Photo: Michelle Dunkley McCarthy

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

― Lewis Carroll

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The Long View – Meditations on Gardening – The End of Fall

DSCN4678By Christa Watters

One day the tulip magnolia next to my front door is still green – leaves fringed with yellow, spotted with brown here and there, yes, but basically still green, and on waking the next morning I see it still full of leaves as I pick up the paper, though the stoop is littered with yellowing leaves. By afternoon, a rising wind has stripped the upper branches of foliage, leaving just the gray bark of branches and twigs and the furry gray buds that hold next spring’s pink blossoms outlined against the gray sky. Gray, gray, gray — the dominant shade of November, it seems. But it’s not all gloom out there. Spots of color remain, and some trees are still in full flame of gold or red.

Last week I put the bird feeder back out in the walled patio, near the crabapple tree, which is still shedding its golden, rosy-cheeked fruits. The squirrels, also gray, except for one sleek black-coated variant, are munching on their own special fruit and nuts mix, while sitting on the brick wall contemplating the bird feeder. Can they outfox the baffle? Probably. One fellow is trying to retrieve a floating peanut he dropped into the fountain. Meanwhile the birds have begun to rediscover the cold weather food supply. A few pink rambler roses and a solitary gold-yellow hybrid spike up the color a bit. Not all gray after all.

The pink camellia is in full bloom next to the front door, another shot of color, as are the banks of naturalized chrysanthemums that come back every year across the path. It’s the time of year for thinning and cutting down some of the perennials that have become overgrown, for clearing out leaves that have powdery mildew (the peonies, summer phlox, and Monarda) or black spot (some of the roses), lest the spores infect the new growth next spring. Other plants can remain, to provide seeds or shelter for wildlife. And think how the Lilium seed pods and dried flower heads of the garlic chives will look when powdered with snow in the depths of winter.

The bulbs are finally planted – a couple of sacks of mixed daffodils to up the quotient of bulbs that stay put and multiply underground. The tulip bulbs I bought this year are a mix of coral pinks and orangey reds instead of the white-pink-purple mix of recent years. And – spur of the moment – I bought some fat, purple-blooming alliums for early summer. In my head I see the swirls of color that will grow a few months from now. It’s like creating a virtual painting, only I’ve hidden the colors underground for now. The rewards come in spring!

Photos also by Christa Watters

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AutumnFest at Glencarlyn Library Community Garden

by Judy Funderburk

AutumnFest at Glencarlyn Library Community Garden was a huge success thanks to all the Master Gardener support. Over 150 friends and neighbors showed up to enjoy the day — purchasing plants, tasting a great variety of herbal treats and teas, tasting, smelling and gathering samples of culinary, fragrant or medicinal herbs to take home. Taking a mini-workshop to learn more about Monarch Watch!, Good Dirt!, or Eight Great Natives!, making a sachet with colorful cloth and fragrant dried herbs and/or having Andrea Kaplovitz paint a flower or bug on your face allowed many participants to bring pieces of AutumnFest home. Continue reading

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The Long View – Meditations on Gardening – Why We Garden

Saffron CrocusDSCN2303By Christa Watters

We Master Gardeners have a mission to educate and inform our fellow gardeners about the best and most up-to-date principles for creating and tending good gardens. Heeding the call to garden in an environmentally sound manner is a worthy objective. We strive to plant native species, use less water, and avoid the need for chemical fertilizers by composting and choosing the right plant for the right place. But beyond that, most of us are driven by something else entirely, I suspect. As a friend said recently, ultimately, we love gardens because they are beautiful.  Continue reading

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Master Gardeners in Our Community: The 4-H Program

By Gabriel Eberhardt

Master Gardeners don’t  just volunteer with VCE and MGNV. They also share their expertise with the wider community. In the first of this occasional series, Master Gardeners in our Community, MG Gabriel Eberhardt looks at the history of 4-H. Part two of his article (posted next Sunday) will explore 4-H closer to home, here in Alexandria.

unnamedWhether you are a youth, parent or interested volunteer, and whether you live in a rural, urban or suburban community, the  4-H program has something to offer.

According to the 4-H website, members are “tackling the nation’s top issues, from global food security, climate change and sustainable energy to childhood obesity and food safety. 4-H’s out-of-school programming, in-school enrichment programs, clubs and camps offer a wide variety of academic opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, from agricultural and animal sciences to rocketry, robotics, environmental protection and computer science – to improve the nation’s ability to compete in key scientific fields and take on the leading challenges of the 21st century.”

With such a robust list of endeavors, it is interesting to know how this organization got its start.

In the late 1800s, about 29.4 million Americans were farmers – 43 per cent of the labor force. Universities began to develop new agricultural techniques and practices to increase farming productivity. Unfortunately, most farmers did not readily accept these new practices. Researchers discovered, however, that young people were much more open to these new ideas. By educating a younger generation with practical and hands-on learning, researchers found they could effectively introduce agronomic technology into the farming communities.

In 1902, Albert Belmont Graham was a schoolmaster and a Federal Extension Director for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). A visionary of his time, Graham realized the great potential in combining his occupations to teach youth about modern agricultural production. On Jan. 15, Graham held the first meeting of the agriculture experimental club, the “Corn Growers Club,” as he called it, in the basement of the Clark County Post Office in Springfield, Ohio. Graham is credited with founding 4-H.

Federally recognized through the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, Congress created the Cooperative Extension System at the USDA and the 4-H youth organization became a nationally recognized nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. By 1924, 4-H clubs were forming across the country and the four-leaf clover emblem was adopted. The clover represents the four personal development areas: head, heart, hands and health.

After a century, the 4-H youth organization has evolved from a Corn Growers Club in a post office basement in Springfield, Ohio, into the country’s largest comprehensive youth development program, educating 6.5 million young people ages 5 to 18 in 90,000 clubs across the United States.

More than 570,000 volunteers are part of 4-H. The value of time, mileage and out-of-pocket expenses that volunteer leaders contribute annually exceeds $2 billion—five times the combined county, state, federal and private sector support.

4-H alumni now total about 60 million. They are national, state and local government leaders, community and business leaders, famous entertainers and leaders in their respective fields.

The 4-H youth organization has proven that its programs, services and creative teaching methods are a fantastic way for communities to come together to provide young people a safe, friendly, reliable environment to gain valuable skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. With the help of 4-H, there is no limit to what a volunteer can teach, and a child can learn.

Next week, Gabriel will describe Alexandria’s 4-H Youth Development Program. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, contact Reggie Morris at the Lee Center located at 1108 Jefferson Street, contact him by phone at 703-746-5547 or send him an email at 

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Predator in the Urban Garden

DSCN4667By Christa Watters

On a recent morning when I went out to the patio to fill the bird feeder, I looked up and thought maybe the neighbors had put one of those owl statues on their wall to deter unwanted birds and other critters. Then the statue moved – a big, handsome young hawk, an immature Cooper’s I think, judging by the speckled white breast, the long rounded tail and the relatively large size. A handsome, bold predator, maybe hoping for a fat dove at the feeder. When I took his picture, he sat for a bit, then tired of the attention and flew off, at which point the sparrows and jays and cardinals returned, the squirrels took up their chattering and tree-leaping shenanigans again, and life resumed in the walled gardens of my part of the city.

Photo also by Christa Watters

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In the Winter Garden – Reflections from 2012

This article, written by MGNV member Mary Free in December 2012, is worth a repeat.  Appreciating the winter garden makes for a happier all-season gardener! For some excellent native tree suggestions you can explore the MGNV series of tried and true plants. Trees in particular can be found at Tried and True Plants/Trees:

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

Herbaceous Plants

As annual flowers succumb to freezing temperatures and many perennials enter a dormant period, one green plant still covers the ground in the woodlands and shade gardens: Polystichum acrostichoides. Also known as Christmas fern, its graceful, finely textured fronds often are used as a seasonal decoration.

Christmas Fern

The demonstration Shade Garden in Arlington’s Bon Air Park displays a variety of native ferns including Polystichum acrostichoides shown in mid-December with Galanthus caucasius in the bloom in the background. © Mary Free.

An eastern US native, Christmas fern grows in a circular clump with its arching fronds reaching 1’-2’ high and wide. Although it prefers part shade and moist, well-drained soil, it can tolerate more sun with enough moisture as well as drier soils in full-shade. For year-round interest, grow this fairly low-maintenance fern in a woodland or Japanese garden, under trees, en masse, as contrast to shade bed perennials or for erosion control.

P02 Christmas

In early spring, new leaves or fronds emerge in the form of a tight spiral, shaped like a fiddlehead, amidst old fronds that remained evergreen through winter. © Mary Free.

P03 Christmas

Expanding to reveal a sock or ear lobe shape with bristly, serrated edges, fronds age to a dark green. © Mary Free.

P04 Christmas

By late spring, spore-containing sori appear on the underside of the upper third of fertile fronds. The non-fertile part of these fronds as well as the sterile fronds, which are narrower and more prone, remain evergreen. © Mary Free

Woody Plants

Now that deciduous trees are bare (except for those, like some oaks, hornbeam and beech, with marcescent foliage—dead leaves that remain on the branches through winter), the conifers and hollies that were the backdrops of summer take center stage. Clothed in varied hues of green, their scaly, needlelike, smooth or glossy foliage is accented with cones or berries. However, do not dismiss so readily the defoliated deciduous tree or shrub. The aesthetic quality of its bark (as well as that of conifers) is often overlooked in favor of foliage, flower and fruit. Yet, for one quarter of the year or more, its bark and shape are on conspicuous display.

Though a tree may exhibit its beauty through flower and foliage, its character is revealed with its bark. Who cannot marvel at bark and branches that are smooth or furrowed or peeling or shiny or colorful or mottled or striped or contorted? For a specimen tree prominently featured in the landscape, the quality of its bark may be especially important to ensure four-season interest. So when selecting a new tree for your property, in addition to a tree’s habit (cold-hardiness, heat and drought tolerance, size, rate of growth) and the site conditions (soil type and ph, moisture, sun/shade), be sure to take into account the texture, color and shape not only of its foliage and flowers but of its trunk and branches as well.

Some trees/shrubs to consider for their unusual or stunning bark:

Those with smooth bark. Natives: Carpinus caroliniana, American hornbeam (blue-gray bark remains smooth even as tree ages); Fagus grandifolia,* American beech; and Hamamelis virginiana, witch-hazel (smooth gray to gray-brown bark; yellow, spider-like flowers mid to late fall). Non-natives: Fagus sylvatica, European beech. (According to Virginia Tech, it is it better adapted to Virginia growing conditions than the native American beech.)

P05 Fagus

European beech trees in Mariemont, Belgium by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Those with deeply furrowed or plated bark: Natives: Diospyros virginiana, common persimmon (gray-brown, young bark with orange in fissures; darker, older bark with “square scaly thick plates” described by Virginia Tech as “reminiscent of charcoal briquettes (very unique)”); and Juglans nigra, black walnut (dark brown bark deeply ridged in a diamond-like pattern.)

Those with peeling or flaking bark. Natives: Betula nigra,* black birch (variable bark with some that exfoliate horizontally in curly sheets); Betula papyrifera, paper birch; Platanus occidentalis, American sycamore (camouflage-color bark that drops with regularity along with fruit and foliage); and Stewartia spp. Non-natives: Acer griseum, paperbark maple; Cornus kousa, Kousa dogwood; Stewartia pseudocamellia, Japanese stewartia (exfoliating older, gray bark reveals lighter patches of cream and orange underneath); and Pinus bungeana, lacebark pine (bark mottled in irregular patches of brown, rust, green and cream).

P06 Paper Birch

Betula papyrifera courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database, Herman, D.E., et al. 1996, North Dakota tree handbook.

P07 Platanus

Platanus occidentalis in summer in Fairlington, Virginia. © Mary Free.

Acer griseum

Acer griseum in winter at Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Copyright Chicago Botanic Garden 2009, Photograph by James Ault, CC BY-NC-SA at

Cornus kousa

Cornus kousa (in winter and in early spring (insert)) at Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania. Copyright Chicago Botanic Garden 2010, Photographs by James Ault, CC BY-NC-SA at

Those with red/bronze stems/bark. Hybrid: Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix,’ Phoenix maple. Non-natives: Acer palmatum, Japanese maple (red twigs); Maackia amurensis, amur maackia; Pinus densiflora, Japanese red pine (orange-red stems and young bark peel in thin scales; older bark turns gray, developing plates); Prunus spp. (reddish to red-brown to bronze bark); Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki,’ Japanese dappled willow (new stems turn red in winter); and Syringa reticulata (formerly S. amurensis japonica), Japanese tree lilac (shiny, cherry-like, reddish-brown bark).

Those with striped bark: Native: Acer pensylvanicum, striped maple (smooth, young bark gray-green with white longitudinal stripes; bark ages to a reddish-brown). Non-natives: Acer davidii, David maple (young branches turn red in winter; older bark shiny and green with purple-red highlights and jagged white lines) and Acer tegmentosum, manchustriped maple (striking white vertical stripes on light green bark, but susceptible to Nectria canker).

Maackia amurensis

Maackia amurensis in winter at Winterthur Garden, Delaware. Copyright Chicago Botanic Garden 2008, Photograph by James Ault, CC BY-NC-SA at

Corylus contorta

Spring catkins on Corylus contorta in Fairlington, Virginia. © Mary Free.

Those with contorted shapes. Native: Acer circinatum, vine maple (greenish bark remains smooth even as tree ages; often covered with lichens). Non-native: Corylus contorta, Harry Lauder’s walking stick.

So the next time you walk by a naked tree, stop and take a closer look. Just as flowers may tempt our noses, bark may tempt our tactile senses. You may be pleasantly surprised or even amazed by what you see and feel.


* High wildlife value according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
1. For more information: Selecting Landscape Plants: Rare and Unusual Trees, VT Publication 426-604 at
2. To identify a tree, visit:
3. For native tree suggestions, visit Tried and True Plants/Trees:

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Reflections on Faux-Nuts, Fruits, Berries & Seeds

In this Time of Celebration, Remembering the Bounty of Our Fall Garden

by Judy Funderburk

The bounty produced by the Library Garden this fall captivated many visitors. We Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (MGNV) loved sharing the beauty and abundance of Nature’s gifts, while also having the opportunity to answer lots of questions elicited by the great variety of seeds, berries, fruits and the one “faux-nut” displayed in our Glencarlyn Library Teaching/Demonstration garden. In this article we hope to capture the beauty and variety with photos, while also giving you descriptions of the trees and plants that produced them.

Red Buckeye Faux-Nut cracked wide open. Photo:  Judy Funderburk

Red Buckeye Faux-Nut cracked wide open.

Faux-Nuts – Red Buckeye: Sporting showy tubular red flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees in the spring, this native large shrub or small tree (Aesculus pavia) grows lovely brown rounded 1 to 2-inch fruit capsules in the fall, each of which holds a large brown seed that looks and feels like a nut. Though the seed/faux-nut is poisonous to most wildlife, it is shiny with one light patch that looks a bit like a “buck’s eye” and is thought to bring good luck to one who carries it in his or her pocket. Growing to 8-10 feet, it can be planted in part-shade in any kind of soil. In the Library Garden it grows on the 3rd Street side, has been very undemanding, and provides great beauty in the spring and high interest in the fall.  Continue reading

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Exciting Happenings in Glencarlyn Library Garden

First Fruits: Persimmons return to the Library Garden.  Photo by Judy Funderburk

First Fruits: Persimmons return to the Library Garden. Photo: Judy Funderburk

By Judy Funderburk

What do Persimmons, Poe, and Painting have in common – besides the letter P?!? All three were exciting happenings in the Library Garden this fall. Our native persimmon tree (Diospyrus americana) grew her first two orange persimmons. They were so pretty we didn’t try to pick and taste. Maybe next year!

Poe GC Garden

Poe Portrait Created by Kenmore Middle School Staff for Dramatic Reading

On the Thursday evening before Halloween, Kenmore Middle School Drama Students haunted the Garden with dramatic readings of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee.” Lit by shadowy pumpkins and a starkly beautiful door-sized graphic of Poe himself, the Garden proved a perfect setting for the poems’ sense of brooding darkness in the face of loss of a love.

Pre-schooler painting with help from Master Gardeners Gabriel Eberhardt and Mary Frase.  Photo by Rosemary Grubb

Pre-schooler painting with help from Master Gardeners Gabriel Eberhardt and Mary Fraser.  Photo: Rosemary Grubb

Brand new crayola boxes came to mind as Master Gardener volunteers worked with the 18 pre-school children of Carlin Hall to paint the pickets of the new fence decorating their Children’s Garden. MG intern Gabriel Eberhardt planned, organized, and implemented this project as part of his now completed 60 volunteer hours and MG certification.

Glencarlyn kids create Banana Stalk Art Pieces.  Photo by Dina Kim

Glencarlyn kids create Banana Stalk Art Pieces. Photo: Dina Kim

A second instance of painting involved MG Paul Nuhn, who as he does every fall, brought together a creative bunch of neighborhood kids to make colorful sculptures out of the leafless banana plant stalks left after our first frost. Their artistry is titled: Mod Stalking The Garden!

Now the cold of winter is here, it is a wonderful to look back on the year, and reflect on how our fall events reached our neighborhood and broader community. We’ll be dreaming up exciting events for the spring, so stay tuned!


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Simpson Demonstration Gardens 20th Anniversary Recap

The Simpson Demonstration Gardens next to the Alexandria Y celebrated their 20th Anniversary with an Open House on Sunday, 22 September. Between 30 and 40 people attended the event, held on a crisp fall-like day. The gardens include a Waterwise garden (the first one created), tufa gardens, large and small berms for specimen trees, a pollinator garden, a bed with a butterfly soak, and a scented garden, among other beds. The gardens include both native and non-native species, some rare Alpine plants in the tufa beds, and a range of unusual plants demonstrating interesting variants of common plants as well as unusual species. Continue reading

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The Useful Life of Our Hardest Working Tree

By Christa Watters

The white oak is said to be the most useful tree in North America. This eastern species is known for the strong wood and silvery-gray (“white”) bark of its straight trunks. But its usefulness goes much further. A park ranger giving a tour of Huntley Meadows Park once pointed out that the “damaged” leaves of fall are in fact just a demonstration of the full cycle of life. Those leaves have served their purpose, and served it well, he said, providing food and shelter to insects and other small species that attach their pupae, lay their eggs in galls, or otherwise use their material. Continue reading

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