Monthly Archives: March 2018

Trees, Trees Everywhere, But None to Share

Tree 3Within the Fairfax County Park Authority is a group of skillful folks responsible for care of the multitude of park facilities, grounds, sport fields and trees. FCPA’s Forestry Operations has a unique role in Fairfax County in that it has responsibility for tree care in all 427 county parks. Ideally, the job would be a mixture of pruning, tree health management, specialized young tree care and tree removals. Sadly, tree removal accounts for 99 percent of Forestry’s work.

Not by choice.


Fairfax County’s ash trees are under attack from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). This pest destroys 99.8 percent of all native ash trees it infects. Their activity causes trees to quickly die and become dangerous. The way EAB attacks, or feeds, destroys the tree’s water and nutrient-conducting ability, and essentially the tree starves. The result? A dead tree that could pose a serious risk to people and property.

Forestry and county contractors work daily to remove these trees. Since the start of 2015, Forestry has taken down nearly 1,000 ash trees, and the work has only just begun. This number will likely increase to upwards of 3,000 over the next three to four years.

Tree 1In the same recent time period, Forestry took down approximately 2,900 trees, in addition to the ash trees. More than 1,000 of those were oaks. Over the past five years, Fairfax County saw severe and environmentally stressful weather conditions, especially high summer temperatures and extreme drought.

In the spring of 2016, the area had a late frost, and it is likely this frost took place at the same time as oak bud break began. Many trees were not able to overcome the effects of that frost damage because of stress from the previous drought and temperature extremes. As a result, the weaker trees had higher mortality rates. Unlike EAB’s impact, the oak decline syndrome should lessen in the years ahead.


Do you remember the windstorm on March 2? It was so windy that day, I got to work a half-hour before I left home. We had quite a blow, and the old yarn about how March comes in like a lion couldn’t hold a candle to what we experienced this year. The storm damage was county-wide, mostly broken and uprooted trees.

Forestry crews worked all day Saturday, March 3, and will continue to work on storm clean-up for several weeks to come. The county tree service contractor will be busy with clean-up, too. The combination of extreme high wind gusts — up to 75 mph at Dulles Airport — and wet soil set up a “perfect storm.” Within three days, the Forestry Operations call center received more than 100 calls for tree damage, and more calls continue to trickle in daily.

The trees most often seen during site inspections were Virginia pine, red maple, tulip poplar and ash. Limbs and branches made up much of the debris and often made access difficult in some locations. Nevertheless, many county parks were open within a day or two after the storm, and park patrons had the opportunity to enjoy parkland due to the efforts of all the Park Operations staff.

If you have a tree concern, visit the Park Operations work request page: Report A Parkland Tree Concern

If you have storm damage, visit this county site: What to Do If You Have Storm Damage From a Tree (Insurance Info)

Author Scott Diffenderfer is an Urban Forester for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Learn more about tree health in the blog post, “The Wind in the Willows…” at

The Wind in the Willows, and Oaks, and Pines, and …

Upright Kidwell Farmhouse tree

March of 2018 came in like a lion, roaring with sustained winds of 25 to 30 miles an hour. Predictably, trees fell on power lines causing fires that Virginia Department of Forestry personnel worked hard to put out. News outlets reported on the mayhem falling trees caused – power outages, traffic snarls, property destruction and, unfortunately, some fatalities.  While the short-term focus in the emergency was on the death and destruction caused by several thousand falling trees, the long-term story is that hundreds of millions of trees did not fall.

Wood is strong and flexible; that is why humans have built with it for millennia. Not only have trees evolved to withstand strong winds, those winds make trees stronger. Just as lifting weights can trigger human muscle growth, swaying in the wind causes wood to grow. The alternating compression and tension on cells when a tree sways causes those cells to grow more wood. The result is the taper at the base of a tree.

Kidwell Farmhouse fallen tree 2018Most of the trees that fell during the early March 2018 windstorm did so because they were already dead or dying. Most people can recognize a dead tree, at least during the growing season. However, most people cannot recognize a dying tree. These before and after pictures show a tree at Frying Pan Farm Park that failed during the windstorm.  Last year it had leaves on it, but when it blew over, it revealed that its root system was rotten. Can you see the root rot in the standing tree? Look closely at the crown and notice the thinning of the leaves on the edges. To a trained eye, this is a sign of root problems. This is why trees, like pets and people, need to see their health care professionals regularly. Certified arborists are tree health care professionals.

The long-term story of the March windstorm is not that trees fell and caused mayhem. It is that strong healthy trees withstood the wind. And trees grow strong and healthy when they are properly cared for by professionals.

Author Jim McGlone is an Urban Forest Conservationist with the Virginia Department of Forestry. A version of this article ran on the VDOF blog at  Learn more about trees in Fairfax County in the blog, “Trees, Trees Everywhere…” at

Green Spring’s Mysterious Ruin

RuinFrom the Great Sphinx in Egypt to prehistoric Stonehenge in England, many mysterious structures have stumped historians attempting to determine their origin and purpose. Green Spring has its own architectural mystery, which lies in ruin across the lane from the Spring House. It’s not an ancient monument, but the remains of a small cobblestone farm structure. Yet even modest vernacular structures can provide important records of everyday life. This one intrigues visitors and staff alike. Why and when was it built?

Nestled into the hillside, the thirteen foot square four-chambered structure is mortared cobblestone and brick with a thin coat of concrete. We’ve long referred to it as the “fermentation tank” because descendants of Fountain Beattie, who lived and farmed at Green Spring from 1878 to the early 1900s, described its use as a tank to ferment the juices of fruits grown on the farm.

Beattie’s 300-acre farm was a thriving concern with dairy cattle and orchards…. and a burgeoning liquor business! He operated a licensed still in the c.1830 Spring House, where he distilled fermented fruits into applejack and brandies. He also operated a cider mill. On September 12, 1895, the Alexandria Gazette reported: “Mr. Fountain Beattie at his farm in Fairfax county, west of this city, has a steam cider mill which is kept running constantly and farmers for miles around are taking their apples there to be ground into cider.”

At the time, most cider fermentation was done in wooden barrels. In his 1890 guide, “The Cider Makers’ Handbook,” J. M. Trowbridge suggests that American cider makers adopt the French fermentation method for champagne using “large vats or tanks…where such conveniences are at hand or attainable.” Beattie was enlightened and progressive and may well have decided to try this out in a four-chambered tank, with a different product fermenting in each chamber.

In a c.1900 photograph, the tank is in mint condition, its corners square and its walls smooth and pristine. In 1999, Fountain’s grandson Butler Beattie recalled: “My grandfather was much more interested in the future than in the past. He used concrete in the spring house at Green Spring Farm. I heard that was the first use of concrete in that way in Fairfax County and possibly in all of Virginia.” No evidence has been found of Beattie’s innovative use of concrete in the Spring House, but perhaps his experimental fermentation tank benefitted from it.

Yet it’s questionable whether Beattie built the structure from scratch for this express purpose. Its outdoor location and configuration weren’t entirely practical. So we wondered if he might have repurposed a structure that was already there. In 2010, we consulted archaeologist Dennis Pogue, then director of preservation at Mount Vernon and an expert in historical farm structures. Dr. Pogue examined our ruin and agreed that it could have been adapted for Beattie’s purposes but was more likely to have originated some time earlier…as a water cistern.

Cisterns were common in homes and on farms throughout the 19th century, providing collection and long-term storage of rainwater for domestic use, irrigation and animals. Early cisterns were simple, plaster-lined dugouts underneath houses. By the mid-1800s, many cisterns looked like our structure: large, semi-buried or above-ground tanks made from stone, brick and cement, with partitions within to filter out debris. Shapes varied, but some were square and flat-topped. Some examples have surviving fill pipes that delivered rainwater diverted from nearby roofs. (The source of water to ours is unknown.) Others still have iron bolts to attach a wooden cover, a necessary precaution to prevent drownings and to keep out pollutants. A vengeful neighbor might even throw an animal carcass into his enemy’s cistern or well.

We don’t know of anyone dumping anything nasty into Fountain Beattie’s fermentation tank, but in 1890 somebody did burn down his barn. Beattie’s second job as a revenue officer took him across the countryside to shut down illicit stills. A disgruntled bootlegger may have been out for revenge. The loss of the barn, along with stock and feed, put an end to dairy activities on the farm, but Beattie’s legal liquor enterprise flourished and our little ruin may be an inspiring example of adaptive reuse by this visionary farmer!

Adapting buildings for purposes other than those for which they were designed is meant to give them a new lease of life, but our ruin is deteriorating quickly. Remedial work is planned to help preserve what’s left of it. This will include protective fencing, a cover to keep out debris and re-pointing and stabilization of loose mortar. Analysis of the mortar may yield more information about the date of construction.

Interpretive signage will tell visitors as much as we know about it and we’ll continue to research its origin and purpose. It’s not a riddle on the scale of the Sphinx or Stonehenge, but our mysterious little ruin is still a carrier of the history of Green Spring and our community, our farming heritage and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who labored here.

Author Debbie Waugh is the Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.