Doug Tallamy is an accomplished researcher, author, and teacher. His goals are to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. Doug has been recognized with awards from The Garden Writer’s Association, Audubon, The National Wildlife Federation, Allegheny College, Ecoforesters, The Garden Club of America, and The American Horticultural Association.
On November 11, 2023, he will present a talk at the Houston Botanic Garden titled Homegrown National Park: Building Networks for Life.
In 2021, Doug Tallamy cofounded Homegrown National Park, a grassroots call-to-action to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants and creating new ecological networks. Rather than accepting the idea that people are here and nature is “someplace else,” the Homegrown National Park concept challenges us to be accountable for the natural habitats just past our doorsteps.
“The goal of Homegrown National Park is simply to get the message out that everybody—not just tree huggers and scientists—is responsible for good stewardship of the Earth,” Tallamy says. With around three quarters of land in the United States privately owned, property owners are key to large-scale conservation efforts. He aims to provide the information and motivation needed to change what he terms “an adversarial relationship with nature” that many in the U.S. have.
“We are now in the sixth great extinction event. We have to do something significant to make meaningful strides in conservation. The encouraging thing is, if everybody treated their own little piece of land in a sustainable way it would make a huge difference,” he says.
In the U.S, with only 3.6% of land designated as National Parks and 78% privately owned, conservation must happen on private property. Public greenspaces, like the Houston Botanic Garden, simply don’t make up enough land to significantly move the needle on conservation.
The good news is that you can take tangible steps to make an impact by committing to be a good steward of the land under your care. “One person can do a lot!” Tallamy says, emphasizing that the Homegrown National Park movement has a hopeful and empowering message. You don’t have to do anything drastic—you just have to choose to be intentional, rather than default to conventional.
To join the Homegrown National Park movement, register your property and the amount of land you are pledging to steward. Homegrown National Park hopes to register 20 million acres of native plantings on private property across the U.S. Tallamy says cutting your lawn in half is a great place to start.
“Compared to natural habitats, lawn is terrible at supporting a healthy food web, managing the watershed, and capturing and storing carbon in the soil. Lawn is ultimately a status symbol in our society,” he says.
Rather than keep acres of lawn, which Tallamy notes is an “ecological deadscape,” repopulating our yards with native plants can help restore food webs and ensure the survival of keystone species.
Around 90% of insects are host plant specialists meaning they can only eat specific plants that they have the means to metabolize. They don’t recognize and cannot feed on non-native plants. Monarchs and milkweed are a well-known example. Goldenrod is another example; there are 14-16 species of bees entirely dependent on the plant.
But pollinators aren’t the only insects we need. Caterpillars are absolutely crucial to the food web. For example, the number of caterpillars needed for birds to reproduce is anywhere from 6,000-9,000.
Unfortunately, only 14% of native plants are supporting 90% of caterpillars. When we lose the native plants supporting these caterpillars, we lose carrying capacity on the Earth. The more we replace native plants with lawn and pavement, the less ability the Earth has to support us.
If you’re worried about what your HOA might say, don’t be. The HOA says that you can’t abandon your yard, but this is not what Homegrown National Park is suggesting. You can still apply landscaping design and should commit to preventing overgrowth for both function and curb appeal. You don’t have to sacrifice beauty to promote conservation.
Lawn is a cue for care—managing it maintains property value and the aesthetics of the neighborhood. But the same can be done with native plants! “Our native plants are used in landscaping all the time in Europe. Why can’t we do the same here?” Tallamy says.
Tallamy points out that plants used for decoration (like crepe myrtles) are not functional parts of the food web. Replacing them with a native keystone species like oak trees, which provide the largest energy transfer in the food web, would be a more conservation-minded choice.
You, as an individual, can make a big difference. You are not powerless, even if it feels like an overwhelming problem to tackle. Remember: If we all do our part, the problem becomes much more manageable.
Some simple steps you can take: reducing the size of your lawn, changing lightbulbs to yellow bulbs to help insect populations, stopping chemical exterminations on your property, planting a pollinator garden, and planting more native plants.
“These are things that you have a responsibility to do. Everybody requires healthy ecosystems; we have to work together on this. It is your personal duty, not ‘someone else’s,’” Tallamy says.
Don’t miss “Celebrating Conservation” with Doug Tallamy at the Garden on Saturday, Nov. 11. Get tickets here.