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Share, Learn, Listen, Lead

Just posted at http://www.childrenandnature.org/blog/

Sep 21st, 2009 by Richard Louv

A while back, I wrote about a terrific book in this space, and mentioned there was more to come. So here’s Part II.

Doug Tallamy is professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, and the author of “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens”, a book I’ve endorsed as “the perfect antidote to the belief that nature happens somewhere else.” Tallamy believes that biodiversity must be managed, just as we manage (or mismanage) our water resources, clean air and energy — and that families and kids can play a big role in that. First and foremost, he advises, we must provide the two things all species need: food and shelter. “Fortunately, unlike most of our water or energy supplies, biodiversity is a renewale resource that is relatively easy to increase,” he says. Which brings us back to the back yard. Front yard, too.

I asked Doug to share with C&NN’s readers, especially parents and children and educators who want to green their schoolyards, some of the basics of sharing our spaces with other living things. He offers the following basic advice presented here (for a fascinating full tour, read his book!) with his permission:

• Families can help rebuild Local Food Webs: Nothing lives in isolation of other living things. Instead, every species exists within complexes of interacting species that ecologists call food webs. To enable one particular species to thrive in your yard you must provide the fundamental parts of that species’ food web.

• It All Starts With Plants: All food webs start with plants, because plants are the only organisms that can capture the sun’s energy: the energy that fuels life on earth. Through photosynthesis, plants lock the sun’s energy into the carbon bonds of simple sugars. All animals get the energy they need either by eating plants directly or by eating other animals that eat plants. Because plants make all of the food that animals need, and because plants provide all or most of the shelter animals need, the amount of vegetation in your yard will determine the amount of nature in your yard.

• All Plants Are Not The Same: It would nice if we could bring nature home just by adding any plant that looks good to our yards. Unfortunately, all plants are not equal in their ability to support food webs. Food webs develop locally over thousands of generations, with each member of the web adapting to the particular traits of the other members of the web. A plant that evolved outside of a particular food web is usually unable to pass on its energy to the animals within that food web because those animals find it unpalatable. Plants protect their leaves from animals with nasty compounds such as cyanide and nicotine. But the plant-eating animals within a particular food web have developed the ability to overcome the chemical defenses of at least one of the plants in their web, and that is how they get enough nutrition to survive and reproduce.

• Natives Support Nature Best: The problem is that we humans have not landscaped our yards with food webs in mind. In fact, we have done the opposite of what our local food webs require to keep functioning. Typically when we build a new development, we bulldoze all of the native plant communities and then landscape sparsely with ornamental plants that are not members of the local food web. How can you tell if a plant belongs to the food web that evolved in your area? Well, you can be sure that an ornamental plant from Asia or Europe did not evolve within your local food web and therefore will provide little or no food for the animals you are trying to encourage in your yard. You should look for plants that are native to your area because they are the ones that support nature best in your yard.

• Insects Are The Key: Most of us have been taught from childhood that the only good insect is a dead insect. In fact, one of the traits we have favored when selecting our landscape plants is that they be “pest free.” We should hardly be surprised that we now live in landscapes with very few insects. For the last century, we have replaced the native plants on which insects develop with plants that our local insects cannot eat. To the joy of many, we have created sterile, lifeless landscapes, but that is precisely why our children do not have nature in their yards any longer. Why can’t nature be happy without those pesky insects? Insects are an essential part of every terrestrial ecosystem because they are the primary way most animals get their energy from plants. Most creatures that cannot eat plants themselves eat insects that ate plants for them. Birds are an excellent example. 96% of the terrestrial birds in North America rear their young on insects. Bottom line: if you want birds, or toads, or salamanders, or countless other species in your yard, you must put the plants that support your local insects in your yard.

• Reduce Your Lawn: The U.S. now has 45.6 million acres of lawn, an area over 5 times the size of New Jersey, and that figure is growing every year. When it comes to supporting food webs, lawns are nearly as bad as pavement. Our kids don’t interact with nature on their lawns because nature isn’t there. Lawns are so uninteresting it’s no wonder our kids are spending their youthful years indoors. Consider replacing the parts of your lawn that are not regularly used for walking with densely planted gardens of native plants. The life in those gardens will draw your kids out of the house like a magnet.

• Plant A Butterfly Garden: Butterfly gardens are one of the easiest and most effective ways to expose your kids to nature. When you are planning your garden, remember that butterflies need two kinds of plants: 1) plants that produce nectar for the adult butterflies, and 2) plants that serve as food for larval development. Many people plant only nectar plants in their butterfly gardens, but without larval host plants they are not making any new butterflies. Many people assume that butterfly larvae eat the same plants that provide nectar for the adults. This is true in some cases, such as the pearl crescent on black-eyed Susan or the monarch on milkweed. More often, however, butterfly larvae develop on woody plants that don’t supply any nectar. Black cherry, for example, is the host plant for tiger swallowtails and red-spotted purple butterflies. Avoid planting butterfly bush (Buddleia). Although it is a good nectar plant, it does not support the larval development of a single butterfly species in the U.S. and it has joined the long list of ornamental plants that is now invading our natural areas.

• Woody Plants Support More Animals: Trees and shrubs serve as hosts for more species of moths and butterflies than herbaceous plants and thus provide more types of food for birds and other insect-eaters. Supplying birds with the caterpillars they need while they are nesting will bring just as many birds to your yard during the spring and summer as a bird feeder does during the winter. It will be the trees and shrubs in your yard that accomplish this goal the best. A complete list of plant genera, ranked by their potential to support nature, can be found at http://copland.udel.edu/~dtallamy/host/index.html.

The bulleted points were adapted by Doug Tallamy from his book, “Bringing Nature home,” for the Children & Nature Network. Click here for more information about “Bringing Nature Home.”

Part I of The Backyard Revolution.

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Richard Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

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