At NVCT, we understand our goal to protect the natural open spaces of Northern Virginia is not something we can do alone. Every homeowner that makes the generous decision to conserve their land with us is a hero who is leaving a lasting legacy, and the stewardship of these conserved properties is a forever job. It is also an important job for anyone in our region who wants to improve plant and animal habitats by making a healthier ecosystem for life to thrive.
One of the key elements of stewarding one's yard or garden is planting and encouraging the native plant life on the property and, likewise, avoiding purchasing invasives and removing them, as they threaten the ecosystems within it. The problem we see is that even homeowners who are passionate about keeping their property a thriving natural area often struggle to do so. Like many of us, they may lack the knowledge and resources to understand that the decisions they make in their yard adversely affect the biodiverse ecosystems around them.
Climate change threatens these systems even when we make all the right decisions, which is all the more frustrating.
Planting native plants on one's property, garden, or apartment planter has clear advantages for someone seeking to protect the biodiversity of this place we call home. Native plants are advantageous because they:
● Are unlikely to be invasive or overly competitive with other native plants
● Provide food sources (nectar, pollen, seeds, leaves, and stems) for native butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals
● Reduce energy consumption and pollution (limited need for mowing)
● Reduce the need for pesticides
● Enhance aesthetics and visual quality
● Protect at-risk species
● Protect biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage
To learn more, we interviewed Stephanie Johnson, an expert in maintaining biodiversity and balance in natural open spaces. We met Stephanie at our Conservationists of Color Read-a-thon the past January through her mentor Nancy Vehrs, President of the Virginia Native Plant Society. We hope you enjoy her unique story and background that drove her to her work and perhaps learn some things along the way.
Virginians Love Nature
Virginia is for lovers, but lovers of what? In the case of Stephanie Johnson, a Manassas-born Afro-Filipina life-long Northern Virginian, Virginia is for lovers of nature. Johnson is a conservationist/landscape designer who uses her botanical knowledge to approach landscape maintenance with the attention to detail, respect, and care conservation-conscious landscaping deserves. Johnson founded Green Steeze to create beautiful landscapes without trampling on inhabited ecosystems with harmful chemicals. No one had to push Johnson to have an appreciation for nature. This passion has origins dating back to her earliest memories.
"I would go get a blanket and lay under the bushes in our backyard, and I would just stare at the sky, because I loved to watch the clouds. And I would play with bugs, I was always playing with bugs," Johnson said with the same child-like joy she felt in her youth.
Johnson often found herself marveling at the things other people deemed ordinary. She never accepted that a rock was just a rock or that a flower was just a flower. She yearned for a greater understanding of their differences and similarities, which led her to a more scientific examination of the world that contradicts conventional thinking.
"I was always connecting (with nature) and not really understanding how impactful it would be on my life and what I would do for it.
Parents, the Stewards of Our Lives
Johnson had unique and early influences on her eventual career in nature. She embodies her father's creativity, love, and curiosity about the natural world and her mother's patience, a necessary quality for anyone ever to plant a seed.
Her father was a taxidermist, so on the walls of his showroom, you would find stuffed, mounted skins of animals preserved and lifelike. He was also a fish keeper, with a saltwater and freshwater tank on his wall with fish he'd caught locally. He taught her what he knew about fishkeeping, including keeping their water clean and the pH of the water, and how waste can negatively impact their habitat. Her father's teachings led her down the path of many related interests and eventually to where her interest lies today.
Naturally, when she had her own children, she wanted to pass down the knowledge and experience her father shared. One day, she took her son and nephew to an unnamed duck pond near her home in Woodbridge her father would take her as a child to catch and throw back fish. Only this time, the depths of her connection to nature would deepen when her nephew's fishing inexperience led to a fish's unintended demise.
"My nephew wasn't used to fishing the way that I was, and I was multitasking between kids, and he allowed the fish to swallow the hook. Which is really easily done, because fish don't really chew," Johnson said.
When she pulled it in, she knew the fish wouldn't make it, yet she helplessly tried to remove the hook without killing the fish. "And his little life just disappears in my hands, and for that moment on, I was just like, what gives me the right to do this?... At that point, I was vegetarian," Johnson said regrettably.
Right Plant, Right Place
Johnson holds similar affections for protecting native plant species and the environment. She once worked for a landscaping company whose practices did not always consider the ecological effects of their methods. Despite the financial stability of her employment, the company created a moral dilemma that was also difficult to swallow. After working on a few passion projects with friends in the master gardening world, working for herself and someone else became untenable. That's when she founded Green Steeze.
"I was already on the conservation side of things, and I just decided I don't have to do any of these things, that you guys are doing. I don't agree with any of this, and I'm going to do my own thing."
Johnson's "own thing" is a unique take on landscaping that not only requires an understanding of the relationship between native and invasive plants on a property but also the interaction between humans and the plant life that surround them. "Lots of people will be like, well this is my yard! And it's going to look the way that I want it. But actually by you making something that is very visually appealing to your neighbor, now your neighbor is interested in what you're doing."
Landscaping with a Conscience
Johnson ensures that any job she takes fits within her values and understanding of conservation-conscious landscaping.
"I provide perspective about what's happening in their little micro-climate and their residential areas or commercial areas and let them know, okay. I see your ideas... This is what I would do."
Because of "instant-landscaping" done by most landscaping companies, clients can sometimes come in with jaded expectations on the time and effort required to have a beautiful landscape done responsibly. Ultimately, your aesthetic desire can result in unintentional consequences. Johnson takes the time to educate her clients, leading to consistent results and stronger relationships between people and the natural world. With this knowledge comes a responsibility to warn clients of potential unintended habitats created during landscaping projects and guide them toward results that are intentional, healthy, and controlled ecosystems.
"Because we can so, oh, I like habitat, and then I'm like, do you love rats? Do you love mice? Do you love snakes? You don't like any of those things? Okay, well, this is a limited habitat, then." Understanding what plants may attract different insects and animals helps her clients get the desired results.
"The biggest thing we talk about in master gardening is 'right plant, right place.' Often, everyone wants the showiest of flowers, so of course, they want all of the meadow flowers. Okay, well, you have mature trees, so you have a woodland garden. And those plants don't occur in a woodland garden because you don't have the sunlight to support these plants. So we can't make this plant become anything other than what it is."
ABOUT NORTHERN VIRGINIA CONSERVATION TRUST
The Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT) is a regional, nonprofit land trust that forever conserves, manages, and advocates for land that has natural, historical, and cultural value to our Northern Virginia communities. NVCT works with conservation partners, local governments, and private landowners to preserve, restore and steward the land in Northern Virginia. Since its founding in 1994, NVCT has protected nearly 9,000 acres in urban and rural areas. To learn more, visit nvct.org and follow us on Instagram and Facebook.