Lurie Gardens, Chicago

If one more person asks me if I have heard of or read books by Doug Tallamy, I’ll ….

Well, I guess I won’t really do anything drastic. I’ll just say “yes,” and perhaps mention that I read his first book when it came out in 2007, and that, over the years, I’ve posted commentary and interviews here, here, here and here. (There were actually more, but a few posts were lost in a server migration, which also explains the broken image links you’ll see.) Other Ranters have also posted—just one example among many.

It is to the entomologist’s credit that his message about biodiversity and the necessity of creating habitat has spread so successfully among gardeners. Most of the gardeners I speak to have heard of him and are stocking their beds with all the native plants they can find. There does seem to be a disproportionate focus on providing monarch habitat—other insects are equally important—but still, this is all good stuff, right?

To the extent that more gardeners are thinking about wildlife habitat, it is, yes. Emphasis on gardeners. My reading of the Tallamy books and the short discussions I’ve had were mainly focused on America’s vast suburban areas where homeowners may not even think of themselves as gardeners. These properties are lawn-focused with everything that implies—mowing, blowing, chemicals. There may be a few shrubs and a couple trees but that’s it and when trees become annoying (the leaves, the seeds, the fruit, the pollen), they get taken down. This is still stark reality throughout the US and these people do not know or care who Doug Tallamy is.

My other issue is the tone of the whole thing. Beginning gardeners are told they better plant milkweed or monarda, not buddleia—which is barely hardy in our zone, though I know it’s a spreader elsewhere. There’s even a meme about it. And then there is the wrangling over cultivars, nativars, and straight species. Many of these arguments are remarkably science-free (on any side), but, never mind that, these are unnecessary tussles between gardeners whose properties are filled with diverse plantings. They are already planting habitat. Some of it might be native, some not; it doesn’t matter. These are people who love plants—trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals. I grow milkweed and buddleia, because I happen to like both plants. I have eutrochium, eupatorium, and erigeron. I also have hemerocallis, hosta, and hellebore.

Science suggests that wildlife adapts over time to different habitats. There is also research that suggests that native status is not key to biodiversity.

Those key questions can’t be decided here, but I would suggest moderation in the native plant proselytizing going on among gardeners. Here’s a quote from a discussion I found on the Garden Professors Blog Facebook group. It’s from George Reis (don’t know him).

My sense is that people fall on the native/exotic spectrum according to their anxiety level regarding the degradation of the environment. More anxiety = more natives, less anxiety = less natives. Then they favor the science that bolsters their worldview. That’s human nature. Natives offer penance and redemption, exotics offer reassurance that people aren’t really so evil after all. The early wave of native landscapes a decade or so ago clearly got oversold cost-wise and with poor designs, and that has brought an inevitable backlash. What we need above all is more science to advance the debate, and hopefully disabuse us of our individual sentimental yearnings for a return to “nature” or for human “dominion” over “nature.”

And here’s one from Doug Tallamy:

I am not a purist and I don’t expect many other people will be either. I think taking the hard line and insisting on all natives will go a long way toward killing the movement.

I don’t think the movement is in danger. It just hasn’t reached its most crucial target, homeowners who do not garden. If it ever does, its message will need to be moderate and its solutions will need to be easy and accessible.