how conservation starts in your yard: doug tallamy on ‘nature’s best hope’

how conservation starts in your yard: doug tallamy on ‘nature’s best hope’

“Bringing Nature Home,” (Amazon affiliate link) has been, for many of us, a wake-up call into the entire subject of the unbreakable link between native plant species and native wildlife, and now with more than a decade of additional research insights, he goes further in “Nature’s Best Hope.”

Read along as you listen to the February 10, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new book by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.

Margaret: Congratulations on the new book, Doug.

Doug Tallamy: Thank you, Margaret. Pleasure to be here.

Margaret: Big, big, big work. [Laughter.] A lot of work.

Doug: Yes, but I picked at it over the years.

Margaret: Yes, but you should see my pages of notes–as I was reading I was scribbling away, “Oh this, oh that, oh this.” So I want to ask you about some of those things. With the new book, you’ve kind of given each of us an assignment, to help create what you call Homegrown National Park. So can you kind of explain that to us?

Doug: Well, the idea came to me when I was looking at the area of this country that’s in lawn—which doesn’t accomplish any of the ecological goals that we have, and it’s the size of New England that’s in lawn at this point. It’s well over 40 million acres, and I said, “Well what if we cut that in half? We’d have 20 million acres to work with.” And then I started looking at the size of existing national parks, and it turns out that almost all of the big ones in the lower 48, if you add them all up, it’s still less than 20 million acres. So if we call this entity that we create in our yards Homegrown National Park, we actually can create viable habitat that will be bigger than our national parks combined.

And I call it homegrown because we get to enjoy it right at home. You don’t have to go fight the traffic jams in Yellowstone. And it’s true, it’s not going to be as spectacular as Yellowstone, but you also get privacy, you get the benefits of being able to interact with nature at your own time, your own pace. It’d be great for your kids. So there’s a lot of things that you actually can’t get from an official national park that we could get at Homegrown National Park.

Margaret: Right, and early in the book you say, “We will not succeed if we confine our conservation effort to patches of protected areas.” So if we think that what the government or whatever has done, these big public spaces, are going to do it—to offset the issues that we’re facing—it’s not going to, is it?

Doug: No. I mean, and time has proven that. We’ve had parks for a hundred years now, but they are too small and they’re too isolated from each other, and there’s actually a steady drain of species from these areas for those reasons. Eighty-six percent of the country east of the Mississippi is privately owned, and 83 percent of the entire country is privately owned. So we have to include private property in our future conservation goals.

Margaret: Right.

Doug: It’s too big a chunk of the U.S. to just ignore. And that again brings the private land owner back into a critically important position in the future of conservation.

we talked about cultivars of native plants versus the straight species, and I’ll link to sort of the detailed story in the transcript of how those differ, sort of like a purple-leafed version of something or variegated versus the straight species with the green leaves, and how those might not be as good and so forth.

Since the previous book, in the time since then, you’ve helped create … It used to be a real mystery: what was the right plant? “Native” might be native to Wisconsin, but I live in New York. Do you know what I mean? It was confusing, and you’ve helped create databases that are searchable by zip codes of appropriate plants. So we can find this out now, how to make a plant palette.

Doug: That’s right. We have a tool on the National Wildlife Federation website called Native Plant Finder.  [Note: The Plant Finder website of National Wildlife Federation was not responding Saturday morning, Feb. 8; NWF says it is down for maintenance updates; try again later if not working.]

Margaret: Yes.

Doug: You go there and put in your zip code and the best plans for your county will pop up. They’re ranked in terms of their ability to support food webs. So right in order you have the best woody plants and the best herbaceous plants. So it’s not a … you don’t have to guess any more about what plants are going to perform well in your county. A very handy tool that takes away the guesswork.

E.O. Wilson … we’ll go back to him, back in 1987 wrote a paper called “The Little Things That Run the World,” and talked about what would he envision a world that had no insects. What would happen to everything else if insects disappear? And a number of things would happen. First of all, 90 percent of our flowering plants would disappear, which would drastically change energy flow through our ecosystems. In other words, it would collapse the food webs that support animals—our birds, our reptiles, our mammals, and our amphibians. They would all disappear.

Margaret: Right.

Doug: Our decomposers, the insect decomposers would be gone. So the rapid turnover of nutrients that recycles what plants need to grow would end. And his conclusion was that humans would not survive those changes. So the little things that run the world run us as well. We are an integral part of the world. We depend on it and we cannot selectively destroy the things that we decided we don’t like, and our distaste of insects is not fair. It’s based on just our interactions with very few species of insects, the ones that transmit diseases, things like mosquitoes and ticks. Ticks aren’t insects, but we’ll throw them in.

Margaret: Right. [Laughter.]

Doug: And then of course our agricultural pests, and we say, “Well that’s all insects. We’ll just get rid of all of them.” But big mistake; we can’t afford to do that.

Margaret: No. When I give lectures and I come to the slides that show my beloved moths [below] and other creatures that I love in the garden and I’m fascinated by, I always say to people, “I want you to suppress the wish to squish, and stop the rush to crush.” And everybody starts laughing, but it’s like you have got to give them mnemonic devices to get over this mania about killing everything.

So a minute ago I’ve mentioned that that one of the mandates being “create these caterpillar pupation sites under trees” and so forth, and that is about how sometimes there are smaller changes, maybe not planting anything, but a difference in how you take care of existing plantings, or your fall cleanup, or how you prune an elderberry shrub. There were a lot of those ahas in the book that I really loved, and I wonder if you could explain a couple of these sort of cultural changes that we can make that can really make a difference besides planting new things. [Below, a few of the moths at Margaret’s garden, clockwise from top left: painted lichen moth, Pandorus sphinx, tolype, and spiny oak slug.]

Doug: Right. This is something we’ve just started to think seriously about.

Margaret: Yes.

particularly our birds, and we’ve looked at this. In terms of insects, caterpillars are the most important group in transferring energy from plants to other organisms. They’re eating more plant material than any other type of insects and more things eat them, and that’s how the energy from the sun moves through food webs. Most animals don’t eat the plants themselves, they eat something that ate the plant, and that something is typically caterpillars. So we have to design landscapes that support those caterpillars or the energy flow that supports the rest of life is stopped.

Margaret: And we have to take care of those landscapes, as you’re saying, in a manner that does not disturb their life cycle, their successful reproductive cycle. So in the fall, let the leaves lie under those oaks as much as is as safely possible. Let them lie. Don’t clean them up too soon in the spring, either. I’ve been told by people from Cornell and elsewhere, wait until we’ve got a week of 50-degree-plus days until everybody’s kind of gotten out of underneath the leaves, hopefully, hopefully. Don’t clean up the … don’t do the shredding and the mowing right away, because you take their habitat away. [More on saner fall-cleanup regimens.]

Doug: Yes, if you create a bed, a big bed under your oak tree, and that’s where you do your spring ephemeral gardening, you never have to clean up those leaves to the extent that we’re used to. Let them nestle down to the ground. The plants come up right through them. They’re the perfect mulch. They’re transferring the nutrients from that tree back into the soil. They’re protecting the soil ecosystem, which actually has more species than the above-ground ecosystem. They’re holding water on the site when it rains hard. The leaf litter’s great in terms of soaking it up like a sponge and not letting it run off. So when we “clean it up,” we’re getting rid of all those benefits.

Margaret: Right.

Doug: Including the cocoons that we say the first week of March, they’re not all out by then. They’ll emerge at different times through the … some of them only have one generation a year and they may not come out until July. So the more we can leave in areas on our property, the better off we’ll be., in that zip code-based research tool, we can find out some of the powerhouse plants for our areas, yes?

Susan Smith [Pagano of Rochester Institute of Technology], the fruits from the plants from Asia, and this includes multiflora rose and Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle and all those guys, are very high in sugar in the fall and very low in fat, less than 1 percent fat. So in the fall, that’s a problem for birds, because they’re either migrating when they need a lot of fat or they’re going to overwinter when they need a lot of fat in the berries.  And that’s where our native viburnums or things like Virginia creeper or our native dogwoods, their berries approach 50 percent fat, and it’s exactly what the birds need. So they do eat non-native berries, but most of the time it’s because there’s no other choice. That’s all we put out there for them. [Above, from the book: downy woodpecker eating native poison ivy berries, which are high in needed fat.]

Margaret: Right. I want to just shout out a couple of the other sort of tenets in your 10 tips at the end of the book, like that we should “network with our neighbors,” because again we’re trying to create this larger than just little polka-dot areas. We’re trying to put together areas and network with our neighbors and educate others in our neighborhood, in our civic association, and so forth.

But there’s one called “build a conservation hardscape,” and that has some really interesting tips and I wonder if we can just quickly list some of them, like how having no lights that are on all night long, for instance, outdoors is a really important conservation thing, and not just because it saves electricity.

Doug: Right. Lights are a major killer of particularly our moths, and research around the world is showing that lights … We have global insect decline, but lighting up the sky at night is one of the major causes of that, and what’s frustrating is most of the time is absolutely unnecessary. If you’re concerned about security—a lot of people say, “I’ve got to have my security lights on”—well then put a motion sensor on those lights so they only turn on when the bad man comes.

Margaret: Right.

Doug: Even easier than that is to change out the bulbs and put in yellow LED bulbs. That’ll save you energy and they’re the least attractive to insects.

Margaret: O.K.

Doug: If we did that throughout the country, which would take everybody about 5 minutes, we could literally save billions of insects every season. Very easy change.

How effective are nativars? A chat with Doug Tallamy

  • The garden as habitat, with Doug Tallamy
  • “Nature’s Best Hope” from Amazon
  • (Photos except powerhouse plan collage, toad and moths, are by Doug Tallamy, from “Nature’s Best Hope,” used with permission.)

    enter to win a copy of ‘nature’s best hope’

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    No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 11, 2019. Good luck to all.

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