A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the bird that had made a nest in my friend Kathy's bathroom window.
At least three of the five eggs hatched on June 24, and here you can see the hatchlings and mother, with the father just outside the bathroom window.
We'd thought the female was a house sparrow, which is technically an invasive species of bird imported from Europe, a common sight in urban areas. HOWEVER, now that the male has shown up, that theory's out the window, so to speak, because he is most definitely not a sparrow.
Just look at that scarlet hue!
Can you identify the type of bird? Since Kathy's in the Pacific Northwest–Seattle's Northgate neighborhood, to be exact–the likely candidates include:
What do you think?
My money's on house finch, as the female scarlet tanager is yellow. The house finch, by the way, is "often the only songbird in most urban areas," according to my field guide.
I've spent a good deal of time talking about what we had to extricate from the Dragon Flower Farm, i.e., invasive plants like honeysuckle vine, winter creeper, and autumn clematis. Yes, in certain moments, it's felt like nothing more than the tragic tale of what the botanists call "disturbed" areas in nature. But not everything onsite when we bought the house in November 2017 was "undesirable." You might be wondering what we're planning to keep. Here's a list by category.
Let me start with the lilac.
Oh, my God. Do we love our lilac. Lilacs naturally stir a romantic, traditional feeling in the heart, I think, without feeling overly fussy or too precious the way some classic ornamentals can. And, as pictured in the photo above, our venerable old lilac has no trouble attracting pollinators during its dramatic show of springtime blooms.
It's the focal point of the garden in spring, providing a lovely backdrop for our seating area (and some semblance of privacy), with a heady scent of lilac wafting into the house when the windows are open.
I once had a white lilac, when I lived in Tacoma, but this lilac-colored lilac really takes the cake. Speaking of cake, you can decorate cakes with the lilac flowers, as some people do. The blossoms are edible for both humans and animals. Here you can see Chaco chomping down the sugary goodness.
Our lilac has been allowed to sucker out into a rangy bush shape, but this spring after the blooms faded, I cut it back with as much tough love as I could muster. It's a bit more tree-shaped now, but it will likely always be more bush than tree. Either way, it provides gorgeous cut flowers for inside, and this year, it bloomed precisely on time to play a role in Easter decorating, which was nice since we hosted the fams this year.
Lilac has other uses as well, which besides its beauty make it a candidate for keeping around. You can of course fashion sachets for your linen drawers out of the blooms, but they're also used to make syrups, teas, and candies. Got another use for lilac that I haven't listed? Tell us in the comments below.
The other ornamental bush we've kept so far is the rose, which we're told is likely the 'Knockout' rose variety. It's a bit of a statue, in that few insects are drawn to it, but it's a big, healthy bush, and rose petals do have a wide variety of uses, from rose water to tea.
Alas, this one doesn't produce many rose hips, but at least it has all those other uses, besides being gorgeous and fragrant.
Self-Sowing Natives and 'Weeds'
We noticed early on that a large number of ferns were thriving in two shady areas, and we had them ID'd by the Audubon Society as native sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Unfortunately, the bulk of them were interwoven with honeysuckle vine and winter creeper, two thugs we needed to eradicate, so we had to cover over the ferns with our mix of cardboard and mulch meant to make anything underneath die off. This biodegradable mulch method worked great, and to our great joy, the sensitive fern, and NOT the two invasives, came bursting right up through the mulch. So we saved the native fern and destroyed the nasties.
Sensitive fern, native to Missouri.
The second native that seemed undeterred by our cardboard/mulch barrier is vine milkweed. This one grows in profusion in the St. Louis area, and I remember it from when I lived here before. I didn't pull it out then, and I'm not going to now, either. Some people seem bothered by it, calling it a garden weed, but the monarchs love it and thrive on it. Given a choice between offending garden visitors by the sight of a so-called weed and giving monarchs and other pollinators what they need to survive, I side with the pollinators.
A lot of what we need to do to survive on this planet - and we need those pollinators in order to ensure our future food supply - rests on changing our mindsets about relatively subjective things, like what a garden should look like. If you want your garden hermetically sealed and angled off with a lot of chemicals and gas-powered tools, then have yourself a yard full of plant statues and grass that does nothing for the life cycle other than sit there looking green. But don't you think the vine above is lovely, twining around our solar lantern?
Speaking of subjective viewpoints, we had another so-called weed growing to beat the band this year: cleavers. The Missouri Botanical Garden lists it among their "Winter Annual Weeds," and outlines methods for its eradication. But I'd come across cleavers before, back when I worked at New Dawn Natural Foods, which used to be on Grand Avenue here in St. Louis' Grand South Grand neighborhood, before the regentrification wave changed this funky ghetto into a strip of trendy shops and restaurants. A longtime sufferer of a condition called interstitial cystitis, I took cleavers tea for its known anti-inflammatory properties, specifically related to the bladder. So when we ID'd it coming up in the garden, Anthony gathered a bunch and used it to make a cold infusion. Besides the bladder tonic effect, I noticed the swelling in my feet and hands go down after drinking it.
Cleavers, scaffolding their way over neighboring plants.
The name "cleavers" comes from the seed-distribution method for this plant, which is via hooked burs that stick to animal pelts, or in this case, human socks. Keep at least a few cleavers around in your garden, if only for the botanical fascination.
We are also blessed with a number of sedums, aka stonecrop, of the variety Hylotelephium 'Herbstfreude' AUTUMN JOY. The genus is native to North America, but what's growing in our yard is a cultivated variety, hence the special name here in all caps. Still, they're known for their great value to butterflies, specifically, and are recommended for fall color and pollinator-friendliness by many.
If you have any doubt about the butterfly population's preference for this flower, come on by the Dragon Flower Farmhouse. In late summer and early fall, it's a butterfly festival.
The violets growing in abundance across Dragon Flower Farm make us nearly as happy as the lilac does - maybe even moreso because Viola sororia is another freebie native. Like the sensitive fern, the violets were only too happy about the mulch situation, and no longer having to compete with turf grass for space, they seeded themselves all over the top of it.
Violet makes a lovely, soft ground cover, and the fritillaries in particular flock to it.
Lastly, we're default-keeping many of our flowering bulbs. I say 'default' because we're not actively trying to dig them up or anything, but we're not going out of our way to save them if they are interplanted with something we really must remove, like winter creeper. (We do put them in pots and give them to friends and family, though. We're not monsters!)
One of the problems with the property is that the blooming was set to all happen in the spring. It's a common problem I've seen in yards planted only with ornamentals. While I will say that we've got a staggered series of blooms throughout the spring, sadly, the only thing blooming any other time of the year is that late summer sedum. This is something we've already started to rectify with our choice of new trees and shrubs, but for now it's heavily weighted toward spring. And what a spring it is!
It all starts with the first crocus.
Then the daffodils emerge, trumpeting the arrival of spring.
Oh, did I mention daffodils? If you're paying any attention at all, you know we're daffy about them.
This is a double daffodil called Narcissus 'Tahiti.'
After that, it's iris avenue, with three incredible hues on display in succession.
First these royal purple beauties...
Then a big mess of yellow bearded irises.
There are probably about 100 yellow bearded irises on the property. I love to bring them in the house for cut flower displays, but Chaco ate them and threw up, so they had to be taken outside, as they're toxic to cats. Some were growing up through winter creeper and honeysuckle, so I dug them out, put them in pots, and gave them to my sister to distribute amongst her neighbors.
The last iris to bloom is a rarer, wine-colored variety. Definitely a keeper.
Deciding the fate of plants is a heady sort of power, and we don't take it lightly. We've armed ourselves with resources and support from the St. Louis Audubon Society, Wild Ones, Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri Native Plant Society, and others. We reserve the right to change our minds and admit to feeling conflicted about some plants. For example, we have ornamental azaleas in the front, and while we wish they were useful Ozark native azaleas, they're not. They'll bloom themselves silly, and not a single flying insect will even take notice. They probably need to go, but who wants to rip out an old, sturdy bush like that?
Thanks for your interest in our Dragon Flower Farm project. By the way, now that I've written this, I'm wondering if we should have called the place 'Viola Sororia' instead. What do you think?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CORRECTION: Some folks in the Missouri Native Plant Society's Facebook group schooled us on the fact that pawpaw flowers are "perfect," which means they contain both male and female parts. The trick with pollinating them is actually that they need another species of pawpaw nearby, and the pollination is typically done by flies. What this means is that people sometimes hang raw meat among the branches of the pawpaw to attract the flies. That or you can hand-pollinate with a special brush. Hmm...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is important to us because we want to accomplish two things with the Dragon Flower Farm project:
rescue our 1/4-acre from exotic invasives and resource-intensive grass lawn and reframe it as an oasis for native pollinators and
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!
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.
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.
Of course, it lost all its leaves come fall, but this spring, the serviceberry was the first to awaken, and it seemed triumphant!
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.
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.