“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.
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.”
New England Asters grace the prairie.
Butterflies have flocked to the Hill’s property.
One of their many cats relaxes on the patio.
A Monarch perches in the lee of a tree resting before leaving for the south.
Owners of an urban oasis.
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.
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
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.
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.
It’s a tough task eradicating Barberry.
One pleasant Saturday morning a couple dozen heavily armed people walked to the interior of Faulkes Heritage Woods. Their weapons were those used to help heal the forest and included thick leather gloves, lopping shears, hand saws, and clippers. They were out to defeat Japanese Barberry.
For two hours they attacked a huge patch of Japanese Barberry that had infiltrated the Woods. Grasping small ones with both hands people yanked them from the soil, shook them off and placed them so the roots would dry out and not re-root. In winter, when the Barberry has berries, the plants are placed on tarps and hauled off so the berries do not drop and root. Ones too big to pull were cut off at ground level.
Volunteers were organized by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. It holds a conservation easement on the property that’s owned by the Marion City Parks Department. Park staff helped, and so did a crew of young people enrolled in AmeriCorps. Various local volunteers pulled and cut.
In Its Native Habitat, It is OK.
Just why is Japanese Barberry such an onerous plant? Actually, it’s a fine shrub in Japan and other parts of Asia where it’s native. There it has natural forces that keep its density in check. It was brought to North America as a landscaping plant because barberry is easy to propagate and transplant. It thrives in many locations, including compacted soil of building sites. It is an ideal landscape plant with one terrible trait.
Barberry creates impenetrable tangles and changes the soil chemistry.
The plant produces red fruits in late summer that birds find delicious. They gobble them up, fly away, and poop the seeds out. So, birds snacked on barberries planted in yards and delivered the seeds into Faulkes Woods, where the seeds grow with gusto into impenetrable “pukka brush”.
Barberries crowd out native wildflowers and do much more damage. They actually change the soil chemistry to their advantage while making it less suitable for native plants. And, the dense shrubs create pockets of humidity. Each becomes an oasis of comfort for ticks.
Preserving and Exploring Faulkes Heritage Woods
Many hollows and ravines characterize Faulkes Heritage Woods.
Faulkes Heritage Woods is a gorgeous 110-acre steep forest adjoining Winding Pathways. We walk there often. Huge oaks and other native trees fill its wondrous spaces. Wildflowers abound, especially in the spring, and birding is excellent for woodland species. Pileated woodpeckers are common.
A looping footpath starts and ends at a trailhead off Tama Street Southeast. Visitors can park along the street and enjoy the woods. But, they don’t have to stick to the trail that only covers a small area. Walkers are welcome to go off trail and scramble through the woods to enjoy its beauty and solitude.
Marion Parks and Recreation: (319)447-3580
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation: (515)288-1846
Winding Pathways LLC.
This Nectar is TOOOO Hot! Ahh, Just Right!
Lijun Chadima, Guest blogger
Every year I always like to put the hummingbird feeder out as soon as the weather warms up. It’s been difficult this spring because of the crazy temperature fluctuations. Earlier this spring I was enjoying the warm sunshine on our porch when a beautiful ruby-throated hummingbird flew over and seemed to be wondering, “Where the heck is the feeder?” I boiled the sugar water that afternoon and hung out the feeder the next morning.
Mystery – Why No Hummingbirds?
After a couple days the level of the sugar water in the feeder didn’t appear to go down at all. My little friend stopped by a couple more times, but each time he flew off after just a brief sip. I went out to check the feeder
and discovered it was so hot that I could barely hold it in my hand. No wonder the hummingbirds weren’t drinking any! I suddenly remembered a bird show I saw on PBS that stated hummingbirds try to avoid extreme heat, so that afternoon I took the feeder down from its regular spot which was in direct sunlight, and moved it to a new location where it was in the shade under the sun umbrella.
That apparently did the trick because the very next day multiple hummingbirds took turns drinking from the feeder.
are a source of endless fascination for me. They are full of energy and dart around the sky in all directions like little helicopters. What a treat when one actually stops to rest on the ledge and enjoy a drink from the feeder. Just remember to keep it in the shade so it’s not too hot for them!
Click on the link below, download and watch the video by Lijun of the hummingbird happily sipping nectar in the shade.
Problem with Hot Weather
A friend emailed today with this dilemma: “I got a whiff of a horrible smell near my rain barrel. I looked inside, and there’s a horrible, putrid layer of something floating on the top of the water. I think it might have come from all the fuzz from the trees in the past few days. Do you think I should empty the barrel, scrub it out, and start over? I do have that screen over the top, but something obviously got through it and seems to be “growing” on top of the water.”
Keep your rain barrels clean in hot weather with these easy tips.
It’s important to do these three things to keep the water fresh:
1. Clean gutters to keep leaves, catkins, and other stuff from getting into the barrel and clean the screen at the top of the barrel.
2. Use the water. Don’t let it stand in the barrel for too long. If it’s really rainy water moves through the barrels and helps keep it fairly fresh.
3. A couple of times during the summer empty the barrel, take the lid off, and wash it out with tap water.
4. Winding Pathways has cleaned the screens on our rain barrels several times already and after each rainstorm. They tend to plug up most during the first few rainstorms. It might also help to put a very small amount of chlorine bleach in the water. It’s toxic to bacteria and molds that might live in the barrel.
A little practical maintenance will make using rain barrels a pleasure and help your plants.
Years ago, a homeowner visited a garden store and bought plugs of a plant commercially called ground ivy, but most folks today call it Creeping Charlie.
A great ground cover that can get away from you.
In many ways this exotic plant was an ideal ground cover. It’s tough, easy to transport and plant, adaptable to a wide range of conditions, needs no special care, and it spreads like crazy. It only grows a few inches tall so was touted as a plant that, once established, needs no maintenance. And, it attracts valuable pollinators early in the season before other flowering blooms appear.
Creeping Charlie’s benefits are also its curse. It does everything too well. Creeping Charlie doesn’t creep. Rather, it races to cover a yard with astonishing speed, often crowding out more desirable plants.
There are two ways to view Creeping Charlie.
It’s either a pernicious pest or a friend that needs little care. At Winding Pathways, we look at it both ways depending on where it’s growing. When it’s crowding wildflowers or our garden vegetables we rip it out of the ground. In places where it can’t infect a garden or native wildflowers we leave it be and know we won’t need to mow that area often.
Controlling Creeping Charlie
There are lots of ways to control Creeping Charlie. We pull it out of the ground. Roundup and other herbicides kill it, and it’s possible to smother it under black plastic sheeting. Mulch works for a while but soon the plant will thrive on even a thick layer of shredded wood mulch.
A member of the mint family and also known more romantically by an elderly Irish friend as “Gill-Over-the-Ground”, Creeping Charlie is also edible steamed, added to omelets or brewed as a tea.
Other Ground Covers
We prefer ground covers that are less aggressive than Creeping Charlie. One of our favorites is the native Pussy Toes, which grows in patches in our lawn. We planted some when we moved in eight years ago and because we don’t put herbicides on our lawn it is spreading nicely. It is hardy and thrives in dry, sandy soil in baking sun. The hairy, silvery leaves lie close the ground and in spring send up enchanting stems with little “pussy toe” flowers. The Lady Bird Wildflower Center confirms this native plant is widely spread and thrives in open meadows and woodlands and rocky areas. We’ve seen it all over the eastern half of the country and Canada. We love it! Again, it saves mowing, adds color and texture to the landscape and attracts early season pollinators.
We also use Vinca, with its periwinkle flowers, on some parts of our lawn especially areas we do not want to mow. It spreads easily, adds color and texture to the landscape and reduces maintenance.
Pollinators like ants flock to pussytoes.
An excellent ground cover.
Pretty purple violets.
Our lawn actually is a mosaic of many plants. Since we shun herbicides we have a lawn blend of grasses, violets, dandelions, pussytoes, and many other plants. They are all fascinating and help pollinators through the seasons.