Have you ever read or heard an idea that was so simple and logical yet, so profound that it sent a firework display of thoughts going off in your head for days? This idea is so obvious–sitting right there in front of you–that you just hadn’t put two and two together? That’s how I felt after reading Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home.
I’ve mentioned before that I spent the vast majority of my adult years in the Austin, Texas area. There I labored to grow things in non-existent soil–with more limestone than actual dirt–in extremely dry conditions. Using native plants was simply a given. And when gardening for the butterfly life cycle at the farm, I never gave a single thought to include non-native plants. Since the native plants were the only ones that seemed to thrive in the growing conditions and butterflies are such finicky creatures, I never considered any other plant choices. This was quite the common practice, promoted by the city and supported by the local nurseries.
However, when I moved to South Carolina where I can actually put a shovel in the ground and it rains on a regular basis, I was hard pressed to find a supplier for native plants. There are camellias and lorapetalums and English ivy–oh my is there ever English ivy–galore, but finding a good source for native plants and perennials has been a challenge. They are there…you just have to look a little harder. But if I am having to look harder, this means the average homeowner and gardener is not having much luck at all!
The growing conditions have allowed the proliferation of non-native species in the east. It seems that all too often our behavior doesn’t change until we are forced to do so. Since drought is not a problem in the eastern portion of North America, other dire conditions will have to exist before we see the need to change our ideas on the best plants to include in our gardens. Unfortunately, the conditions to which I am referring may be so extreme that changing our planting behavior should be a matter of prevention rather than one of reversing those conditions.
So let’s get back to my question…the obvious yet mind-blowing idea. It has everything to do with bugs… insects…those beautiful butterflies and icky stink bugs. Let’s start with a few mind-blowing facts:
There are over 900,000 species of insects that have been identified or named.
- There are more insects that have not been identified, or named, than those that have been named.
- The estimates of the actual number of species of insects ranges from 2 to 30 million!!!
- At any one time, it is estimated that there are 10 quintillion (10, 000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive on this earth.
That’s a lot of bugs!
The sheer number of insects on this planet is mind-blowing. It is important to know that this is not some sort of mistake of nature. Rather, it is part of a grand design of a beautiful system that has created this earth and provided for all of its earthlings. Every living creature on this planet plays a role in this system even though we may not know what it is or understand it.
Did you know that insects play a vital role in our ecosystem? They are responsible for such tasks as soil turning and aeration, pest control, waste elimination, pollination and are the main food source for many animals. If you consider the food source alone and think of the food chain as a giant pyramid, then insects would be at one of the lower levels…part of the broad base that is essential for building the pyramid.
Once again…back to the idea and how this all relates to our gardens and native plants. Here it is, the simple yet profound idea…our native insects generally do not or cannot use non-native plants as a food source. The non-native plants in our gardens did not evolve with the insects that are there. The chemical make-up of the plant (leaves, stems) are not tasty or palatable to the millions of insects that we live with everyday. Our overly tidy, urban and suburban gardens made up largely of non-native species are starving the wildlife.
Take a look at your camellias, lorapetalums, Kousa dogwoods, and Bradford pears. See any evidence of insects munching on the leaves? It is doubtful that you see any at all or very little.
Bravo! you say. No pests to damage my plants! But be very careful what you wish for. Our very existence depends upon this vast population of insects. As smart as we are, we have yet to find a way to do the important tasks of insects. Why do you think the world is starting to lament the demise of the bee? Why are our farmers freaked out about the decline in numbers of pollinators that they absolutely depend upon? I am not exaggerating when I say that a world without insects would be a world without any other creatures. The food chain would completely collapse. And if we did survive, we would be buried in waste.
Our native insects absolutely require native plants to thrive.
What do we get when our gardens are hosts to densely planted natives? For starters…incredible beauty and life and good health. Balance is a thing of beauty, and when we, as gardeners and homeowners, recognize the importance of our landscapes and gardens to support all wildlife, then we play a vital role in the balance of nature.
Oh, and by the way, the pest insects that have given all the other guys a bad reputation make up less than 2% of the insects in our gardens. Isn’t that always the case? One bad apple spoils the bunch…
Something to think about on this very chilly day…