news round up, late summer edition

Indiana gives utilities $5.5 million to build electric vehicle chargers across the state (Indy Star) The state of Indiana got a big chunk of change as part of the multi-billion-dollar settlement with Volkswagen that resulted from the company manufacturing and installing defective emissions-control devices in hundreds of thousands of diesel-powered vehicles. With some of that money, Indiana is awarding grants to build out a charging network for electric vehicles across the state. 

United States of Wildfire (NPR interactive article) There’s a forgotten history that should serve as a warning — wildfire isn’t unique to the West. Now the warming climate is increasing the risk of major wildfires across America. And more people are moving to fire-prone areas without realizing the danger.

Why The South Is Decades Ahead Of The West In Wildfire Prevention (NPR) Florida has done prescribed burns on more than 1.6 million acres so far this year. California has only burned around 35,000 acres

Yellow River Bank Improvements Schedule for Marshall County (Max 98.3) At its August 19 meeting, the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission selected The Stanger Group in Goshen to reconstruct nearly a half-mile of Yellow River banks in Marshall County.  The approximately $700,000 project, funded through a mix of state, regional, and county dollars, is expected to commence in early September and finish this November. 

The Problem with Honey Bees (Scientific American) They’re important for agriculture, but they’re not so good for the environmentTo many people, honey bees symbolize prosperity, sustainability and environmentalism. But as a honey bee researcher, I have to tell you that only the first item on that list is defensible

Seeking your climate refuge? Consider this (CNN) First, if you are considering uprooting your life because of climate change, let that sink in. Let that reality, a scenario that was likely inconceivable to you just a few years ago, radicalize you to the all-encompassing scope, scale and urgency of this existential, all-encompassing crisis..

America’s First Bee Conservation Dog Helps Researcher Sniff Out Bumblebee Nests In Colorado (People) The two-year-old German shorthaired pointer “is not afraid of a challenge,” according to his owner Jacqueline Staab

Western Wildfire Smoke Triggers Air Quality Action Day Across Indiana (WFYI) The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued a statewide Air Quality Action Day for Wednesday and Thursday. Smoke from wildfires in the western United States and southern Canada, along with local weather conditions, have created the potential for unhealthy levels of fine airborne particles in every region of the state

Birds could get their sense of direction from quantum physics (Science News for Students) European robins have a protein in their eye that is sensitive to magnetic fields

Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy? (Vox) The “degrowth” movement to fight the climate crisis offers a romantic, utopian vision. But it’s not a policy agenda.

The Fascinating and Complicated Sex Lives of White-throated Sparrows (Audubon) With their quadruple personalities, those little brown birds at your feeder are a lot more interesting than they might appear.

The new surgical tool inspired by a wasp (BBC, 1 min video) Scientists in the Netherlands have mimicked the way parasitoid wasps lay eggs to design a new tool for keyhole surgery

DNR: Black bear found dead alongside northern Indiana highway (WTHR) The bear’s carcass was found on SR 15 near the Indiana Toll Road in Bristol, Indiana Wednesday.

Top US scientist on melting glaciers: ‘I’ve gone from being an ecologist to a coroner’ (The Guardian) Diana Six, an entomologist studying beetles near Glacier national park in Montana, says the crisis has fundamentally changed her profession

Biden to aim for 50% by 2030 with industry support (Reuters) U.S. President Joe Biden will sign an executive order on Thursday aimed at making half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles and will propose new vehicle-emission rules to cut pollution through 2026, the White House said. Biden’s goal, which is not legally binding, won the support of major U.S. and foreign automakers that warned it would require billions of dollars in government funding.


It’s HOT! It’s summer! Well… getting to be late summer. Which also means that it’s Goldenrod time!

Grey / Old-field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)

First, let’s dispel the stereotypes. Goldenrods aren’t the source of your allergic suffering. Their big, sticky pollen is ferried about by insects, not wind. You can thank the light, wind-borne pollen of Ragweed species (Artemesia spp.) for that.

Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia),

Well… and before you try to rid the planet of ragweed, two cautions: as an annual, it thrives on disturbance, so the more humans flail about, tilling, spraying, digging, etc… the more we probably encourage their growth. Oops. Secondly, Common Ragweed is a pretty important part of the native ecosystem:

Many kinds of insects feed destructively on Common Ragweed. This includes the larvae of long-horned beetles, larvae of weevils, larvae and adults of leaf beetles, larvae of tumbling flower beetles, larvae of leaf-miner flies, plant bugs, Uroleucon ambrosiae (Brown Ambrosia Aphid) and other aphids, Stictocephala bisonia (Buffalo Treehopper) and other treehoppers, mealybugs, larvae of Adaina ambrosiae (Ragweed Plume Moth) and many other moths, and grasshoppers (see Insects Table). Many upland gamebirds and granivorous songbirds are attracted to the oil-rich seeds (see Bird Table). Because the spikes of seeds often remain above snow cover, they are especially valuable to some of these birds during winter

Wait, this post was supposed to be about Goldenrods!

Grey / Old-field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)

Ahhhh, that’s better. Pictured here is Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) growing on the sand hill that is Moontree Studios. The “goldenrods” are plant species that belong to the Genus Solidago. We have several kinds in Indiana. Lots, actually. Here’s a list for our state:


Not all Goldenrods can grow on top of a sand hill. Some only grow in swamps and saturated soils, like this Swamp Goldenrod I stumbled on near Flat Lake in 2018 (not the best photos, sorry):

Swamp Goldenrod (Solidago patula)

But by far the most common Goldenrod seen by most folks (esp. in roadsides and old fields) is Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). It is native to N. America, but it’s very aggressive and can completely dominant old fields for years, perhaps decades. Some managers even decide to control the species with mechanical or chemical methods, to promote diversity. It’s a nuanced conversation. Despite this, the beautiful yellow late-season blooms are a boon for pollinators (and their predators) if they happen to match up with its timing.

Praying Mantis on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), waiting patiently.

Canada Goldenrod gets pretty tall and wild. But there are some underappreciated species that I think many would find beautiful in more landscaped settings. Here is Elm-leaved Goldenrod, which is found in native oak forests and tolerates plenty of shade. My kids and I call it “Fireworks Goldenrod” for reasons that are obvious when you see the blooms.

Elm-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago ulmnifolia), 2017.

Any time there is a well-known plant, there are often lesser known cousins with different bloom times, leaf or flower arrangements, shade and soil requirements, etc. In order to preserve as much biodiversity as possible, it’s good to acquaint ourselves with the whole family.

So… Solida-GO outside and enjoy the show that Goldenrods are putting on right now.

prairie plants take root at Moontree Studios

Apologies for not posting for some time now. Summer is busy!

A couple years ago, my family visited Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. It is a prairie/savanna habitat restoration project on the scale of thousands of acres. It’s visitors center is top notch and a must-see for anyone traveling on Interstate 80. At the center is a very striking display of the massive root system of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) one of the most dominant native grasses of the tallgrass prairie region.

How was such a display created?

It was a method pioneered by the team at the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Click the link to read more.

After years of waiting and planning, we recently embarked on an attempt to replicate this process at Moontree Studios. This involved many conversations with the generous & talented staff at UNI, for which I’m extremely grateful! I tried to adjust & refine processes that they pioneered over the last 10 years. Other adjustments were forced on us, as the ripples of the COVID pandemic led to issues with materials availability and price. But… we persevered!

I’ll omit the technical details of the project & let the photos do most of the story-telling this time. [There appears to be no rhyme or reason why some photos are uploading right-side-up, sideways, or upside-down. I don’t really know what to do about it. Sorry, if that’s the case for you!]

The aim of the project is to produce visually engaging root specimens for local organizations & agencies to help tell the story of the prairie ecosystem, a community where much of the activity is out of sight, below the soil surface.

The process of growing the specimens is much more involved than one might think. You can’t just take an excavator in the prairie and dig them up.

First… we need a narrow,10 foot deep hole in the ground.

Next: drop in some tubes 10 foot long and 12 inches in diameter. These are the sleeves, and they’ll stay permanently in the ground.

thanks Matthew!

Push the dirt back in…

thanks Kurt!

All set!

Next: we need smaller, 10-inch diameter PVC tubs that will fit inside these sleeves. This is where the plants will grow. In order for us to easily extract them (in a year or two) and liberate the roots, we need to first cut them in half lengthwise, then piece them back together. Got it? I’ve found that I’ve had a hard time conveying this to people using just words.

Next, clamp the pieces back together, using various clips, clamps, and duct tape:

Almost ready!

After the roots are grown and we are trying to pull these up out of the ground, we need something in the bottom to prevent everything from falling out the bottom. A well-braced flower pot will suffice:

Drainage provided by Sr Mary Baird:

Ok, drop them in!

Since there is no recipe book, it was surprising how much work it was to just see… tubes in the ground. But, we aren’t done!

The growing medium is next. Soil won’t do, as it binds to tightly with the fine woven root hairs. It’d be impossible to pull away without damaging the specimen. Contrary to most gardening advice, we wanted something that retained almost no moisture. The roots should grow between the medium, not into it. We used Turface, the material used on ball diamonds.

All hands on deck!

Putting in plants was by far the easiest part of the project! For most of them, we paired the fibrous-rooted Big Bluestem with a tap-rooted wildflower, such as Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthenaceum) or Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens).

Two peas in a pod. Well, technically, only the Lead Plant is in the pea family, Fabaceae.

Since the material doesn’t retain water, we have no choice but to irrigate (and fertilize). Lead Hydrology Engineer Matthew Celmer (who moonlights as Director of Moontree Studios) designed this system.

Note the metal spike that runs through the tube. That’s what we’ll use to pull it up when the plants are grown (with machinery, of course).

A simple digital timer automates the irrigation. It has some newfangled bluetooth controls you can mess with on your phone. But the dial works just fine and we don’t need to constantly adjust it. All we need to do is periodically check in.

You have never seen joy until you’ve seen Matthew get acquainted with the motherlode of clay that we unearthed from the bottom of the trench.

And… that’s it!

We missed the 1st half of the 2021 growing season, so it’s not yet certain when we’ll be able to unearth these plants. It really depends on how robust their growth is. A couple might grow fast enough to pull up at the end of 2022. Others might take until 2023. We’ll then use chemicals to treat and preserve the roots, order the plexiglass display case, develop an educational brochure, and start delivery of roots to our partner agencies (as well as a display at Moontree, of course).

Once again, I’m greatly indebted to UNI for sharing the learnings from their pioneering work.

Even before the roots are finished, they are doing the work. We’ve had several groups of children stop by Moontree this summer for educational sessions, and the prairie roots project comprises another stop on the tour.

I would normally end by saying that I can’t wait to pull these tubes up, but… I definitely CAN wait! Time for the air, water, and plants to work their magic while we rest for a spell, or at least move on to other work.