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.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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