students planting native pollinator garden

2023 Accomplishments

–by Judy Speer

Welcome to our blog!  We plan to post occasional discoveries, insights, and reflections from various community members.  Now that 2024 is upon us, it seems fitting to start with a review of last year.

Each organism has a place in the ecosystem, connecting and contributing to the health of the whole.  Small Waters Education role in the ecosystem can be seen from two perspectives.   One is transforming the local landscape through native biodiversity.  Another is nourishing the minds, bodies, hearts and souls of the human community that cares for the land.  Both are part of our desire to promote mutually beneficial relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world.

Much of our work is helping local schools and organizations create and maintain gardens containing native plants that support pollinating insects.  These gardens are examples of how to bring healthy ecosystems to our neighborhoods. 

The five school gardens are used as outdoor classrooms, and we love to join in the learning experience.  In spring, we showed Richmond Grade School first graders where some native bees might be emerging from the flower stalks while they excitedly searched for signs of life.  We also helped the dual language science class at Westwood School in Woodstock look for insects and do some springtime garden care.

We helped create a new garden at Landmark School in McHenry IL.  Every student took part in planting day in May.  With some coaching, the staff and parents took good care of the garden, and soon it was buzzing with native bees.

students planting native pollinator garden

Students planting a native pollinator garden at Landmark School.

To keep the other gardens healthy and beautiful, we are building a network of volunteers, called the “Pollinator Friendly Community Action Team”.  These folks help weed and mulch, learn about native plant gardening, and take home free extra plants and seeds for their own gardens.

Speaking of seeds, these pollinator gardens produced a lot of them. We left some for feed wildlife and harvested some to start plants for future gardens.  There were also plenty to share at the Seed Sharing Day in October.  This event is organized by the Land Conservancy of McHenry County for local folks to swap native seed and collect from several landowners’ prairie, woodland, and wetlands.

We help with a coalition of organizations called Conversaciόn de Conservaciόn that connects with the Latino community.  In June, we organized interns with C de C to lead two days of planting and caring for native pollinator gardens with kids from the Youth and Family Center of McHenry County.

Over the years, we have learned a lot about how to make a native garden a healthy habitat and a beautiful addition to the landscape.  We were able to share these Best Management Practices at a July workshop hosted by the McHenry County Planning and Development Department and the Environmental Defenders.  Here is a link to the video of the workshop.  And we have been consulted by several organizations seeking native landscaping advice, including Creekside Elementary School and Mainstay Therapeutic Farms.  Some of the plants we grow from seed were donated to their projects. I was excited to be invited to give a presentation in September on “Protecting Our Pollinators” for the Asa Contrell chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. 

Conservation leadership interns in food forest

Conservation Leadership Interns learning in the food forest

15 years ago, a food forest of mostly native trees and shrubs was planted at the Speer property. This is a garden that is designed to function as a forest ecosystem.  You should see it now!  It has served through its growing years as a hands-on learning space for many students of permaculture and eco-restoration.Now that it is producing edible fruits, nuts, greens and other crops, it is attracting even more attention.The Chicago Region Trees Initiative brought a group of Student Conservation Association interns in October to learn about how to plant an understory of native plants beneath the pawpaw trees.  Judy presented a program called “Adventures in Food Forestry” in August for the Lake-to-Prairie Wild Ones.  See the video on the “Resources” page.  And I am happy to share food forestry ideas and skills with the team of volunteers helping the Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC) to develop a community food forest in Woodstock.

As partners with TLC’s Conservation Leadership Internship Program, we led their summer interns in foraging plants for food and wellness, and in an introduction to Permaculture, which is sustainable design using nature’s patterns.

In July, we hosted members of the Kettle Moraine Land Trust in a foraging plant walk.

Savanna restoration - before
Savanna restoration - after

Volunteer restoration day – before and after

Jack and I serve as volunteer site stewards in restoring the oak savanna at the Alden Sedge Meadow, which is part of McHenry County Conservation District and within the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.  We led teams of volunteers throughout the year (280 total person/hours!) to remove invasive plants, and shared stories of the land and its ecology. 

We staffed booths at various conferences and festivals, including GardenFest, the Native Landscaping Seminar, Pollinator Trek, Monarch Mania Family Fun Fair, and Planet Palooza. 

Our Annual Gathering was a time for celebrating our community. Melinda Storie shared her fascinating research into Environmental Epiphany experiences, several folks told stories of personal Epiphanies, and we presented the Everyday Superhero Award to Pete Jackson for his amazing conservation organizing efforts.

We hosted several drum circles, creating a welcoming space where people can join in a common rhythm, fostering deep connections.  One such circle was part of the Aphelion celebration in July, when we Earthlings are at the farthest point in our orbit around our Sun.   And for the Perihelion in January, we connected virtually through zoom to celebrate the nearest point.  These orbitally oriented observances are meaningful and fun ways to explore our place in the cosmos and the wonders of nature around us.

Two new people joined the board of directors in 2023:  Margaret Fox-Hawthorne and Anna Evans.  (Actually, Margaret re-joined.  She was a director for several years, then took a break.) Learn more about the board here.

We are looking forward to working with the Small Waters Education community in 2024, and welcome you to connect with us.  Send us an email at