A hillside garden bursting with native pollinator plants welcomes visitors to the Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center on the west side of Alexandria.
The garden is a showcase for local perennials and shrubs that thrive in the sunshine, from bright golden ragwort in early spring to the sunflowers and purple asters of fall. You might find a box turtle or five-lined skink that wandered into the wildlife-friendly foliage from a nearby nature park.
With its gently graded paths and flat viewing area, the garden also demonstrates ways to incorporate accessibility into landscape design. “Our goal is for this garden to be open to everyone in the community,” said Valerie LaTortue, a Master Naturalist and Extension Master Gardener who leads volunteer work parties at Buddie Ford nearly every Saturday morning.
Plants For Water and Wildlife
The demonstration garden, which sits just outside the 50-acre Dora Kelley Nature Park and is adjacent to an elementary school, is a joint project of the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists and the Arlington-Alexandria Master Gardeners.
At least 50 species of plants, all local to northern Virginia and beneficial to its wildlife, have been planted here. Some, like white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) were chosen for their ability to tolerate wet roots and provide erosion control on steep slopes.
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) serve as larval hosts to monarch butterflies while scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) attracts native bumble bees and zipping hummingbirds. Some of the same plants occur naturally in Dora Kelley Nature Park and can be spotted on a walk along its trails.
A Garden Reborn
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the spring of 2021, the hillside was a tangle of stiltgrass, porcelain berry and other invasive plants that had smothered the original native plantings. “People were afraid to go in there,” recalled LaTortue, who agreed to take on the job of transforming it just after graduating from ARMN’s Basic Training program.
She assembled groups of volunteers from ARMN, Master Gardeners, and the community to tackle the many tasks. Some of the volunteers helped clear paths, remove invasive plants, and plant local natives in their place. Others helped Dan Huddleston, a retired architect and ARMN member, add underground drainage and terracing to control erosion and create a sitting/viewing area for small classes from the nature center and elementary school.
The resulting garden shows how quickly a neglected and uninviting corner of land can be transformed into an oasis of native plants and wildlife.
LaTortue and a dedicated crew meet nearly every Saturday morning from 9 to 11 to continue building paths, weeding invasives, and nurturing their locally native garden. They welcome new volunteers of all levels, and recommend bringing gloves and drinking water.
Additional plant information and photos of the garden are available at the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia’s webpage.