- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2001

It seems nearly impossible to put into words the essence of George Washington's River Farm. Sometimes the best explanations are simple maybe those out of the mouths of babes.

"This is too good to be true," my daughter shouted as she ran barefoot through the meadow at the beautiful estate on the banks of the Potomac River, "and I'm going to stay here forever."

River Farm, four miles south of Old Town Alexandria, is an adult's haven as well as a child's delight. It is home to a grand old manse surrounded by 25 acres of tranquil fields and gardens despite its name, there is no mooing or oinking here.

Like many places on the Virginia landscape, River Farm has a long and storied past. The first English family associated with the farm was the Brent family, friends of Lord Baltimore, the king's proprietor in Maryland, in the mid-1690s. Fast forward to 1760, when George Washington purchased the property: Although records indicate he never actually lived at the estate, he sowed seeds there literally planting wheat, rye and corn and maybe even the walnut trees still growing in the meadow.

The farm had several residents throughout the 1800s, and in 1919, Malcolm Mathesoncq Sr., a well-known Virginian who loved horticulture, bought the remaining 27 acres. Mr. Matheson turned the farm into a country residence and continued to garnish the grounds.

In 1973, a charitable trust bought the current 25-acre property to use as the headquarters for the American Horticultural Society. Since then, the AHS, with help from scientists, historians and volunteers, has coaxed River Farm into its present state of glory.

Guests might wish to stop first at the visitors center to pick up detailed information about the grounds and, most important, a brochure describing a self-guided walking tour.

The tour begins in front of the mansion. To the left, visitors can see the Potomac peeking through the foliage on its banks. The view is unencumbered, thanks to the Ha-Ha Wall, or sunken fence, on the lawn. Such barriers were introduced during the 18th century and were used in place of regular fences, which might spoil the view, to keep livestock and wildlife out of manor gardens.

"The common people called them 'Ha, Ha's' to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk," according to River Farm historical accounts.

After racing the length of the meadow to feel the cool Potomac waters, we returned to the mansion grounds to find a little lily pond in the shade of some low-hanging trees, located in the Wildlife Garden.

Our next stop where we lolled for two hours were the enchanting Children's Gardens. The gardens are home to, obviously, a variety of blooms, plants and trees. But there is much more: iron sculptures, tree-stump chairs and a real wooden rowboat with oars, which each child will want to captain. The gardens have tunnels, bridges, wooden houses and tiny chairs and tables.

Don't forget to check out the dirt beds, where guests can pick up shovels and trowels and dig for earthworms.

Alexandria resident Debbie Mallalieu was spending a recent afternoon at River Farm with her children, 2-year-old Jason and 6-year-old Heather.

The native of England said she has been in the United States for 15 years and has been coming to River Farm for 10 of those.

"There aren't many places like this around here," Mrs. Mallalieu said. "It's hard to believe it is so close to the city. I always see things I'd like to grow. I'm interested in the gardens, and the kids are interested in playing. But here I can try to teach them a little bit about the world around them rather than just pushing them on a swing all afternoon."

One of the best aspects of River Farm is the inherent peace and quiet, traits coveted by parents the world over. The estate is completely unspoiled by crowds: Although we visited on a gorgeous afternoon (albeit a weekday), we encountered only about a dozen other guests during our three-hour visit.

"I have never come here when it has been crowded," Mrs. Mallalieu confirms. "I just think that not that many people know about it. If you didn't know about it and heard it was a horticultural site, it would be the last place you would think about bringing a kid."

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