Suburban Farming Feed

Cat in the Flock's Top 5 Posts of 2020. No. 1 Is for the Birds!

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Milkweed seed pod on a rose bush.

By Lisa Brunette

Two-oh-two-oh was a surprising year for Cat in the Flock, as between the extensive lockdowns and social distancing measures and our decision to forgo social media, Anthony and I found ourselves with more time to write. While our day jobs at Brunette Games never ceased, as its already established remote-work structure allowed us to continue working without fail, we saw family and friends less often, and most interesting activities outside the home were either canceled outright or made less attractive due to the requirement to wear masks and social distance. So, we opted to stay in. We published more on this blog in 2020 than anticipated, with a total of 52 posts, or an average of one per week!

What's most exciting about the past year at Cat in the Flock is that I saw the blog grow beyond me. The responsibility for those 52 posts was shared across 7 different authors. Notably, Anthony joined the fray, and his write-up on our bamboo squash tunnel was one of the most popular of the year. Besides the Anthony-and-Lisa duo here at Cat in the Flock, we also published posts from a former wildlife biologist, two award-winning travel writers, an acupuncturist, and a certified herbalist. One of these also made the top five.

All of our most popular articles share gardening as a theme, and with the combination of our own passions for the subject and a surge in interest due to stay-at-home mandates, it's not surprising to see why. Here are the top five posts judging by total number of page views, starting with fifth on the list and working our way to the top.

No. 5 - Native Plants As the Stars of the Show

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Quercus shumardii, or native Shumard oak, in fall color.

The very first post of 2020 was also our fifth most-viewed: Garden Stars of the Year: How to Win with Native Plants. It's basically a native plant gardening 'how to,' with suggestions for how to go about populating your garden with plants that have evolved to your geographic location's unique ecosystem rather than filling it with a lot of exotics. What can we say? We're still drinking the native plant Kool-Aid. Exotics are harder to care for, and they don't feed native pollinators, birds, or animals anywhere near as well as the plants our native fauna have evolved to consume. To us, going native is a no-brainer.

No. 4 - More Mushroom Mania

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Image courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.

If you hadn't noticed, we're a bit obsessed with mushrooms here at Cat in the Flock, and our fourth most popular post reflects that. "Mushrooms Become Less Mysterious - with the Right Field Guide" is pretty much a love letter to both our stellar Missouri Department of Conservation and the mushroom guide it publishes, Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, by fellow St. Louis writer Maxine Stone. If you're anywhere in the Midwest, I highly recommend the guide.

New to the whole mushroom foraging idea? Check out this great piece by guest blogger Ellen King Rice that breaks down everything you need to know. And for funsies, you might also read our further account of mushroom foraging right here in the back 40 for the delicious and plentiful 'shroom known as reddening lepiota.

No. 3 - Farmer Bob's Jam

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Bob Frause in the garden. Photo by Sue Frause.

Over Sue Frause's long, award-winning career as a travel and lifestyle feature writer, she's amassed quite a following, which partly explains the popularity of the post coming in at the No. 3 spot, On Whidbey Island with 'Farmer Bob' and His Inspiration Garden. But I also think that asking a travel writer who's written about places hither and yon to turn inward toward her own backyard yielded just a truly wonderful piece about gardening, family, and what it means to call a place home. She mentioned to me how surprised she was by the response, and I believe her readers were hungry for this self-made profile.

The Frause's Whidbey Island garden is a very special place, just perfect for our regular 'inspiration garden' feature. It's inspired me ever since I had the pleasure of staying there back in 2008, and it continues to remind me of what's possible. 

No. 2 - Long Live the Squash Tunnel!

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Anthony and the freshly made bamboo tunnel.

As I mentioned above, Anthony's bamboo squash tunnel piece received quite a bit of attention, boosting it to second place for the year. It's possible that in a gardening-focused time of high unemployment, the prospect of a free bamboo tunnel for veggies was too strong to resist. 

Tragically, the squash tunnel fell victim to one of our dramatic Midwestern summer storms, but for a time, the arch anchored the garden, supporting cucumbers and, of course, squash, as well as providing birds with an interesting place to roost. Besides, it just looked so cool.

No. 1 - This One's for the Birds

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A surprise search-engine darling for us this year is Easy DIY Bird Baths for Your Stay-at-Home Pleasure. It regularly brings in readers in the same vein as the squash tunnel piece, as a highly thrifty way to get out in the garden and do something ecologically minded. 

I think what consistently puts this one ahead is that it's about a good, original idea: to use leftover tempered glass pot lids as reservoirs for bird baths. I've never seen anyone do this before, and it's surprising because it works so well. I still have four variations of them in the garden this winter, and the birds continue to use them on a daily basis. They're easy to clean and care for, and the tempered glass ensures they stand up to the extremes of winter and summer weather.

There you have it. I'm not sure we'll be able to keep up the once-per-week pace in 2021, especially since Cat in the Flock still doesn't earn any income for us. On that note, if you're a fan of our content, consider popping a few into our tip jar - and tell your friends about us. The more the merrier in this flock!

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A Three-Year Transformation: Dragon Flower Farm 2017-2020

July 2020 2
Dragon Flower Farm, July 2020.

By Lisa Brunette

This fall marks three years since we purchased our home - a 1904 World's Fair-era house on 1/4-acre just outside the St. Louis city limits. Those of you who've followed this blog since then - or even before that time - have witnessed a series of trials and triumphs as we've worked incredibly hard and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. While the to-do list continues, and with gardening it seems the work is never done, we feel we've already achieved much toward our vision: a productive, wildlife- and pollinator-friendly garden bursting with native plants, beneficial non-natives, and edibles.

When we bought the property in fall 2017, we got a great deal, likely in part because the backyard was what you might call a problem situation.

August 2017 1
August 2017.

To the left you can see the zigzagging chainlink fence and the way the whole property butts up against the neighboring apartment building parking lot. Bonus: A view of the dumpsters! The yard was a relic of mid-century landscaping values, with big fat circles of day lilies, hostas, and euphorbias, at that point overgrown with weeds and spilling into the grassy areas, which were also mostly weeds. I think a lot of potential buyers took one look at this yard and saw themselves having to do a lot of awkward mowing, not to mention constantly hacking away at nuisance foliage. Here's the view straight out the back door.

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August 2017.

That first year, we didn't do anything radical to the yard, or the house, for that matter, as we were still getting to know the place. It's a good idea to sit with a big project property like this, if you're living in it yourself, to come to understand it fully before diving in with major fixes. It was a chore, but we mowed the lawn and beat back the invasive overgrowth as best we could.

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August 2018.

Our first step in the fall of 2018 was to invite experts from the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program to conduct a site visit. Based on their recommendations, we chose to remove our serious problem plants first, which at that time comprised the majority of the greenery. The chainlink fence was overgrown on every single side with noxious invasive plants, and these were taking over the 1/4-acre. The three culprits were: 1) winter creeper, 2) Japanese honeysuckle, and 3) sweet autumn clematis. These have been eradicated, though we continue to remove seedlings of all three to this day.

August 2018 2
August 2018.

Next we installed a 6-foot cedar fence around the entire backyard, to provide privacy and security, as well as screen the view of the parking lot full of cars next door (and the dumpsters). The fence turns out to have had the added benefit of protecting our plantings from deer. You wouldn't have thought there'd be a deer issue in suburban St. Louis, but I've spotted them at a nearby pocket park. Not that we would mind deer, but without the fence we would have had to devise another strategy to keep deer from the edibles and other plants.

That fall we also put in the first set of trees and shrubs and began the long process of sheet-mulching the turf grass, as it was our intention to convert the entire grounds to mixed plantings, with little to no grass. We used a layer of cardboard with a generous helping of mulch on top. We scavenged most of the cardboard from our neighbors' recycling bins the night before pickup day and ordered the mulch in bulk for the cost savings. In process, sheet-mulching looks like this.

April 2019
April 2019.

See my how-to on sheet-mulching, which is really easy, especially if you're talking about a small plot of land. But here's a glimpse of what it entails for a project of this scale. To mulch a 1/4-acre, you need a lot.

May 2019
May 2019.

We continued to sheet-mulch the lawn throughout the fall, winter, spring, and summer of 2018-19, so that by August of 2019, we had more than half the ground covered. Here's a panoramic image showing the wraparound fence, newly installed trees and other plants, and the sheet mulch.

August 2019 1
August 2019.

While laying cardboard and shoveling mulch on top of it, especially over this much area, was a lot of hard work, we have no regrets about the decision. This summer Anthony (who won't let me mow, not that I insist) didn't have to mow the backyard at all, and he didn't miss it. (He's not one of those guys who likes to mow grass.) Besides, without the grass to compete with, our native violet ground cover took over on its own, and we like it a lot better than grass.

During this time, we also added a long list of native trees, shrubs, and flowers, using thrifty resources provided by programs like the Missouri Department of Conservation's seedlings program, Grow Native! sales, and the free offerings of our local Wild Ones chapter. These plants filled out the landscape, taking the place of the invasives and attracting wildlife and pollinators in droves. 

Bees on monarda
Eastern carpenter bees on monarda.

Our first official edible from the garden? Wild cleavers, which I harvested in spring 2019 for tea (it's an awesome tonic for reducing swelling and water retention). Next came basil that summer.

By winter 2019, we had all but one small back strip converted from turf. This spring, we let it go wild while we focused on sowing food plants in those sheet-mulched areas, which by that point were ready for more tender plantings. We also built a squash tunnel, a rain garden, two hugelkultur mounds, and a wooden trellis. The trellis supports two varieties of our native passionflower, which spoiled the bees all summer and has already yielded edible fruit. It grew by leaps and bounds, too, from a slip of a seedling to a full-grown vine in one season. Here's a pic I took last week from the second floor of our house so you can see the vine already topping the trellis.

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This year we made great use of our spring ephemerals, turning them into everything from tea to infused vinegar, and we had a decent harvest of veggies and herbs, bringing in potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cucumbers, horseradish, asparagus, chervil, basil, sage, marjoram, oregano, arugula, kale, borage, cilantro, coriander, turnips, lettuce, carrots, and at least a few tomatoes all total across the early spring, summer, and late summer growing seasons. We learned a lot through the process and look forward to a better 2021.

Pickles 2020
Homemade pickles, summer 2020.

Even people who were skeptical about our project are amazed by what we've already achieved, using words like "oasis" and "sanctuary" to describe the feeling of being in our garden. But in case that's not enough endorsement for you, here it is, by the numbers:

  • Invasive plants removed: 5 species
  • 'Statue' plants removed: 3 species (statues, while not invasive, provide little benefit to humans, animals, or pollinators)
  • Turf removed: 95% of backyard, comprising most of the 1/4-acre
  • Native plants saved or encouraged: 15 species
  • Non-native beneficials saved or encouraged: 4 species
  • Native trees and shrubs planted as seedlings: 23 species
  • Native flowers and grasses planted as seedlings: 29 species
  • Native flowers and grasses sown as direct seeds: 9 species
  • Bees counted: 25+ species
  • Birds counted: 30+ species
  • Butterflies counted: 20+ species
  • Wildlife counted: 7+ species
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July 2020.

We've done a good job of remaking the space as a beneficial habitat, but there's still so much we can do to improve. Only about 5% of our overall food intake comes from Dragon Flower Farm. While we know it's unrealistic to think we could ever achieve total sustainability, we know we can do better than that. We've thought about adding chickens, guinea fowl, or even rabbits to the mix since we are meat eaters. Currently, we get our meat from local ranchers we've met at a farmer's market, and that's a good source for us as we don't have the time to devote to animal caretaking.

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A view from above, taken last week, October 2020.

So the mission for next year is to increase the space we devote to annual vegetables, as well as our own skill and proficiency at growing them. While native plants are incredibly easy to take care of, annual food crops are much more involved. I'll end by asking you to wish us well with the perennial onions and garlic we just planted here in fall. May they yield a bumper crop of food next June.

Onion planting 2020

October 2020 2
Finishing up the onion bed.

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50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

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Achemon sphinx moth larvae (caterpillar), on native grape.
 

When it comes to providing more habitat for pollinators, it really doesn't take much to see results. My brother's been amazed to find monarch caterpillars after adding one milkweed, and swarms of bees supping from a sole aster. Here at Dragon Flower Farm, it's only been two years since we kicked off this project in earnest, and we already feel as if we live in a nature preserve. All of the photos here are from this spring and summer.
 
Black_Swallowtail
The larvae, also called instar, for black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.
 
To illustrate that pollinator-friendly yards are easy-peasy to create, I've penned this parody for you, inspired by both the Paul Simon original and the play on the song that aired on The Muppet Show when I was a kid, "50 Ways to Love Your Lever." I apologize in advance for the excessive corniness, but hey. I live in the Midwest now.
 
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Monarch larvae on Asclepius incarnata (swamp milkweed).

50 Ways to Love Your Larvae

The problem is all inside your yard, I say to you
The answer is to see it ecologically 
I'd like to help you get more than a bird or two
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
 
I say I don't mean for this to sound at all lewd
After all, it's earnestness that guides me not a desire to be rude
But I'll repeat myself at the risk of starting some feud
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
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The white-marked tussock moth, at larvae stage, on Amorpha fruticosa (false indigo bush).
 
It's time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_into_chrysalis
Monarch positioning for chrysalis stage.
 
I say it thrills me to see you've made it this far
I hope there is something here that will help our little instar
That word might confuse you but it just means caterpillar
You know, the fifty ways
 
I say feel free to sleep on all of this tonight
And I believe in the morning you'll know my words are right
But don't freak out too much when you know you've seen the light
There must be fifty ways to love your larvae
Fifty ways to love your larvae
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
Just let the fall be
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis.
 
Time to plant natives, David
Make it your wish, Trish
Don't pick up the leaves, Jeeves
You just listen to me
 
Ditch your grass lawn, Dawn
You won't miss it when it's gone
Pot a new tree, Lee
You're helpin' the bees
 
Monarch_butterfly

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Hügelkultur - More Than Just a Pretty Word

Hugelkultur

By Anthony Valterra

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

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

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

Herb mound hugel

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

Herb mound hugel 2

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

Herb mound hugel 3

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

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

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Free Food from Your Yard: Mushrooms!

Reddening lepiota

By Lisa Brunette

One of the benefits of removing the turf grass in our entire backyard - which constitutes the majority of the 1/4-acre plot - is that we have a lovely carpet of native violets growing over most of it. I've raved about viola sororia previously on the blog, and the best part is that the violets arrived of their own volition, free of charge. With them, came edible mushrooms.

Pictured above is Lepiota americana, AKA 'reddening lepiota.' This gilled cap mushroom seems to be a natural companion to the violets, as all spring and summer, we found them growing in clusters nestled under and amidst the violet leaves.

We'd first noticed reddening lepiota last year, but we didn't know they were edible and thought better than to try eating them without more information. I included them in this Q&A with wildlife biologist/author Ellen King Rice - you can see how the cluster dwarfs Anthony's hand in a photo about half-way down. That convo with Ellen was a great start in getting the info we needed, as it put me in the mindset to purchase a Missouri-specific wild mushroom ID guide, to which I gave two thumb's up in a followup post. This is it in case you want to rush right over to the MDC Store and buy one right now.

Mushroom ID guide

And you should, if you live in Missouri or plan to visit and do a little foraging while you're here. If you're one of our readers from the East or West Coasts, you're better off with a regional specific guide for your area. 

Note we don't receive anything in exchange for this endorsement of this MDC publication. All of our props, kudos, and reviews are 100 percent objective, with no sponsorships or payments made in exchange for sharing our opinion. You're welcome!

So now we know with complete certainty that the mushroom pictured above is a) Lepiota americana and b) safe to eat. We've dined on them all spring and summer, and THEY ARE DELICIOUS. Let me tell you, there's nothing that makes you feel like you've got this whole survival thing down better than foraging in your own backyard. But we didn't go about this cavalierly. Let me walk you through the rather robust process.

Step 1: Try an ID App

Early on, I posted some photos of the mushroom in question to iNaturalist and got a positive ID for Reddening lepiota. I love iNaturalist and use it pretty much weekly to ID flora and fauna (177 observations, and counting!). It's also our main tool for the Shutterbee study. But I didn't stop at iNaturalist. That would have been dangerous, as the app has limitations and can give you a false result.

Step 2: Consult a Guide Book

Next, I went to the guide book to see what it could tell me about reddening lepiota. According to author Maxine Stone, it's edible, but she recommended exercising some caution, as it can easily be confused with a lookalike known as green-spored lepiota, which is poisonous.

Whoa, right? Nature doesn't mess around. Two mushrooms, similar in appearance, growing in the same part of the world, one is safe (and tasty), but the other is poisonous - not enough to kill you, but it will make you super sick. Stone points out two areas of differentiation between them: 1) Reddening lepiota bruises red and 2) it leaves a white spore print. Which brings me to step 3.

Step 3: Take a Spore Print

I know this sounds all science-y, something only botanists should do, but taking a spore print turns out to be easy like a summer breeze. All you do is separate the cap from the stem and turn the cap gills-down onto a piece of paper or other surface the spores can 'print.' Then you wait for the spores to drop - this can take anywhere from a few hours to 24. Since reddening lepiota prints white, Stone recommends black construction paper. Luckily, we have a black cutting board that works perfectly.

Spore print

Isn't that amazing? Some people turn mushroom spore prints into art, and you can see why. 

Step 4: Ask an Expert

The print supports with clearly white spores that the mushroom is likely Lepiota americana. At this point, I had 3 sources: iNaturalist, the Missouri's Wild Mushrooms guide, and the spore print. But since eating mushrooms from the wild, or in this case, the wild out your back door, carries a certain amount of inherent risk, Stone recommends reaching out to an expert, too, for an ID confirmation. So I did what she suggested and found our local mycological society, which brought me to an expert... named Maxine Stone, the author of the guide.

She was really lovely, responding right away, with a 'likely' confirmation on my reddening lepiota ID, with the caveat that she couldn't make a 100 percent positive ID in person due to the coronavirus lockdown. But at this point, Anthony and I felt we'd covered the bases pretty well.

Step 5: Try a Small Sample

We ate just one or two bites at first, waiting 24 hours to see if we suffered any ill effects; there were none, so after that it was mushroom on the menu.

Funny thing: Stone's book lists edibility on a four-point scale, with "choice" being highest. Lepiota americana is noted as two stars, or "good." This was our first foray into eating anything other than grocery store mushrooms, and we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. The taste is unlike anything we've had before, with a meaty, musky richness that explodes on your tongue. We can't wait to get our hands on one of those 'choice' mushrooms...

We simply sauté them in butter in a cast iron skillet. They redden similarly to portobello mushrooms (another ID confirmation) but have more flavor, in our opinion.

Sauteed mushrooms

So there you have it: Free food from the yard, as a result of getting rid of our lawn. These just didn't appear when we had nothing but grass.

Please note that you should follow all five steps above and exercise extreme caution if you attempt to eat mushrooms found anywhere outside. We continue to take spore prints of EVERY HARVEST on that black cutting board, just to make sure we don't inadvertently pick up a poisonous green-spored mushroom instead. We can gather a crop in the morning and have spore prints by lunchtime.

Mushroom haul

Best of luck with your own foraging forays, whether out your back door or in the wild. Be safe, be smart, and stay curious, my peoples!

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