July 3, 2020
Live oaks grow as they did centuries ago in a Beach garden

 By Mary Reid Barrow

Welcome to Campbell Oaks.


Walk on a soft gray boardwalk path among masses of spring green ferns and beautiful hydrangeas –purples, blues, whites, reds and more—in Meg and Bill Campbell’s garden at the North End of Virginia Beach. Walk round a big pond, pulsating with golden koi and fed by a waterfall dripping down the slope of an old secondary dune.


But then look up. The live oaks overhead take your breath away! It’s another world, a world that looks like Virginia Beach a century or more ago when live oaks filled the maritime forest behind the ocean entwining their big branches into open umbrellas across the land.


Meg and Bill have managed to combine the best of these two worlds, a beautiful hydrangea garden in the understory and a magical overstory of trees that are in a continuum of life unchanged by humans. It doesn’t take much of a gardener to realize what a feat it is to both treasure the wild live oaks above and nurture a civilized garden below.


In a live oak acorn nutshell, the Campbells managed by having no lawn under the trees and only a raised boardwalk among plants that were chosen for their compatibility with live oaks. The trees’ messy leaf and catkin drop provide mulch that’s many inches deep around the plants, in the same the way a natural forest does. Soil in the Campbells’ yard has been nurtured by the acidic live oak leaves for hundreds of years.


At least one of the trees is 275 years old. The calculation was made by Brent James, who runs the LRNow Virginia Beach Notable Trees program. Another is 260 years old and still another, 170. Yet one more venerable giant is being thoroughly examined because it could be a contender for the Virginia Big Tree Register. And to think they are all descended from ancestors that that have lived there for hundreds of years.


The live oaks create a living community where ferns, tree seedlings from other species and more plant interlopers grow in the trees’ many nooks and crannies. One linear oak branch, at least 20 feet long, also is home to a resurrection fern, an epiphyte that grows like Spanish moss on live oaks and cypress in the maritime forest, but not seen often around here. (More on the fern in the next blog.)

The Campbells’ home was one of the early ones at the Beach, built almost 100 years ago. Unlike other yards surrounding most beach homes today, no one has disrupted the live oaks, nor the sloping hillside of a secondary dune.


If anything, the Campbells have extended the lives of the trees with the judicious use of a brace under the long arm of the resurrection fern branch and cables to help support other sinewy long branches on high.


You can see more of Meg’s green thumb at work in her pollinator garden and other non-live oak plantings in front of the house and around one side.


Watch this video that Bill Campbell and LRNow volunteer Ann Farley created of the garden and you will really see what Campbell Oaks is all about better than I could ever tell you:

By appreciating plants of all kinds, by caring for what used to be and by expending an abundance of loving care, Meg and Bill Campbell saved the live oaks and have a beautiful garden too.

Do you have a favorite tree, a secret tree grove or neighborhood climbing tree that you love?  Let me know your stories about trees,  the critters who live in them and the insects that dine on them.  Send an email to


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