Diggin’ In: Native plant border provides refuge, privacy

March 28, 2016

Lisa Ziegler eats, sleeps and breathes fresh farm air in the midst of city life in Newport News, Va.

Some of that precious farm life is disappearing because the adjacent farm will soon become a bustling housing development.

The property, one of many dairy farms in the early Mennonite community, has been home to grazing horses for years. It’s also been home to native plants and wildlife, according to Ziegler, whose cut-flower fields border the 40-acre tract. Eastern red cedars, blackberry brambles, sassafras trees, oaks and maples are just a few of the native species that provide nesting places and food sources for all kinds of creatures that seek its refuge.

"I suppose my deep connection with this farm and all its inhabitants is rooted in the fact that, like the creatures, I’m out there all day most days and we’ve come to know each other pretty well," says Ziegler.

"Foxes, raccoons, deer, geese, ducks, snakes, turtles, many amphibians and countless birds, including a pack of Eastern bluebirds and a very busy raptor nest, call this home.

"Over the years we have watched in wonder as one of the tall trees surrounding the pond has housed raptor nests for at least the past six years. The first two years it was home to red-tailed hawks. Great horned owls took over for two consecutive years, and then back to red-tailed hawks, which are currently working on the nest."

Welcome wildlife

To ease the pain of the 90-home development, Ziegler installed a 550-foot native plant border around her 2 1/2-acre farm last fall.

"While I have loved the view over the neighboring 40 acres of pasture and woodlands and just hate to lose it, it’s the destruction of habitat and displacement of the wildlife that has proven to be the most difficult to try to swallow," she says.

"Our landscape goal was to create an area that will welcome wildlife in the coming years."

After reading Doug Tallemy’s book, "Bringing Nature Home," a few years ago, Ziegler wanted to create her own habitat of native species that would invite birds and insects to live within the boundaries of her own land.

"This project moved to the top of the to-do list when the farm next door was sold and slated to development," she says.

Why a native border?

The native plant border serves several purposes. It provides a visual screen from the homes that will flank her property on two sides. It provides habitat for wildlife displaced by the development’s construction. And, it creates a permanent planting of species that will help native bees and other beneficial insects thrive among her organic gardens.

The $9,000 budget for the project supported professional guidance for plant selection and the purchase of large plants for the quickest screening potential Ziegler could get — there is no time to wait for small plants to get big, she says.

A rented, engine-powered auger made the planting holes for 159 native trees and shrubs and 36 perennials that include:

—12 common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, 1 gallon.

—12 brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia Triloba, 1 gallon.

—12 mountain mint. Pycnanthemum sp., 1 gallon.

—6 Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, 7 gallon.

—4 loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, 15 gallon.

—6 sweet bay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, 7 gallon

—2 red maple, Acer rubrum, October Glory, 15 gallon.

—5 black gum, Nyssa sylvatica, 15 gallon.

—1 willow oak, Quercus phellos, 15 gallon.

—5 serviceberry, Amelanchier Autumn Brilliance. 7 gallon.

—3 bald cypress, Taxidium distichum, 15 gallon.

—12 Arrowwood Viburnum dentatum, 7 gallon.

—10 blackhaw viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium, 7 gallon.

—18 red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, 7 gallon.

—12 wax myrtle, Myrica cerifera, 7 gallon.

—75 pussy willows, Salix, bare root.

—Assorted daffodil bulbs and other gifted plants from friends.

The border is located on what had been a cow and horse pasture for the past 120 years, so no amendments or fertilizers were needed. Marking paint was used to transfer the layout to the land, according to Ziegler. After the plantings, Ziegler and coworkers collected bags of leaves from nearby curbsides to make a 10- to 12-inch deep layer of leaves. No irrigation was installed.

"While our 2 1/2 acres is no replacement for 40 acres of habitat, we are going to do our best to rollout the red carpet for our wildlife friends and make the best of a heartbreaking and environmental changing situation," Ziegler says.