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.

Emerging Spring

Spring is emerging all around, from the chorus frogs and red wing blackbirds calling from the wetland to the wildflowers emerging in the woodlands.

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Snow trilliums are the first of the spring ephemerals blooming this year. They are as important to the spring pollinators as the pollinators (in this case, a fly) are to them.
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The squil is also just starting to bloom. While not native, it is not posing an invasive problem here. As more of it blooms, it will provide a critical source of pollen for the honeybees.
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The skunk cabbage are just emerging up Bena Brook.

Desert Survival: Prepare & Prevent

As a part of learning to survive, appreciate, and maybe even love our new desert habitat, I took the children to a program called “Desert Survival” at the nature center of a large (3500+ acres) regional park yesterday.

Desert Survival: Prepare & Prevent

 

We did not learn how to extract water from giant saguaros.  Nor did we learn how to create a bow drill to start a fire.  We didn’t even learn how to fight zombies with cholla cactus spines.

Instead, we learned about the importance of preparation and prevention.  Proper preparation is something every hiker in every climate can do to prevent a survival situation from happening in the first place!  As the fabulous ranger explained in at the beginning of the talk: his information does not make for popular TV shows, but it will keep you off the TV news!

Here are 3 new-to-me ideas for staying safe in the desert (or any hike!):

1-Instead of trying to find water, bring more water than you think you need.  Yes, water is heavy. Yes, it can be awkward to carry. But in the desert, by the time you start to feel thirsty, you’re already becoming dehydrated.  Bring the extra water.

In fact, bring an extra-extra bottle of water: Drink at your car until you feel satiated, then hike, then when you get back to the car, drink the rest of your extra-extra bottle.

2-A cheap emergency blanket has a variety of uses.  The park sells them for $3 each and I plan to buy one for each of us when we go back for a hike.  They look like these (excellent reviews & sold in a 10 pack).  Not only can an emergency blanket keep you warm in the cold and cooler in the heat, it makes a great distress signal!

3-Leave a detailed note about your hiking plans: Where you’re going, where you’re going to park, when you plan to be back.

“Took the kids hiking in the Superstition Mountains” is not the level of detail that is going to get you found!

Leave a detailed note: Desert Survival is about Preparing!

While I feel better about going for a family hike in the desert now, I guess we’re on our own for designing zombie-stopping cholla cactus weapons!

And if you’re ever in Arizona, stop by the Usery Mountain for a fabulous presentation or hike!

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Waldeinsamkeit

Usually I celebrate full moons, eclipses, solstices, and anything else I can think of outside walking with friends, followed by a little fire.

While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.
While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.

This season has been unusually hectic between Amazing Space (of which I love every moment, it just takes a lot of moments), the construction of the natural amphitheater, preparing the apiary for 2016, and everything else I normally do.

I've never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.
I’ve never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.

For this winter solstice, I opted to take a break and enjoy waldeinsamkeit. It literally translates into woodland solitude, and I find it is a beautiful way to connect with myself, and with the natural world around me. I actually had to visit waldeinsamkeit twice, once during the day and once after dark on the solstice. The warm temperatures, moist air, and clouds skittering across the moon were beckoning me back outside. Since English is based on German, why we didn’t we keep that word?

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The unseasonably warm winter and frequent rains are supporting a prolonged mushroom season in the woods.

 

 

Art in Nature

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At our last fire, we decided to make some drawing charcoal. We took dried willow twigs and stripped the bark (stripping the bark should really be done when the willow is green, because it peels very easily then) to make a soft charcoal, and we split some thin strips of cedar to make hard charcoal. Each stick was about 8 inches long.

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We wrapped them tightly in tinfoil. This allows the gas to escape, but prevents oxygen from getting into the sticks and actually combusting them. We tucked them down in the coals, let them sit for an hour and a half, and then fished them back out. 

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A groundnut blossom
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A yellow lady slipper orchid blossom

With everything outside reduced to greys and browns, and the darkness setting in so early, drawing is a great way to experience  and study the wildflowers. Often, the brilliant colors of summer overwhelm me, and I don’t notice the more subtle structure of the flowers themselves. Meanwhile, mother nature has been creating her own artwork.

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The wind draws in the snow with little bluestem
The snow melted, the ground is not yet frozen, and the temperatures are vacillating between warm and chilly. We witnessed a rare phenomenon on some goldenrod stalks. Though the stalk is dead, it is wicking moisture out of the ground. The moisture then freezes in the air, creating an iceflower at the base of the plant.

Planting a bioswale, part 1

Walls are going up.
Walls are going up.
Septic system is nearly complete.
Septic system is nearly complete.

Amazing Space is progressing quickly, both above ground and underground. Three of the bioswales are complete. Finishing them early allows us to protect them with silt fence immediately and re-establish permanent native prairie in the same season they were initially disturbed. We started dormant seeding already to provide the seeds a natural cold, wet stratification and good soil contact for spring germination.

Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.
Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.

In a few days, the more traditional annual oat cover crop will be planted. If these warmer temperatures hold, they should establish roots yet this fall to protect the soil, and they will die back over the winter. The site will also be mulched, to protect the bare soil.

Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better, but we didn't have any on hand when this culver's root presented itself.
Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better than plastic, but we didn’t have any on hand when this Veronicastrum virginicum presented itself.

Because these are bioswales, they are designed to move water through them. While it will be a lot of water, it won’t be standing and puddling. The species we plant need to be able to withstand drought far more than they need to be able to withstand flooding. For this first round of planting, we used: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa*), white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), sweet pearly everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtrusifolium), grey coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), wild rose (Rosa arkansana), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and narrow-leaved coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia).

wild coffee
Triosteum perfoliatum

As fall harvesting continues, so will the number of species we plant. For species that we don’t have a lot of already on-site, such as white prairie clover (Dalea candida) and rough blazing star (Liatris aspera),  we will purchase. Due to the support of Rockwell Green Communities, we also have a number of established plants started in the Butterfly Hoop House to transplant.

Butterfly weed ready for transplant.
 Asclepias tuberosa ready for replanting outside.

*It’s worth learning the Latin. I recently had a great conversation with a volunteer interested in helping us establish more pleurisy root on the property. Never having heard of pleurisy root, I had to do a bit of research to determine if pleurisy root was native (it is) and if it fit within our land management plan (critical to the plan, in fact).  I was also initially introduced to Triosteum perfoliatum as wild coffee, no Latin provided. I had to key that out in a guide book to find its Latin name, because what most people call wild coffee isn’t native here…

A fall field day

IMG_20150925_184848508_HDRThe autumn skies have been beckoning, so we headed out to investigate a nearby park on the Wapsipinicon River. A helpful fisherman cautioned us when we arrived that the trails weren’t well maintained, which we quickly learned was a euphemism for “non existent” but that didn’t slow us down. Figuratively. Literally, beating your way through tangled masses of vegetation, that even deer were avoiding, over uneven ground…definetely made it an adventure. We weren’t worried, because we had both the river to follow “back” and in this particular part of eastern Iowa, there is typically a road every square mile.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it quickly turned in to a mushroom treasure hunt.

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We were also treated to brilliant red of the false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum). The real Solomon’s (Polygonatum biflorum) seal has blue berries, and instead of clustering at the top like this, they appear intermittently along the stem.

IMG_20151002_141638884When we were ready to head home, we pulled out the smart phone with map ap, which let us know exactly where we were. It helped us avoid detouring the long way around an oxbow and a wetland. A magical afternoon in the woods.

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