If you’ve ever taken a stroll on the Hill School’s verdant campus, it is evident that the school places great emphasis on the importance of the natural world. From the delicate blooms of the densely flowered short-toothed mountain mint to the graceful river birches, the beauty of the nature surrounds you and fills your senses wherever you roam.

And it all started with the vision and foresight of former Hill School parent and grandparent Polly Rowley some 20 years ago, when she oversaw the ambitious planting of hundreds of trees that now form the school’s impressive “Hillscape” arboretum. The entire collection, which includes more than 200 species of trees and shrubs, has now reached maturity, giving visitors a unique opportunity to see first-hand many rare species.

“It was a lot of work on her part to get to where we are today,” said Bob Dornin, Hill’s Grounds Supervisor.

Bob Dornin
Bob Dornin

You don’t have to be a student or a parent to enjoy the splendors of Hill’s 138-acre campus. Meander on the school’s walking paths and you’ll enjoy a glimpse of wildflower meadows, towering pines, a circle of native trees and ponds and wetland areas teeming with life.

“I was thinking of it being a community resource, so that people see that there are plants out there that aren’t just the same old, same old that professionals will stick in front of your house,” Rowley said.

Many of the plantings on campus started as experiments, added Dornin, who graduated from Hill in 1972 and received a bachelor’s degree in forestry and wildlife management from Virginia Tech in 1984.

“If it’s something that has some interest, that looks like it can survive in our climate and our soils and it’ll add variety and diversity to the landscape, a lot of times we’ll try it,” he said.

For example, Dornin said Hill has experimented with different varieties of perennials to see what works best in the area. “We’ve had a lot of failures. We’ve had a lot of plants that we simply couldn’t get happy,” he said, adding that “better gardeners may have better luck.”

Still, it’s clear that there’s more than luck contributing to the program’s success. Given the rich biodiversity of Hill’s landscape, it should come as no surprise that the campus has attracted the attention of local groups interested in learning more about its holdings. In April, graduate students from George Washington University’s Sustainable Landscape program visited the school to study its native plant collection.

Susan Abraham, an adjunct professor at GW and principal of Lush Life Landscapes in Waterford, said the campus provided her students with an opportunity to examine how the school made good use of its space while incorporating native plants in the landscaping. “It melds both environmental aspects and aesthetic design, and we could show our students a beautiful site that employs native plants that are difficult to find,” she said.

The Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society also visited the campus last year to learn about the arboretum’s native plants, with a tour by Polly Rowley that highlighted her choices in arranging the plants according to their environmental preferences and ornamental qualities. For example, the campus features groupings of Asian species, as well as groupings of different species of tree types like oaks and maples.

“It was a matter of choosing the right plant for the right place,” Rowley said.

Rowley stressed that she doesn’t believe in using strictly native plants for landscaping, saying diversity is key to maintaining the health of the environment. “Things keep changing,” she said. “As the climate changes here, the plants are going to change, so I think it’s time to branch out.”

Of course, the outdoor environment is also used extensively throughout the school’s curriculum as well. For example, students in the sixth grade study the school’s flower gardens and meadow, complete with on-campus field trips that allow them to collect data and make scientific observations. In the spring, the students plant a habitat restoration project on campus.

Carrie Blair, a member of the Virginia Native Plant Society, stressed the importance of incorporating environmental education into the school’s curriculum, noting that it helped students gain a deeper understanding of why it’s important to care for the environment.

“It shows children a whole new way of relating to nature, that they matter and what they do matters, and that recycling matters, too,” she said. “And that even by doing something as simple as putting out birdseed, you can take care of nature.”

Whether you’re a student at Hill, a parent, or a local resident, Hill’s outdoor campus has something to offer everyone, be it a place for scientific study, quiet reflection, exploring the natural world, or enjoying a little exercise.

On any given day, you will find students exploring the trails with their teachers, locals walking their dogs, runners, and parents with young children in tow.

Some of the species are labeled along the path, but if you want an in-depth look at the property, be sure to stop by the school library, where you can find a complete list of the trees and shrubs as well as a book with photographs documenting the landscape’s transformation to its present state.

“It’s a nice place to take an hour’s walk and it’s educational for everybody–even the garden clubs go over and learn something new,” Blair said.

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