Every once in a blue moon a book comes along that makes me rethink my gardening and landscaping strategy. One of the earliest was Teaming With Microbes, another was Gardening For The Birds and the most recent thought-provoking book is The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy.
These books made me think very differently about the land I manage. I own a typical, within-city-limits 1/4 acre, and while at times I feel limited by the size of my yard, by adopting the ideas in these books, I’ve discovered that I can create a remarkable amount of wildlife habitat on my small parcel. By reducing lawn, extending gardens, removing most non-native plants (except those I can’t part with) and planting native trees and plants, I’ve been able to create a landscape I’m excited to look at, requires less maintenance and supports (I presume) thousands of species of insects and animal life.
Doug Tallamy is professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, and the author of Bringing Nature Home. Rick Darke, a landscape design consultant and photographer who served on the staff of Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia for twenty years, is the author of The American Woodland Garden. The theme of their collaboration, The Living Landscape, is that you can support species diversity by mimicking the forest and designing your landscape in “layers”: groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, understory trees, and canopy trees. While this may seem challenging at first, by the end of the book you’ll have a clear understanding of how to apply these ideas to your own landscape, whether you have a small patch in Manhattan or a ranch in Oregon.
Why native plants matter
Many people despise the presence of insects in their yards. But for wildlife, it’s a smorgasbord. And the only way to attract and support birds and other wildlife in your landscape is to provide the host plants and trees for the insects which they eat. For instance, if you want to attract Chickadees to your yard (or nearly any bird species for that matter), you’ll need trees and plants that host hundreds of species of caterpillars, because that’s all that Chickadee moms feed their babies. In fact, Chickadee parents will feed up to 9,000 caterpillars in just 16 days to their young hatchlings. Without the trees and plants to host the caterpillars, Chickadees won’t nest and will find a friendlier habitat, if one exists. Just like humans, they want to live close to their food.
Chickadees are tiny birds and their demand on the food chain is relatively small. For instance, Woodpeckers eat 8 times what Chickadees eat. Now add in the other species we love to see in our yards like Robins, Sparrows, Bluebirds, Blue Jays, Hummingbirds, Cardinals and others. Imagine how many insects and caterpillars are needed to support them all. Ninety-six percent of all bird species primarily eat insects – not the nuts and berries sold as bird food (although they certainly like that too). So if you’d like to see birds nest in your landscape, you’ll have to provide the host plants for the insects which the birds survive on.
The trick is, most birds eat only specific insects and caterpillars which live on very specific plants – a relationship and food chain which has co-evolved for millennia. So a variety of native plants is essential in the landscape – biodiversity equals stability. But most of us aren’t entomologists or ornithologists and have no idea which plants host which insects and which insects are eaten by which birds. Fortunately, The Living Landscape provides a nice chart for every region of the country, noting the major species of plants and trees for your area and which ecological functions they support: wildlife cover, nest sites for birds, nectar and pollen producers, food for birds or mammals, and food for caterpillars. The chart also notes the landscape functions of these plants, such as flowering time and groundcover or shade.
The Living Landscape also covers the problems that clear-cut suburban sprawl has produced – that is, a disturbing lack of native plants and trees across acres of landscapes (grass doesn’t count). This is a major problem, as native plants and trees also create oxygen, hold water on the landscape, clean water as it makes its way into local waterways, build and hold topsoil, prevent flooding, buffer extreme weather events, provide pollinator habitat, sequester carbon, and provide housing for animal life. Wide open spaces which don’t include a variety of native trees and supporting plants don’t provide this habitat and protection.
The Living Landscape connects the dots between plants, animals, insects, birds and humans. Highly recommended.
Below is a video of a presentation Doug Tallamy gave at Chattanooga State Community College in January, 2015, which amplifies many of the concepts in The Living Landscape.