River Farm Tour – July 12, 2014
Submitted by Dawn Szelc, LDG Secretary
About 25 LDG members and guests gathered at River Farm for the tour of the American Horticultural Society (AHS) headquarters property. Our tour guide was Jane Underwood, AHS Volunteer Program Manager and Horticulturist. Jane has a degree in Horticulture from the University of Florida as well as a library sciences degree. For those who were new to this place its vast history was about to be revealed.
This historic property was purchased by George Washington in 1760. He did not live there but farmed on the land, growing barley and wheat and keeping sheep. Later, it was sold to the Snowden family and was the largest dairy farm in the area during the Civil War. Ultimately it was purchased for AHS in 1973 for $825,000 from the Matheson family with a $1 million gift from Enid Haupt. The property has some modern fame being part of 2 different movies – Terms of Engagement with Samuel L Jackson and No Way Out with Kevin Costner.
After some morning refreshments we started the tour by viewing the four acre meadow. The meadow is just below the Ha-Ha wall that was on the original property, and the view looks out over the Potomac River. It is divided into four quadrants and all the plants were donated by Kurt Bluemel. They have had two controlled burns since it was first installed, usually sometime between January and March. This adds nutrients back into the soil. It is done using canisters of kerosene and diesel. The kerosene starts the fire quickly and the diesel slows it down. They were not able to burn the meadow this year because it was too wet early in the year. By the time it was dry enough, the plants had gotten a start growing so the field burning could not be done.
There are numerous trees along the river including three Yellowwoods. There are two large black walnut trees believed to date from the time that George Washington owned the property. The trees provide some erosion control and the Department of Natural Resources does not allow them to be cut down unless they are a hazard, even though they do block the view somewhat.
The main house, circa late 1800s or early 1900’s, was purchased by the Matheson family from the Snowden family. There was no electricity or plumbing in it at the time. It also did not include the porch or the L shaped addition that exists now. It has been recently refurbished with new windows and paint. The slate roof will be replaced in the fall and the windows on the addition will be replaced at that time. In front of the circular drive there is an azalea garden which they hope to turn into a native plant garden. They are looking for volunteers to help with this endeavor.
The group then walked to the Green Garage passing the beautiful perennial flower beds. On the way we passed a number of Kentucky Coffee trees believed to have been planted by George Washington. These were apparently his favorite tree but are plagued by mites and must be injected with miticide each year. There was a colorful Rhus aromatica ‘Tiger Eyes’. Although known as an aggressive spreader, it did not seem to be causing any issues. The property has a small grove of the rare Franklinia alatamaha tree. The grove has unfortunately had numerous injuries with some recent storms.
The Green Garage is a small shed that has been planted with a green roof of some mounding sedum. It is a demonstration of using sustainable gardening techniques including green roofs, rain barrels, and appropriate plants. It is a shaded spot where visitors can sit on a bench and appreciate a setting with a small carbon footprint.
Next we moved into the Children’s Garden. An unusually large Vitex or Chaste tree was blooming with lovely purple blossoms. It is believed to be 80 years old and has been pollarded over many years, so despite the large trunk it has been kept to a petite size. The garden had a grove of banana trees and other plants and structures for the kids to play on. It seemed quite popular with a birthday party that was happening while we were there.
From there we moved into the Garden Calm, a lovely shady spot with a bubbler fountain made from a mill stone. There was a large female Gingko tree and a huge Osage orange tree that has been a National Champion tree. It is apparently in yearly competition with another tree, an Osage orange growing at Red Hill, Patrick Henry’s home in Brookneal, Virginia. That tree is currently the Nation Champion. The Ginkgo fruits are fortunately picked up each year by an Asian woman who is knowledgeable in how to prepare them in an edible way.
Members questioned how the deer were controlled on the site since the hostas looked untouched. Jane explained that she thought that they were more attracted to the orchards so left the hostas alone. She also explained that thousands of bulbs were planted on the property, donated by Brent and Becky’s. The bulbs are just put on the ground and covered with 3-4” of mulch. Volunteers then use deer repellant spray in these areas, spraying heavily at first and then as the deer learn to avoid the locations, lighter later on. This apparently works quite well and they have thousands of bulbs in the spring time.
The next part of the tour took us to see the large gates that had once been installed at the White House as part of the 1819 reconstruction project to repair damage from the War of 1812. They stood at the northeast entrance to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue for nearly 120 years. They had been removed in 1937 and discarded. Mr. Matheson later found them in a junk pile. The gates were restored in February 2005 and even the original color was researched and applied. They were loaned to the Philadelphia Flower show that year and then installed on the property, an event which required 16 football players to lift them into place.
The final stop on the tour was the teaching and demonstration garden. This held numerous herbs, fruits, and vegetables. The herbs were grown in large concrete blocks with an irrigation system throughout. The vegetables, which included tomatoes and squash, were being grown in straw bales cut side up, a new technique that was being tried. It seemed very successful. There was a large hardy kiwi vine growing overhead and espaliered apples and pears. Jane also explained that the orchard, on a different part of the property, had apples and persimmons growing. The difficult winter we just had had been hard on the figs trees. They had died above ground and so were regenerating at the roots, as can be seen in the photo below. The volunteer is cutting back the old growth which is a fairly large trunk and the new growth is all the green leaves currently seen.
With a quick stop at the garden shop Jane supplied everyone with The American Gardener magazine and loads of additional information as well as membership forms. Membership to AHS assists them with funding for all the programs and keeping up the property. It also allows reciprocal visits to a wealth of other gardens around the country. All in all it was an amazing morning with a full breadth of history and horticulture!
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