Standardizing Methods for Creating Suburban Native Wildlife Habitats in the NCR
Guest Blogger Adrian Willing
May 16th, 2023
Bee American, Plant Native LLC is a native plants landscaping consultancy based out of Northern Virginia. What began as a passion for the local ecology and pollinators, has evolved to incorporate a sense of patriotism and heritage in supporting our natural landscapes. An environmentally sustainable small business, Bee American grows regional ecotype plants from seed, or sources from local nurseries, to design & install affordable native plant gardens for clients with minimal emissions and pollutants.
As a Veteran, I served overseas in areas with lots of desert and little greenery. This heightened my appreciation for my country’s native ecologies and helped to eliminate my “plant blindness” that afflicts so many Americans today. I became proud of the natural landscapes, the flora and fauna that characterize America, particularly those of the mid-Atlantic and Virginia. Native plants are patriotic!
As a Christian, I believe in the stewardship of our lands and the caretaking of God’s Eden (aka, Earth). Genesis 1:30 (NIV) states “To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground – to everything that breathes – I give all the green grasses for food.” A biblical perspective consistently presents themes of stewardship, community, and caring for the world around us. (Image 1)
However, not everyone has a faith-based perspective on life, much less landscaping. The science is clear that invasive plant species used in the commercial landscaping industry are now decimating our native ecologies. Wildlife habitats are rapidly dwindling. Monarchs are now an endangered species. Our agriculture industries’ over-reliance on the European honeybee jeopardizes food chains. We must act.
The Property Site
The Montclair project, like several others, began with a client referral and outreach. The client’s property was located in a developed residential suburb of the National Capital Region (NCR), nearly adjacent to the substantial Prince William Forest. The property, is located on a quarter acre lot at the end of a cul-de-sac and is comparable in size, conditions, and aesthetics to many residential suburbs in the area.
This general consistency with many other suburban lots in the NCR presented an opportunity to create a “standard” native plant residential garden tailored to the area. While every site has unique properties, challenges, and constraints, developing a baseline planting list and selection of services for similar properties creates efficiencies for both the designer and client, ultimately saving time and money.
The site’s proximity to a major national forest means it can meaningfully contribute to bird and pollinator migrations. Reductions in environmental pollutants and invasive species will keep those from being carried away in stormwater runoff into a nearby Resource Protected Area (RPA). These are small changes that can add up to large impacts, creating wildlife corridors, as modeled by Doug Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park initiative. (Image 2)
Client Goals / Objectives
Like any relationship, working with a new client takes time to build trust. It is a deliberate process to understand their long-term vision, near-term goals, minimum project requirements, and how to prioritize potentially competing objectives. This client loved wildflowers, butterflies, and birds. In addition the client wanted to remove invasive species, while balancing diverse wildlife habitat with overall community aesthetics.
Not every client is easy to work with. Some have difficult personalities or unrealistic expectations, while others need significant education on sustainable landscaping Best Management Practices (BMPs) to displace years of unsustainable landscaping knowledge or experiences. Fortunately, this client had a relaxed personality; however, they just needed some affordable help to realize their native gardening goals.
In addition to the wildlife, the client was considering selling their home in 6-12 months and wanted to add some curb appeal to a property that otherwise was externally indistinguishable from its neighbors. The goal of selling a home quickly and above market can conflict with the aforementioned wildlife objectives, but with careful planning, some deliberate compromise, and the right selection of plants, there doesn’t need to be a conflict.
Challenges & Constraints
As is the case with so many suburban developments, the Montclair property faced some constraints from the local Homeowners Association (HOA). HOAs are rarely easy to work around from a native landscaper’s perspective; they often place limitations on plant height, width, “messiness” and other subjective aesthetic standards that are at odds with sound BMPs and environmental priorities.
Luckily, the Montclair HOA publishes its regulations online with public access (not all HOAs do). Some research into the regulations revealed that the overall front garden standards were relatively relaxed, and most critically, did not require any kind of property improvement request or pre-approval for the intended native plant garden design, provided they covered less than 25% of the overall front yard.
One challenge for this project was the timeline. The client initially reached out in mid-September, looking to get a garden designed and installed before late fall. Fall is the ideal time to plant in the NCR, with October and November traditionally the best months weather-wise. The process from client intro to agreed-upon design plan took about three weeks. Finally, the uncertainty about selling the property also raised some concerns. Not all prospective buyers are interested in gardening for wildlife habitat. Many just want green manicured lawns. Will all the effort put into this project actually turn buyers away? And if it sells, will the new owners continue to use native landscaping? Important questions, but from a purely business perspective, not relevant.
Project Planning & Execution
Developing a planting plan begins with studying the property plat, satellite imagery, and Google street view (if available) before the site assessment consultation. During the visit, I like to bring a plat printout on a clipboard, use a walking measuring wheel for precise dimensions, and check the soil for moisture content and rockiness. Also, dedicated soil testing may be needed if the client reports problems.
After the consultation, if the client is interested in proceeding, there is usually a back and forth to clarify the vision, goals, objectives, priorities, timeline, and sometimes the most important piece, the budget. Knowing upfront that the client has a limited budget helps scope the scale of the project, tailoring the quantity of plants to meet their means. I prefer to offer multiple design options at different price points.
Sourcing the plants can be a challenge, especially in the fall, when most local native plant nurseries have sold their inventory. I keep limited onsite inventory and am constantly growing new plants from seed via indoor germination to keep costs down and have plants ready. However, I can’t always meet site specific requirements or client requests and may be forced to source from other nurseries at higher cost.
Once given the green light, I scheduled three workdays. One day for site preparation, and two for installation. Site preparation typically involves invasive species removal. In this case the removal process focused on butterfly bush, Chinese silverleaf, and burning bush; however, it also included shrub or tree branch pruning, weed-eating, mowing, or soil cultivating if heavily compacted. Even ¼ acre can result in a lot of trash! (Image 3)
For garden installation, the client agreed to a diverse plan consisting of 18 different species and a total of 76 plants, all perennials, with a mixture of grasses, groundcovers, flowers, and shrubs. One objective met was to provide flower blooms from March thru November. In addition, the plan included laying down a number of native seeds to help fill in gaps, and application of arborist wood chips following planting. (Images 4-6)
The garden consisted of three distinct areas in the front yard. One pollinator garden adjacent to the driveway, mailbox and road; another closer to the front entrance and a central bird bath; and a barrier of native grasses and shrubs along the property line. Several non-native foundation shrubs (English Boxwoods) were also replaced with native Inkberry (Ilex glabra).
Two days of work later, with installation complete, the client was more than satisfied with the outcome. While the lateness in the season precluded new flowering opportunities, the removal of invasive species, pruning of unruly hedges, and laying down wood chips had an immediate aesthetic impact. With all plants safely tucked in for what ended up being a very mild winter, spring couldn’t come fast enough.
Looking Forward to Spring
I recently heard back from the client that they had a contract to sell the home. They admitted to not keeping up with the weeding; however, new growth appeared to be coming in. With luck, the additional seeding will germinate well, all plants will survive, and the new owners will appreciate the new wildlife habitat they’ve bought into. Regardless, the Montclair project offered several lessons.
For starters, a simplified design plan balancing wildlife habitat with curb appeal is invaluable in the NCR. Second, keeping a relatively short native plant list featuring adaptable species that offer seasonal blooms and are available in local native nurseries is essential. And finally, be prepared to do the work knowing full well the current owners may not be the ones who get to ultimately enjoy it.
All photos taken by Adrian Willing, owner of Bee American, Plant Native LLC. Client’s address has been obscured from images.
Adrian Willing is the owner of Bee American, Plant Native LLC., a native plant landscaping consultancy located in Woodbridge, VA since 2021. He is CBLP-1 certified and grows many of his client’s plants from local-ecotype seed. Adrian is a veteran, Christian, federal employee, Navy Reservist, and proud father.