Doug Tallamy on Native Plants In Fall Gardening

by Dana Kester-McCabe

University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy tells us about the value of native plants in our yards.

University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy has written a number of books to help the public learn about the value of native plants in our yards. I spoke to Doug recently on the phone to find out about his book and what Delmarva gardeners can do in their own yards this Fall to create more eco-friendly landscapes.

Doug Tallamy is an entomologist who found that many insects that are important to our environment are disappearing because of planting trends among home owners.

Doug Tallamy:
"My interest in plants has actually come through my knowledge about insects and about how important insects are in all terrestrial ecosystems, and in turn how important hey are to humans."

"I wrote Bringing Nature Home, the first book, when we moved into our property it was highly over run with alien plants, with invasive species, multi floras, and oriental bitter sweet, Norway Maple, and what have you. And, I noticed that our local insects were not able to eat these plants."

"Now in the past, people thought that was a good thing. You know, you garden, and you don't want things to eat what you are gardening. The problem is that we're doing that all over the place now. And all of the insects that need to be produced by these plants are no longer there. Which means that birds have very little to eat; particularly during reproduction."

"If you look more deeply into this you'll see that birds use a tremendous amount of insects when they are feeding their young. And for the most part they're caterpillars. Chickadees use between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of chickadees and that's a tiny bird."

"If you plant plants like crepe myrtle, or golden rain tree, or miscanthus, burning bush, all our favorite ornamentals, or Bradford pear, you're creating few or no insects at all. Which means, the chickadee can't breed in your yard. And, if the chickadee can't breed in your yard, whose yard can she breed in if everyone is landscaping in the same way? So I wanted to get that message out to the general public."

"The real message is that your piece of property is an important component in local conservation. We no longer have the option of opting out of local ecosystems. We have to participate or you're going to have ecosystem failure. And if we have ecosystem failure then we have big problems for humans because it is ecosystems that support us through ecosystem services people hear about all the time."

"So this was a book for the home owner to emphasize that the plants you put in your yard really are important. They impact all the things around you. And, you can help your watershed, your local biodiversity. You can bring nature back to your kids and to yourself, all by choosing the right plants."

Naturalist Jim Rapp has told us about the decline of the number of Monarch butterflies we see here on Delmarva in the fall so I asked Doug to talk about this specific example of a pollinator that needs native plants.

Doug Tallamy:
photo"Well you've noticed a trend that people have seen all over the country. The Monarch butterfly is in big trouble. It's populations have crashed for exactly the reasons I was just talking about. We've taken away the only plant that it can breed on, and that is milkweed. "

"Traditionally we never planted milkweed in our suburban gardens. We always thought it was out in the field someplace. In the past there was still quite a bit of milkweed left in agriculture on the edges of cornfields. But we've come up with a new product call Round-up Ready Corn & Soybeans which you can spray right over the crops and it kills all the weeds. We get kind of spray happy so we kill all the weeds on the sides of the fields as well. So now you have nothing but dirt - no milkweeds - and tens of thousands of the Midwest as well as the east coast in agriculture. And that has just clobbered the Monarch in the last ten years."

"Luckily, a lot of people have noticed this and there is a national movement: a group called Monarch Watch and several other groups working to put milkweed back into the landscape. And there are more Monarchs this year. It's working already. And, I think it's going to be a success story. I think we're going to save the Monarch because we recognize there is what we call host plant specificity. This insect needs these particular plants."

"When you asked what we should plant and we're talking about Monarchs, it's very important to know that Monarch's need milkweed when they are reproducing, but when they are migrating what the Monarch needs then are flowering plants particularly in the Fall in September and October so they can complete their Fall migration. And Fall asters perfect for that. If you want to help monarchs there are two things you can do: Plant Milkweeds and asters."

Doug had a couple of suggestions for gardener's planning to add native plants to their yards this fall.

Doug Tallamy:
"You want to water them. A lot of people think if you plant native plants they don't need care. Not true. It needs to be watered like anything else until it is established and then it'll be fine. "

For a list of native plants suitable for this area visit Doug's site:

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