The August 10 derecho changed Cedar Rapids, and Winding Pathways wasn’t spared. We lost 47 of our 53 large trees during the 40-minute windstorm. It greatly altered our restoration plans. Here’s what we did or plan to do in response to the loss of trees.
New prairie plot: We planted this in early May. As expected, we only saw a glimpse of prairie plants in its first growing season, although early prairie plants give us promise that many more will appear next year. We will try to burn it either this fall or early next spring.
The derecho helped the prairie by felling or breaking four Douglas firs, one black oak, and one green ash. Two of these trees cast some morning shade on the prairie. The rest shaded it some in the late afternoon. They’re gone, so the site will enjoy more sunshine, and prairie loves sun. We mourned the tree loss but the prairie will benefit.
The trees didn’t go easily. Several tumbled into the prairie. They were big and filled with branches, leaves, and needles. We prioritized removing them. Many chainsaw and brush hauling hours later we had the trees moved into a big brush pile in the back. The sun now shines on the prairie planting. We’ll keep you posted.
The firs and oak smothered the emerging prairie.
The firs shaded the prairie. Now more sun will shine.
Derecho Creates Opportunity
After we cleared fallen trees from the prairie, we turned to many trees that tumbled down on the north and east ends of our land. It’s taken hours to cut shattered trees and cut pathways through fallen logs so we can walk our own land easily. This land was once shady. Now the sun hits the ground. The storm transitioned the land from dense forest to savanna – a landscape of occasional trees and rich plant growth hugging the ground. Wildlife will transition as the habitat changes. Because of this change in the forest, some bird species may decline temporarily and others will thrive.
Open woodland birds: Robins, cardinals, white-eyed vireos, flickers, and Downey, red-bellied, and red-headed woodpeckers.
Mature forest birds: Scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, wood thrushes, and pileated and hairy woodpeckers.
Shade and Sunshine
We didn’t lose all our forest trees. Just most of them. The loss of shade creates opportunities for ground-hugging plants to thrive, including baby trees. We’re already found some tiny black raspberry plants growing and many oak and hackberry seedlings.
To make sure that appropriate native savanna plants establish in the now sunny areas we ordered a native seed mix from Pheasants Forever that we’ll plant this fall.
We will keep you posted on changes in our prairies and new savanna.
Iowa normally enjoys about an inch of rain a week during the growing season. Not this year. We haven’t had rain for a month and none is in sight. Droughts have their benefits. Most obvious is the dearth of mosquitoes and gnats that thrive during wet years. Less known is what dry spells teach us about plants.
Native plants tend to resist drought better.
As we walked across a large brown lawn in a cemetery, we noticed green healthy plants poking through dead looking Kentucky bluegrass. They were mostly native species well adapted to a month of heat and dryness.
Here’s what the brown lawn taught us:
- Many people spend money and countless hours attempting to create a perfect weed-free green lawn composed of bluegrass and fescue. These shallow-rooted European species are poorly adapted to American dry spells.
- Prairie and other native plants send roots down as far as 15 feet to tap deep moisture that lets them stay green and healthy through droughts.
- Lawns established on rich soil with spongy organic matter stay green much longer than those planted in the poor, compacted soil of housing developments.
- Areas fortunate enough to enjoy some shade stay green longer than counterparts in the sun all day.
Here are tips for anyone wanting a green
yard during late summer’s dryness:
- Replace the lawn with deep-rooted native species.
- If a cropped lawn is important don’t water but:
Build Topsoil: Gradually add compost over the grass. Maybe an inch a year.
Compost fertilizes plants and absorbs and stores rain.
Mow high and infrequently: Forget the “once-a-week” contract. Buzzing off the grass stresses it
and doesn’t allow roots to penetrate deeply.
Promote diversity: A bluegrass monoculture invites problems. Diversity of plant species ensures
that some will thrive no matter what the weather If it’s green when nearby grass is brown,
enjoy its health.
Avoid herbicides: Chemicals tend to kill drought-resistant native plants.
Fortunately, even exotic lawn grasses green up as soon as cooler damp fall weather arrives, but at Winding Pathways we simply allow the brown grass to rest and enjoy our green native plants that have evolved to thrive during dry spells.
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.
The mower and wheelbarrow.
Prairie plants among grass.
Emerging prairie plants will get more sunlight when the competing grasses are mowed off
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Bluebirds hang out on branches.
This hardy late season bloomer is vital for pollinators and migratory birds.
Some birds homestead at Winding Pathways.
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.
People call and stop by to walk.
Visitors can rest and watch the prairie labyrinth.
Prairie plants capture dew.
A rare treat is watching insect life emerge from one stage to another.
Cupplants hold water near their stem. Birds and insects sip
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.
Once we made the decision to convert about 3,000 square feet of our lawn to a prairie, we began active planning. We have 40 years of prairie establishment and management experience so it was easy for us, but we still needed help and sought partners.
We contacted many organizations and found support for our project from these people and groups:
Sustainable Landscape Solutions, a business based in Iowa City. We hired them to do ground preparation. Sean Pearl is the owner.
Monarch Research Project, an active Cedar Rapids-based group that encourages pollinator plantings.
Linn County Secondary Roads. Since our prairie is near a Linn County road we wanted their support.
Pheasants Forever. We received help from a biologist, Allie Rath, and bought an outstanding seed mix from Pheasants Forever. Matt O’Connor manages the seed store and encouraged us to buy a Leopold Mix that contains about 72 species of flowers. Our seeds were produced at the Allendan Seed Company in southern Iowa.
Good Neighbor Iowa. This organization encourages people to shun lawn chemicals and plant native vegetation. A key contact is Audrey Tranlam.
We wanted the prairie to be diverse in plant species, establish as rapidly as possible, and be “short profile”. Meaning we did not plant tall big bluestem, Indian grass, and Switchgrass.
We chose the Leopold mix because it has a diversity of flowering plants. And, Pheasants Forever kindly removed the tall-growing grasses from the mix for us.
Preparing and Seeding
Years ago when we began restoring prairies at Indian Creek Nature Center, it was impossible to buy seed, and little was known about how to establish a healthy native grassland. The Center had no money to invest in planting. Jock Ingels was a savvy restorationist based in Illinois. He gave us this advice, “If you don’t have any money but want a prairie, go pick some seeds and broadcast them into the existing lawn. Then burn it. Then wait. You’ll think you wasted your time because nothing will show after a year or even two years but burn it annually. By the third year, you’ll see prairie plants appear and it will get better each year after.” He was right. We gathered seed, planted at the Indian Creek Nature Center, and burned it annually.
At the Nature Center, we got a prairie at no cost and avoided herbicides and ground preparation but it had a limited diversity of species. The newly established prairie was far healthier ecologically than the bromegrass that was once there. For the prairie we wanted to establish at our home, we wanted a more diverse prairie and more quickly. So, we chose a faster method. Mind you, we are not keen on sprays but recognize they have a place.
Sustainable Landscape Staff sprayed our lawn with roundup in late April to kill the grass. They returned one week later and resprayed it to kill the remaining grass.
Caitlin carefully applies spray.
Tilling up the lawn.
Finishing the edge.
Three cooperators’ signs.
They returned a week later and rototilled the area to expose the soil. Spraying and tilling allows newly planted native seeds to grow with less competition from exotic lawn species. It emerges as a more diverse prairie faster than if spraying and tilling are avoided.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll show photos of us seeding the prairie and explain various other ways of establishing a prairie or pollinator meadow. But because lawns are now growing and people are mowing we’ll leave with this thought:
There’s a no-cost method of diversifying a lawn that reduces work. Simply mark off a section of the lawn and don’t mow it. It can be small. Many native plants have durable seeds that remain dormant in the soil for years or decades. They can’t succeed with constant mowing, so to increase plant diversity simply stop mowing a section of lawn and try to identify the new plants that emerge. You will help pollinators.
There’s a new phone app that we’re using to help identify plants we’re not familiar with. It’s called SEEK and is produced by the National Geographic Society, the California Academy of Science, and other groups. It’s free and can be accessed from the app store. You point the phone at a plant, insect, bird, or even a fungus, click a photo, and SEEK will identify it for you. It’s mostly accurate.
Our Yards Offer Nutrition
Every spring we look forward to eating delicious, free, wild greens that grow in our yard and just about every place people live. Having an ability to identify, pick, prepare, and eat wild foods gives us some comfort in this age of uncertainty.
We encourage everyone to boost their backyard food production through gardening, backyard chickens for those who can keep them, and foraging. Here are a few things to consider before picking and eating any wild plant.
- Make sure you’ve identified the plant correctly. Use two sources to confirm identification. These might be an expert forager and a book or Internet source or a combination.
- Make sure the plants have not been contaminated by pesticides, animal feces, or vehicle exhaust. It’s best to forage away from busy roads. Wash plants thoroughly before preparing.
- Eat just a small portion the first time. Although it might be fine food for most people there’s a chance you might be allergic to it.
Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.
The key to enjoying all wild greens is to harvest them when they are very young. Many edible wild plants are tender and delicious shortly after they sprout but soon get coarse and bitter as warm weather stimulates their growth.
Nettles, sometimes called stinging nettles, live in moist places near streams, ponds, and woods, where they seem to prefer light shade. We have a couple of patches in our yard. They green up early in the spring, and we pick them before they are ten inches tall. We carefully pick just the top three or four small leaves. Remember these are stinging nettles. Wear light gloves or carefully pinch the top growth off the plant between the thumb and index finger. About a hundred leaf clusters make a great dish for the two of us. Rinse the nettles and boil them for a few minutes. The stinging part is a protein that dissolves in boiling water. We put a dab of butter on the drained cooked nettles and drink the water as a delicious spring tea.
By mid-summer dandelion leaves are tough and bitter.
Because of herbicide companies’ promotions, just about everyone dislikes dandelions. Some have heard that dandelions are edible. It is true and, we need to thank our European ancestors for bringing dandelions to the New World. Otherwise, they might not have survived. They are high in vitamin A, folate, vitamin K, and vitamin C and a good source of calcium and potassium. Today, folks from Mediterranean countries grow and harvest dandelions as crops. They are a popular dish in Italian communities.
The few people who have tried eating them make the mistake of picking mature leaves in mid-summer. By that time, they are bitter and inedible. The best dandelion leaves are those picked in early spring and have been under a blanket of leaves. They’ll be partially blanched and delicious. It’s fine to pick small young leaves that can be added to salads if they are not too bitter. If they are bitter, boil two pots of water. Put the leaves in one pot and boil for a couple of minutes. Drain and put them in the second pot of boiling water and boil for another minute or so. The boiling removes the bitterness. Drain and enjoy with butter and salt and pepper.
This is a year of great anxiety and having some knowledge of how to find free food nearby can remove some of that concern.
Stuck at home? A tiny microbe is sure changing the lives of people worldwide. Unexpectedly, meetings and schools have closed and transportation is disrupted as uncertainty runs rampant. With every challenge comes an opportunity. We’re sticking close to home at Winding Pathways but are using more time around the house to do fun things and accomplish projects ignored during normally busy lives.
In the midst of uncertainty, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by events and suffer from lethargy and fatigue. That comes with the turf. So, being physically and intellectually active helps ward off melancholy.
With millions of kids now home with parents and other workers and retired folks staying closer to home and in apartments, here are a few productive activities we suggest. Anyone anywhere can engage in at least some of these activities. And, Winding Pathways invites you to create your own generative ideas to boost your immune system and help us all through this challenging time.
Attune to and with nature.
- Research affirms that contact with nature is calming and healing. Shinrin yoku also known as “forest bathing” is a way to connect with calming elements in nature. This concept extends far beyond the literal interpretation of a forest. Any natural area of any size can provide healing benefits. John Muir wrote it well:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
By connecting with nature wherever we are, we can learn and have a good time, too.
A water source helps attract birds.
Birding: Even in the biggest cities birds abound. Sparrows and pigeons are fascinating. Look closely at a group of birds hanging around the balcony or out the back door and soon you will note individual differences. Size. Shape. Behaviors. One sparrow, for example, may have an unusually colored feather while another has a twisted beak. Once you can identify individual birds, it’s possible to conduct simple research. Do the birds seem to hang out with their friends?
If odd feathered sparrow #1 seems to like being with crooked beak sparrow #2 maybe they are friends……or perhaps mates. How many different species of birds come to the Balcony or yard? You might be surprised. Look up. Spring is migration season and millions of big birds are heading north. Often their route takes them even over big cities. They often fly high so look with “soft eyes” for undulating strings of birds aloft.
Experiment. Put a birdseed mix in a feeder or even on a backyard table or the ground. What seeds do birds prefer?
- When the virus appeared, plants remained in winter mode across much of the country, but spring is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere. Now is a great time to keep a journal, or a simple list of the order in which buds swell and leaves emerge.
Work the garden to connect with the earth.
Gardening is a great remedy for stress, and it can yield a surprising amount of food, even in a tiny space. One of the best vegetables for kids to plant is the humble radish. These cold, hardy, spicy roots can be planted very early in the spring and often harvest comes in just a few weeks. Lettuce, chard, spinach, and other greens also can be planted early, but beans, tomatoes, corn, okra, squash, and many other veggies need to wait until winter’s frost is just a memory.
Take a walk
- Nature is pretty safe from Coronavirus. It doesn’t lurk in the woods. Poke around the yard. And, a ramble in a nearby park, woods, or along a trail is a stellar way to spend a few hours.
- Another option is to find a labyrinth outside to walk. The World Labyrinth Locator lists labyrinths across the world. A labyrinth is different from a maze. Labyrinths are designed to help people center, release what is on their mind or in their heart, receive inspiration, and reunite with their community in a positive way.
- Isolation isn’t fun. Call friends. A phone call is a great way to cheer a friend. And, check in with neighbors you rarely see. Think of ways to direct the conversation to the positive. Live the positive through regular practice. What does this do? Read below.
- Mindfulness is the ability to be present and aware of our thoughts with curiosity and kindness. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides excellent guidance on this. We practice this with adult students at Kirkwood Community College. To a person, they find benefit in reducing blood pressure, anxiety and heart rate, while their sense of calm increases.
- Another form is HeartMath which helps people focus first on breathing, then on creating a peaceful place in their mind that they feel in their heart and can return to anytime when under stress.
- Reduce time on social media and listening to reports on radio or television. Keep abreast as needed and avoid perseverating on the negative.
- Think and behave positively. Norman Vincent Pearle was a master at helping us shift into the positive.
- Laugh! Laughter releases positive hormones and neurotransmitters. An easy way to remember this is to give yourself a good DOSE of levity and positivity. Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. These counteract the stress hormones. How can we do this? Read jokes, watch funny films or old TV shows that make you laugh.
Healthy foods are important in this time of stress.
Eat Healthily. When we are under stress, we tend to eat more and the wrong foods. So, mind what you eat, drink water, and try some of these activities above and add your own.
Reading positive literature will help us.
Read Entertaining Materials. From Comic books to graphic novels to non-fiction, engage your brain, learn and go lightly through this time. Share an engaging article, book, poem or song with someone. Recently The Gazette featured a woman, Mary Fannie Woodruff, from Virginia who continues to bake pies at 103 years old! How cool is that? The article was a great read we shared with family in Virginia.
We have many ways that we can all move through this uncertain time and help each other out on this winding path of life.