Homeowners save wildlife by creating a green network across Northern Virginia

By Leigh Pickering

In the past month, seven local properties have joined the ranks of homeowners creating a green network for wildlife in Arlington and Alexandria. This critical work is intended to blunt the impact of habitat loss in our area by providing small sanctuaries desperately needed for the survival of wildlife in our increasingly urban environment. The properties range in size and style from a narrow lot in Old Town Alexandria to a wooded ravine and intermittent stream just above Chain Bridge.

The Audubon at Home program seeks to make every home a wildlife sanctuary by certifying that each property works to achieve the goals stated in the Healthy Yard Pledge. The Healthy Yard Pledge is an amalgamation of many of the topics covered in our Master Naturalist Training. The five points of the pledge include:

1. Remove invasive exotic plants.
2. Reduce or eliminate pesticide and fertilizer use.
3. Conserve and protect water, waterways and water quality.
4. Install native plants to support the local food chain.
5. Support wildlife with water, cover and food to the extent possible.

Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) is a great evergreengroundcover for a hot sunny area. Here, on a south- facing slate patio. groundcover for a hot sunny area. Here, on a south- facing slate patio.

Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) is a great evergreen groundcover for a hot sunny area, shown here on a south- facing slate patio.

In addition to the Health Yard Pledge, participants complete an application which documents the presence of Audubon-approved native fauna species on the property. The final step in completing the certification process includes the scheduling a visit from an “Audubon at Home Ambassador” who discusses and reviews the various elements of the property’s conservation landscape. Upon completion of these steps, the owner’s property will be certified as an Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary. This certification reflects that “the animals decided” that the reviewed property has most of the elements needed to sustain the animal’s lives – a not-insignificant achievement!

Each property has its own unique features, attributes and challenges. In the Old Town example, the property has limited space and overhead wires (representing a challenge for tree selection in the hot, west- facing front yard). The homeowners had just finished removing a reinforced concrete slab from the backyard (by hand!) and were preparing to install a plan they had created at the Master Gardeners Landscape Seminar series. Their plan will direct rainwater away from the foundation and into a small rain garden across the patio from a small meadow. The owners reported that this property had skinks which likely had been living with, and feeding on, the extensive ant colonies found beneath the (former) slabs.

One Arlington couple is successfully removing numerous invasive plant species from their own property (but unfortunately have a neglected adjacent property providing a constant seed, vine and rhizome source for new invasive plants). Another challenge they face (as do many of us) is converting a traditional landscape to one using native plants and a softer look while blending with the existing homes in the area. Repetition of several types of plants and the use of multiples of each species helps to avoid the somewhat messy “one of each” look that is common in many native plant gardens. Additionally, multiple plants of each type provide a much better buffet for pollinators.

Lesser Celandine is also blooming now. It is very difficult to eradicate without herbicides.

Lesser Celandine is also blooming now. It is very difficult to eradicate without herbicides.

Golden Ragwort is a beautiful plant in flower and makes an effective groundcover even in dry shade conditions.

Golden Ragwort is a beautiful plant in flower and makes an effective groundcover even in dry shade conditions.

Another Arlington property is sited on a hilltop in the Chain Bridge neighborhood. This site has to contend with more of an exposed, drier location than many others. It also suffered major tree losses in last year’s derecho. One of the most unique features of this site is the presence of many mature and immature Sassafras trees which the homeowner has retained in the planting of the gardens (hugely beneficial to migratory birds).

A second Chain Bridge area property is presented with a huge challenge by virtue of being the recipient of stormwater from almost four acres of surrounding homes. The site has a ravine with an intermittent stream that runs the length of the property. The homeowners are successfully addressing some erosion issues with native plants purchased from Earth Sangha, including Wild Rye (Elymus), Red and Black Chokeberry (Aronia) and Alder (Alnus), among others. Structural additions, such as logs to create water pools, are planned to help mitigate the force of the stormwater during rain events. Additionally, the owners seek to create habitat specifically for Herps (lizards, frogs, snakes) for the enjoyment of, and study by, their child.

The fox den found on another Arlington site (not far from Tuckahoe Elementary School) was a happy surprise.

Fox den in hillside.

Fox den in hillside.

This property has a steep slope in the rear, anchored by azaleas, where several large den entries are located.

Rear hill with Azalea, Mountain Laurel and many species of Ferns.

Rear hill with Azalea, Mountain Laurel and many species of Ferns.

The lower half of the property contains a system of stream channels dug by the previous owner which directs runoff from rainstorms. The moist site provides for an abundance of many types of mature ferns, wildflowers and cultivated plants near the lower end of the rear yard. Lesser Celandine is a big problem for this property as it blankets most of these same moist areas. These owners intend to add meadow plants and vegetables to their current front yard (which now contains mostly turf).

In all, each of these sites represents a concerted effort at conservation of natural resources – soil, water, flora and fauna. Animals do take notice. As the nascent, yet burgeoning “green networks” promoted by the Audubon at Home program demonstrate, no part of the network of life is too insignificant.

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