Monthly Archives: May 2014

Interview With A Beekeeper

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Maybe you have seen them over by the cow pasture or have seen the smoke cloud indicating the beekeeper is in. Maybe one of the “residents” has buzzed past you.

The beehives at Frying Pan Farm Park don’t get a lot of visitor attention, and it’s no wonder; bees are bees!  But the bees and their beekeeper at Frying Pan play a vital role in the community and on the farm.

John Fraser from Highland Honey and Apiaries in Northern Virginia has been tending 10 to 15 honeybee hives at Frying Pan for about eight years.  A fourth-generation beekeeper, Fraser and his family preserve traditional, small scale beekeeping where all the work is done by hand.  Beekeeping once was a common part of small Virginia farms. In Frying Pan’s heyday, there were more than 100,000 hives kept on Virginia farms.  Now only a handful remain in the county, making Fraser’s beehives an integral part of the authentic, working 1920s-1950s era farm.

Although most beekeeping techniques and equipment in Virginia have been the same since about 1870, there have been changes to adapt to new diseases, parasites, and predators.  In the late 1980s, a destructive mite from China killed numerous wild honeybee colonies in the U.S.  Since then, farmers who need honeybee pollination have depended on beekeepers like Fraser who maintain hives and protect those hives from the mite. Without his stewardship, Frying Pan’s honeybees might not survive to provide free pollination services to all the yards and gardens near the beeyard, including some of Frying Pan’s crops.

Fraser says Frying Pan’s beeyard is surrounded by many areas within a three-mile radius that contain trees such as tulip poplar and black locust, bushes such as blackberry, wildflowers such as dandelion and milkweed, and planted lawn trees such as apples, pears, linden and plums.  Frying Pan’s location near woods and meadows from Dulles Airport, as well as all the clover in the pastures at the park, provides a very balanced diet for the bees. “We harvest once per year and benefit (as do the bees) from the tremendous variety of bloom,” he says. “This is called a ‘wildflower’ honey that contains no large concentration of any one nectar.”

Rare comb honey sells quickly.

Rare comb honey sells quickly.

Fraser’s family business sells two types of honey, both available for sale at the Frying Pan Farm Park Country Store.  Comb honey is cut directly from the frames that hold combs in the hives and placed in jars filled with liquid honey.  Beekeepers don’t often make comb honey since it involves removing some of the bees’ valuable real estate.  Comb honey is rare and usually only available immediately after the mid-summer harvest.  According to Fraser, Highland’s comb honey “is snapped up by savvy buyers as soon as it hits the shelves.” More regularly available for sale is liquid wildflower honey, which is extracted by spinning an entire frame of honeycomb and then coarse-filtered.

“We are very appreciative of the opportunity to keep bees at Frying Pan Farm Park,” says Fraser, “and to have a chance to display a live hive at the Spring Farm Day and the 4-H Fair, and on other occasions throughout the year. We hope that all the people who support the park by purchasing honey at the County Store will also take the time to walk through the park and enjoy the natural beauty – and wave at the beehives.   If you see me there, in a white suit and a cloud of smoke, you can wave at me too.”

Author Cate Henderson is the marketing and development assistant at Frying Pan Farm Park.

Time: When People Were The Analog

Green Spring’s Demonstration Garden/Sun clock


Sun ClockIn our society, we live by time machines. The clock awakens us each morning, regulates our day, signals sleep when the day is done, and drives us crazy on NFL Sundays. Time for humans is an analog clock with a face and hands or an electronic device with digital numbers. Nature has a different system. In nature, there are no numbers. Time is dictated by the sun.

At Green Spring Gardens, the Master Gardeners, with help from Boy Scout Troop 1128 of Vienna, have created a garden for children that celebrates time and the sun. In the center of the garden is an interactive sun clock. It’s made of cement stepping stones with numbers outlined in mosaics and tiled stones that represent the months of the year.

Children visiting this garden learn about time from the sun as our ancestors did. They stand on the stone for the current month, raise a hand high to become the device’s analog and let their shadow fall on the correct time. Daylight savings and regular time are both displayed on this sun clock.

Children also can tell time by the flowers in this sun garden.  The Children’s Garden is planted with morning glories which open as the sun rises; sunflowers that look skyward and move as the sun arcs across the sky; multicolored four o’clocks that awaken in late afternoon to brighten up a dark corner; evening primrose that heralds day’s end with a bright yellow flower; and the moon vine, a flower that sleeps all day and unfolds into bright whiteness when the sun slips under the horizon.

In addition to the sun clock, the Children’s Garden has a teepee that will be covered in bean vines by summer and a sensory garden that excites touch, smell, sound, and sight. Imagination flies at the garden as children take off on new adventures while hidden under the vines of purple string beans and pretzel beans. Scented geraniums, fragrant thyme and chocolate mint add to the taste of the air, while strawberries and jelly bean blueberries add flashes of color.

Like any garden, it grows and changes with the passing of days, so it can be worth several visits. This summer, take some of that time we’ve been talking about and spend it in the children’s garden at Green Spring Gardens.

Come and enjoy an afternoon with your children and celebrate time, the sun and the beauty and fun that nature provides. The Children’s Garden is one of more than 20 thematic, demonstration gardens at Green Spring Gardens, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, Va.

Author Pamela Smith is the Community Horticulture Program Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

The Shampoo Theory of Hiking

Fox Kits at Lake Mercer

Turn around. Look behind once in a while.

Did you ever see a squirrel or a deer cross a road in front of a car? Yeah, they do that. And you know what? They cross behind you, too.

The same thing happens when you hike in a park. Every once in a while you’ll see a deer, or a squirrel, or a fox jump out on the trail ahead of you. Every once in a while they do the same thing behind you. If you hike in an area often enough, you’ll learn that they cross those trails in the same places time and time again. It’s like the highway signs that warn of deer crossing. Those signs aren’t random. Deer repeatedly use those areas.

Animals, like people, are creatures of habit. Deer wander close to edges, where woods and meadows meet, so they often can be spotted near park entrances, along creeks, or along hiking paths. If you’re hiking along a maintained trail, keep an eye out on the forest floor for subtle pathways where plants appear to be pushed down or trampled. Sometimes those are trails blazed by people, but often they are animal trails. Remember those spots, because animals frequently use the same trails repeatedly.

Bass on a nest

It’s like fishing. If you catch a big fish, return to that spot in the future. There’s a reason that fish was there – maybe food, maybe shelter, maybe both. The same thing is going on in the woods. Animals return to the places that provide food, shelter and safe passage. If you like taking photos of wildlife, then remember where you see the animals and return to those places with camera in hand.

Study the weather when you hike. Meteorological conditions can impact wildlife. There are times on a walk in the woods you won’t hear a single bird singing or see any animal movement of any kind. There are other times when every bird in the neighborhood seems to be visiting your feeder, every animal in the woods is in motion, and every fish in the lake is feeding. Consider what the atmospheric conditions are when wildlife is active – sunlight, temperature, cloud cover, barometer, frontal passages, wind speed and direction, and even moon phase. Return when there are similar conditions, and there will be a good chance wildlife will be active again. For example, largemouth bass usually spawn on a new or full moon in spring on the north or northwest banks of a lake where the sun shines longest and when rising water temperatures reach the high 50s to mid 60s. Walk along shorelines under those conditions and look in the shallows for round, white circles where the fish have cleared their beds. Look closely and you’ll see bass circling those beds. Those same areas will draw bluegills in to spawn next when the water temperature rises a few more degrees. You can count on that happening year after year under the same meteorological conditions. Nature is like that. The more you observe, the more fascinating and predictable it becomes.

The best hiking/wildlife day I’ve had in Fairfax parks came during fall a couple of years ago. During an early morning, 45-minute walk at Lake Mercer I spied raptors, fox outside a den, antlered bucks giving their equivalent of high-fives along the water’s edge, a box turtle and countless serenading birds. It was a quiet, calm, cool morning after several consecutive days of steady, calm weather. Spring walks produce choruses of frogs and wildflowers in predictable places as wet, warming conditions repeat year after year.

Atmospheric conditions also can help you predict when wildlife is not active. Consider Washington summers, when temperatures boil into the 90s and days get so hot that not even the air wants to move. Not much wildlife in motion then, either.

So when you head out for a hike in a park this summer, take along this shampoo theory. Lather, rinse, repeat for consistent good hair. On your next hike, enjoy, look, listen and learn. Repeat for consistently good experiences. And increase your odds of seeing wildlife by occasionally turning around and looking back.

Author Dave Ochs is the manager of stewardship communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Down The Trails Of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

I am new to Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, so our trails are the perfect place to explore the park while allowing my senses and adventurous side to run wild. ECLP is a place where you can take a hike or run the natural surface trails and let the noises of the modern world fade into the sounds of your feet rhythmically hitting the path and mix with the rustle of squirrels playing in the woods and the conversations of numerous species of birds above.

Park Manager John Shafer says, “Research indicates proven health benefits from walking in the woods.  I definitely notice the mental health benefits, but there are also physical benefits beyond the exercise.  Observing seasonal changes and cycles in the woods helps me feel comfortable and hopeful.”

I never enter the woods without a little advice. When you visit, please swing into the Walney Visitor Center first.  Did you know that Ellanor C. Lawrence Park is more than 650 acres with five miles of trails?  To aid you on your hike there is a trail map on the Park Authority website that displays the length of trails and the trail surfaces. There also are trail signs throughout the park to help guide you.

Naturalist Mark Khosravi is another woods walker. He says a “walk in the woods leads to discovery – witnessing species interactions or a new species observed (reptiles, amphibians and birds) to add to my life list.”

TurkeysWhat is a life list? All birders or herpers, professional or non-professional herpetologists, try to see as many types of species as possible in their habitat.  “The North Loop is great for raptors and turkeys,” Khosravi adds, “or take a stroll on the Walney Creek trail to the pond and check out the turtles.”  If you are working on a life list, different trails can reveal new and numerous species.

If you want to explore our trails and learn about park and area history, try the Southern Trail or Meadows.  Shafer says, “I enjoy the sections of Big Rocky Run trail and the large meadow trail that follows the course of Big Rocky Run and that shows the natural beauty along with the signs of the mill development from the 1700s.”  Naturalist Cheryl Repetti, a history lover, adds her favorites, noting, “The south loop to the pond is great for the ‘history-meets-nature’ experience. There’s the ice house, the ice pond, and Mary Lewis’ house site overlooking Rocky Run to visit. And there’s something especially soul-soothing about walking along Walney Creek.” The creek, Repetti says, “…has that ‘just right’ Goldilocks character — it’s not too loud and not too quiet: a gentle burble.”

History and nature are interwoven at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. Jump on a trail and check us out.

See you this summer!

Author Kiersten Conley is the Visitor Services and Operations Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

Hiking Amid Wetlands And Wildlife

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

One of the largest parks in the Fairfax County Park Authority system is not, generally speaking, a hiking or biking park. Oh, there are trails at Huntley Meadows Park, but it’s not the place to take off blazing new paths through a woods. There are only two short miles of trails, but they are a celebration of wildlife watching and nature photography.

Fairfax County has more than 500 miles of trails ranging from the paved and noisy biking path alongside the Fairfax County Parkway to the isolated, steep, rugged stretches of hillside climbs at Scott’s Run. There’s the lakeside jaunt around Burke Lake, the South Run Stream Valley mix of wide, paved paths and narrow twists of dirt. There are the horse trails of The Turner Farm and Laurel Hill. Among the others, of course, is the 40-mile Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail. Our mapping tool, Trail Buddy, will help you find an appropriate hiking, biking, equestrian or wildlife watching trail.

Then there’s Huntley Meadows. There’s nothing else quite like it in the county because it is home to the largest non-tidal marsh in Northern Virginia. The very sensitive ecosystem that comprises the park, especially its central wetland, is rare habitat in this area. The forests, wildflower-dotted meadows and cleansing wetlands of the park draw rich numbers of wildlife, and the half-mile boardwalk that traverses the wetlands is the reason for this area’s claim as the best place in Northern Virginia to watch wildlife.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

That boardwalk is the key to hiking in Huntley Meadows. First, it is ADA accessible, which opens this world of wildlife to all comers. It runs right through the heart of the wetlands, which means when you visit, look up to the sky, down into the waters and mud, left and right across the fields and away into the woods. There’s wildlife large and small to be seen in the distance and, sometimes, right under your feet. It’s a wildlife photographer’s utopia.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

It’s a pretty utopian place for wildlife, too. The wetland, part of an area once carved by the Potomac River, underwent a major restoration in the past two years, and the result is a prime wetland that is attracting an increasing number of wildlife and welcoming the return of species that had abandoned the park prior to the restoration. Huntley’s 1,500 acres now include the wetland, woodlands, a visitor center, and a historic house built by a grandson of George Mason that is located nearby.

Because of the sensitive ecosystem and the numerous animals, the park’s hiking options are both unique and restricted in order to protect natural resources. That means we ask visitors using the ADA accessible boardwalk and observing wildlife to leave bikes and dogs behind. The boardwalk doesn’t have safe space for cyclists and a dog in the wetland, even quiet and on a leash, scares the park’s locally rare bird species. Studies show that even silent dogs on a leash can reduce breeding bird populations by more than 40% because birds see them as predators. Just a few dogs in the wetland could convince the park’s rails, bitterns and grebes to move on and nest elsewhere. Dogs, litter and loud music on park viewing platforms threaten and disturb the wildlife and therefore should not be a part of any visit to this site.

One of the ways to approach the central wetland is via the park’s one-mile Hike-Bike Trail, an easy and flat path that is excellent for small children. It’s not an appropriate place for speed/racing bikes or for mountain biking, and we ask those who bike in the park to ride responsibly and stay on the trail. Leaving the trail could land you on fragile conservation areas among ground nesting birds and slow-growing woodland wildflowers, and the park’s salamanders and forest frogs can all be devastated by a few off-trail bike trips. That fragility is actually true for most of the park’s forest, meadow and stream trails, which is why park personnel ask that you stay on the established trails and blaze no new ones.

Huntley Meadows also differs from other parks in Fairfax County in that there are no large loop trails. It’s not a park designed for long-distance, cardio workouts. The park’s trails are relatively short and designed with two main goals in mind – getting you close to wildlife for observation and protecting sensitive conservation areas. When viewed and visited with that understanding, Huntley Meadows is indeed a special type of hiking/biking park.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division, and based on notes from Huntley Meadows Park manager Kevin Munroe.

After 22 years of planning, 60 public meetings, and a cutting-edge design and construction process, the wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Va., has been restored. The Fairfax County Park Authority invites the public to attend the grand opening Saturday, May 10, 2014 from 10 a.m. to noon.

Got Plants? Get Answers.

Green Spring GardensSee spot. See spot grow. See spot grow on plant. See plant wither.

If you have a yard or if you have plants, you probably have problems and questions. There’s an endless variety of questions for an endless variety of plants, including “will it grow in my yard”, and the ubiquitous “what’s that”.

When you need or want information, the first two questions are always, “Who do I ask” and “What do I ask.” At Green Spring Gardens, the Who is our Master Gardeners and our staff.

Every day at the park, a staff person is assigned as Gardener on Duty. You can bring a photo or plant sample in a plastic bag to the Horticulture Center’s front desk. If the Gardener is out and about and not able to come to the front desk, our front desk staff can take notes for the Gardener, who will get back in touch with you.

Every Saturday from 12:30-3:30 p.m. through September, Green Spring Master Gardeners are at the tent you’ll see in front of the park’s Horticulture Center. The Master Gardeners are specially trained to help answer your questions. Bring your questions, photos or plant samples and sit down for a moment to talk.

Our Master Gardeners also help staff the Horticulture Helpline at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office. Phone 703-324-8556 to leave a detailed message for someone to return your call. The Master Gardeners also staff information booths at the county farmers markets.

The “what do I ask” query might better be phrased as “how do I ask.” Here are some tips for bringing real or photographic samples to Green Spring. If you need plant identification help, try to get a plant sample that includes the flowers and a few leaves still on the stem. If you take a photo, try to capture both flowers and leaves. If you can show the whole plant, that can be helpful, too.

If you need help diagnosing a disease or insect problem, try to get a sample from both a healthy and an affected plant or plant part. Place any diseased plant parts or insects in a separate, sealed plastic bag so that you don’t inadvertently spread pests around. Plant problems that we cannot identify, we may be able to send to Adria Bordas, our Virginia Cooperative Extension agent. Keep samples fresh by storing them refrigerated with a damp paper towel in the bag until you can bring them to Green Spring within a day or two.

Sometimes, heading over to Green Spring Gardens does not work for you. Here’s another option. You’re always welcome to send me an email with your question and, if you wish, a photo. If I can’t answer your question, there are several gardeners on staff who can help.

Whether you ask a staff member or a Master Gardener volunteer, we love plant question challenges. Bring your samples and come talk to us!

Author Mary Olien is the Site Manager at Green Spring Gardens. Green Spring Gardens is located at 4603 Green Spring Road in Alexandria, Va. The park’s phone number is 703-642-5173.

Shop for unique plants at Spring Garden Day on Saturday, May 17, 2014 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.