By Julie Moir Messervy
Professor Doug Tallamy’s vital message to the gardening and horticulture community: How we garden can help determine whether most of our native species will avoid extinction.
What looks like uncultivated wilderness may in fact be a thicket of autumn olive, Oriental bittersweet, or Japanese honeysuckle—all exotic invasives that do not sustain our native insects and birds. Unfortunately, the lovely garden we plant in its place, if we do not take care to include native plants, may also do nothing to sustain wildlife. L: Autumn olive. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. R: A carefully planned perennial bed. Photo: University of Illinois Extension.
L: Doug Tallamy. Photo: University of Delaware. R: Doug’s book, Bringing Nature Home. Photo: Amazon.
I just returned from giving my “Home Outside” lecture at the Middleburg Horticulture Symposium, hosted by the Fauquier and Loudoun Garden Club on Saturday, February 26 in Middleburg, Virginia. A superbly organized program, the event began with one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard, and believe me, I’ve heard just about everyone in the field over my thirty-plus years on the circuit. Behavioral Ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware spoke for a spellbinding hour and a half about how our headlong rush to develop nature has resulted in sterilized environments that are killing the biodiversity that insects, birds, and animals all need to survive in our world. Everyone should hear him speak if they can. His talk was a “game changer” for me, fundamentally altering the way I now think about what I should be doing as a landscape designer.
In both his lecture and his groundbreaking book, Bringing Nature Home (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2007), Doug lays out the most compelling case I’ve heard yet for using native plants in our landscapes to help replace the loss of our temperate forests. (It has been estimated that over 70% of the forests along the Eastern seaboard are gone, versus only 15% of the Amazonian basin—why, he asks, aren’t we upset about what’s happening in our own backyard?) And not only are we cutting down our forests, but we’re also filling up our backyards with alien grasses—our lawns—and exotic plants from other countries. Yet research shows that our native insects cannot survive on alien plant species. He quotes eminent biologist E.O. Wilson who said, “A land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life.” Ultimately, this includes us.
Many gardeners plant buddleia, or butterfly bush, to attract butterflies to their gardens…but did you know that these shrubs feed only the adult butterflies? Their larvae feed on the leaves of native plants, such as wild black cherry, goldenrod, and milkweed. Photo: TheButterflySite.com.
In the introduction to his book, Doug succinctly explains the problem of filling our backyards with lawns and exotic plants as we do now:
- “…the wild creatures we enjoy and would like to have in our lives will not be here in the future if we take away their food and the places they live.
- “…in too many areas of our country there is no place left for wildlife but in the landscapes and gardens we ourselves create.”
- “…unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems, the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim.”
Yet all is not lost, he writes, if we can make changes to the way we design our properties and open spaces:
- “…it is not yet too late to save most of the plants and animals that sustain the ecosystems on which we ourselves depend.
- “…restoring native plants to most human-dominated landscapes is relatively easy to do.”
In his talk, Doug showed images of how a suburban property and its neighborhood might bring back biodiversity by planting the boundaries with native shrubs and trees. If whole communities started planting this way, we’d create a shared woodland where the collection of plants and animals could live in relative balance.
L: Typical suburban home and landscape. C: The same home, with a landscape enhanced by the addition of diverse native plantings. R: In Tallamy’s vision, a suburban neighborhood full of such landscapes forms a corridor of wildlife-sustaining flora that can co-exist with human habitations. Perspectives by Jana Bryan Wunderle of JMMDS, based on Doug Tallamy’s drawings.
He exhorts us all to do something that most of us only dream of doing: make a difference. “In this case,” he writes, “the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.” Let’s get going!
Click here to read Anne Raver’s 2008 New York Times article, which contains more eye-opening details about Doug’s work.
Julie’s Upcoming Lectures
The following events are open to the public:
“Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love.” 2011 Vermont Flower Show keynote address. Champlain Exposition Center, Essex Junction, VT. Saturday, March 5, at 12 p.m.
“Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love.” Virginia Crigler Speaker Series hosted by the Carolina Foothills Garden Club at the Poinsett Club, Greenville, SC. Wednesday, March 16, at 10:30 a.m.
“Julie Moir Messery: Process and Work.” Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA. Wednesday, April 27 at 5 p.m.