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Wild About Going Natural

The Marbles have earned recognition for their careful cultivation from the National Wildlife Federation, which certified their yard as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

Only blocks from the noisy cars and buses in front of a local high school in Spanaway, Wash., Thomas and Yolande Marble's yard is a calm oasis.

A blooming horse chestnut tree dominates the front yard, casting shade and perfume on a Japanese maple, a golden chain tree, and thick clusters of smaller plants such as euphorbia, columbine, creeping Jenny, forget-me-nots, oxalis and foxglove.

Walk the bark-covered path around the house, under an archway into the back, and the world slows down even more. Cypress trees rustle in the breeze. Overhead branches are alive with the sound of flocks of birds chirping, trilling, talking. Water trickles into a small pond where dark shapes ripple under the surface.

The yard is proof of the power of transformation. The Marbles bought the house in 1978 but left it to renters when Thomas Marble was assigned to different posts as a combat medic and mental health counselor in the Army.

When they returned in 1994, the yard was a barren field of dry grass and weeds, open to the neighborhood. "This was all lawn," Marble said, looking at the tall tangles of dark green foliage. "Dead lawn."

The Marbles have earned recognition for their careful cultivation from the National Wildlife Federation, which certified their yard as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, and from the Washington Department of Fish and Game, which certified it as a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary.

Wildlife certainly is drawn to their two-thirds of an acre.

"It gets almost deafening sometimes," Marble said of the birds. "You begin to realize how many creatures live around us."

There are about 6,000 Backyard Wildlife Sanctuaries in Washington, said Russell Link, an urban wildlife biologist who coordinates the program for the state.

He said there have been no studies of whether backyard sanctuaries benefit wildlife in general, but animals are drawn to yards that have layers of plant life for shelter, and sources of food and water.

Backyard sanctuaries are great educational tools for children as well as for adults, he said.

"It can't help but foster a world view of wildlife," Link said. "It can provide psychological value, also, for people who take time to enjoy it. It can really mellow people out, provide some stress reduction, which we could all use."

The Marbles use their yard for all that and more. Marble teaches environmental science at Spanaway Lake High School, and sometimes brings his classes to his house to show them that individuals can help the environment, even in small ways.

Transforming the yard at first was Yolande Marble's project. She took classes and became a master gardener through Washington State University's extension program. She started acquiring trees, many of them from the National Arbor Day Foundation.

The Marbles made sure they have high-canopy refuge, in tall fir and pine trees, medium-canopy refuge such as the Japanese maple and golden chain trees, and low canopy. The low canopy is the mass of small perennials, shrubs and the grass they let grow long in part of the back yard.

Marble built a small pond in the back yard, then decided it wasn't big enough and built another. The newer point is 15 by 9 feet and 27 inches deep. He created a homemade water filter using a barrel, lava rocks and a hair curler, plus a small electric motor to recirculate the water. Small birds play in the short stream between the filter outlet and the pond.

"No man ever said, 'Next time I'll build a smaller pond,"' Marble said.

They added fruit trees, flowering trees, bamboo groves and hops: "Whatever struck our fancy," Marble said.

Sections are bordered by recycled wood the Marbles salvaged from their or neighbors' demolition projects. Marble built trellises and arches of fallen branches, training vines to grow over each.

Yolande Marble decided she was tired of mowing the front yard, so she covered the grass with newsprint and made the bark-covered paths, lining them with dozens of plants.

They eschew chemicals, using goldfish to control mosquitoes in the many small pots and barrels of water scattered throughout the yard.

"You get this balance between good bugs and bad bugs," Marble said. "I rarely get a mosquito bite because everything is in balance."

And their favorite piece of advice to others who want to encourage wildlife: Go native. Native plants already are adapted to the environment, so they require little maintenance.

"We wanted a garden that, as we got older, would take care of itself," said Marble. "There's very little maintenance upkeep work, because most of it is perennials. It's kind of wild."

For more information, visit these websites:

  • National Wildlife Federation: www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat. This website has tips for creating wildlife habitats and has photos and descriptions of successful wildlife gardens. It also has tips for creating wildlife habitats at businesses, schools, faith communities and throughout neighborhoods.

  • The National Arbor Day Foundation sells trees and supports woodlands: www.arborday.org.

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