Inside Out Gardens

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

Before we turn our thoughts to spring, let us take this opportunity to plan for next year’s long stretch of cold and gray. Does your landscape give you pleasure in the winter, as you sit inside looking out? Or is it only designed for curb appeal, with the plants crammed up against the foundation so that all you see from your window is the lawn and the street? Or perhaps the shrubs that were installed with the house are now overgrown and blocking your view altogether. A little rearranging can give you both curb appeal and a vibrant vista from your breakfast table or living room.

The first thing to consider is that movement brings a landscape to life. That can be provided by wind bending the grasses but most importantly by birds and other critters that are making use of your yard. A bird feeder can help you obtain that experience, but to actually support the wildlife, you need to provide them with the plants they need for shelter and food for both themselves and their babies. With rare exceptions, baby songbirds cannot eat seeds – they require insects, which themselves require the plants with which they evolved. In other words, to support life, your yard needs native plants.

If you take out any overgrown shrubs and plant new ones fifteen or twenty feet away from the window, from the inside the effect can be as if you added on a room to your house. Native shrubs can be arranged into a living backdrop where birds entertain you as they eat and shelter. Winterberry, Chokeberry and Elderberry are examples of shrubs that provide colorful berries to feed the birds. Multi-stemmed Serviceberries, with their lovely white flowers followed by berries that are also edible to humans, provide a place for birds to sit while they eat the seeds from your feeder. Native Heucheras and evergreen native ferns and sedges can fill the lower levels, which are also the perfect place to include some small shade-loving species that might get lost in a flower garden bed. Partridgeberry, for example, lies flat on the ground and has adorable red berries from November to January. Not as tiny but still quite small, the spring ephemerals start to emerge just when you need relief from winter.

Spring ephemerals are shade plants that emerge and quickly flower in late winter and spring and then fade away once the trees leaf out. If you plant them in the woods, you will be mimicking nature, but you may miss the whole show. How often do you walk in your woods in cold or rainy weather? On the other hand, if you also tuck them under your deciduous shrubs out front where you can spot these treasures from your window or as you walk by on the way to your car, you can enjoy them the same way we appreciate snow drops, crocuses and daffodils as they emerge in succession. One of the earliest harbingers of spring is Round-lobed Hepatica, whose cute three-lobed leaves peek out in March to be followed by pale purple flowers. Another plant with intriguing leaves is Bloodroot, which starts to flower by late March, around the time that the pink and white flowers of Virginia Spring Beauty begin their long bloom period, providing an important source of nectar to bees as they first awaken. The blossoms of Virginia Bluebells may occasionally start to appear that early as well. A whole troop of other ephemerals burst forth in April. You can find details about spring ephemerals and other native plants on the Plant NOVA Natives website, as well as information about where to buy them.

Project Drawdown’s 100 solutions to reverse global warming

What if we took out more greenhouse gases than we put into the atmosphere? This hypothetical scenario, known as drawdown, is our only hope of averting climate disaster, says strategist Chad Frischmann of Project Drawdown.

In a compelling TED Talk about climate change, he shares solutions that exist today: conventional tactics like the use of renewable energy and better land management as well as some lesser-known approaches, like changes to food production, better family planning, and the education of girls.

Listen for ideas about how we can reverse global warming and create a world where regeneration, not destruction, is the rule. His talk was presented at “We the Future,” a special event in partnership with the Skoll Foundation and the United Nations Foundation.

For the full list of solutions, click here.

For material on managing refrigerants, click here.

For Katherine Wilkinson’s TED Talk on empowering women and girls an their role in addressing climate change, click here.

Conduct a food waste audit for the benefit of your budget and the planet

According to End+Stems’ Alison Mountford, it’s hard to measure household food waste at the scale of the individual home. She reports that 40% of all food produced is wasted and that 67% of the we waste at home is edible. In other words, the average family of 4 is throwing out upwards of $2100 worth of food annually. However, few people can say how much they themselves are wasting, why they wasted it, or which foods are most commonly going to waste.

Because it’s easy to overlook what goes in the trash, she recommends a food audit similar to a food journal. For 1 week, you and your family/housemates keep track of all edible items that throw out. Afterwards, you have a starting point to make simple changes to your household norms and routine.

Here’s the plan and the advice in full, including a free worksheet and access to a Canva template so that you can see what you’re finding.

Ends+Stems is laying the groundwork to conduct the first study to measure how much less food you waste when you plan meals and shop from a tailored grocery list.  

Consider writing to Ends+Stems at with the subject line “Food Waste Audit” to be part of an inaugural study to truly change how we act for the planet.

What we can be Optimistic about in 2020

Article by Matt Bright, Conservation Manager for Earth Sangha,

As the Earth Sangha’s resident optimist, it can sometimes be difficult to keep my usual cheery disposition. A new study came out in France (Wintermantel et al. 2019) showing that even after an EU-wide moratorium in 2013 and an outright ban in 2018, agricultural fields still have levels of neonicotinoids that can be fatal to bees. Research continues to pile up showing declines in birds and insects in North America and beyond. UN reports on climate change sound more dire. Amidst all this depressing news, I was contacted by the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society and they asked me if I could give a talk, but that they wanted it to be optimistic – to focus on what is possible rather than what is broken.
I haven’t yet decided what exactly I will talk about during my January 26th talk, but the challenge and the recent holidays have forced me to reflect broadly on what we’re all doing right, and how we can all collectively keep making progress. This isn’t meant to be Pollyannaish. There is much to be distraught about it. But, with hard work there are issues we can address and begin to create some real change. Here’s what I came up with:

Our understanding of native plants role in ecosystems continues to increase. Scientific literacy about plant ecology is the best tool we have for engaging more people and making the case for conservation and restoration work here and abroad. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Doug Tallamy, Karin Burghardt, Desiree Narango, and countless others, we now have a much clearer understanding about the interaction between native plant communities and the wildlife they support, and the damage invasive species can do to our natural areas. In summary, native plants support a wider variety and quantity of insect life; these insects support a greater variety of bird life; the flowers attract more insect pollinators and nourish these better than non-natives; and the fruits tend to be better suited to supporting native wildlife too. The more we can put native plants back into areas where they belong, the better off we will all be.

Thanks to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Communities of Virginia, we now have an excellent data set detailing how native plants assemble themselves in the wild. We know that native plants do not occur willy-nilly at random, but in predictable plant communities, and we can use the information, along with historical data and reference sites, to guide restoration.

We now have data on how cultivars of native species function ecologically compared to wild type stock. Annie White’s data show that most cultivars see significantly lower visitation than wild type flowers, and new research on cultivar by Andrea Kramer in Ecological Restoration found that “nearly 25% of cultivars had floral or leaf traits that differed from wild plants in ways that may compromise their ability to support pollinators and other wildlife” and that “only 3% of cultivars received high suitability scores for use in large, undisturbed sites near remnant populations [of native plants].”

All of this research helps us to be more prepared to address future conservation and restoration challenges and informs our work. Even if the conclusions they come to aren’t emotionally gratifying to hear, they point a path forward. In this case, the conclusion is clear: careful restoration of degraded areas with local ecotype stock, replanted into reasonable facsimiles of natural or successional plant communities is a low-risk, high-reward method to improve ecological function. Which brings me to my next point.

We know that we can make a difference. A study looking at fragmentary habitat (Damschen et al., 2019) found that species diversity increased 14% over 18 years in corridors where restoration reconnected disparate parcels compared to ones that remained isolated. This sort of patchwork of parks, natural areas, and undeveloped land separated by swaths of built up areas is mirrored in our own region. By working to improve the ecological value of lands on both public and private areas we can begin the work of reconnecting these fragments into larger corridors.
This work is already happening thanks to homeowners and landscape designers using native plants. Including native plants into landscape designs for larger developments, green roofs, and roadsides will be part of the solution. Advocating and educating people about the advantages of using native plants and how to begin with them is happening right now thanks to Plant NoVA Natives, Audubon at Home and other groups. And of course, our own Wild Plant Nursery supplies homeowners as well as landscape designers, and restoration projects with local ecotype native plants grown without pesticides.

It looks like we will have set yet another record for distributing more plants from our nursery with a whopping 49,734 plants distributed. These plants are hopefully by now all in the ground and will be contributing towards reconnecting some of these fragmented areas and creating better habitat.

We are working with a community of thoughtful engaged professionals and volunteers. This year, our plants reached 29 schools and over 40 parks across Northern Virginia. Inspired by how well our efforts to restore rare plant species (Pycnanthemum torreyi and Solidago rigida) to wild areas with Fairfax County Park Authority went this year, we’re already looking other sites where we will conduct volunteer restoration plantings using our own plants, in areas where larger scale restoration seeding has already taken place. We think this can be a good model that allows land managers to tackle large areas economically with seed sowing, while protecting local genetics and adding appropriate diversity to sites through replanting with local ecotype stock. Keep an eye out this spring when we’ll need a hand with planting!

Across the region, thoughtful restoration work is taking place. City of Alexandria targeted a steep mowed slope in Montgomery Park where we replanted dry meadow species. This planting not only helped to establish a diverse meadow where there was only lawn before, but removed a difficult and potentially dangerous bit of mowing along a steep slope. Fairfax County, Falls Church City and Arlington County have also completed a number of restoration events this year, in part with our stock.

And, of course, many volunteers work tirelessly to see these projects through, to advocate for better policies, educate and engage people who would otherwise not be aware of local environmental issues, and help to inform our own understanding of natural areas by volunteering their expertise with citizen science projects or leading their own restoration projects.

We would’ve never been in the position we’re in today, to support so much great work, if it wasn’t for all the support of our colleagues, our donors, and our volunteers.

And for all that, I am very grateful.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center on Your Own, Story Map a Winner!

Article by Fiona Davies, Volunteer Manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center

Hidden Oaks Nature Center was recently awarded 3rd place in a county-wide Geographic Information Systems (GIS) competition. GIS refers to electronic maps with information attached to them. The award recognized the story map that site staff and county employees created for the 50th anniversary of the Center. A story map is an online site that tells a story using maps, pictures, and words.

Hidden Oaks actually has two story maps. The first, created for the anniversary, “Imagine the Next 50 Years,” is an evolution of the park, the building exhibits, and the surrounding areas. The second, “Habitats and Havens: Tour the Old Oak Trail” is a walking informational tour of the Old Oak Trail. The web applications are available on the Park Authority website.

“Imagine the next 50 Years” encourages viewers to consider how they can impact Hidden Oaks over the coming 50 years through learning about the last 50. The project served a twofold purpose – both communicating how the Nature Center has served the community at large and promoting the 50th anniversary event. Commercial aerial imagery supports the “Running Out of Room” section, while a photo taken from a helicopter shows the baseball fields after they were constructed. The “Expansion Through the Decades” section contains embedded web maps that users can expand to see how the park has changed from 1976 to 2019. Each section concludes with a reflection on how the next 50 years may evolve, while the app closes with a reminder that everyone can make a positive impact in their community.
“Habitats and Havens” makes a great tool for someone who lives far away or is confined to their home for some reason. For example, for grandparents so they can see and learn about the trail their grandkids walk on and ask them about it.

Both are useful to bring the past to life for young visitors who like Hidden Oaks and are interested in knowing what it used to look like. They also brings awareness to the historical and current importance of the nature center and the green space surrounding it and will hopefully spark interest in conservation and being mindful of the planet.

Story maps, technology advances nature. Do you have a story map in your future?

The Incredible Journey Game: Understanding the Water Cycle One Drop at a Time

Kristina Watts

There’s nothing on this earth more essential to life than water. Seventy-one % of the globe is covered in water, so it seems like we have an endless supply. However, about 97% of our water is in the salty oceans, and about 2% is currently stored in ice caps and glaciers. That leaves 1% of our water available as the freshwater all of us land-dwelling animals and plants require. Water scarcity is a real problem in many parts of the world, and as our global climate changes, conflicts are likely. Current U.S. leaders don’t seem to take the need for water conservation seriously. Is a lack of understanding of the water cycle at least partially to blame for this? 

Enter environmental education for our future generations. The water cycle is one of my favorite topics to teach to children, but the typical cyclical diagram may be misleading in its over simplification. Plus, children tend to learn best by doing. That’s why I really like the Incredible Journey water cycle game by Project WET (Water Education for Teachers). It teaches the participants that there isn’t just one path that a water molecule might take, and there are certain places where water is more likely to stay for a long time than others. If you’re looking for fun environmental lesson activities to do with a group of children, this game is for you.

The premise of the activity is simple: you are a water droplet, about to travel on your journey around the Earth. The activity area (I like to use a large lawn space or big empty room) is set up with stations: ocean, lake, river, clouds, glacier, plants, animals, soil, and ground water. Each station has a cube (a die), marked with various stations. Each participant starts in one location, then rolls the die to determine where on their journey they’ll go next. The dice are not entirely random – they are weighted to approximate the likelihood of reaching anther spot (for example, the oceans cube is likely to keep you “trapped” in the ocean for a while rather than sending you on to the clouds.)

The method of tracking where each water droplet goes can be adjusted for the age of your group. Older students can track their journey on a worksheet, and then after a certain number of turns, the students can graph and statistically analyze the group’s results. But for younger kids – which is the audience I usually work with – the activity turns into a fun game when each child is given a piece of string to start with and collects a bead at each station (each station has a designated color bead). The children create a colorful necklace tracking their journey. At the end, no two participants’ necklaces are the same, but when we look at all the necklaces together, we can see that certain colors are more prevalent – telling us, for example, that a water droplet spends more time swimming around in the ocean or frozen in a glacier than in a stream or inside of an animal.  You can focus your introductory and concluding discussions however you like – the energy that powers each transition, the effect of the water in each location, potential pollution sources at each stage, etc.

I’ve led this game with Girl Scout troops, for a church Earth Day celebration, and at nature center summer camps, and each time I’m actually surprised at how much fun the kids have, running from station to station and growing their collection of necklace beads. (Make sure you have enough beads!  I’ve had to end the game not because the kids are ready to stop but because the supply runs out.)  It’s education in motion.

This activity is available for purchase at (assembly required). Or you can borrow it from the Fairfax County Soil and Water Conservation District; see for details.

Have fun!

Register for Behavior-Centered Design for the Environment, April 1-2, 2020

Marilyn Kupetz

During a two-day workshop at Rare’s Center for Behavior & Environment this past October, one of the participants, a professor of restorative ecology, described an initiative that he’s launching at Longwood University: getting students, faculty, and staff to reduce the number of single-use plastics that they deposit into the waste stream in Farmville, Virginia. 

He was credible and inspiring, and when I went home that day, I examined every bit of plastic that I inject, virtuously, into my recycling bin: sushi trays, shampoo containers, pill bottles, salad boxes, plastic utensils, yogurt packaging, dog treat wrappers, water bottles—I could go on for a while, but I’m sure you get it. I was surprised at the variety and appalled by the numbers.

I was also surprised to learn that manufacturers are not buying plastic right now because it costs more to wash and prepare recycled waste than to make new plastic. So the fact that we recycle doesn’t actually reduce the effects of the plastic we toss. It still ends up in landfills or the ocean. The path forward seems to require some combination of avoiding plastic all together—very hard; repurposing as much of what we do have to buy as possible; and thinking creatively about options that haven’t occurred to us yet, but could if we summon the collective will.

Because Rare teaches Behavior-Centered Design for the Environment twice a year and leads projects that practice it—all over the world, all the time—our facilitators asked us to workshop in real time how we ourselves might encourage just one organization to reduce the number of plastic products they consume and throw away during lunch each day. 

Collectively, our ideas touched all of the levers of behavior-centered design:

  • We suggested a material incentive: giving staff branded, reusable containers for lunch or takeout. Because they would cost the organization very little, and could be made of recycled plastic, the incentive might be valuable on several levels.
  • We’d engage in positive storytelling, by, for example, posting signs reminding staff that although waste adds up, change is in their hands, literally.
  • We’d leverage social influence, perhaps with a trash art installation inside the front door to remind ourselves of what waste really looks like, without any personal public shaming.
  • We’d push information via fun infographic reminders to forego plastic and adopt reusable utensils and containers.
  • We’d enable choice architecture by hosting a cache of reusable containers right near the cafeteria so that staff could borrow, wash, and return them if they forgot their own.

Doable, right? A question of will, not wherewithall. 

I’m working out how to use what I learned—from the gifted teachers and the fabulous participants—in my own life and activities. I encourage those of you who want your efforts to preserve the natural world to have meaningful outcomes to participate in the next workshop, to be held April 1-2, 2020.

Free Resources

Behavior Change for Nature: A Behavioral Science Toolkit for Practitioners is a useful, short booklet for getting started, and perfect for those of you who learn best from the printed word.

Behavior Beat is Rare’s monthly newsletter full of stories and links to resources. Great resource for news and easily digestible stories of what works.

Lots of webinars and inspiring stories on the site itself.

And, of course, come talk with me, too, any time.

If you are a Fairfax Master Naturalist, the workshop easily fulfills your education requirement for the year. I’ve already added it to the calendar.

Native plants in public spaces

Article by Plant NOVA Natives

Shopping center parking lots and other public spaces can be tree-lined havens from the summer heat, with beautiful blossoms to induce people to linger. Imagine yourself resting on a shaded bench, listening to the birds as you enjoy watching the people stroll by.  Do the commercial spaces in your town look like this, or do you find yourself hurrying from car to building to get out of the glaring heat? Wouldn’t you prefer to do your shopping at the place with more greenery? 

Commercial establishments across the region are starting to appreciate the return on investment of native plants. There are practical reasons related to the fact that they are adapted to the Virginia climate. Native Virginia plants require less watering (once established) than rows of annuals and only need to be planted once. Native shrubs such as Virginia Sweetspire require no pruning and provide more natural-looking alternatives to conventional landscaping choices that get leggy with continuous trimming. No fertilizers and pesticides are needed, either. Beyond the practicalities, though, companies that choose native plants are signaling to the public that they are good corporate citizens who care about our common home and are working to preserve our heritage. 

In many cases, property managers are taking the simple step of swapping out the non-native in their curbside beds for reliable natives such as Threadleaf Coreopsis, Common Yucca, Black-Eyed Susan and Common Yarrow. Winterberry Holly, with its bright red berries, has become a popular choice to place next to buildings. Some landscapers are installing innovative designs that give the property a whole new look, incorporating a wide variety of shrubs and ornamental trees such as Redbud and great swaths of native grasses such as Switchgrass waving in the breeze. An example of that can be seen at Caboose Commons in Fairfax, where imaginative landscaping adds a new dimension to the dining experience. Still other establishments such as Vienna Vintner have planted extensive pollinator gardens leading up to their entrances, with flowers that bloom in succession and attract butterflies from early spring to late fall. 

You may have noticed sidewalks and parking lots that have sunken islands. Stormwater retention areas, which are mandatory for new development, provide an opportunity for creative landscaping. Water and drought tolerant trees such as Red Maple and Serviceberry can provide shade while their roots absorb the runoff. Native grasses, perennials and shrubs help clean the water while adding color and interest to the design. 

Photos and details about landscaping with native plants in commercial spaces can be found on the Plant NOVA Natives website. The Caboose Commons project is highlighted in the first Plant NOVA Natives video for landscape professionals. Produced by volunteer Joe Bruncsak, owner of Blue Land Media, this series of very short videos will feature projects that exemplify landscape design at its best.

Book Club: Braiding Sweetgrass

The Clifton Institute, 6712 Blantyre Rd., Marshall, VA, 20115

Thursday, January 30, 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM

For their second book club, Clifton Institute is switching from birds to plants and reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. You’ll gather around the fire with warm drinks in hand and discuss the book with fellow nature lovers.

Get excited to learn about other ways of experiencing and understanding nature than the scientific perspective we’ve been trained in. The book is available at the Open Book in Old Town in Warrenton… Didn’t finish the book? Come anyway!


Help Virginia Working Landscapes help grassland birds

Photo by Ana Ka’ahanui

Virginia Working Landscapes is aware of the concern surrounding recent research highlighting the troubling decline of North America’s birds. Among those, grassland birds have been hit hardest.  

Working alongside a dedicated network of landowners, citizen scientists and partners, VWL has been at the forefront of identifying ways that private lands can help support this region’s grassland birds.  

For example, recent research provides insights into altering grassland management practices to promote habitat for overwintering birds. With these studies, VWL can create recommendations to help landowners make decisions about how they manage their properties, like these guidelines released in Spring 2019. And just this year, they’ve embarked on a groundbreaking project to track the local movements of eastern meadowlarks, one of our most iconic grassland species.   

They receive no federal support for their programs, and all activities are funded by donors.
This year, VWL will continue unraveling mysteries of eastern meadowlark movements; identifying best practices for establishing and managing resilient grasslands; developing science-based action items for protecting grassland birds and other wildlife; and training the next generation of conservationists.

Consider volunteering. VWL partners with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and FMN volunteers receive service projects credit under S182. Look for more stories on how to volunteer in December.