The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bringing Tallamy Home to Peterborough

I have finally, after years of hearing about it, read Douglas Tallamy's 2007 book Bringing Nature Home. I have felt that I have been doing my part to help the environment in my public and private gardens. I have planted native as well as exotic plants in my gardens but have been careful to remove invasive plants like barberry, burning bush and bittersweet from the gardens. I have tried to plant trees and shrubs to provide food and shelter for birds. What I didn't understand was the importance of the foliage of native plants, in particular woody plants, as a source of food for insects which, in turn, supply food for birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.

Tallamy has shown that most insects will only eat the foliage of trees and shrubs (with the exception of crabapples and several other exotic species) which they have evolved with for thousands of years. So my beautiful Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum or the trifolaite maples, Acer triflorum and A. griseum x 'Gingerbread', that I adore, are not contributing to the food chain and biodiversity which is so important to our ecology. The good news is that oak trees are the number one woody plant to support Lepidoptera (bird food) and "serve as a host plant for 534 species of moths and butterfles." The two red oaks in my garden are making a huge contribution to biodiversity.

Tallamy maintains that "woody plants support much more biodiversity than herbaceous perennials and annuals. So, being creative with alien herbaceous plants is less harmful than using woody aliens. The number one herbaceous genus is Solidago, the goldenrods, but they only support 115 species. That is still a lot of biodiversity, but it is nearly five times less than oaks".

So it turns out, I haven't been doing as badly as I thought. All the public gardens have numerous crabapples which provide 311 species of Lepidoptera. The river birches, Betula nigra 'Heritage' that Gordon Hayward recommended at Depot Park support 413 species. The sugar maples at Teixeira Park provide 285 species and the beech trees at Putnam Park support 126 species.

My New Year's Resolution is to continue to pay attention to native plants in my public and private gardens. I love to experiment with exotic plants, but if I pay particular attention to the woody plants and make sure I have plenty of native asters, goldenrods, milkweeds and Joe Pye weeds, maybe I can have the best of both worlds.


  1. Admirable, Michael, to make efforts to restore what's been lost, though complicated.

  2. Faisal, it is complicated because I live in a rural area, not suburbia. Many of the most helpful species are still plentiful here but it is a piece of the equation I want to take into consideration. I don't think I will ever be a purist but if I add certain native plants to the mix that would be a good thing.

  3. If you get a chance to hear him speak, too, do so. He's witty and charming.

  4. Thanks, Benjamin. I am not surprised that you have heard him speak. From what I've read, he has a great approach and tries to gently persuade gardeners to be more aware of biodiversity and how we can make a difference in our own gardens.

  5. Michael, u must b very pleased with your efforts thus far. Of course we have to go on trying with this great cause. I am always talking natives with clients, but I have to say the lure of the exotic still pulls! That say we did recently win over installing hundreds of metres of hornbeam hedge. We really wanted mixed native, but at least we won over griselinia! Life as u make clear is a compromise.
    Best for 2012!

  6. Robert,
    The more I learn about natives, the more I get confused. The way I understand Tallamy, all the American natives that Oudolf uses, for instance, would not enhance biodiversity in Europe. I agree, I still want to experiment and use exotics but I will be careful about using invasives. We have an ancient barberry in Putnam Park that I am going to pull out next spring. We are thinking of substituting Viburnum prunifolium, an American native that responds well to the pruning that we inflicted upon the barberry. Thanks as always for you comment.

  7. Hi Michael,
    I read your post this morning and thought about it all day! Thank you!

  8. Glad you liked the post, Helen. It will a new challenge for a plantsperson like you.



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