Were I to rely solely on the posts and comments on this blog, I might believe that the battle for native plants had been won. Garden Rant readers seem well aware of the importance of natives in attracting beneficial insects, feeding birds, and generally maintaining a healthy garden. And if anybody out there still does need persuading, I might not be the ideal choice to do it. Of all the ranters, I probably emphasize natives the least. An urban courtyard and a shady front garden aren’t the best locations for sun-loving wildflowers.
But clearly, the battle has not been won. We all know where resistance to natives, reliance on pesticides, and the cult of the lawn still reign supreme: suburban America. And suburban America is where Doug Tallamy aims the passionate arguments for natives and their accompanying wildlife contained in his wonderful book: Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.
On page 103, Tallamy tells the story of “Sam,” a neighbor of his in rural Southeastern Pennsylvania. Sam has ten acres of beautifully maintained turf, and a friendly question for our author: Why doesn’t he just mow down that big field of goldenrod? So Tallamy wrote this book for all the Sams in the world. Will they be convinced? I think it’s possible, if they bother to read it. Here is my necessarily condensed version of Tallamy’s compelling argument, in 5 points:
1. The 3-5% of undisturbed habitat scattered across the U.S. is utterly inadequate to maintain our native species and unless we accommodate them in developed areas, 95% of the plants and animals native to the United States will become extinct. Soon. Within most of our lifetimes. This is not wild talk; it is based on decades of research.
2. The resulting collapse of the ecosystem after losing these species threatens everything we need to survive, whether we live in Manhattan or South Dakota. An artificial habitat suitable for humans and nothing else is not a viable alternative. (Here Tallamy gives the research on biodiversity and its importance.)
3. Our use of alien species that do not sustain our native wildlife, as well our development of formerly undisturbed habitats are the two major factors in causing extinctions. We might not be able to do much about development, but we can find a way to modify our own properties so that they do sustain native plants and wildlife. And, here’s the good news: it’s not all that hard to do!
4. To create sustainable habitats, we must have mixed plantings, designed much as we would with aliens, but with more native plants and plenty of room for small creatures to hide and nest. Borders should be as wide and densely planted as possible and we need to learn to be a little more relaxed about leaf litter, which provides habitat, water absorption, mulch, fertilizer, and weed control. (My observation: Not all leaves are created equal in this regard.)
5. You don’t have to go nuts and start everything from scratch. Gradually replace aliens with natives. Even 1/8 of an acre with the sides and back planted with natives can provide significant benefit and may inspire neighbors. (And, yes, Tallamy did inspire his neighbor Sam, as you’ll read in the book.)
There is so much more, including detailed listings of plants; even more detailed—and fascinating!—listings of insects; and complete information on how to attract certain insects, especially lepidoptera. The photography is by the author and it’s very good.
I do have some questions for Tallamy. I’d like to know more about what urban gardeners can do. I’d like to know how to lessen the negative impact when you’re surrounded by established alien trees, as I am—trees I am unable to replace. I’d like to figure out how to reconcile strategies based on natives with the siren call of the exotics I love and won’t give up.
That’s really the elephant in the room here; most gardeners I know personally and most whose blogs I read mix natives with annuals, aliens, and exotics. Tallamy would like to see all-native gardens, although he recommends gradual replacement, isn’t at all preachy about it, and admits the difficulties. He also insists that a formal, clean-edged design is possible with natives, objecting to their characterization as “messy.”
Do you have questions? We’ll be inviting Tallamy (shown above) for an interview or guest rant soon, and we’d love to include your input. Thanks, Timber Press for bringing us this title, a book everyone, not just garden geeks, should read.
Stay tuned, as Susan is chiming in later today with a report on Tallamy’s recent lecture in her neck of the woods.