It is early fall, still warm but nights are hinting at what is to come. Summer crowds of people have surrendered the lake docks to migrating birds. There is gold in the apple trees and the ever-changing foliage. Grapes have turned and sweetened. Our pet Firethorn has been brought inside again, shivering from the cooling nights. The outdoor vacation for this plant has inspired it to bloom and set fruit. Hopefully we can harvest some seed from this unique ornamental plant from California. Meanwhile our sunrises and sunsets explode with their own color, brought on by the dusty harvest-time.
We manage our greenhouse operation without toxic pesticides making our greenhouses prime habitat for many interesting visitors. We are often surprised by a variety of creatures that join us in our endeavor. Humming birds enjoy our blooming native cardinal flowers. Frogs and toads thrive in the greenhouse environment as well. We also release large numbers of beneficial insects into the greenhouses. These insects thrive in their new pesticide-free home and then prey upon any pest-insects that may invade the growing area.
Recent rains have finally come to begin restoring our drought-ravaged land. In our area the rains have been very welcome but too late to revive most un-irrigated crops.
We are still viewing incredible sunrises and sunsets through the smoky haze of forest fires that are burning north of us. Egrets still congregate at wetlands shrunken by drought, making the remaining aquatic life easy pickings for the feeding birds.
Our bluestem grass prairie, which we burned off this spring has grown back beautifully despite the drought, its deep roots finding enough water to thrive. It is now four to five feet tall, fully headed out, and displaying its brilliant fall-like color. This native prairie grass has probably survived many fires and droughts over the centuries.
As the drought continues, many of our wetlands are drying up. They offer an easy and sumptuous buffet for egrets, herons, and shore birds. Once the wetland is completely dry, the party is over and the birds move on to another area to feed. Meanwhile, a field of liatris blooms despite the drought as the monarch butterflies are moving in to feed. The drought-tolerant butterfly weed struggles into bloom while we take respite from the heat with a visit to the North Shore of Lake Superior, which is truly the Mother of all fresh water.
Center-pivot irrigators roll over the fortunate fields, while other crops wait for rain. Meanwhile, insects find some green grass, native cup plants reach for the sky, and our local swans are still protecting their four cygnets from predators, hoping to get them to flying size before the marsh dries up.
Finally, after almost two weeks of wondering how our local family of trumpeter swans was fairing, we spotted them once again. Still all four young are doing well and growing rapidly, now to the size of large ducks.
In the meantime, little rain has fallen and crops are beginning to stress. Storm clouds dance about, but drop little moisture.
Our magnificent pair of swans has returned for a second season to a nearby wetland. This is their second brood hatched near our backyard here in western Minnesota. They appear to have four little gray-fluffs floating along with Mom and Dad.
Predation seems to take its toll on the young swans. We hope at least a couple will make it to flight-size and hopefully we will see the whole family flying together by fall.
A couple of weeks after the prairie fire, the change is incredible. From the black ashes left by the burn we now have a green carpet of native grasses and forbes. Deer come early from their cover to graze on the new tender plants. Insects return to the prairie and life abounds after the fire.
Prairie fires have always struck a bit of terror in the hearts of dwellers of the great grasslands. Buffalo were stampeded and people sought cover in ponds and streams.
Yet prairie grasslands have, over the centuries, been rejuvenated by fire. The prairies have burned and greened-up with amazing vigor. Lightening in former times often ignited the prairie grass. Lightening still strikes the prairie, but its chances of striking native grassland is much lower than in previous times. Mankind now strikes the prairie with a match and the process of rejuvenating the prairie continues in the grasslands of flyover country.
The ebb and flow of spring is upon us. Warm days followed by more normal weather is typical. Although frost-free weather may be a month away, spring can be found. If we look to the southern portions of the United States, the garden centers are active and planting has begun. Here in Minnesota, the best signs of colorful spring are still to be found in our greenhouses. Soon spring will find us all.
Gene R. Stark
A teacher, farmer, trapper, and greenhouse grower. He writes about the outdoors and the people and culture of rural America..