by Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Plans for a demonstration garden featuring sun-loving perennials took shape in 1990 when Lyle Priddy, a member of the Master Gardener class of 1989, agreed to be the coordinator. Although several sites for the garden were considered, the present location at Bon Air Park in Arlington was chosen as most suitable because of its full-sun exposure, its proximity to a water source, and its nearness to the recently established Shade Garden.
Lyle recalls that preparation at the site began with multiple passes through the soil with a high-powered Italian rototiller and the addition of leaf mulch and other organic material. The original plan for the garden called for three beds: an herb bed, an island bed in the middle, and a peninsula bed running the entire width of the garden on the north side. He credits fellow Master Gardener Audrey Faden with modifying his design with attractive curvilinear features.
In the spring of 1991, the first plants were put into place. Taller plants were put at the back of the northern bed to provide screening from a neighboring home. The herb bed featured a long-lived baptisia on a mound in the middle with low-growing xeriscape plants surrounding it.
The garden began with 40 types of perennials and over time this number was increased to 100. Each year Lyle and his team would repeat the rototilling process, lifting plants, enriching the soil, and then replacing the plants. Eventually, as the organic content of the soil improved and plant growth became denser, it was only necessary to mulch regularly around the plants. The design of the beds evolved somewhat over time as various plants were relocated into more favorable locations.
Celia Denton, a regular volunteer at the garden starting in 1994, remembers that a redesign was undertaken in 1995 with input from Audrey Faden. At that time, an opening was made in the middle of the front fence to create a second entrance, allowing more direct access into the garden. Additional pathways were established to make the garden more walkable and more inviting to the public.
Lyle continued as coordinator of the Sunny Garden until the fall of 1997, when work as a professional gardener limited his availability to volunteer there. He went on to work for many years in the extensive garden of Senator Diane Feinstein on a property near American University.
From around 1998, the garden was co-run by Celia Denton and Jennifer Frum from the Master Gardener classes of 1994 and 1989, respectively. Under their guidance, new front beds were created to make the garden more inviting from the street, more pathways were added, and permanent edging was established. They introduced some grasses, repeated plants, and worked to come up with pleasing color combinations. Three times a year, they went through the garden’s plant list and signage to keep them current. For many years they also recorded and published dates of bloom until it was determined that this process required too much volunteer time. They also brought Bob Lund on board to regularly help with plant propagation.
Celia continued at the garden until she was offered a job at Culpepper Garden in the spring of 2000. Jennifer decided to retire from the garden at the end of 2008 as her interest in native plants and the control of invasive plants increased. She implemented her new knowledge in helping to maintain the grounds of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.
At present, the garden is run by co-coordinators Kate Donohue (class of 1996) and Joe Kelly (class of 2002), who are overseeing a multi-year rejuvenation project with a new focus on sustainability and the use of more native species. Over the years some plants have self-seeded, resulting in an overabundance of certain species in unexpected places. Other plants have grown beyond their original borders, creating an overly crowded appearance in some beds. Joe feels that a big challenge to maintaining the garden has come from unpredictable weather, such as summer droughts and huge snowstorms, which destroyed much of the educational signage. The current plan is to renovate several beds each year until the entire garden has been revitalized.
In 2013, the renovation process began in four beds. Joe Kelly has been rethinking the plantings for Bed 5, which has become much shadier with the growth of neighboring trees. He is planning to move some hellebores and bleeding hearts into this new environment. Kate Donohue has redesigned the western half of Bed 7 as a butterfly garden, using plants with a big impact as the bed is located at the side entrance. She has selected joe-pye weed, milkweed, phlox, asters, New York Ironweed, and perennial sunflowers to give bloom from summer through the fall. Alex Dickman completely re-dug the eastern half of Bed 7 early in the spring. She replanted the original coreopsis, geraniums, sundrops, and asclepias; replaced an unattractive honeysuckle vine with a native wisteria; and added other native perennials such as gayfeather, coneflowers, and stonecrop to provide a variety of heights, colors, and bloom times.
Two recently certified Master Gardeners, Mary Frase and Elaine Mills from the class of 2012, have undertaken the renovation of the two narrow beds adjacent to the parking lot. An article on their class project will appear on this website in the near future.
The renovation project also includes plans for updated signage. Due to concerns about possible vandalism, the original signs with common and Latin plant names will not be replaced. Instead, plants will be marked with numbered stakes, which are linked to a printed brochure with detailed information on each species. A select number of the garden’s “anchor plants” will have fancier signs.
All those who have taken a leadership role in the Sunny Garden have expressed enthusiasm for their work. They cite especially the fun of learning about the best growing conditions for each type of plant. They see the garden as a “teaching garden” for the public and Master Gardeners alike. The current leaders hope that 2012 interns and members of the upcoming fall class of 2013 will be eager to join them in the ongoing rejuvenation project.