Prairie Yard...

This past Sunday I mowed my lawn for the first time of the season.

Now I realize there will be a subset of you out there who, upon realizing that last Sunday was the middle of May, will pronounce me a monster.

Fine. You’re right. While I desperately love that we have a substantial yard, I do not aspire to the tightly manicured green-striped lawn of suburbia. In fact, that’s part of the reason I do not live in suburbia. But beyond that, there is a school of thought that says that it’s better for bees - which are struggling - if we give some time to let the lawn grow.

Of course, that presumes that you are also letting things that flower grow in your yard as well.

Which we do. Trigger alert here for those for whom a yard means an extended stretch of Kentucky bluegrass and nothing else...

Dandelions

The other benefit to letting the yard grow is the view. It’s not strictly a prairie - the grass and flowers certainly aren’t that high - but you do get a crop of at least the ubiquitous dandelions and violets to pose for pictures before the lawn gets sheared.

Violets and dandelions

But there are limits. I waited long enough that Rosie seemed to be a little perplexed at what I was up to...

Rosie, watchful

Of course, by this point, Calamity could also be in the picture - with her short little cattledog legs, I’m not sure she can see out over the standing grass.

And ultimately, as you are working your way through the taller portions you realize why people started cutting grass. In addition to the occasional opportunistic tree that tries to take root, there are also a small assortment of rodents that scurry away as the mower approaches. There are actual, practical purposes to this activity besides ensuring that your dog doesn’t get lost.

I think we’d reached that limit.

Yeah - it’s a little long...

Limbs Down

Now that spring is officially underway - Punxsutawney Phil’s dubious predictions aside, spring officially started with the vernal equinox on March 20th - temperatures have started to rise, melting back the snow cover. The uncovering of the ground reveals the consequences of this winter of repeated ice and wind storms, backed by a polar vortex - our trees have shed what looks to be an unprecedented volume of material.

Limbs down

There are a lot of nice things about having a country yard full of mature trees, and there are many things to look forward to about spring. The yard cleanup is not one of them.

Every spring involves some degree of impending yard cleanup, to be sure, but the area around all of our trees looks like some sort of lost elephant graveyard. It’s like all of the trees coordinated on an extreme weight loss program, and came to the conclusion that they really had only one way to achieve their goals - radical shedding.

The ice storms probably are to blame for much of this. Few things will take a toll on a tree like being first encased in thick, heavy ice, being made brittle by the cold, and then being buffeted by 30-50mph winds. Honestly, in the big picture, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more damage in general (though I haven’t done a comprehensive overview of the yard, so I may be speaking too soon).

Each year we end up with a large pile of yard material - mostly downed limbs of various and sundry sizes and composition - that provides an opportunity for a bonfire. This year’s pile is likely to be epic tho, likely we’ll want to burn it in sessions rather than all at once.

I started doing a bit of cleanup earlier this weekend to get the ball rolling. Just the bigger stuff, not the heavy-duty raking to pick up the smaller sticks that are hard (and tedious) to get by hand. Those I’ll leave until the remaining autumn leaf cover blows off (one of the bonuses to living on the prairie - the wind does the leaf raking if you let it). One of multiple such piles is shown below.

Pile

And - of course - this is just the beginning. As we go rolling towards spring we will also be moving into thunderstorm season. Looking up in the trees, still bereft of their leaves, one can see additional limbs which are either damaged or completely broken, but caught partway down. They will fall as well. And while spring does remove the effects of the ice from the equation, one can count on more arboreal detritus before it’s all over.

Whoopee?

Milkweed

I’ll admit that the combination of a schedule with limited free time and a yard that is about two acres in size makes it difficult to keep up with more than only the most rudimentary tending. This means that I am often fighting a less than decisive battle against enemies such as burdock, lambs quarter, and the hated Chinese mulberry. Depending upon which point in the summer one views the yard, the state of my struggle can be more or less evident.

But though there are many weeds against which I battle, the one which gets a complete pass from me is milkweed.

milkweed in the yard

milkweed in the flower bed

This is not because they are a thing of great visual appeal in and of themselves. While not unattractive in the way that a burdock or lambs quarter is, (and they do flower, though not in a particularly showy fashion), they have things going for them that the others simply do not.

The flowers are a food source for bees and similar pollinators and, given that we are in an era of decline for honeybees, it seems reasonable to lean towards maintaining things that support them (we grow other flowers as well, and don’t treat for things like dandelions). But the chief benefit is, of course, that these plants are a food source for Monarch Butterfly caterpillars.

When we first moved back here one of the things that surprised me were the sheer volume of butterflies, monarch and otherwise, that we had in the summer. These range from your basic butter-pats to a variety of multi-colored visitors.

They are painfully difficult to get good pictures of, but very occasionally I get lucky.

Painted Lady

This one, a type which I see often, appears to be a painted lady according to this Insect Identification website. The site indicates that painted lady caterpillars preferred foods are thistles, and that they "also eat the leaves of mallows, hollyhock and burdock plants". We don’t see much by way of hollyhocks, but thistles, mallows, and the hateful burdock are certainly plentiful in the area.

As for the Monarch’s themselves and their relationship with the milkweed, I was lucky enough to catch a couple of shots of (what I believe are) Monarch caterpillars in action the other day:

Monarch Caterpillar

Monarch Caterpillar under leaf

The milkweeds are also home to a variety of other critters. I can frequently spot Milkweed Beetles, a critter that looks a little like a giant, misshapen ladybug, and which I’d neither seen nor heard of before till moving back out here.

Milkweed Beetle

Milkweed Beetles Mating

(Of course, I assume that what is going on in the second picture is that the beetle on bottom is sick, and the one on top is trying to help her get to the hospital...)

I’ve seen spiders hiding in between the closely gathered top leaves and, unfortunately, have also found batches of earwigs. On at least one occasion the spider and the earwigs were in the same general area, which gives me a tiny bit of hope (there are few animals or insects that I truly dislike, but earwigs are definitely on that list).

This process of exploration and discovery often helps to soothe, at least for a little while, the frustration of trying (and failing) to keep up with the tending of the big yard. There are amazing and interesting things to see around each corner, and under every leaf.

Time to Mow

grass out of control

Spring has fully sprung, and the rainy season has been out in full force. These April showers do, of course, bring...

Well, I don't know, there are already flowers blooming here - they don't wait for May, so I'm not sure that saying was coined by someone living in the upper Midwest. But what it does bring is the dawn of mowing season.

To be clear, MLW does the bulk of the mowing and seems to enjoy it. What's more, LB is primed to be learning this task as well. This is not about to become a screed about how annoying it is to care for the lawn.

The other thing that Spring brings is the annual realization that I need to get a battery charger, though this would negatively affect what has now become the traditional harbinger of mowing season: the announcement that the mower will not start.

Of course the challenge is that the only time I ever need a battery charger is at the start of mowing season. This means that the only time I ever think about getting a battery charger is at the start of mowing season. And, since we typically need it now, to get the lawn mowed, I've borrowed devices to get the job done in the moment.

And then, of course, forgotten until the following spring.

I am not ahead of the game this year. The mower has already failed to start. But I think, this time, that perhaps I will risk that tradition and actually get a damn battery charger.

Out in the Cold

I said last time that I delight in the midwestern winter, even when I'm entering it after a week in the tropics.

Fortunately, life out at the Homestead offers plenty of opportunities to spend that time outside in the snow. On our first full day back from vacation there were a handful of activities that I tackled, all part and parcel of time on the prairie.

Since we missed the first snow of the season I hadn't thought yet about picking up salt for the sidewalk. This fact was provided as a near miss at a painful reminder as I felt my feet move out from under me when I took my first steps out the back door. It was added to the list of things to pick up as I ran my errands.

But when I returned from those my primary chore - which I'd frankly left a bit for want of time to address it - was upon me. A little longer ago than I care to admit MLW sent me a text to let me know that a rather large section of the fir tree next to the back door had broken off and fallen to the sidewalk.

Limb Down!

One of the things I've had to teach myself about living out here is that it is often better to leave a project - at least one that isn't an emergency - to a time when one can handle it properly. As it stands, with the declining daylight hours I typically leave in darkness, and in darkness I return... The limb had fallen near the sidewalk, but it wasn't in the way of anything, and it was too large for me to simply pull over to the brush pile; it would need to be cut up. But this meant that I'd be working on it in the snow.

Given the size of the limb, and in the interest of efficiency and practicality, I made a suggestion to MLW:

E: Hey, you know, what do you think about just using that fallen limb as our Christmas tree this year?

MLW: ...

E: Hey honey - I said I thought maybe we could use that fallen limb as our Christmas tree.

MLW: Yeah - I heard you the first time.

It appears she was, shall we say, less than interested in that option.

So I gathered up some of my yard weaponry and prepared for battle.

Yard Weapons

I used my implements of destruction and was able to get it into small pieces fairly quickly. I keep thinking that I should get a chainsaw - there are enough downed limbs and weed trees to justify such a tool. But there is something especially satisfying about taking apart a limb like this with an axe. A few well-aimed swings can separate things into manageable pieces, and it's hard not to feel like you've accomplished something when you're done.

Once cut up, though, the pieces still had to be hauled off to the brush pile. Given that Freyja was hanging about and "helping", I tried to elicit her assistance:

E: Hey Freyja, you like to haul wood about. How about you carry these on over to the brush pile.

F: ...

E: Really - come on - you're big and strong. It'll be a good workout for you.

F: ...

Freyja is not interested

So, yeah, disappointed for the second time of the afternoon, I hauled it all off for future burning.

Anytime I do something like this, outside, in the wintery weather, it reminds me how quickly one warms up if one is actively working in the cold. I started up bundled up against the cold, but before I got halfway through I was loosening buttons and unzipping things to get relief from the heat. It's mother nature's little gift.