Turning a New Leaf

Every six months Smithsonian horticulturists give the Haupt Garden a makeover from the roots up

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Everything is blooming these days in the Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Castle.

The parterre's geometric patterns are brilliant with masses of orange flowers and arresting foliage. Cascades of red and white blossoms spill from hanging baskets, and the garden's array of urns and planters are filled with all sorts of botanical wonders. Visitors relax on benches or wend their way along the paths, stopping to take pictures, inspect a fetching flower or breathe the fragrant air.

"I met a man who said he couldn't go to work unless he went through the garden first," said Shelley Gaskins, a member of the horticulture team that labors to keep the garden in tip-top shape. "So we need to keep changing it a lot."

A year ago this was a garden in the mind — to be precise, a garden in the minds of head horticulturist Michael Riordan and his colleagues, who right now are already thinking about next year's flowers. The team plants what amounts to a new garden every six months and completely redesigns the parterre about every five years. In addition to the formal parterre, the 4.2-acre Haupt Garden has shady nooks, fountain gardens and other inviting spaces.

With their elaborate designs, parterres remind me of plush decorative carpets. The nice feature about the one in the Haupt Garden is its ever-changing pattern; large diamond shapes and several scallop-shell designs dominate this summer's garden. The ridges of the shells are planted with small, round, greenish blue succulents called echeveria, and a green-and-white slender-leafed calico plant. Orange gazanias define the big diamonds.

"We try to think of unusual combinations of attractive colors and textures," said Meghan Brewer, another horticulturist. "This year the focus is on texture and foliage."

As they dug up the flower beds in late spring, I could tell the winter scene had been gorgeous. There were tulips, heather and more than 3,000 pansies — the workhorse of all winter gardens. Available in a rainbow of colors, these velvety-petaled flowers bloom through mild winters.

"We're always looking for something else for winter," said Riordan, "so often we use a lot of heather. It is hardy, it has an interesting form and it provides weatherproof color."

The pansies were spent, but the gardeners carefully uprooted the heather and placed it on carts to be returned to the Institution's greenhouses; eventually it will be replanted in some other Smithsonian garden.

The summer 2000 look began to take shape in early May, when trucks arrived at the Smithsonian's 11 greenhouses in northwest Washington to pick up hundreds of plants. There, among the vast rows of seedlings, the flowers that the horticulturists had planted several months earlier were coming into their own, ready to be moved to the containers or major beds of the Haupt Garden.

"It takes a day or two to plant," said Nancy Bechtol, director of the Smithsonian's Horticulture Services Division, "but there's more involved than just putting plants in the ground. When we started managing the garden, the soil here was atrocious. It was 100 percent silt, dredgings from the Potomac, so every chance we get, whenever we open a new bed, we renovate the soil."

"Worms?" I asked.

"Worms," Riordan confirmed. "Worms are like little rototillers. They incorporate organic matter into the soil and help aerate it and improve drainage. A lot of worms were brought in back when the garden was first started, but now we add degraded pine bark to the soil to lighten and loosen it." (See the Phenomena, Comment and Notes column from this issue of Smithsonian)

When the Haupt Garden opened in 1987, the soil's pH was high, up to 8 or 9 for alkalinity. The ideal pH for plants is 6 or 7, and the garden is gradually getting there.

The Haupt fronts Independence Avenue, a busy thoroughfare, and is bordered by the Castle, the Arts and Industries Building and three underground museums. Because it is really a rooftop garden at ground level, built on top of the museums, I wondered if the trees had a hard time growing in soil that is only three feet deep in some places. But I was assured that these tree roots do not grow down so much as out. And the trees are plentiful, enough to block the view of the busy street and help absorb the traffic noise. More than two dozen saucer magnolias, each 20 feet high, line the paths; 15 lindens grace the main entrance; and scattered through the site are holly trees, ginkgoes and weeping beech.

All these lovely growing things complement the paths, fountains and granite sitting areas, but they also camouflage such things as exhaust fans and the two 117-foot-long skylights of the underground museums. "In the area by the museums, we try to have themes that reflect the Asian and African art they contain," Riordan said. The fountains adjacent to the National Museum of African Art were inspired by the gardens of the Alhambra. "The wall around this fountain has rivulets on top like a Moorish garden, representing the four rivers of paradise, and the bubbling center jet represents paradise itself," he explained. There is also a chadar fountain — a veil of water tumbling down a stone wall. The sight and sound of rushing water makes this one of the Haupt Garden's most popular spots.

Opposite the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a museum for Asian art, a moongate motif, borrowed from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, was created by using large granite circles as gates and seating.

The garden's ornamentation is Victorian: antique cast-iron settees embellished with animal and floral filigree, teak benches, reproductions of 19th-century street lamps, and several urns. The stately iron entrance gates were based on a drawing by James Renwick, Jr., the Castle's architect.

In 1850 Andrew Jackson Downing designed the grounds that eventually became the Mall, in a series of gravel walks and circular carriage drives. The Haupt Garden site is what used to be called the South Yard. American bison were penned here in the late 1880s (Smithsonian, February 2000), and later, a taxidermy facility and an astrophysical observatory were built on the site. In the 1960s it became a parking lot and hangar for the Smithsonian's aviation collection, including an outdoor display of missiles and rockets. Finally, for the country's bicentennial in 1976, a Victorian garden was installed to complement an exposition in the Arts and Industries Building.

In 1982 that garden was dug up for the construction of the underground museum complex. At the time, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley asked his friend and benefactress of horticultural projects, Enid Annenberg Haupt, if she would like to see a new garden there.

Oh yes, she said, but on one condition: "Can you guarantee me that the plants will be magnificent specimens, and the trees will be so large that when I walk into the garden on opening day it will feel like a mature garden?...since, you know, Dillon, I am getting on."

She is still with us, as are most of the big trees.

I have forgotten exactly how the earlier Victorian garden looked, but it certainly lacked the diversity of this one.

"It's a 100 percent improvement, hands down," said Bechtol. "It's a lot more interesting to look at today. And it has to be; after all, we handle 30 million visitors a year.

"We want this to be a neat experience no matter what time of year," she continued, "and the experience begins the minute you walk in."

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