Bringing Nature Home

by Cindy Gilberg


Biodiversity is increasingly threatened around the globe through habitat destruction. In “Bringing Nature Home”, author Doug Tallamy gives compelling insight into our historically non-native approach to development and landscaping that has produced landscapes devoid of many plant and animal species that were once common sights. Suburbia is a vast area connected by lawns, pavement and with a low number native plant species.


Why should we only be able to appreciate our natural ecosystems in parks and conservation areas and how can these areas compensate for the vast amount of land without healthy habitat?  Anyone with a patch of ground, no matter how small, can be part of the solution. The addition of native plants in the landscape contributes much needed habitat and thus increases our connection to the natural world—right on our own property. Human well-being is directly associated with these natural connections.


Tallamy, an entomologist, explains how insects form the basis for much of the food web in our ecosystems and, since many are highly specialized, they depend on specific native plant species for their survival. The other side of the coin is that many native plants depend on insects for pollination. This give and take balance is all part of the intricate interrelationships, the “web of life”, in the natural world. As native plants disappear from the landscape, there is a subsequent drop in insect populations that leads to a drop in animal populations higher up the food chain. This ripple effect can ultimately lead to extinction of species.


Understanding these relationships and how different native plants contribute to replacing lost habitat is the first step in choosing which native plants to add to your landscape. The habitat requirements for animals are food, water, shelter and nesting sites. Many native plants satisfy multiple habitat needs. For example, native Viburnum species, chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa)and winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are multi-stemmed shrubs that offer shelter and great nesting sites for birds. In addition, these shrubs have berries at different times of the year, providing nutritious food as well as supporting many insect species, a great protein source for many birds and other animals. Native grasses, such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis) offer fine-textured leaf blades that are ideal for building bird nests. In the fall and winter, they supply abundant seed for food and shelter to small mammals and birds. Summer-blooming native flowers, such as coneflowers and blazing stars, offer pollen and nectar for many insects that in turn become protein for other insects, birds, small mammals and reptiles. In the fall, seeds ripen and offer another smorgasbord for wildlife to feast upon. A single native oak tree supports a large number of insect and spider species as well as providing food for mammals (acorns) and nesting sites for birds.


In “Bringing Nature Home”, Tallamy lists many plant-animal relationships that give gardeners details for what and how to plant to maximize the quality of habitat on their property. Another great book with information on Missouri’s native plants is “Landscaping for Wildlife and People” by Dave Tylka’s. It is important to use plants native to our specific area since they are better adapted to our local climate and soils and the wildlife here evolved with and depends on them for survival.


Many native plants make great landscape choices, working into design schemes from formal to naturalistic. Choose plants from each plant group – large and small trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowering annuals and perennials and include those that offer food at different times of the year.


Want to learn more? Here are a few events this spring to attend. Doug Tallamy is the keynote speaker for the St. Louis Garden Blitz March 3rd at Missouri Botanical Garden and his book is the subject of a 2-part class in the Native Plant School at Shaw Nature Reserve February 10th  and March 9th. On March 31st at Missouri Department of Conservation – Powder Valley, there will be an all day symposium devoted to ‘Naturescaping’ with in-depth information specific to Missouri native plants for creating habitat.


Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Professional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. Cindy can be contacted at 314-630-1004; cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.