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Tallamy Urges a Green Revamping of our Status Front Lawns

“Unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems, the future of biodiversity in the U.S. is dim,” writes Doug Tallamy in his book, “Bringing Nature Home.” (contributed photo)

By Anne W. Semmes
Sentinel Correspondent

According to renown ecologist- etymologist Doug Tallamy, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson introduced the European status green lawn so ubiquitous in Mid-to-Backcountry Greenwich. But Tallamy comes with a wake-up call that those grand green lawns need reducing by 50%.

“What’s needed is to restore these lawn areas to some level of ecosystem functioning. You need to fill those front lawns with native plants – and oak trees and have lawns where you want to walk.” And, “Plant for privacy in your back yard.”

Spelling out the imperatives in plain talk with persuasive visuals, Tallamy addressed the precarious state of nature today to nearly 150 Greenwich garden enthusiasts who braved the Arctic weather a week ago Wednesday to hear him at the Audubon Center.

Tallamy shared the story of his own transformed green lawn located not far from the University of Delaware where he teaches and writes when not relaying his urgent message in 70 talks a year, coast-to-coast. “We removed the un-native for the native. The first year we planted a white oak with an acorn. People say they grow too slowly, but in a year it had a set of leaves, and a deer cage around it.” A photo series of a tiny girl standing and growing alongside the oak had her soon dwarfed by a 30-foot tall oak when she was 14. At 18-years-old, Tallamy’s oak is now making acorns.

For Tallamy an oak tree is the perfect tree for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife, birds and insects, etc. “You need to care about birds. Birds are great ecological indicators. We’re taking their insects away. It takes thousands of insects to feed one family of birds.”

So, why are there all these trees falling in Greenwich? “Our trees are isolated. Last year we had 20 inches more rain. Trees like to grow in a forest. They like to interlock their roots with other trees. Big winds don’t knock them over. You plant an oak three feet from another tree. Plant two or three together as in a tree grove. They’re aesthetically pleasing.”

Attendee Jennifer Brown queried Tallamy about the many Norway Spruce trees she sees planted across town. “These are 10-foot tall trees,” she noted, “They can grow to 120 feet, and 50 feet broad in their canopy. These trees are not native. They’re monochromatic, a dark, dull green.”

What should be chosen instead Tallamy said was a more native Canadian spruce.

“We need to get the message across to our nurseries,” he said, of the importance of planting native plants. “Nurseries sell what’s pretty.”

So, what makes up a functioning ecosystem he asked. No hands went up. “You need oxygen – plants provide oxygen. You need clean water – plants filter water. You need food. Today, terrestrial earth is dedicated to agriculture. We humans are already three times over the capacity of planet earth. Our resources are finite.”

To better protect the natural world and a functioning ecosystem the responsibility he noted lies increasingly with the private landowner. “Today, 85.6% of the land east of the Mississippi is privately owned. The area of lawn in the U.S. is equal to the size of New England, and it’s increasing 500 square miles every year. The changes we are bringing to our landscapes are way too fast. We have to make the important changes. We need to reduce 50% of the lawns in New England.

The other must do for homeowners is to get rid of invasive species. “There are over 330 invasives,” he reported. “A single invasive plant can harm the ecosystem. Invasives ought to be illegal.”

The challenge Tallamy experienced on his own property is “un-natives will come back in 3-5 years if they are not continuously removed. You have to keep on, keep on getting rid of invasives. The challenge is to get rid of their rootstock.”

And what about those invasive deer, asked attendee Karen Royce? Where has he seen them sufficiently reduced? (One answer, “Native Americans controlled the deer population.”) He reported New England counts 8-10 deer per square mile.” In Delaware we have 100 per square mile. Deer populations are terrible for forests. Coyotes control new born deer but we are shooting coyotes. We took away the predators. We have to be predators.”

For Royce, Tallamy’s topic of invasives was her takeaway: “How do we make the elimination of invasive plant species manageable?” With her passion for “preserving the natural habitat for insects, birds, and all the other animals that depend on native plants,” she learned, “Plants started from seed maintain the genetic diversity needed in nature. So, beware of plants that are clones because they lack that diversity.”

Kim Gregory, whose green finger includes creating Pollinator Potluck and organizing what became a dual Tallamy talk evening, found Tallamy’s “statement of shifting the focus from backyard to front yard habitat brilliant.” “Relegating natural landscaping and native plants to the backyard implies that they are not worthy of the spotlight…nothing could be further from the truth. We need to get away from the mentality that large lawns are beautiful and shift to smaller patches of lawn or pathways through more native habitat.”

“We need to ask our nurseries, and our landscapers” she added, “to provide native options, native stock. Our caterpillars are dying because they do not have the right diet.”

For Ted Gilman, ornithologist educator extraordinaire at Audubon Greenwich, it was the scientific finding Tallamy shared of, “the reduced breeding activity and reduced success of Carolina Chickadees in areas with predominantly non-native plants. We need to get the percentage of native plants in our landscapes back up in order to support songbird breeding success.”

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