Interpreting a Rural Landscape to a Mosaic of Urban Visitors

(A version of this article was originally published in the National Association of Interpreters Magazine, Legacy)

farm-6.jpgI’m an old-school interpreter, and Freeman Tilden’s first principle is near and dear to my heart. “Any Interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.” I work at Frying Pan Farm Park, a 1930’s-era farm that is a time-travelling revelation in one of the most densely populated, diverse counties in the United States.

One-point-one million people call 406-square mile Fairfax County home. That’s more people, in one county, than in eight states. More than 180 languages are spoken at home by the county’s elementary school students.

Communities vary from Alexandria’s urban, high-rise apartments close to the nation’s capital to Great Falls, where residents fight developmental pressures and try to sustain a semi-rural atmosphere that includes small horse farms. A few decades ago, Tysons was a farm crossroads with only a general store and a gas station. Today, it’s a rapidly developing urban center.

Fairfax County is full of dichotomy. It is the second-wealthiest county in the country with a median household income of more than $110,000, yet 28% of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. New single-family homes can be 4,000 square feet. Some immigrants rent single rooms, or even just a mattress, for their family.

 

This amazing and inspirational diversity of backgrounds, experiences, lifestyles and languages makes relating, interpreting and connecting Fairfax County’s wide-ranging natural and cultural resources to park and museum visitors a bit challenging.

Seed-scattered among the concrete weeds are more than 420 parks of the Fairfax County Park Authority that protect nearly 10% of the county’s land. One of those parks is one of the county’s dichotomies — Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. This 1930s-era working farm preserves a piece of the once-prevalent rural landscape of dairy and mixed-use farms that blanketed Fairfax and neighboring counties for decades. Reaching more than 10,000 school students and a half-million visitors annually, the interpretive team at Frying Pan brings farming, local history and rural life to a broad cross-section of visitors.

The Challenge for Interpreters

Sean Redmiles and Claire Thomas, both Certified Interpretive Guides (CIG), are front-line interpreters at Frying Pan who have observed how different visitors from that cross-section react. Students who live close to Frying Pan or in the county’s rural western suburbs can relate to the familiar farm scene. Many have been to the park with their families, or they live on or near a farm. Finding common experiences to build upon with them comes quickly. They are ready to listen, pet a farm animal, and make new connections. Students without those rural experiences begin their journey in another place.

“There are often unexpected challenges that can make learning on the farm difficult for visitors who are not from rural areas,” said Redmiles. “The one we see all the time is the smell; kids sometimes spend the entire program with their noses covered or don’t want to come into the barn where our classroom is.”

Farm 7It can be a challenge for children to step from book knowledge of a cow, goat or sheep to meeting a 1,200-pound bovine that’s taller than them and moos loud enough to hurt their ears. “There are times where we’ve had kids who have never seen a goat before in their lives, presumably, and when I bring one in they are terrified,” Redmiles explained. “One child started screaming and throwing himself around the room the moment I brought our milking goat in.” It also can be challenging for the youngsters to differentiate between a goat and a sheep. The animals are about the same size and make similar noises.

 

“For people from the suburbs, you have to gently introduce them to the idea that farm animals, even well cared for ones like ours, are not pets. They are potential food sources,” added Thomas. While most farm visitors are omnivores, their only experience with meat is plastic-wrapped cuts at a grocery store or already cooked at a restaurant. Thomas finds a link. Although not ready to see the animals as food, they can relate to how the animals are treated. Youngsters may have pets, so Thomas talks about how farm staff care for farm animals by making sure they have shelter, good food and veterinarian care. When visitors are comfortable and make that connection, they may be ready for the next one — that these animals become food. That takes interpretive sensitivity.

The rural atmosphere can be a bridge to connecting with others. This 1930s-era farming is old-fashioned in the U.S.A., but many of those practices remain common in other countries. Visitors from those areas find the familiarity of the farm setting homey and reach out to staff, excited to share experiences from their home country.

Thomas recounted one of those moments: “Some visitors from rural El Salvador explained to me, mostly through mime and simple Spanish, that where they were from, they used the gourds we were growing to drink water from and that they were not just decorative as I had supposed. I’ve had a lot of moments on the farm where I’ve been able to connect with people from very different backgrounds than my own.

Frying Pan_051717_0064“I was once talking to a woman about how we milk our goats and how important they are to the farm when she told me that as a child she and her family fled from a civil war in Somalia and survived for two months on only the milk of a goat that they brought with them,” Redmiles added. “She said it was one of the saddest moments of her life that when they reached a town that took them in, her father slaughtered the goat for meat. She had tears in her eyes and she told me the goat we were looking at was the same type as the one her family had, and that she wouldn’t be here right now if not for that animal.”

Partnering with Schools

The park has teamed with a nearby elementary school to form a Green Team of students who combine school initiatives with park projects. The Green Team students maintain a vegetable garden on a real working farm. Few of these suburban kids have ever planted a seed or pulled a weed. Starting seeds in their school cafeteria under different kinds of grow lights, with or without heat mats, has become a school-wide science project. As the weather improves in spring, a group of 30 to 40 students come to the park with their parents and teacher twice a month. They transplant the vegetables they started at school and direct-seed more.

“The kids love to come and weed for about five minutes and then feed the weeds to the chickens,” said Frying Pan’s Senior Interpreter Patrick McNamara, CIG, who heads the project at Frying Pan. Worms can steal the show because some of the students have never held an earthworm. That’s an interpretive experience they will never forget and one of many “I didn’t know you could” moments they learn first-hand. Others are: I didn’t know potatoes grew like that, tomatoes could get that big, peas climbed a string, vegetables could taste so good. Some of the adults have that same first experience.

Baby Animals 0413_0139McNamara said that finding staff to share rural experiences is a challenge. In a generally affluent, well-educated county like Fairfax, understanding and support of environmental issues and protection is common. That’s a boon for recruiting staff at nature centers but not so much for a 20th century farm park. Many successful farm recruits come from visitors who live near the park or who brought their kids to enjoy the animals and are now looking to start a second career. Their passion for the park bridges the knowledge gaps of never having held a chicken, led a goat or learned early 20th century agricultural practices. Staff is hired for their communication skills, and the rest — tractor driving, animal handling and husbandry, crop production, and traditional homemaking — is learned on the job.

To “somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor” when those visitors have diverse backgrounds, experiences, lifestyles and languages is an art. Unique visitors are tile chips of different shapes, colors and textures that come together to form a beautiful mosaic.

Author Yvonne Johnson is the Site Manager of Frying Pan Farm Park, Fairfax County Park Authority, Virginia

The Farmer Midwife

DSC_0600 e2Birthing season is a busy time for the farmers at Frying Pan Farm Park. Spring can bring calves, six kids (baby goats), 10 lambs, 20 or more piglets, and chicks and poults (baby turkeys). Here’s some Q-and-A about birthing season from Frying Pan’s park specialist and farmer, Paul Nicholson.

When do you know a birth is starting?

Staff pay attention to several details to know when to expect a birth. The most helpful is to know when the pregnancy started. We plan most of the breeding at the farm, but there’s still a window of a week or two for some animals. A veterinarian conducts an ultrasound between 30 and 60 days after breeding to confirm a pregnancy, to make sure our males are fertile, and to help adjust the diet of the pregnant animal. Most animals go through physical changes with their udder swelling with new milk and other parts relaxing right before birth. Herd animals usually separate themselves to a quiet maternity corner of the field. Other animals become nervous the day of the big event, scratching at the ground, appearing uncomfortable, and rising and laying down for a few hours before the actual birth takes place. Farm staff and our night maintenance staff check on the expectant mothers a few times each night, as often as every two hours if needed. Livestock are born any hour of the day or night, and farmers have seen many full moons turn into sunrises during deliveries and while waiting for the newborn to nurse. And sometimes you show up in the morning and you find a newborn!

How safe is a farm birth?

Baby Animals 0413_0277Livestock at the park are used to people, and this helps during the birthing process. We can move the animal to a stall if needed, either to keep out of mud, or to cool or heat the mother, and we have a new shed that has smaller stalls for sows to deliver their piglets. This helps to protect the tiny piglets from being crushed by the larger sow and to protect the farmer, as some sows can become aggressive during the process.

What can the baby animal do at birth – and a few hours later?

Farm animals are responsive right at birth, with most being able to walk in the first 30 minutes to one hour. The first milk is called colostrum and has important antibodies that the newborn animals need to get started in life. They must drink as soon as they can stand and for the first 12 to 24 hours. After that, they rely on just regular milk from the mother.

What does the farmer do during the birth? Is he like a dad with ice chips saying “Push, honey?”

The farmer working the birth has many jobs. Safety of the mother, newborn, staff and the public are the most important. Location of the birth, field or stall conditions, and temperature are all factors to think about. Depending on the situation, staff will assist with drying the baby and keeping the mother interested in her newborn. If needed, staff will assist with the birth by either repositioning or pulling to get the baby delivered. When there are multiple babies, sometimes a mother forgets to clean the first one and we will help her. Staff watches for signs of distress from the mother or newborn, and staff has access to several veterinarians or other farmers to ask questions. A vet could come to the farm if needed for a problem. And, just like human births, farmers text friends and coworkers to tell them the big news.

What do the farmer and the animals do immediately after the birth?

Baby Animals 0413_0009After the birth, staff assure mother and baby are bonding and assist with drying off as needed. Observing while interfering the least is the best approach. At the one-hour mark, if the newborn is not standing or trying to nurse, staff can intervene by holding the baby up and holding the mother still to allow the baby to latch on or, if needed, feed the baby by a stomach feeder to make sure it receives the colostrum in a timely manner.

What are staff members watching for?

We are watching to make sure the birthing process is progressing. Typically, less than one hour after we see feet, the baby should be born in cattle, sheep or goats. The pig farrowing process can take several hours to deliver up to 12 or 14 piglets, but she should deliver a piglet every 30 minutes to one hour. You can look at the feet to determine if the baby is upside down or backwards and take action as needed to correct the problem. Piglets are the exception and can be born backwards or forwards with no issues.

Are the animals comfortable with people around? Are the moms protective?

DSC_0551Some mothers, after the birth, are not comfortable with us touching their baby. One sheep named Stompy will do just that — stomp her front foot in anger if you get too close during birthing season. I have also seen a cow with a newborn calf charge a fence when a dog walked by.

How long before the public can see a newborn?

baby-animals-0413_0052-e1554297797603.jpgIt all depends on when and where the birth takes place. We have had numerous births occur during the day with a large crowd on hand or a few times during evening programs. If the mother and farm staff are comfortable with the process, the visitors can watch the birthing. We try to answer questions and explain what is happening. If we do need to give the mother a quiet space, the public would be invited to see the newborn once everything calms down.

A successful birth means family income/table fare.

dsc_0637.jpgSuccessful births are important for many reasons. The public side is that everyone is expecting to see a barn full of healthy and happy newborns. The farming side wants to see a full barn of newborns and happy mothers that will raise and wean strong offspring. Some of the babies will remain at the farm and become mothers in the next year or two. The income from new animals was very important, especially during the 1930s, the time frame that Frying Pan re-creates. The farm today sells livestock to 4H clubs in Loudoun, Fauquier and other local counties, and the clubs rely on us for their project animals each year. A farm is a business, and if the farmer lost most of his newborns, the farm would not survive.

Frying Pan Farm Park has a birthing announcement web page at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/frying-pan-park/arrivals.

Beating the Odds in artiFACTS

If you think the odds of winning the lottery are low, what do you think the chances are of making it onto the Fairfax County Park Authority’s artiFACTS web page?

artiFACTS

The Park Authority holds millions of items in its archaeological and museum collections, and just one item is chosen each month to get the star treatment with a featured post in artiFACTS. With more than 5,000 museum objects (chairs, quilts, baskets, machines, clothing), thousands of archival items (photographs, maps, letters and other documents), and upwards of three million artifacts (archaeological discoveries such as spear points and pottery), how do staff members decide what to feature?

artifacts-new-banner-image-e1552330705255.jpgArchaeology and Museum Collections get equal treatment. Each division takes turns selecting an item and providing photographs and historical background for the monthly artiFACTS posting.

Heritage Resource Specialist Chris Sperling says that in the archaeology department, the task is assigned to the team. When the weather is bad and field work is impossible, staff members may work on posts for the County Archaeological Research Team blog, C.A.R.T. Archaeology, and on submissions for artiFACTS based on their individual interests. Sperling provides a final edit before the article is sent to the Public Information Office for posting. He says this approach provides “a good way to keep the team engaged with the larger process of public involvement.” Sometimes, Sperling just finds something that strikes him and thinks it might be of interest to others, too. newspaperFor example, he recently wrote about a newspaper article on the suffragette movement that likely was being used as part of the insulation in a home. He did another piece on some metal pieces that are keeping archaeologists guessing about their purpose.

In Collections, the process can be complicated by factors such as whether an item belongs to the Park Authority or is on loan from another agency, how hard the item may be to photograph, and how much information is available on the item. Heritage Resource Specialist Megan Leining says her department likes to highlight objects from the permanent collection that are rarely on exhibit. “For example, Sully Historic Site is interpreted to the period when the Lee family lived there, but we have objects associated with the residencies of other families, such as the Haight and Shear families.” Collections likes to rotate the sites and locations associated with the items, too. It also has featured objects from park sites that are open to the public on a limited basis, such as Dranesville Tavern and the Lahey Lost Valley property.

LincolnFinally, Collections may try to connect the object to the month or season or time of year when it is going to be featured. A Christmas Day wedding gift was featured in a December post. A Lincoln chromolithograph was featured one February in honor of Lincoln’s birthday and Presidents Day. Collections also has used artiFACTS to stir interest in items appearing in temporary exhibits, such as a top hat that was exhibited at Sully Historic Site. The black silk head-topper may have been worn to President Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861.

artiFACTS has featured items as small as straight pins, thimbles and hand-wrought nails and objects as large as a fire screen, grandfather’s clock and church pew. These artifacts all help to tell the history of Fairfax County through the centuries.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Love at First Sight: A Bewitching Plant

IMGP0667_edited-1I don’t believe in love at first sight.  However, there’s new research from the Netherlands that offers evidence of the “love at first sight” phenomenon.   

The study (Zsok, Haucke, DeWest, and Barelds, 2019) shows that you can feel love at first sight if the people are beautiful and your experience is a “strong pull or attraction.” So, you ask, “What does this have to do with witch hazels?” 

I’ve been a Green Spring Extension Master Gardener for a few years and have watched witch hazels grow at Green Springs Gardens in all seasons. They bring color by blooming in the winter garden and serve as a placeholder in the summer.  

witch2An early morning January passage into Green Spring along Witch Hazel Drive after a steady snowfall is a winter wonderland. Bushes and trees and witch hazel flowers on each side of the road, covered in snow that’s flecked with color. They enchant with mustard yellow, golden shades that sparkle in sunshine. There’s love at first sight and a strong pull from the beautiful witch hazel named ‘Frederic’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Frederic’) —one of more than 150 witch hazels that line and ornament the road. 

Witch hazels, introduced to the west in 1879 by botanist Charles Maries at the Veitch Nurseries, one of Europe’s largest nurseries, are easy-to-grow deciduous shrubs or small trees. They are maintenance-free and resistant to pests, disease and deer. Most varieties reach 10-20 feet high and wide, and they can be pruned after blooming to keep them small. Witch hazels are one of the few trees that can bear fruit, leaves and flowers simultaneously. They thrive in woodland areas in soils that are moist, well-drained and lightly acid. They like rich organic matter and grow in full sun. 

Greenspring Color fcpaGreen Spring is home to a national witch hazel collection. In 2006, the collection was recognized by the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC). The NAPCC encourages public gardens to adopt collections of specific genera, maintain them, and make them available to the public, researchers and other public gardens. The NAPCC has strict requirements for collection eligibility that includes the number and variety of species in each collection. The purpose of this national effort is to establish collections for conservation, education and research. Green Spring’s collection has more than 200 witch hazels in 110 taxa, including native, Asian and hybrid species. The logo for Green Spring is a stylized illustration of the witch hazel flower and leaf.  

Some people have believed that witch hazel leaves and bark made into a tea could heighten occult powers. Others have used it for medicinal reasons, although there’s insufficient evidence that it works in many of those situations. History research reveals Mohicans showing English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for locating underground water. 

Witch hazel shrubs are worth exploring at Green Spring and in your own garden. Maybe you’ll fall in love at first sight. 

 More about Green Spring’s witch hazels: 

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Extension Master Gardener and a board member of the Friends of Green Spring. 

Photos and collection information courtesy of Brenda Skarpol, Green Spring’s Curatorial Horticulturist. Green Spring Extension Master Gardeners Karen Aftergut and Kay Cooper contributed to the article’s research. 

For more information on the Green Spring Extension Master Gardener program, contact Pamela.Smith2@fairfaxcounty.gov or call 703-228-6414. 

   

 

 

Who You Gonna Call? Archaeology and Collections!

While some Park Authority employees are dedicated to a single site, the Resource Management Division’s cultural resources staff can turn up just about anywhere. These folks are dedicated to preserving the past and provide help and support in a variety of ways to parks and properties throughout the county.

Walney Exterior_081613_0017

Walney Visitor Center at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

For example, archaeologists conduct investigations before park development or other ground-disturbing activities to make sure resources are not harmed. The archaeologists have been at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park three times in recent months. First, they excavated to clear an area for storm water management near the Walney Visitor Center. Next, they cleared the alignment of a future drainage line at Middlegate. Most recently, the archaeologists conducted a Phase I identification survey at the future location of the Sully Woodlands Stewardship Education Center. That’s a survey through research and fieldwork to determine whether there are resources and where they are. The archaeologists identified one new archaeological site but determined that the small number of artifacts found were likely redeposited from up slope. So, they gave the go-ahead for development.

Stones

Excavation work at Old Colchester.

Archaeology’s main work is at Old Colchester, where excavations continue to reveal aspects of the colonial port town. Currently, there’s a mystery to solve. Walls should meet at 90 degrees, but a pair at Colchester do not. Archaeologists plan to open more area to see if they can figure out why one wall is at an awkward angle.

Rochambeau1782

They do know the structure dates to the late 18th century and is most likely part of what is depicted on Rochambeau’s 1782 map. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, was commander in chief of the French expeditionary army during the American Revolution.

You know you should keep an inventory of valuables in your house, and the Collections folks are invaluable at keeping that inventory for the Park Authority. The Collections Management Office conducts full inventories of the accessioned collections items at each site every three years on a rotating basis. Accessioning is the formal process of documentation for new items added to the agency’s collections. Sully Historic Site was inventoried last year and Colvin Run Mill the year before. Frying Pan Farm Park is being inventoried this year during the park’s slower winter months. Site staff help with the inventories. The inventories confirm the location of items and document their current condition with notes and photographs. All of this information is entered into the Collections Management database, Re:discovery. This keeps the Park Authority’s information up-to-date and searchable, which allows for better access to the collections.

Collections also asks sites to allow it to see any potential media posts about items from the Permanent Collection so staff can review them for accuracy and copyright concerns before publication. The Park Authority has many objects on loan from other institutions with stipulations about their use, proper attribution or photography. For example, the Collections Office worked with Sully Historic Site on its social media posts about collections items for the historic site’s #tuesdaytakeover in December.

Staff members with an eye on the past are working on the Resident Curator Program, too. Under this program, underused historic properties are being given new life by curators who restore the properties in exchange for rent-free living. Staff recently concluded excavations at the 18th-century Ash Grove house. They also provided historic photos of the renovation of Lahey Lost Valley from the 1940s that focused on the house windows to assist in repair efforts following vandalism.artiFACTS

In addition, Archaeology and Collections folks work with the Public Information Office each month to share an item from the Park Authority’s collections with the public through the artiFACTS web page.

You can follow the work of the County Archaeological Research Team on the C.A.R.T. Archaeology blog.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Historic Letter Sheds Light on People Enslaved at Huntley

CW at Huntley_040514_0300_1A 173-year-old letter is teaching people about slavery and bringing neighbors together. The story blends local history, Historic Huntley, The Friends of Historic Huntley, George Mason’s Gunston Hall and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

betsey to John Washington re slavesIn January 2018, The Friends of Historic Huntley (FOHH) purchased a letter written in 1845 by Betsey Mason, Thomson F. Mason’s widow and former owner of, what is now, Historic Huntley in Alexandria, Virginia. The Curator of Collections at Gunston Hall, Samantha Dorsey, had emailed FOHH President Todi Carnes to tell her that a Betsey Mason letter was to be sold at auction in two days. Three hours later, Carnes emailed the FOHH board with a link to the letter asking if the Friends should attempt to acquire it. The suggested starting value was $600. By the end of the day, a majority consensus was established, and there was no question that FOHH should preserve this important piece of Huntley history. Several Huntley representatives immediately went to the auction house, The Potomack betsey to John Washington re slaves addressCompany in Old Town, to verify the letter’s condition. They found it in perfect condition on high quality paper complete with remnants of black sealing wax (indicating mourning).

The auction was the following day. I was among three Huntley representatives, none of whom had been to an auction, who watched, listened and learned for three hours. When the letter’s lot number was up, the auctioneer reported that off-site bidding was up to $1,200. Did he hear $1,300 from the floor? I was so surprised by the amount that I failed to put up the paddle. I had to be nudged into action, and that is how the Friends of Historic Huntley became the owners of this significant and coveted letter.

Why so eager to preserve this letter? The subject matter is slavery, which is of vital importance to telling the story of the people of Historic Huntley.

The letter is addressed to Fairfax County Magistrate John Augustine Washington III, great-grandnephew of George Washington and the last private owner of Mount Vernon.

Here is the letter in part:

To John A. Washington Esqr of Mount Vernon

My Dear Sir,

I am just informed that my negroes are to be tried before you for certain offences, which they are supposed to have committed against the law during the recent Christmas holidays. I am glad at least that they will receive their trial before a man of honor & sensibility to the rights of & feelings of the slave as well as the slaveholder & feeling that confidence in you, yield to this painful necessity, urged upon me however at a time by those who might under the circumstances of my family, have had a gentler feeling for me….

The letter’s purpose appears to be to influence the magistrate with flattery and to appeal for sympathy. Fairfax County Park Authority Historian Cheryl Repetti reached out to the Mount Vernon Estate while she was researching the letter’s contents, and a fortunate piecing together of historic documents resulted. Mount Vernon Special Collections Librarian Katherine Hoarn found a record of sentencing in John A. Washington’s journal. The accused are listed by name — Davy, Daniel Humphreys, Harry Ellis, Little Daniel and Sandy – and were charged with trespassing (probably to see family during the holidays). The outcome of the trial is a difficult reminder of the reality of slavery. Davy and Harry Ellis endured 15 lashes and Little Daniel 25.

Betsey Mason letter

The letter went on display for a year, beginning in September 2018, at Mount Vernon’s Lives Bound Together exhibit, continuing the shared benefits of neighbors collaborating. The letter will be returned to the Friends of Historic Huntley after the exhibit.

Photos of the letter are used courtesy of Friends of Historic Huntley.

See the exhibit and enjoy tours of both historic properties on the “Mount Vernon & Huntley, Lives Bound Together Tour” on Thursday, February 28, 2019.

Historic Huntley is open for tours on Saturdays, April-October, at 10:30 a.m., noon, and 1:30 p.m.

Author Carolyn Gamble is a former Huntley staff member, long-time Huntley volunteer, and Friends of Historic Huntley board member.

 

Gardening Next to a Road

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Hell Strip designed by EMG Karen Aftergut.

I garden in a small space. I live in a townhouse and use planters and vertical plantings to get the most variety in my garden. In fall 2014, I enrolled in the Green Spring Gardens Extension Master Gardener (EMG) program. I quickly realized I knew nothing about gardening. The classes were fabulous. The lecturers were experts in the horticulture arena. The topics were in-depth, and most were new to me. I grew pretty flowers and tasty tomatoes, but it stopped there. I was eager to learn. I finished the program and became a certified EMG. EMGs work with the public to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management.

There was no larger personal gardening space in my personal future, so I volunteered to chair the landscaping committee of my townhouse community, share my new knowledge, and have more soil for playing. The development of 16 townhouses sits on the busy corner of Route 123 and Great Falls Street in McLean, Virginia. It has a welcoming front with garden space that is filled with shrubs the builder planted more than 30 years ago. There are assorted hollies, azaleas, rhododendrons, junipers and skip laurels. I began to garden in the small plot of soil at the entrance to the townhouses. This plot borders a sidewalk, a bus stop, a small strip of soil, grass and a busy street. The soil and grass strip adjacent to a street and sidewalk is called a “hell strip.” You might know it as a parking strip or median strip. Horticulturist Lauren Springer Ogden coined its “hell” name. My initial plan was to develop the hell strip as I planted the community entrance with Virginia natives.

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Hell Strip designed by EMG Karen Aftergut.

I started with a soil test. The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) supplies soil test kits free at Fairfax County libraries and farmers’ markets or by calling VCE. You also can pick one up at Green Spring Gardens.

I started cleaning the hell strip of dog poop and weeds. I knew it would be hard to grow any kind of plants on the strip because of the challenging conditions — it lacked water, and it had foot traffic, a large amount of car exhaust, salt from snowmelt and lots of dog poop. The soil test results came back quickly, and I began amending the soil.

As I gardened by the road, it was not unusual for people in cars stopped at the traffic light to roll down the window and chat. I was asked what I was doing. Was I for hire to put down mulch? Where did I buy my plants, and where was the nearest Starbucks? My most memorable question was from a young couple looking desperate with a van full of kids under age five. They handed me a very dirty diaper and asked if I would throw it away.

I sometimes used a Hori-Hori, my favorite garden tool. It’s a heavy, serrated, multi-purpose steel blade. The word “hori” means “to dig” in Japanese. Once while working with the Hori-Hori, a black town car pulled to the curb and a well-dressed Asian gentleman got out and asked if I knew about the tool I was using. He was a big Hori-Hori fan, and we had a delightful conversation about gardening until his driver had to move the car. My least favorite experience came from feisty teenage boys. I was bending over when they stopped at the light and yelled “not a pretty sight.” I did laugh at their arrogance and my old body.

I began to plan the hell strip and learned it was public property regulated by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). The Code of Virginia is specific about what you can and cannot do, and there is no room for exceptions. The first thing needed, before any work, was a Land Use Permit from VDOT.

The rules are built around the need for low maintenance, small roots that won’t damage the sidewalk, size restrictions to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act so plants don’t obstruct the sidewalk, and many other considerations. Fairfax Master Gardener Mary Elyn Perkowski wrote an excellent article, “Make Your Hell Strip Less Fiendish,” that outlines VDOT rules and regulations. They also are listed on VDOT’s website for NOVA Permits. There are a variety of tedious forms required with every Land Use Permit Application, including but not limited to a Homeowner Maintenance Agreement for Landscaping, Erosion and a Sediment Control Contractor Certification. It’s a challenging process, but there are many hell strips that have taken on a heavenly look.

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Front of author’s townhouse development.

I haven’t filled out any of the applications yet to plant the hell strip. I’m thinking that, for now, I’ll maintain it looking neat and tidy, and dazzle the traffic with the Virginia natives I plant in the community plot.

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Extension Master Gardener and a Friends of Green Spring Board Member.