GREAT SHIPLOCK PARK REFRESH — 2022 Update and What’s Still to Come

Author: Mary Petres

In the life of a garden, nine years is an eternity.  If you have ever dabbled in the dirt, you quickly realize that gardening is not a static activity.   Gardens are constantly in a state of change due to factors we can control and those we cannot. Our gardens in Great Shiplock Park (GSP) are no different.  Every day in the garden is a learning experience.

A lot has changed since the initial installation of the Gardens at Great Shiplock Park and the road to today has not been without its challenges. 

Shortly after we finished planting the trees, the word got out to the local beaver community.  Needless to say, they are extremely efficient workers.  Hence, we now have “beaver proof” fencing around many of the trees in the park.  

The bulk of the normally bullet proof (in most cases) Mulhy Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) inexplicably died within the first year and on the flipside the Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) thrived too well.  We found that in a small space the sea oats quickly out competed many other plants.  The rain garden performed beautifully for years, but finally reached the point of needing a major face lift.

A rain garden is a depressed area in the landscape that collects rain water from a roof, driveway or street and allows it to soak into the ground. In this case the rain garden in Great Shiplock Park collects run off from the parking lot.  It is planted with grasses and flowering perennials.

Rain gardens can also help filter out pollutants in runoff and provide food and shelter for butterflies, song birds and other wildlife.

Rain gardens recreate the natural function of the land, which includes; capturing rainwater, filtering out pollutants, and recharging groundwater.

More complex rain gardens with drainage systems and amended soils are often referred to as bioretention.

You get the point that in nine years we have learned a lot. We are now in the middle of giving the park a facelift.  Anna Aquino a long term part of the Capital Tree team and co-chair of the sustainable management committee designed what we are calling the pollinator parking lot.  The first part of the plan was installed Spring 2022.  This involved refurbishing the rain garden (minus the sea oats) and installing a pollinator garden in the space surrounding it.   So far the installation is proving to be a great success.  We have seen Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), Yellow Sulfurs (Phoebis sennae), and a range of native bees visiting nectar producing flowers. Though only recently planted up this spring, we even spotted Monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) on the Common milkweed (Asclepia incarnata) munching away and prepping for its chrysalis phase.  American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) have been delighted to find that we have left the seed heads on most of the plants.  

These same seed heads also afforded us the opportunity to host a group of pre-schoolers from St. James’s Children’s Center. The children collected seeds to create seed balls; later to distribute in select locations to foster new plant growth.  The attention to detail from ones so little to the busy insect life in the garden was utterly amazing.

The next phase in the  Great Shiplock Park refresh project will be installed this fall.  We plan to refurbish the median area. The existing trees will be replaced with Capital Region natives and the underlying perennial gardens will be replanted with more Virginia native plants.  We will also replace several of the existing River birch (Betulus nigra) trees with American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) along the canal at the locks that died over the winter.

If you have not visited the park recently, or have never ventured this way, we encourage you to come and enjoy the renewed vitality of the gardens.  Over the coming months, we will share our successes and failures as we work to bring new life (literally) to the area.  The increase in observed wildlife from the changes already made is incredible!


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