A visit to this suburban property outside Washington, D.C., feels like returning to a land time forgot, a place where salamanders, hummingbirds, chipmunks, caterpillars, and deer thrive among the humans welcoming them back to their long-lost home. Learn more about the rare transformation in this fifth dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
When neighbors kick fallen leaves to the curbside for county pickup and discard tree trimmings like trash, Toni Genberg thinks of the wilder residents of her community who would appreciate these natural treasures: the robins and white-throated sparrows who like to peck through the leafy layers, the salamanders who take cover in the moisture, and the firefly larvae who make “happy meals” out of the earthworms and slugs beneath. She considers the pileated and downy woodpeckers drilling for insects in logs, the chipmunks making prostrate branches into superhighways, and the squirrels lying on top of it all like lounge lizards claiming their domains.
These are just a few of the animals who have made a home in Genberg’s quarter-acre humane garden in Falls Church, Virginia, where dead plants take center stage among the living. Even in a habitat filled with lushly blooming native species in every layer of the canopy—silky dogwoods, persimmons, elderberries, milkweeds, asters, sweetspires, coneflowers, columbines, coral honeysuckles, false indigos—decaying organic matter takes on a life of its own. “Planting the plants is one thing,” says Genberg. “Equally important is leaving the leaf litter and branches and logs. I have on many occasions dragged branches home from nearby curbs.”
In this magical space, it’s not hard to imagine a hobbit joining the animals peeking out from beneath the logs lining the stone pathways. From behind a moss-covered stump topped by an Easter Island Maoi carved by a friend out of a declining oak tree, a squirrel surveys his surroundings. Into a brush pile covered by Virginia creeper vines, a chipmunk dives for cover. Next to the patio, a newer pile of stems and small branches that Genberg had intended to distribute elsewhere already shows signs of occupancy. “That wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says. “But someone’s living in there now, so I have to leave it.”
She didn’t intend to have so much jewelweed under the dogwoods either, but now she has to leave that, too, because deer eat it and hummingbirds sip from the blooms. But though these sound like laments, they are really more of a celebration, representing to Genberg all the life that a small yard near a major thoroughfare in the middle of mowed-down suburbia can support. The hummingbirds who catch gnats in midair and the bird who once landed on Genberg’s head are favorite visitors, but everyone else is welcome here, too. “From aphids to leafhoppers to milkweed bugs, we embrace them all,” Genberg says. “I understand that ‘pests’ have a place in our habitat, too.”
A lifelong nature lover, Genberg doesn’t just rescue discarded decaying matter destined for the county compost pile. She also helps save plants, volunteering at Earth Sangha, a nursery that propagates species from wild-collected seeds for use in restoration projects and sale to gardeners. In her role as a transporter for Wildlife Rescue League, she has picked up and delivered opossums, barred owls, crows, ducklings and other injured and orphaned animals to area rehabilitators.
Closer to home, she has been so incensed and heartbroken by the effects of rodenticides that she now conducts a mini-campaign against them. After finding a rat bleeding from his nose, she hand-delivered 50 copies of an educational letter to neighbors. As a Virginia master naturalist, she created a display for the City of Falls Church Farmers Market that shows images of the victims of secondary poisoning—the hawks, owls, foxes, and pets who eat smaller animals killed by rodenticides. Children are especially moved and bring their parents to take a look. “People are attracted to the photos and then they end up reading what the message really is. … I had one person say after checking it out, ‘Well, I’m not ever doing that again.’ ”
Respect for all creatures started young. One of Genberg’s earliest memories is of her mom throwing the tin cans she used for growing plants at the side of a neighbor’s house during a drenching rainstorm. “She finally got them to come out because they had left their dog out in the rain. She was so angry and so upset,” Genberg recalls. “It’s stuff like that that kind of gets ingrained in you.”
Even the typically less appreciated animals did not fall outside her mom’s purview. Once when Genberg and her sister commented that they’d heard stories of putting salt on slugs, “my mom was like, if you put salt on that slug, you’re going to have to eat it. So that made us think, ‘Oh, OK, maybe we won’t do that!’ ”
The caterpillars of spicebush swallowtail, monarch, and black swallowtail butterflies munch away at their native host plants. (Photos, left and center: Toni Genberg; right: Nancy Lawson)
Decades later in Virginia, Genberg applied the same ethic to her garden, shunning pesticides and delighting in the sight of deer and foxes who meander along her backyard creek. After she and her husband, Marc, purchased their home in 2005, they even added a few native plants. But it wasn’t until Genberg heard University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy speak three years ago that the true transformation began. Like many gardeners, she was astounded by Tallamy’s research showing that most baby birds subsist primarily on a diet of caterpillars, who in turn rely mostly on native plants they’ve evolved to digest.
The new information was a revelation, inspiring Genberg to plant milkweed for the monarch caterpillars and golden alexanders for the black swallowtail caterpillars, goldenrods and asters for bees and butterflies, coral honeysuckles and cardinal flowers for the hummingbirds. She created a website, ChooseNatives.org, where her skills as a longtime video editor help her convey a big-picture view of the importance of wildlife-friendly plants and minimizing hazards to animals. Though she grew up with cats and her father fed the ferals in their Hawaiian community (“I fancied myself a cat,” she says), she’s now particularly concerned about the effect on wildlife and pleads with cat owners to keep their pets indoors.
Creating a safe space for all animals has meant learning to coexist with squirrels who once wreaked havoc on her raised vegetable beds. “I used to curse the squirrels,” she says, “but you learn to cage things.” She even names her resident nut lovers, including the one with the worrisome hip problems whom she and Marc call “Hipster.”
Deer are welcome to the wild strawberry, heuchera, asters, and suckering elderberries. “They can have as much as they want of the elderberry because that shrub is so huge, and their browsing is not going to kill it,” she says. “They have so much to eat that they just kind of nibble, nibble, nibble. Everybody complains that deer eat their hostas. I have two hostas and the deer don’t even go near them because there’s this huge native smorgasbord.”
They even help to prune some of her plants: “One of my friends came over and said, ‘Oh my god, your New England asters! How do you keep them looking so low and tidy?’ And I’m like, ‘The deer are doing that—they’re awesome! They come in and then they prune for me, and everything looks great.’ ”
There’s plenty for the smallest of creatures to eat, too. Where once there was mostly lawn and invasive plants—privet, bush honeysuckle, English ivy, pachysandra, and vinca—Virginia creeper, white wood asters, wild strawberries, and wild basil fill the spaces instead. Native thistle and Joe Pye weed beckon goldfinches while woodland sunflowers and golden ragworts provide food for bees. After learning that many native bees are specialists, collecting pollen for their larvae only from certain species, Genberg began planting for them, too.
Genberg’s involvement with the master naturalist program “continues to open my eyes to things,” she says. “Every moment is a learning moment or a teaching moment. … It’s really this evolution you go through as you get older. You just see what’s a priority and what’s really important. We need to be supporting our wildlife because really, without them, what are we?”
Resources for Northern Virginia and Beyond
Gardening for Wildlife: On her website, Choose Natives.org, Genberg provides thoughtful advice about native plants and humane cultivation practices, as well as links to local plant sales and events. Among the many resources offered by Plant NOVA Natives, a collaboration of public and private groups, is a free downloadable guide with profiles and colorful images of recommended plants for the region.
Native Plant Source: Earth Sangha is a unique nursery in Springfield, Va., that offers local ecotypes grown from seed collected with permission from natural areas—a method that helps preserve genetic diversity and resilience. The nursery participates in many public and private restoration projects and holds plant sales for gardeners.
Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education: The Wildlife Rescue League, where Genberg volunteers to transport injured and orphaned animals to rehabilitators, also operates a hotline to provide advice and resources to the public. The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy advocates for animals and the environment through educational programs, citizen science projects, and habitat restoration projects.
Gardening for Deer and Bees: The habitat needs of wild animals large and small are often misunderstood. To learn more about how to help some of the ones mentioned in this article, see “Gardening for Deer” and “How to Really Save the Bees.” For inspiration on using native plants to help bees, watch this beautiful video Genberg created in honor of National Pollinator Week:
*Featured image of chipmunk by Toni Genberg.
Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. To learn more and tell me your own story, read about the Humane Gardening Heroes series.