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Green Acre #154: Refuge at River Farm

IT WAS FATHER’S Day, and in my search for Something To Do For My Prince, or My Baby Daddy, as fathers now seem to be called, I tripped across a most fantastical combination: an old-car show and garden tour at the Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters of the American Horticultural Society

I don’t mind looking at old cars once a year. Unfortunately, once I’ve made the rounds of the cars there is nothing much to do but swelter and burn, as these events are often in open fields on grass as sere as sere can be. Or else in a small town where everything but the streets is rolled up because it’s Sunday and you could die of thirst and hunger in addition to sunstroke and boredom. 

Here was an event to please us both. He could view the burly Packards and sleek Cobras in an open field at the farm’s entrance while I legged it about the grounds, looking for an idea or a bit of something to pinch. 

River Farm was one of five owned by George Washington, though he neither lived nor worked this land.  The 1,800-acre parcel was leased to family after family (I’m really shortening this stuff up) until 1859 when the property was subdivided and sold, then sold again. In 1971 the Soviet Union offered to buy the farm for use as a retreat, which got a lot of backs up.

A gift of $1 million from the Enid A. Haupt Charitable Trust enabled AHS to buy the now-25- acre estate and the horticulture group moved its headquarters to the site.

Built in 1757, the elegant brick manor house is perched on a hill overlooking the Potomac. A popular venue for weddings and events, the boxwood-lined bluestone terrace is tented for much of the year and hung with chandeliers. A ballroom is available for cooler months. 

Surrounding the house are naturalistic and formal gardens, including a four-acre native grass and wildflower meadow that wanders down to the water. There is no shortage of bees here. Or ducks. Or birds. It’s said that foxes and bald eagles are often seen, though not by me. 

The plantings line curving paths that meander through borders of annuals and perennials, passing a 200-year-old Osage orange, which boasts warty looking and inedible fruit, and an orchard of pear, apple and persimmon trees. Espaliered pears and apples create a screen in the parking area. A sunken wall, called a ha-ha, divides the meadow from the more formal gardens, which include several designed on a small scale for children.  

The quiet is astonishing. While the event was not well publicized, there were still hundreds of people admiring the cars and wandering through the house and grounds. Yet my ears heard nothing but wind-ruffled leaves and the chitter of birds. Often enough I felt alone with the Monarch butterflies swirling among the day lilies 

Scattered about the property are benches and chairs and picnic tables for visitors; intimately arranged little private people pockets. Admission to the house and grounds is free (though donations are encouraged), and dogs are welcome.  

Amazing that anything like this still exists so close to home. Right? 

I was, for a time, a member of the AHS which, for $35 a year for an individual, gives you (among other things) discounts on admissions to 300 gardens across North America and (for some delightful reason) the Cayman Islands. There’s also a magazine, published six times a year, that is guaranteed to intimidate you into condominium living.

While it was no big deal as dues go, we weren’t taking advantage of the discounts and I could weep looking at the magazine and so let my membership lapse. But now I think I’ll re-up. Such an extraordinary space deserves support. 

P.S. I pinched nothing. 

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

River Farm, 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, Virginia 22308; 703-768-5700, ahsgardening.org. It is open year-round Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. From April through October, it is also open on Saturdays from 9 am to 1 pm. Garden admission is free, though donations are encouraged. River Farm is closed on national holidays.

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” celebrates green thumbs wherever they may be every Thursday.


3 thoughts on “Green Acre #154: Refuge at River Farm

  1. Jean B. Gordon says:

    Do not understand what you mean by comment is awaiting moderation?

    I enjoyed reading Stephanies article…..

  2. Jean B. Gordon says:

    Delightful reading and a desire to visit and see ….you tempt me. thank you for sharing such a find.

  3. Maggie Hall says:

    Thank you! I have learnt two new words….sere (which I had to look up) and ha-ha (for which you provided a link). In today’s DC weather trying not to get too sere …..

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