My family knew her first as the “Flower Lady.” That’s what my son, then seven years old, called her. We soon got to know her by her real name, Kathy, as she and her husband Steve started transforming the tree boxes on the 4500 block of Connecticut Avenue into lush and colorful gardens. Before long, my son and I were pitching out from time to time with weeding, planting and watering. Kathy even gave my son his own kid-sized gardening gloves, which he adored.
Nowadays, if you see a Van Ness tree box or planter loaded with brilliant blooms, there’s a good chance Kathy Sykes had a hand (and a trowel) in planting it. Forest Hills Connection asked her to tell us all more about how she got started on what has grown into a neighborhood beautification project, her newest partner in this endeavor, and one thing neighbors can do to help her gardens grow. – Tracy Johnke
In August of 2015, my husband, Steve Vetzner, and I began gardening in the tree box in front of the building where we live on Connecticut Avenue between Albemarle and Appleton. The tree boxes are located on city property and were barren and unappealing. When I was young, I helped my mother with her garden. She was a wonderful gardener who brought joy to many people in the neighborhood through her skills. I thought we could add color with flowers and at the same time help save the pollinators that are responsible for the food we eat. We began by transplanting our indoor plants outside and adding perennial seedlings that attract pollinators. We planted annuals and herbs from seeds, including zinnias that were a magnet for butterflies.
Initially, a few neighbors of all ages from the neighborhood joined us. Children, parents and grandparents would help with weeding, watering, or sowing seeds. For example, one neighbor and her two and a half-year-old daughter have been helping out for the past five years. An unexpected joy of gardening has been meeting so many neighbors who share a love for flowers. Several people have asked me to help them to create a pollinator garden and offered to pay for the work. While I will not take money, I am happy to share free advice as to what grows well in sun and shade. While not an expert, I did complete a master gardening course last year at UDC and volunteered in gardens at Peabody school and Hillwood until the pandemic closed down those volunteer opportunities.
I was invited to join the Design Committee of Van Ness Main Street because of the work I had done in the tree boxes. About three years ago, a Design Committee member and I paid for soil and plants for a test site in a tree box near the UDC Law School and the former headquarters of Van Ness Main Street.
The following year, my husband and I worked on all the tree boxes in front of UDC and planted in some of the tree boxes by Acacia and Tesoro.
Businesses and members of the Van Ness Design Committee contributed to the costs of the beautification project. Last fall, college students, children and their parents, and older adults helped plant spring bulbs of tulips, daffodils and crocuses on both sides of Connecticut Avenue.
In recognition of the work beautifying the neighborhood, Van Ness Main Street honored me in 2019 with their first Spirit of Van Ness Award.
Most recently, Elizabeth Daut and I designed and planted a pollinator garden in the small island where a heritage oak tree was recently taken down near Calvert Woodley. A small garden was created in the vacant space with yellow and red coneflowers, lavender, black-eyed Susans, asters, creeping jenny (a chartreuse groundcover), sunflowers, fountain grass, petunias, coreopsis and wildflower seeds.
Elizabeth is a fairly new resident in the neighborhood, having moved here a year and a half ago. She grew up on a horse farm and loved working at a young age in the family vegetable and flower gardens. Elizabeth is a wildlife veterinarian and conservation scientist working broadly on international biodiversity conservation policy. Elizabeth was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, where she set up an environmental and animal welfare organization and remained for almost 10 years. Elizabeth increasingly works on One Health issues such as the role of illegal wildlife trade in the spread of infectious diseases. She enjoys living in Forest Hills with the easy access to walks in Rock Creek Park and looks forward to when she can again take full advantage of the great local restaurants, public pools and bookstore.
The gardens are a source of joy. Each day, there are subtle changes in the garden, with new blossoms emerging, colorful tiny insects, butterflies, and melodious birds that visit. I am always happy to see so many people stopping by and photographing flowers and enjoying the gardens around the neighborhood.
If I could have one wish to improve the environmental sustainability for the gardens and its inhabitants it would be have all neighbors stop applying chemicals to their lawns and property. The chemicals do not remain where they are applied and drift into neighboring gardens. In the past five years, I have seen a major decline in the number of butterflies that used to flutter about, including monarchs, the iconic orange and black large butterfly that migrates from Canada to Mexico. I would hope that we as a community could help maintain and reverse the decline in the pollinator population in Forest Hills.