Be Less Tidy in Your Yard! Welcome Wild Fruits

We think of fall as migration time when all the birds leave. And there is a great birdcast website to see in live time the flights. But an autumn walk through a park with wild edges reveals shrubs, bushes, and grasses alive with bird activity. Visit an orchard on a cold winter day and the odds are good for spotting robins pecking on frozen dropped apples, but wild fruits are more common, all just beyond suburbia.

Let’s step back to spring. When Rich worked at the Indian Creek Nature Center his phone would often ring during those first warm days. With excitement callers would announce that the robins had returned. Spring’s here!

Seeing a robin on a spring lawn gives the illusion that they’ve just made a long journey from a faraway wintering ground down south. Robins, bluebirds, and other birds usually just shift where they live and forage as seasons change.

Ecological Survivors

A robin sits in a tree

A robin surveys the area

Robins, in particular, are ecological survivors. They’re adapted to living on lawns and around people during the warm months, where they nest on porch eaves and forage for worms and bugs in mowed grass. The coming of fall’s cold marks the disappearance of robins from suburbia. They don’t go far and make an amazing dietary switcheroo to wild fruits.

Robins and bluebirds shun their summer buggy and wormy diet and shift to fruits and some seeds come winter.

On an October walk, we spotted several wild fruits – berries perhaps – that birds feast on during the cold months. the native plants are great – even the poison ivy – the exotics are problematic.

Here are some common winter weedy and seedy plants:

  • Gray Dogwood. This small native dogwood often forms thickets along trails, parks, woods, and even yards and holds plenty of berries into cold months.
  • Wild grapes. People rarely eat sour and seedy wild grapes, and sometimes birds also leave them alone during summer, but come winter the raison-like grapes make nutritious avian fare.
  • Poke Weed. In late fall this tall purple-stemmed and fruited plant is hard to miss. Birds eat the frozen berries. Note: Poke berries are toxic to people and many mammals but not birds.
  • Poison ivy. Gulp. This bane of allergic people is a beneficial wildlife plant. Deer and rabbits browse on the woody sprouts and birds feast on the berries.
  • Asian Honeysuckle, Japanese Barberry, and Oriental bittersweet are “dirty bird plants.” Actually, birds love the berries and carry them far and wide to poop out the seeds. All three exotic plants are highly invasive and crowd out more desirable native plants. Birds have helped them conquer woodlands and field edges to the detriment of healthy bio-diversity.

Winter Fare Is More Than Fruits

Winter bird fare isn’t just fruit. Many birds glean frozen spiders and insects from crevices in tree bark and dozens of species continue to eat grass and “weed” seeds. That’s a problem with mowed lawns. They produce no seeds, so few birds visit them during the colder months. Taller growing grasses, flowers, and shrubs often hold their seeds into the winter and are bird magnets.

Want to have birds in the yard all winter?  Keeping feeders stocked helps, but better results come when homeowners encourage buffers of native shrubs, vines, and grasses that produce natural winter bird food and habitat. Most people love their tidy lawn, but edging the lawn, usually along a property line, or creating “pocket prairies” with native or desirable tall grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs adds summer color and year-round wildlife appeal. So, we encourage readers to create and leave wilder spaces for the birds!

Messy Yard – Look From a Different Perspective

Colorful yard

Prairie flowers dance on a knoll.

Motorists passing our yard must think we have a messy yard. Instead of the clipped and sprayed yards of neighbors, ours is a dancing field of tall wildflowers and native grasses. Many consider them “weeds”. Our yard is unconventional, healthy, and beautiful. It attracts desirable wildlife and is dynamic. Visitors, especially children, love walking through six-foot-tall grasses on our labyrinth pathway. To us, pollinators and birds, it’s heaven, not a mess. It is a naturally landscaped yard.

Sugar Grove Farm Paves the Way

chicken among crops

The space between crops is productive in a different way.

Last summer Rich toured Rodale Institute’s plantings at Sugar Grove Farm near Cedar Rapids. Researcher Linda Sturm led him and farmers to plots of vegetables and fields of corn and soybeans before stopping by a long row of what looked like weeds with wildflowers mixed in.

“This is an unproductive area, wasted ground, that could have been planted to corn,” a farmer remarked. Linda countered that it is likely the most productive land on the farm. “It’s the home base for pollinators and birds. They forage in nearby crops to collect nectar and eat insect pests,” she said.

Natural Yards Can Reduce Pests

Same thing at Winding Pathways. Our vegetable garden is amazingly productive despite never using insecticides and only mowing sparingly. Butterflies visit squash, cucumbers, okra and other crops, spreading pollen while wrens constantly forage for insects to feed their hungry young.

A clipped and sprayed lawn is only slightly more attractive to wildlife than pavement.   There’s no place for tiny beneficial creatures to live.

Create Pollinator Patches

Homeowners with small yards can help pollinators and birds by creating islands or strips of welcoming habitat, perhaps in the backyard or along the property line. Linda Strum created habitats within farm fields, and suburban homeowners can enjoy the same benefits. Worry about the neighbor’s reaction? Just create a habitat in the backyard out of sight of passersby.

Adding birdhouses adds to wildlife fun. We love watching house wrens hunt insects and bring their catch to their babies nestled in a wooden birdhouse dangling down from our porch ceiling.

Given a bit of imagination and fun work even the smallest yard can appear tidy, be aesthetically diverse, and provide homes for butterflies and wondrous spaces for kids and adults.

 

How Can You Catch Nature’s Miracles?

A camera is an outstanding tool to see change. Plant a tree or prairie and it grows so glacially slowly that noting change is hard. Photos help by compressing time.

In August 2020 a derecho felled 47 of our 53 mature trees. We spent much of last fall converting them into firewood and piling up brush. Knowing that the land would be sunny after years of leafy shade, we planted a blend of savanna wildflowers last November.

The area didn’t change much from last fall until April of this year. Then nature put on a glorious show. Here are three photos of our yard taken in April, May, and September 2021. Most of the growth didn’t come from the seeds we planted last fall.   Seeds long dormant in the soil sprouted with enthusiasm once they sensed the sun’s springtime warmth.

 

How Does Our Prairie Garden Grow?

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.

Prairie Renaissance Part 8

Springtime on the Prairie

This spring we anxiously await the emergence of prairie flowers in an area that had been traditional lawn. This is a periodic continuing blog about the process of converting the lawn to a prairie. We’ll have a couple more updates this season. Here’s what we did to prepare for this year’s growth:

2020

April and May 2020: Sustainable Landscape Solutions sprayed the lawn twice to kill existing grass plants, which were nearly entirely exotic species.

May 2020: Sustainable Landscape Solutions tilled the now dead turf.

May 2020: Rich and Marion broadcast a diverse array of seeds that included 82 wildflower species and a few lower-growing types of priaire grasses.

August 2020: A derecho felled three trees west of the site and a few to the east.  This increases the sun on the new prairie. That’s good.

By mid-summer, a thick growth of annual crabgrass covered the site with only partridge pea obvious from our seeds.

November 2020: The crabgrass was dead and dry, so we burned it on the same day we burned our existing prairies. The fire was slow and low.

2021

Winter 2020/21: Heavy snow covered the site for much of the winter. When it melted, we discovered mostly bare soil with few surviving exotic grasses present.  This is perfect, as native seeds will respond to warm temperatures.

April 2021: Small prairie forbs are emerging. Among the many spring greens poking up, we can identify Black-Eyed Susans, Mountain Mint, and Partridge Pea. Only a few of the 82 species we cast out. Part of the fun of restoring prairie is learning what the emerging plants are.

We’ll update with a Prairie Renaissance Blog as the natives get going.

Prairie Renaissance Part Five

Learning from the Prairie

 Wow. It’s August! We recently completed a management step on the prairie planted in early June. Weeds were outgrowing infant prairie plants that need sunshine. We buzzed off the weeds at the highest setting possible on our battery-powered cordless EGO mower.

We bought this mower because its battery powers a powerful electric mower that easily cuts tough grass while producing less emissions than a gas mower. And, it’s easy to use. No cord pulling to start it. Also, the mow height is simple to set and allows us a high setting that helps with prairie management.

Afternoon Delight

We planted a prairie in front of the house nine years ago and now spend hours sitting on the front porch reading and talking but always watching the prairie. Here are observations that make us delighted we converted a lawn to the prairie:

  1.  Stunning beauty. We enjoy a changing array of colorful flowers and grasses that dance in the breeze. Coneflowers have been in bloom for a while. Milkweed blooms have faded. And, cupplants are just now coming into their midsummer glory.
  2. Insects. Monarchs and swallowtails cavort over the prairie on sunny days while stopping to sip nectar. Each evening the air over our prairie swarms with delightful lightning bugs. They are absent over the nearby lawn.
  3. Wrens, bluebirds, and goldfinches. A pair of wrens nested in a box just above our porch chairs. We love watching these industrious parents make trip after trip foraging for insects to feed the youngsters. They hunt in the prairie and nearby woods edge but not in the lawn. Our prairie enables our yard to support at least four pairs of nesting wrens and one pair of bluebirds. If the entire yard were mowed, we’d be lucky to have one wren couple to enjoy. In mid-summer goldfinches work the prairie.
  4. Garter and brown snakes. We’ve noticed an increase in garter and brown snakes, both harmless species as beautiful and interesting as goldfinches or cardinals.

Phoenix Harmony Labyrinth Prairie

Marion crafted a labyrinth through our oldest prairie on the front yard. She welcomes anyone to walk its circular path. Contact us before you come. The labyrinth is a peaceful way to access the prairie and contemplate the beauty of our earth while walking along its path.

Make Like a Buffalo

When Sustainable Landscape Solutions did ground preparation for our new prairie, I asked Sean Pearl if he’d create two “artificial gopher mounds” in an older prairie in our backyard. He said “Sure.”  A while back, we had planted this prairie with just grass seed. It has few flowers, and the roots of the big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass are tough and dense.  Prairie needs disturbance. Once bison wallowed and gophers dug to create bare earth.  Many prairie grasses need this bare earth to reseed. We had neither bison nor gophers so used a machine to create bare soil.

Sean’s machine chopped through the grasses. We followed up by planting 82 flower species seeds. Flowers add diversity, color, and attract pollinating insects. Looks like it’s working. Lots of new prairie wildflowers are growing in these two places in the midst of towering grasses.

Our next Prairie Renaissance blog will come in early fall.