Frugal Living: Grow Your Own National Park
Professor and bestselling-author Douglas Tallamy discusses the huge impact individual native gardens, when planted as part of a much larger movement, make on the environment.
Douglas Tallamy understands trees. He wrote The Nature of Oaks and the New York Times bestselling book, Nature's Best Hope. On this week's episode, he shared his experience transforming his property from an overgrown farm into a thriving ecosystem. . . and how that led to a much larger movement.
He launched Homegrown National Park as a way for everyone to regenerate biodiversity at the local level. We talked about how he got started (hint: he's been doing this for 40+ years!), why it's important, and how the rest of us can get involved. . . for free.
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Prefer to read the interview? We have a partial transcript of the conversation below.
Transcript of Frugal Living: Grow Your Own National Park
This is Frugal Living. <Music> I'm outside this morning. <Birds Chirping> Listen to the sounds in my yard. I'm no ornithologist, but I'm pretty sure that is the sound of the red-winged blackbird. They're pretty common around here, and they sing a pretty distinct song even to my untrained ear. This week, we're talking about lawns. And caterpillars. And national parks?
My guest today is something of a celebrity, at least to me. He's an entomologist, an ecologist, and a conservationist. Professor Douglas Tallamy literally wrote the book on the subject we're talking about today. And I don't wanna take any more time describing this conversation before it happens. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. <Music>
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Hi, I'm Doug Tallamy. I'm an entomologist at the University of Delaware and have been for 41 years.
Right now there's this movement online. People are talking about getting rid of their lawns. They're talking about planting native plants. This isn't new. This is something you've talked about for a long time. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started with that?
Yeah, maybe it's an interesting story. I'm an entomologist and I've been studying insect behavior right from the start. So I would call myself a behaviorial ecologist. But in the year 2000, my wife and I moved into a new property in Oxford, Pennsylvania. It was part of a farm that had been broken up, had been mowed for hay, and it, they hadn't mowed it three years before we actually moved in. When you mow for hay in this part of the world, you're really mowing all the invasive species which leaves the root stocks behind. So multiflora rose, and autumn olive, and Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese honeysuckle, on and so on. And when you stop mowing, that's what comes back.
So we had 10 acres of solid invasive species, and it was that experience that got me into this. You know, I recognize, "Well, gee, they're not supporting the insects that run their food web." The invasive plant problem was a much bigger one than I had thought and on and on. And I started doing research about it to quantify that because we realized that other people weren't talking about that. There was a big, long list of why invasive plants were not such a good idea, but wrecking the food web wasn't on that list. So we started to look at that.
People got interested in it. And they wanted to read about it. You know, "What can we read? What can we read?" Well, we didn't even have any data at that point. So finally after, after a year of saying "There's nothing to read," I said, "All right, I'll write a pamphlet." That pamphlet became Bringing Nature Home. And that's how it all got started.
So what's interesting to me is that even though I had always done interesting things... I mean, you know, David Attenborough had filmed in my lab and all these interesting things, but nothing that anybody cared about. You know, entertaining, I should say, but not, you know, not really heavy, heavy things. This is something that people do care about. They're, they're disturbed about the headlines that we see. You know, we've lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, we've got global insect decline. The UN says we're gonna lose a million species in the next 20 years. This is upsetting to a lot of people. My message is very simple.
You can do something about it.
You can do something about it right where you live and people get excited about that.
This is a topic that's come up on the podcast before. There's a lot of, kind of, doomerism. You know, like, "The, climate change is just the—There's nothing we can do, so why even worry about it?" And we, kind of, wanna avoid that. Like, there is something you can do about it. There's something you can do right outside your window. When I got interested in native plants, I was interested in getting rid of, like, invasive species. But it seems like when you got into, you know, this new place with all these invasive species, your first thought was, "There are insects that need specific plants." And that's a very different way to get started because you're planting with a very specific goal in mind. Why did you plant what you started to plant?
There are insects that need those plants, and there are birds that need those insects. And you're talking about the basis of the food web. You know, there are many things we've learned in this process. But one of them is that it is caterpillars that are transferring more energy from plants to other animals than any other type of plant eater.
So if you have a if you have a food web with very few caterpillars, then it, it's a failed food web. You're not transferring the energy that plants capture. That's why these non-native plants are so nonfunctional because our caterpillars, for the most part, cannot eat them. So the Callery pear in your yard or the ginko or the burning bush, they're not supporting anything. So they're pretty. They're decorations. But they're not supporting that food web.
And if you're looking for reasons why we've got 3 billion fewer birds, and why, you know, a million species are projected to disappear and you look around the world. If you go to, go to the forest in Portugal, it's something like 75% eucalyptus from Australia. You know, these are dead zones. These are dead zones. So and it's a, it's a, it's a global problem. But I do encourage people not to think about the global problem. Think about right where they, they live, the little piece of the earth that they can influence. We do have two major issues here. We've got the climate change issue. Serious. But we've got a biodiversity crisis at the same time. What's cool about this is by putting plants back where we've taken them away, we can address both those crises if we choose the right plants. That's, that's a positive message.
Absolutely agree. Where do you start? So if we want... We've got someone's attention. They're listening to this podcast. They're like, "Okay, Professor Tallamy has my full attention. I can do something about this. You're the first person to tell me I can be part of the solution." I look out my window. I live in Illinois. What can I do today?
The easiest thing to do is plant a tree. Now, if, it's gotta be biome specific. If, if you live in Denver the High Plains shortgrass prairie, prairie, planting a tree is not the appropriate thing to do. There's not enough water there to support that tree. But if you're in Illinois, it's, it's you know, then you've gotta transition to, to prairie that was maintained by bison and fire, but still trees grow really nicely there.
That is the easiest way to bring biodiversity back to your, your yard. I talk about reducing the area having lawn. I don't say get rid of your lawn. It's a perfect plant to walk on. But I say let's cut the area in half. Now as of 2005, we had 40 million acres of lawn, which is a size of New England in the US. And it, that's a, that is, it's a status symbol, but it's an ecological dead space. It's a default because we don't know what else to do with it.
Well, now we do know what else to do with it and, and planting the tree's the easiest thing. And I say, plant small trees. I mean, plant trees when they are small. They can grow big and they do, but then it's cheap.
You know, I don't wanna hear, "Well, I can't afford $13,000 for an oak tree." I don't want you to spend $13,000. An acorn is free. And it will grow to be a healthier tree than the $13,000 tree you just bought because it hasn't been root pruned. And much faster than you think. So, so this is easier than, than people make it out to be. There are lots of ways to find, you know, to, to, to lots of reasons to say "This isn't gonna work." Whole bunch of, you know, reasons why this isn't gonna work. But I wanna look at the glass half full. These are all the ways we're gonna make it work. And I have been talking about it for nearly 20 years now. And I do see the, the needle moving. It is starting to work. So you know, that alone encourages me.
You know, 40 million acres. How big is that? I don't know. So I said, "Well, what if we cut that area in half and, and restore it?" That's 20 million acres. How big is 20 million acres? So I started looking up the area of our national parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, on and on and on. And you can add up just about all of the large substantial parks in the country, including Denali, including the Great Smoky Mountains, even nonparks, like the Adirondacks. And it's still less than 20 million acres.
All of these together?
All of them together. I said, "We can create a new national park." We do it at home. We can call it Homegrown National Park. And it'll be the biggest park in the country. So I started talking about it. I put it in my talks. But it really wasn't until I, I wrote Nature's Best Hope, which was a good 10 years after that, that I made a chapter out of it called Homegrown National Park. Talking about, you know, how effective a grassroots effort could be by converting this low-hanging fruit.
Everybody's got some lawn in their yard. What if we put some useful plants in that. It's not, not that hard. You know, what would happen? So that becomes a grassroots effort to turn these terrible statistics around.
So we're a frugal podcast. There are a few things you, you've hit on that will hit that very well. Advice you've already given. If you wanna get started, plant a tree. And if you wanna do that the frugal way, start with an acorn. Start with the smallest tree. It's gonna be tempting to spend a lot of money to have an established tree in your yard, but it's better ecologically to start with a smaller tree anyway so it can adapt to where you put it and it can grow into where it is.
Yeah. I wanna stress that. It's not just a matter of frugality. If I had all the money in the world, I would still plant a small tree because it will establish its root system without being disturbed. And that alone encourages health and fast growth more than anything else. When you transplant a larger tree or bush, you, you do root prune it a lot. And it spends a lot of time trying to rebuild those roots. There's a very stressful period where it has a, a more aboveground biomass than root biomass, and it can't support it. And a lot of 'em die. A lot of 'em die for that.
So you avoid all that and save money just by giving up instant gratification. You have to wait a few years. But after that few years... So those acorns with, that I planted at my house when we moved in 20 years ago, they're 60 feet tall now. For free! You know, people say, "I can't afford to do this." I think in the 20 years we've been rebuilding this property, we've spent $200. And that was when we went to a nursery that was going out of business. And all in that one day I bought a bunch of things just 'cause they were going outta business. I didn't need to. So it doesn't cost a lot. Doesn't have to cost a lot.
This is something we talk about when we talk about finance. We talk about the best way to be frugal is often planning. It means starting your 401k early. It means starting with a budget. It might sound boring, but it's the best way to save money and gain income. It seems like there's a lot of parallels when you're planning a garden. When you're planning what to do with, you know, the world outside your house. Whether that's, you know, your lawn or the park across the street or any public area. I, I love the idea of it took 20 years, but now you have 60 foot trees. That's all that they've known is your yard.
That makes me very happy.
Well, you know, it's, it's kind of like playing God. I don't wanna get, get God-y here but if we hadn't put those trees in our yard, we wouldn't have the life that's around us. We got to control the amount of life that was here by putting the plants that support those life-forms. And anybody can do that. I have been counting, I've been taking a picture of every species of moth that now makes a living on our property. And I focus on moths because our research has shown, you know, they come from caterpillars. And it's the caterpillars that are feeding the chickadees and everybody else.
I've got 1,140 species of moths that are making a living on our property that was mowed for hay when we moved in. The, the message here is that conservation works. It doesn't take that long. I mean, 20 years sounds like a long, long time. Boy, it goes fast. It's, and it didn't take that long for the process to get started. I guess that's the message I wanna, I wanna focus on the most is to enjoy the process, not the end point. There is no end point in nature. It's dynamic. It's always changing. So enjoy the process.
When you put something in the ground, it will start, it will create an ecological process that you can enjoy from day one. I remember one of my oak trees. It was three feet tall and had a first bunch of branches. There was a little field sparrow nest right in the crest of those, those first branches about maybe a foot and a half after, off the ground. So yes, it's supporting the caterpillars that that field sparrow was eating, but it also gave it a, a little nest site right there. So it doesn't take long to, to enjoy the nature that comes to your yard. <Music>
Get Nature's Best Hope on Audible
Thank you to Douglas Tallamy for taking the time to talk today. If you enjoyed this episode, you can check out his books, including Nature's Best Hope where he talks about a lot more of these subjects in more detail. We also have an upcoming episode with Professor Tallamy where we dig into some of these answers even further with actionable tips that we can implement in our own backyards. Actual things, good advice on frugal ways to make an impact on our local environments.
Today's episode, as always, was sponsored by Brad's Deals. That's B R A D S D E A L S.com. If you're looking for things for your garden—if that's garden beds or patio furniture—check out BradsDeals.com. I edited this week's episode and I'll be back again soon with even more frugal living tips. <Music>