A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard
By Douglas W. Tallamy
Timber Press, 2019
As a gardener and garden writer, I thought I knew all about native plants, but Tallamy in his excellent book Nature’s Best Hope was an education. He writes from the grim perspective that we will not survive the demise of the natural world, and yet it is full of hope because he has a plan. His proposal is this: What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half their lawn to productive native plant communities? It could restore 20 million acres of what is now ecological wasteland. It would be the country’s largest park system.
The key word here is native. Cater to the insects when choosing plant material, for they are our pollinators and wildlife food source. Insects transfer energy from plants to other animals, and insects are fussy about what plants they eat. Tallamy writes that we should aim to meet the nutritional needs of the local insect specialists and then the generalists will follow. That butterfly bush might attract Monarch butterflies, but without milkweed they won’t have anyplace to lay their eggs. The best native trees for hosting caterpillars, an important food source for birds, are oak, cherry and willow. In fact, Tallamy says that white oak is the very best tree you can plant in your yard. Native pachysandra, tick weed, woodland phlox, asters, foamflower, and wild ginger are all attractive natives. And we all need to redefine our notion of what a “weed” is, since they are often native and host to important pollinators. Ragweed, goldenrod, and plantain need a place in our yards in order to help heal the wider world.
There is great advice for supporting wildlife throughout the book, such as installing a bubbler in your yard. The gurgling sounds are irresistible to migrating and resident birds. You will find a great resource section at the end, as well as a thorough index, making this a book for the active gardening shelf. Most importantly, as you are shopping the garden catalogs through the long winter nights, keep this National Wildlife Federation web site by your side: www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder.
Spare yourself some environmental grief this year and take action by trading out some or all of your lawn for native plants. If you don’t have a garden of your own, lobby for native plantings in your pubic gardens. It is so easy to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of environmental degradation. Nature’s Best Hope is the antidote.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s. Her collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023.