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?

 

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.

 

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.

 

Last April wildflower walk of the year…and a few other beauties

The spring wildflowers are in their second flush, as the wild plums and bloodroot are nearly finished blooming. The warm weather has brought new hues to the forest, in a crescendo of vibrant colors.

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Trillium are in full bloom, adding a deep red to the woodland forest.
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The red oaks rely on wind for pollination, so their pollen is usually viewed as a radiating golden hue in the tree tops. This small branch was brought down in the wind, allowing me to admire the rich color and delicate leaves more closely.
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No true morels, yet. But we found a large patch of these rusty-eared gnarly beauties, with their untraceable folds and delicate ripples.
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The jack in the pulpit’s green on green provides subtle grace and requires a careful look, before the show-stopping red berries in the fall..
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Bellworts add their bright yellow to the edge of the woodland.

Beescaping for Earthday

An apiary must be more than a wooden box in an ecological desert. The honeybee is imperiled not because we cannot make enough wooden boxes to house them in but because we are all too prolific at creating and maintaining ecological deserts. From the corn field in which we are unwilling to share space for milkweeds, to the  Kentucky bluegrass lawn in which we are unwilling to share space for clovers, our meticulously maintained monocultures create the ecological desert that cannot support bees and most other creatures. Save the bees, and we will be well on our way to sustaining the ecology of our planet.

These cedar top-bar style bee hives will ensure good pollination of the trees and plants. And honey!
These cedar top-bar style bee hives will ensure good pollination of the trees and plants. And honey!

For this earth day, I have the rare opportunity to celebrate our ecology and life by dynamically increasing the diversity of Indian Creek Nature Center-a place that has incrementally been making such positive changes since it started in 1973. The bare ground from the Amazing Space construction zone is ours to create a new sustainable ecology for both the wildlife and the people.

Alliant Energy employees volunteer to plant trees. The Lindens will be the dominant shade-producing trees for the driveway.
Alliant Energy employees volunteer to plant trees. The Lindens will be the dominant shade-producing trees for the driveway.

The foundations of a good landscaping plan:

  1. Relationship to place. All of the species selected are native to Iowa. This recognizes and celebrates the value of the natural ecology. Having evolved here, the species will be self-sustaining, able to handle Iowa’s harsh winters and summer droughts. They will support the wildlife that lives here.
  2. Relationship to people. From the linden trees that will shade the driveway to the New Jersey tea plants that border the walkways, the plants and trees are species well suited for urban landscaping. They were selected to demonstrate how native plants and trees can enrich yards, providing beauty, shade and pollination. They also have edible nuts, flowers, and fruits, creating a multilayered edible landscape.
  3. Relationship to plants. Nature is a mosaic of diverse vertical layers. The lindens will provide some shade for the sassafras and bladdernuts. Sunny areas will be dominated tallgrass prairie species. Taller plants will rely on shorter plants for support.
The flowers of a native landscaping plan support bumblees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
The flowers of a native landscaping plan support bumblees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Creating an orchard

When I was nine, my grandfather would let me mow the hayfield with the tractor. He would supervise from the edge of the field, wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and straw hat, eating an apple fresh from the tree.

31 years later, I wear long-sleeved plaid shirts and a straw hat to protect me from mosquitos, thorns, ticks, and the sun. I inherited a McCormick Farmall Cub tractor older than I am. The only thing missing was the apple tree.

My friend Craig has been trying to give me a pair of apple trees for about two years now. I have always demurred, because apples need sun, and that’s not something I have a lot of living under the canopy of an oak savanna. But this spring I was watching the cardinals and chickadees in the thicket of mulberries, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle that had grown up under the dead oak tree, and I realized that I do, indeed, have a sun spot.

The oak tree died back in 2000, before we moved onto the land. It is gradually crumbling in place. Woodpeckers are aiding its decomposition, and more small twigs and bark slough off each year. If enough sunlight in the area is allowing the birds to plant  and grow a thriving orchard of invasive trees and shrubs, its enough sunlight for a few more desirable trees as well.

Armed with a chainsaw and a shovel, I started clearing and planting. Since I had no idea what kind of apple tree I wanted (the kind that tastes good?), Craig started me with a lovely variety of heirloom eating apples: a Chestnut Crab, a Yellow Hardin, a Golden Russet, a Ribston Pippin, a Rhode Island Greening, and a Yates.

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The root of the rose

Being involved with a Nature Center is about creating spaces and opportunities for people and nature to come together. People understand and relate to the glory of being outside on a summer day full of birds, butterflies, and flowers. But the dynamics of what is happening behind the scenes and underground, the natural systems and processes that ultimately create that precious beauty, those stories are harder to see, understand and tell.

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To start with, plant roots (for example) are deep, big, and completely underground. Before the invention of the plow, people cut trees and planted crops and gardens in the forest soil because there wasn’t the solid mats of prairie roots to cut though.

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The Tallgrass Prairie Center recently gifted us with a real wild rose root. Displaying it required a 10′ tall case. In the wild, the roots go deeper. Fortunately for display purposes, the Tallgrass Prairie Center grows the native plants for three years in a 10′ tube, giving us a “manageable” root to work with. I only said, “we’re going to need a bigger ladder” twice.
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Before giving us the root, the Tallgrass Prairie Center soaked it in a solution of glycerine, acetone, and ethanol to preserve it. The first step in displaying the rose root was to tease apart the root fibers after storage, so they would hang naturally.

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While the glycerine solution preserves the root against decomposition, it was still very fragile and bits of the finer hairs would fall off over time. Terry Brown, owner of Museum Professionals, donated a day of his time to preserve the root, forming it into a natural shape and then spraying it with a stabilizing solution. He then helped us install it in the display case.
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In a few short months, the root will be joining us in Amazing Space to form the centerpiece of our tallgrass prairie exhibition. If you want a sneak peak, it is on display in the Nature Center’s existing auditorium.