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Transforming the Heirloom Garden into Common Ground: Our American Garden

The National Museum of American History has welcomed visitors to its doors since 1964. The landscape at the entrance consists of raised stone planters that hug the building. In the sixties, these beds were ‘green and clean,’ a mass of nondescript groundcovers. Over the years the creative vision of Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists brought a more diverse array of plantings, including a bounty of perennials and cottage garden flowers. Thus, the Heirloom Garden was born.

Opened in 1998, the Heirloom Garden highlighted plants grown in American gardens before 1950. These included old-fashioned, grandmother’s favorites and pass-along perennials like irises and blackberry lily, as well as spring-flowering bulbs like crocus, daffodils, and tulips. The garden featured plants that Thomas Jefferson grew, Dahlias that made the All-America Selection cut, and heritage roses.

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Heirloom Garden, 2012

The biggest challenge turned out to be interpreting the garden. As we researched the definition of “heirloom,” we discovered no clear answer. After consulting with experts and a myriad of published resources, we found that roses, bulbs, and annuals each had to meet a different standard to be considered heirloom. Depending on the criteria, plants had to be 50, 75, or 100 years old to make the grade. Sometimes newer varieties were included, as long as they were open-pollinated (pollinated by pollinators, not by the efforts of humans). In vegetable gardening, heirloom plants such as tomatoes must be open-pollinated as opposed to hybridized (two parent plants are crossed to produce a plant with specific traits).

Try putting all that information on a sign or explaining it in a tour! We needed a new approach. How could we best share the stories of plants and their importance to people in this country? While we were reimagining the garden, curators from the National Museum of American History were researching and planning their own exhibition, Many Voices, One Nation, which asks the question, “How did we become US?” As they were nearing the end of their choices of objects and themes, the curators reached out to Smithsonian Gardens. Could we make a garden that echoed the themes of the new exhibition?

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Eryngium zabelii ‘Big Blue’

The resounding answer was yes! Smithsonian Gardens staff met with museum staff to collaborate on what would become a companion garden exhibit. Eventually, we chose four themes to capture the essential connections Americans have made with plants. Plants evoke Memory through flavor, fragrance, beauty, or herbal traditional use. Likewise, many cultures in the United States use special Healing or medicinal plants. Ingenuity and Discovery rounded out the themes that define how people throughout America’s history discovered and used plants and how Americans today continue to depend on them in new ways. These themes have been translated into interpretive sign panels for the garden, now called Common Ground: Our American Garden.

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New interpretive panel for the garden.

Our gardeners and horticulturists took special care to prepare the new garden, salvaging plants from existing raised beds, scraping and removing soil around existing crape myrtle trees and replacing it with an engineered soil, as well as adding organic fertilizer and a topdressing of fine mulch.  We “limbed up” or pruned 24 crapemyrtles and tucked small, shade loving “plugs” of perennials such as golden sedge, columbine, and sweet woodruff between them. We followed with over 500 Mexican feather grass and more than 1500 flowering perennials such as Echinacea (in orange, purple and green), bee balm, catmint, blanketflower, and butterflyweed.

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Smithsonian Gardens staff planting for the new garden.

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Mexican feather grass and Echinacea

The new garden is a bright stretch of raised beds with native and exotic perennials, revealing gems of useful plants and garden history along the visitor’s path. We worked to create a flowing, cohesive design. One team member brought the idea of color-blocked beds to the table, making each bed a different color. Another brought the idea of a cohesive planting mix of grasses and prairie flowers. The result is a series of orange beds punctuated by beds of blue, green and purple. Each outset bed features the same vibrant hot color while each inset bed shows a receding cool color.

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Sketch for the southwest terrace, illustrating the color blocked design.

After 2 years of planning, the garden opened on June 28th in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s new wing, The Nation We Build Together, which showcases the exhibition Many Voices, One Nation. The garden now feels complete, yet it is never finished, as new seasons will continue to bring change.

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Completed garden

– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

 

July 6, 2017 at 3:10 pm Leave a comment

Welcome to Common Ground: Our American Garden

Common Ground Blog 1Completed in June 2017, Common Ground: Our American Garden is an outdoor exhibit that looks at historic and contemporary America through a plant lens. Formerly the site of the Smithsonian’s Heirloom Garden, this space features raised planting beds along the National Museum of American History’s south side facing the National Mall.  The exhibit was created and installed by Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists, who worked with historians at the museum to embody themes found in the recently opened exhibition, Many Voices, One Nation.

Within the colorful landscape, specific plants are highlighted based on their importance to Americans in the following ways:  Memory, Healing, Discovery, and Ingenuity. Interpretive panels invite visitors to connect with their own cultural heritage, discover plants beloved for their fragrance and beauty, and enjoy a handsome vista of color befitting a museum garden in the nation’s capital.

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Newly installed interpretive panels highlight the four themes of the garden.

Memory: These plants, originating from America and elsewhere, are grown to remember heritage. They provide flavor or fragrance to remind gardeners of family and home.

Healing: These plants are grown for their traditional or modern medicinal qualities. In America, entire landscapes and gardens have been cultivated to promote the health of people, especially as a respite in urban areas. New medicinal uses for plants and benefits of green spaces continue to be found today.

Discovery: These plants have been discovered, collected or documented by Americans abroad or here at home, often as part of expeditions.  New discoveries continue to be made in horticulture and plant science thanks to innovative plant breeding and propagation techniques.

Ingenuity: These plants illustrate efforts by Americans to use plants in unusual ways.  Some of these plant uses have grown to industrial proportions. All remain a fascinating thread in the fabric of the American garden story.

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Asclepias tuberosa is both a native and a medicinal plant. One of its most interesting uses in America, however, comes from its seeds. Each seed is carried on a billowy sail of cottony fluff. Someone noticed this and utilized the fluff as stuffing for life-jackets.

Starting July 6th, twenty minute tours of Common Ground: Our American Garden will start at 9:30a.m. every Thursday through October at the National Museum of American History’s south entrance.  Come and enjoy this new multi-seasonal exhibit!

Do you have memories of a garden in your community or neighborhood? Have you or someone you know grown a Victory or flower garden, or passed along plants, seeds or knowledge to family, friends and neighbors? Smithsonian Gardens invites you to share your own garden story with Community of Gardens, a collection of stories from around the nation. Stories and images can be contributed through the Community of Gardens app or at communityofgardens.si.edu

– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist

July 3, 2017 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Gardening for Good—Part I

Many of the stories in our Community of Gardens digital archive highlight the powerful impact gardening is having on urban, suburban, and rural areas around the country. Community gardening first gained popularity in the United States in the 1890s (read up on this fascinating topic in our online exhibit). For over a century community garden organizations have helped citizens learn to grow their own food, beautify their neighborhoods, and use gardens as a springboard for education and creating connections between neighbors. Right here in our own backyard in the nation’s capital, Common Good City Farm is growing fresh produce for their neighbors and teaching urban agriculture skills. And the Neighborhood Farm Initiative is teaching novice gardeners how to start and tend their own community garden plot through their Kitchen Garden Education Program. Gardens are proving to be key to providing access to fresh, healthy food in communities across the nation. Community of Gardens not only celebrates the hard work of gardening communities, but is also preserving the individual stories that make up this larger movement for future generations of gardeners and historians.

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The Neighborhood Farm Initiative in Washington, D.C. offers gardening workshops for adults and families, teaching them how to plan, tend, and harvest a garden plot in their community garden.

Further afield, Grow Appalachia at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky partners with communities in six different states in the Appalachian region to provide garden grants, healthy summer meals for children in their community, and education and technical expertise for farmers and gardeners.

We recently received three stories about Grow Appalachia gardeners from Alix Burke, a AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the organization. She has spent almost a year collecting stories and images of gardens and gardeners in the program. The stories, ranging from a retired couple perfecting their home gardening skills to a flower farm managed by survivors of domestic abuse, are part of a verdant quilt of gardens doing good growing across the United States.

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Married couple Della and Charles pose with the bounty of the harvest from their garden. They grew green beans, sweet potatoes, squash, and more. The couple expanded their home garden through the help of Grow Applaachia workshops.

Asked the importance of her work, Burke stated, “It’s important to collect these stories about Grow Appalachia gardeners and their gardens because it captures the lived realities of the program . . . from families bonding in the garden with healthier eating and exercise habits to people who are out of work turning to market gardening as a way to feed their families, both with the food they grow and with income they generate, the people and their gardens are, and always have been, the heart of Grow Appalachia.”

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A flower grown on the Greenhouse 17 flower farm. With support from Grow Appalachia, Greenhouse 17 helps domestic abuse survivors get back on their feet and learn new job skills in horticulture and retail.

Stories about gardens can tell us about where we’ve been, and where we are going. The values and beliefs we hold, scientific innovation, foodways, and even economic trends are reflected back at us in the why and how of our gardens. What has Burke learned from her months in the field speaking to gardeners and learning about their experiences? “No one person’s experience captures what it’s like to be a Grow Appalachia gardener, but everyone’s story, in some way, contributes to the larger narrative of food security and the growing local foods economy in the region, ” she says. “Stories have always been important to the Appalachian region, from oral histories, to bluegrass lyrics, to the memories passed down with shared heirloom bean varieties. These interviews allow folks to continue a longstanding Appalachian tradition of speaking their own truths about their own lives, from the food they grow to the connections they make along the way.”

Are there gardens and gardeners doing good in your area? Encourage them to share their story with Community of Gardens! Get started here or email us at communityofgardens@si.edu.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

June 28, 2017 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens Launches New Community of Gardens Mobile App

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Community of Gardens is the Smithsonian’s home for sharing garden stories.

Gardening season is here . . . flowers are just starting to peek out in the northernmost climes, and gardeners in other parts of the country are already enjoying spring peas, asparagus, and the colorful sight of tulips and daffodils. Every day, all year long, gardeners across the United States sketch plans, pore over seed catalogs, mix and lay compost, dutifully pull weeds from garden beds, build deer fencing, and tend their plants with love (and sometimes frustration with those finickier ones!). Whether you are gardening for sustenance, relaxation, health, as a creative outlet, or continuing a family or cultural tradition, there is a story behind what you do. Every gardener has a story, and those stories are important to preserve for future generations of historians, scientists, and gardeners!

Smithsonian Gardens is excited to launch its first mobile app to bring stories of gardening in the United States to life. The Community of Gardens app is the mobile companion to the Community of Gardens website, our digital archive featuring stories of everyday gardens contributed by the public.

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The Community of Gardens mobile app for Apple.

Gardens past and present, big and small, can be explored from anywhere with a mobile device. From stories of community gardens to memories of grandmother’s garden roses and “putting up” jars of tomatoes, Community of Gardens is the Smithsonian’s digital home for collecting and preserving stories of gardens and the gardeners who make them grow.

Mobile users can locate stories on a map, or learn how to upload their own story about how gardening has shaped their life and community. A rich trove of writing, photographs, video, and audio bring to life the traditions and tales in our own backyards. Help the Smithsonian preserve the complexity and diversity of our garden heritage by sharing your own garden story or memory at www.communityofgardens.si.edu.

The Community of Gardens app is free is currently available for iPhone and iPad devices in the Apple app store. Don’t worry Android device users, we haven’t forgotten you! Community of Gardens will be available in the Google Play store by early summer, just in time to read and share stories of those first delicious crops of vegetables.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

May 1, 2017 at 10:36 am 1 comment

Changing Roles of Gardens

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.

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Bumble bee feeding on Physostegia virginiana (Obedient plant)

…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.

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Skipper butterfly feeding on Verbena bonariensis 

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.

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Example of leaf and foliage bits left as nesting materials for birds. 

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Example of leaf and foliage bits left as nesting materials for birds. 

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.

Happy gardening!

Janet Draper – Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

April 19, 2017 at 12:59 pm 2 comments

‘Bucky,’ the Stinkiest Bulbophyllum

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“Bucky’ and its large leaves

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.

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Inflorescence of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis

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 

April 13, 2017 at 1:48 pm 5 comments

Vanilla blooms abound!

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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.

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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 

January 10, 2017 at 3:49 pm Leave a comment

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