Solstice Lindens

After spending three seasons missing the linden flower harvest, I finally got it right: summer solstice. The blossoms have a beautiful delicate scent, and make a lovely tea. As the elderberry flowers are also in full bloom, I’ve been enjoying the two together in the evenings.

We planted linden trees in and around the parking lot of Amazing Space. Not only will they grow quickly, to provide shade for the vehicles, but their blooms are popular with the bees (and me!). The leaf buds and young leaves are also edible.

It was difficult to pick the perfect tree for landscaping the parking lot. On a completely practical level, the criteria were straightforward: native, edible, and no messy fruits or large nuts to drop on cars. The linden gives us that. I hope, as they mature, the landscape will evoke the same feelings one has when visiting the Lindenhof in Zurich, Switzerland. It is a place rich in cultural history and a place people gather to share time with one another.

Indian Creek

This is the Indian Creek I know and love, by its confluence with the Red Cedar River. By the river, the creek ranges from 50 feet to 80 feet wide. The Cedar empties into the Iowa River, which empties into the Mississippi, which carries our top soil and excessive nitrogen down to the Gulf of Mexico. Not only does Iowa lead the nation in corn production, hog production and chicken egg production, we also are the lead contributor of excessive nutrients that cause the dead zone in the gulf of Mexico.*

The bank is encrusted by rip rap for stability. Both the Union Pacific Railroad and Otis Road cross Indian Creek within view of the confluence. I swim the shallow pools of Indian Creek on hot August days and tap the sugar maples along its banks in February. I have watched the belted kingfisher nest in its banks and rescued fawns from its floodwaters. Every spring, and sometimes in the summer, I watch the water slowly edge out of its banks, submerge the land, and creep across Otis Road. Indian Creek is where I met my first gar and taught my nephew how to fish.

I have kayaked the creek in hot summer days, when I felt like mostly I was just dragging the kayak across the gravelly bottom and had to portage at the golf course. Other days I have watched the water go ripping by so high and so fast it has torn the pedestrian bridge off of its footings.

Less than a mile upstream from the mouth is the historic Daniel Mills bridge, a wrought iron truss bridge built in 1876. It is commonly called the blue bridge, in part because it is painted blue and in part because who Daniel Mills was is fading from cultural memory. Along its banks is an ancient black walnut tree, the biggest I have ever seen, and a rare old-growth grove of Kentucky Coffee trees.

On Sunday, a friend introduced me to another version of the creek, 14 miles north as the crow flies. By car, it was a 17.5 mile trip to the origin of Indian Creek. If we had followed the meandering course of the stream, we would have traversed 24 miles. At its headwaters, the creek is a beautiful and dainty little thing, meandering through a pasture, so narrow you can step over it without breaking stride.

As the creek journeys south, East Indian Creek, Berry’s Run, and Dry Creek join it, creating a 93 square mile watershed. For the first 11 miles or so, the creek runs through conventional crop land. Tile lines protrude periodically from the banks, dumping fast moving frigid water laden with nitrogen into the creek. After that, it becomes an urban creek, running through four cities. It cuts through the edge of the landfill, back yards, schools and golf courses. Hard surface pavement dumps fast moving warm water laden with oil residue and other chemicals into the creek.

Indian Creek is full of diverse problems as well as diverse beauty. It is my watershed. It is my home.

*This is a tangent in our prowess at leading the nation, not a tributary of the creek. We are the largest ethanol producer in the country. In 1869, Iowa had the first woman lawyer in the country. Every four years, Iowa holds the first presidential caucuses, and in August 2020, we also led the nation for most Covid-19 cases.

Picking Chicks

The flock of roosters was initially unintentional. I thought they would all be in the stew pot by autumn. I was wrong. I have the setup, the routine, and lonely birds. It is time to add some ladies, and I spent a lot of time at the Hoover’s Hatchery website and the Murray McMurray Hatchery website. The new additions need to be the right birds.

The black star roosters don’t like the snow, but they do like to be outside.

The flock free ranges. No fence in sight. Except for the garden fence, which they go over, under and around freely. They established their own range and stay within 130 feet of the chicken house. That range overlaps with predators: the dog, the cats, the racoons, the mink, the fox, and yes, the hawks. I need birds that forage well, are rugged, friendly and independent. Just like me.

My current flock makes me smile, and any additions need to be just as eye-catching. The Sapphire Gems are a gorgeous blue-grey and lay 290 large brown eggs a year. That makes them one of the top layers on the market. They are also a bit on the big side, weighing in at 6 pounds, and that makes me nervous.

When guineas get scared, mad, or excited, they go…up. Which is great when they are being chased by a dog. Less great when it is dusk and time to go in the aviary, but the other birds are blocking the door.

Guineas are small, weighing about 3 pounds. That means my guineas could easily end up at the bottom of the pecking order. When guineas end up at the bottom of the pecking order, they end up in the tops of trees. I am trying two of the Sapphire Gems, which a neighbor will take if they become too dominate in the aviary. I am getting five Blue Andalusians. The heirloom Andalusians are smaller, and each feather is a dark laced grey, which means they will be exquisite looking birds. The Andalusians lay 280 medium eggs a year, so the production is significantly less than that of the Sapphire Gems.

Charles and Bess sitting in the dead oak tree, protesting snow.

If two of the seven hens survive to maturity in my yard, which is statistically what will happen, they will still produce more eggs than I can eat in a year. The trade off of smaller birds, smaller eggs and fewer eggs is worth it to me if it keeps my mixed flock content.

Wondering in the snow

I am lying on my back under the sun, under the sky.

I am lying on the snow, suspended above the soil, above the prairie I burned last fall.

The flames of fall reduced the grass we think of as prairie to ash, reduced the grass we think of as prairie to the air I am now lying in.

Underground there is still a massive tangle of roots, woven together by mycorrhizal structures.

I can feel the transformation of spring through the sun on my face, through the snow on my back.

The snow insulates the prairie from the seasonal shift; I suspect the roots feel nothing yet.

I wonder if the air feels the emptiness of the space, if the air misses curling around the silicon-laced stalks of big bluestem and gliding over the petals of the gentian, if the air misses flitting through the styles of the prairie smoke.

I wonder if the air around the unburned autumn prairie was more dense than the open air I now lie in.

I wonder if the barred owls, chattering and hooting night and day now, are calling the prairie roots awake through the snow.

When the trees are gone, part 2

The tallgrass prairie can be defined by the hundreds of native plants that thrive there. The simplest definition, when looking at the broader landscape, is that the prairie is where the trees are not. The word prairie comes from the French word for meadow. When planting native prairie plants in your yard, selecting “the right ones” can be overwhelming. Which will thrive? Which will outcompete all of the others? Which will grow too tall and too wild? Which will make the wildlife happy? Which will make you smile when you look outside?

Butterfly weed is a low growing, showy milkweed. Monarch caterpillars will eat its leaves and many pollinators will drink its nectar.

Providers that specialize in native plants will offer information about bloom time, growth height, soil conditions, and sun requirements. If I was going to plant a native wildflower garden in my yard, I would select species that usually stay under 3 feet tall. These are the 21 flowers I would pick today (tomorrow I might pick a different set):

Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa

Canada milk vetch Astragalus canadensis

Common blue-eyed grass Sisyrinchium albidum

Cream gentian Gentiana flavida

Cream wild indigo Baptisia bracteata

Canada milkvetch is a nitrogen-fixing legume.

Dotted blazing star Liatris punctata

Goat’s rue Tephrosia virginiana

Lead plant Amorpha canascens

Midland shooting star Dodecatheon meadia

Narrow leaved coneflower Echinacea angustifolia

Blazing star, close-up.

Prairie onion Allium stellatum

Prairie smoke Geum triflorum

Prairie wild rose Rosa arkansana

Purple prairie clover Dalea purpurea

Rattlesnake master Eryngium yuccifolium

Spiderwort provides both a beautiful flower and lush foliage.

Silky aster Symphyotrichum sericeum

Sky blue aster Symphyotrichum oolentangiense

Slender mountain mint Pycnanthemum tenuifolium

Ohio spiderwort Tradescantia ohiensis

White prairie clover Dalea candida

Whorled milkweed Asclepias virticillata

Slender mountain mint smells delightful and is a favorite of pollinators.

When the Trees are gone, part 1

Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida)

A pollinator patch, or garden, would look beautiful in that spot in the yard where the hostas are now sunscorched, right? Right. Absolutely. From monarchs to bumblebees, lack of habitat continues to cause pollinator population declines. You may as well enjoy some beauty, while making the world a better place, while you wait for your new oak tree to mature into a shady canopy tree.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly (Battus philenor). To help identify the butterflies you see, visit https://www.butterflyidentification.org/

The ecological benefits of a pollinator patch are tremendous, and the maintenance goes down after the first few years. A pollinator patch creates an expanding positive impact on the environment, an oasis in a monoculture of lawns and pavement. Plant the plants, and the insects will come. The rabbits will come to feed on the plants. Owls will come to feed on the rabbits. Songbirds will come to feed on the insects. The hawks will come to feed on the birds. Native plants will create a dynamic array of life and beauty. A few thoughts to get you started:

1. Most native flowers are perennials. After the first few years, the plants won’t require watering. Buy a hose splitter and a soaker hose to minimize the time spent watering. You can get both locally for less than $20 to make those first few years easy.

2. Prairie plants evolved in an environment rich in limestone and poor in organic material. A plant that typically grows two feet high in a competitive prairie environment may grow five feet high in a weeded, composted garden bed. Keep the taller plants in the middle of your planting, or be prepared to fence them.

Close up of the prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) flower spike.

3. Leave the stems and pods up for the winter, as insects will be overwintering in the stalks and birds will be feeding on the seeds. Instead, cut them back as late in the spring as possible.

4. Weeds will be need to be controlled, just like they do in an an ordinary flower or vegetable garden. Consider weed control fabric, mulch, or pea gravel to minimize the time you need to spend weeding.

5. Add a bird bath. It will be used by the birds, but also by the chipmunks and butterflies.

6. Order your plants…soon. Most dealers don’t sell native plants during the growing season, because they have low survivability. Many do take orders throughout the year, and ship in the spring and fall. If you wait until you want to plant, you may find yourself waiting until the next season. If you live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, consider Indian Creek Nature Center’s Spring Plant and Art Sale as your source for plants.

For its plantings, Indian Creek Nature Center often orders seeds and plants from Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery, IonExchange, and Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District. All of them provide good stock and excellent customer service.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

I love setting the first set of footprints in a fresh falling snow. It is, quite likely, the closest I will ever get to boldly go where no person has gone before. This winter has provide me with ample opportunity.

First, I had to find my snowshoes. With my winter gear? No. In the shed? No. In the attic? No. They were hiding under some dust and cobwebs in my former office, which I evacuated abruptly in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, when snowshoeing season was still happening.

Then I had to sprint-nothing like sprinting in snowshoes to get your heart rate pumping-to beat some skiers to the trailhead. The extraordinary feeling of being the first one on the trail wears off relatively quickly, as that means one is also breaking the trail. It takes roughly three times as long to break a trail as it does to follow one.

A new path, still under construction, will allow guests at Indian Creek Nature Center to visit this oak tree. Unlike the shattered pines and black locust trees around it, the ancient oak withstood the forces of the derecho.

This winter I had fresh falling snow and a brand new, yet-to-be-opened trail to enjoy. It was awesome. If you can’t find your snowshoes or don’t own any, the Nature Center will rent some to you to do your own exploring in the winter magic.

The Flock: the first addition

Upon seeing the delightful little chicken house my flatmates had built for their chickens earlier this summer, a friend knew exactly what I needed: keets. When he said he was giving me some, I tried to conjure up in my mind what a keet was to no avail. We drove to pick up the seven cute, little, incredible wild birds. I fell in love immediately, until the drive home when they started shrieking, each at 96 decibels, the whole way. The magnificent seven spent their days frolicking in the garden.* Their volume crescendos when they are excited about things like learning to fly, or when strangers come up the driveway, or for various reasons beyond human comprehension.

A young keet.

The very kind couple who sold me the keets provided me with everything I need to know: they were a mixture of pied and pearled coloring (which meant nothing to me), they needed more protein than chickens, and they preferred to roost in trees and nest on the ground, which made me wonder how any survive ever.

The keets enjoy the blueberry patch during the day; at night, they go into a pet-carrier and spend the night inside where it is warmer and safer.

If your knowledge of fowl beyond chicken, pheasant and turkey is a bit rusty like mine is, keets are baby Guinea Fowl. Originating from Africa, they were introduced here primarily as a meat bird. They are hunters, which means no tick, grub, or grasshopper escapes their attention. They also run on the wild side, preferring not to be picked up. Unless their options are being carried or having to walk in the snow. In which case being carried suddenly becomes a very attractive option.

Charles (a pearled guinea) eats moss off of the side of the front step. At dusk, he was quite adamant about not going down into the snow. I ended up carrying him, along with the rest of his flock, to the aviary for the evening.

*Why did the keet cross the road? To prove you can’t build a fence good enough to hold it. I drove over one of the keets within days of their arrival because they were too small to see. I hadn’t been worried about that because I knew they safe were in the garden.

Terrence Nutworthy the Third

January 21 is National Squirrel Day. If you already have a bird feeder, you know that every day is squirrel day. To celebrate squirrels, here are a few more things we can do for our furry friends:

Set out some grapes, cashews, and pecans.

Add a year-round water source.

If it is snowy or wet, put your treats out a board to let the animals have dry feet for a bit.

Add selectively tasty compost scraps, such as sweet potato peels and apple peels.

A year and a half ago, I raised an orphaned grey squirrel, born around July 21, 2019. Later that fall, he vanished. It’s not unusual for young squirrels to move out and establish their own territories. Squirrel kits born late season often overwinter with their mom. As his mom, I had hoped he would stick around. I made him a nice nest box, filled the feeder tray regularly, and visited him at least twice a day.

One morning, he was gone. I said he was on walkabout, experiencing the world. What squirrel doesn’t dream of driving his motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway 1? But odds were equally good he had been taken out by a red-tailed hawk, a great-horned owl, a raccoon, or even a mink.

I went outside to feed the flock on December 23, 2020 and a squirrel came running up and jumped right into the middle of the flock, scattering the birds. It made me laugh, he was so bold. I knew immediately it was Terrence Nutworthy the Third.

This is the point where people say, “uh-huh.”

My case that this really is Terrence:

-Fox squirrels have lived in my woods longer than I have, but I have never seen a grey squirrel in the yard. The grey squirrels are around in the forest, of course, but the fox squirrels keep them out of the yard itself.

-Both Terrence and this squirrel have a little dark scar under their left eye.

-A wild squirrel, when confronted by a human, should run up the nearest branch, and will likely chatter fiercely. This is what my yard squirrels still do, despite generations having grown up with me as a fixture in their lives. A wild squirrel will not literally ask for a human handout. Which this squirrel did. He came right up and ate out of my hand.

As if my day couldn’t get any better, Terrence brought a rare black squirrel with him. Black squirrels are really grey squirrels with different fur color (melanistic subgroup). The black squirrel, being a wild squirrel, wants nothing to do with me.

I immediately purchased an addition for my yard for Terrence:

a heated, ground mounted bird bath

Winter is hard on wildlife. Obviously, animals have adapted and populations can survive without us. But the heated waterer will make survival a little bit easier, and possibly more enjoyable for everyone, including the squirrels, opossums, deer, mice, song birds, and fox. It may even enable me to get a decent picture of the black squirrel.

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What Goes into a Food Forest Canopy

One concern I have with the phrase “food forest” is that it implies that the rest of the forest is inedible. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in Iowa. Upland forest canopies are dominated by oaks and hickories,  with a handful of butternuts mixed in. The midlands are full of mulberries, black cherries and black walnuts. Even the bottomlands, with their thick stands of silver maples and lindens, are full of edible life.

Linden blossoms are delicious in tea, and provide a valuable food source for pollinators.

In most landscapes, I focus on the natural history of the land, and ask what would be here, if we hadn’t cut the trees, grubbed out the roots, and planted corn in the heart of the forest? What is missing from both this particular plot, as well as the surrounding areas? What would increase the native diversity and resilience of the ecosystem?

In a food forest, I narrow that focus to species that 1) are native to the area, and 2) are fairly straightforward for humans to eat. A food forest has a greater concentration of native edible species than you might naturally find in a woodland. Done properly, a guest wouldn’t necessarily notice they were in a food forest; they would simply notice that they were in a beautiful woodland with abundant opportunities for them to forage as they walked. People are so far removed from what is and is not edible without a plastic wrap label and a price tag on it, I’ll probably need to put out signs. There isn’t much point, if people don’t know that the food in the forest is there for them.

A box elder tree comes down to make room for a new black maple tree. We have far more box elder trees on the land than we do black maples, so this will help create balanced diversity over time.

The pocket of sunlight we created this winter will be planted to maples this spring. I am locally sourcing Black Maple from Fleming Nursery and Sugar Maple from Hughes Nursery. Just downhill from the clearing is a large silver maple, well-suited to flooding. Mulberry and black cherry are already growing in the area, and we planted butternuts last year.