Getting your Garden Ready for Spring

redbudforsythiaOur garage is not attached to our house. I need to walk through the garden to get inside. My husband claims that this time of year it takes me an extra 20 minutes to walk the 15 yards. He’s probably right. I’m observing the garden and giving it a thorough inspection. I’m looking for the first signs of spring, determining what debris needs to be cleared, what pruning to do. I see I need to clean the bird houses and decide which new plants I can fit into my small space. I love gardening and since becoming a Green Spring Master Gardener I know a lot more about what needs to be accomplished. Whatever its size, a garden needs to be readied for spring.

Spring seems far away but isn’t. Every morning I ask Alexa, “How many days till spring?” I read the plant catalogs that arrive daily and am anxious to get started. Today I saw a few daffodils (Nacissus) pushing through the dirt. I saw some early snow drops (Leucojum aestivum) at Green Springs Gardens the other day and expect their appearance in my garden anytime. I will begin cleaning the beds and amending the soil before too many more bulbs and plants appear. I don’t want to step on them as I work. I’ll add compost or manure now so it has time to mix with the soil to avoid burning the roots of the new tender plants. I’m getting ready to start seeds indoor and making a plan on how to use more native plants.

This is a good time to prune some plants but all plants are not pruned alike! Late winter is a perfect time to prune summer-blooming shrubs like certain species of hydrangea, spirea or clethra. Spring-flowering trees and shrubs like dogwood, forsythia and azaleas should not be pruned until after their flowers fade in the spring. Clear away and compost the dead stalks of perennials. They provided winter seeds and nesting for the birds, insects and wildlife but now it’s time to clear them away. Dead or dying limbs can be removed at any time.

ojcwinklerThere is a vast collection of gardening books at the Green Spring Gardens Library. It’s a perfect place to conduct research if you have gardening questions and like to find your own answers. If you want expert help look into the March 17 lecture, given by Green Spring Master Gardeners, “Spring Garden Kickoff”. Go to for more information.

What else can you do to prepare your garden? Prep your garden tools. Clean with soap and water and apply mineral spirits on wood handles. As you make your gardening plans, be certain you know your planting zone. If you have a lawn rake it to remove fall and winter debris. This also helps get air to the root zone. Get out your pitch fork and turn over your compost pile. The bottom has the best organic matter. Don’t do this if it’s covered with snow. Wait until snow clears.

The time you spend now will ensure healthy plants and shrubs. You’ll be ready for spring and everything blooming.

Happy Gardening!

Gioia Caiola Forman

Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener


Got Awe?

huntleymeadowcrittersWhat connects you to this place, to Fairfax County?

I recently returned from a decade away from the county, my home since 1976. That home was on land George Washington used as a pig farm. Long before the first president had his turn with it, the land sustained nomadic Native Americans.

I’ve reconnected with the natural history of this place through the Virginia Master Naturalist Program. Our class met weekly for three months in the fall of 2016 and explored an array of natural history topics via four field trips led by experts.

We got local. We learned it takes 500 years to create one inch of soil, and we learned how to read soil layers in the Potomac flood plain at Riverbend Park. We learned about a dragonfly citizen science project, and I read that Riverbend provides habitat for 10 percent of North America’s dragonfly species. Here, we collected and released aquatic insects, crayfish, and other macroinvetebrates to determine the health of a stream. We found stoneflies, scuds, netspinners, and other creatures. Late summer was dry, water flow was low, and our sample was too small to determine if the balance of life in the stream indicated the water was healthy for animals intolerant of pollution.

You wouldn’t have known any of this if you had been watching us. I imagine I wasn’t the only one who felt like a kid, romping in the stream, making discoveries. I saw bizarre-looking creatures I’d never known and others I hadn’t seen since I was seven or eight poking around the woods behind my neighbors’ houses.

eastern-red-backed-salamanderThe class also visited Huntley Meadows Park and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. At Huntley Meadows, we identified birds and searched for frogs, toads, and any of the five salamander species you can find in the county. We found two. Although I grew up near Huntley Meadows, I visited the county’s largest remaining non-tidal wetland this time with renewed interest. It warmed my heart to return for one of the park’s regular Monday morning bird walks and meet a young birder, a girl who visited regularly and knew where and when to see different birds. In my youth, I’d never heard of EC Lawrence Park. What a treat there to find second and third growth forests with striking transitions in the landscape as you walk from stream valley to an upland mature oak-hickory stand.

I knew going into the training that I would value our experience in the field, assimilating more deeply what I’d learned in class. Learning by doing is always a good thing. What surprised me was how much I missed being out in nature for hours at a time.

You use all your senses. You clear your head. You relax. Watch a heron hunt for food, and you slow down. Listen for bird calls, and you tune in on a different level. See a box turtle on the side of the trail, and the botanist stops to talk about turtles.

Follow your nose, and you’ll know when you’re near a wetland. We smell the gases released by microbes that feed on decaying plants and animals, especially at low tide. What I didn’t realize, until we visited the Great Marsh at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, was what happens when you tap your toes at the water’s edge. Here, when you tap at soil that is submerged much of the time, the bubbles you see are from microbes releasing gaseous compounds, such as nitrogen, nitrous oxide, and methane, as they break down decaying plants and animals. Next door, at Mason Neck State Park, we got to know trees by their buds or furrowed bark.

pollinatorsFor our final class, we offered five-minute interpretive presentations—as uniquely different as the students. Creative. I especially liked a demonstration of woodpecker adaptations. I was awestruck to learn woodpeckers withstand a g-force up to 1200 while drumming a tree up to 22 times each second, without getting a concussion, while fighter pilot trainees can barely withstand 10.

As I reconnected with local plants and animals, I questioned why Master Naturalist students care about the natural world. Why do we care enough to dedicate time for the class and volunteer 40 hours a year to maintain Master Naturalist certification? As we wrapped up the class, I asked each student to think back to when they were a kid, about a time when they had a meaningful connection with nature. Then, students wrote one word that speaks to their connection with nature.

My word was “awe.” I like University of California Professor Dacher Keltner’s definition of awe: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” We’re all connected to the natural world, though that’s easy to forget as we live in our constructed environment. It’s not difficult to experience awe. Perhaps you’ll see it in a dramatic sunrise, or unique cloud patterns, or when you come upon an especially grand tree. Maybe you’ll marvel in the fleeting moment when a White Egret’s wings are backlit as it lifts off with its catch. Or, you just might stop and listen, really listen, next time you hear a woodpecker drumming.

I may see you at a nature center or on a trail, and I may ask you: What’s your word for your connection to this place?


Learn more about the Fairfax Master Naturalist Program at Spring 2017 applications must be postmarked by January 23, 2017.

Author Maria Parisi is a brand new Fairfax Master Naturalist.




Have a Problem with Deer? Meet R2Deer2

eclp2Want to chase deer away from your house plants? 

There may not be an app for that, but there is a robot.  

Students from a local robotics club recently took on the challenge of deer vs. plants. Naturalist Eric Malmgren of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) presented a program about environmental issues within ECLP to a group of youngsters from the club. They picked up on the issue of deer damage to plants and went home wondering if they could produce an answer for the problem.  

“They were inspired to solve a natural resource management issue we have in their parks,” said John Shafer, ECLP’s park manager. The youngsters took the information they learned from Malmgren, expanded on it with some research, and developed a project with the aim of preventing deer from entering a select area of land. 


They created R2Deer2. 

Shafer said R2Deer2, named after a character in the Star Wars movies, has “multiple tools to safely exclude deer from an area.” Club members brought the robot to ECLP to show what they had developed and to let staff know they were taking R2Deer2 to a FIRST Lego League state competition at James Madison University. They defined their effort in these words: 


Have you ever had deer eating away at the plants you worked so hard to plant? Well, FLL Team SensorSational found that this is a major problem for many people. So we set out to solve this problem.  


eclp3To solve this deer eating plants problem, we decided to make a robot. We found that a robot is a good choice because you can incorporate many components into one. On our robot, we included things that help detect and scare deer, such as motion sensors, LED lights, two pinwheel arms, scent misters, and solar panels for power. We are proud to present R2Deer2, the first deer preventive system that can scare deer like never before! 

Think of it as waving a light saber at Deerth Vader.  


The youngsters involved in the project were:

Konark Nangia, age 12, Union Mill ES

Taha Athar, age 11, Homeschooled

Swesik Ramineni, age 13, Rachel Carson ES

Arnav Adhikari, age 10, Hunter Woods ES

Siddharth Kalidindi, age 12, Rachel Carson ES

Sumrath Pahwa, age 11, McLean ES



Attend a Presidential Inauguration – in 1849!

machen-letterA mother tells her 11-year-old daughter to clean her room. The child grouses, but then finds her favorite doll from when she was three years old and hollers, “Mom, look!”

A 17-year-old starts clearing his room before going to college. He rediscovers the championship trophy his Little League team won eight years earlier, and discovers a wistful sense of not-quite tears nostalgia.

“Honey, we’ve got to clean the basement today,” turns into, “Oh my, remember this? Such a romantic place.” And, “Hey, here’s my old fishing trophy!”

One of the uplifting things about being a historian is that they make a living digging for moments like that. They get to go through other peoples’ stuff, and it’s rewarding, especially when a discovery’s purpose matches the timing of an historic moment occurring in our own day – for example, a presidential inauguration.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) Historian Alli Hartley was recently reviewing the Machen Family Papers at the Library of Congress. “I stumbled upon a letter written by one of the Machen boys about attending the inauguration of Zachary Taylor in 1849,” she said. The land that ECLP sits on once was owned by the Machen family. “The letter is part of the Library of Congress’s collection, and the Machen family gave copyright to the public when they donated the letters in the 1980s. I was immediately struck by James’ sense of humor, and also how similar the experience of attending an inauguration in 1849 is to today,” Hartley said.

In light of the coming inauguration of a new United States president, the discovery of the Machen letter is serendipitous.

Here is a transcription of that letter, written in 1849:

My dear brother,

You must beg Sister Emme to pardon me for addressing this Home-Letter to you, instead of making it as strict duty demands, the answer to her most welcome favor. Assign any reason you think most plausible in my defence—perhaps I consider her interest in the inauguration less than yours, and on the day it is course out of the question to write on any topic but this.

The ceremony is just over, and my ribs are about regaining the shape which they had this morning. I am sorry you could not have been here, since you had so strong a desire to witness the ceremony; but I feel satisfied that if you were seated at the other side of this table, and we were to talk over the doings of the day together, the same conclusion would have been reached by both—that we had got a whistle which was not worth much, whatever may have been the price paid for it. The procession  was by no means imposing—not all to be compared to that at the funeral of Harrison; the military part of it which was of course nearly the whole was neither numerous nor striking. There was indeed a very large assemblage on the graveled area east of the Capitol, yet it would be a misnomer to call it an Audience. We could see the old General’s “cutting box at work” as a man observed at my elbow, but it made very little racket. It was a great gratification to see the good old jaws in motion, which I spoke to such purpose at Buena Vista, yet we had to imagine the patriotic sentiments which no doubt issued from them. The only word which I could distinguish was “proper” and from that I infer the speech to be excellent.

The ground as you may suppose was quite damp and by the tread of so many feet was rendered even muddy. In view of this I (as well as a number of other judicious individuals) chose a convenient position on the flagged crossing way which comes nearest to the lee-side of the Portico and the scaffolding. As the advantage of such a comparatively dry station, were sufficiently obvious, I assorted to it before the arrival of the procession. Indeed before the great gates were thrown open, the whole area was filled with a pretty dense multitude. It was supposed that the General’s carriage would stop under the Portico, and we thus escape disturbance; but suddenly I saw within a few yards of me a man brandishing a marshal’s baton- “Make room”, “make room” was shouted and someone sung out—clear the tracks/for old Zach.

The next thing was a terrible squeeze, and the great lioning mass swayed hither and thither like the host of Greeks and Trojans over the body of Patroclus, or if you prefer a stronger simile—the commotion of the milky elements in an atmospheric churn. A four-horse chariot dashed through the crowd, which seemed like the divided water of the Sea—to threaten to overwhelm it. There was the glimpse of a grey head—uncovered in the presence of collected sovereignty—we saluted it with a hurrah for Taylor. Immediately in the near followed a two horse carriage closely shut up; “there goes Polk” said a person near me “who cares for him?” Such difference is here between the President elect and the ex-president yesterday, the Tennessean had offices to bestow, now, none so poor to do him reverence.

Mr. Taylor of course, soon reappeared upon the scaffolding, in company with the clergymen as many of the crowd took the blackrobed Justices of the Supreme Court. The address was short, and old Zach seemed to think the operation one which like that of taking a dose of pills, was to be gone through with as speedily as possible. Thus we had a very brief feast after a long preparation.

I trust Ma reached house safely and well. Tell her that her bags has to light in the place where, no doubt, it was carefully laid away by herself—the second drawer of the bureau.

Do you not experience some difficulty in clearing the clover seed?—I suppose you have to use the finest of the round sieves. As to the steer, don’t you remember that I estimated his weight all along at 1600? It surprised me greatly to hear Baldwin put him at 18 (?), but in the circumstances, I naturally supposed that I had been in error. How do the little steers flourish?—You are feeding them some corn doubtless.

Moving as you may suppose is the order of the day now in this as well as other. Congressional boarding houses- Mr. (???) left this afternoon. Other will follow him very soon. The Senate will sit on executive business the rest of this week. Pa, I suppose will be able to get a way a little while after.

Give my love to Ma & Sister—and ask them to tell you why my hasty letter is like (?) hasty plate of soup


Historian Alli Hartley presents a program at 7 p.m. on January 19 at Ellanor C. Lawence Park about the relationships the park had to various presidents. You can reserve a spot online.


The Machen letter appears courtesy of the Library of Congress. A couple of explanatory notes:

  • Patroclus is a character who dies in Homer’s Iliad.
  • There is an old English phrase, not worth a whistle, which means something of very little value.
  • A cutting box cuts fodder such as straw and hay into small parts called chaff that is fed to cattle. Here it refers to Taylor’s mouth.
  • The “divided water of the Sea” is likely a reference to the Old Testament story of Moses parting the Red Sea.
  • The funeral of Harrison was likely that of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who died on his thirty-second day in office in 1841.
  • James Polk was the outgoing president when Taylor was inaugurated.
  • The questioned name in the letter’s final paragraph may be Gen. Scott, and the reference to a“hasty plate of soup” may harken back to an event explained by this Library of Congress web page:



Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Master Planning the Park System



“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Fairfax County Park Authority wants to make your wishes our goals, and we’re working hard to develop an Agency Master Plan for the entire park system.

The planning process includes the Parks Count Community Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment, which was completed in spring 2016, and has provided input and data from park users and non-users alike. With the help of more than 4,600 survey respondents, dozens of stake holder meetings with the community, open houses, focus groups and Park Board, and using new outreach tools through our website, email and crowdsourcing, we are now in the final phases of our development of a comprehensive park system master plan aimed at meeting the community needs.

Through our data collection and research to date, we have confirmed that our parks are highly valued and are considered extremely important in meeting the high quality of life desired by county residents. We also learned that more funding needs to be allocated and prioritized towards taking care of our existing parks and facilities and that residents rank walking/biking trails; small community parks; swimming pools; swim lessons; and exercise and fitness facilities as their highest priorities. Given this data, the Fairfax County Park Board recently established the following guiding principles for the Park Authority as part of the Park Authority Master Plan:

  • Inspire A Passion For Parks
  • Advance Park System Excellence
  • Meet Changing Recreation Needs
  • Be Equitable & Inclusive
  • Promote Healthy Lifestyles
  • Strengthen & Foster Partnerships
  • Be Great Stewards

The Park Authority Master Plan core objectives are to:

Incorporate the community input and updated data that has been collected from the planning process into one Agency Master Plan; and create clear direction and strategic alignment for all Park Authority policy, actions, programs, parks and facilities within the Fairfax County Park Authority system of services; and to

Align all major plans under the one Agency Master Plan and ensure consistent direction and service delivery to the community; and by doing so

  • Meet the accreditation standards of the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA)

Over the next several months, a team of technical experts, staff and Park Authority leadership will be drafting the initial plan within the guiding principal framework. We’ll be sharing that draft with the public this summer and seeking input on the draft master Plan at that time. In the meantime, stay tuned for more information about the Park Authority and our Agency Master Plan on our website and through emails and social media.


Author Samantha Hudson is a Planner in the Park Authority Planning and Development Division.



1,365 Photographs of White-tailed Deer


On the back end of 2014, volunteers with an initiative called eMammal did some research in Fairfax County. eMammal is a collaboration among citizen scientists, researchers at the Smithsonian Institution, and North Carolina State University.

emammel-logo007Volunteers, with permission and in coordination with the Fairfax County Park Authority, set up camera traps in parks and at other Fairfax County natural areas to learn more about the numbers and distribution of wildlife mammals in urban areas throughout the Washington, D.C./ Northern Virginia / West Virginia / Maryland region. Motion and heat sensors triggered the cameras, and volunteers monitored the equipment and the results. It was a bit like throwing dice. You know a number is going to come up, but you don’t really know what you’re going to get.

The Smithsonian Institution is storing the camera trap photos as digital museum “specimens” that will be curated as a publicly accessible Smithsonian collection. The repository also will be accessible to other institutions to store, search, and analyze their own camera trap data.

The survey results do indicate the relative abundance of animals in an area, but the initiative is not an accurate way to determine the density of an animal population, i.e., how many of a certain species live in a given area.

Following is some of the 2014-2015 data that appears in eMammal’s report on the project.

Here is the list of sites that hosted eMammal camera traps, with the number of days a camera was in the field between July and November of 2014 in parentheses. Some sites had more than one camera trap:

Little Difficult Run Stream Valley (27), Holmes Run Stream Valley (22), McLean Hamlet (24), Lake Mercer (21), Marie Butler Leven Preserve (21), Willow Pond (3), Accotink Stream Valley (22), Lake Accotink (21, 23), Pimmit Run Stream Valley (22), Twin Lakes Golf Course (23), Bush Hill Park (25), Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (22, 24), Patriot Park (22), Cub Run Stream Valley (21, 26, 22), Lake Fairfax (23, 23), Franconia Park (72), Mark Twain Park (28), Dogue Creek (29), Groveton Heights (29), Manchester Lakes (29), Huntley Meadows (22, 21, 23), Springfield Forest (21), Fitzhugh Park (29), Wakefield Park (29), Lee High Park (22), Poplar Ford Park (22), Rocky Run (22), and Fred Crabtree Park (24).

eMammal cameras captured:

  • 83 photos of the camera trap volunteers
  • One blue jay – at Lake Accotink
  • 16 coyotes – nine of those at Franconia Park on five different days. Coyotes were also photographed at Mark Twain, Lake Accotink, Patriot Park, Holmes Run SV, and Little Difficult Run SV among other parks
  • 9 domestic cats, with Franconia Park and Groveton Heights leading the way
  • 165 domestic dogs
  • 17 Eastern cottontails, with Groveton Heights producing the largest number of them
  • 2 Eastern fox squirrels at Bush Hill Park and Groveton Heights (these would be unusual here)
  • 809 Eastern gray squirrels
  • 1 Northern flying squirrel at Dogue Creek
  • 1 gray fox at Ellanor C. Lawrence. Most of our locals are red foxes.
  • 237 red foxes
  • 672 humans
  • 182 Northern raccoon, and again Groveton Heights led the way
  • 1 striped skunk at Cub Run Stream Valley
  • 1 unknown owl at Dogue Creek along with other birds, canines, foxes, and unidentifiable squirrels
  • 1 bicycle at Lake Accotink
  • 16 Virginia Opossum, most at Fitzhugh Park and Lake Accotink
  • 1 wild turkey at Huntley Meadows
  • 1,365 white-tailed deer





Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.



Seeking American Alliance of Museums Accreditation

Assuring residents that their Park Authority is serving them. 

aamWe’re going to have visitors as we move into the holiday season. They’re going to want to know if we’re doing a good job.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) establishes the standards through which museums are recognized for their commitment to excellence, accountability, and professionalism. In 1979, the Fairfax County Park Authority became the first county agency in the nation accredited by the AAM.

This year, we’re making sure we keep that accreditation.

In recent months, we’ve been working toward re-accreditation. We’ve completed a part of the process called a Self-Study, and that was submitted to the AAM in July 2016. Next is a visit from AAM personnel who will take a look at our sites. They’ll file a report, an AAM commission will review their report on February 8, 2017 and, if all goes well, accreditation will be granted in spring 2017.

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Here’s what we hope to accomplish:

Colvin Run, Sully, and the Historic Artifact Collection were accredited in 1979, and all were reaccredited in 1990 and 2002. Green Spring was included for the first time in 2002.

The AAM representatives will look to see if the Fairfax County Park Authority meets certain requirements that fall under specific headings — Public Trust and Accountability, Mission and Planning, Leadership and Organizational Structure, Stewardship of the Collections, Education and Interpretation, Facilities and Risk Management, and Financial Stability.

The Park Authority Board, senior leadership, and site staff are preparing now to answer questions they’ll face on collection policies and procedures when the AAM members visit. We’re preparing a “year-in-the-life-of-a-site” presentation for the AAM visitors, who will be in Fairfax County on December 13, 14, and 15 of this year. They will probably be most interested in our plans for a bond-funded facility to store our collections, the impact that the recession had on our operations, and our staffing.

The AAM visitors will see FCPA Collections at Walney Visitor Center in Ellanor C. Lawrence Park and at the Frey House, then visit Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria. They’ll also visit Sully Historic Site and Frying Pan Farm Park as well as spend time with the Park Board and attend a reception at the county government’s Herrity Building, where the Park Authority’s main offices reside. Their final day will be spent at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site and amid the archaeological collections at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church.

Since the last time the agency was accredited, we’ve made some critical changes to our collections policies, implemented new recordkeeping databases for objects and plants, adopted the Professional Code of Ethics for Museum Operations, improved storage conditions with better housekeeping and environmental monitoring, and updated our emergency plans and Friend Groups agreements.

We hope that AAM confirms that we manage our collections properly, are working to get better at our responsibilities, and are following current museum best practices and professional standards.

That accreditation will tell you that we’re doing things the right way.



Author David Ochs is the Stewardship Communications Manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division, and co-author Carol Ochs is a management analyst in the agency’s Public Information Office.