Publications (Paul's Blog)

September 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:29 pm

I have just returned from the annual NPSOT Symposium in Denton. This October marked our 30th anniversary. Every 10 years we all go back to the Texas Women’s University where the organization was started by a handful of native plant enthusiasts. Today the Native Plant Society of Texas state organization consists of some two thousand members serving 33 local chapters scattered about the state. Check on the web for more info and the chapter nearest you.
This year’s anniversary symposium was especially good. Consider that we had no less than three pages of field trips to choose from, plus another three pages of Saturday afternoon workshops, not to mention the eats, entertainment, vendors, silent auction, and the photography competitions (I’m certain I left something out here). We heard three keynote speakers, noted author Jill Nokes (How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest), David Bamberger (restoration of Selah Ranch), and Doug Tallamy who wrote Bringing Nature Home. All of this was first rate stuff. However, it was the message brought by Doug Tallamy that I personally found most inspiring so I am now compelled to share with others.
Dr. Tallamy’s message was so direct and easily understood that it was simply irrefutable. Having been a Nature lover all my life, I was well aware that the main problem is our ever expanding human population. However the numbers put forth at this seminar brought home to me that the loss of biodiversity due to land use geared to suit our human wants and needs is far worse than I thought. For instance, the millions of acres that have been converted to suburban housing is now greater than the total acreage of all our national parks…….combined! Add to that the concrete jungle, highways, and land rendered useless for wildlife by agriculture, drilling and mining, you find we have already compromised the better half of available land in the United States. USDA census reports quoted in the book put pristine areas still untouched by human hands at less than 5%. Clearly something must be done in order to preserve our biological heritage for future generations. Obviously, our population will continue to increase as our resources dwindle. What can we do?
The solution put forth by Dr. Tallamy is simple and remarkably do-able. Use more native plants in the suburban and inner city landscape. This will provide the correct habitat and food supplies to keep things going. The problem then is convincing the general public and the landscaping industry in particular of making this change. The Native Plant Society of Texas is actively engaging Texans with the slogan, “Saving Texas, One Landscape at a Time.” NPSOT also promotes educational programs such as NICE (Natives Instead of Common Exotics) and a curriculum that is being developed to certify landscape architects and design professionals like myself who understand the practical role of native plants in the formal landscape.
This brings up the obvious reply, “I already put out feeders and water for the birds plus I have plenty of butterflies and other wildlife in my garden.” While it is true that local wildlife will utilize whatever is made available, including some of our common (mostly Asian) exotic landscape favorites, the truth is this simply isn’t enough.
When we bulldoze an area for housing we remove a wide range of diverse plant species plus the birds, insects, and other animals that were supported by those plants. After houses, streets, and utilities are put in place we plant comparatively few trees and shrubs to replace what was lost and those that we do plant tend to be repetitive to the point of redundancy. In fact the main plants present in the traditional landscape are lawn grasses. Usually just one or two types of lawn grass will be seen in most neighborhoods. These are usually imported exotics as well (not to mention invasive). So as the diversity of plants is significantly decreased, so too is the wildlife that once used those plants for food and shelter.
Dr. Tallamy uses the complex relationships of plants, birds, and caterpillars to make his point concerning biodiversity. What person does not welcome birds and butterflies into the garden? However, I think the same philosophy would hold true and could be applied to any of our native American plants and animals who are now precariously existing in increasingly shrinking habitats.
Here is just one example. The monarch butterfly will lay eggs only on certain plants commonly called milkweeds (asclepias species). The caterpillars feed almost exclusively on these same plants. Our chemically controlled farm fields are now full of gene spliced plants that allow repeated use of herbicides to keep fields weed free. Milkweeds that were once common in farm crops are gone. Since the life cycle of the monarch is inextricably tied to the milkweeds, as we continue to poison these plants we are also reducing the monarch population. The hope is now that butterfly gardening is gaining popularity, the asclepias species will be grown in the home landscape or at schools, city parks, and arboretums.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has a very successful program called Wildscapes. If you meet the criteria, you will be given a sign to display that will stimulate interest among your neighbors to get them to follow your lead. That is a hurdle for the Tallamy solution. This has to be sold to individual homeowners, communities, cities, and eventually the entire United States. One or two people in a given community can start the ball rolling.
Most of us are spending way too much time, money, and natural resources mowing grass. If you will give any portion of your lawn back to Nature the reward is greater than you may realize. How much lawn do you actually use? Not only will you save time and money for yourself but you will be providing a sustainable source of food and shelter for your fellow creatures, who, most of us agree, deserve a place on this planet as much as we do.
I have had the pleasure of helping people turn their outdoor spaces into interesting pathways, full of features, full of life itself, as opposed to the relatively sterile environment of the lawn. If you are limited in funds you can do this a little at a time. Take the money you would have spent on birdseed and purchase instead a few native trees, shrubs, or flowering plants that will produce flowers or berries (often both) with little or no maintenance………..for a lifetime. That is a truly wise investment.
Although Doug Tallamy’s solution is easily applied, it does require us to adopt major changes in our landscaping habits and indeed the very way we think about what constitutes an acceptable landscape. There are also weed laws, covenant agreements, and the attitudes of city managers to be dealt with, plus our own attitudes toward wildlife in general. This is where the membership of NPSOT has and will continue to make a difference.
The Native Plant Society of Texas has a working relationship with environmental groups and universities statewide. We fund research and hand out scholarships each year. Our goals are to educate ourselves and others, protect native plant communities in the wild, and encourage the use of native plants by example and outreach to all communities and landowners (public and private) throughout the state.
Find a copy of Bringing Nature Home at your local bookstore. Go to the web site mentioned in the first paragraph to join NPSOT or start your own chapter if need be. Perhaps I’ll see you at the 2011 NPSOT Symposium.

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