When we moved into our home ten years ago, we ended up with more than a house. The former owner had regularly mowed most of our two acres. Within the next two years, we shrank the lawn by about half. A steep former lawn north of the house is now prairie and a fairly level quarter acre between our house and the road is Marion’s labyrinth that she created within a prairie we planted.
Today, most people call flower-studded prairies “pollinator patches” and interest is strong in transforming lawns into them. Here are just a few of the good reasons:
Why Plant Pollinator Patches?
- Color: Lawns are a monoculture of green. Pollinator patches feature three seasons worth of changing vibrant color as many species of wildflowers come into and go out of bloom. They are beautiful.
- Water: Closely mowed lawns don’t absorb rain well. Much of a storm’s water runs off, worsening flooding. In contrast, deep-rooted prairies channel most of a storm’s water into the soil, where it eventually recharges the water table and doesn’t worsen downstream flooding.
- Labor: We don’t enjoy endless hours walking behind a lawnmower. We will mow our newly planted prairie two or three times this summer and in the following years, we won’t mow it at all. The lawn takes about a dozen mows a year. So, we’re saving time and mower gas that costs money and creates carbon dioxide.
- Wildlife: We love watching our wren pairs forage for insects in our pollinator patches. By expanding our prairie we’ll welcome even more beautiful and interesting beneficial wild animals to our yard.
Our new prairie will be close to busy 30th St. Drive, so motorists cruising by will see the land transform. We’re partnering the project with the Monarch Research Project, Linn County Roadsides, Sustainable Landscape Solutions, and Pheasants Forever.
Many people want to create pollinator patches in their yards but don’t know how to do this. We will be blogging through the process to help folks know how this is done. Stay tuned and keep visiting www.windingpathways.com to learn how.
The heavy, up-slope clay soil will absorb water more efficiently and reduce runoff.
The crew from Sustainable Landscape Solutions determine soil type
Winding Pathways, Linn County roadsides, Pheasants Forever, the Monarch Research Project and Pheasant Forever make a strong partnersjhip demonstrating how to improve the quality of the land.
This year snow covers the lawn.
A New World Thanksgiving
Almost every meal Americans enjoy comes from animals and plants that trace their origin to many continents.
Cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs, for example, are all natives of the Old World brought to America soon after it was settled by Europeans. Wheat, rice, and many other plant foods are also newcomers that were unknown to Native Americans.
One annual feast mostly made from original American foods is Thanksgiving. This year why not create this traditional feast from entirely plants and animals that were found here before Columbus?
Turkey highlights the Thanksgiving dinner. See our previous blog on this amazing and tasty bird. Here are plants native to North and South America to complement roast turkey:
Fruits and Vegetables
Corn: Corn has been grown in Central America for thousands of years. It’s cultivation gradually spread north and east and became a staple food for Native Americans. When hungry Pilgrims landed in what became Massachusetts they found and stole caches of corn stored by local tribes, no doubt causing bad feelings.
Cranberries: Most commonly eaten fruits originated in Europe or Asia, but the cranberry is an American native.
Squash and Pumpkins: Dozens of varieties of winter squash come in many shapes, colors and sizes, and the pumpkin is actually a squash. Butternut, Hubbard, acorn, or any other squash is delicious on the Thanksgiving dinner table, and dessert of pumpkin pie rounds out a tasty meal.
Potatoes: Common potatoes also originated in South or Central America and have been an important food for thousands of years. Mashed or baked, they go well with turkey, squash, and cranberries.
Sweet Potatoes: Originally from South America, these are among the most nutritious of foods. Similar yams have an African origin, so for a local dinner stick with sweet potatoes.
The sweetness from the Maples
Maple Syrup: While honey is made by bees that came from the Old World, maple syrup is America’s sweetener. It’s delicious on squash or sweet potatoes.
Beans: Native American gardens usually featured three plants: beans, squash, and corn. Commonly called The Three Sisters combined they create a balanced diet.
A diet of many foods that originally came from the Americas makes a delicious an interesting Holiday meal. We tend to thank modern geneticists for creating abundant food, but beans, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, cranberries, and turkey were all domesticated and enjoyed by Native Americans long before Columbus set sail.
Cranberry Pie brightens any Thanksgiving table.
Cook Wild turkey differently than domesticated ones.
Maple syrup can sweeten many Thanksgiving meals.
On a sunny, warm, late summer day we watched countless bees and butterflies foraging on prairie plants, hummingbirds sipping nectar from Cardinal flowers, and small birds pausing to drink water on the cup plants. That evening, bats swooped across the sky as clouds gathered. Then, came the downpour.
So, we wondered, where do birds and bees and bats go during storms or just to rest? A bit of Internet searching yielded some fascinating information.
seeking shelter from the rain
Bees are active in the day and need sleep just like humans do. How they sleep is quite different. Bees and many insects do not have eyelids. They relax the body and antennae and sometimes fall over. Sometimes, the other bees in a honeybee colony prop up the “sleeping” bee. As we see in this video, and similar to human babies, they sleep in shorter bursts. This sleep helps their memory. Remember, bees, especially honeybees explore new foraging spots, return to the hive, communicate through a “dance” telling other bees where the source of nectar is. As with people, good sleep helps them perform better. Look for bees on the underside of leaves and grass blades after a rain or in the early morning.
Butterflies also seek shelter on the underside of leaves or grass blades. This vegetation protects them from furious winds and debilitating raindrops. Think about it! How delicate a butterfly’s wings are and how a large raindrop can punish it. A Scientific American article gave a great comparison to us humans – being whacked by a water balloon twice the mass of a bowling ball!
Birds and Bats
One hummingbird fell into a torpor on the feeder!
To rest, Hummingbirds go into torpor – a sleep-like state where the body temperature drops to conserve energy. They sometimes hang upside down as we see in this video. When the temperatures rise, they “wake up”. They can fly in moderate rains.
Some larger birds, like turkeys, actually come out in rainstorms and forage on insects that are slowed down by the cooler temperatures. At night, turkeys roost in trees. Watching them navigate through dense forests into the tops of sturdy trees is amazing.
Nighthawks, along with their nocturnal companions bats, find daytime shelter on tree branches. Bats tuck under tree bark flaps, in crevices and caves, and enter tiny cracks in homes making attics a cozy den.
Next time you are out and about, look carefully on undersides of leaves and grass blades, study branches of trees for unusual shapes that might be a roosting bird, and notice animals out and about at different times of the day and in different weather.
People are surrounded by synanthropes. It’s a long and obscure word that is descriptive of hundreds of wild plants and animals.
A synanthropic species is one that benefits from and lives close to people. Essentially, if people disappeared these plants and animals would struggle to survive and, perhaps, disappear themselves. They need us! Other species are semi-synanthropic and live close to people or benefit from human action but might live in lower numbers in wild places.
At Winding Pathways, we strive to restore species native to our area of Iowa. We’ve had success, but we’re still surrounded by synanthropes that require our presence. Fortunately, we don’t have Norway rats or rock pigeons but these and other species are common in the biggest cities worldwide. They are wildly successful in the grittiest urban areas.
House mouse and Norway rat
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck
Dandelion, Purslane, Lambs quarters, Kentucky bluegrass, And many common weeds.
We encourage everyone to look around and notice plants and animals in their homes and yards and learn whether they’d be there without human presence. Expand our list! If they would disappear should the yard be a virgin wilderness and people were absent, then they are synanthropes.
English Sparrows thrive around people.
Raccoons forage mostly at night.
Pigeons depend on people to thrive.
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 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.
Bloodroot is an early spring bloomer. Photo credit Susan Hrobar
Star of Bethlehem.Six-petaled flower. Pixabay photo
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.
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.
Catbird by water
The Swainson’s Thrush moves through in the spring.
Bluebird in tree
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.
A hummer at the feeder.
A water source helps attract birds.
Female Cardinal at window feeder.
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?
A hooked rug by Yvonne Fellows
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.
Extra nutrition at the feeder.
A male northern oriole
A robin surveys the area