Death by Urban Landscaping: How popular landscape plants are destroying local forests

by Beverley Rivera.

As the weather warms, Northern Virginia appears to come alive almost overnight, trees leaf out and unique wildflowers blossom beneath the awakening canopy; but this greening of everything around us actually belies a chilling outlook: much of the striking new foliage is not supposed to be here. Plants that are not native to America are rapidly outcompeting local forest growth for resources: growing space, sunlight, water. In many areas, not only are the invasive plants winning the battle for these resources, they are annihilating the local competition.

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) can displace native vegetation and kill trees and shrubs by girdling them. Photo by Matt jones/NatureServe/cc.

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) can displace native vegetation and kill trees and shrubs by girdling them. Photo by Matt Jones/NatureServe/cc.

And it’s a problem without a solution because many of the plants that are steadily destroying Virginia’s forests are spreading from people’s gardens and from landscaping at shopping centers and businesses. There are breathtaking areas in Northern Virginia where invasive vines so thick that they require a saw to hack through are suffocating native trees that withstood Civil War battles. Homeowners and landscapers plant these vines in urban settings, the seeds get into the forest via birds, and the non-native plants quickly take over, entangling, suffocating, stunting and displacing everything natural. Invasives such as Chinese wisteria send out vast networks of thick vines that spread above and beneath the ground, quickly engulfing massive areas of natural forest.

Another frightening prospect is that in the normal cycle of things, young trees which are just now getting established would, hundreds of years from now, replace the massive canopy trees as they end their life cycles. If left untainted, the forest rejuvenates itself as it has for thousands of years. But with invasive plants taking over, the young growth that is destined to be our forest of the future is being entangled, smothered and displaced by invasive plants. Adding to the problem is overbrowsing by deer. Deer won’t eat many of the invasive plants, and the natural predators that once kept deer numbers in check are no longer roaming the east.

In fact, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive ID and Control booklet looks more like a guide to urban landscaping in Northern Virginia.

Equally destructive to our new forest growth are Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy. But these plants are ubiquitous in local landscaping, meaning that even if an army of volunteers managed to remove all the invasives from an area, the seeds from urban landscaping would quickly reinfest the forest. Invasive butterfly bush is another staple in Northern Virginian landscaping, as are Japanese barberry, Pachysandra, Miscanthus, Bradford pear, privet, Norway maple, burning bush; the lists of plants that become invasive once they leave the suburban landscape is ongoing. In fact, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive ID and Control booklet looks more like a guide to urban landscaping in Northern Virginia.


English ivy before and after: for sale at a local garden center and its escape into the wild.

This prevalence of invasive plants in our gardens invites the question: if invasive plants are destroying Virginia’s natural areas, why are many of these plants still widely available for sale? To some extent the blame for the degraded state of our natural areas must lie with the stores that are supplying invasive plants. But I also think that at some point, we as homeowners must take our share of the responsibility. We need to think about the consequences of our actions on the future of Virginia’s forests, or else our forests are just not going to be around for future generations.

Introduced and invasive plants like butterfly bush and Japanese barberry adorn many residential properties.

Introduced and invasive plants like butterfly bush and Japanese barberry adorn many residential properties.

There’s a native plant for every gardening situation

Virginia has such an abundance of plant diversity that there is no excuse for planting invasives. For every invasive plant there is an equally attractive native alternative. And the added benefit of planting local plants is that once established in the right conditions, they become very low maintenance; native plants have been here much longer than watering cans and fertilizers have. Gorgeous alternatives, for example, to the invasive butterfly bush are our fall-blooming goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) which are even more fabulous when planted together. They attract more pollinators than the much-loved non-native. For an attractive evergreen ground cover alternative to English ivy, there’s golden ragwort (Packera aurea). For every plant that you think you can’t live without, there is a selection of native alternatives; there’s even a native wisteria, American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens).

Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a wonderful alternative to English ivy. And it doesn't kill trees.

Sunny golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a wonderful alternative to English ivy.

But don’t expect the large local garden centers, or the plant sales that crop up in shopping center parking lots to stock an abundance of native plants – because they don’t. They might stock a few cultivars, which are plants that have been bred to enhance particular traits such as vibrant color or hardiness, so they may be labelled “native” but they contain modifications. Another caveat about native plants is obtaining plants that belong in this region, they’re referred to as “local ecotypes.” Just because a plant is “native” to Northern America – which is vast in its geography and hence its plant diversity – doesn’t mean that it belongs in Virginia, or that it couldn’t potentially become invasive if introduced to this region. Our local ecotypes also have evolved to form special relationships with our indigenous animals. Some native bees, for example, pollinate only one species of plants, which required millions of years of evolution.

Northern Virginia resources abound!

Fortunately, there are some excellent resources available for planting what is local. The Plant NoVA Natives website has recommendations of what to plant specific to Northern Virginia, and their online guide even covers recommendations for problem planting areas. The Virginia Native Plant Society also has a wealth of resources including a list of alternatives for English ivy. One excellent source for buying local ecotypes is Earth Sangha’s Wild Plant Nursery.

One last word of caution when buying plants at big box stores or mainstream garden supply shops is that there is much talk about whether the presence of certain pesticides known as neonicotinoids are contributing to the alarming decline of pollinators. Shop wisely and with an eye to the future.

Virginia has a wealth of gorgeous natural areas that are being devastated by the invasive plants that we are cultivating in our own backyard. Help to preserve the fascinating diversity of this region’s native plants by growing what belongs here.


Replacing Lawn with Natives at a Virginia Rest Stop

On a cloudy humid morning, a small group of about 50 diverse people came together at the Dale City, Virginia, northbound rest stop.  They weren’t travelling through and stopping briefly for a break.  On the contrary, these people came here to work.  They were generously donating their time for one common passion: our pollinators.  These volunteers, over the course of the day, manually installed more than 8,000 flowering perennials in 15,000 square feet of former turfgrass.  An impressive and inspiring undertaking.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is one of 13 species of plants being installed.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was one of 13 species of plants installed.


Sue Dingwell of the Virginia Native Plant Society offered expertise and energy to the mass VDOT planting.

Native planting at Dale City rest area

Volunteers toiled for most of the day.


This gentleman, a Dominion VA Power volunteer, shows off one of the plant plugs.

Katherine Daniels of Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy happily digs in.

Katherine Daniels of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy happily digs in.

September 29, 2015 


DALE CITY- Monarch butterflies appear to flutter carefree with the breeze, but their survival is under constant threat due to dwindling habitats and food supplies.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Dominion Virginia Power teamed up with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Native Plant Society and Valley Land on Tuesday to plant more than 8,000 pollinator-friendly plants at the Dale City Rest Area on Interstate 95 north in Northern Virginia.  This project is part of VDOT’s Pollinator Habitat Program, which aims to create “waystations” or refuges for Monarch butterflies and other threatened pollinators.

Read more about this project from VDOT here.

The Unusual Occurrance of Dead Animals

Dear neighbors,

We have had unusual incidents of wildlife turning up dead or dying in our neighborhood.  We found a dead raccoon in our backyard on Poplar Drive on April 7 and the kind neighbor diagonally across the creek on Kennedy Street found a dead squirrel in her backyard a week prior.  Twenty days after discovering the dead raccoon, another neighbor came across a sick and dying raccoon – also on Kennedy Street.  None of the animals showed signs of trauma.  I’ve been chatting with a lot of experts hoping to find the cause of this unusual occurrence of dead critters.


Rat poison is a possible cause because we do have rats — primarily because where we live, backing to Tripps Run, there are gabions.  Gabions are rocks in wire cages.  Fairfax County installed them years ago to stabilize the creek.  Using gabions is now considered an outdated practice but they make a good habitat for rats to live.  People may not like rats and mice but there are many reasons not to put out poison to kill them.  Poison can be consumed by any number of non-targeted animals.  And these poisoned animals are then eaten by other wildlife that in turn are also poisoned.  More humane alternatives to poison include a ‘Rat Zapper’ or a spring/snap trap.

Another poison that animals get into is antifreeze — it’s made with a chemical called ethylene glycol.  It is sweet tasting and highly toxic.  Here’s a NY Times article on why antifreeze manufacturers are changing their formula to make it unpalatable to animals and people.  If you have antifreeze stored in an area that wild critters, children or pets have access to, please move it to a secure location.  If your auto is leaking antifreeze, this could attract wildlife or domesticated animals and can also cause certain death if consumed.


When I made my second call to Fairfax County Animal Control about the dead animals, Officer O’Connor suggested that the animals could have been shot with a .22.  The bullet hole would be small enough to be indiscernible.

Although this seems far-fetched, a friend of mine knew a person who confessed to shooting squirrels at his bird feeders.  He lived in Falls Church.  Aren’t there times when you hear a loud sound and you think ‘that sounded like gunfire’ but you immediately dismiss it?

Officer O’Conner also stated that Animal Control does not test wildlife for poisons because it’s too costly.  They will test an animal for rabies, like our dying raccoon, but only if it has been in physical contact with a person.


Jane, from the Wildlife Rescue League, couldn’t add any additional insight about why our wildlife was turning up dead — except to state that animals don’t normally just up and die.  She did suggest I chat with the Fairfax County Health Department.  So I called FCHD and they gave me the number of Dr. Katherine Edwards, a wildlife biologist with Fairfax County.

Dr. Edwards, a Wildlife Management Specialist, listened to my account of the two raccoons and the squirrel and stated that there could be any number of reasons why the animals were killed.  She felt that the circumstances were indeed suspicious.  However, sometimes squirrels fall out of trees, she said, or animals get hit by vehicles and drag themselves elsewhere to die.  She wanted me to stress to my neighbors the importance of securing trash bins so animals can’t access harmful items.  Also, move your bin to the curbside in the morning instead of the night before pickup.


Debris or stacked items in a yard will create protected areas for small animals.  Compost bins can also be a source of food.  What is great is that in our suburban environment, our resident foxes, hawks and owls help keep rodent numbers in control.  If you don’t care for rodents or other creatures on your property, eliminate sources of food and shelter — or just let nature keep the balance.


Please don’t harm our wildlife.  Here is the law on killing wildlife in Virginia.

The unfortunate series of deaths remains a mystery.  I hope it was a freaky occurrence that will not be repeated.  For future reference, I’ve compiled some phone numbers that may come in handy:

Wildlife Rescue League: “If you have an injured animal or orphaned babies, please call our hotline at (703) 440-0800 so that your situation can be handled quickly.”  These kind folks want to help our furry and feathery friends.
Non-Emergency Questions: (703) 391-8625

If you have a wildlife conflict, such as a raccoon living under your deck, please call the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline: (855) 571-9003

A great non-profit organization we’ve received help from for a mangy fox: The Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation: (703) 549-4987 (Alexandria)

Fairfax County Wildlife Biologist: Dr. Katherine Edwards: (703) 246-6868

The Wildlife Center of Virginia (Waynesboro)

Fairfax County Animal Control: (703) 691-2131
Call FCAC “For dog bites, animal cruelty or neglect, sick or injured wildlife or human exposure/encounters with potentially rabid wildlife.”
“Animals that pose a direct threat to public health and safety are a top priority. Animal Control responds to wildlife calls for injured, sick, or aggressive animals. Seriously injured or aggressive wildlife will be humanely euthanized.”

I don’t advise calling Animal Control if you are trying to help an animal, because they say that is not what they do.


This raccoon is just one of the many welcomed creatures that visit our backyard habitat.


Fairfax County Gives Away ‘Green’ Money

Native trees and shrubs awaiting planting.

Native trees and shrubs await planting.

Calling all Homeowner and Civic Associations!  Fairfax County, Virginia, has launched their Conservation Assistance Program.  If your HOA or Civic Association is interested in creating sustainable landscapes or wants to become more energy efficient, the County will pay for 50% of the cost.  Check out their website for the fine details.

Currently, private homeowners are not eligible.

Watershed Conservation

BayScaping. Incorporate native trees and shrubs, meadow or wetland plants into your landscape. Typical cost: $5-15 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $1500.

Rain Gardens. Bowl-shaped garden area that collects and absorbs runoff. Typical cost: $10-25 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $2500.

Vegetated Swales. A wide, shallow ditch with dense vegetation or grass and amended soil designed to slow and absorb rainwater runoff and/or filter pollutants. Typical cost: $5-25 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $1500.

Infiltration Trench/Dry Well. A gravel-filled area that collects and absorbs runoff. Typical cost: $5-15 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $1500.

Porous Pavement/Pavers. Replace impervious hard surfaces to allow water to pass through and absorbs into the ground below. Must be installed by certified professional. Typical cost: $10-35 per square foot. Minimum size: 150 square feet. 50% match up to $3000.

Energy Conservation

Energy Audit. Have a certified energy auditor perform an assessment and report on civic/homeowner association building(s). 50% match up to $500.

Energy Audit Recommendations. Implement a certified energy auditor’s efficiency recommendations for your homeowners or civic association building, from air sealing, insulation and HVAC to lighting and electronics upgrades. 50% match up to $3000.


Audubon Petitions Local Counties to Cease Spraying

Our local Fairfax and Prince William Counties plan to spray for the fall cankerworm, Alsophila pometaria, or ‘inchworm’ this coming spring as they have done annually for many years.  They will aerial spray Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki (Btk) which will kill not only the cankerworm but also other native Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) larvae.  According to Cornell University, “More than 150 insects, mostly lepidopterous larvae, are known to be susceptible in some way to B.t.”  That’s a huge amount of butterfly and moth larvae species affected, including innocuous species already in decline.  It is also a lot of food loss for our feathery friends that are increasingly stressed by habitat degradation.  Caterpillars are the main food source for migrating birds and also for breeding birds and their hatchlings.  Did you know that it takes up to 9000 caterpillars to raise a single clutch of chickadees?


Caterpillars that support our birds could be unnecessarily targeted by County spraying.

Fairfax County states on their website that 5000 acres of trees have been defoliated in the past.  However, the North Carolina State University site referenced by Fairfax County indicates “cankerworms generally don’t kill trees”.  It’s not clear how the County defines defoliation, as our native trees are hosts to many native insect species.  Oaks, for example, support nearly 600 species of Lepidoptera.

This past spring The Connection ran a story on the debate over the spraying.  Local entomologist Ashley Kennedy said that the spraying was not necessary and it costs Fairfax County about a half a million dollars annually.  The County sprayed 2,200 acres of residential area in the spring of 2014.  The primary reason, the County explained, was because the caterpillars were a nuisance to people.

Do we really need to be spraying?  Could our tax dollars be better spent?  I believe this is a woeful waste of our money as cankerworms are generally not killing trees and they are an important food source for native critters, particularly birds.  Additionally, the spraying causes unintended consequences to many other caterpillar species as all pesticides kill indiscriminately.

The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia is petitioning Fairfax County and Prince William County to end the spraying of our native fall cankerworm.  Please consider signing this petition to reduce County spending and to end this attack on our ecosystem: Audubon Community Petitions



Falls Church Environment Booth

ChooseNatives can be found hanging out at the local Farmer’s Market with Kent Taylor, Master Naturalist, and Vicky Tsaparas, Tree Steward. We are there in the winter months as long as the weather is cooperative.  Stop by to say ‘hi’ and check out the booth.
Kent Taylor shares his wealth of information.

Kent Taylor shares his wealth of information.

Falls Church Environment Booth at Farmers Market

by Kent Taylor

When purchasing fresh, organic and locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats, honey and bread at the Saturday City of Falls Church Farmers Market, be sure to stop by the Falls Church Environment (FCE) booth.

The FCE was formed to provide environmental outreach and education, filling a void created when the City of Falls Church defunded its environmental outreach program.  The goal of FCE is to instill a sense of community ergo a level of ownership by promoting local initiatives.  The FCE is a collaboration between members of the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists and other local environmental organizations, such as the City of Falls Church Habitat Restoration TeamFairfax Master NaturalistsFairfax Master GardenersGreen Spring Master Gardeners and Fairfax County Tree Stewards.

The FCE booth is currently operated on Saturdays from 8 AM to Noon, October through November.  At the booth, educational materials are provided to assist residents in recognizing the impact that their life styles have on the environment, and what they can do to mitigate the impact.

Along with the FCE booth at the City of Falls Church Farmers Market, the Falls Church City Environment Web provides information online to facilitate environmental outreach.

ARMN President Caroline Haynes:  Many thanks to ARMN member Kent Taylor, who has taken a leading role in coordinating these efforts!

Reprinted by permission.