A Quick Check of the Meadow Before Winter

Stopping by the meadow one day in late October, it was a pleasant surprise to see a few lavender asters popping out against the dried grasses and brown flower stems. Large clumps of Mountain Mint were still holding their own and there were thousands of dried flower seed heads waiting for hungry birds to come along for a meal. Lots of milkweed is going to seed (yeah!) and it’s fluffy white “parachutes” stand out amidst all the brown. It’s easy to see why the gardener in us wants to cut this all down and tidy it up, but meadow afficionados and environmentalists know that would defeat the purpose. It’s time to honor our wild side and let the meadow do its thing!

The plants have gotten so dense that it’s difficult to wade in there during the summer to remove invasive vines or giant poke weed plants, but this time of year it’s possible to see through the dried foliage and fantasize about projects we can undertake early next year. Maybe we can relocate some asters and daisies from the perennial garden to the meadow. They desperately need thinning and the meadow could use the color.

Fairfax County recently mowed the steepest part of the retention pond by the sidewalk, probably to ensure adequate drainage during the winter and to allow access for maintenance. This exposes the two ugly drains and a bit of the cement culvert, all of which is nicely hidden by flowers and grasses the rest of the year, but there’s not much we can do about that.

While picking up wind-blown trash around the edges of the meadow and all along  Georgetown Pike (a monthly routine), it was easy to see where a large animal, probably a deer or maybe two, had taken shelter. It was also easy to see the ground hog holes. Evidently the children who visit the library named the ground hog, who they think is cute, but it would be nice if it moved somewhere else. Those holes are huge!

When you drive by the library from now until March, pay attention to the changes in the meadow. All the seed heads will eventually be plucked clean by the birds, the dried brown stems will fall and get soggy under the weight of winter snow and ice, making an insulating blanket for the plants that will explode like magic from the soil next year, and the millions of pollinator eggs laid in the stems will be getting ready for an early spring hatching. There’s a lot going on in there.

What exactly is growing in there?

It may be hard to believe, but we have planted dozens of different grasses and flowers in the meadow, adding each year to improve the mix. The most visible things are the tall yellow native sunflowers that we’ve taken to calling thugs! If it were possible to wade in there, though, like the deer and other animals do, you would see lots of different plant life.

This year, we are hoping the native hibiscus returns and does well on the hillside near the sidewalk. We’re also anxiously looking for the 500+ grass plugs we planted two years ago to make their presence better known this year. Evidently it takes a good three years for them to take off. Fingers crossed! And on May 9, we will be planting more bluestem grasses and a lovely flower commonly called Blue Mist to get more color and plant diversity as well as visual movement.

We will also be digging up and potting some of the native sunflowers to sell at the garden club plant sale on May 14. Even though we’ve labeled them “thugs” you shouldn’t be afraid of putting one clump in a sunny spot in your yard. They haven’t spread in the meadow, we just ended up with too many and they are shading out other flowers. They certainly do well in our climate. I plan to put some outside my home office window so I can enjoy them all summer.

Here’s a list of what is in the meadow:

Library Meadow Plants and Grasses

Sun Gazette article features the meadow

A nice article in the February 11, 2016 Sun Gazette Newspaper featured the meadow, noting that leaving it unmown until spring helps wildlife survive the winter. To read the article, click on this link or paste the address in your browser:


The meadow in winter

Winter has finally arrived and the meadow is blanketed with at least two feet of snow. The dead stems of hundreds of oxeye sunflowers are about the only things still visible. Everything is scheduled to be mowed down the first week in March, weather permitting. This will obviously make a mulch of the dead material, but be late enough in the season to avoid killing all the insect/pollinator eggs that have been laid in the hollow stems. So that’s the answer to the perennial question, why don’t we cut this all down in the fall? It is important to wait for the eggs to hatch or we would be defeating one of the important benefits of a meadow.

Last fall, a small section of the meadow was cut down for some reason. Maintenance of the drains, perhaps? A simple mistake? We aren’t sure. Fairfax County is responsible for maintenance of stormwater retention ponds, which is the location of our entire meadow. We count on them to cut it in early spring, and to avoid cutting it the rest of the year. Who knows. At least it was only a small portion.


We have a beautiful new sign! But wait, there’s more…

The Great Falls Garden Club and Friends of the Great Falls Library recently installed an educational sign at the library meadow. Finally, passersby can answer the question, “What’s going on here?”

“Fairfax County is promoting the planting of meadows in parks and other public property in an effort to create more diverse habitats for wildlife and to reduce the amount of grass in areas that aren’t needed for sports fields or playgrounds,” said Garden Club President Candace Campbell. “We were delighted to work with them to turn what had been an unsightly storm water retention pond into a beautiful meadow that’s jam packed with bees, birds and other pollinators. The Monarch butterflies absolutely love it, which makes it a nice spot to bring children.”

As the educational sign explains, the primary purpose of the meadow is to support wildlife and the environment. The plants were chosen because they support the largest numbers of butterflies and moths and attract pollinators of all kinds. Once each year, in late winter, the meadow should be mowed. By leaving the grasses and flowers standing until then, they will provide seeds and shelter to wildlife during the winter months and protect pollinator eggs that have been laid in the stems to hatch when the weather warms. (Which answers the inevitable question, “Why don’t they cut down all this dead stuff in the fall?”)

“The Friends of the Great Falls Library are pleased to support the Great Falls Garden Club with the purchase of the new sign honoring their beautifully & lovingly maintained meadow.  The Garden Club does so much to make the Great Falls Library setting beautiful and inviting,” said President Michelle Miller. “The meadow is an absolute joy to behold, either as one walks amongst it or while looking out from within the library.”

In addition to the new sign, the Garden Club prepared a binder of detailed information about each of the plants in the meadow so that interested visitors to the library can identify the dozens of flowers and grasses living there. The binder is located near the information desk. The Club also added two narrow paths to the meadow this year, so that interested visitors can walk through the meadow to see more than the handful of species visible from around the edges. Frankly, the paths are a work in progress, having been quickly squeezed by the impressive growth of surrounding flowers so that they are now nearly impossible to find. Next year they might have to be made wider… or eliminated to prevent claustrophobia among meadow visitors.

(Left to right)  Daniella Dixon, library manager; Michelle Miller, president Friends of Great Falls Library; Bev Lane, graphic designer; Candice Burt, Great Falls Garden Club; Candace Campbell (kneeling) president of Great Falls Garden Club.

(Left to right) Daniella Dixon, library manager; Michelle Miller, president Friends of Great Falls Library; Bev Lane, graphic designer; Candice Burt, Great Falls Garden Club; Candace Campbell (kneeling) president of Great Falls Garden Club.

The beautiful new sign was designed by local graphic designer Bev Lane, who also designed the Garden Club logo. “Since I am normally creating logos, newspaper ads and brochures, creating this sign for the Great Falls Garden Club was really fun, “ she said.  The 2’x3’ sign was placed near the sidewalk in front of the meadow, where it will be accessible to library visitors as well as school children learning about pollinators, meadows and the environment. “It’s important for people to know why this meadow is here, why the plants aren’t cut down until early spring, why specific plants were chosen,” she continued. “The new sign explains that and more.” Mrs. Lane has created logos for numerous local organizations, including Friends of the Great Falls Library, The Arts of Great Falls, Great Falls Lacrosse and the Celebrate Great Falls Foundation.

Next time you are at the library, please wander out to the meadow and check out the sign. Only a few steps farther and you’ll get a bird’s eye view of all the butterflies and bees working like mad.

Next project: a bench?

Lots going on in the meadow this year


In spite of the fact that I haven’t posted anything new about the meadow for months, a lot has been happening. Here’s a quick run down:

First, were you wondering why the dead plants were left standing all winter and into the spring? It turns out that Fairfax County didn’t have us on their late winter maintenance schedule so the meadow never got mowed. We kept thinking the lack of mowing was because the area was so wet, but no, we weren’t even on the radar. As a consequence, the old growth stuck around looking absolutely awful until this year’s growth eventually pushed through and covered everything with beautiful, new, green leaves. Unfortunately, the 5′ tall brown, brittle flower stems defied gravity and remained standing, resolutely poking out of the new growth – not a good look. We ended up paying a hardy soul to manually remove every single one of the brown stems before it became impossible to walk through there without doing too much damage. It took him 8 hours! Note to self: next year call the Fairfax County maintenance department in January and get on their March schedule.

DSC02745 DSC02761 DSC02758

On the bright side, Joanne Schumpert of Landscape Design Associates/Treefrog Nursery on Georgetown Pike helped us tremendously by giving us a huge discount on nearly 500 plugs of grass and invaluable advice on grass selection. After consulting with her, the Garden Club bought Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’ (switchgrass) that gets up to 6 feet tall and turns gold in the fall;Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ (red switch grass) that gets up to 4 feet tall and turns bright red in the fall; and Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem) which gets up to 8 feet tall and turns bronze in the fall. Our hope is that the grasses will soon spread and help break up the large swaths of flowers, providing some movement in the breeze. We chose these particular grasses because they get tall, they can compete with the aggressive plants already in the meadow, their colors and tall plumes will look great in the fall, and they will provide visual interest and wildlife shelter over the winter. They all got planted in April, and we only had to water them once, thanks to the wet weather we’ve been having. Our fingers are crossed that most of them make it.

DSC02754At Joanne’s suggestion, we also carved two narrow paths through the meadow – one running lengthwise and one from the library side towards Georgetown Pike. The intention was that the paths would encourage visitors to wander through the meadow where they could actually see more of the flowers than what is visible from around the edges. They also make it easier to get in the jungle to plant and weed. Well, it was a nice idea, but in reality, the flowers are so thick and tall, and the paths so narrow, no one in their right mind would wander in there! The resident groundhog, however, is quite happy. The library is having a naming contest for him/her, by the way.

Laying out the path 4.30.15

Laying out the path 4.30.15

Martin Lawn & Landscape is mowing the paths for us once a month, thank heavens, or the paths would totally disappear. Maybe next year we’ll make them wider. Or just give up on that idea. We’ll see.  In the meantime, we plan to hold the entrance to each path open with stakes and twine so we can at least find them.

In June we planted six native hibiscus in the low part of the meadow near where the sidewalk meets Georgetown Pike. They should get tall and be quite stunning once their giant flowers appear. If you drive past Madeira School, you might have noticed the red ones they’ve planted in-between a couple of their horse pastures on a sunny slope. They look like children’s tissue paper flowers, they are so big. We’re hoping ours, which should be pink, get as large. Hibiscus are known for self-sowing if they are happy, so we’re hoping future years bring lots of offspring.


We also planted 50 Eupatorium perfoliatum (boneset) and 50 Agastache foeniculum (blue giant hyssop) in June. As with the grass planting, we first mowed down the existing flowers to create a bed and give the new things a fighting chance. Thanks to the perfect growing weather and lots of rain, the existing flowers quickly bounced back, however, shading the new grass and flowers. Hopefully the new guys will make it anyway. I think if you stand next to the meadow for more than a few minutes, you too might get absorbed into the jungle.



Heading into winter with another year under our belts.

All too soon, it seems, the meadow is getting ready for winter. We did actually have a spectacular spring and summer with less heat and humidity than we are used to, and the meadow flowers responded in kind. If we didn’t know better, we’d think we had planted the XXL size of some of them because they ended up towering over people, deer and their fellow meadow plants. The only thing taller than the sunflowers was the unidentified “monster grass” clump near the library that comes back bigger every year. Rather than try to eradicate it, we decided to play along, moving three large clumps of it down into the lowest portion of the storm water retention pond where its height is an asset.

Goldenrod September 2014

Goldenrod September 2014

In September, several Great Falls Garden Club members and two gardeners from L’Auberge Chez Francois spent several hours pulling out invasive vines, pounds of stilt grass and large pokeberries that would multiply profusely if we didn’t get them out before they set seed. There is more of this work to be done, so one more work day before winter might be in the cards.

We also added 18 large pots of grasses that we bought on sale from Meadows Farms. These were planted in areas cleared by the removal of the weeds so that bare dirt wasn’t left open for even more weeds to move in. There is nothing more inviting than bare earth!

View from the sidewalk September 2014

View from the sidewalk September 2014

Diversity in the bowl.

Surprising diversity in the bowl

Looking towards the Freedom MemorialSeptember 2014

Looking towards the Freedom MemorialSeptember 2014

In an effort to improve the plant mix and diversity of the meadow, we reached out to Joanne Shumpert of Tree Frog Nursery on Georgetown Pike for advice. She graciously spent time wandering around the jungle and gave us lots of great ideas for things we can do in the future, including making a path through the meadow so that visitors can see more of what’s growing there than just what is thriving along the edges, and adding large swaths of grass to extend the season beyond flower-blooming months and to get faster impact than planting them individually and waiting for them to spread. More grass would also provide the much-needed breeze-induced movement that rigid flower stems don’t offer.

Several Garden Club members also attended a fabulous talk by Larry Weaner on creating meadows, or as he called them “self-profierating landscapes.” Sponsored by George Washington University’s landscape design program in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, the program included a tour of the Dumbarton Oaks Park and helpful information on what they are doing to restore acres of meadows originally planned by famed landscape designer Beatrix Farrand.

Lots of seed heads for hungry birds, September 2014

Lots of seed heads for hungry birds, September 2014

Area being cleared of invasive vines September 2014

Area being cleared of invasive vines September 2014

From Mr. Weaner, we learned what we could have done differently in designing and planting our meadow (ah, 20/20 hindsight), and what we could do now to improve it. We were also reassured to learn that we did many things correctly, and were reminded that it not only takes 3 to 5 years for a meadow to get established, but that it will always be a work in progress as plants either thrive or die and new ones show up on their own. We learned about specific warm season grasses that should do well in our environment; how to identify flowers that will thrive in our particular plant community; and when and how to remove weeds. In our case, cutting them down is better than digging them out. Who knew? It was time well spent, and we all came away excited about putting into practice all that we learned.

September 2014

September 2014 view from the library

Plants overgrowing the "Do Not Mow" sign in September 2014

Plants overgrowing the “Do Not Mow” sign in September 2014

It doesn’t look like much is happening these days in the meadow. In fact, it’s not especially pretty to those who prefer an organized flower bed to the controlled chaos of a meadow, but it is still a valuable addition to the environment. There are important reasons why we leave “all that dead stuff” standing until early spring. Birds are enjoying the many seeds that will help them get through the winter, and pollinator eggs are laid and ready to over-winter in the thousands of dry flower stems. The grasses we planted last month are growing roots so they are ready to explode in the spring and we are busy making plans for adding even more as soon as possible. We might even try sprinkling native flower seeds in there before the ground freezes this year so that they can germinate after going through the cold winter months.

If you would like an updated list of the plants and grasses now in the meadow, click on the link below:

Library Meadow Plants and Grasses 2014

Milkweed going to seed in September 2014

Milkweed going to seed in September 2014

Milkweed going to seed

Invasive knot weed