Maintaining landscapes to attract nature

Before Everett A. Warren of Green Man Enviroscaping, LLC in Lehighton, Pa., became a landscaper, he worked for an environmental company selling door-to-door in Swampscott, Mass. One house had a front yard that was like a jungle, though the backyard was tailored, “an oasis,” Warren recalls.

There are currently 45 species of ovenbirds at risk of being endangered. Creating an ecosystem with native plants can help save them from being extinct.
Photos courtesy of Doug Tallamy.
Doug Tallamy, University of Delaware professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, believes that adding more native plants to landscapes will make a positive impact on the environment and survival of local and migratory wildlife.

The homeowner owned an organic/natural lawn care company and explained that while his neighbors regularly sprayed to control weeds and diseases, he didn’t, and consequently his yard attracted far more nature. “It made a huge impact on me,” Warren says. “I could see the difference. Now, I’m doing the same with my own front yard. My front yard is a meadow-in-progress, grown from seed. It looks like a mess, all ratty, but it takes time for a meadow to develop.”

It will take even more time for the ground-breaking work of scientists like the University of Delaware’s Doug Tallamy to take root. The research of the UD professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology repeatedly makes the indispensable connection between native plants and their impact on the environment and on the survival of local and migratory wildlife.

“We help decide which animals will make it and which will not every time we plant or remove something from our yards,” Tallamy says.

His recent book, “Bringing Nature Home,” promotes his message, which is all about plants and what we plant and how we maintain landscapes and lawns.

“Plants are at the base of the food chain, and insects feed on plants. More than 90 percent of our insect herbivores do not have the enzymes required to digest the leaves of nonnative plants. The fewer plant food sources, the fewer the insects, and the fewer insects, then wildlife vanishes, too, because so many species eat insects,” Tallamy says.

Tallamy defines weeds as “plants that are out of place,” and plants can give us more than something pretty to look at. Beauty comes in other forms, like in animals’ and insects’ ability to alter their environments to meet their needs.

Given that we continue to add 8,700 people to the U.S. population daily, and that some 54 percent of them will eventually become one of the current 129 million homeowners who own 45.6 million acres of lawn space, where does nature’s biodiversity go? Tallamy says it has to go back into our yards, that we have to rebuild and restore our yards with some native plantings; or, from the get-go, when we build houses we need to leave some perimeter woodlands.

A landscaper or turf industry professional’s livelihood is lawns, so Tallamy’s message to the industry is to evolve. “No native areas are maintenance-free, but they go away from the ethic that the land has to be flawless,” he says. “Landscapers could be busier than ever because most homeowners don’t want to be the ones doing this [restoration]. They want to hire someone.”

He sees a fledgling industry off-shoot in the making, though he admits the movement is slow to catch on with traditional landscapers. “They don’t understand that they don’t have to turn everything wild,” he says. “What I’m suggesting is still a niche, but more and more people are saying, ‘Who can I get to do this kind of work?’”

At UD, Tallamy wants to begin offering a five-year major in suburban restoration. Saving bio-diversity is a need, not an option, he says. He’s also in the midst of a grounds restoration at his own 10-acre property in Oxford, Pa., that once was overwhelmed with invasives.

He says 33,000 plants and animals are on the verge of extinction. On March 19, 2009, the New York Times reported that one-third of North American bird species are endangered. “Do we let them go extinct, or can we help create an ecosystem that serves them and also one that helps keep humans around?” Tallamy asks. “What landscapers do in a yard does make an impact.”

When raising their young in the spring, birds depend upon a supply of insects to feed the hatchlings. “If the insects are eliminated, so are future generations of birds,” Tallamy says. “Just imagine the positive future impact on the bird populations and our natural heritage if we replaced the nonnative ornamental plants on our properties with plant species historically native to the area.

When raising their young in the spring, birds depend upon a supply of insects to feed the hatchlings. More than 90 percent of insect herbivores do not have the enzymes required to digest the leaves of nonnative plants; the fewer plant food sources, the fewer the insects, which then affects the population of animals that eat the insects.

“Even the dreaded tent caterpillar, which nests in webs in the crotches of trees (especially black cherry trees), exist in backyards because we’ve chopped down the forests,” Tallamy says. “They like the edge [of the woods], but if we’ve eliminated the woods, we need to plant trees to bring back the woods.”

Tallamy calls it a design challenge to use more natives more attractively, and that involves more plants, more money, more maintenance and more potential industry growth.

The nonnative butterfly bush is a case in point. Butterfly bushes are planted in the mistaken belief that they are helping nature. “OK, the bush attracts butterflies for its flower nectar, but they will not lay their eggs on these leaves because the foliage offers no nutrition to the hatching larva,” Tallamy says. “Planting a native species, such as viburnum, milkweed, Joe Pye weed or purple cone flower for every butterfly bush—now that would really help nature.”

He senses progress. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has invited Tallamy to speak at its last two national conventions in Philadelphia and Chicago, two major cities.

“He is part of a large growing group of people who understand the need for natives,” says Louise Schaefer of Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery.

Warren, who attended Tallamy’s talk, said, “He was preaching to the choir. This is what I’m all about. I encourage a natural environment.”

Warren’s company, which he began in July 2007 and had its first really active year in 2009, hasn’t had any residential client plant just natives yet—though he’s getting closer. He recently completed an all-native, grant-paid municipal job, two 4-by-8-foot Welcome to Weissport (Pa.) areas he planted with a mix of sedums, creeping phlox and ostrich ferns as the backdrop.

“The more converts means the more potential clients,” Warren says. “And, the more knowledge, the better I’m able to explain things to a potential client. Everyone needs to pay attention to become part of the solution, and not part of the problem. If landscaping is your job and your craft, you should pay attention to what you’re doing.”

At the top of his wish list is seeing other landscapers get educated “Some don’t want natives,” Warren says. “Some want perfect lawns and no insects. I tell people the only way that’s possible is with Astroturf. That, or pave it. Luckily, these people are not my clients.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.