Places We Protect

Arlington Native Plant Garden

Steps from the city's hustle and bustle, a peaceful and purposeful ode to the mid-Atlantic’s natural heritage awaits year round in "TNC's Tiniest Preserve."

A bed of white wild hydrangeas.
Wild Hydrangea These wild hydrangeas can be found at the Arlington Office's Native Plant Garden. © TNC

TNC's Tiniest Preserve?

Mere steps away from the hustle and bustle of North Fairfax Drive, a peaceful and purposeful ode to the mid-Atlantic’s natural heritage awaits year round. Come take a break in "TNC’s Tiniest Preserve," the Arlington Native Plant Garden.

Overview

Description

To step into the Arlington Office’s backyard is to encounter a seemingly infinite ecosystem, if you’re up to the task. True, it is a humble half-acre plot. But looking closely, one can witness past and future seasons at work, demonstrating in miniature the perennial symphony that naturally unfolds across the mid-Atlantic at the sun’s command.

More than 150 of the 16,000 species of flowering plants, ferns and trees native to the United States grow here. In the spring, you may notice the bees, butterflies and blooms on the surface first. The winterscape appears deceptively sparse, though bird activity proves otherwise. With a little help from volunteers and Snitzer Landscaping, the garden changes with the seasons, engaging curious visitors year round.

Use the tabs below to learn about the garden, the changes to observe each season and how native plants enrich ecosystems. Look to the guidepost at the entrance on North Stuart Street for complete self-guided tour information.

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Hours

The garden is open during daylight hours year-round, seven days a week.

Explore our work in this region

Native Garden Highlights

Explore some of the species you might find within the Arlington Native Plant Garden. Click the image to learn more!

Yellow flower on a vine.
A bed of white wild hydrangeas.
A yellow flower with a brown center.
A cluster of pale green fruit on a tree.
A cluster of purple flowers.
Red maple tree.
A bee atop a purple coneflower.
Trumpet vine.
Clusters of small, orange flowers.
Red beebalm flowers.

Seasonal Guides

  • Spring

    A tour of our garden can begin just outside TNC's back doors. Here, you may catch many of the perennial wildflowers in bloom in the long, curved bed straight ahead. Purple moss phlox on the left side bloom first, before patches of deep purple delphiniums appear near the wall. Large clumps of false wild indigo start to sprout in the center—in late spring, they will have bright purple spikes of flowers. The more subtle drooping purple flower-heads of wild onions will start in June, along with red trumpet honeysuckle vines hanging over the wall.

    To your right up the steps, the sweetbay magnolia blooms in late spring, in contrast to earlier flowering cultivated species. Their sweet perfume fills this area when they are in bloom. Around the birdbath is a selection of ferns, and further back are clumps of June blooming penstemons. The Carolina Silverbell tree, which is covered in pale pink flowers every spring, was planted in honor of Wangari Maathai, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and an avid environmental activist. Deciduous flame azaleas also bring some brief late spring color. Our two composters are used for our office composting program, while most of the garden waste is either composted on site or in the large wire containers in the back.

    Follow the winding path away from our building, and you’ll see some trees with a whitish, papery, peeling bark. These are river birches, the southernmost American species in this mostly boreal genus. The related paper birch of the north woods has thicker, layered bark strong enough for canoe building. The three small trees with hanging blossoms that turn from green to white are appropriately named fringe trees, and always bloom at slightly different times.  These are surrounded by a selection of perennials: the bright pink smooth phlox and the scarlet tradescantia bloom in late spring, and the other perennials bloom in the summer and fall. The two evergreen trees towards the back in the central meadow are eastern red cedars and provide excellent habitat and food for birds.  Note a slight hill here: this feature allows us to plant a wider variety of plants, because the hill stays drier than the lower areas. Water-loving plants, such as iris and swamp sunflower, are in the lowland area, and drought-tolerant plants, such as black-eyed susans and butterfly weed are higher up. Taller grasses have been added for variety and switchgrass, a light, airy grass further back from the pathways, has been successfully used as a large scale filtration device to stop soil erosion. Fun fact: Switchgrass is being researched for its use as biomass energy to replace coal and other non-renewable energy sources.

    Along the back walk is our woodlands area with more river birches showing off their beautiful peeling bark. Further along, look for patches of low-growing purple iris. Nearby, arching branches of white flowers appear on the Virginia sweetspire bushes in late spring. Above the sweetspire you may see the beautiful blossoms of the redbud trees.

    Continue along toward the trellis, and you pass our white oak tree, the leaf of which is on The Nature Conservancy’s logo. On the small hill surrounding our oak tree, look closely at the unusually shaped red and yellow flowered columbine, while purple and white moss phlox and the native sedum ternatum grow among the blueberry bushes. Nearby, the roses will soon be starting to bloom, and the trellis is quickly getting covered with trumpet creeper, a locally native vine with large orange flowers that attract hummingbirds in summer. Behind the benches are a variety of shade-loving perennials, most of which bloom in spring. These include Virginia bluebells, mayapples, foamflower, golden ragwort, yellow wood poppies, golden Alexander, Jacob’s ladder, wild geranium, green and gold, and various violets. Walking toward the Taylor Street gate, we have purple spiderwort on the right and, nearby, bright yellow sundrops will start blooming in late spring or early summer.

    Walking back toward TNC’s building, we have a wide selection of trees and other plants. Some of the trees, such as the yellowwood and red maple, were planted not only for their fall color, but also to eventually provide shade on the patio. Flame azaleas add late spring color in addition to the flowering dogwoods, Virginia’s state tree. The serviceberry trees will later provide plenty of food for the birds with their many berries. In late spring, purple geraniums bloom near the wall under the red maple, and closer to the building, you may see golden ragwort blooming—this plant will grow in deep shade, spreads fairly quickly and makes an excellent ground cover.

  • Summer

    A tour of our garden can begin just outside TNC's back doors. Here, you may catch a variety of perennial wildflowers in bloom in the long, curved bed straight ahead. Many of these plants are in the aster family and bloom in summer. These include the black-eyed susan, Maryland’s state flower, the purple coneflower (also known as echinacea) and various species of coreopsis. The more subtle purple nodding flowers in front are wild onions in the lily family. Midsummer blooms include the tall, showy, bright pink garden phlox—native to Virginia and commonly used as a garden flower—along with the bright red beebalm. Later on, the blazing star, with its purple and white spikes, will burst onto the scene. And now is the time to start looking for the American goldfinches, bright yellow birds that love to eat the flower seeds here. As you wander through the garden, look for rabbits, squirrels and the occasional chipmunk that also make their homes here.

    To your right up the steps, the native sweetbay magnolia trees bloom through early summer, in contrast to earlier flowering cultivated species. The garden area around the birdbath has a selection of various shrubs, including sumac, spicebushes, deciduous azaleas and hydrangeas, along with various ferns, sedges and other ground covers. Next to the steps are obedient plants, which will have white flower spikes in late summer. Our compost tumblers are almost hidden behind the large, white hydrangea flowers this time of year. Most of the garden waste is composted on site as we weed and prune—food scraps from the office are processed in the tumblers.

    Follow the winding path away from TNC’s building and on both sides is a selection of flowering perennials, grasses and sedges. In the area between the two curved paths, the summer blooming flowers include various species of asters, perennial sunflowers, black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers and Joe Pye Weed. The orange butterfly weed (a milkweed) and common milkweed, which is spreading amazingly well, will hopefully help the monarch butterflies thrive, as they only lay their eggs on milkweeds. In addition, we have one American chestnut tree, donated by The American Chestnut Foundation and planted here in 2008—this particular tree has been bred to resist the blight that attacked all American chestnut trees, most of which died, in the early 20th century.

    On the left side of the path in our central meadow, note the two evergreen trees towards the back—these are eastern red cedars and provide excellent habitat and food for birds. Behind the cedars are some yuccas which get a single tall spike of white flowers. The slight hill there allows us to plant a wider variety of plants because the hill will be drier than the lower areas. Water-loving plants, such as iris and swamp sunflower, are in the lowland area, and drought-tolerant plants, such as black-eyed susans, and orange butterfly weed are higher up. In mid to late summer, look for the native hibiscus in the lower area toward the bee house, as it has huge scarlet flowers when blooming.  Taller grasses are added throughout the central meadow for variety; and switchgrass, the light, airy one, has been successfully used as a large scale filtration device to stop soil erosion. Fun fact: Switchgrass is also being researched for its use as biomass energy to replace coal and other non-renewable energy sources.

    Along the back walk you will see a group of trees with a whitish, papery, peeling bark. These are river birches, the southernmost American species in this mostly boreal genus. (The related paper birch of the north woods has thicker, layered bark strong enough for canoe building.) The large hydrangea flowers stand out even in the deep shade at the back, and go from white to greenish pink as summer progresses.  Tall, yellow flowering cup-plants grow on the north side of the path under the birch, while the tall, white flowered yuccas are on the left. 

    Continuing along toward the trellis, look up at the redbud trees, above the roses. These bloomed in early spring, and now have many hanging seed pods, which hint at why these trees are classified in the pea family. Just behind the roses, the large shrubs with tall cream flower spikes are aptly called bottlebrush buckeye. The square area on the left has our white oak tree, the leaf of which is on The Nature Conservancy’s logo.  Surrounding our oak is a mix of more perennials, including the attractive Golden Mosa goldenrod, which starts blooming in mid-summer. The trellis is covered with trumpet creeper, a locally native vine with large orange flowers that attract hummingbirds. Behind the benches are a variety of mostly spring-blooming woodland perennials under the shade of serviceberries and American hollies

    Walking back toward TNC’s building, note the many trees on your right that were planted just a few years ago and are now thriving. The yellowwood and red maple were chosen for their brilliant fall color, and the maple now provides more afternoon shade on the patio. The flowering dogwoods, Virginia’s state tree, and the serviceberry trees provide plenty of food for the birds with their many berries. Summer blooming perennials here include tall coreopsis, yarrow, purple coneflower, and ironweed among others. Closer to the building is a collection of mostly shade spring blooming perennials, with some exceptions: cardinal flower is a mid-summer bloomer with bright red spikes of flowers, and jewelweed is an annual that freely reseeds, and has unusual orange flowers that bloom from mid to late summer. Jewelweed is closely related to the common garden plant, impatiens, and has the same type of seeds that burst open when touched at the right time; hence its other name, touch-me-not.

  • Fall

    A tour of our garden can begin just outside TNC's back doors. Many spring, summer and fall perennial wildflowers are planted in the bed straight ahead. Several of these plants are in the aster family, including ox-eyes (or false sunflowers), purple coneflowers and purple asters. Many of the flowers are gone, but the coneflower seed heads provide plenty of food for the goldfinches that feed here every year. Trumpet honeysuckle cascades over the back wall. In the center, the large clumps of false wild indigo that bloomed back in spring now have long hanging seed pods that rattle noisily when you shake them. Even though this wild indigo is in the pea family, their seeds are highly toxic. In late fall, look for the tall deep purple flower spikes of monkshood—if you look closely at the shape of the individual flowers, you will see how they got their name. 

    To your right up the steps, the native sweetbay magnolia trees bloom through early summer, in contrast to earlier flowering cultivated species, and now have bright red seed heads. The garden area around the birdbath has a selection of deciduous azaleas, spicebushes and various perennials, including the late-blooming white wood asters. These asters frequently "volunteer" and are found around the garden. Closer to the sidewalk are staghorn sumacs, with tall red seed heads on the upper branches and bright red leaves. Our compost tumblers are managed by volunteers, and while most of the garden waste is composted on site as we weed and prune, food scraps from the office are processed here.

    Follow the winding path away from our building and on both sides is a selection of flowering perennials, grasses and sedges. On the right, the winterberry bushes now have their bright red berries—though eventually the birds will eat them all—and behind them is an aralia tree with deep scarlet/purple berries and stems. Near the wall, note the smaller American chestnut tree, which was donated by The American Chestnut Foundation. This particular tree was bred to resist the blight that attacked all the American chestnut trees, most of which died, in the early 20th century. The area between the two curved paths has a mix of perennials—fall blooms you may see here are purple asters, white boneset, swamp sunflowers, narrow-leaved sunflowers and various goldenrods. The leaves on the black gum tree in the center turn a brilliant red in the fall, but then the leaves drop quickly.

    In our central meadow on the left side of the curved path, we have two evergreen trees towards the back—these are eastern red cedars, which provide excellent habitat and food for birds. The slight hill there allows us to plant a wider variety of plants, as it remains drier than the lower areas. Water-loving plants, such as iris, are in the lowland area, and drought-tolerant plants, such as black-eyed susans, are higher up.  The Shining Sumac trees turn bright red and contrast well with the other flowers and plants, such as the bright-colored narrow-leaved sunflowers that bloom in late fall.

    Along the back walk you will see a group of trees with whitish, papery, peeling bark. These are river birches, the southernmost American species in this mostly boreal genus. (The related paper birch of the north woods has thicker, layered bark strong enough for canoe building.) The large flowers of the hydrangea in the far back, beneath the birch trees, turn from white to green to brown through the seasons. Closer to the pathway the coral bells may still be blooming, with Christmas ferns and sedge closer to the wall. Further along the back walk, the redbud trees have many hanging seed pods, which hint at why these trees are classified in the pea family. The native roses beneath may now flaunt bright red rosehips. On the left near the bee house is a large patch of purple obedient plant that will bloom for many weeks.

    Continuing along toward the trellis, you will pass our white oak tree, the leaf of which is on The Nature Conservancy’s logo. Surrounding this is a mix of perennials, including coral bells and sprays of goldenmosa goldenrod. The trellis is covered with trumpet creeper.  In the summer, this vine has large, bright orange flowers that attract hummingbirds. Then, in the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow with long hanging seed pods. Behind the benches are mostly spring-blooming woodland perennials under the shade of serviceberries and American hollies

    Walking back toward TNC’s building we have a variety of trees on the right, many of which, such as the yellowwood and red maple, were planted for their late fall color. As the maple grows, it will eventually provide summer shade on the patio. The flowering dogwoods, Virginia’s state tree, and the serviceberry trees provide plenty of food for the birds with their many berries. Closer to the building is a collection of mostly spring blooming perennials. Two exceptions are the bright white snakeroot and the orange jewelweed. The snakeroot grows in deep shade at both the corner of the building and at the far back against the building’s wall, spreading quite aggressively. The jewelweed is a gentler colonizer and is closely related to the common garden annual, impatiens. It has the same type of seeds that burst open when touched at the right time; hence it’s other name, touch-me-not.

  • Winter

    A tour of our garden can begin just outside TNC's back doors. While winter is generally not the time that people think of gardens, there is plenty for the diligent visitor to find. Take note of bright berries, tree bark and tall grasses. The dormant grasses and other plants are not cut down until the spring, so that—as well as providing visual interest—the birds that winter here still have habitat and food for the season.

    In winter, some seed heads remain for the birds, while other perennial wildflowers lie in wait of spring, summer or fall. The purple coneflower seeds are mostly eaten by this time, but you may see—and rattle—the long seed pods on the false wild indigo bush in the center.  

    Up the steps to your right are the compost tumblers where we process food waste from the office. (Most of the garden waste is composted on site as we weed and prune.) Further along, look for the winterberry bushes on your right, the females of which are sometimes covered in bright red berries. Winter birds love the seeds and eventually devour them all. Nearby, you may be lucky enough to see the small yellow spiky flowers on the witch hazel bush, one of the few plants that bloom in winter. The fruit that comes later disperses its seeds by exploding— sometimes launching the seeds more than 30 feet away! These seeds are also eaten by many birds. The staghorn sumacs stand tall next to the sidewalk with their large upright red seed heads.

    To the left of the steps is our new sassafras tree, which may grow up to 40 feet tall. It is a host plant for both the Spicebush and Laurel swallowtail butterflies. It also has a long history of being used for both medicinal purposes and food by Native American tribes.

    Along the path that winds away from TNC’s building, the large milkweed seedpods stand out among the dormant grasses through most of the winter. On the right, we have one small American chestnut tree that was bred to be resistant to the blight that devastated wild chestnut trees in the early 20th century. Toward the back of the garden to the left, two evergreen trees—eastern red cedars—provide excellent winter habitat and food for birds. Note the slight hill: this feature was created to allow for a wider variety of plants, as the hill remains drier than the lower areas. Water-loving plants are in the lowland area, with drought-tolerant plants higher up. 

    In the woodlands along the back, the river birches show off their bark. The river birch is deciduous (that is, it loses its leaves in winter) but its whitish, papery, peeling bark can easily compete with evergreens on the winter stage. These are the southernmost American species in this mostly boreal genus . (The related paper birch of the north woods has thicker, layered bark strong enough for canoe building.) Further along, near the John C. Sawhill Memorial stone, the rose bushes have lost their leaves, but one can admire their bright red rose hips until the birds finish them off. Nearby, the redbud trees with hanging seed pods argue for their place in the pea family. 

    Continuing toward the trellis, you will pass a white oak tree, the leaf of which is on the TNC logo. The white oak tree, now starting to develop the characteristic white bark at its base, is one of the few deciduous trees that often keeps its leaves through the winter, particularly in its younger years. The trellis is covered with trumpet creeper, a locally native vine with large orange flowers that attract hummingbirds in the summer, with the leaves turning a golden yellow in the fall. 

    Walking back toward TNC’s building, the area on the right has a selection of various shrubs, trees, grasses and perennial flowers. Some trees were planted for their fall color, such as the yellowwood and red maple. In a few years, the maple will also shade the patio. In the spring, the flowering dogwoods, Virginia’s state tree, will again brighten this area with their pink and white blooms.

Common milkweed: a cluster of purple flowers.
Common Milkweed This species of milkweed is a vital food source for monarch butterflies. © Trisha Seelman/TNC

Why native plants?

By planting natives, we are helping to:

  • Educate gardeners on the beauty and ease of native gardening.
  • Provide habitat for local wildlife, including birds and butterflies.
  • Preserve biodiversity, allowing native wildlife to thrive and not be overrun by introduced invasive species.
  • Improve water quality.
  • Eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Native plants are those that occur naturally in a region or area, without direct or indirect human intervention. Across the United States, most familiar garden plants are not native to North America. The half-acre native plant garden behind TNC’s headquarters features more than 150 of the 16,000 species of flowering plants, ferns and trees that are native to the United States. While most of these plants are native to the Washington, D.C. and mid-Atlantic area, others were chosen from climatically similar parts of our country. Future plantings will primarily include local natives from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The diversity of native trees, shrubs and flowers make this garden unique in an area populated by the usual commercial landscaping. In addition to providing year-round interest, TNC's garden has been designated as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, which has contributed to getting Arlington County designated as a certified Community Wildlife Habitat. We hope the attractive display of native U.S. trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers and ferns in our garden will encourage others to consider and promote greater use of native plants in gardening and landscaping. 

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Questions?

Don't hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns by emailing officeservices@tnc.org.