The Helen Childs Wildflower Garden is getting a new lease on life.
Located in Covington’s Fort Young Park, the half-acre garden is regaining some of its past beauty thanks to a cooperative effort between the Covington Parks and Recreation Department, several local organizations and a group of dedicated volunteers.
The VISION 2025 Garden Group along with city officials simultaneously began looking at this project when the Covington Parks and Recreation Department started work on the Jackson River access point at Fort Young.
A first step was to remove select trees that were shading the area and to monitor for a season to determine what plants still remained. Cynthia Baroody and Pat Hartman, volunteers from the Jackson River Garden Club, mapped these findings, while volunteers from the Alleghany Highlands 4-H Club, under the direction of agent Christine Hodges, also provided assistance.
“Keeping up with a garden can be a challenge, as anyone knows who has worked on maintaining one,” said Sandra Denius, initial facilitator of the VISION 2025 Garden Group and a volunteer on the project. “A few weeds and volunteer seedlings can quickly take over.
“In addition, as trees along the boundaries have matured, the availability of sun has led to the reduction of the sun-loving plants and an opportunity for shade-loving plants,” Denius added.
In the fall of 2016, a group of students and Boy Scouts from Troop 31 in Covington began the process of weeding and mulching the paths to improve access to the garden.
Additionally, an experiment began to determine how to control weeds without using herbicides. The approach involved using cardboard that had been set aside for recycling which Jackson River Enterprises made available for the project. JRE Executive Director Todd Anderson helped as volunteers cut back the creeping honeysuckle and laid layers of cardboard to help smother the weeds.
With mulch from utility work provided by Jim Oliver and the city, volunteers worked over the past winter to cover the cardboard — an effort that both holds it in place and looks more attractive.
As a volunteer with this project, Mary Fant Donnan helped coordinate volunteers for help in clearing the paths.
“It was fabulous to have the students and Scouts work hard to get the paths cleared,” Donnan said. “If you visit the garden now, it takes a bit of vision to imagine the model of the wildflower and shade garden that lies ahead. The next step is to weed the beds, and that, too, is a big task.”
The Helen Childs Memorial Wildflower Garden at Fort Young was dedicated by the Pines Garden Club on Sept. 2, 1984. It was established by Mrs. Lee Persinger and planted with a multitude of wildflower varieties, including a section of medicinal plants. Varieties were identified with markers. Pine trees were planted, that when mature, would shed needles, making a pine needle floor around the flowers.
Rare or endangered species were purchased from commercial growers, and a large sign for the entrance was made by the Alleghany Highlands Workshop. Bluebird houses were added, and paths made for walkers. There were no fences, and the public could visit the garden at any time free of charge.
At the rear border of the wildflower garden, Mrs. James Painter planted a row of redbud trees. Beyond this area, 500 pine seedlings donated by Westvaco and 200 seedlings donated by the U.S. Forest Service were planted.
The Pines Garden Club received national recognition in 1988 for the wildflower garden.
Later, Charles Hammond Jr. and Brian Sampson earned their Eagle Scout awards for work in repairing the garden. Hammond cleared and replaced walks and added new logs to their boundaries. Sampson cleared the area again of overgrowth, added new rails to the bridges and labeled plantings with permanent markings.
The 23 charter members of the Pines Garden Club held their first organizational meeting on May 7, 1958 at the home of Helen Childs. After nearly 40 years of long, active service, the members of the club voted to disband during a business luncheon on April 15, 1996, some 15 years after Mrs. Childs’ death.
Helen Virginia Childs, who died at the age of 78 on April 8, 1981, was active in a wide range of community and civic affairs. She was a charter member and served as the first president of the Covington Business and Professional Women’s Club, and she headed a committee that raised $5,000 for restoration efforts at Humpback Bridge.
She was a charter member and past president of the Alleghany Historical Society and was a charter member and the first president of the Pines Garden Club, an organization in which she held a life membership.
Professionally, she worked at Westvaco for 46 years and served as the private secretary to three mill managers — George L. Miller, Paul B. Lacy Sr. and E.C. Williams Jr.
With the disbandment of the Pines Garden Club, the future of the Helen Childs Memorial Wildflower Garden looked quite bleak. But thanks to the VISION 2025 Community Landscaping and Destination Gardens Committee, that future looks much greener. This group provides extensive community landscaping, community gardens and destination gardens that not only enhance the “quality of place” but also can be a draw for tourism. The Helen Childs Memorial Wildflower Garden fits that description.
Covington Parks and Recreation Director Allen Dressler said he greatly appreciates the efforts of all those volunteers involved with the VISION 2025 group and their dedication to improving the Helen Childs Wildflower Garden area. He encouraged residents to become involved in beautification projects throughout the area, because first impressions are a viable asset to the Alleghany Highlands.
“I have a long-standing association with the Jackson River Garden Club, working on many beautification projects throughout the city over the years,” Dressler said. “The Helen Childs Wildflower Garden is a hidden gem in our community — a wonderful, passive area at our Fort Young Park.”
Reprinted with permission from the Virginian Review. This Story appeared in the August 31, 2017, edition of the newspaper.