For the past few years, Marion and I have conducted managed burns on our prairie and woodland areas in the fall. We let the fire rise from the woods up into the prairie near our home. This followed removing some maples a few years back to allow more light to reach the ground. I’ve attached a photo taken this week. In the foreground is the burned area. Behind is the unburned. The impact on wildflowers is amazing. The density and diversity of wildflowers in the burned area are much greater than in the unburned and they emerged sooner. In nearby Faulke’s woods, we removed maple understory several years ago but it has not burned. With the elimination of additional shading from maples, wildflowers are certainly increasing, but this area has not been burned so they are not nearly as prolific as in the burned area on our property. The dark, bare ground free of leaf cover warms more quickly and the woodland and prairie plants access the ash nutrients and receive the warmth of the sun. So, they grow more quickly and robustly.
A delightful swatch of color flitted by as we sat on our back deck on one of spring’s first warm sunny days. It was a red admiral butterfly that landed on a post just a few feet from us. It appeared to be enjoying the weather as much as we were.
We’ve since spotted many red admirals in the yard, probably because stinging nettles thrive on the north end of our property. It’s the favored plant for red admiral caterpillars, although they’ll also live on other types of nettles. That poses somewhat of a dilemma.
What is a Red Admiral Butterfly?
Red Admirals are a common butterfly across much of the temperate globe. They’re found across Europe and Asia, North Africa, Hawaii, and much of North America, especially the eastern half of our continent. The larvae feed on stinging nettles, which may not be native. So, if red admirals need stinging nettles what did they eat before the plant was introduced to North America in the early days of European exploration? It’s not even certain that stinging nettles are exotic. They may have been here all along, or early butterflies may have fed on wood nettles.
We appreciate both the insect and plant here at Winding Pathways. Red admirals add color and movement to the yard, while nettles make delicious eating. It’s the first wild green we harvest each early spring.
Can You Eat Nettles?
Stinging nettles are ready to harvest early – about the time when chard, spinach, and lettuce are planted. When the nettles are just a few inches tall we pluck off the top three or four leaves. They are called stinging nettles because the plant has tiny hairlike stingers. Walk through a patch in summer wearing shorts and nettles cause instant pain. But it’s temporary and not dangerous. Another name for the plant is the “seven-minute itch.” The sting comes from histamines.
We gather young nettles without getting stung by carefully plucking just the top leaves between our thumb and forefinger and snapping them off. About 100 young nettle tops make two servings. We bring them into the kitchen, rinse them a couple of times, and steam them for just a minute or two. The sting disappears and resulting greens are delicious. Plus they pack a nutritious array of vitamins and are high in protein.
Nettle season is short. By the time the plants are eight or ten inches tall, the new leaves are getting tough. But by then we’re harvesting chard and spinach from the garden.
We’re happy to share our yard with both red admirals and nettles. Anyone with a partly shady yard with damp soil might want to start a nettle patch. Wear a pair of gloves and dig up a few and plant them in the yard. They aren’t fussy and will provide excellent table fare and a higher likelihood that the yard will be home to the colorful butterfly.
Nature reduces stress. We saw it in action at Winding Pathways on an early April Sunday morning.
About 15 kids from the Faith Formation Group of Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist visited. Most were five to ten years old. After collecting eggs and scattering treats for the hens, we took them to Faulke’s Heritage Woods. It’s a 110-acre woodland protected from development by a conservation easement held by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
It wasn’t a guided walk. It was a kid adventure. As we distantly watched, the kids scampered into the oaks where they discovered a huge fallen tree spanning a ravine. A natural bridge. They couldn’t resist making the crossing and then raced from fallen log to fallen log, traversing each. Laughter entertained the many standing trees as the kids were enveloped in nature, inventing games and having fun. No constructed playground in a city park or schoolyard matches the wonder and fun of ponds, prairies, and tiny streams.
Lots of research has been conducted on nature’s ability to relieve stress in both adults and children. Experts call time spent in beautiful places the nature pill and even 20 minutes spent walking in the woods reduces stress.
Mary Carol Hunter recently completed a nature pill study and said, “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
We’re lucky to have Faulke’s Woods adjacent to Winding Pathways, but most of our time outdoors is spent close to our home on our own property. Often, it’s simply sitting in the yard enjoying a cup of coffee as we watch chickadees flit around.
Hunter’s words, “sense of nature” are powerful. Although visits to national and state parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are wonderful stress relievers, anyone’s yard or balcony can do the same. We created Winding Pathways several years ago to encourage people to enjoy their yard, even if that’s a tiny apartment balcony in a big city. Structuring the yard or balcony to create natural beauty attracts interesting wildlife while giving people easy and free access to the “nature pill.”
Go outside and have fun, just like the kids did in Faulke’s Woods.
As lingering snow banks melt we look forward to the arrival of our favorite spring guests. They arrive in late April, but we put out the welcoming mat a month ahead.
For many years a pair of house wrens have nested right outside our dining room window. We laugh at their bubbly energy and enjoy watching them bring caterpillar after caterpillar into their home to feed growing babies. In some years we get to watch as the youngsters peer outside their nest box before taking their first awkward and short flight.
How Many Species live in the United States?
House wrens are only one of six wren species that live in the United States. We’re fortunate to have both house and Carolina wrens in our
yard. Carolinas don’t migrate, so we sometimes see one feeding on suet in winter. House wrens are, perhaps, wiser and leave Iowa each October to winter down along the Gulf Coast.
It’s almost magical when the house wrens return each late April. Suddenly the air is filled with their delightful song. We usually hear them before we spot their nervous energy as they seek a nesting location. The nest boxes we set up in March are their welcome mat.
Making a Birdhouse
Few birds are as easy to lure into a nest box as house wrens. In winter we make new ones out of scrap lumber. Wrens aren’t fussy. Many elaborate nest boxes can be purchased but all it takes to make one is a four-foot section of 1X6 inch pine lumber, a few nails, and simple tools. We like the plans posted on Birdwatching Bliss.
We’re crude carpenters but the birds don’t seem to mind if the joints aren’t perfect.
Many wren house plans call for a circular opening of 1 1/8th inch but we’ve had great success with a one-inch hole. Larger holes welcome messy house sparrows. We also never place a perch in front of the entry hole. Wrens are acrobatic flyers and have no trouble entering a hole without a perch nearby.
Few birds are as entertaining as bubbly house wrens, but there’s another reason we love having them around. They’re voracious predators of insects that love feasting on our garden crops, so our wren tenants help boost our vegetable crop.
Wrens start nesting almost as soon as they arrive. Their nest is carefully made of small sticks that nestle a few reddish spotted eggs that hatch in about two weeks. Babies grow like fury and leave the nest by the end of June. We then clean the nest out of the box, and often the eager parents produce a second brood in the late summer.
No bird is as likely to fascinate a child as a pair of bubbly wrens nesting in full view just outside the window.
In the past few years, thousands of Americans have begun tending small flocks of chickens in their backyards. For most folks, it’s a new hobby, but we’ve been at it far longer. Rich began raising chickens in his suburban backyard when he was eight or nine years old – over 60 years ago. Marion’s family raised chickens at their New Hampshire home.
This spring many chicken newcomers will install a coop, raise chicks, and produce delicious food in their yards. It can be complicated, so this blog is designed to explain chicken husbandry in its very simplest form. Many books in most libraries and websites on chicken culture give detailed chicken care information and are outstanding resources. We recommend checking Hoover’s Hatchery. It offers a printed catalog, an online catalog, and website blogs. We also do a Facebook Live program each month for Hoover’s about different aspects of chicken care. Also see Scoop from the Coop for detailed information.
Baby chicks can be purchased online. Most hatcheries require a minimum order of 15 or 25 babies, usually more than most families want. Smaller quantities can be purchased at farm stores, such as Tractor Supply. Many cities have ordinances allowing chickens but usually limit the flock size to six or fewer birds. Check your local ordinance before buying.
Chicks come in dozens of different breeds, but we suggest choosing those that lay brown eggs. These breeds are fairly large bodied, calm birds. Our long-term favorites are New Englanders like the Rhode Island or New Hampshire Reds, or the Barred Plymouth Rock. Other great breeds are Wyandottes, Orpingtons, and Australorps. White egg breeds, like Leghorns, lay like crazy but are more nervous and noisier than brown eggers.
Often, it’s possible to buy a variety of breeds. Having a six hen flock composed of six different breeds is colorful and fun.
Baby chicks need to be warm until their insulating feathers grow. They are reared in a device called a brooder. A simple one can be made with items most people have around the house. See the blog on building a brooder on Hoover’s Hatchery Website for detail.
By the time the babies are six weeks, or so, old they need to move into permanent quarters, the chicken coop. The easiest way for a family to start is to buy a pre-made coop online or at a farm store. These range in size from tiny ones that will fit just a couple of hens to those that might fit up to a dozen. It’s a good idea to have an attached outside fenced in area, called a run, so the hens can enjoy fresh air and sunshine. Building a coop isn’t difficult and plans are printed in most basic chicken books or can be downloaded from websites.
Chicken houses need fluffy bedding, called litter, covering the floor. Pine chips work great. Bales of chips can be bought at farm stores. Every coop should have a nest for hens to lay their eggs in and a pole installed parallel to the floor for them to roost on. Yup, chickens sleep standing up.
The house should have windows that can be closed to prevent cold winter drafts but open to welcome fresh summer air. Cover windows with mosquito mesh and heavy wire to discourage both bugs and raccoons. Neighborhood raccoons would love a chicken dinner, so keep them out of the coop!
Food and Drink
Stores that sell baby chicks almost always sell feed. Babies need a high protein mash called Chick Starter from the time they hatch until they lay their first egg. Then switch to Layer feed. Simple inexpensive feeders are sold in farm stores. Chickens love drinking fresh water so invest in a water fount and keep it full. Hens enjoy a handful of corn every once in a while, as a treat. They also love table scraps. We give ours bits of rice, squash seeds and hulls, meat scraps and a few other things. As with all treats, we keep portions small.
This is chicken husbandry in a nutshell. There’s lots more to it, so be sure to read websites and books on chicken care before buying your first batch of chicks. If you are lucky you can take a backyard chicken basic class at a nearby nature or garden center.
While subzero cold enveloped Winding Pathways we discovered delightful seed and nursery catalogs in our mailbox. Leafing through their photos of rosy ripe tomatoes, peaches, and sweet corn made us dream of warm days as the frigid wind whistled around the house. Catalogs also made us think of our upcoming cherry tree crop.
We love our cherry trees and are happy to have two types growing at Winding Pathways. Most are the wild native Black Cherry, a member of the Rose family and common throughout the Eastern half of the United States.
Early pioneers sometimes called this tree the Cherry Bear because bruins would walk for miles to feast on its juicy fruit. Bear cubs learned how to climb trees by following their mother up the trunk to reach ripe fruit.
Birds love wild cherries. They’ve helped spread this tree far and wide by feasting on a cherry dinner here and then flying there to poop out the seeds. In many areas, the American Black cherry is almost an invasive species, but one with many attributes.
Thomas Jefferson’s Cherry Tree Wood
People today rarely bother eating the bitter small fruits, but pioneers made Cherry Bounce by mixing the juice with brandy or rum to make a bitter, but flavorful, cordial. Most people today enjoy this tree for its beautiful cabinet wood. When newly cut it is goldish in color, often with an intricate grain pattern. The wood darkens with age. Visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia, often wonder why our third president loved such dark paneling. They don’t realize that when he lived there the newly installed wood glowed with cherry’s warm texture. Two centuries of aging have darkened it.
In our mail recently came the newsletter of the National Arbor Day Foundation with an amazing story about today’s popular Bing Cherry. That’s the delicious fruit often sold in grocery stores to be eaten fresh. In 1847 Henderson Lewelling, of Salem, Iowa, loaded his eight children, pregnant wife, and 700 of his prized cherry tree shoots packed in dirt-filled boxes, into wagons for the long trek to Oregon. They endured freezing temperatures, scurvy, and dysentery but made it and established the Pacific Northwest’s cherry industry.
Today, two types of domestic cherry are readily eaten by people. They are distinct from the American Black Cherry and are native to Europe and Asia. One type is called Sweet Cherries with the Bing variety best known. They are delicious when eaten fresh. Sweet cherries thrive in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana but don’t like the upper Midwest’s harsh winters. Ironically, Bing cherries got their start in Iowa but don’t grow well in the state today. We don’t have any at Winding Pathways.
We love our sour cherries. They thrive here despite winter’s cold and summer’s inferno, yielding an abundant crop in June. Most commercial sour cherries are grown in Michigan, but they love Iowa. Our favorite variety is the Dwarf North Star. It resists bugs and diseases, and even the deer leave it alone. In some years our cherry crop is almost sweet enough to eat fresh. We love them best blended with mulberries in a pie or mixed into oatmeal. A handy cherry pitter removes some of the tedium of evicting the big seed from each fruit.
Planting a sour cherry in the yard yields delicious fruit for a family to enjoy. Dwarf varieties can be bought from many nurseries. They like full sun and don’t take much space. In contrast, plant an American Black Cherry and eventually, it will produce fruit savored by birds. The tree needs plenty of space. It can grow to 100 feet tall and likes full sun.
Two Great Sources to Learn About Trees
The Arbor Day Foundation, arborday.org has a wealth of information about trees and sells dozens of species at low cost. A few years ago, we enjoyed a delightful visit to Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska. We overnighted in the Lied Lodge on the property and wandered trails while enjoying tree lure. Adjacent is the home of J. Sterling Morton, Arbor Days founder.
A wonderful old book on tree natural history is a two-volume series called A NATURAL HISTORY OF TREES OF (Eastern or Western) NORTH AMERICA. If you find one at a used book store…….buy it!
Most northern states honor Arbor Day on the Fourth Friday of April each year, but many southern states celebrate it at seasons more appropriate for planting in their climate. Arbor Day dates for all states are listed on this link.