Accidental environmentalism: How yard-sign envy led to a butterfly and bee paradise

This is the story of a gardener who wanted to impress (and encourage) her neighbors by displaying an Audubon-at-Home yard sign that designates a property as an official wildlife sanctuary. How could she earn that coveted plaque? The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s program lets the animals decide if sustainable practices have been successful. Certification would require her to spot at least ten species of animals from a list of thirty, but the gardener’s ability to identify wildlife was rudimentary at best.

As a first step, she requested a site visit from an Audubon-at-Home ambassador, a thoroughly knowledgeable and laid-back volunteer. He walked the property with her, suggesting native plants that could go well in her landscape and gently pointing out the invasive introduced plants such as Japanese barberry, honeysuckle, and pachysandra that were displacing the natives. She had planted the Japanese pachysandra just a few months before and was sorry to lose its “old money” look, but the thought of it spreading into the adjacent woods convinced her to tear it out again (and not a moment too soon – it had already started to creep in that direction.)

Creating usable habitat proved to be easy and fun. She gradually got a handle on the invasives and learned which Northern Virginia native plants would produce the desired aesthetic results. And she eventually figured out an easy way to identify the insects and other wildlife: “Shoot first and ask questions later.” Rather than searching for particular species of animals, she took a picture of any little thing that flitted or scurried by, then enlarged it and look it up on Google Images. It turned out that her yard was chock full of amazing and beautiful creatures who had been enjoying the fruits of her labor without her even knowing it. It was a proud day when her Audubon-at-Home ambassador returned to declare her property to be an official wildlife sanctuary, allowing her to put up that yearned-for sign. But by then her property was its own living advertisement, as butterflies, bees, frogs, and birds had transformed it into a symphony of sound and colorful motion.

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