Can You Grow Sweet Potatoes in Iowa?

As we watched squirrels gleaning sunflower seeds from feeders in our backyard, we dined on 2021s sunshine!

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a healthy vegetable.

Thanks to last season’s sun our crop of sweet potatoes produced a bountiful crop, and we ate them until our last one became part of our February 8th dinner. We’ve only been growing sweet potatoes for a few years because we’d heard they need a long southern summer to mature. We now know that’s not true.

We love sweet potatoes. They come in many varieties and color shades from white to purple and the common ones with deep orange flesh. This nutritious plant originated from tropical South America and is now grown in warm regions all over the world.  Sometimes they are called yams, but these two plants are distinctly different. Yams originated in Africa.

 

Nutritious Vegetable

We love the taste and nutrition of sweet potatoes but here are some other ways we love this plant:

  • They are easy to grow. We buy “slips” and plant them in late May or early June.
  • The plants and flowers are gorgeous, and slips are sometimes sold as ornamentals.
  • They store well. We carefully dig them before the first frost, let them cure for a couple of weeks, and then store them in a cool dark place. They last all winter.

Sweet potatoes are easy. No freezing or canning is needed. We plant, weed a bit, dig, cure, and store and then enjoy eating them all winter. This year we’ve ordered a variety of sweet potato slips from Sand Hill Preservation Center and look forward to a larger harvest.  The company also sells heritage chicken breeds and vegetable seeds.

 

Chickadees Never Go the the Dentist – But Have to Eat Rocks

Millions of families love watching chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers visit backyard feeders. A joyful daily task is bringing them a day’s supply of sunflower seeds, millet, or even cracked corn. But, often an important part of their diet is ignored.

Birds lack teeth so never need dental care. Instead, they must eat rocks! Small rocks humans call sand. Often birds forage along snowy roads gleaning grit spread to give cars traction. It goes into their gizzard where powerful muscles grind seeds into a digestible slurry that then moves on to the stomach.

During most of the year, birds find all the grit they need on their own, but when snow and ice seal off the soil they can’t find it. People sometimes scatter sand on slippery spots to provide human traction. Birds will glean some of it.

It’s helpful to sprinkle a handful of sand around feeders once a week during the snowy season. At Winding Pathways, we buy a 50-pound bag of chick grit at a local store that sells chicken feed. It’s fine ground hard rock that is ideal for both traction and bird digestion but plain old sand works.

Wild Turkeys often visit our feeders, so once in a while, we toss out large-sized grit, designed for laying hens. It helps their gizzards grind up hard corn kernels that they love snacking on.

An outstanding source of bird information is the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology.

EGO-centric!

Back in October, we took a gamble. We bought an electric snowblower. Our driveway at Winding Pathways is about 440 feet long, and Iowa gets plenty of snow. It’s too much to shovel, so years ago we bought a gas snow blower. It worked for the first winter but then it started throwing belts off the drive wheels. Fixing was tedious and tenuous. So, we sold the beast and bought an EGO battery-powered two-stage snowblower.

We hoped it was a good decision. Would the blower be up to clearing such a long driveway? Would it hold up to hard use?

A  heavy wet snowfall on December 28, 2021, gave us a chance to test the new machine. It did just fine. After clearing the entire driveway, the batteries still had charge to them. We could have done more.

It’s our prediction that gasoline-powered lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, blowers, chainsaws, and snow blowers are becoming obsolete. They’ve already been banned in California because they pollute the air more than cars.

Here are aspects of battery tools we like:

  • They run quietly and are lightweight.
  • No need to risk shoulder injury by pulling a rope to start it up. Just push a switch.
  • No need to store gasoline.
  • Maintenance is easy. No filters or spark plug to change.
  • No fumes.
  • Inexpensive to run. It costs less to recharge the battery than to buy an energy equivalent amount of gas.

It looks like our decision will pay off. We’ve now replaced all our gas-burning outdoor equipment with battery equivalents……except for one chainsaw. That may go soon.

Note:  Winding Pathways paid the full retail price for this machine.  

Woman using EGO battery snowblower

The EGO snowblower cut through the heavy snow easily.

Why Do Woodpeckers Hammer?

“A woodpecker is hammering on my house. It’s damaging my siding and driving me nuts. What can I do?” asked a longtime friend.

Woodpeckers often hammer on buildings, and we’ve taken dozens of calls from homeowners seeking relief. There are ways to discourage the plucky birds.

Woodpeckers bang on wood for at least three reasons:

  1. Drumming. Drumming on wood or metal in a rapid burst announces the bird’s presence to others.  It is loud advertising.
  2. Nesting. Woodpeckers excavate cavities, usually in dead trees, to make a safe comfortable nest in the spring. A snug nest within an insulated wall is a great substitute for a tree.
  3. Food.  Woodpeckers make their living dining on insects lurking in wood.  Commonly this is a fall and winter activity, especially on home sided with rustic
    T 111 plywood.

We love woodpeckers, and so do most people. But, no one wants damage to their home. So, how can it be prevented?

Prevention

It’s tough to stop drumming, but the good news is that it is usually of short duration in the spring and rarely damages the home.

It is difficult to stop birds from excavating a nest, but fortunately this is relatively rare.  The long-term solution is to side the home with a durable hard material. Bricks are ideal.

Foraging may be the most common home damage. It can be extensive and comes with annoying noise as the bird removes wood to expose hidden bugs. Here are some solutions:

If building a new home, specify siding that lacks holes and cracks. If no insects can enter woodpeckers have no reason to try to extract them.

  • With a caulking gun and putty knife plug every possible hole in the home’s exterior in late winter or early spring. This prevents insects from entering.
  • If a woodpecker is foraging on a small section of the house draping light duty netting, the material sold to keep birds off cherry trees, will physically keep the birds away. Sometimes it can be stapled to an overhanging eve and to the siding below.
  • Luring a bird away from the home may work. Erect a suet feeder 40 or 50 feet away from the house. The woodpecker might prefer eating easy-to-get suet instead of digging bugs out of the home.

Perhaps the best strategy for enjoying woodpeckers but preventing damage is to protect nearby dead trees. If a tree poses no falling threat to a structure, car, or person, leaving it in place gives woodpeckers a place to drum, nest, and find tasty insect meals.

Woodpeckers are amazing and beautiful animals that bring us joy. We are fortunate to have hairy, downy, red-bellied, red-headed, pileated, flicker, and sapsucker at Winding Pathways. They enjoy our feeders and leave the house alone.

How Can You Catch Nature’s Miracles?

A camera is an outstanding tool to see change. Plant a tree or prairie and it grows so glacially slowly that noting change is hard. Photos help by compressing time.

In August 2020 a derecho felled 47 of our 53 mature trees. We spent much of last fall converting them into firewood and piling up brush. Knowing that the land would be sunny after years of leafy shade, we planted a blend of savanna wildflowers last November.

The area didn’t change much from last fall until April of this year. Then nature put on a glorious show. Here are three photos of our yard taken in April, May, and September 2021. Most of the growth didn’t come from the seeds we planted last fall.   Seeds long dormant in the soil sprouted with enthusiasm once they sensed the sun’s springtime warmth.

 

Using the Sad ‘Ole Jack-O-Lantern

As we entered our driveway a frustrating sight greeted us. We were looking forward to picking the enormous seed heads of sunflower plants towering over the garden. Not this year. While we were gone, a windstorm toppled them a few weeks before they’d ripen.

That’s the way it is with gardening. Sometimes there’s a great success resulting in delicious meals. Then there are flops, like our sunflowers. We found more wind mischief. Several almost ripe pumpkins and squash had broken stems, dooming them to rot instead of ripening.

A Silver LIning

All wasn’t lost. We pitched the sunflower heads, pumpkins, and squash into our chicken run.  Enthusiasm erupted as the hens eagerly devoured them. They pecked a hole in the squash and pumpkins, ate all their seeds, and then made quick work of eating the soft interior flesh. Soon all that remained was the tough outer skin of the pumpkin and the sunflower’s now seedless head. These went into the composter.

Chickens love garden debris and vegetables that don’t quite make it to our table. When fall closes down our garden we turn in the chickens. They chow down on bugs, weed seeds, and unripe vegetables. This makes clean-up easier and probably reduces next year’s insect and weed problems.  A few days after Halloween our hens love snacking on our shriveling Jack O Lantern. They also relish seeds scooped out of winter squash and most vegetables left in the refrigerator a bit too long.

It was frustrating losing our sunflowers, pumpkins, and squash. Thanks to our industrious hens we were able to put them to good use.