The plants that we choose to include in our landscapes can be life-sustaining, invaluable resources for our native wildlife or they can just be plants that just look pretty while contributing little to nothing to the ecosystem. My guest this week, entomologist, speaker and author Doug Tallamy, explains how we can make better plant choices for the sake of nature and, in turn, ourselves.
Doug has been a repeat guest on the podcast, and when you hear from him, you’ll know why. He is a persuasive advocate for wildlife, and he will leave you feeling empowered to protect and restore nature — no matter where you live. His latest books include “The Nature of Oaks,” “Bringing Nature Home” and the subject of this week’s podcast, “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.”
Doug has both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in entomology — the study of insects — and he’s a University of Delaware professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. He studies the relationships between plants and insects, and between insects and the birds and other animals that rely on them for nourishment.
What Doug’s research has found is that native plants and the insects they co-evolved with have unique relationships that cannot be replicated by imported plants. When a landscape is made up of flower, shrub and tree species that originated in faraway places, native insects won’t find the food they need to survive.
Homeowners and their landscapers have historically chosen ornamental plants based on their ease of maintenance and their looks while failing to take into consideration how those choices will affect wildlife. Doug encourages gardeners, and anyone who stewards land, to think of plants as more than mere decorations — they are integral parts of the ecosystem and foundational to the food chain.
For a comprehensive recap of my conversation with Doug, see the show notes from the original airing.
10 Steps to Support Wildlife with Our Plant Choices
Step 1: Reduce lawn space – There are four primary benefits our landscapes need to offer to have the greatest positive impact on the ecosystem: A functional food web, watershed management, pollinator preservation and carbon sequestration. Turfgrass lawns provide none of these things. By replacing at least a portion of your lawn with native plants, you will tick off all four of these boxes.
Step 2: Remove Invasive Species – Invasive plants outcompete native plants in our wild spaces and in our gardens. Identify the invasives in your garden and remove them to reduce their aggressive spread in your garden and beyond.
Step 3: Plant Keystone Species – Natives are a better plant choice than non-natives, but some native plants are better at supporting the food web than others. According to Doug, only 5% of all native plants provide about 75% of the important food sources on which food webs are built. He calls that 5% keystone species. For example, in 85% of North America, the various oak species, in the Quercus genus, support more life than any other tree or shrub.
Step 4: Be Generous with Plantings – In nature, plants in wild spaces are all different heights, from the top of the tree canopy down to shorter trees, shrubs, shorter perennials and groundcovers. Planting in layers is an easy way to restore some of the ecology that was lost when your property was developed. This abundance of diverse plant life supports a greater diversity of wildlife.
Step 5: Plant for Specialized Pollinators – In North America, there are approximately 4,000 native bee species, and they are in decline due to habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. To support bees and other pollinators, choose flowers that provide abundant pollen and nectar. This often means choosing straight species — not cultivars. Cultivars of native plants are bred for traits that are appealing to humans, and not to insects and birds. Native goldenrod is a great choice to support many generalist pollinator species, but you shouldn’t limit yourself. Plant an array of native plants to also support specialist pollinators that can’t just get nectar from any old flowers.
Step 6: Network with Neighbors – When we all work together, we can achieve more than we can alone. If your neighbor has oaks, plant another keystone species that your neighborhood is lacking. If you don’t have the space or full sun necessary to plant specialized pollinator plants, l plant those varieties in a neighborhood park or community garden.
Step 7: Build a Conservation Hardscape – Take a look around your property and think about how certain areas or your habits might negatively impact wildlife. Window wells designed to keep water out of basements can also, unfortunately, be a hazard to wildlife. Frogs, toads and other small creatures can become trapped in window wells that aren’t covered, so add plastic domes to cover the opening or leave a large stick in the wells that will act as a bridge for climbing out.
Step 8: Create Caterpillar Pupation Sites – Many caterpillars spend part of their life in trees and shrubs but complete their life cycle underground or beneath fallen leaves and other plant debris. The oak trees in Doug’s Pennsylvania region support more than 500 species of caterpillars, and nearly all of them drop from the oak to bore into the ground for pupation or spin cocoons in leaf litter. When we surround trees with raked and mowed lawn that becomes hard and compacted, it is difficult or impossible for caterpillars to find a place to pupate. Doug recommends using groundcover plants other than turfgrass.
Step 9: Don’t spray or fertilize – Residential properties are sprayed with more insecticide per acre, on average, than agricultural lands to eliminate insects, with no regard for the birds that require those insects to rear their young. Most of the insects killed when gardeners spray broad-spectrum insecticide indiscriminately are “good bugs,” or at least neutral. Fertilizer, too, is an issue. Chemical fertilizer used to keep turf looking green washes into streams and rivers and leads to harmful algal blooms.
Step 10: Educate Your Neighborhood Association – Homeowners association rules and regulations were set according to the landscaping tastes of the 1970s and 1980s. You can be the voice of change that brings them into the 21st century. Doug has found that, more often than not, people tend to embrace these ideas.
We can share our urban and suburban landscapes with wildlife. Doug teaches us how nature and development can co-exist. We just need to rethink how we design our human-dominated landscapes.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Doug Tallamy about making better plant choices to support wildlife, you can scroll to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do your plant choices benefit nature? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting your favorite vegetables: no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard” by Douglas W. Tallamy
“The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees” by Douglas W. Tallamy
“Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas W. Tallamy
“The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden,” by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy
“Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide,” by Heather Holm
“The Insect Apocalypse Is Here” from The New York Times
“The Little Things that Run the World” by E.O. Wilson
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.