National Garden Takes Root After Years Of Work

October 03, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

It has been more than two decades in the planting, but the new National Garden, which can trace its roots to the rose, opened to the public this week in Washington.

At the foot of the nation's Capitol, it is actually four separate gardens on 3 acres behind the U.S. Botanic Garden's glass-domed conservatory.

It includes a rose garden to honor the national flower, a regional garden featuring the variety of plants that thrive in the Mid-Atlantic climate, a mosaic fountain to honor the nation's first ladies and a butterfly garden, paid for with more than a half-million fundraising dollars from the nation's garden clubs.

"The whole intention was to showcase our national flower," said Leone Reeder, who spearheaded the fundraising and the planning. "And it sort of grew from there."

In 1986, Mary Johnston, wife of then-Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, persuaded Congress and President Ronald Reagan to declare the rose the national flower -- instead of the marigold, which had been gaining some traction.

The idea was to carve out a spot behind the Botanic Garden to showcase roses. It would be located on a traffic island between Maryland and Independence avenues that had been nothing but a landfill for other federal projects.

But Teresa Heinz, now Teresa Heinz Kerry, and BA Bentsen, the wife of then-Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, had bigger ideas. With congressional permission to raise private funds for a federal project, they envisioned a much larger garden of which the rose garden would be only a part.

That was in the early 1990s. Over the next decade, fundraising stalled and costs soared to more than $11 million. For example, the dirt had to be removed from the entire site and replaced with a special soil recipe. It took 450 dump trucks.

And they had to be very careful, because the garden sits atop the Interstate 395 tunnel that runs underneath Washington. "Very careful," chief curator Bill McLaughlin said, laughing.

He spent years choosing the plant material for the regional garden, growing some of it from seeds he had collected from Maryland to North Carolina, only to give most of the seedlings away when the project looked like it would never happen.

"At one point, they asked me if I could make the whole thing a meadow," said McLaughlin, a University of Maryland graduate. "I said that I thought we could do better."

Fundraising got a kick start when John Deere and Home & Garden TV came on board, and construction began in March 2004.

The rose garden is lovely in its old-fashioned formality, and the mosaic terrace that lies under the first ladies' fountain will be beautiful and restful even in winter. The butterfly garden is already attracting winged visitors.

But it is McLaughlin's regional creation that inspires. The plants are young and sparsely planted, so the garden will change drastically with each visit. And there is enormous variety -- everything from wildflowers to cultivars.

The garden's construction is unique, as well. McLaughlin arranged it from high to low, from piedmont to coastal plain, from dry to wet. There is no irrigation. This is "right plant in the right place" gardening.

So take your camera when you visit, but take a pad and a pencil, as well. You will want to record the names of the plants and grasses you like because, if they can grow in Washington traffic, they can grow in your neighborhood.

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to

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