Change plants, change the ecosystem
When it comes to creating an ecologically beneficial landscape, property owners must start at the very bottom, with the insects. And not the sexy insects like bees and butterflies, but the grubs, the caterpillars and the beetles.
Like any other project, starting at the top — by attracting adult birds and butterflies — will not create a solid foundation. What are those birds going to feed their young?
That’s the message author Doug Tallamy will bring when he visits Wilton Library on Tuesday, March 27, at 6:30 p.m. for a free talk called Bringing Nature Home: Gardening for Life. Here at the invitation of the library, Wilton Garden Club and Wilton Go Green, Tallamy said that if everyone moved their property toward a more native habitat, we would solve most of our ecological problems.
“A typical homeowner has the opportunity to participate in a very important conservation effort,” he told The Bulletin in an interview last week. “It’s the land around us that’s conserving the biodiversity that runs the ecosystems that support us. In the past we had assumed that while there is enough nature out there doing that, we don’t have to worry about it, so we could use our landscapes for decoration. We brought in plants from Asia and South America and made them very pretty, but they were not functional ecosystems.
“Now we have far less nature to run those ecosystems and we’re seeing problems everywhere because of the way we landscape,” he said. “My talk will be about how we can actually turn that around. All plants are not equal — we have to use the ones that are the best at supporting our local food webs, at sequestering carbon, supporting pollinators, at managing our watershed — all the things we have to do at home now that we never had to think about.”
Tallamy, who has written the book Bringing Nature Home and is chairman of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, said he has seen a growing interest in the creation of native landscapes, so much so that he cannot keep up with requests to talk on the subject.
“People are excited they can make simple changes at home and watch conservation happen,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of environmental issues, and there are very few of them where somebody can actually see the results. But this is one where you can. You put the proper plants in your yard and you can see. You can see the birds come, see the bees come, see the caterpillars that the birds eat come. You see that little microcosm of life come to your yard all because of your plant choice. … People didn’t realize they have that power.”
When selecting plants, however, it’s not as simple as native versus non-native. Only 5% of native plants produce the food birds and insects need, and those should form the backbone of a landscape. Other plants can then provide some diversity.
A website called native plant finder on the National Wildlife Federation website can make the choices easier. Once a ZIP code is plugged in, the site reveals plants, grasses, trees, and shrubs most beneficial to birds and insects.
“It’s a learning curve, there’s no doubt. We’re changing the culture of what our home landscapes are all about,” he said.
One challenge is that most people hire someone to do their landscaping.
“Right now we’ve got this vacant niche of what I call ecological landscapers,” Tallamy said. Filling that niche with trained people is “an issue right now.”
“Changing culture is hard, because everyone is afraid of what the neighbors are going to think,” he said. “When I say put natives in your yard, that doesn’t mean you stop landscaping. It means you just change the plant choices. Natives can be used formally, they can be used informally. The type of design you have is not a function of the plants you use, it’s a function of the design.”
“Building a garden that targets pollinators — mostly bees — is different than building a garden that attracts insects birds are going to feed their young,” Tallamy said. Some plants do double duty, like goldenrod, which is great for pollinators and caterpillars. Willow is great for both. The big caterpillar feeders are woody plants like oak trees. There are 557 types of caterpillars that feed on oaks in Connecticut. The risk of losing large trees like that to the types of storms this area has suffered through recently can be minimized, he said, by planting a few close together so their roots interlock, giving them more support.
One of the biggest challenges to making change is reducing the amount of lawn people have. Lawns do nothing to benefit the local ecosystem. Reducing lawn to just the area that is walked on will make way for more plants.
That doesn’t mean trying to convert a lawn to meadow. “A meadow is one of the hardest things to make,” Tallamy said. “It wants to turn into a forest.” What he called “pocket meadows” are more doable and can be very effective.
Building a layered landscape is key, he said, by using more trees and shrubs along with plants and grasses.