Learning to Love the Bureaucracy



If you'd ask me, I'd tell you that I like gardens that are individualistic, quirky, surprising.  But I've spent the last few days on business in a setting that is the very opposite of that–at the William F. Bolger Center for Leadership Development, which is owned by the United States Post Office–and found it weirdly peaceful and pleasing.

Set in the woody Maryland suburbs, it really seems like a Soviet-era retreat for high-up apparatchiks.  Indeed, the main building above, built in 1959, was named The Generalate in fine Communist style, even though it was commissioned by the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns.  The Sisters sold the joint to the Postal Service in 1980, who bought it as a training facility, which they now rent out to other organizations.

What's really nice about this place is the incredible aesthetic consistency, though you could reasonably argue that it's consistent in considering aesthetics irrelevant. 

Only the most common plants are used here, and they are used in such a way as to prevent any dangerous mixing of ideas!


Petunias–these are employed in industrial quantities–are grouped with petunias.  Roses with roses.  Liatris with liatris.  Colors in each block are NOT to harmonize with other colors in other blocks!

There is careful attention to labelling here, and it would be impolite to question whether such labelling is really necessary when the planting is so devoted to only the most common subjects.


Of course, the labelling is often wrong.  That's liriope below, but it isn't variegated.  However, if the Party says it's variegated, it might be wiser not to suggest otherwise.


Still, I find myself in the peculiar position of having completely enjoyed moving through a landscape of grand old trees and meticulously maintained petunia and begonia and marigold beds.


Real taste is dangerous, subversive, anti-collective, too much about individual expression to be trusted.  What's happening here is something else, but there is no question that the people who maintain this place really care about it.  It's colorful where it should be.  It's immaculate.  It's restful.  Every single person I've interacted with here, from the woman who runs the coffee stand outside the dining hall to the clerk at the desk has been unbelievably lovely.

After two nights at the Bolger Center, I'm ready to hang up my spurs and join the Party.


  1. Looking at those carefully maintained beds I am reminded of a friend of mine ran a kind of summer camp for girls, and who was known for her jam and cram techniques. During a garden tour one of the visitors commented, sotto voce, that she certainly didn’t leave any dirt showing. One of the campers drew herself up and said Mrs. B wasn’t into DIRT, she was into Flowers1 I guess the Bolger people are just into soil as much as flowers.

  2. The “unbelievably lovely” people at the Center are more likely that way because it’s in Maryland, a very friendly, helpful State if ever there was one. Not saying the peacefully generic landscape has nothing to do with it, but I’m betting the predominant nature of the citizens is more the cause.

  3. I agree Laura – Marylanders are a pleasant bunch.
    Cracks me up when you say that they are arranged just so to “prevent any dangerous mixing of ideas” – this layout reminds me of a bank’s landscaping. It exudes such a dull “we mean business” demeanor. These pics make me want to get outside and cram more fun variety into my already cluttered garden.

  4. Seems more along the lines of the “paint-by-the-numbers” landscaping school of mass plantings. Relatively low maintenance for institutions that don’t want to pay exorbitant rates for landscaping crews, or staff gardeners.

  5. I’m guilty. Not of massing petunias and marigolds, but I live for that order in my own gardens. I prefer asymmetry to symmetry but make it all orderly, neat, immaculate, and I am a happy camper. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the state of my own affairs, but I hope, in another two years, it will all come into place.

  6. Some of my favorite gardens are not the most interesting. They’re about spaces and flow rather than about plants. In some ways, being a plantswoman inhibits good design.

  7. A postal service training facility. Now you have to imagine the type of clientele that would be in such a place. These are cubicle people who rarely venture outside except on an as needed basis. Petunias, marigolds and begonias are like things from outer space to cubicle people. They would be blown away by such a landscape.

  8. definitely not to my taste for richly textured horticultural exuberance , but at least someone is trying , albeit for the ultimate gas station look.

  9. I think the pictures reveal a lot of care and planning. Landscapers and gardeners are obviously well-employed here; the plants are healthy, there’s a feeling of peacefulness. The picture of the path with the rocks shows that someone was thinking about the overall big picture, with lots of color and texture in the trees down to the annuals; the rocks create a nice transition from one area to the next. The mass plantings of annuals may reflect a careful budget in these times of fiscal uncertainty, but if you’re going for the impact of mass plantings, a place like this is surely the right one for that. I think this is a nice landscape, and if I worked there, I would be spending my lunch hours outside as much as possible.

    As for the soviet-era comments, I lived briefly in the soviet union back in Brezhnev days, and I can tell you I never saw any landscaping as nice as this near bureaucratic buildings!

  10. When I think of communist style I don’t think of plants, except for agriculture. I lived in the People’s Republic of China, in the early 80’s, just when they had opened up to letting exchange students in. I lived in a place called Zhengzhou, a small provincial capital in Henan province, only about a million people. (ha!) Anyway, the landscaping on the campus where the five of us foreigners lived, was dirt with a few trees. No one does (or did) grass in China then, particularly in the Central Plain area where the soil blew away easily. If a space wasn’t used for a tree, of which there were very few in this place, it was packed dirt or someone planted something to eat. There were a couple of parks that had plantings, all of one thing together, like roses or peonies. Red was the most popular color, of course. There was one building that had green stuff in a front lawn kind of way, but it was a kind of grain, plowed by an old peasant and his ox!

  11. Hey Christopher C ! – I’m a cubicle person 40 hours/week & I work with many other cubicle people who adore the outdoors (gardens, bikes, canoes, hiking, etc). Indeed, the main reason we return to our cubes each Monday is so that we can fund our outdoor adventures, including creating interesting gardens.

  12. I am always happy to see public plantings.

    The post office seems to have a tradition of working with local groups to bring in plants (and tags for identification.)

    The PO I used in Michigan had a nice little plot, maintained and labeled by the rose club.

    Sometimes ‘nice’ is sufficient. Too many bare and weedy areas in our cities. Celebrate community when you see gardens like the above!

  13. Places like this were an insparation to me growing up and still are. You never know what you will find. Visiting a well tendered college campus a few years ago I saw standing all alone, a large vase shaped shrub, blooming white. Very lovely. It was the lowly privat. Never saw it treated as a speciman,only as a “Fence”. Zoos are another place that can have some surprizingly interesting landscaping.

  14. those are the most neatly trimmed knockouts i’ve ever seen. ho boy. as usual you cracked me up on this one M.O.

  15. When I moved into this house, the yard was planted with inoffensive (or so they thought) generica. Bleah. The front has much more “curb appeal” than it did in 2004. Instead of a privet hedge, I have a rosemary and lavender one, and instead of “landscape” roses which were kept in line by chainsaw, I have named ones with scent.

    It’s no longer such a restrained yard. I don’t have nicely tended areas of bare dirt or mulch, either–what would I do with it?

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