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.

How Do You Relieve Stress?

Kid Adventure

Nature reduces stress. We saw it in action at Winding Pathways on an early April Sunday morning.

About 15 kids from the Faith Formation Group of Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist visited. Most were five to ten years old.  After collecting eggs and scattering treats for the hens, we took them to Faulke’s Heritage Woods. It’s a 110-acre woodland protected from development by a conservation easement held by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

It wasn’t a guided walk. It was a kid adventure. As we distantly watched, the kids scampered into the oaks where they discovered a huge fallen tree spanning a ravine. A natural bridge. They couldn’t resist making the crossing and then raced from fallen log to fallen log, traversing each. Laughter entertained the many standing trees as the kids were enveloped in nature, inventing games and having fun. No constructed playground in a city park or schoolyard matches the wonder and fun of ponds, prairies, and tiny streams.

Lots of research has been conducted on nature’s ability to relieve stress in both adults and children. Experts call time spent in beautiful places the nature pill and even 20 minutes spent walking in the woods reduces stress.

Everyone Benefits

Mary Carol Hunter recently completed a nature pill study and said, “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

We’re lucky to have Faulke’s Woods adjacent to Winding Pathways, but most of our time outdoors is spent close to our home on our own property. Often, it’s simply sitting in the yard enjoying a cup of coffee as we watch chickadees flit around.

Hunter’s words, “sense of nature” are powerful. Although visits to national and state parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are wonderful stress relievers, anyone’s yard or balcony can do the same. We created Winding Pathways several years ago to encourage people to enjoy their yard, even if that’s a tiny apartment balcony in a big city. Structuring the yard or balcony to create natural beauty attracts interesting wildlife while giving people easy and free access to the “nature pill.”

Go outside and have fun, just like the kids did in Faulke’s Woods.

Mice! Keeping them Out of the House

After a balmy fall, the television weather report promised near record cold and snow in three or four days. Mice don’t have televisions but somehow, they knew this because several of the tiny mammals successfully entered our house just before cold arrived. One scurried across the floor as we were reading the morning newspaper.

Years ago we read our then young children a delightful book about a mouse in the house. The story goes: “There is a mouse in the house. It is a very nice mouse.  It has a long, long tail and shiny eyes. My mother likes the mouse. But, she says, ‘A mouse does not belong in a house.’”

We agree and have developed a strategy to keep them out – at least most of them.

One tactic we do not do is poison. Karla Bloem of the International Owl Center in Houston, MN, reminds us that poison spreads.  When a predator eats a poisoned mouse, it absorbs the poison.  Over time, the poison builds up and kills the predator. People end up with more mice that can cause problems.

Here’s what we do at Winding Pathways:

  • Encourage predators. We love to hear the barred owls call on dark evenings, and occasionally we spot a red-tailed hawk in a tree out the window. Both are outstanding mouse catchers. Owls work the night shift and hawks the day.
  • Keep food secure. If mice smell dinner they’ll come right in uninvited and help themselves. It’s important to never leave food out unprotected. We store grain, flour, pasta, cookies and other foods in metal or stout plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. We don’t leave fruits and vegetables on countertops.
  • Tighten up the house. Before it gets cold, we check our house over carefully. Any narrow cracks get filled with caulk.  If we find a wider crack, we fill it with expanding foam. Often entry points for mice and insects are around pipes and wires leading into the home. Caulk and expanding foam help seal off the entry.   Drain pipes sometimes are entry points. “Chore Girl” type metal cleaning pads work great for filling pipes where liquids or air needs to come and go. Wad up the metal pads and jam them into the pipe. Spaces in the cleaning pads let air and moisture enter or leave but keep mice out.
  • Bring out the traps. Despite our best efforts, some mice make it into the house. Usually, we don’t see them but do see their calling cards – their tiny black droppings.

Effectively setting traps

Old fashioned mouse traps still catch mice efficiently, but a few tricks make success more likely. (With the exception of the poison information in this website, we have found this information to be appropriate.)

Bait. Probably the best bait is peanut butter. It just takes a tiny dab on the trigger to work.

Placement. Where you set traps is important. Mice naturally run along walls and dart under counters if they can. Traps set in the middle of a room are less likely to catch mice than those set along a wall with the trigger on the wall side.

Mouse traps

Place several mouse traps where mice tend to enter.

Double up. It’s usually most effective to set several traps in the same spot. So, set two or three touching each other. The first trap or two might not catch the mouse.  Usually one will

Keep setting the traps until you catch no more mice. Often people assume they have one mouse, but likely, there are more.  Keep trapping until they’re all gone. We dispose of dead mice by simply tossing them outside for our local opossum to eat. They can be flushed down the toilet.  Always be sure to wash your hands after handling mice or traps.

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.”