I recently attended the annual conference of America in Bloom, where I got to hang out with such long-distance gardening buddies as Joe Lamp'l and Paul Tukey – more about them coming soon. But a special treat for this local was my first-ever tour of the U.S.Capitol Grounds with Ted Bechtol, superintendent of the grounds and related parks – 274 acres in all. Here he is showing us a newly planted American chestnut, a cross with the disease-resistant Chinese species.
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, the Capitol Grounds includes 4,200 trees (187 species of them) and 85 beds filled with annuals and tulips. Olmsted's primary here was to complement the building, so trees are sited so as to not block views of it. The photo below illustrates a departure from that original intent – the tall shrubs hiding the foundation of the building on the Senate side. Bechtol plans to remove them, which will make the building look more massive and imposing, as Olmsted intended.
Curiously, only 5 percent of the trees are evergreens – Olmsted just wasn't that into them. And historians will be happy to know that the the original landscape is remarkably intact, still geometrically laid-out paths and informally arrayed plants, almost exclusively trees. (Olmsted wasn't that into flowers, either. Some congresspeople, however, ARE, and request more of them. It's Bechtol's job to satisfy them and history both.)
Unlike so many other properties in post-9/11 Washington, there's no fence around this one, thankfully, so acccess and openness reign. In addition to the occasional demonstrations, there are performances – by high-school and armed forces bands, as well the National Symphony Orchestra and the televised July 4th show. Not to mention the Inauguration. As a consequence of all that public access, the lawn here is good enough but can never be perfect.
Speaking of lawn, I asked Bechtol how this one is cared for and I was glad to hear that only organic fertilizers are used on the 90 acres of turf under his care, plus top dressings of compost and leafmold. He's reduced the use of weedkillers since he became superintendent four years ago, thanks in part to simply raising the mowing height.
Olmsted's design included not just paths and plants but all the infrastructure here, both above- and below-ground, and lots of hardscape features, like the red granite lamp piers, one of which is shown with the Library of Congress in the background.
Olmsted also designed the little out-building that's missed by most visitors – the little Victorian Summerhouse. Notice the single-seating of the benches – designed to prevent sleep-overs. There's an attached grotto, and a carillon that was put in storage years ago and then lost. (Bechtol's looking for one to replace that original one; if you know of one, let him know.)
For landscape history buffs, see the history of the grounds, from which I love this detail:
Work accelerated in 1877. By this time, according to Olmsted's report, "altogether 7,837 plants and trees [had] been set out." However, not all had survived: hundreds were stolen or destroyed by vandals, and, as Olmsted explained, "a large number of cattle [had] been caught trespassing."
IF YOU GO
Here's my take-away from the tour: If you're a landscape historian or tree-buff, you'll love the place and appreciate Bechtol's efforts to replicate Olmsted's original collection of trees. But otherwise, the U.S. Capitol isn't a spot I recommend for garden-seekers. If you don't believe me, notice in this slide show about the horticulture of the Capitol that there isn't much there.
For visitors of all sorts, gardener or not, there ARE some highlights of the U.S. Capitol that I've come to love in my 30+ years of working there: the Old Supreme Court Chambers and the Brumidi Corridors. And though I haven't visited yet myself, I hear great things about the new Visitor's Center.
For the garden-seeker I recommend these gems that are close to the Capitol building: the U.S. Botanic Garden and Bartholdi Park across the street from it. Then venturing into nearby Smithsonian territory, the grounds of the American Indian Museum grounds are terrific and my favorite garden in all of D.C. is the Ripley Garden, tucked into a passageway next to the Smithsonian Castle.
Gratuitous extra photo: Bo Obama posing in front of the Washington Monument. Looks like him, right?