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A Backyard Prairie

A Backyard Prairie

The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers

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Fred Delcomyn and James L. Ellis


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
128 pages, 8.5 x 8.5, 115 illustrations


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About the Book

All the makings of natural wonder in your backyard

In 2003 Fred Delcomyn imagined his backyard of two and a half acres, farmed for corn and soybeans for generations, restored to tallgrass prairie. Over the next seventeen years, Delcomyn, with help from his friend James L. Ellis scored, seeded, monitored, reseeded, and burned these acres into prairie. In A Backyard Prairie, they document their journey and reveal the incredible potential of a backyard to travel back to a time before the wild prairie was put into plow rows. It has been said, “Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.” This book shows us how. 

The first book to celebrate a smaller, more private restoration, A Backyard Prairie offers a vivid portrait of what makes a prairie. Delcomyn and Ellis describe selecting and planting seeds, recount the management of a prescribed fire, and capture the prairie’s seasonal parades of colorful flowers in concert with an ever-growing variety of animals, from the minute eastern tailed-blue butterfly to the imperious red-winged blackbird and the reclusive coyote.

This book offers a unique account of their work and their discovery of a real backyard, an inviting island of grass and flowers uncovered and revealed. We often travel miles and miles to find nature larger than ourselves. In this rich account of small prairie restoration, Delcomyn and Ellis encourage the revival of original prairie in our backyards and the patient, beauty-seeking soul sleeping within ourselves.


Both Fred Delcomyn and James L. Ellis serve on the board of directors of Grand Prairie Friends, a conservation organization in east-central Illinois involved in prairie restoration projects. Fred Delcomyn, a certified master naturalist and professor emeritus of the School of Integrative Biology at the University of Illinois, is the author of Foundations of Neurobiology along with numerous scholarly articles on insects. James L. Ellis, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, manages and maintains the University of Illinois Natural Areas . He has published extensively on prairie ecology, conservation, restoration, and management.


"[This book] provides an abundance of information and insights into the development and maintenance of a small prairie. An extensive 'Further Reading' section is also provided to help the reader with locating prairies to visit or how to start building a prairie of one's own. After reading this book, I am inspired to build my own little backyard prairie or at least go visit some of the flourishing prairie lands situated throughout our prairie state to appreciate all they have to offer in any season of the year."—Elizabeth I. KershisnikJournal of the Illinois State Historical Society

“Cultivating and learning about the rich life of the prairies, grasslands that once occupied most of the Midwest, inspired in Fred Delcomyn and James L. Ellis a love and appreciation that they transmit beautifully through the pages of this lovely book. Their adventures come alive here, providing a model for others eager to understand the plants and animals, the original inhabitants of the lands where we live and farm today.”—Peter H. Raven, coauthor, Biology of Plants
“For anyone even remotely interested in nature, A Backyard Prairie provides a wide-ranging view of prairies and prairie ecology. More important, it includes the very personal experience of creating from scratch a landscape that once dominated Illinois. Delcomyn and Ellis are to be applauded for providing readers with an intimate glimpse into the wild heart of the state.”—Michael R. Jeffords, coauthor of Illinois Wilds

“What a terrific documentation of the joy, wonder, consternation, and eventual gratification that come from a personal prairie restoration project! This book is a great read for anyone who is considering restoring a prairie, has already done so, or is just prairie-restoration curious.”—Chris Helzer, Nebraska director of science, The Nature Conservancy
A Backyard Prairie is more than a well-written story about how two people planted a diverse prairie on a small piece of land in northern Illinois. It is also a rich accounting of where North American prairies came from, what comprises them, how they change through the seasons, and what their destruction has meant to biodiversity and to us. A Backyard Prairie is meant to be inspirational—and it succeeds!”—Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home and Nature's Best Hope

“A Backyard Prairie is an excellent publication that does a lot with a little. I mention this in terms of the slim size of the book, but also in relation to the landscape itself: a 2.5-acre restoration of a tallgrass prairie and its indelible impact on human expectation. Not only do the authors show an effective restoration project at a residential scale, but they also persuade the reader that this is actually the most realistic scale for restoration because it links humans and their lands through long-term practices that bind people to place.”—Rosetta S. Elkin, H-Environment