Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who's in control?

I just spent an hour and a half in the prairie, pulling seed heads off the crabgrass. I've been doing this for a couple of hours every day. It is a futile, exercise, I know. The prairie has turned a hazy brown - the color of crabgrass going to seed. My efforts have created little islands of green, but there is no way I can remove all the stems before they burst open to spread a new crop of seeds. Even so, I do not consider my efforts a waste.

My time in the prairie has given me new appreciation for the persistence of these native plants. Even though the crabgrass appears to have the upper hand, spreading like a thick carpet across the ground, hogging all the sunlight, coneflowers, Partridge Peas, Big Bluestem push their way through. Were I only to pass the prairie at a clip on my morning walk, I would not see these tiny plants.

When I spot a seedling, I clear away as much of the crabgrass as I can, hoping to encourage the newest plant by allowing it a full day of sun. I was rewarded this week when the Partridge Peas began to bloom. Hurrah! My first native flower blossoms.

Today, I also began to appreciate the persistence of the crabgrass. Did you know that every single crabgrass leaf produces a seed head? It does. I observed this as I pull off one after another until every leaf is stripped. And each seed head has a million seeds. Okay, I haven't become so obsessed that I actually counted, but it sure looks like it. Crabgrass would only go to this length if many of those seeds were destined never to germinate. All those seeds by one plant just to ensure survival of one.

Leaving the prairie today, I took a look back at the tiny green area resulting from my hour and a half of labor. I chuckled as I thought, 'I am NOT in control here.' I am doing what I can. Enjoying the effort. Hoping to make a tiny difference. But, I am not in control. And remarkably, that feels okay.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Prairie - By any other name

This weekend marked the second month for my prairie. In spite of the crabgrass and barnyard grass, I have begun to spot native plants: Big Bluestem, Partridge Pea, many coneflowers. That's a Partridge Pea in the photo, surrounded by crabgrass before the crabgrass really took off.

People tease me - Isn't crabgrass a native plant? What about nutsedge? And how about that fireweed (Erechtites hieracifolia)? All native, but considered weeds. Which reminds me that the definition of a weed is any plant where you don't want it.

As I look back on the last two months, I marvel at the roller coaster of emotions I've been through in such a short time. Now I've adopted a longer view, wait and see, attitude. My efforts with Roundup were futile. The crabgrass is going to seed. My efforts to rip off the seed heads before they scatter are futile. Which doesn't mean I don't spend hours each day out there trying. It gives me something to do and in the process I build a personal relationship with my prairie.

Getting 'up close and personal' with the crabgrass opens my eyes to the prairie seedlings that are taking root and pushing through in spite of the competition. I put my faith in their prairie ruggedness, trusting that they will keep on and in another month claim their own space.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of walking in a four-year-old prairie established by some friends. I have seen the future and it is beautiful.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A week spent writing

I just returned from a week at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Reveling in the energy and inspiration of spending an entire week with people who think about writing, talk about writing, love writing, and actually write.

The workshop I attended was provocatively titled, "I met my old lover on the street last night." This fiction workshop channeled the tensions of interpersonal relationships to create scenes that hold the reader's interest. Using prompts provided by our workshop leader, we wrote every night and read our writing in the next day's class.

Another treat of the week was hearing my writing buddy Mary Gottschalk read from her memoir Sailing Down the Moonbeam at Prairie Lights bookstore.

The opportunity to focus on my writing for an entire week is an amazing gift. In addition to adding chapters to my novel, I came away with starts on several essays to work up. What a great week.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Bounty of the Moment

"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone ..." Joni Mitchell captured the universal truth in "Big Yellow Taxi."

I found myself humming the tune as I looked with longing at our plum tree. Last year loaded with plums. We ate them. We gave them away. I canned quart after quart. There were just too many. Or so I thought.

I did not know, as I blithely gave away bags of plums, that this year there would be none.

The winter was too cold. Plums only produce every other year. Who knows why? We are new to plum trees. This one was on the acreage when we moved here and we don't have enough experience to know its patterns, its rhythms. I just know we will not experience that luscious, purple fruit this year.

Every year, there are moments when I am swept away by the abundance of our garden. Colanders of green beans. Bushels of tomatoes. Quarts of raspberries. All fantastic, amazing, delicious. All requiring me to cook, to can, to freeze. Anything, so we do not lose, do not waste, such precious bounty. By the end of the summer, our shelves are lined with jars, our freezer packed with containers of produce - enough to last until the next summer.

As overwhelmed as I may be at the annual onslaught of produce, I count on the garden to 'do it again' each year. And the garden does not disappoint. But not so with plums, apparently.

One jar of plums remains in my pantry. I am hoarding it. For what special occasion, I am not sure. Truthfully, I did not know how much I would love the canned plums. But I do. Isn't that always the way? "You don't know what you've got til it's gone ..."

It seems I have to learn again and again to appreciate what I have, in the moment. This time, plums.

This essay was published in the Des Moines Register on July 12, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My new best friend

Not quackgrass! That's the judgment of the Iowa State University Extension Service who took a look at the pictures I sent and responded in a couple of hours. Crab grass and barnyard grass. Both annuals that will die off at the first hard frost.

I just learned about the folks who dispense answers and guidance at And now they're my new best friends.

This pronouncement carries a good news/bad news aura about it. The good news you already know. The grass that has now completely overrun my prairie garden will die off with the frost. The bad news is that both of these grasses are prolific seed producers. If I let them go, they'll reseed and the problem will show up again next year. Plus the grass is so thick, I find it hard to imagine the tiny prairie seedlings competing against it and winning.

Glyphosate is still an answer. I call my afternoon garden time: 'Fun with Roundup.' Container in one hand, half-inch paint brush in the other, I head for the prairie garden and kill off the grass one blade at a time.

Perhaps I am certifiably crazy. The garden is 2,400 sq. ft., after all. Viewed in another light, I may be a great artist. I take my inspiration from Michelangelo who spent four years completing the Sistine Chapel. Native prairie takes three years to establish.

Discouraged? Who, me? No way!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Where uncommon is common

My brother-in-law Ken who lives in Anchorage sent this picture yesterday. He goes to a local cafe for coffee with friends in the morning and saw these visitors near his house. Now he doesn't see moose in the neighborhood every day, but they're not uncommon either. At least once or twice each winter, he sends pictures of moose hanging out in his own yard, knowing we in the Lower 48 will be enthralled.

What tickled me about this is that I wrote an article about Iowa's endangered species for the May/June issue of The Iowan and led with the surprising idea of sighting a moose in Iowa. Only on the rarest occasion does anyone see a moose in the wild in Iowa. Personally, I never have.

When my husband and I went to Alaska a couple of years ago, I went walking early one morning. I was looking up at the mountains, scanning for bald eagles and down at the wildflowers lining the sidewalks. Then I looked straight across the street and there was - you guessed it - a moose. My first thought was that it was a statue. My second thought was that was a silly place for a statue. This was a real, live moose having breakfast right in town. I briefly considered sneaking up close for a photo. Fortunately, discretion prevailed. I stayed on my side of the street and kept an eye on places to run in case the moose decided to come see me!

I enjoyed the unexpected excitement of seeing an animal so uncommon to me, happy that the moose is common enough in Alaska that I could see one during a morning walk. One state's endangered species is another state's common sight. Such fun.