True Beauty

Passed on to me by my gardening buddy, TexasDeb, who blogs at the beautiful austinagrodolce, was this recent article from The New York Times concerning the importance of the home landscape as a  partial fix for the serious decline in natural habitat and the resulting calamity facing native flora and fauna in the United States. / Region&module=MostEmailed&version=Full®ion=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article#


The article is well worth a few minutes of reading, but I especially like this quote by speaker Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware:

Landscape ecologists estimate that only 3 to 5 percent of the lower 48 states is undisturbed habitat for plants and animals. Farmland now covers more than half of the country. Most of the rest is taken up by suburban sprawl and about 40 million acres of lawns (“eight New Jerseys,” as Mr. Tallamy put it), along with highways, malls and growing cities. A world with half those lawns, he said, might have 20 million acres of habitat, or more than 13 national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Adirondacks, if you added up the acreage.

Instead, thanks to vanishing habitats, Mr. Tallamy said, “We have 50 percent fewer birds than 40 years ago,” referring to results of yearly bird-banding studies that track those numbers. And some 230 species of North American birds are at risk of extinction, he added, citing the 2014 State of the Birds Report (

“But we can do something about this,” he said. “We can bring nature back to our yards.” 

We can indeed do something.  It is in virtually every homeowner’s ability to add native plants to the garden which provide sustenance and cover for native birds and insects.   Also, those native plants are lovely and require little effort.  Additionally, reducing or eliminating wasteful lawn will not only save water and lower maintenance, but will be less reliant upon harmful and expensive chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides) that many homeowners believe is necessary for “gardening.”

Start with a small garden of easy native flowers and shrubs, then expand as time and money allow.

The paradigm of garden beauty is changing–join in and produce real, positive, and lasting environmental change.

22 thoughts on “True Beauty

    • Appalling, isn’t it? I’ve seen several comparisons to state sizes, to drive home the amount of land that lawn covers: a couple of Wisconsins, a few New Yorks (state) and a bunch of New Jerseys. And most Americans don’t even think about the chemicals used or the precious water wasted on a lawn.

      When I began my conversion from lawn to native habitat, what I noticed (it’s not rocket science) is that the little patches of gardens I started with required so little work and yet the lawn, which was still the predominant feature of my home landscape, took up time and effort. I realized that I could have a more interesting landscape if I concentrated on “natives” and hardy plants that belong where I live, rather than turf.

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  1. It is fascinating to think the best we might be able to do for ourselves and the world we live in is to intentionally put things back the way they were when we first “found” them.

    I’m concerned we’ve trained our eyes and expectations to appreciate something, anything “other” than whatever grows well wherever we garden. Too often we garden to feed a sense of delight, which while benign in and of itself, begs to be anchored by a sense of responsibility to steward rather than strip clear our landscapes.


    • I couldn’t agree more. And I think that for much of this century, it’s been promoted to us that a beautiful home garden is the green swath of turf. Yes, it is attractive, but it’s sterile and wasteful and requires a high level of maintenance.

      I think you’re spot on when you suggest that we often ignore what is easily grown, where we live. I’m not really sure why–again it might be a result of advertising or some sense of wanting something different.

      I do think more gardeners are moving toward a stewardship of their land, but I hope it’s not too late.


  2. On my way to check it out. Tallamy is one of my heroes. In fact, he once said something that finally drove home to me the importance of growing indigenous plants. He was talking about how in nature plants and animals co-evolve. So a native tree or shrub or whatever has a tendency to support a broad and diverse community of life. Hybrids and non-native plants are often sold as easy care and pest free — basically that they won’t be ‘bothered’ by insects or birds or deer. I will misquote him because I am really bad at remembering but basically he suggested that there is little difference between that kind of plant and a piece of plastic lawn furniture!


    • That’s exactly right–we have been sold a bill of goods in that we now demand “carefree” plants, not necessarily plants that, while attractive to people, are requirements for wildlife to exist. I would suggest that even in “enlightened” Austin, most gardeners are” pretty plant people.” There’s nothing wrong with growing something that might be attractive, but doesn’t feed anything wild–the iris and daylilies I love certainly fit into that category. But it’d be great if more gardeners, or all gardeners/homeowners would dedicate more space to specifically native plants. If more gardeners would demand from nurseries, (local and national chains) regionally appropriate plants, those would become more available.


      • That was the most frustrating thing for me when I first moved here. I was happy to spend the money but I couldn’t ever find the plants I wanted. Early on I remember going to a big box store and seeing peony roots for sale! Even as someone new to the area I knew that was impossible. But I’d see people toss the boxes into their carts because the pictures were pink and lush and perfect. I kept going back hoping to find plants that would work but all I’d see were annuals and things obviously targeting impulse buyers. Yes there are specialty nurseries and that is great but this is something that needs to go mainstream and become easily accessible. I don’t believe that is going to happen though. Besides, the nursery trade is hooked on chemicals, hybrids (even of our natives) and long transportation hauls. That is why Iast year I started collecting wild seed to grow my own plants from scratch.


      • Agree with everything you’re saying. Those large conglomerate nurseries and retail stores sell the same thing here as they do in places which have very different conditions–and those buying have no clue that they’re ripped off. Grrrr!! It is frustrating and the only thing I usually say when I’m asked my opinion, is to buy from a local nursery or shop for seeds.


  3. What we’ve done in the past just doesn’t make sense. It never did. But hopefully we’re learning our lessons and moving toward realizing how valuable our suburban gardens can be as habitat to birds and other wildlife. Your post effectively communicates the urgency of that purpose.


    • I still get comments that suggest to me that my yard is, well, perhaps, just a little bit messy. We have a long way to go, I fear. But there are many out there who want to do the right thing, to lessen dependence on chemicals and over-watering and who want to have native plants to attract wildlife. I hope the gardening (and garden blogging) communities will help rectify the problems.


      • Yes, I’m sure some folks feel the same way about my garden. A few days ago, we were driving through a forest preserve and a family member mentioned that she thought they should “clean up” all the fallen trees. I tried to explain how beneficial they are to wildlife and the ecosystem as they decompose, but I’m not sure it registered.


  4. Everything in this article is so true and the points brought up have been on my mind a lot in the last few days. Our Saturday newspaper ran an article in the gardening section that very much mirrored what Tallamy pointed out. The article in the local paper emphasized the importance of turning yards and gardens into habitats. Rather than structuring gardens in specific ways, with specific plants that just aim for beauty and artistry, gardens should be built around native plants that encourage wildlife to visit and/or live in them, to nest and raise their young in them, and basically just to find a place to survive. Native habitats survive. They find a way. Lawns and vast expanses of grasses not even meant for most areas are labor intensive and use up an astounding amount of resources. If everyone with a front and back yard would just turn one or the other into a habitat it would help our wildlife immensely.


  5. Hi Tina, its empowering to imagine gardeners can contribute to halt the destructive “progress” of mankind. Many of the natives you have we plant over here as cultivated plants. Rudbeckia for example is your native but many of its developed cultivars are grown widely over here and are good for late pollinators. I do not know the answer but wonder what ratio of natives are better for wildlife than introduced species that provide lots of nectaring opportunities. I followed your link too, thats an interesting article. I guess the safest is that natives must surely be better with native wildlife.


    • I’ve wondered the same thing, what percentage native plants vs. other plants is a healthy one. I certainly don’t want to condemn or turn off gardeners for planting good nectar or berrying plants which might not be specifically endemic to a region. Nor, do I want to criticize gardeners for planting something which serves as a “design” structural plant, even if it doesn’t feed some critter–all of those factors are important , as is the use of home gardens for production of fruits, veggies and herbs. I guess my real objective would be that homeowners (and business landscapes too) begin moving away from sterility in the landscape–and that usually means grass or impervious cover. That and our overuse of chemicals would be a fairly easy method of repair. Except of course, that the big companies which produce chemicals and turf are going to whine that they’re losing money. Another discussion…..

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  6. No chemicals, no watering and reduced cutting but the lawn is still a wasteful use of land in our garden. The problem is if you don’t have a decent amount of lawn, you will be hard pressed to sell your home. But I still continue to add natives and extend the planting beds to reduce more of the lawn.


    • Yup, the entire home industry seems to thwart practical and environmental efforts. Interestingly, here in Austin, I’ve seen homes advertised as “no lawn” or “reduced lawn”–probably because of our impending and increasing water rationing. But you’re correct when you suggest that there’s still the thought by many that a house isn’t a house without a lawn and you’re also correct when you say that it’s a waste of space.


  7. I’m so tired of how much Americans love their lawns and how a huge green lawn is seen as a status symbol. It’s so ridiculous. I’ve ripped out at least 60% of my lawn and replaced it with an organic pollinator/wildlife garden. Lawn is a waste of space. If I didn’t have 4 dogs, I’d have even less lawn.


    • I’m with you–it baffles me, absolutely baffles. Lawn is boring, uncreative and requires such maintenance–even folks are doing the work themselves, there’s still so much involved with upkeep. I’ve actually heard people say to me–“Oh, it’s not much work. All I have to do is write a check.”



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