Winter Approaches on the Prairie

by Kathy Larson

It’s sunny and the winds are finally down the day after our first major frost here in Eastern Iowa – a perfect day to visit the prairie. So much has changed over the last few weeks. The eastern half of our prairie still has some purple aster and yellow goldenrod flowers scattered about while the western half has no flowers left of any kind.

Most of the butterflies that were so numerous just a few weeks ago are gone now. Those that remain are clustered around the areas where there are still some flower blossoms.

In a protected corner, a nice stand of Maximillan sunflowers still hold their own — with numerous sunny yellow flowers climbing the tall thick stems. It’s the only stand left, with just a few scattered stragglers elsewhere to remind us of the flowers that dominated most of the prairie for nearly a month.

Grasshoppers are prevalent on the mowed paths where they graze on the grass.

Prairie paths are mowed monthly to make it easy to see all parts of the prairie without having to hike through thick, tangled vegetation.

Even though most of the prairie flowers are gone, replaced by the seeds that will drop to the ground or drift to new areas in hopes of finding a suitable place to put down roots, the walk is as enjoyable as ever.

No open soil is available on our soon-to-be 20-year-old prairie, so most of the seeds that don’t manage to migrate elsewhere will feed migrating and over-wintering birds, mice, shrews, quail and pheasants.

The prairie floor seems to be a solid mass of vegetation, but a closer look shows small tunnels everywhere through the grasses – places for creatures to nest, run and hide. And as I walk, I hear little rustlings here and there.

I notice something unusual in a section dense with goldenrods — numerous swellings on the stems of many of the goldenrods. The swellings are called galls, and are made by a parasitic insect called a goldenrod gall fly.

The female lays her eggs inside the stem. The larva, when it hatches, eats stem tissue, causing the stem to grow abnormally and produce a gall. The larva stays inside the gall, eating and growing until winter when it creates an anti-freeze like substance that keeps it alive during the winter. In the spring, it will exit the stem as an adult fly.

While the prairie is ending its abundance of colorful blooms, the many interesting textures and shapes of the foliage and seed heads keep the prairie beautiful and interesting.

And animal life goes on — the prairie will provide food and shelter even through our long, cold Iowa winters.

We’ll check back to see how that wildlife is faring as the days turn cold and snowy.

Hudson Valley Seed Library

Have a look at a beautiful and creative endeavor: The Hudson Valley Seed Library.

In their own words, The Hudson Valley Seed Library strives to do two things:

  1. to create an accessible and affordable source of regionally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring farmers and gardeners; and,
  2. to create gift-quality seed packs featuring works designed by New York artists in order to celebrate the beauty of heirloom gardening.

Farmers Doug Muller and Ken Greene dreamed of creating an “accessible and affordable source of regionally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring gardeners.” Hence they formed a company that sells seeds from its own farm as well as those grown by other local farmers. Gardeners are encouraged to save and share their own seeds too.

If you’re a member of the seed library, you get discounts on seed packs and events, plus ten seed packs. Members also can return seeds to the seed library in exchange for a discount on next year’s membership. The seed library offers information on seed saving, classes and workshops.

In 2011, they expect to offer over 60 varieties of locally grown seed and around 100 varieties sourced from responsible seed houses. The company contracts with organic and certified naturally grown farmers in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York to grow new varieties. Most of their varieties are rooted in the history and soils of New York or are chosen because they do well in that zone, but of course they can be used in other zones as well.

They offer a  membership program to backyard gardeners who are interested in joining the cause.

The art on the seed packets is chosen from the submissions of over 70 artists. They’re from the Hudson Valley and New York City. As the website explains, artists range from “up-and-coming to world renowned. The diversity of the artwork reflects the many stories behind each variety and the genetic wonder that makes each plant unique.”

When the packets are folded, the main art piece ends up on the front, and the back is sealed with a sticker.

Viewing some of the packets is like a mini tour through an art gallery! Enjoy. (artist listed under the piece)

Art by Ayumi Horie.

Art by Lisa Perrin.

Art by Sarah Snow.

Paper silhouette by Diana Bryan.

Art by Barbara Bash.

Illustration by Arik Roper.

Painting and collage by Jacinta Bunnell.

Watercolor by Robert Morris.

Art by Christy Rupp.

Oil painting by Joan Lesikin.

Art by Sheryl Humphrey.

Photo/illustration by Michael Asbill.

Art by Allyson Levy.

Tuck one of these packages into a gift, or make a gift of an assortment.

A bonus with these fun seed packets is that when they’re empty, you can recycle them for wrapping small gifts like jewelry.

Please let us know about any seed libraries or seed saver groups in your area.