The Latest from Doug Tallamy

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GardenRant posts this week have gone there – questioning the rarely questioned conventional wisdom these days about native-plant superiority and those bad “exotics.” Today I’m adding to the discussion the latest from the most famous native-plant advocate of them all – Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. He spoke this week at a “Green Matters” symposium near me.

I’d heard Tallamy speaker before and once again, he was terrific, even fighting a cold. He makes his case in an approachable, inviting way that doesn’t blame gardeners! He does blame people who use their acreage to grow nothing but useless turf – blame that I support wholeheartedly.

Central to our recent discussion, Tallamy went on to describe the traditional criteria we homeowners have used in choosing plants for our gardens and yards – aesthetics, including finding the right focal point and anchors for garden design, and maybe some plants that create privacy.

Did he tell the audience we’re BAD, unethical, selfish people for caring about “decorative value,” as some native-plant purists do? Thank goodness, no. He simply urged us to ADD ecological criteria like restoring soil, protecting watersheds and of course, supporting food webs when choosing garden plants. (Notice: not JUST feeding his beloved insects but the whole range of eco-services that plants – from anywhere – typically provide.)

This slide is an aerial view of Tallamy’s own home landscape, which he happily noted even includes a bit of lawn. Unlike so many of his most vocal supporters, he’s no purist.

I count myself among Tallamy’s many fans for his inclusive and – let’s be honest – realistic message, which I believe results in many more plants being planted and much more benefit to the environment than the natives-only approach ever could.

It also helps the medicine go down that Tallamy seems like a genuinely nice person, not intent on shaming us gardeners.

Moving on, the image above, the inside of a pithy perennial stem, really makes the case for leaving stems up through the winter. On the right are some pithy-stemmed perennials in the winter garden.

Finally, I have a question I’d love to have had the chance to ask of Tallamy – about ground-nesting bees, which he encourages people to leave some bare ground for, or at least ground that’s easily dug up.

I used to have a garden large enough to set aside space for ground nests, somewhere I’d never have to tend up-close. But now, tending a small garden, there’s no way I want to encourage ground nests. Though Tallamy told us not to worry, saying the ground-nesters won’t sting, like yellow jackets do, I’ve been attacked by swarms of ground-nesters, by bumblebees and some others I couldn’t identify. Not only is it scary and painful for the gardener; it can result in the ground nests being destroyed by the (sad, guilty-feeling) gardener. So what’s the answer?

Big picture, let’s keep reading Tallamy but also look at the results from other researchers in fields outside entomology and ecology (how about horticulture?) that point to conclusions contrary to his. I say the more research the better, especially when results are assessed with an open mind.

18 COMMENTS

  1. We have been talking to and talking about Doug Tallamy for thirteen years. That says something right there.

      • I think just that his book is and was a gamechanger and nothing else has come close to that kind of impact. Also he seems to be a tireless lecturer. Has been to Buffalo 3-4 times. Another book I can think of that had this sort of effect was Teaming with Microbes.

  2. Over the years and the multiple times I have seen Doug Tallamy talk, I have seen his speaking style and material develop into a nice manner. He makes a tough sell to home gardeners (encouraging insects to eat our beloved ornamental plants) and manages to win over many converts. Now that the urgency is ratcheted up due to the mass insect die-offs, his message is even more important today.

  3. I’m just a home gardener, not a landscape professional, but I attended that same Green Matters conference in Silver Spring last week, primarily to hear Doug Tallamy speak. Reading ‘Bringing Nature Home’ several years ago was a life-changing experience, to the point that I’ve removed much (but not all) of my turfgrass and replaced it with native grasses and wildflowers. The numbers of birds, bees and butterflies which now visit my garden is proof to me that an individual can make a difference in protecting and restoring the local environment. Unlike global climate change, in which an individual’s actions don’t make the slightest particle of difference.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Michael, which has also been my own. Did you also have a growing multitude of lightning bugs after remaking your yard? And the singing summer insects, too? That was what happened in my yard. It was amazing to walk out my driveway and down my street and hear almost nothing in the other yards, nor see lightning bugs. I think that was the point that I realized, deep down, what a difference planting with ecology in mind could make. Thanks again.

  4. Rhetorically I’m concerned. While you praise Tallamy for being more inclusive than in the past, you go out of your way to belittle those you disagree with by labeling them “purist” and saying they (native plant proponents) have an ideology or are unrealistic. I’m not even sure who these purists are since you don’t mention anyone or their words. Such dismissive language isn’t blazing a path down the middle but helping fuel divisiveness and keeping the conversation on a purely sensational level. Sure, there are some crazies out there, but they aren’t the only ones discussing native plants or the deeper psychological and cultural ramifications of what this conversation is really about (it’s not simply about native plants but human privilege and supremacy in a time of mass extinction).

    Additionally, no intelligent native plant proponent would ever insinuate that we shouldn’t care about the aesthetic value of gardens to humans. What they would say is that we also need to care about the aesthetic value to wildlife on a much more profound and compassionate level. I think if anything a native plant proponent would say that in an age of human-caused mass extinction and climate change our expectations and definitions of what a garden is must change, because if they can’t change in the garden how will they ever change beyond the garden. I suspect you agree with this. More plants for wildlife doesn’t mean less plants for you — a riff on that social justice line that goes something like “more pie for others doesn’t mean less pie for you.”

  5. Agreeing with Benjamin. I believe I am usually a patient person, though one who struggles with high ideals. And the last couple of articles belittling natives, the rationale for utilizing them, attacking those who value them and exalting authors and horticulturists who demean the research almost made me want to pull my hair out. I too give presentations about planting landscapes with natives, filled with lovely photographs of gardens that include native and non-natives and each time I do, I hear comments about how inviting both the pictures and my attitude is from people who, literally for the first time in their lives are connecting caterpillars and butterflies, and realizing, as Benjamin well stated, that they can make a difference in their own backyards.
    I agree too with Elizabeth about Doug’s book being a game changer. What I don’t entirely understand is why it provoked such a rabid response from those who disagreed…But we can leave that for another day. I am thankful for the support his work has provided for those who are still learning and those who have studied ecology for a long time….and perhaps in contrast to the author’s closing thought…it is possible to be well versed in entomology, ecology, and horticulture, and more than a few folks are. As Carol mentioned, Alonso is a great resource and example of all three!

    • Sorry Ann, I re-read both articles and find nothing about “belittling” native plants. I do see a well-constructed argument for adopting a more balanced and inclusive approach to use both natives and non-natives in gardens with Tallamy himself as the voice of moderation. I love his diagram about criterion to choose plants for a future garden.

      “Native plant purists” are a thing. Google it. Is it a label? Or is it the risk that comes with taking an extreme position, whereby in standing up for your own dogma and rejecting all other perspectives, you end up only talking to yourself, and others who share the same fundamentalist belief?

    • Ann, I totally agree with you, there’s always a subtle (or not so subtle) disparagement of those who advocate for more native plants. An important criteria for plant selection needs to be utility in the food web, above aesthetics. Not that native plants aren’t beautiful–they are! Anyone who dismisses natives as unworthy of our gardens is just ignorant. Our planet is in trouble, many species face extinction, and people just want to plant Ginkgo, Zelkova, and Forsythia (to name 3 plants that offer just about nothing to the food web)! Talk about fiddling while Rome burns! I will never have a 100% native garden, but I am, year by year, removing non-native shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers and replacing them with beautiful natives, and reducing lawn. I do my research and choose as many host plants as possible. My garden is beautiful and exciting and filled with life! What more could one want?

  6. Susan, I’m sorry to hear of your painful experience with bees. I didn’t realize bumblebees ever swarmed. There are lots of them here, several species I think, but I never see them in groups bigger than two. Well, certainly there are times when there are dozens scattered over a swath of blooms, but they seem to be operating each on its own then.

    My answer to your question would be: If there’s not space to give to ground nesting spots, then there’s not space. Focus on the other critters you’re encouraging, and enjoy your garden.

    • Bubble Bees don’t swarm but you don’t want to try to mow the brush they are nesting under. A painful experience I learned from many years ago.

  7. Natives versus non-natives…Man, I’m being pulled in 3 different planting directions with the limited budget I’ve given myself to buy spring plants…Have been watching British gardening shows and almost made my mind up to order a lovely climbing rose, Madame Alfred Carriere, that tolerates some shade, then I think about fragrance and vines, and see a very fragrant herbaceous clematis in my price range that will grow in my conditions, but before I plunk my money down on it, I read this post and feel extremely guilty for my non-native selections and am now looking to buy a Callicarpa americana, which is native to my area and will feed the birds. Decisions, decisions…It’s bad!

  8. I look forward to reading Tallamy more than ever; thanks for the writing, though I’d rather err on being a purist than err on being hodge-podge. (darn designers!) It’s easy for us to adapt any distinctives of a different context using the over-arching commonalities to make better gardens. The Rainer / West book I have certainly did that.

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