In early July we sat on our front porch watching delightfully splashes of color dance in the breeze. A restoration triumph stood stoutly in the wind-blooming compass plant.
Restoring prairies takes patience. We began ten years ago by converting a former mowed lawn into a prairie. For the next few years, our emerging prairie looked rough. A weed patch mostly, but as the years rolled by the “weeds” also called Mother Nature’s stitches, retreated as prairie plants matured and outcompeted them. Coreopsis, coneflowers, monarda, and vervain began adding color to ever more vigorous big and little bluestem, switch, and Indian Grasses.
Then, this year, compass plants that had been flowerless for years, shot spikes six feet into the air. In mid-July, the plant is in full bloom.
Difference Between Domestic and Native Plants
When you plant beans, tomatoes, or squash and many domestic flowers and the fruits of labor are rewarded that same year with fresh vegetables and colorful petals. Not so with native plants. Prairie takes patience. Some native pioneers come on in a year or two but many wait and wait and wait. Sometimes it can take upwards of 15 years for stately compass plants to bloom, so ours may be racehorses to show color in just a decade. More point skyward along with coneflowers, purple prairie coneflower, and rattlesnake master along the roadside in front of our yard.
We have tour prairies at Winding Pathways. Into our oldest Marion has crafted a prairie labyrinth, giving walkers an opportunity to follow a contemplative path surrounded by blooming, dancing flowers and tall grasses.
The “middle-aged” prairie out in the back is a haven for birds, adds color, and is a buffer from the ruined-looking woods where young trees are starting to show amidst the broken derecho tree trunks.
In 2019 and following the August 10th, 2020, Derecho we scattered prairie/open woodland seeds to encourage diverse plants on the east-facing slope.
Our youngest prairie, planted in the spring of 2020, remains in infancy. A mass of black-eyed Susans shines brightly, and many other small bloomless plants show promise to color up as the years go by. We look forward to their future.
We welcome anyone to visit, walk the labyrinth, and enjoy our prairie and the butterflies that skip from flower to flower within it.
Sun rising over the prairie.
Pioneer plants like the Black Eyed Susans encourage people as they plant prairies.
The demure, white spikes of Culver’s Root attract pollinators.
In mid-April, we got a call from a concerned Montessori teacher. Her school is in downtown Cedar Rapids amid office buildings, restaurants, and taverns. Cars constantly buzz by.
She’d spotted a hen mallard duck nesting in the school’s playground and asked what she could do to help it. She knew what a great teaching opportunity this was. Children and teachers have spent the past several weeks observing and documenting the mama Mallard. They even named her – Mallory. Her partner is dubbed Howard.
Over the years we’ve fielded many similar calls from people in urban areas spotting nesting mallards and Canada geese.
For years people have heard that transforming natural areas to cities and suburbs destroys wildlife habitat. It does, at least for wildlife that shun people. However, many wild animals increase as an area urbanizes. House sparrows, rats, and pigeons come to mind, but some other beneficiaries are more welcome.
Cedar Rapids is bisected by the Cedar River, and many ducks nest downtown. Often a hen duck will nest in a large raised concrete flower pot, or as the Montessori School discovered, in the kids’ playground.
This female mallard is quite at home near the Montessori school.
Although this may seem odd, a city may be the safest nesting place. Mallards nest on the ground. Raccoons, dogs, opossums, and a slew of other predators love dining on eggs. Most duck nests out in the country get predated. All that’s left after a raccoon raid is eggshells. Fortunately, many waterfowl species renest, and usually enough nests are successful to maintain the population.
It may be that a nest in a raised concrete flower pot reduces the odds of a raccoon raid.
For many years a duck nested under a shrub near the front door of Washington High School. The hundreds of students who passed by the nest may have discouraged predators.
Canada geese also aren’t shy about people, factories, railroads, or even Interstate Highways. Many nest along Cedar Lake in an industrial area of Cedar Rapids. Normally they hide their nest, but we found one goose nesting immediately adjacent to a busy trail in plain sight.
This bird is now so numerous in many cities that they’re considered a nuisance, although we love seeing and hearing them.
So, what should someone do if they find a nesting duck or goose in a seemingly unlikely and unsafe place? The answer is simple. Just like the Montessori classes, Leave it alone, take photos, and enjoy having a beautiful and interesting animal make its home near people.
Many people cringe when the monthly electric bill arrives. Not us. In 2019 the average homeowner in the United States paid $115 a month. Our last bill was $13. That is right! Thirteen bucks. Almost everyone can tame their electric bill. Here’s how we did it:
- Replaced incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs with LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs. They last almost forever and only use about a fifth the electricity of incandescents. LED bulbs were once expensive but now are as low as $1 each.
- Purchased high-efficiency Energy Star Rated appliances. Yes, you pay more upfront. The savings are significant over time.
- Turn it off! The human index finger has enormous bill cutting power and is free. If a light, television, computer, or any other power-consuming device is not being used…. we turn it off. Remember many of today’s appliances are “vampires.” All those glowing lights on appliances collectively suck energy and balloon your bill. Some you cannot unplug or turn off. Others you can.
- Avoid night lighting. Our outdoor lights stay “off” unless we need them briefly for outdoor work. Use motion light sensors if you think you need to be aware of outside activity at night.
Soaking up the sun.
After completing the above steps, we installed photovoltaics on the barn’s roof. Photovoltaics (PV) are panels that use the sun’s energy to create electricity. Electricity generated by our small system partially powers our home’s needs. When we produce more than we’re using it flows out to the power grid. When we’re using more than we make, which always happens at night, grid power flows in. At the end of the month, we pay the “net”. Because our system is small, over time we never produce as much electricity as we use, but we make most of it. Combined with efficiency we tamed our electric bill.
The Federal Government and many states offer tax credits to homeowners who install solar. The value of credits diminishes each year, so acting soon maximizes tax savings and tames electric bills. It’s a great time to “go solar”.
Well, you don’t. These powerful storms develop quickly from what seems like a “normal” thunderstorm. Even the weather service can be caught off guard as happened Monday, August 10, 2020, as a series of storms developed over Nebraska and swept East rapidly.
Gustavus Hinrichs, a Danish immigrant, and professor at the University of Iowa, recognized these storms differ from hurricanes because the winds move quickly in a straight line. Hence, derecho.
This link has satellite imagery of the formation of the derecho with Eastern Iowa being the epicenter. Over 20 counties have qualified for disaster aid.
Winding Pathways sustained damage especially the trees. And, we are working each day in the community to help recover. In the future, create.
For now, we invite readers to support local organizations in communities damaged by natural forces like fires, storms, and droughts.
We are OK. The chickens were truly “free-ranging” for ten days before we got temporary fencing back up. They keep eating our food scraps, foraging for insects, and laying eggs so all is well.
And, we will update as we can.
Go to our posts on preparedness and we will post updates of what we learned to add to preparedness. Remembering that different emergencies require different responses and different preparedness techniques.
A delightful swatch of color flitted by as we sat on our back deck on one of spring’s first warm sunny days. It was a red admiral butterfly that landed on a post just a few feet from us. It appeared to be enjoying the weather as much as we were.
We’ve since spotted many red admirals in the yard, probably because stinging nettles thrive on the north end of our property. It’s the favored plant for red admiral caterpillars, although they’ll also live on other types of nettles. That poses somewhat of a dilemma.
What is a Red Admiral Butterfly?
These colorful butterflies depend on early blooming plants like nettles.
Red Admirals are a common butterfly across much of the temperate globe. They’re found across Europe and Asia, North Africa, Hawaii, and much of North America, especially the eastern half of our continent. The larvae feed on stinging nettles, which may not be native. So, if red admirals need stinging nettles what did they eat before the plant was introduced to North America in the early days of European exploration? It’s not even certain that stinging nettles are exotic. They may have been here all along, or early butterflies may have fed on wood nettles.
We appreciate both the insect and plant here at Winding Pathways. Red admirals add color and movement to the yard, while nettles make delicious eating. It’s the first wild green we harvest each early spring.
Can You Eat Nettles?
Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.
Stinging nettles are ready to harvest early – about the time when chard, spinach, and lettuce are planted. When the nettles are just a few inches tall we pluck off the top three or four leaves. They are called stinging nettles because the plant has tiny hairlike stingers. Walk through a patch in summer wearing shorts and nettles cause instant pain. But it’s temporary and not dangerous. Another name for the plant is the “seven-minute itch.” The sting comes from histamines.
We gather young nettles without getting stung by carefully plucking just the top leaves between our thumb and forefinger and snapping them off. About 100 young nettle tops make two servings. We bring them into the kitchen, rinse them a couple of times, and steam them for just a minute or two. The sting disappears and resulting greens are delicious. Plus they pack a nutritious array of vitamins and are high in protein.
Nettle season is short. By the time the plants are eight or ten inches tall, the new leaves are getting tough. But by then we’re harvesting chard and spinach from the garden.
We’re happy to share our yard with both red admirals and nettles. Anyone with a partly shady yard with damp soil might want to start a nettle patch. Wear a pair of gloves and dig up a few and plant them in the yard. They aren’t fussy and will provide excellent table fare and a higher likelihood that the yard will be home to the colorful butterfly.