Thursday, July 23, 2009

2 new species discovered!

I had not been out to the prairie for a while, so it was fun to see what was blooming. I was really excited to find 2 new plants! On the new prairie, I found Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). This is growing from some of the seeds I selected for the plantings. YEAH!!

Even more exciting for me was the Spiderwort (Tradescantia) I found growing in a low area on the old prairie. I was wandering around looking for sweetgrass and found the spiderwort buds. It should bloom in a few days. I have never seen it on our prairie before, but recognize it from working in the greenhouse. It is amazing how much more I can see growing after the burn this spring.

Blooming on the "new" prairie: Bergamot, Showy tick trefoil (lots more this year in the burn area), gray headed coneflower, long-headed coneflower, echinacea, hoary vervain, white and purple prairie clover, rattlesnake master, yarrow, milkweed, early sunflower, and mountain mint. The grasses seeding are: canada wild rye, side oats gamma, and VERY TALL big bluestem.

On the "Old" prairie: Surf pea, germander, echinacea, lead plant, black eyed susan, goldenrod (in bud), Delphinium, showy tick trefoil, tradescantia, milkweed (common, swamp, and whorled), wild 4 o'clock, wolfberries, coreopsis, mountain mint, white prairie clover, (the purple is only blooming on the "new" prairie), and the beautiful native thistles.

The Chokecherries are ripe. I don't think I'll be making any jelly this year. But I did make a few jars of raspberry jam.

Our little corn fields do not look very good this year. We have 2 fields planted with corn for the deer and pheasants to eat. We did not get them tended this year and the weeds are taking over. We do plant a little sweet corn for ourselves. Hopefully some of it will fight through the weeds, escape the raccoons and deer, and make its way to our dinner table and freezer.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Deer in the garden

When we left the house this morning, we spotted a bunny in the garden. Then we noticed that the sunflower next to the bunny had no leaves on it. Could the bunnies really have eaten a 2 foot tall sunflower?
I thought it would take a deer to eat the tops off those flowers... Sure enough, there were deer tracks in our garden. Right in town! We had deer tracks once this winter in the snow, but assumed that the bitter cold led the deer to seek easy food like birdseed. Today's deer tracks were more of a surprise.
Little Tori is very sad to have lost her big sunflowers. Yup - all we have left are several 5 - 8 inch stumps with no leaves. Tori left a doll in the window tonight to warn us if the deer return.
I wonder if the deer will return and eat anything else. I have pretty low expectations for this garden. We only water and weed periodically, and when we do go out and work in it, our 'helpers' are pretty hazardous to plants. But it is fun and gets them out in the dirt.

It has been pretty cold around here lately. Highs in the 60s. Pretty strange for July. Also, there has been a lot of lake itch at the beach. We have hardly gone swimming at all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I awoke this morning to a rare a beautiful sound - rain falling. We have not had any significant rain since the 4.5" washout in mid June.

This weekend, as we drove through central Minnesota, I saw corn in non-irrigated fields reaching up to the sky as if it was praying for rain. The usually lush leave were so thin.
I don't have to mow the lawns this week. The grass has not grown at all since last week - and it barely grew the week before that.
I hope this rain will save our local farmers. It will help my little garden too.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Old" Prairie, "New" Prairie

My family is lucky enough to own about 40 acres of native prairie. This is the ecosystem that existed before white settlement. Less than 1% of Minnesota's native prairie remains. 
Our little patch escaped the plow because it is hilly and rocky. Cattle grazed on it years ago, but since prairie once supported bison, the cattle did not hurt it. 

The 80 or so acres around it had been farmed, but through much of the 1990's it was put into a government program called "Water Bank." My grandfather was paid a small rent to keep it out of production for 10 years. He was instructed to plant brome grass, clover and alfalfa. The Water Bank was successful, the clover and alfalfa restore the soils and the grass provides cover for wildlife. Pheasants in particular loved the area.

The problem for me was that the brome grass was invasive. Over the years, it spread to the native prairie and was choking out the native flowers and grasses. We talked about spot treating the brome with chemicals, but decided that unless we deal with the 80 acres of it surrounding the prairie, it would probably be futile. 

Once the Water Bank contract expired, Poppy and I discussed what to do with the land. We hayed it for a year or two while we explored options. My main concern was getting rid of the brome. I would rather have a field of corn or soybeans surrounding the prairie than the invasive grass.

Waiting paid off. The opportunity to sign up for a new program presented itself. The government announced a signup period for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). One of the CRP programs called for planting native grasses and flowers. Landowners bid on what rent they will accept in exchange for planting natives and leaving them in place for 10 years. The program includes some cost share for the seeds and planting as well as conservation practices half way through the program. (Burning for example.)

We put in our bid and were accepted into the program. So, in the fall of 2003, we treated the Water Bank area with Roundup to kill all the brome. In the spring of 2004, the area was disked, then when the weed seeds germinated, we treated the area with Roundup again. Then disked, and packed the ground to prepare the seedbed. The grass seeds were planted using a "no-till drill." That lightly cut the soil and dropped in the seeds.

The grass seeds were purchased from a local company. They harvested the seeds for us from local prairies. The grass seeds we used were: Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Side Oats Gramma, and Canada Wild Rye. We applied for special permission to wait on the flower seeds and planted only the grasses in the Spring.

The grass came up in rows - just as it was planted. But along with the grasses came weeds. The reason we planted the grasses by themselves, is that we were able to treat the area with the herbicide Curtail. Curtail kills broadleaf weeds, but does not harm grasses. 

Flower seeds were planted in the fall, just before the frost. We rented the same no-till drill for the flower seeds. I selected 3 different seed mixes - one for upland, one for moist/wet areas, and one for the areas in between. Flower seeds are very expensive, and I did not want to waste seeds for plants that crave moisture by planting them on the hilltops and vice versa. Each of the mixes contained over 20 different species of flowers. 

In January of 2005, Poppy drove around scattering seeds on the frozen ground. (It was too bumpy for me as I was 7 months pregnant at the time.) The seeds he scattered were ones I had hand collected on the native prairie and dried in the barn. 

The plantings were very successful. The new prairie has many beautiful flowers, tall stands of grass, and very few weeds. Last summer, we came to the middle part of the contract and were required to either mow or burn. According to the contract, if we mowed, we either had to leave the clippings in place (which would choke out the growing plants) or haul the clippings away and burn them off site. Burning is beneficial to native grasses, so that was the natural choice for us.

Continuing to do the best job we could, we decided to split the area into two parts and burn half each year. The animals can escape the flames, but the crawling insects cannot. By splitting the area into two, the insects can re-populated the burned area.

So in 2008 we burned half the area. It was only on the "new" planted/restored prairie. This year, we burned the other half. This half included all of the "old" or native prairie and the remainder of the "new" prairie that did not get burned last year.

Baby Pheasant

I saw my first baby pheasant of the season. It was running down the road in the 'new prairie'. I heard at least 2 of them in the grass. This is a little bit late for the first ones. But the poor pheasants had to re-nest after the prairie burn destroyed the first ones. It was sad, but it will create better habitat for them - and they were able to re-nest.

Other observations:
The big bluestem grass on the burned part of the new prairie is 5 feet tall and a few have actually sprouted seeds. The non-burned part of the new prairie has some shorter shoots and there is very little visible on the old prairie. I have noticed that the big bluestem on the new prairie goes to seed earlier than the new prairie - probably due to being a slightly different genotype, but the burn has really accelerated its growth.

The Porcupine grass is almost done dropping its seeds.

Blooming now:
On new prairie only:
Long-headed Coneflower, & Purple Prairie Clover.

On both areas:
Yarrow, Black Eyed Susan, Early Sunflower, Showy Tick Trefoil, Echinaca, White Prairie Clover, and Indian Hemp.

On the old prairie only:
Phlox, Bedstraw, Delphinium (more than I have ever seen), Germander, Prairie Lily, Swamp Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Heuchera, Silver Leaf Scurf Pea, and Death Camas.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

First Raspberries

We headed over to Poppy's tonight to pick raspberries. They were the first of the season. (We ate a few off of our bushes too.) Tori is good at picking them, and Sophie even managed to get a few into the bowl. Most of them went directly into her mouth.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Prairie Sky

Last night, after the children were asleep, I brought 2 friends out to the prairie. My friend Alex had fond memories of stargazing out there years ago and wanted his wife to have the same experience.

It was a beautiful, clear summer night. Unfortunately, the moon was so bright, we could barely see the stars. There were enough stars to identify a few constellations and get a sense of how much sky there is on the prairie.

Living in rural Minnesota, it is easy to forget that most city dwellers have too much light pollution to see the stars. Alex grew up in Maine where it is dark enough to see the stars, but the mountains and the trees limit your view of the sky. Out on the prairie it is all sky - 180 degrees from one horizon to the other. When the sky is clear and the moon is not so bright, the stars are amazing!

Taking Alex and Debbie out reminded me just how beautiful our night sky is. I have not gone out stargazing for many years. With 2 little girls, bedtime comes early. I sometimes catch a glimpse of the stars here in my yard, but between the streetlights, trees and houses, the view pales in comparison to the amazing prairie sky. I think I'll make a point to go out to the hills at night again soon. 

There were also a few fireflies blinking in the tall grass - and fireworks across the lake. A nice combination for the 4th of July.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What is blooming now

On tonight's drive I saw:
Phlox, black eyed susan, wind flowers, bedstraw (LOTS), thimble weed, Early sunflower, false gromwell, Yarrow, Meadow rue, Long headed cone flower, Echinacea (just starting), ground cherry, seneca snakeroot, yellow star flower, silver-leaf scurf pea, and prairie lily blooming. The phlox, lily and thimble weed were not blooming on Monday when I brought the RI relatives out for a visit.
Monique is really good at catching dragonflies. She also spotted prairie rose buds. The roses and the purple prairie clover will be blooming soon.
Also, the big bluestem grass on the burned part of the restored prairie is REALLY TALL. It is not showing its seeds yet, so it will get taller yet. The Big blue on the native prairie and the unburned restored prairie is not nearly as tall yet.

The leaves are growing back on the apple tree. It was completely de-foliated by tent caterpillars. The poor tree has not had blossoms for 2 years now due to those pests.

The buffalo berries, while still plentiful, are no longer edible. They still have the yummy pea-pod taste, but are too tough to chew.

The beautiful prairie lily is blooming now. It only blooms a day or two, so I am always excited to see it. We have a couple that bloom in the low area near the culvert, and a couple of plants in the little prairie remnant by the "tower." I have not seen it growing anywhere else on our land.

The wood ticks are especially thick this year. I expect them in late May, but on Monday's walk, we were picking 10-20 off each person. Still, I would chose ticks over mosquitos any day.