Under Your Nose: Down on the Farm in Maryland

Accokeek’s Pristine Lands Feel Far Away From D.C.

Posted August 1, 2007 at 2:49pm

While walking along the fishing pier at the Accokeek Foundation at Piscataway Park, one hears the rolling waters of the Potomac River lapping against the shore and marvels at the unobstructed view of Mount Vernon across the river. [IMGCAP(1)]

The 200 acres of woodlands, pastures, waterfront and gardens are maybe 10 miles from the Capital Beltway, yet they couldn’t feel more removed from the city. The drive down the windy back roads makes one wonder if their directions are wrong until the park’s visitor lot appears. Beware of deer and the random local walking his or her dog in the road because there are no sidewalks (Under Your Nose stopped for multiple deer and a bichon frise and owner on a recent weekend visit).

A brochure refers to the park as a “haven of natural tranquility near bustling Washington, DC” and that’s an accurate description. Whether you go to spend a couple of hours hiking the trails or an entire day exploring all the park has to offer, the trip to Accokeek, Md., is a worthwhile one.

The visitor center is the first sight when walking onto the grounds from the parking lot. Stop in to pick up a brochure and pay the admission fee (or show your National Park Service pass if you have one). Also, self-guided educational kits and birding kits can be borrowed free of charge in exchange for a picture ID. [IMGCAP(2)]

After enjoying the view from the fishing pier (and perhaps casting a line or two, as fishing is free and open to the public), a stroll to the National Colonial Farm allows visitors to see what life was like for a typical Prince George’s County tobacco-planting family in the 1770s. It’s an interesting parallel to what life was like outside of plantations such as nearby Mount Vernon. Weekend visitors might see workers dressed in old-fashioned garb sewing, cooking, dyeing, candlemaking, gardening, woodworking or spinning as they make their rounds. Guests can walk the site themselves, although scheduled tours are available with interpreters who talk about daily life on the farm.

Across from the farm sits the Museum Garden, which is an educational garden home to hundreds of different vegetables and herbs. Split into three sections, the main part of the garden features “Crops of the Americas,” “Crops Brought From Europe” and “Crops Brought From Africa.” Everything is well-labeled so visitors know what they’re looking at and where it originated. Perhaps the most eye-catching crop is the watermelon plant entwined on a gazebo-like structure in the center of the garden.

Some good walking shoes are a necessity as there is a lot of ground to cover at the park, which offers six trails, each rated anywhere from easy to moderate to difficult. There also is a variety of farm animals for visitors to observe, such as Hog Island sheep, Dominique chickens, Milking Devon cattle, Black Spanish turkeys and Ossabaw hogs. Under Your Nose also saw a couple of curious donkeys poking their heads between the fence displaying numerous “Donkeys Bite” signs forewarning visitors about the seemingly friendly animals.

The Native Tree Arboretum started in 1988, when the hillside, originally cleared to grow tobacco, “was planted with trees and shrubs which had been documented by the first European settlers of the Chesapeake Bay region in the 17th and 18th century,” according to the Web site. The Bluebird or Pawpaw trails take visitors around the arboretum, which features signs for each specimen stating its common name, genus and species. The Bluebird Trail features bluebird boxes that provide nesting sites for eastern bluebirds, and the Pawpaw Trail is named for the Pawpaw tree, which can be found along the trail because “the unique nature of the underground water table in this area provides enough moisture for the trees to grow,” according to the Web site.

If you happen to be visiting on a Saturday or Sunday morning, take the opportunity to tour the Robert Ware Straus Ecosystem Farm, which is the Accokeek Foundation’s USDA-certified organic vegetable farm located on an 8-acre field along the Potomac. According to the Web site, the farm is considered “a model of farming for the future” in that it uses “marginal soils near urban areas” to produce a variety of crops.

A trip to the Accokeek Foundation at Piscataway Park can be for a picnic along the river, a walk on the trails with a leashed pet, an educational experience or a scenic bike ride. Whatever the reason, the sprawling 200 acres will make the bustling D.C. area seem like a distant memory.