What’s New and Old at Longwood Gardens


On my way to  David Culp’s garden I naturally stopped at Longwood Gardens, which I somehow hadn’t visited in at least a decade.  So, what’s new?


Treehouses! Three of them, and they’re grand like this one or smaller and funky.  Love ’em!


Above and below are the much newer “first terraced lawn in the United States” and “largest indoor green wall in North America.”  Both designed by “renowned British landscape architect” Kim Wilkie.

About that lawn, the press release tells us that “Due to the slope of the terraced landform, Longwood is using a novel and innovative combination of overhead and subsurface irrigation systems to provide adequate and efficient hydration.” I’d love to know how they mow it.  Honestly, I’m not a fan.


The green wall, covering over 4,000 square feet and packed with 47,000 plants, is awesome but apparently I missed the best part of this whole project – the rest rooms!  Or excuse me – “contemporary lavatories,” to quote again from the press release.  I read (now, too late!) that they’re underground, dome-shaped and naturally lit.  And sure enough, a friend later asked me “Aren’t those bathrooms cool?”  So if you visit, don’t miss the bathroom experience of your life.


Another newish feature at Longwood is an indoor children’s garden, which I didn’t photograph (too packed with kids!) but looks like loads of fun.  With coves, a secret room, a maze, a tunnel and another maze plus lots of magical critters, it’s an obvious hit with the kids.

The photo above is of eager learners in the Silver Garden, which has always been my favorite feature at Longwood.  On my weekday visit there were groups like this everywhere.  Lucky kids!


The Silver Garden, like the other 5+ acres under glass, looks great every day of the year.


Before commenting on what’s old, how about some images of what’s blooming? Longwood has a handy guide for every week of the year  and given our unusually cool spring, I saw what’s normally seen the first week of June during my late-May visit.  That means it was post-azalea and pre-rose, but right-on for the rhodos, like the ones seen above with the treehouse.


Baptisias seen in front of blooming Ninebark.  Below, more Baptisia but this time in yellow.  With Allium, etc.



Lupines are something I never see in the DC area.  Lots more rhdodendrons in the background.


It was peony time, too.


Siberian iris, which I much prefer to the fancier bearded Iris.


What’s old at Longwood?  Lots of fancy, dramatic fountains.  Very Old World, and wonderful.  The largest fountains are the site of Longwood’s famous light shows and fireworks.  Worth a visit, and conducted all year, except when the temps are below freezing.


Are Public Gardens Changing Fast Enough?

Now cover your eyes if you hate criticism, but something else that’s old here is the chemically dependent style of gardening that’s being abandoned by enlightened gardeners and gardens across the country.   One of the staffers mentioned this to me, saying the gardens have to look perfect every day, so what are you going to do?  And after all, this is Longwood, the site of lots more than just plants on display. (Their Summer Concerts, for example.)  Some public gardens have sworn off pesticides altogether (the rose garden at the U.S. Botanic Garden is one) and others spray away (like the rose garden at the Smithsonian, just blocks away).  A staffer at a Maryland garden told me they’ve come to accept some imperfection, and their visitors are fine with it.

Obviously education is a big component of Longwood’s mission, so shouldn’t how-to-garden be part of that?  Signs could explain why there are holes in the foliage and tout the disease-resistance of the plants they’ve chosen to grow.  And they could brag a lot more about Sustainability at Longwood, a listing of items that now includes eco-friendly toilet paper but not a word about how they grow plants.

In my defense, I wasn’t the only visitor that day thinking about this issue.  A freelance photographer (of plants and insects) griped at length to me about Longwood’s growing practices.


  1. I would imagine that at a place like Longwood a majority of the old guard on the board of directors would be very resistant to change.

    I see it in some of my clients and in my mom. These are people who grew up raising chickens and killing them for dinner. They have lived through all the post WW11 techno, industrial and chemical progress that has made their lives so much easier and were conditioned to believe progress is good period. There are no drawbacks. They don’t want to give up doing things the easy way.

  2. I’m not sure how they can say that photo #2 represents “the first terraced lawn in the United States.” It made me think of the grassed (and planted out) “falls” that were extremely popular in 18th-century American landscaping.

  3. Certainly not the first terraced lawn. And with the Ranters ranting against such extravagance………………wonder why it was mentioned. As for practices you need to face the fact that under such intense cultivation ORGANIC JUST DOES NOT CUT IT all the time.

    the TROLL

  4. I think there can be a meeting of old and new/public and private/organic and not. Did you wonder what’s in the water of those wonderful old fountains or how the smoke generated from fireworks affects air pollution? What about the heat sink of the giant parking lots that surround Longwood? We can’t just look at one piece of the puzzle when everything else that surrounds it has an impact also. It’s just too short sited. I agree that things have to change, but it’s more than just how we garden.

  5. DuPont is the operative word in the Longwood legacy. This might explain a reluctance to jettison chemical practices although wouldn’t it be great for them to teach imperfection in the garden as part of the fun…

  6. I know your had no way to know this, but Longwood graciously hosted, at my request as chair of the Sustainability Committee, a stakeholder’s Forum on GWA’s Sustainable Gardening Virtual Library pilot project in April. Sustainable gardening is a moving train and even with armies of gardeners, public gardens will not be transformed overnight.

    This link http://www.longwoodgardens.org/SustainabilityatLongwood.html describes their sustainability initiatives, which include extensive wastewater recycling and composting programs, a solar array http://www.longwoodgardens.org/SolarField.html, the huge wildflower meadow http://www.longwoodgardens.org/meadowwildflowerwalk.html and a “buy local” food program. GWA members got a private tour at the 2012 Region 2 meeting and I applaud the efforts they’ve made.

    Hope to see you in Quebec!


    • No, I didn’t know they hosted your group but I can’t think of how that knowledge would have changed my post. Similar to Scotts-Miracle-Gro hosting breakfasts for GWA members not changing the minds of people who are critical of its products or practices.
      I included that link to Longwood’s sustainability practices IN the post, and I read enough of it to have noticed the items you listed, plus eco-friendly toilet paper and no mention of gardening practices.

  7. Baby steps, maybe? The things listed are potential money-savers for the garden eventually, and easy to publicize in order to look good, and possibly to feel out how strongly supporters of the garden feel about these things. It’s a much bigger commitment and risk to let go of the chemical dependency when your business model relies on picture-perfect gardens.

    If I were them, I would section off an area to start a garden that uses organic gardening techniques, water efficiency, etc, and use it as an educational garden too (with signage, garden guides, etc). My guess is that people would love to see that effort being made, and perhaps it would lead to a more permanent commitment.

  8. It would be interesting to engage Longwood in a discussion on their IPM practices. I wonder if you might contact them about such a dialogue. I applied for a production job there years ago and was surprised to hear how little chemical they used in the conservatories. I was told at the time they’re very limited in what they can use because they have visitors all day every day and can’t section off an area. That was almost ten years ago and, as your post illiustrates, there have been many changes to Longwood in that time (including their leadership). I do not hate criticism at all, but this feels to me a little like stones thrown from a distance rather than thoughtful criticism.

    • Thanks – that’s a helpful additoin to the discussion. Now I wonder why they don’t add that to their Sustainability at Longwood web page. Maybe because everything they do or don’t do would be controversial, so they can’t win (and here at the Rant see so many examples of that). For example, many purists are against IPM, and purists of another school might be angered by Longwood switching from native to Asian dogwoods and hemlocks. (I”m with Longwood on both those counts, btw.) Plus, there are the people (and I’m one of them) who are against the promotion of letting domesticated cats go outdoors outdoors, where they kill songbirds, in addition to the garden-destroyers.

      Oh, but here’s something else I don’t understand. When I asked about the trial gardens at Longwood, I was told the plants are being tested for their appearance, not for their disease- or insect-resistance. Why? Because they’re all sprayed anyway, because even plants being trialed have to look perfect. So I wonder who’s responsible for choosing the research criteria – Longwood, or the grower, or hte international trial garden organization they’ll be hosting this year.
      PS That was me, Susan. I’d logged in as Garden Rant, which is why my name didn’t show up.

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