Continuing Tradition, Introducing Change: The Quarry Shade Garden

By Lynn Berry, Certified Master Gardener

Native groundcovers: green-and-gold and hay-scented ferns in May 2010. Photo Credit: Mary Free

Native groundcovers: green-and-gold and hay-scented ferns in May 2010. Photo Credit: Mary Free

In the summer of 2016, Carolyn Vincent, Karen Smith, and Dina Lehmann-Kim took over leadership of the Quarry Shade Garden. Established in 1989, the Shade Garden is the oldest Master Gardener (MG) demonstration garden in Arlington.  The original leader and visionary of the Shade Garden was Master Gardener Emerita Alice C. Nicolson. Alice organized the digging out and planting of a garden from a rocky hillside in Bon Air Park that was the site of an old quarry. With planning, research, creativity, and much old-fashioned sweat equity, Alice and her MG cohorts planted and nurtured a garden in which shady, dry, rocky, and hilly conditions could produce lovely results.

Natives redbud tree and golden ragwort (L) late April 2014 in the Shade Demonstration Garden.

Redbud tree and golden ragwort
Photo © 2014 Mary Free

Dina, Carolyn, and Karen wanted to continue the tradition of the Shade Garden, while updating the garden’s look. They hoped to introduce new plants, particularly native plants and some non-native plants that all gardeners could hope to grow on shady sites. The first order of business for the three garden coordinators was to find out what was actually growing in the garden and observe how these plants were doing in their surroundings. The extensive inventory produced “good news/bad news” results. The good news was that there were many wonderful plants growing in the garden, such as the stately Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud) that is at the center of the garden, the perky springtime stand of Packera aurea (golden ragwort), the cool and elegant groundcover Asarum canadense (wild ginger), and the gorgeous summer blooming Chelone lyonii (pink turtlehead). The bad news was that there were many non-native invasive species, such as Hedera helix (English ivy), Vinca major (greater periwinkle), Arum italicum (Italian arum), and Ophiopogon japonicus (mondo grass). There were also plants such as various hostas that were being decimated by a growing deer population in Bon Air Park.

Having gotten the lay of the land, Karen, Dina, Carolyn, and other volunteer MGs went about the task of curating the Shade Garden. English ivy, greater periwinkle, Italian arum, and other plant bullies were relentlessly sought out and removed. The unexpected collapse of a split rail fence that bordered the garden along the park’s paved walking path presented a perfect opportunity to remove the hostas growing along the fence with other plants that would be more deer resistant, such as Aesculus parviflora (bottlebrush buckeye), Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’ (St. John’s wort), and Cornus sericea (red twig dogwood). Mondo grass is being removed and replaced with native and non-native plants that fit the challenging Shade Garden environment and are deer resistant, such as ferns, hellebores, and sedges.

The garden coordinators have also undertaken a major labeling project. Durable and informative labels for plants are being installed to promote a major mission of the Shade Garden—to inform and educate the garden’s many visitors about the plants growing there.

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While the garden coordinators give strong consideration to the planting and nurturing of native plant species, appropriate non-native plants also find a home in the Shade Garden, so that visitors can learn what plants thrive in shady conditions.

Flood damage

Flood damage
Photo © 2018 Karen Smith

As happens with all gardens, meticulous planning must sometimes be put on hold when Mother Nature throws a curve ball. Carolyn, Dina, and Karen experienced that phenomenon in May 2018 when torrential rains turned adjacent Four Mile Run into a raging river. On two separate occasions Four Mile Run overflowed its banks and swept into the Shade Garden, disrupting the soil and uprooting plants. The intrepid garden coordinators and volunteers abandoned scheduled tasks of weeding, deadheading, and labeling and went into emergency action to cover exposed plant roots, replace dirt and mulch that had been washed away, and find and replant two red twig dogwoods that had been uprooted and washed approximately 20 yards downstream.

Dina, Karen, and Carolyn have proven themselves to be talented and dedicated stewards of the Quarry Shade Garden tradition. It is definitely worth a trip to Bon Air Park, to see how the oldest MG demonstration garden maintains its character while continuing to renew itself.  The park and garden are located in Arlington County at the intersection of Wilson Boulevard and North Lexington Street. From the parking lot, follow the paved walkway past the Sunny Garden, around the bend, and discover the beautiful, cool oasis that is the Quarry Shade Garden.

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