Memorial Day in Washington, DC Gardens!
One of the greatest pleasures of working in the “garden” industry is that I can spend a lot of time talking about and looking at beauty. Between the beautiful photos sent by our customers and the continuous tests running in our R&D Department, I enjoy the colors of summer year-round.
But even I am occasionally awestruck by the dramatic, or delicate or dreamy landscape and garden concepts in our world. This past weekend, I joined the Garden Writers Association for a gathering in our Nation’s Capitol for an insider’s peek at three of Washington DC’s offerings:
- American University
- The US Capitol Grounds
- Dumbarton Oaks
Through the course of a very long day, the beauty of well-executed, timeless plans were showcased , as well as sustainable designs that really work – and look spectacular.
You know it’s a great school. What you may not know is that it is a superlative example of sustainable landscape (and building)! Starting in the mid-1990s, the school began a gradual transformation into a Mecca for sustainability.
With a limited budget, but a keen awareness of more sustainable options to beautify the University’s grounds, a core group developed with the intent of recreating the campus, one bed at a time.
Though it has taken almost 20 years, the concept has taken root with the students as well. When they first began the initiative, 3 students came out to help. This year, 350 volunteer students participated in beautifying the campus.
By limiting the grassy areas, and developing naturally-feeling irrigation and plantings, the grounds took on a life of their own.
Natural plantings create flow…
Field flowers are planned but appear random
Beds hide irrigation ponds with bursting blooms.
After a truly informative talk-and-walk, we reconvened at the US Botanical Gardens for lunch and to begin our Olmstead Education at the US Capitol Grounds.
US CAPITOL GROUNDS
Frederick Law Olmstead was a forward thinker. He planned his landscapes not just for today, but for future development. As we walked the grounds of the US Capitol, his hand was evident in everything from the retaining walls to the identification placards on the trees.
Olmstead’s vision, mostly, has remained intact for Washington DC. And what was that vision? Visitors were granted an experience, and not just some plants. The concept was simply to make the building the centerpiece, and the plantings a frame for it.
This tree is decidedly NOT Olmstead approved as it blocks the view of the Capitol
At a distance, beds and walls were planned and planted denser and closer together, and then further apart – and thinned – as the visitor gets closer to the building itself.
In the hundred or so years post-Olmstead, the face of Washington, DC has changed. Indeed, the very Cherry Blossoms that have become so dear to the city would have been frowned upon by the utilitarian Olmstead.
Olmstead also added the Capitol terrace in an effort to balance what he considered to be a very top-heavy building’s appearance. The terrace also changed the general feel of the building, and gave it more balance and flow.
Retaining walls – just tall enough to discourage you from walking on the grass but low enough not to hinder the view – are a constant reminder of one man’s impact on our Capitol Building’s design. In recent years, newer walls have been added to mimic Olmstead’s concept and remain in keeping with his theme.
Tours are available around the Capitol, but you can start on your mission to learn more here, with virtual tours online!
Unabashedly my favorite part of the day, this amazing gem tucked into a quiet neighborhood of Georgetown is administered by Harvard University and an absolute pleasure to explore!
Sketches provided by Farrand to Bliss, and approved design implementation. Click the picture to read more.
Chock-full of gardens, nooks and crannies and an absolutely breathtaking sea of roses, this exemplary example of Washington DC gardens is pure bliss. But part of the splendor of Dumbarton Oaks is the story of its development and the family that lovingly created it over the course of decades.
Mildred and Robert Bliss bought the sprawling Dumbarton Oaks in 1920. They loved the vistas and the beautiful trees on the property. Mildred contracted Beatrix Farrand to develop the design of the gardens, thus procuring a lifelong friendship. Every sconce, bed and fountain was a creation from the minds of Ferrand and Bliss, and later, Bliss’s staff member Ruth Havey.
One of the most unusual features of the Gardens is seen today completely differently than it was intended. In 1959, Mildred decided to redesign the tennis courts to incorporate a Parterre area. Using the focal point of 18th-century lead sculptures by Edmé Bouchardon, the Mexican pebble mosaic was created to form a shallow pool, which would heighten the colors of the stones. However, due to cracking, leakage has left the pool dry with no clear solution. The result? The Pebble Garden is now a meandering space, where no person was actually meant to tread.
Closeup of Pebbles
The Pebble Garden, as seen from an above terrace.
The Mosaic Design Detail
A really nice features of this space: the original arbor from the Pebble Garden’s earlier life as a tennis court. Also, the family’s motto and crest are formed out of the stone, enticing a visitor from the above terrace to come down and wander.
Wandering the grounds, visitors come across vegetable and herb gardens, a swimming pool, garden gates and hidden stairways. The Rose Garden, which was in full bloom last weekend, was literally a sea of color and a favorite spot for the Bliss family.
There were also several art installations throughout the grounds, including the Cloud Garden – a really beautiful feature. The cloud garden – at a distance – appears to be some sort of mass of twinkle lights, but as you get closer, you realize it’s a “cloud” with thousands of prisms hanging from it, catching the light and reflecting in the pool below. Here is a video:
The property also features a great Pre-Colombian and Byzantine art collection. The museum, free to the public (unlike the gardens which do have a nominal fee) is located partially in the original house, and partially in connected pods designed by Robert Bliss. Make time to peruse the wonderful pieces, and really take in the grounds.
All in all, the day was full of trips to the past, the future and the ongoing effort to retain the past while moving forward. Make sure to add some of these special spaces to your next trip to Washington. The Washington DC Gardens are extensive, and not to be missed!
NOTE - Special thanks to:
Ari Novi, US Botanic Garden SITES
H. Paul Davis, LA of Record for American University
Kirk Brown, Garden Writers Association organizer for this meeting
P.S. Have you seen our new web site!? How fabulous is that?!