Doug Tallamy will present "Nature's Best Hope" at Cornell Cooperative Extension's Spring Gardening School.
Edwina von Gal, the founder of the Perfect Earth Project LINDSAY MORRIS
In October 2019, about five months before the coronavirus took hold in New York, entomologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware visited the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons to spread the message that planting more native plants and trees is the best way to restore a vibrant ecosystem that supports wildlife.
Edwina von Gal, the founder of the East Hampton-based Perfect Earth Project, hosted Mr. Tallamy at her home during that visit, and hoped to bring him back to the East End in 2020 to spread his message further. The pandemic scuttled those plans, but on Saturday, March 20, Ms. von Gal will introduce Mr. Tallamy when he visits Long Island virtually to headline the Cornell Cooperative Extension Spring Gardening School. He will deliver the keynote address, “Nature’s Best Hope,” his talk on how anyone with a yard can use their plant choices to reverse the decline in insects and birds.
“This is the global issue with a grassroots solution,” Mr. Tallamy said during a recent interview. “It’s going to come from private landowners and volunteers everywhere. … This is what empowers every person to be an important part of the future of conservation, which means everybody’s got to know about it. It can’t just be a few ecologists here and there.”
“Nature’s Best Hope” is adapted from Mr. Tallamy’s book of the same name and is designed to be for everyone.
“This is a good talk for people who have never heard me — totally uninitiated,” he said. “That’s always the challenge: How do you get people who know nothing about this to listen? I always want to have a ‘bring-your-neighbor night’ but haven’t pulled that off yet.”
His 2019 talk to the Horticultural Alliance was “A Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening,” in which he explained that native plants, such as oak trees, host the insects that birds need to rear their young. Mr. Tallamy’s graduate student Desiree Narango found in her research that chickadees require a habitat where at least 70 percent of the plants are native. A landscape that is primarily made up of exotic plants won’t host enough caterpillars to sustain the
bird population, so the loss of native vegetation correlates with bird population decline.
Oaks, in the Quercus genus, host more insects than any other genus of plants in the United States, Mr. Tallamy pointed out. That makes the oak the go-to tree for native landscaping.
Like his other talks, “Nature’s Best Hope” keeps with the theme of conservation, but it is more motivational, Mr. Tallamy said. He will explain what actions individuals can take to become better stewards of the land that they manage.
He’s enacted his recommendations on his own property in Pennsylvania, where he takes pictures of every moth species he finds; he’s up to 1,030 different species identified. “Each one of those is bird food,” he said, “and, since we’ve been here, we’ve recorded 59 species of birds that have bred on our property.”
Mr. Tallamy objected to thinking about native landscaping and gardening in terms of what homeowners can do in just their backyards.
“I’m going to ask you not to use the word ‘backyard’ for two reasons,” he said. “It cuts our conservation area in half because we all have front yards, and it also implies that what we’re talking about is so ugly, you’ve got to hide in the backyard. There’s no reason you can’t have an oak tree in the front yard, which would be tremendously productive.”
The level of interest in native gardening and being more friendly toward insects has exploded in recent years due to the work of Mr. Tallamy and like-minded advocates.
“It’s definitely increasing in popularity,” he confirmed, adding that he can’t keep up with the requests for his talks and that the availability of native plants at nurseries countrywide can’t keep up with the demand.
National headlines in the past couple of years regarding the bird population and the “insect apocalypse” have also brought attention to the cause.
“The headlines are supporting all of this,” Mr. Tallamy said. “Every couple months we get another disastrous headline. Last year, it was we lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years. And the insect apocalypse is here — global insect decline. The U.N. says we’re going to lose a million species.
“All of these things are getting the public’s attention,” he continued. “When they hear that there’s something they can actually do about it, they get excited about it.”
There has been some pushback on the notion of an insect apocalypse, which Mr. Tallamy acknowledged, but he pointed to insect populations specifically where people live.
“Every place they’re humans, insects are declining, and that’s a lot of places,” he said. “And since they run the ecosystems, I think it’s pretty safe to say we’ve got a serious problem here. What’s frustrating is that almost all of it is avoidable. I mean, it’s relatively easy to turn around. So, for example, one of the major causes of insect declines is night light pollution. And most of the light pollution in a typical suburban neighborhood is totally unnecessary. People have the lights on for no reason. Turn them off — that’s pretty easy. Or if you’re really worried about security, put a security motion sensor on it. And take the white bulb out and put a yellow bulb in there. That’s less attractive. Those things are easy to do, and they would make a major difference.”
He said it’s our ignorance that has gotten us to where we are, but he is encouraged because much of it is reversible. His property and Ms. von Gal’s property back that up, he said. “Things are doing well when you put the right plants back.”
Ms. von Gal’s East Hampton home, which is also the headquarters of her nonprofit Perfect Earth Project, is named “Marsh House.”
“It’s right on the edge of the salt marsh,” Mr. Tallamy recalled of his stay there. “It’s a great location for somebody like me. There are a lot of people that say, whoa, that’s a little too naturesque for them.”
The Perfect Earth Project promotes toxin-free lawns and landscapes, a mission that aligns with Mr. Tallamy’s.
Spraying toxins turns property into a dead zone, according to Mr. Tallamy. “We’ve done that for 100 years — we’re now in the sixth great extinction,” he said. “ … So obviously, what we did in the past is not working.”
Many people have failed to internalize that we actually need nature, and they’re happy to have none of it, he said. “Well, we’re a product of it, we depend on it. We depend on the ecosystem services that healthy ecosystems produce, and our yards are part of local ecosystems. And if we degrade our yards, we’re degrading local ecosystems. And we do that locally, we do that everywhere. So it’s one piece connected to the other piece, but when you add it all up, it’s a huge impact.”
There are more than 40 million acres of lawn in the United States, which is the size of New England, he said. “All of it is an absolute dead-scape. There’s not enough of the earth left to be wasting productive land like that at the same time that we keep increasing human populations.”
Ms. von Gal, inspired by “Nature’s Best Hope,” has launched a new initiative, “2/3 for the Birds,” or Two-Thirds for the Birds, which asks people to pledge that two out of every three plants they put in the ground will be natives. The initiative’s website, 234birds.org, offers resources on how to find appropriate plants and also encourages property owners to reduce lawns, remove invasive plants and refrain from using pesticides.
“This is a salad bar for nature, your property,” Ms. von Gal said, “and if we can’t share it, we’re the problem.”
She offered this comparison: Having a tree that nothing eats is like having a refrigerator full of plastic food.
Mr. Tallamy’s newest book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees,” will be released on March 30.
Sign up for Cornell Cooperative Extension Spring Gardening School at ccesuffolk.org/events/2021/03/20/2021-spring-gardening-school. The deadline to register is Friday, March 12.
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