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Favorite Garden Books: Bringing Nature Home

February 27, 2011

Cover Image - Bringing Nature Home I first learned about Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2007) from a post at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. Intrigued, I bought a copy of the book; and almost as soon as I began reading it, I was totally hooked. Tallamy is a gardener, a scientist, and a teacher (professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at University of Delaware), and it is the combination of passion for his subject, a gardener’s perspective, solid science, and clear explanations  that makes his book so persuasive and helpful.

Tallamy’s target audience is suburban gardeners, and his goal is to convince them that they can be part of the solution to the problem of habitat degradation. As we look at the increasing fragmentation of wildlife habitat and the increasing danger of extinction, he argues, we often feel helpless. But that is because we have been taught to see the preservation of pristine wilderness as the solution to our ecological problems. Instead, he urges us to look to our own back yards, understanding how we can make our gardens part of a thriving local ecosystem. To do that, we need to grow more native plants in those gardens.

Douglas Tallamy is hardly the first author to urge gardeners to grow more native plants. What I find distinctive about his approach is his emphasis on the essential role of insects in ecosystem survival. He wants us to think differently about insects in our gardens.

Somehow along the way we have come to expect perfection in our gardens: the plastic quality of artificial flowers is now seen as normal and healthy. It is neither. Instead, it is a clear sign of a garden so contrived that it is no longer a living community, so unbalanced that any life form other than the desired plants is viewed as an enemy and quickly eliminated…. Ironically, a sterile garden is one teetering on the brink of destruction. It can no longer function as a dynamic community of interacting organisms…. (p. 95)

“A plant that has fed nothing,” Tallamy tells us, “has not done its job.” Insects are critical not only as pollinators of plants but as sources of food for birds and other wildlife.

Tallamy knows that convincing gardeners that it is good to have insects munching on their plants will be a tough sell; so he begins with the insects we most love to see in our gardens – butterflies. He notes that while many alien plants, including favorites like Buddleia, can provide nectar for butterflies, only native plants provide the food and habitats our native butterfly species need to reproduce. He devotes an entire chapter to advice about which plants (mostly trees) support the largest number of Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species. Then he moves on to insect species that are more likely to evoke a “yuck” response, emphasizing their role in the well-being of the birds we want to welcome to our gardens. The chapter that catalogs all the different types of native insects we may find in our gardens is cleverly entitled “What does bird food look like?”

Part of the reason Tallamy is so persuasive is that he is not preachy. He doesn’t expect us all to rush out, rip out all the alien ornamental plants in our gardens, and replace them with native plants. Instead, he suggests that gardeners increase the proportion of native plants in their gardens gradually, by replacing alien plants that die with appropriate natives and by focusing on natives when we expand our gardens. This book is full of practical advice, including how to educate our (human) neighbors about the importance of native plants without alienating them and an appendix with extensive lists of desirable native plants for six different regions of the United States.

In a little over 300 pages, Douglas Tallamy has had a profound impact on the way I think about gardening. Not only do I now have a better understanding of why I should include native plants, but I also have a new understanding of the insect life in my garden. I will still pick off and drown the Japanese and oriental beetles I find on my plants, because these insects are themselves aliens who arrived as hitchhikers on alien ornamental plants and who don’t have any natural enemies in our ecosystems; but I probably won’t be so quick to wash all the aphids off my Heliopsis plants. And I can relax about the tent caterpillars in the wild cherry trees behind my house. Not only will these tent caterpillars not spread to my other trees if I ignore them (they are cherry tree specialists), but they will also provide food for the birds.

Bringing Nature Home is a book that every gardener should read. It has moved from the place beside my favorite reading chair that it has occupied for the past two weeks to a well-deserved location on my shelf of essential garden reference books.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2011 7:08 pm

    OK I have room for one more book..this one sounds right up my alley…I stopped last year washing the aphids off the heliopsis…I figured they were supposed to be there for a reason and they were not harming the plant interestingly enough..I am sure I will learn so much …and yes I still do not like the beetles or slugs…thx for the review Jean

    • March 1, 2011 11:16 am

      Donna, I think you would find this book very resonant with your approach to gardening. And as you build your new garden design business, the information in Tallamy’s book should help you in making design decisions and choosing plants and also in educating customers.

  2. Sylvia (England) permalink
    February 28, 2011 6:33 am

    Jean this sound a very interesting book, even if you don’t live in USA. We have fewer native plants but a lot of yours bring benefits for the insect life, especially the late summer flowering plants. I think it is a case of being observant, we are often advised to grow nettles for butterflies but there is already plenty in waste ground and hedgerows, what they need most from gardens is pollen – Buddleia!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    • March 1, 2011 11:28 am

      Sylvia, Although Tallamy’s specific examples and his plant and insect lists are specific to the United States, I think his presentation of basic science and the logic he lays out for growing native plants would be helpful to gardeners everywhere. The English custom of growing hedgerows provides important habitat for all kinds of wildlife, and there isn’t really a similar practice in the United States. I gather, though, that at least in some parts of the UK, hedgerows are threatened with resulting loss of habitat.

      I shouldn’t have painted all species of the Buddleia genus with the same brush! The one that is most commonly grown here, Buddleia davidii, is an invasive in much of the eastern United States; I gather that this particular species has also been listed as invasive in parts of the UK.

  3. February 28, 2011 9:14 am

    Such an excellent write up, Jean. I am definitely going to purchase this book. It sounds like something I need to read.

  4. February 28, 2011 9:55 am

    Sounds like a great book – I wonder what the best equivalent is for UK gardener.

  5. February 28, 2011 12:25 pm

    I really liked reading the bit about how we’ve come to expect perfection in our gardens. When I go walking in the woods I see broken branches, dead leaves, and oddly clumped plants and yet I don’t see them as mishapen or somehow less beautiful than my garden. So why do we expect our gardens to be so orderly? I think this book will appeal to me a lot.

    • March 1, 2011 11:41 am

      Jan and Marguerite, I think you would both enjoy this book. It provides a very clearly explained scientific basis for practices you have already taken on and issues you are already thinking about.

      Janet, As I mentioned in my response to Sylvia (above), although Tallamy’s specific examples are from the United States, the science and logic are universal. Tallamy’s book does seem to be available in the EU (Lula, below, ordered it from Amazon). I did a little research and couldn’t find an equivalent book focused on UK plants and insects. The Natural England website, however, has a page on wildlife gardening that includes all kinds of pamphlets that can be downloaded.

  6. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com) permalink
    February 28, 2011 1:31 pm

    I found it in Amazon and it’s on my basket for next purchase. My terrace gets many insects and want to know more about getting things in harmony! Thanks

  7. February 28, 2011 2:53 pm

    ‘plastic perfection is neither normal nor healthy’ That’s why the floral art demonstrations leave me feeling uneasy. The cut flowers are ‘real’ ‘grown’ but they look, not quite real, not quite true. I have heard about this book often enough that I have to track a copy down … he sounds legendary, but Carolyn assures me, he is very much alive!

    • March 1, 2011 11:48 am

      Lula, I’m pleased that you were able to order the book from Amazon; I wasn’t sure if it was available outside the US. Although the specific insect species he focuses on are native to North America, I think his discussion of insect families and their ecological role will be helpful.

      Diana, I hope you are able to find a copy in South Africa. Tallamy is indeed very much alive, teaching science and doing research at the University of Delaware, not far at all from Carolyn’s location in southeastern Pennsylvania.

  8. February 28, 2011 3:48 pm

    I haven’t read this book Jean, but I can tell from your review that I’d enjoy it immensely. I might have to add it to some holiday gift lists for some gardening friends (after I’ve read it of course). I was never a native plant gardener, and my own transformation just living here surprises even me sometimes. Seeing the difference in the garden is my greatest motivation. Not everything here is native, and we do grow a few well-behaved non-native pollen and nectar plants for the bees for when our natives are dormant in late summer. Last summer I bought some sunflower seeds…but I made a mistake. The quote “A plant that has fed nothing…” reminded me of it. The sunflower seeds I purchased turned out to be hybrids, not heirloom open pollinated varieties. Not only were they hybrid, they produced NO pollen! As a pollen rich food resource for the bees, they would be completely worthless. So I threw them out, and purchased some known heirloom varieties…much to the delight of our late summer insects. I do hope my library has a copy of this book!

    • March 1, 2011 11:52 am

      Clare, I think you would love this book. Tallamy’s clear, straightforward research-based scientific logic is right up your alley. He does have some discussion in the book of the issue of hybrid cultivars of native plants (where he notes that the needed research really hasn’t been done yet). He does warn gardeners away from hybrids in which the flowers have been doubled, since double flowers usually don’t produce pollen. If your library doesn’t have a copy of the book, maybe you can convince them to get one!

  9. February 28, 2011 6:24 pm

    Jean, Thanks for linking to my post. I agree with everything you say. As I explained in my original post, Tallamy was the first person who really explained why planting native plants was important in a way that I could understand and take to heart. He does combine all the important perspectives into one very readable book. Although he probably hasn’t changed the way I garden, he has made me aware of the unique opportunity I have to educate my customers about the problems caused by over reliance on non-natives through my nursery and my blog. Carolyn

    • March 1, 2011 11:55 am

      Thank you, Carolyn, for introducing me to Tallamy’s work. I love the clear and logical way he lays out his case, and the way he manages to do so without making those of us who grow alien plants feel like sinners!

  10. March 2, 2011 8:17 am

    You are so right in suggesting this book as a must read for any gardener. I heard Tallamy speak more than a year ago and bought his book which he kindly signed. My blog post on this book is also very favorable. Anyone interested in planting with natives should also try to catch one of Tallamy’s talks.

  11. March 3, 2011 9:14 am

    Both of Tallamy’s books are on my bookshelf. When I read his first book, it changed the way I garden. Excellent books. I am so glad that you have featured. I would recommend his books to all gardeners (and even non-gardeners!), too.

  12. March 4, 2011 12:43 am

    I’ll have to return to this book. It impressed me, but it was borrowed, and I don’t live with it in the same way I live with some others. It’s on the list of favorites of so many people I respect, people who really get the place of a garden in the larger ecosystem. I like the line you quote about how a plant that has not fed anything hasn’t done its job. So many gardeners dump so many poisons on their gardens to ensure that their plants never fulfill their mission. This book is a much needed remedy.

    • March 4, 2011 11:30 pm

      Joene, I didn’t remember that you had blogged about Tallamy’s work — which surprises me, because I consider myself a pretty faithful reader of your blog. Perhaps I just wasn’t yet ready to “hear” the message at the time you wrote about it.

      VF, I find myself recommending the book to non-gardeners, too. The librarians at Gettysburg College, where I teach, do a little booklet each year of books for summer reading recommended by members of the college community; I think I’ll submit Bringing Nature Home as a recommendation this year.

      James, I often borrow books from the library, but I’m glad I bought this one; it is definitely a reference that I expect to return to over and over again.

  13. March 5, 2011 9:12 pm

    Jean, between your post and the comments, this book really sounds amazing. I’ve been using Sally Jean Cunningham’s “Great Garden Companions” as a guide for creating an ecosystem with beneficial insects and wildlife (for my own selfish ends) 🙂 but from your description it sounds like Tallamy goes (at least) one step further.

    They say that Rio Grande cottonwoods can harbor 100 (I think) different species, between insects and birds and small rodents, whereas the invasive salt cedars (Tamarix chinensis) that have displaced them can harbor 4…

  14. April 2, 2011 4:44 pm

    Jean,

    Thank you so much for flagging up so much of interest – an important book to add to the ‘must- reads’ plus a timely reminder about the importance of including natives in all of our plantings. The gradualist approach is SO inclusive and encouraging!

  15. April 25, 2011 8:42 am

    Although I am late reading this book review, Jean, I enjoyed it thoroughly and am inspired to add the book to my shelf soon. What it comes down to is educating ourselves and then retraining our eyes to experience the bigger picture, I think. To see beauty in a slightly munched and dynamic landscape, to see it as part of the ongoing cycle. I applaud the author’s goal of reintegrating suburbia into the whole — starting first with our minds and attitudes. Of course, I still have to work on accepting my own blemished cabbages …

    Can’t wait to see how this new perspective will alter your garden design over time, Jean. Keep us posted!

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