Tallamania! by Elizabeth Licata


Ranters have been talking to scientist Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, since 2007. So, since this is Throwback Thursday, I’d thought I’d include some of our earlier discussions with the professor, as well as a recent meet-up that took place last week on the Roycroft campus in Western New York.

Here’s some of my first interview with Tallamy in December, 2007, following the publication of his first book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens (TimberPress):

How to convince landscapers, city inspectors, and suburban neighbors who consider everything a weed that’s not tightly mowed? Many people who grow native wildflowers in their front yards run every risk of being harassed.

I have started a new book that will deal with this issue in depth, but I can say a few things here about what drives our landscaping paradigm. We often landscape the way we do so that we will be accepted or, even better, admired by our neighbors. We seek acceptance, approval, and, yes, status in everything we do, and for the past 200 years the ability to have a large manicured lawn sparsely planted with specimen trees was a signal that we had free time and lots of money. Today, anything else is interpreted to mean that you don’t care about the values imposed on you by your neighbors. But we change what we consider to be desirable or valuable all the time.

It was once a sign of status to smoke. Now we know better. Last year it was a sign of status to drive an SUV. Knowledge and peer pressure is changing that status symbol too and soon SUV owners will be ridiculed for heating up our planet. It is becoming more socially admirable to drive a Prius or ride a bike instead.

In the past having native plants in your yard meant you had abandoned all efforts to beat back nature. It was a sign of the absence of landscaping, rather than progressive landscaping. But that will change as more and more people install artfully designed landcapes with smaller lawns, more woody plants, and a higher percentage of natives.

Some of the eye candy you'll find in The Living Landscape

Some of the eye candy you’ll find in The Living Landscape

In March, 2011, Susan linked to Penn State biologist Tomas Carlo’s study positing (to briefly summarize) that an abundance of Japanese honeysuckle in Pennsylvania helps sustain bird populations, and that removing the honeysuckle would disrupt this newly developed relationship and thus do more harm than good.  I saw Tallamy in Buffalo that year and asked him about this:

Tallamy’s response: “That’s like saying if I drive down I 95 and stop at a rest center and there’s a whole bunch of starlings feeding at the garbage can, than I 95 must be good for birds. We know that birds eat honeysuckle berries. This is not news. By the way, the birds [in the study] were catbirds and robins. All the neotropical birds who eat insects disappear when you’ve got a world full of honeysuckles.

“Berries do not provide food when the birds are rearing their young. And then they took blooming nightshade in pots and put it in the middle of the honeysuckle to show that it would help disperse native berries. But [in actuality] no native berry-producers would survive in an area overrun with lonicera japonica. So the logic just doesn’t work.

“We should not hate plants just because they’re good at capitalizing on disturbance. It’s not black and white. I’m all for compromise. There used to be complex communities of native plants here supporting wonderfully diverse realms of life. Look out that window and count the number of animals you see. [Referring to huge front lawn of the Buffalo botanical gardens] You see a vast lawn and nothing-maybe a blackbird or a robin. And we are so used to seeing nothing we think that’s normal. The reason they’re gone is because the food web that supported them is gone. Yes, grass is better than dirt, but better for what?

“Most people garden in a very small percentage of their yard and the rest is barren. Have your hobbies, grow what you want, but also put in some of the trees that used to be there to support the birds that you probably still do like. … I’d like to keep the discussion scientific and keep the emotion out of it. Just don’t tell me that these choices have no consequences and that any plant is as good as any other plant.”

Some of the eye candy you'll find in The Living Landscape

The book Tallamy was contemplating in 2007 is the recently published The Living Landscape (Timber, 2014), written by Tallamy and garden designer Rick Darke. Basically, The Living Landscape continues the message of Bringing Nature Home, but explains how layered plantings that are mostly natives-but by no means exclusively native-can support wildlife attractively.

I saw Tallamy briefly before another Buffalo talk last week, and his message was still much as it had been in 2007.

Baby steps

Just as he has for almost ten years, Tallamy is urging suburban landowners to think about adding layers of wildlife supporting plants to their landscapes-not turning their lawns into meadows and their backyards into forests. In the new book attractive examples of edge plantings where shrubs and perennials merge into understories and canopies are shown-admittedly, many are from grand public gardens. His and Darke’s examples are not aimed at city dwellers like me, though I could consider some of the individual plants. But I won’t be adding persimmon or redbud groves anytime soon. Tallamy and I agreed that pollinators are getting a lot more attention on a universal level, thanks largely to the iconic monarch. “The American public is realizing that insects are important, we need them, and we can save them, very simply, by putting a few things they need back into the landscape-and not only that, it’s fun. We can see them respond. It’s a good thing monarchs don’t reproduce at the rate elephants do; it would be centuries before we brought them back, if at all.”

And it could be worse

Though many of us romantically think of England as that “green and pleasant land,” Tallamy points out that because of its smaller size, England has not been able to survive the persistent loss of its native animals and plants that have turned much of it into what many conservationists call “a barren landscape.”

If Tallamy is on his way to your town or city, I urge you to attend and listen. He’s very interesting-and he seems like a really nice guy!

Tallamania! originally appeared on Garden Rant on May 19, 2016.


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