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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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):
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 Saleas your source for plants.