the garden as habitat, with doug tallamy

Doug Tallamy and Living LandscapeTHINK 3-D, SAYS DOUG TALLAMY, co-author of “The Living Landscape,” and in fact, maybe think 4-D, since by designing your landscape in all three dimensions, layering plants into complex communities, you’ll add the “D” of diversity, too.

Entomologist Doug Tallamy and his wife have spent 14 years coaxing back to life 10 acres of what had been farmland for nearly four centuries: achieving more diversity by adding layers to its once-flat botanical architecture. Today 54 species of birds nest on their Delaware property, and acorns the couple planted have become 20-foot trees–so many that now editing is required.

Tallamy, professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware-Newark, has been called the “guru of the habitat gardening movement.” He is co-author with Rick Darke of a recent book, “The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden,” and he joined me on the radio to talk about just that. Enter to win a copy, but first get a primer on building “the specialized relationships that are nature,” as Tallamy calls them, like these:

Think, as he does, about having something blooming every week from earliest spring through latest fall so pollinators have a steady diet; about creating more dynamic edge or ecotone in your garden (and reducing your contribution to America’s 45.6 million acres of un-diverse lawn); about making more insects happy because insects make the world go round.

Making a garden is not merely outdoor decorating, is it?, I asked, as we began our chat.

“Plants do so many things, and if we only look at what they look like—if we only look at their decorative value—then we’re ignoring all those wonderful things they do, and we actually pay a heavy price for that,” he said. Read along as you listen to the June 23, 2014 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

photo from University of Delaware-Newarkmy q&a with doug tallamy



Q. Your preface of “The Living Landscape” speaks to the possibilities of this gardening approach (and reminds me of my place and what has happened over the years). Tell us your home landscape story. [That’s Tallamy up in the canopy bug-hunting, above; photo from Uinversity of Delaware website.]

A. We live on 10 acres. It was one of those farms that was chopped up and sold. We were looking for a more rural situation, so we grabbed it and put a house on it. It had been mowed for hay forever when we got there, and was taken out of mowing three years before we moved in, and what returned was not the grasses that they were mowing, but all the woody invasive species that are really common in our area.

Q. I think I remember that stage at my place. [Laughter.]

A. I used to say it looked like Sleeping Beauty’s castle—you couldn’t even walk around. It was just choked with everything.

Our immediate goal became controlling those invasives; first we cut paths so we could walk around, and see what was out there. It’s been a constant upkeep trying to keep those plants out.

In the meantime we encouraged the return of natives. I did not record what was living on that property when we moved there, but now we have 54 species of birds that breed there—just about all we can probably squeeze in—and we have put many, many plants back, mostly woody, because we are returning it to the Eastern deciduous forest that it wants to be.

We do have meadow sections, but the focus of the landscape has been on restoration, not fancy landscape design. The fascinating part of this restoration is to see all the things that have come back. We’ve been there 14 years now, and every year we see new things that we hadn’t before.

If you provide insects, all the things that eat insects will show up.

narceus americanusQ. I love what you say in the book about who shows up—when you’re managing, or in some cases not managing, the landscape. Each year seems to have its starring characters. This has been the spring of the giant millipedes, Narceus americanus [above photo] for me—like I had a marching band of them; they were on parade. Maybe the way I try to keep all the good organic stuff in place—good leaf litter and mulch on the beds—was a factor.

A. And you probably had a fair amount of rain last year. All these things come together and you get population growth. Every population in the world goes up and down, depending on whether the conditions are good or bad.

We as entomologists have been trying to predict when that will happen forever—and we’re not very good at it. [Laughter.]

Last year at our house, I called it the year of the caterpillar–and up and down the East Coast, everyone was talking about them. I saw caterpillars I hadn’t seen in 10 years. In August, I stood under one of our young oak trees that I started from an acorn and looked up, without moving, and I saw 11 caterpillars that were in six species. I hadn’t seen that kind of diversity before.

Q. I’ve become more attuned to moths since a field guide to them came out a couple of years ago, and it’s amazing how many I can see in the garden without even really looking. [Those are a tolype moth, left, and clymene, right, in the photo below, in my garden.]

A. The addition of these books to our libraries has been wonderful. It has made some of the most common animals that we have, accessible to everybody else. No longer are they just “worms” or “ugly moths,” but we can put names on them, we can recognize them, we can understand what they’re eating, why they’re there, who depends on them. All of these things become accessible to us, because we know who they are; they’re our friends.

small tolype and clymene mothsQ. So speaking of what they are eating—you said you’re emphasizing native plants in your own landscape, but I was glad to find in “The Living Landscape” that you have a practical way of thinking about the definition of “native plant.”

A. It’s a functional definition, as opposed to a geographic one. A lot of people think a plant that’s native to North America is a native—but that would make a plant that’s native to California native in Delaware, and ecologically, it’s not.

We’re not trying to make native-plant museums—to gather them all and plant them and look at them—but we’re trying to rebuild native plant communities that co-evolved together.

So our definition of native is a plant or animal that has evolved in a particular place long enough to be able to establish the specialized relationships that are nature. Most of the relationships between plants and animals are highly specialized, and they take a long time to develop.

This is the problem with moving plants around the world. They enter a new area where they have not had the time to develop those specialized relationships, so the local insects typically can’t eat them, and all the things that depend on those insects disappear as well, because there’s nothing generating those insects.

The plant may grow fine there, but it hasn’t developed those relationships that build community structure, and the diversity and abundance that supports these living landscapes. It takes time.

It doesn’t mean that our non-native plants will never develop these relationships, but we’re talking about many hundreds or thousands of years for them to develop—not a few weeks or a few years.

Q. A biologist friend who visited was surprised to see certain insects interacting with certain non-native plants here that are closely related to certain natives—and we assumed that meant they must be chemically very similar.

A. Yes, it must have the chemistry that allows them to recognize it as a host plant.

Let’s use the monarch butterfly as an example: Monarchs are declining; there is only 2.6 percent of their population left, essentially because we have removed milkweed, particularly in the Midwest. If insects could adapt quickly, they’d eat soy or corn or grass—but that’s not how it works. What will happen is that the monarch will disappear long before it adapts to a different host plant.

Specializing in one plant means you are unable to eat other plants.

Q. In “The Living Landscape,” you explain the layers of nature’s architecture, and I especially wanted to talk about one layer: “the dynamic edge” as you call it.

A. Think of your landscape as not just two-dimensional, where it has width and length. It also has height. It’s a three-dimensional landscape, and in the East here, for example, in the deciduous forest, you have a canopy of tall trees, a sub-canopy (probably the same species of trees that aren’t mature yet), and the understory trees (different species that form yet a third layer). Then you have shrubs underneath that.

What you have is vertical structure, and there are animals that specialize—in terms of where they live, where they hunt, where they forage—in each one of those structures.

Then of course you get to the forest floor, with all the perennials and ephemerals, and the leaf litter and all the complex soil organisms, and each one of those are vital layers of this kind of forest.

In our suburban yards we have come to worship the lawn, which is kind of uni-dimensional—well, it has length and width, but no height to it.

We have 45.6 million acres of lawns in the U.S.—eight times the size of New Jersey—that is dimensionless. When we put a tree in our yard we stick it in the lawn, which forms a canopy, but there’s nothing between the top of the tree and the ground.

Q. No transition.

A. Our goal here is to build more functional landscapes. We need to do that for watershed protection, to save the biodiversity that runs our ecosystems, to sequester carbon. We need to put the plants back.

We don’t have to eliminate lawn—it’s a great plant to walk on, and can guide us through the landscape, but we need to put a lot more plants in our landscape, and we need to do it not just two-dimensionally but three-dimensionally.

photo by Rick DarkeQ. And the edge?

A. Edge is a really productive part of all of these systems, because you have all these vertical layers but you have sunlight. You don’t have dark forest there. Where you get sun, plants funnel the Nitrogen to the growing parts of the plant (the areas in the sun, on the edge), and those are the most nutritious areas, generating the most food, so that’s where the birds hunt—we call it an ecotone. It’s a transition between two different kinds of systems.

Q. Yes—the edge. I know if I want to see the warblers in the morning, I go sit on the ground near the transition spots.

A. Our suburban landscapes are ideal for edge, because right now they’re so open. You can only improve it. [Laughter.]

Q. Some plants that you have used to bolster that edge–do we use small trees?

A. They can be small trees, or large trees that aren’t large yet.

Q. Here, I think of the shadbush (Amelanchier), the spicebush (Lindera), redbud (Cercis) as some of the plants for the edge—are those good ones?

A. Yes—and Cercis, for example, is a great plant for early spring pollinators. It blooms right when the first species of bees are coming out.

Pollinators are important in our ecosystems—obviously they pollinate. Everyone worries about the decline of the honeybee, which is not a native bee, but we have 4,000 species of native bees, many of which are in big trouble, just like the monarch, because we’ve taken away the flowering plants that support them.

One of the things we need to put back in our landscapes is a sequence of blooming plants right from spring through the decline in fall. Our native bees depend on a constant source of nectar and pollen, not just one week of bloom.

Look at your property any given week in the growing season, and if you don’t have something in bloom, it’s going to seriously impact any pollinators who try to live there. They have to eat every day—where are they going to go?

giant leopard moth caterpillarQ. As an entomologist, can you advise lay people like me how to become a better observer?As you said earlier, the new field guides on caterpillars and moths and such are a big help—but do I need a hand lens, or binoculars, or…? [I use my camera a lot; that’s a giant leopard moth caterpillar, above.]

A. If you have normal eyesight, I wouldn’t start with the tiniest insects, where you actually need a hand lens. What you want to do is develop what we call a “search image.”

There are so many things in your yard that are blending in with their background—they are cryptic. There are a number of caterpillars of Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) that look exactly like the needles of Eastern red cedar, for example. But once you develop that search image, your eye is trained to see the difference between the needles and that caterpillar, and they just start jumping out at you.

It takes a little bit of practice. You know, if you drop your contact lens on the floor, some people can find it right away, and some never can—because they don’t have that search image.

And most of the caterpillars, and most of the insects, are hiding underneath the leaves.

Q. So get underneath, and look up.

A. And another really productive thing to really get acquainted with what’s in your yard: Go out at night with a flashlight. So many things are on those plants at night that you don’t see in the day—in fact, most things. It’s safer to eat at night, because the birds are not hunting.

So those are tricks to expose you to the little things, the smaller life forms, that are in your yard.

enter to win ‘the living landscape’

Darke_LivingLandsc_CoverI’VE GOT TWO EXTRA COPIES of Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke’s “The Living Landscape” Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden” to share with you. UPDATE: THE GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED. All you have to do to enter to win one is answer this question in the comments box way down at the bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:

Where’s the wildlife action in your garden, and what are you doing to beef it up?

Me? My two little garden pools are a year-round source of activity for all manner of creatures, from frogs and snakes and salamanders to dragonflies, birds, various smallish mammals, and this summer, a very handsome gray fox. An unmown swath on the upper hillside is loaded with bugs, which means it’s also loaded with bigger insects (like voracious dragonflies) and birds.

No answer, or feeling shy? You could just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will, but an answer is even better. I drew two random winners (U.S. and Canada only) after entries closed at midnight Monday, June 30, 2014. Good luck–and good habitat gardening–to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 23, 2014 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Credits: Bench photo by Ricke Darke, from “The Living Landscape;” photo of Doug Tallamy in treetops from University of Delaware. Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links may yield a commission that I use to purchase books for future giveaways. )

  1. Sue says:

    Our visitors have included lots of birds, frogs, a few too many bunnies and the dreaded lake flies. Glad to see our first monarch in the yard today after planting lots of milkweed.

  2. Anne Reeb says:

    This year I called a local beekeeper, Kevin, and offered my backyard as a site for any extra hives he might have. Now I share my backyard and my life with my little bee buddies. They are continually making me aware of their needs. For instance, Kevin assured me I wouldn’t need to worry about putting out water for them since I live near a park with a huge pond and other water sources. But, I put out three water dishes anyway and they love them and sometimes I see other flying critters sharing the watering dishes. And roses, I live in zone 5 and almost all my flowers have finished flowering. So I’m planting roses that will continue to bloom until at least mid fall, I hope. And, so my journey continues.

  3. Shirley Ray says:

    My grandchildren and I have been raising butterflies. I have been working on a butterfly/pollinator garden for several years and this summer they have been caterpillar ‘hunting’. They found and put 4 of them in our butterfly rearing pen. They found two Gulf Fritillary and two Black Eastern Swallowtail. We would faithfully go to the garden and gather parsley for the swallowtails and passion vine for the Fritillary. They have been amazed at how they eat and how much they eat. Watching them grow and shed old skin and making a chrysalis was amazing. Watching their huge bodies come out of that shell and open up wings was nothing short of a miracle before our eyes! It has made them so interested in all things of nature. It was such a meaning experience and share with them!

  4. Chris Maciel says:

    I consider my garden to be mostly for the birds and butterflies and we see plenty of these plus moths and many different wild animals including deer – have very few things they eat, fox, and turkeys. We live on edge of woods but the road runs near the house so we have to plant things away from the road to avoid critters having to fly around the edge of road. This is our new focus.

    Always good to hear what Tallamy has to say, he has so many good ideas that are basic and simple but mostly unrecognized by gardeners.

  5. Tony says:

    We have planted fifteen species of both native and non-native milkweed in our garden to support more monarchs, other butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. This year had the most pollinator activity in our garden I have ever seen. I hope it’s the start of a comeback for monarchs and other beneficial pollinators.

  6. Ona Garwood says:

    I recently attended a Native & Medicinal Plant Workshop for Master Gardeners.
    I am working at an Advanced Certificate. We just moved into a new home with a gorgeous woodland like portion of our yard. I have always took the IPM look to my yard. I listened to the instructor mention this book and to my surprise it is the way I have been thinking all this time. In our last home, we had three acres, a pond with an island in the center. I have use no insecticides, pesticides or herbicides in he 30 years I lived there. We had deer, egrets come to the pond. The plants were “native” before natives became the socially acceptable. I want my new yard to reflect this same idea. (we have 3/4 of an acre) The subdivision has manicured lawns, with all kinds of Commercial caretakers. If only they Knew. I will do my best in inspiring others to go native, but not weedy. To care for the complete cycle of gardening, including the birds, bees, butterflies and insects; as well, as the wildlife. Without them we wouldn’t have the flowers, plants and the rest of nature to enjoy. These are the pollinators of our food, flowers and yards as well as the food for the birds most of us enjoy. As a Master Gardener I will continue to teach and inspire those around me; especially encouraging the children of today to garden with eyes wide open so they could see the beauty in nature and native plants, for these children are the future of our planet.

  7. Heather Baliko says:

    Doug Tallamy was one of my professors in college. I did a research project with him on the impact of invasive plant species in the ecosystem. Thanks for posting his work!

  8. Peter Plunkett says:

    Time to plant clover for the deer. They are much less interested in the ornamentals when they have lots of clover — their favorite — to fill up on. That leaves more diversity for everybody else.

  9. Flo says:

    Thanks so very much for bringing the transcript of your interview with Doug Tallamy to your website. I came across it while researching indigenous planting for my Maryland backyard. I’ve been inspired to forward it to many friends!!

  10. Cheri D says:

    We have a large yard, with a small wooded area in the back, wooded with mostly ash trees. We are concerned we are going to lose little woods. I want to learn more, as we think on what kinds of trees and plants to put in. We are planning to add a tiny pond near the house, with flowering plants. We live in a slightly slanted bumpy yard that gets mushy near the woods in the Spring.

  11. mary-Jo Arn says:

    We’re in urban Boston. We have a number of kinds of bees (thyme, oregano, butterfly bush, pink spirea) but only occasional butterflies. We’re surrounded by trees — mostly maple — but have only a beach plum and a hazelnut tree that we’ve planted, and neither seems to see much action — yet. Our elderberry is blooming right now for the first time and we’re hoping for visits from local fauna. Our garden is only 4 years old, but we’re working on it.

  12. Pam hofer says:

    I heard Doug Tallamy at a conference in Callaway Gardens ( GA) recently. My garden has butterfly weed for the Monarchs and fennel for the Black Swallotails. I can watch the butterflies actually lay the eggs on the fennel, then observe the tiny black dots get bigger and bigger and start crawling around. Then they become recognizable swallowtail caterpillars that get bigger each day as they devour the entire fennel greenery ( which is the only reason I plant it – for the caterpillars). Then I see small birds- goldfinch etc- picking the caterpillars and flying off with them to their nests. I do hope some of the caterpillars survive to make butterflies. I have spread the fennel seeds all around my borders so I have new plots of them spread around now. I do have weeds in my country lawn with dandelions that the goldfinch love. They also love the purple coneflowers I have in all my borders. I have redbuds, oaks, persimmons, black walnuts and cedar trees all around the property. I have just planted native azaleas and have bought several more to plant soon. My oak leaf hydrangeas are also doing great and growing. We live on the lake so I get to see lots of herons and some bald eagles etc go fishing in the lake but I also have bird baths all around the yard. I just was given some paw paw trees from the extension office for Arbor Day but haven’t planted them yet. I know they are a host plant for some butterflies. I am so excited about all the native plants I have planted and I will plant but I’m about to run out of room! Guess I’ll have to enlarge my flower borders and take in some of my lawn, which is mostly weeds anyway. Thank you for your great encouragement to return to native plantings.

  13. Ann Munson says:

    Our two ponds attract birds, frogs, mammals and me! Plus we have planted over 100 trees and shrubs on our 3/4 acre suburban lot.

  14. Pat says:

    Real estate is tight in our small urban garden but every year we plant a few more shrubs & perennials. However, I have been eyeing the front garden to expand into the open lawn. I envision only paths between beds anchored by more trees and shrubs to encourage more birds. The reality is it will take a few years to execute.

  15. hope corona says:

    The “action” in our yard right now is all around the Verbesina virginica (Frostweed), a native white-flowering tall-ish shrub-size wildflower currently abuzz with pollinators and nectar-seekers ranging from native and honey bees to Purple Hairstreak butterflies and a variety of wasps.

    I plant a lot of native and “Florida Friendly” wildflowers, but desperately need to ad more shrub and mid-canopy species to our HOT Sunny back yard. I’ve been collecting acorns and native tree fruits (from local Basswood / Tilia, Vaccinium arboreum, Ilex ambigua, etc.), and, like your guest, seeding them – and hoping they will eventually break dormancy and grow – in the areas of my yard that they find suitable.

    I feel like I’m on another one of those “journeys of 1000 miles (and 10 or more years)…which I may never complete or see “finished.”

    See some “success” in this year’s blooms of native wildflowers that we seeded last year (or two years ago). Hopefully one day I’ll be saying the same thing about the trees and shrubs (which are now just hopeful acorns, berries, fruits, etc., lying atop or just beneath the surface).

    Please count me in (as I could use all the inspiration and helpful hints the author cares to offer).

    Thank you.

  16. Jane says:

    This year, I continued to add more butterfly-friendly plants to my very small garden, including a native milkweed. I did have a noticeable increase in the number of butterflies, especially Monarchs! Many times, I would be out weeding while butterflies fluttered all around me – it was just magnificent!

  17. Geri Friedman says:

    I’m thinking of redoing my front garden completely, which consists of 2 very large beds and one much smaller island bed. In the new concept, I would like to emphasize native plants–defining “native” as Doug does. Count me in; his book sounds like an invaluable resource.

  18. Linda Rambler says:

    Thank you for this website. I have had Bringing Nature Home ever since it was first published.
    I wil be purchasing the second title shown in this website. What I have done on my 55 acres of woodland home in Dauphin County, PA. is to not rush into timbering, which every logger and even some foresters are salavating for me to do. Second, after I learned that violets support a certain butterfly, I have not mowed the areas where violets, which are considered a problem by grass lovers. I have many of the tree and bush species mentioned in the website discussion, but I do not see the butterflied. However I see both butterflies and bees at the bee balm. However I also know that the old original bee balm that my Mother planted about 80 years ago is preferred to a newer plant which was sold to me as native bee balm. Finding the real native plants is a problem, because nurseries do not always tell the truthful story. Thank you to Dr. Tallamy, over and over and to my niece who is from Wilmington, DE, and who introduced me to Dr. Tallamy’s work. (Dr.) L. Rambler —I do not use e-mail and therefore do not have an e-mail address. Over and out.

  19. Trish says:

    My wildlife activity centers around a 650 gallon water garden..lots of frogs, dragonflies and the occasional gartersnake. Next to the pind, is my vegi and flower garden. I plant flowers for pollinators such as swamp milkweed, dill, borage and more. I would love this book. I have your first book and it is a great reference too

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