Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


“Summer’s almost gone,” sang the late Jim Morrison of the Doors (a former Arlington resident).

To stretch our time in the warm outdoors, my wife and I recently took a Sunday morning stroll by the South Four Mile Run Drive Community Garden.

It should come as no surprise that what some call “the People’s Republic of Arlington” boasts as many as seven of these shared gardening sites with as many as 300 plots that locals can rent.

Many aspiring green thumbs are not as fortunate in the land-ownership sweepstakes as two of my industrious neighbors. They have cultivated, next door to one another, unusual front-yard gardens exploding with exotic and self-sowing hibiscus, verbena and autumn clematis (formed into an archway). The two yards are magnets for hummingbirds, monarchs and other pollinators, one neighbor told me.

But for the lack-landed, the gardening bug remains strong—there is a waiting list of Arlingtonians willing to pay annual fees from $25-$60 to tend a community plot. (Prices differ depending on whether you rent a full or partial plot, with or without water access, according to the county Environmental Services Department. It enforces guidelines for the sites run according to bylaws from civic associations, which assemble plot gardeners every spring for a planning meeting. Educational help comes from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

The Four Mile Run garden across from the Barcroft Park sports complex (slogan: “Come Grow With Us”) is a fine example of our county’s co-location of public goods.

Laid out in green splendor below the trestle-mounted power lines of Dominion Energy (on land owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority) are several dozen members-only pens defined by numbered chain-link fences with padlocked gates and water spigots. On corners are receptacles for mulch deliveries along with stacks of biodegradable leaf bags ready for pickup.

Passersby (on foot, on bikes, in cars) are treated to a volunteer-created array of morning glories, zinnia and black-eyed Susans, along with shiny squash, tomatoes and peppers. Gentle bumble bees roam the specimens that are protected from rabbits and birds (one hopes) by decoy owls and a pink flamingo.

The effect is not that of a professionally manicured aristocratic English garden. More like a blossom-in-the-city utilitarian labor of love, in which spectacular natural colors intermingle with stepladders, plastic buckets and the occasional lawn chair.

On this sunny muggy morning, we met self-taught gardener Jim Lee, a retired electrical engineer who lives in nearby Shirlington. While weeding away, he was pleased to show off “all kinds of rosemary and wild mint” growing in his quarter-plot. Lee is planting kale, bell peppers, summer squash, okra, parsley and eggplant in a routine that brings him to the garden five days a week — weather permitting. “You can do what you want” with your leased plot, Lee said. “But you have to keep it up.”

The neighboring plot, he said, is tended by a big-time farmer originally from India who tackles fancier produce such as malabar—spinach on a vine. “I’m an amateur compared to some.”

“We eat it or give it away,” added Lee, whose wife was originally an active partner but has pared back. Hobby gardening does require cash—“it’s cheaper to buy food at the grocery store,” he admitted.

Rabbits get their share of Lee’s tomatoes, he lamented, but that’s part of community gardening’s fun. “If you do it right, it’s a lot of work.”


“Save Our Trees” banners remain on N. Ohio St., site of the disputed champion Dawnwood Oak tree.

On. Aug. 15, the county board wrote that it could do nothing to prevent Richmond Custom Homes from cutting the tall tree down to make room for a pair of luxury homes.

Disappointed activists with the Arlington Tree Action Group blasted officials’ reluctance to use Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance in this resource protected area to save the redwood. Some protested on Tuesday as the branches fell.