What is a Weed?

Weeds Brighten Our Lawn

Too many people worry about lawn weeds and spend money to buy and spray toxic chemicals. We take a different view. What many call weeds are actually beneficial and we find fascinating. The often-uninvited plants that diversify our lawn connect us with human history, teach us botany, sometimes provide nutrition, and add color to our yard.

We don’t spray or fertilize our lawns at Winding Pathways. The mower gets exercise when grass gets shaggy, but we’re never bothered when new plants show up. Instead, we try to identify them and sometimes mow around them to let them bloom and add color to Winding Pathways.

Here are three “weeds” that we are enjoying this summer for their color:

Hawkweed

Patch of Yellow Hawkweed

Hawkweed is “asexual”.

In mid-spring, a small patch of tiny hawkweed plants was poking through our grass.  Rich mowed around them and by late May we enjoyed watching bright yellow hawkweed blooms dance in the sunny breeze.

There are many species of hawkweed. Most are exotic but some are native. Most sport yellow flowers although some can be reddish. Farmers sometimes consider them a weed. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their unusual reproduction.   They usually spread by seed, but hawkweed seeds aren’t fertilized, meaning that the seed is an exact genetic clone of its parent. They’re asexual!

We’ll enjoy our Hawkweed until their blooms fade and then likely will mow the patch.

Star of Bethlehem

One of our favorite early spring wildflowers is the impressive but delicate bloom of the native Bloodroot. Its pure white petals are showy against the late March or early April ground. A common early summer lawn weed that has a bloodroot-looking flower is the Star of Bethlehem. It’s a lily that is sometimes sold in nurseries. The plant is not native and shows up in our lawn, probably the result of a previous owner planting bulbs years ago. Star of Bethlehem can be invasive, so we enjoy its showy bloom but mow it off before it has a chance to seed. The plant is a perennial and comes up from bulbs each year, so mowing won’t eliminate it but may keep it from seeding.

Shepherd’s Purse

Shepherd's Purse plant

Shepherd’s Purse. From Pixabay

An intriguing plant that grows more on the side of the lawn than in the middle is Shepherd’s Purse. Its name comes from the triangular flat fruits that look like a tiny purse. Native to Europe and Asia Minor it may now be the second most common weed worldwide. Shepherd’s Purse has medicinal and food value and may have been deliberately spread by people.

Nature loves diversity. A function of invasive plants is their very nature. Spray a lawn and kill every plant species other than Kentucky Bluegrass and soon “weeds” will move right in. Diversity creates a certain degree of ecological stability, but there’s always change. A fascination of tending a natural unpoisoned lawn is learning to identify new species as they arrive by themselves and watching plant transitions over the years. A common uninvited plant one year may totally disappear the next to be replaced by some new species. Observing is just plain fun that can never be enjoyed by the person who poisons fascinating lawn plants.

How Can You Attract Birds?

Enjoying a Welcoming Yard

On the evening of May 17th, one of nature’s brightest colors greeted us at Winding Pathways. It was a brilliant male scarlet tanager, a somewhat rare bird that we only see briefly each May.

The next morning, he was joined by a female, and we assume they’ll nest in Faulkes Heritage Woods that adjoins our property. Tanagers are birds of the big woods, and they’ll find comfortable lodging in the big oaks nearby.

We bought Winding Pathways ten years ago partly because it adjoins the 110-acre Woods protected from development by a conservation easement. It’s mostly steep land that drops down to Indian Creek about a quarter of a mile from our home.

Creating a Welcoming Yard

Since we bought our land, we’ve diversified the yard by restoring prairies and increasing the variety of savanna and woodland wildflowers in shady areas, used prescribed fire to reduce exotics, and installed many birdhouses and feeders. Thanks to the nearby woods and our more open prairie yard with the savanna in between, we enjoy a rich array of bird species. Some, like woodpeckers and chickadees, stay around all year but more migrate to nest here or stop by on their trek to nest further north. We keep a running list of the birds we see from our dining room table each spring.  Some we just see winging over but many stop to eat and rest.

Growing Bird List

We’re adding to this list daily but here’s what we’ve spotted and heard so far in May 2019:

Great Blue Heron, Barred and Horned Owl, Canada Goose, Black Capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Cardinal, White and Red Breasted Nuthatch, Downy, Hairy, Red Bellied, Red Headed, and Pileated Woodpeckers and Flicker, Turkey Vulture, House Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Red Breasted Grosbeak, Northern Oriole, Wood Duck, Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, Yellow Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow Rumped Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Kingbird, Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Cowbird, House Sparrow, Starling, House and Carolina Wren, House Finch, Red Tail Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Crow, Pelican.

And the list keeps growing. You, too, can create a welcoming yard. This introductory YouTube video from Canada gives a quick overview of the important elements in attracting birds to a yard.  It’s totally “Homegrown” and short. You can create welcoming space on a condominium patio, at a retirement or nursing home, an urban lot or spacious acreage.

Another YouTube video explains how to bring natural elements together to create natural areas.  In this case, a “forest.” Again, from large scale to small we can all do this! We would, naturally, adapt to our region of the country and world. The concepts are similar.

What to Consider When Creating a Welcoming Yard

How much time/money do you want to invest?
Do you want to create a naturalistic landscape with native plants?
Do you want to harvest food from the space?
Are your neighbors tolerant of change?
What local codes affect what you want to do? (Ordinances or Covenants)
How prevalent are deer in the neighborhood?
How long do you plan to live in the home?

We’re lucky to have Indian Creek and Faulkes Heritage Woods near Winding Pathways, but even yards not adjacent to natural areas can increase bird variety by creating diverse habitat. Spring is the best season to plant prairies and shrubs! Learn more about birds, their habits and habitats at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Monarchs On Their Way South

Monarch Butterfly

Butterfly on plant

This past summer we enjoyed watching many monarch butterflies flutter over our prairie labyrinth. Numbers were way up from last year.

These intrepid insects are now en route to wintering grounds in Mexico. We look forward to their return next year.

Monarchs suffered huge population declines due to varied stresses on their lives. In farm country, most fencerows, waterways, and pastures that once harbored milkweed and wildflowers that provided both caterpillars and adults with food have disappeared. Today’s farmland is a pesticide-laced monoculture of just a few crops.

In town, manicured and sprayed lawns are as devoid of diversity as a cornfield and can’t sustain beautiful wildlife like butterflies.

The news would be more distressing had people not responded with enthusiasm to the monarchs’ decline. This summer we were delighted to see dozens of homeowners in Cedar Rapids and other towns let their lawns grow taller. Many planted pollinator patches in even tiny yards that include a diversity of native plants, including milkweeds.   We took joy in seeing a small patch of milkweeds nurtured by the staff of a convenience store in a tiny patch of dirt near the gas pumps.

Lawn with milkweed on it.

Grow a wild patch on your lawn to encourage butterflies.

Every pollinator patch, even if tiny, adds beauty and diversity to our world. We urge everyone to assist wildlife by creating natural plantings, even in urban areas.

Many Iowans have been inspired by the Monarch Zones Project. Founded by Clark McLeod, the Project provides workshops, encouragement, equipment, and seeds to help people assist this beautiful insect and hundreds of other beneficial species that add richness to our lives and health to the environment.

Next spring’s planting season isn’t far off. Now’s a fine time to plan to expand or create a pollinator patch in the yard. For help contact Monarch Research Project. Let’s continue to work together to create wondrous yards.

Bon voyage, Monarchs!

 

FIREFLIES RETURN TO DELIGHT FAMILY

“It was amazing! Gorgeous!  Fireflies danced over our prairie most of the summer, and they weren’t here when it was a mowed lawn,” said Katie Hill with much enthusiasm

She and her husband Tim are restoring an island of ecological health just three miles from downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. First Avenue is one of the busiest urban streets in Iowa, constantly filled with cars, motorcycles, and trucks. A bald eagle flying over the road would look down at an urbanized landscape – except for five acres of verdant beauty just a few feet east of the Avenue. The oasis is nestled between suburban developments, a high-rise condominium, and a senior residence complex.

Katie and Tim bought three and a half acres and a home about 15 years ago. It was convenient to his work at a law office a stone’s throw from their land. “We did the standard expected landscaping of mowing and spraying for about a decade,” she said.

Creating Habitat

Although the yard was large it lacked plant diversity and wildlife. Then came the change.

“We stopped spraying and I took delight when creeping Charlie and dandelions took hold. Many people don’t like them, but creeping Charlie has a gorgeous flower that bumblebees love, and it smells nice. Dandelions are beautiful, and bees love them,” she said. Then she broadcast prairie seed on a low area that had been lawn. After a couple of years big bluestem, Indian grass, and many native flowers appeared. Encouraged by their first prairie the Hill’s planted new ones in formerly mowed and sprayed lawns.   They’ve been helped by David Novak, owner of a small company that helps people restore natural areas.

“We were delighted when lightning bugs appeared over the prairie. They don’t like mowed lawn but love taller plants.  We watch them dance on summer evenings. These beautiful insects completely avoid the mowed lawns of our neighbors,” Tim and Katie remarked.

Early in 2018, the Hills bought about an acre and a half of land adjoining their property   Years before several houses stood on the property but it had been purchased by a developer who planned to build two condominium towers. He razed the houses and built one condo tower but abandoned plans to build the second.

Restoring the Land

As we walked through the area Katie showed us her new prairie plantings in what had once been a lawn while Tim pointed out where the houses had stood. As the years go by the residents of the existing condominium tower will gaze downward during the day on wildflowers dancing in the breeze and butterflies sipping nectar from prairie blooms. As twilight approaches, they’ll enjoy fireflies blinking their tiny lights.

In addition to creating beauty and feeling the joy of making the earth healthier, the Hills are benefiting the community beyond their property. Prairie grasses absorb stormwater that once sheeted off their land and into storm sewers and eventually Cedar Lake. Their land nurtures wildlife as its beauty increases and diversifies.

“We feel good about what we are doing. We are helping nature restore itself in the heart of the city, but it also does one other thing. When we were mowing and spraying it was costing us about $600 a month to maintain the property. Now that’s dropped to about 90 bucks, so we’re saving money,” the Hills explained.

In the process of restoring their land, Tim and Katie Hill are also getting a fulfilling ecological education.

Win!  Win! Win!

“It’s a win, win, win,” smiled Katie. “It’s a win for us saving money. It’s a win for us to have the time to be entertained by the wildlife diversity. And, most importantly, it’s a win for Mother Nature.”

Equinox

It’s turning time for wildlife, chickens, and people

As the Northern Hemisphere of the earth continues its ageless slow wobble away from the sun, days gradually shorten until a wondrous event happens.

The Autumnal Equinox happens around September 21st each year. It’s when daily hours of sunlight equal those of darkness. On only two days each year does every place on earth enjoy roughly 12 hours of sunshine. These are the fall and spring equinoxes.  So, whether someone lives near the tropics or poles they will experience the same amount of light on only those two days.

Light changes quickly around equinox time. Up here in the Northern Hemisphere days shorten quickly and darkness advances until the December 21st Winter Solstice, the year’s darkest day.  The Southern Hemisphere begins to enjoy its longest days through December.

Preparing

At Winding Pathways around the Equinox, we do these things:

  • Stimulate our chickens. We plug in the timer and light bulb in the coop. Chickens lay the most eggs when there are about 15 hours of daylight. So, the coop light is set up to come on about 4:30 a.m. and turn off about three hours later when the sun pokes over the horizon.
  • Drain, clean, and invert our rain barrels. We won’t need extra water until next spring, so we turn the barrels upside down, so they don’t collect winter water that freezes and can split the barrels. We weight them with stones to keep Arctic winds from blowing them away.
  • Watch this short video on how to Prepare Rain Barrels
  • Bring in pumpkins and winter squash. A frost is soon to come, and we don’t want it to bite our squash. We store
    Various Squashes

    Winter Squash vary in color, texture, shape and size.

    pumpkins and squash in a room we rarely use. It stays cool but above freezing. Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard, and most other winter squashes and pumpkins, which actually are a squash, keep for months and give us delicious and vitamin stoked food on cold days.

  • Exclude, or try to, insects and mice. Somehow mice, box elder bugs and Asian beetles sense coming cold and find tiny cracks to enter the house and enjoy winter warmed by our furnace and wood stove. Each fall we caulk up cracks and weather strip doors to encourage them to stay outside where we prefer to see them. It’s never perfect. Some always find their way inside.
  • Enjoy leaves. Each’s fall’s spectacular leaf color peaks in October but some leaves start turning sooner. Our backyard black walnut starts coloring up in early September. The real show is the deep orange, red, and yellows of our sugar maples. They peak in early to mid-October followed by russet oak leaves.
  • Butterfly on Aster

    Fall wildflowers are an important food source for insects and birds.

    Enjoy wildflowers. Asters, Goldenrods, and Maximilian Sunflowers are the very last blooms of the season. Their colors brighten the yard and provide nectar for insects and then seeds for migrating and overwintering birds. But all this comes with sadness as we know we’ll not see wildflowers again until next spring.

  • Watch wildlife. It’s migration time and one of the best seasons for seeing unusual birds. We often look upward and sometimes spot pelicans and waterfowl winging high overhead. By now deer in their subdued winter coats are sleek and well fed on a diet of acorns. Bucks have polished their antlers. Chipmunks and squirrels scurry about caching winter food.

We’d like to hear what you enjoy about the Equinox time.  Please email us your joys and projects in this wondrous season.

Links to Stories of Wondrous Yards

The Gazette in Cedar Rapids has had several interesting nature stories connected to creating wondrous yards.  Living Section features “Birds do it, Bees do it”, “Add a Little Luck to Your Landscape” and Purslane (by Winding Pathways).  We loved reading about the birds and bees’ cooling strategies and welcomed the return of clover to yards as natural nitrogen fixers and deep-rooted water retention plants.  And, of course, we love to eat purslane.  Let us know ways you fix this healthy vegetable.

Also an article on wasps of late summer.  They are beneficial, ‘though deserve keeping distance.

First Chrysalis of Summer.

Success on the Bena Farm!

Best of all was the picture of the Monarch Chrysalis from friends, Nancy and Gordon Bena found on their farm.  Let’s keep encouraging habitat for insects that form the basis of life for many other creatures.