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Growing Your Own Backyard Prairie Takes A Lot Of Patience, But The Results Can Be Rewarding

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This Sept. 23, 2014 photo shows wildflowers dancing in the breeze amid the grasses of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kan. Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America, including much of the Midwest, but today only 4 percent of that ecosystem remains.

URBANA — Prairies once stretched across most of Illinois. Today, only about 6,100 acres remain of this natural habitat in the Prairie State.

But it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of resources to restore a slice of the native Illinois prairie. Just ask Fred Delcomyn, who restored 2.5 acres of prairie on his Urbana property over the course of 17 years. Delcomyn and Jamie Ellis are co-authors of the new book, A Backyard Prairie.

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“We thought early on that it didn’t really appeal to us much to walk out the front door and see a field of corn or soybeans,” said Delcomyn. “There was a little bit of a garden, but otherwise it (farm field) was sort of right up to our house. So I knew a little bit about natural areas. It’s not very much. So we talked about it and thought it’ll be kind of cool to have a prairie out there. So we decided that’s what we were going to do.”

Delcomyn’s introduction to Ellis came through his reluctance to burn his prairie. The ecosystem benefits from periodic burns, but Delcomyn was concerned about lighting a fire so close to his home.

“Fred was hesitant to set a match to his prairie, but I wasn’t,” said Ellis, the former president of Grand Prairie Friends in east-Central Illinois. “So I was able to help with that the successful execution of fire management on the few acres of prairie Fred planted in his yard, in his property.”

That was nearly two decades ago. Today, both men are members of the prairie advocacy group.

They say the key to growing your own patch of prairie is a little bit of knowledge – and a lot of patience.

“If you just let a field or a yard go fallow, prairie won’t spring back,” said Ellis. “Most of those native plants and animals are relegated to out of the way areas. And so it has to be deliberately planned, you know, goals set.”

Delcomyn said there are as many as 200 different native prairie plant species to choose from.

“I wasn’t going to buy 200 different types of seeds, because it gets to be pretty expensive. So you have to make a choice. Early on, we had 25 flowering plants, and three different kinds of grasses. So it’s a very small sample. And we pick them using a couple of criteria,” he said.

Delcomyn and his wife chose plants which bloom at different times of the year. For late spring and early summer, there’s the blue and violet spiderwort. Midsummer offers a lot of yellow, with compass plants and rosin weed. Then in the fall, Delcomyn planted asters and goldenrods.

For beginners or those with only a small patch of land to work with, both Delcomyn and Ellis recommended going with prepackaged prairie seeds.

Delcomyn seeded his land in 2017, but he said it’s taken years for some of the plants to flower for the first time.

“It really does take a while. You have to be patient. If you expect it to be like a flower garden, you plant them and step back and voila, there’s your garden, you’re going to be sorely disappointed,” he said.

But he said it’s worth the wait.

“It’s like the difference between walking through a field of corn and soybeans, or corn or soybeans; or walking in something that gives you a feeling of a natural wild area. I mean, there’s just no comparison,” he said.

Delcomyn stressed his book isn’t a how-to guide for how to grow your own backyard prairie.

“I think that the the concept of the book that Jamie and I had was, it’s kind of what you might call a celebration of the prairie ecosystem. There are a few prairie restorations or reconstructions that encompass thousands of acres. This one doesn’t, obviously. Two and a half acres,” he said. “And the purpose of the book was to say even in a small area like that, there are just an enormous number of beautiful things to see. The flowers, the insects, the mammals, the birds, things that come visit the prairie. Tracks and things. You may not see them, but you see the tracks often. So for anybody who likes the natural world, a prairie is a great place to be. You have to learn to appreciate it, but it is a great place to be.”

“We’re learning that the biodiversity is good, that nature is good for us as people, for us as humans,” added Ellis. “And this book, you know, provides some of the inspiration you know, for others to try this in their own yard, so they can enjoy that interest and beauty of the plants. And then also help nature in our local area in particularly in our small biodiversity with bees and butterflies and other pollinators we’re finding are very, very important to our lives.”

A Backyard Prairie is out now from Southern Illinois University Press.

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