Book Review: Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy

Nature’s Best Hope:  A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard
Douglas W. Tallamy

Timber Press, 2020, 254 pages

Review by Bridget McNassar, former Oxbow Native Plant Program Manager

BOOK COVERDoug Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. Together with his students, he has been working extensively on insect-plant interactions and their effects on other animal communities. Tallamy has also spent considerable time working to make his scientific research findings accessible to all through articles in popular publications, speaking engagements, and his three books. My copy of his 2009 book, Bringing Nature Home, is well-worn and often-quoted, so I admittedly may be a bit biased in my love for both the author and subject matter of his latest title, Nature’s Best Hope. I devoured my pre-ordered copy of the book shortly after receiving it and found a great deal of information and perspective that will be helpful in my personal and professional work with native plants.

In all his writings, Tallamy’s overarching message is one of hope and action: though recent studies have shown huge declines in insect and bird populations and the threat of climate change looms, he insists that we have the power to take action by changing the way we create gardens and designed spaces. I appreciate that Tallamy asks those with land to garden to shift their thinking and consider that “our privately-owned land and the ecosystems upon it are essential to everyone’s well-being, not just our own.” He argues that since around 83% of the land in the conterminous United States is privately-owned, we actually have a lot of land to work with. In fact, he proposes that we all commit to re-landscaping half of the lawn space currently in the US into productive native plant communities, which we could refer to as “Homegrown National Park.”

Nature’s Best Hope moves through various topics related to conservation on a yard-sized scale: the importance of connectivity; why non-native plants can be harmful in a landscape; the important roles of insects to the rest of the food web; and how we have greatly reduced earth’s carrying capacity through our current land management practices. The writing is enjoyable and well-paced; I particularly love how Tallamy uses a lot of quotable statistics to make his points but makes them meaningful and digestible for the reader. For example: half of the lawn space in the United States equals about 20 million acres, which he says is equal to our largest 13 national parks put together (thus, Homegrown National Park, if we convert this lawn to habitat). He also tells several stories that outline “conversions” that people have made toward gardening for wildlife, and the personal joy and well-being it brought them. The book also provides many full-color photos of plants, insects, birds, and gardens, both to illustrate his points and remind us of the beauty and wonder of what we must save.

Carolina Chickadee – photo by Doug Tallamy

Throughout Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy updates us on research done since Bringing Nature Home—much of which strengthens the argument for the use of native plants. For example, in a Washington D.C. study that compared suburban Carolina chickadee populations with varying levels of native vegetation, researchers found that the chickadees needed plant communities comprised of 70% or more native plants in order to keep their populations stable. Another study in New York found that fall berries from non-native shrubs contained less than 1% fat on average, while berries from native shrubs were closer to 50% fat. As winter approaches, birds need more fat and the researchers found that birds would choose the native shrubs when they had the option. Interestingly, researchers were not sure why the non-native species produced berries so low in fat, or if they also produced lower-fat berries back in the lands where they were native.

A small concern I had while reading this book, is Tallamy’s focus on choosing “keystone plants,” a small number of plant species that support the greatest number of insects. I do understand getting the most bang for your buck, and I do think it is important to simplify the message for folks who may be new to native plants or even to gardening, but I worry that too little focus was put on the importance of having a diversity of native plants. I wished that Tallamy would have emphasized that keystone plants were a good way to start, but that plant diversity should continue to be a goal as gardens develop. However, I also know this is a team effort, and can see where organizations like Oxbow can pick up where Tallamy leaves off in terms of education around regional native plant selection.

I could also not help but notice that Tallamy kept referring to humans as “never having been good stewards” of the natural world. I bring this up not so much as a criticism, but as an encouragement to expand our viewpoint: there are many indigenous cultures still in existence today that give us myriad examples of humans sustainably coexisting with the rest of earth’s creatures. I assume Tallamy is referring to humans in modern western culture, but even these humans all have ancestry going back to times and places where earth’s systems and resources were carefully tended and even viewed as relatives. Rather than “starting now, we must learn to coexist,” I prefer to think of this mental shift as remembering how to coexist, knowing that we already have a mindset of coexistence in our histories.

Students bring soil to their school garden in Monroe, WA, where Oxbow is helping to establish an interactive green space.

And lastly, as I read the book, my mind kept returning to all the people left out of the equation—people who live in apartments, people who don’t have a patch of land that they can make decisions about…how can we involve everyone? As a call to action to us (let’s face it, if you are reading this, you are probably a member of “the choir”), I encourage us all to think about how we might create opportunities for community members to get involved; in school and community gardens, restoration work in our city and county parks, and other projects of varying scale. The underlying message is that great change can only happen if many people participate, so let’s find ways to ensure that every person can contribute meaningfully to the mission! 

In the end, Tallamy’s message is energizing and empowering. Nature is inherently resilient, we as private citizens can play a huge part in recovering and supporting biodiversity, and work toward increasing use of native plants brings many rewards to all. The book ends with a clear, concise, round-up of concrete actions that people can take, making it easy to choose one or two steps and get started. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has a yard, who is growing plants for people’s yards, who designs spaces with plants, and who wants practical small-scale solutions that can combat biodiversity loss and climate change.