What does “Rural Metro DC Area” even mean?


The latest in the on-going correspondence between Marianne Willburn and Scott Beuerlein.

6 March 2020

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

I am grateful to digital correspondence in that I cannot catch one of the diseases currently incubating in the Petri dish that is your part of Ohio by opening a slightly smudged and suspect envelope.  I wish you both healing – and broth. And my very best to your mother as she recuperates too.

My former Marine chuckled grimly when I read to him your description of us living rurally within the benevolent outer rings of D.C. How right you are – how beautifully you put it, and how sad for the country that the wealthiest counties in the U.S. cluster around the warm teat that is Washington D.C.

A bonus of living within that benevolent outer ring – the National Cherry Blossom Festival in a few short weeks. This year March 20th – April 12th.

For our part I will plead only that we live in the far northwest and often forgotten corner of one of those counties, where side roads are graveled and children ride on bicycles without helmets in the evening.  There are generational farms and farmers here, and though it is true that many are turning their hands to the lucrative temptations of artisanal goat cheese and picnic baskets for wine tasting 30-somethings, it is a rural community for now. Our internet data is delivered by horse and wagon.

Every Thursday.

Our washed-out road in the spring.

Still, change is coming. Two of our neighbors are only here on the weekends, and when I met one of the newly ensconced last autumn, she needed a moment to process the fact that we lived here full-time.

Later at a gathering in their tastefully renovated farmhouse (redundant), Michael and I brought down the tone somewhat by joking over the dangers of felling trees on our own – much like you did last month – and about how a death and dismemberment policy on Michael had opened up new opportunities for risk and reward.

There was a Bethesda psychologist in the company. We haven’t been invited back.

We were kids in Northern California in the eighties, and watch this slow urban creep with not a little worry. No matter how large our compost pile, and how ancient and dirty our automobiles, we know that we are part of the very thing we fear.

My grandfather lost his soon-to-be-Silicon-Valley San Jose farm to skyrocketing taxes; and I remember as a child (during a roadtrip into the city) having my mother point at two incongruously planted palm trees in the middle of three levels of freeway flyovers. “Those were right outside our front door.” she said, and then muttered something her children were not used to hearing her mutter.

Though you make such a brilliant case in your letter for selling everything and moving with great haste to the English-grey, Corona-virus-saturated suburban wasteland that is apparently the greater Cincinnati area, twenty years in the Mid-Atlantic has convinced me of two things: I don’t wish to live anywhere colder, or more humid.

Once upon a time, I didn’t know what an ice storm was.

When the tax assessor finally decides that we have rented this lovely piece of land long enough and must vacate it for the second home ambitions of Capitol Hill consultants and their beautifully groomed labradoodles, I fantasize of once again flexing my gardening fingers in a Mediterranean climate – this time in the Mediterranean. The recent Philadelphia Flower Show with its Riviera Holiday theme has only strengthened those fantasies (of the gardening climate, not the Monaco glitz).

They had me at Vespa.

However, I do share your love of moss walks – mossy anything really – and such lushness will not be feasible further south in San Marco, no matter how many young, powerfully-built Italian gardeners I put on the job or how many glasses of Prosecco I sip whilst watching them try.

I too have been underwater with Powerpoints, articles and book deadlines, but there is nothing like unrelenting pressure to make the cold months fly by.  At a recent symposium I was introduced by a cheerful, funny woman who started the proceedings by announcing there were only a few days left of winter. The crowd cheered. I started to sweat blood. There is simply too much work out there and too few hours left in which to do it.

The beginning of a woodland garden.  In that I have decided it will be a woodland garden. Someday.

As you and I are rapidly hurtling toward that part of our lives where we attempt to outdo each other with health issues, I will say that a recent high-speed car accident in Miami (not as exciting as it might sound), has made those tasks Herculean.

I have no chance of finishing all the clearing in the woodland garden before there are bluebells to be trampled in the doing of it. In all truthfulness, and with apologies to Michele, the sight of your mighty brush pile filled me with longing.

I have given up the clearing for now and am instead, observing. What a glorious thing to realize that I could finally see a small patch of snowdrops and eranthis from a hundred yards away this February! Perhaps all the digging and dividing with hands numb from the cold has, and will be, worth it in the end.

A slow, but hopeful start. Snowdrops and eranthis.

The witchhazels have been blooming well, and though small, I can see them in my mind’s eye at three times their size. I am also thrilled to find that the violent butchery I performed upon my hellebores at the end of last March (both the posh niger hybrids and the not-so-posh-but-adored orientalis downfacers), has resulted in healthy, blooming, divisions. I expected they would sulk for longer.

H. orientalis looking remarkably happy after the night of the long [serrated] knifes last March.  Please note sticks and dead leaves signifying journalistic integrity.
I have interplanted one patch with ‘Rapture’ daffodils on the always sage advice of Brent Heath – as it is a partially shaded site, and evidently the cyclamen types can cope best with such things.  A few seasons observing their vigor will tell.

Speaking of cyclamen – I have launched into a profligate romance with C. coum and C. hederifolium after too long seeing them in other people’s gardens and a recent first visit to Gettysburg Gardens in Pennsylvania. All those years of trucking visiting relatives up to the battlefield and eating KFC on a blanket and I could have left them to their mashed potatoes and monuments and shopped for plants!

Cyclamen coum at Gettysburg Gardens in February.

Perhaps it’s for the best, seeing as I also picked up some budding Scilla peruviana with the delusional intention of clearing my entire sunny hillside around it. The bulbs are blooming now on the windowsill, oblivious to the 6b/7 stream valley fate in store for them.

Bloom now little one.  Bloom while you can.

I am reminded of Beth Chatto’s line – “We lost many plants in our impatience to possess them because we had not achieved the proper growing conditions.”


So. Damned. Guilty.

I trust you remember St. Beth, and have reconsidered your harsh words of last July.

Thanks for the visual reminder that I need to cut back the epimedium foliage before I have to use floral snips instead of a weed whacker.  I will put E. stellatum on my list if the foliage looks that good in your Midwestern February. Have you tried the gorgeous hybrid ‘Amber Queen,’ or are you species purists out there?  Walters Gardens & Saunders Bros. have it for those wielding the buying power of the Cincinnati Zoo.  For the rest of us there is always Plant Delights and a home equity loan.

So worth it. Flowers you could pull up a chair and a drink for.

Heal quickly – for Michele’s sake. Men are such babies about the flu.

Yours in journalistic integrity,


P.S. Rethink the chamaecyparis.  It looks in need of something you won’t give it – an easy death.  The skinny exclamation point of Juniperus virginiana ‘Taylor’ perhaps? I am saving my pennies for one of my own – or three.

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Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]


  1. These letters between Marianne and Scott are reminding me of the book of letters between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, which I just read about in the book about Beth’s life- A Life With Plants by Catherine Horwood. I look forward to future installments! 🙂

  2. I grew up in a part of Northern Va. that was swallowed up by sprawl back in the ’70’s. Sometimes I dream of moving out to a more remote area like yours to live in a stone farmhouse or something, but I am afraid it would eventually be consumed by townhouse developments just like everywhere else around here. I guess we all want the development to cease and desist once we have moved in.

    I enjoyed the pictures of your spring blooms, and love reading these letters. I hope you keep up your correspondence with Scott. I read a book of letters between Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence and yours are much better 🙂

    • You are so right Mary – we all want the development to cease when we move to an area. I think we are probably more worried than most people about the new-build developments nearby as we watched it happen in California — tiny towns with tiny homes becoming unattainable for average people. – MW

  3. It’s a great time to visit DC, coronavirus notwithstanding! Actually, COVID has driven away the tourists and I just spent a nice half-week running away from a conference at times to visit the empty Mall and Museums. And the US Botanical Gardens, of course! No cherry blossoms yet, but the Star Magnolias and forsythia seem to be in bloom in the area!

  4. Great points, Marianne. And yes, Scott, please feel better soon and contain those germs to home.
    Your exchange reminds me that the regular commuting ring around DC has grown in one generation from Germantown, MD, (in the north) to Manassas, VA, (in the south) to now far past Frederick, Boonsboro, and Hagerstown, MD, to over the PA border down through Richmond, VA. It is astounding.
    I remember speaking at a DC governmental health fair (about all things green like gardening) and asking the employees there where they lived — expecting the farthest out to mention perhaps Clarksburg, MD. I was floored that the majority lived nowhere near the city nor its inner rung suburbs and that the vast majority commuted over 90-minutes each way, each day.
    There is a cost to that commuting that folks don’t factor into their “cheaper” outer suburb home purchases — both in your time (you could be gardening 3 more hours a day!) and in actual costs to your budget. See online calculators like this one here: https://commutesolutions.com/commute-cost-calculator/. (Then there are the environmental costs, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

    • All true Kathy, however the sanity achieved by living this far out of the craziness of the beltway is really hard to quantify. I think it has to be figured on a case-by-case basis. Right now I’ll take the sounds of roosters and barred owls over sirens and traffic – but when I was 22 I LOVED living in the heart of the city. – MW

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