EPA shows off low-impact landscaping


IMG_6158 A great garden in the nation's capital you'll probably never see – even if you live here – is in front of the EPA's headquarters, just across the street from the Smithsonian.  Strewn gloriously along Constitution Avenue are four rain gardens, designated by a nice sign telling you all about it and the simple depression of grade that catches rainwater and drains it slowly.  But it's all so beautiful you'd never think of it as a Low Impact Development bioretension cell (that's what they are but ugh, what a name!).

 IMG_6165My favorite plants when I visited the gardens last week were goldenrod 'Fireworks', aster 'Alma
Potschke', persicaria, 'Little Joe' eupatorium, and 'Gold Coast' juniper.

Combined, they're just one of 35 gardens that are the responsibility of horticulturist Elizabeth Federico, on the right in the photo, or the 100+ sites covering many acres that are overseen by GSA's top horticulturist for the DC region, Janet Kenoyer, on the left.  These folks are gung-ho about switching to more sustainable landscaping and use this site to encourage others, especially other government facilities, to follow suit.  So you'll see the website has gobs of information about stormwater management – another unsexy term for what's arguably the most important environmental issues in landscapes, at least here in the East.  


Bottom to top, turtlehead, Amsonia hubrechtii, 'Little Joe' eupatorium and viburnum 'Doublefile'.

But the jewel in this horticultural crown is tucked in a courtyard just behind this building and there's some juicy DC lore about the site, starting with its history as a secret whorehouse back in the day.  More recently it was construction rubble before being transformed into a haven for EPA workers, though not without having to stop for the filming of the movie "Breach". Here's the plant list for the courtyard, with photos of each plant (unfortunately, taken when the plants were very young).  And here's the plan for the courtyard, also with plant names.  Kenoyer told me the top factor in plant choice was sustainability, not where the plants grew originally, because "not
all natives are sustainable." So about half the plants are natives and all of them are on my list of recommended plants for low-maintenance gardeners in this region.


Aster 'Alma Potschke', Itea 'Little Henry', Viburnum x Burkwoodii 'Mohawk', permeable pavers and an old street curb reused/recycled into a bench.

I love that these gardens prove once and for all that responsible stormwater management can be beautiful and I applaud the EPA's efforts to make that point better known to the public.  Sadly, most of the teaching has to be online because the courtyard isn't open to the public (since 9/11 not much IS here in this town) except by prearranged tour.


Knock Out Rose 'Radcan' and coropeosis verticillata 'Zagreb'


  1. What a fabulous post! So much information. Nice to know there are people in the government looking after their own patch so responsibly and beautifully. I can speak for the beauty and dependability of Alma Potschke!

  2. Just wanted to add that all the turf & ornamental beds on federal sites maintained by GSA are fertilized by 100% organic fertilizer (pelletized chicken manure). We’ve also moved the mowing heights to 4 and 5 inches on various sites to reduce mowing frequencies (hence reducing small engine emissions) and to produce less stress on the turf.
    Janet Kenoyer, Regional Horticulturist, GSA

  3. It’s so great to see someone at the federal level who takes responsibility for their own site. This could be a “trickle down” movement that I could support. As each of us learns to make environmentally beneficial choices in our own gardens and local, state, and federal agencies also make better choices the cumulative impact would be enormous. Thank you for sharing this great information and links.

  4. As a docent at Smithsonian’s Natural History, I always made sure to get off metro at Federal Triangle so that a stroll by the EPA grounds was part of my day.
    Love the fact the rain gardens and signage have been added now. So many of our visitor’s to DC want and need this info.

  5. Just don’t trot off to any of the local garden centers hoping to get some of those wonderful varieties….

  6. I was just thinking today while sitting in line (with my engine off) to get my car inspected that local governments have so many squandered opportunities to be landscape leaders–nice to see a good example of one.

  7. Great post, Susan! I have more than 75% of the plants on the list in my garden (one or two are other cultivars) and most all of these are available at good old Behnke’s (cause that’s where I got them). It’s great to hear a good news story and know there is reason (and a gardener or two) on the federal payroll. Keep posts like this coming.

  8. It is actually us in the engineering world who coined the phrase bioretention. they are engineered retention cells deliberately planted. vs the ones you notice around you with weeds in them.

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