Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy

Bringing Nature Home is a book for anyone who has a yard. For years home-owners have been encouraged to buy alien imported plants for many reasons: beautiful flowers, deer-resistance, hardiness, attraction for birds or bees, and even the allure of growing new and different plants. Native plants are not easy to find and we are not often urged to choose them for our landscaping. Unfortunately the result of choosing from the 5000 species of alien plants that have been introduced into the U.S. is to endanger the biodiversity of all our plants and animals.

Why is biodiversity important in suburbia? Don’t we have a lot of wild areas? The author explains that over 95% of land in the contiguous 48 states is modified or disturbed in some way by humans, leaving only 3 to 4% of wild land, not enough to sustain our wildlife. In addition, the remaining wild areas are not contiguous, existing in unconnected fragments. And about 54% of the non-wild areas is in cities and suburbs—so providing native plants in our yards becomes highly significant. Your one yard, no matter its size, DOES make a difference. If you plant natives and your neighbors do as well, then a corridor begins to be formed for wild animals.

The author very clearly explains why non-native plants are a threat to the diversity of living species. Research shows that native insects generally cannot eat alien plants and they must go elsewhere or even disappear without the plants they need, because many are specialists and can only eat one or two plants. These same insects are the link between plants and predators such as other insects, birds, reptiles, and amphibians who cannot gain their energy directly from plants. So the planting of aliens has reduced the biomass and diversity of insects and thus reduced the diversity of all of our wildlife.

Non-natives create other major problems. They can become runaway invaders such as kudzu and spotted knapweed and they can bring in alien insects and diseases that can wipe out native species of plants. There is an excellent description in the book of American chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, and a more recent threat called sudden oak death disease.

If after reading this clearly written and accessible book urging the planting of native species in our yards you become convinced that this is an important thing to do, how would you go about it? While it is not a detailed how-to book, Mr. Tallamy does give important guidelines in a chapter called Making It Happen and he further breaks down resistance to change in the chapter called Answers to Tough Questions (such as “do I have to sacrifice beauty if I choose to plant natives”, “why is an alien plant full of birds or bees a problem”, and “won‘t aliens become natives over time?”).

My one wish for this book is that there would have been more information about native plants for landscaping in the western U.S., but the book is important to read to understand the problem of growing alien plants and there are other resources to help if you choose to make your Billings yard fundamentally native (such as Creating Native Landscapes in the Northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

From the Afterword: To me the choice is clear. The costs of increasing the percentage and biomass of natives in our suburban landscapes are small, and the benefits are immense. Increasing the percentage of natives in suburbia is a grassroots solution to the extinction crisis. To succeed, we do not need to invoke governmental action; we do not need to purchase large tracts of pristine habitat that no longer exist; we do not need to limit ourselves to sending money to national and international conservation organizations and hoping it will be used productively. Our success is up to each one of us individually. We can each make a measurable difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered—and the ecological stakes have never been so high.

Book Review by: Ann Guthals