Nature’s Best Hope: Book Review

It's important to show the world we can save the planet by planting native species that will support insects, birds, and other life forms.

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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Chickadee with a caterpillar in its beak. Photo by Doug Tallamy

There are several good books written on reversing damage to our ecosystems, but I believe Douglas Tallamy has one of the best. In Professor Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Begins in Your Yard; readers will get an overview of how to heal the environment and repair human caused damage.

The author believes it’s important for the US to show the world we can save the planet and ourselves by planting native species that will support insects, birds, and other life forms. Doug gives dozens of examples of plants to grow and why. He also cites numerous studies, books, and authors to support his claims.

A New Kind of Park

While some readers might think a larger piece of land is better to implement the author’s strategy, the book states that 78 percent of the US is privately owned. Our national and state parks are not enough to support nature’s needs. Therefore, to be successful in helping nature, we must enlist homeowners, public parks, homeowner associations, and businesses to ditch pesticides and herbicides, then grow plants that wildlife needs to thrive. Imagine, if you will, the impact of millions of homeowners planting species like oaks, coneflowers, milkweed, and other natives that will patch our fragmented natural corridors.

Doug calls this new movement Home Grown National Park. Once we have sufficient buy-in for this movement, there should be enough participants to bring back endangered species on the brink of extinction and to keep our common species common. Consider the plight of the monarch butterfly, whose numbers crashed to a mere four percent of the historic population. Thanks to organizations like monarchwatch.org and Audubon Society, the monarchs have shown progress. Over 37,000 monarch waystations have been planted on primarily private land. Add to the private environmental success stories  towns like Hagerstown, Maryland, that have joined the effort by adding monarch waystations to two of their public parks, thus supporting butterflies, insects, and native birds.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed at a monarch waystation.

Lawns Are the New Desert

Nature’s Best Hope details how our modern lawns starve nature by offering little or no food and cover. Add to that the tons of pesticides and herbicides lawns require, and you get the death of millions of essential insects and other living things. Chapter three points out that 40 percent of the chemicals the lawn industry uses are outlawed in other countries due to carcinogens, reason enough to shrink our lawns. The book doesn’t suggest we should get rid of our lawns altogether but indicates reducing them by half and planting by natives would go a long way towards supporting the natural world.

Homeowners west of the Mississippi River already have been shrinking grassy landscaping due to water shortages. The biggest need for change in lawn habits is in the eastern part of the US. Where I live in Maryland, too many homeowners devote most of their available yard to grass. Nature’s Best Hope shows how to replant some of the lawns in native oak, dogwood, cherry, willow, and elms, to name just a few. After planting these trees, landowners should add native bushes and flowers to complete the job.

Insects, Good and Bad

For those concerned about ticks, the author covers that subject well in the Q&A section. We’ve been conditioned to be afraid of other insects, (spiders come to mind, even though they are not insects), but to wipe out insects is not in ours or the world’s best interest. One of my favorite quotes in Nature’s Best Hope is by E.O. Wilson. Dr. Wilson said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse in chaos.”

Professor Tallamy gives many examples of how Homegrown National Park would bolster insects but in a way that we all aren’t hiding indoors afraid of being bitten to death. If you have a proper balance of native plants, the good and bad insects will probably be in harmony, and there will be enough birds to help in the process. For example, one pair of nesting Carolina Chickadees catches up to 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to feed their chicks, depending on the number of chicks in the nest. I have seen this balance at work in my backyard with birds and good insects controlling the bad insects. I covered this balance in a story in 2021 on the Mother Earth News blog.

Birds and the Bees

Another group of insects that gets a bad rap is bees. It’s rare to get stung by a honey bee, and most stings are from stepping on them on our lawns or by getting too close to their hive. The author points out that we have around 4,000 species of native bees in the US in addition to nonnative honey bees. These beneficial native bees are far less aggressive than honey bees and provide essential pollination with few bee stings. Sometimes what we think are bee stings are often from yellow jackets, a predatory wasp.

We need to entice bees to our properties to support nature and for the benefit of several crops. Yet another worry is that planting native flowers and shrubs could result in an aesthetically dull landscape compared to the non-native ornamental plants we love. You can still plant your roses, peonies, etc.; I do. But you can also select from a gorgeous list of native shrubs like blueberry, rhododendron, viburnum, or elderberry to enhance the beauty of your yard.

Bluejay in flight. Photo by Doug Tallamy

You can find flashy natives like coneflowers, bee balm, goldenrod, American beauty berry to decorate your yard specifically for your region. There are resources in the back of the book to locate plants for your location. Once you add plants that your local birds and bees require, you’ll soon see a change in your yard that will provide hours of wildlife viewing.

Connect the Dots

With the resources in Nature’s Best Hope, your yard can be a shining example of what a landowner can do to reverse the biodiversity crisis. You can start the ball rolling. If you share your experience by inviting your neighbors to see what a positive difference a well-planned native garden provides, hopefully, they too will want to change their landscaping practices.

The chapter, Will It Work, offers ideas for building a local wildlife trail by connecting with your neighbors through websites like nextdoor.com. If we get our neighbors to plant native trees, shrubs, and flowers; and reduce chemical spraying, wildlife will have a fighting chance. In my interview with Professor Tallamy, I asked what gives him hope for Homegrown National Park succeeding. His reply was, “The pendulum is swinging; people want to hear about this. I get 2-4 speaking requests every day. That certainly wasn’t happening 20 years ago. I do think it’s catching on.”

Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska magazine, Fish Alaska magazine, Metropolis Japan magazine, Edible Delmarva magazine, North West Travel and Life magazine, and MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, Md., area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt’s articles also appear on several websites, such as: GoNomad.com, Trip101.com, MotherEarthNews.com, Adventuresstraveler.com, and several others. Kurt is a regular contributor to GoNomad.com writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas.

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