Leave the Leaves (and Seeds!)

By Elly Flemming & Sarah Voska (October 2022)

It’s that time of year again, the all too familiar crunch under your feet, the changing colors in the canopy, the swirling leaves in the Fall Breeze….

To some, the sound is satisfying, but to others, it reminds them of the sizable yard work tasks that may lie ahead. They hear the CRUNCH only to imagine rakes, garbage bags, and a lost Sunday afternoon. Raking is time consuming and creates a lot of “waste” materials. Leaves offer valuable nutrients and don’t deserve to be landfilled in black plastic, or carted off in Yard Waste bags. Leaf burning is prohibited in many areas and can be harmful to neighbors with respiratory conditions. What if there was something else you could do?

Leaves litter a turf lawnThe simplest option is to leave them scattering your yard! Instead, of raking and bagging and hauling or burning, use them to save money on mulch or fertilizer. Plus, their presence in your yard will leave wildlife with shelter during the cold months ahead.

The leaves add valuable nutrients as they decompose into the soil, and provide shelter for those pollinators everyone is buzzing about. Many pollinator species benefit from the dead leaves in your yard, creating a natural habitat. Other insects, reptiles, amphibians, and even small mammals also use the colorful blanket of fallen leaves, so keep them in mind the next time you grab your rake. Finally, animals that consume these small creatures, such as birds or foxes, can prepare for the food-scarce months ahead.

The time saved by not raking could be spent birdwatching instead!

Now, you may be thinking: won’t the leaves kill my grass? But do not fear; there are excellent ways to have a tidy yard and a healthy ecosystem. One option is mulching the leaves. Dead leaves serve functions such as weed suppression, moisture retention and fertilizer in your landscape, just like store-bought mulch. Why buy mulch in the Spring when you can have free mulch right here?

Stand-alone Leaf mulchers can be purchased from Home Depot or WORX. Mulching Mowers can be purchased online or in store at Ace Hardware or rented from Rental Max (3-in-1 Push Mower or Flail Mower). Check your current lawn mower to see if it has mulching capacities too!

Once they’re mulched, you can add them to your garden bed or leave them on your lawn to feed the turf. You can pile them along woodland edges to decompose or add them to your compost pile.

A couple of other options for your fallen leaves are:

1. Add the leaves to garden beds or around the base of trees
2. Rake only certain sections of your yard and leave others for the wildlife
3. Fill the bottom of a raised bed or planting pot to add a nutrient layer
4. Start a compost pile or add them to an existing compost pile
5. Find out about yard waste pick up in your community
6. Put up a sign in your yard from any of these websites

Finch eats the seed of a rosin weed in the Fall.
A Finch eats the seed of a rosin weed left standing through the Fall.

Your Fall Clean-up is not complete without addressing native plant beds and prairie area. I want to discuss leaving the seeds. Try to leave dead flowers and grasses standing in your yard as long as you can. Those flower heads and stalks are full of protein-rich seed, providing a valuable food source for hungry birds. Like leaves, many small invertebrates or small mammals may hibernate or lay eggs in the bunching grasses or dead stems over the winter. If you need to dispose of any dead plants, wait until Spring when the insects, birds, and small mammals have fresh food sources available.    

For more information about any of the topics discussed above, please check out these other awesome posts about leaving the leaves (and seeds!):

This Fall, Remember to Leave the Leaves on the Ground by The National Wildlife Federation
• Why You Should Leave the Leaves
Leave The Leaves To Benefit Wildlife by Xerces Society
Why You Should Leave Plant Debris in the Garden This Fall


dead seed head of black eyed susan
The dead seed head of Black-eyed Susan provides protein rich food sources for birds.
milkweed seeds spill out through the early winter against a snowy ground and a skyline outlined starkly with bare branches of Oak and Maple trees
Milkweed seeds spill out through the early Winter.
an owl perches in a tree in the late winter
An owl watches from high in an Oak tree for prey below.

Fall on the Prairie

By Elly Flemming (Sept. 2022)

We all feel when the change of seasons begins to turn the sharp brightness of summer into more of a dull, settled landscape. The trees start to wind down, and the blooms begin to fade. Everything seems like it is winding down for the cold months ahead. With the first chilly breeze, it is tempting to think about snowy evenings with a fleece blanket and wintery hikes through the woods. But don’t let those thoughts of winter lead you too far astray. Even though we know the crispness of summer has become stale, we can’t skip the wonderous beauty that fall brings our way—especially in the world of Illinois native plants. Sure, what we look for are the rich pinks in the Milkweed flowers or the sudden spikey white of the Rattlesnake Master hidden between the Coneflowers. Fall colors are often thought of as browns or deep reds, indicating the end of the growing season. But what about the species that have not had their chance to shine yet?

Clusters of Tall Goldenrod crowd the frame in contrast against the blue sky.Goldenrod waited its turn while the other yellows of the prairie dominated in the hotter summer months. So many species of Goldenrod here in Illinois contribute to the yellow sea that begins to form in late August like Ohio Goldenrod and Showy Goldenrod. These vibrant yellows differ from the fading yellow found on most trees. The tree’s color palette shows us it’s settling into rest, but the yellow on the Goldenrod indicates life and revitalization burning throughout the prairie. Another Goldenrod seen around Illinois is the Stiff Goldenrod with its lemony plumes like paintbrushes– just a burst of color at the tips. It is not quite so flashy as the Showy Goldenrod, but its color lights up the browning prairie just the same. Goldenrod in bloom is a sight to see and occurs when the thoughts of new growth have faded from our minds. So, when taking a walk to enjoy the breezy September air, appreciate the swaying stalks of yellow that waited so long to show us their beauty.

New England Asters with rich purple petals and a golden centerBut while wandering through the fall prairie, there is another plant that may catch one’s eye. There, hidden between the flushes of amber, a stark contrast of rich purple that not many would expect to see this late in the season reveals itself. First, there is one; then, many shades of brilliant purples and light pinks reveal themselves. This is the beauty of Asters. Tall magenta clumps of New England Aster mingle with its paler counterpart Drummond’s Aster. The purple hues break up the sea of yellow in a fashion that an artist might envy to replicate. Aside from the opulent purples, there are now other white splotches in the prairie that are no longer Rattlesnake Master; Instead, striking splashes of Heath Aster and Side Flowering Aster show up in their stead. Asters and Goldenrods ignite the sleepy prairie into a new cycle of life and color.


Big Bluestem, commonly known as Turkey Foot, against a backdrop of prairie grasses and a blue sky with whispy clouds.Finally, this walk in the prairie is incomplete without taking the time to acknowledge the grasses that sway in the sunlight during this time of year. These individuals have also spent all summer preparing to express themselves, and now they contribute to this new life cycle of the prairie dramatically. By taking their time, they are now taller than most people walking the prairie— enveloping anyone in their presence. Big Bluestem creates texture with its Turkey foot plumes, and the fringed tufts of Indian grass shoot upwards, breaking up the blue sky with coppery flecks. These grasses are not only stunning but also are essential to the health of the prairie.

Not only do they provide us with luxurious colors, but prairies also provide water filtration, flood management, and natural spaces for us to reflect and enjoy. As you appreciate the beautiful Fall on the prairie, also take a moment to reflect on our responsibility to the land. As we shift into the season of gratitude, remember that prairies provide for us, so we should provide for them. We have the crucial task of keeping these prairies healthy, and today many invasive species like Buckthorn and Teasel threaten their integrity. By maintaining natural areas, we protect them from the onslaught of invasive species. So next time you take a walk in the prairie, take the time to appreciate the colorful native species and ask yourself what you can do regarding your land stewardship.

Indian Grass & Goldenrod line the banks of a detention basin for a homeowners association in IL

This post was written with inspiration from a local prairie and an appreciation for author Robin Wall Kimmerer and her breathtaking book Braiding Sweetgrass.

Can I use Cultivars or ‘Nativars’ to attract Monarchs to my yard?

*This post is published on behalf of Schaumburg Monarch Initiative.

Young boy in red shirt looks down excited at the 1 gallon plant in his hands. His mother looks on as they peruse the garden center offerings.

We’ve all been there; you’re in the garden center and simply overwhelmed by options. There are so many beautiful plants, separated into annuals and perennials, sun and shade! You ask yourself, “What will look good in my beds AND support the monarchs?” You squint at the plant tags to see if there’s any more information, and this one has a butterfly on it. No explanation of the small symbol, but it seems convincing, right?

A butterfly lands on the wispy white flowers of Common BonesetMany nurseries and garden centers offer plants sold under a common name: zinnia, cosmos, hosta, and coneflower. It can be hard to tell which are native and which are not. Whether you are at a garden center or asking your landscaper to plant something new, there are two considerations:

  1. Is this plant native to my area?
  2. Will this plant support native bird and pollinator populations?

In order to answer either question, look for the scientific name of the plant. It might be found on the back of the plant tag. It will usually be in italics. For example: Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower).

A process called binomial nomenclature (Latin for “two-name naming”) uses the genus and species names to identify plants and animals. Canis is the genus for Dogs. The plants we know of as Hostas are all in the Hosta genus. The species name is more specific: German Shepherd or Labrador Retriever—or Guacamole Hosta or Blue Angel Hosta.

How to find native plants:

Once you have the scientific name (also called Latin name), you can look up the native plant lists at IllinoisWildflowers.info. If the plant is native, it’s usually a good choice to support native bird and pollinator populations.

But sometimes, there’s a third name after the species. This name will often be in quotes, such as Echinacea purpurea ‘Sombrero’. The quotation marks are an indicator that the species has been selectively bred for certain traits. We call these “cultivars”. Plants that are the same species as found in nature (no third name) are called “straight species”.

How to identify Cultivars species:

  1. Cultivars would have the variety name in quotes, such as Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’, a dwarf variety of the native Prairie Dropseed.
  2. Scientific names may include a series of numbers and letters related to a patent. DOUBLE SCOOP™ Cranberry Coneflower is Echinacea x ‘Balscanery‘ USPP 24,769. This patent is held by Proven Winners.
  3. They may have trendy titles like Bubble Gum or a trademark symbol after their common name.
  4. Hybrids (selective breeding that involves mixing the genes of two different species) might have an x in their name, such as Rosa x ‘Radrazz’, which we know as Knock Out Roses.
  5. Straight species will be labeled with just the genus and species for the scientific name, with nothing in quotes. E.g. Asclepias verticillata

If you are hiring a Landscaper to install plants for you, ask for the scientific name of all plants being brought in for your design. Look for varieties in quotes and ask if native straight species can be substituted for the cultivars or nativars. Ask if they can denote which are purely native.

Understanding Cultivars

Doug Tallamy, entomologist at the University of North Carolina and author of Homegrown National Park, shared that there are multiple ways that selective breeding of plants can change how birds and insects interact with them.

Hoop house is filled with trays of plants on a gravel base.

Some common traits found in cultivars are:

· Dwarf
· Double blossom/More Flowers
· Sterile
· Change leaf color/variegation
· Increased fruit size

Dwarf varieties typically have low to no impact on pollinator health, meaning that they are just fine to add to your garden.

Double blossoms are hybrids or cultivars where the stamens which hold the pollen are converted into petals. This makes the flower sterile and has no food available to pollinators. For nectar loving wildlife, such as hummingbirds, the nectar-producing structures can be hidden by the dense petals, making it harder for the pollinators to access their food sources. The worst part is that the fragrance of the flowers still holds the promise of food to many pollinators, and they waste energy searching for a meal where there is none. It reminds of when my high school track team used to practice near a McDonald’s, and we smelled french fries while we ran sprints!

Sterile plants similarly have no pollen sources or seed production. While this keeps them tidy in your garden beds, they provide no important protein sources for birds and small mammals to raise their young and stay warm through the winter.

Changing the color of the leaves (making a green leaf grow as red or purple) can deter insect feeding. This is because the chlorophyll tastes different because of the anthocyanins (chemicals that create the different pigmentation). A good example of this is coral bells—which come in a wide variety of colors, and are a cultivar of the native, green-leaved alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii and Heuchera americana). You may think “GOOD! I don’t want them eating my plants!” However, we need caterpillars eating the leaves if we want butterflies sampling and pollinating our flowers! And after all, caterpillars drive food webs for birds as well.

Increased fruit size is mostly used in agricultural applications but can also occur in shrubs and flowers. Most pollinators have already fed off of the pollen prior to fruit production, so it is not a problem for butterflies.

What You Can do:

Native plants provide important habitat and food for Monarch butterflies, an endemic species across the United States and Mexico. To learn more about monarchs, visit Monarch Watch. You can also encourage your neighbors to plant native plants too! Send a letter to your local garden centers and nurseries to ask them to grow and sell natives that are not treated with pesticides. We’ve included a template at the link below. Download and add your name and information and send it off!

Template w/ Instructions

Downloadable Letter


About Schaumburg Monarch Initiative

Schaumburg Monarch Initiative works to inspire the local community to embrace and participate in the National Wildlife Federation’s efforts to restore Monarch habitat throughout their Midwest breeding grounds including urban and suburban environments for the preservation of the endangered iconic Monarch butterfly and its incredible migration for our children to enjoy.

The vision of this program of the Monarch Initiative stared when three retired grannies decided they wanted to leave a legacy, for their families and their community. They began recruiting friends and monarch experts, developing plans and writing grants and participating in fundraising to protect the endemic Monarch Butterfly. In 2018, they helped build Monarch rearing cages at the Spring Valley Nature Center and  trained volunteers began raising monarchs from eggs. In 2019, the volunteers released monarchs, at twice daily educational events. Over 6,000 people attended these events, and we were honored with a Governor’s Hometown Award for our work. In 2021, they successfully petitioned the Illinois Senate to declare May is Monarch Month, and in 2022 stood by Schaumburg Village President Tom Dailly as he signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

About the Author

Sarah Voska is a board member at Schaumburg Monarch Initiative. By day, she works as Sales Manager at Bluestem Ecological Services. She has worked in the landscape industry for 6 years and in environmental education for 7 years. Sarah is the 2020 recipient of the William H. Miller award for outstanding support of Conservation (Citizens for Conservation).

Bluestem’s Sarah Voska Wins Conservation Award


Press Release

At its recent annual meeting, Citizens for Conservation honored Sarah Voska of Bluestem Ecological Services with the 2020 William H Miller award for outstanding support for conservation.  Their highest award is presented to an individual, group or organization that has shown outstanding conservation efforts within the Barrington Area.  

Sarah was selected for her work on the local, national, and international level to support environmental education and ecological restoration. She grew up as a student of CFC, having participated in programs like 4th Graders on the Prairie, and working as a summer intern.   

“Citizens for Conservation showed me that I could be an activist at home – that carbon sequestration happens before our eyes on the prairie. Through restoring prairies, our community is more resilient against climate change, while protecting natural habitat, sequestering carbon in our soils, and restoring historical ecosystems and human connections. CFC inspired to me pursue a career in ecological restoration.”  

Bluestem develops partnerships based on a balance of people, then environment and economic value, and is proud to support community conservation efforts. Sarah continues to support conservation and environmental education at Bluestem with every one of our customers, as well as through her volunteer work with Care About Climate and Citizens for Conservation.  

Congratulations Sarah Voska!









Alternatives to Dredging

It may look fun, but these bags are costly to fill and costly to empty!

By:  Sarah Voska  (October 2018)

Dredging is often considered by managers of lakes or ponds filling in with muck, algae, or invasive plants. These issues come as a consequence of nutrient loading in a body of water. Nutrients enter the body of water from runoff, a fallen tree, or a dead fish. As these materials break down, they release carbon dioxide, phosphorus and nitrogen. These all encourage plant and algal growth, and in large enough concentrations, can trigger an algal bloom. Blooms cover large patches of the surface, preventing sunlight from penetrating the water and aquatic plants begin to die, removing a source of oxygen for fish. Bacteria decompose the plant matter, using up remaining stores of oxygen in the water. Low oxygen levels cause fish to die, and they decompose anaerobically, causing terrible smells from the methane & hydrogen sulfide released. Over time, nutrient loading causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen. The nutrients freed up by the plants and animals that die can cause a second wave of algae production, starting the cycle all over again.

Dredging removes nutrient stores from the bottom of lakes, to remove the fuel for continued algal blooms. It increases the depth of the body of water and usually increases dissolved oxygen levels in the lake, both of which are important for recreational use by fishermen, boaters and swimmers. But dredging is costly and highly regulated. It can cause ecosystem damage, and in some cases, opens up buried nutrients or dormant seeds for new aquatic plant and algae growth- exasperating the issue. You might be able to avoid dredging through watershed planning and shoreline restoration. Watershed management can help to reduce the amount of pollutants entering your lake, and shoreline restoration can prevent erosion as well as filter runoff. Dredging may still be necessary if the stormwater district requires a certain storage capacity of water or your community requires a certain depth for recreational use.

Watershed management starts with finding where the water, and thereby, the nutrients, are entering your lake. Look at all the inputs where water flows into your lake and follow them upstream to find possible point and non-point source pollutants. These may include a large parking lot, construction, or other non-permeable surface. Where water can’t filter into the soil, it runs off, carrying with it lawn chemicals, oil, heavy metals, oxygen-demanding organic matter, or bacteria. Another possible pollutant could be agricultural runoff, containing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. By working with the developers or farmers, you can reduce in influx of sediment and nutrients to your lake from outside sources. You can find out if this is a major source of siltation by checking the silt depth close to in-flows. Working with upstream partners in your watershed might be an effective solution, if the silt is deeper at the in-flows than other areas.

If you suspect that nutrients are flowing into the water from local sources, shoreline protection and stormwater control in your community could be the answer. When soil from shorelines erodes into the lake, it adds organic material- causing nutrient loading, and also places the property line literally underwater. Shoreline restoration has a number of benefits, including aesthetic. Shoreline naturalization has been shown to reduce pollutants from entering the water by 40-80%. Besides filtering out runoff pollutants, shoreline native plantings can discourage invasive species like geese and mosquitoes. Native plantings provide habitat for dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes, and the height of the grasses and sedges are too tall for geese to lay their eggs safely. Instead, taller birds like cranes and egret populate native shorelines. Because native plants have deeper root systems than turf grass, they resiliently protect the shoreline from erosion and flood damage. The plants are specially adapted for variable water levels, and will remain green even at the high-water mark. The biodiversity and seasonal colors on display in native habitats can provide a dynamic scenery for residents.

Native shorelines can improve the health of the beautiful lakes at the center of your community. To learn more about using native plants to build, restore, and maintain natural habitats, visit us at BluestemEco.com

Bluestem Ecological Services is a sustainable company that builds, restores and maintains native ecosystems. Our goal is to bring elements of the original Midwest landscape back to its natural state. We develop partnerships based on a balance of people, the environment, and most of all economic value.


Why Should I Maintain My Native Areas?

A well maintained natural area better performs its ecological functions.

By: Sarah Voska (October 2018)

You just bought your brand new, custom built, dream home. It’s beautiful and has the perfect kitchen, with stained cabinets and heavy-duty drawers to store your favorite spaghetti sauce pot. The window above the kitchen sink looks out into a small retention pond where the developer put in wildflowers and grasses that are alight with busy bees and birds. You’ve even seen a mother deer leading her two spotted fawns out of there in the early morning!

Flash forward 5-10 years, and that retention pond reminds you of last summer’s attempted vegetable garden: what you planted is being out-competed by overgrown weeds. The birds that used to frequent the pond have grown quiet, misshapen trees block the view of the water, though it has partially filled in with cattails anyways. The developer told you when you were looking at the lots that the ponds and common areas would be practically maintenance free!

This story has become all too familiar to those of us in the Native Landscaping realm. Just like with your car, your furnace or your turf grass landscape, native areas still require maintenance. During their first three years after planting, they are most susceptible to weed invasion as the plants or seedlings have not fully grown together to cover the soil. Once the plants grow together, the maintenance regime is lessened and less time is needed annually to care for them. This is where the cost savings of natives over turf grass is seen.

Native plants are plant species that have historically been part of the Illinois landscape since pre-development. Native plants provide the most benefit in shoreline buffers and stormwater areas because they are habituated to Illinois climatic conditions and soil types. Their deep roots help secure the shoreline and give the plants a high tolerance for droughts or flooding. Amongst native plants, there are a number of species that grow through rhizomes, meaning that they set out roots horizontally that grow shoots each year. The Sedge family (Latin: Carex) is an example of this. They quickly grow into new areas that fit their soil type and moisture needs.

So often, after the original installation of a retention or detention basin, developers, associations or property managers get distracted by other needs in the community and a lack of capital from association dues. Once weedy invasive species move in and establish themselves, it is costlier to remove them. Ongoing maintenance will be necessary to keep newly introduced seeds from taking over. Most importantly, it protects your original investment in the installation of a native area.

Ecologist & writer, John Muir, once wrote, When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Research has shown that protecting entire native habitats is imperative for the survival of endemic species. Without those species, entire ecosystems are at risk, which can lead to a collapse of important ecosystem services such as natural stormwater management, water filtration, pollination, and biodiversity. These benefits make maintaining natural functioning ecosystems more valuable to the world economy than the economic cost of restoration and maintenance.

Regular stewardship can protect your investment in native landscaping. To learn more about building, restoring, and maintaining natural habitats, visit us at BluestemEco.com

Bluestem Ecological Services is a sustainable company that builds, restores and maintains native ecosystems. Our goal is to bring elements of the original Midwest landscape back to its natural state. We develop partnerships based on a balance of people, the environment, and most of all economic value.



Using Native Plants to Combat Climate Change

Boone Creek, McHenry after 8″ of Snowfall


By:  Sarah Voska    (November 2018)

Record snowfall in November, the National Climate Assessment released on Black Friday, and next week’s opening of COP24- the UN’s annual climate change meeting: What Timing! Man-made Climate Change is already impacting communities across the country and world. The Illinois state climatologist stated that the primary impact of climate change on the Midwest would be on water availability: we are more likely to face drought and flooding than ever before. Fortunately, we still have time to reduce our carbon footprints and implement mitigation strategies. One way to do that is by planting a native landscape at your office, corporate center, home or community common areas.

Natural landscaping and ecosystem restoration offers numerous benefits in mitigating climate change. Native plants in Illinois are specially adapted to the soil and climatic conditions of our area. These plants have long roots that secure the soil from erosion during heavy rains. These long roots also help pull rainwater down into the groundwater aquifers where we source our drinking water. As the water passes over the long roots, they absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and can even absorb pollutants such as heavy metals or inorganic chemicals. Native plants such as the Eastern Redbud tree and the common sunflower have both been studied for their soil and water remediation benefits. The microbes that live in the soil are able to convert the toxic compounds into milder ones, protecting our water supply!

Not only do the roots filter the water as it drains through the soil, it also slows down and absorbs stormwater when heavy rainfall might otherwise cause flooding. Living and working between the Des Plaines and the Fox River, increased flooding is something to be worried about in the face of climate change, and something we certainly experienced this summer.

Of course, plants need carbon dioxide to breathe. Through photosynthesis, they convert carbon dioxide into oxygen that we can breathe. By cleaning our air, plants play a vital step in protecting air quality. In fact, the world’s plants are the biggest carbon sinks. By reforesting and replanting our landscapes, we can keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Native plants can improve the health of the planet and protect your home from flooding. Learn more about using native plants to build, restore, & maintain natural habitats at Bluestem Ecological Services
Bluestem Ecological Services is a sustainable company that builds, restores and maintains native ecosystems. Our goal is to bring elements of the original Midwest landscape back to its natural state.

The Benefits of Controlled Burns

By: Sarah Voska (September 2018)

Man and Fire have a sort of symbiotic relationship. The discovery of fire stands alongside agriculture, the wheel and the steam engine as one of the most revolutionary inventions of human civilization. Of course, fire has been around for, well, forever…man simply recognized its importance and learned to harness its power and control it. Prior to man’s ability to create fires for themselves, lightening events caused fires that proved quite beneficial to hunter & gatherer communities. It drove scattering animals towards them for easy prey, and it cooked the entire landscape, leaving foraged food more edible and nutritious. Once they learned how to control it, early humans used fire for cooking as well as to a management tool for the tall grass savannas. The Great Plains were subjected to regular controlled burns by Native Americans, as a means of managing plants, improving the quality of grazing materials, as well as to control bison herds’ movements.

Fire is an effective management technique for prairies & savannas. It is lower in cost than if the same amount of plant material was tackled with mowers, chain-saws or herbicide. It also increases available nutrients in the soil, kills invasive Eurasian grasses and knocks back invasive shrubs & trees. It creates ideal habitat conditions for native prairie grasses, who withstand fire by keeping large stores of energy in its root system.

It can certainly be nerve-wracking to see the high plumes of smoke and licks of flames arching overhead, but controlled burns are carefully managed to prioritize safety. An IDNR certified burn manager is on site for the whole day, accompanied by a trained & certified prescribed burn crew. The burn manager is trained to look ahead at weather conditions and continue to reassess throughout the day to keep everyone safe. The crews are equipped with tools, including a “swatter” tamper or a backpack water pump, to control the spread of fire.

After a burn, the ground will, of course, be charred and fairly barren. This allows for light to penetrate to the soil and new seeds to grow. The prairie plants hiding down in their roots begin to sprout anew, the soil more nutritious than before, and with less competition. Like a phoenix, the prairie rises back up from the ashes and renews the landscape, creating beautiful habitat for small mammals, deer, frogs and insects.

Prescribed burns can improve the health of the beautiful prairies at the center of your community. To learn more about using native plants to build, restore, and maintain natural habitats, visit us at BluestemEco.com

Bluestem Ecological Services is a sustainable company that builds, restores and maintains native ecosystems. Our goal is to bring elements of the original Midwest landscape back to its natural state. We develop partnerships based on a balance of people, the environment, and most of all economic value.


Nature’s Flood Control

by: Sarah Voska (Sept. 2018)

A 2016 report by the US EPA, What Climate Change Means for Illinois, found that the biggest risk to Illinois will come from heavy rains, flooding and drought. Spring & Fall rainfall and thunderstorms are expected to intensify, something we certainly saw this past year. While precipitation in Illinois overall has increased by 5-10% over the last 50 years, this rain is coming in shorter time spans, leading to increased risks of flooding. During flooding events, the ground becomes supersaturated with water, and excess water gushes into the stormwater drains, fills up basements, and serves as breeding ground for mosquitoes. In the city of Houston, flooding in 2015 & 2016 (prior to Hurricane Harvey) caused $1 billion in damages to 16,000 buildings. Geologists and urban planners were able to tie the devastating flooding back to over-development in wetlands and floodplains; paving over some 38.000 acres of wetland since 2000 (Time Magazine). By restoring the types of habitat and water filtration systems that historically existed in the area, Houston, and other forward-thinking cities, have a chance to protect their waterways and their communities from destructive floods.

Rain gardens are designed by planting tolerant plants in a natural slope or depression. They are considered “tolerant” because they are capable of soaking up large quantities of water during heavy rains while still surviving in dry spells. They slow the flow rate of stormwater, and absorb greater than usual amounts of water into the soil. Whether you contour the land to direct the water towards storm drains/ surface waterways, or you plant along current flow paths, rain gardens serve as a great way to manage flood events. By slowing the water, rain gardens have the added benefit of protecting shorelines from erosion and recharging groundwater aquifers.  Rain gardens are typically constructed with native plants, that is, plants that have historically been part of the Illinois landscape since pre-development. Native plants provide the most benefit in rain gardens because they are habituated to Illinois climatic conditions and soil types. Their deep roots help secure the shoreline and give the plants a high tolerance for droughts or flooding.

Rain gardens also filter the water as it flows through them. This can help protect your lake from pollutants including lawn chemicals, oil and heavy metals. Because of the topography of many neighborhoods in the Chicago Metropolitan area, lakefront areas can convert into waterslides during heavy rains, especially as runoff from roofs and roads joins the mix. Natural shoreline buffers can reduce runoff by 40% or more, with most of that water trickling into the groundwater supply instead. Rain gardens also filter out sediments, which can cause siltation in waterways. In areas where drinking water is sourced from shallow water aquifers (pockets of freshwater located underground between the soil and the bedrock), rain gardens help ensure the quality of groundwater.

Rain gardens and shoreline buffers can provide a means of natural pest control: they are unfavorable to geese, who don’t like the grasses taller than their necks, and dragonflies feed on mosquitoes.  Instead, these natural areas become habitat for desirable species such as sand-hill cranes, dragonflies and butterflies. Native shorelines and buffer gardens can improve the health of your beautiful lakes, bringing them back to center stage in your community.

Top 5 Prairie Plants For Illinois Properties

Planting native prairies can help restore the ecosystem on your commercial property and essentially “give back” to the land in a number of ways. You’ll protect the biodiversity of plant species, which means breaking the ecological monotony that turf introduces. And, native prairies help restore soil quality, translating into benefits such as controlling rainwater runoff. Not to mention, native prairies in the landscape act as a sound barrier, useful for Chicago properties where you hear traffic, not wildlife and birds.

You recognize that planting prairies is a positive, but where do you start? There are thousands of species, and some can actually be quite aggressive. Others take longer to establish. What types of prairie plants are best for your Illinois landscape?

Here, we take some of the guesswork out of the prairie plant selection process by suggesting five prairie plants that can be planted together to create a balanced, bio-diverse, interesting landscape.

Following is a prairie plant cheat sheet with some notes on why we love the way these lovely natives grow.

#1 Aromatic Aster

Staggering bloom times in a prairie setting will provide continuous visual interest. When one variety passes its prime, another will blossom. Aromatic Aster is a late-fall bloomer, flowering in August in September. The plant has stiff, branching stems that create a bush-like appearance. It explodes with blue-purple flowers that turn reddish purple. The color adds an appealing contrast when mixed with prairie grasses, and the low-growing profile keeps the property looking natural yet under control.

#2 Prairie Blazing Star

A variety of plant sizes in a prairie landscape creates textural appeal. It’s like having risers on the property, with some plants popping up to grab your attention and others drawing the eye down so there’s motion in the landscape. The combination of short and tall plants adds important aesthetic value. It just keeps things interesting. We love Prairie Blazing Star because of its hardy stature—and it’s a conspicuous prairie plant. The native herb grows from a tuber and reaches 2 to 4 inches in height, blooming in July through September. The top of the plant has rosy purple, spikey flowers that have a fuzzy appearance because of extended white stamens. The combination of flower and stalk make this plant a beautiful pick for your Illinois prairie-scape.

#3 Butterflyweed

The vibrant orange flowers on this low-profile mounding plant are long-lasting and attract butterflies (of course), making this famous milkweed plant a prairie favorite. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall, and blooms June through September. Rugged Butterflyweed will survive in a range of soil types. We love how this plant is a versatile, showy addition to a prairie landscape.

#4 Little Bluestem

You may also know this plant as prairie beardgrass or small feathergrass—fitting nicknames for the low-growing, coarse prairie grass that flaunts fluffy plumes once seed matures. It reddish tint offers winter color, filling in after fall bloomers are finished. There are a number of different cultivars of Little Bluestem available, giving you options based on your growing habitat. This prairie plant plays well with others, mixing nicely with varieties like purple coneflower and the other selections highlighted here.

#5 Prairie Dropseed

The fountains of fine-textured, green leaves that Prairie Dropseed produce create a textured backdrop in a native prairie landscape. This plant grows in clumps that are 2 to 3 feet tall, including the flowery stems, and it blooms July through August. Prairie Dropseed tolerates a range of soil moisture levels, making it versatile and hardy. Another bonus is that Prairie Dropseed is a manageable variety—some prairie plants can reseed quickly and grow rather aggressively. Prairie Dropseed can function as a border when planted 18 to 24 inches apart. It adds emerald green character when dispersed throughout a prairie landscape.

Pick A Balanced Prairie Pallet

With these five prairie plants that thrive in an Illinois landscape, you can establish a diverse, interesting and beneficial ecosystem on your Chicago property. Let’s talk more about native prairies and the supportive environmental role these plants play in restoring our ecosystem.

Call Bluestem any time at 815.568.2927.