Disabled Veterans Memorial Shines Despite its Location


A new memorial opened last month in D.C., this one honoring Veterans Disabled for Life. I’ve watched its progress from the U.S. Botanic Gardens across the street, and seen it presented to a reviewing agency, so was excited to finally see it open.

Here’s a fun 2-minute video of its construction and finally, dedication, from an overhead camera.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/D8CBl20FOPA[/youtube] IMG_3199

First thing I bet you noticed? The location of the memorial is horrible – basically a traffic island surrounded by major streets and a freeway entrance ramp.  Great spots for monuments and memorials are all taken by now, so new ones are being sited off the National Mall (where everyone wants to be) and it’s a plus for the city and people who live/work/visit here because otherwise sites like this would stay horrible.

Instead, it was lovely on day one and will only get better as the grove of cypress and ginkgo trees grows up.  The competition-winning designer chosen to create the memorial is Michael Michael Vergason, one of DC’s top landscape architects.

Some interesting info about the landscape from the memorial’s website:

In designing the Memorial grove of 69 ginkgos and 23 cypress trees, Vergason took a close look at the practical factors as well. Since the Memorial rests on top of the I-395 tunnel corridors with a major highway passing underneath, about 115,000 cubic feet of enriched soil will be brought to the site to support the trees and other plants. The soil will be three to seven feet thick, and watered with an underground drip irrigation system. While cypress trees can live under dry conditions, they prefer moister soil than the ginkgos. Therefore, the grove’s soil foundation will include a damper area for the cypresses, with more drainage to dry the soil under the ginkgos.

The pavement for the plaza will be carefully suspended over the soil in order to minimize compaction and promote the uniform growth of the trees. In addition, stone pavers will be placed among the trees, giving visitors an opportunity to wander through the plantings.

“The grove will set the stage for the visitor’s experience,” Vergason said. “The trees’ overhead canopy will create a sense of ceiling, while the dappled light through the leaves and the cooling effect of the plants will contribute to both physical and psychological comfort.”

The urban grove – which makes up more than two-thirds of the 2.4-acre triangular site – includes clipped evergreen hedges that parallel the laminated glass panels whose inscribed words and illustrations tell the story of disabled American veterans. A lower level of plantings, including fragrant shrubs, will also be incorporated into the site, helping to block visitors’ views of the highway to the south. 

So, 3-7 feet of soil had to be brought in, and the pavement suspended so as not to compact the soil underneath it.  And check out the rubber-looking-but-surely-not material covering the tree boxes.


I’ve emailed Vergason’s firm for more info, so maybe we’ll learn more about that rubber thing.  And because I’m a nerd for ground covers, which Carex is this, so nicely massed for effect?

UPDATE:  Doug Hays at Vergason tells me they used  1,450 Carex flaxa ‘Blue Zinger,’ 17K Mondo grass, 13K Liriope Muscari, 665 Acorus gramineus, plus ‘Dallas Blue’ switchgrass, Virginia Bluebells, Hellebores, and Autumn Fern.  The shrubs are Clethra, Calycanthus, Vernal Witchhazel, ‘Nellie Stevens’ Holly, Va Sweetspire, Northern Bayberry, ‘Gulftide’ Osmanthus, ‘Snowgoose’ Mockorange, Rugosa Rose and ‘Winterthur’ Viburnum.  There’s more:

To answer a few of your technical questions, the trees within the plaza are set within a product called ‘Flexi-pave’. It is a 2″ thick porous paving that was acceptable with the National Park Service through a series of trail mock-ups. It is a composition of crushed aggregate, finely shredded tires and a high strength binder. It qualifies for a recycled product. It will be periodically trimmed back from the root flare of the Ginkgo’s as they grow and develop.

Within each tree pit is drip irrigation system. Also, we employed a gravity irrigation system that re-routes water collected from the surrounding bio-infiltration basins and directs water to the entire underground planting soil under the plaza supported by silva cells a product by Deep Root Incorporated.

The trees on the west side of the site are Pond Cypress, similar to the Bald Cypress but with a finer texture. It is our hope that these trees will grow to their 50′ projected height to begin to soften and block the brutish facade of the HHS building.

One other piece of technical info that your readers may be interested in is that we strove to provide approximately 1000CF of soil for each tree within the Ginkgo grove under the suspended slab of the memorial plaza.


The memorial must have been crowded this week but when I took these photos on a recent weekday, it was quiet and I loved being there.  I’m no pushover for memorials – too many of them left me cold – but this one is beautiful and calming and contemplative and lots more.  And it accomplishes all that in a traffic island.



This is the view from the highway as it approaches one of DC’s more prominent Brutalist-style government buildings in the background.  Like most people, I hate the style; brutal says it all.  I know it was designed by a famous architect but I don’t care.  I look forward to the trees blocking my view of it.


  1. There are some nice features here but it feels wrong. The lines are so clean and sharp edged that they don’t really feel terribly comforting just kind of sterile. For those with disabilities wouldn’t that just give a kind of hospital feel? Maybe it will feel more alive as the plants grow to maturity My biggest objection has to do with that stuff around the tree trunks. Is soil something to be ashamed of? Why plant trees so inappropriate to the area that they will require irrigation?

  2. My guess it that rubber-looking material is permeable, perhaps made of rubber pellets bound together in a matrix that includes void spaces to allow water to drain through. As such it would serve, to answer Debra, to mitigate compaction of the soil underneath while still allowing water (what little that reaches the tree pit) to percolate through. Urban trees in tree pits, sitting as they commonly do in 3′ deep by 6′ long and 4′ wide (or smaller!) pits surrounded by totally impermeable materials, have it really tough, and irrigation is a small kindness that not all urban trees receive. Most urban trees in pits are either parched (because they do not receive irrigation, as is most common), or drowning (because the pit was not provided with adequate drainage). I know an urban soils expert who refers to tree pits as “tree coffins.” To further answer Debra, in an urban area, very few trees are “appropriate to the area.” What tree has evolved to live with surrounded by concrete and other impermeable surfaces, in highly alkaline soil, contending with air pollution and burning heat reflected from pavement and surrounding buildings? It is not an impossible situation, there are obviously some trees that make it, but there is no question that urban trees have a shortened life span–in a typical “tree coffin” planting the average expectancy is 15 years. Trees in trenches and shared planting areas fare better.
    In this site, it sounds like the trees may be provided with generous provisions for their health, so hopefully they will fare better than 15 years and grow up to screen that ugly building and provide all the other ecological benefits that can be expected.
    As for “hiding” the soil, well, protecting the soil in tree pits from compaction and pollution is all to the benefit of the tree. The ideal purpose of a tree pit grate/protection system (I don’t know what to call this treatment–a blanket?), is to prevent compaction while allowing percolation. Not all tree grates work, as they become clogged with trash or end up strangling the tree, but it looks to me that this rubber (?) can be cut to accommodate the tree as it grows–seems like a great idea, though honestly I don’t really like the way it looks–I’m just defending its function.

    • Those are interesting points and I can appreciate that the impermeable surfaces might have been used to solve the problem of the area needing to be ADA accessible. I have trouble believing these are the best trees for the job or even reasonable choices. We have plenty of old heritage trees right in the middle of the city of Austin. They are not only wild (native) but predate the city. With some love and care from the city arborist they continue to survive and even thrive. If there is no tree native to the area that can exist in that situation then maybe a green wall could have been planted instead or they could have created hanging gardens … or well … used their imaginations to create something sustainable.

      • I bet hanging gardens and green walls are harder to maintain there – and less sustainable – than the trees chosen for the site. Trees do so much (the shade in that sunny spot but eco-services, too) that to me they’re worth being given help to survive in harsh spots. Susan

        • That is probably true. Bad brainstorming ideas. I am all for trees — but if a particular tree needs a lot of artificial supports to survive it probably isn’t a good long term choice. I think the best designs are ones that include plants that will thrive at the site. I keep seeing places where 5 years or 10 years later the ‘plantings’ fail and there sometimes isn’t a budget or will to replace them. Also, can these trees even survive? The designers seemed to be trying something that might remedy potential compaction but how will the soil organisms get air or light?

      • Glad to help, apologies for the verbosity… 🙂 Thank you for this post Susan, it makes me want to plan a trip to D.C.–so many exciting horticultural and landscape design projects going on there.

  3. Debra, I think you’re absolutely right about the ADA accessibility point. Boston, also, has beautiful heritage trees, including red oaks which are native to the northeast–of course as you probably know the possibility for a tree to grow in to “heritage” status depends on where it was planted! I’ve heard Austin has some beautiful park and I would like to visit someday.

    • Oh. I would love to see those trees — especially in the fall. I think one of the secrets to getting a tree to heritage status is to grow trees that are indigenous or at least well adapted.

  4. Thanks for the heads up on this memorial whose development I totally missed. Vargeson used flexipave around the still new-ish Speedwell Carousel at the National Zoo. I’ve got a great photo of it working in today’s rain if you’d like one. With such difficult planting parameters, the tree choice here is interesting. Any tree in that spot would require TLC. I wonder if the drama of the ginkgos and cypress was part of what drove the selection. Ginkgo – ancient and a survivor, the drama of the bright yellow leaves falling almost all at once, and the cypress, deciduous conifer, also with dramatic fall behavior. It should be gorgeous in the fall and inspiring in spring with both trees having intensely bright new green leaves/needles. Nice symbol of rebirth and survival. I’ll take a look.


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