Monthly Archives: July 2013

Finding Love In All The Right Places

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Worn down. Eroded. Unstable. Degraded.

And it didn’t even have a name.

Talk about feeling unloved.

But a year from now, this small stream will be stabilized. It will have the flow and look of a natural creek. It will meander, it will trickle across rocks, its banks will be secured with native plants, flowers will line those banks, and the water it sends into Accotink Creek will be cleaner.

And it now has a name. Wakefield Run.

Talk about love and appreciation for the outdoors. It’s happening because a lot of people who care got together and did something.

There’s a project under way to restore Wakefield Run, a stream that Laura Grape, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) calls, “a piece of jewelry, a gem in the Accotink Watershed.”

When the project is over, life will be a little bit better for the Fairfax County hikers, runners, bikers, birders and scouts who use the trail along the stream and for the wildlife that lives around and in it.

Wakefield Run starts west of Ossian Hall Park in Annandale and flows under the Beltway before joining Accotink Creek in Wakefield Park and sending its waters on to the Potomac River. Runoff from the 100 acres it drains has eroded the banks and damaged the stream.

When part of Wakefield Park was taken for the expansion of I-495 to make room for the Express Lanes, the Fairfax County Park Authority was given $75,000 towards site mitigation. The Park Authority approached NVSWCD with the idea of putting the funds toward the restoration of 800 feet of Wakefield Run. That kicked off a partnership that led to the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) putting up $300,000, and Dominion Power stepped forward with another $35,000. The Fairfax County Park Foundation joined the effort and garnered more support from the I-495 Express Lanes contractor, Transurban Fluor, and the Friends of Accotink Creek arranged monitoring of the stream so everybody would know how much the project helped.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on July 24, Supervisor John Cook called the involvement of the Friends of Accotink Creek “a great example of citizen engagement,” adding, “This is how we will make environmental management, in a good way, the reality in Fairfax County.”

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Grape thanked the Park Authority for bringing the idea to NVSWCD as she explained the project to the groundbreaking ceremony audience. She said the project design will reduce the size of the stream’s outfall at I-495, and a pool will slow runoff of the drained acreage. A more natural setting will replace riprap, clean the water and reduce runoff speed. Revamping of a stream crossing used by Virginia Dominion trucks and mountain bikers will reduce the environmental impact usually caused by such crossings. Water flow will be diverted away from banks and toward the center of the stream, which Grape said is what traditionally happens in less urban waterways. Some trees have to be removed during the work, but Grape said that will allow some invasive species to be removed as well, and the area will naturally recover. A plant save has already been conducted with plans for replantings later.

Grape called the project “a tremendous example of the investment being made in the Accotink watershed by Fairfax County and by our local communities.”

DPWES Director James Patteson pointed out that partnerships and projects such as this one are part of an evolution. He said that 20 years ago his department may have just assessed the situation and built “an armor channel,” but that now the department is staffed with urban foresters and biologists who understand environmentally responsible design.

Dominion Virginia Power’s Manager of state and local affairs, Tim Sargeant, said his company was glad to be invited into the partnership. “This great partnership of public and private organizations and individuals will yield an environmental and aesthetic benefit that allows all of us to share a sense of pride and accomplishment and contribution to our communities,” he said.

Suzy Foster of the Friends of Accotink Creek said the project “will serve as a small example of a healthy and stable state that we hope to achieve for the entire Accotink watershed and Fairfax County.” Another citizens group, Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, will have key input into the design of the stream crossing, and Earth Sangha will play a role in the native plantings.

Friends of Accotink Creek representative Suzy Foster spoke passionately about protecting the local environment.

Friends of Accotink Creek representative Suzy Foster spoke passionately about protecting the local environment.

The Park Authority Board’s Braddock District representative, Anthony Velluci, summed up the groundbreaking by noting that roads like the nearby Beltway are just as much a part of the county as the natural resources of the Wakefield Run project. “We have to realize that that’s just not going to go away,” he said. “We have to find that balance between environment and development where we do smart things and not haphazard things that we have done in the past, and I think we’re doing that.”

Author Dave Ochs is the manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

General Store Gets A General Makeover

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So you think things change as time goes by? Maybe not so much.

In 1902, the teddy bear was introduced. Teddy Roosevelt became the first president to ride in a car. Michigan beat Stanford 49-0 in the first Rose Bowl. The first movie theatre in the USA opened. And Mark Cockrill was running a general store near Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls, Virginia.

Today, 111 years later, teddy bears and movies are ubiquitous. Presidents still ride in cars.  Michigan is still beating Stanford in football (although Stanford did spoil an undefeated Wolverine season in the 1972 Rose Bowl). And Mark Cockrill’s store is still open at Colvin Run Mill.

Maybe the events haven’t changed, but the trappings around them have. Teddy bears come in innumerable styles, presidential cars are armored, football gear has adapted, and movie theatres are plusher. And so also there are changes coming to Mark Cockrill’s store.

The Colvin Run General Store is undergoing a bit of a makeover. There are preparations under way, formally called a furnishings plan, that will help us show you what a typical general store that might have been found in the Colvin Run community looked like. In order to do this, we had to pinpoint a time period so that we can focus on accurately furnishing and interpreting the store.

We picked 1902.

That’s when Mark Cockrill operated a general store in Colvin Run and a family named Millard owned Colvin Run Mill. Cockrill was the area’s postmaster, but five more years would pass before free mail delivery would be available to rural areas like those around the mill. Hard to picture, huh? That area just a stone’s throw from Tysons used to be rural.

There are post office boxes on display now at the store, and they will stay in place so that you can learn about the store’s role in mail delivery.

You also might soon see something that many people born this century haven’t seen – a telephone. We know that the store was a hub of communication, and we have discovered that telephone lines ran right in front of the store along the Alexandria Leesburg Pike in the late 1890s. We hope to find a 1900-era phone to put on display.

Other future display items will come from Mark Cockrill’s records. His letterhead from the 1890s and just past the turn of the century, the receipts for goods that he and his father acquired, possibly for resale. Neighbors would probably have come to the general store to shop for groceries, hardware, shoes, hats, and other things that they couldn’t make or trade on their farms. We hope to have new artifacts that match those on the receipts for you to see, and those items won’t be so far above your head that you can’t get a good look. Current artifacts are on display, but high on shelves and out of reach.

The changes also mean that we will scale back on the modern items sold in the store. If you are a regular visitor, you may notice that we are not restocking the shelves after current stock is sold. Once we furnish and rearrange the store, we are going to be more selective in what we offer for purchase. We will have items similar to what you might have purchased in a 1902 general store, like the “penny candy” Mark was famous for handing out to the youngsters in the community. We will continue to offer high quality Colvin Run Mill merchandise, such as the mugs and coasters that are made in the United States. We’ll also introduce our own label McCutchen’s jams and jellies to compliment the canning memorabilia on display.

So come see the changes and come see what was. We may be changing the trappings, but Mark Cockrill’s general store is still open and is still a place to touch history.

Author Kathryn Blackwell is a historian based at Colvin Run Mill.

Teens, Digs, Toys And Antiquities: A new archaeology program at ECLP

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Fairfax County teens and tweens with an interest in archaeology have a chance in August to spend a week side-by-side with a professional archaeologist excavating an historic site.

It’s an opportunity to get out in the field and do the real thing.

Two week-long archaeology programs for 12-to-18 year-olds are coming up at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly. Eric Malmgren of ECLP and Chris Sperling of the James Lee Center, home of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s archaeology offices, have prepared a small site for excavation, and it’s a site that almost certainly will produce multiple finds.

The chosen site is near a dairy complex that was established when the park was a family farm in the 1700s and 1800s. There probably will be broken pieces of equipment and pottery that were used around the dairy. ECLP Manager John Shafer thinks the potential for numerous discoveries is so likely that he says, “It’s going to be like they’re opening up a toy chest.” Anticipated discoveries would include artifacts that have not been seen in hundreds of years.

There’s a bonus. The site overlooks a clean spring, which means it’s an area that Native Americans may have frequented. That opens the possibility of finding artifacts that could be 8,000 years old.

Teens in the class will work with Megan Veness of the James Lee Center and learn about the entire process of archaeological work. They’ll take home some of the tools they’ll use, such as knee pads, a trowel and notebook. They’ll also gain an appreciation for applied science and cultural history through working as part of a professional team — and maybe even an appreciation for all those dishes washed and rooms cleaned at home. Washing and sorting artifacts is part of the job. The experience also includes learning multi-discipline skills such as GPS point and grid layout, excavating, documenting, cataloguing and proper preservation of the artifacts.

Instructors will explain the context and history of whatever is found and will make connections to the original people who lived at the site. The plan is to present the teens with an experience that could enhance college resumes and give them something to write about in their college essays. And it’s a hands-on chance to dig deep into a career possibility.

The Archaeological Dig Experience runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week of Aug. 5-9 and again from Aug. 12-16.  The program cost for Fairfax County residents is $425 and $440 for non-residents.

The Gardener’s Bag of Tricks

Gardeners choose tools that work well and stick with them.

You never know what you will find in a gardener’s tool bag.

What do you carry in your garden tool bag?

I became intrigued by this question while working with Program Assistant Jean Hersey in the Green Spring Family Garden. We were doing some direct seed sowing in the garden, when Jean turned to me and said, “Here, take my fondue fork.  I never go to any garden job without a fondue fork.”  I was puzzled.  I have never heard of anyone using a fondue fork in the garden.  “Oh yes. I use it to make holes to sow seeds and use it to mark where a plant should go. It has all kinds of uses. Oh yeah. And duct tape.”  Fondue forks? Duct tape? 

So I started asking gardeners: What do you carry in your garden tool bag?  The unanimous tool favorites among Green Spring staff were the Japanese Hori Hori soil knife for digging into tough clay soil and cutting through root balls (hori is Japanese for “dig”), the Japanese angle-necked weeder for working up shallow-rooted weeds, a good pair of pruners for keeping plants trimmed up, a pointed trowel, and a tip bag or trug to collect weeds.

I agree.  These are tools every gardener should have and the reason why the Green Spring Garden gift shop keeps them in stock.  I started giving angled weeders away as gifts because people were loath to return mine once they tried it. I also love the Hori Hori knife except for one design flaw: The natural wood handle blends in with the garden surroundings and I have all too often misplaced it.  I lose it in the fall and find it in the garden sometime in early spring, somewhat the worse for wear.  Needless to say, I own lots of replacement Hori Hori knives. Gardener James Van Meter says he sticks his Hori Hori knife straight into the ground instead of laying it down flat so chances are better for finding it again.  Another solution would be to wrap the handle in bright tennis racket grip tape (or Jean’s colored duct tape) so the knife is easier to spot.  As I relocate them, I’ll be sure to do that.

Propagation specialists Judy Zatsick and Mary Frogale both named the root knife as a multi-purpose tool of choice.  This knife has a serrated edge and curved tip and is designed to cut through root systems to divide plants. It is also great for opening containers. Along the same line as the fondue fork, gardener Carol Miranda carries chop sticks to sow seeds, mark plant locations and to stake small plants that flop over.  A little twine or a twist tie, and your plant is once again standing proud. My sister-in-law gave me a spool of cut-to-length twist tie that she purchased at a hardware store for just this sort of purpose.  Very useful. 

Local horticulturalist Karen Rexrode carries an inexpensive camera in her tool bag so she can document changes in the garden.  Great idea. This is especially handy in noting where your flowering bulbs are buried.  Heaven knows we have all mistakenly unearthed a few bulbs.

Green Spring Manager Mary Olien says she always has flower scissors in her bag to help with deadheading annuals and perennials.  The scissors make for quick, precise cuts with little damage to the plant.  But, sometimes you want the flowers to set seed and horticulturalist Nancy Olney is prepared. She always carries coin envelopes and a pencil in her tool bucket to collect seed from prized plants to sow for the next gardening season.  She even offers envelopes of seed to her garden volunteers.

 So what do I carry in my tool bag?

 In addition to  the must-haves (Hori Hori knife, angled weeder, pruners, trowel, and trug),  I carry a small spray bottle of rubbing alcohol to immediately disinfect my tools before putting them away.  A light spray on my pruners and I can reduce the spread of plant viruses and fungus. The alcohol doesn’t promote rust and evaporates quickly. I also carry tongue depressors and a sharpie in case I need to label something, like the location of my hostas before they go dormant for the winter.

So what have I learned? Gardeners should, and do, think outside of the traditional tool bag and we should always keep our minds open to new uses for nontraditional tools.  One thing that I already knew: Gardeners are happy to share their ideas and knowledge if you just ask. Thanks to everyone for sharing their favorite tools with me.

Written by Susan Eggerton, Green Spring Gardens program coordinator

Saving Nature By Learning To Live With It: The Benefits Of Native Plants

Dr. Doug Tallamy is a Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.” He recently spoke to about five dozen land managers, naturalists and public service employees of Fairfax County. His appearance was funded by the same fund that produces the Park Authority’s Stewardship Brochures.

Replacing turf lawns with native plants creates favorable habitat for wildlife.

Replacing turf lawns with native plants creates favorable habitat for wildlife.

If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

The average, everyday homeowner can trigger dramatic reversal of environmental damage without waiting for changes to laws or for leadership from government or business. Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware believes that and cites the saving of the Atala butterfly as an example.

In a recent address to Fairfax County employees, Tallamy said the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses — not to help the butterfly, but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.

Tallamy believes homeowners everywhere can have that kind of influence on their environment. To those who have forgotten or who have never known an environment other than modern suburbia, he says, “There are very few places where nature is functioning as it once did.”

Biodiversity is a key term in this discussion. It simply means how many different plants and animals there are at any place. That’s important, because each plant and animal plays a particular role in the outdoors as does each player on a football team. Take away the tight end and the quarterback can’t function because opportunistic defensive players (think of them as invasive plants) come rushing through and mess things up. If you continue to remove offensive players, the offense eventually collapses.

The same is true of a machine. Take out the rivets, and the machine falls apart.

“Biodiversity losses are a clear signal” that humanity’s support structure is failing, Tallamy says.  “Plants and animals are the rivets that sustain us.”

His suggestion: Don’t think about the environment globally. Ask, “What is happening in your front yard?”

Lawns, in his view, establish privacy. They were “not developed to share that space with other living things.” He cited numbers to support that assertion — monarch butterfly populations down 90%, bobolink (and some residents may even ask, “What’s a bobolink?” It’s a bird) populations down 97%, and total bird numbers down 50% over recent decades.

Monarch butterflies are rarely seen in some places now. People in their 50s and 60s will remember seeing them commonly last century.  What’s happened? Their food source has been removed. Tallamy says they’ll come back if homeowners plant milkweed again.

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

“We’ve come to see plants as decorations,” adds Tallamy. Turf is one of those plants. Lots with lawns don’t clean water, don’t provide clean air, and don’t support wildlife. Developed spaces are trying to borrow ecosystems services from elsewhere, but there is no “other place” where these ecosystem services are produced. “Our yards support very little biodiversity because they were not designed to do that,” says Tallamy. “We can save nature if we learn to live with nature.”

One solution is to plant native species. That leads to biodiversity. In order for a land area to be productive, there must be large numbers of insects which feed on the plants, and in turn feed the larger animals. Our native insects cannot eat non-native plant species. Yards planted with non-native species support almost no wildlife.

In addition, not all natives are equal. Some groups of plants support many more species of animals than others. For example, native oak trees support over 550 species of butterflies and moths. The larvae of these butterflies and moths, caterpillars, are the primary food used by birds when raising their young. Lose the caterpillars and lose the birds – support the caterpillars and support the birds. By bringing nature back into our landscapes, we reconnect with nature, provide benefits for other organisms and enrich ourselves.

Aren’t small parks and preserves the answer? Tallamy says they’re not big enough. Small populations of plants and animals are subject to local extinction during natural boom-and-bust cycles. “Our natural areas are not large enough to sustain nature,” Tallamy says.

Does a yard have to be 100% native? No. Tallamy says just move in the direction of native plants, and know what the plants in your yard are doing and not doing. Some are “biologically inert.” He says, “Think of them as statues.” He told his audience there are steps “each one of you can do at your own home at your own pace.” And remember to make sure any non-native plants are not invasive plants.

So what do we do? Tallamy offers this:

  • Create corridors, natural connections between your yard and the neighbor’s yard
  • Reduce lawn size
  • Out with invasives, in with native plants
  • Use lawn only in walking areas. That’s where turfgrass shines
  • Got leaves in the fall? Put them on your flower garden as mulch. Still have leaves? Make your garden bigger.

Tallamy says that if half of American lawns were replaced with native plants we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

The environmental movement intensified in the 20th century and continues today with us. It’s our turn to choose our legacy. What you protect today will still be around tomorrow for your children, and those children will form their outlook toward the environment from you. As Tallamy told his listeners, “There is no better way to expose children to nature than to bring nature home to them.”

Written by Dave Ochs, manager, Stewardship Communications

View From The Tower

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“That’s Awesome!”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard these words on the viewing tower at Huntley Meadows Park. Usually they come from a pre-teen, but many adults have exclaimed it when they get their first close look in a spotting scope at a great blue heron or a hooded merganser with 10 ducklings. 

It’s what I said when I made my first visit to the park almost 20 years ago.

I was with a friend who decided to take a hike in a neighborhood park in Alexandria.  I thought it was a woodland trail leading to a creek.  Not far down the path the trees opened, surrendering to a large wetland stuffed with life and crossed by a boardwalk allowing close observation. Echoing sounds of red-winged blackbirds filled the air.  I saw at least a dozen egrets as well as birds I had never seen before — king rails and green herons, and more reptiles and amphibians than I had ever witnessed at one time, all within a hand’s reach of the boardwalk.  I didn’t think an environment like this existed in this area, especially within five miles of the beltway.  Needless to say, I was fascinated. 

I had already completed school with a communications degree, and I had a small knowledge of biology.  Biology classes gave me nightmares during school, but my knowledge of nature grew through the purchase of used books containing basic information and photographs of the birds and reptiles I was seeing on my continuing visits to the park.  I would still struggle if I took a biology class today, but I have learned quite a bit since that time.  For example, I thought egrets were only in Florida and eagles were only in Alaska. They’re both at Huntley Meadows.

My fascination with the park led me to a small volunteer role in an activity called, “View from the Tower.”  I take the spotting scope from the Huntley Meadows Nature Center and stand on the wetlands tower for a couple hours giving visitors a closer view of the wetland inhabitants.  I feel bad for the other volunteers stuck inside the visitor center while I’m out witnessing the action. Sometimes I lose track of time and struggle getting back to the nature center before it closes. 

I am still only an average birder.  The birds I know best are those I’ve captured in photography.  The only bird log I keep is Lightroom.  To help me with my birding skills, I never volunteer on the tower without my worn copy of “The National Geographic Guide to Birds of North America.”  The visitors I try to make the biggest impression upon are people who are somewhat naive to wetlands the way I was on my first visit.  I hope to spark their interest in nature the way mine was ignited when I first visited the park. 

I have met, learned and shared with many wonderful people over the years on the tower, and some are close friends.  I have also witnessed many incredible things with visitors, whether it is an osprey hovering in the air and then diving straight into the water and coming back up with a fish, or someone seeing a bald eagle for the first time.  Even on slow days, I enjoy my time on the tower in the wetland surroundings.

I have always had a strong interest in photography, however due to a lack of specific subjects of interest, it was not in focus. My visits to Huntley Meadows Park quickly provided that subject of interest, and merging these two passions brought my photography into focus. Now I am a serious wildlife and nature photographer — not a professional by any means, because I spend money instead of make money.  But living my passions is rewarding in my life.

Author Curtis Gibbens is a volunteer at Huntley Meadows Park. His first photography exhibit is on display in the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center during July and August. The exhibit consists mostly of wildlife on the East Coast.  The photographs were taken at Huntley Meadows, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Shenandoah National Park, and in the Carolinas. Curtis will be at the park for a meet and greet on Saturday, July 6 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. Or, you can catch him on some weekends at the tower.