Life after Thundersleet

The dogs and I took a stroll on the prairie today to see how things were looking after a night of thundersleet. If you, like us, have never experienced thundersleet, you may be interested to know it does in fact involve lightning and thunder, but that’s not all. Add the sound of pebbles hitting the house at 2 a.m., and you, dear readers, will have been treated to thundersleet.

If a full night of sleet, thunder and lightning flashes wasn’t enough, the morning saw fat juicy snowflakes falling from the heavens. Schools were closed, businesses opened late and nearly everyone just stayed home. Yes, yes, I realize it’s February — we should expect this type of weather. But this is Oklahoma! We are not snow-prepared or ice-hardened like our more nothern brethren. It’s okay, we need the moisture. Maybe this will chip away at the drought.

Prairie grasses peek through a crunchy layer of post-sleet snow.

Prairie grasses peek through a crunchy layer of post-sleet snow.

Grasses doing what they're supposed to be doing during the winter.

Grasses doing what they’re supposed to be doing during the winter.

Long shadows from the locust and persimmon trees along the prairie edges.

Long shadows from the locust and persimmon trees along the prairie edges.

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Waste not, water not

Hi everyone. It’s hot out there. Really hot. And with experts saying drought is likely to be our new summertime way of life, 2012 might be just a sample of what’s to come. 

Let’s talk water. It’s August. It’s hot. And dry. Think about it. Do you really need a green lawn? It’s not natural right now to have green grass. In fact, I scowl suspiciously at the lush green lawns in town when we’re in the middle of a drought. (That’s me in the red Ford giving your grass the drive-by stink-eye.)

Your yard is not a golf course, so why water it like one? Don’t do this! It’s a big waste of water.

First of all, green grass looks freakishly out of place these days. Secondly, what’s the point? You want it to grow, why?** To mow? Seriously! It’s too hot to mow. Besides, it’s just a waste of gasoline, not to mention your time. Why fritter away hours mowing when you could be inside watching the Olympics.

Use drip lines to water your perennials and bushes at their roots. Keep the garden and the herbs happy by watering their feet. No need to use a sprinkler. It’ll just evaporate in the heat, wasting water.

If you’re spraying your yard with a sprinkler––particularly in mid-day––don’t be surprised to hear a knock on your door. That’ll be me. Hi. Just wanted to let you know you’re evaporating more than you’re using. And, ahem, were you aware of the voluntary water restrictions? We’ve been asked to curtail watering before 9 p.m. and to please stop by 9 a.m. It’ll save you money, honest. Besides, water conservation is important, and it’s looking like drought may be our new way of life.

Why not think about rain containment? We use repurposed olive barrels at Hilltop House.

Bought ‘em from Atwoods Ranch & Home. They’re 58-gallon olive barrels shipped from Greece to the U.S. Some enterprising barrel dealer drills a hole near the bottom and inserts a spigot. With the screw-off lids, they’re perfect for catching rain.

They’re cheap. Less than $40 each, with a teensy smell of brine from the olives. We just take off the lids and let ’em air out––making sure to drain any remaining olive juices from the bottom. Not only are they a bargain, but how cool is it to have rain barrels from Greece?

Mr. Hilltop says it takes only one-tenth inch of rain to fill all ten of our barrels, if they’re lined up right under the gutter downspouts (this is important). We’ve had a couple of small rains in July and August––not enough to repair the drought damage but enough to keep us limping along with targeted watering. 

Our barrels are less than half full now, but we’ve been able to keep the perennials, herbs and garden watered.

Fingers crossed that when the barrel status reaches bone-dry another rain will come and refill. If not, we’ll have to switch to hose water … but not sprinklers! Drip hoses and hand watering only. Would hate to have you come knock on my door and tell me I’m ruining the planet by sprinkler-watering my gardens.

** Fescue grass people, we understand it will die if you don’t water it. But bermuda grassers have no excuses. Let it die. It’ll come back. You fescuers may consider different types of ground covers for the coming years. Heat and drought are not friends of the fescue, so you’re fighting a losing battle.

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Fruits of no labor

Wandering around the hilltop this afternoon in a heat-induced stupor … the yellowing grasses crunchy under my flip-flops … I came across this. Why hello, there. What are you, lovely little thing? A purple berry?

A quick look around the dusty ground revealed more of them in varying stages of lime green, purple and withered. All on the ground. Under the persimmon trees. Wait a minute. They’re not … are they? In July?

Uh-oh. These are persimmons. Way too early for persimmons, and they’re the wrong colors. The lovely lime green is right – if they were still in the trees. That deep purple must be what happens to the green after it’s been on the ground a while.

The little fruits are falling off the trees. Why? Is it the heat? The drought? Or are they just trying to thwack me on the head?

Our inherited stand of persimmons was something we discovered that first autumn when the fruits ripened to reddish-orange, and even clueless new landowners like us couldn’t miss seeing them.

I don’t remember my grandparents ever talking about or using the persimmons. Sand plums? Yes. Bushes are down by the river (sand plum jelly). Apples? Yep. My grandmother’s friend, Pickett, always let us come harvest as much as we wanted (apple butter). Pecans? Of course. Those big trees down at the Carpenter place were just dumping fat nuts on the ground (pecan pies). But persimmons? I didn’t even really know what one looked like til we found them in our own backyard in 2009. And I really don’t remember ever seeing persimmons when the grandfolks were here.

But the trees are there, standing tall behind the house, on the edge of the “new” prairie into which the next generation is taking up residence.

Persimmon saplings are sprouting up all over the prairie.

It took me a while to figure out what those little sprouters with the egg-shaped leaves were. When they were about three inches high earlier this spring, I pulled one up and took it to Steve Owens at Bustani Plant Farm, my go-to place for local native plants here in Oklahoma. He didn’t need to look twice to tell me it was a persimmon.

When it cools off, I have some vague plans to try to transplant some of the saplings to a more orchard-type setting. But for now, the question is …

Is fruit dropping off the trees in July normal? Should we be doing something?

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Anniversary among the weeds

Can’t believe it’s been five years since Mr. Hilltop and I got hitched. We’re not spring chickens, so it’s funny to think of ourselves as more “newlywed” than “old marrieds.”

To celebrate, we went on a forage walk … because what better way to spend a Saturday together than traipsing the Oklahoma back roads with a group of strangers, chewing on weeds?

Not a weed eater? Wondering what the heck I’m talking about? Well, the forage movement is sort of a back-to-the-future way of living.  Wildcrafting … edible landscaping … chefs and their forage-based menus … natural medicines … It’s always been around, but it seems to have grown in popularity over the past few years.

Gardeners, foodies, moms, students, ex-hippies, survivalists, vegetarians, folks trying to live green, even those on a budget all look for edibles in their own backyards … and in city parks, along roadways, near parking lots … anywhere green things grow. You see weeds? Foragers see salad greens or pain relief or a source of iron.

Maybe it was the bad economy, job losses and thin wallets  …  could have been news of poisons in the toothpaste from China … fear over The Man’s genetic tinkering with our own food sources … dread of the zombie apocalypse … or heck, maybe it’s from trying to figure out why the Ford Ranger says no phone is available even though we just synced the dang LG five freaking minutes ago! Let’s just say modern life may have us yearning for the simpler ways of yore.

Whatever the reason, foragers seek to preserve traditional knowledge our great grandmothers had but we don’t … because a 24-hour Walgreens is on nearly every corner. And Taco Bell drive-thru is open late. And Walmart always has something for cheap. We’ve grown up not needing to know how many times to change the water when boiling pokeweed so you don’t give yourself diarrhea. Or the best way to get mullein into the blood stream to reduce phlegm is to smoke it. Or sumac is ready to harvest when the seed heads “go down.” But make sure it’s not white sumac because they’re poisonous.

Back to our Fifth Anniversary Forage Walk …

It was with a woman in Coyle, Okla., a small town about an hour from us. She’s been giving free Saturday walks when she can, sharing what she’s known her whole life (learned from her grandmother). These walks have become so popular that she’s had to limit the attendance. In fact, the interest is so great that she’s coordinating a one-day Wildcrafting Festival next month.

On our walk were college students, gardeners, home-schooled kids, retirees, botanists, the simply curious … with nearly everyone taking notes or photos.

Mr. Hilltop helping other foragers pluck sand plums from a roadside the thicket. The girls were standing ankle-deep in poison ivy. We all warned them, but they and their mom didn’t seem worried. “Sometimes you have to learn by experience,” said one of the men.

We had a blast. A few well-placed clouds kept us from getting too sweaty. We learned about prickly lettuce and prairie sage and dock (leaves and seeds) and the lovely spice currant (also known as buffalo berries).

But what I loved best of all (besides spending a day outdoors with Mr. Hilltop) was seeing native prairie plants along a red dirt road. Native prairie plants! In the wild! Not being cared for or tended or fawned over or watered …

I’m pretty sure these are white prairie clovers (Dalea candida) with most of the petals fallen off. Native Americans steeped dried leaves in water to make a tea, used the leaves to create medicine applied to wounds, and chewed the sweet-tasting roots.* *Source: KSWildflower.org

They grew just like they knew what they were doing.  Prairie clover, Echinacea, Mexican hat … if we don’t poison with Round-Up or other chemicals, the plants will do their thing. And what a pretty “thing” they do!

Purple prairie-clover (Dalea purpurea) — the first time I’ve seen it growing wild, and it smells really good. The orangish ball is purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) with nearly all petals fallen off.

The traditional wedding anniversary gift for the fifth year is wood … but in our little corner of the world our fifth anniversary gift was weeds.

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Purple pick-me-up

The prairie is hard for me right now. It could be hot weather with no hint of rain. Our rain barrels are almost empty and it’s only June. Oh no, is this a repeat of the plant-killing heat from last year? I can’t take another summer like this. Everything will die. What’s the use?

It could be the neighbors. I hope they don’t hate me. I bet they hate me. Do you think they hate me? They probably hate me.

It might be the neighbors expanding their spraying this year, hiring the chemical company to spread poison across their carefully mown grasses. Are they spraying? They’re spraying! Why are they doing that? Do they hate me? They must hate me. Holy crap, it’s blowing onto my prairie!  

Poison blow-over hit the edges of the prairie and withered some of my targeted plantings to a crunchy brown. I didn’t even want to go look anymore, so I ignored the prairie for a week spending far too much time watching TV.

But just when hopelessness was nudging me to throw in the trowel (sorry, couldn’t resist), this flashed by the other day when I was speeding along a dirt road about a mile over from our place.

Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot or bee balm)

I hit the brakes and threw it into reverse.  Purple? Did I just see a flash of purple? What the heck was that? Seriously. Purple? Trash maybe? A person in a purple shirt?

Wild bee balm just hanging out along a fence.

This large stand of wild bergamot was like a warm hug from Mother Nature herself. Way out in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a wild grass field it waved at me in the morning sun.  “See,” it said. “You don’t need to worry about us. We do pretty good on our own.”

Inspired, I drove straight home to Hilltop House and beelined for the prairie. Here’s what was standing up tall to greet me.

Wooly Verbena (also called hoary vervain)

There wasn’t just one, but four. Four! Four of these gorgeous tall-standing native prairie plants. I did not plant them myself. I did not seed for them. They just showed up when we stopped mowing. Like another hug from Mother Nature in my own back yard.

Woolly verbena is very drought-resistant, with roots that can descend to 12 feet. Plains Indians made a tea from the leaves and used it to treat stomachaches. Prairie chickens and small mammals eat the seeds. (KSwildflower.org)

Okay, dear Prairie. You’re not giving up on me. I’m not giving up on you.

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After the Storms

We’ve calmed a bit here at Hilltop. The shock and frustration have worn off, and I’ve been telling myself that the mowing incident was simply a mistake. Probably, a mower was just gleefully gobbling up the green and didn’t realize where s/he was. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, that’s what I’m saying inside my head.

Besides, the prairie has been here for millions of years. What’s one mow job? For the short time we’ve allowed full growth, all kinds of native plants have popped up their heads. They’ll come again. 

My morning walks through the prairie are like treasure hunts as I eagerly search to see who’s new to the neighborhood, greet them (Hello! Who are you? Are you alone?), crouch down for inspection (What’s that color? Can I see your stem? Are your leaves alternating?), then rush into the house (Be back in a second! Don’t go anywhere!) to try to identify them online. (Please be native. Please be native. Please be native.)

Recently, after a thundering night dumped nine inches of rain across the county, Mr. Hilltop and I sighed with exhaustion when we learned that part of the driveway (a winding, one-laned, steep, switch-backish sort of thing with crumbling 30-year-old asphalt) had been washed over with debris from the woods.

A tired and dirty turtle scrambles for the woods after being abused by torrential rains. Poor guy probably spent days getting back to the hilltop after the gully washers catapulted him into the cow pasture down below.

Rather than spend the morning talking to the prairie, I was designated the debris cleaner-upper. As the Hilltop Person with the most flexible weekday schedule, it was only fair. Lucky me. Really! While clearing tree limbs, limestone rocks and muddy chunks of asphalt from the driveway and county road below, a flash of purplish blue winked at me from the edge of the woods. 

Well hello there, pretties. Who are you?

I ran up the hill (stopping twice to gasp for air like a drowning person — okay, okay — I had to stop three times and it felt more like a heart attack). Once up top, I beelined for the laptop in the kitchen to look at my now-favorite wildflower identification site: Kansas Wildflowers & Grasses. We’re not in Kansas, but we’re close enough to see Dorothy fly by in her house. (And her little dog, too.)

Limestone Ruellia (Ruellia strepens L.), with a little stand of buffalo grass

Found them easily in the “Blue, Purple, Lavender & Violet” section under “Blooming in May.” Yippee! (The dogs came running to see what fabulous snack I’d found because surely that’s the only thing worth being excited over.) The blue lovelies are “limestone wild petunias” — natives. They get to stay.

Sometimes thundershowers help you find wildflowers — even if it takes clearing debris to see them. And maybe someday, neighbors with different views on mowing can come to a friendly understanding.

Next time … Plant sleuthing continues (who you be? where you from?)

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Passive Aggressive Mowing

Our nearest neighbors mowed 1/4 to 1/5 of the prairie.  I am so upset that I had to come inside (because apparently I was standing out there yelling motherf*cker really loud in the direction of their house).  They also took out a stand of buffalo grass that was seeding beautifully in another area.

Mr. Hilltop is helping me look over the surveyor’s report, and I guess I’ll be putting up stakes and rocks tomorrow. 

I’m too sad to even take pictures of the destruction at this point. 

Sigh.

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