A few years ago Charlestown Elementary School chose Outdoor Learning as a focus. The site was to include a short existing trail that ran through the woods, a large sand area and the parking lot.
– this review by Anne Raver originally appeared in WildflorRI, Spring 2020
Douglas W. Tallamy — Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard
Doug Tallamy begins Nature’s Best Hope, published this year by Timber Press, by tipping his cap to the great conservationists of the 20th century, including Teddy Roosevelt, who helped launch the National Parks movement. Though, he points out, when Roosevelt stood at the Grand Canyon and said, “Leave it as it is,” 95 percent of the country hadn’t been “logged, tilled, drained, grazed, paved, or otherwise developed.”
Now, as national parks are being logged, threatened with oil extraction, invaded by non-native plants and insects, or otherwise degraded, Tallamy proposes the seemingly impossible: not just planting one’s own yard with native species to save the earth, but convincing one’s neighbors to do the same–to create a “Home Grown National Park.”
His first book, Bringing Nature Home, published in 2007, was revelatory. In simple terms, Tallamy explained how insects and other species co-evolved with plants to form very specific inter-dependencies. About 90 percent of insect herbivores depend upon one or very few plant species for reproduction, i.e., they lay their eggs on certain species’ leaves, and the caterpillars eat the leaves. These caterpillars are higher in protein than beef, so hungry birds feed thousands to their nestlings in one reproductive cycle. If the native plants aren’t there, the birds fail to thrive.
Nature’s Best Hope continues to pile on grim statistics: most land in the lower 48 states is privately owned, turfgrass covers 40 million acres, an area the size of New England. Much of the rest of the earth’s surface is covered with shopping malls, roads, and airports.
Small wonder that in North America, Tallamy writes, “8500 species of plants and animals (more than a third of our best-known species), including 432 species of birds” are at risk of extinction.
Tallamy summarizes the radical proposal of eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson: setting aside “half the earth as a human-free natural reserve to preserve biodiversity.”
OK, well, that seems impossible, especially considering a world population of 8 billion.
But, what then?
Nature’s Best Hope summarizes a great deal of new research about the risk of habitat fragmentation to many species of plants and animals and to entire ecosystems. Biological corridors connecting these fragments are key to their survival.
So is the size of a particular territory, and not just for food and shelter. Hooded warblers, Tallamy writes, need enough territory for pair bonding and additional space for members of other pair bonds–because hooded warblers dally with others, before the eggs are laid.
Scientists are also learning more about the keystone genera–oak, cherry, willow, for example–that host many species of caterpillars. Oaks in the Mid-Atlantic region, where Tallamy does much of his research, support 557 caterpillar species. Tulip poplars, by contrast, support only 21.
But planting an oak on a lawn is not enough. “Most caterpillars crawl off their host plant before molting to their pupal stage,” Tallamy writes. They either burrow into the soil or spin a cocoon in the leaf litter. That’s why a groundcover of “native pachysandra, woodland phlox, foamflower, ginger, or native shrubs,” he suggests, is key to completing the life cycle.
Nature’s Best Hope certainly deepens one’s understanding of successful strategies in one’s own yard. But the larger challenge to us is building those corridors to neighboring yards and convincing the owners to replace even part of their lawns, and some of their gumdrop yews and burning bushes with keystone species that caterpillars–egads, insects!–can eat.
Tallamy offers a few success stories: the woman who convinces her lawn-loving father to plant milkweed for the struggling monarchs; the garden clubs that make native plantings more presentable with mowed strips of grass.
But he also acknowledges the monumental challenge of shifting values.
Having replaced most of our lawn and many nonnative plants with native species on our corner lot in a small town, my husband and I have run the gamut of responses–enthusiasm, scorn, even orders from the town to remove plants too close to a stop sign.
We live with mow-and-blow crews on all sides, and neighbors who feel compelled to squirt herbicides on the dandelions and plantain in their over-fertilized rugs of turfgrass.
Tallamy acknowledges the difficulty of breaking through this glass wall of tidiness and fear of nature and tries to explain it–the need to belong, the tribal suspicion of anyone different, our love affair with exotic plants. Thomas Jefferson, he notes, could have landscaped Monticello with gorgeous native species but chose to mimic Europe’s grand landscapes with a greensward and plants from the other side of the world.
And then, of course, our ancient roots go back to the African savannah, where it was easier to see predators stalking us across the grasslands. And once the colonists made it to North America, they were terrified of the wilderness–killing most of the beasts and Native Americans, plundering the resources, and “taming” the land as they went.
So here we are. Tallamy exhorts us to work with garden clubs and plant societies, schools and municipal governments to plant public spaces with native species to serve as inspiring examples of beauty and vitality, no matter how small. Giving informative talks, writing articles, is key, as well.
He reminds the reader of practical resources, such as the National Wildlife Federation’s “Native Plant Finder (http://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder): just enter your zip code, to find the most valuable native plants for your area. And of course, the NWF will certify your garden as a wildlife habitat if you provide basic resources, such as shelter, food and water.
I think I need one of those signs to put up close to our corner. As Tallamy says, giving up is not an option.
During the afternoon of February 9, eleven RIWPS members gathered in the comfortable living room of the Pilson house around a roaring fire. As if on cue a few snow flakes fluttered past the windows. Elaine Trench lead the discussion of “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf.
What you can do to support native bee pollinators in your landscape. Video recording of the October 2019 Lisa Loftland Gould Lecture by Dr. Gegear. Native Plant list by bee tongue length.
Peter has written:
“While most people have a negative view of spontaneous urban plants, they are actually performing many of the same ecological functions that native species perform in nonurban areas. ..absorbing excess nutrients that accumulate in wetlands; reducing heat buildup in heavily paved areas; controlling erosion along rivers and streams; mitigating soil, water, and air pollution; providing food and habitat for wildlife; and converting the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels into biomass.
The typical urban plant is well adapted to soils that are relatively fertile, dry, unshaded, and alkaline. Through a twist of evolutionary fate, many of these species have evolved life-history traits in their native habitats that are ‘pre-adapted’ them to flourish in cities.
Marble or brick buildings, for example, are analogous to naturally occurring limestone cliffs. Similarly, the increased use of deicing salts along walkways and highways has resulted in the development of high-pH microhabitats that are often colonized by either grassland species adapted to limestone soils or salt-loving plants from coastal habitats. Finally, the hotter, drier conditions one finds in cities favor species that come from exposed, sunny habitats in nature.
Preadaptation is a useful idea for understanding the emergent ecology of cities because it helps to explain that some plants and not others grow on piles of construction rubble, chain-link fence lines, highway median strips, pavement cracks, and compacted turf.
While most biologists view invasive plants as a serious biological problem, the fact remains that their initial introduction and distribution were usually the result of deliberate decisions that reflected the economic, ornamental, or conservation values of the day. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, various federal, state, and local agencies encouraged— and often subsidized— the cultivation of plants such as kudzu, multiflora rose, and autumn olive for erosion control and wildlife habitat purposes. It should come as no surprise that they became major problems forty years later, after millions of them had been planted. Indeed, the spread of nonnative species across the landscape is as much a cultural as a biological phenomenon, a fact often overlooked by advocates of strict ecological restoration.”
Saturday August 25th was a great day for our public sale at Pawtuxet Village Farmer’s Market in Cranston giving more people opportunity to add native plants to their gardens as cooler weather approaches. And they did come! Not only our members and Cranston area shoppers but also from CT and MA.
Thank you to the volunteers who came to help customers choose plants, set up tables & tents and transported plants and particularly to the Seed Starters East for this sale and outside propagators who are critical to all our sales. The 600 plants sold help to support activities and speakers for RIWPS. Our members look forward to our yearly sales and the wide spring to fall variety of native wildflowers, ferns, shrubs and trees at affordable prices.
We depend heavily on generous volunteers throughout the year to organize these events and invite you to become one of them.Some tasks can be done at home – researching, designing our sale flyers or only require brief time commitment. Other tasks involve working with others year round.
We can use your help whatever your skills or level of knowledge of native plants. In fact volunteering provides opportunities to learn more about the plants and meet other RIWPS members. There are many tasks and we need more people to share the load. Please email email@example.com and join an active group of volunteers who work hard to organize these sales. We have already started work on next year’s sale events so contact us to become part of the plant sales group.
Our Early Sale in May was held at a new location – Casey Farm in Saunderstown. We were welcomed by the Coastal Growers Farmer’s Market and it was a good collaboration. Seed Starters West sold 90% of the plants they had brought to the sale and earned gross sales of nearly $10,000 – far exceeding last year’s gross sales! Our June sale was held at East Farm in Kingston. Great weather, many volunteers and so many plants! Again we surpassed last year’s gross sales!
Together the May and June sales sent over 4,500 plants into Rhode Island and surrounging communities. People are looking to be good stewards of the landscape by adding more native plants and our sales are the best place to find a great selection of native flowers, shrubs, trees, ferns, and grasses and at reasonable prices. Our goal is to put as many native plants into the area for our native wildlife. Biodiverse, sustainable landscapes sustain life across the natural web. We include plants for all growing conditions so customers can find a plants suitable for their specific location.
We offered over 200 different species this year. A few were new to the sale this year – Fragaria virginiana (common strawberry), Asclepias purpurascens (purple milkweed), Rubus odoratus (flowering raspberry), Cirsium discolor (field thistle). As all were well received we will continue to offer them next year. Our Seeds Starters are also working on cultivating additional species for next year.
We are now planning an additional plant sale to be held at the Pawtuxet Village Farmer’s Market in Cranston on Saturday, August 25. We will be highlighting a nice selection of fall bloomers – asters, goldenrods, hibiscus, milkweeds and some shrubs. Great plants to help out our native pollinators as other species are ending their bloom time.
The foundation of our success is our great volunteers. The members of Seed Starters East work year round in Portsmouth, members of Seed Starters West work several months during late winter and through spring in Exeter and our many member propagators (Dick & Marty Fisher, Carolyn Curtis, John Wilson) – all raising plants to donate to our sales. ‘Thank You’ doesn’t seem enough for all you do. We also have many volunteers who help out at the sales or help transport plants or donate plants which they dig from their yards. Our volunteers are dedicated and generous giving of their time and talents. Their efforts have so far earned nearly $44,000 in gross sales. Proceeds underwrite the work of our Seed Starters as they learn the art and science of cultivating native plants, as well support our botanizing walks, lectures and other educational programs, our outreach through our website, monthy e-news and print publication, WildforaRI, and our annual grants.
But we always need more volunteers – more people who will help share the many tasks involved in preparing for the sales. You have talent that can support our sales – computer skills, artistic talent, organizational and research interests – all play a part in putting together our great plant sales. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to become part of an amazing group of people.