MGs Step Up to Help Restore Private Forest

By Christa Watters, Extension Master Gardener

Master Gardener Nancy Davis and her husband Stuart have been members of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria for more than 30 years. Founded in 1856., Beth El purchased its current 5.5-acre site in 1955 in a residential neighborhood. Behind the temple and its parking area, the back of the wooded lot descends in two ravines to a valley.

In 2006, the members of the temple brotherhood created a Chapel in the Woods at the top of the ravines. “This retreat,” Nancy says, “serves as a place of quiet meditation, services, and prayer, a site for teaching children about nature, and a play area. It remains one of the few undeveloped private tracts in the area and still contains at least 15 species of native trees. This forest is on a slope, part of the Strawberry Run watershed that drains the entire residential neighborhood. There is a spring at the bottom of the hill adjacent to the property.”

When the Brotherhood member who used to maintain the Chapel in the Woods moved away some years ago, the area fell into neglect, resulting in its being taken over by more than 20 invasive species. Then in 2015, a small informal group started holding monthly work days to pull invasive species, and Nancy and her husband joined in.

Here’s Nancy, telling us the story from there:

“We began to plant Virginia natives under the auspices and financial support of the congregation and its brotherhood. Contractors augment our work. We also receive advice, plants and support from the temple brotherhood and the Beth El religious school, the local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, master gardeners, the state forester, the city of Alexandria and its chief biologist, students gaining community service hours for school, and residents of Guest House, a halfway house for nonviolent offenders who do community service as part of their sentences. About a quarter of the property has been cleared enough to begin planting trees, shrubs, and native perennials.

“In 2017, Beth El received a Virginia state forestry grant to plant trees and shrubs. Since then, volunteers have planted many other small trees, shrubs, and Virginia native perennials bought with contributions from the congregation and Beth El Brotherhood or donated by Beth EL members, master gardeners—individually and from the Glencarlyn Library Demonstration Garden—and the city of Alexandria. This small progress has been seriously hampered by deer damage. And, the deluge of rain in 2018-19 exacerbated already serious runoff and erosion problems in the ravines. As they continue to work on the new Audubon wildflower garden in spring 2019, Chapel in the Woods committee members and other volunteers are finishing new terraces in the upper portion of the West ravine and planting native species to stabilize the soil there with partial funding from the Northern Virginia Soil and Conservation Service.” 

The Chapel in the Woods project is an ongoing example of how cooperation among groups and individuals can make change in a community, as pointed out by Virginia Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad, whom Nancy invited to advise on the site and plantings. For example, Nancy attended an MG class by Jim McGlone, an instructor who works for the Virginia Department of Forestry. He later sponsored the Forestry Department’s matching grant at Beth El.

With approval from the Beth El Board of Directors, Nancy arranged a visit by Audubon Ambassador Alda Krinsman, who advised on how to proceed with the 2018 Audubon grant to establish a wildflower garden and provided plant lists from the Audubon at Home program. Rod Simmons, plant ecologist and manager for the Natural Resources Division of Alexandria’s Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities, on an ongoing basis advises on the characteristics of the oak-hickory forest and its native species. For the 2019 Soil and Water Conservation grant, Jerilyn Levi, a landscape designer, developed a site map, helped create plant lists, offered terracing advice, helped supervise work crews, and offered designs for the renovation of the West ravine.

Garden plan for wildflowers in the Beth El Chapel in the Woods

Nancy enlisted the help of Barry Smith, the director of the temple religious school, a former EPA lawyer who was very sympathetic to the plan—from both his professional background and because teaching children that giving back to your community is an important principle of the Jewish faith. He helped set up work days where Master Gardener Volunteers, parents, and other adults supervised groups of children in planting the Audubon wildflower garden and the West ravine restoration. Students also engage in other age-appropriate educational activities about the environment and help with invasive removal. This year, for the first time, there was a designated workday for the temple’s women’s group.

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The Chapel in the Woods committee has pledged to maintain the Audubon Garden and West ravine for 10 years. A critical component is to keep it free of weeds and invasive species, so the work will continue. Nancy says it will take sustained support from the 600 families of the congregation, perhaps aided by the community at large. This is, after all, a project that improves the surrounding watershed for all.

A retired journalist, Nancy enjoys gardening, particularly working with other master gardeners. She also loves working with children. “Sometimes,” she says, “the work with the plants is secondary to teaching the children.” She also volunteers as a reading teacher working with a third-grade Great Books Reading Club. They focus on short stories, mostly folk tales from around the world.

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