Preaching among the choir

Lurie Gardens, Chicago

If one more person asks me if I have heard of or read books by Doug Tallamy, I’ll ….

Well, I guess I won’t really do anything drastic. I’ll just say “yes,” and perhaps mention that I read his first book when it came out in 2007, and that, over the years, I’ve posted commentary and interviews here, here, here and here. (There were actually more, but a few posts were lost in a server migration, which also explains the broken image links you’ll see.) Other Ranters have also posted—just one example among many.

It is to the entomologist’s credit that his message about biodiversity and the necessity of creating habitat has spread so successfully among gardeners. Most of the gardeners I speak to have heard of him and are stocking their beds with all the native plants they can find. There does seem to be a disproportionate focus on providing monarch habitat—other insects are equally important—but still, this is all good stuff, right?

To the extent that more gardeners are thinking about wildlife habitat, it is, yes. Emphasis on gardeners. My reading of the Tallamy books and the short discussions I’ve had were mainly focused on America’s vast suburban areas where homeowners may not even think of themselves as gardeners. These properties are lawn-focused with everything that implies—mowing, blowing, chemicals. There may be a few shrubs and a couple trees but that’s it and when trees become annoying (the leaves, the seeds, the fruit, the pollen), they get taken down. This is still stark reality throughout the US and these people do not know or care who Doug Tallamy is.

My other issue is the tone of the whole thing. Beginning gardeners are told they better plant milkweed or monarda, not buddleia—which is barely hardy in our zone, though I know it’s a spreader elsewhere. There’s even a meme about it. And then there is the wrangling over cultivars, nativars, and straight species. Many of these arguments are remarkably science-free (on any side), but, never mind that, these are unnecessary tussles between gardeners whose properties are filled with diverse plantings. They are already planting habitat. Some of it might be native, some not; it doesn’t matter. These are people who love plants—trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals. I grow milkweed and buddleia, because I happen to like both plants. I have eutrochium, eupatorium, and erigeron. I also have hemerocallis, hosta, and hellebore.

Science suggests that wildlife adapts over time to different habitats. There is also research that suggests that native status is not key to biodiversity.

Those key questions can’t be decided here, but I would suggest moderation in the native plant proselytizing going on among gardeners. Here’s a quote from a discussion I found on the Garden Professors Blog Facebook group. It’s from George Reis (don’t know him).

My sense is that people fall on the native/exotic spectrum according to their anxiety level regarding the degradation of the environment. More anxiety = more natives, less anxiety = less natives. Then they favor the science that bolsters their worldview. That’s human nature. Natives offer penance and redemption, exotics offer reassurance that people aren’t really so evil after all. The early wave of native landscapes a decade or so ago clearly got oversold cost-wise and with poor designs, and that has brought an inevitable backlash. What we need above all is more science to advance the debate, and hopefully disabuse us of our individual sentimental yearnings for a return to “nature” or for human “dominion” over “nature.”

And here’s one from Doug Tallamy:

I am not a purist and I don’t expect many other people will be either. I think taking the hard line and insisting on all natives will go a long way toward killing the movement.

I don’t think the movement is in danger. It just hasn’t reached its most crucial target, homeowners who do not garden. If it ever does, its message will need to be moderate and its solutions will need to be easy and accessible.

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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. In _Nature’s Best Hope_ Tallamy addresses this assumption that, as you said, “Science suggests that wildlife adapts over time to different habitats.” His response: “Evolution does not happen at the rate we are changing the food base for native animals.”

    And yes, homeowners are a critical target of the movement. But also, landscapers, HOAs, school districts, churches, etc. It’s a slow movement.

  2. A big reason why natives are pushed, especially for those non gardening suburbanites, is because natives can be left to their own devices in areas that restore low brush habitats.

    We don’t care if it’s a fad, or overly prosthelytized, because it is helping reintroduce plants into areas that have purposefully removed them.

    Great that you’ve been onto this for over a decade. That’s no reason to make newcomers feel small about their lack of experience.

    Insisting that a garden be only natives is just as shortsighted as belittling those who are new to the game and enthusiastic about building native habitats.

  3. More than 50 years ago we bought a lot in a wooded development (pine, oak, maple, hickory, understory trees shrubs ferns and wildflowers) With a background in scouting we proceeded to add more natives to those on the property as well as non-natives/

  4. I am simply going to continue gardening as I always have. I plant for the pollinators, leave my leaves on the ground and add more, and the dead winter foliage stays up until early spring. I don’t push other gardeners to garden as I do, but I’m also not going to be pushed into something I don’t support, and there are many more gardeners where I live who could care less about climate change or the dearth of bugs. They just want pretty flowers.

  5. I care for a 3 acre plot with over 22 large gardens. It started with a grant to reforest it with natives nearly 16 years ago. At that time it wasn’t east finding true natives at a reasonable cost. I started with native trees and shrubs. I am a plant lover so when it came to perennials and annuals it was no holds bar.
    If you build it they will come. we have butterflies galore, bees, birds and other wildlife. I have added true natives as they came available however I am a bit picky and try to choose more behaved natives because we are a display garden and most people don’t understand and think the gardens are weedy.

  6. In Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards (1979), Sara Stein introduced ideas consistent with Tallamy’s books– a delightful re discoveries of the ‘ungardening’ of her Pound Ridge, NY yard.

  7. I think a key phrase here is “ homeowners who do not garden”. So, just like homeowners who do not build houses or car owners who don’t work on cars, these folks will be outsourcing their landscaping and yard work. Maybe the best way to reach them is targeting the professional landscaping and yard maintenance people with the message, in the hopes that they in turn will offer insect- and wildlife-friendly plantings (along with the reasons why) to the homeowners. I just don’t think you’re going to convince people who aren’t interested in plants or gardening to suddenly take the time to educate themselves about the details.

    • Agree! However, landscapers here need to make a lot of money in our short season to limit the amount of snowplowing they have to do. I know many of them personally. They are very knowledgable, for the most part, about pollinators and biodiversity. But homeowners want what they want. I just don’t know if they’ll be any better at convincing. But even a few better shrub and tree choices would help.

  8. What I appreciate about Doug is that he’s been out there as a passionate speaker (really tireless).

    I found his first book relatively dry, but his ability to create enthusiasm — remarkable, as a native plant gardener and garden educator of 30+ years. But the second edition was softened with better plant info, etc. so helped his reach even more, and I want to read his latest book, too, after reading his interview with Margaret Roach recently.

    I think we need to encourage folks around gardening first, and then about habitat restoration. It’s vital that we transform our cultivated landscapes into more supportive ones, I think, but you’ve got to be willing to think about plants, nature, and gardening to do that.

    Thanks for an excellent post.

  9. Regarding those kinds of suburban neighborhoods, I think there are people who want pollinator gardens and native plants but feel they’ll upset neighbors. It’s also true there are a lot of people who just don’t seem to care much about nature or gardening and just want their yard to look like everyone else’s on the block. It’s a conundrum for sure but I think just being friendly with neighbors and gardening in a way that exemplifies the benefits of supporting habitat (capturing and filtering runoff, erosion reduction, birds and butterflies, etc.) versus the negatives (messiness, unwanted wildlife) might arouse people’s interest which is probably just as important as planting native plants.

  10. I think a key phrase here is “homeowners who do not garden”. ‘And can’t afford to buy one’, is more realistic for ordinary working people these days. The one thing most are not is gardeners. Painting ‘the professional landscaping and yard maintenance people’ industry and their clients with such a broad stroke as ‘needing to get the message’ is close to absurd. Don’t try to shift blame on to the yard maids.
    In a time of mass extinction and climate change it is the gardeners, people who love plants that are creating living arks of the world’s regional and well traveled plant and animal life. Gardens full of plants make life filled with bugs. Gardeners are living examples of caring for the earth. The outcome of the predicament we find ourselves in is not in their hands no matter how many native plants they have.
    So seriously, stop harassing the choir with your purity tests. Plant Lovers Matter. Without plants there is no future. It’s the plant and bug haters that need to ‘get the message’. That can only start by learning how to care for a plant.

    • Christopher, your point is well taken! I surely wasn’t meaning to harass or especially blame anyone with my comment, just having a cynical moment about homeowners, and thinking out loud about how to reach these people with yards but no awareness of how their yards can be part of a climate/environmental solution. It seemed like a natural idea for people who love and know plants and are in a position to share that love and knowledge, to do so with those who might want to make a change for a better future, but don’t know how to start. I had it on my mind because I am at the beginning of a building project; while I will never learn all the details needed for doing the building, and never build it with my own hands, the people I’m working with have been great at sharing environmentally friendly options I can choose, which is something that I definitely want. I think a lot of non-gardeners would choose those kind of options too, if they were made aware of them and why. And yes, I agree: Plant Lovers Matter!

      • Thank you Anne. Rest assured a great many home owners do want the hired help to use more environmentally friendly options for their landscapes. The state of manicured is not always a reliable indicator of things.

  11. This discussion has me wondering if gardeners might help those property owners who are contented with sod lawns and a few evergreen shrubs by showcasing the blending of both lawn and managed meadows. Can golf course landscaping incorporate more native populated, pollinator-attracting zones outside the fairway, in plantings akin to Oudolf’s stylized meadows using native species? The more such open spaces can made visible to the general public, the more likely a homeowner might wonder how to achieve the beauty on their smaller parcel.

    • Eric, I’ve heard about golf courses doing that which is both an excellent way to showcase meadows while using them to deal with runoff. I hate to say it but the more these kinds of landscapes become acceptable to the upper class, the more people will not only consider having them in their yards but be more tolerant of neighbors having them. Especially if they are providing useful eco-services. But making them look “presentable” is a whole other ball of wax not so easily achieved as the nature of meadows is not to be “tidy”. I know this because I’m working to do this in my front yard and the only way I can get away with it is because I don’t live in an HOA. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying it will be a challenge.

  12. Native plant advocates often issue dire warnings about the dangers of non-native plants that are unwarranted. In 2011, Professor Tallamy repeated his mantra (Tallamy, Doug, “Flipping the Paradigm: Landscapes that Welcome Wildlife,” chapter in Christopher, Thomas, The New American Landscape, Timber Press, 2011): “…our wholesale replacement of native plant communities with disparate collections of plants from other parts of the world is pushing our local animals to the brink of extinction—and the ecosystems that sustain human societies to the edge of collapse.”

    These absurd predictions are used to justify projects to eradicate harmless non-native plants (such as buddleia) in public open spaces that use huge quantities of herbicide. Any theoretical benefit of native plants is nullified by the toxicity of herbicides that damage the soil and are toxic to wildlife and humans.

    If native plant advocates have a sincere interest in the environment and wildlife, they will quit issuing apocalyptic warnings that result in pointless, poisonous, futile attempts to eradicate non-native plants.

    Thanks for this sensible advice to native plant advocates that they lighten up.


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