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Striving for Sustainability, Bedford, VA

Featured Site Created By Coffeehaus

At Habitat Network, homeowners often consider how to increase and sustain habitat for wildlife with any backyard project. The sustainable habitat we create for our human families, however, is equally important. This property in Bedford, Virginia, does an excellent job landscaping for both. The extensive gardens focus on native species of flowers, shrubs and trees. An active compost system provides a place to create nutrient rich soil as well as a feeding ground for insects and other wildlife. Their compost is so hot that, even in the winter, birds are found there scratching for grubs.

Purple Martin Gourds by pond

Photo © Coffeehaus
The home was designed using passive solar principles to minimize heating and cooling requirements. They heat their water using a solar hot water system, and rain-water is captured on their metal roof and stored in large cisterns in the ground. And, finally, their extensive organic vegetable garden provides an abundance of homegrown food. To learn more about how they created their sustainable home, explore their blog: http://coffeeroadhaus.blogspot.com. And, to see all the amazing gardens and wildlife, explore their photo page: https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/107216620834312350476/albums/6113497808033455441

EcoRegion: Southeastern Mixed Forest Province
Planting Zone: 7a

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

Compost is Magic

Photo © Coffeehaus
We purchased the property in late December 1999, on the cusp of Y2K. It had been farmed (hay and grazing) for generations. In fact, it contains the remnants of the old homestead; the stone foundation and chimney are still quite visible and create an interesting landscape feature as well as providing shelter and nesting sites in the niches. The impact of grazing had taken a toll on native plant species, and as a consequence, many invasives had become established, like Ailanthus, Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard, Rosa multiflora, and autumn olive.

We’ve spent countless hours patrolling the property, mechanically eliminating as many of these invasives as possible. Our vegetable garden is all organic; thus we strive to avoid using glyphosate (herbicide), though it is used on occasion for particularly troublesome invasives such as Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven).

Cistern tanks in place

Photo © Coffeehaus
Then, we set about reintroducing native trees, shrubs, and perennials in the forest, fields, and large landscape beds. Any dead trees have been left standing so as to provide nest cavities and food sources for birds. In fact, we had several Black Walnut trees near the vegetable garden that have been girdled in an effort to kill them (the chemical juglone that they produce inhibits the growth of some other plants), and they have been left standing. We also had a pond built in 2001 which we stocked with perch, bass and catfish, and we have enjoyed the multitude of wildlife that this has attracted: herons, ducks, frogs, toads, snakes, muskrats, river otters, and the occasional osprey, as well as the aerial insectivorous birds that now use the nest boxes surrounding the pond.

Installing the solar hot water unit on the South-facing metal roof.

Photo © Coffeehaus
In 2007-2009, we had a house built with many sustainable features: geothermal HVAC supplemented by passive solar design and a woodstove in the winter, intense focus on insulation and energy efficiency, Energy Star metal roof which drains into an underground cistern for rainwater capture, lots of locally sourced building materials and use of low VOC and formaldehyde-free products, extensive use of reclaimed lumber, and solar hot water heater. For more info, see the blog: http://coffeeroadhaus.blogspot.com

Since then, we have established over 20 nest boxes and Purple Martin gourds with the help of a neighboring Purple Martin landlord. Of course, reintroducing native plants and shrubs is an on-going project, as expressed by one of my favorite quotes: “Gardening is the slowest form of performance art.”

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

Vegetable Gardens

Photo © Coffeehaus
Our organic vegetable garden is a hub of varied life forms; bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, arthropods, arachnids, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. It supports not only the humans, but all of these creatures as well. The garden includes perennial vegetables and fruit (asparagus, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries), annual vegetables (the usual panoply of crops as grown in central VA, Zone 7a), herbs such as basil and cilantro which we allow to flower and set seed (much favored by native pollinators), native flowering perennials (Prairie coneflower, Cardinal flower, assorted rudbeckias, etc.), annual flowers (sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds), and a border of assorted plants that serve as an “insectary” in order to encourage beneficial insects and pollinators.
Joe Pye Weed as nectar source

Photo © Coffeehaus

Supporting the 5000+ square foot garden is a large compost pile which is regularly pumped up with spent grain from a local microbrewery, discarded vegetables from a local produce mart, lots of our own kitchen scraps, and leaves from city collections. We have recorded compost pile temperatures as high as 160F! In the winter, the heat of the decomposing compost melts any snow falling on the pile. As a result, birds find this source of grain and insects irresistible.

Since we garden organically, the diversity of insects has jumped. Although we certainly still have our share of garden pests, we seem to have achieved something of a balance with the help of beneficial insects and birds. As an example, in the early summer, the Bluebirds love to grab the little caterpillars on our Brassica crops and feed them to their nestlings.

Black Swallowtail catepillars

Photo © Coffeehaus
Bluebird Babies

Photo © Coffeehaus

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

Tree Swallow Eggs

Photo © Coffeehaus
Initially, we were bush-hogging the fields several times a year in an effort to maintain open areas, cut down on breeding areas for ticks and chiggers, and provide us with easy access to walk to the farthest reaches of the property. However, we soon realized that frequently cutting the fields would have a negative impact on ground nesting birds and other wildlife that prefer open habitat. Thus, we now limit the bush-hogging to once per year, outside of nesting season. This allows ground nesting birds to complete their nesting cycle, while at the same time maintaining some open meadow areas for all sorts of wildlife. Now we just resign ourselves to coping with the very real dangers of tick bites and the annoyance of chiggers by wearing protective clothing when we venture into the “weeds”.

To see more images of our home and property, explore our photo album:

Tree Swallow in Gardens

Photo © Coffeehaus