Members of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener Association are passionate about gardening, and we love to share that passion with others. Read about the favorite home gardening activities of our members with a new story each month.
Members: What’s happening in your Home Turf? Contact Gail Fowler to share your story.
January 2021: Elaine Specht’s Habitat Garden
While Elaine Specht may be known for her award-winning dahlias, they are just a part of who she is as a gardener. She would rather talk about the big picture: the wildlife habitat she calls home.
Inspired by a course in Ecological Landscape Design, offered by the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Elaine discovered a framework that would help her articulate and more clearly develop the vision she had been manifesting, intuitively, for years. “I love being an active part of everything that’s happening in the natural world,” she said. “Ecological design is about less grass, more native plants, and a diversity of habitat for animals,” Elaine said as she trudged through the snow. Even in winter, there are song birds foraging on berries and flower heads that have been left to seed. At a time when gardens are dormant, there’s clearly a lot happening here.
Registered by the NSVMGA as a “Habitat Garden,” the Specht’s Woodstock property is a landscape of intention, designed to provide year-round food, water, cover/shelter and nesting habitat to support and sustain native and migratory birds, bats, insects, butterflies (the property is also a certified Monarch Waystation), and other wildlife, including rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and, the often unwelcome, skunks and snakes. When Elaine moved to Shenandoah County with her husband Dan and their cocker spaniel Daisy Mae, “The property wasn’t even attractive to deer,” she said. “Now, we’re a deer highway.” Deer and other animal tracks are plainly visible in the snow. “I guess we’ve been successful. Maybe too successful,” she added.
“It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago there was nothing here but lawn,” said Elaine, pointing out a garden of conifers (a dozen different types), a grove of mature trees, and an archipelago of creatively designed “island” garden beds – all a labor of love, all for the greater ecological good. The septic field is now a meadow, and even the stumps of a plum and cherry tree enjoy a second life. More than artistry, they provide habitat for insects, and insects feed birds, especially woodpeckers, the Specht’s unofficial mascot. (Specht is German for woodpecker.)
A fenced area behind the house is one concession Elaine has made to her open concept. It’s for Daisy’s safety, but it also protects several raised beds for the edibles enjoyed by her humans. “We used to have a vegetable plot on Dan’s family’s farm, but got tired of driving 20 minutes to harvest,” Elaine said. “Aside from our potato crops, we moved everything here.” Everything includes the only blueberry bushes she keeps netted. The others? “I’ve given up on them,” she said waving her hand. “Gone to the birds.”
To learn more about gardening to create wildlife habitat, check out this fact sheet from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Editor’s Note: Elaine Specht is the NSVMGA president for 2020-21. Her gardens will be among those featured on the NSVMGA Garden Tour, June 26, 2021.