Meadowlark: A First Glance at a Winter Garden

By Jennifer Naughton, Fairfax Master Gardener

bloodtwig dogwood

Bloodtwig dogwood Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’

“The meadowlark inhabits North American grassy fields. Known for their melodious singing, they sing while they are flying, unlike most other birds, who only sing when perched. Larks have a crescent shape across their breasts, which signifies lunar qualities, and the moon is often linked with the concept of self. Lark encourages us to explore our inner selves and sing out loud.

A mother of three, I began the Fairfax County Master Gardener Association, Inc. (FCMGA) program when my youngest was in preschool. It was a thrill to learn again, especially about plants and gardening. I grew up making my mother bouquets of lily-of-the-valley, corn flowers, buttercups, violas, mint, playing in dirt and grass from dawn to dusk. I started a marriage and first garden in California where camellias, bougainvillea and roses climbed up the wall to my windows and a giant, grafted lemon-tangerine tree towered higher than my 900 square-foot home. After the demanding, all-encompassing care for my children as babies, toddlers, preschoolers, I was ready to broaden my scope, and the FCMGA program was a perfect, satisfying fit. When I graduated this year, I did not feel that I finished the program. I knew that my status as a Master Gardener would allow me opportunities to continue to learn, volunteer, but I wanted to study a seasoned gardener, watch them work the earth, combine color, texture, size, purpose in landscape design as an artist paints her canvas, tend plants lovingly.

Winter Gold Holly

‘Winter gold’ Ilex verticillata

So, I applied to a part-time job advertisement from Meadowlark Botanical Gardens on an early Sunday morning before everyone else woke up, including the dogs. The job title was simply “seasonal gardener,” the pay modest. I would not put to use a Masters in English, or my teaching degree, but I would work outside and have an opportunity to learn from a horticulturalist. When the job was offered, I took it eagerly.

I’ve worked at Meadowlark since the first week of October under one of the three horticulturalists on staff, Carol Miranda. Carol manages the indoor Atrium garden, as well as the gardens that surround the Atrium. She also tends gardens by Lake Caroline, which include native plantings along the lake edge. Overall, Meadowlark encompasses 95 acres under the supervision of Botanical Garden Manager Keith Tomlinson with the aid of lead horticulturalist Tammy Burke. In this vast expanse of land situated only four miles from Tysons Corner, you’ll find highly maintained, ornamental gardens outside the Visitor Center and Atrium, more natural looking gardens featuring local flora and fauna along Lake Lina and meandering, wooded trails, and single species collections of daylilies and peonies. You can visit a Korean Bell Garden or learn about conservation, and regional, native planting through the Potomac Valley Collection. Soon you will be able to bring your children or grandchildren to the new Children’s Garden which will be located outside a restored 18th Century log cabin. There is something here for everyone.

tall ironweed

Tall Ironweed Vernonia-angustifolia

Although, I’ve learned just a few plant names –Tall Ironweed (Vernonia angustiflolia ‘Peachy Plum’) with its russet textural seed heads that stand high, lovely, strong and look just as beautiful in decline as it does in life; Bloodtwig Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’) which catches my breath with its yellow, fiery glow and red branches; Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’) with its perfect peach, orange berries that shout cheer on cold, darker days — the overall impression of this place I’ve come to understand. Meadowlark is about plants, yes, but it is equally about people. Here plants and people are interconnected and it is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen — more so than the simple white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) which I now value as a miracle plant for its profuse, long lasting blooms that tolerate less sun and dry soil. The staff and volunteers here work hard every moment of the day, some arriving at 5:00 a.m. to maintain the park and they do so with a sense of camaraderie, family that sits them at lunch together in the red staff barn sharing food and sends them flying on their John Deere gators, wind in their hair, a load of tools and tarps to transform and maintain the park.

decorating interior

Decorating the atrium

With the turn of seasons, Horticulturists Tammy, Carol and Keely, wipe the slate clean in the Visitor Center Gardens, Atrium Terrace garden, and Seasonal Border —- planting an entirely new composition to delight Atrium guests and Meadowlark visitors with a vibrant winter landscape of camellia, arborvitae, pansies, cabbages and interesting seasonal architectural elements. The inside of the Visitor Center and Atrium undergo a similar, dazzling transformation alit with sparkling lights, shooting stars, bright lanterns, festive wreaths and potted plants wrapped up in bows like giant presents. The entire staff transforms the park with the Winter Walk of Lights which runs from November 10 through January 7. Now in its fifth year and rated as a “Top Ten Botanical Garden with wow-factor winter transformation” by Fodor’s, the light show features a nature inspired theme with over one million LED lights illuminating a children’s fairy garden, jumping frogs, fish, insects, squirrels, and swans that curve into a heart.

Holiday lights

Winter Walk of Lights

This vast, beautiful, varied garden that caters to every gardening interest, this oasis in the middle of Northern Virginia development and sprawl is a giant present the horticulturalists, staff and dedicated volunteers have created to make you happy. It reminds me of my first childish urge to pick a bouquet of flowers for someone I love. Whether you are a gardener experienced or novice, or maybe someone just out for a stroll, there is a gift waiting for you to unwrap. When you come to Meadowlark to hear the song that is singing, you will find it is full of real joy and it is meant for you.

Winter Walk of Lights, NOVA Parks
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