Posts filed under ‘Horticulture’

A Trip to the “Holy Grail” of Irrigation Systems

When I was awarded a Smithsonian Gardens travel grant I knew that I wanted to make the most of it by going to Orlando, Florida to visit the “holy grail” of centrally-controlled irrigation systems like the one here at the Smithsonian. So, in late September I spent time in the Orlando area visiting Walt Disney World, John Deere Green Tech, an area of Orlando named Lake Nona, Universal Orlando, and a green industry trade show called “The Landscape Show.”

The “holy grail” that I referred to is the Maxicom irrigation system at Walt Disney World. It is the largest system of its type here in the United States and also the oldest. Many of the features of this system came about because of requirements that Disney had over the years. It was quite interesting to see Disney from behind the scenes and to get access to the inner workings of their massive system. I was surprised to discover that the Smithsonian’s irrigation system is actually a bit more modern than theirs and that we are really state-of-the-art when it comes to how our system communicates. I found it very reassuring that the last two and a half years of hard work (plus another two and a half years by my predecessors) has done wonders to rehabilitate our aging system.

Maxicom irrigation controller

One of 750 Maxicom irrigation controllers in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Smithsonian Gardens uses about 20 similar controllers to irrigate the Smithsonian Institution’s gardens and grounds.

Point of connection in the Disney irrigation system

One of the irrigation system points of connection in the Maxicom irrigation system at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The Maxicom system was invented by Rain Bird in the early 1980s.

On this trip I was able to see irrigation systems that are just like ours as well as systems that are quite different. I often tell people that irrigation is like a big erector set. You just need to know what pieces to put in what order. The big difference between our system and most others is that ours is a centrally controlled “smart” system. Without using too many long and boring irrigation terms, that basically means that our irrigation system tells itself when and how long to run by using data from an on-site weather station and pre-programmed schedules. Click here for more on how the Smithsonian Gardens’ irrigation system and weather station work.


Smithsonian Gardens’ on-site weather monitoring station in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. Data collected at this station helps regulate irrigation here at the Smithsonian.

For me this trip was truly valuable in many ways. I was able to gauge the state of the Smithsonian’s irrigation system, see some of its competitors in action, and–most importantly–meet my counterparts in the Orlando area as well as a few of the real innovators who developed and implemented the irrigation system that we use here at the Smithsonian. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with the folks that I met to keep our system moving in the right direction.

-Mike Guetig, Irrigation Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

November 4, 2015 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Going Vertical in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden: Year Two!

Last year I tried out a new thing in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden – growing a green wall!  Like all things the first attempt is often a learning experience. Happily, last year’s wall turned out well enough that I decided to repeat it again this year.

The 2014 Ripley Garden green wall. My first attempt at growing vertically in the garden.

The 2014 Ripley Garden green wall. My first attempt at growing vertically in the garden.

I’ve received many questions from garden visitors regarding the construction of the wall so I thought I would share how it was built. This is by no means the only way to grow a green wall, just my own experience with the project.

green-wall-2I started by selecting frames specially designed to hang vertically. The individual cells or containers of these frames slant downward to minimize soil loss. Last year I planted the cells with things like Creeping Thymes and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ which root in wherever they touch the soil making them perfect in this situation.

Since I can’t do the same thing two years in a row, this year decided to try succulents. I ordered an assortment of succulent plugs (small rooted cuttings) and selected a variety of plants we were already growing at the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses to augment the purchased plants.

To begin, I filled all of the containers with a well-draining potting mix and laid them out flat on a table to plant. I really was looking for dramatic color and texture in this year’s wall so I tried to “paint” with the plants by creating patterns through my placement choices. After I finished planting, I marked each tray with a label so I would know the proper layout when the containers were transported down to the Ripley Garden.

Containers with newly-planted plugs.

Hanging containers with newly-planted plugs at the Smithsonian greenhouse.

The frames were planted in early March and allowed to grow flat on tables at our greenhouse until the roots were fairly established and the plants had grown enough to start holding in the soil. This took about four months due to my plant selection and the fact that I started with small plugs.

(L) The containers after about four months of growing time at the greenhouses. (R) Containers waiting for installation after arriving outside the Ripley Garden.

(L) The containers after about four months of growing time at the greenhouses. (R) Containers waiting for installation after arriving outside the Ripley Garden.

Hanging the containers was fairly simple. Each tray came with a metal cleat to attach to the hanging surface, in this case the Ripley Garden fence. My co-worker and mechanical mastermind, Rick, helped me run two-by-fours along the fence and then attach the cleats. Since I decided to do three rows of the frames, we spaced things accordingly.

Next came the fun part – installing the trays! The back side of each container had an indentation which allowed us to hang the containers directly on the cleats. We could have stopped there, but we wanted to be sure the containers would not fall off so Rick ran a screw through the side of each tray. We started adding the trays from the bottom and continued to fill each level, adding a screw to each tray. It took less than 30 minutes to install the trays once the cleats were in place. To hide the hanging hardware, we reused some bits of twig screen we had left over from last year’s garden holiday decorations.


The frames were easy to assemble. Here Rick works his magic.

Now that the wall is up, watering is a bit of a challenge. It is possible to purchase little water boxes that sit on top of instillation and allow water to slowly trickle down through the wall. I found last year, however, that watering this way did not provide enough moisture to the lowest row of trays. This year I’m watering by lightly misting the wall with a fine spray of water and taking care not to disturb the soil and cause it to fall out of the containers.

The finished product!

The finished product!

I’ve found growing a green wall a fun experiment, but one that does require more skill and attention than growing things horizontally. But hey, why not try something different!

I really like the way it turned out and hope it lasts through the season. Since I used non-hardy succulents, the wall will be taken down in the late fall and returned to our greenhouse where it may undergo a new transformation for next year!

-Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist

July 10, 2015 at 11:53 am 1 comment

June is National Rose Month


Glass lantern slide of roses

Glass lantern slide of an unidentified garden, c. 1920. Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

We’re bringing our month of wedding-themed #ThrowbackThursdays to a close with tips for caring for roses at home from Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist Shelley Gaskins. Shelley manages the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden next to the Smithsonian Castle.

June is one of the most popular months for weddings, and it’s also National Rose Month! Roses are a traditional and elegant flower choice for wedding bouquets and decorations. Did you know that Tricia Nixon was married in the White House Rose Garden in June of 1971? The White House Historical Association has a new exhibit exploring the Rose Garden during the Kennedy administration opening on July 16th. “The Kennedy Rose Garden: Traditionally American” features a few photographs and letters from the Archives of American Gardens. Did you choose roses for your wedding? Share your story in the comments!

'Amber Queen' rose

‘Amber Queen.’ This rose, and all of the roses pictured below, can be found growing in the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden next to the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.

Rose Tip #1: Do your research! Roses are rated on several characteristics. Choosing roses that are rated as resistant to fungal diseases such as black spot and powdery mildew should top your list.

'Angel Face' rose

‘Angel Face’

Rose Tip #2: Roses require at least 6 hours of full sun (preferably in the morning), a well-drained and nutrient-rich soil, and moderate amounts of water. Water should only be applied directly to the root zone, not to the leaf surface. Adequate sunlight and water will help decrease the spread and incidence of fungal diseases.

'Charlotte Armstrong' rose

‘Charlotte Armstrong’

Rose Tip #3: When pruning roses in early spring, prune with the understanding that opening up the center of the plant allows for light penetration and air circulation. Allowing light and air into the center of the plant will create an environment that is less favorable to fungal diseases. Be sure to clean the edge of your pruners with alcohol to avoid spreading viruses.

'Grand Finale' rose

‘Grand Finale’

Rose Tip #4: Eliminating dead, dying and diseased plants and plant parts from your garden will help to keep your garden healthy. This includes cleaning up potentially diseased rose leaves that have fallen from the plant. Fungal spores can overwinter and return to the plant from the fallen leaves.

'New Year' rose

‘New Year’

Rose Tip #5: Not all bugs are bad! get to know the insects that visit your garden. Find out which insects truly pose a threat to the health of your plants (pests). Find out if the pest has any natural predators (beneficial insects). A healthy garden should have both. If necessary, you can introduce mail-order beneficial insects into your garden.

'Purple Tiger' rose

‘Purple Tiger’

Rose Tip #6: Beneficial insects are often beneficial only at certain stages in their life cycle. For example, the syrphid fly only feeds on prey while they’re in their larval stage. Adult syrphids don’t eat other insects, they eat nectar and pollen. You should plant flowers that provide a variety of nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season.

'Tropical Sunset' rose

‘Tropical Sunset.’

Rose Tip #7: Last one! Plant families that will help attract beneficial insects to your rose garden, including:

  • Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) -Carrot Family- attracts lady bugs, parasitic wasps, and predatory flies.
  • Lamiaceae or Labiatae -Mint family
  • Asteraceae -Daisy Family- attracts hoverflies, lacewing, lady bug beetles, minute pirate bugs, and spiders.

June 25, 2015 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Flanders Field Poppies at the National Museum of American History

The poppy became an international symbol of remembrance of World War I through the efforts of an American professor from Georgia, Moina Michael. While working at the 25th Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries in New York City Michael heard a reading of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Michael was so moved by the poem that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war and bought them for attendees of the conference on November 9, 1918. Two days later, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies thus ending the war. Michael carried on work to make the poppy a symbol for honoring the war dead as well as a way to raise funds for veterans, a symbol that endures today.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I, Smithsonian Gardens planted corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) outside the National Museum of American History. The seeds sown were, in part, collected from the Flanders Fields of Belgium.

Corn Poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Corn poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

To learn more about WWI, visit The Price of Freedom exhibition on the 2nd floor, East Wing of the National Museum of American History.

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, 1872 – 1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

May 11, 2015 at 10:34 am 1 comment

DIY: Hanging Baskets

The Smithsonian Gardens greenhouse production team creates 200 hanging baskets for display throughout our gardens each year. Baskets are produced in three sets and changed out each spring, summer, and fall season.

Production team members Joe and Jill were kind enough to share a behind-the-scenes look at how they create these popular hanging additions to our gardens.

This year Jill and Joe useed a combination of Calibrachoa Minifamous ‘Double Deep Yellow’, Lobelia erinus Laguna ‘Sky Blue’, and Sutera cordata Snowstorm ‘Giant Snowflake’  in our spring baskets. The result? An EXPLOSION of yellow, blue, and white! You can see these spectacular baskets now out in our Enid A. Haupt Garden and Kathrine Dunlin Folger Rose Garden.

Here’s a step-by-step guide showing how our pros create the baskets for our gardens. DIYers, we’re looking forward to seeing pictures of what you create!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

May 5, 2015 at 4:30 am Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: Changeouts in the Kogod Courtyard

This week I took a break from work on the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty exhibition to help Smithsonian Gardens’ horticulturists with planters in the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.  The Reynolds Center, which houses the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, underwent a major renovation in the early 2000s to enclose its central courtyard, creating a beautifully maintained interior space filled with natural light. If you are a fan of architecture or just like cafes in nice spaces, you should definitely go check it out! Smithsonian Gardens’ horticulturists care for eight large planters throughout the courtyard and I’ve made two trips over the past couple weeks to help replace plants in two of the eight planters. With each planter over 300 square feet, it’s quite the production.

Interior of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

Interior of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

In fact, on Kogod changeout days, help is needed from several members of the Smithsonian Gardens staff. This week, I joined a team of five staff members and one volunteer to tackle the job. Changeouts occur regularly. Often new plants are rotated onto display for seasonal purposes or to freshen up the courtyard for the many thousands of visitors that regularly pass through. Earlier this year, the courtyard display featured Cymbidium orchids and their endless blooms gave spectacular color to the space.

Kogod changeouts not only address aesthetic purposes. Changeouts are also useful for ensuring and maintaining plant health. Sometimes a new plant may not do so well in the space. There might be a pest problem that requires removing a plant or a plant may simply need to come out because its life cycle is ending. Whatever the reason, making the effort to assess each plant’s health ensures a beautiful display.

During the first step of a planter changeout, all the plants (except for the trees) come out of the planter and are placed onto tarps laid out on the ground. Plants are assessed to determine whether they are still in good condition for display, if they need attention, or if they should simply be composted. Once the current plants are sorted, new soil is poured into the bed to level the surface with the edge of the planter. Once again, adding soil serves both an aesthetic and functional purpose. Fresh soil both looks better and allows the new plants going into the planter to have an easier time rooting. This is one of the most labor-intensive parts of the process as each of the planters easily takes in 80 50-pound bags of new soil.

Once the soil is in, additional nutrients are added and mixed in evenly before introducing the plants. The Smithsonian Gardens’ interior plantscape designer and crew then work to create a planter design with the plants available instead of trying to fit the plants into a predesigned plan. I feel this allows the planters to come out looking their best and showcases plants that we may have been able to save from the previous design that we did not expect to have. After helping with two changeouts, it’s really a nice surprise to see how it all comes together each time.


The next time you are visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum or National Portrait Gallery,  make sure to swing by the Kogod Courtyard and enjoy the wonderful green inside, no matter what the weather may be like outside!

– Alan M., Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Exhibition Intern

April 10, 2015 at 10:53 am 2 comments

Cultivate ’14: Plants and Art

I had the opportunity to travel to Columbus, Ohio, last July to attend Cultivate ’14.  This annual conference is held for people from all aspects of the horticulture industry, including growers, retailers, landscapers, interior plantscapers, floral designers, and educators. With educational sessions, the largest horticultural trade show in North America, wonderful tours to attend, and over 10,000 attendees, there was so much to see and learn while I was there.

As part of the conference, I was fortunate to be able to visit the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus.  I have always been fond of conservatories and greenhouses, and this one did not disappoint!  The conservatory itself, comprised of 8,300 sq. ft. of glass roof space, first opened its doors to the public in 1895 to show off its collection of palms.

One aspect that really drew me in to all of the beautiful plant displays there were the Dale Chihuly glass pieces that were exhibited throughout the conservatory.  I learned that Chihuly’s artwork was first displayed in the conservatory in 2003.  Because of a marked increase in attendance, the Friends of the Conservatory decided to purchase many of those glass pieces so that they could be shown permanently.  There is something about the way the beautiful glass, with its electric colors, reflects the sun in such a gorgeous setting.  It warms me from the inside out.

Chihuly 1

Sunset Tower by Dale Chihuly at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

That really got me thinking about how important art is in the garden: bringing these two elements together to draw in people to see the gardens.  It is a way for gardeners and plant lovers to come to such a lovely, natural setting to appreciate art.  It is equally as valuable to bring lovers of art into a garden setting, which is beautiful and imperfect—quite a different setting to display artwork than the stark white walls that we often see in a gallery—and enable them to appreciate the artwork in a more natural setting.  The synergy created by placing these two components of artwork and gardens in the same space makes the combination of the two work that much more effectively together than they would on their own.

Chihuly Pieces at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

Chihuly pieces at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

We at Smithsonian Gardens are so fortunate to have such a beautiful backdrop in which to display our plants.  The museums themselves are works of art, inside and out.  We have entire gardens that are dedicated to displaying artwork (such as the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden), and others that are gardens, first and foremost, that also display artwork (the Haupt Garden, American Indian Museum, and Natural History Museum, to name a few).

I work primarily with plants used in interior spaces, and while I can’t necessarily work with “gardens” and artwork, the plants I grow and care for in the Smithsonian greenhouses are used inside the museums where even more pieces of art are displayed.  The trip to Franklin Park Conservatory has inspired me to think more creatively about the plants I grow, and to consider new ways in which the plants can be arranged to complement the artwork they will be placed around, or even the space in which the plants will be displayed.

The next time you visit a space that displays horticulture and art, take the time to appreciate how much more you get out of your experience by having both plants and artwork working together.

– Shannon Hill, Greenhouse Horticulturist

March 26, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Older Posts

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 197 other followers

Visit our Website!

Recent Posts

November 2015
« Oct    


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers

%d bloggers like this: