Alexandria, VA – Over the past 20 years or so, Jane Gamble and her husband, Dave Leider, were rarely home. They both worked for the State Department and mostly lived abroad. In 2015, they rented a house in the Kirkside neighborhood of Alexandria, which was sufficient for their brief stints at home.
For personal reasons, in 2016, they received a waiver from work and were stationed at home for a while, and they decided to buy the house. It was comfortable enough, but the yard was sparse. Other than a lone holly tree, there wasn’t a bush or shrub to be found.
“The previous owner warned us that crickets were a real problem,” Gamble said. “He offered a guy who would spray pesticides for $40 a month.” Gamble bristled at the idea of spending that kind of money, but even more at the thought of having all those toxins in her yard.
“The ‘problem’ was there was nothing for the crickets to do! They were stranded on this barren lot,” she said. Gamble and Leider decided to create a safe and sustainable wildlife garden that would serve as a habitat for the crickets and other creatures in the ecosystem.
Knowing they couldn’t plant their garden on top of the lawn, they rented a sod cutter to efficiently remove the layer of grass to expose the soil underneath and create garden beds. After clearing several strips of sod, Leider had amassed heavy, cumbersome rolls of nutrient-rich grass and soil. “It was a little overwhelming,” Leider said, “facing the logistics of all that cut sod.”
Combining practicality and thriftiness, they flipped the sod upside down. They laid it back on the exposed soil, allowing the nutrients to remain in place while the grass decomposed, creating rich and nurturing garden beds. Knowing they needed a mulch cover to keep that sod healthy and free of weeds, Gamble obtained some 150 yards of fresh wood chips from tree service workers in the neighborhood who cut down trees and limbs and fed them into the chipper. “I’d just pull over and ask if I could have the chips,” she said. “They were happy to let me take it all away rather than travel to Lorton and pay to dump the chips down there.”
Gamble and Leider bargain-shopped at local garden centers. They prided themselves on procuring hostas and other plants at deeply discounted prices. Slowly but surely, their beds have grown, some to an expansive eight feet wide, which is beneficial for wildlife, better for plants, and visually more complex and interesting.
Today their yard is a splendor with multiple gardens and ecosystems throughout, including the newest venture, a kitchen garden with squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs. The crickets have been kept in check by birds attracted to all of the thriving flora. They were joined by worms, goldfish, frogs, and insects of all kinds, all coexisting in harmony.
Gamble and Leider have stayed true to their initial objective: Sustaining wildlife on their property. “We are wildlife gardeners. No pesticides. That is not our ethos,” said Gamble.
Inspiration for the garden was born in Gamble’s other hobby, photography. “Once you start capturing precious moments with your camera, it all becomes quite clear. The intimacy of a bird building her nest, sitting on her eggs, feeding her young from caterpillars that we didn’t kill with pesticides. It’s been completely gratifying,” she said.
Gamble’s photography is on display in a video she created (www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkmngGT-MII) highlighting their “Slice of Heaven” for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and its Sustainable Garden Tour, on its second virtual year due to the pandemic. The video is friendly, informative, cheerful, and helpful (much like Gamble herself!), full of common sense ideas and tips to create a garden of your own.
The SWCD is an innovative group that works to prevent pollution and protect streams and rivers in Northern Virginia. They promote soil and water conservation and provide technical expertise as needed. Visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/soil-water-conservation/ for more information.
As bad as the pandemic has been, Gamble sees a silver lining. She and her husband are not spending hours a day commuting and working over lunch. “I’ve regained four hours every workday,” she said. “It used to be time wasted, and now I’ve gotten a lot of my life back. It makes me so glad.” She continued, “This yard is alive. Look at the milkweed and the Joe Pye weeds. The garden just vibrates. The bees are so happy.”
For more information on the Sustainable Garden Tour, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/soil-water-conservation/sustainable-garden-tour