Big Changes Coming This Winter: Get in the Know About Snow Closures

Red mulberry at sunsetDealing with snow used to be so easy. The kids would rejoice over an unexpected respite from homework, the shelves at the market would be empty, hardware stores were out of sleds and workout clothes lay unused on the chair. In the past, if Fairfax County Public Schools closed, Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) facilities were closed, too.

But no more! We heard your concerns loud and clear. We’ve listened to our customers, and we’re changing our ways. Beginning November 1, 2015 new procedures will be in place to deal with weather-related cancelations and closures this winter. Unless Fairfax County closes all county facilities, RECenters and other park facilities will remain open for general use. Classes, team practices, parties and even weddings will go on as planned at Park Authority facilities, unless canceled by the customer or FCPA.

The school system has a tough call to make. It’s a big county, and while your road might be clear, others may be slipping and sliding on roadways the snow plows have yet to find. Some days, the schools may struggle with arctic temperatures that are just too darn cold for kids to be standing at bus stops or for buses to start.

Getting in your workout or taking your kids to a tumbling class is not worth the risk if you live on a treacherous road. Our refund policy will remain flexible as we all figure out the best way to make this change. But if you’re lucky enough to see pavement and want to crank up the heat in your car, the Park Authority will be there for you with drop in fitness classes, warm pools and programs at as many park venues as practicable. Sure, there may be some glitches, some troubles getting the word out or cancelations beyond our control. We will deal them and work hard to improve those situations in the future.

Here’s what you need to know:

If Fairfax County Government is closed all day, Fairfax County Park Authority facilities are closed all day, too. Simple, right? That means FCPA classes, camps and events held at RECenters or other Park Authority facilities are canceled.

If Fairfax County Government opens late, things gets a little more complicated. The FCPA will announce opening times for its RECenters and other facilities on its website at and on the Inclement Weather Line at 703-324-8661. If you’re into social media, you can find out through Facebook and Twitter – and you can always give the facility itself a call. If you’re part of a swim team or other group that rents space from the FCPA, check with that organization to see what they’ve decided to do. There are lots of ways to get in the know about the snow!

When the county opens late, FCPA classes, camps and events held at RECenters or other FCPA facilities that begin before 11 a.m. will be canceled. Events that begin at 11 a.m. or later will operate as scheduled, unless announced otherwise. We have to allow to some leeway for special circumstances.

Let your youngsters dawdle over breakfast. When the county opens late, the morning preschool programs at Lee District and Spring Hill will operate from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Afternoon preschool will run from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., unless announced otherwise.

If storms move in during the day and Fairfax County Government closes early, FCPA facilities will close for the rest of the day, beginning at the announced time. That means everything grinds to a halt – classes, camps, evening activities and anything else planned for a RECenter or other FCPA facility starting at the announced time. Morning preschool at Lee District and Spring Hill won’t be affected, but afternoon preschool may be canceled, at the announced time.

Do you take Park Authority classes such as dance or martial arts at a studio? Now, what happens if you’re enrolled in an FCPA program that is held at a private business location? In that case, the best thing to do is to call that site directly or get in touch with your instructor.

If you signed up for a day trip or tour, you might still be in luck. FCPA-sponsored bus tours will operate as scheduled, unless you get a phone call telling you the trip is off. You also can check for weather cancelations or changes on the Trips and Tours Hotline at 703-324-TOUR (8687).

However, if you’ve registered for an FCPA class or event that takes place in a Fairfax County Public School building, you may need to spend more time with the family. Obviously, if a school is closed, we can’t let you in. Any event scheduled during a time that schools will be closed will be canceled. If schools open late, FCPA classes will resume at the school when it reopens.

You spoke up last year about your frustration with all the closures and cancelations, and we listened. We hope the new changes will allow more FCPA classes and events to take place as scheduled during the area’s fickle winter weather.

So this winter, keep a weather eye on the barometer, take a deep breath and join us as we make the changes that you – our valued customers asked for. And remember you can find out all the details at or 703-324-8661.

Ranavirus, Amphibians, and How to Keep them Apart



Sometimes naturalists take precautionary steps just so they can do their job. Sometimes your help is needed to protect wildlife.

This past spring, May 2015, Old Colchester Park and Preserve experienced a wood frog tadpole die-off. Tadpole samples were submitted to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, which led to a positive test result for a strain of ranavirus.  This followed a 2014 Smithsonian study that returned an “unconfirmed positive” result for the same population of frogs.  Arlington County Parks Natural Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas noted that an Arlington park had an unconfirmed positive, and other parks in Northern Virginia that were part of the 2014 Smithsonian study also returned an “unconfirmed positive result.”

Ranavirus is a disease that affects amphibians, reptiles and fish.   It has never been known to infect humans.  The virus varies greatly in lethality, infection rate and symptoms.  Frog tadpoles, for example, show blood and lesions on the belly and around the hind limb buds and are usually only symptomatic during their development when hind limb buds are forming.  It is possible and likely that the virus has been present in our area for many years, but relatively little monitoring has been done in Northern Virginia.

With the confirmation of the virus at Old Colchester, naturalists from the Fairfax County Park Authority notified other area naturalists of the test results and urged them to take whatever precautions they could to protect wildlife in their parks and across the region. Amphibian populations or susceptible rare animals, such as wood turtles, could be affected by the disease, and there is no cure or direct treatment for it. In addition, parks with a lot of foot traffic in amphibian habitat could see their amphibian populations affected. To that end, FCPA recommended that school groups and citizen science workers also take precautions.

What are those precautions? The best action is prevention. That means halting the spread of the disease, and that means disinfecting boots, nets, containers and other gear before entering parks, vernal pools and ponds. That one step is the standard procedure for preventing the spread of ranavirus. Signs and publications, like this blog, also help make residents good stewards of nature.

Abugattas said Arlington County is taking precautions that include water sampling and macroinvertebrate surveys, noting that surveyers should follow proper disinfection protocols before moving to a new sampling site. Trained naturalists and support groups can help by monitoring wildlife population trends and watching for, what the professionals call, a “mortality event.” That’s generally considered five or more dead animals within the same population.

So scrub your boots, keep an eye on the environment, and report anything amiss to park staff.

More information is available from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. (


Author Owen Williams is a Natural Resource Specialist for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Farmers Markets Celebrate Successful National Farmers Market Week

basketNational Farmers Market Week is a celebration acknowledging our local farmers who ultimately are responsible for bringing fresh ingredients into our homes. The 2015 Fairfax County celebration which just concluded included lots of activities for families. An environmental education booth provided extensive information on the ways our market vendors help restore and protect the environment and their farmland. At each market a gift basket including vendor products, coupons, an Arcadia seasonal cookbook and a reusable tote was offered as a door prize. Recipients were thrilled and looking to return to market for more.

20688560416_ba83d35a48_kChildren enjoyed hula hoops and sidewalk chalk at each market, and they left the pavement decorated with multi-colored fruits, vegetables, and jumbled scribbles. The Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Master Food volunteers delighted kids and adults alike with a food quiz wheel. After answering a trivia question correctly, winners were offered stickers and recipes for cooking fresh produce. At the Herndon market, children gathered for a watermelon seed spitting competition. With fresh watermelons from vendor Mount Olympus, a volunteer gave each of the kids a watermelon slice and carefully marked the farthest ejected seed.

A cooking demo by Virginia Cooperative Extension’s intern Miriam Eackloff filled the market with mouth-watering aromas. One recipe featured cheesy kale and brown rice, a healthy and inexpensive item using seasonal ingredients. Her French toast with peach sauce was the perfect recipe for early morning market attendees. The free samples she offered disappeared in no time.

MarketVendors were especially pleased with the increased foot traffic and festive atmosphere at each market. Bob Baldwin, Market Master at McLean, said National Farmers Market week brought the market some “new energy” in an educational and fun way.

At the Farmers Market Week tent, customers completed a quick seven question survey to win a free “Buy Fresh Buy Local” reusable shopping bag. These surveys will provide valuable information that the Fairfax County Park Authority will use to improve the quality of all 11 markets. National Farmers Market Week at the FCPA Farmers Markets was a local success! Whether you are a seasoned market attendee or a newcomer, the market always offers a little something for everyone.


Author Emma Hansen is the Farmers Market Program Assistant. She is based at Green Spring Gardens, which coordinates 11 markets in the Fairfax County Farmers Market system. Please visit or call 703-642-0128 for more information

Lake Accotink Dam Fish Kill

Lake Acotink DamThis starts with an email from a park visitor.

On a recent Saturday evening, a park patron sent us a note telling us that she and other visitors were concerned about dead fish they saw below the dam at Lake Accotink. It appeared that the fish had been trapped after water receded and left them stranded behind rocks.

The patron’s email expressed concern over the oxygen level in the pool, the health of the fish, and the possibility of dying fish attracting other wildlife to the spot, which is near a paved hiking trail.

At first glance, it sounded like a naturally occurring event, the whims of nature. But that wasn’t the issue, and the visitor’s email proved to be quite valuable. It brought forward a problem apparently caused by another visitor to the park.

Usually, water flows out of the basin below the dam and runs through a culvert under the paved hiking trail. But that wasn’t happening.

Lake Accotink Park Manager Julie Tahan explained: “Someone had placed rocks in the sluiceway last week, blocking it enough to prevent water from flowing through the sluiceway. The blockage caused the water level in the stilling basin to rise, which created an inviting pool on the upstream side of the triple culvert under the trail. Fish congregated there, which is what we think may have been the motivation for whomever blocked the sluiceway.”

In a rainstorm the improperly moved rocks will cause the water below the dam to flow over the trail, which hampers trail use and is at least an inconvenience if not an endangerment to hikers and bikers. In addition, moving the rocks is a violation of park regulations, and the trapping of fish in this manner is a breach of outdoor sportsman ethics.

Staff had to spend time removing the rocks, which brought the stilling basin back to its normal level but also caused the pool of water harboring fish to recede. The fish were trapped in turbid water and likely succumbed to low oxygen. Tahan says an attempt to save the fish would have had limited success because of the labor involved, the small size of the fish, and the difficulty of netting them in the rocky, murky pool.

This has happened in previous years, and Tahan says that it’s happening again more frequently. She added, “On Saturday – the day after staff removed all the rocks — a patron reported seeing a man placing rocks at the dam. He was gone when we went to check it out.”

Staff from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) corroborated what the Park Authority found and said there is not much that can be done to prevent it. VDEQ ruled out chemical or hazardous spills as a cause of the fish kill, agreeing that the fish died from lack of oxygen.

“Knowing that Accotink Creek is in a highly impaired watershed, any aquatic life that does live in its waters is already challenged to survive,” Tahan said. “Additional stress on their habitat can easily have a detrimental impact.”

By Monday, fish that survived had made their way into the deeper waters of the creek that drains the lake, and the eagles, herons, and other birds that include fish in their diets were removing those that did not survive.

Tahan noted that this can be visually unappealing to human sensibilities, however the Park Authority does not try to control every aspect of nature, especially a temporary one like this. Any birds or snakes feeding in the area already are common in the park and are being good stewards of nature.

The Park Authority is considering steps to solve the rock-moving problem. Patrolling the area eats into valuable staff time, and posting cameras as monitors has been suggested but has costs. One other possibility is to ban fishing at the stilling basin. Tahan says that allowing folks to fish there may tempt them to move the rocks, and a ban on fishing at the spot would alleviate a longstanding situation of fishermen setting up in the path of bikers and walkers using the trail. There would still be plenty of fishing opportunity along the creek and in the lake itself.

Notifying the Park Authority of the trapped fish was the right thing for the park visitor to do and is something we encourage when a visitor sees something they feel is amiss in a park. It shows care and concern for nature, for parks and for a healthy environment. At Lake Accotink, the number to call to notify staff of improper activity is 703-569-3464.




Riverbend Park’s Adapted Kayaking Program

Kayaking at Riverbend Park

More Boating, More Fishing, More Opportunity

Can you canoe?

You can, it’s true.

Step in and drop.

Or sit on top.

We’ll borrow a little Dr. Seuss rhyming to reinforce his theme that there’s a place and a way for everybody.

Riverbend Park in Great Falls has provided recreational programming for children and adults along the banks of the Potomac River for decades. For the past five years, the park has offered canoe and kayak tours, fishing programs, water-based scout merit badges, and summer day camps that include boating and fishing. In 2014, Riverbend created more river opportunities by implementing ideas that made the river accessible to more people.  These changes promote accessibility, diversity, more environmental education and outdoor recreation.

Kayaking at Riverbend ParkOne year earlier, Riverbend Park and the Park Authority’s Americans With Disabilities Act coordinators sought partners for new adapted programming ideas. Along with hiking, the park’s most popular recreational activities are fishing and boating on the Potomac River. At the time, many of the Park Authority’s adaptive programs did not focus on fishing or boating. Branching into outdoor recreation would provide quality outdoor recreation opportunities for persons with disabilities.

The first order of business was to acquire less restrictive and more accessible sit-on-top kayaks that offered ease of access. Sit-on-top kayaks are ideal for park visitor needs and for the river setting. They are open-air and allow for a variety of body types to enter and exit with relative ease. The park incorporated the new kayaks into new adapted programs. Funding for the new fleet of sit-on-top kayaks and fishing gear was provided by a pair of Take Me Fishing grants through the National Recreation and Park Association. The two grants totaling $10,000 provided Riverbend the jump start to purchase kayaks and fishing rods equipped with push button reels that generally are easier to cast.

To promote these exciting new programs, Riverbend staff attended an adapted recreation fair for individuals with disabilities hosted by Therapeutic Recreation Services of Fairfax County. A little marketing boosted interest and tossed away existing misperceptions that outdoor, riverfront and water-oriented recreation was unavailable and inaccessible for the disabled community.

Kayaking at Riverbend ParkThe next step was an Adapted Family Day Open House at Riverbend. Families had the opportunity to kayak, fish, and hike with an instructor. When the actual programs began in the summer of 2014, the first four-week Adapted Kayaking program for ages 8 to 21 years filled seven of its eight openings.  The class provided an opportunity for participants and their families to paddle single or tandem two-persons kayaks while learning different strokes and basic water safety on the Potomac River. By the end of the class, many of the participants were paddling single kayaks with little or no help. The class activities were highlighted by a 1.5-mile float trip down the Potomac River through riffles and gentle rapids.

That fall, the park hosted its first Riverside Connections class for 11-to-21 year-olds. It was designed as a four-week introductory class into outdoor recreation: hiking, fishing, and kayaking. The class filled. The participants were able to hike to see Great Falls at Riverbend’s downstream neighbor, Great Falls National Park. They caught and released fish and paddled on the river. Two brothers who took part said they wished the class could meet every Saturday morning.

The adapted programs use volunteers and family members to establish an effective guide-to-student ratio and increase the time students are engaged in activity.  Each student has the opportunity to work with both tandem kayaks and single kayaks in order to gain the highest level of independence.  The kayaks are used for both classes and rentals, which means skills learned in class can be used and reinforced when families rent kayaks at Riverbend outside of class time.

After those first experiences with adapted programming in 2014, Riverbend planned and offered more programs that filled. The current adapted programs are:

  • Riverside Connections: A four-week class that provides an introduction to outdoor recreation with hiking, kayaking, and fishing
  • Adapted Kayaking: A four-week class that provides instruction and safety for kayaking on the Potomac River while building paddling skills
  • Adapted Potomac Adventures Summer Camp (8-12 years old & 13-21 years old): A week-long camp that provides outdoor adventures, including kayaking, fishing, hiking, and tubing

Kayaking at Riverbend ParkAn important part of the Park Authority’s mission is to provide opportunities for recreation and to create new, enriching experiences for participants. These programs do just that. They also support a diverse community need by providing access to a family activity in a structured environment. Adapted Kayaking is intended to teach basic kayaking skills, such as paddling and steering, to participants and their families.  The ultimate goal is to allow families to support each other independently both at Riverbend and other recreation locations. It increases the opportunities for families to recreate together both in and outside of Fairfax County parks.

In an opportunity rich landscape such as Fairfax County, the Park Authority is poised to find other opportunities for inclusion and access for everyone who loves to recreate! Who knows what will be possible next year?




A Duel of Designers


Dueling Designers

– A Competition between Professional Florists

It was a duel – a prearranged combat between two persons, fought with weapons according to an accepted code of procedure and in front of witnesses. The combatants were at the top of their game, highly skilled, with hands and fingers attuned to the nuances and wickedness of their weapons:


These were duelists skilled in weapons of mass construction. The witnesses were the attendees at Green Spring Gardens’ Dueling Designers program on Sunday afternoon, July 27. About 50 people watched as professional florists David Pippin from Richmond, Virginia, and Bryan Swann from Vienna, Virginia, designed arrangements of their choosing. Each used identical vases and the same selection of flowers, however, separated by a curtain, they could not see what the other was producing.

The audience delighted in the unfolding of the individual styles. Throughout the process the guests asked questions about the mechanics of floral design and the variety of events for which the two provide arrangements.

Dueling DesignersRight from the start, the differences in their styles were on display. While Swann constructed a frame of curly willow, Pippin installed a leaf and floral base for his arrangement. As Pippin arranged long stems of bells of Ireland, Swann quietly engaged in a weaving project, using green aluminum wire as the weft in his leaf-based weaving. Pippin could not resist teasing his fellow Virginia Tech alumnus about taking basket weaving as an undergraduate, while Swann explained that he had recently taken a continuing education course on the topic. He has since then exercised his creativity to add woven elements to his work.

The attendees learned tricks and tips to achieve success with their own arrangements. Bells of Ireland will want to remain upright, so incorporating them as a horizontal element in an arrangement is never successful. Swann explained the importance of making fresh cuts to stems and avoiding the placement and removal of a flower multiple times, as it creates too many holes in the oasis, the green product that holds water and supports the flowers.

Dueling DesignersUpon completing their work, both artists were invited to view the other’s design. Pippin’s design followed an ‘S’ shaped swoop, drawing the eye from curly willow at the top to a momentary rest on a flower cluster in the middle, ending with a fern-like spray of leaves and roses. Swann envisioned an open meadow of flowers with his arrangement, manifested by clusters of flowers suggesting the arrangement one might find in a garden. The curly willow provided height while hinting at transparency that allowed the viewer to gaze either at, or through, the arrangement.

Pippin, owner of David Pippin, Inc., is currently the floral designer for The Executive Mansion of Virginia, where he provides floral arrangements for gubernatorial events. He was quite amused, in the manner of Mozart being told in the film “Amadeus” that one of his compositions had “too many notes,” that after his first event for the governor and his wife he was told the arrangements were “too flowery!” He is in demand for weddings, parties and educational events, where he shares his talents for all to enjoy or to learn. He has a sizable number of fans in Williamsburg, Virginia, who have dubbed themselves The Pippinettes.dueling-designers6

Swann is Creative Director and Director of Weddings and Special Events at Karin’s Florist in Vienna. His work is sought by brides at Meadowlark Botanical Garden and hosts of gala events at Wolf Trap Farm Park. He has won numerous awards, including the 2012 Society of American Florist VaseOff! challenge and the 2014 Society of American Florist VaseOff! All Stars challenge.

Floral designer Chuck Mason selected the vase and the types of flowers available to each contestant. Mason teaches floral design classes for Green Spring Gardens.


Author Mary Olien is the Manager of Green Spring Gardens, which hosts floral design events among its many gardening programs for the public.

Garden Dreams

kingstowne9Are your dreams about your vegetable garden and what you’ll harvest this year coming true? Are thoughts of big juicy tomatoes dancing in your brain becoming reality? Will you be able to can for the winter and feel confident your family is getting good quality? Will you have local garden bragging rights?

You thought you did everything correctly. Although the variety of tomato plants can be overwhelming, you planted the tomato varieties recommended for Virginia. You fantasized about Big Beef in a salad, canning Mountain Spring, and walking through the garden popping Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes in your mouth. Now you’re getting a few tomatoes, but those ugly, gross leaf spots ruined much of the crop and then the leaf wilting began. You’re not getting the tomatoes of your dreams to eat or share with neighbors. Where are the 10 to 15 pounds of fruit the plant was supposed to yield? You wish you had better luck.

But gardening is not all luck.

If you lived next door to a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener, he or she would tell you that the first thing to do for a successful crop is to get a soil test. The ideal vegetable garden soil is deep, friable, well-drained, and has high organic matter content. Soil test kits are available from the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) offices or at Green Spring Gardens. VCE will mail results with recommendations for correcting any deficiencies in your soil. VCE also has a tomato publication that gives guidance on growing tomatoes.

You can get help from Master Gardeners at the Fairfax County farmers markets or at the Green Spring Gardens Help Desk on Saturdays (4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA 22312). You also can call the VCE help line at 703-324-5369, and your question will be answered by a Master Gardener.

If you don’t have your own neighborhood Master Gardener, why not become one? For information contact

Once you grow that perfect tomato, you might enjoy my favorite tomato dish. It’s my grandmother’s Panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato) Salad.


4-6 large ripened tomatoes cut into large cubes
½ pound Italian bread, cubed (about 7-9 cups)**
1 ½ thinly sliced red onions
Garlic (optional)
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup Italian extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh basil, torn into pieces
Salt/pepper to taste


Combine tomatoes, bread, and onions
Wisk the garlic (optional), vinegar and oil together
Pour the dressing over the bread salad and let it sit for 20 minutes
Add basil, salt and pepper to taste and toss


** Rosa Milano Rinaldo made her own bread for this salad but you can buy a good hearty Italian bread.

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener Intern