Archive for April, 2013

Watering Well: Irrigation Tips for Your Garden

Now as summer approaches we anticipate getting back into the garden and tending to the lawn. There is one element of gardening that should not be overlooked and that is getting your irrigation system tuned up for the season. Fully automated irrigation systems afford gardeners the convenience of not having to drag water hoses all over their property.

Sean Jones, Folger Rose Garden. Smithsonian Gardens.

Sean Jones, Folger Rose Garden. Smithsonian Gardens.

Energize your system’s mainline slowly and check the grounds for wet areas. This is a good way to find any leaks in your mainline and repair them before money has been wasted on an undetected leak. Here are a few easy things you can do to ensure that your system is in proper working order which can also save you time and money:

  • Check the irrigation timer and adjust any previous programs that may have been input from last season as necessary. With seasonal changes come programming changes. Your plants’ water requirements are going to differ from what they were in the fall when you winterized your system. You might actually use a lot less water at the beginning of the season which can translate directly into savings on your water bill.
  • Once you have done these things, run each individual zone and check for coverage. This may require changing and/or adjusting heads and nozzles. Making these changes can save you money. Sometimes we don’t know there are coverage issues until we see failing plants at which point it means replacing costly plant material.
  • With newer technologies and advanced irrigation product design available, you may want to consider changing out older irrigation components for newer products. The irrigation industry has made many advances, especially in the area of water conservation.

Remember that irrigation is a watering supplement. Don’t overwater your plants. Give them time to become thirsty; this will help build a healthy root system because the roots will grow deep looking for water.

These are just a few suggestions that you can undertake to do your part to help conserve water resources and – at the same time – save yourself some money.

-Sean Jones, Irrigation Engineer

April 29, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens Celebrates Arbor Day 2013

This year, Smithsonian Gardens is pleased to be hosting its second annual Arbor Day Tree Planting Celebration!  Although we have a great diversity of tree species here at the Smithsonian, we are always looking to add more to diversify our collection.  There are many wonderful exotic, non-invasive species that are well-suited to the growing environment in the Washington, DC area.  However, we are currently concentrating on adding more native tree species.  This year, we have chosen two different natives to plant.

Carolina Silverbell  (Halesia tetraptera)

Carolina Silverbell is a native hardwood understory tree that is typically found along slopes and streams in ravines in hardwood forests.  They favor north and east-facing aspects with moist, well-drained acidic loam soils.  They thrive in full and partial shade and have a core range in the southern Appalachian Mountains, but stretch as far as eastern Oklahoma, northern Florida, and southern Illinois.  This tree typically grows to be 30-40 feet, but can grow as high as 80 feet.  Its primary feature is beautifully bell-shaped white flowers that hang in clusters and are borne in the spring.

Carolina Silverbell  (Halesia tetraptera)

A Carolina Silverbell in full bloom.

White Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

The White Fringe Tree is another native hardwood tree that is found in its natural range which stretches from southern New Jersey to Florida, west to Texas.  The species is very variable, and no two trees seem to be alike in all characteristics.  The Fringe Tree can grow in a variety of conditions, and is cold hardy to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  As with the Carolina Silverbell, this tree’s most striking feature is the flowers.  Six to eight-inch fleecy white, fragrant flowers appear in May and June and make this a beautiful addition to the landscape.

White Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

A White Fringe tree in full bloom.

On Arbor Day, Friday April 26, we will be having two tree plantings.  The White Fringe Tree will be planted at the Anacostia Community Museum, and the Carolina Silverbell will be planted at the National Museum of Air and Space, on the south side of the building adjacent to the observatory.  The Smithsonian Gardens’ Arborist and other horticulture staff will be on hand at the Air and Space event to demonstrate proper tree planting techniques and to answer questions.  The planting will take place at noon.  We hope you can join us!

-Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist

April 25, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Volunteers Help Make Smithsonian Gardens Shine

We think our Smithsonian Gardens volunteers are awesome! From helping out in the Archives of American Gardens and greenhouses to volunteering as interpreters in our exhibits and gardens, volunteers help sustain some of our most important projects and serve as terrific ambassadors to our visitors.

 This winter, over forty volunteers signed up to share their enthusiasm for orchids with visitors to our Orchids of Latin America exhibit. Their knowledge, love for all things orchid, and great people skills mean that those who come to see the exhibit have the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the beautiful plants on display. If you have yet to visit the exhibit, make some time to stop by the National Museum of Natural History’s special exhibition gallery to see the beautiful display and say “hi” to the volunteers working there.

Potting orchids at Orchid Family Day 2013

Orchid Family Day 2013. Francisco Guerra, photographer.

Although the orchid exhibit ends April 21st, many of our volunteer interpreters are staying on with Smithsonian Gardens to interact with the public in the gardens this spring through fall. If you are interested in meeting great people and sharing your love of plants with visitorsfrom around the world, think about joining us out in the gardens. We are always excited to welcome new volunteers and interpreters to our team! For more information or to volunteer, visit the web or send us an email.

-Alison Kootstra, Education & Outreach Intern

April 23, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Rustic Ornament in the Victorian Garden

This Stump Pedestal is an example of a popular Rustic Style of garden ornament that developed in the late nineteenth century. This style was adapted to the garden from the Romantic Movement, which was characterized by its nostalgic look at nature. Its love of picturesque landscapes was recreated in the garden. The “English Landscape Garden” or “Jardin Anglaise” relied on objects in the rustic style to create an informal setting that put an emphasis on the true nature of the land.

Rustic pedestal

1979.26, Pedestal, Rustic Stump, late 19th C, Cast-iron, paint, 22 x 18 x 13.

These gardens were more sparsely ornamented than other garden styles. Objects were often created using materials found in nature such as tree branches, twigs, roots, bark, pinecones, animal horns, antlers and seashells and were often handmade. Cast-iron, already a popular material used in the garden used molds that would mimic these natural assemblages. As we see in the rustic stump pedestal, it is cast in a high relief and mimics the look of a tree trunk with thick bark that is entangled roots and oak leaves. It would have been used as a base for a plant stand or bird bath and occasionally could have been used a planter itself. These objects were usually painted in white, black, or natural colors that would blend in with the landscape.

Horticulture magazines and other serials provided layout, planting, ornament and structure designs that would have incorporated objects such as the stump pedestal. This was a popular item that can be seen in the 1858, Janes, Beebe, & Co. New York trade catalogue, the 1875, Coalbrookdale Company of England trade catalogue, and the 1893, J.W. Fiske Iron Works trade catalogue.

Many of these rustic style cast-iron ornaments have been broken or damaged. However, gardeners still feature them in their landscapes today.  Using the broken pieces and fragments of these antique garden furnishings, they create interesting displays that incorporate the past and create a nostalgic and picturesque setting for the present.

Further Reading:
Israel, Barbara. Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.
Himmelheber, Georg. Cast-iron Furniture, and all other forms of iron furniture. London: Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, 1996
Hill, May Brawley. Furnishing the Old-Fashioned Garden: Three Centuries of American Summerhouses, Dovecots, Pergolas, Privies, Fences & Birdhouses. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

 -Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates/George Mason University

April 17, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

I Yam Not a Tortoise but a Plant

Dioscorea mexicana

The caudex of the Dioscorea mexicana.

Dioscorea mexicana, commonly called Mexican Yam or Tortoise Plant, is native to Mexico, El Salvador, and Panama.  Dioscorea is made up of around 600 species in the Dioscoreaceae family and has a world-wide distribution range.  Originally in the Testudinaria genus and named after ‘Testudo,’ a genus of tortoise, it was later grouped into the genus Dioscorea.

The plant’s caudex (or modified stem) resembles the shell of a tortoise.  The caudex itself is a partially exposed tuber that is covered in grayish-brown scales.  It is divided into polygonal plates that are scored by deep furrows.  This species typically goes dormant during the winter, though this year even without water for nearly four months the stem didn’t die back and still looks great, so we shall see what the future holds.  From what I have experienced, heard from other growers, and also read, this plant sometimes either doesn’t die back during the winter or sends out a new stem earlier or later than expected, so watch the plant and not necessarily the calendar.  The new stem can grow 15 to 20 feet in one season!

Dioscorea mexicana

Dioscorea mexicana’s flowers bloom in late summer.

Dioscorea mexicana is dioecious meaning that the individual plants in the species are either male or female.   The leaves are glossy green and heart-shaped.  Flowers are greenish with dark purple centers and bloom in late summer.  Although considered inconspicuous, I feel the male flowers add some visual interest.  The caudex requires shade, usually provided by surrounding vegetation, while the vining portion of the plant needs full sun.  It prefers to grow in a well-drained soil.  Dioscorea mexicana is mostly propagated by seed, but although stubborn can be grown from cuttings.

If you can find one, this plant will have even the best plant enthusiasts talking and asking questions.  Its easy winter care regimen (in most years) makes it a great choice for an exotic tropical look.  During winter months greatly reduce the amount of water given to the plant; a light monthly watering is needed at most.  I couldn’t find much information about and personally don’t know its hardiness but wouldn’t expose it to temps much below freezing for extended periods of time.  Slowly bring it out of dormancy in the spring and give it lots of water during the hot growing summer season.   Despite being nicknamed after a slow mover, Dioscorea mexicana quickly proves itself a crowd pleaser!

-Matt Fleming, Horticulturist

April 11, 2013 at 12:00 pm 1 comment

Smithsonian Gardens presenta Las Orquídeas de Latinoamérica

Oncidium Red Stars 'Rooster'

Oncidium Red Stars ‘Rooster’

La Institución de Smithsonian tiene una larga historia de la recolección de plantas para compartir su belleza con el mundo. ‘Smithsonian Gardens’  sigue compartiendo esta tradición a través de su colección de orquídeas. Esta colección ha aumentado desde 1974 cuando adquirieron las primeras cinco plantas. Desde entonces, la colección de orquídeas ha florecido enormemente y hoy  tenemos a más de 8,000 especies en nuestro invernadero.

Las plantas que forman esta colección son utilizadas para elevar la belleza y la maravilla de los museos Smithsonian. Cada año podemos disfrutar la gran variedad de sus brillantes colores y formas cuando muestran sus encantadoras flores. Aprovechen y celebren estas maravillosas plantas cuando visiten a los museos Smithsonian. Podrán ver orquídeas que representan a países tan lejanos como China o más cercanos como nuestros vecinos de México.  La exposición este año celebran Las Orquídeas de Latinoamérica. Visiten y admiren las bellas flores exóticas que tenemos en exhibición en el Museo Nacional de Historia Natural y reciban más información y detalles que les ofrecemos en español e inglés.

– Sarah Mirabal, Orchid Intern

April 4, 2013 at 9:41 am 1 comment


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