Beginning a Prairie

Prairie plantings are preferably done in the fall. Nature works the seeds into the soil; the frosting and thawing of the ground (have you been outside recently?) breaks up hard seed coatings, and the cold wet soil stratifies the seeds. Sometimes, schedules don’t allow for that. For this spring’s planting, we ordered in the fall and are now busy sorting, scarifying and stratifying. Some seeds need boiling water poured over them, others need sandpaper scraped over them. Some prefer to be refrigerated for 30 days; others prefer to be refrigerated, thawed, and then refrigerated again. Others are already sprouting in the sacks they came in.

Gabe and Syd are sorting out the seed order.

With more than 100 different species going in around the edge of the wetland, I hope to share a handful of species at a time, with my intention of having them all shared prior to the planting in April. Initially, I had planned to purchase a diverse mix from one of our regular vendors, such as Prairie Moon Nursery. If you are starting from scratch, that is a good plan. Because we already have well-established prairies from which to gather seed from, purchasing individual species enabled us to increase the diversity we could buy. There is no point in us buying things like Andropogon gerardi (big bluestem) or Pycnanthemum virginianum (mountain mint), for example, as we already have them in abundance and they are easy to hand-gather in the fall. Because the wetland has an overflow, we can plant species along its border that like medium wet to medium dry soils. It seldom truly floods, and when it does, the water usually doesn’t stay high for very long. We will be planting some water loving species in the wetland itself.

What’s going in the ground this spring for the prairie? To get us started:

Agalinis auriculata (ear-leaf false foxglove) – Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop) – Allium canadense (wild garlic) – Allium cernuum (nodding onion) – Allium stellatum (prairie onion) – Amorpha canescens (leadplant) – Anemone canadensis (Canada anemone) – Anemone cylindrica (thimbleweed) – Antennaria neglecta (prairie pussytoes) – Antennaria plantaginifolia (pussytoes) – Arnoglossum atriplicifolium (pale Indian plantain) – Arnoglossum plantagineum (prairie Indian plantain) – Arnoglossum reniforme (great Indian plantain).

Alliums are a good addition to any planting. They are edible by people, loved by pollinators, and well-adapted to a wide variety of sites. One might go so far as to say they are aggressive. A few of these have already started to sprout in the sack.

The site was prepped (with a bulldozer) last fall, and we put down an oat cover crop and straw to prevent erosion over the winter. Oats are good choice for a fall cover crop, if you don’t want them to start growing again in the spring. In this case, we don’t want them to compete with the new prairie grasses, so that was fine. The oat straw we will leave on-site. It will still prevent erosion, and gradually decay into the soil.

The site is ready for prairie seed. I wish there was more water in the wetland coming out of the winter, but the rain we are supposed to get this weekend, and subsequent spring rains in general, may yet change that.

Creating the Compost Habit

I love the idea of compost. When I first started, years ago, it instantly reduced my trash output by 50 percent. Just like that, you can make great strides towards a zero-waste lifestyle. It also instantly creates healthy, rich soil in which to garden. I have two copies of the pamphlet, “…Make Compost in 14 Days,” on my bookshelf. Because that is knowledge too important to lose.

But…compost is smelly. It creates flies, gnats, and a host of flying insects I cannot begin to name. You have to trudge to the garden through the rain, and the snow, and the mud, and the mosquitoes. It takes time. Not a lot of time, but time all the same. You have to do it daily, or the flying insects and the smells begin to lose that indoor/outdoor boundary.

My garden, wedged in a narrow patch of sunlight among oak trees, was designed for growing veggies, not an ever-expanding pile of rotting veggies, so there were some boundary issues. There is nothing healthy about trying to find a fresh strawberry under an avocado husk. I quickly matured into a fair-weather composter when I felt inspired.

When the pandemic started two years ago, I lost access to basic services including trash, recycling and compost pickup, and suddenly composting became very high on my priority list. Why? There are only so many times you can beg your friends to let you put things in their trash, and only so much trash you feel like dragging around town to the houses of friends. Friends you aren’t supposed to be visiting because its a pandemic. “Um, hi. I didn’t come to visit you, just your trash can.” The friends I have are really, really good people.

A friend set me up with a two bin tumbler system, and that was awesome. It kept the scraps contained and kept the yard tidy. I used one bin primarily for high acidity things, including coffee grounds and lemons. This was for the blueberry bushes. I used the other bin for most everything else. While it still had to be done every day, the alternative idea of living amid ever increasing piles of waste is not a healthy way to even contemplate living.

Most bins and tumblers on the market don’t create enough heat to break down some things, like weed seeds. For compost to generate enough heat to start breaking things like that down with heat, it needs to be a 3’x3’x3′ pile. Since we all know piles are unstable as cubes, that’s actually a big pile. Huge. Compost shrinks as it composts, which means that’s a lot of compost. More than I can generate.

My solution: don’t put weeds that have seeded out in the compost bin. Throw them in the yard, where they will at least be mowed down after germination. A better solution would be to weed before the weeds set seed, but I am not always that sort of gardener. Mostly, I am the sort of gardener that solves the problem of not knowing what to do with pulled weeds by simply not weeding at all.

Eventually, my trash, recycling, and compost service resumed. Interestingly enough, I have kept composting, at least March-December. Keeping non-essential paths clear during the ice and snow of January and February are beyond my physical capacity.

Sap, a mideason report

When does spring start? Does it start when the chickadees change their call? Does it start when the red-winged blackbirds return to the Lynch Wetland? Or does it start with the first harvest of the year?

A small snap of warm weather this year in mid February, combined with the enthusiasm of my colleagues Gabe and Syd, sent us into the forest. Vecny Woods has a ravine full of old sugar maples.

The blue tape on the drill bit takes the guesswork out of drilling to the right depth.

The sap started flowing immediately, which is both tasty and rewarding.

The sap from a sugar maple is usually 2%-3% percent sugar, and we set 26 taps in the Vecny Woods sugar maples. We will also be tapping silver maples in the floodplain (77) and box elders (a handful) in the former barnyard of the Penningroth Barn. While all three types of maple trees provide good sap, the silver maple sap has a sugar content of 1.5%-1.75% and the box elders have 1% sugar content. That sap requires longer boiling time, which in turn makes a darker syrup with a more robust flavor.

Reducing that sap to syrup requires a lot of firewood, a lot of boiling, and a lot of steam. It also requires a lot of patience. While the sap was flowing on February 11, our night time temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and the days have been cloudy. Those are not conducive to sap flow, and the trees have just been trickling. We might have enough to make three gallons of syrup. Fortunately, sap season has only just started, leaving us with a good month left for the weather to start cooperating. Next week is looking promising.

Creative Gardening

I am under siege. The beautiful seed catalogs, glossy pages full of plump, brightly colored fruits and deep green vegetables, are in my mailbox. Burpee’s, Johnny’s, Gurney’s are the latest three. I want to eat those fruits. I want to grow those fruits. With everything around me brown, grey, and white, I want to impulse buy fresh flavorful colorful tasty beauty sooo badly.

This is a full color photo from February 23. This is Iowa right now. Beautiful, but needs some color.

Really, if impulse buying a three dollar seed packet is the worst of my vices, I am probably doing OK.

A red okra in full bloom from last summer. I used to not be a fan of okra, until I tried it fresh, straight off the plant. Delicious.

But last fall, when I was climbing 15 feet in the air to harvest cherry tomatoes, and I was getting scratched up trying to find sweet peppers that were totally hidden under a mass of invasive hops, I came up with a plan. I would not succumb to the assault of the seed catalogs. I would buy in the early fall, before the watermelon harvest. Before fresh became a thing of the past season.

Small heirloom watermelons, well mulched with straw to keep the weeds at bay.

I already focus my gardens on perennials. Blueberries and honeyberries are growing next to the kiwis. A goji bush accompanies the horseradish and the asparagus. If I am going to add an annual, it is going to be something that either 1) I can’t easily find in the grocery store, or 2) it is a leafy green that I eat in such quantity that it doesn’t make economic sense to buy it in the grocery store. Mostly, I buy from Seed Savers Exchange, which I respect for being local, sustainable, and not cutting a tree to send me a catalog I may or may not want.

What did I end up with for my 2022 annual vegetables? Red Burgundy okra, Red Kalibos cabbage, Backlund Bly Orach, Copenhagen Market Cabbage, Mammoth Sandwich Island Salsify, Premier Kale, Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard. In hindsight, I definitely don’t need two different kinds of cabbage…But if they give me the strength to ignore the seed catalogs, I am OK with that.

Skunk Cabbage is still sleeping

A friend from Illinois just posted a picture of her skunk cabbage poking out of the ground. While I suspected in my heart it was too early for my skunk cabbage, I couldn’t help but go and look. After all, what better way to spend a beautiful, relatively warm Friday morning?

Bena Brook is still frozen over, though we could hear water running underneath. It is a balmy 36 F outside.
The skull of a young white tail deer buck partially buried in the ice.
The bark tipi I built with a friend five or six years ago is still standing, though the massive oak tree that was growing beside sadly toppled during the derecho. The tipi is naturally well-camouflaged.
The skunk cabbage is not up, but signs of spring are starting to emerge. We will try again in a month.

Spring in the aviary

The flock spent most of the winter being angry with me. They appreciate neither the cold nor the snow. I had to carry one Sapphire Gem hen back to the aviary after dusk; she was too cold and tired after spending a day in the orchard to make it back on her own. The guineas spent a night outside in the orchard after a bad storm, not wanting to sink into the snow even to go home. Fortunately, the fox also spent the night hunkered down, not wanting to sink into the snow. A chicken hawk took out a guinea nine feet away from the aviary, nine feet away from safety.

Cluck Cluck the rooster prefers hanging out with the guineas instead of with his hens.

Cluck Cluck spent more than one afternoon standing in the heated water of the bird bath; his toes, mangled by a raccoon when he was young, are probably hurting. When I let the water run dry, a fox curled up in the same bird bath at dusk, absorbing its warmth and making me moderately nervous.

Enjoying the first dustbath of the year.

With the marginally and intermittently warmer weather, the guineas have been boiling out of the aviary every morning with Cluck Cluck. Sometimes the hens join them, sometimes they don’t. Laying has picked up with the longer days. I am getting an egg or two every day from the hens, and I usually manage to snag the eggs before they crack from the subzero temperatures. If I don’t, I set them out for the fox. Everyone needs to eat.