Guide to Smithsonian Gardens


Tourists to D.C. typically see the Smithsonian museums, but how about the 28+ acres of maintained gardens around them?  Most would be surprised to learn there’s that much hort action going on right there on the National Mall.  But straight from Smithsonian Books, the new Guide to Smithsonian Gardens by Carole Ottesen will, I hope, direct more visitors to these local treasures.  And locals like myself, possibly jaded by unlimited access (no entry fee, ever), will learn how little they really know about these gardens, and come to appreciate them more. Smithsonian-gardens-carole-ottesen-paperback-cover-art

Thumb’s Up

  • Author Carole Otteson was wisely chosen.  She’s an actual garden writer, one of the best.
  • Otteson’s thorough historical research shows, and great stories are revealed.
  • Like: The original legacy from Smithson in 1829 was 105 sacks of gold sovereigns “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge in the U.S.” making him the BIll and Melinda Gates of his day. (Btw, the Gateses donated $50 million to SI just last year.)
  • Like: When Charles Dickens visited in 1842 he found NO gardens there, only “wasted ground with frowzy grass” – love that!  Smith bison2
  • And one more:  To help preserve the American bison, a small herd of them could be seen grazing on the lawn of the Smithsonian castle.  They lived there until the National Zoo was established, providing more suitable quarters.
  • I love reading about the Ripley Garden, my favorite (see Best Little Garden in Washington), which Otteson calls a “plant-lovers’ delight”.
  • Ditto my second favorite, the butterfly habitat garden, which is little known except to people who work nearby – and local garden clubs.

Just Two Nits to PickIMG_8555

  • The book touts the “environmentally sensitive practices that horticulturists employ each and every day”, claiming that “visitors are inspired by this,” specifically the use of Integrated Pest Management and native plants.  Sounds good, but when it comes to roses, shouldn’t good pest managment start with choosing plants that are pest-resistant?  So there’s no NEED to spray with crappy products?  (Long-time readers may remember my rant on this subject.)
  • Too bad an actual garden photographer wasn’t hired for this project.  It shows.


  1. Am hoping to take the kids to DC during Spring Break, think it’s past time I introduced them to the glory that is the Smithsonian. Maybe I’ll get a little time to explore the gardens, too. I can get started with this book 🙂

  2. Call me uncultured, if you will, but when I visited the Smithsonian Institute on several occasions, most of my time was spent outside in their gardens rather than inside among their artifacts.

    Their grounds are rather stunning and are constantly maintained and manicured by top local gardeners and landscapers.

  3. Well, this is added to the “want it” list. The gardens around the castle and the sculpture gardens just down the Mall at the Hirshhorn are among my favs anywhere.

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