The land is waking up from winter’s slumber.
February 28. The fog is so thick the horizon between prairie and forest, between snow and air, is subtle. I got in what would be my last snowball fight of the season.
March 7. The maple sap stopped flowing. The skunk cabbage is up. This morning, we sit in the open doorway, feeling the world wake up between the first raindrops of spring. Nitro, Peaches and Jeff pause in an unspoken moment of truce. They are not in pursuit of peace, they are just entranced by that delicate, ephemeral moment when the warmth of the furnace on their backs shares equilibrium with the warmth of outdoor air on their faces.
March 15. The sound of clattering ice wakes me up. It is being driven by a solid 25 mile per hour wind into the side of the house. Tree tops, unattached but suspended in the air since August, have been wrenched down to the ground. The precipitation vacillates all day between snow, ice, and rain. Spring lies buried under a layer of frozen slush.
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.
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?
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
Dotted blazing star Liatris punctata
Goat’s rue Tephrosia virginiana
Lead plant Amorpha canascens
Midland shooting star Dodecatheon meadia
Narrow leaved coneflower Echinacea angustifolia
Prairie onion Allium stellatum
Prairie smoke Geum triflorum
Prairie wild rose Rosa arkansana
Purple prairie clover Dalea purpurea
Rattlesnake master Eryngium yuccifolium
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
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.
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.
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.
The bees are here, the bees are here! Last year, I spent no time in the hives, received no honey from the bees, and went into the winter with no bees. It wasn’t a lack of productivity on the bees part, just a lack of assistance on mine. The hives became overpopulated, the bees swarmed, and swarmed, and swarmed again too late to remain viable through the winter.
Like most other inbred domesticated animals, apis mellifera usually need a certain amount of care and management to be successful. With Amazing Space finished, and a partner to help me in the apiary, they should get more attention this year and we will see what the top bar hives can really do. Top bar hives require less (in this case, no) chemical input, but like most organic systems, that translates to greater time in the field physically working with them. We will need to move frames around and remove comb throughout the season.
It is naturally shaping up to be a good bee season. It has been warm, so there is a profusion of blossoms full of both nectar and pollen.The apple trees and lilac bushes are in full bloom. The dandelions, bluebells, and wild violets are creating a fusion of blue and yellow. The warm days will allow the bees to fly more and feed easily, and the colony will build up quickly.
I was staring out the kitchen window, looking at the jonquil patch beside the garden, and realized the jonquils, about to burst into flower, really need to be divided to continue thriving.
Not that this is the best time of year to be dividing things, but I decided they would like nice in the orchard, which just last year was a mess of multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and honeysuckle. The apple trees are still so small, it looks a bit stark. Nitro and I went down to the orchard, and decided that yes, the jonquils would look lovely, but I should rally plant some iris first as a backdrop, as the iris grow taller. My inspection also revealed that the deer have finally discovered the tasty apple buds. On a mature tree the deer are not a problem. But if there are only a dozen buds on the tree in the first place, the deer can eat the whole thing. Apples will stump-sprout, but as they are all grafts…the fruit will not be tasty.
My work cut out for me, I went out to a field by a former farmstead, where the feral iris are thriving in a myriad of colors amidst the brome grass and occasional big bluestem, and dug two up two five-gallon buckets of rhizomes. Once they were all cleaned up they yielded 70 plants.
Into the ground they went, and then, just as the rain was starting, I fenced the trees. Definitely not good enough to be a permanent deer barrier-I supplemented my metal fencing with previously cut thorny debris, including multiflora rose and black locust branches. But it will save the trees for a little while longer. Here we are, two weeks later, and I realized the jonquils…still haven’t been divided. A project that will just have to wait until fall, which they will prefer anyway.