By Elaine L. Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine L. Mills
This October marks the 50th anniversary of Green Spring Gardens, a public park in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, whose landscaping and educational programs focus on practical horticultural techniques appropriate for home gardeners in the Washington, DC area. The Gardens had originally scheduled a large celebration to mark the milestone, featuring dignitaries, presentations, and the planting of a tree, but the in-person event has been postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Green Spring Gardens was made possible thanks to the donation by Michael and Belinda Straight of their family home and 18 acres of surrounding land to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1970. The property, which they had purchased in 1942, consisted of an historic house dating from 1784, outbuildings, and forested land. It was given with the understanding that it would be preserved as a park.
The brick plantation house of Green Spring Farm, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was renovated and expanded by the Straights before they moved in. The Colonial Revival rehabilitation was undertaken by Walter Macomber, chief restoration architect at Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon. The exterior retains the chimney, brickwork, and other architectural features of the Colonial period.
The garden surrounding the house was designed by Beatrix Farrand, the sole female member of the American Society of Landscape Architects at its founding in 1899. Best known for her work at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, for the Green Spring setting, she created a garden room with a lawn enclosed by a crescent-shaped boxwood hedge atop a stone wall. This serves as a transition from the more formal landscape behind the house to the surrounding informal woodland grounds.
Upon obtaining the property, the Park Authority decided to create a horticultural park. They removed an old barn, a log cabin, and a bridge, retaining a 19th century springhouse. Over the years, the county purchased surrounding land, extending the park holdings to 31 acres.
The Straight’s former residence, now known as the Historic House, was renovated for public use. It normally serves as the site for historical presentations and tours, followed by traditional English afternoon teas. At present, some lectures are being presented virtually, and in-person tour group numbers are strictly limited to observe social distancing. Tea boxes with sandwiches, pastries, and scones are provided for participants to take home.
The Horticulture Center, built in 1995, serves as the park’s visitor center and houses a gift shop, a glasshouse, an extensive horticultural reference library, a plant shop, and classrooms. The Glasshouse, home to orchids, tropicals, cacti, and succulents, and the gift shop, which offers a broad selection of books, tools, and garden-themed clothing, gifts, and home décor, are currently closed, as is the library. When open, the non-circulating library offers access to over 3,000 horticulture books and subscriptions to around 30 magazines. It also receives newsletters from local and national plant societies and garden clubs. In addition, it maintains a file of nursery catalogs and includes a Children’s Corner complete with storybooks and educational materials for parents and teachers.
The Garden Gate Plant Shop is presently open for in-person sales on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 1. Plant sales are also available through phone order for curbside pick-up on Wednesdays and Fridays during specified time slots. While the regular exhibits showcasing paintings and photography by local artists have been temporarily suspended at the Center, the building will reopen on a limited basis for scheduled programs. Indoor lectures, art classes, and floral design workshops will be offered beginning in the fall with a limited capacity and following CDC safety guidelines. The garden is also reintroducing tours and programs for children and scout groups, many of which will take place outdoors. In addition, staff have developed several by-request programs which can be scheduled by calling the Gardens.
Despite necessary modifications to educational outreach and events at Green Spring Gardens, the park grounds remain open dawn to dusk each day at no charge. A central lawn, surrounded by stately mature trees, is a key defining space. Its perimeter brick walkway links the Historic House and the Horticulture Center and provides access to 22 themed landscape beds and the main gazebo, a focal point and stage for garden concerts. Demonstration gardens include an edible garden, a water-wise garden, a children’s garden, a wildlife garden, three townhouse gardens, and a rock garden with alpine plants. Unpaved paths lead visitors through a wooded stream valley and past two ponds with a second gazebo. Five native plant communities have been documented in these natural areas, which comprise approximately half of the garden’s acreage.
Beauty abounds through the seasons, beginning with winter blooms, such as winter aconites, snowdrops, and Lenten roses. These are followed by displays of spring bulbs and flowering trees in the more formal flower beds, and wildflowers and shrubs native to the Mid-Atlantic in the extensive woodland area. In summer, all the themed gardens are at their peak, and a number of beds feature bright tropical blooms.
Fall brings the brilliant foliage of sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), interesting inflorescences of grasses, bright-colored fruit of winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and the striking ribbon-like yellow flowers of witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) that are featured on the Gardens’ logo. Green Spring has more than 270 witch hazel plants that are nationally recognized as an official collection of theAmerican Public Gardens Association’s Plant Collections Network. It includes selections of all the species, including native eastern H. virginiana, the Ozark witch hazel, H. vernalis, and hybrids, as well as about 100 specimens that are cultivars of the Asian hybrid, H. intermedia.
As a center of horticultural services for Fairfax County, Green Spring Gardens serves as a base for two local organizations and oversees a number of outreach programs.
A close relationship with the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society began in 1982 when the group (then known as the Virginia Wildflower Preservation Society) established propagation beds for native plants rescued from construction projects. In 1987, the chapter collaborated with Park Director Don Humphrey and Park Horticulturalist Brenda Skarphol to create the Gardens’ Native Plant Trail featuring 400 native species. Ongoing sales of propagated native plants from April through October fund the salary of a horticultural intern who helps with special trail projects and maintenance. Up until early this year, the group held its meetings and hosted public lectures at the Horticulture Center.
The Gardens are also home to a unit of Extension Master Gardeners, volunteers who design and maintain a number of demonstration beds under the supervision of the horticultural staff, offer Garden Talks, lead tours, and host spring and fall Garden Days. The group also organizes the annual EcoSavvy Symposium (the 16th took place in February 2020), which in recent years has featured such themes as the four-season garden, the balanced garden, and water-wise gardening. In addition, the EMGs staff two help desks, offer garden consultation, and give presentations through their Speakers Bureau.
Green Spring Gardens also hosts the Washington Gardener annual seed exchange and a huge yearly spring plant sale (in which MGNV participates), manages more than 650 garden plots that are rented to Fairfax County residents in nine county parks, oversees county farmers markets, and offers Getaway programs, featuring visits to some of the best public gardens and historic sites in the Mid-Atlantic, as well as behind-the-scene tours of some outstanding private gardens.
While the Gardens are staffed by county employees, ongoing horticultural efforts and expansion of programming and facilities are made possible through Friends of Green Spring (FROGS), a non-profit membership organization that provides financial and volunteer support. Since its founding in 1993, the group has donated more than $2 million to support the purchase of all plant material, special projects, and physical improvements, such as the updating of the upper gazebo and patio, the renovation of classroom and office spaces, and, most recently, the installation of a “Smart Water” irrigation system. For over 10 years FROGS has sponsored the popular Harry Allen Winter Lecture Series, featuring local and national experts speaking on a variety of horticultural and historical topics.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the staff and volunteers of Green Spring Gardens are finding ways to maintain the grounds as a place for quiet contemplation and to provide educational programming to inspire and educate home gardeners.
Green Spring Gardens
4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA 22312
Gazebo rentals available for small groups