Demonstration Native Plant Garden for Shady Backyards

By Kathy Landis and Joanne Hutton

On Sunday May 6, 2012, Potomac Overlook Regional Park (PORP) held a dedication ceremony that marked the official opening of the new demonstration native plant garden for shady backyards.

The garden is adjacent to the Master Gardeners’ demonstration vegetable garden, across the driveway from the Native American garden. Next time you are at the park for a hike or to work on a volunteer project, please stop by to visit the garden.

Demonstration garden at Potomac Overlook Regional Park. Golden Ragwort blooming in mid-April.  Photo by K. Landis.

The Garden

The garden space inherited by the design team comprised both native plants such as American holly, dogwoods, spicebush, snowberry and sweetshrub and exotic plants such as thorny pyracantha, heavenly bamboo, boxwood, azaleas, and varieties of weeds. A lot of thought went into which plants to preserve and the decisions help make the point that it is possible to incorporate native plants into all gardens.

Azaleas, for example, were retained because they define the space well and are likely to be found in many of our shady backyards. A few other herbaceous exotics such as hellebores, lungworts, toadlilies also remain in the garden because they seem to be deer resistant and add interest to the design.

Site conditions, high wildlife value, visual and ornamental interest throughout the seasons, and deer resistance were the key factors in plants selection. The site is mostly in the shade with a surprisingly rich and well-draining clay-based soil that was amended with leaf compost. Plants selected have relatively low watering requirements once established.

While deer resistance was a requirement for plants selection because the deer population at PORP is very high, Azaleas spell “deer candy” and deer have been accustomed to browsing in the garden. The marauding deer are proving to be a big challenge and our team is experimenting with spraying the plants once a month with putrescent egg solids. We’re also caging trees to protect them from deer rubbing their antlers on the bark. High wildlife value in a garden is a double-edged sword!

The Funding

Martin Ogle at PORP.

The concept for the garden was initiated by former Chief Naturalist of PORP Martin Ogle and Cliff Fairweather during Cliff’s tenure with Audubon of Northern Virginia. Cliff wrote a grant and was awarded $1,500 under the Audubon at Home initiative from Together Green/Toyota, which has provided the bulk of the money for the project to date. Additional funding was generously donated by PORP, as was discounted plant material from the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) and Earth Sangha.

The Volunteers

Demonstration Garden Volunteers.

Installed in October 2011, this demonstration garden project came to fruition due to the joint efforts and support of several partner organizations, promoting the use of native plants to improve biodiversity and habitat. Cliff Fairweather put together a team of two ARMN members: Master Gardener Joanne Hutton and landscape architect Kathy Landis, and Fairfax Master Naturalist Alan Ford, who is also serving as president of the Potomack chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. Along with Cliff Fairweather and Martin Ogle, the three key players helped design the garden, and wrote interpretive materials for the educational component of the project.

Many hands from our various parent organizations helped to prepare and install the garden. Among many who have contributed their time and provided plants are:  David Garcia, Elizabeth Gearin, Christine Friedel, Susan Grisson, Celia Denton, Ellen Parkhurst, Jane Longan, Katrina van Duyn, Lou Ott, Bill Browning, Maggie Needham, Judy Funderburk, Jim Hurley, Caroline Haynes, Crista Wattes, Karen Smagala Hendricks, Lisa Bright and Jean Woodrow. Sue Dingwell worked on signage and brochures, while Stephanie Martin produced a set of beautiful plant cards. Park staff were terrific, and Alan Ford and the VNPS were outstanding and generous in providing vision, leadership and plant ideas.

The Future

ARMN hopes to use the demonstration garden for tours and workshops, and to feature it through the popular Meet Me on a Sunday program. A box of interpretive materials on native and invasive plants has been developed and is stored at the Nature Center at PORP. Two brochures highlight species of interest in spring/early summer and in summer/fall. A comprehensive database of plants will be available from the Nature Center as well.

We hope that Master Naturalists will help staff an ARMN information table on Sunday afternoons and talk with park visitors about gardening with native plants. The garden will be a site featured during the  June 3 Green Home and Garden Tour, sponsored by Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment and Arlington County DES. We hope that this is just the beginning of the use of the demonstration garden for educational purposes.

If you’re interested in being trained to walk people through the garden area, or in helping with periodical work parties to maintain this space, or to support the project in other ways, please be in touch with a member of the team: or

2 thoughts on “Demonstration Native Plant Garden for Shady Backyards

  1. Great job, Joanne, Kathy, and team! This garden is an outstanding asset to the community; charming as a place to visit and useful as an educational resource as well. Well done!

  2. Thank you, Sue, for your gracious comment and generous support of time and talents! Joanne

Leave a Reply