Doug Tallamy spoke recently to an enthusiastic crowd at a sold-out event held at Greenspring Garden, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Dr. Tallamy, speaking on the topic of creating curb appeal with native plants tackled a series of urban legends currently circulating about their use. He then delivered strategies for how to give natives greater inclusion in landscapes, and why we should. “Plants are more than decoration,“he exclaimed, “let’s recall that biodiversity runs the ecosystems that support us.” After some humorous anecdotes illustrating that plants from Asia and Europe do not support our local food webs, Tallamy presented a number of ways for us to think about incorporating native plants in the typical suburban yard; and yes, even increasing its curb appeal. Also please note: no space too small to go unused!
The most common ones: natives are messy, natives are not pretty,
and natives are not good for use in formal designs. First, Tallamy laughed as he said we should look to Europe, where American native plants are routinely used in formal designs. As to the ‘pretty’ issue, he made an interesting observation. When comparing any plant native to your own locale with all the plants of the world, which we can and do these days, there is always going to be one somewhere that is bigger or more showy. But those alien plants will not play a useful role in the local ecosystem. My own observation is that messiness is related to placement and care. Don’t plant elderberries next to a sidewalk, but they are great in the border. Any plant in a man-made garden is going to require some care and judicious pruning.
Restoring native plant communities in our yards can help save biodiversity
Tallamy gave a special emphasis to the concept of native plant communities.We can’t reproduce nature in our landscapes, he noted, nor would we want to; but It makes sense to learn which plants grow together by choice in our natural areas, and to place them together in our plantings. The particular trees and shrubs that are allied in the natural communities make perfect partners in a yard, too. For instance, he noted that in places where willow oaks grow, arrowwood viburnum occurs; white oaks are frequently found with mountain laurel. You can discover these partnerships by researching online, or by becoming active in your local native plant societies, asking extension agents or native plant nurseries, as well by searching on this blog. But the best way to get a feel for plant communities is by visiting local natural areas, or parks with wild areas.
Trees in the landscape
Tallamy waxed passionate about the planting of trees, imploring us to stop planting them as a stand-alone and then subjecting them to mower abuse. Mowing under trees provides repeat opportunities for injury from the machine itself, and inevitably compacts the soil; bad for roots. Planting groundcovers or shrubs under the tree gives two benefits: eliminates the need to mow, and provides a native plant community that supports the plants and wildlife that would like to have use of it.
Trees planted near other trees, as they grow in forests, have the added advantage of interlocking roots, which gives them far greater ability to stay anchored in place during high winds.
- younger trees usually fare better and adapt to transplanting more quickly
- plant more trees from seed, it’s inexpensive, and faster than you think
- an ornament (specimen tree) is not a plant community, and not as pretty as one either!
Because woody plants support more animals than herbaceous ones, said Tallamy, choosing appropriate woodies is the key to the highest production of insects, whose presence is necessary to the abundance and diversity of the plants and animals that can be supported. Oak trees support the greatest number of insect species, 534 by Tallamy’s count. The native viburnums support 103 species, compared to a grand total of 2 species hosted by widely planted, so called ‘burning bush,” Euonymus alatus. What more needs to be said?
Will the insects make my natives look bad?
Well, actually, this gives rise to another urban legend, that a native landscape will be ravaged by insects and consequently, look bad. We can safely let this one rest in peace, according to Tallamy. If you build a balanced food web, only a small percent of the native landscape is being consumed, and most of the time, leaf consumption is not usually even noticed by homeowners. Go look for caterpillars, most of time you have hard time finding them. Why? The birds have eaten them. The native insects will eat the plants, but their enemies will come and eat them.
A pair of breeding birds will bring 300 caterpillars a day to their young. There is never enough to get a whole clutch through. “We need rational tolerance to achieve a sustainable landscape. Do you know how many leaves it takes to raise a spicebush butterfly? Three! Conservation does not mean that we have to diminish our lifestyle, it will enrich our lives.” Amen.
Most readers of this blog are probably aware by now of the downsides of vast sweeps of lawn, but if you need reminding, take a look at this little rant: Mow Better Blues. In the past, lawns were seen as status symbols. Tallamy proposed replacing that old model with a new one: let status now equal the number of hummgingbirds in your yard! Who votes for that one?
Plan your lawn to be minimal for your needs. Once you have provided space for kids or pets if needed, use the lawn mainly for two things:
- a pathway through the landscape
- an open area utilized for the views of, or from, your house.
Once the path/lawn is laid out, fill in all the rest of the yard with the plants that will form your beautifully functional native plant community. This process can take place over time, of course, and yes, it does take more work than just sitting on a mower at first. But as the plants mature, the time you spend on upkeep and maintenance will decrease dramatically, you won’t be spending or polluting by using gas for the mower, and your native plant community will be bringing in the birds and butterflies for you to enjoy. Densely planted areas actually give the illusion of limitless space, and they can block unsightly views.
- Vines are great for your small spaces
- Put crossvine, Bignonia capreolata on a fence or up house walls to drape across roof line
- Use aristilochia, Aristolochia macrophylla as a “umbrella” in an outside patio
- Use Virginia creeper more, many native caterpillars love it and birds use the berries – it will NOT hurt your tree
- Trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans is another beauty, he showed a photo of it with thick trunks climbing up to frame shed doors. This one can be aggressive, so place it where it can be contained.
Dr. Tallamy’s talks are always upbeat: there are a thousand solutions for any problem, he says, and we can preserve our natural plant communities if we choose to. He had, indeed, many more solutions to share. However, seems likely that many readers today are still battling the effects of pie-overload, hence desiring, needing, or being urged to, go on a walk, therefore here are just a few more ideas to take along:
- Put plants in your mulch beds! Mulch dotted with occasional bushes is not an attractive plan.
- Put lots of plants in, then you don’t see the ground and you don’t have to weed!
- Put joe pye weed, clethra, willows, elderberries and buttonbush in your swales; these will NOT block the water – the only thing that needs to stay open is the drain!
- If one of your natives eventually out-competes its native neighbor – it’s OK!
- 150 monarch butterflies were grown in a 15×15 foot plot in Delaware last summer!
It was an energized and enthusiastic audience that walked out the door at the end of the session, many people talking about the plans they were already formulating for getting more native plant communities into their own gardens.
◊ all photos by author ◊
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