I’m back. Since I’ve been not writing I’ve learned a heck of a lot, been confused even more but one thing’s for certain, I’m absolutely obsessed with this gardening thing or landscape conservation or urban farming or whatever it is I do while I’m puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis.
One thing I have done was read Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. I’m not sure what made it great but it was great. Was it a simplified version of ecology? His warm, down to earth tone? Was it the fact that he’s an actual scientist with a PhD? Or was it a story about his neighbor and the beaver? Whatever it was, somehow it changed my view of the world and gave me a new hope that maybe, just maybe humanity can not just survive but realize and live as a piece of the puzzle instead of as maker of the puzzle and ruler of all its pieces. Not sure I got that metaphor exactly right but I think you get the idea.
It also gave me the feeling that what I do with my garden is important. Like it’s not just about puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis. For once, it seems that maybe instead of making a negative environmental footprint, I might be doing something good. According to Tallamy, native plants are not only good but they are a crucial link to the survival of many species including possibly, ourselves.
Tallamy is not even a plant scientist. His specialty is bugs. He began his discovery in his own backyard in Pennsylvania when he discovered certain plants weren’t touched by insects yet other plants were. Then he realized the plants that weren’t getting eaten were from other places like Asia. Upon further study he realized certain insects picked certain native plants and certain birds ate those certain insects. It’s from these realizations that made him think maybe there’s something to the term, coevolution. Species that evolve together over millions of years may form complex relationships.
But the key to the issue here is my use of the word “certain” insects. “Plants from other places” are often called exotics or aliens or if really bad, invasives. It’s not that an exotic plant can’t be useful to some insects or animals, it just may not be useful to animals Tallamy calls specialized animals, or those animals that have come to be directly or indirectly dependent over millions of years on one particular species of plant. Monarchs, for example, will only lay eggs on the milkweed species and pandas rely almost entirely on bamboo for food. Due to things such as western colonization, the industrial age and human population explosion, vast amounts of landscape have been dramatically changed and mass populations of native plants have been either destroyed or drastically moved around due to human love of the exotic. In other words, these days, plants that evolved in one place for millions of years are either gone or somewhere far, far away.
While somewhat of a simple concept it gets cloudy real fast in the horticultural and gardening community. For one thing, there’s no way to really define what’s native and what’s not to a certain area. Nor is it easy to define how native a plant should be. For example, I live in Maryland and I buy seeds of plant species known to be native to my area but the seeds are harvested from plants in Minnesota. So does that make my plants true native plants? Then there was this question my husband had about how long does it take for a plant to become native to a certain area. There’s no answer for that other than to say that until that plant becomes a useful part to the ecological system of that area, it’s not a native. But what defines that? And I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to invasive species or cultivars. As I understand, invasive species include plants that have become a nuisance because not only are they not useful to an ecological system but they are thought to be harmful to that system. Cultivars are bred from natives to adapt to certain conditions and are often criticized for not being true natives and therefore not doing their native plant job of being useful.
So, the whole subject is about as confusing and complex as the many other environmental problems of the world and I find myself wondering what it is, exactly, I’m supposed to do. And that is most definitely a problem for a busy world who has about zero free time to analyze this issue let alone go out and make a pollinator garden. In other words, it’s hard for someone to do good when they can’t just run out to the local garden center, pick up some plants, put them in the ground and be done with it. Tallamy does his best to be diplomatic about his cause and I think that’s why his book succeeds. He understands the human need for order especially with community pressures to “fit in” as well as associations of landscaping with class. A well kept yard is often high priority. Especially a well kept lawn. Do what we can, seems to be his only demand. He drives home the possibility that native plants can be orderly and beautiful additions to the garden. He doesn’t pound the reader to eradicate exotic plants in their own yards, at least not all at once. He suggests replacing them with natives when they die. He also doesn’t condemn the lawn, saying there’s nothing wrong with a bit of it as long as there’s some room for natives. He doesn’t make the reader feel that if their plants aren’t the truest form of native they may as well get something from the farthest reaches of the planet.
Other questions he doesn’t address is how agriculture fits into the scheme or the practicality of growing native plants. I grow exotic vegetables. Is that bad? We probably can’t survive eating only native plants. Native plants aren’t easy to find and when they are they are often expensive or not really all that local. Growing from seed can be tricky and getting local seed is a whole other issue. But I think Tallamy’s point was to introduce readers to the simple concept that native plants are actually more important to the big picture than we may realize. They are in decline and if we have land we can do something about it. Lawns are lifeless areas. Adding even one native tree would be a huge improvement. He understands you can’t force this concept down people’s throats.
As for my own proof, I can only say that I have witnessed a major increase in biological diversity in my own yard since adding native plants, or as close to being native as I can manage. When I moved to this property six years ago it was a lawn surrounded by a border of tangled, exotic, invasive and native plants. There was life before, probably lots of it but that was most likely due to the tangled border, not the lawn. Since then I’ve added many native plants and now I’ve witnessed not just more life but what seems to be a system of life, more species than I can name, including some of the more specialized species such as warblers and monarchs. Is it because of the native plants or would any plant other than lawn due? Or, am I just noticing more? We may never know the complete truth of the matter but I’m willing to bet this is no accident and I’m also willing to bet it can’t hurt. For me, it’s proof enough. The more I notice, with all five senses, the intensity of life in my garden, the more I want to be a part of it in a useful way. And I realize how much I need it, not just for my own enjoyment but for the survival of my species.
And instead of spending so much time analyzing how to do it exactly right, maybe the native plant movement should focus more on just making it easier and more enticing for the average gardener to just do something. After all, how much worse can the situation get? Species are going extinct at an astounding rate. The climate is changing. The human population keeps growing and depending on fossil fuel. Most people I know can’t or don’t garden anyway. Maybe a cultivar or a few exotics are better than a lawn? Maybe invasive species will always be a problem. But does that mean native or close to native or even ecologically useful plants can’t be around too? Maybe we just need to work on doing the best we can with what we have? I think Tallamy understands this conflict within the gardening and scientific community and handles it well. After all, the scientists and movement leaders aren’t the ones with the big, lifeless lawns.
The way I see it, like humans, native plants are just pieces of a big puzzle or as Tallamy explains, like pieces from the game, Jenga. Except with native plants, the pieces are at the bottom. If you take them out the whole tower might collapse.