Twenty-six years ago, when Carol and Jay Hadlock moved into their house in Herndon, their land was as brown and flat as a pancake, just as it is in many new communities.
"Nothing," Carol Hadlock recalled of the yard, which had been part of a dairy farm. "Absolutely nothing there."
They thought they would start by putting in a vegetable garden. A lot has happened since then. Now their mid-size yard is a veritable wildlife feeding station, planted with berries, fruits, wildflowers and shrubs for the benefit of birds, butterflies and critters. Yet it retains a landscaped look, without the unkempt weediness that might irritate the neighbors.
The Hadlocks' yard, already certified as a backyard habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, also is a charter member of a new program offered by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia called Audubon at Home. The idea is to offer homeowners and other property owners help in making yards, office parks and other built-up land more environmentally friendly. Creating more wildlife habitat, they hope, will offset some of the impact of development in one of the nation's fastest growing regions.
Audubon at Home is part of a larger movement to encourage landscaping that saves water, minimizes the use of lawn, employs native plants as much as possible, discourages invasive nonnative plants that can crowd out beneficial local species on which birds, insects and animals depend, and tries to eliminate harmful fertilizers and pesticides. The result puts less stress on the environment and makes a home for wildlife as development gobbles up habitat.
"We've been trying to point out exemplary sites around Northern Virginia, from Prince William to Loudoun to the inner counties," said Jim Waggener, director of the local program, which is patterned after a nationwide effort by the National Audubon Society. "This is a very intimidating process for people looking at a turfgrass slate when they move in."
He described one of the program's goals as "conserving the bits that we have left."
Audubon at Home got started nationally in 2003 with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It includes tours, open houses, workshops, a Web site and demonstration projects. More than 50 sites are enrolled around Northern Virginia. A video documentary is in the works, and a newly published book, "The Nature of Change," with advice and photos, will be distributed to libraries and other sites around the country. The federal grant will carry the program through next year, after which Audubon will seek private and corporate sponsorship.
The Hadlocks' home was the first stop on an Audubon at Home bus tour last month. The tour ended at Sunrise Valley Park, located in a Reston office complex owned by Trammell Crow Co. A man-made marsh built a decade ago, the wetlands park now is being augmented with a border of native plants. The tour also included three sites -- a Reston neighborhood, a park and an elementary school -- that are not part of Audubon at Home but exemplify the practices the program encourages.
The Hadlocks have a pond that birds bathe in. There is a row of berry trees, grown from seeds dropped by birds. The front yard has a woodland garden with spicebush and viburnum, beloved by butterflies. There is a wild patch along the back fence with ironweed, milkweed, goldenrod and other plants that help birds and butterflies. The blueberry bushes along the back of the house are covered with protective netting so that people can enjoy the crop, while the bushes in the main garden are left for the birds.
"A lot of it was trial and error," Carol Hadlock said. They planted a silver maple, which sheds a lot of branches but has become too big to take down. They put in apple trees, only to decide they could not get a good crop without pesticides. So they gave up chemicals and now let the birds eat the apples.
And though zinnias are not native, Carol Hadlock loves them, so she has a shoulder-high stand.
"There's always something going on," Carol Hadlock said of her yard. "Yesterday was a nine-species butterfly day."
The only downside to the Hadlocks' landscaping, she said, is that rotting apples under the trees can get messy.
But what happens if wildlife gardening attracts animals that some people don't want, such as raccoons and skunks?
Program coordinator Kevin Munroe said that as people find out more about these creatures, "it may just be a matter of learning more about them and discovering what an asset they actually are." For animals that are a problem, homeowners can adapt their property to encourage creatures they like, while making it less attractive to others, such as deer.
Second stop on the bus tour was the Waterview cluster in Reston, built in the 1960s as some of the earliest residences in the planned community. Problems with runoff led to the recent construction of "dry stream beds," curving channels lined with large stones that absorb rainwater when it is stormy and look like part of the landscape when it is dry.
Before they were installed, "you could almost canoe down these front steps" in a storm, said Charlie Saunders, a longtime resident and former cluster president.
The neighborhood also has planted a rain garden around a small dry pond that fills with water in a rainstorm, improving water quality by filtering out harmful materials such as runoff from roads. Volunteers regularly rip out English ivy and periwinkle, to be replaced with native wildflowers.
Reston's "weed warriors" were at work at Autumnwood Park, where children played on a soccer field as sweating adults yanked out Japanese honeysuckle that had taken over an edge of the open land in a neighborhood north of the Dulles Toll Road. They plan to replace the honeysuckle with a serviceberry tree that birds like. The weed warriors are sponsored by the Reston Association and work on the homeowners association parks or other land.
Invasive plants such as honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet and English ivy get their start in cleared areas, and people often let them be because they can look attractive and fill in bare areas quickly.
But once established, they so dominate that other plants are forced out, and keeping them in check is daunting. Even after the plants have been ripped out, roots and seeds remain to regenerate.
"It's an overwhelming task," said Claudia Thompson-Deahl, the Reston Association's environmental resources manager, of the weed warriors' job. "It's not a one-time thing. You have to keep coming back. We'll take several years to get rid of it."
The final stop on the bus tour was a lush garden at Hunters Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in south Reston, which includes not only vegetable crops but also wildflowers, a butterfly bush, mint and sunflowers planted to draw birds and butterflies. As if on cue, a monarch butterfly floated by. "School programs to instill [environmental] values in children are doing communities a great service," Waggener said.
Still, said Rob Fergus, science coordinator for the National Audubon Society, "most people aren't going to become activists. They want to have a nice place for themselves and local wildlife. . . . Most people don't get to live next door to a wildlife refuge, but there is wildlife where they live."