Alessandra Hayes is a gardener and mobile vehicle operator with the National Park Service.
A native of the Brookland area in D.C., she received her degree in plant and soil science from Tuskegee University located in Tuskegee, Alabama. She’s also worked for the U.S. Botanic Garden and the National Gallery of Art.
As a motor vehicle operator, Alessandra is one of the people responsible for clearing thirty-three miles of snow out from her designated area, Rock Creek Park, in the winter. She jokes that during the spring she “helps keep the property values up.” She maintains a garden down at the Old Stone House in Georgetown that she tries to keep under control. She places different plants down there that can compete with the “invasive vines and everything else” that try to come in and take over that garden. She gardens two planter boxes, one at 16th and Harvard streets NW and another at a planting space near Meridian Hill, and a tulip bed at Chevy Chase Circle. She speaks with a slight Southern accent when she says “a couple of pots thrown about with things growing in it, that’s where I come in. That’s the dealing-with-the-flowers part that I deal with because the park itself, I mean, you know, trees take care of themselves. We just try to keep the deer out of them. Luckily since it’s mostly forest, a lot of what goes on in there we don’t have to interfere with.”
After talking with her for a few minutes, I knew wanted to talk to her more and get to know what was good with her. We sat down last week in City Paper offices and did just that.
She is so cool and cheerful. She even brought a dandelion to our sit-down. How cool is that?! A fresh dandelion from a National Park gardener?!
Here’s more of my conversation with Alessandra.
Alessandra, what’s good about gardening in the legendary Rock Creek Park?!
It’s awesome! I mean there’s a planetarium there, and a nature center. We also have one of the few operational grinding mills, the big wheel that goes around the rocks in a circle, and grinds the stone down.
Is that something that I can bring the kids to?
Yeah! Of course. We have daily demonstrations.
How did you get into gardening? How did you develop your green thumb?
Um, it’s still not all that green. I’m still learning [laughs]. I think it’s little stuff that shaped me. I mean, the biggest thing was being able to, to eat what I grew. When I was growing up, I was a little kid in the city and I got my little watermelon vines that grew little watermelons. They never got anything bigger than a baseball [laughs] but they were good. We had cucumbers and all that. I remember my mother, she had those god-awful macrame hangers with the spider plants hanging down. My babysitter would do cool stuff like, you know, like have a sweet potato, sitting in a saucer with a vine growing out of it. That’s just cool!
We had mint there and would break off mint leaves and crush ’em in tea and be like here, drink this.
You went to Tuskegee to learn about soil. Is it easier to grow things in the South?!
Well, the soil down there actually is something to behold itself, because that’s where you have that red clay. Nothing grows in clay. That’s why unfortunately plenty of the ancestors had to be hooked up behind plows because you had to turn all that soil.
The thing that makes the South so attractive is the growing season. Like it’s a very long growing season and most of the time you have optimal water, humidity and all of that. So once you get your soil amended and everything, it’s, it’s not too much that won’t grow there.
What’s good to you about springtime being here?!
My favorite part is right when you finally get that last nasty winter day and you’re at a traffic light and you look over into the woods, and you see these little fuzzy green, fuzzy red colors. That’s actually my favorite part because that’s when it feels alive.
Spring is the immersion time. It’s no wonder that, you know, Greeks, they link all their fertility gods and everything to spring. That’s when everything is turnt, everything is growing, ground starts cracking and earth starts coming up.
Are you ready for the cherry blossoms to bloom?!
It’s beautiful. It really is pretty. But there’s so many things that come with that. That’s the mark of the season, it means it’s going to bring visitors from all over the place. Peak, peak bloom season, by the way, is supposed to be somewhere around April 1, that’s the peak time to catch it. But I mean, when they come out, the pollen count just skyrockets.
I do know when I see them that I’m not going to be able to breathe for a good while. We’re both in here laughing, sneezing, and coughing, right now.
… And then it’s such a fragile little flower. One of those big strong March winds comes through or one of those big spring rainstorms. That’s it. Blossoms done.
What are your favorite plants?!
Honestly, plants are just cool to me. I mean, my favorite plants are our weeds. Honestly.
Not Weed! Weeds! [Laughing]
Some of your early spring flowers and plants to look for are daffodils. I brought you one of those today. You have snowdrops, and a lot of bulbs are starting to come up at this time. Then you got your flowering trees like dogwoods; the forsythia, a pretty yellow bush that people don’t really give much play. It’s a beautiful bush. You got your chameleons. A lot of people have chameleon bushes and don’t know. All of our grandmothers had chameleon bushes.
Those are, those are the things I look forward to first. Frankly they out-shadow those cherry blossoms to me.