JUST BEYOND the tall concrete timbers and rolling asphalt meadows of Tysons Corner, a garden has been planted. We're not talking about just another backyard tomato patch. We're talking about a 95-acre formal world-class horticultural conservatory, which will eventually encompass boxwood mazes, lily ponds, a topiary and a visitors center.
Called Meadowlark Gardens Regional Park, this sublime counterpoint to condo-mania is Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority's newest baby. Though its future is bright, its past and present are pretty wonderful, too.
Meadowlark Gardens was born in 1980, springing from the generous estate of Gardiner Means and Caroline Ware, a long-lived couple whose public-spirited accomplishments date back to the New Deal. They bought this land -- then a Vienna farm -- in 1935, when both worked for the Roosevelt administration. Over the years, it became something of an unofficial Camp David, with international and influential visitors flocking to its open doors like the Canada geese and mallards that flock here today. Their 70-acre gift (valued at $5 million) was combined with the 25 acres purchased by the Park Authority to form Meadowlark Gardens.
Though Means died in 1988 and Ware died earlier this year, their spirit very much lives on here. According to Park Authority spokeswoman Carol Ann Cohen, "Their one wish was to share the bounty of Virginia's countryside with the public."
The bounty already in place includes an entry garden, an herb garden, an azalea-filled woodland, hundreds of native trees, weeping Japanese cherry trees, 97 varieties of iris, 50 varieties of hosta (plantain lilies), two gazebos (available for weddings), a pizza garden (more on this later) and three artificial lakes. Among other items of interest -- though not exactly garden-related -- are the ducks, geese, catfish and goldfish who love the lakes (the goldfish are an unsolicited gift from someone's home aquarium), the foxes who keep the groundhog and rabbit populations under control and the Eastern bluebirds who are making a comeback here, thanks to birdhouses provided by the Audubon Society. In short, it's a United Nations of nature, a give-and-take discussion on the fringes of the food chain.
Speaking of food, Meadowlark Gardens is not intended for picnics. Nor is it meant to be traversed on bike or skateboard (both of which are forbidden). Horses, too, must be tethered at an adjoining corral, because these rolling panoramic gardens are for feet, eyes, ears and noses only.
"This is a place to come to take a walk and enjoy the vegetation," said Tom Hollowell, the energetic overseer of the grounds. He and park administrator Doris Rodriguez would prefer that people restrict their activities to contemplative pursuits like painting, photography and reading -- either the books they've brought along or the new informative labels that Hollowell has been placing throughout the gardens.
The labels in the herb garden, for example, provide common and scientific names, as well as the history and use of each herb. The labels in the iris and hosta beds provide the common floral name of the plants as well as the name of the hybridizer who created them. Some of these floral names provide a visual picnic in and of themselves: Butter and Sugar, Dark Desire, Chilled Wine, Blue Moon, Good as Gold.
Oh yes, about that pizza garden. It's shaped exactly like a pizza pan, and growing in it is every ingredient that can be be found on a pizza parlor menu. ("Well, everything but pepperoni and cheese," said Hollowell.) This summer Hollowell and Rodriguez used the garden's ingredients at two free pizza parties for children. To introduce the kids to the joys of gardening and give them an appreciation of nature, even in the looming shadows of Tysons Corner, the park organizers cooked pizzas for the group while the children experimented with their own individual pizzas. The events were such a success that plans are being made to offer more parties next year.
Several other heroes, besides Means and Ware, have been enshrined in the Meadowlark Gardens pantheon, including Joe Flakne, who has willed the proceeds from his property to the park, and Tony Welsbacher, who has been the driving force behind the hosta garden. You too can be a hero, by volunteering to weed, make labels, plant bulbs or whatever other wholesome work Hollowell and Rodriguez can dig up for you in their exciting and fast-growing garden.
Freelance writer Alan J. Bisbort lives in Arlington and enjoys pizza, ducks and gardens.