Friday, September 17, 2010

Transforming Chateau Papillon's Landscape: Building a Wildlife Sanctuary (Part One)

Here at Chateau Papillon, we've been hard at work on the outdoors as much (if not more so) than the indoors.  When we first moved in, the lot was something of a blank slate, outside of the wonderful mature trees surrounding the yard.  We waited through the frustrations of a short sale largely due to the yard's potential, as it backed up to Fairfax Villa Park and offered the certainty of attracting a large variety of birds and other wildlife.  Since moving in, we've planted dozens of native trees and shrubs, have reclaimed large sections of drab lawn into more naturalized habitat, and have chalked up a list of 54 different bird species to-date.  So when the Northern Virginia Audubon Society announced the "Audubon at Home" wildlife sanctuary certification program, we thought to ourselves, "We're already 95% of the way there!"

Our Habitat Certification Sign!
The Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary program encourages everyone--from schools, businesses, and churches to individual homeowners--to treat their property like a wildlife habitat, by taking steps to naturalize, bring in more native plant species, and provide food, shelter, and nesting habitat to our most important and needy species of native wildlife.  The program stresses environmentally-friendly landscape management practices, from reducing and managing runoff to cutting back on pesticide and fertilizer usage, all of which are important but often-overlooked adjutants to caring for native flora and fauna.

We recently completed our certification, and looking back, have come a long way at Chateau Papillon in the just-shy-of two years we've spent here.  Though I could fill up several posts with just the "before & after" shots, a few do bear inclusion for comparison's sake today:

Backyard, in June, 2008 (before)
When we first found the listing for Chateau Papillon, the back yard was one of the biggest draws, but as you can see above, not a whole lot was going on beside the shade from the mature trees along the periphery.  We didn't do that much work outside immediately after buying and moving in over Thanksgiving in late 2008; we had too much to do inside even if the weather had been more amenable outdoors.  After a visit to Merrifield Garden Center in the early spring of 2009, we came away with a lot of ideas in our head for what to do to transform our yard and make it "ours," along with five dogwoods and a river birch to plant.

Back yard, September 2010 (after)
That first winter was fairly mild, as was the start of springtime, but we already knew one of our first challenges was going to be runoff management: after a series of March rains, we had a swamp and a river running through it in no time flat.  Just about any rainstorm left similar signs of its passing upon the yard.

Ile du Papillon?  Spring showers make for puddles and rivers in the back yard.
We have tackled that problem in stages.  The first phase is visible, in fact, in the photo above: mulching the yard and replacing grass which simply doesn't get enough sun and which doesn't thrive atop our yard's densely-packed clay.  We undertook several courses of sheet mulching, recycling many of our moving boxes into a layer of weed-choking cardboard atop which we spread several inches of leaf mould and then shredded hardwood mulch obtained free-of-charge from Fairfax County's recycling center.  (In fact, we've to-date trucked in more than 40 cubic yards of free mulching material--worth a few thousand dollars if bought by the bag from the neighborhood Home Depot.)  Over time, the sheet mulch breaks down, forming a layer of rich, well-drained soil atop the hard-packed clay.

We created mulched zones originally as "natural areas" in the shadiest parts of our yard, recreating a more natural "forest floor" beneath the mature trees.  Just the mulch alone has significantly improved our runoff management; now only the most intense of monsoons produces any "rivering" in the yard, and we've extended the mulched areas significantly across the back yard and into a large section of the front as well.  Where before a solid rain meant a muddy morass that persisted for days, we now have rich soil and mulch cover which can be walked upon within minutes of a storm's passing.

Beth and Chance Plant a Dogwood
Next, though sometimes our choices haven't been perfect, we've planted stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Starting with those five dogwoods and a river birch, we have gradually begun to define a mid-story of smaller trees and shrubs beneath the towering mature trees edging the yard.  Those first trees have been joined by many more--four more river birches, an American redbud, a pussy willow, two hawthorns, two cypresses, and numerous self-seeded tulip poplars and a mulberry.  Native shrubs by the truckload have joined the party: common ninebark (one of our favorites); more than a half-dozen red osier dogwood shrubs (beautiful red stems in the winter); American and inkberry hollies galore (and one English holly hybrid for contrast); Virginia juniper; native hemlocks; several different native Viburnums; several blueberries and a blackberry; two sweetshrubs; and several more exotic junipers.

That doesn't count all the bulbs, wildflowers, ferns, and perennials we've added, which include meadow-loving tickseed (coreopsis), purple coneflowers, Black-eyed Susan, wood aster, cardinalflower, columbine, violets, foamflower, and much more.  Outside the hostas (requisites for a shade-covered yard!) and several of the bulbs, pretty much everything is a native species, too.

Most yards really shouldn't be oceans of neatly-cut grass, anyway; grass requires a lot of fertilizer and pesticide application--bad for many reasons, including runoff--and isn't all that great from a biodiversity standpoint, either.  In fact, wide swathes of green lawns weren't in fashion in the United States until post-World Wars, when troops brought back the idea from Europe.  Habitats like meadow (filled with wildflowers and native tall grasses), wetland, and forest edges are much better homes to wildlife and better for our environment.

More to come: the Audubon Habitat at Home program is not just about the new plantings, but about control of invasive species, too.

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