Every year, Jan Harrington says it will be her last. Every year, however, Harrington is lured back to a 20-by-20-foot garden plot of land in the middle of Reston. "I always say it’s my last year," she said. "It never is."
"It’s good exercise and it’s a very sociable activity, there is always someone up in the garden," said Harrington, a member of the Reston Garden Club, adding that she also enjoys watching the array of birds that descend on the gardens. "There’s just something very satisfying about those gardens. It’s a great stress reliever and very relaxing because you get tired, but you know why you are getting tired."
Harrington, who spent part of her youth on a farm, said the gardens attract all types of people, at all age levels including a couple in their mid-80s who are out nearly everyday. "My dad was a gardener and my mom gardened until she was 90, so I guess somebody has to keep up the family tradition."
Like Harrington, Jennifer Billings said she enjoys the social interaction with the other gardeners in her Lake Anne plot. "Gardeners are just the most wonderful people. They are all so gentle and nice," she said.
CLAUDIA THOMPSON-DEAHL, the Reston Association (RA) naturalist and environmental resource manager, directs the project and she said the plots, which now number 250, have been part of Reston’s history since the early 1960s. Today, Thompson-Deahl said, residents rush to apply each year for the limited spaces or to add their names to the growing wait list of would-be gardeners. "Gardening is work, but people just love it," said Thompson-Deahl, who has tended her own plot for more than two decades.
All of the garden sites sit atop the transcontinental gas pipeline, Thompson-Deahl said. The 12-state, 10,500-mile Transcontinental Gas Pipeline runs through Reston on its way from the Gulf Coast of Texas to New York. Trees are prohibited over the pipeline so the well-positioned garden plots have excellent sun exposure, Thompson-Deahl said. Many of the vegetables and flowers grown in the four Reston gardens depend on maximum exposure to sunlight.
"So much of Reston is so heavily full of trees and so many of the properties are part of cluster areas, so these gardens are a natural result," said Jan Harrington, who has been tending to the same full-size 20-by-20-foot patch in the Golf Course Island plot for more than 20 years. The three gardens at Hunters Woods and Golf Course Island are all organic plots. No inorganic pesticides or fertilizers are allowed.
"It’s like some parallel universe right off busy Wiehle Avenue," said Billings, who grows beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. "You just get lost as to where you are."
FIVE YEARS AGO after getting off the wait list, Billings' husband, Michael, gave his then-fiancee the plot in Lake Anne for her birthday. Jennifer Billings had recently moved up from North Carolina where she had land to grow crops. "My husband was afraid I would be very unhappy up in Northern Virginia without all that land," she said, laughing. "The first chance he had, he drove me over there to show me our spot. The result has been a very happy marriage."
While gardeners like Harrington tend to their plot at least every other day, not all local gardeners have the ability or luxury to make it out to their plots quite so regularly. Neil Guttler has had a 10-by-10-foot quarter plot in one of the two Hunters Woods gardens since 1988. "The hardest part is finding the time to come out here," he said while picking weeds that had accumulated during his recent two-week trip to the beach. "I was here on July Fourth to clean up my plot before I left, now I am back picking weeds, again. I am always one of the last people to get out here. They are pretty quick to let you know if you need to get out and clean your weeds or turn over your soil."
The RA rules state that each plot must show signs of planting activity by May 1, a deadline that was pushed back due to the torrential rains this spring. If no work has been done, RA reserves the right to pass a plot along to the next person on the waiting list. Gardeners who do not regularly weed their plots also risk losing their overgrown gardens, according to RA rules.
"It’s been a challenge," Billings said, "but it wouldn’t be gardening if it wasn’t."
Despite the time commitment, Guttler, a teacher in Arlington, said he relishes the time he is able to spend gardening. Surveying his crop of tomatoes, yellow squash and cucumbers, Guttler said he often takes the short walk or bike ride from his Reston house to his plot and then finishes his day in the nearby Hunters Woods pool. Every year, Guttler said he is "amazed" at the results of his modest garden, saying that he and his wife always have more than they can eat. They give away much of their crops to friends and neighbors, he added.
"I have enjoyed it tremendously and I learn a little more every year," he said, adding that he had recently enlisted in the Fairfax County "Master Gardener Program." "It’s just another great thing Reston has to offer."