“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver
Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.
Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.
Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.
I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.
I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.
I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.
Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.
Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.
The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.
Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.
I enjoy the July transitions.
A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.
Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.
Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.
I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.
In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.
I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.
Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.
If only we could be present to them all.
In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.
The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.
So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.
It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.
I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.
The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.
August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.
Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!
“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.
“Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson
Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.
Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy. In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?
Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset. There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.
Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.
At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.
Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.
You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.
The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes. But no less special for their predictability. That violet!
So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.
This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading, and to enjoy the view from my back porch. But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.
You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.
We look at each other for a bit.
I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.
He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.
From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.
The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.
Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.
She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for. This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.
The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.
Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.
As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate. Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.
Summer’s not over yet.
Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.
The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada. I re-read it every year.
All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison(Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
“By all these lovely tokens, September days are here, with summer’s best of weather, and autumn’s best of cheer.”–Helen Maria Hunt Jackson
August slows, and puts on her turn signal. Autumn lies just ahead. The signs are all around us.
In my backyard prairie patch, the goldfinches work the cup plant seedheads–then sip a drink from yesterday’s rainwater, pooled in the leaves.
Nearby, a lone monarch appears on the zinnias, delicately sourcing fuel for its migration flight to Mexico. Hasta la vista. What a tough year it’s been for you, monarchs.
Hikes on the prairies after work end sooner. Shorter days. Earlier sunsets.
The tallgrass is peppered with dark chocolate coneflower seedheads; limned with early goldenrod.
In the first light of morning, deep in the dew, the white-faced meadowhawks appear. Harbingers of fall. Their kin, the green darners and wandering gliders, black saddlebags and variegated meadowhawks, have already taken wing and left the Midwest. What a wonder, that they can disappear into the winds to fly thousands of miles! The non-migratory dragonflies are tied to this place, however, and wait helplessly for the cold.
There is a more spare look to the landscape. It moves from cheerful to slightly melancholy. Lonelier.
The jewelweed opens along the prairie’s creeks. Hummingbirds work the flowers for nectar, mindful that they’ll soon need energy to make the long trip south. Come on! You can almost hear the monarchs and dragonflies whisper to the hummers. It’s getting late. Go!
Summer is ending. We see dimly ahead. Wonder what’s around the corner.
And always, adventures to anticipate.
The opening quote is from Helen Maria Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), who was a novelist and tireless advocate for Native Americans. She was also a classmate of Emily Dickinson. She suffered many difficult losses during her life–parents, siblings, children, her husband. At the time of her death from cancer, Jackson was still advocating for Native American rights from her sickbed. Although some have criticized her prose as “middlebrow,” she used her words to change the world she lived in for the better.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium prefoliatum) with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden zinnias (Zinnia spp., certified Monarch Way Station), Glen Ellyn, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and pale purple conehead (Echinacea pallida) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white-faced meadowhawk, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) also visible in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.