WASHINGTON — There is a brandnew attraction on the edge of the Mall, a 3-acre celebration of American horticulture called the National Garden. A more fitting name, perhaps, might be the jack-in-the-box garden — it appears to have sprung from nowhere.
The first privately funded project on the Capitol grounds, the $11.5 million attraction occupies what was the last unused parcel of land on the north side of Independence Avenue. It is next to the U.S. Botanic Garden’s conservatory and across from the National Museum of the American Indian.
The garden functions as an outdoor annex to the conservatory, and its features include a formal rose garden; an ornate, submerged mosaic; and a sophisticated display of rare native fl ora from the mid-Atlantic region.
Its completion has been under wraps, and few outside a small circle of donors and dignitaries realized it was about to open. The fence screening was removed after a private ceremony Sept. 29 in which first lady Laura Bush cut a ribbon; it officially opened Oct. 1.
The gyrations over its birth, however, are nothing compared with its tortured gestation. Almost 20 years in the making, the project has had its share of setbacks, including sluggish fundraising, the death of the director of the nonprofit group established to raise money for the garden, the loss of one of its leaders, Teresa Heinz (to husband John Kerry’s presidential campaign), engineering challenges created by the site’s location above the Interstate 395 tunnel and costly delays associated with post-9/11 security requirements.
The garden’s origins date to 1986, when Mary Johnston, wife of then-Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston, succeeded in getting Congress and the president to declare the rose as America’s national flower. She had been appalled by a move to bestow that honor on the marigold.
Johnston then recruited Heinz and B.A. Bentsen, wife of then-Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, to push for a rose garden next to the Botanic Garden, which grew into the idea of a National Garden in which the rose garden would be one element.
The biggest hurdle was a funding shortfall of several million dollars. In a watershed moment three years ago, the design and construction team, architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman and trustees of the National Fund agreed to trim costs by eliminating a proposed building called the environmental learning center, fancy paved paths and other infrastructure, and to build the cheaper version in phases.
This, in turn, coincided with fresh leadership for the fundraising group: Leone Reeder, a leading light in the garden club movement, and Jim Hagedorn, head of the Scotts Miracle-Gro. The revitalized project attracted major donations from Deere & Co., the Kluge Foundation and others to allow the completion of most of the garden, including the First Ladies Water Garden and the Regional Garden of native flora.
It’s been quite an odyssey, said Hantman.
So what’s the garden like? With so many disparate elements and players in the design (including the three winners of an early design competition), its biggest challenge, arguably, is in maintaining a clarity of vision.
The entrance from Independence Avenue presents the visitor with a broad avenue of American hornbeam trees that, in time, will be clipped to form an imposing tunnel. This takes you past the rose garden, beautifully executed but truly a horticultural period piece rooted in the 19th century and the notion that stiff modern rose bushes needed to be grown in isolation.
Turn left by a ceremonial lawn and past some unfamiliar but handsome conifers — pond cypress, the more attractive cousin of the bald cypress — and you get a sense that there is a level of horticultural deftness to the entire garden. The First Ladies Water Garden is an eye-catching terrace in which granite mosaics submerged in water have been formed into motifs recalling quilt patterns familiar to Martha Washington. But the patterns of the granite and the sound of water in a sunken terrace recall, too, the idea of a Persian garden.
The terraced Butterfly Garden has an arbor, nectar-bearing plants and the potential to become a charming oasis. This garden was paid for by National Garden Clubs, which mobilized its affiliated local clubs and members to raise money.
The Regional Garden is the rather dull name for the largest part of the project, a meandering path through seven large beds of native trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials. The path crosses a stream and ends at a small amphitheater whose seats are fashioned from marble steps that once formed part of the Capitol.
The view back from the amphitheater seats is the choicest in the garden and takes in the Capitol dome and the crystal palace of the Botanic Garden. The Regional Garden should fill out wonderfully without obscuring these landmarks.
Holly Shimizu, director of the Botanic Garden, chose one of the institution’s most gifted horticulturists, Bill McLaughlin, to put together the seven beds of the Regional Garden. They are a plant lover’s delight and full of little-known indigenous species and varieties that will now find a broad audience.
McLaughlin has planted that section with plants that are native from New Jersey to North Carolina, and then grouped them by habitat, some from the piedmont and others from the coastal plain. They are further delineated by their place in what he calls the moisture gradient, essentially how much water they need.
The National Garden is meant to become an outdoor classroom where kids and adults alike learn about nature and how to use it to enrich their lives. Perhaps the garden’s most valuable first lesson is that young gardens are meant to look raw and callow, that plants do better when they are installed small, and that we need to grant plants, and ourselves, time to see how it all comes together.
It will take two years for the herbaceous plants to fill out, five for the shrubs to approach maturity and at least as long for the trees to have presence. “We have allowed room for it to grow,” Shimizu said. “When you move to a new place you don’t know, you have to settle in, and plants are the same way.”