February 12, 2020

Spreading the Doug Tallamy Gospel

Doug Tallamy

I had the pleasure last week of hearing one of the clearest and most compelling voices on the intertwined topic of ecology, landscaping, native plants, and survival of wildlife (including humans).  Then, this week, I heard a second voice… one of someone who just doesn’t get it.
The first voice was that of Doug Tallamy.  He spoke at the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge.  His talk was given in the building’s largest auditorium, which seated 500, and every seat was filled with an additional 75 attendees standing or seated on the floor.  The talk was sponsored by Grow Native Massachusetts, a group with goals closely aligned with those of the guest speaker.  The audience gave him a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk.
Tallamy writes and speaks lucidly on the environment and how ‘citizen biologists’ can effect change for the better.  He’s a professor of etymology at the University of Delaware, though I suspect he spends more time on the road than in the classroom.  A few years back, he wrote what I thought was the defining book on the importance of native plants to support the native food chain.  Bringing Nature Home was and is a highly readable and thoroughly researched treatise on why we can’t just plant what’s ‘pretty’. 
Soft-skinned worms and
caterpillars are the most
nutritious foods for baby birds
For example. oak trees abound with hundreds of species of native caterpillars which, in turn, are the preferred food for birds, and just about the only food for their nestlings.  Conversely, the Bradford pear – a Chinese import despite its anglicized name – supports no native species of any kind.  Yet, homeowners (and municipalities) continue to plant Bradford pears because they provide a well-proportioned, uniform tree for streetscapes. 
Bringing Nature Home ought to have brought about a revolution in America’s thinking about what is planted and where.  It made an impact, but climate change and species extinction require more than just ‘an impact’.
So, Tallamy had written another book, Nature’s Best Hope, with the telling subtitle, ‘A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard’.  Like its predecessor, it is a page-turner and rife with practical suggestions along with supporting statistics.  Tallamy is no prophet of gloom; rather, he is a self-described optimist.  He offers concrete solutions; not just horror stories.
In his new book, Tallamy takes aim at the absence of biological ‘corridors’ in 21st Century America.  Wildlife is increasingly relegated to isolated pockets, and those pockets are not sustainable.  Species extinction is as much a product of lack of habitat as of climate change (though the two are linked).
Collectively, America's lawns
are the size of New England
The solution, he writes, is at our feet: the lawn.  The U.S. has 40 million acres of lawn (an area the size of New England), and it is growing at 5,000 acres a year.  Lawns are sterile, they use 30% of the available water in the East and 60% in the West. Moreover, in our efforts to maintain perfectly green and manicured lawns, we pour carcinogens on them, and 40% to 60% of those chemicals make their way into the surrounding surface or groundwater.  Lawns are the ultimate lose-lose proposition.
The perfect lawn is an ecology desert
But, he said, our love affair with turf is not necessarily unbreakable.  Once upon a time, everyone smoked.  Today, cigarettes are considered filthy and smoking is banished to parking lots.  Coats of sealskin and other rare furs were status symbols.  Today, they’re shunned.  All it takes is for public opinion to determine a practice is ‘bad’.  Vast lawns are a bad habit that needs to be broken.  Once broken, those biological corridors will thrive.
What should replace most of those lawns is native plantings that will feed native moths and other insects that will lay eggs that will produce juicy caterpillars that will feed native birds… the ultimate virtuous cycle. 
Which brings me to the second part of the story; the voice that just didn't get it.  
Betty teaching
My wife, Betty, is a Doug Tallamy acolyte.  She has absorbed his writings.  She has put his tenets into practice at our home.  And, she packages what she had learned into talks for garden clubs and libraries.  One in particular, ‘Healthy Lawns and Alternatives’ is a 45-minute distillation of Tallamy’s observations, aided and abetted by Betty’s own study and practice.
She gave the talk this morning to a garden club, and I had the opportunity to observe part of it.  The conclusion of her talk is a graphic of an average suburban property; a house, a driveway, some trees and foundation plantings, and lots and lots of grass.  She points out the problems: why maintain a narrow strip of grass alongside a driveway, or where a side of the house is near a property line.  Why not replace those areas with native trees, shrubs, ground covers, and perennials?  No one plays on front lawns, so why not reduce the space and add to the plantings?  In the back of the house, how about a permeable patio on which to entertain, and a vegetable garden? In three slides, a property that was 80% grass became 20%.
The graphic that incensed an attendee
double-click for a full-screen view
As soon as her talk was finished, a hand shot up.  A woman said such a scheme might be workable for some people, but would be impossible in her own case.  Her husband believes a vast expanse of lawn is the natural scheme of things.  I happen to know this woman and I have seen her property.  Her lawn is measured in acres, interspersed by an occasional perennial bed.
The woman said they entertain on the lawn and her husband practices golfing on the lawn.  He would never change his views, she said, and to achieve marital harmony, the lawn had to stay.
Betty handled the question (there was no question; just a justification for the woman’s own gardening practices) admirably.  Betty carefully said everyone had to make their own choices.  But they should do so with all the facts in hand; including the ones that point to acres of lawn as creating an ecological desert.  Perhaps, Betty suggested, she could work from the margins; gradually shrinking the lawn. 
Based on the balance of the questions, I have a suspicion Betty made headway with most of the audience.  She presented not just a rationale for change, but a specimen list of native plants that have all the glory of the sterile ones she wants to replace.  She came home to an inbox filled with additional questions.

January 28, 2020

The Allure of the Spring Gardening Catalogs


I remember it well.  It was one of those awful days at the end of December.  Sleet changed to rain and back again in a meteorological tug-of-war that seemed to have sapping the post-holiday spirit as its lone purpose.  At mid-day, I trudged out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway, managing to turn an umbrella inside out when a gust of wind caught it as I reached in for whatever the postman had seen fit to leave on such a dreary afternoon.  Back in the house, I plunked the mail down, un-inspected, on the kitchen counter and went off to finish my book. 

The catalogs are all marked up, and
two orders are already in.
I came downstairs an hour later and found my wife at the dining table.  There was the aroma of a freshly-brewed pot of tea.  Across the table’s surface were catalogs and magazines – specifically gardening catalogs and magazines.  One had already been marked up with pages folded over and items circled.  Another was undergoing the same scrutiny.  The third and fourth waited in the wings.

Regardless of what the calendar says, with the arrival of those glossy, color catalogs, the spring gardening season is officially underway.  And, the winter gloom seems to have lifted just a little.

Darcus Daria, a fancy name for
Queen Anne's lave
White Flower Farm featured Daucus ‘Dara’ on its cover.  To me, it’s Queen Anne’s Lace, but if someone wants to call it by some unfamiliar name and label it a ‘hard-to-find’ annual, that’s fine with me.  ‘Dara’ offers delicate flowers ranging in color from white to maroon.  By the vehemence of the circling, I have every reason to believe it will grace our garden this spring and provide a burst of color beginning in July.

Scabiosa is a perfect 'picking' flower
Scabiosa, better known as pincushion flower, has one of the least attractive names ever appended to a beautiful flower.  Johnny’s of Maine features a ‘Pincushion Series’ featuring a mix of color from almost black to creamy apricot and lavender blue.  The wonderful thing about scabiosa is they’re near perfect for cutting.  They can simultaneously grace a garden as well as a dining table.

Betty’s heart never wanders far from the vegetable garden, and I found a dozen pages folded over in Pinetree Seeds’ 2020 catalog.  After several disappointing tries, we had great success with fennel this past year.  I don’t know if ‘Florence’ fennel is the same variety we grew in 2019, but this one promises a one-pound bulb twice the size of its nearest competitor, yet delivering sweet, anise-like flavor.

My love of okra - and its hibiscus-like
flower knows no bounds
She also grows okra because my southern roots demand I have it as part of my diet.  This year, she circled one called ‘Jambalaya’ (the perfect name, in my view) that promises dark green pods in 55 days.  Because it can’t be planted until the soil temperature is close to 80 degrees, getting from seed to fruit in under two months sounds about perfect for New England. 

Ultimately, gardening catalogs are a lifeline between the past and the future.  We’ve chosen to live in a climate where fruit, flowers, and greenery are compressed into five or six months that are equal parts precious and spectacular.  Looked at from an outdoor gardener’s viewpoint, January is the year’s nadir, not its start.  It has been three months since the garden was alive with color, and it will be three months until it again begins to show its promise.  Those catalogs are tangible proof spring is just a few months away.

January 5, 2020

Everything I Thought I Knew About Feeding Birds Was Wrong


I really hate it when my cherished illusions are shattered.  Having a car would finally make me popular with girls.  The Beatles would get back to together – with or without Ringo.  It always snowed Christmas Eve in New England.  All proved wrong, some painfully so.

Our feeder visitors include a 
mated pair of northern cardinals
Now, I’ve just learned everything I thought I knew about feeding birds was hooey.  It turns out they don’t need us.  We’ve spent a fortune on suet, seed, and squirrel baffles for naught.

The authority of this truth is a gentleman named Christopher Leahy, whose credentials are hard to dismiss.  He is the Gerard Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology (emeritus) at Mass Audubon.  His means of disabusing me of my sense of noblesse oblige toward the avian community is an article in the winter edition of ‘Native Plant News’, published by the Native Plant Trust.

Ounce for ounce, hummingbirds are
the nastiest creatures on earth
Betty and I have two near-year-round feeding stations on our property.  From May to September, we limit ourselves to a pair of hummingbird feeders.  We have learned from having those feeders that hummingbirds are the nastiest, most territorial and, ounce-for-ounce, lethal creatures on earth; but that is a different story.  Come winter, we pull out all the stops with two sunflower seed feeders and two suet cages.  Both stations are protected by squirrel-proof baffles, and I will admit that my enjoyment of watching rodents with bushy tails spend hours trying to defeat our defenses runs a close second to that of watching birds alight and partake of our largesse.

A flicker can consume a suet cake
in an afternoon
Mr. Leahy wastes no time in puncturing my ‘good human deed’ balloon.  “Many, if not most people who feed birds do so under the impression that they are providing necessary sustenance, without which many birds would perish, especially during our harsh northern winters,” he writes.  Then adds, “This is simply untrue.”

It turns out birds feed themselves perfectly well without our help.  Evolution has provided them with ‘an exquisitely sensitive metabolism’ and a ‘highly effective insulation system’ to find all the food they need.  It takes a Field Ornithologist to write a put-down like that.

So, the idea of ‘the hungry bird’ is just a myth, born in the mid-19th Century when human ignorance, greed, and depredation (those are Mr. Leahy’s highly accurate words) were causing many bird species to be hunted to the point of extinction.  One solution was to create bird sanctuaries as safe havens.  Another was to import plants that grew quickly, had thick foliage, and produced lots of fruit.  The first idea yielded the Aubudon Society and its many sanctuaries, which also became educational centers.  The latter yielded such unloved additions to our landscapes as oriental bittersweet, Japanese barberry, and burning bush.

We have transformed our 
property into a bird-friendly site
Today, 55 million Americans annually purchase 3 billion pounds of seed, suet, mealworms and such; not to mention spending $800 million on feeders, poles, and baffles.  It is all for our own human enjoyment.  We have set up the equivalent of fly-through McDonalds in our back yards that make it easy for birds to get exactly the same stuff they would have found on their own.  Actually, I’m not so certain of that.  This afternoon, I watched a flicker consume the better part of a suet cake at one sitting.  Where, exactly, is there suet in January?  Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

Mr. Leahy offers an ecological alternative to feeders: turning your property into a bird-friendly habitat. I’m pleased to report we check nearly all of his boxes.  His suggestions:

This ilex verticulata provides 
winter food for many birds
Kill your lawn or let it go to seed.  Instead of a lawn, we have native ground covers and wildflowers.
Leave an area of rank grasses and wildflowers.  The back border of our property is a continuous ribbon of wildflowers, and we leave the seed heads up specifically to feed the birds.
Don’t over-prune trees or, better yet, don’t prune them at all.  We started with a sterile half-acre of pines, with nothing on the forest floor except burning bush and swallowwort.  We now have a dozen specimen trees – all natives – but none are as yet remotely mature.  However, an additional acre of our property is untouched, mature oaks and pines.
Leave dead trees standing and, when they fall, leave them on the ground.  Check and double check.  We will admit, however, to ‘rearranging’ fallen trees to look more artistic.
Retain areas of heavy brush.  The wetlands behind our home do just that.
Encourage insects with appropriate plantings.  Most of our front garden is a pollinator paradise.
Plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and eliminate invasive species.  Double check.
Avoid garden chemicals.  Check.
Keep your cats indoors.  No feline member of our family has ever been allowed to run free outdoors.


Instead of a lawn, wildflowers
I do wonder about one thing Mr. Leahy does not touch on:  by feeding the birds in winter, are we ‘training’ them to come looking for insects on our property the rest of the year?  Our evidence is only anecdotal, but we see and hear a lot of birds in the non-feeding months.  I like to think they think we have a nice place to hang out.