New Year’s Prairie Resolutions

“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle


It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.


1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.

Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.

Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Naperville, IL (2020).

It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL (2022).

Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.

St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL (2019)

We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.


2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.

One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?

Native butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.

Native pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and a striped sweat bee(Agapostem sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2018)

What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.

Stay tuned.


3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.

One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.

Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (2019)

The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!

Orland Grasslands, Orland Park, Il. (2017)

Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.


4. I will plant an oak.

When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

All told, for someone who teaches at The Morton Arboretum, I sure haven’t paid enough attention to trees in my yard. When I paged through Doug Tallamy’s books Nature’s Best Hope and The Nature of Oaks, it nudged me to invest in oaks in 2023. Sure, I have concerns—-oaks, like many other trees, are under threat from disease and from climate change.

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL. (2020)

But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.

Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.

Mixed oak leaves (Quercus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.


5. I will keep a regular eBird list.

Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (February, 2020).

This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2016)

Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.


6. I will expand our native plantings.

When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2022).

2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.

Marine blue butterfly (Leptotes marina) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL. This species is a rare migrant to Illinois.

In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.


Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.

Pollinator, possibly a carpenter bee? (Xylocopa sp.) heading for blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!


The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”


Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.


Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.

27 responses to “New Year’s Prairie Resolutions

  1. After reading the Nature of Oaks, I also NEEDED and oak tree but didn’t feel I had the space. I planted two dwarf chinkapin oaks. They are still young in my yard so I don’t have a reflection on what they will bring.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy new year, Cindy! Your resolutions are an inspiration. I find that WGN-TV weather expert Tom Skilling is great at identifying clouds in photos people send in to him on his Facebook page.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy New Year, Cindy! What a great list of resolutions! I’ve never tried ebird so I may add that to my list. I’ve turned my front yard into a native planting so keeping the weeds down and taking care of it will probably be all I can handle. I want to hike and sketch more and keep learning the plants down here which are probably more goals than resolutions. Looking forward to seeing what the year brings- good luck on all that you do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Karen —
      Let me know what you think if you try eBird! I am loving it. Congratulations on turning your front yard into a native planting. I know I’ll be looking forward to what you sketch in 2023. — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Happy New Year, Cindy, with thanks from the heart for making the prairie a place of majesty, miniatures, and magic, as you synthesize components for each Tuesday’s offering. It brings joy each time.

    I live with eastern clouds. But on a visit to the Willa Cather Prairie in Red Cloud Nebraska, I watched one form that was new to me. Browsing “cloud photos “ I discovered Mammatus Clouds, and have seen them only once since. Happy Hunting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sandy for reading and for letting me know more about your favorite clouds. That’s so wonderful! We get mammatus clouds here when we have big storms, and they are always a thrill. I hope you see many beautiful cloud formations in 2023. Happy cloudspotting! Cindy 🙂


  5. I unintentionally left a lot of my dried up wildflowers intact for the winter. Frankly, time got away from me last fall. I will be curious to see what if any insects I come across this spring because the garden was left intact. I do know I’ve enjoyed watching birds pick through it so that in itself was a benefit. I have a large patch that is about 80% native. My only complaint really is that I’m down to a few thugs, helianthus, anise, goldenrod that have really taken over. They’ve even pushed out some grasses. I’m starting to rethink some of those plantings. I enjoy your weekly posts & always learn something new.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Linda —I hope you see some new insects in the spring, and enjoy seeing more birds snacking on your wildflower seeds this winter. Good for you on the natives! And yes… goldenrod especially…it is a bully! If you like goldenrod, showy goldenrod is a good choice — much less of a take-over specialist. Thank you for reading, and for all you are doing in your yard. I’ll look forward to hearing how your new year in the garden is going — please update me! Cindy 🙂


  6. After a wonderful White Oak tree was taken down last Spring, I did plant a small swamp oak tree. I hope it makes it through the winter. You are always an inspiration for me.
    Steve Mack

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Steve — I’m so sorry you lost your white oak. Good for you, planting the swamp oak! I will keep my fingers crossed it makes it. Keep us updated! Thanks for reading, and happy 2023! Cindy 🙂


  7. Linda (Valdez) Karl

    Hi, Cindy! I hope to be prairie-ing with you at the Arb this year! I applied for the volunteership. We planted TWO oaks last year, a Red Oak and a Swamp White. And I also test and watch the cultivars and natives in my own gardens. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Linda — I hope you will join us on the prairie! It’s great to hear about your red oak and swamp oak — I am inspired. I’d love to hear more as you test those cultivars against the natives. I am always learning. Happy New Year to you! Cindy 🙂


  8. Rose Marie Harring

    Oh, how I love clouds!!! I want to learn their various names too, Cindy! Thanks for the tip on “Cloudspotters Guide!” I remember many years ago on a tour to Bryce Canyon, being on the bus and taking photo after photo of the clouds…and the woman in front of me asking her husband, “What is that woman taking pictures of?” I answered her…”The magnificent clouds, that’s what!” Prairie and clouds go together like milk and cookies!! Love it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, how lovely to hear from you! We are such kindred spirits about the clouds. You will love the “Cloudspotters Guide”, it is a hoot. Milk and cookies — exactly — although I might say “coffee and cookies!” 🙂 Hope to see you in 2023 — Cindy 🙂


  9. Try the original prairie at St. John Lutheran Church Cemetery in Darien, 67th and Clarendon Hills Road. There are folks who do intense restoration there. The Darien Historical Society does a history walk every fall that includes prairie tours.

    I put oak saplings in the parkway between lousy Norway maples and they are doing well.

    Thanks for inspiring me to do more planning and planting…in 23!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you SO much, Cathy — I will definitely check this one out (I’ve not heard of it). I feel so inspired knowing people are caring for this remnant cemetery prairie. I love it that you put oaks in the parkway — I feel like that might be a spot I can push for in 2023 (So far, the township has said no, but there’s a nice empty spot…” Thank you for reading — looking forward to more prairie adventures with everyone in 2023! Cindy 🙂


  10. Have plants and trees to share.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Happy new year! Your resolutions are an inspiration. We once again resolve to continue our support of the prairie at the Arboretum. In order to that we will be meeting with, Jill the new CEO. We want talk about her commitment to preserving and protecting the priceless ecosystem of the Arboretum’s natural resources.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Cathy Montgomery

    Great resolutions! I think I’ll steal a few of yours!! Please come & visit the Weston Cemetery Prairie between Chenoa & Fairbury, IL, just off of Route 24. It’s delightful!! I have a small wahoo tree that I like & it has nice fall color. We planted a Northern Red Oak at our school. It’s one of the faster growing oaks. So many choices for trees & shrubs. I love my spicebush & sassafras.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Cathy — I would love to share any and all resolutions! I bet you have a few I could benefit from. Thank you for reading, and for the hot tip on Weston Cemetery Prairie. I definitely need to check that one out. Wahoo — what a beautiful choice — and northern red oak! I do have spicebush but not sassafras — how lovely. Thanks for reading — -here’s to a good 2023! Cindy 🙂


  13. We would love to have you stop by and visit Munson Township Cemetery Prairie and Greenlee Cemetery Prairie. We have a prairie walk every year the last Sunday in June at Munson, when the pale purple coneflowers are in full bloom. But you can also stop by any time. Henry County IL Natural Area Guardians, site managers for these 2 prairies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kim, you are so kind! I have not heard of these cemetery prairies, and I am so intrigued! I will add them to my must-see list. Thank you for the hot tip, and also, kudos to the Henry County IL Natural Area Guardians for their care of these important remnants. I’m grateful for you reading, and taking time to drop me a note! Happy New Year! Cindy 🙂


  14. Well, it’s not a native planting yet but I’m trying. Lack of rain is hurting my seed germination I think, or maybe I’m just not patient enough…I’m just hoping something native grows and flowers this spring!

    Liked by 1 person

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