This year, the number of community events appearing on Peace Week Delaware’s event calendar on the state of our environment, the loss of natural areas and biodiversity, and the importance of native plants to a healthy ecosystem caught my attention. It prompted exploration of what one person can do to save Mother Nature one native plant at a time.

What’s a Native and Why are they Important to the Environment?  The National Arboretum officially defines a native as a plant that:

“Occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention.” .  . .We consider the flora present at the time Europeans arrived in North America as the species native to the Eastern United States.”

While accurate, this definition doesn’t touch on the critical role natives play in sustaining life. Besides converting carbon dioxide into breathable air, native plants have a superpower.  They capture energy from the sun and turn it into a food smorgasbord that all of  Earth’s creatures enjoy. Natives are the engine of the world’s food web.

Who are the most important diners at this smorgasbord? Not us. The title goes to insects, the little things that run the world. A mutual dependency developing over millions of years exists between native plants and insects.  But insects are picky eaters.  90% of the insects that eat plants can only develop and produce on their specific native plant partner. This insect and native plant partnership is the biological foundation of life on Earth.  Science shows us the disappearance of a single native plant species can trigger the extinction of all connected animal species, and that is what is happening.  Biodiversity in our ecosystems is in decline.

How did this happen? In the US, we have tilled, grazed, paved over, and subdivided our native habitats.  We have converted areas rich with diversity into sterile patches of lawn.

Native plants have been replaced either intentionally or accidentally by exotic nonnative species or invasive plants that outcompete their native counterparts.    Invasive species have directly contributed to the decline of 42% of the threatened and endangered species in the United States

 What can we do?  Douglas Tallamy, a professor and chair for entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and author of several groundbreaking books on nature, says we can do a lot.

As Tallamy details in his New York Times bestseller Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, homeowners should turn their yards into conservation corridors, replacing turf grass with native plants.  His motto is “Regenerate Biodiversity, Plant Native, We Can Do This One Person at a Time, No Experience necessary.”  He is enlisting ordinary citizens, like you and I, to help him convert half of the United States 40 million acres of turf into ecologically productive habitats. This would be the equivalent of creating a Home Grown National Park, the size of 10 Yellowstone Parks.  The plots wouldn’t have to be contiguous or large. He says, “Moths and birds can fly, and you’re helping them just by reducing the distance they travel for food”.You can go to his new Homegrown National Park website to learn more and add your own efforts to an interactive map. more than 5,000 people already have.

One Homeowners Story – Reclaiming Nature  Recently, I visited the home of April and Tom Schmitt, who live on a 2.4-acre property in Landenberg, PA. I wanted to see how one couple turn their lawn into a “conservation corridor,”  a la Doug Tallamy’s vision.I immediately sensed that this property was special, a place good for the soul and the planet. I know April as a fellow member of the Wilmington Trail Club who has a deep interest in and appreciation of nature.

Despite the mid-afternoon sun of a hot, muggy August day, I felt protected. I immediately appreciated the 2-3 degree drop in temperature courtesy of the canopy of trees growing on her property. It felt exactly like what Doug Tallamy would describe as a “Homegrown National Park”(Doug Tallamy on the Homegrown National Plant Initiative).

April told me that through judicious pruning, removal of invasives, and some sweat equity, she opened up the overgrown area beneath her white pine trees that formed a perfect border separating her property from her neighbor’s more conventional turf lawn. Over time, she added some native plants and a few non-native (but not invasive) plants, and her once sterile property is alive with the buzz of insects and the flash of native songbirds. In the spring, native plants appeared spontaneously as if Nature renewed itself.

As we toured her 2.4-acre property, she also described her multiyear assault against the invasive multiflora rose planted by the previous owner.

Removing this invasive plant promoted the growth of native plants, and a whole new ecosystem appeared. Wild ginger, Jacob’s ladder, and Virginia Creeper now form an understory to Red Buds, Sumac, and Spice Bush.

Gradually, her traditional turf lawn is being replaced by islands of beautiful ferns and native shrubs that will provide shade and bird habitats for the future.

I felt I could reproduce this approach in my own smaller yard.  As Doug Tallamy wrote, these ideas of replanting and reimaging our landscape using native plants can be done anywhere: our own backyard, a rooftop, or even a window box—any square foot not covered by concrete.  T

The Plan? Clear out the invasives, plant natives, and reduce the size of your lawn.

Each returned patch becomes part of a collective effort to nurture and sustain the living landscape for wildlife, humans, and other plants;

We can restore nature as April and Tom have done in the little piece of the earth. Will you join us?



Andre  & Cris