Wisdom From “Johnny Appleseed” of Prairie Plants
“Weeds are mother nature’s stitches,” prairie restorationist Corliss “Jock” Ingels told us years ago.
“If you badly cut yourself, a physician stitches the wound closed so it can heal. If you bare the ground, weeds quickly sprout, shading the soil with foliage and filling it with roots. Weeds reduce erosion until more permanent plants take hold,” he proclaimed.
Even rag weed has a purpose. Birds love the seeds.
On a hot summer morning, we pedaled along the Grant Wood Trail, seeing mother nature’s stitches alongside the new pavement. Recently the popular bicycle trail was paved. Machines bared the soil at the edge of the pavement that’s now covered with bright yellow trefoil, crown and purple vetch, golden dandelions, white spurge, sweet clover, ragweed, and poison hemlock. All are so-called invasive weeds, but they’re providing a service by holding the soil and giving homes to trailside wildlife until more “desirable” plants establish. Some of those pioneering weeds sported an array of bright flowers that made our morning ride delightful.
Beyond Human Centric
Weeds have a purpose, but must a plant or animal need to have a “human-centric” perspective?
The night before our bike ride we sat on our back deck with Neil and Renata Bernstein. He’s a recently retired biology professor and remarked that sometimes people ask what purpose a particular plant or animal has.
Purpose! Must plants and animals have a purpose from a human perspective?
Easily recycled cans become trash.
Dr. Bernstein sometimes responds to these questions by saying, “What’s the purpose of people?” Indeed, our observations are that modern humans have forced out original people from their lands. We have done a great deal of harm by polluting the air, siphoning off life-giving water to maintain green grass, and stripping the land of topsoil, precious metals, and crystals. We greedily take a resource, convert it to our own purpose, then throw it away. “What’s the purpose of people?”
More to Purpose Than Our Perspective
We can learn much from turtles.
Some living things certainly have a great purpose. Without wheat, cattle, corn, penicillin mold, lumber, trees, and thousands of other plants and animals we couldn’t live. Others may seem to have a negative purpose. Think disease-causing microbes, poison ivy, ragweed that spews allergic pollen into the air, mosquitoes, and a host of other creatures that cause human misery. To view them negatively is human-centric.
The vast majority of living things neither produce tangible benefits nor problems for people. Like turtles, they simply live. Probably they have a valuable ecological role that may not be obvious but they are here. They have a right to be here whether or not they provide human impact. As we have learned over millennia, different plants and animals, offer benefits to us. We simply have to observe and incorporate.
To Everything…There is a Purpose
Every living thing has a purpose in the great scheme of things that people barely understand.
So, as we cycle along, we doff our bike helmets to the diversity of life we pass and silently thank them for sharing the world with us.
A raging blizzard roaring over Winding Pathways just before Christmas showed us the power of HARVESTING SNOW. We love catching it.
Well, we didn’t really catch the snow, but our prairie did. It has a talent for harvesting snow and other forms of moisture. It taught us how prairie and other taller plants – grasses, forbs, shrubs, vines, and trees – help themselves grow next summer.
Our prairie has a thick growth of two-foot-tall dead stems from last summer’s growth. Each stalk is brittle, but thousands of them working together slowed the wind just enough for it to drop the snow it had swept off nearby lawns and roads.
The deep drift that settled on our prairie will melt and give next spring’s plants a jumpstart in moist soil. Nearby shortly sheared lawns can’t catch snow and will start the spring on dryer soil. Nature delivered irrigation water to our yard for free!
Nature’s Wisdom in Harvesting Snow
Growing up in the East, we are used to Nor ‘easters that pummel the landscape and create great skiing conditions. Until we moved west, we were not so familiar with how nature replenishes soil moisture, well, naturally!
In dry areas snow also helps next summer’s vegetables. During college, Rich worked weekends at an Idaho ranch. He was surprised one January when Lucille Pratt, part owner of the land and an outstanding vegetable gardener, asked him to shovel snow from a nearby drift onto the garden.
For a Jersey boy, this seemed like a weird request, but melting snow oozed water into the soil. That helped get the vegetables going and sustain them through the dry summer.
Snow may seem like a bother but it’s also a blessing to dry soil and the plants it sustains.
Over two blizzardy days, our prairie gently caught snowflake after snowflake. We already are looking forward to bright prairie flowers dancing in next summer’s breeze. Thanks, prairie for harvesting snow. Nature’s wisdom to catch winter’s snow and help next summer’s growth is amazing.
Three days later, a rapid melt left the ground bare, except where prairie plants held snow.
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.