A Purple Prairie

One of the extraordinary things a prairie reveals is the great color palette of nature. Now that we’re in July, and the heat of summer, the purples are abundant. A few treasures from my latest walk:

Leadplant
Bergamot-pick the flowers and top few inches of stem and leaf for tea.
Purple Prairie Clover
Swamp Milkweed with bumblebee
Hoary Vervain
Prairie Blazing Star

 

These, you may have noticed, are growing in mulch, not the dense grasses that provide the structure of a tallgrass prairie. This was just my walk from my office to my car! They are newly planted around the parking lot at Indian Creek Nature Center. Everyone should be able to enjoy the natural beauty of a prairie, even if they aren’t up for a hike. The diverse flowers will attract butterflies and support native pollinators. The deep roots are drought tolerant. What more could you ask for in a landscaping plan?

 

400 feet up

The best place to be, in relationship to a labyrinth, is inside the labyrinth. The second best place to be is 400 feet above. While the labyrinth at Indian Creek Nature Center still has a few rough spots and won’t be officially open until September, the first mowing of the path has revealed the beauty of the design. 

Celebrating Earth Day with a new Labyrinth

I designed and built my first labyrinth before I learned what a seed labyrinth was, and before I learned how to draw a seven circuit labyrinth. The double spiral reflected the natural form of the ubiquitous land snail shells and the duality of nature. It was loved by the community, but in 2016 we mowed it down to lay out Amazing Space. While the site is still there (the area was peripheral to the project), the tallgrass prairie has been allowed to regrow. It is time to create a new labyrinth.

The first Labyrinth I designed, in 2012.

When a friend recommended the new labyrinth be a Baltic design, I balked a bit. I had no idea what a Baltic pattern was. I had spent a lot of time designing the double spiral, and replicating it would have been easy. But I’m also quite curious, and after doing a bit of research I was convinced and excited.

The Baltic labyrinth, while technically being unicursal, does offer choices. Which means a visitor can walk directly to the meditative center, follow the labyrinth path to the center, or follow the labyrinth path to the center and then back again. This provides three different lengths, and three different experiences.

The layout of the Baltic Labyrinth

There are a number of labyrinths in the area, but none of them are a Baltic design. This gives the labyrinth community something special. I love creating things, so the idea of learning a new pattern, and laying it out, seemed like fun. I am extremely grateful for circular graph paper.

To celebrate Earth Day, Alliant Energy volunteers laid out the new Prairie Labyrinth. The field of flags denotes where I need to mow. Within a month, the path should be established enough that they can be removed.

 

Net Zero Water in Action

I was both honored and humbled to receive the Stormwater and Urban Watershed Development of the Year Award at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference on behalf of Indian Creek Nature Center.
What exactly, does net zero water mean, besides spending countless hours with a civil engineer on site design?

It means that the building and site were designed so that a) every drop of water that falls on the site, stays on the site, and b) throughout our operation, we use less water than falls on the site, over the course of the year.

A combination of native plantings (which don’t require watering), ponds, raingardens, and bioswales contain the water on-site. What was more difficult to predict was how much water we would consume, versus rainfall.

Four months into documentation, and we are doing well.

Month Water Used (gallons) Rainfall (inches) rainfall (gallons)  1 acre site
Dec-16 9,620.8 1.05 28,511.70
Jan-17 8,965.6 1.46 39,644.84
Feb-17 7,259.6 0.68 18,464.72
Mar-17 10,000.20 0.75 20,365.5

 

Live edge wood: celebrating the shape of nature

During a prairie restoration project, we had to cut a number of trees down that had grown up along a former fenceline. The farm fields had been planted to prairie in the 90’s, but they were still separated by a straight “treeline” edge. Such unnatural edges decrease the overall diversity of the species that live in the prairie. Instead of creating habitat brush piles and cutting firewood for maple syruping, we had the irregular log sections sawn on-site into 2″ thick boards.

We took the boards to a kiln. This allowed the wood to dry quickly, with minimal warping, and killed any insects in the process. The kiln recut and planed some of the boards for us to create 3/4″ live edge baseboard.

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Volunteers took the bark off and sanded down the live edge to create a smooth finish.

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A master craftsman from Ryan Companies than installed the baseboard. Lining up the live edge with the studs was a labor of love and caring.

Box elder is a soft wood with a short lifespan, and is not usually considered a top choice for craftsman. However, the beautiful red bands create a dynamic, rich hue in the room.
Box elder is a soft wood with a short lifespan, and is not usually considered a top choice for woodworking. However, the red bands create a dynamic, rich hue in the room.
Hackberry is also not typically a choice interior wood, but its pale color creates a unique offset to the blue wall.
Hackberry is also not typically a choice interior wood, but its pale color creates a unique offset to the blue wall.
Black cherry is more commonly used among furniture makers.
Black cherry is more commonly used among furniture makers.

 

Creating biophilia: the plant press

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We harvested big bluestem grasses from the prairie and cattails from the wetland last fall.
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Using 3/4″ plywood and buckets full of sand, we created a 4’x8′ plant press that dried the grasses flat over the winter.
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We shipped the grasses to 3-Form, a company that presses organic materials into resin. The see-through panels that resulted are one of the ways Amazing Space merges nature and interior spaces.

Daylighting and views

The Living Building Challenge sets a number of Imperatives for creating a sustainable building, and #8 is Civilized Environment. This recognizes that people are healthier, happier, and more productive if they have access to fresh air and daylight. For Amazing Space, the upper portion of every window is operable, allowing guests and staff to enjoy the fresh air and sounds of nature.IMG_20160422_081737035To maintain a continuous air and moisture barrier between the inside of the building and the outside, after installation the windows frames are sealed with an expandable foam, creating a water-tight barrier.

IMG_20160427_114329469_HDRThe U-Factor of a window measures the heat loss. The lower the number (on a scale of 0-1), the less warm air leaks out through the windows during the winter. Our U-Factor is 0.28, and contributes to our overall envelope of R-30. The Solar Heat Gain Coefficient of 0.27 is a measure (on a scale of 0-1) of how much solar heat the window allows into the building. The low SHGC will help keep the building cool in the summer. IMG_20160427_114336664_HDRThe 10th Imperative of the Living Building Challenge is biophilia, which focuses on designing a building that “includes elements that nurture the innate human attraction to natural systems and processes.” The viewscapes provided by Amazing Space take advantage of the existing natural woodlands to the north and prairies to the south. This is the view out of a newly installed office window.
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