Checking in with the Smithsonian Gardens

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I feel lucky every time I ride the subway down to the National Mall, where the many museums and gardens are free – and fabulous. I did that recently and noticed some things about the gardens there.

National Museum of African American History and Culture 

Photo credit: GGN

This terrific museum (critics and visitors agree!) opened in September 2016, with a landscape too new to show you. I’d seen the design firm GGN from Seattle present their plan for the landscape (I used to work for one of the agencies that had to approve it) and then seen it gradually diminished. Features considered expendable were cut in the process called “value engineering,” resulting in less landscape. Always a vulnerable target.

To me, the most prominent and puzzling feature of the landscape is the large but very shallow pool – a scrim – in front of the entrance. (In another Smithsonian garden, the courtyard at the Museum of American Art, the same firm used FOUR scrims to good effect.)

GGN describes the scrim as an

entry fountain of moving and still water. Juxtaposing the permanence and weight of stone with the ephemeral qualities of moving and reflective water. these thresholds symbolically link past, present, and future to reinforce the incredible location of the site as a critical context for the museum itself.

Yeah, I don’t know about that. A scrim in such busy entryway made no sense to me.

On the day of my recent visit, the scrim was turned off – or is it gone? I can say for sure that the signage about the water fountain looks silly with no water in sight.

On another side of the building I came upon some live oaks and interesting signage about their role in the slave trade.

It was fun to see a bromeliad relative (tillandsia, according to commenter Linus – not orchids as I first wrote) growing in the live oaks.

I love this inviting seating area with a terrific view and food trucks nearby.

National Museum of American History 

I stopped to photograph the crepe myrtles in front of this museum in answer to the many critics who object to their ubiquity in our region. To me this example says damn, what a great job they do in hot spots, blooming when not much else does. Also, they’re easy care.

The museum smartly restricts high-maintenance plants to the very front of the main entrance. I don’t love the conifers with tropicals but there has to be something there in winter, I guess. Still, they shouldn’t block the name.

Pollinator Garden at the Museum of Natural History

This terrific garden along the 9th Street underpass is easy to miss, but visitors shouldn’t. It’s a very complex, functional and educational garden tended by top horticulturists.

Moongate Garden

Very near the Smithsonian Castle but hard to find is the Moongate Garden, which is best illustrated by this photo by someone else. With my photo you can see some seating around the fountain, center-right, near the pink sign.

I focused on that bench because in the History of Landscape class I took last semester at the University of Maryland, the professor criticized the designer of this garden for getting the level of the seating wrong. It seems that water pools there rather than draining away. It’s all in the details!

Enid Haupt Garden

Here’s THE iconic shot of the Smithsonian Gardens, right in front of the Castle. Nothing new to report here; just a gratuitous money shot.

Before and after

But nearby I found something I’d never seen before – a little fountain transformed into a “Rainforest of the Sea,” about about coral. I learned something!

Ripley Garden

Another favorite with local gardeners is the Ripley, designed and maintained by Janet Draper, the current president of PPA. It’s so complex and interesting it doesn’t really need blooms to attract us, though I bet Janet’s as grateful as I am for phlox in late summer.

Janet’s succulent wall is looking perfect!

She’s added still more succulents this year.

Troughs, too.

Prettiest Truck in DC

Found parked in front of the garden pictured on the side – the Folger Rose Garden.

Photos taken August 29, 2019.

6 COMMENTS

  1. NMAH planter: ecch. Thumbs down. A difficult spot, but needs complete re-do. Garden Rant fall-winter design challenge?

    In contrast, the transformation of the sunken fountain space is clever and attractive, drawing the visitor in for a closer look and unexpected education. The background tile does a lot of work: evokes the sea while establishing a color spot that enlivens the area and catches the eye of passersby.

    The Ripley Gardens go from strength to strength. Worth a trip to DC by themselves. Thanks for the vignettes!

  2. It seems to be the year of succulents at the Smithsonian gardens. Notably the impressive wall and containers at the Ripley, but also what appears to be a “green roof” above the converted fountain. Feeling the urge to get on a train to go see for myself…

  3. Thanks for this — another good reason for out-of-towners to visit the Mall.
    Love those succulents, especially the wall. Beautiful.
    Probably it’s the way the shot is framed, but the Moongate Garden doesn’t look wheelchair-friendly. It’s how I move around, so I notice.

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