THE BACKYARD REVOLUTION: How Native Plants Can Save Children and Other Endangered Species

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book, "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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I was intrigued when I first heard that my local natural history museum was considering handing out packets of seeds to schoolchildren so that they might plant their own backyards with native vegetation to attract butterflies — thus helping bring back butterfly migration routes.

There was something enchanting about this plan — the idea of entering intimate participation in the life currents of the world, through the modest doorway of a suburban backyard or window box in an inner city.

These currents swirl around and over and through our lives. And yet, most of us are far more aware of the signals of our mobile phone and computer networks.

What if we were equally aware of the timing and routes of, say, monarch butterflies, those that breed in North America and each year migrate over a thousand miles to spend the winter in a small patch of pine forest in Mexico? Or the Neotropical birds — the wood thrushes, cerulean warblers, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, and Baltimore orioles on the wing from Kentucky to the Andes?

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What if we were to take part in these migrations by nurturing a planting a few feet from the barbecue grill? That grill, that yard, would then be connected to something large, magnificent, and not entirely explicable.

Habitat fragmentation and degradation are disrupting those routes at unprecedented rates, but Doug Tallamy believes that we can do something about that, and we can at least help salvage — or build — the biodiversity of our continent, from our back yards.Tallamy is professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.

I highly recommend his book, “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.”

A modest, self-efacing man, he offers this radical idea: the site of North America’s resurgent biodiversity is in your back yard, and your family has power: “My central message is that unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems, the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim.” He tempers this gloomy prediction with two points of optimism: “First and foremost, it is not yet too late to save most of the plants and animals that sustain the ecosystems on which we ourselves depend. Second, restoring native plants to most human-dominated landscapes is relatively easy to do.”

For the first time in history “gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important layers in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now in the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to ‘make a difference.'”

In this case, he says, the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.” Analyzing data from all over the world, one researcher found a one-to-one relationship between species loss and loss of native habitat. An example: In Delaware, 40 percent of all native plant species are threatened or extinct; 41 percent of native birds that depend on native forest cover are rare or gone. Save a native plant, save a native bird.

Photo by Doug Tallamy
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“Unless we modify the places where we live, work, and play to meet not only our own needs but the needs of other species as well, nearly all species of wildlife native to the United States will disappear forever,” says Tallamy. Such predictions of mass extinction are typically based on the assumption that the vast majority of plants and animals cannot coexist with humans in the same place at the same time.

“Nonsense!” he says. “Evidence suggests that the opposite is true: most species could live quite nicely with humans if their most basic ecological needs were met. Yes, some species such as the cougar, gray wolf, and ivory-billed woodpecker are just too reclusive to become our fellows. But countless others could live sustainably with us if we would just design our living spaces to accommodate them.”

He adds, “Many non-natives attract some nature (particularly pollinators),  but productive natives attract much more. Only natives enable you to bring vibrant, diverse ecosystems to your yard.”

Tallamy and his colleagues have begun the large, controlled and overdue research projects that are needed to nail down his case and lead to broad-scale action. But the preliminary data is beginning to accumulate: “So far, the results provide exciting support for gardeners who have already switched to natives or who are enthusiastic about doing so.”

If Tallamy’s hypothesis turns out to be right, these gardeners can and will “‘change the world’ by changing what food is available for their local wildlife.”

Purity is not required. Nor is “native” always easy to define, particularly as climate change begins to move species. But building biodiversity does create resilience, and that’s the main point. Even if you leave some of the lawn in place, you and your children can trim it with plants that enhance biodiversity, add to the beauty of your property, and grow the seeds of hope.

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Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle.”



Other Resources

 A Case for Native Gardening: Doug Tallamy video

Bringing Nature Home

How to Create a Neighborhood Butterfly Zone and Homegrown National Park

David Suzuki Foundation Heads Plan to Turn Toronto’s Ward 19 into Canada’s Largest Homegrown National Park

Can Children and Families Help Bring Back the Monarch?

Child-Friendly Lawns and Gardens: Ten Things You Can Do to Reduce Hidden Chemical Risks

True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City

The Botanical City: Could Where You Live Become the Most Nature-Rich City in the World?

The Botanical City: Part 1

What If We Truly Greened America? 5 Ways to Build a Botanical City

Green Play to Green Pay

Photo of the girl and butterfly is by Doug Tallamy.



  1. I followed your tweet about this article and I had to tell you how much I appreciate your spreading this vital information.

    Both you and Doug Tallamy have made an enormous contribution to my personal outlook with your books. Thank you so much for this article and all that you do.

    Doug Tallamy was on my thesis committee when I wrote “Conservation Gardening and Sustainable Landscaping” and his ideas and his advice played a critical role in that work. It is amazing that when we make positive choices to benefit wildlife in our gardens, even the smallest action can have a huge benfit.

    Just a note, your RSS feed appears to be broken. I wanted to subscribe, but am unable to.

  2. Thanks for the inspiring post.

  3. I really like your blog and i respect your work. I’ll be a frequent visitor.

  4. Thank you for this! My kids have been enjoying all of the bugs we’ve never seen before on the swamp milkweed on the edges of our yard (and the monarchs), and I’m enjoying the lack of maintenance.

  5. The idea of a “Backyard Revolution” is interesting and can bring together all homeowners to do their part in protecting and preserving nature. People do not realize that where their home stands today could once have been a forest, farm, or wildness. Professor Tallamy’s point that “Like it or not, gardeners have become important layers in the management of our nation’s wildlife” makes sense because home gardens are located in areas where nature has been devastated. Any improvement to home gardens such as using native plant species will help bring back nature exactly where it is missing the most. I am always amazed by the quantity and variety of chemical products sold in hardware stores for killing garden pests and weeds. It is a sign of the unbalance of the ecosystem in our backyards where certain animals multiply too much because there is not a natural predator. This shows that our backyards are sick because they need so many chemicals to survive. What native species are recommended for our backyards in the bay area of California?

  6. Introduced plants, like Queen Anne’s Lace (from which our carrots were developed), yarrow, zinnias, dandelions, Butterfly bush, and a thousand others are ALSO good for children and living creatures. Just because they are not yankee-doodle-dandy plants does not make them any less attractive as nectar sources to pollinators. Yes, we need native plants to serve as larval food sources that in turn make butterflies, moths and tons of food for baby birds. But most folks cannot afford the costs to go all native, or don’t have the land to plant enough natives that will supply nectar spring thru fall, so friendly introduced species play as important a role in nectar supply as does the native foliar ones. Both are important. It’s not black/white, either/or.

    What I see a lot of lately on native plant purist sites is the bashing of gardeners that plant friendly non-natives. What kind of talk is that? It will take all of us, ALL OF US, from all socio-economic levels, rural to urban, 1%ers to 99%ers to correct, stabilize and save this big mess we’ve made of the environment with over population, over development, overuse of natural resources – virtually everything man is involved with: over the top.

    I continually promote native plants in my public talks. I also ask for a show of hands of those [not living on the coasts] who have been told by native plant sellers to destroy their Buddlejas. Thus far, 107. 107 nectar-rich, lovely, aromatic, affordable, easily available, easy to grow butterfly nectar bushes that were in no danger of naturalizing. Is this REALLY the message the native plant lobby wants to send?

    Doug Tallamy says in his own voice (thus not misquoted) on Timber Press audio that he doesn’t expect 100% native species – that add native trees are the biggest biodiversity bang for the buck. Then why are native plant purists bashing the rest of us? Why?

  7. There is a wonderful website where children and anyone interested in nature can go and follow many migrations including the monarch butterfly. Click on “record observation” and you can put a dot on a map to show if you have seen monarchs or robins or other migrations. You get a colored dot. Each week is a different color so you can track these migrations in real time. There is much more on this website, absolutely outstanding. it is an Annenberg project. I promise you will love it.

  8. This reminds me of how Lady Bird Johnson brought environmentalism down to the personal level. It wasn’t something distant for most people like “Save Lake Erie”. It was beautifying your local environment with native wildflowers which had the added byproducts of saving water, soil, plants, and animals.

  9. Prof. Tallamy is my hero–his work as illustrated on his website , article “Gardening for Life,” and book, Bringing Nature Home–inspired me to develop MEADOWSCAPING FOR BIODIVERSITY, a three-season environmental education program for middle school students. . Meadowscaping provides middle school youth with real-world experiences
    in STEAM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), while inspiring and empowering them to address challenges to the environment and our society. Challenges include getting children outdoors for recreation, learning, and contemplation, lack of biodiversity, climate change, invasive species, pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

    Our summer project, resulting in the first, youth-made, native-plant meadow in Waltham, MA., was a terrific success!

    Our “meadow makers” (six students) enjoyed creating a beautiful and welcoming home for pollinators and birds, while learning about water, soil, pesticides, native vs. non-native and invasive plants and sustainable ecosystems. They are proud to call this “their meadow” and look forward to monitoring and stewarding the site into the fall! Yes, in under eight weeks we have begun to create a Waltham corps of young citizen scientists!

    Second, we received nice coverage about this project from the Waltham News Tribune. Here’s a link we hope you’ll share:

    Our meadow is located on the east lawn of Christ Church Episcopal,and Rev. Sara Irwin, one of our most ardent supporters, was so impressed by the project’s educational, environmental, and aesthetic outcomes, that she has invited us to continue our Meadowscaping activities through next year and use this site (750 Main St, Waltham) for further teaching, recruiting and marketing purposes.

    We will be hosting several events this fall for teachers, students, community leaders and members of the public, including a celebration-dedication day. Write us, and we’ll let you know when we set the date!


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