Tag Archives: master gardener

Prairie Plantings at May’s End

If people looked at the stars each night, they’d live a lot differently.” —Bill Watterson


It’s gardening season at last in the Chicago Region. After a spate of chilly nights, which kept me from planting some of my more tender veggies, everything is finally in. Most everything, that is.

Seed packets— always too many for our small backyard. Lots of dreams here.

Fall-planted garlic is sailing along. Somewhere, I made a note of what type I planted. Somewhere.

Garlic (Allium sativum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love green onions, and my Egyptian Walking Onions, planted years ago when we first moved here, continue to flourish. They are as much art in the garden…

Egyptian walking onions (Allium x proliferum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…as they are utility players; emergency onions that sub in recipes when we run out of the bigger supermarket bulbs.

Egyptian walking onions (Allium x proliferum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Those swerves and curves! The plants will have tiny bulbils at the end of each stem which weigh it down, those bulbils plant themselves to start the process of “walking” all over the garden again. So much fun. In the same raised bed, our everbearing raspberries (“Joan J”), now in their second year, are flowering and fruiting. My mouth waters just thinking about fresh berries.

Rasberries (Rubus idaeus ‘Joan J), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Near the house, the stinging nettles I wrote about two weeks ago that made a surprise appearance in our yard are still in place, with caterpillars webbed into at least a dozen leaves. I’ve made my peace with keeping the plant until it looks like the red admiral butterfly caterpillars are finished with it—or maybe July, whichever comes first. We’ll see. Imagine my surprise when I saw our backyard wasps visiting the leaves! Evidently, they are a caterpillar predator. Uh, oh…

Probably a paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus or Polistes dominula) on slender stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis), feeding on the red admiral caterpillars, (Vanessa atalanta), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Drama reigns. I turn my eyes from this horror show and focus on the lovely flowers blooming all around me instead. Nature has such contrasts. The non-native garden traditional garden plants are having their moment, especially Siberian iris, reliably blooming right around Memorial Day. My native blue flag iris near the pond won’t be far behind.

Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Peonies are in bud…

Peony (Paeonia sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and in bloom.

Peony (Paeonia sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. The name of this peony has long been misplaced!

My yard is about 70% native plants; 30% traditional garden plants. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to test a cultivar of one of the prairie natives for its value to butterflies, birds, and bees against the natives themselves. With this in mind, I purchased the most outrageous “nativar” I could find locally— “Rainbow Sherbet” coneflower from the “Double-Dipped” series of Echinacea. I also purchased the native purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)…

The great Echinacea face-off —- which will the pollinators and birds prefer?

…and I already have the pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) growing in my front yard prairie planting.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’ve talked to conservation organizations and garden clubs about avoiding the native plant cultivars so prevalent in the nursery industry; especially doubles like “Rainbow Sherbet,” as they are said to have multiple issues (less value to wildlife as only one). This particular echinacea is touted as “loaded with nectar for pollinators.” So, this season, I’m going to see for myself. My plan is to keep notes on what insects and birds visit the different coneflowers throughout the summer and fall. Stay tuned for the “Coneflower Contest.” How will the pollinators vote?

As I look for an ideal spot for the two new coneflowers where I can easily keep an eye on them, I notice our native pawpaw tree has….could it be…fruit? Tiny developing pawpaws! That’s a first for our backyard. Will they mature? We’ve always had flowers, never fruit. Fingers crossed.

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

How exciting!

Back in the vegetable garden, I plant the Bush Lake green beans in a block between the zinnias and tomatoes. I had sworn off putting in so many tomato plants this season—and yet it seems my idea of restraint is nine plants. What can I say? They looked so good at the nursery. And who can resist the heirloom tomato Brandywine, with its iconic potato leaves?

Brandywine tomato (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Brandywine’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Or the “Patio” tomato, which loves containers? Or those sweet yellow cherry tomatoes? Despite the lateness of the month, I did plant some kale (it seems to handle the long summer heat pretty well if I cut it back and may make it to fall) and the always dependable rainbow radishes from Park Seed. A few kohlrabi, bok choy, some arugula, and spring onions are also in. It seems a bit late for lettuce, but we’ll see how it goes. I have a penchant for the butterheads; I planted Tennis Ball, the beautiful Merveille des Quatre Saisons that I can’t do without in the garden, and Little Gem — all favorites. I can always pull them early if they begin to bolt.

I also expanded our front yard prairie planting to include three pale beardtongue, a prairie milkweed, and four prairie smoke plants, one a thoughtful gift. Watering is critical for a new prairie planting the first year, so I’m liberal with the hose. Later, I’ll let them fend for themselves.

Crosby’s front yard prairie planting (gradually expanding!), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Water has been a big issue these past two weeks. Out on the prairie where I’m a steward, we planted 24 new pasque flower plants. However, the critters—perhaps thirsty for the water we soaked them with when planting—dug up six of them and tossed them aside. Ouch! By the time I went back to check the following week, they seemed to be goners. We’re going to try some little cages on a few of them to see if that helps. I feel for the wildlife; Willoway Brook nearby is running low and choked with algae. I wouldn’t want to drink that, either. But hey—stay away from our planting, critters!

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In the evenings on the prairie, the silvery mounds of cream indigo seem to glow. Blue-eyed grass and bastard toadflax are everywhere, and prairie phlox, while a little sparser than in previous seasons, is still a show-stopper. In the mornings, the Ohio spiderwort washes parts of the prairie in blue.

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On these last days of May, I try to walk the prairie in the evenings. The long shadows of the fire-resistant black walnuts and oaks stretch across the lush grass, seemingly to beckon me inward. Birdsong (aided by my Merlin app) from cedar waxwings, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, and other birds lull me into a contentment that sometimes eludes me during a busy day at home.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Night follows. On Memorial Day, tipped off by friends, Jeff and I stood in the driveway just after dark, and watched the International Space Shuttle arc overhead. Its staff of astronauts, traveling 17,500 miles per hour, will see 16 sunrises and sunsets each day. (Click here to see how to sign up for alerts for where and when to see it where you live). The shuttle circles the Earth every 90 minutes, but it’s the first time we’ve ever seen it move through the night sky.

International Space Station over Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a wonder! So much is happening all around us that we don’t even notice, both in the vast constellations of the universe and the black dirt of our backyards.

Night sky petunias (Petunia cultivars ‘Night Sky’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

June is on the way.

Great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But how astonishing are these last day marvels of May.


The opening quote is from Bill Watterson (1958-), the creator of the award-winning comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” which ran from 1985-1995. He ended his run with the comic on December 31, 1995, saying he was eager to begin working at a “thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.” A political science major, Watterson named Calvin for an 18th Century theologian and Hobbes for a 17th Century philosopher.


Join Cindy for a Program or Class

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–on National Prairie Day! Saturday, June 3, 1-2:30 p.m. CT, Sterling Farmer’s Market (at the Pavilion) in Sterling, IL. Free and open to the public. Indoors in case of rain.

Literary Gardens Online –-Wednesday, June 7, 7-8:15 p.m. CT, Bensenville Public Library, Bensenville, IL, via Zoom. Free but you must register to receive the link (participation may be limited to first sign ups). For more information and to register, contact the library at 630-766-4642.

“In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm CT via Zoom. Brought to you by “Illinois Libraries Present.” Number of registrations available may be limited, so register here soon.

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — Friday, June 23, 8:30am-12:30 pm CT, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration and more information can be found here. This class is split between classroom and field work. Fun! You don’t need to know anything about dragonflies to join us.

More classes and programs at www.cindycrosby.com

Thank you, John H., for the tip-off on the International Space Shuttle this week. We were awed.

Wings and Stings in the Prairie Garden

“Even as the people changed the prairie, it changed them.” —John Madson


You know the old saying, “Grasp the nettle?”

Don’t do it.

Slender stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’ve always believed in facing tough issues head on. I like to get the worst over with. That’s what this popular phrase always meant to me. But I’ll never hear “grasp the nettle” in the same way again after this week’s encounter. The story goes like this… .

April 9, I delighted in a red admiral butterfly—the first of the year!—on an unknown plant which showed up by my back door this spring. A friend mentioned the pretty leaves looked like stinging nettles. How cool, I thought. The word “stinging” sort of went right over my head. Another acquaintance noted that nettles are a host plant for several butterflies, but! I should be sure and wear gloves if I touched the plant.

Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) on slender stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. The purple flowering plant in the left-hand corner is the non-native dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), no relation.

All I heard was “butterflies.” Illinois Wildflowers notes that in addition to the red admiral butterfly, the comma butterfly…

Eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2022)

…the question mark butterfly…

Question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2014)

…and the Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly all use this plant. I love butterfly host plants! What’s not to like? Well.

Fast forward five weeks from that April sighting. Monday night, I decided to check the plants for caterpillars. Yes! There they were. Excited, I pried back the rolled leaves. One caterpillar… three… six… . It was about then when I realized I had made a mistake. It felt as if red hot needles were searing my fingers! As I read later, the hairs on the stinging nettle leaves shoot irritants directly into your skin.

Googling quickly, my husband Jeff and I read that soap and water will alleviate some of the pain of stinging nettles. Even better—sticking duct tape to the affected area and ripping it off will supposedly remove some of the plant’s chemicals. We gave it a go. It did help.

Duct tape is evidently a magical cure for just about anything.

I’ve gardened since I was six years old, so how did I miss stinging nettles? This was my first—and hopefully my last—up close and personal experience with them. On the happy side, we have lots of red admiral caterpillars, in what appear to be their third or fourth instar.

Red admiral butterfly caterpillar (Vanessa atalanta) on slender stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Each caterpillar has rolled itself into a nettle leaf for shelter, almost like a half-open cannoli. The leaves are partially eaten away. Tiny black balls of frass—otherwise known as insect poop—stay in the leaf with the caterpillars. Can you spot the frass in the photo above?

Ted Scott, a Utah butterfly expert, says that as soon as one leaf is mostly consumed, the red admiral caterpillars will move to a different leaf for another meal.

Red admiral butterfly caterpillar (Vanessa atalanta) on slender stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Before long, Scott notes, the caterpillars should form chrysalises. He documents the process here—take a look.

If I look for chrysalises later this month, I’ll be more careful. The genus “Urtica” (from the Latin) is variously said to mean “to sting” or “to burn.” I can vouch for this.

As I nursed my painful skin, I read that nettles have a rich history in literature. In Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Wild Swans, the princess must weave or knit shirts from nettles while staying silent to save her 11 brothers.

From Fairy Tales Told to Children, 1838, Denmark.

She looks pretty calm in that picture above. I’m impressed she could do the work without shouting.

I also discovered that some species of nettles are also used in textile work, resulting in a surprisingly soft cloth. Other species have been used medicinally, and by foragers in culinary dishes. Prepared carefully, I would assume. English poet Aaron Hill had a popular poem “Nettle” in the 1700s which began, “Tender handed, stroke a nettle, and it stings you for your pains… .” He sounds like he knows what he’s writing about.

Is the stinging nettle a blessing? Or a curse? I may need to place yellow crime scene tape around the nettles by our back door to keep unwary visitors from touching the plant. Not very attractive. Should I keep the nettles? As a native plant lover, I’ve never had a dilemma quite like this one. Even if these nettles are a native, like my golden alexanders…

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…or my just-about-to-bloom prairie alumroot…

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…stinging nettles are tougher sell. I will probably let the caterpillars use the plants this spring. After that? I’m not sure I want to risk another encounter. What do you think?

Of course, long after the pain is forgotten, won’t the red admiral butterflies be wonderful to see?

Red admiral butterfly caterpillar (Vanessa atalanta), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

Worth the stings.

I think.

But next time I look for caterpillars on nettles, I’m wearing gloves.


The opening quote is from John Madson (1923-1995), once editor of Iowa Conservationist magazine and journalist for the Des Moines Register. His classic book, Where the Sky Began (1982) remains a touchstone for prairie stewards everywhere. This quote is taken from a collection of his essays, Our Home. (1979). Read a longer excerpt in John T. Price’s wonderful collection of essays, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014).


Join Cindy for a program or class!

Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers of the Garden and Prairie, Tuesday, May 16, 10-11:30 CT via Zoom with the Garden Club of Decatur, IL (closed event for members). For information on joining the club, visit here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–on National Prairie Day! Saturday, June 3, 1-2:30 p.m. CT, Sterling Farmer’s Market (at the Pavilion) in Sterling, IL. Free and open to the public. Indoors in case of rain.

Literary Gardens Online –-Wednesday, June 7, 7-8:15 p.m. CT, Bensenville Public Library, Bensenville, IL, via Zoom. Free but you must register to receive the link (participation may be limited to first sign ups). For more information and to register, contact the library at 630-766-4642.

“In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm CT via Zoom. Brought to you by “Illinois Libraries Present.” Number of registrations available may be limited, so register here soon.

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — Friday, June 23, 8:30am-12:30 pm CT, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration coming soon.

More classes and programs at www.cindycrosby.com

Farewell, September Prairie

“Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.” — Louise Erdrich


September closes out the month with sunny afternoons. Crisp evenings. Nights dip into the 40s. Flannel shirts make their way to the front of the closet, although my sandals are still by the door. It’s a time of transition.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

About an hour before sunset this weekend, I saw a sundog to the west from my front porch. So bright!

Sundog, Crosby’s house, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Down south, hurricane season is in full swing. Here, in the Midwest, the air teases with the promise of… frost? Already?

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) with an unidentified insect (possibly Neortholomus scolopax), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Surely not. And yet. Who knows?

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

In the garden, the green beans have succumbed to fungal rust. Although my beans have flirted with it before, I think my decision to grow pole beans too densely on a trellis without good air circulation likely led to the disease. My bean season has come to an end, it seems. Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The cherry tomatoes continue to offer handfuls of fruit…

Sungold cherry tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Sungold’), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the mixed kale, planted this spring, seems delighted with the cooler weather.

Mixed kale (Brassica oleracea), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the herb garden, the sweet basil, thyme, dill, and Italian parsley are at their peak.

Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The promise of coming frost means the rosemary needs to come inside. Rosemary is a tender perennial in my garden zone 5B, and needs to spend the winter by the kitchen sink.

Rosemary (Salvius marinus), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, while the prairies in my region are dominated by tallgrass, our backyard prairie patch is adrift in panicled asters, new England asters, and—sigh—Canada goldenrod going to seed. Where have my grasses gone? A few lone cordgrass stems are about all I see. I’m a big fan of goldenrod, but not Canada goldenrod, that greedy gold digger. At least the pollinators are happy.

Prairie planting, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the midst of the tangle of asters, a lone prairie dock lifts its seed heads more than six feet high. Most of my Silphiums–prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant—kept a low profile this season. There are several prairie dock plants in the prairie patch, but only one flowered.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite the Canada goldenrod run amuck in the backyard, I’m delighted with the three new goldenrods I planted this season in the front: Ohio goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, and showy goldenrod. Of the three, the showy goldenrod has surprised me the most. Such splendid blooms! I’ve seen it on the prairie before, almost buried in tallgrass, but in the home garden it really shines.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bumblebees are nuts about it.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with three common eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I amble around the yard, admiring the colors with which autumn is painting the world, there’s a glimpse of red. A cardinal flower? Blooming this late in the season? It’s escaped the pond border and found a new spot on the sunny east-facing hill. What a delightful splash of scarlet, even more welcome for being unexpected.

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

October is so close, you can almost taste the pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween candy. The prairie plantings shimmer with seed. The natural world is poised for transition. A leap into the dark. Shorter days. Longer nights. A slow slide into the cold.

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

Transitions are never easy.

Butterfly Milkweed or Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But there are so many wonders still to come.


The opening quote is from Louise Erdrich (1954-) and her essay “Big Grass” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014) edited by John T. Price (and originally from a Nature Conservancy collection Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, 1994). It’s one of my favorite essays in prairie literature.


Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!

Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

September’s Prairie and Garden

“I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen; of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were; with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair…”—J.R.R. Tolkien


It’s the first week of meteorological fall, although most of us won’t feel like it’s autumn until the autumnal equinox on Thursday, September 22. Summer, where did you go?

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You can see the beginnings of seasonal change in the garden, where there is a turn from harvest to decay. The tomatoes have slowed down production. The tomato foliage is yellow and browning, especially on the species that aren’t as disease resistant. Despite my efforts to experiment with mesh bagging the best ripening fruit on the vines, the squirrels have triumphed.

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yup. Bites right through the bags. Back to the drawing board. I’m thinking about cutting my losses and asking Jeff to pull out most of the tomato plants for me this week. Perhaps use the tomato real estate for some quick growing lettuce or kale as the season winds down. We’ll see. Nearby, in the long prairie border, a flush of goldenrods brightens the garden. Solidago speciosa, Solidago ohioenses, and that old invader, Solidago canadensis.

Prairie planting, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The gold flowers are a magnet for insects like this Hover Fly.

Thick-legged Hover Fly (Syritta pipiens) on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (ID corrected)

At least…I think that’s what it is! In Heather Holm’s remarkable book, Pollinators of Native Plants, it shows some of the incredible variety of insects that visit goldenrod and other prairie plants. Holm notes that square-headed wasps, which I first confused this insect with, perch on plants to scout for flies, which make up their primary meals. There are more than 1,500 square-headed wasp species! Wow. And I’m continually amazed at how many other types of wasps there are to learn. And, evidently—hover flies!

Unknown wasp on asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL (2020).

It’s tough to change your relationship with a group of insects like wasps from one of avoidance to appreciating them for their diversity and their work as pollinators. Knowledge and curiosity pave the road to understanding and enjoyment. But sometimes it’s a long road.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

It’s going to take a little time—and more reading—to not automatically flinch when a wasp hangs out with me on the back patio.

Beggarticks (Bidens sp.) with a little unknown wasp, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL

A brief shower this weekend gave us a respite from watering the garden and prairie plantings. I took a stroll around the backyard in the splattering rain and marveled at what the doctor-mandated “no weeding” looks like after two weeks. Morning glories twine everywhere, the remnants of a planting a decade ago.

Morning Glory (Ipomoea sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Sweet Autumn Clematis I planted 20 years ago (and quickly realized was a mistake) rampages through the spicebush, old roses, and bird-sown asparagus.

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sure, the Sweet Autumn Clematis is pretty! And it smells lovely. But how I long to yank it all out!

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a menace. I’ve spent the last two decades pulling it from the garden and prairie plantings. Every fall, I think I’ve eradicated it. Every fall, when it blooms, I realize I’ve failed. Garden catalog copy mentioned it was “vigorous.” Seasoned gardeners know when you hear the word “vigorous” alarm bells should go off. If I could turn back time, I’d order Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), a native vine that might have played more nicely in the garden. It pairs beautifully with asters. It’s almost identical to the non-native Sweet Autumn Clematis, although the leaves are shaped a bit differently.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) and asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2010).

I love how Virgin’s Bower looks when it goes to seed on the edges of the prairie.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I make a mental note to order Virgin’s Bower in the spring. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the Sweet Autumn Clematis show for another September.

In my prairie plantings, the rambunctious native Grey-headed Coneflower finished blooming, and has left me with delicious, lemony-fragrant seedheads. I love crushing them between my fingers and inhaling the scent. Mmmmm.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The grassy mounds of prairie dropseed planted under my living room windows spray the air with buttered popcorn fragrance. Such tiny seeds to make such an olfactory difference!

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Swamp milkweed seeds refuse to parachute from the mother plant. Instead they damply cluster in the rain. I think of all the possibilities wrapped up in those seeds.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hope for the future.

There’s plenty to look back on in this first week of September. And so much to look forward to as a new month is underway.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.


The opening quote was made by Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The old hobbit sang these verses to Frodo as he reflected on his years on Earth and readied Frodo for his quest to destroy the “one ring that ruled them all.” The three books in the series plus The Hobbit are well worth revisiting.


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.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell


What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.


The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.


Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

January Prairie Dreamin’

“The bumblebee consults his blossoms and the gardener his catalogs, which blossom extravagantly at this season, luring him with their four-color fantasies of bloom and abundance.” — Michael Pollan


This week is brought to you by the color gray.

Backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

January gray.

Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I hike the prairie this week, I find myself humming “California Dreamin'”; —All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray… .

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Gray is trendy. Pantone made “Ultimate Gray” one of its two “Colors of the Year” for 2021.

Even on a blue-sky prairie hike, the gray clouds aren’t far away.

Pretty or not, all this gray is dampening my spirits. The seed suppliers know how those of us who love the natural world feel in January. And they are ready to supply the antidote.

2021 seed catalogs

Every day—or so it seems—a new seed catalog lands in my mailbox. Within its pages, anything seems achievable. After thumbing through Pinetree or Park or Prairie Moon Nursery, when I look at the backyard, I don’t see reality anymore…

Kohlrabi and Kale, backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

… I see possibilities. This year, my raised vegetable beds, now buried under snow and ice, will overflow with beautiful produce. Spinach that doesn’t bolt. Kale without holes shot-gunned into it from the ravages of the cabbage white butterflies. Squirrels will leave my tomatoes alone. No forlorn scarlet globes pulled off the vine and tossed aside after a single bite. I linger over the catalog pages, circle plant names, make lists, and dream.

As for my prairie patch! I have so many plans.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This will be the year I find a place in my yard where prairie smoke thrives.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem, which has mysteriously disappeared over the years from my yard, will be seeded again and silhouette itself against the sky.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL.

The unpredictable cardinal flowers will show up in numbers unimaginable.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Nomia Meadows, Franklin Grove, IL.

I see the spent pods of my butterfly weed…

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and remember the half dozen expensive plants that were tried—and died—in various places in the yard until I found its happy place.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now it thrives. The monarch caterpillars show up by the dozens to munch on its leaves, just as I had hoped.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I walk the prairie trails, admiring the tallgrass in its winter garb, I plan the renovation of my backyard garden and prairie patch this spring. I dream big. I dream impractical.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

And why not? Any dream seems possible during the first weeks of January.


The opening quote is by Michael Pollan (1955) from his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Pollan is perhaps best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire but his debut is still my favorite. I read it every year.


Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins This Week! January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.