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Where the Wild Things Are

Patricia Burshem has always enjoyed the outdoors and loves to sit in her gazebo taking in the sights and sounds of nature. Recently, her back yard has become more than just a means for her own enjoyment, but a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Habitat.

Several weeks ago, the Vienna resident had her property declared an official NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat site.

Burshem, who has lived in Vienna for 16 years, said that this recognition is something she had been working toward ever since she moved into the one-acre property on Adahi Road.

"All my life I've had a beautiful garden, and I decided to do a natural lawn," Burshem said.

Mary Burnette of the NWF said that the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program began in 1973 as a way to teach and educate people about wildlife and to show them what they could do to nurture wildlife in their community.

Burshem consulted gardening books to help get her habitat started.

"I looked into gardening books to find plants that butterflies and birds are attracted to," she said.

"My first step was to plant hostas around my trees," she said. "After that, I tried to develop one section of my yard a year to be suitable for wildlife."

According to Burshem, hostas are small plants that seem to die in the winter but erupt in the Spring.

NWF HAS certain requirements in order for a property to be certified as a backyard habitat. According to Burnette, four elements must be provided.

"You must provide food, water, shelter and a place for wildlife to raise young," she said. "There is a comprehensive application for people to fill out, and they are certified by our naturalists."

Nancy Jordan, who also lives in Vienna, said that she did not need to plant a lot of new plants in order to create a habitat. "I have a lot of shelter for birds with a row of mature azaleas, and I also have evergreens that they can seek refuge in," said Jordan. Six years ago, she had a backyard habitat certified at her home in Delaware.

According to the NWF, any enthusiast can create a backyard habitat and reap the benefits of it.

"It is not overly difficult but provides a commitment and often takes time," Burnette said. "It's not something you can whip up in a weekend."

According to Burnette, Vienna has 52 backyard habitats, and Fairfax County has a total of 872.

Burnette also said that no further requirements must be met once an area is certified as a habitat.

"We don't check up on people," she said. "Normally, people committed enough to get the certification are committed naturalists who do not let it fall apart." She went on to say that these habitats often can actually require less maintenance than an average yard.

"For instance, a lawn turned into a bed of wild flowers would require less maintenance than a traditional lawn," said Burnette.

JORDAN SAID that in her case, the habitat is not difficult to maintain. She simply weeds, doesn't use pesticides, and keeps a wood pile for small animals in her yard.

Burshem said that her habitat is also low maintenance.

"That's why I like it," she said. "All the plants are perennials, and every year they reseed themselves."

Burshem weeds and mulches as well as fertilizes twice a year to maintain her habitat. She also would recommend putting together a wildlife habitat to anyone.

"It's fun for anyone who likes to garden and enjoys drawing in butterflies and birds," she said. "My grandkids spend hours outside playing." Burshem added that people in her community often stop by and ask to see her habitat.

"All the feedback that we have gotten is extremely positive," she said, "and putting appropriate elements in their yards allows them to connect with nature."

Virginia has 2,173 certified Backyard Wildlife Habitats, according to Burnette. Those interested in starting their own Backyard Wildlife Habitat can visit www.nwf.org.