Tag Archives: front yard prairie planting

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard

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Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.

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If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.

Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.

And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.

Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).

I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.

Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”

The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.

When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.

How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.

Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.

University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.

A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”

Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.

What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.

I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!

Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!

Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.

The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.

On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.

Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.

Too tired to read?

Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.

If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.

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There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethic in previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.

Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie 2021

Prairie Literature 101

The Tallgrass Prairie: Annual Books Edition

A Year of Reading Prairie

The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.

Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.

Happy reading!

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The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.

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Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

A Tallgrass Garden Rain

“Listen!—it rains; it rains! The prayer of the grass is heard… .” –Frederick J. Atwood

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Rain stormed in with lights and fireworks this weekend, bringing long-needed relief to the Chicago western suburbs. And, a few flooded basements. This was substantial rain; rain that meant business. Rain that overflowed creek and river banks. Rain that soaked deep.

Torrential rains, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the prairie planting, asters and goldenrod bowed under the water’s weight. Great blue lobelia and black-eyed Susans, at the mercy of my garden hose for the past week, perked up at a chance for real water. Rain.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia silphilitum) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Spider webs sprang into view, bedazzled by raindrops.

Spider web, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the front yard prairie pollinator planting, I parted the sodden flowers of showy goldenrod. Deep inside were sheltering insects, including one rain-soaked bumblebee.

Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As the clouds passed and the flowers dried, pollinators shook off the wet and took wing. I spent some time on iNaturalist and with various online insect guides before naming this one below. I believe it is the transverse banded drone fly, sometimes called a “flower fly.”

Possibly the transverse banded drone fly (Eristalis transversa), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL. Corrections welcome!

I’m still learning insect ID (thanks, gentle readers, for your correction of the wasp to the hover fly in last week’s blog), so I’m not 100 percent certain. But by any name, it’s a stunning little insect.

Showers brought out sky blue aster blooms in my front yard planting. I’m delighted to see the three plants I put in this spring made it to the fall finish line, after being nibbled almost to death by rabbits all summer.

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The scientific name of this aster—Symphyotrichum oolentangiense—is a mouthful. Originally, the name was in honor of Ohio’s Olentangy River by botanist John Riddell, but the river’s name was misspelled. For a short time, the New York National Heritage Program tells us it was Aster azureus, which is much easier for naturalists like myself to pronounce, until the genus became Symphyotrichum. Ah, well. Nobody said botany would be easy.

I was grateful beyond words for the rainfall, but also, for the cooler, sunny weather of the past week. Meals moved back to the patio as the temperatures swung from “steamy” to “crisp and cool.” This gave us a a front row seat this weekend to keep an eye on the moonflower vine, whose two buds we’ve been watching with rapt attention.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No, it’s not a native plant. But I make a place for it in my prairie garden each season. It’s a long wait from the direct sowing the seeds to that first flower. About two months, most seasons. This year it has been a little longer, likely because of the dry weather, and of the five or so seeds I planted, only one survived. Just this week I noticed it had leapt from the trellis by the patio to the arborvitae. That’s a first! Usually I wind the vining tendrils up and down and across the trellis. This one got away from me.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba) on arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On Saturday, after reading on the back porch for a while, I put down my book on the patio table and went in to fix dinner. When I brought out dinner, one of the moonflower buds had opened. Wow! Jeff and I “oohhed” and “aahhed” as our dinner cooled and we admired the first bloom of the season. It must have been waiting for the Harvest Moon to open. Our moonflower has a light fragrance, something like vanilla. After dark, I went to admire it one last time before bed.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The song “Nights in White Satin” comes to mind. We never have very many moonflowers; frost kicks in around the first or second week of October in our part of Illinois and crumples the vine just as it gets going in earnest. Each bloom only lasts one night. By morning, this one was only a memory. Such a fleeting pleasure! Is it worth it to give it a space? I’ve always thought so. Night-blooming flowers are rare in my region, and this one’s a beauty.

However, not all vines give me this much pleasure. Last week I mentioned I was besieged with the non-native perennial vine sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). It covers part of my garden like a snowdrift. Or maybe kudzu. The doc says I can’t pull weeds for three more weeks, so I can only stand back and sigh. At least it smells pretty! But, it is suffocating my two pricey spice bush saplings, my blazing star, my white wild indigo, my….well, you get the idea. It’s out of control. It makes my rambunctious native arrow-leaved asters look well-behaved.

Arrow-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum sagittifolium) with sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) in the background, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wrote last week that I was considering replacing the sweet autumn clematis next year with virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), an Illinois native. One of the reasons I love being a part of the prairie and garden community is learning from my readers, who sent me emails and comments this week strongly recommending against it. Evidently, virgin’s bower plays nicely on prairies and savanna edges, but goes berserk when planted in some home gardens. Espie Nelson, one of my favorite prairie experts (and long time steward with her husband, Don) wrote to me saying one of her native virgin’s bower vines had taken over a 15 foot area in her yard. She plans on totally eliminating it this season. Another reader, Mary, told me virgin’s bower is a “thug.” She had to pull it out when it invaded a neighbor’s yard.

As Espie wisely wrote me, “Don’t trade one exotic plant for a native plant that has the same vigorous growth patterns.” Good advice. I’ll enjoy virgin’s bower in my favorite natural areas, and not in my yard. Looks like I’ll invest in more non-vining natives, instead.

Blazing star (Liatris aspera) with a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, another reason for dining on the back porch—besides watching moonflowers—is migration. Monarchs are moving through, although my backyard has only attracted them one at a time. Jeff and I saw a small swarm of common green darner dragonflies massing over the backyard this weekend, doubtlessly headed south. Cornell University said it also expected us to see “massive” bird movement this past weekend, with an estimated 316 million to 400-plus million migrating birds moving through each night across the United States. If I sat on the patio and squinted against the bright blue sky, I could make out a few birds high up, moving south.

Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Facebook Page, 9-9-22.

I filled the feeders, and crossed my fingers. But, the backyard seemed to only harbor the usual suspects; goldfinches pulling out cup plant and hyssop seeds for their supper, and a few hummingbirds browsing the zinnias….

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and at the nectar feeders.

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

Hummingbirds seem to be everywhere right now, passing through my backyard on their way to Mexico and Panama. Can you find the one in my next-door neighbor’s oak tree? It’s scoping out the competition at my nectar feeders.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) having a “where’s Waldo” moment in the neighbor’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds arrive around the end of April in Chicago’s western suburbs and vanish by mid-October. I’ll miss their whizz-whirr of wings and their tiny chirps when they’re gone.

We’ll have to enjoy other backyard wildlife. Chipmunks, perhaps. They’ve set up house under the patio, and play tag across the patio as I drink my coffee in the mornings. And the squirrels, busy burying their nuts in the lawn.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yep. We won’t lack for squirrels. Too bad ours are so camera shy.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’ve learned not to leave breakfast on the patio table unattended. Ahem.

Speaking of food. In last week’s post, I mentioned something about the tomatoes “slowing production.” The garden must have been listening. Although the tomatoes are indeed slowing down, and Jeff pulled some of the plants that won’t set anymore ripe fruit before frost, the pole beans are pumping out Kentucky Wonders at a steady rate. There’s also plethora of sweet peppers that needed picked…

Giant marconi sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum)—-these were all on two plants in one picking. Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the thornless ichiban and prickly black beauty eggplants are in overdrive. This summer, I planted two plants on my south wall of the porch, with concrete at their feet. It’s the hottest spot in the garden.

Black beauty eggplant (Solanum melongena ‘Black Beauty’) foreground) and ichiban eggplant (Solanum melongena ‘Ichiban’ right), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’ve picked almost a dozen in the past week, which is more eggplant than I know what to do with. After giving some away, I tried making the Mediterranean dip baba ganoush for the first time. Loosely following a recipe from Cookie & Kate, I cut the eggplants in half, brushed them with olive oil, then roasted them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. When they cooled, I scooped out and strained the insides, then mixed the goop with tahini (a sesame seed paste), fresh garlic and parsley from the garden, a little cumin, and lemon juice. Yum! It’s now my favorite way to eat eggplant. And it uses up a lot!

Baba Ganoush and Stonefire Naan rounds.

As I walk around the garden and prairie, I’m aware of the lowering slant of the sun, the cooling temps. Monarchs and dragonflies heading south. Prairie wildflowers and grasses going to seed.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

September is a dynamic month, exploding with color and change. I’m glad I’ve got a front row seat, here in my backyard prairie and garden.

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Words from Kansas poet Frederick J. Atwood’s poem “The Breaking of the Drought” (1902, Kansas Rhymes and Other Lyrics) open the blog today. This short poem continues: The thirsty ground drinks eagerly; As a famished man eats bread; The moan of the trees is hushed; And the violets under the banks; Lift up their heads so gratefully; And smilingly give thanks. Thanks to Kansas on the Net for republishing the poem.

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn!

Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).