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Native Plants: Might your Garden be a National Park?

Sequoia, Shenandoah … your garden?  Noted entomology professor and author Doug Tallamy encourages us to think of our gardens as National Parks in his new book “Nature’s Best Hope.”  Is he crazy?  He is not!

His point is our National Park system, created in the late 1800s to respond to a feeling that unparalleled natural treasures might be lost, can’t match our current needs for conservation. The land area of the Parks is small compared to the size of our national landscape and those Parks are not connected. Size and connectivity maintain and preserve ecosystems.  Dr. Tallamy notes 85% of land east of the Mississippi River is privately owned. If we are to restore ecosystems, it will have to be on private land.

This is where we come in. Dr. Tallamy suggests we turn our lawn dominated landscapes to more heavily planted gardens and adopt a sharing philosophy —  sharing the landscape with our fellow species.  Maryland, alone, has 1.1 million acres of lawn which is twice the size of Maryland’s state parks, forests and wildlife management areas.

Nature's Best Hope

Doug Tallamy says if we gardeners convert half our lawn to productive native plant communities, even moderate success would restore “some semblance of ecosystem function to 20 million acres” which is “bigger than the combined areas of the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Ranier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali and the Great Smoky Mountains.” He calls it Homegrown National Park. Wow!

So, how to do it? Spring is a very good time to plant.  Dr. Tallamy advises starting with “keystone species,” those that are “the backbone of local ecosystems, particularly in terms of producing food that feed insects” which in turn will jump start all sorts of activity in your garden.   Our keystone species?  Native oaks, cherries, willows, birches, cottonwoods and elm trees and perennial goldenrods, asters, and sunflowers are a start. These keystone species are typically readily available at local nurseries.

Large keystone trees include white oak (Quercas alba), black cherry (Prunus Serotina), and black willow (Salix nigra).  River birch (Betula nigra) is also a large tree though smaller cultivars can be found.

For perennials, goldenrod (Solidago) and aster (symphyotrichum oblongifolium), and sunflower (Helianthus divaricatusare all very easy to grow, late blooming, great for fall and commonly available. Most prefer full sun though there are some native asters that will take some shade. There are a number of types of different native perennial goldenrod, asters and sunflower.  Some of these may be too tall and floppy if you prefer a more formal garden.  If you are growing the taller ones, you can cut them down by a half in late June or early July and they will continue to grow and bloom, though a bit shorter and straighter.

These, of course, are just a start. A wide array of plants is available to grow in your national park!

Please know this post is in no way a spoiler for reading Dr. Tallamy’s incredible book “Nature’s Best Hope.”  His big picture thinking about history and policy combined with scientific expertise about insects and tying it to our nation’s ecological future and our gardens at the same time is jam packed with information and strategic advice, gardening and otherwise.

For more info:

A recent article  by Dr. Doug Tallamy in the Washington Post.

A video on how to remove lawn quickly:

How to remove grass the no dig, no till method from the University of Maryland Extension Service. It takes longer but is easier.

A list of smaller River Birch cultivars from Morton Arboretum.

A short video about another native willow, the pussy willow (Salix discolor) shrub by Kathy Jentz, the Washington Gardener.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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