Posts filed under ‘Design’

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.

Heirloom Garden 2012

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.

Common Ground sketch

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

Creating an insect habitat in the Ripley Garden

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.

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Inspiration from Flora Grubb Gardens

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!).

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The results of hiking with a horticulturist! 

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.

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Construction in progress! 

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Construction in progress

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.

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Installation in the Ripley Garden. Thanks to Matt Huber, Rick Shilling, Mike Guetig, and Nick Guy for their installation assistance!

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The finished piece! 

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.

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Simpler insect hotels in the Ripley Garden

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 

January 4, 2017 at 1:19 pm 4 comments

Things are getting fat in the Ripley Garden!

Fat in a succulent sort of way, that is!

Two years ago, I started playing around with growing plants vertically using a system of trays specifically designed for such use (Going Vertical in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden). During that first year, I planted the trays with creeping thymes, and other low-growing selections in an effort to create a mosaic of colors and form. This was successful, but I knew it could be better.

The next year I used all sun-loving succulents in an awe-inspiring range of colors, textures, and forms which allowed me to have fun creating a living tapestry that would thrive with low-water usage.

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Succulents overwintering in our greenhouse facility.

The response to my succulent experiment was so positive that I knew it had to come back. So before deadly frosts arrived, I dismantled the wall and sent it back to the care of our wonderful growers, Joe Curley and Jill Gonzales, to overwinter in the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility. The plants flourished under their care and the wall is back this year, bigger and better than before!

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2016 Green Wall 

But what else can be done with succulents? Could I create succulent topiary-like balls? Why not try?!  Again with the help and support of our greenhouse staff, this past winter, I purchased some pre-made metal frame spheres that were stuffed with sphagnum moss and secured with fishing line.

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Sphagnum moss spheres ready for succulent additions.

I got various sizes of these spheres and plugs (small rooted plants) of assorted succulents.  The first thing I did was submerge the dry spheres in a bucket of water to soak the moss thoroughly.  Then I started playing with the little plugs and began creating artistic designs of color and form all over the spheres. I added holes in each moss ball and placed starter plants in, securing them with florist pins when necessary.

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Succulent plugs

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Me, enjoying design experimentation with the succulent spheres

After creating the spheres, they were once again in the hands of our great growers who cared for and nurtured them until they were established enough to put on display in the garden.

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Early phase succulent sphere 

They are now scattered throughout the Ripley Garden, hanging from various structures and lamp posts.  Come on by and check them out—I think they turned out pretty well and am excited to see them completely filled in.

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The succulent spheres at home in the Ripley Garden!

I check them frequently to see if they need watering since the sphagnum moss dries out quickly, but succulents are engineered to handle times of drought, so they should continue to thrive in the absence of much water, though I am not sure just how much!

So, once again, I am experimenting and learning new things all the time.  I have no idea how the succulent spheres will do this summer, but that is part of the fun of gardening, isn’t it?

Happy Gardening!

– Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist 

July 18, 2016 at 10:05 am Leave a comment

Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden Expansion and Renovation

The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden has been a treasured component of the Smithsonian landscape since 1998. For nearly two decades it has served as a place to enjoy beauty, learn about modern roses and showcase gardening. This year, the garden will undergo an expansion and renovation to continue that legacy. This exciting project is made possible through a generous grant from the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund.

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Sketch of the forthcoming Folger Rose Garden renovation and expansion.

In addition to physically increasing the garden’s footprint by developing existing turf areas in front of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, the renovation will include the installation of interpretive signage highlighting information about roses as well as the important roles that beneficial insects and companion plants play in the garden. The signage will encourage visitors to more fully appreciate the garden’s four-season design and understand the advantage of variety and balance in nature and in garden design. Smithsonian Gardens will also install a custom-designed garden feature that complements the garden’s Victorian cast iron fountain and urns and ties in with the beautiful architecture of the historic A & I Building.

Many people envision a rose garden as a formal, symmetrical design consisting solely of roses surrounded by tightly-clipped boxwood edges — a near monoculture. While this type of design can be beautiful, it can also lead to an imbalance in the garden. Smithsonian Gardens wanted to design a rose garden that reflects balance as found in nature complete with structural complexity and plant diversity which allows for both pest and pest predator (a.k.a. benefi­cial insect) populations. By taking this approach we hope to cultivate a healthier garden with a lesser reliance on pesticides.

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Young visitors to the Folger Rose Garden learning about the use of beneficial insects for pest management.

The redesigned Folger Rose Garden will embody the best practices in modern rose care and culture. When planning for this project, Smithsonian Gardens staff spent months carefully selecting rose varieties that are fragrant, disease resistant, and–whenever possible–“own-root roses” meaning they are grown from cuttings rather than grafted onto another rootstalk. Good selection is critical to maintaining a beautiful and scented garden without constant disease pressure and pesticide application.

When the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden was originally designed and installed in 1997-1998, the vision was to create a four-season garden with year-round interest. That vision guides this redesign as well. Roses will bloom in the spring, summer, and fall. A few specimen conifers and evergreens will punctuate and anchor the garden during the winter months but also supply some of the desired structural complexity. A variety of groundcovers and other perennials will add to the display and ensure plant diversity. These companion plants have been chosen specifically for their ability to attract a variety of beneficial insects into the garden, thus aiding in a natural balance and rose protection.

It is our hope that when the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden reopens in the summer of 2016 it will give visitors the opportunity both to surround themselves with beauty and better understand roses as a part of a larger ecosystem.

-Shelley Gaskins, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens 

March 30, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Chasing the Meadow: A Trip through Midwest Gardens

This past October I had the wonderful opportunity to visit public gardens in the Midwest thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens Staff Travel Grant Program.  I planned an amazing chlorophyllic journey from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, hitting as many gardens as possible in 7 days. I think I could churn out a book based on all of the details that I saw, but two places really stood out to me – Lurie Garden and Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Lurie Garden is a 3-acre garden designed by Piet Oudulf and nestled within Millennium Park, a 25-acre public space adjacent to Lake Michigan in Chicago.  It is a magnificent setting literally humming with people enjoying all aspects of the park—from selfies at ‘The Bean’ to wandering the gardens or just hanging out on the lawns, this is a space that is obviously beloved by all. And me? Mesmerized.

Lurie Garden

Looking up the slope in the Lurie Garden to the Chicago skyline.

The garden is divided into a full sun area and a shade area; Oudulf calls them the light and dark planes. I found the light plane captivating from every angle. This completely herbaceous garden is on a gentle slope. When viewed from the bottom of the slope, the naturalistic garden leads the eye up to the reflective skyscrapers creating a stunning juxtaposition. The garden belongs here. It is like a small portion of prairie has been overtaken by the city. The plantings are all relatively low so you can look over the space from every angle.  The plantings are complex with featured plants intermingling as they do in the wild.

During my visit I was able to meet with Lurie Garden Director Scott Stewart and Horticulturist Laura Ekasetya who were very generous with their time and answered my plethora of questions.

The other garden which stood out to me during my trip was the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin which is a shared undertaking between the city of Madison and the non-profit Olbrich Botanical Society. Even before you enter the front door of the visitor center for this 16-acre garden you know it is different. The parking lot and the beds surrounding the visitor center feature drought-tolerant gravel gardens rather than the riot of exuberant color that normally frames entry spaces.

The garden prides itself on being sustainable and earth friendly—something especially evident when you enter the conservatory since it not only highlights awesome plants but also houses canaries, waxbills, and tropical quail. No chemicals could possibly be used in here! I saw quite a few lust-worthy plants impeccably displayed. My nerd senses were piqued!

Olbrich’s outdoor garden is arranged with themed “rooms” radiating off a circular lawn area. In addition to traditional favorites like herb, rose and perennial gardens, Olbrich also features gravel gardens, a prairie drop-seed meadow, and a sedge meadow. Some of these areas are quite small – for example, the sedge meadow is a narrow pathway leading to two chairs. The space is a sweet, intimate nook showing an attractive alternative to the typical American Lawn. The meadow’s simple signage identifies the species used to create the low maintenance lawn and the seating area invites you to sit and absorb the bucolic environment. It really did show that you can live large in a small space and do it beautifully while respecting the environment.

Gravel Garden - Olbrich

One of the cutting-edge gravel gardens at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

The gravel gardens at Olbrich might look like normal perennial gardens, but they are actually some of the most cutting edge of gardens. Olbrich’s Horticulture Director Jeff Epping starts these gardens with an application of 5-6 inches of gravel over the planting soil and then plants drought-tolerant species in the gravel so their roots just touch the soil.  Not only do these gardens require up to 80% less maintenance than a typical perennial garden, they also need less water and weeding since any weed seeds normally dry out in this environment before successfully establishing. Maintenance involves an annual cutback and removal of all material to keep the soils lean.  This may prove to be a great way to expand the hardiness of many more drought-tolerant things here in the D.C. area since we often lose plants due to winter wet rather than cold temperatures. The process really sparked my curiosity and interest.

Overall, what are the big impressions I came away with?

  • Integrate more grasses! Molinia, Sesleria, Bouteloua and Sporobolis can add movement, texture, and depth without being overpowering.
  • Tropical plantings are fun to play with, but–for me–well designed ‘naturalistic’ plantings trigger a more emotional reaction.
  • A garden does not need to be large or complex to be moving and contemplative.

– Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

January 22, 2016 at 10:16 am Leave a comment

Plants in the Ripley Center: Design for Small Spaces

Next time you visit the Smithsonian museums, take some time to venture into the Ripley Center concourse underneath the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You’ll find the planters lining the walkway there feature a temporary exhibit showcasing gardening styles for small spaces. Five planters host unique interior and exterior vignettes that illustrate a variety of small gardening options. They require little space and are low-maintenance, but add BIG style to any garden.

In selecting a new theme for the plantings in the Ripley Center, I chose to highlight gardening styles that fit urban settings – traditionally smaller spaces for plants – that can be adapted to accentuate any size area. I worked closely with Smithsonian Gardens’ (SG) team of education specialists and collection curators to design this exhibit which features pieces from SG’s historic Garden Furnishings Collection.

Fairy garden

Fairy garden

Whimsical, magical, fantastic – these are words I think of to describe a fairy garden. My daughter is very much into fairies, princesses, and gnomes – all that wonderful stuff of the Disney variety. For her, this form of gardening in miniature that incorporates fairies and other fantasy creatures IS magic. To me, these gardens have a tale to tell through their use of characters and scenery and spark the imagination of young and old.

Assorted terrariums

Terrariums

My family shares a 1950’s ranch-style house. While there isn’t a lot of room for interior plants, we’re able to fit in some of the styles on display in the modest space. Terrariums are what we use the most at home–on the dining-room table, in the bathroom and bedrooms. Since they can be almost any size, the possibilities are almost endless. A small terrarium can really brighten up a space and add a natural touch, as it has in our 1950’s galley kitchen!

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Green wall

My colleague Janet Draper wrote an interesting post about her planting of a green, or living, wall in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. The green wall installed in the Ripley Center is much smaller and less tricky to cultivate than the lovely and large exterior wall that Janet maintains. Green walls have become popular in offices and homes as a way to liven up a wall and provide possible health benefits; they clean the air and increase positive moods.

Stumpery

Stumpery

A stumpery is a garden feature I wish I had known about every time a tree fell in my nestled-in-the-woods childhood home. Utilizing the remains of a tree in inventive ways would have saved my father a lot of chainsaw blades. Through the creative arrangement of stumps and the incorporation of ferns and other shade-loving plants, old stumps can themselves become a focal point within a garden. This style was extremely popular during the Victorian era (1837-1901) and has experienced a resurgence recently.

Dish garden of succulents

Dish garden of succulents

Dish gardening enables a gardener to create an environment that might otherwise be difficult to sustain. For instance, in the Washington, D.C. area desert plants are not able thrive during our cold and sometimes snowy winters. The desert dish garden in our home has successfully survived multiple harsh winters. Watering and sunlight needs vary depending on the plants one chooses to use in a dish garden, but it’s a great way to grow plants you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes and DIY tips in future blogs. Be sure to catch these plant vignettes in the Ripley Center before exhibit closes on January 31, 2016. I and everyone at Smithsonian Gardens hope you enjoy the exhibit and take away some ideas you might be able to use in your own indoor or outdoor garden.

– Alexandra Thompson, Horticulturist, Interior Plants, Smithsonian Gardens

September 18, 2015 at 9:25 am Leave a comment


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