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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

Meadow Exhibit Now in Great Falls Library with Butterflies from Anthropologie

The Reston store of fashion-forward clothing retailer Anthropologie has donated its spectacular window display of more than 10,000 hand cut and hand painted paper Monarch butterflies to the Great Falls Garden Club for use in the Club’s new exhibit on the wildflower and native grass meadow at the Great Falls Library.

“Several years ago we began work on designing and planting a wildflower and native grass meadow in the storm water retention pond in front of the Great Falls Library,” explained Club President Joan Burkgren. “With financial assistance from numerous local organizations, we have achieved a beautiful and environmentally-beneficial habitat for all kinds of wildlife and pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. In fact, the meadow has been certified as a Monarch Waystation by Monarch Watch as well as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.”

To educate people in the community about the benefits of a meadow and to provide information on the specific plants in this one, Club members created an impressive resource book and long-term exhibit that will be dramatically enhanced by the 10,000 paper butterflies donated by Anthropologie.

Meadow Resource Exhibit in Library

Meadow Resource Exhibit in Library

“Every April, the windows of Anthropologie stores become more than a showcase for artful installations – they become a platform for our Earth Day efforts, a means to raise awareness of causes near and dear to our hearts,” said display director Erika S. “This year we paid tribute to the Monarch butterfly, whose annual migration – one of nature’s greatest spectacles – is at risk of disappearing due to vanishing habitats, extreme weather and increased use of herbicides.”

“It is awe- inspiring to think that the butterfly, a species so small and humble, can complete an annual migration of epic proportions. There is so much beauty within these tiny creatures and yet they are so greatly at risk,” she continued. “We hope to give them a voice – one that allows people to hear their story, to share it, and to see how simple it can be to help them flourish. We are delighted to donate the Reston display to the Great Falls Garden Club to help draw attention to the plight of the Monarchs and increase the community’s awareness of the value of having a meadow that will help the butterflies complete their long journey.”

The Eastern population of the orange and black butterflies migrates thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. The caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed, which is declining in many areas because of development. Monarch Way Stations, such as the meadow at Great Falls Library, provide access to milkweed as well as shelter for the butterflies that pass through our area on their migration in the fall.

If you’d like more information on the plants in the meadow, please check out this resource book. It shows the common and botanical name for each plant as well as illustrations of leaves, seeds and flowers to help in identification.

Here’s a link to the September 17, 2014 article on this exhibit in the Great Falls Connection Newspaper.

The meadow in winter

Sometimes it’s hard to look at the meadow, which was so beautiful during the growing season – a riot of yellow and green with a little white and purple scattered throughout –  and appreciate it this time of year in all it’s dry brown-ness. Everything looks dead and messy. The neatnik in most of us wants it all cut down, raked up and hauled away; after all, that’s what we do with our gardens at the end of the season.

But meadows are different. The seed heads left on brown stalks will provide much-needed food for over-wintering birds. The stems of grasses and flowers are laden with the unseen eggs of pollinators and beneficial insects that won’t emerge until temperatures become milder. Even though they are brown and tattered, the remaining grasses and flower stems provide shelter for birds and other animals. Cutting everything down now would eliminate all those benefits. Yes, it might look “better” but it would provide no more benefit than if it had remained lawn. Some of us in the Great Falls Garden Club are making a point of leaving plants with seed heads standing in our perennial beds too until they have been picked clean by local birds.  Why buy bags of bird seed when we can plant it?

It’s might be challenging to our sense of design, but it’s important to remember that meadows are not supposed to be manicured or orderly. They have to be a little bit wild to be successful. They serve many purposes beyond pleasing us during the height of the flower season and a good meadow doesn’t have a design beyond a well-curated plant mix. Think of it this way: if you were driving through the countryside this time of year and saw acres of meadow packed with native grasses and flowers along the road, would you feel the same urge to “clean it up” or would you be more likely to appreciate its natural beauty and reflect on the year-round value it offers to the environment and wildlife? Although our meadow is in front of the library right in the center of town instead of along a remote country road, try to think of it in the same terms as one in a rural setting. It’s our own little patch of wild; a different kind of beauty.


Barely any green left in November.


Which sunflower is that towering over everything else? Whatever it is, it’s happy.


Looks like some tasty seeds.


The birds were chowing down on these seed heads the day this photo was taken in early December.


One of the new grasses planted on the edge of the meadow near the sidewalk – Panicum Virgatum ‘Haense Herms’. Commonly called red switch grass, it grows 36″ to 42″ and sets beautiful pink seed heads in the fall.


The view from the sidewalk, looking back towards the Freedom Memorial.


Some asters are still hanging own. Our “Please do not mow” sign is engulfed in vegetation. Fortunately the County’s mowing team knows not to cut the meadow until February or March.


Move in close to see how many seed heads are waiting to be eaten.


This was a feast for some lucky birds.


I’m not sure, but these seed heads look like they’ve already been picked clean and it’s only December.

What are all the yellow flowers?

A few folks have asked us, “What are all the yellow flowers in the meadow?” Those with a more garden-design perspective have also wondered why it seems like all we have are yellow flowers. Actually, there are other colors in there too but, yellow being what it is, it tends to scream at you while the lavenders and whites recede. In addition, the deer have eaten many of the beautiful red Monarda that were growing along the edges where they could have been easily seen by passersby and provide a contrast to all that yellow. Fortunately what seems to bother garden designers doesn’t phase the birds, bees and butterflies.

There are a few other reasons why the sunflowers and goldenrod are going gangbusters – first, as I mentioned in my last post, we had ideal weather for growing that resulted in many of the plants growing taller and faster than expected. Second, and perhaps more to the point, we had no control over the seed mix planted last year by Mulch Solutions. As you can learn from previous posts, we started out with a carefully curated plant and grass combo that didn’t really make it out of the starting gate the first year. Mulch Solutions graciously offered to reseed for us at no cost, but we didn’t get the plants we specified during the first go-around. Living by the motto “never look a gift horse in the mouth” we were quite happy to accept what was given and, as you can see from the photos in the previous post, loads of flowers germinated – the majority of them being yellow – and now seem to be angling for a role in a science fiction movie about monster plants.

So, moving forward, we continue to add plants and grasses that the Wolf Trap native plant garden and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens graciously allowed us to dig from their gardens and replant in the library meadow. Although the plants are wonderfully free, Garden Club members still have to do the manual labor, which means the amount of plants we can add each year is limited to the available woman power. Just think what we could accomplish with more volunteers (hint, hint) Little by little, we’re improving the plant mix. We are also working with local experts to round out our meadow with other colors and plant selections and to fulfill the requirements for becoming a certified Monarch Butterfly Waystation. Clearly the meadow is a work in progress and within a few years it should be more self-sustaining.

Please stop by throughout the growing season and in coming years to see how the meadow is evolving. In the meantime, we know the birds, bees, dragonflies and butterflies are living it up. They don’t care how much yellow there is!

Here’s a list of items that are already in the meadow:

Latin Name Common Name Height
Andropogon virginicus Broomsedge 2′ – 5′
Asclepias incarnata Swamp Milkweed 3′
Asclepias syriaca Common Milkweed 2′-3′
Aster prenathoides Zigzag Aster 8″ – 40″
Baptisia australis False Blue Indigo 3′ – 4′
Chamaecrista fasciculata Partridge Pea 1′ – 3′
Chasmanthium latifolium Northern Sea Oats (Grass) 2′ – 4′
Coreopsis tripteris Tall Tickseed 4′ – 6′
Coreopsis verticillata Tickseed 8″ – 18″
Dichanthelium clandestinum Deer Tongue Grass 3′ – 6′
Eupatorium dubium Joe Pye Weed “Little Joe” 3′ – 4′
Eupatorium purpureum Joe Pye Weed 7′
Euthamia graminifolia Grass Leaved Goldenrod 1′ – 4′
Filipendula purpurea ‘Elegans” Japanese Meadowsweet 3′ – 4′
Helianthus divaricatus Woodland Sunflower 2 1/2′ – 6′
Helianthus mollis Downy or Ashy Sunflower 2′ – 6′
Heliopsis helianthoides Oxeye Sunflower 3′ – 6′
Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’ Spike Gayfeather 2′ – 3′
Liatris squarrosa Rough Blazing Star 2′ – 3′
Monarda didyma Common Beebalm 1′ – 2′
Monarda fistulosa Wild Bergamot 1′ – 2′
Oenothera fruticosa Common Sundrops 18″ – 24″
Penstemon digitalis Tall White Beard Tongue 3′ – 5′
Phlox paniculata Phlox 3′ – 4′
Physostegia virginiana Obedient Plant 4′
Pycnanthemum virginianum Mountain Mint 3′
Rudbeckia hirta Black-Eyed Susan 1′ – 3′
Schizachyrium soparium Little Bluestem (Grass) 18′ – 24″
Senecio aureus Golden Ragwort 1′- 3′
Senna hebecarpa Wild Senna 6′
Solidago juncea Early Goldenrod 2′ – 3′
Sorghastrum nutans Indian Grass 3′ – 8′
Verbesina alternifolia Yellow Ironweed 3′ – 8′
Vernonia noveboracensis New York Ironweed 4′ – 7′
Veronicastrum virginicum Culver’s Root 4′ – 7′

July 2013 – What a jungle!

Thanks to a wet and not-too-steamy Spring, everything in the meadow is not only thriving but growing larger and taller than normal. It’s a jungle out there! A gorgeous, show-stopper of a jungle. What started as a sea of yellow now has spots of white and lavender. As we continue to add plants and learn which ones thrive and which ones give up the ghost after a year, the color palette and diversity will expand.

With that in mind, members of the Meadow Committee went to the Wolf Trap Foundation theater earlier this year and dug up numerous perennials that were graciously donated to us by the staff. They needed help dividing some of the more successful members of their native garden, and we needed to add some diversity to our site. It was a win-win.

Also this Spring, several members of the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society came for a visit and helped us identify invasives that we should remove and suggested several plants worth adding to the mix.

We have also been working on several fronts with folks from Fairfax County. They are interested in the meadow for several reasons:
First, they want to start establishing Monarch Waystations throughout the County because development is eliminating the plants the butterflies need to eat and travel through our area. Our meadow is an ideal candidate for this. In addition to the many nectar plants we already have, we will be adding both common and swamp milkweed, both of which are pink, in the Fall because those plants are specific hosts for Monarchs. For more information on the program, check out

Second, the County is developing a curriculum for use by area elementary schools that will encourage teachers to take their students to meadows such as “ours” to study the environment, pollinators, water quality and more. Great Falls Elementary School is not only walking distance from the meadow, we already have a footpath that connects the school and the library so visiting students can simply hike over with their class. No buses needed!

And third, the County is studying numerous issues regarding stormwater management areas such as the one our meadow has filled to see how the plants impact water flow, to determine if edging the meadow creates run-off, to determine the ideal mowing schedule and other important factors.

It has been suggested that our meadow be used as a pilot project for all three of these activities and, of course, we are delighted to participate. Beyond all of the other reasons for establishing the meadow, these additional activities will add to the educational value for citizens and County officials alike.

In addition, one of our members is putting together a binder of information on all of the plants in the meadow. Each plant will be described on a laminated page that will include photos of the flower and seeds as well as basic botanical information. The binder will be kept at the Reference Desk in the library so it is available for those who want more information on the plants or who need help identifying some of the “residents.” It should be ready this Fall.

Plans for the Fall also include the addition of ironweed, which is purple, and deer tongue grass to the meadow. We are woefully short on  grasses so we plan to add as much as possible in the years to come. At some point we know the meadow will be self-sustaining, but right now we still need to work on our mix of plants. We are also still learning which ones are tough enough and well suited to the site so they will be around for years to come.

July 14 2013

July 14 2013

Happy sunflowers are hiding the sign that says "No Swimming." Really?
Happy sunflowers are hiding the sign that says “No Swimming.” Really?

Looking back towards the library entrance. What a glorious sight.

Looking back towards the library entrance. What a glorious sight.

I don't think the deer are willing to wade in because the flowers are so thick. They seem to be grazing along the edges this year. That's ok- there's plenty to go around.

I don’t think the deer are willing to wade in because the flowers are so thick. They seem to be grazing along the edges this year. That’s ok- there’s plenty to go around.

Some baptisia trying to hold  its ground. This was one of the plants we dug recently from the Wolf Trap garden.

Some baptisia trying to hold its ground. This was one of the plants we dug recently from the Wolf Trap garden.

I see some milkweed poking up on the bank near the sidewalk.

I see some milkweed poking up on the bank near the sidewalk.

The deer loved these. All the flower heads were nibbled off before they had a chance to open.

The deer loved these. All the flower heads were nibbled off before they had a chance to open.

On the day I came to take photos, these huge bees were working the blossoms like there was no tomorrow. Butterflies were enjoying the flowers too but I wasn't willing to wade into the jungle to photograph them up close.

On the day I came to take photos, these huge bees were working the blossoms like there was no tomorrow. Butterflies were enjoying the flowers too but I wasn’t willing to wade into the jungle to photograph them up close.

View from the sidewalk looking down the length of the meadow.

View from the sidewalk looking down the length of the meadow.