Monthly Archives: May 2018

Elklick: Preserving a Preserve for the Long Term

Western Field at ElklickThe goal is simple. Restore a forest stand.

The task is not so simple, and it will take a long time.

The Natural Resources Branch of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division started a project in 2017 to restore a forest stand that was being taken over by invasive plants. The long-term goal is to replace those invasive plants with native species, replanting the area with native oaks and hickories to rebuild a rare forest type that exists in the forest stand next door.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), a basic oak-hickory forest in our region generally would have a mix of a variety of oak and hickory trees along with white ash (Fraxinus americana) and tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). The understory may have Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), Eastern hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).

This is taking place in western Fairfax County at the Elklick Woodlands Natural Area PreserveNature preserves in Virginia are places that the state designates to protect significant natural areas. DCR says there are 63 of these dedicated natural areas in Virginia.

Elklick burnSo far, light conditions in the forest have been improved by the removal of invasive plants and some cedar trees through controlled burns and other means. The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) partnered with Designs for Greener Gardens in a no-cost exchange of their labor in return for some of the trees. This company previously has worked on arbors and custom fences at Green Spring Gardens.

FCPA ecologist Owen Williams says the project’s next steps are to continue managing invasive plants and then prepare a planting design. It’s a long-term project with long-term natural resource benefits for Fairfax County.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority. More information about Elklick can be found on the FCPA web site.

Confessions of a Master Gardener

For years, I followed a Saturday morning ritual. Walk the dog and head to the Farmer’s Market. I usually walked past the Master Gardener help table. On a few occasions, I stopped and asked a question or brought a sickly leaf for diagnosis. I always got answers and smiles. These were happy people doing what they loved.  Being an avid gardener, I thought I’d love to join the Master Gardener ranks, but becoming a MASTER GARDENER seemed intimidating and out of reach.

Master Gardener programs are volunteer programs that train individuals in the science and art of gardening. These individuals pass on the information they acquire during their training by becoming volunteers who advise and educate the public on gardening and horticulture. The first Master Gardener program was founded in 1972 by the Washington State Cooperative Extension in Seattle.

After years of wanting to become a Master Gardener, I went to a Green Spring Gardens’ information session on Master Gardening. I took up the pitch fork and joined. What have I learned? I learned I did not know as much about gardening as I thought. I learned you can’t be an expert on everything – shrubs, soil, fertilizer, propagation, vegetables, pruning and lots more. I learned that there are people who remember all the Latin names of plants.  I’m not one of them. There are those who can identify most trees.  Not me. There are Master Gardeners who are experts on weeds and native plants. I can’t say I know a great deal on these either.  What I learned most is that I don’t have to have all the answers. I can find the answers, and I know where to look. Each year, I learn more and gain confidence.

When I told family and friends that I was studying to become a Master Gardener, I became very popular.  Everyone has a lawn problem or a sick house plant. I got calls, texts, and emails filled with gardening questions. My most interesting inquiry came from my sister-in-law, who sent a text along with a picture and the comment, “This ugly thing stinks.”

2What was it? I was an informed Master Gardener and quickly texted the answer. It was a stinkhorn fungi (Phallaceae). They pop up unexpectedly, disappear as quickly, get their nutrients from wood mulch, and smell like putrid rotting meal. I felt confident and smug.  She, of course, didn’t know that just a few weeks prior, a neighbor had asked me the same question and I had researched and found the answer. She is still impressed. Dr. Joey Williamson from Clemson Cooperative Extension writes, “Mycologists (scientists who study fungi) often describe stinkhorns with adjectives such as amazing, interesting or unique. However, homeowners lucky enough to have these aromatic mushrooms suddenly appear in the yard just before an outdoor party will describe them as disgusting, shocking, foul-smelling or simply gross.” I’ve grown to like this unique mushroom.  They showed me that it’s okay to learn more as I help others.

So don’t hesitate to explore the Master Gardener program if you have an interest. There’s always someone who has as much to learn as you do.

See more about Master Gardeners at

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener.

Fairfax County’s Spy Park Featured at New Spy Museum

Foxstone sign_edited-1Foxes have a reputation for stealth and cunning, but for many years, a far more dangerous predator was at work in Foxstone Park in Vienna. His actions are so notorious, the park is now in the crosshairs at a new spy museum in New York City.

If you tour the SPYSCAPE museum in Midtown Manhattan, look for the exhibit showcasing one of the Fairfax County Park’s Authority’s iconic brown and yellow wooden signs. It is there to help tell the story of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was convicted of spying for Russia after using the entrance sign at Foxstone Park as a signaling device for dead drops.

Foxstone is a 14.4-acre park in the Hunter Mill District. It includes trails, playgrounds and a foot bridge that Hanssen used to conceal packages of government documents and disks. He would let his handlers know it was time for a pickup at the bridge by attaching a piece of adhesive tape to the park sign.

SPYSCAPE’s Deception Gallery is devoted to Hanssen’s story. The museum originally asked to purchase the actual park sign for display. However, the county has a responsibility to appropriately curate its collection pieces to preserve Fairfax County’s history. In the end, park staff and the museum agreed that a replica of the sign would be made to help tell the espionage tale the museum weaves.

Alan Crofford, Facilities Support Manager for the Park Authority’s Park Operations Division, says the request was a first for the agency. “It’s ironic that the request came to me, because I was the area manager for Foxstone Park when the arrest happened.” Crofford says he “never thought” back then that one day he would be handling such request.

SPYSCAPE emailed its original request to the Park Authority in June 2017, and by October, the replica sign was on its way to New York. It was crafted by Lee Sites, the carpenter behind all of the agency’s familiar wooden park signs. SPYSCAPE paid $982 for labor and materials, plus shipping, and had the sign in place for the museum’s February 2018 opening.

Foxstone Park has been included in local spy tours and class outings over the years as fascination with Hanssen’s story continues. In his counterintelligence role at the FBI, Hanssen had access to information about KGB agents who had defected or were secretly working for the Americans. He passed information to the Soviets and Russians that led to the compromise of three of those agents, revealed that the FBI had built a tunnel under the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, and provided details about America’s nuclear operations.

In the book “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked, and Loved,” author Pamela Kessler described Hanssen this way: “His colleagues at the FBI called him Doctor Death and The Mortician. He had a sallow complexion, a humorless stare, and stood as somber as a funeral director in his dark suit and white shirt. Robert Hanssen stuck with the old G-man dress code long after casual Fridays had begun.” While over time he had come under suspicion to some at the FBI, he was known to most as a caring father of six and a devout Catholic. Many colleagues were shocked at his arrest, but at the time, the Justice Department considered him “the most damaging spy in FBI history.”

Hanssen’s downfall came at Foxstone Park. He was arrested there on February 18, 2001, when he was caught hiding a bag of documents under the bridge. To potentially avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to espionage and conspiracy charges for selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period.

Hanssen is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility near Florence, Colorado. Known as the ADX, it is the highest-security prison in the country. The man who once walked the trails of Foxstone Park, within a mile of his Vienna home, is now in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.