you're probably like, "Really, Lisa? Because you're a big fan of those longform blog posts (TL;DR)." But this time I just want to do two things: 1) Show you our beautifully rehabilitated peony and 2) offer you some free plants.

So the peony had been a sickly, struggling thing for the past three years, and in 2019 I was sure it had finally succumbed to blight. But we mulched around it and decided to give it a chance. Well, this spring, it sprang back to life with great promise, as you can see in the awakening bud above. But peony buds are a really slow tease, taking their time to come to full bloom.

Peony opening

When it finally opened, it was a visual and aromatic treat. While I knew their short-lived but storied flowers were legend, I hadn't realized peonies smelled so good.

Peony 2020

They made for a lovely cut flower when we finally opened up from quarantine here and had the whole fam damly over for Memorial Day. Chaco agreed, and luckily, peonies pose no threat to the kitty. In fact, his taste for the peony water is smart, as the petals have been used to flavor water since antiquity.

Peony with Chaco

Peony: short-lived but spectacular, safe for cats, and, as it turns out, immensely useful for humans. We have such a small bush, with only about five flowers in total, but if we ever get more, we can use the petals in many of the same ways we use rose petals. It's even been used medicinally.

Now for the free plants!

You might recall from a previous post that we have about 100 yellow bearded irises here at the Cat in the Flock farm. As much as we enjoy the sight of them in late spring, they're limited to that, aesthetics. We can't use them because they're toxic to humans, and we can't even bring them into the house as a cut flower because they're toxic to cats, and Chaco is like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials. 

Iris 2020

So if you're in the St. Louis area, come on by, and I'll give you some free rhizomes. They're done blooming now, and I'm happy to pot them for you to take home. Just email me at this handy link.

See? I told you it'd be short!

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