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Where the Wild Things Are

Fairfax Station resident joins growing trend with certified backyard Wildlife Habitat.

Ed Shubert of Fairfax Station is the caretaker of a designated Wildlife Habitat — his yard.

Three summers ago, Shubert built a pond in his backyard, complete with a waterfall that runs about 15 feet down a natural slope. He landscaped the surrounding area with a variety of plants and trees, and he has birdhouses hanging around the both the front and back yards. For his birthday this year, his wife got the property certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Foundation.

In addition to serving as a hobby and providing a refuge for wildlife, said Shubert, his work has made his yard more pleasant to enjoy. "It's nice to have that sound of running water when you're sitting out on the porch with a cocktail or with company," he said, and he also enjoys watching the animals. "It's amazing what the water attracts," Shubert said, rattling off a list: frogs, salamanders, snails, squirrels, birds, foxes and a red-bellied woodpecker that has made its nest nearby. "I even found a snake back here with a frog half-way in its mouth," he said. In the pond he keeps five Japanese Koi — an ornamental variety of carp.

Shubert said it took him all summer to build the pond and waterfall and to landscape the surrounding area, "but it could be done in a week or two, if you did it full-time with the right equipment."

THE POND IS relatively small, about 700 or 800 gallons, Shubert said, and he dug it out with a hand shovel. The pond and waterfall are lined with a fish-safe rubber liner covered with stones. "The key to this whole process is having clean water," he said. This means using no chemicals of any kind. Aquatic plants help to oxygenate the water, as does the tumble down the rocks. Without a waterfall, a bubbler would be required. A skimmer on the side of the pond contains a natural filter, and after the water is pumped back to the top of the hill, it runs through a bio-filter, where microorganisms consume any harmful bacteria, he said.

Shubert said he bought the stones, plants and fish for his creation locally and bought the equipment over the Internet. "I'm just a novice at this, but I have landscapers come over and ask what landscaping company did my pond," he said. "But it's not that hard. Anybody can do it." He added, "If you don't have a slope, you can build one with the dirt from the pond."

The Koi have now hibernated through three winters. Shubert said he turns the waterfall pump off in the winter, although this is not necessary. What is necessary, though, is to keep the pond from freezing over entirely "because you need an exchanged of gases," he said, and he has accomplished this with the use of a small heater.

David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation and host of the Animal Planet show "Backyard Habitat," said a property owner must meet five criteria in order to have land certified as an official Wildlife Habitat. The first four are that they must provide wildlife with food, shelter, water and places to raise young.

"It starts with the plants you put in," said Mizejewski. Plants with leaves, seeds or berries edible to the local wildlife provide the bottom of the food chain. They can be supplemented with feeders, said Mizejewski. "We really don't encourage people to feed any other animals besides birds." Mammals in particular are inclined to become dependent on people and also may bite, he said.

Plants also often provide wildlife with shelter and places to raise young, and they can be supplemented to that end with brush piles and nesting boxes. The source of water could be anything from a birdbath to a pond and waterfall, said Mizejewski.

The fifth requirement for certification, he said, is gardening in a sustainable fashion. This means using native plants, not using chemicals and conserving water. Planting native plants can conserve water because most do not require supplemental watering. Collecting rainwater from the roof to use for watering plants both conserves water and helps to prevent runoff, he said.

The certification of individual properties has become "pretty common," said Mizejewski. He noted that Arlington, Reston, Great Falls and Ashburn have had so many properties certified that parts of them have been designated as "community habitats," and he said he expects the trend to grow: "It's actually hugely important, and it’s something you’re only going to see more of." As global warming creates water shortages in some areas and development continues to deplete wildlife habitats, "it's going to go from something that's kind of fun to something that's a requirement," said Mizejewski.

He added that the trend would also benefit human health and psychology. "There's this thing called nature deficit," he said. "We're the first generation that has no real connection to nature." He noted that, for most of human existence, people have been required to carry on an intimate relationship with nature in order to survive.

This is no longer the case, and technology such as television and computers too often replace that relationship, he said, adding that the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as attention deficit disorder, are associated with the resulting sedentary lifestyle.

Creating backyard habitats "is a way to help parents and caregivers get their kids outside and get themselves outside," said Mizejewski. "So it's for fun, it's for the environment, and it's also for people."

According to Pat Gillette, one of the managers at the Merrifield Garden Center, backyard ponds gained considerable popularity in the last 10 or 15 years, although the enthusiasm for them seems to have leveled off in the last few years. As for the difficulty of building them, he said, "Well, it's not rocket science. It's pretty simple to just do a pond feature." But he added, "It's trickier to do a waterfall."

Gillette suggested that any prospective pond builders should do some research in order to select materials and formulate a plan, and he noted that a number of books on the subject are now available. Merrifield Garden Center carries some pertinent literature specific to the region, he said.

The cost for such projects, said Gillette, could vary widely. "If you do it yourself, obviously, it's going to save you a lot of money." He said one could buy a "whiskey barrel" pond setup and bubbler for a few hundred dollars. A waterfall with plantings would run closer to $2,000. Hiring a company to install a huge waterfall could cost upwards of $20,000.

Gillette said he was unaware that such projects could be certified as Wildlife Habitats.