Finding the Right Habitat for Plants with Theodore Payne Foundation’s Lisa Novick

May 13, 2013

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JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome today to Green is Good. Today we’ve got Lisa Novick, the Director of Outreach and K-12 Education at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants. Welcome, Lisa, to Green is Good. LISA NOVICK: Thank you so much, John. I’m really happy to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Lisa, we’re so thrilled to have you on. This is such an important topic. I know so little about it. I just started studying about it in preparing for today’s show but this is something that I know our listeners are going to be so excited about. Talk a little bit about first of all the Theodore Payne Organization and what you do there. LISA NOVICK: What we do at Theodore Payne is we are a native plant nursery and education center. We are one of the only kinds of places on the planet. We’ve been contacted by people all over the world who want to do exactly what we’re doing. We’re a model for making greening possible because we give people the plants and then the education on how to plant them and how to make their yard into a habit for birds and all types of butterflies. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s wonderful and I’m on the site now and for our listeners out there who want to follow the site as you listen to Lisa’s great message, go to It’s a beautiful and wonderful and helpful website. Lisa, talk a little bit about plants. Aren’t all plants the same? Because I’m just a guy and I see plants and I’m thinking they come from the same place. They are the same. Talk a little bit about the whole plant world. LISA NOVICK: Okay well, green is good. That’s for sure but not all green is the same. Plants aren’t interchangeable when it comes to making habitat. In any part of the world, a native plant will support nature 10 times better than a non native so for example, in Los Angeles we don’t see many types of butterflies anymore because we’ve lost most of our native plants. We’ve landscaped with plants from every other part of the world and so our butterflies and birds are not here very much anymore because they’ve lost their sources of food. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about the interrelationship between plants and oxygen and carbon and what is the best kind of plants we can be taking care of in this world and hoping to promote? LISA NOVICK: All plants give us oxygen and they store carbon for sure but there’s so much more to it than that. Wherever people live in the world, they should plant the plant that comes from their region because the plants that come from their region have evolved special relationships with the butterflies and the birds and all other sorts of creatures that need those plants in order to live. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s interesting. I’m in the studios here in midtown Manhattan, 10 blocks from Central Park, and you’re in California, beautiful California, so talk a little bit about the differential, how the plants you’re saying are native to California are different from the ones I’d find in Central Park. LISA NOVICK: Right so if you’re in New York, you should plant New York natives. If you’re in California, you should plant a California native plant pallet and that’s for anywhere in the world and for instance, most caterpillars of butterflies can eat only one or two types of native plants anywhere on the planet and so if we don’t have those native plants to feed the caterpillars, then those butterflies will go extinct and then baby birds starve because caterpillars are the main food of baby birds. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Holy Toledo! So you’re saying there’s a huge domino effect in the issue of native plants. If we’re not promoting native plants enough, that whole domino effect kicks off the whole ecosystem in the wrong way. LISA NOVICK: Exactly and so that’s why, for instance in the United States, our bird populations are only 10 to 40% of what they were in 1970 so since I was a kid, there’s been this huge nosedive and that’s affecting everything and we need birds because birds are natural control for crop pests. Without birds, we have to use more pesticides and we know that’s no good. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow so how do we know though what’s native? Is that what we come and learn from Theodore Payne Foundation? Is this what you’re teaching? Because I wouldn’t know what’s native or should be native to New York and I wouldn’t know what should be native to Fresno, California, let’s say. LISA NOVICK: Here in California, we are very lucky because we have a lot of information on what the landscape looked like before the coming of the Europeans and if you go to our website, you can find the information about where the Redwoods still grow and used to grow or what Los Angeles used to look like with our oak woodlands and anywhere in the world, if people go on the web, they can find the information of what the natural landscape was and then they should find those plants in native nurseries and plant those plants in their yards because we need to plant the natives where we live for our own health and for the health of the land. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. Again, for our listeners who are just joining the show, Lisa Novick’s on here with us and she’s one of the leaders at Theodore Payne Organization. Go to It’s a beautiful website. I love the mission. “Our mission is to preserve, propagate, and promote California native plants and seeds and wildflowers as they provide beauty, habitat for wildlife, and water savings.” That’s a great mission. That is just great. Talk a little bit about places outside of New York and for instance, California, where you’re sitting today and where you work out of, cactus in other areas, potentially Phoenix. What should go on in areas like that? Same thing? LISA NOVICK: Exactly the same thing and I just want to clarify. So many people think that when I say plant native, I’m saying plant cactus. In California, only a small portion of California is desert. Los Angeles isn’t a desert. We have native oak, woodlands, fragrant sages, and currants and native types of lilac so for instance in California, we have over 6,000 species and subspecies of California native plants. It’s a treasure trove for landscaping and I’m sure every part of the world has that same thing and all California natives have flowers just like plants from any other part of the world so you can have a beautiful garden and then support butterflies and birds and have healthy soil and use much less water with the natives of your region because the natives, by their very nature, are adapted to the natural rain cycle. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You brought up a very important word that we’re all focused on now, wherever we sit in the world, water, and especially focused on in California. Talk a little bit about the drought that we have in California and in other parts of the world and how does that affect the issue of native landscapes and native plants. LISA NOVICK: In California, up to 70% of the water used by households is for landscaping and then 20% of our energy in California is used to move water from place to place and to make it safe to drink so if you think that 70% of this water is going on plants that are simply ornamental, plants that feed little or nothing, they don’t feed people, they don’t feed wildlife, it’s really kind of crazy so we should be spending water on plants that give us beauty with substance, plants that either feed people or wildlife and with the limited fresh water that we have on the planet — less than 1% is fresh water — we need to really use it wisely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and what’s your thoughts on the drought? You obviously get to talk to some of the best thought leaders in California and beyond. Is the drought here to stay or do you think it’s something that is going to go away in the near future? LISA NOVICK: Oh, I think the drought is here to stay because in California, 37 of the last 40 centuries were dry. We’ve had only three wet centuries in the last 4,000 years so drought is normal and rainy times are abnormal. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s interesting. Talk a little bit about Theodore Payne Foundation. Do you have colleagues across the United States and around the world that are doing similar things or is it so unique and indigenous to California and you’ve really become the leading organization on plants and native habitat in the world through the great works that you’re doing? LISA NOVICK: We are a leader and for instance, my cousin Joe, who lives in Fairfield, so here’s a shout-out to Joe, he came here and was so inspired by what The Foundation does that when he went back to Fairfield, he landscaped his entire yard with natives from the Connecticut region and it was pretty hard for him to find because there aren’t very many native plant nurseries in the northeast but he found them and his yard is now a habitat and he has so many more birds and butterflies in his yard than any of his neighbors. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Is this an issue that also hits everyone around the world? When you travel and when you talk to people around the world facing the similar issues that we have in California, whether they be drought or whether they be just getting enough natives planted in the communities that they should be in, is this an issue that’s also coming up in Brazil and in China and in England and all around the world? LISA NOVICK: Yes, it’s coming up everywhere in the world because people are realizing that we need our pollinators. We need insects and I’m not just talking about bees. I’m talking about beetles, butterflies, tiny little flies that are so small you can hardly see them. All these are pollinators that give us our food and for instance, in parts of China, they have used so many different types of pesticides that they’ve killed their pollinators and they have to hand pollinate their fig trees. Imagine how much each fig would cost if it is hand pollinated and that’s why we need to make sure we have a healthy environment that supports the pollinators because it’s for our own good, our well being. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is interesting. Going back to California, the sustainability revolution has kicked in now, Lisa, and it’s taking off more and more and as we pass on the torch to the next generation, they’re on fire for doing things the right way, doing things green and sustainably and water is on the top of everyone’s mind. Talk a little bit about how we can be better consumers and users of water vis-à-vis of course the important topics you’re discussing today, native plants and natural habitat that we live in. LISA NOVICK: First of all, get rid of your lawns. Wherever you are, if you have a lawn, only have it be fed by rain because we have, for all intents and purposes, killed the Colorado River. The Sacramento River Delta is in a really bad way and our aquifers are being reduced at a rate faster than the rain replacement rate so fresh water is really scarce and we can’t waste it and so if people are going to have a garden, gardens are wonderful. We need them for our emotional well being as well as for the habitat but they should ask themselves, ‘Am I planting something that’s either going to feed me or help nature?’ because nature is having a really hard time right now on the planet because there are fewer and fewer patches of wildlands left so we need to recreate wildlands as much as possible in our own yards, in the places where we live because for instance, in the United States, 55% of the U.S. is given over to suburban and urban areas and so we should plant those areas with the native plants to bring nature home. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re saying we’ve got to go back to native planting but you’re also sort of giving a message here,, and I’ve learned this through the readings that you’ve provided to us before we did this show today, that planting just for beauty if it’s non native isn’t really good for the environment. LISA NOVICK: That’s exactly right. It’s just ornamental. Beauty with substance is what you get with natives and we don’t have the water to waste on plants that are merely ornamental and there should be native plant nurseries on every part of the planet. This would be a great way to earn money because they’re not out there. This is a niche that is waiting to be filled. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about that because part of the goal focuses on solutions, talking about the issues and then trying to give solutions to our listeners can walk through a window, walk through a door, and actually take action. Where can our listeners out there — and they’re not only in the United States. They’re in other parts of the world — but for this discussion, where do you push our listeners to go buy natives? Where can they access the natives? LISA NOVICK: Here in Los Angeles, you can buy the natives at the Theodore Payne Foundation for instance, and we’re the best native nursery in southern California and then there are several other nonprofit native plant nurseries also in southern California as well as wholesale and retail native plant nurseries. As I said, in the northeast, there is a native nursery in the Birchers and I think several scattered around other parts of the northeast but it would be really up to people to find the organizations, the nonprofits, like the Connecticut Society for Wildflowers, for instance, get those seeds and start a native nursery from seeds or get a permit to gather cuttings from the forest from the forest service, start your native plant nursery from seeds and from cuttings and there you go. You’ve got a whole new green industry born that is truly green and doesn’t really on gadgets. It relies on nature. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’ve now called us out. We have a lot of potential and budding entrepreneurs out there that listen to our show and want to get motivated, want to get excited about the next new thing. You’re really saying this is the next new thing. This is a niche that needs to be done and there needs to be potentially a brand, a national native brand of stores across the United States selling native plants. LISA NOVICK: That is a fantastic idea and yes, that’s exactly right. Every school system across the United States should have education for the kids about what is native to that region so that kids know the nature of their place and then when they grow up, they’ll want to landscape with what the love because they understand it and so they won’t go to the big box stores that sell mostly non natives. They’ll instead say, ‘How can I support nature and do this right?’ because all well being in the future means that we should do this now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love that. Get the school children involved. You know Lisa, we’re down to the last two minutes or so and I do want to talk about our leadership, our city planners and politicians and others. What can they be doing to address the issues that you’ve so well brought up today? LISA NOVICK: What they should be doing, in a perfect world, they should be requiring native plant landscapes in every place possible, such as parks, schools. Here in Los Angeles, the LAPD headquarters for instance, was recently landscaped with lawn, which is very water intensive, and palm trees, which are an invasive non native, the kind that they used so that’s a perfect example of a place that is iconic visible place and imagine the good that it would do if people found natives there and then you could put educational signage up to say let the plants feed and how little water and energy they use so we need public places to be used as demonstration gardens to bring nature back to the city. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow so political leaders and city planners, school leadership also, everyone can get involved and make a difference here, you’re saying? LISA NOVICK: Right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it, I love it, I love it. Lisa, we’re down to the last minute or so. Do you have any final thoughts for our listeners out there to share with them right now? LISA NOVICK: Thank you so much for listening and plant native whenever and wherever you can because the well being of our kids and our grandkids depends on this. Use your water for plants that either feed people of wildlife. Have a beautiful native garden full of flowers and just have a wonderful life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. Lisa Novick, you’re so inspirational. You’ve given us a lot of knowledge and you’ve given us, more importantly, some great solutions for our leaders out there to do and for the individuals that are listening to this show to do both with their children and ways to get involved and plant more native, not only in their own backyard but in their own communities and we’re so appreciative for that and again, to learn more about Lisa’s great work and to get involved and be part of the solution, please go to the Theodore Payne website. It’s Lisa Novick, you are truly living proof that green is good.

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