Growing a garden for all

by Jan Spann

Most Arkansan homes have azaleas; so many of you may have experienced lace bug problems, introduced through Asian azalea imports. Or perhaps your vegetable garden has been plagued with tomato hornworms.

These two insect invasions point to a greater problem facing gardeners today. Whether it’s alien ornamentals that may bring the unwelcome gift of exotic bugs with no natural predators, or garden pests we’ve inadvertently encouraged by our overuse of insecticides, these insect infestations wreak havoc – with costs to our ecosystem and our wallets.

Alien plants tend to crowd out our native plants – look at how quickly privet or kudzu can overtake an area!

These alien assaults put a kink in the food chain, as many of our wildlife friends did not evolve with the exotics and just can’t eat them. As urban development crowds out these critters, each piece of earth becomes even more precious for the proper plants that serve as food and shelter for indigenous insects, birds and animals.

Look around. In many neighborhoods, our home landscapes are primarily planted with crape myrtles, Asian azaleas and evergreen ornamentals like holly or arborvitae (many of which are also Asian).

With similar foundation plants bordering a large and thirsty, high-maintenance grass lawn, we create quite a challenge to our native birds and their food chain!

If you have more lawn than garden, you’re spending more energy, time, money and water on tending to something that’s just unnatural. While a lush, green lawn has become the American norm, it’s not natural in nature.

Conway Corporation CEO Richard Arnold notes that in today’s environment, water conservation plays an important role in planning for a community’s future water needs.

“Lawns require much more upkeep and can put a burden on public water works,” Arnold said. “We can be better stewards of our water resources by featuring drought-tolerant plants, like those used in the Water Conservation Garden at Conway’s Natural Resource Center.”

According to Arnold, the company partnered with Master Gardeners in the garden to educate residents on ways to reduce water consumption while still maintaining the city’s beautiful lawns and gardens.

What’s a weekend gardener or homeowner to do? You’re in luck because Central Arkansas will have two opportunities to hear from an expert this fall! Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” explains how to use your home landscape as a true wildlife preserve, playing a vital role in the “web of life” as you add native plants and create a balanced community on your piece of Earth.

Tallamy knows a bit about bugs; in addition to being an author and public speaker, his first gig is professor and chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. His book, “Bringing Nature Home,” evolved through requests from his students and also gardeners attending his public lectures. The resulting plant lists showed what attracted what, which was then eaten by what and so on. So he began to map a food web for the suburban or urban backyard.

“While beautiful, the typical American garden can be a barren wasteland to native insects and thus birds. Almost all North American birds other than seabirds – 96 percent – feed their young with insects, which contain more protein than beef,” Tallamy wrote in his book.

Passionate and engaging, Tallamy does not propose ripping up your plantings and starting anew, but instead he advocates learning what to plant as you reduce your lawn and increase your garden.

Dr. Joyce Hardin, biology professor at Hendrix College, makes a compelling comment:

“Dr. Tallamy’s book has influenced my gardening or landscaping,” said Hardin. “I now think first about what native plant I might like to use. The latest beds we have installed contain mostly native plants.”

Dr. Tallamy will speak at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Auditorium, 2301 South University Ave. in Little Rock. He will also speak at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, at Antioch Baptist Church, 150 Amity Rd. in Conway.

For more information about the lecture, visit the Arkansas Native Plant Society website at Tickets will be available at the door. Cost for the general public is $15. For members of sponsoring groups, the cost is $10. With additional seating at the Conway location and because of the importance of this message, educators and students (at all levels) have a special admission price of $5 for the Oct. 1 presentation.