Helping Mother NatureOct 17, 2022 09:53AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Doug Tallamy had an epiphany about the landscape in 2000, when he and his wife, Cindy, bought 10 acres in Oxford, Pennsylvania. The world has increasingly joined in, with the University of Delaware professor averaging six requests a day to speak about his Homegrown National Park idea.
“Conservation in the future is not just going to be accomplished by a few ecologists and a few conservation biologists,” he said in an interview from the Lepidoptera Trail, a native-plant garden outside his Newark office. “It is going to be the responsibility of everybody on the planet.”
“It’s global, but I’m starting here,” he said. “We’ve got 135 million acres of residential landscape just in this country. North America has lost three billion birds in the last 50 years.
“Our human footprint is enormous. There are very few natural areas doing what we need them to do, which is why we have to practice conservation outside of parks and preserves, in addition to them.”
That conservation means rethinking lawns and suburbia, one household at a time, in a movement he hopes will eventually encompass vast areas, aka a Homegrown National Park.
“Our only option for the future is to coexist with nature,” he said. “Otherwise nature is gone, and then we’re gone because we are products of it. We’re totally dependent on it. So nature is not optional. We have to learn how to share our spaces with it.”
At home with nature
Hence a website, https://homegrownnationalpark.org. Hence four books, detailing his family’s personal experiences and his research and offering sylvan pathways for people to follow. Hence dozens of academic papers. Hence all those talks, including a February webinar for Ohio State that drew 4,900.
Tallamy is 71 and enjoyed playing outside as he grew up in New Jersey, he wrote in “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.” After earning degrees in biology and entomology, he started at the University of Delaware in 1981.
The family decided two decades ago to move closer to Newark. They settled on a farm that had been subdivided. It had been used to grow hay, but three years of lying fallow left it full of invasives.
“The land around the house was raw from the recent construction and grading and, between the large bare spots, supported little more than mustard and ragweed,” he wrote, noting all the flies from a nearby horse barn. But a year later, by “rebuilding the landscapes in an aesthetically pleasing but also an ecologically productive way” that lured in predators, the flies stopped being a problem.
Today, his land is largely forested, dominated by oaks planted as acorns, with a big chunk as meadow, plus small areas as lawn. It supports 1,148 species of moths and 60 species of breeding birds.
“You’re just going to remove what you don’t want continuously, and what will come in are the natives that you do want. Blue jays will bring in acorns and beech nuts and plant them. The squirrels will move things around. So natives will come back as long as you keep the the bad guys out.”
Too many deer
“My main contribution has always been, and continues to be, removing invasives: bittersweet, multiflora rose, porcelainberry, honeysuckle – and now mile-a-minute weed, garlic mustard and stilt grass as well,” Cindy said. “Doug is the one who plants things, mainly trees and shrubs, or perennials that he hopes will attract moths. The perennials I used to plant were all eaten by the deer; trying to stay on top of the invasives keeps me plenty busy.
“What I like most is the way our property is woods-like now, as opposed to bare field, and that there are more birds and insects every year.”
But there’s a huge caveat on their efforts. “An overabundance of white-tailed deer. They don’t like the non-natives either,” Doug said. They eat the natives – so accessible on edge habitats between woods and lawns – and “you end up with just this monoculture of Asian plants.”
Worse yet, a million car-deer accidents a year kill about 200 Americans – far more than poisonous snakes or sharks. Yet “we protect the deer that in essence is killing us,” he said.
He warns against lawns (great for walking on, but terrible for the environment). Tallamy believes that humans innately like lawns because they resemble the savannas that humans emerged in in Africa, where low grasses allowed them to spot predators and warring tribes from afar. Thousands of years later, castle builders created similar landscaping, and manicured lawns symbolized wealth in the form of English country estates.
He asks that people reduce their lawns – and keep the lawn that remains well-manicured, so neighbors know that you still follow cultural norms.
He praises keystone species that contribute most to the food web. In 84% of the counties in the country, including New Castle and Chester, it’s oak. “They support 952 species of caterpillars across the country, 557 species right here in the mid-Atlantic states,” he said. “There’s no other plant genus that comes close to that in terms of making the food that allows other things to live.”
And “90% of what caterpillars eat is created by only 14% of native plant species, with only 5% of the powerhouse plants taking credit for 75% of food,” UD reported on his research. “This pattern is consistent wherever you go in the US.”
What landscapes need to do
To showcase these powerhouse plants, Tallamy worked with research assistant Kimberley Shropshire to create a database for America (hosted by the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder). They’re now working on the world.
Shropshire follows her research at home. “My house is about 60 years old,” she said. “For the 20 years I have lived here I have been slowly minimizing my lawn, trying to avoid pesticides, and planting native plants.”
Every single worthy landscape should accomplish four things, Tallamy said:
• Support pollinators, needed for 80% of all plants. “And we need plants.”
• Support the food web, turning the energy from the sun into plants, then creatures (often caterpillars at first, and later mammals like humans and what humans eat).
• Sequester carbon, to reduce climate change.
• Manage the watershed.
“Our human impact grows every day, which which means the urgency for this grows every day,” he said. “What gives me the most hope is the interest that’s out there. People are thirsty for this information because they want to get active in it.”
Consider some of his new neighbors who wanted to make their land more natural. They started the conversion by mowing less of it. And then they realized they had an expert next door. Tallamy recommended Larry Weaner, a landscape architect, and their naturalization has begun.
“It’s a grassroots solution to the biodiversity crisis, but it requires grassroots participation.”
What you can do
“We’ve got scary headlines,” Doug Tallamy acknowledges, but he wants to empower – and encourage – everyone. his Homegrown National Park “works on a micro-scale. If you have a balcony, and you put one pot with an aster in it that blooms in the fall, you can be part of the solution. You can help the local, native bees. They will find your little pot, even on the seventh floor.”
In “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard,” he offers 10 ideas:
• Shrink the lawn.
• Remove invasive species.
• Plant keystone genera.
• Be generous with your plantings.
• Plant for specialist pollinators.
• Network with neighbors.
• Build a conservation hardscape.
• Create caterpillar pupation sites under your trees (ground covers, shrubs and fallen leaves, not mowed grass).
• Do not spray or fertilize.
• Educate your neighborhood civic association.