Volume 25 Issue 2, Spring 2020
by John Magee
It’s been almost seven years now since the community of Ashburn Village reached out to me to help design pollinator gardens near the five communal lakes that grace their Homeowner’s Association property. Their goal was simply to add pollinator habitat in and around the community to help benefit the creatures we depend upon so much to help create the food webs we all depend upon.
Much of the original landscaping in the Village has little or no ecological value, as it consists of mostly non-native species like Barberries, Japanese Hollies, Japanese ornamental grasses, and of course, everybody’s favorite, the Callery (or Bradford) Pear. These are all plants traditionally used by landscapers for their aesthetic value without consideration of the ecological impact of doing so.
That has changed in recent years. More and more we are seeing rain gardens and conservation landscaping becoming the talk at garden centers, by Master Gardeners, on gardening programs, and especially at our universities and other places where landscape architects and designers are trained. But change can’t always happen overnight, and I’ve been advocating for this change for many years. That’s why it was so amazing to finally land such a public and prestigious honor in helping to develop these gardens.
Tippecanoe Lake was the first that we developed, and it was a fun experiment in executing such a project within a tight budget. For example, because many of the plants we wanted to use were not readily available, we had to search and even grow some of them ourselves. To keep weeds down we did not till the soil as we normally would on landscaping projects like this. Initially, this helped to keep weeds down similar to the way no-till farming works. With pollinator gardens, the fewer pesticides and herbicides the better, so we wanted to take this initial step, and it seemed to work.
The downside to using plants that are not readily available is that you must plant younger plants, so it takes a little longer for the garden to establish. Luckily though, younger plants tend to adapt well to new surroundings and are less likely to fail, so very few plant replacements were needed.
As the garden grew, so did its popularity, and we continued to plant other gardens. The following year was Ashburn Lake, then Beech Lake after that. There are now even paths cutting through the Ashburn Lake gardens, and couples have been known to go there for wedding pictures.
Tippecanoe was always the anchor, having been the first. In its third year, I thought it was mature enough to photograph and enter the “Signatures of Loudoun” design excellence competition. We won first place in the Public Spaces category, and everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Almost every time I visited, someone on the trails would stop to tell me how much they enjoy seeing the butterflies and birds benefiting from the gardens, the almost constant array of changing flower combinations, and how it’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen. I’m quite often asked “when will you be doing our neighborhood?” And I’ve even had children come out and tell me the story of the pretty orange butterfly that travels all the way from Mexico to visit their little piece of pollinator heaven. Everything was going so well.
Then a new challenge to the gardens arose. A change to the HOA Board of Directors brought on some new members and administrative staff who were not as invested in the benefits of the pollinator-forward landscaping plan, and were concerned about the costs associated with maintaining it. There was even a suggestion that the gardens be removed and replaced with grass.
The gardens support a lot of life. Birds, butterflies and even a groundhog in one spot. Without these gardens, all that habitat and food would be lost. Grass serves no ecological service and is the highest polluting landscape maintenance there is. Fortunately, it seems many of the residents of Ashburn Village have reached out to the new management, and I would encourage all to continue doing so. Once again, we’re discussing maintaining the existing gardens. There’s no talk of new gardens yet, but it would be grand to keep what they have. More and more communities are doing this type of landscaping, and many firms that exist today promote a more ecological approach to landscaping than working with plants not native to our area.
If you live in a community that has an opportunity to install pollinator gardens, I would encourage you to do the same. Get out, get some people motivated, and make some changes happen. Some communities have developed “do not plant” lists that give landscapers a framework of things to avoid. I highly encourage such lists. They’re not foolproof, but they can keep some of the worst offenders out of the landscape. There are also several resources, like Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Planting for Wildlife in Northern Virginia and Plant NoVa Natives’ Native Plants for Northern Virginia, that list and describe the native species appropriate for eco-friendly landscaping.
I know right now we’re all practicing social distancing, but I encourage you to visit these gardens and to help keep interest in them high. Like I said, change doesn’t always come quickly, but in a time of global climate change and introduced species, staying as native as we can is something we can all do to counteract some of the problems we’re all facing.
John Magee is a landscape designer and president of Magee Design in Middleburg, and one of the creators of the Native Plant Podcast.
The gardens the author designed at Tippecanoe Lake are filled
with native plants and attract people as well as pollinators.