Posts filed under ‘Education’

The Great American Lawn

March is a month of green: St. Patrick’s Day decorations, green buds appearing on the trees, and a new hint of green reappearing on our lawns. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard opens March 18th at the Elmhurst History Museum in Illinois. Let’s take a look back at American lawns through the years and our changing attitudes towards the green beneath our feet.

Street of houses with lawns

A long line of American lawns stretching from east to west. Elm Avenue, Hershey, Pennsylvania, 1946. J. Horace McFarland Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 

In his 1989 article “Why Mow?” Michael Pollan describes the American landscape as a carpet of green stretching in an unbroken line from the East Coast to the deserts of New Mexico to the most arid regions of Southern California. “Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television,” he writes, “the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not.” Lawns are arguably the most prevalent garden feature in the United States.

The popularity of lawns in the United States is an influence from the English school of landscape design. Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the first landscape designers in America, expounded on the virtues of the lawn in his 1841 book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. According to Downing, “the close proximity of fences to the house gives the whole place a confined and mean character . . . A wide spread lawn, on the contrary, where no boundaries are conspicuous, conveys an impression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”
English lawn

An unidentified English estate lawn, ca. 1930s. Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Lawns were expensive to maintain in the nineteenth century. Before lawn mowers only the wealthiest landowners could afford to hire a full-time gardener to trim the lawns by scythe and pull weeds. A verdant lawn was a symbol of wealth and stature, but the development of the cylindrical lawn mower in the 1880s put a tidy lawn within the reach of the middle class. The forty-hour work week and the increase in home ownership in the mid-twentieth century turned lawn care into the hobby (or curse, depending on who you ask) that it is today.
Commercial illustration from the Burpee Collection

Companies advertised various lawn products that purported to be time savers for homeowners. Here, a man kicks up his feet and enjoys his yard. In actuality many homeowners bemoaned the amount of time–and money–they had to spend on their yard to keep it trim and green. Undated commercial illustration from the 1950s or 1960s, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 In certain parts of the country, lawns that were covered in a dusting of snow a month ago will soon be in need of a good mowing. Many homeowners in the 1950s would have rejoiced to have a healthy lawn in the middle of winter. A plethora of products and chemicals to combat pests and keep lawns healthy year-round flooded the market after the second World War. Much of technology was a direct result of wartime scientific advancement. Advertisements such as those by W. Atlee Burpee & Company peddled every product under the sun to the postwar consumer, from grass seed to DDT to sprayers and lawn mowers.
Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements

Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements, circa 1950-1960. W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Garden magazines published a backlash of editorials in the 1950s and 1960s bemoaning the “keeping up with the Joneses” race to have the perfect suburban lawn. There are even reports of some homeowners being so fed up with lawn maintenance they ripped out their grass and replaced it with green cement. (Of course, the introduction of AstroTurf in the mid 1960s would give irate gardeners another option.)
The Archives of American Gardens includes a photographic examples of almost every type of American lawn imaginable—from bowling greens to sweeping estate lawns to small suburban lots—including a retired lawn!
-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator. A version of this post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog

March 15, 2016 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

An Emerging Spectacle: Orchids in Focus at the United States Botanic Garden

The Bletillas are nearly in bloom, and we all know what that means—the annual orchid exhibit is upon us! This week’s post is a special preview of the exhibit, Orchids in Focus, which is produced in partnership between the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) and Smithsonian Gardens and opens this Saturday, February 27 and runs through April 17.

Some of my favorite orchids to photograph are the ones with barely emergent flowers. There is a sense of anticipation in the sight of unfurling petals, like those of the terrestrial Bletilla striata. Developing flowers often display curious shapes that remind us (like so many things) that there is a special beauty in the journey. Brassidiums are some of the best exemplars of this, since their elongated flowers have to unfold from buds that are the size of a fingertip.

Orchids in Focus, which features plants from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection and the USBG’s collections, is also emerging from its so-called bud. My visit to the conservatory this past Wednesday found a flurry of activity in the East Gallery and finishing touches being put into place in the main Garden Court.

IMG_7715

I was able to catch up with a former Smithsonian Gardens intern who is now an orchid grower at the United States Botanic Garden. Justin gave a tour of the work-in-progress and it is clear that it will be quite a spectacle.

The exhibit’s theme highlights orchid photography and is surprisingly interactive since the photography in question is not only images you look at on the walls, but also what YOU take during your visit. Large frames have been constructed in the Garden Court for visitors to pose behind as they are “framed by orchids,” and another station for “orchid selfies” has been designated in front of two exquisite green walls. According to Justin, each side of the green wall takes five hours to build since orchids must be placed individually in the small pockets covering the surface. It sounds like a painstaking process, but the result is magnificent.

The East Gallery houses a tropical forest display which will feature terrestrial orchids from the understory and epiphytic orchids from the canopy on respective sides of the room. Over the next couple of days, USBG staff will be working hard to complete the exhibit, those last few flowers will finish opening, and your job… build anticipation, and get those cameras ready!

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

February 26, 2016 at 9:45 am Leave a comment

An Iconic Avian: the Pink Flamingo

Pink Flamingo at the Smithsonian

Our pink flamingo lawn ornament (c. 1990s) decided to take a little vacation from storage and visit our gardens at the Smithsonian.

We had a holiday visitor to Smithsonian Gardens – no, not the bearded one in a red suit, but a small hot-pink friend that decided to escape from our storage facilities in Maryland to see the sights in Washington, D.C. The halls have been decked and yards across the country decorated in their holiday finest. As a new year begins, and lights are put away with hopes they will not tangle between now and next December, we have a different kind of ornament on our minds—the lawn ornament. A very American invention which holds a special place in our hearts, right between their European cousin the garden gnome and classier sibling the armillary sphere, the pink flamingo is an icon of mid-20th century kitsch and consumerism.

In the landscape architecture world of the 1950s, designers sought minimal ornament and flowers, instead preferring expanses of grass, textured ground covers, and green, green, green. Poured concrete, fieldstone, hardscape, and geometric swimming pools provided a contrast to the verdant (and chemically-enhanced) lawns. However, this was also the decade of plastic everything as new materials and products flooded the market after World War II. Hula hoops, vinyl covers for lounge chairs, and yes, plastic lawn ornaments, were all within reach for the middle-class consumer eager to make their backyard a paradise for outdoor family living. Surprisingly, the pink flamingo lawn ornament was not invented in Florida, but by sculptor and designer Don Featherstone for the Massachusetts-based Union Products in 1957. Read more about the history of the pink flamingo here and here.

Decorated pink flamingoes at Louisiana's Old State Capitol

Pink flamingo lawn ornaments creatively decorated by visitors to Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard at the Louisiana Old State Capitol. A+ for effort and camp!

Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard is a collaboration between the Archives of American Gardens and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services. The exhibit explores the rise of outdoor living and modern garden design in 1950s-1960s United States. In December, the exhibit wrapped up a run at the Louisiana Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. The museum curators asked visitors to decorate pink flamingoes to display throughout the Old Capitol during the length of the exhibit, and boy did adoring fans of the fuchsia fowl deliver in creativity. Look for the exhibit at two locations in Illinois, the Elmhurst Historical Museum and the Glen Ellyn Public Library, beginning in March 2016.

Patios & Pools exhibit at Louisiana Old State Capitol

Curators at the Old State Capitol added objects from the museum and local collections to supplement the traveling exhibit panels from the Smithsonian. From bathing suits and sundresses to party decorations and barbecue tools, these artifacts colorfully illustrate what life was like in the American suburbs in the decades after World War II.

Pink flamingo lawn ornament at Oldgate garden

Oldgate garden in Farmington, Connecticut. Nora O. Howard, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Did you have pink flamingoes decorating your yard as a kid, or do you have them now? We’d love for you to add your story or a neighbor’s story to our digital garden history archive, Community of Gardens. Anyone can add a story about gardens and gardening in America. Help us preserve our garden heritage, especially the history in our own back (and front) yards, lawn ornaments and all.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard

January 8, 2016 at 8:00 am 8 comments

Community of Gardens: History in our Gardens

Collage of Community of Gardens stories

Stories from Community of Gardens, clockwise from top left: Urban Garden with HoneybeesThe Gardens at Chewonki, Camy & Larry’s Backyard Wedding, and The O’Donnell Garden.

Note: the January 23rd program at Purcellville Library has been canceled due to inclement weather. See you on February 6th!

As you kick back with your seed catalogs and a mug of hot tea this winter, dreaming of summer blooms and bounty, take a moment to think about the important role gardens play in our lives. Gardens are a place to relax, enjoy nature, exercise, express our artistic sides, and spend time with family and friends. Whether it’s roses, heirloom string beans, or perennials you’re growing, gardens tell us something about ourselves and our personal history. If you’re itching to get outside but the ground is frozen solid, consider taking a moment during the down season to share your garden story with our digital archive, Community of Gardens. It could be an interview with a neighbor who gardens, the memory of your grandfather’s peonies, the history behind the apples grown on a family orchard, or the retreat in your own backyard.

Local gardeners, join us in preserving our garden history for future generations! Smithsonian Gardens and the Purcellville Library are teaming up for the first-ever Community of Gardens story drive. Join us for two events at the Purcellville Library this winter:

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens: History in our Gardens

  • Saturday, January 23, 2 p.m. Cynthia Brown, Smithsonian Gardens education manager,  will give an overview of the Community of Gardens program and how gardeners can help the Smithsonian preserve everyday garden history at this kick-off event.

Community of Gardens: Harvest

  • Saturday, February 6, 2 p.m. Bring your photos and memories of gardens, family farms, and orchards. In collaboration with the library we will be scanning photos and saving stories to capture personal stories of gardens and their importance in American life.

Both of these free events take place at the Purcellville Library: 220 East Main Street, Purcellville, Virginia, 20132.

Not able to make it? You can participate by submitting your garden story (or your neighbor’s, your mother’s, or your grandfather’s) online at communityofgardens.si.edu.

January 5, 2016 at 8:00 am 5 comments

On Display: Highlights from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

In keeping with my greatest goal in life of turning everyone into an orchid lover (I believe we would achieve world peace if that actually happened), I am starting a series of blog posts about the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. I’m excited to share images and stories about our incredible orchid collection with you.

Last week, I convinced Alex, one of Smithsonian Gardens’ interiorscapers, to exhibit some really special orchids in display cases at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. If you are in Washington, D.C., I hope you’ll visit the cases on the first level of the museum near the Warner Bros. Theater before the display is changed the week of December 21st. If you’re too far away, I hope you’ll enjoy the images of these beauties orchids included here.

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium on display at the National Museum of American History.

Angraecum sesquipedale may very well be the most famous of all orchids. This beauty is written up in every botany textbook due to its compelling pollination story. A native of Madagascar, this outstanding species bears truly lovely, white, star-shaped blooms that emit a delicious fragrance to attract its moth pollinator on moonlit nights. Not just any moth, but the equally famous Xanthopan morganii praedicta, so named because its existence was predicted by Charles Darwin before it was known to science. Darwin theorized upon seeing the flowers’ prodigious 12-inch long nectar spurs that a moth with an equally long proboscis had to exist in order for the plant to be pollinated. It will always be one of my favorite orchids because, well, it’s just plain cool! The variety on display, Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium,  is a bit more succulent and smaller in stature than the typical form, but it is easier to grow and quite floriferous.

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium and a hawk moth

L to R: Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection; Illustration of a hawk moth visiting an Angraecum sesquipedale by Emily Damstra for the Smithsonian Institution; a Xanthopan morganii praedicta (hawk moth) with extended proboscis © kqedquest

A couple of well-bloomed plants from a sister genus, Jumellea, grace the display case opposite the Angraecums. Even though their flowers are smaller, they are plentiful and have an outstanding fragrance. Jumellea flowers are similar in all of their species, even though the plants can vary wildly. They, like the Angraecums, exhibit a moth pollination syndrome, bearing flowers of the purest white color with strong nocturnal fragrance and nectar spurs. This time the spurs are much shorter, about an inch or so in length, indicating a very different moth species as its pollination partner. Jumelleas are also used to make a kind of aromatic tea, known as Faham tea, which was once very popular in Europe.

Jumelleas

Jumelleas from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History

These are remarkable orchids that Smithsonian Gardens proudly displays to encourage and educate Smithsonian visitors. We hope you will visit the National Museum of American History and see these botanical marvels for yourself!

– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

December 18, 2015 at 10:00 am 2 comments

Little Seeds, Big Stories.

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens is a digital archive of stories about gardens and gardening in the U.S.—anyone can add their story to this Smithsonian collection!

Archives can be intimidating. The first time I truly spent any time with an archive was graduate school, researching Gilded Age costume balls in New York City as part of an internship. Flipping through the folders of hundred-year-old photographs inspired both a sense of awe and terror. I was so conscientious, never laying a finger on a photograph, turning the photos just the way I had been told to by the nice (but firm) archivist, and making sure not one thing was out of place when I returned the boxes. Having the opportunity to be so close to history, and the physical trail of documents, photographs, and objects that comes along with it, was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.

It can be hard to see how archives connect to our everyday lives, or even to see how our very own stories and lives could be important enough to be included in a museum. The Smithsonian Institution is home to amazing and Important (with a capital “I”) treasures, such as a letter from Galileo and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. But also hidden in these archives and collections vaults are small gems, such as a promotional flower seed box from the mid 1800s to family photo albums.

Our family histories—and our gardens—can seem like just the tiniest, most ephemeral seeds in the vast forest of history, but our memories of “everyday” history have the power tell big stories. A story of grandma’s Victory Garden during World War II and her recipe for sweet canned peaches is also a tale of perseverance and making-do during a time of adversity. Memories of backyard barbecues and Tiki parties on the patio in the 1950s speak of a time of newfound prosperity for the middle class in the postwar years. Your story of the tiny herb garden and cucumbers growing on the balcony of your city apartment? Someday, it could show future historians how individuals contributed to the greening of America’s cities in the early 21st century.

October is American Archives Month, and the theme for 2015 is the “Power of Collaboration.” Our Community of Gardens digital archive depends wholly on collaboration to exist—we are collecting your stories and memories about gardens and gardening! Anyone can submit a memory, story, photograph, or video about a garden in America. You can help us preserve garden history and become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your story with us on the website.

Collage of Family Stories on Community of Gardens

Garden—and family—history comes alive on Community of Gardens.

Here are a few of our favorite family stories submitted by the public from the Community of Gardens digital archive. From left to right:

  1. Four Generations of Gardeners. This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes: https://communityofgardens.si.edu/items/show/54
  2. Grandmother’s Garden. A granddaughter shares her memories of her grandmother’s love of roses and gardening: https://communityofgardens.si.edu/items/show/12119
  3. Camy and Larry’s Backyard Wedding. Recollections of a 1970’s hippie backyard wedding in a woodland setting, with Super 8mm footage. Check out those vintage dresses! https://communityofgardens.si.edu/items/show/12203

What is your family’s garden story? Get inspired by Archives Month and interview a family member about their garden memories or share your own. It’s a great excuse to dig into those family photos and videos and start asking questions! Share your story this month, or any month of the year.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens Educator

October 22, 2015 at 7:00 am 1 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!

green-wall

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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