An oak savanna sunset at the Glacial Park conservation area in McHenry County, IL. Photo by Ray Mathis from


Prairie roots revisited


This past year, great programs by the Friends of Ryerson Woods have highlighted important lessons from the prairie.  In January, the screening of the documentary Greenfire traced the career of Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife ecology.  His land ethic philosophy proposed that instead of conquering nature, man needs to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the natural community for our better good.  Leopold formed his ideas, as presented in the Sand County Almanac, from serving as one of the first U.S. forest rangers, chairing the original University of Wisconsin’s Game Management Department, and restoring a worn out farm with his family.  Later in May, Ryerson’s Smith Nature Symposium awarded leading U.S. ecologist Steven Apfelbuam of Applied Ecological Services for his regional conservation efforts including the nationally acclaimed Prairie Crossing community in Grayslake, Illinois.  Extending upon Leopold’s ideas, Steven’s work has epitomized how ecology,

wes jackson

Overlooking the Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute compares the roots of relatively wimpy annual vs. vigorous perennial wheat crop. Photo courtesy of Friends of Ryerson Woods.

economy, culture and sustainability can work successfully together.  A few years back, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Steve’s 80-acre farm in Wisconsin that he has been restoring with his partner Susan for the past 30 years.  Their amazing Stone Prairie farm embodies the principles of land health, as documented in his book Nature’s Second Chance.  The symposium’s key note speaker Wes Jackson, vanguard plant geneticist and founder of The Land Institute in Kansas (who happens to be a MacArthur “Genius” and Right Livelihood award recipient), shared his plans to revolutionize the way the world grows most of its food.  He states industrial agriculture dependent on pesticides and fertilizers is the largest threat to ecosystem functions.  As outlined in Nature as a Measure, Jackson believes deep rooted perennial grain crops, as opposed to annuals, can conserve soil and water, require less fossil fuel, reduce global warming by storing carbon in deep rooted plants and restore biodiversity.  These inspiring conservationists stressed because we are part of the natural world, interdependent on the ecological systems that sustain our lives, we need to live responsibly with nature.  Begging the question, lacking rural farmland to restore, what can we do here in the North Shore to revive our native landscape?



Spurring land health in the suburbs:

Connect with the natural world

Getting outside and having endearing nature experiences compels us to protect it.  Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, makes a convincing

Ryerson woods

As John Muir noted, walking is the best way to get in touch with nature. With six miles of trails that wind through woods, prairie, meadow and along a river, Ryerson Woods in Deerfield is the perfect place to take a hike or cross-country ski.  Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Stock.

case that kids and adults are hard wired to interact with our natural environment.  In 10 Reasons Why Children and Adults Need Vitamin N, he reviews how nature can help us become happier, healthier, smarter and more productive.  Unfortunately, he points out many of us suffer from nature deficit disorder.  Good thing we are blessed with incredible native beauty and outdoor recreation close to home, with parks, prairies, woodlands, wetlands, the Chicago Botanic Gardens and of course Lake Michigan beachfront not too far away.  The Backyard Nature Center (BNC) lists outdoor play opportunities in New Trier Township, from kayaking in Skokie Lagoon and bike trails throughout the township to cross country skiing at the Glencoe golf course and nature exploration at local preserves.  The Chicago region boasts 370,000 acres of natural open

kayaking skokie lagoons

Paddling around Skokie Lagoons. Photo courtesy of

space.  The Chicago Wilderness Places to Visit and The Nature of Chicago by Isabel Abrams spotlight many nearby getaways as well.   Of course, you can also experience nature at home by starting a garden or setting up a birdhouse.  Your children’s schools can also awaken their sense of wonder by exposing kids to four season outdoor play, nature friendly field trips, eco-crafts and hands on environmental curriculum.


cardinal and birdhouse

We love to spot cardinals in the dreary winter months. Sunflower seeds in our feeder seem to be a big draw. Photo by Tammy Venable from



Go native in your yard

For many years, our suburban yard was pretty typical with a manicured lawn, some shade trees and ornamental shrubs and flowers. I took my cues from the attractive gardens around town.  It never occurred to me that most of our plants and shrubs had European and Asian origins.  The problem is over time alien plants can spread out of control and overtake native plant communities.  Fortunately, native perennial, grasses, shrubs and trees have been making a comeback in landscapes thanks to their beauty, hardiness and low maintenance.


Spectacular Goatsbeard (Aruncus) plants up to 5' tall are currently flowering in my backyard. With the help of Village Gardeners in Wilmette, other native perennials in our yard include Aster, Baptisia, Black-eyed Susan, Bugbane, Butterfly Milkweed, Coneflower, Coral Bells, Coreopsis, Goldenrod, Filipendula, Liatris, Monarda, Pasque Flower, Phlox, Red Switchgrass, Spiderwort, Swamp Milkweed, Turtlehead, Wild Columbine and Wild Gernanium.

Natives have evolved here over time and grow naturally with our local soil, moisture and climate conditions.  In well suited locations, natives are more equipped to thrive and endure our cold winter blasts and summer heat.  Alien plantings require more water, insecticides, fertilizers, pesticides, pruning and protection to survive.  Native birds, butterflies and insect species survive on food and shelter only offered by native plantings.  (see wren post Butterflies Welcome)

For example, Monarch caterpillars can only feed on Milkweeds. Without these host plants to lay their eggs on, our lovely state insect would disappear.  On the other hand, my shade loving Hostas that hail from China (often called the “Winnetka Weed” because they are so prevalent here), have little value to the butterflies in my garden.  Native plantings also help enrich the soil, reduce erosion and filter runoff which improves water quality and quantity.  Luckily, the semi-arid climate of the Midwest supports a many gorgeous native plantings for wet, dry, sunny and shady spots throughout the four seasons.  It should be noted plants labeled “native”


What's not to love about native coneflowers? Butterflies like the nectar and birds go for the seedheads. Photo by Marie Iannotti from

can be specific to Illinois, the Midwest or North America –  the more local and site suitable, the better.  Also the plant hardiness zone map was updated this year and the North Shore is no longer in Zone 5 but now considered Zone 6a.  When we were designing the landscape for our new home, we tried to incorporate native perennials, shrubs and trees wherever possible to make our yard more alive.  While we do have some non natives that I could not resist, we were careful to avoid  invasive plants of Chicagoland.  As time goes on, we’ve been transitioning more natives in and exotics out.  Also, since lawn grass is also non-native and requires abundant watering, we tried to minimize our lawn space by expanding garden beds, adding a wood chip play area and permeable walk paths.  It helps to work with landscape professionals and garden centers that are knowledgeable about using natives and avoiding invasives.


If you’d like to further explore going native in your yard, check these resources adapted from the Go Green Wilmette’s landscaping tips page:



A bee feeds on our fragrant Basswood tree.  In addition to existing mature oaks, other native shrubs and trees in our yard include Annabelle Hydrangea, Arborvitae, Black Chokeberry, Blackhaw Viburnum, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Carolina Silverbell, Clethra, Diablo Ninebark, Cranberry Viburnum, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Redbud, Red Maple and Serviceberry.


Maintain your yard naturally

In order to keep our yard healthy, green and lush, we follow three eco friendly goals: 1) Cultivate healthy live soil, which is the foundation of nurturing healthy plants.  2)  Promote the recycling loop by composting our yard and food waste to turn around and feed the nutrient packed compost back to our soil and plants.  3) Avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  The good thing is, several firms in our area offer likeminded yard services.  Logic Lawn Care has been using their clean, quiet electric equipment to maintain our property naturally since we


It's all about building healthy soil, full of microorganisms, organic matter and goodness.

moved in.  In the growing season, they mow our grass at the highest setting (around 3″) and mulch back the clippings into the lawn to return organic matter and nitrogen back into the soil.  Weeds are pulled by hand and most yard trimmings are placed into our compost bins (to learn more about our compost set-up, see wren post Confessions of a Composting Slacker).  We set our irrigation system to water deeply and infrequently (around 1″ of water per week).  In the fall, our leaves are shredded and mulched into our garden beds, some added to our compost bins.  In the spring, we harvest our mature compost and fertilize our garden beds.  Logic aerates our lawn and then topdresses it with organic compost to your lawn.  Several times throughout the season they apply organic fertilizer that continues to build the soil.  Kinnucan Tree Experts fertilize our trees with organic root fertilizer treatments made from compost, grains, vegetables, seed shells, kelp and sea minerals.  Also The Organic Gardener helps us grow our fruits and vegetables without any chemicals (for a fuller see Grow Edibles in Your Yard).  We avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for many reasons.  Pesticide sprays kill essential worms, butterflies, spiders, bees, birds, insects and soil microorganisms.  We want to attract butterflies and bees that pollinate flowers and fruit, burrowing earthworms that aerate soil and beneficial predators like ladybugs to eat aphids.  Using these synthetic products is a slippery slope because they create a cycle of dependence requiring ongoing chemical usage.  To ward off insects and disease, we rely on healthy soil, compost, diverse native plantings and non-toxic pest control such as

pesticide free yard

Without using any synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, our yard looks great. Instead of signposts warning kids to stay off treated lawns, our kids and visiting pets are always safe to play.

companion planting, targeted non-toxic garlic, hot pepper or soap sprays and other homemade remedies.  Of most concern, chemical pesticides and fertilizers pose serious health risks to people, especially children and pets.  The Safer Pest Control Project provides information on the risks and safer alternatives, including a Kid’s Guide to Pesticides and Lawns We Can Live With.  For your protection from involuntary exposure in your yard, Illinois law allows you to request 24 hour advance notice before a neighbor’s landscaping company sprays their adjacent yard.  Also to be safe on park district lawns and at golf courses, look out for lawn markers or posted signage.  You can request prior notification by the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District by calling call (847) 446-9434.  Toxic pesticides and fertilizers also degrade our water through stormwater run-off.  Stormwater pollution, beach contamination and green solutions will be considered in the upcoming July wren post.


To learn more about natural yard care:

  • attend How to Make Your Lawn More Eco-Friendly at Ryerson Woods on Thursday, June 21, 7-8:30
  • check out these great resources: The Organic Lawn Care Manual by Paul Tukey, The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control by Fern Marshall and Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.


Become a local steward

If you’d like to be more hands on with protecting and restoring natural environments, plenty of places around here would love your volunteer time.  The Backyard Nature Center and Cook County Forest Preserve District organizes Second Saturdays 10-1 to clear Buckthorn

invasive buckthorn

As part of Patch's Give 5 community volunteer program, Chi-an Chang helps remove invasive Buckthorns at the Skokie Lagoons. Photo by Jacob Nelson at

and other invasives, plant natives and pick up litter from the Skokie Lagoons.  Also, many local schools, park districts and forest preserves are affiliated with Mighty Acorns, which fosters nature and stewardship programs for 4-6th graders throughout the Chicagoland area.  Chicago Wilderness, Nature Conservancy and Chicagoland Environmental Network also list a variety of conservation volunteer opportunities in our area that you may find rewarding.  Hats off to Betsy Leibson and the Friends of Glencoe Green Bay Trail volunteers for working to restore a 1/2 mile stretch on the Green Bay Trail.  They’ve spent over 1,000 hours clearing invasive Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard “that is taking our woods away from us.”  For over a year, they have collected, cleaned, germinated in greenhouses and planted over 3 million native plant seeds.  Check out their efforts here on YouTube or next time you hit the trail:



Advocate for conservation and sustainable development

When it comes to land development, we need to ensure that nature is fully considered and respected in the decision-making processes.  Currently, a hot button eco issue in Northern Illinois is the proposed expansion of Route 53 near Long Grove and Grayslake.  The Center for Humans and Nature’s thoughtful To build or not build a road essays offer considerations to more fully honor both our wild and human communities.  Good efforts are being made in

Crow Island Woods

Here in the Prairie State, less than one percent of the 8,000 year old tallgrass prairies remain today.  The Sedge Meadow at Crow Island Woods allows us to appreciate our native landscape before it was cleared and reshaped for European settlement.

Lake County to provide open spaces and protect wildlife habitat.  A consortium of conservation groups is working to preserve forever at least 20% of Lake County’s landscape as natural areas, parks, trails, and farmland.  Since Northern Cook County is largely developed, we need to encourage more land restoration and green infrastructure, often focused on improving stormwater management.  Serving as a great example, the Winnetka Park District’s careful restoration of Crow Island Woods earned a 2010 Conservation and Native Landscaping Award (see left).  When it comes to preserving and restoring ecologically important land, protecting natural habitats and wildlife and securing natural open spaces for public enjoyment, local conservation and environmental groups, such as The Nature Conservancy and Open Lands have been instrumental advocates on our behalf.  Any support you can give helps.  Currently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is struggling to stay afloat with the State’s budget crisis.  DNR manages and maintains 324 state parks, fish and wildlife areas, forests, trails and recreational sites with 45 million annual visits.  Over the past several years, staffing has been cut in half and parks are deteriorating. To help fund the parks, a bill to increase license plate fees by $2 was passed in the Illinois House but failed by 3 votes in the Senate due to procedural rules.  Please urge your State Senator to support Bill 1566 when the next session reconvenes.



Of course many other sustainable choices can support our natural landscape, fodder for future posts.  In the meanwhile, check out the rest of Friends at Ryerson Woods interesting eco programs this year.  The  event calendar shown here includes author talks, art shows, lectures, nature walks, etc.