As a college student many years ago, (ok, decades ago) I was taught about “good garden plants.” These were roughly defined as long blooming, pest- and disease-free, and non-self-sowing. All these qualities sounded great to me. Horticulturists wanted gardens to work for us; and for plants to do what we wanted them to do. A garden’s primary purpose was to provide pleasure. But as time has passed, I’ve realized that a garden can be so much more than just pleasing to ME –and it only takes a few simple changes.
First, let’s take a closer look at those ‘Good Garden Plants.’
Plants ‘that bloom all summer’ are usually either
1) an annual that is naturally programmed to bloom its head off, set seed and die
or 2) a perennial that has been bred for repeated blooms, larger flowers, compact form, and/or more intense color. However, somewhere along the breeding path things like fertility, nectar production, and fragrance have been lost—these may be non-essential elements for people, but fundamental for insects and birds which feed on nectar and nutritious seeds.
…and what about those ‘pests’ that we try to avoid? Don’t those include caterpillars which pupate into butterflies? And some of those other ‘pests’ – aren’t they essential pollinators or food for birds? A garden made of only “good garden plants” can be very beautiful, but lacking in LIFE which comes from the nature a garden can attract. Without wild areas to nest, feed and breed, many species face an uphill challenge.
There is a revolution going on in America’s gardens though. Gardeners are recognizing that a garden can be more than just a combination of perfect posies that please humans. Gardeners are starting to realize that their gardens can replace some things that may be lost due to human activities. Gardens can still be beautiful while also providing food, water, and overwintering habitat for creatures large and small.
I find myself adding more and more native plants and their cultivars to both the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden and my home garden because of the additional layer of LIFE certain plants attract. As I mentioned earlier, not all plants offer the same benefits to insects.
So how do you know which plants entice pollinators? One easy way is to slow down and watch. Simple as that! Visit public gardens or garden centers and study which plants are visited by certain insects. Last summer I let the bees decide which Coreopsis I added to the Ripley Garden just by watching which cultivars the bees visited. There were 12 different cultivars of Coreopsis in bloom on the sales bench, but the bees were not attracted to all of them equally. The bees ignored some cultivars completely, while others were abuzz with activity. Those were the plants I added to the gardens I cultivate.
Another thing I am doing more of is RELAXING!! I no longer feel compelled to keep everything staked and pruned perfectly. I allow the gardens I tend to become more rumpled and natural looking. Plus, I am embracing the winter garden and loving the juxtaposition of evergreen and tawny winter browns. Yes, I still tidy up a little in the fall, cutting selective plants back, but I no longer ‘put the garden to bed’ by cutting everything to the ground. Instead, this past winter I enjoyed watching birds take advantage of the cover provided by Panicum grass, and knew that there were insects and other creatures cozily tucked in there for the winter.
When I do cut old stems down in the spring, I leave bits and pieces for the birds as nesting materials as well as small piles of leaves which robins and other birds rummage through looking for insects that munch on the decaying leaves. Along with building bug houses for insects to overwinter in, I also leave piles of twigs and stems in out-of-the-way locations, and old rotting branches to decompose in place – anything to help Nature continue to coexist with our ever-growing population.
These are little changes in the way I garden, but they have a huge impact on providing habitat for wildlife. I encourage you to embrace a little messiness in your own garden–you will likely be rewarded by a whole new dimension of life your garden will support.
Janet Draper – Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
Every orchid has an interesting story. Once you look beyond their beauty, other captivating qualities emerge about virtually all of them. However, there are some that stand out and make their presence known in ways that simply cannot be ignored. Whether you like them or not, indifference is unlikely to be your response. In this regard, there is nothing subtle about Smithsonian Gardens’ magnificent specimen of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis. Charmed by its pendant glossy leaves and their resemblance to a beaver’s tail, the donors of this magnificent specimen named it ‘Bucky’; a name that lives on.
At the time it was originally acquired, few people outside of Asia had seen this species, though many read about it and its remarkable ecology. The inflorescence (flower head) consists of a cluster of about 15 to 20 reddish-brown (meat-colored) flowers covered with papillae (fleshy projections) said to resemble wriggling maggots. Charming! Since it targets female carrion flies as its pollinator, engaging in ‘brood site deception,’ it also evolved a fragrance to match its appearance. Early writings about it claim that its blossoms emitted an aroma reminiscent of the stench of 1000 dead elephants rotting in the sun. While this is surely hyperbole, Smithsonian Gardens staff have been waiting for many months to experience Bucky’s olfactory charms. Incredibly, buds were forming under one of its huge floppy leaves which we didn’t observe until a visitor spied them during a greenhouse tour. We certainly would have noticed them the next day when they opened and started their fragrance treat, though, making the greenhouse almost uninhabitable for a few days.
A monstrous plant from lowland Papua New Guinea, Bucky loves to be warm and humid all the time. Given its robust girth and thick pseudobulbs (storage organs in the stem), we water it daily and feed it frequently. It is the most famous species in Bulbophyllum section Macrobulbon, of which the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection has an almost complete set. They all share the same pollination strategy so more very stinky orchids are soon to come! The surprising species epithet, ‘Phalaneopsis,’ was given because superficially the plant resembles Phalaenopsis gigantea, the largest Phalaenopsis species (native to Borneo). Other than both being in the orchid family, however, they are not at all closely related.
– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist
This past December, Smithsonian Gardens large trellised specimen of Vanilla pompona graced our greenhouses with luxurious blooms. Beautiful umbels of impressive, successively blooming flowers appeared at every leaf node on this huge vining orchid. Even though each individual flower lasts less than 24 hours, so many new blooms opened daily that it was a true spectacle for several weeks. A sister species to the better known Vanilla planifolia, the source of the delicious flavoring we all know and love, V. pompona differs in having a much larger, gullet shaped lip. Its seed pods are also used to make a type of vanilla extract, though only locally in Costa Rica and Panama where it grows. Many Vanilla species occur in tropical regions around the world (circumtropical) and therefore are thought to be among the most ancient of orchids, perhaps with a common ancestor existing when the continents were contiguous. Most of these other species are not used for flavoring.
With rampantly growing vines, these orchids climb quickly and become massive specimens in a short time. Generally, they will only bloom when they are very large and mature. Like a philodendron, their plant habit is a combination of terrestrial and epiphytic. Starting as terrestrial plants with thick fibrous roots, aerial roots arising from the leaf axils clasp the sides of trees as they climb upward searching for higher light in which to bloom. They are easy to propagate from cuttings, but as with any succulent, it is best to let the cuts callous for a few days before planting them or they are sure to rot. Indeed, Vanilla plants in Madagascar plantations have fallen prey to a fungal disease in recent years. We produce pods on our plants by pollinating the flowers by hand (“selfing”) as they do in vanilla plantations in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands.
– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist
Everyone needs a warm place to snuggle up for winter. That includes members of the insect world! With this in mind, my coworkers and I created a beautiful overwintering habitat for bugs in the Ripley Garden! Call it a Bug-A-bode. Or a Bug House. Or an insect-ominium. No matter what you call it, hopefully it will attract many welcome residents!
In natural settings, insects find cracks and crevices to nestle into. Adult insects frequently lay eggs in the most protected spot they can find, then go off to die, hoping that this precious cargo will make it through the winter to sustain the insect population. However, in urban areas with miles of pavement and neatly manicured gardens, insects face a significant challenge because there are few overwintering sites left for them.
Why are insects important? Basically they are the foundation of our entire ecosystem. Insects pollinate the food we eat, serve as food for birds and other animals, and help decompose dead material. A world without insects would be quite bleak. To help bolster the essential insect population, gardeners all over the world create all kinds of bug sanctuaries. Some are as simple as not cleaning up a garden in the fall, and leaving dried plant materials standing over the winter. Or leaving a pile of twigs, stems, leaves and such in a back corner of the garden. Or keeping bundles of hollow stems tucked around so that insects can overwinter or lay their eggs in the pithy stems.
I wanted to create such a sanctuary in the Ripley Garden, but I also wanted it to be attractive and functional. A visual cruise around the Internet yielded several ideas. In the end, I was inspired by a design created by master builder Kevin Smith for Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco.
Now I just needed natural materials to fill it with – so off I went hiking over the Thanksgiving holiday to procure a carload of wild materials of various textures and colors (thank you to my dear husband who let me do this to his new car!).
Next was a trip to the local hardware store to get some basic supplies (untreated lumber, screws, and copper flashing) and then my talented colleague Rick Shilling went to work building boxes. We wanted the depth of the box to be 6,” so first Rick created the outer frame and attached it to a backing of plywood. Then he crafted individual boxes of various sizes that we placed inside the outer frame and moved around until we liked the visual effect, then fastened them down using a nail gun. To give the habitat an artistic finish we added copper flashing to the face of each compartment before filling the boxes. From there it was just a matter of playing with the materials to create a pleasing collage, and figuring out how to secure the materials in place so they would not fall out.
Rick devised a way of installing some Chamaecyparis trunks in the two outermost compartments. The other compartments were filled by Smithsonian Gardens new Integrated Pest Manager Holly Walker. With additional manpower from other team members, the box was installed in the garden, and presto! An amazing insect habitat that is not only functional for the bugs, but artistic to boot! A huge thank you to all of my coworkers, especially my trusted co-engineer, Rick Shilling, for all of their help.
If you’re looking to build your own insect house, it does not need to be this elaborate. I have installed a few simpler versions in the Ripley Garden. For example, a pot filled with acorn tops protected with wire mesh to keep animals out or a bundle of bamboo can also do the trick.
Or the easiest bug habitat of all is simply to leave your garden a little messy over the winter to provide our much needed insect population with some warm shelter during the cold frosty months.
– Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
Even though they are not especially rare or particularly showy, orchids from the genus Brassavola are quite popular. These sturdy, succulent, epiphytic plants live in a variety of habitats throughout Central and South America. Due to their wide-ranging prevalence and adaptability, they are easy to find in and out of the wild. Growing contentedly in bright shade to high light conditions just short of full sun, and adapting well to intermediate to warm growing conditions, these plants often grow into lush specimens. Free flowering, they usually bloom at least twice a year on their newest growths. Smithsonian Gardens is lucky to have several different clones of this species in its Orchid Collection, many of which have grown into massive, spectacularly blooming specimens.
Brassavola nodosa’s supremely elegant, ghostly white flowers exhibit a pollination strategy, similar to Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale). Pale colors show up better in the moonlight, and this feature–combined with a sweet, wafting crepuscular or nocturnal fragrance–ensures that the blossoms can be found easily by their pollination partners.
-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Specialist
When people visit our gardens on the National Mall from all over the country and the world, we hope they find see or learn something new to bring back to their own garden, whether it’s a community garden plot or a backyard or a few pots sitting on a windowsill. When you visit we hope some plant or technique or idea piques your interest and catches your eye. It could be an eco-friendly way to ward off pests, a novel method for trellising, or a unique flower or tree. We love to share the gardens at the Smithsonian Institution with you and hope they inspire you to get outside and get growing!
But did you know your gardens inspire us? Through the Community of Gardens project, we find ourselves inspired every day by the stories of gardens being created all across the United States. Anyone can add a story, image, video, or audio clip about a garden or gardener to our digital archive. Some of the most inspiring stories are of teens gardening in their own schools and communities. Every summer high school students apply to work at the Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C and help run the community garden. Teens at White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee banded together to create a student-led garden from the ground up. Classes at Paul International High School in D.C. tackled renovation projects in their existing school garden.
Stories like these inspired us to design the Smithsonian Gardens Green Ambassador Challenge. Teens and teachers, if you have ever wanted to bring gardening to your school, but didn’t know where to start, this challenge is for you! We give you the tools to green your school, step-by-step. Learn skills such as design thinking, budgeting, building, project management, and gardening along the way. Rooted in project-based learning, the Green Ambassador Challenge empowers young people to make a real difference in their community. The possibilities are endless, from a few raised beds outside of your building to an outdoor classroom space to a butterfly or wildlife garden.
Teachers can download a packet with all lessons and detailed information on national standards challenge goals, and essential questions. Students can follow along here as they move through the process.
So we ask you: How will you inspire us next? What kind of garden can your school community grow? And by growing a garden could you inspire the next generation of landscape architects, horticulturists, park planners, and arborists?
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details if you would like to get involved!
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator
It is such a fabulous time of the year in the gardens! The heat has finally stalled out (yeah!) and the gardens are lush and glorious. The highlight for me in the Ripley Garden is the diversity of birds, butterflies, bees, wasps and other creatures that bring the garden to life. Seeing numerous monarch butterflies in the garden makes my heart sing, since the overall population has declined in recent years due to habitat destruction and the subsequent loss of food sources.
Monarchs feed primarily on milkweed (Asclepias family). These plants usually like sunny, disturbed sites, so they are often found along roadways. The most frequent roadside milkweed is A. syriaca, a 3’-5’ tall plant which multiplies both by runners and by seed.
Unfortunately, roadside plants are often killed chemically or mowed down just as the butterflies are seeking food and nectar sources. Knowing the monarch population is in peril, I planted a variety of milkweeds in the Ripley Garden to nurture the population and educate my visitors about some planting options for their gardens.
There’s the readily available ‘Butterfly weed,’ Asclepias tuberosa, which blooms a vibrant orange color in June and July, sometimes repeating a bloom slightly later. For the most part, it is not in bloom when the adults are present and needing nectar. However, the adults do lay eggs on the foliage, and the emerging larvae will strip the plants clean rather quickly.
I also have Asclepias verticillata, a Midwestern native that is only about 1′-1.5’ tall, and spreads by underground stolons (horizontal runners) in dry rocky soils to form a colony. The white flowers are borne on the top of the stem in clusters.
Asclepias purpurascens, a real stunner blooming in early June with glorious hot raspberry-colored flowers, is another milkweed native to the U.S. that I am growing. It is quite rare in cultivation due to seed viability issues, but hopefully this will soon be solved. Since it is past bloom before adult butterflies appear, this milkweed does not serve as a nectar source for monarchs and I have not witnessed any larvae feeding on it.
The milkweed which seems to be getting ALL the attention of the monarchs in the Ripley Garden is… drum roll please…. Asclepias curassavica. This plant is native to South America and is hardy only in plant hardiness zones 9 and 10, though it has spread and established throughout tropical regions. In Washington D.C., the plant sows by seed from year to year. The plants will reach anywhere from 1’-5’ tall, and thrive best in full sun with average moisture.
Asclepias curassavica is a tropical milkweed which produces blooms of brilliant oranges and reds between June and October, so it provides both nectar for adults and food for caterpillars. Many of the plants in the Ripley Garden are totally bare, just a stripped stalk remaining after some very hungry caterpillars have devoured everything they could munch. When the time is right, the caterpillars find a secure place where they can hang freely and create a chrysalis.
I allowed the Asclepias curassavica to selfsow in an area up against the Arts and Industries Building, and have been delighted to see a number of caterpillars munching away. But I wasn’t finding any chrysalises, until recently. Hiding in plain sight, the caterpillars climbed up the brick wall to transform while hanging in the window wells!
In this window well alone, there are four chrysalises that have not pupated, and three remnants where butterflies have already emerged! The more I started looking, and really seeing, I realized that I created a perfect nursery for the monarchs, without even trying!
I am so delighted that the monarchs, and a plethora of other insects, call the Ripley Garden home! Your garden can also be an ideal butterfly habitat. Avoid the use of toxic chemicals (this includes mosquito sprays!) and plant a wide variety of plants known to be beneficial to insects. Plant it and they WILL come!
– Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist