I had a chance to hear Doug Tallamy speak last month at Atlanta’s Cherokee Library via Zoom. The author of “Bringing Nature Home” and “Nature’s Best Hope,” Professor Tallamy is the chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, and his primary research goal is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities.
On paper, that description sounds super scientific and way over my head, and certainly he could talk detailed circles around most anyone. But he doesn’t. After hearing him talk for five minutes, you want to grab a beer with him and hear more. I’ve been a fan of this environmentalist for a while; “Bringing Nature Home” changed the way I look at plants. Now, when I stroll through my yard that is steadily filling up with native plants, I cluck like a mother hen when I see that leaves have been nibbled and gnawed because I know that plant is useful, that it’s doing its job. And that job is to sustain wildlife. Beautiful plants that are not surrounded by insects do not interest me as much as the mountain mint and butterfly weed and winterberry that are covered in bees and butterflies and hungry songbirds.
I wanted to share some of his main points in Dr. Tallamy’s lecture on the importance of protecting our tiniest creatures (aka pollinators) and the consequences of not doing so. The wellbeing/survival of our planet depends on insects, and without them, there is a pyramid effect. For example, most songbirds depend on caterpillars to feed their young (one tiny chickadee feeds about 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to each batch of babies), and caterpillars overwinter in … dead leaves and brush in our yards! They evolve in spring, so we can rake leaves and tidy up our beds then, but when we clean up while they are snuggled up against the cold, we kill them. And in doing so, we unwittingly take food from the songbirds, which are alarmingly declining. If we can wait until April 1 to tidy our yards, we are saving tons of caterpillars for the birds!
I know, the days are getting warmer and we all want to go dig in the dirt, but there are things we can do outdoors while letting the little creatures reach maturity in safety. Don your gardening gloves and get rid of any invasives. Kudzu, bush honeysuckle, privet, burning bush, autumn olive, nandina and English ivy are a few that are rampant in our area. If you want to get out of the house and safely socialize (I’m not sure I even remember how) while taking out any hostilities by wrangling invasives, join the Weed Wrangle at Reflection Riding on March 6 from 9-12. Sign up at reflectionriding.org.
Another simple thing we can do to protect our tiny creatures is turn off the porch lights at night. Just like the sea turtles get confused by lights on the shore and, our insects do as well. Light pollution is one of the biggest causes of decline in the insect populations. If you want to keep your lights, please consider motion sensors and/or use yellow LED bulbs that don’t attract bugs.
Add Natives! Nobody is asking you to pull up the exotic plants you have been carefully tending, but if we all added a few native plants, maybe clumps of coneflowers or beebalm or milkweed or goldenrod, we could make a difference! Find more info at tnvalleywildones.org and learn what grows where. Reflection Riding is a great source for native plants, and we all know to avoid neonicotinoids when buying plants – it’s a systemic poison. If you buy plants from a big box store, make sure the nursery your plants come from does not use it.
So basically, we have permission to be lazy gardeners all winter! Besides leaving the dead leaves, the flower stalks of goldenrod (a rock star) and milkweed and others with hollow stalks are perfect winter homes for all sorts of bee! (Google Heather Holm, another environmental rock star.) And birds snack on the seeds of dried flowers all winter, so leave them! I linked a gardening guideline from Dr. Tallamy below, and I love that lazy gardening pays off for the environment! Now if I could just get permission not to keep up with the laundry.
Garden clean up guidelines: https://awaytogarden.com/fall-cleanup-with-ecology-in-mind-with-doug-tallamy/
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Ferris Robinson is the author of three children’s books, “The Queen Who Banished Bugs,” “The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds,” and “Call Me Arthropod” in her pollinator series. “Making Arrangements” is her first novel. “Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity” is a collection of true tales about man’s best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com and you can download a free pollinator poster there. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror.