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Takeaways from Doug Tallamy

By Maddie Mann, Communications and Education Associate

We all learned so much at the Gardening for Life Celebration featuring Doug Tallamy on March 4. We are so grateful for all of you who came out and spent time with us, the amazing vendors and exhibitors who shared their knowledge, and the organizations, staff, and volunteers who made it run so smoothly! We are also extremely appreciative of Doug Tallamy for joining us as the keynote speaker and sharing his message with us. If you weren’t able to join us at the event, here are four key takeaways. You can also watch the livestream here.

The theme of Tallamy’s talk could be best summed up as: “Put the plants back!” Not just any plants, but our native plants and especially the ones that insects need most. By putting these plants back, we can provide food and shelter to many species of insects and birds, rebuilding food webs that we need to avoid mass extinctions and cultivate a thriving natural world. He breaks down this seemingly gargantuan task into four steps that all of us can do.

Related: Learn how unstoppable volunteers brought Doug Tallamy to Polk County–and how they’re starting a movement.  

1. Shrink the lawn.

As of 2005 the U.S. has more than 40 million acres dedicated to lawn. If we cut that area in half and restored it we would have 20 million acres to work with, Doug calls this Homegrown National Park. And he’s co-leading a grassroots initiative to create it. The Homegrown National Park project allows everybody to record their own piece of land that they plan to restore and get it on the map—bringing national or even global awareness, not just of the problem but the solutions. To be part of this solution, think about how you can reduce the area in you have in lawn, plant more native species, remove invasive species, and protect natural areas on your property. You’ll be helping to solve both climate change and the biodiversity crisis simultaneously. To learn more about Homegrown National Park check out their website.

2. Keystone plants are essential.

Just 14% of our native plants make 90% of the caterpillar food that is the basis of our food web. While native plants in general are better than non-native plants, there are some native plants that are true all stars. Doug calls these “keystone plants.” So our goal is not simply to plant natives, but to grow the keystone plants that sustain our local food webs. Oaks, for instance, support over 950 caterpillar species nationwide! To find what keystone species are best for your county, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.

3. Turn the lights out at night.

A healthy habitat is a dark habitat. In fact, Doug stared, that light pollution is the leading cause of insect decline. Insects are drawn to lights at night, to their peril. Light pollution reduces insect populations due to exhaustion, collisions, incineration, dehydration, and increased predation. It can also disrupt circadian rhythms, foraging, mating, and reproduction. Reducing light pollution is as easy as putting a motion sensor on security lights or using yellow lightbulbs. Yellow LED lights are the best because yellow wavelengths are the least attractive to nocturnal insects (and also much more energy efficient).

4. Make space for caterpillars beneath your trees.

Trees can only do so much! We need to pay attention to the ground beneath our trees as well. Oaks alone support hundreds of species of caterpillars, but the way we landscape does not allow those caterpillars to develop fully. Many species finish growing then drop off the tree and wiggle underneath the soil to pupate underground or in leaf litter under the tree. In many areas, the leaf litter is raked or blown off, and the soil beneath the tree is mowed and compacted. Instead put beds around your trees, creating a soft landing filled with leaf litter and shelter for the caterpillars.

BTW, why is Doug so focused on caterpillars? As an entomologist (a scientist who studies bugs), he argues that they do more than any other insect to support birds and the rest of our food web. Learn all about it by watching his talk.

Changing How We Think About Nature and Conservation

Doug believes that we have made three missteps in the early years of conservation and they are holding us back today. To truly change the outlook for Nature, we have to change how we think about our world and our place in it. Doug suggest three ideas about nature and conservation that we need to change.

  1. We think nature is optional. If it’s optional then it is not essential. And if it’s not essential, then when resources are in short supply then nature takes a back seat. But nothing could be more essential than Nature, the source of everything we need to survive and thrive.
  2. We have assumed that humans and nature cannot coexist. By restricting conservation efforts to “untouched” areas, we condemn them to failure, because the places we’re protecting are too small and too isolated from each other. Instead, conservation needs to involve all of us, in all parts of our landscape.
  3. We have left earth stewardship to a few specialists, instead of seeing it as an inherent responsibility of every human being. Every person on the earth depends entirely on the quality of earth’s ecosystems. So, every person on earth, not just a few scientists, bears a responsibility for good earth stewardship.

Doug Tallamy is full of hope, but he sees a large and urgent task ahead of us. We need to make changes to save our planet not just for future generations to enjoy, but for future generations to exist! Doug believes that progress lies with individuals making hands-on, positive change and serving as examples who inspire others. The good news is you don’t have to take on the whole task of saving the world. Just do your part.

Doug concluded, “You don’t have to save biodiversity for a living, but you can save it where you live. This approach empowers each one of us. It also shrinks the problem into something manageable for each one of us. Focus on the part you can influence. And remember, YOU are nature’s best hope!”

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