Potomac Overlook Native Plant Demonstration Garden

A rambling rock walkway leads into a little piece of magic at this ARMN-maintained demonstration garden at Potomac Overlook Regional Park in north Arlington.

Come to see shade-loving ferns and sun-basking butterfly weed. Observe the changing seasons through locally native plants that bloom in turn through spring, summer and fall, supporting essential pollinators and other wildlife. And imagine what those plants might look like in a garden of your own.

more about the plants in the garden, and best times to see them. image gallery of the highlighted plants – these are just holding photos .

You can find a full plant list and more information about each species featured in the Potomac Overlook garden here.

Designed for shade, but nature had other plans

The demonstration garden was created in 2011 with grant monies administered by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia to complement the launch of their Audubon at Home program. Naturalist Cliff Fairweather approached the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists (ARMN) to help find a site appropriate to show all the native species that could be incorporated into the shady backyards that are common in the region.

The space chosen at Potomac Overlook – once the site of a farm building whose foundations can still be discerned – was already planted with a mix of exotic and native species under a healthy mixed canopy that includes a rare blooming American chestnut.

A few small trees were purchased, but the majority of plants installed were donated by Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, the Virginia Native Plant Society and Earth Sangha.

In 2018 a willow oak dominating the site died and was taken down, leaving a snag or “critter hotel.” In August 2020 a large tulip poplar fell, taking down a mature dogwood. These events radically changed the light regime in the garden, which called for an extreme remake of some of the beds from shade to sun. We were again helped by the generosity of donated plant materials from the Virginia Native Plant Society and Earth Sangha.

In August 2022, ARMN volunteer Colt Gregory digs up a sun-scorched fern that was exposed by a tree fall.
The fern gets a shady new home only a few yards away, helped by Gregory and ARMN volunteer Joanne Hutton

Top challenges: Hungry deer and invasive plants

Many locally native species are favored by white-tailed deer. That’s one reason the parkland surrounding the demonstration garden is dominated by invasive exotic plants such as bush honeysuckle, along with a handful of unpalatable native plants such as spicebush and pawpaw. Browsing deer have also discouraged regeneration of valuable canopy trees such as oaks in the demonstration garden.

In order to prevent deer from destroying the garden plants, repellants are applied monthly and have had some value. We have also found an effective strategy to be co-planting vulnerable species with plants that are unpalatable to deer (such as plants in the mint family).

Invasive plants also try mightily to take over the garden. To hold them back, ARMN volunteers meet every other week to weed and perform other maintenance during the growing season.

We are continually learning what plants are happy in the consistently moist, rich and undisturbed soils, in nearly full sun conditions for much of the garden.

To visit, park at the main shelter at Potomac Overlook Regional Park and walk down the partially gated roadway about half a mile. The garden is on the left, just after a demonstration vegetable garden. If you are interested in having a tour of this garden or in attending a work party to talk about native plants for your garden, please contact us.