Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Garden of Sully in Spring

image002There’s more for you at the historic site than history.

It doesn’t seem possible that spring is just around the corner. It was only yesterday that we were putting Mrs. Lee’s garden to bed for the winter.   The plants at Sully Historic Site were showing signs of producing seeds and powering down for the season. And then, right after the holidays, the seed catalogs started arriving, a sure harbinger of spring.

Gardening is always interesting because it is never the same from one year to the next. The former home of Virginia’s first representative to Congress, Richard Bland Lee, and his family endured an exceptionally cold spring in 2016 that prevented most perennials from blooming early. But when the weather warmed, the plants seemed to make up for their slow start. Some grew taller than last year, some were bushier, and some had more blossoms. And the plants were not the only things growing in the garden.

We have noticed in past falls that there are many egg cases we are sure are praying mantis, so we are careful about cleanup in the garden. Generally, in the spring we see several teeny tiny (about one-inch long) praying mantises that are perfect miniatures of the adults. Although it is a good idea to do some cutting down and general cleanup in fall, there is a good reason to not be too meticulous in that task. Those mantises helped keep down populations of insects that could damage the plants.

The vegetable plot last year gave us some tomatoes and several muskmelons. Unfortunately, the humans only got two melons, and some unknown garden critter got the other eight. We need to research period appropriate methods to deter the melon eaters. An intern who helped in the garden last summer asked if watermelon was grown in 1800. A quick search of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts, 2012, shows that Mr. Jefferson planted both muskmelon and watermelon, and he saved seeds from both in 1794.

We have had some very hard work from Tom O’Brien, a gardener funded by the Sully Foundation, Ltd. He’s had some great ideas about organizing the garden, and he worked diligently to accomplish his ideas. We are anxiously awaiting the warm weather when we will see the fruits of his labors as several areas will now highlight the garden’s columbines, balloon flowers, monarda, Maltese cross, milkweed, blackberry lily, larkspur, cornflower and coreopsis.

Sully has a healthy garden with birds, bees, various bugs (ever hear of a cow killer ant?), toads, turtles and a snake that I avoid at all costs. Sully uses no chemicals, only leaf mulch from the county, and some lime for the tomatoes. The garden draws lots of butterflies, and we plant and nourish lots of milkweed for the monarch butterflies. Various types of butterflies also love the lavender and the cardinal flowers, and they sometimes seem to follow us as we move through the garden.

It is now time to determine what seeds we will start that will be planted in the garden this year. We will assess what has done well, what we want to expand and what varieties we would like to introduce. We try to determine varieties that were in use during the time of the Lee’s occupation of the house using Lee correspondence and documents from Mount Vernon and Monticello. This spring will also bring a major renovation in the garden as the pathways and brick edging are replaced. The oyster shell pathways will be replaced with ADA compliant, fine blue stone dust, enabling more visitors to enjoy the garden. The brick edging has been failing for several years, and the new edging will provide a nice finish for the garden pathway. The edging is being funded by a Mastenbrook matching grant. This funding is a combination of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Mastenbrook park improvements program and the generosity of the Sully Foundation, Ltd.

Sully’s garden is a nice place to stroll in all seasons, but especially in the spring when the flowers break through the brown earth in all their glory. It is one of the park’s many features beyond the site’s featured historic house – just a nice place to sit and enjoy time away from the hustle and bustle of life.


If you would like to volunteer and help in the garden or take part in programs involving the garden at Sully, apply through the volunteer link at

Author Judy Nitsche is a volunteer gardener at Sully Historic Site. Sully is located at 3650 Historic Sully Way in Chantilly, Va.

Bluebells at the Bend

bluebellwatch17Riverbend Park Bluebell Watch 2017

It may be only the beginning of March but it’s already spring. The Cherry Blossoms are projected to be at peak bloom by the middle of March and our own Virginia Bluebells are already showing their colors. The floodplain is covered in the light green Bluebell leaves and some plants are even blooming. On February 22, a sunny 65 degree day, a couple of Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) were already in bloom and many Virginia Bluebells were pushing their purple shoots up through the sandy soil along the banks of the Potomac River. Now, after an unusually warm week, the beautiful, blue, bell-shaped flowers are showing up all along the floodplain. Those same Bluebell plants did not begin blooming until mid-March in 2016.


The tiny purple shoots that emerge from the soil soon become greenish leaves                

Within days the first flower buds can be seen

Joining the Bluebells and Spring Beauty in this early spring are many other spring ephemerals. Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and Cut leaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) carpet the drier slopes at the edges of the floodplain. Red Maple trees (Acer rubrum) are in full bloom, turning the riverbank canopy a lovely, warm red color.



A walk along the trails last week revealed many other plants and animals taking advantage of the early warmth. The strange, quacking chorus of hundreds of Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) could be heard at Carper’s Pond, accompanied by the lovely, soprano peeps of the Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), tiny tree frogs that produce a sound that can sometimes be heard up to half a mile away. In the same pond, Eastern Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) could be seen swimming amongst the decaying leaves below the surface of the water, and several large Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) were sunning themselves on the trunk of a fallen tree. At one point I watched a female Mallard duck trying to swallow a Wood Frog. After a few minutes of struggling the last leg of the frog disappeared down the mallard’s throat and she swam off with her mate.  bluebellwatch17-8

Along the Potomac River there are more signs of the early spring. Many of our common invasive plants are taking advantage of the sudden warmth to get a jump on the blooming season. Common Chickweed and Lesser Celandine are already blooming and Garlic Mustard and Stinging Nettle leaves are appearing. Invasive plants owe some of their success to their ability to bloom very early in the season and having a very long blooming season – enabling them to make use of all the available pollinators. Speaking of pollinators, the warm weather has brought out many plants and animals but few pollinating insects as yet. Ants, which pollinate many of our native spring ephemerals, can be seen on a warm day and mayflies and stoneflies are beginning to emerge from their watery larval stages. Parts of the Visitor Center are coated in a layer of Box Elder Bugs that spent the winter between the siding boards. A couple of butterflies have been spotted on especially warm days, but no bees or flies as yet.

Perhaps the most exciting event this spring is the new Bald Eagle nest on the tip of Minnehaha Island. The large nest is easily visible from the Potomac Heritage Trail about half a mile upriver from the Visitor Center. The female eagle can often be seen sitting on the nest and the male is a frequent visitor. Listen for their shrill calls as you hike along the river.

Bald Eagle pair at their nest

We may be enjoying the warm weather and sun but for some of our plants and animals it can be too much of a good thing. Some, like the native spring ephemerals, should be able to weather any sudden cold snaps in the coming weeks. Others, like the Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers, that have already laid eggs in local ponds may suffer from a change in the weather. Since those eggs were laid there have been several nights with below freezing temperatures. The unusually dry weather also means that many of our vernal pools are dry, reducing the available ponds for breeding frogs and salamanders.

Every day brings something new as the days get longer and the soil warms, so be sure to check out our trails for more signs of spring, and check this space for Bluebell updates.

Riverbend Park will be presenting several naturalist led wildflower walks this spring, beginning on March 29, at both Riverbend Park and Scotts Run Nature Preserve. These walks are a great way to get to know some of our native spring ephemerals and learn some of the folklore associated with them. Our fifth annual Bluebell Festival will be held at Riverbend Park on Saturday April 15, 2017, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will feature guided wildflower walks, children’s activities, live music, wagon rides, live animal demonstrations, vendors, food and guided wildflower walks.

For more information on these or any of our spring activities call 703-759-9018 or view our website at

Marijke Gate, Naturalist at Riverbend Park