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Doug Tallamy in NW lower Michigan
By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG
Have you read Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy? If not, I suggest you do. It is an extremely important gardening book of our time. It was published in 2007. In 2016, Tallamy published The Living Landscape with Rick Darke. In February 2020, Timber Press will be releasing Tallamy’s third book, Nature’s Best Hope. The release of his third book is eagerly anticipated.
Dr. Douglas Tallamy is an entomologist at the University of Delaware. His research about the relationship between insects and plants was a breakthrough for environmental and ecosystem gardeners. Generally speaking, entomologists are not “Rock Stars” however, publishing Bringing Nature Home changed Dr. Tallamy’s life dramatically. He is highly respected for his research and a sought-after speaker. He was the Keynote speaker at the Wildflower Association of Michigan’s March 2019 Wildflower Conference and the speaker at Saving Birds Thru Habitat’s Annual Fundraising event on August 24th. We are fortunate to have him visit Michigan frequently.
Tallamy’s research makes the very strong connection between insects and the native plants that host them. These relationships are critical to the food web. We know that birds, 98% of them, feed their young insects. (The other 2% eat fish. Not one baby bird is raised on seeds.) We know that a clutch of chickadees needs hundreds of insects a day and 6,000-9,000 insects to successfully fledge. We know that most insects are specialists in that they can survive on only one type of plant, i.e. the Monarch butterfly caterpillar that can only eat plants in the milkweed family. Monarchs aren’t the only picky eater by a long shot.
The plants that best support the food web are native to the region. Coevolution between plants and insects has been going on for millions of years. Introduced plants simply cannot provide the same ecological services. Too few insects are adapted to them. No insect biomass, no birds. Introduced plants may be a lovely fashion, but they are useless at feeding birds. Some introduced plants may be harmless except they take space away from a native plant. However, some alien plants escape and are causing severe ecological damage. Some invasive plants may be well known. Myrtle, Lily of the Valley, Japanese Barberry, Kudzu, Buckthorn, and Autumn Olive are known to be problematic. Other, problematic plants may not be so well known such as Bradford or Callery Pear, Butterfly Bush, and Rose of Sharon. Keeping these plants in your yard can cause harm when they move across the street or into the woods next door. Lesson: plant only native species.
There is always a question of “cultivar”. Tallamy’s research addresses both the harm caused by introduced plants and the vastly understudied topic of “nativars” or cultivars of native plants. We do know some things. If cultivation has destroyed the pollen and nectar of the native plant as it can, it has rendered it useless to pollinators. If the blossom has been altered to be a double blossom, it is no longer accessible to pollinators. Pollinators identify flowers by their ultra violet markings, and as far as we know there has been no study on the effect of changing a flower color on the pedal’s ultraviolet markings. We have no understanding of this or the potential harm created. Finally, studies have found that changing a leaf color from green to red in a Ninebark renders the leaf no longer digestible to the insect that requires the green leaf to live.
Since Bringing Nature Home was published, Tallamy’s research has continued. We are learning more, but not fast enough to protect the insect biomass that makes bird food from plants. We must stop messing around with nature and stick to native plants. Our ecosystem is in need of ecological gardening practices in every yard. Will Nature’s Best Hope provide enough science to change gardening practices? I sure hope so.
By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG
Should you have an opportunity to visit Morgan Composting in Sears, Michigan, I suggest you make time to go. I visited the site with a group of Plant it Wild members, (also Master Gardeners) on August 23. It was well worth the distance and time required to get there.
Morgan Composting is a family owned business with the fourth generation just reaching the age to operate the pedals of a tractor. It was born out of a failing dairy farm that struggled to support the family. Incredibly, (after years of risk, hard work, and luck) Morgan Composting happened. The family has a clear and strong work ethic and sense of fairness from the inputs to the products, the recipes, and the distribution system. There are now 40 employees in 4-5 sites across the state of Michigan. Their work is science-based and organic. Nothing is wasted.
The business continues to grow. DairyDoo is the flagship product. Organic compost created from dairy cow manure. The manure is aged and processed in large windrows on the farm. We had a wagon ride through the property where we saw the piles and piles of inputs in process. Wood shavings and sawdust are added. Pile heat is maintained at 140 degrees for several weeks to ensure “clean” compost. Specialized formulas have chicken waste added. Others have mineral elements. All inputs are sourced sustainably.
In addition to the traditional compost and fertilizer products, Morgan Composting produces liquid fertilizers and worm castings. We were able to tour the vermi-composting area. It was stunning. Rows and racks of stacked worm bins filled with shredded paper and a food slurry to turn into castings. After 25 days, the bins are turned out onto the floor. Food is added to the far side to send the worms out of the casting bedding. This is done so the castings can be fed into a screen tumbler to separate the fine castings from the bulkier castings and any remaining worms.
Besides Dairy Doo, Morgan Composting offers worm castings, seed starter fertilizer, Healthy Garden Fertilizer, Healthy Lawn Fertilizer, and several more specialized products for flowers, vegetables, tomatoes, and more. In our region you can find Morgan Composting products at Four Season Nursery, Barker Creek Nursery and Pine Hill Nursery.
Note: Organic composts and fertilizers improve the soil, thereby providing nutrients for plants. Synthetic fertilizers feed the plant salt-based chemicals that do nothing to improve soil health, and in reality, degrades the soil health. While some see organic soil amendments as more costly, in the long run you are saving money by building healthier soil.