Behind the Orchids: Changeouts in the Kogod Courtyard
This week I took a break from work on the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty exhibition to help Smithsonian Gardens’ horticulturists with planters in the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. The Reynolds Center, which houses the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, underwent a major renovation in the early 2000s to enclose its central courtyard, creating a beautifully maintained interior space filled with natural light. If you are a fan of architecture or just like cafes in nice spaces, you should definitely go check it out! Smithsonian Gardens’ horticulturists care for eight large planters throughout the courtyard and I’ve made two trips over the past couple weeks to help replace plants in two of the eight planters. With each planter over 300 square feet, it’s quite the production.
In fact, on Kogod changeout days, help is needed from several members of the Smithsonian Gardens staff. This week, I joined a team of five staff members and one volunteer to tackle the job. Changeouts occur regularly. Often new plants are rotated onto display for seasonal purposes or to freshen up the courtyard for the many thousands of visitors that regularly pass through. Earlier this year, the courtyard display featured Cymbidium orchids and their endless blooms gave spectacular color to the space.
Kogod changeouts not only address aesthetic purposes. Changeouts are also useful for ensuring and maintaining plant health. Sometimes a new plant may not do so well in the space. There might be a pest problem that requires removing a plant or a plant may simply need to come out because its life cycle is ending. Whatever the reason, making the effort to assess each plant’s health ensures a beautiful display.
During the first step of a planter changeout, all the plants (except for the trees) come out of the planter and are placed onto tarps laid out on the ground. Plants are assessed to determine whether they are still in good condition for display, if they need attention, or if they should simply be composted. Once the current plants are sorted, new soil is poured into the bed to level the surface with the edge of the planter. Once again, adding soil serves both an aesthetic and functional purpose. Fresh soil both looks better and allows the new plants going into the planter to have an easier time rooting. This is one of the most labor-intensive parts of the process as each of the planters easily takes in 80 50-pound bags of new soil.
Once the soil is in, additional nutrients are added and mixed in evenly before introducing the plants. The Smithsonian Gardens’ interior plantscape designer and crew then work to create a planter design with the plants available instead of trying to fit the plants into a predesigned plan. I feel this allows the planters to come out looking their best and showcases plants that we may have been able to save from the previous design that we did not expect to have. After helping with two changeouts, it’s really a nice surprise to see how it all comes together each time.
The next time you are visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum or National Portrait Gallery, make sure to swing by the Kogod Courtyard and enjoy the wonderful green inside, no matter what the weather may be like outside!
– Alan M., Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Exhibition Intern