Have you driven through Iowa? The roadsides are beautiful. Native wildflowers and grasses line the roads throughout much of the state, offering habitat for wildlife, especially birds and insects. (Iowa roadside in photo on left)
Further, Iowa state law prohibits the mowing of roadside meadows until after July 15 except under very specific circumstances. The delay in mowing allows for birds that nest in the grasses to finish raising their chicks before the mowers destroy the nests.
The highway prairie program applies to all public roads in the state, and approximately 50,000 acres of roadsides have been planted with native grasses and wildflowers. Not only does wildlife benefit, but so do the tax payers as fewer resources are spent mowing roadsides.
It is iconic. The American lawn: green, neatly cut and free of any plant but grass. No violets. No clover. Definitely no dandelions!
It ranks right up there with motherhood, baseball and apple pie as a symbol of America. Think of those lush, green golf courses in the deserts out west, or the photos of Phoenix transplants from the Midwest with lawns. The American lawn is more than a stereotype – it is an expensive addiction.
Moreover, like most addictions, lawns are expensive. A little background:
The most common species of grass used for lawns in this area include red fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. Both are “cool season” grasses because they turn green and begin growing when it is still cool during the day. In fact, cool season grasses prefer cool wet conditions, and survive winter cold and summer droughts by going dormant.
Did you read that? Let me repeat: the grass species that comprise our lawns grow best in cool, wet conditions and go dormant during hot, dry (and very cold) weather.
In other words, it is necessary to water these species during hot, dry weather to keep them green and growing. But, what do Americans do? We don’t just water our lawns, we fertilize them to help them grow thicker and faster. And, the more they grow, the more we mow. I don’t know about anyone else, but I do not want my lawn growing any faster or thicker than it does already.
Did you know that up to 70% of household water use goes to outside watering? And, if you live in town, you pay for every gallon of water you use.
But it’s not just water use that goes up to maintain lawns. A study by Yale University estimated that U.S. residents use more than 600,000,000 gallons of gas to mow and trim lawns each year. Cutting lawn mowing in the US by just one percent would save 6 million gallons of gasoline a year. A ten percent cut would save 60 million gallons of gas each year.
The easiest way to cut back on mowing is to let the lawn go dormant in the summer. Stop watering the lawn for a few weeks, the grass will stop growing and the mower will sit idle.
Another way to keep the mower in the garage is by planting a slow-grow grass mix. Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin (www.prairienursery.com) sells a fescue mix that only needs to be mowed a couple of times a year. Once established, the slow-growing lawn doesn’t need to watered or fertilized either.
Converting part of the lawn to a native plant garden is one more way to reduce the need for mowing and watering. Native grasses and wildflowers are beautiful, drought-resistant and low maintenance.
Reducing the area of lawn on your property is one aspect of Conservation @ Home, a program that recognizes property owners who provide habitat for nature in their yards. To find more information about the program, click here.
When conservation groups burn natural land, does it disturb wildlife species? Simply put, yes.
Then why do we do it, and how can we call it “ecological fire” if it may harm some species?
Historically, fire was a natural part of the ecology of the Midwest before the land was settled by European-Americans 200 or more years ago. As settlers moved into the area, they did their best to suppress wildfires. After all, fire is dangerous and destructive, especially to human settlements that might be in the path of a fast-moving inferno.
However, over millennia, natural systems – plants, insects and wildlife – had developed to be well adapted to fire. And these systems suffered from the absence of regular landscape-scale burns.
The oaks that dominated the local landscape during settlement in the 1830s are a prime example. In 1837, when the Public Land Survey was done for McHenry County, 95% of the trees identified in the county were oaks, and the vast majority of those were bur oaks. Burs are known for their thick, corky bark that provides some protection from fire.
Historically, maples were found only in a few sheltered areas that had escaped the natural wildfires. Their bark does not afford protection from the flames. Today, maples are common. Maples grow quickly, and will grow well in shady areas. Oaks, by contrast, need ample sunlight to grow. These facts give maples a competitive advantage in a landscape without wildfires, and we can see this on the landscape in the increased numbers of maple trees in local woods.
When I first learned about “ecological fire,” I wondered about the effect on insects and small mammals. Over the years, I have learned that while there are some that die as a result of a fire, sufficient numbers survive to keep the populations going.
There is ample research on this fact, much conducted by scientists who study insect and animal species, so their allegiances are to the critters rather than the plants. Yet, even with the research, I think it is normal to wonder about the effects of such a powerful and destructive force on creatures that may not be able to move out of harm’s way.
The fact is that small mammals retreat to their burrows or climb trees. Amphibians like frogs and salamanders hunker down in the water until the fire passes. And, insect eggs and larvae are apparently in sufficient quantities that they are never all destroyed, even when the land looks like nothing could have survived.
A good local example of this is a small property that TLC manages near Woodstock, the 9-acre Prairie Ridge Fen at the northeast corner of Route 14 and Dean Street. There is an uncommon butterfly found at the property called a Baltimore Checkerspot. The butterfly depends on a specific wetland plant, turtlehead, for its lifecycle.
Over the years that TLC has managed the property, we’ve burned it several times. And, because of the property’s size and configuration, when it is burned, virtually the entire site goes up in flames. Add to that the fact that the property is isolated from other, similar habitat, and one might conclude that this would be a tough place for the Checkerspots to survive.
The first time I was involved in burning the site, it was such a complete burn that I worried we might have destroyed the Baltimore Checkerspot population in the process. Well, we didn’t. While I have little doubt that some butterfly eggs perished, the butterfly population continues to this day.
Personally, I think the best that people can do for nature is try our best to restore natural processes, and then trust the ecosystems to sort themselves out. After all, they have been around a lot longer than we have.
With Earth Day on April 22 and Arbor Day on the last Friday in April, this month is all about life on our home planet. (Check out those salamanders in the photo! Nothing says spring like a handful of baby salamanders!)
Earth Day was the brainchild of US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. After seeing the destruction caused by an oil spill in California in 1969, Nelson recognized the need for a national, grassroots movement focused on the issues of air and water pollution. He built bi-partisan support for the effort, and recruited an organizer to pull Earth Day together for April 22, 1970.
It has been a couple of years since I mentioned "The Big Three." With Earth month (April) starting on Wednesday, it seemed like a good time to refresh our collective memories!
The Big Three are the three things - in some combination - that all life needs to survive: air, water and food.
I admit it. I love cats. I also love songbirds. And, while my home cats are 100% indoor cats, my work cats are indoor-outdoor cats - in part because they keep the mouse and vole populations under control. (That's Remley doing his best panther imitation to the left.)
The work cats wear collars with bells, but that doesn't keep them from catching the occasional songbird. And it breaks my heart every time I see a dead goldfinch lying in the yard, because I know one of my cats killed it. So, I might as well say that I killed the bird since I let the cat outside.
Well, there is a new product available that was designed by people who love their cats, let them roam outdoors, AND also love songbirds: Birdsbesafe collars.
Change is hard. And, every change is for better or worse, depending upon your perspective. Change is particularly hard when it happens quickly. I’m sorry, but telling me “it’s easier if you just rip the bandage off real quick” doesn’t lessen the pain.
I have no doubt the 400 acres of trees and shrubs bulldozed and left burning in giant brush piles looked “worse” to the hundreds of neighbors on the north side of Woodstock a couple of weeks ago.
Today, most people know that birds migrate by flying south during winter, and then fly north again as the days grow longer and temperatures rise. We also understand that some birds fly great distances each year to move from their summer homes to their winter spots.
Did you know that our understanding of bird migration is a relatively recent development?
A friend of mine in New Mexico is descended from a Spanish family that has been in Albuquerque since 1593. His ancestors were among the first settlers given land grants by the church when Spain first settled that area. Wow. Four hundred and twenty-one years ago. Nearly 200 years before the United States was founded.
Over the past 544 million years, Earth's had five major extinction events. A major extinction is one where between 70% and 90% of all species on the planet are lost – never to be seen again. Each of the five was caused by a cataclysmic event – like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs when it slammed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago.