Glen Burnie; an oasis of native plants

By Page H. Gifford

Gardening has always been challenging in the Piedmont region of Virginia with its tough clay soil, dry, hot summers, and critters and bugs nibbling away at the landscape. But in the heart of Palmyra, Virginia, Glen Burnie is an example of gardening at its best. The secret is one master gardeners have been touting all along – native plants.

Resting on 187 acres, Glen Burnie is a showcase for native and some non-native plants. It is a testament to the natural beauty of Virginia. The house was designed by General John Hartwell Cocke for Elizabeth Cary. The house boasts of an array of architectural revival features, including late Federal, Greek, Gothic, and Jacobean. Its owner, Marvin Moss, bought Glen Burnie in 1991. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected from development in perpetuity by a historic easement with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Moss said he could see the framework of a natural garden emerging  when he arrived. There were daffodils blooming as early as late February in the meadow and on the edges of the forest. These were the English forest daffodil. It was this natural beauty that inspired Moss to make Glen Burnie’s gardens as natural as possible.

There were many elements of the property that would become part of Moss’ vision, including a one acre-pond below the house and the shaded stream which periodically flowed into it and a large earthen dam, that Moss viewed as a staging area for planting below it.

He and his friend, Father Kyrill, spent the first two years clearing invasive vines and trees from the meadow and its fringes. They immediately began planting in all these areas and dividing and transplanting the early daffodils. Moss’ daffodils are widely known throughout the county.

“The concept of the Glen Burnie garden evolved over time, but it was early on that Marvin decided that the key to success lay in his recognition that the nature of the rolling terrain around the house and the presence of a sizable water feature held the potential for making his garden appear natural however much it was contrived,” said Moss’ brother Phil.

Moss spent time gazing at the landscape and designing and researching his ideas, allowing the landscape to dictate his vision of a beautiful natural garden. Moss enhanced what already existed. His vision was a practical one: eliminating those plants that would be decimated by wildlife, the climate, environment, bugs, and disease. Roses, hostas, and day lilies are a few that are always ravaged by one thing or the other and should be reserved for contained areas or containers. The English cottage garden is not always appropriate for this area. Moss discovered that the deer thought of “hostas as caviar,” and he began planting various variegated sedges to brighten the forest floor and to provide a dash of color in his stream garden. He also planted Purple Siberian irises, that added late spring color as well as other plants along the edge of the stream.

Moss also didn’t depend on local nurseries for his plants but did what few of us ought to do and that is contact friends and neighbors who are knowledgeable about plants and may even share seeds or plants with fellow gardeners. Moss contacted an old friend who had moved to North Carolina and had been trained as a forester and a naturalist.

“He then began studying the propagation of native American azaleas and rhododendrons including his trips to the Appalachians to collect seed. He then founded the Hurricane Gap Nursery specializing in these unusual plants including some Asian species.

Other than The Stream Garden, Moss dedicated certain areas to other small gardens including The White Garden and The Pond Garden.

“The concept of the Stream Garden was really quite simple – to plant the intermittent stream flowing into the pond with plants that liked moist soil and shade with a preference for native plants,” Moss said. The Pond Garden features water plants such as the American lotus, which takes over a third of the pond, and the blue Virginia water iris.

Realizing that there was entirely too much green and there needed to be an additional infusion of color, Moss began dividing and transplanting various species and hybrid daffodils on the mounds which were a feature of The Stream Garden. These included dozens of the early yellow narcissus which he quickly learned would grow in relatively deep shade. He then added a number of white daffodils whose blooms coincided with the flowering of the iris and the phlox, planning his garden by time and season.

Not all were native, Moss also features non-native plants in his stream garden, including were a variety of hellebores.

“An unusual plant, which I like very much, it is the perennial shredded umbrella plant, which is very well named. It is slowly spreading on the mounds.” At the edge of this garden, he planted a fairly rare plant which he learned about from reading “Winterthur in Bloom.” “Not only does it bloom with many of the daffodils, but it also in the very late fall takes on a marvelous celadon shade. Many of these native plants re-seed.”

Gardening boomed during the pandemic and for avid gardeners like Moss, it gave him solace in comfort.

“During this stressful time of lock down and social isolation, my garden has been a source of inspiration and continuity to me. In reality, I’ve increased my planting of new trees, shrubs and bulbs over the last four months with lots of assistance from my part time gardener, Catherine Grey from Garden Keepers of Virginia. All of this gives me lots of reasons to look forward to the future.”

With gardeners struggling, particularly at the lake with adverse effects from environmental factors and wildlife, Moss gives them a road map for having a successful garden. With the recent National Wildlife Certification option for property owners at Lake Monticello, what Moss has created would fit in with the program at the lake.

With these gardens and surrounding meadows, Moss proves that natural, wildlife friendly gardens can exist and bloom anywhere throughout the four seasons and can be created on 187 acres or a small backyard. It’s all in the design and planning.

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