Recently Rich donned a heavy jacket, gloves, and hat then ventured through swirling snow to the mailbox. He returned with seed catalogs. Seems early but there are two good reasons why we like to receive them in the depth of winter.
Seed catalogs make great winter reading.
First, they make fun reading as we sit in the cheery glow of the woodstove. It’s pleasant to see photos of colorful vegetables. Makes us long for spring.
Second, they remind us it’s time to buy our seeds. Gardening was amazingly popular last year as Coronavirus confined millions of people to their homes and potential food shortages were a concern. So many people bought seeds that they were hard to find. The lesson: Buy early.
We manage our small garden intensively and mix composted chicken manure into the soil. It makes vegetables seemingly explode in growth.
Here’s how we buy seeds:
Mail Order: Our favorite mail-order seed source is Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) in Decorah, Iowa. They specialize in organic, non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds. In other words, they sell classic vegetable varieties. We eat many winter squash, and Seed Savers sells a wide diversity of varieties. Our favorite is Silver Bell. It’s full of flavor, keeps all winter, and is just the right size for two people. We have ordered seeds from large format catalogs that come to our mailbox unrequested. They’ve been good seeds, but they tend to have fewer varieties of winter squash and some other vegetables. Most also sell flower seeds and fruit trees.
Over the Counter: Right after January 1st, home and garden stores put out their garden seeds. We often buy a dozen or so of the small envelopes of seeds.
Generally, they sell seeds packed by two types of companies. One is name brand seeds. The other is packets sold by companies with names we don’t always recognize. They are much less expensive than name brands. We usually buy some of each type and have had good success with the less expensive ones.
A Planting Tip
Lettuce, carrots, parsnips, radish, and many other seeds are tiny. It’s easy to plant them too close together. That results in tedious thinning in a month or two. We take the time to plant the seeds further apart to reduce the thinning chore. This also stretches the seeds in the envelope to produce more food. Often, we replant early vegetables and get a second, late-season crop.
Use chicken manure to enrich the soil.
Save space and cool the cabin.
Intensive gardening maximizes space
Baby Chicks May Also Be in Short Supply
Last year hatcheries had trouble meeting the demand for baby chicks. Some customers were disappointed that they weren’t able to buy the breeds they wanted. We place our order at Hoover’s Hatcher (hoovershatchery.com) in the winter so we get the chicks we want at the best time for us.
Chicks need to be warm until their insulating feather grow.
Seeds or baby chicks……order early.
Actually, 2020 has been incredibly busy for Winding Pathways writing in 2020. This winter we invite you to grab a warm beverage, curl up, and take in some of our features in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
December 20, 2020. Walking Cemeteries. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/a-peaceful-outdoor-walking-option-20201221
December 14, 2020 Iowa Meat Lockers: https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/a-meaty-adventure-20201214
Nov 11, 2020 Iowa’s Inland Seas. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/enjoying-iowas-inland-seas-20201111
Sept 27, 2020: New Life to dead Trees. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/dead-trees-give-life-20200927
September 20, 2020: Walk Outside Safely. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/get-outside-and-walk-but-stay-safe-20200920
September 9, 2020: Rebirth Amid the Rubble https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/a-rebirth-among-the-rubble-of-trees-20200906
August 22, 2020: Iowa’s National Parks. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/iowa-national-parks-guide-effigy-hoover-20200822
July 27, 2020: County Parks. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/take-advantage-of-iowas-county-gems-20200727
July 11, 2020: Tenting. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/why-rv-live-isnt-for-these-senior-tent-campers-20200711
June 26, 2020: Bear Sightings in Iowa: https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/outdoors/why-rv-live-isnt-for-these-senior-tent-campers-20200711
April 12, 2020” Walk on Wilder side. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/sports/recreation/take-a-walk-on-the-wilder-side-20200412
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.