Home & Design: Certified wildlife habitats bloom throughout Fairfax County

Almost 2,000 Fairfax County households have forsaken clipped lawns and exotic plants to embrace gardens filled with indigenous trees, shrubs and wildflowers that naturally attract birds, bees and butterflies.


By Deborah K. Dietsch

The big sliding glass door in the rambler’s kitchen frames a view of four tubular bird feeders staked near unruly bushes and a vine-draped arbor. “Some days, we could use a traffic controller in the yard,” says Gary Johnston,pointing to the arriving flock. Wrens swoop down to join a red-bellied woodpecker on a feeder, then take off to land on a native honeysuckle bush.

Soon, a towhee and a chickadee pop in before flying to a spot near a persimmon tree. “It’s better than watching TV,” says Gary’s wife, Mona Enquist-Johnston, grabbing binoculars to get a closer look.

The Johnstons have spent their careers as naturalists — he at the National Park Service and she at the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Now retired, they use their expertise to cultivate their Annandale back yard as a wildlife sanctuary.

The couple and almost 2,000 Fairfax County households have forsaken clipped lawns and exotic plants introduced from Asia and Europe to embrace indigenous trees, shrubs and wildflowers. These low-maintenance gardens, certified as wildlife habitats by the National Wildlife Federation, are landscaped to naturally attract birds, bees and butterflies.

The Johnstons had originally attempted to grow vegetables and grapes but switched in the mid-2000s to nectar-producing plantings for hummingbirds and insects. Many of these flowers and shrubs are native vegetation that flourished before the arrival of settlers during the 1600s.


Scott Birdwell’s yard features native plantings. (Scott Birdwell)

The dense, informal plantings include native asters and allspice, wild geraniums and witch hazel. Nearly every leaf, flower and berry plays a role in attracting pollinators and birds.

In 2008, the couple had the garden certified by the Reston-based National Wildlife Federation as a backyard wildlife habitat (for information about the NWF and other certification programs, click here). They paid $20 and filled out an online application noting the ways in which their property provides four fundamental elements to support local fauna: Food is supplied year-round by the native plantings; water is available in two birdbaths; and shelter and places to raise young are found in the piles of twigs and branches collected from the yard and heaped into impromptu structures.

The Johnstons, who live in a hot spot for wildlife habitats — more than 300 nearby households are certified — appreciate the NWF program’s benefits. “It helped us to make sure what we were planting and providing was right,” says Gary, 65. Adds Mona, 63: “It’s all about celebrating the joy of nature — watching a praying mantis capturing a butterfly or a hummingbird drawing nectar.”

The 40-year-old NWF program is one of several such initiatives started by conservation and landscape groups.The NWF has certified more than 160,000 wildlife habitats in the United States. There are about 5,000 in the Washington area, with 1,921 in Fairfax County.

The movement to increase native biodiversity has even spread to the nation’s most urban areas. In February, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a bill requiring the city’s parks department to select plants native to New York, rather than exotic species, for all city-owned property.

“In communities all across the country, people are seeing green spaces disappear, which means less and less habitat for local wildlife,” says Roxanne Nersesian Paul, senior coordinator of community and volunteer outreach at the National Wildlife Federation. The organization’s certification programs, she says, are not only intended to preserve native species but also to help humans “by connecting us better to nature.”

g06136529899Certification does not offer any tax benefits, nor is it intended to increase property values, according to Paul, “but I have heard of many instances of people using the certification in real estate ads to sell their homes.”

Homeowners Margaret Anderson and Bruce McConnell, both 63, certified their property in 2006 as a statement against insensitive development in their wooded Annandale neighborhood where small ranch houses are being replaced with McMansions. “There are other ways to build,” says Anderson, a life coach. “When we added to our house, we bumped out here and there to preserve the native trees and bring the outside in.”

She leads a walk through the clusters of tall red oaks, dogwoods and hickories at the edges of her property. Bird feeders are strategically positioned so the couple can view cardinals and blue jays from ground-floor windows. A small pool, just deep enough for the birds, lies beyond a stone patio.

Anderson says habitat certification “is a way to encourage neighbors to pay attention to the wildlife around us. You can learn a lot from nature, how everything works together.”

The neighbor who persuaded Anderson and McConnell to certify their yard, the aptly named Scott Birdwell, has championed the backyard wildlife habitat program for a decade. On a tour of his garden, Birdwell shows off a cultivated Franklin tree, a species named for Benjamin Franklin that is now extinct in the wild, and a patch of papaws. He crosses a wooden bridge over the stream winding through the property to dense plantings of oak trees and viburnum shrubs. A chipmunk and several deer scamper away at the sound of footsteps. In a small pond, a spotted salamander is laying eggs in the shallow water.


A pile of brush provides shelter for animals and a place to raise their young. (Scott Birdwell)

“The goal is to have controlled wildness,” Birdwell says.

A lawyer with the Security and Exchange Commission, Birdwell, 51, traces his habitat advocacy to his paternity leave, when he frequently visited the nearby Hidden Oaks Nature Center with his infant daughter, Ava.

In 2003, when the Fairfax County Park Authority cut its budget and reduced public visiting hours in the nature center, Birdwell and 250 of his neighbors organized to protest. After the group, the Friends of Hidden Oaks Nature Center, succeeded in restoring access and staff to the park, its leaders turned to the National Wildlife Federation for help in preserving more neighborhood landscapes. “We took courses at their headquarters to learn more about the program and how to help people certify their yards,” says Birdwell, who serves as president of the Friends.

Over the next several years, the volunteers registered their own back yards and persuaded hundreds in Fairfax County to follow suit. The group even persuaded Home Depot stores in the area to carry native plants.

The campaign led the National Wildlife Federation in 2010 to certify a 20-square-mile area in Fairfax County, known as the greater Mason District, as a community wildlife habitat. This designation recognizes more than 300 back yards, along with parks, community gardens, places of worship and school properties, as supportive of local flora and fauna. A year later, the federation certified all of Fairfax County as a community wildlife habitat, one of 65 such habitats across the country. (Other local certified community habitats include Arlington County, Broadlands, Reston, Great Falls, South Riding and Takoma Park.)

Realtor Kevin Holland, 58, who helped lead the Mason District effort, and his wife, Suzanne, 57, assistant manager of the Hidden Oaks Nature Center, certified their Falls Church property in 2005, after slowly replacing exotic species with dogwood, redbud and fringe trees.


A woodpecker takes off from a feeder.


A robin bathes in the stream.

The next year, the Hollands added a sunroom to the back of their rambler and built a small pond with a waterfall to attract toads and tree frogs. “During the evenings, we will see a parade going down to the pond,” Kevin Holland says.

Other wildlife-friendly elements in their yard include a butterfly garden with cardinal flowers, purple coneflowers, buttonbush, milkweed and joe-pye weed, and native ferns bordering the driveway. Piles of brush under the treehouse built for their son, Chris, now 27, provide shelter for visiting foxes and possums; and a recycled pickle barrel collects rainwater for irrigating the garden during summer.

“My approach to gardening is Darwinian,” Suzanne Holland says. “It’s all about the survival of the fittest. Once native plants are established, they take care of themselves. They don’t need fertilizer or plant food.”

“We aren’t talking about a lot of work or a major change,” Kevin Holland says. “Most people have already done the things necessary for certification. The hardest is providing a water source, but you can do that with a birdbath — even on a condo balcony.”

Homeowners transitioning to native gardens do, however, face challenges: selecting authentic natives, deciding what to do with mature plantings and determining garden aesthetics.

Not all wild species billed locally as native are indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic. The popular coneflower (echinacea) comes from the Southern Central region, and oakleaf hydrangea hails from the Deep South,says William McLaughlin, curator of plants at the U.S. Botanic Garden. “There are a great many continental species that are sold as ‘native’ to gardeners from California to Maryland, regardless of what region they are actually from,” McLaughlin says.


Scott Birdwell scoops up some tadpoles from the pond in his back yard.

And for practical reasons, many homeowners choose to respect existing plantings, some exotic, while introducing native species.

“I am not a purist. I have a Japanese maple that is at least 40 years old. I am not going to cut it down,” says Leslie Sturges, 52, a naturalist with the Montgomery County Parks Department who rehabilitates diseased bats on her days off. Sturges and husband Rich, 52, a naval architect, live in a leafy Annandale neighborhood where the streets are named for noted conservationists, though, she says, “the environmentally conscious flavor has been lost over the years as covenants have expired.”

Since the early 2000s when they certified their yard, the two have yanked invasive ivy and slowly replanted flower beds with natives such as ninebark shrub, mallow and bee balm.

But, Sturges notes, natives usually aren’t as pretty as exotics. In fact, native-heavy gardens, lacking the pizzazz of showy blooms, can look indistinguishable from fields or woodlands.


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For that reason, Sturges has held onto daffodils and forsythia, along with ornamental hollies and star magnolias. “There has to be a balance between being a gardener and running a nature park,” she says. “As long as the plants are good neighbors, not invasive or harmful to wildlife, they should be allowed to grow.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a frequent contributor to The Post’s Real Estate section.

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