The Meadow at Great Falls Library

Our original plan was to install a rain garden in the large, storm water retention area in front of the Great Falls Library. Such a garden would absorb some of the water before it enters the drains and filter it slowly into the ground, rather than letting large quantities of water simply gush through the two drains and into local streams and ponds. We also wanted to beautify the site and ideally hide the two unsightly cement drains.

Creation of a rain garden would entail removing a foot or more of earth and installing various sub-base materials to encourage drainage, then planting appropriate plants that could tolerate wet roots. Because this area is a storm water retention pond however, we discovered that we were not allowed to disturb the earth, plant trees or shrubs, or put boulders within the boundary of the pond.

So, on to Plan B. We met with Ron Tuttle, Fairfax County landscape architect and Chris Mueller, ecologist in charge of maintenance, on site, to discuss the alternative option of installing a wildflower and native grass meadow. Both were very excited about the prospect of a meadow. In fact, Ron has been helping churches and public buildings install them around the County with great success. He devised a seed mixture that works well in these environments, gave us resources for approved organic compost and installation companies, and gave us contacts at several seed companies that could prepare a custom mix. Chris showed us the exact boundaries of the retention pond and put us in touch with folks at the County maintenance division so that the meadow could be placed on the official plats. Ron also put us in touch with folks at a church in Oakton that had planted a similar meadow in an identical site so we could learn from their experience and see the results firsthand.

After talking with the Oakton folks and visiting their meadow, we decided to proceed with installation of a wildflower and native grass meadow because it met the same goals as a rain garden:
1. Looks beautiful and makes a nice entrance to our town
2. Hides ugly cement troughs and two large drains most of the year
3. Absorbs and slows down rain water so less goes directly into streams; acts as a filter for contaminants
4. Is very low maintenance – crews contracted by the County will cut it once each year, late winter
5. Is more affordable than a rain garden of the same size
6. Supports lots of wildlife, pollinators, birds
7. Can serve an educational purpose for local schools and residents
8. Replaces lawn with useful, more environmentally sound plants
9. Uses all native flowers and grasses
10. On a more esoteric level, it will be good for the community too, building community pride and community spirit.

As it turned out, a 10,000 SF meadow would cost more than the Garden Club had allotted for the project, so we approached numerous community organizations to see if they would be interested in helping support the project. To our delight, the following organizations said yes: Great Falls Business and Professional Association, Great Falls Citizens Association, Great Falls Women’s Club, Great Falls Friends and Newcomers of Great Falls. With the funds in hand, we made the necessary arrangements with the County, signed the necessary contracts and started work on what was to become the library meadow. Little did we know that a supposed low maintenance project would take so much hard work to get established!

If you would like to see photos of the meadow in progress and learn more about the trials and tribulations that eventually resulted in the gorgeous meadow/wildlife habitat that now graces the front yard of the library, please check out our Great Falls Garden Club Blog. Please click on If you would like seasonal updates, please subscribe there as well. (Please note that the postings are chronological, with the most current one appearing first. To read the story from the beginning, you will have to click on May 2011 and scroll down to the first post.)

One of our members has created a fabulous educational binder as a resource for the library staff and public. It describes each flower and grass we have planted, including botanical and common names, drawings and information about growing habits. In addition, the club and Friends of Great Falls Library paid to have designed and installed an informative sign near the meadow so that passers-by understand the purpose and value of the meadow. Below is a list of plants that are in the meadow as of 2016.  If new plants are added, the list will be updated.

Meadow Plants and Grasses

Library Meadow Maintenance

We are often asked about maintenance requirements for the meadow. We are also asked why it isn’t mowed more than once a year and why we leave all the dead brown grass and flower stems standing through the winter since it gets pretty unsightly by late February. Well, here’s the scoop:

Fairfax County handles the annual mowing of the library meadow. It is done once each year, usually in early March. The timing is contingent upon them being able to get a large mower in there when the ground is not saturated.

As with all meadows, it is important not to mow in the Fall because doing so would kill all of the pollinators that have laid their eggs in the stems. It would also remove ground cover for over-wintering wildlife and eliminate seeds that could help feed birds when not much else is available. It is important to remember that the purpose of the meadow goes beyond aesthetics. It provides numerous environmental benefits, so even though it looks awful in February, that is part of the normal ebb and flow of a meadow.

As for garden club maintenance, the meadow requires only occasional attention. The natural evolution of a meadow will involve the gradual disappearance of some species and the gradual expansion of others. Some things will thrive, some will migrate to other parts of the meadow, and others will be eaten by deer or out-competed by stronger, taller plants. It is survival of the fittest. This process can be affected by the addition or subtraction of flowers and grasses, depending on the club’s goals, budget and sense of aesthetics. For instance, over the past few years, we have been diligently adding grasses we know will spread aggressively so that we eventually get a larger percentage of grasses. This will enhance the overall appearance of the meadow and make it more attractive in the winter months. If it appears that invasive vines or “sticker bushes” are taking hold, a work day should be organized to remove them as much as possible.

Because the meadow was planted in a stormwater retention pond, we are prohibited from planting trees or shrubs there. We also maintain a two-foot clearing around the metal cage that covers the exit drain. After very large storms, the pond can fill with water and take several days to fully drain because this caged exit is designed to release the water slowly.


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