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Gardening Basics: Local Public Gardens

Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County
Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County

Simply Put: Local Public Gardens

A couple of the Behnke staff went to Swarthmore College near Philadelphia  recently to attend a perennial conference. We also walked around the Swarthmore Campus (which hosts the Scott Arboretum) and spent an afternoon at Longwood Gardens; both in the rain.  As I label my photos, I am struck by how lucky we are to have so many fine public gardens in our area. The Philadelphia gardens are only a couple of hours drive away, but of course we have many nice gardens right here in D.C. and the ‘burbs.

The gardens are well-maintained, well-labeled, and free—so they are great for family outings and getting ideas. There is nothing like seeing a plant in the ground, or finely crafted mixed container plantings to inspire you on your next trip to Behnke’s.

With digital photography, it’s so much easier now to record what you like. Take a photo of the plant, and a photo of the label. No need to steal labels anymore!  (We find that the plants that are unusual and in bloom almost always suffer from label-thief blight.)  Contact Us or bring your photo in. We’ll tell you if we can get the plant, and if not, maybe we might be able to tell you where else to look.

Locally, my favorite gardens are the following, with the areas I most like to visit: Go to their websites for more information. A small disclaimer: I am more interested in perennials than other, lesser garden subjects, and that bias may show up in the descriptions below.

The websites will list also activities and lectures for the public, with top-notch speakers. And here’s a secret: the gardens are more interesting to visit in person!  Turn off that computer and get thee to a garden!

  • The United States National Arboretum in DC has collections of magnolias, crabapples and other trees and shrubs, and azaleas; all of which are particularly nice to visit when they are in bloom. The herb garden is spectacular, and the Bonsai collection is world class. Asian Valley showcases Asian plants, while the recently renovated Fern Valley showcases native plants.
  • The United States Botanic Garden also in DC, at the foot of Capitol Hill has a spectacular historical greenhouse range which was renovated about 8 years ago.  Hidden in a courtyard in the structure is a zone-denial garden (plants that normally wouldn’t take the winters here).  The patio surrounding the greenhouses has terrific container gardens in season, and is a great place to take a break when your feet are succumbing to museum syndrome.

Adjacent to the building is the intimate Bartholdi Park, which features the Bartholdi Fountain when it’s in town (it’s currently offsite for restoration). And opened in 2006, the National Garden, which has a rose garden, water features, and the Regional Garden, featuring native plants.

  • The Smithsonian Institution has a number of gardens on the national mall, including a native plant garden at the National Museum of the American Indian, and the intimate, ever-changing and eclectic Ripley Garden which always has interesting perennials to see. Smithsonian Gardens
  • Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland is a wonderful place to walk around.  Massive bulb displays in the spring are worth a special trip, and the rose garden has recovered from deer pressure, thanks to a deer-exclusion fence around the property.  This is a particularly good place to see perennials and shrubs for shade. Nice greenhouses with seasonal displays.
  • Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia is the place to go if you are interested in vegetable and herb gardening, as the staff have particular expertise in these areas. They also have little vignettes (“twenty thematic demonstration gardens”) set up to give you ideas for home landscapes; courtyards, townhouses, and so on. They also have nice beds of perennials.

By Larry Hurley, Perennials Specialist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I’ve been to all 3. A question at the Smithsonian garden they have a plant called the asparagas fern with long green tenticle like arms. Can it be obtained locally? and where is it available to purchase.

  2. Amazing how many people in Fairfax and Alexandria have failed to visit River Farm, off the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The farm is the HQ, I, believe of the American Horticultural Society and features a nice wildflower garden and some interesting stonework concepts. I love it.

    Mike Savich,
    former resident up there,
    now down in Fredericksburg

  3. Yes indeed, River Farm is another good garden to visit. It has a terrific native plant meadow that was installed just a few years ago.

    You might combine it with a trip to Mount Vernon, as River Farm is on the same road, but closer to DC. Mount Vernon also has very nice gardens, in the colonial style (shocked?). Lots of boxwood, bulbs, big trees, and fruit trees.

    Both have beautiful views of the Potomac River.

    Larry Hurley

  4. A trip to the Howard P. Rawlings Conservatory in Baltimore, MD is worth the drive, and much closer than Longwood! There are five greenhouses, including the historic Palm House, which dates back to 1888, the Orchid Room, the Mediterranean House, the Tropical House, and the Desert House. There is a formal outdoor garden which peaks in the summer, and seasonal displays indoors, including a Chrysanthemum Show which is going on right now, a Holiday Show, and a Spring Bulb Show.

  5. Steve who questioned the asparagus fern:

    The aspargus fern used to be a very popular plant in the sixties and seventies and usually appeared in Boston cast iron soup pots with three little feet in public laundromats throughout the Midwest.

    I do not know for sure, but I am convinced that it was named after the true asparagus that we eat. The edible asparagus forms beautiful airy fronds that flower and are quite tall.

    The asparagus fern that you are invoking is the one that I always saw as a kid in public laundries. You can find them mainly in cheaper stores like Kmart or Walmat or any old fill-in-in-the-blank-Mart. If you like the asparagus fern, you certainly will like the ornamental but inedible coriander which has a slightly more rounded shape, is a little thicker, but still forms long arms, only silvery instead of the bright lime green that you probably noticed. Both look great together.

    But I bet your are referring to Meyers’s Asparagus, which is really tentacular as you say, and looks like the head of Hydra. To be sure, visit images.google.com and you will see the light airy aspargus which is more dill-like, some leathery ones, and then the tentacular ones.

  6. So much to learn, and I’m getting so old so fast!

    Ashamed to say that I have never been to the Rawlings Conservatory. Will put it on my list of “to visits.”

    Another good place to see up in that general direction is Ladew Topiary Gardens. In addition to the topiary, there are some formal gardens and nice perennial plantings. Been awhile since I have been there, but I have always enjoyed it.

    As long as we are going further afield:
    For native plant enthusiasts, check out the Adkins Arboretum on the eastern shore. Nice plantings of natives around a pond near the information center, a good place for a walk in the woods and birding. Lots of classes to put you better in touch with the environment.

    Two more in DC:
    Dumbarton Oaks with a nice Japanese Garden and walks through the grounds. An article in the Post talked about a recently completed renovation.
    Hillwood: in addition to the fascinating docent-lead tour of the house of Marjorie Merriweather Post (reserve in advance; all things Russian including several Faberge eggs), there is a cutting garden and nice grounds. Been awhile since I was there, as well.

    I travel alot and visit alot of gardens. I find that when I’m in town, I often want to spend time in mine and not do as many day trips as I should. So I focused the article on the ones I hit more often (US Botanic Garden is a good one when out of town friends and relatives visit, for example.)

    Also, one of the best ways to see public and private gardens is through a garden club tour. There are some terrific very active groups, including the Maryland Horticulture Society that is in the Baltimore area, and the Annapolis Horticulture Society. Top class speakers, and a good way to talk to really knowledgeable gardeners. I think they both have websites.
    I’m not a member, that whole driving at night thing is a problem for me, but I strongly recommend checking out a local garden club.

    Keep those suggestions of your favorite gardens coming in!

    Larry Hurley

  7. I agree you are probably writing about Asparagus Meyeri, which looks like tentacles sort of. Spikey, vs the more common asparagus “fern.” Behnke’s carries them, mainly in the spring/summer, in houseplants. Great outdoors in container plantings.

    Botanically, they are in the genus “aspagarus” like the edible Asparagus, Asparagus officinale. (At least they were, the last time I looked. You can see the resemblance when the new shoots emerge, they look like tiny asparagus shoots.)

    I have some neat photos of Meyeri at the children’s garden in a public garden somewhere, I think Melbourne, Australia. Will try to get the webmaster to post them some time this week.

    Larry Hurley

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