Cool Green Gardens

Calling On The Capitol – DC Revisited

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but something’s up. Why would those tricky devils at the Garden Writers Association derive so much pleasure from watching me perspire?

A little background: I joined and attended my first GWA annual symposium in 2008, when it was held in cool, drizzly Portland, Oregon. Since September is usually a hot month for Santa Barbara, I looked forward to traveling north, splashing in puddles and maybe having to wear a scarf!

What a great organization. Not only was I welcomed with open arms by the members and given the tools to launch my newfound career as a “real” writer, but they even provided a climate suitable for a banana slug like me.

Last year, it all changed – they had lured me in, then sprung the trap. My second GWA symposium was in Raleigh, North Carolina. The weather was gummy — that’s “muggy” spelled inside out. It wasn’t all bad. There were lots of great people and great educational sessions, but then we’d get on a bus, tour a garden and I’d be reduced to a whimpering puddle of sweat.

2010: I can hear the event planners at GWA: “We’ve got Billy now! If Raleigh didn’t do him in, we’ll send him to DALLAS IN THE SUMMER!!! MWAH, HA, HA!” they cackled, rubbing their scaly hands together.

Wracked with paranoia and foreboding, I’ve been compulsively checking the Weather Channel app on my phone every two minutes, hoping that a mad scientist bent of world domination (and a screenplay option) would send an errant cold spell to that fair city. It would start on September 8 and continue through the 15th. Fat chance. At least it’s dry heat.

But, back to 2009.

When we got home to California, I had intended to share the horticultural highpoints of the trip with all of you loyal readers at Fine Gardening, but good intentions weren’t enough. To redeem myself, I’ve combed through about 500 photos, picking an even baker’s dozen to make things right. Sit back and scroll down.When the Raleigh symposium was over, I hopped a train north to our nation’s capital and met Lin, my spousal support unit, for our first-ever visit to DC. The weather was cooler (we got rained on!), we stayed in a delightfully goofy boutique hotel, ate well and developed very sore feet from traipsing through museums, gardens and exploring charming neighborhoods.

Here is lovely Lin and me a couple of hours after checking into our hotel and grabbing a cab to the national mall. A striff breeze was blowing, the sun was dipping in the sky and there was a chill in the air. That’s me on the left.


It’s hard to explain the feeling I got when I beheld the Washington Monument in all its glory. The scale is immense, and the impact of being steps away from an icon that represents so much left me speechless. I’m not generally known for being Mr. Patriotic, but it’s impossible to escape being impressed by what this simple obelisk represents. Lump in throat moment.About that hotel – Hotel Helix, to be precise, situated in the Dupont Circle residential neighborhood of DC, with good coffee nearby, reasonably priced restaurants of every flavor, and situated a short walk from the subway. The hotel has a retro-Hollywood-meets-pop-art theme, with a totally trippy, glowing light sculpture in the lobby. Our room was adorned with portraits of Ken and Barbie. I highly recommend staying there when you visit.

For a built-up, urban metropolis, Washington DC puts on a pretty good show in the impromptu horticulture department. Tea cup-size gardens decorate nearly every residential frontage and curbside planters, like this sweet combo of tangerine-colored daisies and golden moneywort, are everywhere.

One of the high points of the visit was visiting Susan Harris, blogger extraordinaire at Garden Rant, and someone I’d taken an immediate liking to at the Portland conference. (Maybe it was her Frank Zappa tee shirt.) Susan lives in a picturesque neighborhood, just across the Maryland state line and a short subway hop from DC. (Photo by Lin Goodnick – really, there’s nothing going on between Susan and me.)

Susan’s backyard has been the subject of more than a few blogs, due in part to her daring lawn replacement and substitution with sustainable Sedum linare and a smattering of “weeds” like edible purslane and native smartweed (Polygonum pennsylvanicum). Susan went from lawn rebel to becoming the driving force behind the Lawn Reform Coalition, a dedicated group of writers and garden communicators (including me) who are gradually changing attitudes about peoples’ sometimes irrational obsession with turfgrass.

With only an hour or so to spend at the 446 acre botanical treasure, I knew where I had to start. I made a beeline to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum within the arboretum. You see, my starting point in gardens and landscaping began when I fell in love with the exquisite art of bonsai and was fortunate to study with American master, John Naka.After touring Susan’s garden, she chauffeured us to The United States Arboretum, on the eastern edge of DC. Perhaps the most impressive features of the site is this vista of the National Capitol Columns that originally supported the old East Portico of the US Capitol.

Susan was kind enough to drop us back in town and tipped me off to a must-see garden next to the Smithsonian Institution “Castle”. The garden is tiny and adeptly and beautifully straddles the fine line between appearing visually busy and intensely rich. As Susan just told me, via e-mail (no sense trusting a year-old memory), “It’s the Ripley garden and the plant choices are all by Janet Draper, the horticulturist in charge.  She also does all the work, with just a few volunteer hours each week.” The photo above captures the simple contrast from the pairing of purple-leaf sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’) and variegated basil (Ocimum x citridorum ‘Pesto Perpetuo’), backed up by silver-leaf princess flower (Tibouchina heteromalla). For more about the garden, read Susan’s 2007 blog at Garden Rant. Though I had seen his masterpiece, Goshin (meaning Protector of the Spirit) at a bonsai show in Los Angeles, experiencing in the context of the national arboretum reminded me of how grateful and humbled I was to have spent a few of my formative years learning from him.

Lin and I split up for a few hours (not that kind of “split up”) and I eagerly hiked the length of the mall to indulge my photographic muse at the United States Botanical Garden. The relatively small two-acre site contains an impressive array of plants and garden styles, but, alas, I was there under bright, harsh mid-day sun and very few of my pictures seem worth posting. But at the entrance was this playful arrangement of delicate herbs, succulents and black pebbles, providing a great example of how interesting a garden without flowers can be.

About that rainfall that caught us off-guard; it got pretty intense, so Lin and I agreed that we’d had enough of a good thing and headed for the dry interior of the Lincoln Memorial. Halfway up the steps, I noticed a terraced bed leading to a lawn, but locked behind a gate. I forgot to ask Susan Harris if her Lawn Reform zeal had influenced the National Park Service, but it did my heart good to see this sign gracing one of our country’s most significant and heavily visited landmarks.

Maybe, in the heat and humidity of Raleigh, I would have been only slightly surprised to see this icon of Florida (and suburban lawns). I must have fallen asleep in my animal physiology class, cuz I’d swear that with an average January DC temperature of 26 degrees, a flamingo would find our nation’s capital about as welcoming in winter as I’m gonna feel in Dallas next week. Any mad scientists out there?

Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Lin Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
View Comments


  1. SusanHarris 09/01/2010

    Great tour, Billy! It was pure fun showing you guys around, as enthusiastic as you BOTH are. (Lin's a keeper - but you know that.)

    Come back anytime and I'll show you more. And back atcha for the nice words.

  2. daffodilplanter 09/04/2010

    GWA they have more in store for you--Indianapolis in 2011! As a former resident of The District I thank you for a Grand Tour--and who else but Billy would juxtapose the Washington Monument and a flamingo?

  3. dminarik 09/04/2010

    Great post Billy. Thanks for the little vacation to DC. I am headed there next spring...wish it could be sooner. I love that always you gave me a smile!!

  4. debbiegolli21 09/25/2010

    Landscaping Sydney

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