Posts filed under ‘Exhibits’

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

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

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

A Backyard Bouquet Inspired by the 1950s

DIY Backyard bouquet

Burpee seed annuals from the 1950s, left, were the inspiration for our DIY backyard bouquet, right. Seed annual, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection.

We continue our June #ThrowbackThursday theme of mid-century matrimony with a fun project that combines two of our favorite trends from the 1950s: DIY and classic backyard flowers. Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist, shows us how to create a do-it-yourself wedding bouquet. We peeked into the special collections of the Archives of American Gardens, finding inspiration in the bright and cheery seed catalogs of the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection. Melanie carefully chose classically beautiful flowers reminiscent of those found growing in grandma’s backyard garden, such as snapdragons and football mums. Our new traveling exhibit Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the do-it-yourself trend, flowers, and outdoor living in the years after World War II. It opens at the Tampa Bay History Center this Saturday, June 20th.

Flowers have played an essential role in weddings throughout history as symbols of love, chastity, hope, and beauty. The practice was not truly institutionalized as a marriage custom until Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Victoria wore a simple headdress of orange blossom, with additional blossoms trimming her dress, which in turn became a favorite flower for Victorian and Edwardian brides. Though she was not the first bride to wear white, her wedding cemented the popular and ubiquitous tradition of wearing of white for brides in the Western world.

Of course, many brides have taken the traditional bouquet and made it their own, with unique twists. The June 22, 1942 cover of Life magazine featured a bride carrying a bouquet composed of ten-cent to five-dollar war stamps, which could be used to buy a twenty-five dollar bond. According the article on “furlough brides” the bouquet was first popularized in the Midwest and became all the rage nationwide—they sold for the cost of stamps plus the time taken to craft the bouquet or bridesmaid corsage. It was just one of the many ways wartime brides made-do and supported the war effort, from dresses with shorter hemlines that used less fabric to hurried weddings between deployments.

Bouvardia, white orchids, and gardenias were popular choices for wedding bouquets in the 1940s and 50s, as well as a simple palette of white and pink. Shirley Temple carried both bouvardia and orchids in her 1945 wedding and Jacqueline Kennedy carried orchids, gardenias, and stephanotis in her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. Our bouquet runs with the white and pink palette, but subs out the fancy flowers for the more down-home feel of backyard blooms. Hippie culture loosened up the traditional formal bouquet in the 1960s and 1970s, favoring “common” flowers such as daisies. Today, anything goes, from a farm-fresh locavore bouquet to one made of felt flowers to no bouquet at all.

 

DIY it!

Flowers: Melanie chose flowers that were commonly grown in backyard gardens in the 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from the vintage W. Atlee Burpee & Company seed catalogs in the Archives of American Gardens. Wholesale flower sellers and farmers’ markets are great places to start when sourcing flowers for your bouquet.

Dusty pink stock
White snapdragons
White roses
White football mums (chrysanthemums)
Pale pink carnations
Baby’s breath
Bakers fern

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Supplies:

Floral wire
Floral tape 
Small pieces of tulle
Satin ribbon
Scissors
Pen knife
Pliers 
Pins

Steps:

  1. Prepare your flowers by removing the bottom leaves from the stems.
  2. Wrap flowers with larger blooms and floppier stems (the mums and stock) with floral wire, starting at the top, and hiding the mechanics by wrapping the stems with floral tape. Leave four to five inches of exposed stem at the bottom.
  3. Trim the stems. Using a pen knife, rest the stem on your index finger with your thumb on top and carefully cut the stem from bottom upwards at angle and away from you. The angle allows the stems to soak up more water. Trim about two inches off the stem.
  4. Choose two or three favorite flowers to anchor the bouquet.
  5. Begin to make a bunch around the anchor flowers by adding more flowers and greens, turning your bouquet as you add more flowers or greens. This is an opportunity to play with texture, height, and color based on your flower choice! A looser bouquet will have a more informal feel, and a tighter, rounder bouquet a more classic look.
  6. Pause for a moment and take a look at your bouquet from all angles. Do you need more flowers? More greenery?
  7. When you are happy with the size of the bouquet, surround the base of the arrangement with pieces of white tulle and secure with floral tape.
  8. Starting where the tulle is attached to the stems, wrap the stems with floral wire, leaving about two inches of exposed stem at the bottom. Conceal the mechanics with floral tape.
  9. Take your satin ribbon and starting at the topmost part of the floral tape, making sure none is showing, tightly wrap the ribbon down the length of the stems. Secure with a pin two inches from bottom, hiding all floral tape. Push the pin towards the stems at a slight angle. It may take a few tries to get it to stick.
  10. Using a second piece of satin ribbon, tie a bow around the base of the bouquet and attach with a pin.

There you go! A beautiful backyard bouquet, inspired by the gardens of the 1950s. What types of flowers were growing in your backyard in the 1950s? Do you remember the flowers from your wedding bouquet or boutonnière? Did the flowers you chose have a special significance to you?

-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator and Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

 

 

 

 

June 18, 2015 at 10:49 am Leave a comment

The Bride’s First Garden

June holds the promise of good weather and beautiful blooms, making it a popular month for weddings. This month on #ThrowbackThursday we’re mad for all things matrimonial and mid-century modern in celebration of our newest traveling exhibit, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard. Stay tuned on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and our blog as we celebrate everything from backyard weddings to DIY bouquets to a plan for a 1950’s bride on a budget and her new backyard.

Drawing of The Bride's First Garden

Drawing of the “Bride’s First Garden,” 1953. Perry Wheeler, landscape architect. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Perry Wheeler Collection.

“All young couples who move into new houses on bare, treeless lots share two things in common: the urge to give their house a setting that will distinguish it from others in the neighborhood, and a desire to plant a garden without delay. Both of these enthusiasms may eventually produce a dream garden, and the good outdoor life that goes along with it, but not without a sound plan.” —Excerpt from “The Bride’s First Garden,” House & Garden, 1953.

June is historically one of the most popular months for weddings, when summer gardens are still in full bloom. In 1953, an article in House & Garden entreated young brides-to-be to begin planning an important aspect of their new future home: a garden. The magazine enlisted landscape architect Perry Wheeler to design a garden for newlyweds that could be developed over a five-year period; or, in Wheeler’s words, “on the installment plan.” His resulting plan emphasizes easy-to-maintain plants, seasonal color, individuality, and outdoor privacy for the growing, young post-war family.

A Georgia native, Wheeler practiced landscape architecture in the Washington, D.C. area from 1948 to 1979. He is best known for his work on numerous private Georgetown gardens and redesigning the White House Rose Garden alongside Bunny Mellon during the Kennedy administration. His designs were practical, often incorporating terraces for backyard entertaining and room for a jungle gym, but also lighthearted and whimsical.
Sketch of a Suburban Garden by Perry Wheeler

Plan of the “Bride’s First Garden,” 1953. Perry Wheeler, landscape architect. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Perry Wheeler Collection.

Wheeler’s design for “The Bride’s First Garden: A Five Year Plan” catered to a young couple on a budget living in a typical, suburban home with modern architecture in a new community development. Almost two decades earlier, the Federal Housing Act of 1934 put home ownership within reach of middle-class families, and suburbs such as Levittown in Long Island were built in response to the post-war housing crisis. House and Garden was one of many magazines, along with Popular Mechanics and Better Homes & Gardens, which ran how-to articles on home improvement. Rather than utilizing the driveway as the approach to the front door, Wheeler recommended individualizing the house (which looked identical to the other houses on the street) by giving the front entrance a “welcoming aspect” with large trees and a stone walkway. The backyard terrace, pictured here in a preliminary drawing done by an assistant, is a “major must” for the second year, along with planting beds for the terrace edging and select trees for brilliant fall colors.
The plan emphasizes spaces for informal socializing and relaxation over formal elements. In his notes for the design, he suggested investing in a few pieces of antique garden furniture to go with more modern pieces, rather than purchasing a matching suite. He even incorporated a charcoal grill into the terrace design—newly introduced by Weber in 1952. The fifth year of the plan imagines that there is already a growing family in the works, and the design accordingly leaves room for a playhouse and spaces for the family to spend time together outdoors.
The Perry Wheeler Collection at the Archives of American Gardens, includes photographs, plans, business records, and newspaper and magazine clippings pertaining to Wheeler’s landscape architecture practice. More detailed information about Wheeler is available in the Archives of American Gardens’ Guide to the Collections.
-Kate Fox, curator of Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard
A version of this blog post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog.

June 4, 2015 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

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