For the last day of spring break, I decided to do something new with the kids: A visit to the American Horticultural Society’s River Farm. It wasn’t a new venture for lack of trying; we attempted the outing on a Sunday a couple of months ago, only to learn upon arrival that it’s not open on weekends October through March. So, with both kids home at the same time for the last day in awhile, we headed out to Alexandria to explore the grounds, gardens, and estate house of the AHS headquarters.
River Farm is located just off the GW Parkway on the way to Mount Vernon, right along the Potomac River. It’s quite easy to find as long as you keep an eye out for the turn off the Parkway (we missed it our first time out there). East Boulevard Drive leads right to the front gates, and from there you drive up a short road, loop around the orchard, then park in a small lot.
Right next to the lot is a teaching and demonstration garden, which also contains a donation box — admission to River Farm is free, but donations are welcome to help with operations and upkeep. After sliding our contribution through the slot, we followed a path that led to the lovely grounds behind the house and sweeping views of the Potomac.
I don’t know if it’s a consequence of being city kids or what, but when my children see open green space, they run. And that’s just what they did here. Sometimes it’s a problem, but in this case, it was perfectly fine. The lawn behind the house leads downhill to a low stone wall called the Ha-Ha Wall (I almost expected Nelson Muntz to pop his head up at any moment), and beyond that is a meadowy area traversed by grassy paths. Even though Owen and Sasha ran in separate directions, I could still see them both and knew they were safe as long as they didn’t run further down the hill to the river.
When we all caught up with each other, we walked along the trails and read about the vegetation and plantings on signs posted around the area. Most of the flora seemed pretty dry right now — perhaps all those 70-degree March days took a toll — but it was still quite pretty and gloriously tranquil. After strolling through, we walked down to the river to take in the views for a bit.
We finally made our way back up the hill to the kids’ favorite part — the Children’s Gardens. On the north side of the house, is a lovely area (not that the whole place isn’t lovely) with all kinds of mini gardens designed to stimulate children’s interest in plants and nature. There’s a little fort that kids can crawl under or over; the Boat Garden with a real row boat to climb aboard; a Little House on the Prairie Garden with – yup! – a little house to play in; and many more charming areas for kids to enjoy. And right next to it all are more gardens with beautiful flowers, plants, brick paths, and nice seating areas that would make a great picnic spot.
Owen and Sasha played there awhile, joining a group of children who were frolicking (never has this word seemed more apropos, thanks to the delightful setting) throughout the garden together.
The kids probably could have played in the garden for hours, but they needed a potty break, so we went into the house, where guests are welcome to use the bathrooms. The downstairs is also open to tour — you can view art in the lobby and a larger dining room and walk through the kitchen and office.
On the way out the kids stopped to sit in rocking chairs in the back porch and had there been more available (a couple were already occupied), it would have been wonderful to sit there all afternoon, just rocking and taking in the view. Instead, we called it a day and made our way back home.
River Farm is located at 7931 East Boulevard Drive in Alexandria. It’s open from 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday all year, and 9am – 1pm on Saturday from April through September. Hours will actually be extended this weekend for a special event: The Spring Garden Market will take place April 12-14. While Thursday is for members only, the Market will be open to the public on Friday 9am – 6pm and Saturday 9am – 3pm.