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142-Why Our Plant Choices Matter: Nature’s Best Hope, with Doug Tallamy

| Plant, Podcast

I am a huge fan of this week’s guest, Doug Tallamy. He’s the author of the blockbuster book Bringing Nature Home. It introduced many horticulturists and backyard warriors to consequences – or benefits – of our plant choices. So, I was really excited to sit down with Doug to talk about his brand new book, Nature’s Best Hope.

Doug is a firm believer that each of us has the power to help restore some of the ecosystem function that has been lost through urban development and our unintentionally poor landscape choices of the past. Doug teaches that living sustainably with the wildlife which evolved in the spaces we have taken over is a very achievable goal.

 

Photo of Doug Tallamy

Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home introduced us to the environmental impact of our plant choices. I was really excited to sit down with Doug to talk about his brand new book, Nature’s Best Hope (photo: Rob Cardillo)

 

He didn’t expect such an enduring and positive response when he wrote Bringing Nature Home, but it did ignite a flame of hope. People who have heard the message of that book have been very open to Doug’s concepts. In his new book, Nature’s Best Hope, Doug takes us on a deeper dive into the actionable and do-able steps that we can each apply to our corner of the world – no matter how big or small.

Traditionally, the plants we place on our property have been selected for ease of maintenance and for beauty. We rarely take into consideration the impact our choices have on wildlife. The plants of our gardens are more than decorations. They are critical components of our planet’s collective ecosystem. They are foundational to the greater food chain, and we can each play a role in the conservation of that delicate balance.

As a society, we are bug-phobic. We have been taught that bugs in our garden are bad, but only about 3% of insects are potential bad guy bugs. The remaining 97% of insect species are neutral or beneficial for pollination and/or to support other wildlife across and up the food chain.

Plants – from the smallest ground cover to the tallest tree – are what support and sustain insect life. Without the right plants in place; insects can’t eat, survive changing seasons, or reproduce. If you don’t love bugs, you might think that’s not a bad thing.

However, insects are a primary food source for bird populations and other wildlife. In many cases, it’s insects that make our food production possible. Insects are important – to say the least – but we are losing thousands of species every year.

The loss of each insect species creates a ripple effect on our world ecosystem. It’s those losses which have contributed to the loss of 3 billion birds in North America. In fact, approximately one million species have gone extinct during the past two decades. As gardeners, we tend to be more keenly aware of these issues, but non-gardeners are increasingly becoming aware of the urgency to address these problems, as well.

 

Bird with insects

Insects are a primary food source for bird populations and other wildlife. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

More and more of us are also aware of and talking about the importance of using native plants. We’re collectively making good steps in the right direction. Yet, Doug teaches us that it’s not just a native vs. non-native issue. There are native plants that pack a greater ecological punch, and that is where the greatest power for change lies.

When we hear the negative news stories about the loss of wildlife populations and habitat, it can cause us to feel that we are past the point of “no return” – that our damage has taken too much of a toll. Doug’s new book shifts our focus back to a positive focus. His book includes ten steps that anyone can implement to restore important habitat in our own home spaces and watch as nature responds with vibrant life.

Action Step 1: Reduce lawn space

Anytime a new subdivision goes up, the native plant life is torn out. If anything is planted on the newly-developed plot at all, it’s typically an expanse of lawn and a few non-native plants. There is no attempt made to rebuild a little of the plant life ecosystem that had existed in that space. It’s not that this restoration can’t be done in tandem with development. It’s just never taken into consideration.

Real estate development adds hundreds of square miles of lawn to our North American land every year. This urban sprawl isn’t going to stop anytime soon, but we can take steps to restore some of what is left behind.

There are four primary roles that any landscape needs to offer:

  1. Provide a functional food web – plants which provide energy to other living organisms
  2. Manage watersheds – plants which absorb heavy rain and reduce storm water runoff
  3. Preserve pollinators – provide a natural diversity to support multiple species
  4. Sequester carbon – plants which pull carbon from the air and fix it into the soil (which, in turn, promotes plant growth)

Lawn doesn’t provide any of these qualities as an ecosystem. Is it necessary that we eliminate lawn altogether? Well, I’m not an advocate against lawn, and that’s not what Doug recommends either. His book suggests that we each reduce our lawn area by half and recreate some of that missing ecosystem by incorporating good plant choices.

Lawn spaces can become pathways through swaths of plantings which support life – insects, birds and other creatures. That’s what I strive for here at the GardenFarm™.

 

Home with large lawn

A newly-developed lot is typically planted with an expanse of lawn and a few non-native plants. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

Action Step 2: Remove Invasive Species

The invasive plants which are outcompeting beneficial native plants in our wild spaces are escapees from our gardens. Odds are pretty good that you have at least one invasive species in your landscape. Identify and remove what’s there to reduce their spread in your garden or beyond.

Gardeners unwittingly add invasive species to their gardens every year, because unfortunately, garden centers still sell plants which are known to be invasive and destructive. So, be an educated consumer, and make smart plant choices. Even if you vow to keep an aggressive plant under control in your landscape, that invasive species can spread for miles through seed dispersal.

Action Step 3: Plant Keystone Species

Native plants are much more beneficial in our landscapes than non-natives, but not all native plants are equal in their ability to support food webs. 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.

One example is the oak. In about 85% of North America, the oak tree supports more life than any other tree or shrub. During an episode of my show, Growing a Greener World®, Doug described an easy experiment he tried to measure the life supported by different trees and shrubs in his neighborhood. The results were powerful evidence to the benefit a single oak tree can provide.

A great reference for determining which native plants of your area will have the greatest impact is the National Wildlife Federation website. Enter your zip code into the site’s Native Plant Finder tool to find a ranking of which native plants pack the most beneficial punch for the creatures in your region.

 

White Oak

Like other types of oak trees, the white oak serves as a preferred host for many species of butterflies and moths whose caterpillars feed on the foliage. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

Action Step 4: Be Generous with Plantings

Have you ever noticed that, in nature, plants in wild spaces are all different heights? Under the tall trees, smaller tree species create a lower layer of foliage. Shrubs fill vertical space between the ground and the canopy of shorter trees. Meanwhile, ground covers and shorter perennials fill space beneath shrubs.

Doug co-authored a book – The Living Landscape – with noted horticulturist, Rick Darke, exploring how we can mimic this three-dimensional layering. Planting in layers is a powerful and 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.

You’ll see for yourself the increase in the life among your plants, and the overall effect will be more beautiful too.

 

Be generous with the native plants you include in your landscape. Plant in layers using ground cover, mid-level shrubs, small trees, and a higher canopy of foliage from tall trees. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

Action Step 5: Plant for Specialized Pollinators

It’s common knowledge now that honeybee populations are in jeopardy, but did you know honeybees aren’t native to North America? That doesn’t negate their value by any means, but it’s important to be mindful of the 4,000 or so species of native bees which are also on the decline.

All of these pollinators are failing because, bit by bit, the plants that they rely on for pollen and nectar as a food source are being replaced by plants which provide pollinators little to no value. These creatures often require specific plants to reproduce too.

For example, there are over a dozen species of bee native to New England which can only raise their young on native Goldenrod species. Goldenrod isn’t the most popular garden choice, but without it, these bee species risk extinction.

Yes, you will see bees enjoying your non-native plants, like zinnia or butterfly bush, but those species are what are considered generalist bees. The non-native plants won’t support native, specialist bees. The native bees may feed on the nectar – especially if there aren’t native plant species available as a food source – but they won’t be able to reproduce the next generation of pollinators on the non-native plants.

Doug recommends the book Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm as the best resource available regarding specialized plants and how they support native pollinators.

 

It’s important to add the plants that support native, specialized pollinators as a food source and also for raising the next generation. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

Action Step 6: Network with Neighbors

Not everyone has an acre or more to work with. If that’s true for you, some of these action steps might seem out of reach, but these principles can be applied to an entire neighborhood too.

When we all work together, we can achieve more. If your neighbor has an oak tree, you can focus on adding other keystone species that your neighbor doesn’t have. If you don’t have the full sun to grow many of the specialized pollinator plants, look for opportunities to plant those varieties in a neighborhood park or in a hellstrip or boulevard. If you live in an apartment, every balcony with at least one containerized pollinator plant contributes to the overall benefit.

Action Step 7: Build a Conservation Hardscape

We can become so focused on our plant life that we overlook the impact of our hardscape elements. Doug gives the example of window wells. Lots of homes have these, but when they aren’t covered, they become a hazard to creatures like toads and frogs which hop down and eventually starve to death. So if you can’t cover the opening, place a large stick into the well that the wildlife can use to climb out.

This is all about being mindful – taking a look around your property and giving thought to how certain areas or your habits might negatively impact wildlife.

On a similar note, did you know that the time of day you choose to mow your lawn can have an impact on wildlife? Most of the creatures in and around our landscape are more active at dusk, so if you mow then, you increase the chance of mowing something over. The best time to mow is during the heat of the day, when wildlife is hiding.

Action Step 8: Create Caterpillar Pupation Sites

You’re probably wondering what the heck a caterpillar pupation site is. Well, many caterpillars spend part of their life in trees and shrubs, but they complete their life cycle underground or under cover of ground debris.

According to Doug, the oak trees in his Pennsylvania region support over 500 species of caterpillars. Nearly all of them drop from the tree to bore into the ground for pupation or spin cocoons in leaf litter. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to surround trees with lawn space that becomes hard and compacted – difficult or impossible for the caterpillars to bore into.

We’re also eager to rake up leaf litter and other debris to keep our landscapes looking tidy. These habits mean many caterpillars die once they reach the ground, and fewer caterpillars means fewer food sources for birds.

Doug recommends that the best plant choice under a tree is a ground cover. It looks nice, provides shelter habitat and keeps soil more aerated to increase the likelihood that your native caterpillar population will remain strong.

 

Cover window well openings to prevent frogs, toads and other creatures from jumping down into the space and becoming trapped. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

Action Step 9: Don’t spray or fertilize

Unfortunately, homeowners spray more insecticide per acre, on average, than the entire agricultural industry. It has been ingrained in our culture that a healthy garden is a bug-free garden, when the opposite is true.

There are times when insecticide can become necessary, and my friend and entomologist Suzanne Wainright-Evans shared some great tips for determining when that’s necessary and how to apply these products while minimizing their negative consequences. So, I encourage you to check out her recommendations.

In the vast majority of cases insecticide is just not necessary. Remember, most of those insects are good bugs, and most of the bad bugs will be defeated by the good bugs when we exercise a little patience and allow the natural order of things to work to our advantage.

A healthy landscape is full of life – insect life. So, resist the urge to spray.

Resist the urge to fertilize too – at least in your lawn. So many gardeners apply heavy doses of fertilizer to keep their turf looking green, but there are better ways to keep your lawn healthy and drought-resistant.

So much of the fertilizer that is applied washes into streams & rivers during rain events or due to overwatering. There, the fertilizer triggers all kinds of negative consequences to our environment.

You might love having a beautiful, green lawn; but there are better ways to achieve that. More importantly, that benefit is far outweighed by the negative consequences.

Action Step 10: Educate Your Neighborhood Association

Many of us must abide by HOA regulations which apply to our landscaping choices. Doug reminds us that most of those rules were set – or at least influenced by – landscaping tastes of the 1970s & 1980s. You can be a voice for change.

Don’t underestimate the value of introducing these ecological insights to your HOA to begin a dialogue that could lead to a change in the rules or, at least, identifying some opportunity for compromise. Doug has found that, more often than not, people tend to embrace these ideas. Your suggestions could transform your entire neighborhood.

Consider introducing your local HOA to some of the other organizations and developments across the country that are building these principles into their designs. I featured one such example in an episode of Growing a Greener World.

Prairie Crossing just north of Chicago is a new subdivision built around an organic farm, which replaces lawn with native grasses and plants. It was amazing to see and film the life that this forward-thinking development fostered. Your neighborhood could follow their example.

 

Forest floor foliage

Create caterpillar pupation sites for the caterpillars that begin their life in trees and shrubs and complete their life cycle underground or under plant debris. (photo: Doug Tallamy)

 

The bottom line is that we can share our urban landscapes with wildlife. Doug’s books show us how nature and development can co-exist. We just need to rethink how we design our human-dominated landscapes.

These ten steps are easy, but their impact has the power to reverse much of the harm which has put many small but mighty creatures at risk of extinction – one backyard at a time.

This conversation was packed with valuable insight from Doug. So if you haven’t already listened in, I strongly encourage you to scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. During our talk, Doug shared the philosophies of two conservation heroes who inspired his books, and he shared some great examples of how the loss of a single creature can ripple across our global environment.

Links & Resources

Episode 012: Beneficial Garden Insects – Bringing Nature Home with Doug Tallamy

Episode 050: Organic Pest Control: Beneficial Insects And Beyond

Episode 067: Predatory Beneficial Insects: Feared Foes of Garden Pests, Pt. 1

Episode 071: Gardening for Wildlife: How-to Create an Inviting Habitat, with NWF’s David Mizijewski

Episode 074: How to Have and Care for a Healthy Lawn: Top 7 Non-negotiables

Episode 077: The Beauty and Importance of Native Plants: The Ethos of Mt. Cuba Center

Episode 102: The Pollinating Power of Solitary Bees, and How to Attract These Gentle Insects To Your Backyard Garden

Episode 103: How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

joegardener Blog: Organic Lawn Renovation for Spring: 5-Steps To Your Best Lawn Ever

joegardener Online Academy  Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

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Growing a Greener World® Episode 509: Greening of Suburbia

Growing a Greener World® Episode 1008: Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Doug Tallamy

Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, by Doug 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

National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder

Milorganite® – Podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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