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A Bird Built a Nest Inside Our Friend's Bathroom Window

Birdsill

This is my friend Kathy's window. And that is a bird nesting right there. Yes, it's a real bird, not a sculpture.

It started with the nest, which went up the last week of May, when the weather was nice enough for Kathy to crank open the louvered window. It's a lovely nest with a classic cup shape. Kathy lives in Seattle, Washington, which is still rainy and emerald this time of year. The nest was fashioned with a layer of twig in the center cushioned by an impressive gathering of  juicy green fronds around the outside.

Nest

When the pics first popped up on Instagram, I recognized the window from hanging out at Kathy's place in Seattle, Washington (excuse me while I feel a pang of longing for friends, flora, and fauna back in the Pacific Northwest!) This is her main floor bathroom window; I once spent a good amount of time clutching the commode underneath this window when I'd had one-too-many of the tasty Moscow mules Kathy will serve you in a copper mug when you're lucky enough to be a guest in her home. Not my proudest moment, mind you, and those mules are not to blame, but I spent enough time in Kathy's bathroom to recognize it in a photo.

The nest was special enough already, but then one day Kathy noticed an egg.

Oneegg

The next day, another egg appeared, and so on, for a total of five days. They're gorgeous, speckled eggs, blue and brown and white. 

5eggs

Kathy thinks this little uninvited but nonetheless welcome guest fits into the category known as "little brown birds," or LLBs for short. She might be a sparrow - or else a house finch, to get more specific (if you can ID her, please post in the comments below!). The bird comes and goes with no problems. "I haven't heard too much chirping," Kathy says. "She seems to be pretty content to just sit on her eggs."

This is the first time Kathy's ever had a nest in her window. She usually opens it wide, but due to the unseasonably warm weather for Seattle, she had it cracked a bit this time, which seems to have encouraged the mama bird to nest there.

Kathy rigged up a wifi camera to her phone so she could watch the Big Hatching Event even if it happens while she's away visiting friends and family in California.

Incubating

She's shared stills on Instagram and Facebook, and her friends and followers, including me, are obsessed. The Big Hatching Event will likely happen in about two weeks, and then the chicks will mature in the nest for another two weeks. 

Suffice to say, she's kept the window open.

All photos, credit: Kathy Samuelson. 

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Dragon Flower Farm: The First Trees and Shrubs

Wildhydrangea sp2019
An insect hotel, a wild hydrangea.   

Last week, we revealed our grand plan to screen the apartment buildings neighboring Dragon Flower Farm with a row of 'Taylor' juniper trees, in keeping with the spirit of our native-plant focus. This week, we can let the "green screen" intention go and focus on trees and shrubs for their own sakes.

We're still in the throes of a long-term project to replace turf with a blend of plants that are ideally both native and edible, or at least one if both can't be satisfied together. I'll describe the very important turf remediation project in a future post dedicated to one of my favorite topics, mulch. But for now let's talk about the super fun part of gardening: putting in new plants. While we slowly deal with the turf layer on the ground, we've begun to carve out the green infrastructure of the garden, the really big plants that give the garden its bones. That means trees and shrubs.

As briefly mentioned last week, we got a jump on the planting when we put in two important trees in the fall: 1) a serviceberry and 2) a grafted persimmon. The two trees satisfy both criteria in being simultaneously native and edible. The serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) produces white blooms in spring, followed by red berries that look a lot like blueberries when they ripen in the fall. The birds will eat them, and so will we. The persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) will provide year-round interest, with its characteristic broken-block bark, greenish-yellow blooms, and deep orange fruit, also edible for both humans and animals. If you haven't eaten a ripe persimmon fresh off the tree, I highly recommend it.

Serviceberryspring 2019
Serviceberry.

Also last fall, I took time off on my birthday in November and spent the day planting a blueberry patch. The whole affair was prompted by a 75 percent off sale at Home Depot, which really means I rescued four withering blueberry bushes leftover from the summer rush. These were 'Spartan' blueberries, AKA Vaccinium corymbosum, and since blueberries need another species nearby for cross-pollination, I ordered four of another, compatible variety, the 'Dukes,' from Stark Brothers, a Missouri grower recommended to us by the St. Louis Audubon Society. So it's the Dukes vs. the Spartans here at Dragon Flower Farm.

Blueberry bushes fall2018
Lisa's birthday blueberries.

Sadly, the blueberry bushes nearly met a tragic end over the winter, when the rabbits saw them as tasty treats. The Spartans (from Home Depot) suffered the most damage, not surprisingly, as they were far weaker. So early this spring, we cordoned off the patch with netting, and that has kept the rabbits at bay. However, we think the bushes are lacking something. After a bit of research, the list of potential amendments that could do the trick is pretty long: pine needles, citrus peels, lemon juice, sawdust, epsom salt, and even a horseshoe, though that last one seems to be as much for the iron as for the luck. Wish us some of the latter as we try these out.

Blueberry duke sp2019
One of the Dukes has already produced a bit of fruit. So the Dukes win.

That was that for the fall. Our spring planting began with a trip to the Butterfly House for the Wild Ones native plant sale - I mentioned this sale excursion previously when I went on about daffodils in April. (I told you I'd go into more detail later about the native plants we scored. Look at this, promise kept!) Channeling our inner Monty Pythons, we judiciously chose three shrubberies, all natives, of course: 1) New Jersey tea, 2) hazelnut, and 3) wild hydrangea.

The New Jersey tea leaves have been used as a non-caffeinated substitute for tea, the hazelnut is exactly what it sounds like, and the hydrangea has some known medicinal properties. So while the hazelnut squarely satisfies both the native and edible criteria, arguably, the other two do as well.

Hazelnut spring 2019
This plant will produce hazelnuts!

Our next wave of plantings happened over the past two weekends. This is a bit later than we would have liked, but we had that epic trip to Helsinki, Finland, in early May, and it took some time to get back into the routine after that. 

The man and I have been talking about pawpaw for about a year, but we had trouble finding any last fall (we looked, we called, we scoured the web). It's native to Missouri and in high demand, as it produces a delicious fruit most people liken to banana custard (yum). Anthony sometimes lapses into a Walla Walla-by-way-of-Oklahoma mode of speaking he inherited from his father, whose people were Okies who up and decided at one point to head even further west. One of Anthony's country sayings involves a pawpaw and a prickly pear (which, incidentally, is another native, edible plant):

When you pick a pawpaw or prickly pear,

And you prick a raw paw, next time beware.

Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw;

When you pick a pear, try to use the claw.

Of course, the Internet tells me this is from the Jungle Book, which makes sense, since my husband knows all the words to "I Wanna Be Like You," and now you can see why I adore this big Baloo.

Back to the plants. We wandered over to Sugar Creek a couple of weekends ago, and lo and behold, they had a mess of pawpaws. The only problem was, they didn't have the sexes marked, and you need both a male and female in order to get fruit. Apparently, telling the sex of a pawpaw is known to be difficult, at least until it flowers. We took our chances and picked two, but if we end up with two of the same, we'll just add a grafted pawpaw later next fall. Like our aforementioned persimmon, this would have both a male and female grafted onto the same trunk, so it will be self-pollinating, and it will pollinate the other two, because science.

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) like a bit of shade, so we planted them where the neighboring building on the other side casts a shadow all day except in the morning. Here they are next to a funky little water bath I made for the birds, to Audubon Society specs. Birds like shallow watering areas, with places to perch. We haven't had any takers yet, and they prefer moving water, but a friend told me to wait a month before giving up or moving it.

Pawpaw sp2019

We scored two other lovely natives at Sugar Creek: 1) a vernal witch hazel and 2) a chokecherry. I was really impressed with the sheer number of natives this garden center had on hand, double what I'd seen there in the fall. The staff mentioned the interest in native plants had certainly gone up, which is great to see.

The chokecherry got a bit beat up in a dramatic thunderstorm. Hail pummeled it, knocking it over, and when we went to plant it, the leaves had curled. It seems to be recovering now, but when it went in, it looked a bit in shock.

Chokeberry sp2019
Chokecherry, or Prunus virginiana.

This lovely tree will grow to 30 feet, eventually screening the back part of the garden from the apartment building as well. Its berries are too astringent to eat off the tree, hence the name, but they do fine in jams, sauces, and the like, and the birds find them delicious.

We have a weird little corner that slopes down, receiving more water than other parts of the garden. It's directly under telephone wires, too, and this is right where we'd removed a stunted, diseased willow tree that had been topped too many times. So in this spot we put an Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), which will only grow to 6 feet. It will give us our first blooms of the new year - bright orange, ribbony crinkles appearing on bare twig as early as January.

Witchhazel sp2019

Last came a few fruit trees. We opted for pears, as they work marvelously for my arbitrarily-sensitive-to-everything eating situation; I've never reacted to pear. A full-sized Bartlett variety called 'Moonglow' went in right at the end of a long sidewalk path out our back door. The path was bad feng shui without the tree, draining energy out of the house, so the tree placed there blocks and balances instead. Its pollinator pair is a semi-dwarf Bartlett.

Semidwarf pear sp2019
Fruit trees just look like twigs when they go in as bare-root saplings, and that's OK.

These pears aren't native, of course, but we made an exception in light of the future food value. Closer to native though not truly native is the Arkansas black apple we planted nearby. Its flesh will be dark red, nearly black, and it's rust-resistant, which is a good thing in light of the red cedars we have on the property, a potential source of rust disease. 

Arkansas black apple sp2019
Arkansas black apple.

So there you have it. Since fall, we've planted 17 trees and 14 bushes on a property that had zero trees and only a few ornamental bushes. I realize this is a lot of plants already, but the reality is that we'll wait anywhere from three to five years before we see any output, so we wanted to get these bearing plants in as soon as we could. They also form the garden's main structure. We needed the bones in place before we can layer on flowers, vegetables, herbs, and other plants. So far, nothing has failed to take root and grow. We think that's a great sign.

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Dragon Flower Farm: A Natural, Native Privacy Screen

Junipers

I apologize for leaving you hanging - on the fence, so to speak, over the winter, when I mentioned we had another solution in the works to screen the view of the apartment building that looks down into our little 1/4-acre. But here it is: trees.

From the get-go, even before we made the decision to replace the zigzaggy chainlink fence, we knew we wanted to screen the apartments with a row of tall, skinny evergreens. We had a bit of a dilemma, though, as the usual recommendations for an evergreen privacy screen just weren't suitable. Arborvitae is often used - too often, as it turns out, and the plant is suffering opportunistic disease as a result. We considered for a moment the lovely 'bracken's brown' magnolia, with its velvety undercoat of brown fuzz on the leaves and distinctive cream blossoms, and we nearly got talked into it by folks at our local garden center. However, we really wanted to stick to our guns on the native plant mission, and neither magnolia nor arborvitae is native to Missouri.

Eastern red cedar close

A good native evergreen is eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), but unfortunately, it grows too tall and wide to work as a screen in our narrow strip. However, remember when I told you about the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program? Through that program, the Audubon Society gave our yard an assessment, and sharing our green screen wishes with them, they came up with a great solution: Juniperus virginiana 'Taylor.' That's the tree you see here.

The Missouri Botanical Garden designated 'Taylor' as a "Plant of Merit," and its history I'll quote directly from their plant finder listing:

‘Taylor’ is an upright narrow columnar eastern red cedar that typically grows to 15-20' tall but to only 3-4' feet wide. Silvery blue-green foliage is attractive throughout the growing season. Foliage may take on some bronze tones in winter. 'Taylor' was reportedly discovered in Taylor, Nebraska as a chance seedling and was released in 1992 to the nursery trade by the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum. Release information does not list a sex for this cultivar but it is believed to be male. 

I love that this "chance seedling" from the native eastern red cedar is the perfect narrowness and height to soften the fence line and help screen the view from the neighbors' balconies without overwhelming the yard. Here they are going in.

Trees in truck

Trees from above

I realize the Taylors might look dinky tiny from above like this, but late this spring three of them had already crested well over the top of the fence, and the others are right behind. In a few years' time they should provide a better sense of privacy as well as soften all the hardscape we've got with the tall apartment building and its parking strip of residents' cars.

They're already providing important habitat, shade, and food for birds and insects, and that was our goal number one.

I've always loved the look of juniper berries. What really sold my husband, Anthony, on the Taylors is the fact that juniper berries are not only good for the birds, but they're useful to humans as well. We've seen red cedar fronds laden with berries used to smoke salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and the berries have numerous culinary uses - from the obvious gin flavoring to the more obscure addition to fruitcake. 

Juniper berries

This is important to us because we want to accomplish two things with the Dragon Flower Farm project:

  1. rescue our 1/4-acre from exotic invasives and resource-intensive grass lawn and reframe it as an oasis for native pollinators and
  2. blend that mission with our need to become much more self-sufficient with homegrown food and other products.

There's an aesthetic benefit here as well. The trees smell good, feel good, look good.

And guess what? We managed to squeeze in a couple of true eastern red cedars as well, finds from a native plant sale in our neighborhood last fall. They're like miniature trees right now, they're so tiny, but eventually, they will grow to 65 feet!

Eastern red cedars

Note we planted all of these red cedars in the fall. It seems a lot of people don't know you can plant that time of year, but it's actually better to put in trees and shrubs in autumn because they can go dormant and rest all winter, and then by spring, they're already established and rarin' to go. 

While the row of juniper 'Taylors' were a great start on that native, natural privacy screen, our plan was to fill in around the house for even more privacy, not to mention the attractive aspect of shade. Our yard has exactly no tree shade at the moment, and this ain't the Pacific Northwest, people! It gets HOT.

So, nearer to the house, we added two more plants last fall: a persimmon and a serviceberry.

The persimmon is a special kind of fruit. I'm not talking about the Asian ones you get at the grocery store, but these yummy Midwestern natives. We pretty much gorged ourselves on persimmons from our neighborhood farmer's market last summer and knew we had to plant a persimmon tree at Dragon Flower Farm. The trick is that the trees are pretty dang tall, growing to 60 feet tall and as much as 35 feet wide. Plus, you need two, a male and a female, to ensure pollination and fruiting.

To the rescue: a grafted variety from Stark Bros. When we planted it last fall, it looked like a stick in the ground.

Persimmon stick

Seriously, I had to keep telling the fence guys when they came to install the other side that this was a tree and not to maul it. 

The serviceberry we picked up at the same neighborhood native plant sale where we got the two true eastern red cedars. We planted it where we'd be able to look out the kitchen window and see its snowy white shower of blooms in the spring. It has the added benefit of filling in the space to further screen the view of the apartment building, AND the berries are edible for both humans and critters! It had been around a bit longer than the persimmon graft, so it went in already with some leaves, looking more like a tree.

Serviceberry

Of course, it lost all its leaves come fall, but this spring, the serviceberry was the first to awaken, and it seemed triumphant!

Serviceberry buds

That's one of the other cool reasons to plant in fall - so you can watch this little gift to yourself and the world unwrap itself in spring. 

We were worried about the persimmon, though, as at first it didn't seem to understand it was springtime. But then it budded out as well, slowly and with more determination, it seemed, which is befitting for a tree that will take its time but eventually stretch up past 60 feet.

Persimmon buds

It will be a couple years, at least, before we get to reap the fruits of these labors, but in the meantime, the birds and bugs already seem pleased. 

And as for the green screen, we've got a succession of canopy layers that will do the job better than anything else. The serviceberry will fill in faster than the fence line trees, and it will give shade before the persimmon does. Where the juniper Taylors stop, the persimmon will eventually fill in, growing taller than the serviceberry and likely filling in to provide a remarkable tower of greenery, offering itself as a host for pollinators of many kinds, and providing valuable shade as well as a bounty of tasty fruit for us and all. 

We ask a lot of trees, and they give it.

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Insect Week at the Dragon Flower Mini-Farm

 

Grasshopper on mailbox
Is it trying to intercept our mail?

Those of you who follow me on Instagram probably noticed a recent obsession with insects. One of the great things about being back in the Midwest is that there seem to be more of them here. It was actually something my husband Anthony and I thought about when we contemplated moving to St. Louis in 2017: The bugs. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we certainly didn't miss mosquitoes. Or chiggers.

But butterflies are something else. Not that there aren't any in the PNW; there just aren't as many, or at least it seems that way to me (it's probably all the rain and cool weather). Above all, I missed that most royal of lepidoptera: the monarch. Missouri is prime monarch breeding territory, where new caterpillars gorge themselves until they turn into the gorgeous, black-vein-and-orange butterflies recognized everywhere. After that, they fly to one small forest in Mexico, a 2,000-mile journey, to overwinter, a feat made even more amazing by the fact that they've never been there before. The trip the previous year was made by their kin five generations ago.

I have fond memories of hiking at the Shaw Nature Reserve and getting dive-bombed by swarms of monarchs, and their lookalikes, viceroys. While twenty years later I have yet to experience that again, the butterflies I'm seeing while hiking and just hanging out in my yard are a truly happy sight.

Monarch on flower
Monarch on native bee balm at the Powder Valley Nature Reserve.

There's a Butterfly House here in Missouri, a colorful museum/info center/tribute to the lepidoptera, and perhaps more importantly, there are huge campaigns to bring back their waning food sources, the vast prairies lost to agriculture and development. Prairies here used to cover a territory the size of California, but they've been reduced by 96%. Which means that the very beings we rely on for our own food source - without pollinators, our crops won't grow - are getting starved out.

Sorry to be a downer... But now you see why the Dragon Flower Mini-Farm is so important (don't know what this mini-farm biz is? See here.) We're working up a plan to remove invasives that do little to help the ecosystem butterflies and other pollinators thrive in. We also want to include native plants in our revamp of this overgrown lot of boring, ecologically suspect grass and outdated ornamentals. 

That's why Anthony and I spent a recent Sunday afternoon with two people from the St. Louis Audubon Society, who answered our questions and shared their expertise with us. Through a totally awesome program called "Bring Conservation Home," they are giving our yard an assessment, with recommendations to make it more friendly to pollinators and other critters.

Praying mantis on window
OMG, this showed up in our WINDOW. Chaco the cat went berzerk.

When we nerd out on something, WE REALLY NERD OUT ON IT. So when our Audubon folks showed up, we met them with a list of questions and a paper copy of our property survey with some of the preliminary design sketched out. (I know, right? Overachieving even in the hobbies.)

It's a good thing I took notes, because some of what I thought about the yard turned out to be totally wrong. I'd been pulling out native milkweed, which monarchs LOVE, and tenderly making room for a white clematis that while lovely, acts like an invasive thug here in Missouri. It's not entirely my fault; some of the misinformation actually came from fence and landscaping contractors who bid on projects.

But one of the things our Audubon experts talked about was that insects should be welcome in a yard, not just pollinators, but other beneficials as well, from spiders to lacewings. A diverse crop of such insects is a sign of health.

When we moved in last fall, there were ladybugs everywhere. And this spring, when I saw the first firefly wink on at dusk, I knew I was home.

Want to read more on the butterfly theme? Check out my poem published by Town Creek Poetry, "Requiem for Lepidoptera."

All photos/video mine. Sources for some of the above knowledge bombs that I read and got stuck in my head: pamphlets/web sites/exhibits published and curated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, St. Louis Audubon Society, and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.

 


Cool Announcement Coming Soon... For Now, Lessons from the Garden

Table w coreopsis

 It's hot today, with the thermometer already at 94 degrees and steadily climbing. So I'm inside, working on a cool announcement I'll be making this week, hopefully. In the meantime, here are some pics of my garden. 

I keep moving my household to different homes, so I haven't been able to get to the point of a well-established garden yet, but the upside is that I've experimented a lot. It's fun and creative in a different way than writing. I love playing with the color and texture of leaves and flowers, growing my own food, and the challenges and victories of a totally organic garden. I've rescued many a rose and turned lackluster yards into whimsical retreats. I always leave a place better than it was when I found it.

Rose swirl

Like many of you, I'm sure, I often feel emotionally shredded by dismal environmental news, like bee colony collapse. I'm very sad to have witnessed the reduction in the numbers of butterflies in my lifetime. So much of that feels outside my control, but the garden is all mine. I plant the flowers the bees and butterflies like, and my own hands are the only weedkillers. 

Chive flowers w bee

The garden is great therapy, too. I know I feel restored when I can putter around out there planting, relocating, deadheading, trimming, and the like. But did you know there's scientific evidence that gardens really do reduce depression? There's a microbe in the soil that could actually improve your coping ability, according to this study. Mice exposed to the microbe were much less likely to give up trying to find an exit route when submerged in water (sucky thing to do to mice, though). So working in a garden might actually make you better able to escape the next time you feel in danger or trapped, or at least find a solution to your next big problem!

Other studies show that the microbiome of your garden can be good for your gut. And since we seem to be finding out more and more how important gut health is for general wellbeing, it's safe to say a little dirt can do you good.

As soon as it cools off, I'm going to pick some arugula for dinner. (I love that pungent green, which works well in both stir-fries and salads.) Happy Sunday!

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