In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
July, 2007
Regional Report

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Curator William McLaughlin explains that the 'Ward' variety of sweet gum has fewer spiky seedpods than the species.

Going Native at the U.S. Botanical Garden

At first glance, the young Regional Garden at the U.S. Botanical Garden's National Garden in Washington, D.C., looks unfinished, with its slightly sloping, rocky terrain dotted with small river birch, white-flowering swamp titi, American hop hornbeam, sweet gum, and various shrubs, perennials, and grasses. Swatches of color pop from the rose and butterfly gardens and the orange/red/yellow Dale Chihuly's glass sculpture in the pond.

So what's all the fuss about? A gardening revolution that's a reprise of nature's plan. This nine-month-old collection of native perennials, shrubs, and trees represents an unofficial paradigm shift -- from high-maintenance ornamental gardens to environmentally sound, sustainable landscaping. Over time the garden will mature, change, and host natives thriving in their natural environment, explains curator William McLaughlin.

The Regional Garden
McLaughlin and his team are dedicated to cultivating biodiversity and educating us about plants that grow easily without fuss and excessive watering demands in the mid-Atlantic region. Their mission? To feature hundreds of species and varieties of plants native to the Coastal Plain and Piedmont Regions, from New Jersey to North Carolina. This is no easy task. The mid-Atlantic region has many different plant habitats, moisture and temperature conditions, sun and wind exposure levels, and soil combinations.

McLaughlin and staff started below ground level, developing two soil types consistent with the loamy, clay soil of the Piedmont and the lean, acidic Coastal Plain. For nutrients, they added cottonseed meal, alfalfa, and kelp. They engineered two elevations: the upper Piedmont for highland plants such as Eastern red cedar, witch hazel, black oak, American linden, New Jersey tea, switch grass; the lower, water-hugging Coastal Plane for longleaf pine, pond pine, swamp titi, American beautyberry, fothergilla, Venus flytrap, etc.

"This garden's got a lot of information in a small space," says McLaughlin. Horticultural practices are organic. They practice what they preach as "Take-Home Messages" for the public, the gardener, the landscaper. "Right Plant, Right Place" -- that is, switchgrass, butterfly weed, and asters in the sun; sweet bay, willow, and Virginia sweetspire waterside. They are planting attractive, interesting native cultivars; controlling pests with horticultural oil and beneficial insects (lacewing larvae, minute pirate bug, a little predatory mite); using natural resources wisely; and allowing rocks to weather into minerals for soil.

The Butterfly Garden
Adjacent to the Regional Garden, The Butterfly Garden holds perennials, grasses, and shrubs largely acclimated to central Maryland's Piedmont Region, its clay soil, topography, and growing season. Plants include nectar flowers for adults (e.g., purple coneflower and wild bergamot) and caterpillar food plants such as asters and spicebush.

Celebrating America's Public Gardens
Twelve garden displays on the Conservatory Terrace illustrate "A Sense of Place," each depicting a public garden's unique character. The Norfolk Botanical Garden, North Carolina Botanical Garden, Sarah P. Duke Garden, and Brooklyn Botanic Garden are among those represented till October 8. Additional National Garden exhibits celebrate "Today, Growing Tomorrows." Panels and sculpture tell stories of lives changed, places and plants preserved, knowledge valued, and humans nurtured through plants.


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