The André Bluemel Meadow is a naturalistic four-acre area that includes many species of native grasses and wildflowers. Two large black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) in the middle of the meadow are believed to date from the time of George Washington’s ownership of River Farm. Red foxes, bluebirds, marsh hawks, ospreys, and bald eagles are often sighted in this area, as well as numerous butterflies and other insects.
Because the meadow contains plants of many different sizes and shapes, there is something interesting to see throughout the year. Starting in early spring and continuing through late autumn, the meadow is an ever-changing tapestry of flowers and grasses. In winter, graceful grasses take center stage, while frost and snow highlight dried flowers and seedpods.
Most of the nearly 100 different species of grasses and herbaceous perennials planted in the meadow are native to eastern North America. By including a great variety of plants, the meadow attracts and hosts a diverse array of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals throughout the year.
The Meadow was also seeded with Stocks Wildflower Mixture from Stock Seed Farm, Murdock, NE. The mixture included; dwarf red coreopsis, blanket flower, grayhead prairiecone, purple prairieclover, blue flax, plains coreopsis, upright prairiecone, cornflower, scarlet flax, shasta daisy, smooth penstemon, dames rocket, partridgepea, perennial lupine, spiked gayfeather, red yarrow, purple coneflower, California poppy, lemon mint, lance-leaved coreopsis, Indian blanket, blackeyed susan, white yarrow, Mexican red hat, false sunflower, new England Aster, and corn poppy.
The meadow has become home to a great variety of wildlife, ranging from birds to small mammals, reptiles, and insects. Bluebirds and foxes are commonly sighted, while wild turkeys, groundhogs, rabbits, snakes, lizards, and turtles can also be spotted from time to time. And you have only to listen and look to locate dozens of insects from butterflies to bees and praying mantises.
The Meadow Overlook was inspired by a council ring, a landscape form used by some Native American tribes for community gatherings and other ceremonial purposes. The council ring was popularized by landscape architect Jens Jensen in the early 1900s. Jensen envisioned council rings as communal spaces where people could gather to exchange ideas, and symbolically, as a place where people could meet as equals. Jensen designed multiple council rings, the majority of which are located in Illinois.
Landscape architects Ann English and Alan R. Blalack were responsible for the design of the Meadow Overlook. The council ring was completed in December 2007 and more than 20 tons of Pennsylvania blue flagstone and fieldstone were used in its construction. Pauline Vollmer, an AHS President’s Council Member, made the project possible through a generous gift. The Meadow Overlook allows visitors to connect with the natural environment, providing a space for families, students, painters, photographers, birdwatchers, and others to experience all the beauty that the André Bluemel Meadow offers. It also affords a view of the Washington Monument on clear days.
By design, meadows are sustainable landscapes that provide a number of environmental benefits. Meadow plants are generally drought-tolerant and derive nutrients from the soil, so supplemental watering and fertilization are rarely needed. The inclusion of a variety of native plants in a meadow creates a natural habitat for wildlife. The André Bluemel Meadow acts as a filtration system by slowing down and absorbing storm water that runs into the nearby Potomac River, reducing water pollution and erosion.
Although meadows do not require intensive care once established, they do require ecological management. Mowing or prescribed burning is used to deter the natural process of forest succession. After a meadow has become established, it should be mowed only twice a year, greatly conserving energy. Prescribed burning promotes seed germination of desirable species and prevents the infiltration of invasive plants.
To learn more about the benefits of creating a meadow, read Carole Ottesen’s article The Allure of the Meadow Garden from the May/June 2006 issue of The American Gardener. The article includes a section on “How to Make a Meadow.”
Burning the Meadow
In early April 2010, burn experts from the Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF) and the Fairfax County Park Authority, along with several AHS staff members, conducted the first-ever controlled burn of the André Bluemel Meadow. Up to that point, the meadow had been managed by annual mowing each year in late winter.
Without some type of management–either mowing or burning–any meadow eventually reverts to woodland. Burning aids in controlling woody and herbaceous invasive species and can also invigorate older meadows by helping to recycle nutrients and reduce matted vegetation to allow better air circulation.
Weather is one of the most important factors to consider in deciding when to burn a meadow; conditions must be dry and wind speed and direction and humidity must fall within specific parameters.
Safety was the primary concern during River Farm’s meadow burn. Neighbors and local fire departments and law enforcement officials were notified in advance, and everyone involved wore a fireproof suit and other protective gear. Metal rakes and shovels were used to tamp out any stray flames along the perimeter.