Garden show-offs and lawn proselytizing at a DC museum

                                                                           From the exhibition website

Here’s one item not on the agenda for this month’s Garden Blogger’s Fling in Washington, DC, but I don’t plan to miss it: “Cultivating America’s Gardens,” at the National Museum of American History in Washington. It opened last month and is on view through August 2018, so there’s plenty of time for everybody to see it.

For all the years that we’ve been flinging in cities such as Seattle, Chicago, Toronto, and Austin, I’ve usually managed to sneak away for an afternoon to take in a great museum or two, wherever we are. Fling tours are always of gardens, of course, so if you want other cultural attractions, you have to break away for a few hours—which I ‘m happy to do.

I had no idea this show was happening, until I saw yesterday’s article in the New York Times. It contains minimal information, but did have this:

The oldest garden in the US? This is debatable. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts competes for the title of the oldest public garden (1831), but the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston says it’s the oldest private and public garden (1676). The Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg contends that it’s the oldest public garden (1720). It depends on your definition of garden and whom you choose to believe.

The show (as explained on its website) also traces the rise of the American lawn, early botanists and plant explorers, how historic gardens are documented and preserved, the seed industry, and more. We can thank landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852) and his student Frank J. Scott (1828–1915) for encouraging wealthier Americans to emulate the English by installing “velvety lawns.” Scott helped suburban homeowners adapt lawns to smaller lots. Lawns were considered a sign of prosperity and provided space to play croquet, badminton, and horseshoes. And so on, creating a thriving industry.

The exhibition also features such ultimate “show-off” gardens as Arthur Curtiss James’ Blue Garden, which stretched for 10 city blocks in Newport, RI. As you might guess, it had blue plants exclusively.

This looks like it’s worth about one hour of my time; it will be a great complement to the exploration of the Smithsonian gardens that is, of course, included on the official Fling itinerary. Hope to see some of you there.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’d love to see the show about lawns. As a landscaper I can attest that (some) people are obsessed with their lawns. It would be interesting to see the history behind all that.

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