April 2022: May 6 skunk cabbage walk

This should really be called “what’s happening up Bena Brook” because there is a lot of awesomeness in the woods right now. Some treasures were experienced but not captured digitally, including the four-leafed prairie trillium; the young equisetum; the violets, the iron bacteria in the brook; and, the gray catbird tending the skunk cabbage meadow.

April in the Bena Prairie (2022)

Over the past year, I have enjoyed this commitment. Showing up once a week, more or less, at the same place to take the same picture.

The prairie shifts. The wind sways the grasses in and out of frame. Green stubble emerges from the black and grows up tan. Clouds form, dissipate, and reform. I love the clouds.

It is a place I love, and will continue to visit regularly. There are a lot of other spaces vying for my attention, and it is time for this project to come to a close. I hope you enjoyed the journey with me.

April 2

April 7

April 10

April 23

What’s Going in the Ground at Sugar Grove

Your garden at home may be on a similar trajectory as The $64 Tomato, or it may be the sort of garden in which you watch in curious amazement to see what fruit is growing from the compost pile. You may have already purchased canning jars, visited the Ely Seed Lending Library, or you may still be thumbing through the catalogs to see what new varieties of pea sound tasty.

At Sugar Grove Farm, as at most businesses, there is another layer of questions we have to ask. Will we have the labor to successfully plant, weed, and harvest the crop? Are the seeds we are purchasing organic? Do we have buyers for the crops?

Even the cover crops are organic. This clover, planted last fall, will be tilled in to add nutrients to the soil before planting. We till shallow, and only where we will be planting. The rest of the field will stay in cover crop, to hold the soil and increase the organic material in the soil.

Every year, as we become more familiar with the site and the time involved in crop management, as the soil becomes richer through cover crops and certified organic amendments, and as we have improved infrastructure (such as driplines for irrigation), we should be able to expand our offerings. 

Stop by the Creekside Shop during harvest time if you want to experience these tasty and unique fruits and vegetables. All will be certified organic.

It can be challenging to find organic seeds of the varieties you want, and even more challenging the longer you delay placing your order. I really appreciate Wood Prairie Family Farm, Seed Savers Exchange, and High Mowing Organic Seeds for helping me out.

This year, we plan to grow: 

Keuka Gold potatoes (sourced from Wood Prairie Family Farm)

Parade cucumbers (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Waltham butternut squash(sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Sweet Pea Currant tomato (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Moon and Stars (Cherokee) watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Chinese Miniature gourd (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Miniature Yellow Bell pepper (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Long Island Cheese Pumpkin (sourced from Seed Savers Exchange)

Red Carpet F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Cortland F1 onion (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

PMR Delicious 51 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

True Love F1 cantaloupe (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sweet Gem Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Sugar Ann Snap pea (sourced from High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Spring 2022: April 5 Skunk Cabbage

Bena Brook has melted, creating open pools of clear, cold water. Photo credit goes to Gabe Anderson (thank you!).

The spring melt has also created isolated vernal pools where trees have uprooted.

The fungus are thriving in the newfound moisture and relative warmth.

The skunk cabbage are finely up! It looks like they may have come up several weeks ago, based on their nibbled appearance and the leaves that have appeared next to the purple flower.

What is A Community Supported Forest

A Community Supported Forest is a place in which the people actively and deliberately care for the light, the trees, the soil, and the plants to create a healthy system which provides sustenance in a myriad of ways.

Hazelnut

From wild strawberries and wild ramps (onions) in the summer, to linden blossoms and black raspberries in the summer, to hazelnuts and butternuts in the fall, the food from a well planted and cared for forest provides deliciously diverse and bountiful food.

There are other benefits as well. The wood can be made into walking sticks for hikes and charcoal for drawing. Firewood can be used to create the evening campfire, or boil sap down into maple syrup. Woodchips can be thrown in the smoker for succulent, flavorful meat dishes.

Sumac drupe

Maple syrup and honey can grace the breakfast table. Bluebirds can nest in the tree cavities and catch mosquitoes. It is a beautiful and intricate system, and what comes out of it is, like most things, proportional to what goes into it.

Humans have had a hand in Iowa’s woodlands for as long as Iowa has had woodlands. They have planted, gathered, cut, and burned. And how much of that we do today really determines how fruitful the forest will be for us. Dense stands of trees need to be thinned to improve sunlight. Honeysuckle bushes and other invasive species need to be grubbed out. Missing species need to be planted, fenced from deer, and watered the first few years. Every ten years or so, trees will need to be thinned. Community members support the forest.

Through that process, calories will be burned, muscles will be toned, and friendships will be formed. Knowledge will be learned and shared. Ultimately how productive the forest is for the community is a measure of how well the community cares for its Forest.

Early Spring 2022

As if aware of the equinox, the first snow trillium of the season has flowered. It is usually the second native woodland ephemeral to emerge, after the skunk cabbage.

The mullein has also emerged. While the plant won’t flower for months, its big fuzzy leaves have a great deal of medicinal value. It is not native, but grows readily in disturbed, barren ground, helping stabilize disturbed soil.

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.

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.

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.