Nothing Beats A Spring Day In the Gardens At DC’s Dumbarton Oaks

Spring garden at Dumbarton Oaks

When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. This spring, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the magnificent spring blooms that Dumbarton Oaks is famous for, but also because starting in July, the gardens will be temporarily closing for renovations.

About

Located high on a hill in Washington, DC on the northern edge of Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is an historic property, including a 19th century house, art museum and gardens of world-class distinction. It is the legacy of Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, noted philanthropists and collectors of art, who purchased the property in 1920. At that time, the now 53-acre estate included an 1801 Federal-style home, six acres of steeply graded farmland and a series of sadly neglected gardens.

Entrance to main house at Dumbarton Oaks

The Blisses had just arrived home from two decades abroad and were keen on creating ‘a country estate in the city.’ They fell in love with the sloping terrain of Dumbarton Oaks and spent the next twenty years renovating the house and expanding the gardens. To help her transform the land, Mildred hired renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand. The project, which was to end up encompassing both formal and informal designs, is today considered to be Farrand’s most ambitious garden.

A view across today’s many-tiered garden

Beatrix and Mildred worked together to design and build an intricate landscape with a distinctive American flair while incorporating elements of Italian and English garden style (assimilated during the couples’ extensive travels abroad). This allowed the garden to remain flexible and over time, it has evolved to include new designs, plantings and ornamentation. Some say that the women created one of the “greatest garden ensembles in American landscape history.”

Mildred Bliss/Photo: Dumbarton Oaks

To preserve her vision, Farrand documented all her plants and the reasons for their selection in The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. Completed in the 1940s, it remains the key resource for maintaining the gardens in the style Beatrix and Mildred intended them to be.

In 1940, the Blisses cofounded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to display their collect of rare books, documents, art and other objects accumulated during their years abroad. They also donated the mansion, outbuildings and formal gardens to Harvard University (Robert’s alma mater).

An unusual azalea variety at Dumbarton Oaks

In 1963, a Garden Library was added to the house to display Mrs. Bliss’s collection of rare and modern garden books. And today, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection is a Washington, DC institute administered by the Trustees of Harvard University. In addition to offering fellowships, internships and exhibitions in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape studies, Dumbarton Oaks includes a Museum of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and a Music room that provides a venue for concerts and lectures.

In a 1940 letter to his wife Mildred, Robert wrote,

‘At Dumbarton Oaks you have created something very beautiful, very special both in the garden and inside the house. It will remain a monument to your taste, knowledge and understanding – a delight to all who visit it and a great resource to those who are fortunate enough to work there. ‘

 

THE GARDENS

Farrand’s 1921 design was built around a phased transition from formal to informal spaces, ending in a woodland landscape (also designed) in the valley below the mansion. The design included numerous ponds, streams and garden ornaments all of which provided focal points in the gardens.

Today, the garden staff continue to evolve the gardens, creating one magical space after another.

The Tour

A visit to the gardens begins behind the main house on the Arbor Terrace, a broad swath of lawn overlooking the lower gardens.

The terrace is bordered by stone walls and an arbor that, at the time of my visit, was covered in wisteria.

Descending a staircase flanked by boxwood hedges (the garden’s central axis), we passed a hillside of cherry trees (no longer blooming) followed by Crabapple Hill.

A pebble and flagstone path bordered by peonies and other spring perennials led us deeper into the lower gardens.

The Pebble Garden features elaborate stonework laid in the shape of a wheat shaft. It is surrounded by trellises of wisteria and low flowerbeds. Pairs of stone columns lend a sense of enclosure to the dramatic space.

The Pebble Garden

Here is another view of the top of the Pebble Garden from the house terrace. (The students get to use the pool after-hours.)

Everywhere on the property are small niches complemented with interesting architectural elements. We passed by this one on the way to the Rose Garden. The Urn Terrace functions as the transition from the Boxwood Walk to the Rose Garden.

The Urn Terrace

The Rose Garden follows classical lines. Groups of same-species roses are laid out in geometrical grids accented by large and small orbs of loosely-clipped boxwood.

The garden is complemented by an antique stone bench.

Antique stone bench in the Rose Garden

Descending further down the slope, we arrived at the Fountain Terrace, a traditional flower garden.

The Fountain Terrace flower garden 

Close-up of the bright-colored flower borders on the Fountain Terrace

Close by the Fountain Terrace, is the English-style Herbaceous Border, which stretches back up the hill, provides an expansive view of all its riotous spring flowers.

Herbaceous Border

Lovers’ Lane Pool offers a quiet respite from all the color. The medium-sized garden features a shallow pool at the base of a small brick amphitheater bordered by bamboo.

Lovers Lane Pool

This small garden was designed by one of the interns at Dumbarton Oaks.

Small garden

The Plum Walk, with its identical rows of purple-toned trees, guides visitors further down the slope to the vegetable and cutting gardens.

Prunus Walk

A view of one of the vegetable gardens through the plum tree canopy

Lower vegetable and cutting garden

Old espaliered fruit trees underplanted with spring perennials border the gardens.

Aside from the Arbor Terrace with its magnificent wisteria, the Ellipse is a standout with its double row of formally-clipped hornbeams at the center of which is a simple fountain surrounded by a moat. The fountain is original to Farrand’s design, although the hornbeams are not. They replaced a boxwood-lined enclosure planted in the 1920s.

Hornbeam Ellipse

Located at the base of the gardens, the mostly-green space is peaceful and serene with its geometric shapes and quiet reflecting pool. Dumbarton Oaks is famous for this aerial hedge of pleached hornbeams, which provide a sense of enclosure while offering tantalizing glimpses of other gardens beyond. A great way to finish off a tour of these lovely gardens.

For more about Dumbarton Oaks, its history and hours of operation, click here for the official website.

 

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this historic French garden. Continue reading

A Little Taste of Japan In the Heart Of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires’ lovely Jardin Japonés

There are so many beautiful, themed gardens in Buenos Aires I’ve almost lost count. But, there’s one last gem I’ll profile before we return next week to the United States. Located in the city’s Palermo neighborhood, it’s the zen-like Jardín Japonés. Think acres of green foliage, a shimmering lake spanned by lipstick red bridges and colorful clusters of over-sized koi, and you’ve got the picture.

We happened upon the Jardín Japonés on a sizzling hot day when most of the other public gardens were closed. Spying some Asian-style buildings amidst the trees in the distance, we made a beeline across a park towards the sloped-roofed structures. Along the way, we passed the customary assortment of cheerful dogs and professional dog walkers.

A professional dog walker (paseaperro) in Plaza Allemania

Located behind a tall wall and bordered on all sides by traffic-congested avenues, the Jardín Japonés proved to be a quiet oasis in the heart of a boisterous city. Originally given as a gift to Buenos Aires from the Association of Japanese Immigrants, it was constructed in 1967 to celebrate the visit to Argentina by Japan’s Prince Akihito and his wife in May of that year. The future royals’ visit was a big deal for Buenos Aires and the garden was to receive other similar official visits over the ensuing decades.

Entrance to the Jardín Japonés

Today’s 6-acre garden, however, is mainly the work of a Japanese born landscape architect named Yasuo Inomata. The city of Buenos Aires hired Inomata in the mid 70’s to redesign and enlarge the Jardín Japonés to look more like a traditional Japanese garden. Inomata modeled his design after a zen garden, focusing heavily on the critical elements of harmony and equilibrium. The renovation, which was completed in 1979, has since become a bridge for the city’s residents and its visitors to understanding the Japanese culture.

The first thing you notice when you enter the Jardín Japonés is a large artificial lake spanned by three traditional-style Japanese bridges. Painted a distinctive deep red, the bridges each take different forms and carry different symbolic meanings. The largest of the three is the Puente Okayama, also known as Puente Zig Zag Okayama. The flat bridge skims just above the water and meanders back and forth across the northern end of the lake.

Puente Okayama (the zig zag bridge)

The second bridge, called Puente Yamagata, takes the traditional arced form. Also painted red, it is a standout in the middle of the lake. (Also perpetually clogged with tourists, so a clean photo is pretty much out of the question.)

Puente Yamagata

The third bridge, el Puente Plan Ibaraki, is made from rough-hewn planks in a burnished red. The site plan shows it traversing a small cove at the opposite end of the lake. During our visit, however, we observed only two piers facing each other across the water. I loved how the open space between the two piers raised questions as to whether they were meant to connect or simply observe each other. Whether or not this was purposeful, it was one of the most memorable spots for me in the garden.

Puente Plan Ibaraki

At the far end of the park is a large Japanese building housing a restaurant, library and cultural center. There is also a traditional-style Japanese tea house. But what really caught my eye was this checkerboard lawn to the right. Crafted from bright white paving stones and lime green grass, it made me feel like we had popped in on Alice in Wonderland.

Checkerboard lawn

Directly behind the checkerboard lawn and adjacent to the center is a shop selling traditional Japanese plants such as bonsai, orchids and azaleas as well as other native flowering plants.

Plant store

And on the other side of the tea house is a rose garden.

Rose garden

A big draw for children is the giant koi and carp that live and feed in the garden. They swim in colorful clusters along the fringes of the lake and under the bridges where visitors are encouraged to feed them. Their open mouths can be seen bobbing above the surface.

We stopped for a fruit smoothie at the Salon Mie next to a large bell dedicated to immigrants. Its big gong-like sound resonated across the park and sent powerful ripples through our bodies. It was the perfect accompaniment to the next small patio, the Patio Hiroshima, which displays three numbered trees that are descendants of larger trees that survived the bombing of Hiroshima.

The sign reads that the surviving trees were located within a 2000 meter radius of the center of Hiroshima and that the city has registered 170 trees ‘a-bombardeados’ for which they have been given a plaque and a special name. That name is:

HIBAKUJYUMOKU (TREE SURVIVING THE ATOMIC BOMB)

In addition to these highly symbolic areas, the garden boasts more than 150 species of trees and a huge variety of plants representing a combination of Japanese and native Argentinian species. There are acres of white and pink azaleas, Japanese Matsumae-fuki cherry trees. mugo pines, magnolias and Japanese maples as well as native oaks, cedars, tipas and Pal Borracho trees. There are also beautiful mini waterfalls.

And carefully composed arrangements of stones.

The many different elements appear to have happened there naturally, although in the architect’s own words, this is a deliberate misconception.

Inomata said:

Japanese gardens that I create express an element of Buddhism called gokuraku (pure land). In these gardens, the trees and flowers are not arranged in a structured manner so that they can imitate what is found in nature [  ]. At first glance, they may appear disorganized, but in reality they follow an order.

Unlike most other public gardens in Buenos Aires, the Jardín Japonés costs money, with all proceeds going to its maintenance, which is administered by the Fundación Cultural Argentino Japonesa. The garden is also home to festivals and other cultural activities promoting Japanese culture within the city.

For more information on the garden, its location, hours and scheduled activities click here for the official website.

Buenos Aires’ Jardín Botánico: French Twist On A Spanish Garden

To my readers: I am in Argentina for the month where I’ll be writing about gardens.)

Buenos Aires Jardin Botanico

There’s a reason why people often refer to Buenos Aires as a little Paris in South America. The city is chock full of French-style architecture, grand tree-lined avenues and a wide variety of public gardens. It wasn’t always this way, though. Up until the 19th century the city didn’t have many green spaces at all. That all changed with the arrival of a French landscape architect named Carlos Thays.

Carlos (né Jules Charles) Thays was to transform the city of Buenos Aires into the lush green metropolis it is today. Born in Paris in 1849, Thays was the disciple of one of the leading architects of the day, the French landscape architect Edouard André. Together with André, he helped design some of the most famous public and private gardens in Europe.

Thays came to Argentina in 1889 as part of a contract to help create what was to become his first major work in the country – the Parque Sarmiento, the largest park in the city of Córdoba. After the park was completed, his intention was to go back to France. However, Thays ended up in Buenos Aires, where in 1891 he was named the city’s Director of Parks and Walkways.

Monument to Carlos Thays in Buenos Aires’ Jardín Botánico

The title of Parks Director gave Thays a lot of leeway to influence the character of Buenos Aires, especially where it came to panoramic views of the city. With the exception of Parque Tres de Febrero, an older park opened in 1876, the city had no public green spaces. Thays began major tree planting projects, lining the grand avenues and neighborhood streets with large shade trees including purple-flowering jacaranda, yellow-flowering tipas (also known as rosewood) and ombús, a massive evergreen native to the lowlands of South America.

One of the many Jacaranda trees in Buenos Aires

Thays also got to work remodeling the aging Parque Tres de Febrero while designing and constructing 69 new parks, gardens and plazas. His French heritage was reflected in many of his designs.

Jardin Botanico

One of the most famous of all of Thay’s projects is located in the urban neighborhood of Palermo where it takes up an entire city block. Completed in 1898, the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden is considered one of Thay’s biggest achievements. Today it bears his name (Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays) and is home to more than 6,000 species of plants.

The walled park includes rare trees and native and exotic plants hailing from all parts of the world. And in keeping with French style, the garden is also home to 33 classical sculptures, fountains and monuments that figure prominently throughout the garden.

Canto de la Cosechadora

La Loba Romana, one of the garden’s many works of art

In order to best display his collection of plants and landscape styles, Thays designed the Jardín Botánico in sections. There are three main gardens: a Roman Garden planted with huge cypresses, alamos (a variety of cottonwood) and laurel trees, a French Garden built around a classic symmetrical design and an Oriental-style Garden featuring species indigenous to Asia.

One of the many enormous cypress trees in the Roman Garden

While working on the construction and planting of the garden, Thays and his family lived in a large brick Gothic Revival style house that still occupies a central place in the garden. Today it is home to the city’s Garden School and also features a revolving art collection and library.

Thays’ home during construction of the garden

One of the most important features of the Jardín Botánico are five greenhouses that house a wide variety of native and exotic plants. The largest of them, a Beaux-arts style formal building was first erected at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and brought back to Buenos Aires to be reassembled in the garden. Measuring 35 meters long, it is now home to a couple thousand bromeliads and orchids.

The largest of the greenhouses

View inside the large greenhouse

View inside the bulb greenhouse

In addition to the main garden sections, there are also a number of specialty gardens including a cactus garden and butterfly garden. The cactus garden features many unusual varieties of aloe.

Cactus garden walkway

Aloe marlothii from Africa

In January, the lovely African agapanthus plant is flowering all over the garden.

There are hundreds of flowering shrubs

Jardin Botanico in Buenos Aires

And there are huge stands of sky blue plumbago.

Thays died in Buenos Aires in 1934, but his public works live on for the whole city to enjoy. For more information on the Jardin Botanico, click here for the official website.

Stay tuned for my next post on the thousands of roses on display at the Parque Tres de Febrero.

 

Small Garden Ideas From The 2016 Kips Bay Show House

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The Kips Bay Decorator Show House, now in its 44th year, is one of New York City’s top springtime attractions. For eight weeks, some of the country’s leading designers and architects lend their energy and talent to creating an amazing array of indoor and outdoor spaces. This year’s show house, located at the newly-renovated Carlton House Townhouse on East 61st Street, features a veritable treasure trove of ideas from 21 top designers. I visited recently to see what was trending in the gardening world. Continue reading

Dutch Robotics Cuts the Guess Work Out Of Growing Flowers

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A few days ago I heard an interesting broadcast on BBC about Green Circle Growers, based in Oberlin, Ohio. The huge state-of-the-art company decided five years ago to shift a large part of their business to orchids. To make the change, they looked to Dutch experts for advice, adopting the “Dutch Method” to their facilities. The decision has paid off: Green Circle Growers is currently the biggest orchid grower in North America. Continue reading