By Phil Ehrenkranz
This is a story of transformation—first, of a house, then of the land on which it stands, and then of us, the “transformers.”
My wife Sandra and I are veteran Loudouners, having moved here on our wedding day in 1967. Ten years later, we became intrigued with a 20-acre property near Taylorstown, which included a derelict mid-18th century log and stone house nearing apparent collapse.
We loved that it was a hand-crafted survivor of 200+ years, sited in relative isolation on rolling hills. But could it be made habitable? Despite its appearance, its “bones,” lots of solid chestnut and well-fitted fieldstone, still were strong. So, we bought it, undertaking the renovation challenge. We benefitted from architectural design work by Dinny White, who became Piedmont Environmental Council’s first executive director. In 1980, the restored house received an American Institute of Architects historic preservation award. It is the Enos Williams House, named after its first owner. After nine months of rehabilitation, we settled in and turned our attention to the land.
It is pretty, about half open and arable. Tending the land was easy, because our neighbors did it. Whatever crops they raised on their property, they raised on ours. Great, but then they departed, leaving us to turn to local farmers to grow hay. These arrangements sufficed until seven years ago, when the farmer declined further work, claiming the land was “too wet,” and later, “too dangerous,” because of its steepness. Multiple rejections by other farmers and logistical problems caused by stormy weather forestalled our progress finding a replacement. We couldn’t interest anyone even to mow the fields, let alone grow hay.
By early 2015, the fields had lain fallow for 18 months. The wild vegetation had burgeoned, increasing in volume and density to a level we regarded as greatly overgrown. Standing on a hill, looking over the fields, we felt a chill on a warm day—a fear we could permanently lose the land’s beauty and productivity.
About that time, we became acutely aware of the plights of insect pollinators, including bees and butterflies, especially Monarchs, whose populations were suffering catastrophic setbacks. The crucial importance of pollinators to agricultural production and the overall well-being of the ecosystem is well-documented. In this context, it became obvious we should and would devote our fields to the pollinators. Nevertheless, we were at a decisional crossroads.
If we were true ecologists, we might have viewed our land, not as “overgrown,” but simply beginning a natural reclamation process eventually evolving into a forest. But the key word there—“eventually”—could not satisfy our vision for this land. Desiring open fields, we decided to act expeditiously to realize twin objectives: to help pollinators thrive, and enhance the beauty of the land during our lifetimes.
Browsing the internet for ideas, I discovered The Natural Resources Conservation Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a program called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). I exclaimed, “That’s us!” For installing pollinator meadows, successful applicants receive technical and financial support, and will find NRCS personnel (in our case, David Bryan, Roger Flint and Casey Iames) are knowledgeable, helpful, dedicated people.
On agreeing to a development plan created by Mr. Bryan, we executed a 3-year contract with NRCS (the first or second such contract in Loudoun), to establish the meadow. Under the plan, the meadow is comprised of four discrete, but connected, areas totaling about 10 acres. To do the clearing and planting, we secured a qualified (NRCS-approved) contractor, Roy VanHouten of Hunt Country Wildlife Management Services.
However, we had to resolve serious issues before planting. Dealing with dense Chinese lespedeza was the main threshold problem. It is a non-native invasive species that, if not controlled, could inhibit establishment of the native wildflowers we intended to grow. To achieve the requisite bare-ground seed bed, we minimized the Lespedeza by having it sprayed with an herbicide. It was not an ideal solution, but there was no ideal solution.
We also were confronted with other invasive plants we wanted to eradicate from the meadow’s borders. We removed more than 100 Russian and Autumn Olive trees and shrubs, and 11 50-foot Ailanthus trees, which would have spread, competing with the native herbaceous plants.
The ground prepared, seeding was accomplished in 2017. This is a delicate operation, requiring a special seeding attachment to plant the tiny wildflower seeds barely below the surface. They cannot effectively be broadcast, because wind and rain will disperse them. Regular seeders plant them too deeply.
Our mix of seeds did not include common milkweed, which is difficult to grow from seed, but which Monarchs require for reproduction. Therefore, in 2017, we tried to augment our established milkweed by transplanting acquired plants. But they did not survive the heat, drought and hungry critters, despite heroic efforts by Milkweed Mama (Sandra), who repotted 200 pot-bound plants, and by our neighbor Mike McLaughlin, who improvised a water delivery system (25-gallon tank lashed to a four-wheeler).
The NRCS contract required us to plant nine types of native wildflowers and two warm-season grasses we could select from an approved list. The plants we chose, all perennials, first bloomed in 2018. Since then, lavender bergamot has been most prolific, but there are good patches of narrow-leaf mountain-mint, black-eyed susans, pinnate coneflowers, thread-leaf coreopsis, goldenrod, little blue stem grass and sideoats grama grass. Volunteer mistflower is a welcome addition.Bees and several butterfly types are abundant, including a smattering of Monarchs attracted by the healthy old milkweed.
We are proud to have resurrected our house, substantially improved the land, and begun to aid the pollinators. Our meadow brings us a sense of accomplishment as we stroll through the wildflowers, and look at the bees, butterflies and birds who now share the meadow with us. It has transformed us.Starting at a knowledge base of near cluelessness, we now better appreciate the natural world on whose health we all depend.
[Phil Ehrenkranz, writing here on behalf of himself and his wife, Sandra, has for five years been editor of In Our Backyard, a column compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org. For information about EQIP, go to nrcs.usda.gov.]