Outdoor Spaces, Domestic Oases

Gaylord Nelson, an American politician and father of Earth Day, asserted that, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity …” As such, we citizens of Coastal Virginia are very rich indeed.

And, as these six sets of homeowners attest, there are many ways to protect that wealth right in our own back—and front—yards. The best approach will be shaped, in large part, by the conditions of the land itself in relation to some basic tenets of sustainability and eco-savviness.

In 1607, when everybody showed up, we didn’t have water quality issues.  ~Billy Almond

From living shorelines to buffer restoration and even butterfly gardens, the options are many and varied, depending on a variety of factors, including how we see ourselves living on our little pieces of paradise. Billy Almond, vice-president of landscape architecture with the firm WPL, asserts that his company’s first ethic is preservation. In particular, their cause is “threading together the network of fragmented forests in our area” that serve as wildlife corridors whose connectivity allows for healthy migration. The job, then, of eco-sensitive landscape architects and designers becomes to “blend, nestle and synthesize what the client wants to do with preservation.”

green landscaping green landscaping green landscaping

At the two-year-old home of Chris and Peggy Ettel on the shore of brackish Crystal Lake in Virginia Beach, that was a matter of allowing Peggy drifts and mass plantings of her beloved blooming plants but with buffer restoration. The Ettels had purchased two lots with a house straddling both. They tore down that home, sold one lot and built on the other.

Their resulting 75 feet of shoreline was a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area (CBPA) and therefore subject to a set of measures designed to protect the adjacent body of water from harm due to land-disturbing activities and contaminated water runoff. As a partner in VB Homes, this was not Chris’s first CBPA rodeo, so he was quite familiar with the multi-step planning and approval process. In their case, this involved a collaboration with WPL landscape designer Emily Rothrock, as they worked with the CBPA staff in advance of appearing before the board.  

The Ettels put their heads together with Rothrock on a buffer restoration project designed to “mitigate water runoff by absorbing water and slowing down bank erosion.” This required a 100-foot-wide riparian buffer, which replaces turf and also serves a bioretention or filtering function of sediments, nutrients and potentially harmful substances. On the Ettel property, the buffer zone stretches between a raised bulkhead and the home.

Explains Rothrock, “The beds are excavated to a certain depth and refilled with soil and amendments that allow water to run through quicker” to counter the effects of impervious cover such as driveways and pools. Then the beds are planted—here with an emphasis on a low maintenance evergreen foundation, native plants, color, texture and some privacy—and mulched with a shredded organic medium. The goal is to mirror the three trophic layers of a maritime forest: canopy trees, understory plantings and ground cover, each with its own protective function.

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Now we look at things differently. ~Darcy Stephan

Other properties present owners with different challenges. For Darcy and Brooks Stephan, who own seven acres and have restored 80 feet of shoreline in the Little Neck area of Virginia Beach, living shoreline restoration was the answer to their serious erosion issues. Plus, it came with the added benefit of pollutant filtering and the creation of fish and wildlife habitats.

Sporting the first such shoreline in Virginia Beach, Darcy is quick to give credit to Lynnhaven River Now, dubbing them the experts and stressing their critical role. “We could not have done it without Lynnhaven River Now,” she insists. But she also credits wetlands scientist and living shoreline “guru” Kevin Du Bois of Norfolk with getting the couple to “drink the Kool-Aid” following an educational presentation, and Jim Cahoon, an environmental professional and owner of Bay Environmental, Inc., in Chesapeake, with the design.

Noting that there are different kinds of living shorelines, Darcy explains that the Stephans’ 2012 project began with the construction of an actual sandy shore before planting. Ten to 12-foot coconut fiber logs, aka core logs, went down first at the lowest elevation to define a new perimeter. Then sand, barged in from Portsmouth by marine contractors Hodges & Hodges Enterprises—to whom Darcy refers as “Magic Men”—was deposited and graded over the course of two days.

green landscaping shoreline green landscaping shoreline green landscaping shoreline

Next came the planting of 2,100 plant plugs at about 50 cents each from Nature Scapes in Suffolk, a job that the homeowners undertook themselves with help from Darcy’s sister and brother-in-law. From lowest to highest, the plants include spartina alterniflora, spartina patens, seaside goldenrods, switchgrass, hibiscus, baccharis and iva. Other than lots of tree pruning—these marsh grasses require sun to thrive—the Stephans’ living shoreline requires little maintenance and is estimated to have cost about the same as bulkheading.    

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It was the right thing to do. ~Bronwyn Evans

A couple of years prior, in Poquoson, Bronwyn Evans and her sister and brother-in-law, Drs. Anne Evans and Richard Byles, who live next door, had reached the same conclusion also following a seminar some years prior. Having built an eco-friendly solar energy home on property that her parents had purchased in the 1970s, Bronwyn was concerned with protecting the shoreline which was “washing away and breaking up the marsh.” Located near where the Poquoson River feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, the “fetch” of the wind-driven waves was “scouring away at the shoreline.”

In this case, a breakwater was constructed from a series of cone-shaped stacks of “huge rocks” by Riverworks. (Though owner Bob Winstead is now semi-retired, he still works with Jeff Watkins of Shoreline Structures, a marine contractor in Gloucester.)  Sand was then deposited and graded between the breakwater and existing shoreline where two types of spartina were planted to create a dynamic and healthy shoreline that is monitored twice each year by the Poquoson Wetlands Board.

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With erosion stopped in its tracks and sedimentation helping to create new marsh, Bronwyn would encourage anyone to follow in their footsteps.

I will water for three to four months, but then they have to survive. ~Vickie Greene

green landscaping phragmites australisFrom her acre of brackish saltmarsh on Bell’s Mill Creek in Chesapeake’s Great Bridge area, Vickie Greene laughingly laments “a long history of failed experiments” in this “disturbed wetland” she has shared with her husband, Sam Selden, and children for 20 years, children who, more than once, have been sent out in waders to bring back raised beds, floating away in flood waters.

With a serious invasive exotics problem and, like many wetlands, illegal dumping issues, Greene has battled Phragmites australis and piles of construction debris in the form of toilets and mattress springs. But she has also harvested bricks to use in combination with sand in the building of planting berms.

A Master Gardener and Chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Board for the City of Chesapeake, one of Greene’s greatest teachers has been “painful personal experience” as she has learned what will and won’t grow in the “muck,” her term for the lower elevations of her yard, as well as at the medium and higher ones. Fortunately, she’s an admitted plant sale and clearance junkie, so what doesn’t work hasn’t broken the bank. “I buy a lot of stuff and see what survives the brackish water floods.” 

Here, culled from her extensive mental roster of plants that have thrived in the various challenging conditions in her yard—which floods three to five times each year—are a few of her favorites with her notes: clethra (lower bog bed/barrier garden); crinum lily (wet or dry, shade or sun; doesn’t mind wet feet; won’t bloom for 3 years); a variety of ferns (don’t mind medium-wet areas); figs, pomegranates, and native grapes like muscadines and scuppernongs (grow in middle elevation); heather and rosemary (don’t mind overwash); liriope (non-native but will grow in muck); muhly grass (native; doesn’t like sitting in water; fine with occasional overwash); paper bush (medium elevation with overwash once or twice a year; doesn’t like wet feet; unusual bark interest; a little pricey but spectacular); and weeping bald cypress (lower bog bed/barrier garden).

I open the door and let them fly. ~Nadine Scott

On two acres of drier land in the Hickory section of Chesapeake, fellow Master Gardener Nadine Scott and her husband, Walter, have transformed what is best described as a “field” in the front part of their property into a songbird’s paradise of grapevines, shrubs and trees—with very little turf—such as cedar, hackberry, long needle pine, pear, pecan, tulip poplar, wild cherry and willow. Nearer the house, that paradise belongs to butterflies.

butterfly garden

With host plants like milkweed for monarchs and parsley, fennel, dill and rue for swallowtails, plus caterpillar cages first on her porch and then in a screened room under the deck, an invitation to one of Scott’s butterfly releases is special indeed.

plants that attract butterflies butterflies plants

Limiting her use of fertilizers and pesticides, planting the “right plant in the right place” and mulching with her own leaves and a top dressing of pine straw from their property complements Scott’s concern with habitat destruction.

It’s not very “green” if it doesn’t last. ~Cindy Pennybacker

When your thoughts turn to the more decorative aspects of your outdoor spaces, take your cue from Cindy Pennybacker, owner of Chartreuse Interiors in Virginia Beach, where this designer has made high-style reclamation and repurposing her specialty. Walking the walk in her own backyard, Pennybacker’s guests gather around a farm table constructed from 150-year-old barn wood whose legs are made from Eastern Shore barn beams. Seating is in mismatched chairs.

farm table with mismatched chairs

Desiring some privacy, the designer continued in this vein by flanking her arbor-style entrance to her backyard living space with tall, narrow shutters instead of traditional fencing. “They too have lived many years, enduring the elements,” she notes of these appealingly worn and patinaed shutters painted in varying tones of green.

painted shutters green landscaping

Pennybacker stresses the importance of choosing wood—preferably local—that has been seasoned already, “that has stood the test of time.” Teak and cedar, she notes, are ideal choices because they won’t deteriorate. “When constructing furniture from reclaimed wood you're often forced to saw and sand, exposing the unseasoned interior. It’s imperative to use protective finishes over all surfaces when using a wood that can deteriorate,” she cautions. “It’s not very ‘green’ if it doesn’t last.”

Regardless of context and resources, including budget, we homeowners here in Coastal Virginia have at our salty fingertips an ocean of options for living a little greener in our outdoor spaces. Whether we are making baby steps or giant leaps toward walking a little softer on this precious sandy soil, we would be wise to remember that from biodiversity, to recreation, to migration, transportation, food supply and commerce, the vital importance of the Chesapeake Bay to this region—with ripples, literally, stretching around the globe—would be difficult to underestimate. 

Here are 7 tips for water-wise landscaping.

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