Stemming Erosion and Shoring Up a Learning Space in the Jerome Buddie Ford Nature Center Pollinator Garden

Photo of a volunteer checking the ground with a level

Text and photos by Devin Reese 

Two volunteers work on building a brick colored wall
The nearly complete retaining wall brings a smile to the face of Master Naturalist Adam Vogel (right).

Explains Master Naturalist Valerie LaTortue who stewards the Pollinator Garden at the Jerome Buddie Ford Nature Center, “Today, we are working on a teaching area and rainwater garden. When it rains hard, water pours off the roof, and the flow moves everything downhill.” Valerie has organized a volunteer crew to work in the Pollinator Garden most Saturdays. To maintain its allure for pollinating insects, the garden requires ongoing removal of invasives to allow native species like milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) to thrive. (See July 31, 2021 blog piece, “Revitalizing the Pollinator Garden at the Buddie Ford Nature Center.”

But on this Saturday, I have joined the crew of volunteers with the task of building a short, curved retaining wall to make a barrier against erosion as well as demarcate a small area for visitors and students to stand while viewing the garden. Master Naturalist Dan Huddleston leads the project, bringing his skills as a former construction manager for the State Department to this exponentially smaller job. Dan directs us to get shovels and heavy bags of materials. And then the work begins. 

There are more volunteers than there are shovels, and one high schooler earns service hours from the City of Alexandria for the National Science Honors Society by pitching in on whatever project is going on at Buddie Ford during her volunteer days. As she digs out part of the trench for the wall and then later removes weeds from around a PawPaw (Asimina triloba) tree, she says she is considering going into ecology as a career. 

Master Naturalist trainee Jennifer Piatt (right) and Volunteer Andy work together on preparing the erosion control cloth that will serve as wall underlayer to catch any materials moving downslope.

Volunteer Andy confesses that he’s a first-time volunteer, having trailed his girlfriend—2022 Volunteer Basic Trainee, Jennifer Piatt—to the event. Andy does a lion’s share of digging despite his self-description as an “ad hoc helper.” A special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Andy lives in a D.C. condo and has little chance to get his hands in the dirt (at least actual dirt!) in his regular life. Andy says, chuckling, that he “heard all about the ARMN class online over dinner” during his girlfriend’s training. Whether he will one day get certified as an ARMN volunteer remains to be seen, but he’s happy to be a tagalong for now. 

Valerie LaTortue is a magnet for volunteers. Her own son, Mohammed, a mechanical engineering student at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), pitches in with other volunteers. Mohammed dreams of one day designing high performance cars at his own automobile company. In the meantime, it’s clearly not the first time Mohammed has lent a hand to get the Pollinator Garden in shape. He describes his weeding and planting work from previous Saturdays as ways he is “helping my Mom.”

Photo of two volunteers digging with shovels
Volunteer Mohammed (right) wields a shovel next to Master Naturalist Adam Vogel.

As the digging winds down, we line the trench with the erosion control cloth, then top it with a thin layer of drainage rocks scooped from heavy bags. Volunteer crew members check the trench with I-beam levels to make sure the wall will end up horizontal. 

Photo of a volunteer checking the ground with a level
Adam checks the trench to make sure the wall will end up horizontal.

Andy: “Mohammed, that’s right on. Yours is the only good one that’s really level.”

Mohammed: “A bee landed on you, Andy.”

Andy: “That’s OK, I’m not a flower. It won’t bother me.”

Master Naturalist Hal Cardwell: “You learned that in your ARMN class, didn’t you?!”

Mohammed (top) and Dan make sure everything is level.

Once Dan gives the go ahead, the first wall blocks are laid, which creates a buzz of renewed energy for volunteers who have begun to flag in the hot sun. In pairs, we set the dense blocks into the trench, check again with the levels, and nudge them into position, watching Dan’s practiced technique. 

Once the first row gets completed, the other rows turn out to be much easier. Thunk, thunk, thunk, up goes the wall. A Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) skitters out from hiding to inspect the work but gets briefly startled when scooped up by a volunteer. I wonder whether it will take up residence in the skink-sized spaces between the bricks of the new wall. 

Photo of a volunteer holding a skink
The Five-Lined Skink looks for a quick exit from human hands.

The final step for the day is to pour white rocks on the backside of the wall for stability. The re-energized crew makes quick work of slinging the weighty bags of rocks from the shed nearby, passing them up the small slope, and filling the trench. What started the day as an amorphous dirt mound has taken shape under the hands of this group. It’s satisfying to see the wall emerge.

Valerie expresses her excitement about the project, “Usually the children are up on the deck tripping over each other. When the Nature Center teaches its pollinator class now, they can be inside the garden, not outside and just pointing.” 

As pleased as the volunteers feel, the Saturday work was just the first step. The broader project requires making the upland soil more porous for percolation of water instead of surface flow. Valerie plans to insert an extra-large flowerpot with drainage holes drilled in the bottom into the soil below the roof-pour. But she faces the challenge that “when digging, we came across an electrical ground.” To dig further could risk damaging the electrical ground, which is marked off with tape.

Photo of a volunteer holding a large pot
Master Naturalist and pollinator garden leader Valerie LaTortue discusses how to increase soil percolation with Arlington County’s Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad (right).

The high schooler offers up the creative solution of putting a rain garden on the roof to catch the flow from the rain. Apparently, it would have to be accessed through the school, however, with permission from several entities. So, that’s an idea for another day. 

(All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganism – Natural Resources Service)

Photo of a Common Five-lined skink
Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) with tail that has been replaced after tail autotomy. Photo by Judy Gallagher via Flickr, CC-BY.

Common Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) range throughout North America. They’re also called Blue-tailed Skinks because of a bright, metallic blue tail sported by juveniles and sometimes by females. Skinks (and some other lizards) can drop their tails off if grabbed by a predator – “tail autotomy” – likely an adaptation in which the tail keeps wiggling while the skink escapes. This species seeks out damp, wooded habitats where it hides under logs and bark on the ground. Females lay their eggs in decaying logs, typically in June. Five-lined Skinks feed on a variety of small invertebrates, including insects and spiders. Their cousins the Broad-headed Skinks (P. laticeps) also live in Virginia and elsewhere in the southeastern U.S., but they reach a larger adult size and spend more time in trees.  

Learn more on the Virginia Herpetological Society website about Common Five-lined Skinks.

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