People are going wild in the backyards of Annandale
More than 300 households have earned Wildlife Habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation in a campaign orchestrated by the Fairfax County Park Authority's Hidden Oaks Nature Center. From impeccably groomed candidates for garden tour stops to riotous jungles of climbers and ground huggers, from 1,600 square foot townhouse plots to expansive half-acre spreads, all practice sustainable gardening and all offer wild visitors water, food, cover and places to raise young. Together, the collection qualified the 50 square miles of greater Mason District as a Community Backyard Habitat.
Ask Suzanne Holland, the assistant manager of Hidden Oaks, to identify the catalyst for the backyard habitat campaign, and she'll cite multiple danger signs that justify the need for intervention:
"We needed a grass-roots environmental initiative to counter the environmental degradation," Holland said. "The backyard habitat program also ties in with our mission to get kids outside. Children can help make backyards inviting and safe for wildlife, while gaining health benefits for themselves."
Education is the key. "We're seeking to create environmental stewards by teaching people how to protect our ecosystems for the next generation. ‘To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it,' she added, quoting Harvard biologist Edward Wilson. "In Mason District, that means moving away from yards that are ecological wastelands with little or no value to wildlife."
The educational thrust came not only from Hidden Oaks, which offered 35 public programs on habitat in two years, but also from partners like the nature center's Friends group, Home Depot, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, Earth Force, students in Northern Virginia Community College's parks and recreation classes and the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust.
Home Depot, for example, set up an Earth Day tent where hundreds of children made bug boxes while backyard habitat advocates promoted their favorite program as they distributed ladybugs to more than 500 families. Local nurseries were persuaded to provide and label native plants. Habitat advocates staffed information booths at community events and promoted the ideas through online and print media. The nature center set up an information kiosk, a resource library and two certified habitats on its grounds.
Scores signed on, including Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross. "The more I learned, the more I realized that I could qualify with a few small, inexpensive changes, so I joined the groundswell to improve the environment. I was surprised at how easy it was! As more people have realized that they don't have to manicure everything, we've made our Mason District community not only more inviting for wildlife, but better for everyone."
The campaign exceeded expectations. Habitats needed to be established at five schools and three common areas. Mason District boasts 13 and 11, respectively. And now, the champions of backyard habitat have successfully crowned Fairfax County with the National Wildlife's Community Habitat designation with over 1600 backyards, 69 community areas and 73 schoolyards certified. Based on population, Fairfax County is the second largest community in the nationwide program. Some join to help protect the planet. Some join for the sake of their children. Some want the front row seats for the drama of wild entertainment. And for most who've become natural resource stewards and turned their yards into havens for wildlife, it's all of those reasons and more.
"At first, I was so intimidated, but establishing a backyard habitat is much simpler than you think, once you start going down the list," said Rebecca Colegrove, community volunteer. Her children persuaded her to take the habitat challenge. Daughter Emily, now graduated from college and working at Hidden Oaks as a part-time naturalist, was an animal care volunteer from seventh grade through high school. Jonathon, a sophomore in high school, followed his sister's example; he's been helping with animal care at the nature center for the past three years. Thanks to their habitat advocacy, "the backyard is now wild, colorful and full of life," Rebecca reported. Mice, voles, possum, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits are regular visitors to the Colegrove family's half-acre wildlife sanctuary. A coyote pup ambled through one evening at twilight. "We get many foxes – beautiful foxes! I watched one curl up and take a nap in the sun. And deer – lots of deer. They don't damage the plants; they just sleep here."
Birds of multiple feathers – swallows, finches, sparrows, cardinals, jays, chickadees and morning doves – flock together just outside the kitchen window, attracted by the bright sunflowers and cone flowers that they share with butterflies. Dead trees, or snags, are left standing as invitations for insect hunting and nest building. "It's a great place to witness the circle of life," Rebecca noted.
She took her enthusiasm for backyard habitats to church, and Sleepy Hollow United Methodist launched a 10-week project that turned a dump at the back of the parking lot into a certified habitat, complete with paths, pond, native plants, toad abodes and butterfly meadow. "We had every age helping with the transformation, from four-year-olds to retirees. Early Sunday morning, we'd work, doing one little step at a time, and then we'd all go to church in our garden clothes. It was a great event, especially for ‘tweens and teens," Rebecca concluded. "People stop to comment, and that gives us a chance to proselytize on the environment's behalf. We want this movement to grow!"
Ten years ago, when Fairfax County School bus driver Liz Nalle and her husband tore down the old house on their lot in Annandale and put up a passive solar model in its place, they extended their resource protection commitment to the backyard. Designing with wildlife in mind, they added a small pond and native plants, and they were practically a backyard habitat before they ever heard of the campaign." It doesn't take much," Liz said. "A few plants and a little bird bath, and then stop spraying with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. We just aimed for what would have been growing here naturally, and we tried to make it pretty."
The high dappled shade of surrounding trees turns the yard into a glade in the woods, filled with asters, golden rod, Joe Pye weed, silphium, sunflowers, globe amaranth and other bright bloomers. Monarchs and swallowtails flutter between blossoms while larval plants – hackberry tree, milkweed, violets and sedges -- feed their caterpillar stages. A raccoon lives under a backyard tree, foxes pass through regularly and masses of tadpoles grow into a huge crop of frogs.
The backyard habitat doesn't take much maintenance, once it's established. But serious about holding the line for natives, Liz fights a never-ending battle with invasive English ivy, which she blames for deterring birds. "There's too much of it; the birds can't scratch around."
The benefit of the habitat campaign is in the aggregate – "not the individual yards but having the entire neighborhood certified," explained the former vice-president of the Friends of Hidden Oaks. "We're spreading the word and winning converts for conservation."
"Our native plants and wildlife are a gift. To ignore and neglect these treasures is a slap in the face to the force that put it all here," said Kim Arnette, preschool special education teacher.
So she and her husband ripped out "the nasty old deck" that served as the backyard for their townhouse, filled in with top soil, dug a small pond and set out trees and plants. Finally they added a small patio, a vantage point for admiring wildlife.
"We don't think of ourselves as gardeners. We're habitat keepers and allies of wildlife," Kim continued. "We can't clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or save the chimpanzees in Gambia, but we can create a little oasis for hummingbirds."
The wildlife theater in the backyard is a window on life-long education. "For adults, it can be a way to learn about wildlife that's been right in front of them for years. For kids, it lets them see what's going on and gives them a connection to nature," Kim said. "While their minds are still open, they learn they don't have to be afraid of bugs! The more you pay attention, the more you learn. It's just flat out exciting."
Kim follows the romance of George and Martha, as she's dubbed the morning doves who return to raise their family, one fledgling at a time. She glimpses life and death struggles between predator and prey. She catches the spring debut of dwarf speedwell, a tiny blue and white, four-petal flower that grows only a couple of inches tall. In the average close-clipped suburban lawn, the miniature blooms are mowed down before they can peep up above the grass. "It's amazing how much you take for granted, how much you don't see until you start a project like this."
Ask her for the benefits of backyard habitats and she can rattle off a list. "Educational opportunities. Peace. Drama. Backyard habitats have to increase home values – they're beautiful, natural and low maintenance. You cut back on chemicals and help save the Chesapeake Bay. It's a great way to get kids away from the computer . . . and then back to the computer to the National Wildlife Federation's web site on backyard habitat, where they can create a scrapbook and keep a species list and notes on what they see. The more people learn about the plants and other animals around them, the richer their own lives become."
Seeking backyard habitat certification was a natural progression for classical musician Elaine Baughman. She lives on the same piece of property where she grew up. "My parents came out here in 1948 to escape the chaos of the city. We were regular visitors to Shenandoah National Park, going once or twice a month, and they wanted nature around us, so when they built the house, they saved as many trees as possible."
For water source, she had a creek, and she already eschewed chemical pesticides, so all she needed were a few more native plants to provide food, and she was prepared for certification.
She's now surrounded by habitat houses, and the conglomeration attracts every type of wild thing that's found in the county. Elaine appreciates the birds, the butterflies and the intriguing insects like the preying mantis, but it is the wild mammals that she most cherishes. "It's nice to know they're still here."
And being in the center of a habitat bubble has blessings beyond the power to attract critters, she noted. The habitat advocates are a boon all to themselves. "Others with backyard habitats are always willing to help and advise. I can go to them with a problem, like ‘This plant is dying. What have I done wrong?' and they'll have the answer. Our habitat network, with Hidden Oaks Nature Center as the hub, is a great resource."
A lawyer with the Security and Exchange Commission, Scott Birdwell works primarily in Asia and Africa, promoting capital markets and striving to eliminate poverty for the millions of people who live on less than $1 a day. He sees loss of species and habitat destruction everywhere, "and it hurts," he affirmed. "Ecosystems are such masterpieces, the product of millenniums and just as gorgeous as great pieces of art."
He feels a personal responsibility for the loss of these natural treasures, abroad and at home, and that prompted him to turn a half-acre yard into wildlife habitat, where he "de-stresses and reconnects" on his return to Annandale. For the president of the Friends of Hidden Oaks, that sense of responsibility was also the catalyst that led him to propose and champion the drive for community habitat designation. "This helps because it educates. We need a natural connection in order to understand the awe, beauty and morality of nature. If we bring it into our yards, we come to appreciate it, and that's particularly important for our kids because it's not easily acquired later in life. We need to see the spark in children, that natural curiosity in their eyes."
His girls, six-year-old Lana and eight-year-old Ava, have the spark. They go adventuring every time they walk out the door. "They never know what they're going to find. They're fascinated!" Scott reported. "There's no substitute for spying on a preying mantis or catching frogs. It opens their minds; they know how nature operates."
They see black snakes and red foxes. Rabbits hop here and there. Deer browse through. Wood frogs live in the window wells, and the resident box turtle will take worms from their hands. They've watched a hawk hurtle down from the clouds to grab a rat from underneath a bird feeder. "The black snakes, foxes and hawks keep the rats in balance," noted Scott. "They haven't bothered anything," he explained, catching his listener's shiver of distaste. "Even rats have their place."
But not invasive non-native plants. Like other habitat enthusiasts, Scott wages "eternal battle" against alien invaders such as English ivy and Japanese stilt grass. He uproots them annually and fills the empty spaces with spice bush, virburnums, franklinia (now extinct in the wild) and other natives that provide food for wildlife. And he's a tireless protector of the little waterway that winds just 20 feet from the backdoor. "Everything flows down hill and into the Chesapeake Bay, so we have an obligation not to let additional pollutants into our streams. I'm an angler and a boater, and I'm catching deformed male bass, which have female sex organs. A clear sign that something's going very wrong with water quality. Ten years ago, we had salamander larvae in the stream; now there are zero salamanders. The water doesn't run continuously. It gushes after a rain, a torrent as opposed to a normal slow release, thanks to all the impervious surface we're creating."
Backyard habitat creates teachable moments for addressing these and other environmental threats, Scott contends. "It's so remarkable when you see that every plant has its favorite place, dependent on factors like pH, sunlight, clay soil or loose soil. The trick with native plants is to understand their habitat and create it in your own yard."
He's obviously found those favorite places of plants. His habitat is a jungle, albeit a controlled jungle, where everything thrives and multiplies. Scott gives the credit to natural fertilizes and compost, AKA leaves. His stay on the ground. In fact, he collects leaf bags from throughout the neighborhood to scatter on the Birdwell family's yard. "We use the mower to chew them up, and then the worms take them down into the ground. Consequently, we can't stop things from growing here. Forests get all their nutrients from leaves – we've just taken a lesson from nature."
"I'm certified, and I'm proud!" announced Mike Baker, pointing to the National Wildlife Federation's sign in the front yard of his home on a quiet Falls Church cul-de-sac. "I've got allergies, so no pets. Having wildlife around is a good alternative."
Bird houses in fanciful and original designs ranging from castles to cottages ring the backyard. "In the winter, when I get cabin fever, I'm inspired to build," explained the self-employed handyman. "The reward comes in the spring when I see the heads pop out." The score of avian residences have resulted in 70 successful nestings – sparrows, chickadees, wrens, hawks, morning doves -- and he can count more than 50 birds at a time at his feeders. He recognizes regulars – the cardinal, a three-season returnee, that's missing feathers on the top of the head; the sparrow with the white spot that will approach to within a foot, knowing that this is the human who hands out bread. Robins mass 100 strong to peck for worms around the hot tub. Neighborhood crows know his truck, and they come cawing, following the pick-up down the street and into the driveway.
From the stone pond built in a shaded corner, bullfrogs add their deep bellows and croaks to an evening's serenade. "Bull Durham, Bull Weevle, Bull Crap and Bull Loney," Mike noted, chuckling "Our bullfrogs are all different sizes so we can tell them apart.
A big gray heron and raccoons stop by to pull fish from the pond, and a chipmunk family visits regularly to drink at the waterfall. "The chipmunks own the pond! They'll sit up and glare at strangers as if to ask, ‘What are you doing here?'
So picture perfect that it could win a spot in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, this habitat is manicured, orderly and weed free. But Mike swears that the upkeep is minimal. "I prepare the beds in the spring, deadhead through the summer and clean up in the fall. It really doesn't take much to maintain." As for the toil of establishing the array of beds and bowers, "that was done little by little. When I see a hole, I put in a plant, and if it lives, I take care of it."
Mike discounts the effort, insisting that the work of habitat establishment is more than balanced by the rewards. "It's fun. It's educational. I'm really into it because wildlife is company to me – better than TV!"
"We needed a little wilderness of our own, a sanctuary and a quiet place to watch wildlife and gaze at the stars" said Mona Enquist-Johnston, explaining the impetus for her backyard habitat. It is to be expected when she and her husband Gary are naturalists. (She's retired from the Fairfax County Park Authority; he's retired from the National Park Service.)
It was the yard, a slice of serenity with towering trees, that caught their eye when they were house hunting in 1985. Grape vines and elderberries, originally planted to support the couple's wine-making hobby, were soon supporting wildlife instead of the vintners. Friends gave them native plant cuttings and seeds, and wildlife accepted the invitation to stop and eat for a spell. By the 1990s, they abandoned their vegetable garden when the squirrels proved to be the faster harvesters. "Instead of tomatoes, zucchini and beans, we sowed herbs and flowers to attract different stages of nectar and seed feeders."
Cardinal flowers, trumpet vines, impatiens, native honeysuckle, elder berries, button bush, ramps, spice bush, golden rod, Joe Pye weed, iron weed, asters, bluebells, trout lilies, cone flowers, black-eyed Susan, wild ginger, wild geraniums and more compete for the attention of birds and pollinators. Dill and parsley are planted for caterpillars to munch. Hummingbird feeders, bird feeders and bird houses invite avian visitors to hang around. Roosting boxes and feeding platforms bring in flying squirrels. Toads hop, snakes slither, deer amble, possums scurry and foxes dart.
The variety of heights, textures and colors makes the wild space seem much bigger than it is. "We don't spend a lot of time on maintenance. Native plants don't require much attention – they take care of themselves," Mona said. "We thin things out every once in a while to keep particular plants from over-running everything. The work is controlling what we have and experimenting with new plants.
"It's a haven for wildlife . . . and ourselves," she continued. "Our yard is our window on the natural world. We've observed wild male rabbits putting on courtship displays for Nibbles, our domestic bunny. We've watched a garter snake chow down on a toad – that was painfully slow! I've even had a hummingbird land on my bright orange shoelaces. Every day becomes an opportunity to watch, learn and smile."