Every December, my wife, Kathy, delivers small gifts to the neighbors on our block, usually a jar of home made jam or a little vase of dried flowers, or something like that. Now she’s come up with an idea for a different kind of gift. She announced it as we were working on our yard.
“This year,” she said, “I could give seeds or little starts of butterfly-attracting plants, suggest they plant them, and then our neighborhood could become a butterfly zone!”
That’s a terrific idea, I thought. And, as I discovered later, it would be one way to build what Doug Tallamy suggests: a “Homegrown National Park.”
Our goal was to revive our struggling yard by planting part of it with species native to the San Diego bioregion, and support native birds, butterflies and bees (especially the California species; honeybees are, in fact, not native) and other insects essential to pollination and migration routes. These, in turn, nurture and grow wild populations of animals and plants.
Tallamy, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of “Bringing Nature Home,” makes the case that everyday gardeners are the key to reviving urban biodiversity – maybe global biodiversity.
As I quoted him in “The Nature Principle,” Tallamy argues convincingly that it “is now in the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to ‘make a difference.’ In this case, the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.”
He’s not only referring to our gardens, but to your yards — a massive replacement of traditional lawns with attractive and productive native species. But where to start? What plants to plant?
For guidance, I searched the free-range contents of my office for Tallamy’s book, and of course couldn’t find it. Researching native species on the Internet, I quickly became frustrated. So I wrote Doug this email plea: “If you were to pick three to five native Southern California plants that would nurture more critters and insects in a backyard in San Diego, what would they be?”
“You would think that would be an easy question,” he answered. But it’s not. He knows the answer for the mid-Atlantic states because he and an assistant spent two years creating a data base, but then his research money dried up.
Someone should remedy that. If we’re going to get serious about applying the Nature Principle to our yards, then someone needs create a national (no, make that international) database, so that anyone can plug in their ZIP code and find out about the best native species, and how to plant and nurture them. Maybe conservation groups and native plant nurseries – and there seem to be more of them these days – could collectively foot the bill.
In any case, I kept plugging, and eventually found Las Pilitas Nursery, a native plants nursery about 30 miles from our home. Its Web site offered a list of the San Diego region’s native species and fulsome information on the ins and outs of planting and maintaining native species. So the information is out there, at least in places with good native plants nurseries.
But if we want to build our continent’s biodiversity, that information should be readily available to everyone, and part of a larger campaign to create, say, a Homegrown National Park made up of tens of thousands of miles of back yards that would serve as a new kind of wildlife corridor. That’s what Tallamy would like to see happen.
“The single most effective thing we can do is build biological corridors that connect isolated habitat fragments,” Tallamy wrote in his email. “That will take the collective effort of all the landowners in between any two fragments. At the level of the individual, if each person manages his or her property as a living entity instead of an ornament, we would be there.”
The suburbs have more lawns, but the goal could be pursued in urban neighborhoods, too, through portions of community gardens and public parks, window boxes and rooftop gardens.
We wouldn’t have to wait for a massive revival of biodiversity to see some benefits. “People could connect with nature at home, every time they looked out their window or got the mail,” Tallamy wrote. “Each little connection with nature is restorative and rejuvenating, but it’s best if it happens a hundred times each day.”
To illustrate the benefits his family receives, he attached a photo. “Here’s what my wife and I saw when we looked out at our garden fence yesterday.” In the photo of his lush property, wild turkeys perched on a backyard fence.
So Kathy and I headed off to the native plant nursery and came home with more plants than we could plant in a weekend. I should add here that I’ve never been all that attracted to gardening. But the act of creating a backyard wildlife habitat (as the National Wildlife Federation and Audubon have suggested for years) does capture my imagination, especially if our yard is part of a new nature movement that not only conserves but “creates” nature.
Maybe even the world’s first Homegrown National Park.
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.