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.