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. Elizabeth Bee says:

    Right now in my North Carolina garden, the wildlife excitement is around the pretty blue flowers on tall stalks of chicory plants. Covered with goldfinch birds. Every time I walk in the backyard with my big dog, at least fifty golden birds take flight. Very beautiful. I plant lots more chicory every year as a gift to the birds, even though I’ve never spent time roasting the roots into a coffee alternative.

  2. Corrina says:

    We have plenty of bunnies and woodchucks and deer :-|. Also lots of honey and bumble bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. There is never a dull or quiet moment and I love every second of it.

  3. Ellen Hall says:

    We try not to use any pesticides on our garden or lawn. I love to have butterflies and birds visiting on a regular basis. We see an occasional deer ( there are probably plenty that we do not see). We have an enormous brush pile that was supposed to get burned many years ago but we never found a wildlife-free time to do it, so we just gave up and keep adding to it after every storm.

  4. siri says:

    I’m loving the moths in our huge viburnum. SO many caterpillars from all the rain, I guess. Would love this book! (The comments preceding me are so lyrical!)

  5. Jana says:

    We have been native plant advocates and organic for about 20 years now, since I read Sally Wasowski’s books about native Texas plants. This year we added a ground cover called frogfruit under our red oak tree to go along with the turk’s cap, coralberry, native violets and non-native burford hollies and nandinas. The birds especially love that area and our rosebushes–cardinals, wrens, blue jays, chickadees and others. We have a birdbath just outside the kitchen window. There is always some action to watch. I also purchased 2 mason bee houses this year and put them out when our Mexican plum was in bloom. Don’t know if they are a total success, but some of the tubes have been filled. Good to know that I probably need to focus on more continuous blooms throughout the season for them. Thanks for this article.

  6. Debbie Berry says:

    The area in my backyard among the Leland cypress, forsythia, day lilies, butterfly bushes, bee balm and lantana. Lots of birds, bees and butterflies.

  7. Jan Kennedy says:

    Doug Tallamy is inspirational! I’ve heard him speak a number of times. He gets it, and with his books we all can get it. My Ohio yard with native plants is always buzzing, especially in the summer. It’s so much fun to go outside and see what’s going on. Observation for the day… bees love butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

  8. Jo Morse says:

    I live next to a large lake that still has a high cleanliness rating–some people still have their water systems hooked up to the lake. We are very careful of not allowing phosphorus near the lake because that promotes algae. We use leaf mold for mulching, and no chemicals are used. We have many blueberry bushes, and we do not fertilize them.

  9. Carol Spade says:

    Really love the article, and will buy the book if I don’t win it. Perfectly wonderful photo on the cover. I’ve read, Noah’s Garden, and am working slowly toward a living landscape. The fireflies were out tonight. Oh, and the word is “edge”.

  10. Sylvia says:

    Still new in Florida, I am endlessly amazed by the diversity of life on my little 2 1/2 acre mini-homestead! We are running the whole property organic and green in every way possible, and while sometimes it means a little extra work (like catching those pesky tomato hornworms in the act!) on the whole it is wonderful!

    We have a family of Carolina wrens living under the house, and often visiting through perpetually open windows and doors (no AC yet), along with a couple black racer snakes – somehow the baby wrens all survived this Spring. Lots of “skitters” – my nickname for the hordes of green, brown, grey and mottled Anoles who each have their personal territory staked out. Then there is the little green frog who has made a home in the bathroom – I think he likes the acoustics for his territorial “song” ;-)

    OK, maybe it sounds a little weird that some of the critters spend time in the house, but we have no cats or dogs to chase and kill them and we get a kick out of their brief visits (except for the frog – he gets in and out a hole in the screen, but mostly lives here). We also have a resident pair of gopher tortoises and are expecting grand-tortoises soon! They may not have been thrilled when we moved in back in January, but we have been good neighbors and they generally tolerate us now.

    Of course we have millipedes and red wasps and more ant hills than I can count, happily no fire ants so far. Lots of native bees and other pollinators – when the veggie and flower garden doesn’t provide enough nectar and pollen I have left several patches of Spanish Needles and other local wildflowers to occupy them ;-)

    Birds! So many of the ones I loved back in NY and feared I would miss are here too! Cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmouses (titmice?) and my beloved crows! Plus a pair of bald eagles nesting on the cell tower next door! A couple days ago I saw a swallow tailed kite – spectacular!!! Can’t take personal credit for the last two but they are too cool to leave out! All these critters happily coexist on our non-poisonous property ;-)

  11. patricia dunstan says:

    We have planted many native wild life feeding bushes and trees and also put in 2 small ponds with a water fall. Many birds prefer these ponds over the bird baths we have placed around. We now have frogs (oh joy). We also have built dry stone walls, brush piles, and nesting boxes, to provide cover. I love to sit outside and watch the variety of wild life we see.

  12. Sarah says:

    I can’t wait to read this book– my kind of gardener! It is a challenge, having a tiny yard surrounded by mostly sterile grass plots, but the richness of watching a parsleyworm butterfly pass over the parsley in favor of laying eggs on the dill made my day. The yucca flowers are so interesting at night with the moths, and the dead yucca flower stalks in winter that the downy woodpeckers hunt grubs out of. I only wish I could convince my neighbors to do this with their yards too. Thanks!

  13. Jennifer says:

    A few years ago I bought a birdbath as a birthday gift to myself. It has become the gift that keeps on giving. Thousands of birds have made the pit stop and I firmly believe they tell friends and family it’s a must see/use. During the height of seasonal migration, I’m out there 2-3 times a day changing or adding water. My children have become experts on identifying the calls of cardinals, robins and blue jays. We especially look forward to the return of the very shy and extremely punctual (5:30pm every summer night) golden finches that zoom in for a quick sip and then gorge themselves on my echinacea. The stories are endless and filled with so many delightful moments. From the robins as friendly communal baithers to the very vain and pushy blue jays. There is without fail a new bird every year that I have never seen visit our humble establishment. I’m honored to have been apart of their and all the birds journeys and wish them long lives and safe passage, until we meet again next year. To think I himmed and hawed about the $80 price tag for my concrete birdbath ….. It’s become a priceless family heirloom, I hope to pass on to one of my children.

  14. Kelly says:

    Birds are nesting throughout our property; song sparrows are tending to brood #2 in evergreen shrub just off the patio. So lovely to watch. But the flowering perennials, including common milkweed, host richness of insect activity these days: bees and butterflies, but also flies, beetles and other sorts that fascinate me. We add new native plant species to our wildlife-friendly yard each year. Watching garden evolve (with and without our hands) has been such a treat. Always new wonders to discover….

  15. CHERYLL FRANK says:

    We are planting pollinator habitats around the farm for bees and other beneficials. We are also planning a large 1/4 acre patch of native plants for the fall.

  16. Karen Pender says:

    On a recent trip to Gainesville FL, I purchased native plants from the University of FL butterfly garden & rain forest to help boost my garden’s butterfly population. Silky gold milkweed, anise hyssop and bog sage, it’s only been two weeks since planting, the plants have taken hold and the butterfly’s are lighting ! I loved this interview and found it very informative. Thank You from sunny south Florida.

  17. Richelle White says:

    I live in a dense, urban neighborhood and was able to purchase the vacant lot next door to my house. I’ve planted a butterfly garden and have installed a very large, raised bed, organic vegetable, fruit and herb garden. Part of the garden is an insectory attract beneficial insects and to lure not-so-welcome insects away from the edibles. In addition to feeding bees and butterflies (as well as wild rabbits and city squirrels!), I also feed a variety of songbirds. Guests are amazed by the urban wildlife that can be enjoyed in my beautiful, tranquil little nook in the middle of an otherwise bustling community.

  18. Brian says:

    Last fall my wife and I re-opened some old field and pasture land that had grown up to forest, not only to sell the lumber but to restore a more diverse habitat. Already this spring I am seeing more variety in birds than I have seen in years, and deer are taking advantage of the new growth as well. We will be alert to prevent take over by invasives, and will encourage native species as well.

  19. We just moved into a new house with lots of tall trees on the north side. There are so many insects everywhere. Dropping on us as we stand outside planning our garden, sneaking in the house as we walk into the front door. Each night this week we have trapped a moth in the living room in a jar and let it back outside. My husband keeps saying, “They are after my sweaters!”

  20. Ron says:

    I have a ½ acre plot in the suburban Portland, Oregon area. Half is a fir forest and full of many natives as well as tough non-natives. I have some lawn but I love color and so have quite an assortment of perennials and shrubs blooming most of the year. One of my goals has always been to have more-or-less continuous blooming, so after our spectacular early spring we are now coming into the summer season – my garden is full of crocosmia, pervoskia, buddleja, echinops, centranthus, rudbeckia, lobelia, and phygelius, to name a few. I also keep fuchsia, begonias, hostas, etc. in the shade. I have seen many kinds of birds, primarily bush tits, robins, crows, and blue jays, but find nests all over inside the larger shrubs. I also have skunks, raccoons, the occasional owl, of course squirrels, and frogs. In the high summer the air is filled with bumble bees and many other assorted critters. I never use sprays but do infrequently use bait for the dreaded slug, which are an Oregon speciality. All of this in the middle of suburbia! It can be done!

  21. onmytippytoes says:

    Golly, it was a long winter and a cool and wet May and June here in zone 3. Happy to see the yard came alive this week with our first taste of summer weather. I watched dozens of Bumble bees work the raspberry patch the other day. Smaller pollinators are rolling in the cilantro and thyme flowers and there appears to be a Daddy long legs chilling on every Coneflower. Dragonflies are in a frenzy (five years of dormant mosquito eggs hatching from overland flooding). Under the mulch in the veggie beds the Earthworms are hard at work and the Night crawlers are aerating what little lawn is left. There is a pile of scrap and fire pit wood in one corner. I call it the S**t pile! In my heart I know I’ll never tidy or stack it neatly. It is a shady safe haven for all creatures that pass through to forage in the nearby Wild Strawberry and Saskatoon patch. The birds and squirrels are such frequent visitors my ol’ one eyed watch cat pays them no mind.
    Unfortunately my city fogs for adult nuisance mosquitos with Malathion. They are spraying tonight. I am weepy for all the beneficials.

  22. Lise says:

    I’ve turned my back lawn into a “meadow” with native carex and some no-mow grass seed, very diverse plantings, and I’ve got new bugs coming that I’ve never seen before. And my sizeable gopher population keeps creating new “edge” possibilities for me.

  23. Kay says:

    No grass lawn at my place. I have been planting natives of the northeast for a few years now and always see new insects every year.

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