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First Visit to Patuxent Wildlife Refuge

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge

I finally made the 10-minute-or-so drive to the only wildlife research refuge in the U.S., the Patuxent Research Refuge.   I discovered that we have FDR to thank for carving out close to 13,000 acres from USDA and military land to help protect and conserve the nation’s wildlife and habitat.  So there’s room for forest, meadow and wetlands here, which are homes migratory stopping places for all sorts of wildlife, especially birds.

Humans who stop by are just about last in priority here, as we should be.  We take nothing but photos, leave nothing behind,  and stay on the damn walkways.   Also, no biking or “non-wildlife-related recreational activities such as picnicking, ball playing, camping and sunbathing.”  Good!

But wildlife-viewing opportunities abound, from afoot on trails or in trams.

When I visited last weekend the sky actually looked like this – no Photoshop needed.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


The shack below looked at first like a duck blind, from which people, you know, shoot ducks.  What a relief to find out it’s just a viewing shed.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge

Below, the view from one of the openings in the shed.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


Next is an exhibit and demonstration site that won me over – it’s a shrub-filled right-of-way that’s perfect for power lines running through it, but still teaming with wildlife.  Nothing like the typical turfgrass right-of-way that’s pretty much a dead zone for critters.  The sign below explains it all.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


Another interesting feature is the Conservation Heritage Loop with several signs honoring “Conservation Leaders” in history, like Audubon and Thoreau in the plaque below.  Others representing a later era include Lady Bird Johnson, Jacques Cousteau and Morris Udall.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Conservation Leaders


To gardeners and garden designers, Frederick Law Olmsted may seem like an odd choice and it certainly surprised me.  I see from the sign that he championed Yosemite Valley, but his imprint on landscape design is now viewed as a mixed blessing, at best, due to his popularizing of great swaths of turfgrass to “create the impression of pastoral meadows.”  Unfortunately, that’s become the accepted use of open land in suburbs and and even cities across the U.S., even where annual rainfall is meager.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Frederick Law Olmsted


Below, a real meadow.  Simply gorgeous.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


Possibly my favorite part of the Refuge is this Schoolyard Habitat alongside the visitors center, which even in mid-November is lush and interesting.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


Below, paths through and seating in and near the Schoolyard Habitat.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


As a gardener I’d suggest some clarifications to the signage at the Schoolyard Habitat, to better help people choose plants that will thrive in their own yards.  The statement that native plants “need less watering than non-natives.  Once established, they require very little watering!” can lead to plant-choice mistakes and plant death because it gives the impression that ALL native plants are drought-tolerant when in fact, native plants are only drought-tolerant if they’re native to dry spots, like the woods.  If they’re native to wetlands, many of them need supplemental watering during periods of drought.  (And these days, droughts are longer than ever.)

Conversely, non-native plants from super-dry parts of the world actually need less water than plants native to Maryland which, after all, gets 40+ inches of rain a year.

Again on the subject of pest problems, the language is misleading.  Native plants are indeed generally better able to resist native insects and diseases, but when it comes to nonnative insects and diseases, the nonnative plants that evolved with those pests are better at surviving them.  And unfortunately, nonnative pests like Japanese beetles are here to stay.

Bottom line: whatever plants you put in your garden are going to need care, so my focus is showing people how to do that.

Patuxent Wildlife Refuge


Garden writers and teachers of horticulture are always scrambling to clarify statements like this that can lead to confusion and gardening mistakes.  Turns out, plants just aren’t that easy to generalize about and the devil is in the details.

I Joined Friends of  Patuxent

I picked up a brochure about Friends of Patuxent, the nonprofit that raises money for this fabulous place and supports it in all sorts of ways, and joined right away.  Can’t wait for the first “seasonal tram tour” in March.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

  1. Pam J.
    | Reply

    You show so well why this is really the most beautiful season. Those reds, oranges, yellows, browns, and greens are more interesting than just green and brown. On my first visit to this place a few years ago I saw a beekeeping demonstration and that led me to become (briefly) a beekeeper. The Patuxant W. Center is a hidden gem!

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