Our Mission:

Our Mission: To enable individuals and communities to take an active part in the cultivation of systems that provide the highest quality fruits, vegetables, herbs and other yields, in a way that benefits themselves, cares for the land and environment, and provides a surplus to use, share and reinvest into the system.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Rough Year for Monarchs

The numbers out of Mexico aren't good, and I'm not talking about the border crisis.

Overwintering Monarch Butterfly totals from Mexico have just been released.  Nine colonies of monarchs were found and covered an area of just over 2 acres (0.90 hectares on the graph below).  Nearly all of the monarch butterflies in the world are overwintering in a space that is-

Less than two Football Fields! 

Or ten average suburban yards!

These numbers are down nearly 60% from the previous winter, and the second lowest number ever counted – the lowest was during the 2013–2014 season. 

The graph below is similar to the one we have shared before and shows the general overall decline, but this year's numbers were a shock to those who follow monarch butterfly news.  

We've talked about the plight of Monarchs before Monarch Watch, and our overall love of pollinators.  Loss of habitat is one of the major causes of their decline (as with most species), but this year was even worse because of the drought.

"Chip" Taylor, Founding Director of Monarch Watch says that "Monarch numbers are at a near all-time low because of drought conditions last fall that extended from Oklahoma deep into central Mexico. Droughts reduce flowering and therefore nectar production, and monarchs need the sugars in nectar to fuel the migration and to develop the fat reserves that get them through the winter." 

Common milkweed can go crazy in a landscape, but
it has nice big leaves for feeding monarch caterpillars.

"To recover, monarchs will need an abundance of milkweeds and nectar sources. We need to get more milkweed and nectar plants in the ground, and we all need to contribute to this effort." says Kristen Baum, Director of Monarch Watch.

What can you do to help?

1. Plant a pollinator-friendly garden using native flowers (for nectar), and especially milkweed, the only source of food for monarch larvae

We can Help You, Help Them!  Contact Us!

2. Provide water sources and basking areas

Do Butterfly Houses Work?

3. Avoid using insecticides and other pesticides, and fertilize with natural compost

4. Support pollinator conservation actions in your hometown, like Plant.Grow.Fly, and get kids involved!

5. Talk to your friends, family and neighbors about pollinators and how they can help out, too.  

6. Like and Share this article, and others like it, on social media.

If you would like some milkweed seeds you can stop by the office and we will have some packets of common, butterfly and swamp milkweed to share while supplies last.    These will need planted ASAP

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, 

nothing is going to get better. 

It’s not.” - Dr Seuss

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Tap Those Trees - with Video

Each year at the end of winter and beginning of spring, there are a few weeks of magic that happens.  Tree sap starts to flow, bringing life from the roots back into the branches. Farmers across the northern US and Canada collect sap from their maple trees as they have for over two hundred years.  

The sap is collected and usually taken to their "Sugar Shack." There, this barely sweet, clear sap is boiled down using time-honored methods passed down from generation to generation to produce the sweet, dark maple syrup we use on pancakes, waffles and more.

You can also take part in this historical tradition right in your own backyard (or a friendly neighbors)!

This week's forecast looks great!

Sugar maples are best, with typically higher sugar content in the sap, but I had a garden design customer tell me he got over 40 gallons from a large silver maple in his yard!  I think our tree is probably an Autumn Blaze hybrid maple from the looks of the fall foliage and how common they are in the suburbs.

Our Maple Tapping Display at the
2016 Home & Outdoor Living Show

You can also tap Birch, Black Walnut and I've even heard of Butternut trees for uniquely flavored syrup.

Buy your Spiles, or Tree Taps, just like mine - HERE

These Hook Spouts are especially designed to hold pails with holes smaller than ¾ inch. The hook slides on behind the washer.

This video from our backyard tree demonstrates a simple "how-to" tapping method for you-

From the Northern Midwest to New England and into Canada, the sap is boiled down into Maple Syrup.  This is often done in large pans over an open flame outside, as boiling sap into syrup produces a lot of steam.  And it takes a lot of fuel.  Sap is continuously added as the water is boiled off, carefully making sure it doesn't boil over or burn the pan.  It typically takes around 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

If you have access to enough trees and want to try making some syrup yourself, here is a great guide from the University of Maine Extension Service.

How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup (link) 

We just drink the sap since we don't have many trees and its high in minerals, other nutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, and more—an incredible, all-natural beverage with less than 2% sugar!

You can learn more about Drinking Maple 

(and other sap) at Chelsea Green (link)

If you want to experience it in person the Indian Creek Nature Center near Cedar Rapids is having a Maple Syrup Festival on March 23 & 24 this year.

41st Annual Maple Syrup Festival (link)

Enjoy the tastes of the season!

Friday, February 9, 2024

Parking Pad to Garden Transformation

These new homeowners had an idea for their backyard, and it didn't include the existing gravel parking lot.

They also had significant yard damage from a geothermal system, that was not repaired the way they had expected.

The goal was for a natural, relaxing space filled with as many edible and ecological benefiting elements as possible.

We began with three main goals- a garden, a patio and a fence.  Garden beds were high on the priority list for clean growing fresh produce!  A relaxing patio for their firepit, surrounded by a natural environment using some of their existing plants and lots of new natives.  A future fence was planned to separate the new space from alley noise and traffic.


Many edible plants were hoped for both in the garden area and even around the yard.  We put in as many perennial and edible plants as practical for this space.  Rhubarb, asparagus, berries and even an apple tree.

Initial site work involved removing the gravel and breaking up the compaction of years of traffic.  We left a circle of the existing pad for the base of the new paver patio.

A keyhole style bed maximizes growing space on a smaller overall footprint.  

Raised frame beds allowed us to bring in a fresh mix of clean soil to grow in.

We added compost to the remaining planting areas to add organic matter, build soil structure and workability, as well as encourage soil life.

With a limited space and south facing wall, this was a perfect space to espalier an apple tree.  The downspout from the garage allowed us to capture rainwater for use right by the garden.

Companion plants were included in this tree guild -
    Yarrow to attract beneficial insects
    Clover for nitrogen fixing action
    Chives to protect the trunk from rabbits
    Other herbs for their antimicrobial benefits

A decorative Japanese Maple was the focal point for the back corner with an Asian palette, a Serviceberry up front for a native edible shrub and multiple species of native woodland and savanna plants along the neighboring garage.  Bee Balm is great addition against the patio as it repels mosquitoes and feeds beneficial pollinators, and dwarf varieties soften the edge from lower to higher plantings.  Narrow evergreens will frame the future access gate and provide shades of green in the winter.

Great work on the patio from Ben's crew at Beemer Landscaping

We had just completed another project where a large amount of sod was removed.  So, after leveling the damage to the side yard we were able to upcycle it here instead of only reseeding.

The stepper path was re-laid through the damaged lawn area, using the existing pieces and we were able to match extras we needed.  The path was also extended from the back sidewalk to the patio area and gate.  

Finally, everything was mulched and finished.  A few weeks of garden care during their vacation, and then an additional Redbud tree for more afternoon shade.  It was all ready for the privacy fence install.

Paver patio backed by a Japanese maple

Raised bed garden behind the existing hedge

Pollinator friendly prairie natives benefit the garden too

A little taste of Eden in the heart of our city.  If you like this project or our others, we'd love it if you shared it with your friends!

This visitor couldn't wait for us to be done :)
Swallowtail butterfly getting a drink

Friday, January 12, 2024

Gardens vs Tree Roots

Durable block wall raised beds with...  Under Armor !?!?

These garden beds, installed this summer, were going in near an existing Hackberry tree.  Although near the current drip line, the footprint was small, and the installation shouldn't damage its roots any more than the other construction traffic.  

However, future growth would mean that the root system would be expanding.  I was concerned about these tree roots invading the raised beds and stealing water and nutrients from the plants growing there.  

Original SPROUT Garden

At the old Sprout Garden location, nearby Oak trees had nearly filled the existing raised beds with roots.  The tending gardeners said yields had gone down over the years, but guessed it was due to diminishing soil quality and fertility over the years.  

When we reclaimed the wood to use in the new project, we found that the remaining soil was almost a solid "loaf" of tree roots!

I've have also dealt with them in my own garden as well.  Maple trees love to send out exploring feeder roots!

To address this potential problem, we wanted to create an air gap to encourage air pruning of the tree roots instead of letting them invade the growing bed. 

The gap would be filled with river rock to maintain larger airspaces to discourage invading roots yet support the growing mix above.  Starting at the bottom -
  1. We added heavy fabric to keep the rock separated from the existing soil.
  2. Then we added a 2-4" layer of river rock, to keep air pockets open.
  3. Before filling the beds with soil, another layer of fabric was added.
If the growing mix was allowed to settle into the rock it would eliminate the desired airspace.

The vegetable beds are situated just outside the house's shadow most of the year, and being elevated helps to get more sun on them too.  

Trellises were added for some vertical growing space.

More to updates to come on this project!

Thursday, January 4, 2024

No Mow - New Construction

Another large project was started in the previous season incorporating stormwater best management practices into a full native planting that includes basically the entire property.  

The home was built for a gentleman that wanted to be very responsible and not contribute to ANY stormwater runoff, erosion and flooding.

Woodland & savanna styled plantings in the front incorporated a walking path, some native shrubs and smaller trees.  Several invasive burning bushes were taken out.   A rain garden captures the front down spouts as well as most of the driveway runoff.
Front yard #Before

Front yard - planted and mulched

The front Rain Garden was full after a storm in the night but had drained by early afternoon.

Prairie party out back!

To get the back yard looking good, designed plantings of established plants and a large rain garden up closer to the house and deck.   

The deck provides prime viewing of the eventual prairie habitat, as well as access to the paths through it.
Prairie with rain garden view from the deck

Further back targeted native seedings were planned to reduce the initial budget.  To accomplish this, 8000 square feet of yard was tilled and "Solarized" for several weeks to kill the grass and shallow weed seed bank.

Solarizing 8000sf of yard

Around September, we removed the plastic sheeting and planted an oat cover crop to hold soil and keep weeds at bay.  Prior to the cover crop seeding, we pulled and flamed the remaining weeds that took advantage of tears in the plastic caused by curious deer.

We left a ~6' strip of mowed turf lawn on the South edge to be good neighbors.  We put in some sod around the areas damaged by the construction and existing lawn behind.  The neighbors to the North were fine with the savanna and prairie plantings coming up to their fence.  They had somewhat similar plans for their backyard.  

The entire foundation area was edged with river rock for ease of maintenance and access.

This last season we returned for maintenance help and vacation weeding.  The homeowner was doing a great job keeping the seeding mowed to a height where the perennials can grow roots, yet aggressive annual weeds were kept from going to seed.  These steps are very important when establishing a new native planting from seed.

The nearer plantings really grew this last summer!

We are excited to continue watching this project grow and grow!