Chickens in run
A chicken run is one tough place for plants to live, and our run at Winding Pathways is even tougher than most.
Every day we let our chickens roam around the run. A bright baking sun broils the sandy soil all day long, so it’s hard to imagine that any plant can thrive there. And, chicken run plants face another challenge. The birds love greenery and usually devour every plant they find. As a result, most chicken runs are just bare dirt that’s either dusty or muddy.
Flower and leaf
Big Bracht Verbena (Verbena bracteata), sometimes called Prostrate Vervain, is up to the challenge. It carpets our chicken run. We didn’t plant it. Verbena moved in on its own. Hopefully, our chickens enjoy viewing the plants’ tiny soft blue flowers.
Big Bracht Verbena is common across much of North America, but it’s easy to overlook. Rarely causing problems, it lives in the most difficult environments. The plant thrives in hot dry gravel soil along roads, in vacant lots, and in sidewalk cracks.
We like having this humble plant in our chicken run. It covers the soil, eliminating mud that follows rain. Chickens absolutely won’t eat it, but they love snatching the insects lured to the plant. It needs no human care, but we sometimes mow it if it gets a big shaggy by late summer.
Foraging among verbena
One of nature’s mysteries is how plants have adapted to thrive in all sorts of environments, even harsh ones. Hats off to Big Bracht Verbena.
Yes! The blossoms and leaves have vital nutrients and were cultivated by our European ancestors. In the modern world, every year homeowners spend money and elbow grease to poison their lawns all to try to rid their lawn of dandelions. They could sell the dandelions instead!
You can make money selling dandelion blossoms.
What? Sell dandelions? The Ackerman Winery in Amana, Iowa, crafts delicious dandelion wine. To make it they need thousands of the plant’s golden blooms and they pay $8 a gallon for them.
The dandelion season has faded for the 2022 spring, but we’ve seen lawns with many dollars’ worth of blooming dandelions that could have been sold. For information on how to buy dandelion wine or sell dandelions go on the Ackerman Winery website.
By mid-summer dandelion leaves are tough and bitter.
Dandelions are an amazing plant. Native to the Old World, their seeds were brought to America on the Mayflower. For thousands of years, people considered them a valuable resource. By late winter people often suffered from vitamin deficiency. Dandelion leaves are rich in vitamins and green up in early spring. People ate them to restore their health. They are as nutritious today as they were in the past.
Only in recent years have dandelions been considered pests. Because they are prolific, common, and easy to identify, chemical companies encouraged people to view dandelions as pests so they could sell herbicides.
How silly it is to spend money to kill plants that are good to eat and so nutritious. Thanks to Ackerman Winery they can even add to a family’s income.
How People Unwittingly Encourage Dandelions
Mowing low encourages dandelions.
Observation reveals a dandelion secret. They thrive on mowed lawns and rarely grow in prairies, woods, or wetlands. Mowing invites dandelions to move in, and chemical companies are ready to sell potions designed to kill a plant with a remarkable relationship with people. A natural way to reduce dandelion numbers in a lawn is simply to set the mower to cut at its highest level. It leaves the grass a big shaggy but their leaves shade the ground and discourage dandelion growth.
We enjoy dandelions at Winding Pathways and steam young tender leaves every spring.
We are shocked by the rise of many prices, especially food. Fortunately, we mute the cost by finding or growing groceries here at Winding Pathways. We’re lucky to own two acres, but folks living on tiny lots can produce an amazing amount of food, even if they aren’t passionate gardeners.
In a nutshell here’s what we do to tame grocery bills:
It’s ironic that many people consider the most delicious and easy wild foods pests and spend time and money trying to eliminate them. We eat ‘em. Books and websites, including Winding Pathways, share tips on finding, identifying, harvesting, cooking, and eating wild foods. Caveat: ALWAYS check that you have the correct plant, gather from unpolluted places, and consume only a small amount initially to be sure your body accepts the wild edible.
Here are our favorites:
We’re not passionate gardeners and we don’t can or freeze vegetables, so here’s what we do:
- Succession plant: Our small garden yields an enormous amount of food. We don’t let a square foot be idle. When summer’s heat turns lettuce bitter, we pull it, feed it to our chickens, and plant beans or another heat-loving crop. Same with other crops that grow quickly and then fade.
- Use vertical space: Pole beans, for example, produce much more food per square foot than bush beans, so we choose climbers and use vertical space. We have the pole high enough to reach up and pull off the beans.
- Grow dwarfs: Some cucumber varieties, for example, are “bush” type, meaning they produce a crop without long vines that consume plenty of space.
- Think of winter eating: Because we lack freezer space and don’t can food, we plant vegetables that need little care during the growing season and store them until late winter without being canned or frozen. Here’s our list:
- Winter squash. Pick them, let them curet, and store them in a cool spot. They keep for months. Same with pie pumpkins.
- Carrots and parsnips. In late fall we smother the plants with a thick blanket of dry leaves or straw that keeps the ground from freezing. We’ve harvested carrots in January by brushing away snow and peeling back the mulch and pulling them.
- Sweet potatoes. They love the South’s climate yet grow well up north.
We carefully dig them in the fall, cure them, and store them like winter squash.
Sweet potatoes are a healthy vegetable.
Winter Squash vary in color, texture, shape and size.
We can’t imagine living without a small chicken flock. Our six to 12 hens gift us a couple of dozen eggs a week. Their manure fertilizes the garden and garden weeds are a great hen chow. During warm months our hens forage in their large run eating bugs, worms, and weeds and transforming them into eggs. Sometimes we even stew down an old hen.
In the summer hens find plenty to eat.
The chickens kept on laying eggs.
Chickens efficiently recycle squash seeds to eggs.
Lots of folks don’t like hunting. For us harvesting a deer is a form of food gathering, not recreation. After all, deer are free-ranging, local, and organic. Fortunately, we’re able to hunt on our property and convert a deer into delicious meat. We also enjoy eating panfish.
Like most folks, we can’t grow or forage all our food but much comes from the yard and area. It takes knowledge and investment in elbow grease but trims the food budget. Perhaps even better, knowing how to find and grow food makes us feel less vulnerable to national disruptions that make food either hard to get or expensive.
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.
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.
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.