the ‘wildscape’ around us, with nancy lawson (‘the humane gardener’)

OUR HUMAN-CENTRIC way of looking at things in the garden and tasting, hearing, seeing and touching things is just one person’s opinion, and hardly represents the consensus of all the living creatures whose home it is.

You may know Nancy Lawson as “The Humane Gardener” (also the title of her previous book). She has a new book out called “Wildscape” (affiliate links) that asks us to adjust our senses to take into account everyone out there whose world it is—everyone else whose world it is, and was, before we intervened.

Nancy Lawson is a naturalist and a habitat consultant based in Maryland who promotes animal-friendly plant strategies and challenges us to sharpen our awareness that we’re not alone out there. (Above, a spring moment in Nancy’s garden; below, Nancy in a portrait by Jennifer Heffner).)

Plus: Comment in the box near the bottom of the page to enter to win the new book, “Wildscape.”

Read along as you listen to the April 24, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

thinking about the wildscape around us, with nancy lawson



Margaret Roach: So I just really just wanted to ask, why did you want to write this book? I love the subhead on the title, it says “Wildscape” in big letters, and then it says “Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies, and other Sensory Wonders of Nature.” So why did you want to do this one after “The Humane Gardener”?

Nancy Lawson: Yes. Well, I felt like there’s a lot of information out there now about how to garden for wildlife in general, using plants. So people are much more aware of native plant gardening than they were even just a few years ago. But there are all these other things going on in the landscape that some of our more conventional landscaping practices that are still quite common, even among people trying to garden in a gentler way, a lot of these conventional landscaping practices kind of smother some of the opportunities for animals to communicate through their senses, to perceive the world through their senses.

And I just thought if people could think about a little bit more the fact that other organisms are not necessarily taking in their environment in the same way that we are, maybe they could also learn how to decrease their disruptions of those outdoor environments, because animals really need to be able to use that in a different way in order to survive and thrive.

Margaret: Right. And by animals we mean from the tiniest insect and other arthropods, and even smaller, to–well, not smaller, but that small [laughter]–to like I have black bear come wandering through the garden. You know what I mean?

Nancy: Right.

Margaret: We need animals on a wide range of-

Nancy: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. Not just squirrels and chipmunks.

Nancy: The micro to the macro. Right. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yeah, there you go. So it’s about taking into consideration not just our own human senses, but all of their senses and, as you say in the book, considering the sensory experiences of the other species. You divided it up into these chapters that are about each sense–no big surprise there, which is great. And you really just ask us to pay so much closer attention instead of just being so, again, human-centric.

In the intro to the book you write, “If you treat the local environment like the homeland it’s meant to be, you’ll be exposed to more cultures and ideas and ways of life than if you visited with people from every country in the world.” I loved that [laughter]. There’s a real global perspective right in the backyard. So let’s talk about that idea.

Nancy: Yeah, I mean, there’s just an endless number of creatures out there that we’ll never even be able to know them all or understand them all. The natural-history studies are sort of done on the side by a lot of scientists because they’re not very well funded anymore. And a lot of these animals that people used to consider common and still do, we don’t even know very much about their lifestyles, let alone some of the ones that haven’t even been discovered yet. And so, I mean, I’m still discovering behaviors in my own backyard that hardly anyone else has seen and-

Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. I love that. I love that. Me, too. Me, too.

Nancy: Yeah, and I think we all could be contributing to the science of animal behavior and what animals need in our local floral and faunal communities. If we just were able to take some time to pay attention a little bit more, like you said.

Margaret: Yeah. And I think for me, one of the big ahas, even though I’ve been in the same place for 35 years, I thought I knew the place, right? But I didn’t really go out in the dark until the last maybe 10 years. I didn’t go out in the dark after… I’m a gardener, so I’m out there during the day. And that was the other thing–was to learn about the night shift ,too. You know what I mean? Not just the day shift.

Nancy: I loved that. I remember when you wrote about that about moths, right?

Margaret: Yeah. When you go looking for moths, which I do at night in the summer, it turns out there’s this whole other world of creatures. And, in fact, a lot of creatures because speaking of their needs, it’s a great way to avoid predation is to be nocturnal, because a lot of other animals that don’t have good sight and so forth are diurnal or whatever. So it’s a good time to crawl around and do your work and get your food.

Nancy: Right. And in fact, larger animals like mammals, like coyotes, people think of them as an nocturnal, but these animals are just doing that to avoid us a lot of the time.

Margaret: Right. An anti-predation strategy. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. No, it’s very, very interesting. So you’ll see all these crazy things, and if you take your time, then you can try to figure out what they are. I mean that’s the other part of it, is not just go, “Oh, what’s that? What’s that?” But actually find out what’s that and what’s it doing there, and how long has it been doing that?

Nancy: Yeah, right. And a lot of times when you start to look things up, you realize that very few people have followed that trail before, or they might have studied a slightly similar animal or a related species of plant or animal. And so that’s kind of what I focused on in my book when I couldn’t find an exact study or research or some other observations on what I was seeing, I could maybe at least find information on related species that could possibly give some insight into what I was looking at.

Margaret: I loved seeing… And speaking of related species, you have great pictures in the book, and you have this tortoise beetle. I think yours is a spotted tortoise beetle, maybe?

Nancy: Yeah. A scientist in Colorado took that picture.

Margaret: Oh, sorry. And I have a different… I saw, oh, a tortoise beetle. I have the clavate tortoise beetle [above] who sort of looks like a teddy bear under a piece of plexiglas, a little dome plexiglass or something.

Nancy: Right. I’ve seen them, yeah. [Laughter.]

Margaret: The first time I saw that I was like, what in the world? Who invented this thing and what’s it doing? Right?

Nancy: Right. It looks amazing. It looks like a little tortoise. Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. So as I said, there’s just so many invocations in the book. You talk about how if we adjust our way of seeing and thinking, you’ll see the outdoors, even just your own backyard as “not really yours at all, but the gathering place of countless sovereign nations, a refuge for the increasingly displaced.” So this consciousness that we can make a difference with our decisions in our gardens and our parks and other green spaces and so forth. A big difference.

Nancy: Yeah. And in thinking about, a lot of people will ask, well, what’s the first piece of advice you’d give someone when they want to start doing this? I mean, first of all, it’s just observe what’s going on. Don’t assume you have to change something. Watch who’s coming through your space and things like that. But that also led me to thinking oftentimes we just have to stop. We don’t have to start doing something. We just have to stop: Stop mowing so much. Stop leaf blowing. Stop these sensory disruptions.

Stop using all these pesticides that actually not only are directly damaging, but are, it turns out putting out scents into the world that cause odor pollution, that can disrupt flower fragrances and bees’ ability to find the floral resources that they need. I mean, there’s all these different ramifications that are somewhat invisible to us unless we really think about it, or someone decides to do some research on it.

Margaret: So a little bit, we have to sort of have a cease and desist order on ourselves sometimes. So again, the chapters are by the senses and you talk about the Scentscape, the Soundscape, the Tastescape, the Touchscape, the Sightscape. And I thought maybe we could just quickly go through some of them, just an example. And so I pulled out an example from the Scentscape.

You talk about something I didn’t know. Everyone knows about monarchs and milkweeds and that close ancient relationship, but I didn’t know about the monarchs having a need and an interest in certain dead plants, I think, is that a sort of general way to attract-

Nancy: Yeah.

Margaret: So tell us about that.

Nancy: Yeah. So I didn’t know either until in the summer of 2019, I was just kind of wandering around the garden in the evening, admiring the flowers, taking pictures, and I saw a monarch on a boneset [Eupatorium serotinum]. And at first I thought that he was just kind of perching, and I’m glad I decided to zoom in. I have so many pictures of monarchs, I almost didn’t.

But I zoomed in, I took some video, and I realized that he was not leaving that plant at all, except when a car went by. And then he’d come right back, and he was sinking his proboscis into holes in the leaves, which they will go to injured leaves for these substances that they’re extracting from certain plants, or more often they’ll go to drying and dead leaves.

And the substances that they’re extracting are pyrrolizidine alkaloids. And they are chemicals that butterflies in the tropics often use in their defense and moths as well, and some grasshoppers. And other species of butterflies also synthesize them into pheromones. But monarchs aren’t really thought to need to do that, so we think they’re using them mainly in their defenses.

When I first saw this though, I had no idea what was going on. I looked online, I tried to find research, and I finally posted to an insect group on Facebook, and I got a response from someone who was a retired Lepidopterist from the Smithsonian. And he said, “I think what you’re seeing is leaf scratching.” Because the particular butterfly was scratching around a hole made by a flea beetle in the leaves. And that is something they sometimes do when they’re trying to get at more of these substances.

Margaret: It’s crazy.

Nancy: It’s crazy. And they find them by some sort of scent that’s released, but we don’t exactly know what that scent is yet. It hasn’t been captured. So yeah, I’ve seen it many more times and ended up collaborating with a German chemical ecologist on writing up the observations and starting a community science project.

Margaret: So in the chapter the Soundscape, you have this woodpecker who’s using this mushroom-covered, this fungi-covered tree stump, is drilling into it. And you talk about how that’s what we see that’s going on,. But there’s this whole other layer: He’s creating cavities. He’s creating little openings potentially for cavity-nesting bees to use as habitat and so forth. So there’s this bigger picture that isn’t visible to us right away.

Nancy: Right. Yeah. The sounds are cues to just many more things that are going on also in the Tastescape in that example. Or the sounds would alert me to the presence, when I really started just sitting quietly during the pandemic, trying to understand what was really going on around me in the Soundscape, I would hear brown thrashers, in the leaves, who I hardly ever see. I would start to hear more cuckoo birds, who are also very elusive, and that would help me make sightings as well. But it was only when I could sit for half an hour and have the animals start getting used to me and start hearing these tiny little sounds coming from the little woodland by the pond in front of me or things like that.

Margaret: Yeah, you said the leaves, and I’m thinking the one sound that I love, it’s a delicate sound–and I have to be somewhere and not moving around too much because obviously the bird’s not going to like it if I’m causing interference–but is when the towhees that used to be called rufous-sided towhees (I forget what they’re called now), when they come and they kind of kick in the leaf litter. You know what I mean?

Nancy: Yeah [laughter].

Margaret: And it’s this very distinctive sound of spring and summer, and it’s not like a chipmunk in the leaf litter. Do you know what I mean? Or a squirrel rustling around looking for fallen acorn or something. It’s a different sound. And there’s these incredible subtleties if you become intimate enough with your environment.

Nancy: Yes.

Margaret: Everybody’s at work and many are at work in the leaf litter, but everyone has their different movement and their different timing, their different rhythm, and it makes a different sound. I know that sounds completely insane [laughter].

Nancy: No, I think that’s such a good point. I mean, because it’s almost this other language that you get to know. And yeah, they make different sounds because they’re looking for different things. They have different ways of using their feet to kick things up or beaks or what have you.

Margaret: And then there’s the chapter, the Tastescape. So tell us something about the Tastescape.

Nancy: Yeah, so the Tastescape, one of the most interesting things that we encountered here were the blister beetles, and they were in the back, and I see them almost every year at almost exactly the same day. April 16th or 17th or 18th, they emerge, and we started seeing the little fire-colored beetles on their backs, and we didn’t know what it was at the time. They’re much tinier. And it turns out that there’s this whole thing going on where the fire-colored beetles are actually chewing on the wings and legs of the blister beetles to get cantharidin. That’s another chemical-extraction situation, except this time it’s animals going to animals. And they also use them probably in their defenses and possibly in mating.

And that took me down a whole trail of learning about blister beetles and the fact that they parasitize bee nests, and their larvae do, and they do it… We don’t know that much about the blister beetles species in my area in Maryland, but in California, I talked to a scientist who had studied a similar relationship among related species. And she found that the larvae actually crawl up on a flower and they aggregate to look like a bee and smell like a female bee, and they attract a male bee to come and think he’s mating. And then they jump on that bee, and then that male bee realizes what’s going on, and then goes and mates with the female bee who then picks up these larvae and goes back to her nest with them. And those little larvae eat the pollen and nectar and sometimes the baby bees.

And so all of that sounds like, oh my gosh, poor bees, which I mean, I feel that way about a lot of this predation and parasitizing stuff, but everybody’s got to eat. And I just also think about what are the broader implications of that? We have no idea. This is a relationship that’s obviously natural, been going on a long time, and maybe there’s a certain check-and-balance thing so that certain bee species don’t become too prolific and outcompete other ones. It’s just one example of so many wild things going on right under our noses.

Margaret: Yes. In the chapter of the Touchscape, I love that you showed cuckoos in there. You mentioned cuckoos I think a minute ago, but they are the only birds that can eat these spiny caterpillars, like tent caterpillars, and I think they can eat spongy moth or gypsy moth caterpillars. It’s fascinating how they’re adapted to be able to make use of them as food, because that’s a nasty, nasty thing to bite into [laughter].

Nancy: Yes, it really is. Yeah, they just are able to regurgitate all those spiny things and keep the good stuff. And it’s amazing to learn about how they’re sort of opportunistic nesters, where they’ll just go where they can find the most caterpillars. And so we also have a lot of white flannel moth caterpillars [above], which are these really gorgeous red and black and yellow and white caterpillars that tend to go on the redbuds here. And when they come out, that’s when the cuckoos are here, they and the fall webworms.

Margaret: Right.

Nancy: And they go where there are outbreaks of these caterpillars because they need a lot of them really, really quickly. They build their nests really quickly. Sometimes they lay eggs in other bird’s nests if they can’t do it quickly enough. And so we need to be leaving those tent caterpillars and fall webworms and all these other creatures, not only because they’re wonderful in their own, I mean, they’re just little moths, right? And they might be pollinating and all sorts of things, but also we need them for the birds.

Margaret: Yes. And in the chapter of the Sightscape, I wondered if you could tell us the story of your sister’s garden, which has turned out to make sort of a change in an important local law for her homeowner’s association at least. Just tell us a little bit about that. The Sightscape is kind of a lot of different things, but including when people object to what someone else’s garden looks like. Yes [laughter]? I mean, the front yard?

Nancy: Right. Yeah, I decided to start the chapter with that because I felt like the Sightscape really, we tend to think about gardening only for our own senses, and sight dominates everything, right?

Margaret: Yes.

Nancy: In my sister’s case, it was one neighbor who was very upset and didn’t tell Janet and her husband, Jeff, but went straight to the HOA board for years, wrote letters. And those letters were ignored for years until at one point he started signing them with his government signature, official signature, for some reason. And that’s when the HOA board started… It coincided with when they started to pay attention.

And they cited her initially for, they said she had weeds. And she has a mixed garden, lots of native plants, but also some nonnative plants that they had planted before that they like to put in for color, annuals and such.

So she wrote back an earnest letter that I helped her with and said, “We needed to do a little weeding, so we did that, but this is why we have this garden, otherwise it’s for the birds.” So then [laughter] she began getting letters that were attacking her for wanting to garden for the birds, and said that the plant community is no place for welcoming birds and wildlife and that it must all be “green grass” is how they put it.

And so Janet fought for three and a half years, and went to some local events, met some legislators, and our state delegates introduced legislation to prevent homeowners associations from being able to do this in the future. And the law passed in Maryland.

Margaret: Well, a round of applause for that, and I think it’s wonderful that it’s your sister, too. That’s a beautiful story. We’ve used up our time, but I’m so glad to speak to you and I hope we’ll talk again soon.

Nancy: Thank you so much, Margaret.

(Photos from Nancy Lawson except clavate tortoise beetle. Used with permission.)

enter to win a copy of the ‘wildscape’ book

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Wildscape” by Nancy Lawson for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Reading (or listening to) Nancy’s ideas here, is there one thing you are pondering doing differently? 

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close Tuesday May 2, 2023 at midnight. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

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 14th year in March 2023. 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 April 24, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Dawn Foy says:

    having started the process of converting 3 acres of grass to a native landscape for the benefit of the critters (and us all) I’d really enjoy reading this book. Thanks, Dawn

  2. Tina Knezevic says:

    I plan on pulling all my Japanese Knotweed from the roots earlier on my property so it’s better maimtained. It’s so invasive and hard to control if not caught early!

  3. Nina Hellerstein says:

    I have recently discovered an amazing form of wildlife in my Athens, Georgia garden that I would never have expected. I have freshwater crayfish living in underground water under my back steps. They apparently can live in underground water even in places like my yard that are not near any body of water.

  4. Chris says:

    One thing I’ll do differently – find some boneset for my garden! I’m currently doing an aggressive wilding of my large backyard – less grass, more native shrubs.

  5. Nanette Ford says:

    Leave a plant alone for a bit to see what it is before pulling it up. Expand beds and borders. Rejoice when leaves are chewed up! Listen to bird sounds. Watch for bats. More mulch!

    1. Constance Slack says:

      My neighbors give lots of compliments regarding the appearance of my garden. I should utilize the signage available from our local community wildlife habitat project to demonstrate that my garden is comprised of native plants that supports native wildlife. The use of insecticides is not a necessary component to achieve a beautiful garden, but instead, consistent natural approaches to gardening is a reflection of a balance between man and wildlife.

  6. Kathy Bailey says:

    Thank you so much for this interview and introducing me to this wonderful book. I feel as though I too have become friends with all kinds of creatures as I continue my love affair with gardening. I loo forward to ordering Nancy Lawson’s book ( this interview makes me think that I am one of her friends!).

  7. Carol says:

    i love the idea that you don’t necessarily have to “start” doing something, but in a lot of cases you should just “stop” doing things ..

  8. Kathy Kobishyn says:

    Just love reading about the amazing animals and plants that exist in nature right out there for us to enjoy and observe . Thanks Margaret for making it so interesting each time I read your column.

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