Friday, May 20, 2022

Life & Style

Nature Offers a Sturdy Bookshelf for Winter Days






Some of us are snowbirds in winter, but I am more of a book bird. To the extent that winter forces me indoors, I fly across the room to my bookshelf. Here’s a sample of recent books on ecology, land care, trees, and plants that I’ve found useful, informative, and entertaining.

The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees

By Douglas Tallamy, Timber Press, 2021.

Many gardeners, pollinator advocates, and a host of other audiences know Dr. Douglas Tallamy for three books that show how to repurpose home and community landscapes to meet the needs of birds, pollinators, and other wildlife. I have learned from all his books, but I would describe his latest, The Nature of Oaks, as the most engaging yet.

Tallamy takes us on a month-by-month visit to the oaks in his backyard. He aims to offer a “monthly hint at the many parts of nature associated with the oaks in your yard,” he says. His writing style is down-to-earth, but his facts and figures come from a 40-year career as a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. The result is both entertaining and instructive.

Here’s the problem, as Tallamy sees it. He writes, “The oak in my front yard is not just another tree. In my county in Pennsylvania, 511 species of moths and butterflies develop on oaks—nearly 100 more species than their closest competitors, the native cherries. No other tree genus supports so much life.” The story is much bigger than moths and butterflies, however, encompassing everything from mammals and birds to aquatic life, insects, and countless microscopic organisms.

Yet, these large plants are often inconvenient to humans.

Why? Some oaks live a very long time, from 200 to 500 years, which is a problem when land uses change frequently. Many hate the lignin-rich leaves in yards and on sidewalks, which are very slow to decay. Some people still believe that oak leaves acidify soil (they do not). Tall trees can block street lamps, storefronts, or desirable views in densely populated areas or near waterfronts. Insects and diseases attack oaks, adding maintenance problems and expenses. Though healthy oaks are solid, stressed trees can drop limbs during heavy weather.

Even forest oaks struggle to regenerate. Deer browse, soil disturbances, storms, insects, and diseases challenge them as much as their urban relatives.

And then, there’s the changing climate.

Tallamy wisely dedicates the last part of the book to action-oriented topics, including how to plant an oak, the best oak species for the reader’s area, and a list of native oaks. I am looking forward to Tallamy’s fifth book, should he choose to share his immense talent and knowledge once again.

Deer Resistant Native Plants for the Northeast

By Ruth Rodgers Clausen and Gregory D. Tepper, Timber Press, 2021.

Now you see it, and now you don’t. That’s how many northeasterners experience their gardens due to an overabundance of deer—and it doesn’t matter whether the plants are native or non-native.

Public interest in native plants is more significant than ever, and this book aims to help us select ones that can overcome the mighty Bambi. The principles of deer resistance (and deer attraction) are the same whether a plant is native or not. However, from my work as a landscape designer, I know that few resources name deer-resistant native plants exclusively.

Co-author Ruth Rogers Clausen is no stranger to the subject; she wrote the popular 50 Beautiful Deer Resistant Plants (Timber Press, 2011). Co-author Gregory Tepper has been director of horticulture for several botanic gardens, including the Delaware Botanic Garden. There, he was instrumental in developing the two-acre garden designed by world-renowned designer Piet Oudolph.

The authors offer many tips and tricks, describing the factors that attract, repel, and confuse deer. They also discuss the devastating impact of deer on wild native plants and provide a list of vulnerable native perennials that need protection if you wish to grow them.

Here, however, I must add some nuance to the discussion. This book describes plants as “native” to the entire northeast, but plants are stubbornly indifferent to our geographic designations. Plants are native to ecoregions. Strictly speaking, the book may name attractive plants that are not native to your ecoregion.

Luckily, you can clarify this question by consulting two resources from Native Plant Trust. The first is Go Botany,, which identifies native plant status at the county level. The second is the Garden Plant Finder,, which generates lists based on selection criteria—including the broadest ecoregions. Our shoreline region, for instance, is entirely within the Northeastern Coastal Zone.

With native plant status in mind, this book is a valuable resource. It provides a handsome, detailed photographic guide to annuals, biennials, perennials, ferns, grasses, sedges, and shrubs that are likely to dodge Bambi’s hungry eyes.

Grasses, Sedges, Rushes: An Identification Guide

By Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman, Yale University Press, 2020.

Grasses lack flowers’ signature colors and forms, and to many people, grasses seem “all alike.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Worldwide, there are more than 10,000 grass-related species. Researchers estimate that grass covers 30 to 40 percent of the planet’s landmasses.

In 2020, two experts teamed up to help northeasterners increase our grass-savvy.

Lauren Brown, a long-time shoreline resident, wrote and illustrated the first edition of this book in 1979, and it is still widely used among amateur and professional botanists. Brown is also the author of Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter (Countryman Press, 2012), a helpful guide to the dried stalks that populate winter trails.

Co-author Ted Elliman wrote Wildflowers of New England (Timber Press, 2016), a delightful photographic guide I’ve used on many a walk. He has been affiliated with Native Plant Trust for many years and lives in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Brown and Elliman’s book explores 141 relatively common species found in 17 northeastern states. These grasses, sedges, and rushes are likely to be found on roadsides, along the margins of city parks, and in agricultural or post-agricultural landscapes. Many of the included plants are native, but others are not. For instance, the authors identify the tall, unmown form of common lawn grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass. They explain non-native invasive species, such as Japanese stiltgrass. Do you wonder if you have invasive grass on your landscape? The book is likely to help.

Grasses, Sedges, Rushes opens with a helpful introduction to grass biology, historic grass distribution in the U.S., and a guide to the structure of grass plants. Brown’s meticulous drawings are instructive, and clear color photographs round out the visual information. This practical, up-to-date guide will help you get to know a plant category that is often frustrating.

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

By Suzanne Simard, Knopf, 2021.

This book unfolds the journey that led to Dr. Simard’s remarkable research on chemical and nutrient transfers among forest trees. It is also her life story. If you are intrigued by the idea of “mother trees” and tree communications, there is no one better qualified than Simard to separate science from fantasy. Finding the Mother Tree received a National Outdoor Book Awards, 2021, in the natural history literature category.

The Woodchip Handbook: A Complete Guide for Farmers, Gardeners, and Landscapers

By Ben Raskin, Chelsea Green, 2021.

Woodchips are a key part of my favorite method for preparing overgrown landscape sites. Note, however, that woodchips are not the same in appearance or performance as decorative mulch. They are coarsely chipped mixtures of bark, trunk, branches, and leaves, usually produced from a chipper after tree trimming and removals. This research-based book increased my understanding of woodchip’s role in site preparation and provided insight into the value of woodchips in farming and soil restoration. There are even chapters about carbon capture using woodchips and woodchips for mushroom cultivation.

Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscape design, horticulture, and landscape ecology.

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