Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
Twenty-six years ago, Bon Air Park’s Quarry/Shade Garden was neither a quarry nor a garden. The 40‘ x 30’ site, once used as a quarry for inferior- grade building stone, sat idle and overgrown. It boasted as its only feature a curved stonewall that Arlington County had erected to prevent soil erosion onto a newly constructed pathway.
It is fitting that the idea for reclaiming the present site was conceived during an Earth Day celebration in Bon Air Park in 1988. Master Gardeners, led by Alice Nicolson [learn more about Alice next week on mgnv.org], envisioned a low-maintenance shade garden that would be suitable for Arlington residences and would include a variety of plantings beyond the commonly used English ivy and hostas. It would become the first of five demonstration gardens in Arlington and Alexandria, developed and maintained by MGNV.
Through an informal partnership with Arlington County, Master Gardeners agreed to design, install and maintain the Garden and the County agreed to provide wood chips, leaf mulch and some topsoil, as needed. The citizen advisory Beautification Committee also endorsed the Garden’s initial development.
The County removed a dead oak tree from the site and sprayed the poison ivy. Master Gardeners cleared out locust suckers and other invasive vegetation as well as rubble rocks and broken bottles. According to Alice, a severe summer drought delayed groundbreaking activity “until the first fall rains, so the actual soil amendment was somewhat perfunctory — an error we have regretted ever since.”
That is a lament sung by many a gardener and a hard-learned lesson about the importance of good soil preparation. Even now mulch, from recycled leaves collected by the County in the fall, is applied liberally to amend the still somewhat compacted soil for new plantings. Leaf mulch also is applied in the spring for moisture retention.
Starter plants were selected in part from shade-loving or part-shade tolerant plants listed in Perennials by Pamela Harper and Frederick McGourty. Local nurseries donated plants as well as some private citizens and Master Gardeners, who divided or propagated plants from their own gardens. Planting occurred in November and December 1988 using an arbitrary layout, which included a couple of paths. Among the original plants was a sapling of Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry), which reigns over the center garden to this day. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held during an Arbor Day celebration in Bon Air Park on April 15, 1989.
The design of the Garden evolved over several years, following the natural slope of the land and the ring of rock outcroppings. The circle of lower paths was developed so that the gardeners could reach all of the beds. Rubble rocks unearthed and removed from the quarry site were reused to build up support terraces and to border the paths. Native plants became a major focus of the Garden, including beds demonstrating native groundcovers as alternatives to English ivy. The National Wildlife Federation certified the Quarry/Shade Garden as a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat.”
Besides weather and soil, trees have presented some of the biggest challenges for the Garden. In 2000, a huge chestnut oak fell. The County removed a diseased American elm at the Garden’s entrance in 2011 and another failing canopy tree on the northeast hill in 2014. Master Gardeners cut down an invasive tree of heaven (certainly a misnomer) on the northwest slope in 2013. Each time a large tree is removed, the amount of light and shade in the Garden changes. These serve as learning moments as Master Gardeners observe how individual plants adapt or languish in their changed environment.
Regular observation is critical to maintaining the Garden. This usually takes place weekly or bi-weekly during the growing seasons, when work party volunteers note when plants look good (and if they are in bloom) and when they don’t. For example, if plants are wilting, Master Gardeners determine if this reflects a normal cycle or if the plants are stressed by thirst, disease, sun-exposure, etc. Observation helps identify maintenance needs (i.e., mulching, pruning, weeding, watering, relocating) as well as future plantings.
Overall, the Quarry/Shade Garden has lived up to its goal. It demonstrates “methods of coping with the problems and advantages posed by somewhat shady areas” with over 80 different native perennials, ferns, shrubs and trees in addition to a lesser number of non-native plants. Visitors to the Garden can observe and identify these plants by using the Garden maps and signage, which is being updated to include QR codes. Topical brochures also are available as are featured plant and insect posters exhibited in a display case newly reconstructed by the County.
The Quarry/Shade Garden is located in Bon Air Park, 850 North Lexington Street in Arlington and is open between sunrise and sunset. The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia welcome you to join them there to celebrate the Garden’s 25th anniversary on June 21, 2014, from 10 am to 2 pm. If you cannot visit the Quarry/Shade Garden in person, then please visit its photo gallery on this website — https://mgnv.org/demonstration-gardens/quarry-shade-garden/.
With sincere appreciation to Arlington County and the Department of Parks and Recreation as well as to the Virginia Cooperative Extension for their invaluable support of the Garden since its inception.
Kudos to all of the Master Gardeners who volunteered their time in developing and maintaining the Quarry/Shade Garden (and all of the demonstration gardens) over the years!
Recognition again to the nurseries (listed alphabetically) that donated perennials and bulbs during the Garden’s first year: Campbell and Ferrara Nurseries, Cravens Nursery, Great Falls Greenhouses, Hill’s Nursery and Camellia Gardens, Merrifield Garden Center and Nursery, Mrs. McGregor’s Garden, Seneca Falls Greenhouses and Nursery and Wolf Trap Nursery.
And last but not least, a thank-you to contributors to this article: Alice Nicolson for providing an account of the garden’s development — and of course for leading the effort in the first place! Kristi Provasnik for combing through the archives and summarizing material. And, Gabriel Eberhardt for digitizing the old photographs.