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.

 

Was the Walking Stick Embarrassed?

Imagine how embarrassing it would be to be caught stark naked in public. Maybe that’s how the Walking Stick, a huge insect, felt that we spotted clinging to a shelf outside our house.

About 3000 species of Walking Sticks live worldwide. All love hiding. Their camouflage is almost perfect. No doubt the one we discovered would have been far more comfortable clinging nearly invisible on tree bark.

Although common and huge some species can be upwards of 20 inches long! They’re nearly impossible to spot as they lurk on twigs and bark. We likely walk right by many.  They simply hide in plain sight. The name of their order is Phasmatodea, meaning apparition. It perfectly describes them.

The one we spotted must have been lost. Rather than comfortably blending into the woods our gangly stick-looking insect contrasted against our shelf as naked as a jaybird.  We couldn’t miss spotting it.

Herbivorous Walking Sticks spend nights munching on leaves and rest during daylight.  Females are usually bigger than males and usually just drop their eggs to the ground.  Growth is slow, and the babies can take three to 12 months to mature. That’s glacial growth for an insect, but they can live for two years if not devoured by birds, small mammals, or predatory insects. Insecticides devastate them.

Walking Sticks don’t bite or sting and are one of the thousands of nature’s wonders to discover in an ecologically healthy yard. They’re downright fascinating and fun to share with children.

Where Did Those Carrots Come From?

Gardeners across the world proudly bring freshly picked vegetables and fruits into the kitchen. They’re lucky to have an amazing array of delicious plants to grow and enjoy.   It wasn’t always that way.

Consider Native Americans. Prior to Columbus, many lived in cities and big towns surrounded by gardens and farm fields. They grew corn, beans, and a diversity of squash and pumpkins, but they knew nothing of many of today’s common vegetables.  Residents of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia back then also farmed and gardened, but their crop choices were limited.

New World & Old World

Map of range of Cahokia influence.

Indigenous contacts ranged far and wide.

It changed quickly following what’s called the Great Columbian Exchange. Shortly after Columbus set foot on Hispaniola people began deliberately and purposefully moving plants and animals around the world. Many were valuable and diversified the food chain on all continents. Others quickly became pests………most weeds infesting American gardens originated in the Old World.

 

 

Imagine Southern Italian cuisine without tomatoes! This delicious vegetable originated in South America and was unknown in Italy before the Columbian Exchange. Same with potatoes. The Irish potato originated in South America.

It went both ways. Today’s gardeners enjoy vegetables originating all over the globe.  Here’s a brief list of where common foods came from:

NATIVE OF THE NEW WORLD

Pumpkins and squash, Beans except for fava, Corn, Potato, Sweet Potato, Tomato, Pepper, Jicama

NATIVE OF EUROPE, ASIA, and AFRICA

Watermelons and cantaloupes, Onions, leeks, and garlic, Turnips, Carrots and parsnips, Yams, Radish, Celery, Asparagus, Beets, and Chard, are the same species, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts, Broccoli – all related, Endive, Lettuce, Rhubarb, Spinach, Okra, Cucumber, Peas.

The Columbian exchange also included grains and fruit. Corn is American but wheat, barley, rye, and oats are from the Old World.  Apples, peaches, pears, and cherries (except for the bitter American black cherry) are also Old World.  Brambles and strawberries apparently lived in both the Old and New Worlds prior to Columbus. Grapes eaten fresh and used for juice and wine came from the Old World but several species also are native to the Americas.

Thanks to the movement of useful plants gardeners worldwide enjoy a diversity of plants to grow and eat.

Have You Enjoyed a Garden’s Delicious Ignored Foods?

Varied Garden Produce

Midsummer. It’s the heart of gardening season as millions of Americans proudly bring tomatoes, beans, squash, and a host of other crops into the kitchen from the backyard garden.

Many don’t realize they ignore eating a typical garden’s hidden delightful food.

Most gardeners spend hours pulling and hoeing incredibly common and prolific garden weeds, only to toss them out. They make delicious food.

Here are our favorite “weeds” to eat

Lambsquarters.  The young leaves of this persistent and fast-growing plant are delicious in salads. Or they can be boiled and used like spinach.

Amaranth or Pigweed. Sometimes called wild beet. Almost as common as lambs quarters, the young leaves can also be used similarly to spinach.

Purslane. This ground-hugging hot weather weed is a commercial crop in India.   Young leaves and stems are delicious raw. They can also be boiled or even pickled.   Grit tends to cling to purslane so rinse it thoroughly.

 Crops with Rarely Harvested Edible Parts
Our favorites are

Beet greens. Beets are the same species as Swiss chard but the leaves tend to toughen as the plant grows. We use young beet leaves as we would chard.

Sweet Potato leaves.  We haven’t tried these yet but will this summer. From what we’ve read they are delicious steamed and can be eaten raw.

Squash and pumpkin blooms.  These plants usually produce more blooms than they need.  We sparingly pick and steam them for a colorful yellow vegetable.

Carrot tops.  Our master gardener friend thins carrots and uses the tops in pesto.  We tried this in a pesto that a friend shared. Delicious!

Radish tops.  Mix a few young leaves into salads. They’re spicy and add zest to other greens.

Resources

Whenever eating a new plant for the first time, make sure the identification is correct.  It’s smart to identify a wild plant from at least three sources. These might include an Internet search, a wild foods book, or identification by a trusted wild food or garden expert.  One online source is www.wildedible.com.   Once you’re certain it’s edible, eat a small helping the first time to make sure you like it and it likes you.

Why Plant Potatoes?

Good Friday Tradition

On a cold April morning, we planted a row of potatoes at Winding Pathways. This plant has made an amazing long journey to reach our yard.

Potatoes are native to South and Central America and were cultivated by native people long before Columbus. Early Spanish explorers realized this humble American plant produces an enormous amount of food that’s easy to store. They brought potato sets back to Spain, and eventually, the plant was cultivated throughout Europe.

Productive Crop

Potatoes produce more human food per square foot than wheat, rice, corn, or nearly any other crop, so crowded Ireland embraced the plant. Potatoes thrived in Irish soil and were so productive they enabled the human population to flourish. Unfortunately, the entire crop was of just one or two varieties. Disaster hit. Between 1855 and 1859 blight killed most of the crop, which lacked resistance to the disease. It caused massive starvation and spurred huge immigration to the United States.

Early Europeans who colonized North America brought potatoes to plant in the New World.  So, an American plant crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice in its long journey.

Vandals and Hawkeyes

We both hold degrees from the University of Idaho.  It’s the potato state, and the plant loves the light volcanic soil along the Snake River in the southern part of the state.  Iowa, where we live, is the corn state, but humble potatoes do well in our garden.

We buy seed potatoes in early spring, cut and cure them, and plant them in early April.   They don’t expect much from us, and by mid-summer we carefully hand dig delicious new potatoes. Later, when the tops die back, we dig and cure a bushel, or so, for winter storage.

Expert Resource at Hand

We hedge our bets by planting a few potato varieties, and this year we’re fortunate to have a potato expert move to Cedar Rapids. Jean Contina earned his doctorate degree from the University of Idaho studying potato diseases.  He’s a fellow Vandal!  We’ll seek his advice on how to maximize our crop.

Inexpensive. Why Grow Them?

Store-bought potatoes are one of the least expensive foods.  So why grow them?

We have two reasons.  First, anything we grow seems more delicious than its store-bought counterpart. It may be our imagination but it is true.  Second, they are an easy crop to grow and store well all winter without the need to can or freeze them.  Having potatoes stored in a cool dark room in our house gives us a bit of food security in a crazy world.