As Congress meets in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, a small group of AOC employees toil in the heat a few hundred yards away to help a living national treasure thrive in an urban center. This is the National Garden at the U.S. Botanic Garden.
Conceived as an outdoor laboratory for gardening in harmony with natural ecosystems, the National Garden opened to the public on October 1, 2006. It provides "living laboratories" for environmental, horticultural and botanical education in a contemplative setting.
Bill McLaughlin, U.S. Botanic Garden Plant Curator, has been there from its opening, helping guide the plant selection and placement while providing overall guidance to the philosophy of the National Garden.
"We were sustainable before sustainable was cool," said McLaughlin. "There is no pop-up irrigation — it decides what grows where — and it can become wasteful. We hand water — you get fewer weeds. But we have a lot of space, and not a lot of gardeners — thank goodness for our volunteers."
This focus on sustainable gardening is even true within the Rose Garden, which traditionally was not believed to be possible. However, thanks in large part to the efforts of Gardener Margaret Atwell, the Rose Garden in the National Garden is becoming a model and resource for mid-Atlantic gardeners, demonstrating how roses can be grown and thrive in a sustainable manner.
As part of this sustainable focus, the Rose Garden, and the entire National Garden, practice integrated pest management, also known as IPM. This management of pests focuses on using natural and organic methods. Chemicals are only used as a last resort, and only on a very limited basis. The Rose Garden is also different from others because it features self-sowing annuals that bring in pollinators and helpful insects that attack predatory insects.
The Regional Garden is a special gem within the National Garden. It is home to many unique and rare plants, all of which are native to the mid-Atlantic. The Regional Garden itself mirrors the mid-Atlantic, including two basic types of soils — piedmont and coastal plain. These two soils allow the Regional Garden to serve as a microcosm of the entire region. The commitment to regional natives even continues into the water features of the Regional Garden. The aquatic plants are native, as are the dollar sunfish in the water.
"It has a real naturalness to it," said McLaughlin. "We have two flora, but we didn’t want it to feel like two different gardens, so we also feature some plants that grow in both soils to help tie the features together."
While the garden is home to these treasured plants, it is also home to an abundance of pollinators that are attracted to both the plants of the Butterfly Garden and the native plants of the Regional Garden.
The garden continues to mature and develop and is now entering a refinement phase as the staff learns from, and studies, the success of the plants within the garden. The garden will also change as trees grow, casting more shade, and the plants will be adapted to the ever-changing environmental conditions.
Whether you want inspiration and information for your garden, want to learn about the importance of pollinators or simply want to take a scenic nature walk steps from the Capitol — the National Garden is a treasure for everyone.
This story was first published in AOC Foundation & Perspectives.