Over the years, I’ve expressed my opinions and thoughts about increasing our usage of native plants, supporting native flora and fauna, being environmentally conscious in the garden and in general applying organic, ecologically responsible methods. I’ve often mentioned the name Douglas Tallamy as the authority on this subject. Having read his book Bringing Nature Home when it came out several years ago, followed his work and on occasion corresponded with him, it was with particular eagerness that I went to hear him speak at the Greenwich, CT Audubon Society a couple of weeks ago.
An unassuming, affable man, Tallamy is a powerhouse of knowledge and understanding of all things in the sphere of entomology and wildlife ecology. I’m summarizing his talk and I hope the information I give will make you sit up and do something.
Ecosystems perform locally. Biodiversity equals ecosystem services. We have degraded 60% of earth’s ecosystem services. Given that 80 – 90% of plants are propagated by animals not wind, we have effectively sterilized our neighborhoods. As Tallamy puts it, we have demonized it! We are living with ‘nature deficit disorder’. Plants literally allow all living things to eat sunlight. So when there are fewer plants, there is less to eat and therefore less support for all animals.
The United States is a human dominated ecosystem. We uphold our lawns as a major status symbol. To date, we boast 72, 500 square miles of suburban lawn. That is eight times the state of New Jersey! And growing. Given that lawns barely sustain any living creature, it stands to reason that we’re seriously impacting our local ecology. Simply thinking our parks and preserves can do the job is ridiculous. They are too small, fragmented and isolated. A contiguous space of diverse plantings is critical to support our birds and butterflies. With that will come all other valuable critters.
To do this, we must not only introduce many plants but we must select more native plants. This is because not all plants support the food web. Natives do. Whilst alien species aggressively replace natives, they support insects very poorly. Five times more insects (think caterpillars) can feed on native species. Native plants and insects share an evolutionary history. Indigenous insects are not adapted to eat alien plants. Take the Monarch butterfly for example – it depends on specific native plants and in a way, this specialization is its curse because with disappearing natural habitats, we are in danger of losing this valued butterfly. With fewer and fewer insects available, think what this will do to our native birds. 96 % of reproducing birds eat insects. Insects provide the high levels of protein and nutrients needed by these birds.
A world without insects is a world without biodiversity. Birds forage close to their nests. Alien plants will not provide them the local supply of the food web. We’ve come to view plants only for their beauty and not their ecological role. But if we understood the number of caterpillars or other insects supported by native trees and shrubs, we’d realize how imperative it is to plant them. We must create corridors connecting natural areas. This can be done easily if each of us filled our gardens with the right plants.
Lawns are biological deserts. They demand a high amount of fertilizers, weed and pest killers to keep our lawns pristine. Add to this the pollution created by gas powered mowers, water table contamination by use of aforementioned assorted chemicals and you have the ideal recipe for a green wasteland. Reduce the area of lawn and begin the transition from alien ornamentals to native ornamentals. Those all too familiar albeit pretty, Bradbury pears or crape myrtles lining our streets and dotting our front lawns do virtually nothing for sustaining the food web. How about replacing them with our own Amelanchiers or Cornus alternifolia? Create meadows, plant more native trees and shrubs, do away with as many ‘miracle’ products. ( To this I say –This is not hard people!)
With native plantings in place, we can set the calender by what is in bloom and what insects and birds are observed. We fill our lives with surprise, anticipation and entertainment. Just think, a mere fifteen minutes spent in nature each day has measurable medical benefits. It is within our power to make those minutes the most amazing ever.
Admittedly, it feels awfully good to have an authority such as Tallamy give credibility to my own all too frequent passionate calls to pay more attention and take more responsibility for protecting our natural environment. Lets just get to it shall we?
Please, please get yourself a copy of the recently updated and expanded Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy. I cannot recommend it enough.
This just in! I had alerted Dr. Tallamy on this post of mine and asked him for feedback. Here is his response “Hi Shobha,
Nice job! You were on the money complete. Nothing to add at this end. Thanks for your support.
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar