by Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
A number of Master Gardeners recently had the opportunity to tour the gardens at River Farm, the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society. The 25-acre estate, located along the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia,was originally part of the 1,800-acre property acquired by George Washington in 1760 and later occupied by several generations of the Washington family. After multiple changes of ownership from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, when the property was up for sale in 1971, it was acquired by AHS board member and philanthropist Enid Haupt , who donated it for the enjoyment of the American people. The AHS maintains the historic site as a showcase for gardening and horticultural practices.
Entering the property from the parking lot, visitors first find the Teaching and Demonstration Garden, an outdoor classroom dedicated to educating the public about growing edible plants. Vegetables and herbs are grown in raised beds and containers , and an attractive bordering screen of espaliered pears and apples demonstrates how to grow fruit in a limited space. An interesting native plant featured here is American groundnut (Apios americana), a perennial climbing vine that bears both edible beans and large edible tubers.
Adjacent to the service area (normally open to staff only) is a small nursery for holding plants and a garage with tools. Dan Scott, Associate Director of Gardens and Facilities, told us that he maintains the entire property with only two part-time horticultural assistants and a team of volunteers. He receives some donated plants from other historic sites such as Mount Vernon , but usually starts new plants from seeds and cuttings since River Farm does not have a greenhouse.
The shade garden to the north of the main house, the Garden Calm, is dominated by an enormous Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). Considered to be the largest specimen in the United States, the tree was very likely a gift from Thomas Jefferson who received seedlings from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. The tree is a male so it does not produce fruit. Also in the courtyard is a charming example of a shed with a green roof.
To the east of the house and overlooking the river is the André Bluemel Meadow. Separated from the bordering lawn by a sunken wall, referred to as a ha-ha , the meadow is a naturalistic four-acre area that contains over 80 different species of native wildflowers and grasses, including hibiscus, yucca, mountain mint, milkweeds, and brown-eyed susans . The meadow was first created with the installation of hundreds of thousands of plug-size plants , and is maintained by mowing on a twice-yearly schedule . The large black walnut (Juglans nigra) is believed to date from George Washington’s time. The adjacent Wildlife Garden features additional plants intended to provide water, food, and shelter for birds, insects, frogs, fish, and turtles.
Beyond a hedge of English boxwood and bordered by a brick wall are the perennial and annual Beds which provide interesting foliage textures and seasonal color. Several unusual features of this garden area are a pollarded chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), a stone statue of Pan, and the Green Garage, an exhibit of environmentally-friendly products, supplies, and practices .
The River Farm Children’s Garden are popular with many visiting families. This set of over a dozen miniature themed garden spaces was designed by school groups and professional landscapers to encourage children’s awareness and enjoyment of nature through imaginative play and exploration. A nearby feature enjoyed by children and adults alike is a lawn sofa.
7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, VA 22308
River Farm is open to the public at no charge year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. From April through September, it is also open 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays. The farm is closed on national holidays and at other times for special events.
The American Horticultural Society Garden Shop, which offers gardening books, tools, and crafts from local artisans, is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.