Book Notes: Bringing Nature Home

In all honesty until reading Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy I think I was rather avoiding the subject of native plant rearing. In asking myself why? I had to admit that I associated the largely misunderstood concept of native plant selection as a choice that would entail having to “give something up.” After all, the name of my blog is Plant Whatever Brings You Joy, right? Once into Doug’s book, however, I realized how myopic that thought was, and my world expanded into a much deeper understanding of the importance of maintaining native plants in our environment. Pondering what I was reading, I came to realize that planting whatever brings you joy was not the child’s view of, “I’ll have one of these and one of these and one of those,” that (ahem) the nursery industry inadvertently seduces us into thinking is Just Fine. No. It is the wise sage who understands that the selection of one’s plants that truly brings one joy is in the context of making conscious selections that are in keeping with what was there before, creating both continuity and a healthy sustainability by honoring the thousands of years of evolutionary history that preceeded our humble and minute arrival on the scene. See? I know it’s a mouthful and I will freely admit that reading Doug’s book at first overwhelmed me, as in utterly. My first attempt to integrate what I was reading led to both my posts on butterflies, to break down some of the realizations I was having into smaller parts which I might digest and make sense of in increments. I started with the lovely butterflies, and the importance of including host plants for their eggs.

nectaring on butterfly weed

Not as easy to broach is the matter of bugs. I found myself understanding that I’d been conditioned to think that any sign in my garden of leaves being eaten was a “problem.” In my anthropocentric state of unconsciousness (oh, yes, I was) I had never really entertained the idea–as you must admit, there is scarce drawing our attention to the fact–that bugs must eat. Mostly plants.

“…most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history…our native insects will not be able to survive on alien plant species.” –Doug Tallamy

And that far from that being a problem, I was now facing the reality that this was something I not only needed to embrace, but to (shudder) possibly encourage and cultivate. Why? Anthropocentricism really does a grand job at allowing one to become blind to wee small critters that have their rightful place on planet Earth. A place so important that without them many other creatures who are dependent on them for food, would die.

larvae of the giant silk moth

But wait, you say. Isn’t pest-free a good thing? Turns out, not exactly.

It gets bigger.

Imagine the importers who have brought “pest free” plants into our country, touting their “pest freedom” as a Very Good Thing. Uh, not so fast. Apparently what comes with that “perk” is a plant that is introduced into a landscape with no natural enemies. Think kudzu or honeysuckle. Apparently plants that have taken centuries to negotiate their rightful, balanced place in their native country, can go aggressively berserk in a land that holds no such environmental contract. Ditto bugs. (I find myself wondering if those sneaky killer bees that escaped a scientist’s hold which now inhabit our Southern borders, might not have had a balancing force in their rightful home. Get it?)

So now I’ve added some new words to my vocabulary. Like “ornamental aliens.” I am unbelieveably reticent to take this kind of stock of what I have regarded as a very varied garden, but I am facing the likelihood that for as impressed as I was to think of the numbers of different plants that grow on this property I largely suspect that the majority of them are, indeed, ornamental aliens. I have a whole new respect for my hollyhocks, the native violets and even the lowly wild onion that I used to frown upon in the far back corner of the yard when they emerge each spring under the apple tree. Not anymore.

I spoke with Doug on the phone. If I had to distill what I learned into two words it would be complexity and native.

“Norway maple (Acer platanoides), an alien introduced into the ornamental trade from Europe, is now the most common shade tree in North America. As with many ornamental species, it has escaped cultivation and is rapidly displacing native trees.” –Doug Tallamy

(Gulp.)

Apparently by my introducing a healthy dose of native complexity I will do an immense good to my garden, with important ramifications. Probably very little of what was living here prior to civilized cultivation has sustained itself in the face of our arrival. And that is an unconscious violation of the contract this land had with itself. And how dare I?

I realize I’ve been sold a bill of goods. The bill of goods read, “Your yard is a blank canvas. Plant whatever you want.” So not true.

As complex as this garden may seem, it is foreign to native critters, precious bodies that are becoming extinct. What compromise can I offer? And how can I reeducate myself to appreciate the beauties of the native plants of California? To not be appalled at the first sign of Chewing? But to possibly celebrate it instead? How do I face the task of learning which bugs have natural enemies, which ones are beneficial and intrinsic to my garden and which ones are running amok, unchecked, after hitchhiking in on a ship from heaven knows where? It’s daunting, I’m the first to admit. But my moral task is clear.

wood thrush, hit particularly hard by habitat loss

Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home is a gift. It’s not the kind of gift wrapped with a pink ribbon and a tiny rose tucked into the bow. It’s the kind of gift that shakes you to your core and sets you on the path of healing. Your garden. Your planet. One plant at a time. Open it.

Love and gardening blessings,
Kathryn xoxo

18 Responses to “Book Notes: Bringing Nature Home”

  1. Wow! Another Beautifully important post! Thank you for the eloquent plea for awareness for Mother Earth’s inhabitants with the Lovely pictures and book recommendation! Wonderful!

    Love you,
    Antonia
    xoxox

  2. Hi, Antonia! Thank you so much for your lovely feedback! Appreciated! Love, Mom xoox

  3. This sounds like a book for me. I love the message and your gorgeous photos, especially the nesting thrush. Those larvae are funky.

    I keep fighting the invasive Norwegian maples in my woods as I’d rather have native sugar and red maples, but it is tough. Just going natural isn’t enough.

    Great post!

  4. Hi, Sarah, Yes, you will very much appreciate this book, I do believe, particularly as Doug is located on the East Coast. I can’t take credit for his fine photos, btw. :) I’m sure he will appreciate the praise. The larvae are a trip, right?? :) Thanks for the visit. Kathryn xoox

  5. Good Morning Kathryn, I think that book would be absolutely perfect for me, got to put it on my Christmas wishing list. Thank you Kathryn for a great post.

    Take care xoxo/ Tyra

  6. Welcome, Tyra! If you do get the book I’d be curious to know what your thoughts are. Thanks for the visit. Kathryn xoxo

  7. Excellent post, Kathryn. I love the quote “‘Your yard is a blank canvas. Plant whatever you want.’ So not true.” Here in Bodega Harbour I’m living with strict CC&Rs for the first time and they require that all plants be approved by a committee. They’re concerned about aesthetics yes, but also all plant materials must be native to the specific area of the coast, and noninvasive. Think Pampas grass–NOT!

    Thank you!
    Kathlene

  8. Hi, Kathlene, I’m glad you are pointing this out. I lived with this kind of “restriction” behind closed gates
    in Arizona. I thought it was strictly for aesthetic purposes, but I’m now hoping perhaps there was something more fundamental. I was actually thinking about Bodega Bay this week, recalling how uniform it appears to be. Lucky you! The deeper I go with this, the more sense it makes. Thanks for the visit! Love, Kathryn xoxo

  9. Have you ever heard of the book Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein? It talks about restoring the ecology to our properties. My best friend gave it to me for a present, and I have really enjoyed it. I will admit, however, to only reading a chapter at a time so I create the desire to create that natural ecology, while still feeling okay with planting some of my non-native favorites. (Sheepish Grin). I think you would enjoy it if you haven’t already read it.

  10. Good evening, Red Clover. I have not heard of Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein, but I’m going to look it up as I’m very open to learning right now. I think even a small shift in the back garden would be a big shift for the environment. I just have to figure out HOW. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction! And I think you are spot on to take your own sweet time. Imagine how long it’s taken to create where we are so far. And I can anticipate that moderation is probably the best way to go. Don’t you think? Kathryn xoxo

  11. What an amazing post! I loved reading this — Doug’s book has been on my “to read” list for a little while now. Time to go ahead and order it, I think :-)

    You get it. This is what I’m trying to teach people when I write about organic gardening. A few chewed leaves, a tiny infestation of aphids — none if it is disaster or even unhealthy. There’s always something bigger, hungrier, and more effective than we are at taking care of these garden “pests.” We just have to be willing to stand back and watch it happen. And we learn so much more along the way than we ever would have learned by drenching the problem in pesticides!

    Off of my soapbox now :-) Really wonderful post!

  12. Welcome, Colleen! Thank you so much! I’m honored by your comment, as I know you know a LOT about gardening, and I’m very happy to make this kind of connection with you. It’s through partnering that we will augment spreading the word! Glad you will be reading Doug’s book. It’s so worthwhile. Kathryn xoxo

  13. Great post, Kathryn;
    Most states, if not all, have a native habitat map of what originally grew there and a list of native species. Here in Ohio it’s kept at the Department of Natural Resources. I always consult the lists if I am planning to plant something new that I have not already chosen because I am keeping something heirloom alive and/or know that it is native to the area. This way, my yard is a seed source for the migration of native species into the larger neighborhood. Also, I don’t have to water so often. That said, I am continually on the hunt for invasives that I don’t want taking over the area. They creep in when you are least expecting them. Sometimes it’s a delightful addition but often, in the case of bush honeysuckle which are taking over our woodlands, it can be a curse. We have an active effort here in Ohio to eradicate invasive species.

  14. Hi, Julie! You are always such a wealth of information! I will definitely be looking for that map of California, and I hope other readers are encouraged to same in their own locale. I like thinking of these native plants as heirloom, and, yes, that is precisely what I want to create–a safe and nurturing stop off for migrating birds, or for butterflies looking for a place to safely put their baby eggs. Learning, learning! Love, Kathryn xoxo

  15. Hello, Kathryn! I just came here by way of Sarah Laurence’s blog, and I’m so glad I did! An excellent review; I will definitely check out this book. Your post is so thought-provoking and so true. I have been gardening–somewhat seriously–for just a little over five years, and I’ve come to appreciate more and more the fine balance of nature. Native plants are finding their way into my garden, and more plants like butterfly weed and fennel are planted as hosts, not necessarily as ornamentals. The added advantage is that unlike those new hybrids touted as “must-haves” by the nursery catalogs, the natives don’t need a lot of fuss and TLC.

  16. Hi, Rose, and welcome! I like that you’ve made the distinction between host plants and ornamental plants. I think I’d like to aim for a % that are one and a % that are the other. There are probably more “categories.” We are mostly conditioned to just use ornamentals, don’t you think? It’s wonderful that we can all support each other in this way. Thank you for the visit! Kathryn xoox

  17. Hi Kathryn
    I just finished reading “Bringing Nature Home.” Thank you for doing some a wonderful review and spreading the news about Mr. Tallamy’s book. I was put off by the book for awhile because of all the pictures of insects and bugs. But then I got the message and understand their importance in nature. I still don’t like spiders in my bedroom. I have studied native plants for many years without being aware of the insect world. I have planted many natives but now will be more serious about it.

  18. Hi, Louise, and welcome! I totally understand. We are really conditioned to think of bugs as BAD. Weird, huh? So, yes, it takes some reprogramming and patience to let in the bugs. :) I don’t think anyone likes spiders in the bedroom–or any other room in the house! Thanks for letting me know you read the book and found it valuable. Glad you will now be including insects in your personal cosmology! :) Me, too! Kathryn xoxo

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