Pollinators Feed

3 Natives You Can Plant This Fall for Spring Blooms

Iris fulva open
Copper iris, a native to the Midwest that blooms in May.

By Lisa Brunette

There's nothing so hopeful as an early spring flower, defiantly emerging out of the deadened winter landscape and signaling a renewal of life. Here in the St. Louis area, that usually means daffodils. These cheery trumpets sound off in early March to lift our collective spirits.

But as much as Anthony and I like our daffodils around here - and we do, as evidenced by our apparent daffyness for them - we have to admit they don't do much to provide food for pollinators and other insects here in the U.S. Most ornamental bulbs originated in Europe or elsewhere; they did not evolve alongside our native fauna, which tends to find them either outright toxic or regard them with indifference. These bulbs are not a viable food source; they're just pretty little statues, really.

Daffodils 21
They are awfully cheery.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. A few tulip, daffodil, gladiolus, and other blooms in the spring garden can give you beauty and joy. 

But if you want to turn back the tide on habitat loss - one of the major factors cited in pollinator decline - you should put in more native plants. While a lot of people think of native summer wildflowers first and foremost, I want to turn you on to a few spring bloomers you might not know.

Copper Iris - Iris fulva

With long, slender, light green leaves topped by an audacious tuba spray of copper, this early spring bloom should be on everyone's wish list. Native to the Midwest, copper iris is slow-growing at first, like a lot of native plants, but then explodes in its third year to give you stunning flowers.

It's exciting to see the bud begin to open in late May.

Iris fulva bud 21
Copper iris bud.

I put in one plant from a nursery seedling in 2019, and it's already divided. The blooms are astounding!

Iris fulva blooms
Iris fulva in full bloom.

Ozark Witch Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis

The very first bloom of the spring is something of an oddity. Ozark witch hazel blooms as early as late February, with crinkled orange streamers around a yellow center. Besides the funky-looking bloom, the odd factor comes in two other ways: 1) the early bloom time and 2) the fact that what pollinates this late-winter flower is a bit of a mystery. February is bad timing for most pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as they tend to emerge later in spring. So what pollinates witch hazel? Perhaps hoverflies, which take advantage of warm winter days to forage for pollen.

Witch hazel Feb 21
When witch hazel blooms, it gives off the pleasant scent of cloves.

Ozark witch hazel is also a rare plant: Out of the entire world, it's found in only five U.S. states: Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I'm happy to say we've added three Ozark witch hazels to our garden, one from a nursery and two seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation (costing only $1 each, yo, through Wild Ones). After some initial damage from our Eastern cottontail rabbits, which found them delicious, all three are thriving, and the one from the nursery, which we planted in 2018, has not only bloomed profusely but is tall and robust enough to support squash vines, which clamber up the branches.

Witch hazel Aug 21
Hey there, squash! Why don't you climb up here and join me?

Witch hazel is a great permaculture plant because of its dual role as a support for native animals and insects and its use as a medicinal for humans. You should be familiar with witch hazel as a traditional medicine cabinet item. You can make an astringent from the bark, and it's historically been used to treat hemorrhoids, sore muscles, coughs, and other ailments. Removing the bark kills the tree, however, so sources recommend using only pruned or fallen limbs. Disclaimer: I have not yet tried to make my own witch hazel astringent, but it's on my list. Second disclaimer: I am not a health expert and am not advising you to treat ailments with witch hazel; I'm merely reporting on its historic use.

Violets - Viola sororia

Regular readers of this blog know I've waxed enthusiastic about violets before, with full recommendations on their many culinary uses, their value as a host plant for fritillary butterflies, and my enduring preference for them as a ground cover to replace turf grass. With so many beneficial aspects, and pretty little white- or royal purple-and-yellow blooms to boot, how could you not desire violets in your home landscape?

In some regions, the violets are likely to show up of their own accord, too. Yeah, that's right; this is one flower you might not have to plant yourself! Our ubiquitous violet ground cover is 100 percent volunteer and lasts from spring to fall. I've used the blooms and leaves to make everything from petal-infused ice cubes to violet sugar and violet tea. 

Viola sororia spring 21
Violets are host plants for fritillary butterflies.
Flower cubes 21
Violets (and lilacs), ready to freeze into ice cubes.

I hope these three suggestions for spring-blooming flowers you can plant this fall inspire you to the possibilities in your own garden. Happy fall planting!

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Named 'Monarch Waystation'

Monarch Waystation

We're excited to share that our garden has been designated as a Monarch Waystation by the non-profit Monarch Watch. Here's a description of the program:

Each fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to mountains in central Mexico, where they wait out the winter until conditions favor a return flight in the spring. The monarch migration is truly one of the world's greatest natural wonders, yet it is threatened by habitat loss at overwintering grounds in Mexico and throughout breeding areas in the United States and Canada.

Monarch Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. Similarly, without nectar from flowers, these fall migratory monarch butterflies would be unable to make their long journey to overwintering grounds in Mexico. The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world. (From the Monarch Watch website)

Besides the above sign, we also received a certificate of appreciation, but for us the real reward has been witnessing first-hand how the old adage is true: If you build it, they will come. Or rather, if you plant it, they will come. We've planted close to 150 native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses over the past three years, including a few varieties of milkweed, the monarch's preferred food. The results have been evident in the monarch (and other) pollinator species clearly supported by our garden.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.

Last summer, a monarch chrysalis even formed an attachment to one of our garden chairs. The chair is set under a pergola and upon wood chips instead of paving. We opted not to add "impervious surfaces," which are hardscape surfaces water can't penetrate. The increase of these types of surfaces in urban areas has contributed to runoff, stormwater, flooding, and other problems. It seems the monarchs treated the chair as if it simply blended into the natural environment, which is how we hoped the garden would be!

Here's the caterpillar going into its chrysalis stage.

Monarch caterpillar

And here's the chrysalis.

Monarch chrysalis
Chrysalis on garden chair.

Our Monarch Waystation designation comes fresh on the heels of achieving Platinum Status in the Bring Conservation Home program. Inveterate gamers (who need to level up and earn all achievements) and collectors (who need to collect aaaall the badges), of course we had to display the two signs on the fence near the entrance to our back garden. 

2 signs

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Poppies and Whimsy on the St. Louis Native Plant Tour

NPT_glimpse
View of a woodland bubbler in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra, also featured in Doug Tallamy's book, Nature's Best Hope.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I attended the St. Louis Native Plant Tour for the first time this year. It was a masked, socially-distanced, outdoor (of course) affair in early June, with a wide range of gardens to view. A joint offering by both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Wild Ones St. Louis, this year's tour included nine residential gardens located across the St. Louis metropolitan area, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. We made it to six of the nine.

NPT_celadine poppy
Celadine poppy growing in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra.

I've talked about the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program on the blog before - most recently when we scored platinum status for our own garden. Many BCH gardens were included in the tour, with a nice smattering at every level, from silver through gold and up to platinum. One of our favorites on the tour was Dan and Mary Terpstra's woodland oasis. It's easy to see why this .62-acre property has achieved platinum status - and why it attracts so many birds - 150 species and counting.

NPT_platinum
View across the woodland toward the gazebo in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Here's a video of their pond, which features a bubbling cascade into a naturalized area for native water-loving plants.

 

While the Terpstras obviously take conservation seriously, they haven't neglected the whimsical aspects of gardening.

NPT_mushrooms
Garden art tucked into a rock in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Speaking of garden whimsy, while the Terpstra's property offers a stunning example of what can be done, my favorite of the tour was actually the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky, which had whimsy in spades.

NPT_music stand
In the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky.

This garden clocks in at the BCH gold level and comes with a wonderful personal story, to quote the tour brochure:

Established in 2010, Carolyn's Garden is a living memorial to Christina's mother, an avid gardener. Diagnosed in 1996 with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, she proved doctors wrong, living with the disease until 2011... a testament to being a lifelong gardener.

Many of the plants in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden were transitioned there from her mother's garden over in Illinois.

NPT_pathway
A pathway beckons in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.
NPT_glass ball
A glass ball emerges from penstemon in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.

Another highlight was getting to tour the garden belonging to Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, which features this lovely water bubbler.

Now, a note about these bubblers, though: You don't need them. While it's true that birds are attracted to the sound of bubbling water, the problem with bubblers is they need a power source in order to, well, bubble. And that means a) you have to be able to afford to install (or have installed) an electrical bubbler connected to your home's power system and b) you're adding to your home's draw on the electric grid, not the best option, eco-wise, unless it's also solar-powered. Our garden achieved platinum status without a bubbler; as mentioned previously, we have four bird baths, all fashioned out of repurposed items and not costing a dime.

Here's a perfectly nice non-bubbling bird bath, also in the Weaver garden.

NPT_birdbath
In the Weaver garden.
NPT_shade
Shade-loving Virginia sweetspire in the Weaver garden.

One of the best aspects of garden tours like this one is you get to see first-hand fine examples of plants that thrive in challenging areas, such as deep shade (above) or intense sunshine, like these native prickly pears.

NPT_prickly pear
In the garden of Susan and René LaVoise.

While honeybees are not native to North America, it was cool to spot these beehives in the garden of Jim and Judy Stroup, where we started our tour.

NPT_beehives
Beehives at the Stroup garden.

And last but certainly not least was the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka, avid conservationists whose gold-certified property features many a bee hotel in addition to bird bottles, bird and bat houses, and more than 30 woody native plant species and 95 wildflower species.

NPT_beehotels
A stunning array of bee hotels in the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka.
NPT_Indian pink
The common name of this native plant is 'Indian pink,' though it's neither pink nor from India!
NPT_Ninebark
Ninebark growing in the Tylka garden.
NPT_smooth sumac
This smooth sumac grows in part-shade in the Tylka garden.

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Goes Platinum!

Lisa and Anthony BCH Platinum
Here we are, proudly showing off our new 'platinum level' yard sign. Photo courtesy Dan Pearson, of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

By Lisa Brunette

Back in the fall of 2018, we signed up for the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home (BCH) program. A couple of "habitat advisors" came out to survey our garden, and they provided us with a list of recommendations for making it more wildlife- and pollinator-friendly. It was a long list, too: Our one-quarter acre was comprised of mainly invasive plant species run amok, a huge expanse of turf grass, and a smattering of exotic ornamentals that did little to feed native insects and critters. Everyone agreed there was much work to be done.

The BCH program certifies participant gardens in three tiers - silver, gold, and platinum. Most people slowly make their way through the levels, many staying at silver or gold for some time. Less than 2 percent of gardens in the program have achieved platinum status. But ours got there this spring!

That's right; we leapfrogged right over silver and gold and landed on platinum with our very first certification.

Admittedly, due to COVID-19, the BCH advisors could not come out to survey the garden through all of 2020. So we had 2 1/2 years to get to platinum. But our friends at the Audubon Society say it's "amazing" that we've reached the highest level in less than 3 years, a rarity. From their final assessment report:

Your backyard has undergone an astonishing transformation to a wonderland that invites people in to explore its treasures. Congratulations on platinum certification.

BCH Platinum Sign

How did we do it? By following the Audubon Society's recommendations very closely, and supplementing them with a crash-course in permaculture techniques.

BCH's criteria begins with an account of the invasive species present in your garden. When we bought the property, much of the greenery onsite made the Audubon Society's list of "thug" plants:

  • Winter creeper 
  • Japanese honeysuckle, both vining and bush (don't call this one 'honey')
  • Sweet Autumn clematis (not very sweet, as it turns out)
  • Tree of heaven (better to think of it as tree of hell)

Here's a photo to show just how thick and well-established the honeysuckle was. Honeysuckle grew over nearly the entire garden perimeter; this is just one side.

Honeysuckle 2018

It was a painstaking process, but we removed all of the invasive plants. Here's the same spot as above, in mid-removal.

Honeysuckle-be-gone2018

We continue to control invasive species by pulling out any seedlings that try to gain a toehold. All 4 thugs listed above are on our regular weeding rotation. As we removed all of those, another invasive showed up to test us: star of Bethlehem. We didn't know what it was at first, but when we finally ID'd it, out it went as well.

The second set of criteria for achieving conservation status with BCH is to plant native species, and to do so along all four canopy layers in order to get to the platinum level. This dovetailed well with my independent study of permaculture, which also draws on the power of canopy layers to create healthy ecosystems.

Our native layers begin down at your feet, with a lovely ground cover mix of wild violets and geraniums. These rushed in once we suppressed the turf lawn through sheet-mulching. Here's how they looked this past April, now well-established, thriving, and providing a key food source for fritillary butterflies. So much better than grass!

Violets in spring 2021
Our native ground cover mix of violets and geraniums.

The next two layers are in the middle, and that means tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees. We capitalized on the $1-per seedling offerings of our own Missouri Department of Conservation as well as native plant and seed sales, not to mention outright giveaways, sponsored by Wild Ones St. Louis, the Audubon Society, the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Forest ReLeaf.

One of my favorites is the nitrogen-fixing shrub Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo. I learned from a Gateway Greening lecture back in 2018 that if you add these to your orchard, the nitrogen-fixing ability boosts the health of your fruit trees. We have several distributed amongst our pear, apple, and plum trees. They also attract pollinators in droves, and the purple spikes are lovely.

Amorpha fruticosa 2021
Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo, is a beneficial native plant for the home orchard.
Bee on false indigo
A brown-belted bumblebee on false indigo.

Of course, the wildflowers are everyone's favorite, whether pollinator or person. Our purple coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, bee balm, evening primrose, and others are as crucial to our conservation garden as they are beautiful. This 'Balvinrose' yarrow was a rescue from a big-box gardening center. I wasn't sure it would make it, but set down in the right place, and it's thriving.

Balvinrose yarrow

Not only does it thrill with its delicate, lacy leaves and eye-popping fuchsia flowers, but the tiny bees like this metallic sweat bee love it for the pollen and nectar.

Small bee on yarrow

The fourth canopy is tall trees. Ours is comprised of a forest grove of sycamore, oak, tulip poplar, black gum, red cedar, and persimmon, which once mature will range in height from 35 to 125 feet. We planted these in our northeast corner, where they won't shade the sun-loving plants but will provide a natural screen from the neighboring apartment building. Lucky for us, that site is entirely free from power lines.

Tulip poplar in tulips
A tulip poplar, springing up amid tulips.

We also received high marks on the next three criteria in the BCH program:

  1. Wildlife stewardship - We offer bird baths and houses, a bat house, a rock snake habitat, and a brush pile that rabbits have made into their warren. We've planted flowers to specifically feed hummingbirds and pollinators, and we provide habitat for songbirds. Chaco, as you know, is indoor-only, and the birds are all the better for it.

  1. Stormwater management - We installed a French drain, double rain barrels, and a rain garden. Our whole enterprise is organic, with no pesticide use (outside of one application in 2018 to kill invasives) and no outside inputs for fertilizer (we use compost).
  2. Education and volunteerism - Besides my volunteer work as a citizen scientist in the Shutterbee program, we also support all of the organizations you see in the sidebar, and we think of all the gabbing we do about our garden on this blog as education, too.
Rain barrels
My brother Chris scored these rain barrels for us when his neighbor moved last spring and didn't want to take them with him.

Here's a 'before' picture out the back stoop in 2017, when we bought the place.

Back stoop 2018
Nothing but lawn... and more lawn... and maybe some ornamentals, planted in big, fat circles.

And here's a recent photo, from July 2021.

Back stoop 2021
Canopy layers, an orchard, an herb mound, and 77 percent of the property is "naturescaped."

We love our garden, which not only provides food for wildlife and pollinators but feeds us, too - both our bellies and our souls.

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Suburban Homesteading - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire in Garden
Claire Schosser in her garden.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: It seems most people who elect to reduce their energy consumption and practice homesteading do so in rural settings, going entirely or at least partially off-grid. You live not far from the city limits of St. Louis, which isn't exactly a small town. Why forge this path in such a suburban setting? 

CS: Mikes a city boy. Hes lived within 10 miles of where he was born his entire life, and he cant imagine living anywhere else. When I married him, I accepted that. It wasnt difficult because I had lived most of my life in cities of around 100,000 people before I came to the St. Louis area. 

Living in an urban or suburban area has a lot of advantages. Its easier and cheaper to hook into existing infrastructure than to live partially or totally off-grid, and urban areas provide other material and human services that rural areas do not as well as more people to be friends with. We can walk to some places and bicycle to others a little farther away as well as use the public transportation system. Because of this we have only one car for both of us – and we can walk to our mechanics shop when it needs service. We have an acre lot with good soil and a small older house which we bought for a very cheap price, so property taxes and insurance are lower than most people have to pay. I have plenty of space for gardens and have enjoyed watching more animals moving through and living on the property as the gardens develop. While I miss seeing the stars and being in or near a less disturbed ecosystem, and I dont like city noise and pollution, where we live offers us most of what we want at a price we can afford.

Greenhouse
Claire and Mike enclosed their front porch in glass, turning it into a greenhouse. A rain barrel catches runoff from the roof to the right.

LB: That explanation makes a lot of sense to me. One of my frustrations with permaculture - and I know you have your own as well - is that it seems to primarily be practiced by people with the means to purchase numerous acres of rural land in a climate conducive to food foresting and employ heavy equipment to reshape the land for a particular kind of off-grid homesteading. Well, most of us can't do that. Most of us have to (or need to) live in or near cities, and indeed, your model is a better fit for what's in the realm of possibility for the majority of people today. I understand that you and Mike are certainly on-grid, if you will, but that you practice some resource efficiencies that would seem extreme by most suburban standards. Can you give some examples in terms of your home heating, cooling, water, and other utilities?

CS: I’m happy to do that. 

For home heating, after experimenting with various combinations of thermostat settings and extra layers of clothes, we’ve settled on keeping the thermostat set to 64°F during the day when we are at home and 50°F while we are sleeping. This is a little higher than we’ve kept it in the past, but I tend to feeling cold, so at 64°F I wear four or five layers unless I’m engaged in grinding grain, the most strenuous thing I do indoors. 

Many buildings aren’t properly sealed against air leaks, so residents feel a constant cold draft that they compensate for by raising the thermostat. Back in 2005 we had a contractor check for and seal the air leaks throughout our house and then blow insulation into the uninsulated walls and extra insulation into the attic (walls weren’t insulated in 1928 when this house was built). Result: there is almost no detectable cold air draft, so that 64°F feels warmer than it otherwise would, and the furnace runs less to keep the space at the same temperature. As a side benefit, with the house tightly sealed and the walls insulated, it became much quieter inside. Since the furnace uses natural gas to heat the air and a fan to blow it through the ducts and vents, setting the thermostat low reduces both electricity and natural gas use.

Greenhouse 2
Citrus, such as this kumquat, overwinters in the greenhouse. The greenhouse also helps keep their house warm in winter since it's attached to the front of the home.

For cooling in summer, we spend as much time outside as possible, so we are acclimated to prevailing temperatures. With an acre property that I actively garden this is easy to accomplish! Five years ago we added on a large back porch that faces north, so it is a shady and breezy location that we spend most of our waking hours on from mid-April into late October. We also keep our windows open and augment the breeze with fans to push cool morning air through the house. When it becomes warm enough, we sleep with fans blowing air from the open windows on us. In this way we avoid running the AC until highs reach the mid-90s, with lows in the mid-70s. When we do run the AC, we close all the windows and set the thermostat to 80, sometimes as high as 82. The same air sealing that prevents cold drafts in winter prevents hot, humid drafts in summer; combined with the insulation, the AC does less work, and we still feel comfortable. When the weather cools enough to drop nighttime lows back into the low 70s, we turn off the AC and open the windows again. Adding up all the days that we run the AC in a typical summer amounts to two to four weeks.

By using the furnace and AC less and by having them properly maintained, we prolong their lives. We replaced the 1970s furnace and AC when we bought the house in 2002; we’re still using the same furnace and AC to this day. Even though more efficient models now exist, it is not cost or energy effective to replace them as long as the current units can be maintained and repaired as needed.

Greenhouse 3
A view from the home's front door stoop, looking out through the greenhouse to the acre beyond.

Our water heater uses natural gas. By saving on the need for hot water through using as little as necessary for proper cleaning of dishes, clothes, and our bodies and by setting the thermostat to 125°F, we keep the use of natural gas for this purpose low. 

We follow the same theme to save on electricity: First we use less of it by, for instance, only turning on lights when we really need a light. Since we don’t have a TV, that also reduces electricity usage (today’s huge TVs are electricity hogs!). We chose to replace the 1960s-era refrigerator and clothes washer when we moved in because of their age and the much greater efficiency of their 2002 replacements. We’re still using that same fridge though we had to replace the washer after it broke beyond repair. We did not replace the electric stove because the 2002 models were no more efficient than the stove in the house. Each time we need to replace a light bulb, we replace it with an LED bulb and then we don’t use it any more than we used to.

Greenhouse 4
Seedlings awaiting transplanting.

To reduce water use, I don’t water any area that gets mowed. We capture some rain that would otherwise run off the house and garden shed roofs in rain barrels and use that water for watering container plants, newly planted shrubs and trees, and the vegetable garden for as long as we have it. The water in the barrels isn’t enough to keep the vegetable garden going during a drought; then I will water it with municipal water to maintain the plants and get some yield. As for the perennials, if they can’t make it without supplemental watering, I replace them with other plants that have demonstrated their ability to thrive without being watered. 

LB: I've been very intrigued by the gardening chronicles on your blog, which stretch back to 2012. In particular, as someone who's dabbled a bit in permaculture, I find your reports on how to grow food crops fascinating. At one point, you mention that annual vegetables need to grow in disturbed (at least surface-tilled) soil, and that these plants evolved as basically early succession plants. That means that trying to grow them in polyculture "guilds" might not produce the best results. Can you talk about your own evolution as a gardener in this regard? 

Food Garden
The food garden.

CS: When we moved to this house in 2002, I wanted to grow an edible forest garden by permaculture techniques, so after a year of observations I developed a permaculture plan for the property. Permaculture practitioners like to use perennial vegetables because most forest plants in our climate are perennials and because perennials live for several to many years, reducing soil erosion from annual tillage. Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables in our climate, so I started growing asparagus … an entire 100 square foot bed of it. Only after the bed came into full production did I discover that Mike doesnt like asparagus, and that I didnt want to eat that much asparagus myself. Not to mention it was only available for a month or so. Neither of us likes rhubarb, the other common perennial vegetable. So I shifted to growing the vegetables that we like in the sunny conditions that they prefer. 

Most of the common vegetable plants are annuals or biennials. To understand why this matters to gardeners, consider what happens to a forest after a forest fire occurs or the forest is bulldozed to the ground. Now the soil is mostly bare and the sun beats down on it, drying it out. Natures first-aid kit for bare soil includes annual and biennial plants that grow rapidly from seeds already existing in the soil. As the plants grow they re-establish the water and mineral cycles that gradually heal the soil. By winter the annual plants go to seed and die; the biennial plants go dormant, then grow and go to seed the following season along with other annual plants.

As the soil becomes healthier, slower-growing perennial plants also begin to appear. Over the next several years, decomposing plants mulch the soil and shade it. As the mulch layer develops, the annual and biennial seeds are buried in it and find it difficult to germinate. Gradually the balance shifts to perennial plants, including shrubs and trees as the years go by. 

Perennial Leeks
Perennial leeks after overwintering in Claire's garden.

Permaculture was developed in the subtropical climate of Australia, where a wider variety of perennial vegetable crops can be planted in guilds according to their needs and habits. Annual and biennial vegetable plants, however, are not just more ecologically suited to bare soil; they have been bred and grown in weeded gardens and fields for hundreds or thousands of years. Providing them with the conditions to which they are adapted makes ecological and garden sense, and its easier on the gardener as well. 

LB: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I don't mind telling you that binge-reading your entire blog last year really helped me put some of my permaculture leanings into perspective. Last year we hardly disturbed the soil at all, and we could have had better results. This year we've already surface-tilled the pea, lettuce, and cabbage/chamomile beds and deeply tilled the beet and carrot beds. (We have a lot of clay that needs aerating, for sure, unlike your loess.) We're also now growing mostly in rows, for the ease of maintenance and harvest; whereas, last year it was a lot of permaculture keyholes and circles. That said, for something like arugula, permaculture can be helpful; I mulched the plants in place after a spring harvest, covered them with a tarp for a couple of weeks in summer, and then in fall, I pulled back the dying plants, which enabled it to reseed for another harvest, with minimal work on my part and no extra expense.

A few followup questions: Have you tried horseradish (a perennial vegetable)? I realize it's a condiment, so not a huge source of calories, but it's a great medicinal, and I can't believe how much better it tastes fresh. I'm also wondering if you've employed some permaculture touches in your orchards, such as growing alliums and herbaceous plants, or including native nitrogen-fixing perennials such as Amorpha fruticosa. And do you grow any medicinal herbs? I know you make elderberry wine... By the way, we have a huge asparagus bed, but luckily, we both love asparagus! And I'm fostering rhubarb; hoping to harvest this year.

Witch Hazel
Native witch hazel growing in Mike and Claire's garden.

CS: The previous owners left us some horseradish plants. For the first few years we lived here I dug roots in spring and fall and Mike ground them into their condiment form. I moved some plants to the garden and they did well there, proceeding to move outward the same way mint plants do but being harder to control because of their deep roots. Frankly, as much as we like horseradish, we don’t like it that much. I’ll let the farmers in the American Bottom, who grow something like half the horseradish consumed in the US (a fun fact we learned at the annual Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, IL!) grow it for us.

I included a nurse Amorpha fruticosa with most of the fruit and nut trees I planted. As the trees have matured, and especially in the backyard forest as the canopy has closed over, the A. fruticosa shrubs are dying, an example of the succession process I discussed above. I grow some plants like purple coneflower, yarrow, goldenrod, and elderberry for their traditional medicinal uses and for other benefits, for instance their value to pollinators, their beauty, and in the case of elderberry, for the delicious wine Mike makes from the berries.

Comfrey
Comfrey in bloom.

I’ve tried some other plants that permaculture practitioners suggest for fruit and nut tree guilds, like comfrey, walking onions, perennial leeks, wild ginger, and sorrel. Except for the wild ginger they haven’t prospered in the semi-shade of the trees. That may be because the loess soil I garden on is so well drained that it becomes too dry under trees for the plants’ liking. Sorrel and the alliums have performed much better in the full sun of the vegetable garden, where they get some water during dry spells. The comfrey has walked out over the years to sunnier areas near the edge of the trees’ canopies. What does do well under the trees are violets, ground ivy, and wintercreeper. People diss wintercreeper (euonymous) for its expansiveness, but I have too much of it to control except when it starts growing up a tree or into one of the garden areas that I actively manage. The violets provide some nibbles, they and the ground ivy support pollinators, and the wintercreeper mulches the ground, so I have a working guild under the trees, even though the plants aren’t the classic ones in the permaculture books.

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Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space