Restoring Upper Lucky Run: Marginal Mess to Native Meadow

Author Jim Hurley is the outgoing ARMN service committee chair. Here, he describes the transformation of a small patch of Arlington County parkland. 

Text and photos by Jim Hurley

Upper Lucky Run before restoration
Upper Lucky Run before restoration, 2009

In January 2009, after years of looking at a tangled jungle of invasive shrubs and exotic vines climbing into stressed trees along a 100-yard wooded margin on Walter Reed Drive at South Dinwiddie Street in Arlington, I decided to do something about it. Five years later, this former “marginal woodland” is now the County’s largest and cleanest native meadow. How did we get from there to here?

Here’s how it happened….

The site is Arlington County parks property and I needed authorization to do any work there. In February 2009, I invited the park area manager to look at a woodland native plant garden I’d created on private condominium association property across the street. Like Lucky Run, It had also been an overgrown tangle of invasive shrubs, trees, and vines.

The manager quickly got on board with the project. As the Lucky Run site also had canopy trees, we intended to create a similar habitat there. In early April, we mobilized County jail inmates, invasive species technicians, and tree maintenance staff to cut, treat, and remove the woody invasive plants. But then, a week later, I returned after work one day to find several large canopy trees gone, too. Vanished! That morning the site was 80 percent shade; by the evening it was 80 percent sun––a meadow opportunity.

But we would not get to the meadow until the invasive vines growing all over the site were removed. That turned into five months of work for myself and two master naturalist companions. We dug out the English Ivy, Porcelainberry, Japanese Honeysuckle, and Wintercreeper, while preserving the native Virginia Creeper, goldenrods, and asters. I’d set goals for the site: It would have 100 percent native plants, support pollinators, be attractive from the street, bike path, and back yards, and be sustainable with minimal maintenance into the future.

To reach these goals, I sought botanical guidance from Rod Simmons, plant ecologist for the City of Alexandria. From late August to October, Rod led us to a number of meadows in the area, where we collected the seed of native grasses, wildflowers, and herbs that would naturally belong together in a native meadow plant community on a site like Lucky Run. In mid-October, with 90 percent of the site bare dirt, we scattered bags full of mixed seed on the ground and festooned branches and fences with milkweed pods.

Rod had promised us a six-foot meadow by the next summer. I was skeptical. Truth be told, 50 percent of the site was six-foot meadow in 2010, 80 percent in 2011, and 100 percent in 2012. Close enough.

Spring 2014
Spring lushness, 2014

In April 2009 when the work began, there were 70 plant species, 30 of them exotic. Today, there are some 80 native plant species on the site, with only remnant invasives present. Below are two of the pollinator-friendly plants introduced to the site in 2009.

Monarch on Thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus), August 2011
Stand of native Field Thistle, Cirsium discolor, August 2011

It has been interesting to watch the plants find their way and move through the site over the past few years. Strong stands of Devil’s Beggar-ticks (Bidens frondosa) and Late Thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotina) are now largely gone or pushed to the margins by the perennial grasses, goldenrods, asters, and milkweed. The meadow displays a changing guise through all four seasons. A diversity of plants supporting a diversity of insects in a diversity of visual forms flows from one season to the next.

Fall 2014
Fall colors, 2014

All the site needs to maintain it as meadow is several hours of mowing in March, with the dead plant stems dropped onto the ground to preserve the insect eggs sheltered in the hollow stems. In mid-March, the rosettes of leaves of the perennials are just beginning to take off, and so there are just a few weeks when remnant invasive vines can be treated and removed. By mid-April, the meadow has begun to grow in earnest, and any invasive treatment for the remainder of the year risks collateral damage to the native plants. With this minimal annual investment, the meadow can take care of itself well into the future. Without it, the meadow will revert to the tangled mess of 2009.

After annual mowing
Upper Lucky Run after annual mowing