Real Gardens, Unusually Clever People

The Best Little Garden in DC, and the Plant Geek who Tends It

Ripley4350The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is tucked inconspicuously between two Smithsonian Institution buildings on the National Mall. Created by architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen in the 1980s, it’s a serpentine series of raised beds, intimate seating areas and antique planters.  Not only is it my favorite little garden in the whole city but, winding as it does between Constitution Avenue and the Mall, it’s gotta be the best path in town, too.

So who’s in charge here?  For 10 years now  Smithsonian horticulturist Janet Draper has tended the Ripley Garden, almost singlehandedly.  Check out these highlights of Janet’s career:

  • B.S. in horticulture from Purdue
  • Studies at the Mt. Cuba Center, with Kurt Bluemel, at a famous perennial garden in Germany, even with Beth Chatto at her garden in the U.K.
  • Employment with perennial nurseries in Chicago, on Long Island, and in Maryland
  • Even a stint working with Wolfgang Oehme to maintain some of his creations

With credentials like that, Janet’s probably a bit full of herself, no?  No way.  Utterly down to earth is more like it, with personality  coming out of her ears.  (I’d been told she’s "a hoot" and I should interview her stat!)

Draper300_2Well, I got my chance to meet Janet one steamy night last week when she spoke to the local Landscape Designer’s Group.  She started by sharing her favorite tidbits about the garden’s history – that Mrs. Ripley had saved this valuable chunk of land from its planned destiny as a parking lot.  And having seen a garden for the blind in California, Mrs. Ripley was determined to have the garden be fully accessible – thus the use of raised planters, enabling everyone to touch and smell the plants.  Yet the garden doesn’t scream accessibility; it simply looks like an extension of the Victorian architecture of the Smithsonian itself.

DESIGN v. PLANTS -  WHO SAYS YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE? 
Here’s where it gets really interesting and relevant to GardenRant readers.  Janet says she’s a "plant geek, not a designer" and that her design philosophy is "shove ‘em in wherever they’ll fit".  Okay, but the effect she’s achieved is beautifully designed, not at all chaotic, and she emphasizes the use of eye-popping foliage.  Actually she said  "I like sexy foliage" – there’s a concept for you.  She even quoted Beth Chatto’s recommendation to use flowers only as baubles or accents.  But still, Janet’s rootRipley1400s as a plant geek are evident everywhere – in the riotous collection of plants themselves and the plant LABELS everywhere. (Thank you, Janet.)

And this bit of realpolitik in the garden: the 1,200 tulips planted every fall are promptly yanked when their glory has passed. Why?  Because in order to rebloom  reliably they’d have to be planted a foot deep and that’s "not gonna happen."  (She didn’t mention their butt-ugly foliage but I bet that’s another reason.)   

SOME PLANTS SHE LOVES

  • The gorgeous yellow Echinacea ‘Sunrise’.   
  • Phlomis, a yellow daisy-like flower that does well here in this urban heat island (almost Zone 8)
  • Solanum quitoense, the most asked-about plant in the garden, which grows to 6 meters high in its native Equator.  Kids especially love this plant Janet has nicknamed the "Spiny Bastard". (Photo above.)
  • Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ – a "blooming machine" that likes drought and hates fertilizer.  (The white-bloomer in the photo below.)
  • Ornamental grasses, "the hair of the earth," quoting KarlRipley7350 Foerster.  For this garden she uses mainly the evergreen carex family.
  • For winter color, parsley and pansies with Janet’s favorite kale, red bore, which she lets bloom.

SOURCE OF PLANTS
With Janet’s background in propagation, we’re not surprised when she points to plant after plant that she started from seed.  Her main source is the seed exchange of the Hardy Plant Society of the Mid-Atlantic, which she urged us all to join.  The collection is also supplemented with "care packages" from her friends in the industry, and she does trials of Proven Winner varieties.

Ripley3400CARE OF PLANTS
Naturally we all wanted to know how Janet got this very public garden to look so fabulous.  The answer is organically, using as much compost as possible and lots of leafmold.  She will add a bit of Plantone for plants just getting started, and confessed to "juicing" the garden a bit this year to show off for the American Public Garden Association, which held its annual meeting in DC this year.  Container plantings are naturally fed, too.

RECORDKEEPING
Her system is one Excel spreadsheet indicating: Latin and common names, where each plant came from, its size, and when it was acquired.  Though she takes pictures, she wishes she’d taken more, especially of the "ugly bits".

THE PUBLIC
"I’m lucky not to have to cope with deer," Janet told us, "but don’t forget I’ve got thousands of human visitors to deal with."  And how’s that working out?  Well, she’s flattered when people walk through with a notepad taking notes but infuriated when people steal the labels and positively livid when people steal the plants, including shrubs in full flower.  Though it’s heartening that so many visitors respond protectively, reporting promptly to her when they spy visitors snatching a souvenir.

And the public isn’t shy about asking questions, and not just "Where are the rest rooms?" Ripley2 Answering plant questions is actually part of Janet’s job and she loves it.  There’s even a comment box for visitor feedback, and the most common message left for her is "Thanks for the labels!" 

But the ultimate pay-off in gardening in such a public spot is this: every single day she hears "Love your work!"  Janet wondered aloud how many jobs include that particular perk and her listeners wondered if she might just be the happiest government employee in all of Washington, D.C.  Though truth be told, she isn’t just about serving the public, blah-blah-blah.  There’s this: "I get bored and hey, it’s all about me."  So who says you can’t do personal gardening in public?

SHE’S ONE OF US
It was no surprise to hear Janet say: "I’m an opinionated gardener."  Now let’s see if she has time to read gardening blogs – or at least one. 

Click to enlarge the photos.

Posted by on July 3, 2007 at 4:42 am, in the category Real Gardens, Unusually Clever People.
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13 Responses to “The Best Little Garden in DC, and the Plant Geek who Tends It”

  1. MaryContrary says:

    It absolutely is the best little garden in DC — one of my long time favorites. A good gardening buddy and I just walked through it again recently, talking about what a gem it is generally, but especially when compared to the other gardens in the immediate vicinity.

    I love the native plants around the Museum of the American Indian and the little garden up by the Bartholdi fountain is nice (albeit with some mislabelled plants). But, what’s with the new national garden smack in the middle of it all? Yeah, I know it needs to grow in, but golly it seems at best uninpired on at least my first walkthrough. Anyone here know who designed it? Or was it, as my friend and I suspect, a committee project?

  2. Susan Harris says:

    Mary, the National Garden was designed by Roger Courtenay of EDAW (a huge national firm) whose work I’ve seen lots of and have always admired. My impression: like most real gardens, it’s unimpressive in its first year. I’m still optimistic about its eventual success.

  3. Ed Bruske says:

    Janet has to be the most infectious, most fun-to-be-with gardener in the District of Columbia. And she’s extremely knowledgable. “Almost” singlehandedly means she has some volunteers who are always trying to trip her up with plant trivia questions, as well as an intern, I think. She’s one gardener I wouldn’t mind spending a few months–gardening, of course.

  4. An Excel spreadsheet with the names of plants and details? Good grief. That starts to sound a lot like my WORK!!!!

    Must it be so?

    –Robin (Bumblebee)

  5. Jim says:

    I love the idea of someone with her credentials having a philosophy of “shove ‘em in wherever they’ll fit.” It gives my garden so much more validity.

    I also appreciate the photo of the solanum quitoense (spiny bastard). A neighbor just gave my daughter that plant with a marker in it that said “solanum spiky,” which I couldn’t find anywhere on the ‘net. I’ve looked up solanum quitoense and now know I have an annual (in my area) that will bear fruit, if I lived in Florida. This is Buffalo, so I’ll just have to learn to appreciate the thorns.

    Although I don’t think I’ll share the “spiny bastard” moniker with my nine-year-old.

  6. janet draper says:

    yeah, I know…. does sound like work, but when you have brain like a sieve, and you are a public garden when people ACTUALLY want to know what something is, you need some kind of record keeping… being not so computer savvy, that is what I have currently… have plans (with the assistance of a savvy volunteer) to make it much more accessible to others!

  7. janet draper says:

    thank you all for your flattering comments! it is always so nice to hear that the garden has an appreciative audience…sometimes when the busloads of tourons are swarming the place it makes me wonder if my efforts are worth it….. thanks for letting me know that they are!
    let me know if I could ever be of assistance to any of you!
    jd

  8. Ann La Porta says:

    I enjoyed the beautiful Ripley garden on a trip to the Sackler on 8/25 and took a picture of your most unusual plants, about the size on a hydranga, in pots with green and white leaves and small orange flowers.
    The horticulturist at Johnson’s Nursery had no idea what they were and suggested I contact you.
    What are they?
    I assume that they are tropical but would it be possible to buy them and would they winter over.

    Thank you, your exquisite garden was a great discovery on a hot day.

    Ann La Porta

  9. Judi says:

    I also would like to know what the shrub is that Ann LaPorta asked about. Andy chance of Janet letting us know?

  10. janet draper says:

    this is Mussaenda frondosa — the Dhobi Plant– it is from India, where the Dhobi man is the laundry man… comes around and does your wash outside, then hangs on plants to dry….. tropical of course… the white bracts act as attractants for the pollinators, (Butterflies in India). Michael Riordan (the head gardener in haupt) got his original plant from Logees.
    he also has 2 other species of mussaedena in the garden — one is over in the Downing urn planting ( fuzzy red bracts and red and white flowers–M. erythrina ?? I think) the other is much smaller with white bracts and pale lemon yellow flowers.

    all are easy to overwinter inside, but mealies find them attractive.

  11. Amy says:

    Any chance there’s a source for purchasing one of these beautiful dhobi plants?

  12. Gerald S. Dobbs, CGM says:

    Janet,

    Allow me to introduce myself. I am Gerald Dobbs, a former employee of the Smithsonian Department of Horticulture. I served there from 1978 to 1987. The garden you now tend is the one that I installed and maintained back in the 1980′s. In fact, I still have my daily gardening notes from that time period. The garden had many names for awhile such as The Garden for the Blind, The Garden for the Handicapped, and the East Garden. Eventually, the current name was settled upon prior to my leaving the Smithsonian. It was a distinct honor to get the garden established. In fact, my favorite time of the day was around lunch time when most of the federal employees came through during their lunch period. The Ripley’s treated me very well and with dignity. In fact, Secretary Ripley was quite helpful in getting me some additional training in topiary at Longwood Gardens.

    Enjoy your work and assignment. It is hard to believe that the garden is as old as it is.

  13. Barbara Adams says:

    We saw the Dhobi plant with the white leaves at the garden and want to find a picture of it on the internet. Do you know if there is one anywhere?

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