Henry Lane Hull

by Henry Lane Hull

Last week the Northern Neck Master Gardeners undertook a road trip to Virginia Beach to visit and tour the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC). The Center is on a large tract of land in the midst of the bustling city, having been established there before the spread of urbanization.

The visit began with an in-depth tour of the laboratories where plants are studied in extenso, from their seeding habits through pollination and propagation. That part was quite interesting, but the jewel of the visit was the walking tour of the many gardens that demonstrate a variety of horticultural habits.

Initially, AREC was founded to assist farming in the region, but as the city morphed from being Princess Anne County into its present urban format, the focus of AREC changed with it to concentrate on suburban needs. Now as city dwellers have exhibited increasing interest in small garden and orchard operations, the direction of the Center has been modified as well.

Today the Center offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy 27 different demonstration and theme gardens. Each of these formats shows how specific gardening practices can be followed advantageously and productively. In the sustainability garden, the beds were bordered with discarded porcelain dinner plates standing on edge, and many of the plants were either perennials or heavy re-seeders. In all of the gardens the emphasis was on mulching to the max.

The herb garden showed practical ways of raising one’s own herbs, thereby avoiding having to purchase small quantities at high prices when the cuisine calls for the herbal augmentation in recipes. The daylily garden showed how to choke out weeds with plants that bloom profusely from May to October, and serve as sources for pollinators, the theme of another of the gardens. The right plants will attract butterflies and bees in profusion, while emitting delightful fragrances and presenting beautiful colors.

The enabling garden was laid out with raised beds that could be handled by those in wheelchairs. The concept there vitiates the notion that handicapped folks cannot garden for themselves. The flowers and vegetables in that space were designed to live in containers and forms that could be accessible to a range of individuals who, despite being challenged physically, remain gardeners at heart.

Two years ago I wrote a column about visiting Edible Landscaping, a nursery in the western part of Virginia that exclusively sells plants that produce edible results. At AREC an entire garden is devoted to that subject. Plants can afford beautiful displays of flowers, shrubs and trees, but they also can produce food for the table. The AREC garden is a microcosm of the display at Edible Landscaping.

The rain garden showed how water can be conserved by the use of rain chains, cisterns and other means of limiting runoff, thereby conserving nature’s most important recourse both for humans and for plants. Often watering the garden means adding to the runoff problem, but simple measures can alleviate that problem, especially by the use of raised beds for flowers and vegetables.

A trip to AREC is a must-do for anyone with an interest in gardening. Time spent walking from garden to garden fills one’s mind with ideas of how to garden more efficiently and with an enhanced eye for overall garden design. Frequently, we hear charges of how government wastes the revenues our taxes generate. Visiting AREC one can see that every penny is spent wisely, bringing about resourceful applications that can safeguard agriculture and horticulture from the invasion of alien species and teach the gardening enthusiasts how best to use their time and talent for increased sustainability and productivity.

A stop there is a great way to enjoy the dynamism of Mother Nature and to learn how to adapt and harness her teachings for our own greater good.