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

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.

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.

Creative Gardening

I am under siege. The beautiful seed catalogs, glossy pages full of plump, brightly colored fruits and deep green vegetables, are in my mailbox. Burpee’s, Johnny’s, Gurney’s are the latest three. I want to eat those fruits. I want to grow those fruits. With everything around me brown, grey, and white, I want to impulse buy fresh flavorful colorful tasty beauty sooo badly.

This is a full color photo from February 23. This is Iowa right now. Beautiful, but needs some color.

Really, if impulse buying a three dollar seed packet is the worst of my vices, I am probably doing OK.

A red okra in full bloom from last summer. I used to not be a fan of okra, until I tried it fresh, straight off the plant. Delicious.

But last fall, when I was climbing 15 feet in the air to harvest cherry tomatoes, and I was getting scratched up trying to find sweet peppers that were totally hidden under a mass of invasive hops, I came up with a plan. I would not succumb to the assault of the seed catalogs. I would buy in the early fall, before the watermelon harvest. Before fresh became a thing of the past season.

Small heirloom watermelons, well mulched with straw to keep the weeds at bay.

I already focus my gardens on perennials. Blueberries and honeyberries are growing next to the kiwis. A goji bush accompanies the horseradish and the asparagus. If I am going to add an annual, it is going to be something that either 1) I can’t easily find in the grocery store, or 2) it is a leafy green that I eat in such quantity that it doesn’t make economic sense to buy it in the grocery store. Mostly, I buy from Seed Savers Exchange, which I respect for being local, sustainable, and not cutting a tree to send me a catalog I may or may not want.

What did I end up with for my 2022 annual vegetables? Red Burgundy okra, Red Kalibos cabbage, Backlund Bly Orach, Copenhagen Market Cabbage, Mammoth Sandwich Island Salsify, Premier Kale, Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard. In hindsight, I definitely don’t need two different kinds of cabbage…But if they give me the strength to ignore the seed catalogs, I am OK with that.

Spring in the aviary

The flock spent most of the winter being angry with me. They appreciate neither the cold nor the snow. I had to carry one Sapphire Gem hen back to the aviary after dusk; she was too cold and tired after spending a day in the orchard to make it back on her own. The guineas spent a night outside in the orchard after a bad storm, not wanting to sink into the snow even to go home. Fortunately, the fox also spent the night hunkered down, not wanting to sink into the snow. A chicken hawk took out a guinea nine feet away from the aviary, nine feet away from safety.

Cluck Cluck the rooster prefers hanging out with the guineas instead of with his hens.

Cluck Cluck spent more than one afternoon standing in the heated water of the bird bath; his toes, mangled by a raccoon when he was young, are probably hurting. When I let the water run dry, a fox curled up in the same bird bath at dusk, absorbing its warmth and making me moderately nervous.

Enjoying the first dustbath of the year.

With the marginally and intermittently warmer weather, the guineas have been boiling out of the aviary every morning with Cluck Cluck. Sometimes the hens join them, sometimes they don’t. Laying has picked up with the longer days. I am getting an egg or two every day from the hens, and I usually manage to snag the eggs before they crack from the subzero temperatures. If I don’t, I set them out for the fox. Everyone needs to eat.