Virginia Landmarks
December 2, 1998
Fairlington Historic District
Gardening by the Yard
National Register
March 29, 1999
Photo of Tom Corbin, Gardener

Photo by Ron Patterson
Gardening by the Yard - February 2018
By Tom Corbin
A Fairlington Gardener
Questions and comments can be directed to
Please reference: "Gardening By the Yard Column."

NOTE: This gardening web site is not associated in any way
with the author or column appearing in the All Fairlington Bulletin

Interested in learning more about plants? Come join us for a program! With a huge range from lectures, workshops, children and family programs, and special tours to free theater, concerts, cooking demonstrations and more, there's something for everyone from children through adults! See more at:

Thinking Spring 2018

It seems that every region of the country has some version of the saying "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute and it will change!" 2017 was a year of "waiting" and also a year of records - rain and drought, unseasonal temps, record highs AND record lows - what's a gardener to do?

2016 Tulips - Tom's Garden - Photo by Ron Patterson
Tulip Border

I guess all one can say is just to carry on in spite of the weather! In my garden, February 2017 brought daffodils to full growth only to have them spoiled by March's cold snap. (And say, March, what happened to the normal cold we were supposed to have had in February?)

Tulips inevitably bloom when the temperatures soar, and 2017 was no exception. There is such elegance about the tulip in its closed stage, but too much heat makes it blousy and subject to the winds! By mid- April my tulips were spent when they should have been at peak! And I don't remember Hosta blooming in May, but they did in 2017!

From all indications gardening in2018 is going to have the same extreme variables. We've had an extended drought - from November 2017 to February 10, 2018. Then we had record rainfall for the week end of Feb. 10. Temperatures have bottomed out below zero only to set a record for warmth on Feb. 15 in the seventies in most areas. Extremes continue with "wintry mix" forecast for Feb. 17! Gardeners learn to take it all in stride and "carry on"! (Does anyone see palm trees on the National Mall in the near future?

Can A Chicken Raise A Duck?

Click Above for advice from Marianne Willburn - the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

What To Look For In Early Spring

We've had a couple of warm days and so everyone wants to be out gardening. Remember one of the beauties of spring is to be found in her "miniatures". Unlike the full - blown spectacle of summer, spring refreshes us in the small things we have to go looking for - the swelling of the deciduous magnolia buds, the slow yellowing of willow branches and graceful forsythia, the majestic purple of the crocus protected by last fall's leaves and the glory of spring found in the single snowdrop blossom! One day the maples are bare, the next they are alive with red blossoms. Bare, wet earth one morning where tomorrow will find the first tips of daffodil and tulip foliage. Take time to seek out the small wonders of spring.

When the weather turns the least bit warm, the big box stores open their garden centers with all the summer goodies, and customers wheel out carts of summer annuals. We all rush to plant, but once planted, these annuals just sit or rot or turn yellow until the night temps remain above 50 degrees. (Whoever heard of planting basil in March?) Warm air temps do not mean that soil temps are that warm, too, so nothing is gained by planting summer materials before the settled warmth which usually kicks in between Mother's Day and Memorial Day in Arlington.

I have always found that spring in Virginia never really settles in until after Easter (Sunday, April 1 this year). Easter always falls at the same time each year according to the astrological calendar. I know - it's date changes but in terms of climate it is always at the same time. The early Church decided that Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Expect the weather to be up and down until Easter!

Maple Tree Flowering

As You Begin to Purchase your Gardening Materials
Follow these Guidelines for Success:

  • Look for healthy, bushy, budding plants that are dark green.
  • Cut off blooms when planting out so the energy will go to root development.
  • Look for plants that are not pot bound (roots wrapped themselves in a tangled mass in the pot). If you can loosen/ pull the plant from the pot without dropping any soil, it's "pot bound"!
  • Amend the soil with a handful or two of some compost, rotted cow manure, potting soil, etc. and add some slow release fertilizer before dropping in the plant.
  • When planting annuals, always loosen the roots before setting them into the planting hole. Cutting off that large tangle of roots at the bottom will not hurt the plant.
  • Make sure the soil comes in contact with all the roots by firming the soil around the roots.
  • Water in the plants.

  • Crocus

    In your borders, avoid the plant "collection" look by repeating the same plant in spots throughout your border. Last year I used red begonias as the common plant for border continuity. Always plant border in odd numbers - three, five, seven - not in singletons or pairs. Nature does not grow plants in single file; neither should you!

    I know some people tell you to have a color "pallet", but remember you're making a garden not a stage set, and Mother Nature excels at mixing colors to maximum effect.

    Remember that foliage gives great interest, too: so if you have shade, you can have color just not always from blossoms. One of my favorite shade plants is golden Japanese "forest grass". The official name is Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'. After a year or two, it forms a wonderful chartreuse wave which animates the shade.

    It looks great at the border's edge and is really a three - season plant that can actually go into the winter, but it does tend to get a little ratty in December/ January.


    Plant Delights Nursery, Inc., out of North Carolina recently sent an email advertising their Hosta collection. Check it out and be prepared to restrain yourself when you see the variety of Hosta available from them.

    Hosta equals foliage - beautiful leaves, colorful leaves, textured leaves, spiraling leaves - and only incidental blooms. It brings color to shady areas.

    Tony Avent, the owner of Plant Delights, named 'Brother Stefan' the "Hosta of the Year for 2017". Mr. Avent also dispels a few Hosta "myths" in a recent on-line gardening tips article:

  • Hostas do not turn green when fertilized; rather they are very heavy feeders.
  • Hostas are not drought tolerant! They hate dry soils and need lots of moisture in good draining soils enriched with organic materials.
  • Hostas don't need to be regularly divided. (Note: I have two clumps of an unknown variety on each side of my stoop that have never been divided and are still going strong with healthy foliage and blossoms. I'm just too lazy to divide them.)
  • Hostas do not prefer just shade. Most of them (with proper watering) prefer some sun. "In the wild, most Hosta grow either on rock cliffs or in sunny meadows…often with daylilies." (Tony Avent)

  • As Spring Moves into Summer, We Worry about Mosquitoes

    The milder winter and warmer spring may mean more than usual mosquitoes this season. Be vigilant about standing water - their ideal breeding location. If you leave anything outdoors over the summer that can collect water - a child's wagon, kiddie pool, watering can, flower pot saucer, etc. - either bring it under cover or tip out the water. Check out less obvious locations for standing water: the folds and puckers of a grill cover, a gutter or downspout clogged with leaves, an unrefreshed bird bath. Don't let water stand in the saucers of your container gardens. Also check the air conditioning drain area for standing water.

    Beneficial wildlife - bats and birds - prey on mosquitoes.

    The most effect mosquito-repelling skin sprays include DEET. Follow package directions when spraying and remember to spray clothing as well as skin. Look for products formulate just for children and read the labels carefully. Mosquito Dunks can be placed in bird baths to kill mosquito larvae and are effective for 30 days.

    Summer Gardening

    I'm sure most gardeners are engaged in the transition of spring to summer and are putting in summer material now that the soil has warmed up, and the night temperatures have stabilized and are staying well above 50 degrees.

    Remember to feed, water, and mulch those new plants to keep them growing. Also remember to try something new this year - something you haven't tried before that will thrive in your growing conditions.

    Match the plant's needs with your growing conditions - shade lovers need shade and sun lovers need sun! Plant naturally as they grow in nature (redundant, I know) - you don't see plants growing in straight lines, do you? No, of course not. Then don't plant your specimens all in a row; mix them up, clump them! Also plant in odd numbers - 3, 5, 7, 9 of a variety. This way they make a better show!

    Think of making a flower border as somewhat like painting. You need a mass of color here; some shading there; and a little texture there! Voila! You have a masterpiece with the earth as your canvas.

    Tulips - Toms Garden

    Encore Azalea

    The Fairlington Community loves its azalea display in the spring. Increasing in popularity in landscape use is the variety Encore Azalea which blooms in spring, summer and fall, rather than only in the spring. The summer and fall bloom is not as prolific as the spring bloom. Encore Azalea can tolerate sun much better than most azaleas and can be planted where it receives up to six hours of sunlight. Colors range from white through pink to reds and purples. Readily available at local nurseries, Encore Azalea has its own web site:

    Side Note: I recently watched the crew of one Fairlington associations' contractors busily pruning and shearing azaleas - in February. Basic gardening fact: prune azaleas AFTER flowering NOT in February and March! For the life of me, I don't understand why we continue to shear (not prune) azaleas and then have the audacity to do it at the wrong time! Hey, Association Landscape Committees, wise up!

    Pruning Azaleas

    In my community, the contracted grounds crew sheared and rounded many azaleas last fall. Then as if to add insult to injury, they came back in late winter and "rejuvenated" them with severe pruning. The result - fewer blooms this spring and unnaturally shaped shrubs.

    Azaleas should be pruned immediately after blooming to open up the shrub (allowing light and air flow into the plant) and to remove some older canes to promote new growth. The plant may also be reduced in height, but remember to keep the shrub's natural shape. Fertilize after flowering to encourage new growth and the promotion of buds.

    Remember, azaleas set buds for next spring this summer. Pruning later will remove next season's blooms.

    Pruning Azaleas

    Local Gardeners

    Spring brings many opportunities to visit local gardens. Peg Plant's garden blog gives a complete listing of gardening activities for the DMV area:, but here are some of the highlights of gardening tourist season:

  • Virginia Historic Garden Week - April 21 - 28
  • Gloucester Virginia Daffodil Festival - March 24 - 25
  • Maryland Home and Garden Pilgrimage - April 21 - May 26 (weekends only)
  • Georgetown House and Garden Tour - April 28
  • American Horticulture Society Spring Market (River Farm off George Washington Parkway a few miles before Mount Vernon) - April 13 - 14
  • Georgetown Garden Tour - May 12

  • Happy Gardening and Touring (in spite of the vagaries of the weather)!

    Shade Loving Plants

    Whereas there are annuals and perennials that flower in shade, plants with colorful foliage (and sometimes insignificant flowers) work well to provide color and texture in shady locations. The following is a sampler of shade-loving plants that grow well in Fairlington patios:

      Hostas (perennial) come in an amazing variety of leaf colors and textures - they also flower. They also come in a variety of sizes - small, medium and large - and bloom at various times from early summer to later in the season. Their flowers are usually shades of white or purple, but their foliage is the primary attraction.
      Coral bells (heuchera) also have amazing leaf colors, although their flowers are not that showy. The foliage of coral bells is also somewhat evergreen unless we have a really harsh winter.
      Hellebores, again an evergreen perennial, can begin flowering as early as December and continue to flower into the spring. These plants really have a four-season interest. They have been hybridized and come in many different colors and flower forms. Plant Delights' blog features one variety of hellebore:
      Here is a good video on hellebores from Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina:
      Some ferns that grow well in dry conditions.
      A good, evergreen ground cover for shady locations is sweet box (not to be confused with the boxwood shrub). It grows to a height of about a foot by stolons, is evergreen, and has a wonderfully sweet smelling flower in very early spring. Here is a link to Plant Delights' blog featuring sweet box:
      An underused plant is wood mint, not to be confused with the herbal mint that likes lots of moisture. Wood mint is a native plant, pretty much indestructible, and has an interesting, long-lasting flower in the summer. It resembles the heirloom plant 'snow on the mountain' that used to be a mainstay in our grandparents' gardens. Wood mint is also a great attraction for pollinators. It's kind of hard to find but well worth the effort. I first saw it growing near some government buildings on 3rd Street in Washington where the conditions were less than ideal, so it will thrive with a little TLC.
    Photo Courtesy Plants Delights Nursery, Inc. Web Site
    Hosta 'Komodo Dragon'

    Whatever you plant, plant in odd numbers - 3,5,7,9 - it just looks more natural!

    Native Plants - Oh Yeah!!!!!

    Check out native plants too because they're pretty durable and easily adapt to woodland-like conditions. The Extension Office at the Fairlington Community Center (S. Stafford St.) may have some brochures on shade plants and native plants to guide you in your selection.

    Coral Bells



    Sweet Box

    Wood Mint

    Click Above for More Information on Plants for Dry Shady Sites
    NOTE: This is not a promotion of the plants from this company, but is provided only as an informational listing.

    Spring Bulbs

    Spring bulbs - tulips, daffodils, etc- will grow in the shade because they come up and bloom before deciduous trees fully leaf out. Daffodils are squirrel proof but tulips are not! Many folks in Fairlington say the squirrels get their tulip bulbs, but if you plant them six/ eight inches they usually leave them alone.

    Sometimes sprinkling rodent repellant over the planted bulbs discourages squirrels. Spring bulbs are planted in the fall for spring bloom.

    Some annuals to consider for shady areas are coleus and begonias. The dragon-wing variety of begonia due well in shade, and coleus will give you wonderful leaf color. Note that there are now two kinds of coleus - one that thrives in full sun and one for shade. The sun variety will not color up well in shady locations.

    Both begonias and coleus are easily grown and really don't require any special care - a little slow release fertilizer and water and they're happy. There is always the old standby - impatiens.

    A couple of years ago impatiens developed a disease and so the plants weren't available, but I think they've now been bred to be disease resistant and are once again available.

    Tulip Border

    It's always nice to have a mixture of annuals and perennials with some evergreen shrubs for winter interest. I find that boxwood works in semi-shade; there are also dwarf nandinas which are evergreen and have red berries that tolerate shade and again give winter color.


    And one final note - large containers with colorful shade loving plants make a great statement in the patio area. They are portable so you can shift them around for effect. Just remember that containers dry out quickly especially as the plants grow and the roots fill the pots. For some height variety, put some potted ferns on plant hangers within the shady area. This will give some visual interest at eye level!

    Here is a professional article that gives helpful tips for producing an attractive shady garden - from a reputable source: Horticulture Magazine:

    We would all like to have that "full sun" required for roses, iris, peonies and other sun loving plants, but with the proper soil preparation and plant selection, the shady garden offers much color, too!

    Spring Flowers in Tom's 2016 Garden
    (Click on Each Photo for Larger Image)

    Photos by Ron Patterson and Tom Corbin

    Are You Serious About Learning More About Gardening?
    "Garden How To University"
    Horticulture Magazine Offers Free Study Guides
    (PDF Documents Provided for Download - Click On Titles Below)

    Conversations with Neighbors
    OR - Do You Speak to Neighbors You Pass when Walking?
    From the Outlaw Garden Web Site


    Another question I get is "Do squirrels get your bulbs". Actually we have squirrels around but they don't seem to bother the tulip bulbs. I suspect that what happens is that many people forget to replant tulip bulbs each fall, and the old ones simple divide, become sparse with a few leaves and produce no flowers. Squirrels may not be the culprit.

    Note: Don't discard your daffodil bulbs since they are reliable and will re-flower and grow larger clumps year after year. Just remember, don't remove the foliage until it begins to wilt and yellow. Also don't "braid" it. Just live with it and try to hide it under the other developing plant foliage.

    Advice on Pruning Hydrangeas from Horticulture Magazine


    Like azaleas, the older variety hydrangeas bloom on "old" wood; that is, wood produced last season. It appears that hydrangeas did not take as big a hit this past winter as in the previous one, and the shrub should be showing small buds now.

    The newer 'endless summer' varieties bloom on wood produced this season, so winter doesn't really affect them.

    The real old fashioned variety 'Annabelle' (large white blooms fading to green) can be cut completely down to the soil and it will come back and bloom beautifully; unfortunately it is probably too large for our Fairlington spaces.

    If you need to prune your non-endless summer variety hydrangea, do so after flowering to allow it to produce buds for next summer. You can shape it and even take down some of the older canes to the ground to encourage new growth.

    Hydrangea - Tom's Garden


    This link from Horticulture Magazine discusses watering in the summer months that can be time-consuming and expensive. They have a few tips to help you manage this crucial garden chore. See more at link below:

    Tom and Ron's Patio - Ideas for Yours!!!
    Patio Plantings/Hangings - Photo by Ron Patterson
    Patio Plantings/Hangings - Photo by Ron Patterson

    Birds Visiting Tom's Garden/Patio - Spring 2015 and 2016

    Blue Jay

    Mocking Bird

    Cardinal (F and M)


    House Sparrow One

    House Finch




    Mourning Dove

    Downy Woodpecker

    Redbellied Woodpecker

    American Goldfinch


    House Sparrow Two

    Some Helpful Links

    I have been saving some links to great gardening sources and plants worth considering, so what follows is a brief description of each link's content and the link itself. Hopefully you will find some of these useful.

    Native Plants of Northern Virginia
    Native Plants of Northern Virginia

    Native Plants for Northern Virginia is the official guide of Plant NoVA Natives. It will help you choose plants for your landscape that are naturally beautiful, enhancing your property and requiring less special care while benefiting birds, butterflies and pollinators.

    Guide Summary
    Published in March 2015, this 48-page guide lists plants native to Northern Virginia (residents of the greater Washington DC area can benefit from this guide). The guide was not meant to be comprehensive but rather a showcase of natives that are attractive, easy for home gardeners to acquire and grow, and beneficial to wildlife and the environment.

    The guide is organized by the type of plant: perennials (forbs); grasses, sedges, and rushes; ferns; vines; shrubs; and trees. For each plant there is a photo, cultural requirements, size and shape, and the insects, birds, or wildlife that benefit from the plant. The guide also lists native plants that would do well in particular situations such as wet or dry places, additional resources on native plants, native demonstration gardens, and invasive plants.

    This link from Horticulture Magazine describes 'Bounce' impatiens which is recommended for the shady garden. A few seasons ago, impatiens were unavailable because of a disease which caused sudden die off. It appears that it has now been eradicated.

    Peggy Riccio
    Alexandria, Virginia, Horticulturalist
    Offers Sound Gardening Advice

    Here is a link to a new gardening blog I recently discovered - Pegplant! Peggy Riccio's content is vegetables and other edibles, but since many gardeners with small spaces are growing herbs and salad greens in pots and window boxes, many will find the tips useful.

    According to Peggy, "Gardening is a lot like a play. There are several acts, each with its own set of actors entering the stage to give their performance and exiting to allow others the limelight." The author provides a wonderful list of Metro area sources and events - check it out on the "Classes/Events" page.

    Most gardeners are thrilled to discover that their gardens are a source of food for hummingbirds. These exotic creatures, immortalized in Emily Dickenson's poem ("XV. The Humming - Bird"), bring delight and awe! P. Allen Smith - you may have seen his TV show on PBS or his plants at the nursery - has written a good article on attracting hummingbirds by providing plants that they love. In addition to his easy to read content, he has added some amazing photographs. Enjoy!

    And thanks to P. Allen Smith for this wonderful look at some new plants for this season. Scrolling through the list will make you wish you had forty acres rather than that 15 X 20 foot patio in the back!

    Plant catalogues and nursery web sites are a constant source of education and inspiration - and dreams! Using these sources is sort of like buying books - we browse the aisles at Barnes and Noble and then go home and order them from Amazon! So we study the plant catalogue and then go to our favorite nursery to find the plant because it is quicker and the plant is going to be larger than the one from mail order.

    Here is a link to Wayside Gardens in South Carolina that gives a look at some new plants for this season. Putting in a new plant or a new variety makes gardening interesting.

    And finally, here is a link to a blog produced by Tony Avent of Plants Delights Nursery in North Carolina. I usually don't mail order plants, but I have ordered from this company and have been pleased with their plants. They have one of the best catalogues around and some of the most interesting plants that you will want to plant in your garden. (Their catalogues' covers are always a satirical delight.) One of the great things about this blog is that Tony photographs the blooming plants in their gardens as they come into flower. This link which features an unusual, bright red form of 'flycatcher' (so named because its sticky leaves attracts insects) is a good example of his content. It's easy to subscribe to his blog.

    Hopefully you will find something inspirational or educational in these links. HAPPY GARDENING! (And let's hope that the weather settles down and becomes more seasonal!)

    Hikers Tour Tom's Garden
    Click Here for Photo Gallery
    (Posted August 15, 2013)
    Tom's Garden Featured By Johnson's Florists
    Click Here for Article    -    Click Here for Newsletter Introduction
    (Posted July 11, 2013)
    Tom's Garden Featured in
    Washington Gardener Magazine

    In its July/August 2006 Issue, Washington Gardener Magazine features the garden of Fairlington's own "Gardening Advisor" Tom Corbin. Tom's garden is on 34th Street, facing the street, between Wakefield and 36th.

    "Gardening in Fairlington is a rather "public" activity, especially when one's garden is adjacent to a busy street, complete with Metro buses and rush hour traffic, and a busy sidewalk of pedestrians, dog walkers, and strollers!"

    Click Here for Article
    (July, 2006)

    Turn your backyard into a haven for wildlife
    Photo by Catherine-Miller - Courtesy Wildlife Federation

    Even though Fairlington gardeners are limited by our spatial constraints, it is always a treat to keep up with gardening trends by exploring noteworthy garden publications. I highly recommend the following:


    Practical Web Sites

    Gardening Resources - Cornell University Gardening Site - Offers great links on lawn, garden, landscape gardening and much more.

    Online resource for gardening enthusiasts - Garden - offers some simple, practical videos on garden maintenance and general gardening advice.

    Note to Readers

    As some of you probably remember, I used to do this column for the All Fairlington Bulletin as an effort to offer to local gardeners some practical advice based on personal experience. I am always interested in who (if anyone) actually reads or uses this advice and will respond to your questions or comments. Drop me a line at and reference "Web Site Garden Column" in the subject heading.

    American Horticultural Society
    Web Site
    Photo of Gardener

    The American Horticultural Society (AHS) is one of the oldest national gardening organizations in the country. Since 1922, we have provided America's gardeners with the highest quality gardening and horticultural education possible.

    We accomplish this with the help of an impressive network of experts -- from the members of our Board of Directors, specialized Advisory Committees, National Great American Gardener Award Winners and corporate sponsors.

    At AHS you’ll get connected -- to great gardens around the world, gardening education for all levels of skill, sources of information on any garden subject imaginable, a community of gardeners eager to share their experiences, other great gardening events and activities, and much, much more.

    "Go Green"

    In the interest of protecting our environment, there are many thing the small-time gardener can do to limit our impact on the planet.

    Plant native species. The American Horticulture Society (located near Mt. Vernon), Blandy Farm (the VA arboretum near Winchester, VA), Green Springs Farm (located off Little River Turnpike), and local farmers' markets offer native species which will grow in our area.

    Use natural products. Limit the use of chemical sprays and fertilizers in the garden.

    Consider drought tolerant plants. Once established many plants, including native species, are drought tolerant. Discover them through a little garden research.

    Promote Natural Growth Patterns. Encourage the natural growth form of plants and shrubs. Sheared plants are stressed out and use more water than those left to grow in their natural pattern.

    Photo of Earthtaken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972.

    Fairlington Historic District

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