Bringing Nature Home, or a Spinning a Web?

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

A (British) frog. Courtesy of Deb Evans (the photo not the frog).

I’ve been meaning to read ‘Bringing Nature Home’ by Douglas Tallamy for a while. American readers will probably heard of it – the book which makes the case for growing native plants to support biodiversity, and something of a bible for ‘nativists’. Who, I gather are gaining strength in the US. Whenever I visit I hear complaints from gardeners about “native nazis” – people who dogmatically assert that anyone growing non-natives is somehow an enemy of the environment. It seems a tragedy that an important debate has gotten so bad-tempered.

Tallamy’s book certainly makes the case for North American gardeners to grow natives to support the food web for American wildlife, basically because most herbivorous insects feed only on very specific native food plants. That is a very different matter from saying that they should grow ONLY natives. Which Tallamy does not actually say, but he rather implies it. Like many nativists he implies too strongly that non-native = invasive alien, whereas any gardener can tell you that only a small proportion of garden exotics have leapt the garden fence to become smotherers and chokers of native habitats. The book is certainly a very useful resource for anyone wanting to know what to plant to attract what insect species – which of course then go on to support birdlife. So, I’d certainly recommend American readers to get it.

BUT, take it with a pinch of salt. Like any scientist who supports a cause, the polemic can overwhelm the science. I cannot imagine that the author’s reputation as a scientist is helped by the crude graphs in an appendix at the back showing proportions of insects supported by alien and native species – there is no indication of what the plant species are! This part of the book is a travesty of what presenting scientific data to the public is about.

The other day I had lunch with Ken Thompson, of Sheffield University’s Animal and Plant Sciences department. Ken is very involved with a series of projects going under the titles BUGS. Which look at garden biodiversity and how best to support it. The evidence here (in the UK) is that there is little relationship between the amount of native flora in a garden and the animal life it supports. The important thing is to have some trees and lots of diverse habitat: shrubs, climbers, perennials, little creepy ground-covery things down below, physical connections between different groups of plants, lots of different plants packed in together – a slightly messy plant-collectors garden in other words. Probably like the average Gardening Gone Wild reader’s garden. We discuss how the British flora is a rather sorry one, what we have is what managed to get over from the European continent after the last ice age, before we became an island. Ken tells me that not only is our flora very generalist but our insects too – so British herbivorous insects here are not too fussy about what they eat. North American biodiversity is much greater – especially of plants, which support a greater number of specialist insects, species whose larvae will only eat particular (native) species. So the situation here is undeniably different.

Ken hadn’t read ‘Bringing Nature Home’ but was familiar with Tallamy’s work. Which he was clearly a bit sceptical of. The word “spinning” was even used. The problem he explained was that Tallamy was like many ecologists – they don’t do much research in gardens, and tend to focus on native insect species, disregarding alien insects – and insect-eating birds and bats are not particularly fussy about whether it’s native or exotic insects they eat.

It all comes down to what insect larvae eat. They are the fussy ones. Nectar-sucking insects are not fussy. “No contest” says Ken, “when it comes to gardens being heaven on earth” for adult insects such as bees, hover flies, butterflies etc. which live on nectar. A BRITISH garden I should point out (see below for my rude remarks about American gardens). I also asked him about honey bees, as a friend in Vienna (a bee expert) suggested to me once that the current obsession with falling bee numbers which is leading to so many more people keeping honeybees, might be bad news for native species of bee – too much competition. “No” says Ken, “flowers keep on producing nectar as bees take it, so that’s not a problem”. Good, one less eco-thing to worry about.

Time to get back to gardens. Now look dear American readers, Gardening Gone Wild readers will I am sure have gardens a bit like most British gardens, full of plants, perhaps a bit untidy. I don’t need to tell you that most American gardens and managed landscapes are like deserts – all those acres of grass shaved to within an inch of its life, a few trees if you are lucky and some evergreen shrubs. And they tend to be big. Wildlife value = zilch.

The message to me is clear. There is plenty of room in the average American garden to grow lots of natives to support lots of native specialist insects and keep the food web going, but there is also plenty of space to grow lots of non-natives too. A good multi-cultural garden in other words. No need to feel guilty about growing non-natives, and every reason to stand up to bossy dogmatic nativists.

On to my final point. It’s an issue that I know makes African-heritage gardeners uncomfortable. There aren’t too many prominent Black or Asian people in British gardening (or in US gardening either for that matter). Banging on about native plants and invasive aliens has always made me, and quite a few other commentators uneasy – there are some unpleasantly racist undertones here. Anyone heard of Willy Lange? German landscape architect and garden writer? Very keen on native plants and extermination of alien species from German gardens? Got the Adolf Hitler Award for services to Nordic landscaping in, I believe, 1935?

I hear the sound of marching men. Which I do not like.

I am now tweeting on @noelk57 and don’t forget my own blog on:, where I have a piece on the lost garden of Hadspen House.



Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Debbie December 13, 2011, 7:25 am

It’s good to see that my brethen across the water have not lost their superiority complex. You Brits aren’t the only ones who can have a mess in the backyard that you pass off as a garden design (refer to English Cottage Garden). I’d invite you to visit my Chicagoland garden – messy beds, perennials that don’t know their place, overgrown bushes, spotty lawn and a few too many trees for the space (50’x70′). An insects nirvana.

Noel Kingsbury December 13, 2011, 7:28 am

sounds great! feel free to email me some pictures, i don;’t get to see anything like as many ‘messy’ gardens in the Midwest as I’d like!

DAY December 13, 2011, 8:40 am

I suspect that the native/alien kerfluffle is much ado about very little.
Left alone, Nature finds a way, as it did for several billion pre-human years. Mass extinctions? Not to worry, there are plenty of replacements in the wings!
A bigger, and more immediate concern, is mankind’s increasing meddling with GMOs and pesti/herbicide assaults on the aforementioned Nature.

Benjamin Vogt December 13, 2011, 9:29 am

1) I have far, far, more insects at my native flowering plants in the summer here on the Great Plains than I do any non natives I have–and I now have over 80% native plants and each year the wildlife number seems to double.
2) I think in order to fix our ecological damage, in order to even get to the center to say a 50/50 garden of native and non native, we MUST hear the extreme, the 100% native proponents. If you don’t get tugged hard in one direction, you won’t make it even a little distance to a centrist view.
3) With non natives, we aren’t even sure which species will become invasive and noxious until it’s too late. Then the natives vanish in the landscape, flowers, trees, shrubs, choked andout-competed, gone. And insects, birds, mammals will / are / have followed them.

I always get the impression European gardening is far different in this regard–in America, we still have some native vestiges left since, for much of the country, it’s only been a little over a century since we wiped it all off the face of the earth in an orgy of agriculture–I mean the Great Plains, which I write about extensively. And as corn prices skyrocket, farmers take fallow fields reverting to native plants and farm them again, cut down trees to make fields, drain ponds to make fields–grassland birds vanish, ducks vanish, milkweed and monarch butteflies vanish. It’s happening this second. (And I have a messy garden too like Debbie–I have much more winter and spring wildlife as a result, a haven in my all-lawn new housing subdivision.)

Kathy Fitzgerald December 13, 2011, 10:07 am

Moderation, and a wide berth given fanatics of all stripes, in all things, right? Hadn’t thought of the racist angle of the native-plants-only cheerleaders–you wouldn’t be trying a little political pot-stirring in this U.S. election cycle, would you?
I find the kerfuffle over European honey bees’ decline on this side of the pond faintly amusing. The implication is that there were no native pollinators, ergo no sexually reproducing plants, rendering this part of the world a temperate Antarctica until the Spanish hit Florida in the 1500s. Then how come there was all that rampant (native!) vegetation settlers hacked away from coast to coast?
In the first chapter of “Invasive Plants,” Sylvan and Wallace Kaufman discuss the problems of defining “native” vis-a-vis anything in a world in constant flux. My family arrived on these shores in the 1670s. Does that make me more native than my husband, whose Irish ancestors stepped off the boat more than 200 years later?
And does it matter?
Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

Noel Kingsbury December 13, 2011, 10:34 am

Some very interestng points here.
For the record if i lived in the US I would probably grow 75%+ natives.
” we MUST hear the extreme” – I’m glad you have said this, i wanted to but feared to open the Transatlantic rift even further, we Europeans have a horror of extremes (history – marching men) and we think of americans tolerating extremes more, but extremes alienate people (and what did the late Osama BL achieve for the Muslim centre?) . Which is in a way part of my main point – a lot of gardeners want to grow non-natives, and they are being alienated by ‘extreme’ positions – so people who should be having a conversation are not having a conversation. There is a point to concession – that of keeping people onside enough to engage them,

Noel Kingsbury December 13, 2011, 10:37 am

I take your point about the endless inventiveness of nature but we have no moral right whatsoever to cause extinctions. Period. And i absolutely do not agree with you about GMOs. There isn’t a shred of evidence that they are any different to any other artificially bred plants, and by increasing the land-use efficiency of farmers alongside the APPROPRIATE use of agrochemicals are contributing to conservation by making our existing farmland more productive so we can leave wild areas wild or at least un-farmed.

Benjamin Vogt December 13, 2011, 12:23 pm

I’ll reply to your two replies, Noel, to Kathy and I. First, yes, we have no moral right whatsoever to cause extinctions. I firmly believe that are self hate, our emotions, our lust, our fears are delivered ten fold on other lifeforms. What we do to the least of us we then do ten fold to ourselves, whether we see it or not, whether it happens now or in a decade or a century. We are in the 6th great extinction, the last where 90% of life vanished, but we are causing this event.

Another aspect of native plants is that, for me in my garden, they are less finicky. I think one large stereotype for regular folks is that gardening is hard work, lots of maintenance. I have 2,000 square feet of gardens on 1/4 acre, and I honestly spend only a few days working hard in the garden, and I could make it one day. Native plants, and I mean genetically born and raised to Nebraska, are adjusted to the extremes of -20 in winter and 110 in summer, drought and floods. I see it with each passing year as the non natives naturally die away in my beds.

As for GMOs, we haven’t been using them enough to discover how harmful, or not, they may be. We used to think asbestos was ok, too. Even if we are increasing land use efficiency, we are still tearing down wild ares to plant more because it pays to. Ag chemicals are also terrible–90% of wells in Iowa show significant contamination of ag chemicals. You couldn’t pay me to drink well water in the Great Plains or any heavily-farmed region. We aren’t leaving wild areas unfarmed, and in this recession, the U.S. government will likely be doing away with programs that pay farmers to leave land fallow for wildlife (the CRP). Plus, the gov’t can’t pay more than what corn prices yield. Until we value the planet like we pretend to value ourselves, nothing will change. Until it’s too late, nothing will change.

That’s my soap box speech. Toss one back? 🙂

Nicole December 13, 2011, 2:32 pm

Ah, so we have come full circle. In the early part of the 19th century manicured lawns became a status symbol among the rich in America, copying of course, the lawns of the nobility of UK.

Then, in the History of lawns:
“When pioneering American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted laid out the Chicago suburb of Riverside in 1869, open, monotonous lawns linked the homes of the community together into something that smacked of collectivism.”

After the war, it was the creation of suburbia that started the American idea of the necessity of having the perfect lawn. The invention of the lawnmower is cited as what made this possible, as of course before not many people could have afforded full time gardeners to manicure their lawns.

Funnily enough, while the lawn is or was seen as a status symbol, it can now be accessed by the middle classes. And, in the Caribbean, as in many developing countries, some people see the lawn as an ultimate homeowner status symbol- having their yard (and home) look just like one in the American suburbs to them is the ultimate status symbol.

Many (including several of my neighbours) even copy their home and garden designs straight out of the American suburban designs-regardless of the fact that they can enjoy the sunny outdoors all year and so should have more outdoor living areas, or are located by the sea and thus should design for the view of the sea etc. There are thousands of houses here where the side facing the view of the sea is a solid wall! And almost all rip out the rip out the lovely low maintenance natural vegetation to in lawns. It is, ironically, more often the persons from the US or Europe who build vacation homes here who keep the natural vegetation.

Stacy December 13, 2011, 4:03 pm

Oh, interesting. I’ve enjoyed both the post and the comments. Since moving to the southwest (Albuquerque, NM), I’ve begun to consider native plants more in terms of their water use than anything–what will look best with the least amount of water? (We’ve received less than 4″ of rain total this year.) In my limited experience the best choice is often a native plant, at least for full sun areas of the garden. Certainly, many plants From Away do well here, too, but sometimes it’s nice to plant something and know that it will thrive rather than wondering whether you can get away with something from another region; I get tired of watching new plantings fizzle as soon as June arrives, even with the extra water I give them. So my preference for growing native plants isn’t particularly idealistic–it’s just practical. Most of them can survive on rainfall alone; they like super-alkaline, nutrient-poor soil; they’re tough as nails. And they look cool.

I also love the way that gardens relying on native plants–or xeric plants from elsewhere–look like they belong here, so to speak–all the gray-greens and sages and fuzzy leaves and prickles. It’s nice when a southwestern garden doesn’t look like it’s been cut-and-pasted from the east coast.

Susan in the Pink Hat December 13, 2011, 4:10 pm

Large problem with arguing for native plants in the U.S. is the geographical regions involved are huge. Where I live, in less than 5 miles, there is an elevation change of 6,000 feet from valley floor into mountain ranges. The plants found at the top of those mountain ranges might as well be in a different country. Regardless, despite the environmental merits, I think that people in the United States should be encouraged to grow natives just so our gardens will stop looking like poor impersonations of their European counterparts. Ironic that it has taken the vision and interest of European garden designers to make us appreciate what we have.

Pat Hayward December 13, 2011, 8:41 pm

David Theodoropoulos, author of Invasion Biology – Critique of a Pseudoscience, leans toward the other extreme but has some very interesting and extremely well-researched points. I’d highly recommend it as counterpoint to David Tallamy’s book. I don’t agree with it all, but it does make many fascinating, scientifically-based observations. Chapters include: The Origins of Natural; True Causes of “Invasion”; Extremism; Multiple Psycopathologies of Nativism; Politics and Exploitation; Dispersal, Evolution & Diversification; and Towards a New Theory of Anthropogenic Dispersal.
Love his vocabulary and passion!

Town Mouse December 13, 2011, 10:07 pm


When European settlers first came to the US, they brought diseases that wiped out a large portion of the Native American population. In the same way, non-native plant diseases have wiped out the American chestnut tree and are likely contributing to sudden oak death.

When I moved to California, I saw native Chaparral when I drove along the coast. Now, there’s a substantial population of Pampas grass, escaped from gardens, that lines the coastline. Does the Pampas grass “plant community” support the same critters large and small? I doubt it, and what worries me more is that it seems to be taking over, moving toward a monoculture.

For me Tallamy’s main point was that biodiversity is important. As I see California native plants, butterflies, frogs, etc. disappear at an alarming rate, I can’t help but think that some of the aggressive exotics are partly to blame. Do I say that people shouldn’t grow roses, camelias, or sunflowers? No, but I do think it’s a shame if we grow only the same old boring plants from the big box store, at the expense of the native flora.

I’ve grown up in Europe and honestly think that the land there, under cultivation or at least used by humans for several millenia is different from the land here. And while I can’t bring back pristine wilderness, I like to think providing a diverse habitat with many native plants in my garden can help just a little bit.

BTW, now that you’re done with Bringing Nature Home, I’d like to suggest Noah’s Garden – very good reading.

Susan December 13, 2011, 11:23 pm

At least you acknowledge that in the US, plant-eating invertebrates (and larvae of those colorful pollinators that everyone loves) need regionally native plants. There are several points in your blog that I would debate. However, the one that irritates me the most is the assertion that because someone favors planting natives over non-natives they are of the same breed as nazis and racists. Connecting ones passion for trying to help restore an ecosystem with this kind of hatred and violence to fellow humans is seriously misguided and simply absurd.

Noel Kingsbury December 14, 2011, 10:36 am

Whilst the vast majority of native plant enthusiasts may not see any links between ‘alien’ plants and ‘alien’ people I think we all have a duty to realize that this is not always the case – the example of Nazi Germany being a powerful example. Over here the language used by the popular press about invasive species is remarkably similar to that they used to use about ethnic minorities and which is still used in gutter press attacks on Muslims. I am simply echoing what several ethnic minority gardening colleagues have felt about the language used. BTW I seem to recall the Sierra Club a few years ago taking an anti-immigration stance.

Judy Nauseef December 14, 2011, 10:36 am

I am with Benjamin totally. I use native plants as often as possible and agree with Benjamin’s list of their benefits. In the North American Mid-west the evidence of the disappearance of natives is clear: erosion, monocultures of non-native understory, decline of bird and insect populations. I do not want to live in a ruined environment. Doug Tallamy’s book has opened the eyes of many who were unaware of the loss of diversity. I do use ornamental non-natives, but only after I have knowledge of their agressiveness in my locale. Noel, where does your irritation come from? Only from the loud purists? There is a place for the entire discussion. Americans can have some American gurus. By the way, I can see one of your books in my bookcase.

Benjamin Vogt December 14, 2011, 11:46 am

Noel, and others, I wrote on my blog about an article by Hugh Raffles this spring. I’m linking to my blog post which itself has a link to the Raffles article you should read first. The whole premise is what you mention, Noel, the language of “alien” and native vs. non native plants.

UrsulaV December 22, 2011, 10:37 am

I’m very late to the party, but I’ll point out a strong suspicion on my part…some people get VERY attached to their favorite plants. You can tell someone “I’m sorry, but your plant there is an invasive–not a little invasive, but a big major on-all-the-lists, top ten take-over-the-world banned-in-twenty-states invasive,” and they will SCREAM that you’re oppressing them and can’t tell them what to plant, they think it’s pretty, what right do YOU have to tell them what to plant in THEIR garden, YOU probably just want them to grow nothing but ratty little natives, you zealot!

You don’t even have to mention natives, they’ll happily supply both sides of the hysteria on their own the minute you tell them that mimosa tree is an invasive plant. It’s…um…somethin’, all right.

Irrationality is a trademark of both sides of the debate, not just one or the other. I have been snubbed by nursery owners who have never met me before when I ask “Do you have any native plants?” as if this is an insanely rude request.

A little civility would go a long way.

Hoover Boo December 23, 2011, 9:07 pm

I have spotted several different endangered native bees in my garden, happily supping on non-native lavenders and rosemary. The native shrubs I planted as California and Canyon Towhee habitat remain vacant, while the non-native David Austin rose shrubs support a nesting towhee pair in each. Nature can adapt–sometimes.

The most aggresive invasive species is Homo sapiens–we are really native only to Africa. The fossil record shows that as humans moved into North and South America, extinctions of large mammals quickly occurred. Your point about having no right to cause extinctions I agree with, but as the human species zooms towards ten billion within a few decades, extinctions will skyrocket. We cause extinctions merely by existing in ever-greater numbers.

Noel Kingsbury December 24, 2011, 4:00 am

This is a very important point, People do get very attached to their plants and if you suggest that they might cause problems it is like critisising their children! Diplomacy needed!

Jenn December 29, 2011, 7:21 pm

‘Nativists’ – Did you use this word with intent?

Here stateside it has long meant residents who were born on this soil, as opposed to immigrants who were not. (See political party: ‘Know Nothings’)

It’s a very loaded word here in Phoenix, where there is a strong population of ‘nativists’ trying to keep the population from diversifying. (See: Sheriff Arpiao, and ‘Breathing While Brown’ Law)

Very loaded word.

Patrick Smith January 5, 2012, 5:52 am

It is strange to me that so much of this discussion has been peppered with what, to my sensibilities, is completely irrelevant and bizarre fantasies about racism, fundamentalism, and marching boots.

People have a propensity for hyperbole, hence Nazi refences, granted. But let’s get real.

As far as advocating for native plants goes, the public can only benefit from being educated.

Most Americans, including the vast majority who think a lawn and foundation planting of yews is plenty enough, don’t know what beautiful things are growing in the woods. They don’t know what an Amelenchier is. They don’t even know what a dogwood is.

If the local nurseries decide to offer more natives like spicebush or cardinal flowers and some people are spurred to make an emotional connection to thier environment, they may begin to see plants as more than commodites.

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