A Summer with the Archives of American Gardens at Smithsonian Gardens

Within Smithsonian Gardens is the Archives of American Gardens, a repository dedicated to collecting documentation on historic and contemporary American gardens. AAG was founded in 1987, the same year the Garden Club of America (GCA) donated its extensive slide collection documenting American gardens throughout history to the Smithsonian Institution.

Thanks to a GCA scholarship, I was able to join AAG for a 10-week Garden History and Design Internship this summer.  Prior to this internship, I knew little about this archive or its collections. Nevertheless I was eager to learn more about AAG and Smithsonian Gardens plus excited to have an internship with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. My name is Kathryn Schroeder and this past May I received a Master of Library and Information Science and Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Right away, I was happy to see that my internship would be a diverse experience working on a variety projects exposing me to much of what AAG does. One of the main projects I worked on was processing the Mary Riley Smith Collection. Smith, a Manhattan-based landscape designer, laid out scores of private and public gardens including design work and supervising installation of planting beds at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City for 20 years. I went through the collection folder by folder, noting the client or garden name, location, and folder contents in an inventory. In addition, I re-housed the materials and photocopied certain items for preservation purposes. Utilizing the knowledge I acquired of the collection during this process, I wrote a scope and contents note describing the collection as well as a biographical note about Mary Riley Smith. These notes will be incorporated into a comprehensive finding aid for the collection so interested individuals can learn more about it.

Kathryn processing the Mary Riley Smith Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Kathryn processing the Mary Riley Smith Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Having specialized in digital content management during my graduate program, digitization is something that greatly interests me. I was able to apply this interest during my internship by digitizing letters from the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records. The letters I digitized were from a 1925 contest where customers shared their success stories using Burpee’s seeds. These digitized letters will be uploaded to the Smithsonian Transcription Center where they will be available for transcribing by virtual volunteers whose efforts will enable them to be readily searchable online.

This letter from the 1925 Burpee seed contest was one of hundreds digitized by Kathryn during her internship.

This letter from the 1925 Burpee seed contest was one of hundreds digitized by Kathryn during her internship.

I also had the opportunity to catalog digital images documenting gardens submitted to AAG by volunteers from the Garden Club of America. Using a database designed for cataloging, I created records describing the garden as a whole as well as specific sections of it. The records I created are now available to the public on SIRIS, an online catalog containing millions of records describing holdings in the Smithsonian collections. Another exciting aspect of my internship was researching the history behind a number of garden features and writing ‘One Minute Reports’ to be distributed to GCA chapters across America, blogs, and social media posts. This enabled me to become more familiar with gardening, a subject I did not know much about prior to my internship. I particularly enjoyed researching and writing about the history of swimming pools.

The various projects I worked on throughout my internship allowed me to acquire skills and knowledge that will be valuable tools as I advance in my career. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks with the Archives of American Gardens and Smithsonian Gardens, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Washington, D.C.

Kathryn Schroeder, Summer 2015 GCA Garden History and Design Intern, Archives of American Gardens

August 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

Round 1 of the Smithsonian Summer Showdown – Vote for Community of Gardens

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This August the Smithsonian is having a showdown between its museums, gardens, cultural centers, and zoo to determine the Institution’s most “Seriously Amazing” program or object and Smithsonian Gardens needs your help to win! This year we nominated Community of Gardens – an online archive of gardens grown by you.

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Some of the beautiful photos submitted to Community of Gardens.

We created Community of Gardens to provide a digital home for stories, photographs, and videos of gardens across America. Anyone can add their story, which means an account of your parents’ backyard wedding, your grandmother’s tomatoes, or your neighborhood’s community garden can become part of the Smithsonian. You can read garden stories and submit your own here. What’s more amazing than that?

So show your support for the project and vote now. Better yet get everyone you know to  vote for Community of Gardens before the end of Round 1 on Wednesday, August 12. Plus, when you vote you’ll be entered to win a prize package of goodies from the Smithsonian store.

Ready? Click here to vote! 

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August 7, 2015 at 1:04 pm Leave a comment

Trending in San Francisco

Recently, I was fortunate to receive a Smithsonian Gardens Travel Grant to visit gardens and natural spaces in the San Francisco area. This grant gives Smithsonian Gardens staff the opportunity to expand their knowledge about public garden functions and industry trends by funding visits to other public gardens or conferences throughout the nation.

Until my visit, I did not realize how much acreage Golden Gate Park (GGP) encompasses or know about the history of its creation. GGP is one of the largest man-made parks in the world. Host to the 1894 Midwinter International Exposition, it was created on 1,017 acres consisting mostly of sand dunes. Many at that time were skeptical the park would come to fruition especially considering its location. The monumental undertaking was extremely successful, however. It is hard not to be impressed when you see how lush the current landscape is and think back on how brutal the winds and drifting sands in the area must have been before its creation. Today, the park is enjoyed by millions of visitors each year and is a great place to exercise, connect with nature, and rejuvenate the soul.

A Redwood Trail, in the San Francisco Botanical Garden located in Golden Gate Park.

A Redwood Trail, in the San Francisco Botanical Garden located in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Stan Shebs.

One trend I came across repeatedly during my travels through the San Francisco area was the use of foliage, form, and texture. My stop at Flora Grubb Gardens turned up some excellent examples of how color echoes can give a harmonious feeling to any number of design principles. The image below illustrates how flowers alone don’t necessarily create a beautiful landscape.

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Try toning things down in your garden with a monochromatic color scheme. Select plants of one color but with differing tints, shades, and hues. The focus is then on the juxtaposition of textures and shapes.

I was truly inspired by the innovative plant combinations, great color harmonies, and textures I observed on this trip, and have no doubt that learning more about these design elements will improve my annual plant displays at the Smithsonian. I look forward to incorporating some new ideas into the landscapes surrounding the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, Freer Gallery, and the Smithsonian Castle. Hopefully you are inspired to create a new vignette in your own garden too.

– Rick Shilling, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

July 31, 2015 at 9:37 am Leave a comment

A Spectacular Show: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

The sight of fresh blooming encyclias is one to tease the eyes. Generally small flowered and often less than an inch in diameter, encyclias pack a punch with their unending shape and color variations. Orchid lovers could spend days observing these species and hybrids. This hardly comes as a surprise when you take into consideration that there are over 150 species in the genus.

Encyclia Nursery Rhyme

Encyclia Nursery Rhyme

Originating from the Greek word, enkylein, the name encyclia refers to the way the lateral lobes of the flower encircle the column. Found from central Florida to Brazil, these orchids grow in warmer climates and produce psuedobulbs in clumps. Each clump sends up several flower spikes at a time and each variety of encyclia has flower spikes that range in a length from a foot to several feet long. Since each spike can produce many flowers these spikes make for quite a spectacular show.

A clustering of Encyclia oncidioides behind Encyclia Cindy.

A clustering of Encyclia oncidioides behind Encyclia Cindy.

I find these orchids very pleasing to observe. Their small flowers make them manageable to view, but contain subtle details that are a delight to discover. These flowers have great depth to them, so changing your angle of view can reveal more interesting characteristics.

Encyclias are often crossed with the genera Cattleya and Epidendrum to create lovely hybrids. Encyclias are desirable for their interesting flower shapes and Encyclia cordigera in particular often is selected for hybridization for its darker colors and intoxicating aroma. Encyclia cordigera has received over 40 awards from the American Orchid Society, so why not pass along some of these winning characteristics to other orchids?

Encyclia Atroniceum x bractescens

Encyclia Atroniceum x bractescens

Encyclia alata x mooreana

Encyclia alata x mooreana

In the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, there are currently over 60 examples of these encyclia species and hybrid combinations. Their flowers last up to a month sometimes longer, so they regularly make their way to the display cases in museums around the Smithsonian. Be sure to swing by the orchid cases downstairs in the National Museum of American History sometime in the next few weeks to see one of these incredible orchids on display.

– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Intern

Encyclia Cindy

Encyclia Cindy

July 23, 2015 at 11:18 am 1 comment

Matt’s Top 5 Tropicals for 2015

The Smithsonian Gardens’ tropical plant collection includes approximately 1,000 plants. This number fluctuates on a fairly regular basis as some plants die from natural causes while others grow so large that they outgrow their display space or even the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouse facility. As the caretaker of this collection, I have a special relationship with the plants and, though I care for them all, I do have a few favorites. Here is a list of my personal top 5 favorite plants in the Smithsonian’s tropical plant collection (in no particular order) along with where to catch them on display this summer.

Caladium schomburgkii 'Skula'

Caladium schomburgkii ‘Skula’

First up is Caladium schomburgkii ‘Skula.’ This relatively unknown caladium is subtle, but for some reason is a favorite of mine. Could it be the interesting leaf shape, or perhaps its various hues of green leaves, or simply its ease of care? I honestly don’t know why I like this plant so much but see for yourself and make your own decision. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Aristolochia gigantea 'Brasiliensis'

Aristolochia gigantea ‘Brasiliensis.’ My coworker, Shannon, was kind enough to pose with the flower to give you an idea of its size.

Once you see Aristolochia gigantea ‘Brasiliensis’ flowers you will know why this tropical made my top 5 list. It took me a few tries to cultivate this plant. I previously obtained two specimens and both times when they flowered they ended up being straight A. gigantea. My third attempt was well worth the trouble, however. This plant produces flowers nearly year-round and what a display they make! The flowers measure nearly 12 inches wide and before opening they have a fascinating side profile that resembles a smoking pipe. Aristolochia ridicula was close to making my list as well (check out its flowers). Location: Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

Dioscorea mexicana

Dioscorea mexicana

Dioscorea mexicana, also called Mexican Yam, is one of the coolest looking plants you will ever see. The plant’s caudex (stem base) looks like a tortoise shell. The glossy heart-shaped leaves are attractive and can grow 15 feet in a single growing season. While pretty, the flowers are small so it’s best to enjoy this plant for its foliage and oh so interesting caudex. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Caladium schomburgkii 'Skula'

Combretum indicum “Flora Plena’

Combretum indicum ‘Flora Plena,’ the second vine on my list, is certainly a show stopper. This doubled flowered cultivar is not only visually breathtaking but also pleasantly fragrant. The flowers start out white and as they age change over to various hues of pink and red. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Alsobia dianthiflora

Alsobia dianthiflora

Alsobia dianthiflora is also known by its common name, Lace Flower. A simple plant with fuzzy green leaves and a dark midrib, it looks nice year-round but really shines when it’s shredded-edged white flowers start to bloom. This plant also makes for a great house plant. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Encephalartos horridus

Encephalartos horridus

A bonus plant to add to this list is expected to make its appearance in the Smithsonian Gardens during the summer of 2016 or 2017.  Encephalartos horridus is an amazing blue cycad. I acquired a small offset in the fall of 2012 and have been caring for it ever since. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists this plant as Endangered. It is native to South Africa. E. horridus has spectacular blue fronds that make it a truly special specimen.

So there you have it–my current top 5 plants under my care here at Smithsonian Gardens. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and please stop by our gardens and check them out in person if you have a chance.

– Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

July 17, 2015 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment

Going Vertical in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden: Year Two!

Last year I tried out a new thing in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden – growing a green wall!  Like all things the first attempt is often a learning experience. Happily, last year’s wall turned out well enough that I decided to repeat it again this year.

The 2014 Ripley Garden green wall. My first attempt at growing vertically in the garden.

The 2014 Ripley Garden green wall. My first attempt at growing vertically in the garden.

I’ve received many questions from garden visitors regarding the construction of the wall so I thought I would share how it was built. This is by no means the only way to grow a green wall, just my own experience with the project.

green-wall-2I started by selecting frames specially designed to hang vertically. The individual cells or containers of these frames slant downward to minimize soil loss. Last year I planted the cells with things like Creeping Thymes and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ which root in wherever they touch the soil making them perfect in this situation.

Since I can’t do the same thing two years in a row, this year decided to try succulents. I ordered an assortment of succulent plugs (small rooted cuttings) and selected a variety of plants we were already growing at the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses to augment the purchased plants.

To begin, I filled all of the containers with a well-draining potting mix and laid them out flat on a table to plant. I really was looking for dramatic color and texture in this year’s wall so I tried to “paint” with the plants by creating patterns through my placement choices. After I finished planting, I marked each tray with a label so I would know the proper layout when the containers were transported down to the Ripley Garden.

Containers with newly-planted plugs.

Hanging containers with newly-planted plugs at the Smithsonian greenhouse.

The frames were planted in early March and allowed to grow flat on tables at our greenhouse until the roots were fairly established and the plants had grown enough to start holding in the soil. This took about four months due to my plant selection and the fact that I started with small plugs.

(L) The containers after about four months of growing time at the greenhouses. (R) Containers waiting for installation after arriving outside the Ripley Garden.

(L) The containers after about four months of growing time at the greenhouses. (R) Containers waiting for installation after arriving outside the Ripley Garden.

Hanging the containers was fairly simple. Each tray came with a metal cleat to attach to the hanging surface, in this case the Ripley Garden fence. My co-worker and mechanical mastermind, Rick, helped me run two-by-fours along the fence and then attach the cleats. Since I decided to do three rows of the frames, we spaced things accordingly.

Next came the fun part – installing the trays! The back side of each container had an indentation which allowed us to hang the containers directly on the cleats. We could have stopped there, but we wanted to be sure the containers would not fall off so Rick ran a screw through the side of each tray. We started adding the trays from the bottom and continued to fill each level, adding a screw to each tray. It took less than 30 minutes to install the trays once the cleats were in place. To hide the hanging hardware, we reused some bits of twig screen we had left over from last year’s garden holiday decorations.

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The frames were easy to assemble. Here Rick works his magic.

Now that the wall is up, watering is a bit of a challenge. It is possible to purchase little water boxes that sit on top of instillation and allow water to slowly trickle down through the wall. I found last year, however, that watering this way did not provide enough moisture to the lowest row of trays. This year I’m watering by lightly misting the wall with a fine spray of water and taking care not to disturb the soil and cause it to fall out of the containers.

The finished product!

The finished product!

I’ve found growing a green wall a fun experiment, but one that does require more skill and attention than growing things horizontally. But hey, why not try something different!

I really like the way it turned out and hope it lasts through the season. Since I used non-hardy succulents, the wall will be taken down in the late fall and returned to our greenhouse where it may undergo a new transformation for next year!

-Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist

July 10, 2015 at 11:53 am 1 comment

Bluebirds and Company: What’s Chirping at the Smithsonian Gardens’ Greenhouses

The summer season brings new life to the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses. As you might expect, much of this new life is the result of staff work to produce plants for our gardens. However, there are also a surprising number of winged, chirping occupants on the greenhouse property this season. As a part of the Bluebird NestWatch effort organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Smithsonian Gardens has set up ten specially-designed bluebird houses around the greenhouse property. The greenhouse staff visits each birdhouse weekly and unscrews a side wall to make notes of the visitors and nest progress. Often times they find other species of birds occupying the houses, so it’s really a fantastic glimpse at a variety of bird life. During the past several weeks of collecting data, we’ve seen Bluebirds, Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Robins making their nests in these houses.

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Greenhouse staff member accessing bird house

We also regularly see ground-nesting Killdeer around the greenhouse. Preferring ground mobility to flight, these birds are fast runners from an early age. This makes them difficult to approach especially as they are easily spooked. Though not one of our birdhouse residents, the Killdeer nest quickly became a weekly checkpoint for our observation tours and we were able to see four chicks this year.

It’s easy to imagine that the parents of these chicks were not particularly pleased with our weekly interruptions. As a result, we rapidly learned each bird’s defense strategy. Bluebirds are often shy creatures and the parents would fly to a vantage point to watch us with a keen eye while we conducted our research. Tree Swallows, on the other hand, are a little more aggressive and would dive-bomb us to get us to leave their nest alone. Adult Robins and Wrens would often just flee the coop entirely and wait for a quiet time to revisit their brood.

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Bluebird fledgling

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Wren chicks

Killdeer, on the other hand, have developed a pretty impressive show to protect their young which uses camouflage, predator calls, and distraction performances. Killdeer often hang out near our gravel walks or driveways where, as seen in the picture below, their neutral colored feathers help them blend into the background. Under the cover of camouflage, the adults would use alarm calls to attract attention to themselves and away from their babies when we approached the nest. When that failed, the adults would lay down and stretch out their wings like they had been injured to make themselves appear an appealing victim to the perceived predator. Once the threat (in this case the greenhouse staff) was fooled by the adult Killdeer’s show and moved to approach, the adult would wait for the the chicks to be safely out of reach before miraculously “recovering” and flying away to safety. There’s nothing more humbling than being duped by the oldest trick in the book.

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An alert Killdeer adult

All in all, it’s been a terrific and refreshing few weeks for the greenhouse staff to get outside and witness the beauty of avian life. During this project we’ve not only seen countless chicks and eggs, we’ve also seen the these young birds develop from day-old hatchings into fledglings ready to fly. Despite being attacked by adults aggressively protecting their young and mocked by flawless Killdeer performances, it’s been a pleasure seeing the diversity of bird life out at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses.

– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

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Newly hatched Robin chicks

July 2, 2015 at 12:43 pm Leave a comment

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