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.


Amazing progress on Amazing Space

More ductwork arrives regularly. Often, ductwork inside a building is hidden above drop ceilings. In Amazing Space, we are deliberately leaving the ducts exposed. This helps guests understand the heating and cooling systems in the building, and allows us to highlight the natural beauty of the pine trusses and the integrity of the architectural design.


The glass walls and doors that invite people into the building and entice them back outside are being installed. With the exterior stonework finished and windows letting natural light inside, the biophilic beauty of the building is starting to emerge.


At same time the glass curtainwall system is being erected, the siding is being installed. The yellow insulation foam is being covered by the rich brown of the hardieplank panels.


Amazing Space is made of locally sourced wood and stone. Initially, lapped cedar seemed like a logical choice of siding to compliment the stone. Despite being a rot-resistant wood, cedar still follows a natural decomposition path over time. The cedar on our existing building is being destroyed by woodpeckers, as they dig out the insect larvae burrowing in the wood. In contrast, the hardieplank siding is made from cement board, has a 30 year warranty, and will last indefinitely. The longevity and low-maintenance of this material weighed heavily in its favor as being the more sustainable option.



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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.
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.
The skunk cabbage are just emerging up Bena Brook.

What’s in a ceiling?

Work continues inside Amazing Space

In rooms where the trusses have been completely stained, Tectum panels are being installed. Tectum is a nature-based, sound-absorbing system. This will reduce noise and improve the acoustics throughout the building. The Tectum panels come pre-finished.

In the auditorium: the FSC certified pine trusses on the right have been finished. Those on the left are still unprotected wood.
In the auditorium: the FSC certified pine trusses on the right have been finished. Those on the left are still unprotected wood.

Made in the USA

Tectum is manufactured in Ohio, and the raw wood that go into Tectum come from Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. The panels come in standard widths and are cut to length at the factory, minimizing waste and minimizing installation time.

Inside the main exhibit area, looking up at the ceiling. Tectum has been installed.
Inside the main exhibit area, looking up at the ceiling. Tectum has been installed.


Sustainable grown, sustainably harvested.

Tectum is made from the fibers of Trembling Aspen, a tree that regrows in 10-15 years and reproduces by suckering. This allows the same trees to continually grow and be re-harvested. The trees and the harvesting process are Forest Stewardship Council certified.

The thin strands of aspen are compressed together, creating significant void and texture that absorbs sound. The surface is finished with white paint.

Winter Construction

We have finally slipped into a more typical Iowa winter, even if we are lacking a good solid snowfall. With heaters inside the building keeping it a moderate 55 degrees, progress continues.


Those temperatures have allowed Ryan Companies to dry out the 4 inches of ice that had fallen inside the building before it was enclosed and install “floor board,” a cardboard-type product that will protect the concrete from damage during construction.


The warm air has also enabled the last of the interior concrete slab to be poured in the mechanical room and around the columns.
IMG_20160127_095901552The carpenters are nearly finished framing the interior wall structures and installing the sheathing.

IMG_20160202_112108896 (1)

Looking out of the pass-through window of the kitchen, across the auditorium into the main exhibit hall.
IMG_20160210_113015129Next week, progress should resume on the exterior of the building. WIndows are on-site, ready to be installed. The stone masons will create a tent and heat the space,  allowing them to continue working.

Structural Insulated Panels

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) have arrived.

IMG_20151223_120718571[1]These panels go under the roof to provide insulation. The panels consist of expanded polystyrene, sandwiched between 2 sheets of oriented strand board.

IMG_20151223_120702840[1] By  prefabricated the panels offsite, they are made efficiently to the exact dimensions they need to be for installation.

IMG_20151223_095553108[1]This allows Ryan Companies to install them efficiently and minimizes waste. Combined with the standing-seam metal roof, they will provide an insulating R-value of 30.


What’s in the Wood?

The trusses of Amazing Space are going up.

Not only does that move us closer to being enclosed before cold weather, but it is a visible reminder that the environmental impacts of this project extend far beyond the building itself. Each beam and board purchased for the project meets high environmental, sustainable, and socially responsible standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council.


Once upon a time, the forests of the United States were clear cut for their lumber. Even before the invention of the chainsaw, companies would cut all of the trees out of an area and then move on to the next area. Ecological communities were devastated and mudslides were common. Modern equipment accelerated both the speed of the destruction and the areas that could be reached for logging. The old growth forests are essentially gone across the United States. Old growth forests are disappearing worldwide as developing countries cut and burn their forests to provide a place to grow annual agriculture crops or graze cattle, or cut their trees for milling without replanting.


The Forest Stewardship Council was founded in 1993 to provide a set of voluntary standards for timber companies to follow. This allowed consumers purchasing the wood to make an informed choice in how their lumber is produced, and created the market for sustainable wood.


When we made the decision to only purchase FSC wood, a requirement set by the Living Building Challenge, we were concerned about what that would cost. We were pleasantly surprised that the premium for sustainably harvested, certified lumber products has dropped significantly, and even with a wood frame building, quite affordable. What was more challenging was finding suppliers of FSC wood and FSC wood products. There is high demand for certified products, and most of the timber industry in the United States now practices some level of sustainable harvesting, as part of a sound business model. Replanting trees, for example, ensures a future for the industry.

There are 10 principles that must be met to receive the Forest Stewardship Council certification, ranging from protecting the rights of indigenous people to monitoring forests and replanting efforts over the long-term. The principles create a comprehensive, holistic approach to sustainably incorporate wood products into our lives.

A few of the Forest Stewardship Council’s Principles:

Principle #4: Community Relations and Worker’s Rights – Forest management operations shall maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities.

Principle #5: Benefits From the Forest: Forest management operations shall encourage the efficient use of the forest’s multiple products and services to ensure economic viability and a wide range of environmental and social benefits.

Principle #6: Environmental Impact: Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils, and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and, by so doing, maintain the ecological functions and the integrity of the forest.

Hunting Red in October

Every fall, two things happen that mark the shift from summer into the fall. The first is when someone calls to ask when to stop feeding the hummingbirds. The answer is whenever the hummingbirds stop eating the sugar water. They know when they need to fly south, and no amount of enticement on our part will convince them to stick around for winter.

The second is when someone brings me a beautiful red leaf to identify.

This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of oil. Off of its vine, there are no "leaves of three." The characteristic "mitten tips" curl under almost immeidately making it a tough one to identify.
This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of toxic oil. Off of its vine, there are no “leaves of three.” The characteristic “mitten tips” curl under almost immediately making it a tough one to identify.

There is, of course, plenty of non-hazardous beauty out there.

Oak leaves after a rainstorm.
White oak leaves after a rainstorm.
Sugar maple leaves. Both the oaks and the maples produce golden leaves as well this time of year.
Sumac leaves only turn red before falling off.
Sumac leaves, on the other hand, only turn red before falling off.
The red I was most excited about discovering on my last walk was a lovely patch of rose hips. Not only are the hips edible, I was able to cut them in half and save the seeds for future plantings, while drying the rose hips for turning into tea.