“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy
You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.
I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.
But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.
When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.
I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.
I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.
But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.
Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.
Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.
Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.
It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.
The bullfrogs like it, too.
Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.
I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.
Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.
The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.
I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.
Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.
We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.
I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.
Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.
I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.
One plant at a time.
Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
Join Cindy for a program or a class online!
The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.
What a beautiful, thorough garden tour. Thank you! And, yes, “going native” is not an all or nothing proposition; every little bit helps!
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Thank you for reading, and for taking a moment to leave me a note! So grateful! Happy gardening!
Oh my gosh, Cindy, this is such a great post! When I first started native gardening four years ago, I was ruthless in ripping out non-natives. I regret that now and have decided that I’ll allow myself to plant some zinnias or peonies along with my natives, without guilt.
Your garden is beautiful!
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Kim, I admire your garden (from your photos) and thank you for the compliments and encouraging words! So grateful. I’m still learning…. so many plants! So much fun figuring out their stories and where they fit. Grateful for your note.
Thank you, Cindy! I just sent an email to our homeowners association board on this very topic! I will forward the link to this post as well – yours is in far more detail and of course, the photos are persuasive in selling others on the idea of more natives, especially productive natives – the ones that support the highest numbers of pollinators and insects. We need to make our own patch of land a buffet of their favorite foods and places to raise young – I refer to them as “caterpillar factories” so birds find lots of food for their young, with enough left over to grow into butterflies and moths. Googling “native plant finder” will get people to Doug’s database – just enter your zip code and a list of native trees, shrubs and flowering plants magically appears!
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So happy to know you are working on your community’s plant choices, Paula! Good for you. Great link to the database — thank you for including this. And thank you for reading and for leaving a note.
It’s been awhile since I said hi. I still and most likely will always read every week. Your gentle transition from Kentucky Blue to Native is much like our society. We start with what we have and transition slowly to healthier, natural and beautiful choices. Going back to what existed before us and yet bringing it forward to include today. You gift us with such special and at the same time ordinary insight. It’s hard for our neighbors much less the governing bodies to hear the value of diversity. I talk about it with the local Ag people and attempt to encourage them to pass the information back up the pipeline. Most people seem to not want to “rock the boat”. I “hear” you paddling a canoe and observing nature all around you. Once again thank you Cindy. Change and learning does come slowly. “Money and time” are definitely the working parameters.
I had the joy of helping to expand the Prairie joy and knowledge this year. It’s the year the CRP requires me to mow or burn. They decided to give me the option. Mostly they were requiring mow. We had 8 people doing the burn. 4 of them had never done a burn before. Newbeeies. The four of us that had burned previously, imparted the respect for a Prairie burn. Not just fun like a camp fire. A neighbor who volunteers at a Prairie near Madison asked to participate and has offered to help with maintenance. Definite win win.
The second win with the burn this year. I invited the Ag people to experience first hand the result of a CRP Prairie burn. A trainee for the conservation officer came out. We spent two hours walking around and he received 20 years of my experience. We talked diversity and slow evolution of the Prairie from farm, corn, to Prairie grasses and forbs. How the various plants have chosen their own places to live. Change and evolution over 20 years. The hope is this young man will be able to better describe to people coming into the program the value, beauty and joy. I have invited him to come back every few weeks and experience the evolution of a year. I can always hope.
This is my way of carrying on the work you do every week. You are such a marvelous inspiration and resource. I only wish we could accelerate the process of consciousness. What I have to realize is that this work isn’t any different than the Prairie itself. Slow, steady and one plant at a time. Just maybe the young man will encourage one more farmer to add Prairie, diversity and naturalization to their mix.
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Hello, and so lovely to hear from you. Great to hear about your work and experiences sharing native plants and prairie. I love your description of talking to the trainee! I know learning from others, like yourself, has been a joy. Keep up that “slow, steady” work and thank you for making a difference in the world.
Such a lovely garden- sounds a lot like mine! I went and bought a bunch of shrubs also- the diervilla, black chokeberry, serviceberry and new jersey teas are now gracing my front beds. Can’t wait to enjoy all their diverse beauty! Looking forward to your class…
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Shrubs! So exciting to discover more about them and have them in our yards. What a lovely list you have. I’ll look forward to seeing your beautiful journals with their images and descriptions! Happy gardening!
Such a lovely article Cindy and a great approach! Thanks for sharing it with us!
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Such a great compliment from you, Trish! I appreciate all the wonderful work you are doing for the natural world — I know I am still learning and figuring things out, so it is good to have others to mentor us along the way. Thanks for all you are doing to spread the word!
I spent so much time volunteering that I did not put much effort into my own property. I’ve seen so many houses sold, and the gardens destroyed, that I wanted my efforts to go to something more permanent.
At the Nature Sanctuary where I volunteer, the native gardens I have been tending for half a decade were damaged to various degrees by construction. After this I told them I was not going to take care of the garden anymore. I had been volunteering for The Nature Conservancy, but I stopped after a change was made requiring volunteers to sign a new Volunteer Agreement. I could not agree to the clause stating I would not talk about my work on social media. Since I work alone, social media is my only opportunity to talk with other people about something I love to do.
With my newly freed time, I purchased and planted 56 native plants in my yard. I planted prairie dropseed, Carex bicknellii, smooth blue aster, prairie coreopsis, lead plant, and purple prairie clover on a slope. On another slope, I planted little bluestem among existing purple coneflowers and replaced an unhappy hydrangea (too dry) with a New Jersey Tea. The hydrangea went to a neighbor who had a better spot for it. In my rain garden I added a second and third marsh marigold and a blue flag iris. It has been so dry, this spring, I’ve even had to water the iris in the wettest part of my rain garden. In areas shaded by trees or shrubs I planted Carex pensylvanica, Carex rosea, Jacob’s ladder, Virginia waterleaf, white trout lily, wild geranium, wild ginger, and woodland phlox. Next year I want to put in more woodland phlox and Jacob’s ladder if they do well under the tree.
There are so many other native plants I would like in my gardens. I have to pace myself so I can make sure I get everything planted before it gets too hot.
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What a wonderful yard you must have! It was lovely to hear about your plants and all the selections you have made. Let me know how it goes with your New Jersey Tea — I just lost mine (it isn’t leafing out this season) and am anxious to replace it, perhaps in a new location. I just planted the blue iris; great to hear about yours. Happy gardening, and thank you for staying in touch and reading! So grateful.
Years ago, I planted a bunch of New Jersey tea plugs at Spring Valley Nature center on either side of the dry mesic trail loop right behind the visitor center. They all grew great. This past year they did not burn, and instead mowed, which was hard on these shrubs. However, New Jersey tea is tough. They are bouncing back.
A few years ago, I decided to purchase a one-gallon New Jersey tea for my garden from the Schaumburg Community Garden Clubs plant sale that supports Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary. The plant I receive was kept near their maintenance shop for one or more years as a holdover from previous sales. I planted it but it never grew any leaves. I got a replacement plant with leaves, but it soon died. I had planted both these plants in a gravel area. However, the underlying clay does not let the water drain well and I think the roots were too wet.
This time, as I previously mentioned, I planted the New Jersey Tea plug in a drier spot. I think the New Jersey Tea will be happy on this dry slope. Often transplants of smaller trees will survive when transplants of larger trees die. I think the New Jersey Tea plug might similarly survive better than the gallon plant I purchased previously. Also, plugs are cheaper than gallon pots.
So far it looks good. I think my biggest concern will be making sure the critters don’t dig it up. I covered so many newly planted plants with rings of chicken wire that I ran out of chicken wire and steam. I left the prairie plant plugs I planted unprotected. Each morning I check and replant anything that has been dug up by the critters. So far they only got one pepper plant in my vegetable garden, but my vigilance saved it.
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Hi James —
I’m glad your New Jersey Tea is looking good! Mine is finally leafed out, and I am so encouraged! I hope now (in July, as I am writing this) you have more green peppers and a thriving New Jersey Tea shrub. It’s such a great plant! Mine definitely likes it on the drier side. Thanks for your note! Cindy 🙂
Very nice blog.🌞 ⚡ 2021-06-21 07h 08min
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Thank you, Irving, for taking time to read and comment! Happy hiking!