Delicious, Erratic Acorns
Our back deck at Winding Pathways is an outstanding vantage point for watching butterflies, birds, and even our evening aerialist bats. The deck is perched over a deep, cool ravine with a stately black oak hovering above. That can be a problem.
In most autumns our black oak cascades acorns down to the ground and our deck. Removing them takes aggressive sweeping. Despite the hassle we love acorns.
Acorns are, of course, the seeds of oak trees. Hundreds of oak species live across much of the northern hemisphere. They can be a little tricky to identify since oaks sometimes hybridize and look like a blend of two or more species. Many people use leaf shape to identify trees, but oaks may throw a curve. Often leaves, called sun leaves, up on the top of an individual tree are smaller and may have a somewhat different shape than those down lower on the same tree. It can be confusing.
There are two general oak types, the white and red oak groups. White oak type trees include species commonly called white, swamp white bur (sometimes spelled burr), chinkapin also spelled chinquapin, and chestnut oaks. Their leaves have rounded lobes and they produce large acorns with low acid content. Red oak type trees include species commonly called red, black, and pin oaks. Their leaves have pointed lobes and their acorns are usually small and laden with bitter acid.
Acorns from the black Oak are small and bitter.
Oaks have different shaped leaves
Century Oak Tree
Oak leaves turn russet in autumn.
Acorns are nature’s gift to many wildlife species and people. Few seeds are as abundant, large, and nutritious as acorns. Squirrels, chipmunks, muskrats, woodchucks, deer, bears, blue jays, wild turkeys, and a host of other animals gorge on them. The calorie-rich nuts help wildlife put on fat that helps them survive the coming winter.
But, there’s a problem. Oaks are erratic acorn producers. As a general rule, the white oak types only create a heavy crop every few years. Red oak type trees are more reliable but still sometimes skip a year of seed production. Sometimes few oaks in a vast area will produce acorns while an individual tree here and there will be loaded. Find a heavy acorn bearer in a scare year and you’ll have the company of many animals feeding on the nutritious nuts. Part of the reason for erratic crops stems from pollination. Oaks are wind-pollinated and a long spell of rain when they bloom in the spring can dampen pollination and eliminate a crop that autumn.
Acorns set up in the spring
The white meat of an acorn.
Two kids check out the acorns on a branch
Iowa has many types of oaks
Acorns are a delicious human food that was relished by native people across the globe. To learn more about acorns and how to process them into food check out the Winding Pathways blog of August 2014 called Delicious Acorns.
We were delighted when our Lavender Orpington hen started acting strangely. She fluffed up her feathers, spent most of her time in a nest box, and gave us a stern warning call if we came too close. She was broody.
A broody hen simply wants to be a mother. Her ambition is to keep a clutch of eggs warm for 21 days and then raise a bunch of bouncy babies to chicken adolescence. We don’t have a rooster so all of our hen’s eggs are infertile and won’t hatch. Broody doesn’t know this, but we found a way to have her happily raise a brood of chicks.
After about two weeks of incubation, we bought a dozen chicks from a local farm store and slipped them under her after dark. Motherhood commenced.
Watching a mother hen is interesting but listening is truly fascinating. While on eggs she sat almost trancelike, but the peeping awakened her. She began clucking in a tone that must have both comforted the downy chicks and instructed them to get into the warmth and security of her feathers.
The next morning she used a different clucking tone to introduce the babes to the big world. They followed her out of the nest and scampered around the coop. We don’t speak “chicken” but she clucked again and it must have meant, “come over here and eat.” She put her beak in a feeder filled with chick starter. The bravest babies picked a few crumbs of feed off her beak and soon all were eating and dipping their beaks into a nearby waterer for a cool drink.
Mother hens are attentive and have a vocabulary of many “words” or at least different sounding clucks. When the babes got too far from her she’d cluck in a certain way bringing them scampering back to safety near or under Mom. If she scratched up a delicious tidbit she’d utter a different sounding cluck and the babies would rush over and enjoy a food new to them. She taught them safety and the fine art of foraging.
Lavender Orpington wants to be a mother!
A mama hen will sit contently on golf balls until new chicks arrive.
Babies gather round Mama Hen at night.
See these YouTube videos and photos of our most recent broody and foraging for treats.
Tucking in for the Night
Under Mama’s Watchful Eye
Babies Eating Corn
At the Gate Waiting for Treats
Feasting on Corn
In July we hired Brown Concrete and Backhoe to pump out Winding Pathways’ septic tank. We were surprised to hear Trevor Dickerson, who designs waste treatment systems and helped with our project, say that septic systems share similar characteristics with cars.
“If you don’t take good care of a car it might die when you are in the midst of traffic. If you don’t take care of your septic system it could fail just when the house is filled with wedding or graduation guests,” he said.
We weren’t having any problems with our septic system but it hadn’t been pumped for seven years. That’s getting long so we hired Brown to pump it out, inspect the system, and share tips on proper septic tank maintenance and care.
Few people give their septic system much thought – until it fails. They flush and forget. But, every day millions of bacteria and other organisms quietly consume waste in the tank and soil. They are biological wonders that help prevent water pollution.
The septic system treats biodegradable materials
Man pumping septic system
Most American homes are connected to a municipal sewer that channels waste into a treatment plant. All they need to do is pay a monthly or quarterly bill and not worry about a personal septic system. Folks living in rural areas aren’t as fortunate. They must have their own septic system to receive and treat waste. Proper maintenance reduces problems. Here are some actions we take to keep our system working properly.
- Only flush easily degradable items down the drain, such as human waste and shower and dishwashing water.
- Avoid putting anything toxic to bacteria down the drain. Bleach, antibiotics, paint thinner, and many other chemicals can kill the bacteria happily living in the tank, thus causing the system to fail.
- Consider food scraps, vegetable and fruit peelings, and other kitchen waste as valuable resources. They either go to our chickens or in our compost bin. Chickens convert food waste into delicious eggs and what they won’t eat becomes compost that nourishes our garden. We have a garbage disposal unit under the sink that we rarely use, as septic tank bacteria have a hard time digesting course vegetable matter.
- Spread out water use. Sometimes a septic system is overwhelmed if a homeowner does many loads of laundry in one morning, putting more soapy water into the system in a short time than it can handle. It’s better to schedule laundry tasks throughout the week.
- Have our tank regularly pumped. “Think of pumping a septic tank as similar to having the oil changed or doing a tune-up of the car. Regular maintenance reduces will extend the life of both,” explained Trevor Dickerson.
Every septic system is different because every family and yard is different. Our system works well because there are only two of us living in the home, we have flow restrictors on faucets and 1.6 gallons per flush toilets, and we’re careful to keep toxins out. We also live on the top of an ancient sand dune with steep topography. The soil in our yard readily absorbs water and the steep gradient allows gravity to channel waste quickly into and through our septic system.
Our system might fail if we had a very big family who flushed frequently. Here are some symptoms of a failing system:
- Water pooling on the ground.
- Slow drains and toilets backing up.
Call a septic tank specialist if symptoms show up.
Chemotherapy and Medications
Chemotherapy can result in an unexpected problem. These potent medications are highly toxic to the bacteria essential to septic tank operation. They vacate the human body in urine and feces and can kill bacteria and cause a septic system failure.
Coumadin and antibiotics can also cause problems. And people suffering from Bulimia also can pressure their septic system by discharging large amounts of partially digested food into the system. Trevor suggests that anyone taking chemotherapy medications monitor their septic system carefully and have it pumped more often than the average.
Many additives on the market can be flushed down a toilet and supposedly help the septic system work. According to Trevor, these won’t hurt but they may not help. Any active septic system is filled with bacteria and millions remain after pumping. They’ll quickly reproduce, so adding additional cultures won’t help. Think of a yogurt culture. Add milk to a tiny scrap of yogurt and bacteria quickly convert the new milk into yogurt. Adding more bacteria just won’t make any difference – but it also won’t hurt.
Adding bacteria to a new system devoid of bacteria or one that has had its bacteria killed may help speed up the treatment process.
Permits and Information
Our septic system was installed long before we bought the home at Winding Pathways, and we didn’t know its age or where the underground pipes were. Fortunately, we were able to get this information from our local county health department. It issues permits that are required to install a system and keeps records of systems in place. Permits are required everywhere but the agency that issues them varies from place to place. A good bet for a homeowner seeking information about a system is the local county office. Some municipalities or states may also issue permits. Browsing on the web will help locate area companies that install and maintain systems and usually, they are a wealth of information. We used Brown Concrete and Backhoe.
We’re fortunate at Winding Pathways. Our yard is large and our soil sandy. We also have steep topography. Combined, these help create an effective septic system that drains well. We planted prairie over our drain field. Roots extend up to 15 feet into the ground. They capture water oozing out of our drain field and convert it into lush vegetation and delightful wildflowers. So, even our toilet waste helps create a colorful wildlife haven.
Early one May afternoon we arrived home, glanced into the woods past our property, and were astonished to see an enormous red oak on the ground. The tree looked healthy, solid, and unlikely to topple, but it fell on a clear calm day. On its way down the old veteran broke two younger trees growing nearby.
A week or so later we woke to an enormous crash. It was pitch dark so we were only able to search around with a flashlight to learn that nothing had hit our house. The next morning, we discovered a giant elm prostate on the ground about 150 feet from our bedroom on a neighbor’s property. Like the oak, it fell when it was calm. Unlike the oak, the elm had been dead for years and many mushrooms were growing from its trunk.
We enjoy a huge diversity of birds and other wildlife in our yard, in part because we adjoin Faulkes Heritage Woods, a 110 wild forest protected by a conservation easement. The Woods have not been logged for over a century, so many enormous oaks, hickories, and maples live there. Many are dead or in decline, but that’s great for wildlife.
Dead trees provide food and nesting sites
Of all landscape features few are as valuable to as many wildlife species as an old dead tree. Nearly as soon as a tree dies insects, bacteria, and fungus begin the long process of recycling wood and bark back into humus. Woodpeckers drill into dead trees to extract tasty insects and carve out nesting cavities. Often their old cavities are used by chickadees, wrens, and many other cavity nesters. Dead trees are favored perching sites for raptors, perhaps because they are leafless, so the sharp-eyed birds can spot prey on the ground.
We let dead trees stand on our property, as long as they are far enough away from the house so they can’t cause damage or injure someone when they crash down.
Are Dead Trees Dangerous
We’ve been in the right place at just the right time to see big trees fall. Usually, there’s a crack or two before a giant tree crashes down with lightning speed. If someone were underneath it then it would be hard to run fast enough to escape injury.
The odds of a person being hit by a falling tree while walking along a trail are infinitesimally small. It almost never happens. Most injuries and fatalities occur when people camp, picnic, or sit under a tree. The risk comes because they are under the tree for hours while sleeping or in a position where they can’t run and escape quickly.
Look up when placing your tent near trees.
Before setting up a tent always look up and never pitch it under a weak or dead tree that could fall in the night.
How to Tell If A Tree Is Likely to Fall
It’s a wonder this tree stood as long as it did.
Determining if a tree is likely to fall isn’t always easy. Sometimes seemingly healthy strong trees fall over, but often one gives notice that it is in decline and weakening. Here are visible signs that a tree is vulnerable to falling:
- It’s dead. No leaves. Branches occasionally dropping off. Bark sheathing off.
- It’s alive but increasingly branches are dying and are bare of leaves.
- Mushrooms are growing from the wood.
- Little piles of sawdust at the base show that insects or woodpeckers have been at work.
- It’s old. As trees age, they stiffen and eventually, their wood weakens. Young healthy smaller trees are more flexible and bend back and forth in heavy wind without damage. Wind can crack the wood of old stiff trees.
- All trees eventually fall down but some have notoriously weak wood that breaks easily. Silver maples, black locust, and Siberian Elms often shed big limbs or break during storms.
Should I Have A Tree Taken Down?
Log ready to be bucked up to firewood.
Losing a beautiful old tree is painful, but there is a time when the tree should be removed to prevent an injury, death, or damage. At Winding Pathways, we let even old weak trees stand as long as they are well away from the house or places where sit. But if the tree could fall and hit a parked car, house or barn we call a tree service and have it repurposed into firewood.
This Youtube video provides an excellent overview of live and dead trees, saving or cutting the appropriate trees. My Woodlot.
People are surrounded by synanthropes. It’s a long and obscure word that is descriptive of hundreds of wild plants and animals.
A synanthropic species is one that benefits from and lives close to people. Essentially, if people disappeared these plants and animals would struggle to survive and, perhaps, disappear themselves. They need us! Other species are semi-synanthropic and live close to people or benefit from human action but might live in lower numbers in wild places.
At Winding Pathways, we strive to restore species native to our area of Iowa. We’ve had success, but we’re still surrounded by synanthropes that require our presence. Fortunately, we don’t have Norway rats or rock pigeons but these and other species are common in the biggest cities worldwide. They are wildly successful in the grittiest urban areas.
House mouse and Norway rat
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck
Dandelion, Purslane, Lambs quarters, Kentucky bluegrass, And many common weeds.
We encourage everyone to look around and notice plants and animals in their homes and yards and learn whether they’d be there without human presence. Expand our list! If they would disappear should the yard be a virgin wilderness and people were absent, then they are synanthropes.
English Sparrows thrive around people.
Raccoons forage mostly at night.
Pigeons depend on people to thrive.
Every summer we enjoy dining on Swiss chard and spinach, but one of our favorite greens to come from the garden is lamb’s quarters. It’s a plant with many common names that is ready to pick and eat before chard or spinach mature. Some call the plant pigweed but that name is also used for other species. Lamb’s quarters remain edible through the summer as long as only tender young leaves are plucked.
Lamb’s quarters is a “no work” green. We never plant, cultivate, or water it. It’s not necessary. It’s a weed that plants itself and pops up in the garden and on the edge of the lawn. We only have to pick, wash, cook, and eat it.
What IS Lamb’s Quarters?
This amazing garden and yard weed grows almost everywhere in the United States and probably lives near just about every person. A usually disliked garden chore is pulling or hoeing weeds. Often those weeds are just discarded or composted. It’s ironic that often those weeds are tastier and more nutritious than the crop being weeded. Lamb’s quarters is one of the best and easiest of the edible weeds.
Lamb’s quarters is an erect branched plant with leaves that shed water. Sprinkle a few drops on the plant and they’ll either bead up or run off, leaving the leaf dry. Try it!
How Do You Process Lamb’s Quarters?
We pick a small pot full of young lamb’s quarter leaves and stems, rinse them well, and steam or boil them for about ten minutes. They are delicious when topped with a dab of butter or a bit of oil and vinegar. Lamb’s quarters cook down significantly, so a pot full of raw leaves will yield only a small amount of cooked vegetables. Pick plenty. If the plant is allowed to mature the tiny seeds are also edible and nutritious but processing them is beyond tedious. Lamb’s quarter leaves can also sparingly be used raw in salads.
Lamb’s Quarters readily grow in disturbed soil.
The silvery leaf sheds water.
A full pot of raw Lamb’s Quarters cooks down to a few fork fulls of this nutritious potherb.
Before eating a new wild plant make sure you have correctly identified it from at least two reputable sources, such as wild edible books, the Internet, or a skilled foraging mentor. Then only eat a small amount the first time. Occasionally a plant may be delicious and harmless to most people but allergic to a few.
Use Identification Sources
Our favorite sources for wild edible information are the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book by Euell Gibbons and A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson. Many websites also feature this plant. A helpful website is Edible Wild Food.