A Day in the Life of a Tree Mom

A fledgling robin's nest in the crotch of a bur oak
A fledgling robin’s nest in the crotch of a bur oak

I became a tree mom to a bur oak tree last fall, and ever since I’ve been going through the things new tree parents do: worrying at the loss of every precious leaf, brushing away mulch from the trunk to protect her from rot, and counting every drop of rain to make sure she gets the recommended inch-a-week that new trees require for the first two years.

Yesterday I fell into paroxysms of delight when I spotted a robin headed for the cool green canopy with a beakful of dry grass.

“Honey, there’s a robin building a nest in our tree.”

My husband peered onto the lawn.

I reached for his hand. “It’s her first nest.”

“It’s pretty small up there. They might not finish it.”

But still, it’s so exciting, I thought. I remembered her first leaf drop last fall and how panicked I was, not sure she’d make it through the winter. And here she is, a lush cap of leaves and courting robins.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Identify These Wildflowers

Is there anything lovelier than a walk in the woods in May?

Mystery Flower #1 (3 photos)

Close up of wild geraniums in a woodland
Close up of Mystery Flower #1
A field of wildflowers in May
A field of Mystery Flower #1. Bonus points if you can say why they grow like this
purple wildflowers growing by a decaying stump
Mystery flower #1

I’m new to identifying wildflowers. I knew some (but not all) of the flowers I discovered on my walk over the weekend. I wore the ink off the pages of my copy of Newcomb’s Flower Guide trying to identify the rest before I gave up.

Can you identify these flowers? Answer in the comments below. Bonus points for Latin!

Mystery Flower #2

Three-leaved plant with a spray of white flowers
Mystery Flower #2

Mystery Flower #3

five-petaled purple flowers in clusters on a decaying log
Mystery Flower #3 is a favorite of mine

Mystery Flower #4

daisy-like flower with yellow petals and yellow leaves
Mystery Flower #4. Hard to see the leaves on this one, can you identify it anywy?

Mystery Flower #5

Yellow umbel flowers
Mystery Flower #5. I think I know what this is.

Mystery Flower #6

Small 4-petaled yellow flowers atop spiky foliage
Mystery Flower #6

Mystery Flower #7

Yellow clusters of flowers, long rippled leaves.
Mystery flower #7 .Not going to lie, this one has me stumped.

Can you identify any or all of these? Answer in the comments below.

The May Gardening Frenzy

Garden nursery tray stuffed with native plants
My nursery tray of native plants from Prairie Moon Nursery

Never having been much of a gardener before, I did not realize how exhausting this would be.

May came like a shotgun start. The conditions which were always too wet, too cold, or too windy, were suddenly almost too late. I had hundreds of plants, flowers, and seeds, all of which needed to be planted. Simultaneously.

trunk filled with annual nursery plants
My haul of flowers from the local garden supply

I had bare-root gray dogwood from the State Forest Nursery. I had twelve species of native flowers from the native garden supplier in Minnesota, including Common Milkweed, Golden Alexander, Blazing Star, Jacob’s Ladder, Prairie Smoke, Cardinal Flower, Wild Bergamot, Purple Coneflower, Showy Goldenrod, Blue Sage, and Smooth Blue Aster. I had seed packets of Dutchman’s Breeches, Native Sunflower, Sweet Black-Eyed Susan, and Purple Prairie Clover. I had more than a dozen herbs languishing on shelves in my living room. I had a half-dozen trays of my usual annuals awaiting their patio pots, and a variety of tomato plants sentenced to their customary death-row-treatment in my garden tubs. I had benevolent neighbors gift me with such prizes as Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Ohio Spiderwort. And all of it needed to be in the ground yesterday.

And did I mention I didn’t yet have a bed prepared for all these botanical delights? The garden plan which I came up with over the winter didn’t include one crucial part: measurements. I had no idea exactly where to put these things. And since my spring pollinator pack and my fall power pack arrived before the plants that anchored the plan, I had no idea where to start.

hand-scribbled garden plan in pencil and marker
My Genius Garden Plan

I did, however, have an abundance of weeds on the slope where the perennials were supposed to grow, and a clutter of pots filled with spiders and dead leaves.

The dandelion-clover-violet-choked lawn where I will begin my Great Native Plant Experiment aka Operation Oak Savannah Meadow Restoration

I went to work. Every day after the moneyjob, I put in another two to four hours on the lawn. On weekends I went out rain or shine: digging, weeding, raking, mulching, and planting, until my wrists were so sore and swollen I had to wear carpal tunnel braces. Every morning, I woke so sore could barely lift myself from the bed, and at night I had to wash down ibuprofen with tart cherry juice and wine.

And now, here we are, three-plus weeks into May. The lion’s share of the work is done, and there is nothing left but endless weeding and tending. Oh, and another entire pile of mulch to distribute because I ran out.

pile of mulch on a curb
My big-ass pile of free mulch, courtesy the city and the Derecho of 2020

There’s so much to learn and do, but so far things seem to be turning out okay.

Jack in the pulpit
The newly relocated Jack-in the-pulpit

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit seemed pretty happy in the shade of the hackberry, however the lesson I learned was not to put things in the dog traffic pattern. The dogs have already clipped a few of them.

Native plant seedlings on a hill
Phase One of Operation Oak Savanna Meadow
Herbs in tubs
Herbs and tomatoes which my son helpfully decorated with the pooper scooper.. Fresh herbs anyone?
Vertical herb garden
My vertical herb garden, also annuals
Shade garden
mulch and plantings with edging
Phase One of Operation Oak Savannah Meadow, post-removal of the raspberries.

Yes, I know I have a lot of weeds. And depending on your perspective, you may be thinking of the Canadian Goldenrod and Daisy Fleabane, or you might be thinking of the hostas and kentucky bluegrass. I think we can all agree on the dandelions, just not what to do with them. Much more on this subject to come.

Good News for Bees

Good news for bees and the people who love them. The Netherlands has successfully halted the decline of their bee populations through bee-friendly initiatives like:

  • Bee Hotels, where bees can find shelter
  • Bee Stops: By replacing the roofs of bus stops with native plantings, bees are able to find more of their essential nectar
  • Banning chemical weed killers on public lands, and instead planting native wildflowers to make up for the habitat lost through agriculture

This is the very sort of thing that inspires me to return my lawn into a more native-friendly habitat.

To learn more, visit this article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/27/bee-population-steady-dutch-cities-thanks-to-pollinator-strategy

May 2, 2021

265 days A.D. (After Derecho)

You might have come here because you think I know what I’m doing. You’d be wrong.

Monarch caterpillar munching on common milkweed
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed plant

I am not a gardener. In fact, I never had any strong urge to become one. My neighbors will testify to my general apathy on the subject of dandelions, and how I once let wild raspberries have their way with a full third of my front lawn.

But something happened last year. It was called the derecho.

Most of us here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa had never even heard the term ‘derecho’ when one bore down on our city one summer day last year. The storm brought rain and winds up to 140 miles per hour, and when the citizens of our fair city crept out of their shelters forty minutes later, we found a landscape perpetually altered.

Two thirds of our tree canopy was gone. Apartment buildings had walls sheared off, homes were destroyed, and the street grid became a maze of downed power lines and uprooted trees.

Over where I live, we didn’t have power for ten days. But many of the other changes were permanent, or at least so long lasting to seem so.

The 200-year-old bur oak that had shaded most of my front yard, and brought forth the most delightful moss garden on my indifferently maintained slope was gone–and me–plus the 100-odd species of birds, insects, butterflies, and small mammals that lived here were left to figure out what to do next.

This is how I became a gardener. Or rather, a gardener-in-training. Join me on this journey as I try to bring nature back to one plot of land, somewhere in Iowa.

Woodland field of Virginia Bluebells
Field of Virginia Bluebells