Doug Tallamy wants YOU … to plant natives


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.


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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Your comment on ‘the siren call of the exotics’ speaks directly to me. Where would we be without the introduction of the apple tree, the cherry trees and pears? What we have gained from introductions is immense and do we stop searching for new introductions? We, as a nation, are not giving up our cars in this country for global warming and I will not give up exotics but I have made room for the native (weeds) which I do love equally! Actually, they have made room for me!

  2. I used to want more information about native California plants in the urban landscape too, but then I realized there isn’t any and that I would have to come up with it by myself. It would be great if native plant gardeners in urban locations could come together to share some knowledge they’ve acquired, because it’s not in books yet.

    Some things I’ve learned about growing CA natives in a 500 sq ft garden in San Francisco:

    1) Water container plants thoroughly after the sun goes off the plant for the day. Water plants in the ground on any cold day when they’re young.

    2) Shade plantings for a north facing wall: Calycanthus occidentalis, Gaultheria shallon, Vaccinium ovatum, Heuchera maxima, Oxalis oregana, Satureja douglassii, Aquilegia formosa, Athyrium felix-femina. (But leave Asarum caudatum out if it’s a small space.) Calyacanthus occidentalis takes lots of pruning and becomes an attractive tree. Do the hard pruning and shaping in January.

    3) Ribes sanguineum v. glutinosum resents spring-time transplantation even more than Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’.

    4) Rhamnus californica is incredibly versatile. Six months of full-shade followed by six of full sun? No problem. Same thing with Carpinteria californica.

    5) Vitis Californica looks good near bamboo.

    6) Okay to cut Salvia spathacea *to the ground* when it gets icky. Satureja douglassii is a fantastic trailer that takes a hard pruning when it gets too straggly (tear leaves of the stems and plant the cuttings; they will grow).

    7) When they get bigger, both Salvia clevelandii cvs ‘Allen Chickering’ and ‘Winifred Gilman’ contribute more gray to the color palette than you might expect, especially Allen with his gray-blue flowers. Be cautious about planting them next to the grayer manzanitas to avoid a color washout. Also, be aware they are fine-textured plants no matter what anyone says.

    8) With it’s round, not tubular, flowers, Symphoricarpos species are underrated as a hummingbird plants; hummers love em. It also takes hard pruning and looks great pruned into a fountain-form. (berry-bearing long stems look awesome in flower arrangements)

    9) The only annual wildflower I’ve been able to get from direct sowing is the tap-rooted CA poppy (which is undervalued as a bee-attractor; they love it). Starting non-taprooted wildflowers from seed in flats is easy-peasy and you can find seeds for annuals you will never see in nurseries (not even in native nurseries).

    10) Physocarpus capitatus, Cornus glabrata, and Philadelphus lewisii (and probably Calycanthus occidentalis) all work well in half-barrel sized containers–which is good to know if you don’t want to put them in the ground where they will spread and form thickets.

  3. Funny how some of those ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ plants in my garden attract more hummingbirds, bees, and provide safe and nutritious habitat more so than the underperforming natives that I ripped out when I bought this house.

    The choice was not difficult to pull out the highly flammable continuously browned out native ceanothus that bloomed 3 weeks out of the year and replace it with the lush herbaceous non combustible foliage of Iochroma cocineum and cyaneum which provides a tremendous amount of life sustaining nectar for the visiting hummingbirds 11 months out of the year.
    Yeah, that choice was real hard ( not ) but not as hard as removing the even more flammable native baccharis for the long drifts of water ladened, fire suppressing Agave attenuatta.

  4. Hope over enthusiastic surburbanites who decide to switch to native don’t go out raping and pillaging native growth on private property (or any property) for their new fad.

    Why does “going native” seem to ephasize sun-loving wildflowers almost exclusively? For some reason I have yet to fathom, meadow plants don’t do a thing for me. Probably a character flaw. Or the fact that I have always lived in hilly woody area. Goldonrod gets ripped out of the garden. Violets and wild geranium are left in peace. Is there a plant therapist in the house?

  5. Chuck, I hope your fellow CA urban gardeners are reading this! Wow what a lot of info.

    As for providing habitat, nectar and breeding grounds, Tallamy has lots of info to share. His argument is that the natives meet the 3rd and arguably most imp. need the best. But I can’t condense a whole book into a post–I really urge skeptics to read this to give his arguments a fair shot. He is a huge viola fan, Tibs.

  6. Actually, Elizabeth, I noticed last spring when you listed your new plants that you actually had more natives on it (as defined by Armitage’s book) than you gave yourself credit for. Phlox, for example, is a native; so are some varieties of nicotiana.

    I am convinced by the arguments for native plants and I’ve tried to include a lot of them in the garden, but I also agree with Michelle Derviss. I’ve said lots of times that Tithonia grandiflora, which is not native to Maine, does triple duty when it comes to attracting and feeding wildlife — bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, finches and cardinals all feed on it at various times in its life cycle.

    That’s one exotic I’ll never stop growing if I can help it.

    I’m curious whether the book addresses the idea of ‘vertical landscaping’ as part of closely planting gardens? Native understory trees and shrubs that fill in the vertical space below tall trees are one way to get around the aliens in the neighborhood.

    White Oak Nursery has quite a bit of good material on this aspect of restoring native landscapes:

  7. Yes, Firefly, Tallamy talks a lot about native shrubs and multi-level plantings.

    But my trees are easeway trees (the land does not belong to me) whose mammoth surface root systems wouldn’t allow the plantings anyway. What I could do though is replace the rhodies in front of the house with viburnums. God knows there are enough fabulous varieties, as I saw in the Dirr book.

  8. Unfortunately a lot of viburnums aren’t strictly natives.

    Which brings me to that ever-burning question: just what is a native, anyway?

    Armitage’s book includes plants from the whole of North America. How does Tallamy define it?

  9. Tallamy defines natives according to their evolutionary history and the other species in their historic ecosystem. So it’s kind of a moving target; the definition depends not on the plant alone but the other species it has interacted with. Firefly, I think you would enjoy this book–I’ve read the theory part but I am looking forward to reading about all the different bugs and where they fit in.

  10. Thanks for that follow up post, Chuck. I’ll have to link from my blog so that I can come back later and make sure I’ve covered all the bases you mention.

    I’m a native plant gardener in southern California following the “gradually replace exotics” philosophy, a la Tallamy, though I hadn’t heard of him until now.

    Will I ever get to 100% natives? I doubt it.

    That said, I think that for S. Ca. if one wants to be environmentally aware, then the focus has to be on eliminating lawn. Even if you replace it with vegetables (nearly all exotics) or fruit trees (again all exotics) or shrubs (you could do this with natives) it would be an environmental boon.

    In my little home town in L.A. the green lawn is the outward symbol of solid middle class pretensions, so there is strong resistance to taking it out.

  11. I do agree that contemporary society faces an environmental apocolypse that can be ameliorated or even cured by gardening. However, I find it absurd that a respected scientist recommends only native plants. Firstly, non-native do feed birds, wildlife and insects, they also provide oxygen and shelter. Secondly, the real nail in the coffin for ‘nativism’ is climate change, which will only be more pronounced in the near future. It is a ‘brave new world’ for gardeners! By all means garden with natives, but remember that almost all plants are good, compared to asphalt and lawns.

  12. I agree with Tallamy,I would like to see more all native gardens. They can and do work as well as any themed garden.
    My own garden is not yet and may never be all native but I am working in that direction. There is a native community for all situations and finding plants that suit each takes a bit of information.
    Native plants will adapt to gardens which it seems may be the most prevalant ecosystem out there without some reduction of population. But California is still not Texas and Texas is not Illinois.As we strive to protect more wild places our garden can achieve a regional diversity as well.

    At this California pdf site scroll down a bit for excellent native list…



  13. I found this book because it wasn’t circulating in area that I purchase for (the 630’s in the public library) and was disturbed because it is such a wonderful message that needs to get out.

    Adding natives to my garden has been my goal for a long time, early on because I wanted to encourage the native pollinators after reading a NY Times article.

    I live in the suburban wasteland of which he speaks, in the San Francisco Bay Area. In a search for a feral cat’s hidden kittens I found that I am surrounded by homes with back yard rectangles of lawn with non natives plunked down every 6 feet around the edge. It is a wonder there are any fauna here at all!

    To Michelle: Honey Bees are not native and are therefore attracted to non native plants. And hummingbirds are in no danger of extinction.
    To Chuck B: Thank you for all the useful information.

    The first year I planted Arctostaphylos Hookeri Franciscana, it was practically eaten to the ground. I felt so discouraged and wondered it there were a way get those bugs. Now I realize that I am doing everybody a favor by letting the bugs eat it; now it’s big enough to defend itself.

    I have also noticed that several natives have “planted themselves,” a coyote brush and a live oak among others. I consider this a tribute to my garden that the birds are hanging around enough to do some useful planting.

    I have some non natives too but I am gradually pulling those out and putting in natives.

  14. I agree with you, about not completely grokking the meadow appeal. It takes some getting used to. I am a forest creature myself, but since moving to the midwest I’ve had to glean the prairie aesthetic. I’ve grappled with it, colorful open swaths, flowing grasses (the texture! in wind!!), whispering (sometimes howling), delicate unpresuming flowers in which a closer look reveals worlds. I’m still not sure how I feel about the prairie, if it strikes me with the same dramatic beauty, but I think it does and upon its deep grounded roots I feel well held.
    The calm of its blurring dance of seasons is hardy and heartful.

  15. I have read Doug Tallamy’s book and have become a huge fan. Many of your posters talk about the exotics that feed the bees and birds, but they miss the all-important step of feeding the caterpillars! Many of the larva of our native butterflies and moths are dependent on specific plants or groups of plants, and will not be able to survive if their food sources are not available, and the food sources of native insects and birds are native plants. That is a major message in the Tallamy book. Here in the midwest, there are many, many native plants for different light conditions. Good references are the key to finding the right native plants for your location, even in the urban environments. A friend lives on a quarter-acre lot in the suburbs and has over 200 species of native plants on her property, including prairie plants and shade plants. And don’t forget the native trees and shrubs – very important

  16. Chuck B. I would like to know what exotic species support which native fauna throughout the stages of their life rather than through one stage of their life and which exotic species are able to return after a fire as the natives are designed to do. In the event an exotic is able to perform either of these functions, does it do so in a way that creates an imbalance or disruption on the ecosystem?


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