Talk to anyone who’s interested in native plants, and before too long, Doug Tallamy’s name comes up. He’s probably more responsible than any other individual for the growing interest in native plants and gardening for wildlife. He’s written a number of books, but Bringing Nature Home is the go-to.
The first thing you notice flipping through it is that for a gardening book, it seems to be more about insects than plants. My daughter likes flipping through it, as she does just about any book with lots of pictures, and calls it the “butterfly book.” That’s because Tallamy isn’t strictly speaking a plants guy – he’s an entomologist.
And that gets to what the book is really about. He’s not writing a guide to planning a beautiful garden that happens to contain natives. His goal is to restore nature to the greatest extent possible within the suburban built environment. And the only way to do that is to start at the bottom of the food web and build upwards from there. He writes:
But now, for the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference. In this case, the “difference” will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.
As a bug guy, he came to understand that the only way to have healthy populations of the insects he studies is to have the food they eat available, and in most cases, that’s the native plants they evolved alongside. He had his own version of the Newton’s apple moment, except it took place under an invasive tree. When he and his wife bought a spread that was once farmland and had become home to many alien and invasive plants, he started to notice that the callery pears, Russian olives, and Norway maples had little to no leaf damage from insects, while the native oaks, maples, black cherries and others “had obviously supplied many insects with food.”
Maybe you don’t care about bugs, but you care about birds. You run into the very same thing. The vast majority of songbirds rely on healthy insect populations to feed their young. No bugs, no birds. And no native plants, no bugs.
This approach is really eye-opening for a lot of gardeners, including myself. Tallamy makes the strong case that if we just make our gardens look pretty, we’re not doing enough. We can and should make them a productive part of the ecosystem, and the only way to do that is by planting natives. Luckily for us, they have the added benefit of great beauty as well.
I should say that personally, I got interested in native gardening mostly for the plants themselves. I loved the wild beauty of them and liked the idea of having the species in my garden that are a natural part of my area, as opposed to the exotic ornamentals that are everywhere you look. Sure, I liked birds, and, like everyone else, I love the more charismatic insects like butterflies, but that was the extent of it.
But once you first get interested in natives for their own sake, all of the ecosystem connections start to open up. John Muir’s famous quote proves true yet again: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Read Bringing Nature Home, and you’ll never look at a garden the same way again. Plus at the very least, you’ll get some cool bug pictures to show your kids.