Bringing Prairie Home

“Your garden will reveal yourself.” — Henry Mitchell


I’m humming Neil Young’s rowdy “Are You Ready for the Country” under my breath, and occasionally breaking out in song with the few lyrics I remember. Happy music, for a happy morning.  Why? I’m ready to plant some pasque flower seedlings into their new home on the prairie. We collected the seeds last spring, and after a long winter indoors, they’re ready.

As a steward, I look at the tiny wildflowers, so vulnerable in their seed tray, and imagine them  repopulating the prairie.


I try to imagine them in bloom after a few seasons…

PossiblitiesPasqueflowers 2016 NGWM.jpg

…and then going to seed, completing the cycle.


Hope for the future.

The seedlings we’re planting into the larger prairie inspire me each spring to try and improve the little prairie patch in my backyard. The first native plant sales have been in full swing this month. My checkbook has taken a hit!  On the porch are the results: plastic pots of small prairie plants.

The tiny white wild indigo…


…soon to be as large as a bushel basket. Its white spikes will brighten my backyard, just as it inspires delight on the prairies where I’m a steward.

NGsummer2017 copy.jpg

A wisp of Indian grass looks like nothing much now….


…but I have a vision of what it might be, waving over my head in a slant of autumn light.


I compare my flat of plants against my order list. White prairie clover. Check. Purple prairie clover. Check.


Then, I close my eyes and think about the future.

Purple Prairie Clover 7918 SPMAWM.jpg

Queen of the prairie, with its signature green leaves…


…holding the promise of cotton candy color in my backyard prairie patch.

Queen of the Prairie MA 72717WM

Rattlesnake master, diminutive in its plastic pot…


…will someday throw its summer globes of greenish white into my backyard prairie.


In the biggest pot is my prize prairie shrub; New Jersey tea. Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, sitting in a sheltered spot on my front porch…


…but I can already see its foamy flowers frothing like a cappuccino, planted next to the patio where I’ll sip my first cup of coffee each morning and admire it.


The prairies I steward are works in progress. So is my backyard.  Right now, there is standing water. Mud. A whole lot of emerald green growth; some of it not the welcome kind.

But mixed among the weeds in my backyard—and on the prairies where I hike and volunteer—are a kaleidoscope of prairie plant leaf shapes and blooms. The shell-like leaves of alum root. Fuzzy prairie dock leaf paddles. Heart-leaved golden Alexanders.


In my imagination, I see these prairies as they could be: five, ten, fifteen years from now. So much of the joy is in the planning and the dreaming.  Sure, rabbits and deer will munch on some seedlings. Weather may not cooperate. Voles may demolish this wildflower, or an errant step in the wrong place may flatten one of the grass seedlings. With a bit of luck, and some coddling, I know many of them will make it.

Seeing these vulnerable plants succeed against the odds always offers hope for my own year ahead, with all of its unknown challenges and potential delights. Watching these plants complete the seasonal cycle never fails to comfort me in some small way. The prairie, vulnerable as it is, always moves forward. It’s always growing. Always changing. Always beautiful in new and different ways.

So much is represented in these flats. So many possibilities in small plastic pots.

Little prairie plants. Big dreams.


Now that’s something to sing about.


The opening quote is from the charmingly cynical writing of the late garden columnist Henry Mitchell (1924-1993). You can read more about Mitchell here. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, I’d begin with The Essential Earthman, a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seedlings, DuPage County, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in seed, DuPage County, IL;  white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and other wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), author’s porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) ready for planting, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia apta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.


Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Speaking Events:

Thursday, May 16 & Thursday, May 23: A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie, two evenings on the Schulenberg Prairie and in the classroom. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: register by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 21–7-8 p.m.Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Bloomingdale Garden Club, St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 1: The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Bison tour with book purchase; lecture is free! You must preregister here by May 25 as seating is limited.

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13 responses to “Bringing Prairie Home

  1. Cathy Streett

    I too am “ready for the country” – I also have a few new starts to add to my native, prairie like garden….just waiting for some dry weather, which is on the way this week! Thanks for reminding us to prairie up and add each year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this, Cindy! I have many of the same plants in small pots right now, and your envisioning of their future grandeur has motivated me to get them in the ground. And finally, after a seemingly endless stretch of sad, gray, cold days, we have sunshine!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love it that we are both on the same radar with our plants! Isn’t it fun? Now, I need to get mine in the ground too! Today was our first nice day, and what a glorious day it was…. Happy planting, and thank you for taking time to read and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. And you chose the perfect shouter-outer to make the announcement. What glories, red-winded blackbirds.

    And Neil Young–perfect music for the task at hand. We are all ready.

    Thanks for another extraordinary post.

    Soul soothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad to know you share that affinity for Neil Young, planting, and red-wings! Grateful for your lovely compliments, and so appreciative that you took time to read and comment, Ed. Happy Spring!


  4. Do you grow anything in the wet areas of your yard?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do, James! Lots of queen of the prairie, Joe Pye, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, marsh marigold, rose mallow, prairie cordgrass…. I’m always looking for new wet area plants! We live in a subdivision, and our backyard tends to hold water. I have a tiny pond I hand-dug at the lowest point to catch some of the run off. I find the prairie plants help hold the water and lessen the impact on the yard, but it is still sort of swampy. 🙂 Feel free to share any of your ideas! And thank you for reading and taking time to comment.


      • James McGee

        In the wettest areas of my yard, I grow Carex buxbaumii and Carex tetanica (locally sourced). I like these because they are on the shorter side. I have Carex granularis in a drier location, although it would probably do better on the edge of this rain garden. I collect the seed from these sedges every year and donate them to local restorations. I have shrubs that can tolerate wet feet like Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica), toward the front, and Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), in the back. I protect these shrubs from fire. Like you, I also have marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), along the edge of this garden, and rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), in the back.

        One of my more interesting wetland gardens is under a downspout on the south side of my house. In this location I grow Carex craweii and associates. This sedge likes moisture in spring but can survive drying out in summer. I like this Carex because it is so very short. With the number of downspouts in the area, this could be a very popular little sedge if only a nursery grew it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • James McGee

        You should be able to find these species in a local prairie. However, if you want some seed or divisions of the sedges I mentioned for your garden send me an e-mail. My original collection site is only about 20 miles north of the Morton Arboretum.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Eugene McMahon

    Redwing blackbirds…the true herald of spring!

    Liked by 1 person

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