One of the most beautiful, public gardens in Northern Virginia is Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. Operated by NOVA parks, this 95-acre pleasure garden is a joy to visit in any season for anyone from garden novice to garden enthusiast. Its water features, native plant and tree collections, seasonal flowers, and sculptural touches make it an ideal backdrop for gathering gardening ideas, taking a relaxing stroll, discovering nature or booking a photo shoot. Seasonal events, like the Winter Walk of Lights, bring festive delight to young and old alike. The Atrium offers outdoor beauty in an indoor setting for private events. There are many educational opportunities available as well. Best of all, this garden is a fine example of how private citizens can make a positive difference in their communities for generations to come.
Tucked into a wealthy, residential neighborhood of Vienna, Virginia, you’ll find plenty of free parking outside the Visitor Center. To tour the gardens, you can pay either a per person fee or purchase an annual pass. See here for details. I recommend the annual pass because the garden changes from season to season, making every visit a unique experience. It’s also a wonderful place to bring out-of-town visitors who want a quiet day away from the big city. Inside the Visitor Center, there is a book shop, restrooms, a library and educational displays. After checking in, exit though the back door to begin exploring the gardens. The building sits on top of a hill and from there you will start your descent. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes because you’ll have to climb back up the hill to exit the gardens.
You can spend an hour or a full day here, depending what you like to do. Follow along the meandering paths that lead to a variety of vignettes. There are lakes, gazebos, bridges, sculpture, a Korean Bell Garden, tree groves, a meadow, seasonal plant beds, a log cabin, and open fields. It’s hard to pick a favorite spot. Along with the variety of plants, the various habitats – marsh, forest, lake, flower gardens – draw a variety of wildlife, particularly birds and insects.
When you need a break, there are chairs and benches throughout the garden where you can relax your feet and enjoy the natural surroundings.
Here are some of the features:
Meadowlark Gardens boasts three lakes, each with its own character. Lake Lina, a quiet space tucked in the back of garden, is a small wetland containing native plants and trees. You’ll find water lilies and other aquatic plants, as well as the wildlife which thrive in this environment.
Lake Caroline is the larger lake with a gazebo that juts out onto the water. There you can sit in the shade or look over the railing to spot the colorful, giant koi and turtles. Ducks and geese are frequent visitors and fun to watch.
Seasonal plantings provide splashes of color throughout the year. In spring, waves of bulbs, azaleas and flowering trees burst with hues across the spectrum. Summer brings bright, perennial flowers and lush, green shade plants.
The delightful children’s garden has little playhouses and animal sculptures.
The Korean Bell Garden is a unique space founded and constructed on ancient tradition, and funded primarily through the Korean-American community.
Economist Gardiner Means and social historian Caroline Ware came to the Washington, DC metropolitan area in the 1930s to help implement President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The couple purchased a 74-acre farm raising crops and sheep dogs while furthering their careers. Means continued work as an economist, and Ware taught at Howard University, among other things. They each authored several books, including one together. In 1980, the environmentalist couple donated their land to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) while still living, with the intent of preserving the land. NVRPA bought the adjoining 17 acres and the park opened in 1987.
There is plenty of inspiration to be found here for gardeners and at many levels. On the larger scale, the landscape architecture of the grounds provides examples of how to blend foot traffic flow with hardscapes, and how to create intimate spaces on a large plot of land. Then as you walk through, you will see examples of individual niches for smaller-scale yard gardening, with incorporation of water features, bridges, benches, planter beds and gazebos. Be sure to have a copy of the garden map on hand to identify the theme of each niche, which you can pick up at the Visitor Center or view here.
Then there are the plants, trees and shrubs themselves, many of which are native to Virginia, such as in the Virginia Native Tree Trail. Rotating collections of seasonal plants allow you to see what is in bloom at what time of year. Handy plant tags make for easy identification. Have your smartphone ready to take photos of the plants and tags, which will be time and date stamped for later reference regarding bloom time. Planter beds, such as those found just outside the Visitor Center, provide ideas for plant combinations and container gardening.
Another valuable bit of information you will gather is seeing what the established plantings look like when they are full grown. When purchasing young plants in small container pots from a garden center, it’s difficult to visualize how much space they will ultimately need when they reach maturity. If not properly planned, you may find yourself having to rip out plants later when they outgrow the space (been there, done that!).
Meadowlark is a wonderful place to schedule a portrait photo shoot. You have to book a time in advance and pay a fee, but it’s well worth it. There’s an endless choice of natural settings and hardscaping to use as backdrops and props. It’s ideal for families, kids, senior photos, couples, school dance groups, and even corporate headshots – any occasion where the client prefers an organic setting to a studio background. Because it is such a happy place, the gardens bring out the playful side in people and makes it easy to draw out lively expressions. Though late afternoon is the best time to schedule, the shaded tree groves and open fields provide an ample selection of lighting conditions. Nature provides the light modification tools. Check here for more information.
The variety of plant life creates a variety of habitats. Lakes, marshes, meadows, forests and flowers draw a variety of small animals. Nesting boxes, feeders, water features and native plants make it an attractive location for birds, though the crowds might make them a little shy at times. Fish and turtles swim freely in the lakes, butterflies and bees gather nectar and pollen from flowers. Look closely in and around the water to spot more critters. Bring your binoculars or zoom lenses to watch, photograph or learn.
Meadowlark offers a variety of educational opportunities, including field trips, scout badges, tours and camps. Check here for more details.
What could be more pleasant than hosting an event at a garden? The indoor Atrium and Visitor Center, and the outdoor Gazebos, Lilac Pavilion and Korean Bell Garden are available for rent. Check here for details.