Converting a yard from dated lawn to fresh wildlife oasis

When Jane Gamble and her husband, David Leider, moved into their house in Fairfax County, Virginia, five years ago, little of the landscaping had changed from the time the home was built in the early 1960s.

The brick Colonial-style home sat in an expanse of lawn that stretched from curb to foundation, with a few hedges of old-fashioned shrubs scattered around the edges, including the invasive exotic barberry.

This model of the conforming orthodox yard, for all its neatness, is seen by many contemporary gardeners not just as a stylistic anachronism but also an environmental wasteland. Reliant on a diet of fertilizers and pesticides — and on continual mowing — it provides little ecological benefit, and it is, let’s face it, dull.

Gamble took up kayaking and discovered that there was a lot of nature out there, especially in the watery part of the world. She wondered: Why shouldn’t there be nature closer to home? The couple set about bringing plants and animal life to the third-of-an-acre lot.

They dug out more than 30 barberry, nandina and other mature shrubs, but the makeover really picked up steam when Leider got his hands on a sod-cutter.

For someone who had wrestled with removing turf with a shovel, this was a revelation. “When you rent a sod-cutter, you can take out a lot of sod,” said Leider, who is recently retired from the State Department. His wife still works for the Foreign Service. They moved to the property after a posting in Brazil.

Although they can’t quite match the biodiversity of the Amazon, they have proved that a property richly planted with trees, shrubs and perennials, paired with a small but effective fish pond, can draw numerous birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and beneficial insects.

In just a few years, the yard has been transformed into a garden of delight. Each quadrant has its own character, achieved through the couple’s remarkable synergy. Gamble has a capacity to find plant bargains — not to mention free mulch; she’ll retrieve some from sites about to be bulldozed or, more frequently, determine when mass merchandisers will clear their shelves of seasonal plant material. “I treat Home Depot like a casbah,” she said. “I go in there and bargain hard.”

In a newly created border, they flipped the sliced sod upside down to break down and enrich the heavy clay soil, then added wood chips, 10 cubic yards at a time.

“The borders kept getting bigger and bigger,” Gamble said, “and the wildlife came in. There was a bird nesting in a tree we planted, and how incredibly rewarding is that?”

Leider likes to plant trees, but his forte has been in putting together the hardscape, including fences, arbors and raised vegetables beds, as well as an elaborate bee hotel.

Normally, an elevated deck separates the resident from the garden, but my favorite part of the landscape is a shade garden flowing from the lower sections of the deck. Where once a crumbling parking pad existed, Leider has built an enclosing gate and fence, now draped in a yellow Lady Banks rose and clematis. Between the gate and the deck, he laid a flagstone patio in a diamond pattern.

The signature plant here is an old Burford holly tree, which now shields a collection of ferns, hostas and astilbe and is encircled with a red brick path. From the tree branches, Gamble has hung baskets of moth orchids, which are brought outdoors from May until October and provide exotic blooms from January to June. Sensing that a big-box store was about to chuck them, she moved in for the kill. “I said I would take 20 if they’re $1 apiece.”

The brick path was one of several projects completed during pandemic confinement. “It was time that wasn’t wasted on commuting three hours a day,” said Gamble, who made a video of the transformation ( The path was created with salvaged bricks sourced from a neighborhood social exchange website. Gamble figured she could carry 147 bricks per load in her station wagon without wrecking the suspension.

As the garden has developed, Gamble has also nurtured her hobby of wildlife photography, but instead of traveling to natural areas, she can now pick up her camera and point it at the garden. She showed me images of a wren nesting in a gourd, a tree frog ensconced in an orchid basket, a goldfinch taking nesting material she put out and a hummingbird supping from a canna flower.

The couple has embraced the contemporary idea that, in a world where flora and fauna are being lost to habitat destruction, including the creation of 500 square miles annually of new lawns, according to biologist Doug Tallamy, we can use our gardens to mitigate the loss.

Adding native plants, abandoning pesticides, providing water and cover: All of these actions will help the life around us. That is one big lesson that Gamble and Leider want to share with their neighborhood — and the world. “When people come away saying, ‘That’s so inspiring,’ you couldn’t say anything better to me,” Gamble said.

As uplifting as the wildlife habitat component is, for me, the garden affirms something even closer to my heart.

A wonderful garden is available to anyone with a dream and the will to make it happen. It doesn’t take a lifetime, and it doesn’t require deep pockets, but it does demand a part of yourself if it is to be authentic and meaningful.