The signs are subtle so far – a few planting areas covered with mulch and zones blocked off with orange tape – but big changes are coming behind the Great Falls Grange.
Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) board members in April endorsed creation of the Great Falls Grange Oak Grove Naturalization Project, which aims to transform about an acre of the historic building’s rear yard from a grassy lawn into a forest populated with native shrubs, ferns, herbs and trees.
Proposed by Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District director Gerald Peters in November 2020 and embraced by Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) officials, the initiative also will remove invasive plants, add organic mulch, allow fallen leaves to decay where they land, protect plants from grazing deer, and restrict foot and equipment traffic to designated pathways.
Signs will inform visitors about the project’s elements. In the nearly one century since the Grange was built in 1928, “equipment has compacted the soil, limiting water and air availability for the trees’ roots,” according to draft text for one sign. “Mowing has prevented growth of trees, shrubs, ferns, and herbs and accumulation of a humus/duff layer that trees need in order to thrive.”
Riding mowers have damaged the roots of at least one massive white oak at the site, possibly allowing entry of the damaging fungi. GFCA leaders are working with Park Authority officials to keep the tree from having to be removed.
“Lawn mowers and lawn do not mix with old trees,” said Peters, who also founded the environmental company GreenFire.
GFCA hopes to install 10-foot no-mow, no-dig zones around site’s specimen trees to protect their roots.
High-quality mulch will be installed inside those zones to give the trees the organic material they need, Peters said.
“We hope to restore a natural forest understory with native trees,” said Christopher Rich, co-chair of GFCA’s Environment and Parks Committee and executive director of the U.S. Water Partnership. “You don’t have to have lawn to have a pretty-looking place.”
In fenced-off “seed islands,” proponents plan to introduce native forest plants – everything from perennials and small trees or shrubs to tall forest trees. These areas, which could be “adopted” by local families and groups, also would have invasive species removed at least once per year by volunteers with FCPA’s Invasive Management Areas Program.
Organizers hope to enlarge the seed islands each year so that only designated pathways at the site get mown.
A fair amount of damage will have to be overcome. According to the naturalization plan, soil around the trees has been severely compacted. Work crews have pruned dead wood from the property’s trees at least twice in the past decade.
Two large trees have fallen near the front of the park and three more, including a white oak and two red oaks, have decayed sufficiently that they likely will need to be removed soon, the plan noted.
GFCA has seen tremendous public interest in native plants and the damage caused by invasive species, Rich said. The plan notes extensive intrusion of oriental bittersweet, a fast-growing invasive vine that “grows so thickly in trees that it can kill small trees and weaken even mature trees.”
Local residents and Boy Scouts already have been restoring habitat at the site, Rich said.
“This is a grass-roots community effort,” Rich said of the naturalization project. “This isn’t gardening. It’s habitat restoration.”