Homegrown National Park

Prof. Doug Tallamy


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Global pandemic, crazy weather, invading pests: things feel beyond my control — but only when I forget about my gardening super powers.

I imagine you’re finding solace in your garden these days, too. Digging in the dirt has never been so satisfying, it helps anchor my sanity. Having just finished Doug Tallamy’s new book, “Nature’s Best Hope,” I’m now feeling more powerful than ever.

Tallamy, a University of Delaware professor of entomology and wildlife ecology and author of the popular books “Bringing Nature Home” and “The Living Landscape,” uses his voice to advocate for the “little things that run the world.”

With 86 percent of the land east of the Mississippi in private hands, Tallamy argues that conservation is everyone’s responsibility. I agree with the big picture, but the thought of influencing our homeowner’s association and how it manages our neighborhood leaves me a little woozy.

In his latest book Tallamy offers a countermeasure, the “Homegrown National Park” — now this is something I can do in my own backyard.

Our national park system serves as the imaginary stage when I think about conservation. “Nature” happens out “there,” where the wild things are, not in my neighborhood. In “Nature’s Best Hope” Tallamy works to change my attitude by making a petty convincing case. 

Tallamy’s proposition rests on four basic ideas:

First, preservation efforts confined to parks produce areas that are too small and separated to protect endangered species. Second, we must protect unspoiled habitat where it exists. Next, restoring the areas that we have already impacted (i.e., where we work, live, grow food) goes a long way toward connecting vital existing habitat fragments. And finally, a few simple changes could transform land of limited environmental value into useable habitat.

Naming his proposal the “Homegrown National Park,” Tallamy gives convincing evidence that by adding native plants to our gardens and reducing the size of our lawns, we can help restore land’s vitality.

A smaller lawn appeals to me. The Environmental Protection Agency reports Americans collectively invest more than three billion hours each year in maintaining our lawns; across our country we pour eight billion gallons of water on our lawns each day. Our neatly mowed strips of green might telegraph to our neighbors we are people of good intent, but surely there is a better use for all that time spent and billions of gallons of water consumed.

We happily decorate our gardens with ornamental plants from around the world. Unfortunately, some of those plants escape the confines of our landscape and bully their ways into surrounding ecosystems, degrading the land’s ability to support insects and wildlife.

Tallamy contends there is no natural response to the hundreds of non-native plants we’ve introduced into our environments. While diseases, pests and herbivores may keep plants in check in their homeland, we introduce exotic plants faster than biological controls can keep up. He stakes out his territory saying, “… we should no longer accept the notion that introduced plants are the ecological equivalent of the native plants they replace.”

I’m not going to remove the exotic plants already in my landscape, but I’m placing a priority on native plants when I add anything new. As for a smaller lawn, I’m able to sign up for that, too. Both are easy choices I’m happy to make as I work to create our own Homegrown National Park.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com


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