2015: A Celebration of Soils

Written by Julie McGuire, Master Gardener

To celebrate the 45th Earth Day on 22 April 2015, Julie shares some news about the International Year of Soils.

In celebration of the 2015 International Year of Soils, MGNV presents you with some ‘punny’ soil jokes:

Q: How did the princess worm find her prince?
A: By kissing lots of nemaTODES.

Q: What did the worm eat for lunch?
A: Humus!

Q: What did the detective plant say to his partner?
A: Let’s dig deeper; we’ve got to get to the root of this decomposition.

Bad jokes aside, it is easy to forget that the ‘dirt’ under your feet provides essential nutrients and water to plants. The truth is that soils are the foundation of agriculture and a good garden. Without protecting our soil, we’ll all be in trouble, as this animated video by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations illustrates:

The United Nations designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils to increase awareness and understanding about the important role soil plays in food security and ecosystem function. During an impressive lineup of almost daily events, people around the world are learning about healthy soils.

9 Fascinating Facts about Soil

  1. Generally, desirable soil in good condition contains approximately 50% solid material and 50% open pore space (also called air and water space). Most of the solid material in soil is composed of different-sized mineral particles, with the particle size varying by region and geological conditions. The remaining part of the solid material is made up of organic material, such as plant and animal matter in varying stages of decomposition.
  2. Soils sustain plant and animal life below and above the surface – learn more here.
  3. Most soils have four distinct layers under the soil, including organic matter, topsoil, subsurface, and subsoil. The horizons look different from each other, have different textures, and varying structures. You can learn more about the four layers here.
  4. Soils regulate and partition water and the osmosis of soluble substances (solute flow).
  5. Soils are an essential part of the biogeochemical processes, such as the nitrogen cycle. They help filter, buffer, and more to maintain our ecosystem. Nitrogen is necessary for all life, but most atmospheric nitrogen is not usable by living things until it is fixed by soil or otherwise processed.
  6. Soils store and cycle nutrients. Plants need 16 elements for normal growth, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
  7. Correct composting can result in a valuable nutrient and humus (organic matter) source for any garden. Want to learn more about composting? VCE has that covered here.
  8. Soils provide support for structures such as houses, roads, trees, and plants.
  9. The National Cooperative Soil Survey identifies and maps over 20,000 different kinds of soil in the United States. Most soils are given a name, which generally comes from the locale where the soil was first mapped. Named soils are referred to as soil series.
Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 2.46.20 PM

Photo: Eco Kids Corner

How healthy is the soil in your garden? The best way to find out is with a soil test analysis. Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Master Gardeners staff the Horticulture Help Desk and host Plant Clinics, where soil test kits are available. The results of the soil test analysis help guide gardeners to the appropriate next steps and amendments for your soil that can make your garden or lawn a success!

Remember that this weekend you can participate in a variety of Earth Day events throughout Alexandria and Arlington. MGNV will at Ben Brennan Park on Saturday morning to answer all your gardening (and soil) questions.

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by Judy Funderburk, Master Gardener

Spring Ephemerals:  It’s the time of year when Gardeners talk enthusiastically about “Spring Ephemerals,” using this term to describe native wildflowers, such as Virginia Bluebells, Trout Lily, Toothwort, Spring Beauty, Bloodroot, Trillium and Woodland Phlox. The word ‘ephemeral’ often means short-lived, but in the case of native plants, transitory is more accurate.  Ephemerals don’t die. These spring-appearing plants grow leaves, bloom, and set seed in a month or two. Then they go dormant.  They just disappear underground until next spring when they will reappear to take advantage of that short period between snow-melt and leaf-out when sunlight reaches down through bare branches to warm the earth, before deciduous trees put on their leafy spring dresses and steal the ephemerals light and moisture.

Sessile Trillium also called Toadshade found in the Woodland Shade Section of the Library Garden.

Sessile Trillium also called Toadshade found in the Woodland Shade Section of the Glencarlyn Library Garden.

For flower starved nature lovers, especially after a long cold winter, there is nothing more exciting than walking in a woods or garden and coming upon the beautiful blossom of the white trillium called Wake Robin (Trillium grandiflorum), or the maroon trillium called Toadshade (Trillium sessile), or the nodding bell-shaped yellow flower of the Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) poised between two mottled leaves.  [The uniquely mottled and spotted leaves were thought to resemble brook trout and gave rise to this ephemeral’s common name.]

In Arlington County you can see some of these ephemerals growing in two Master Gardener of Northern Virginia (MGNV) Demonstration Gardens: The Shade/Quarry Garden and the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden.  For locations look at the MGNV website, mgnv.org.

Early Spring Minor Bulbs:  You have probably delighted in colorful crocuses, but have you heard of Siberian Squill, Puschkinia, Glory-of-the-Snow, Grape Hyacinth, Dwarf Netted Iris, Snowdrops, or Winter Aconite?  These very early spring blooming minor bulbs can bring great pleasure when winter’s grey and brown still hold sway over most of the landscape.

Siberian Squill, a gift from Captain Shepherd's yard where these beautiful blue flowers bloomed each spring.

Siberian Squill have beautiful blue flowers each spring.

Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) each produce 4 to 6” tall spikes of beautiful blue flowers.  Glory of the Snow tends to be a bit lighter in color with flowers facing upward, while Siberian squill is deep deep blue with nodding flowers.  Both prefer woodland settings with some sun.

Puschkinia (Puschkinia scilloides), sometimes called Striped Squill, is very like the two bulbs listed above, but a bit lighter in color with tighter flower clusters.  It will thrive in deep shade or in part sun and is one of the earliest to bloom.

Grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides) bear blue flowers that resemble small urns attached to spikes six to nine inches in height. Its flowers are slightly scented and appear in early spring.  A bag of these small bulbs planted 3 inches deep in the fall will easily grow and, in a few years, multiply into good-sized clumps.  Grape hyacinth pairs well with yellow cultivars of the larger flowered Dutch bulbs such as narcissus and tulip.

Dwarf Netted Iris (Iris reticulata) is another early bloomer, about 7 inches tall with deep purple flowers ornamented by yellow markings. A native of the Caucasus, the flowers are stunning in early spring.  The plant goes dormant and disappears come the heat of summer.  To flourish, the small bulbs need well-drained soil, some sun and a period of near-drought in the summer.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) produces yellow buttercup-like flowers that appear in late winter and early spring. Its Latin meaning is Greek for ‘spring flower,’ and cold winters seem to bring the best show of flowers.  Winter aconite grows to about 4 inches and tends to reseed once established. It has attractive deep green foliage and will grow in full sun or partial shade but prefers cool temperatures.  The only unattractive feature of this early blooming minor bulb is that the whole plant is extremely poisonous, so beware if you have pets or young children. [To see a gorgeous stand of these beauties, visit Green Spring Garden Park, near the handicap-parking circle, in the next few weeks.]

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells

Writing this article has made me aware that the Glencarlyn Library Garden in Arlington where I volunteer as a Master Gardener does not have many of these minor bulbs (three: Snowdrops, Siberian Squill and Grape Hyacinth) in its collection.  I have made a note to “purchase more minor bulbs for 2015 fall planting!”  After these past two very cold and snowy winters, by planning ahead and planting next fall, we hope that the Spring of 2016 will bring forth lots more early blooming spring flowers for the enjoyment of the neighborhood and all patrons of the Glencarlyn Library and its Community Garden.   Perhaps you’d like to do the same in your own garden!

Originally published in “The Village View” Glencarlyn Citizens’ Association Newsletter

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Happy Poison Ivy Day!

With thanks to TreeStewards of Alexandria and Arlington (especially Steve Young, Rod Simmons, Fitz Flohr Reynolds, Jeff Hurley, Kathi  Mestayer) for this guest blog post.

Today is National Poison Ivy Day! This second annual event is the best opportunity to celebrate poison ivy Toxicodendron radicans). Poison ivy (PI) is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated native plant of the mid-Atlantic. Some think it is close to threatened status because it is so widely despised and removed.

Poison Ivy - Photo:  Fritz Flohr Reynolds

Close up of Poison Ivy. Photo: Fritz Flohr Reynolds

Why does PI merit our respect?  Master Naturalists will know many reasons.  It is a native plant.  It has attractive foliage, and in spring, the new foliage has a marvelous, cilantro-like scent.  It feeds many animals, ranging from the White-tailed Deer that eat the leaves, to the many songbirds that eat the winter berries.  Its reddish-brown hairy vines ornament many large trees.  It feeds many herbivorous insects that in turn feed birds and mammals like Southern Flying Squirrels.  In the fall, the leaves turn a lovely scarlet.  As the poet sang, “Leaves of three, I praise thee.”

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Photographing the Tried and True Sheets: Part 3 – Capturing Foliage and Bark

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

So far,  our Photographing the Tried and True Sheets series has explored how best to capture photographs of various plants, including trees, flowers and fruits. You can read part one here and part two here! Part three of the series takes a closer look at creating striking visuals for bark and foliage. 

Betula nigra-Christa WattersBranches, twigs and stems, with their horizontal and vertical habits and three-dimensional mass, bring form to the garden. Flowers mostly add color. Foliage and bark provide the texture.

Capturing Foliage

The size, shape, color and sheen of leaves and the play of light and shadow are all important considerations in landscape design. Unlike the macro images of flowers and fruits in the Tried and True Plant fact sheets, not all foliage was captured in close-ups, although we did try to zoom in on leaves that perform as ground covers like the Quarry Shade Garden’s Pachysandra procumbens. (This southern native is a good alternative to Japanese pachysandra, which is commonly used in residential landscapes and has become invasive in Virginia.) For ferns, we try to show examples of both fertile and sterile fronds, like those of Matteuccia struthiopteris at the National Arboretum. And, for trees, we provide close-ups of distinctive foliage, such as the feathery leaves—along with its leathery cones—of Taxodium distichum at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens.

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Photographing the Tried and True Sheets: Part 2 – Capturing Flowers and Fruits

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

Part One of Photographing the Tried and True Sheets explored how best to capture the forms of plants and trees in photographs. You can read part one here! This week, a closer look at capturing the best images when photographing fruits and flowers.

Echinacea purpurea: Mary Free
Creating images for the Tried and True Plant fact sheets required many trips to local public gardens and parks to find good specimens as well as many, many pictures to capture them to best advantage. In Part 1, we focused on images that portrayed growth habit or form; now we turn to flowers and fruits.

Capturing Flowers

A blooming period usually offers sufficient opportunity to find and photograph individual flowers at their peak. Capturing flowers en masse, like the Echinacea purpurea in the Sunny Garden, when most are full and fresh and not yet on the wane, requires more vigilance. Catching an insect on a particular plant requires both vigilance and patience. Continue reading

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Photographing the Tried and True Sheets: Part 1 – Capturing the Form

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

Quercus alba AnnotatedIn a major improvement, Tried and True Plant fact sheets now provide photographic images that highlight native plants grown in MGNV demonstration gardens and local public spaces, such as Green Spring Gardens, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens and the U.S. National Arboretum.

Master Gardeners have photographed Tried and True Plants during various stages to provide each fact sheet with examples of form, flowers, fruits, foliage and/or bark. Visiting public gardens allows you the opportunity to observe a plant’s growth habit first hand before making an investment in your own garden. Now, if you’re unable to visit a garden or the plants are out-of-season, you can see the stages on the fact sheets.

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The Long View – Meditations on Gardening

 The butterfly garden at Simpson Demonstration Gardens in Alexandria, filled with native plants and pollinator attractors. All of Simpson Gardens is made on the site of a former paved road and parking lot. Photo: Christa Watters

The butterfly garden at Simpson Demonstration Gardens in Alexandria, filled with native plants and pollinator attractors. All of Simpson Gardens is made on the site of a former paved road and parking lot. Photo: Christa Watters

The Garden as Artifact

By Christa Watters

Garden: n. Planted area of ground, a plot of ground where plants such as fruits, vegetables and flowers are grown. (Latin origin hortus garda implies a closed area. Ultimately from a prehistoric German word that is also the ancestor of the British word yard.)

Gardener: somebody who tends a garden or lawn, either as a profession or hobby.

~ Encarta World Dictionary (1999)   

Garden: n. a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated. vt. to lay out or work in a garden.

~ Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition

Sitting out the cold and snowy days of late winter is a good time to consider what it means to be a gardener, particularly for those of us trained to share our knowledge with the public. Often it is useful to turn to the dictionary to guide one’s rambling thoughts.

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Updates to Tried and Trues and to Problem Plants

Updates to Tried and Trues and to Problem Plants 

Written by Mary Free and Elaine Mills

Get over that winter funk by planning your spring, summer and fall gardens. Searching for ideas? Take another look at our enhanced Tried and True Plants and Problem Plants resources. We have added 3 native ferns and 5 native ground covers to the Tried and True Plants library. Besides that, we have updated 48 of the Tried and True fact sheets with easier-to-read format, added information, and new images of plants that (mostly) can be visited in local public gardens. Additionally, we have identified those plants included in the Plant NoVA Natives campaign.  Continue reading

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The Long View – Meditations on Gardening – Midwinter


The garden’s bare bones in winter – a miniature Japanese Maple. Photo: Christa Watters

The Bare Bones of the Garden

By Christa Watters

Here we are at midwinter, halfway between the December solstice and the spring equinox. It’s a hard time for gardeners, a time when the garden seems to sleep and it is mostly too cold to contemplate even pruning chores. Here and there, the emerging green tips of spring-blooming bulbs offer hope, but mostly it’s a bleak scene.

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MGNV Volunteers in Our Community: 4-H in Virginia

By Gabriel Eberhardt

unnamedLast week we talked about the origins of 4-H. Now let’s focus on   4-H closer to home. In Virginia, approximately 20,000 adults and teens volunteer their time and energy annually to help more that 170,000 Virginia youth learn leadership, citizenship and life skills while discovering how to build on their own ability to make good decisions, manage resources wisely, work effectively with others and communicate successfully.


Alexandria 4-H Agent Reggie Morris leading a group of junior 4-H members in the 4-H National Youth Science Day Experiment “Maps & Apps!” Photo: 4-H National Council

Many programs and services are offered through the Alexandria 4-H Youth Development Program at the Lee Center. Alexandria’s 4-H program participates in National Youth Science Day, National Food Day, the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, After-School Enrichment program, In-School 4-H Enrichment and Special Interest Programming, and the highly popular 4-H camping program, which is one of the largest in the country.

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