Entrance garden includes Hesperaloe parviflora, the pink flower seen here. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds.

I’m back with another Ed Snodgrass story, this one about a tour of the remarkable landscape at the State Department’s training facility in Arlington, VA.  Called the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it’s where all diplomacy, leadership and language training is provided for U.S. diplomatic personnel.

FSI’s landscape, under the direction of horticulturist Darren DeStefano, demonstrates what can be done to reduce the use of lawns and replace them with plants that consume less water and increase biodiversity, which was accomplished here using just the regular lawn-mowing budget!

I joined Ed on a tour of FSI with nursery people from Quito, Ecuator and Guadalajara, Mexico, whom Ed had met through his work with the Great Leaf Project. According to Ed, “We’re all in the same game to make gardens more resilient, more balanced. We’re all interested in growing these plants for ecological, functional purposes.”  The visitors from Latin America had been staying with Ed on his farm while he made connections for them with Maryland and U.S. State Department people involved in landscape projects, like a new consulate in Monterrey, Mexico.

FSI is decidedly not open to the public – pre-approval and escorting were involved – so it was a rare opportunity to see the future of government landscapes around the world. Darren explained that before 9/11, embassies were generally in cities on quarter-acre lots, but since then had been moved outside cities onto properties of 15 and even 50 acres, for plenty of setback.  So the State Department’s landscape practices became much more important, with the need for adaptability to local climate and site conditions. Facility managers from around the world come here to see what Darren has done and adapt it to their location.

There’s lots more about the landscape here on the FSI website. (where quotes below were taken) and I was struck by the tone of the text, which suggests readers use spots for meeting with friends, for contemplation or “tapping out,” gently promoting the landscape as a boon to mental health. That’s especially important here, given the difficulty of employees’ up-coming assignments to unfamiliar locations around the world, and the impact on their children, who are brought here for counseling because it’s hard on them, too. Daily, between 1,500 and 2,000 people get to enjoy this site.

Here’s the 2.5-acre Campus Green, “the only part of the landscape that’s irrigated, using in excess of 100,000 gallons between the months of July and September. It’s mown at least 32 times a year on weekly cycles. It’s aerated, over-seeded, and fertilized with pelletized chicken manure in November, with spot seeding done in March. There are no chemical pesticides or pre-emergents applied. All this adds up to being the most intensively managed space on campus, with mowing being the single largest component of the landscape management budget.”

After expounding on the problems with the overuse of turfgrass, the website goes on to explain why this one has been retained:

With all that said, what’s a lawn good for? Lawns are the places where we play and socialize. The Campus Green is the most traversed section of campus. It provides negative space, vistas and air. We don’t need to eliminate lawn. We need to just consider how we manage it. Lawn looks best when it’s used in a geometric form with bounds and edges..Whereas with the ground cover of the remainder of the site, we can slack off on all of the fertilization, irrigation, aeration, mowing and establish a difference between what’s really turf and what’s just ground cover.

Above and below, examples of “wild spaces” being made acceptable by their proximity to lawn and pathways that signal care.

These amsonias will turn orange next month.

Obedient plant and solidago.

Here are images from the Cactus Roof. Established in 2018 with budgetary and time restraints, “The concept was to create a green roof without removing the existing ballast, but instead use it to grow plants, significantly reducing the cost and effort of the endeavor…It’s designed to mimic the dry deserts of the West. Buff-colored pea gravel sets the stage, along with woodfall harvested from campus. A variety of cacti native to the high desert plateaus of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona was planted to mimic the environment, along with accents of aloe, euphorbia, and agave.” There’s also a small shallow pool for birds.  

So this green roof isn’t so much for stormwater management as simply for aesthetics, and for just 50 cents per square foot per year to maintain. The thin layer of rocks serves to protect the membrane from the sun.  The Cactus Roof is of particular interest to landscape managers from arid climates. 

Above and below, a huge stormwater feature on a former staging site for construction. Green roof soil was laid on top of the debris; attempts to grow trees there had failed.

The adjacent gathering area uses rock seating and Zoysia grass.  Native to Korea, its roots are so deep it needs no watering at all. It’s mowed once in fall, and bulbs come up through it in spring.

This is called the Paleogarden and features a stand of dawn redwood, “a tree once thought to be only part of the fossil record. Italian arum, Chinese ground orchids, and horsetails complement the Paleolithic character of the Metasequoia. This garden embodies Earth before humankind, demonstrating the depths of time and the resilience of these species.”


This pond was once a “dour, unused courtyard,” but now features a “biologically balanced pond not needing any mechanized equipment, just fish and plants – Japanese fiber bananas, showy ginger, lotus, hibiscus, pitcher plants, cannas, and water lilies.”

The pond site had been a planter filled with hollies and other common landscape plants. A dramatic effect is created by dyeing the water black. The fish aren’t fed – they rely on bugs for their diet, and that helps prevent mosquitoes.

These pavers made from locust trees won’t get hot like other pavers and are often used on green roofs. 

I found these surprising (to me) comments by Darren on other paving materials:

I especially wanted to introduce pavers onto campus. I mean, as far as surfaces, one of the things that I like about FSI is that it has asphalt sidewalks. Asphalt is a really nice material. I mean, it rolls with the landscape and contours and it turns and it’s soft underfoot. And it’s not altogether that common in a built environment around Washington. You’re more likely to find concrete. Concrete is a gift of the Romans, but they didn’t put it on the ground. I mean, that was the material to build walls. In my opinion, it’s rigid and harsh, and I prefer never to use it as a surface. 

The Roof Garden, with a full six inches of growing medium, is both a stormwater feature and pretty.

This garden is a celebration of innovative design and sustainability. Retrofit in 2013, the Green Roof incorporates unexpected elements. Its design sought to develop three individual environments including hardy cacti, grasses, alliums, and a selection of rarified succulent accents underpinned by the meadow mixture of sedum developed at Emory Knoll Farms—the United States’ leading green roof nursery.

(That’s Ed’s nursery.)

I love the Italian cypress-like evergreen accents.  Above and below, views of the Stumpery.

The Stumpery is a place of homage and meditation, adorned with ferns, with fallen trees transformed to sculpture instead of being taken away and disposed of. All at once, each fallen tree bears a past life, decay, and as it decomposes, rebirth. 

The Stumpery is for your visitation and contemplation. Sit, breathe, wander, get up close, and ask questions like, What is this?

Be sure to take a close look at each tree in the Stumpery. This is how you’ll find signs of rebirth, such as these holes created by boring bees building nests.

Look around for signs of other critters, like foxes, chipmunks, bunnies, wrens, and woodpeckers using the stumps and their roots for shelter, food, and more.

Here Ed’s pointing out signs of insects boring into this huge stump.

The campus also includes a Promenade, the “most formal garden on campus,” and one that’s not destined to “go wild.” With its allée of cherry trees and peonies, with spring-blooming bulbs and irises, it didn’t catch my eye enough (in mid-September when I visited) to warrant a photo but should be included in any round-up of landscape ideas.

Sadly, I had to leave before the tour was complete. I can’t even imagine what I missed.

Random Notes on Plant and Practices

Darren uses plants (including lots of salvias) instead of mulch, and installs much smaller plants than Americans usually use.

A large dead tree was left in place for the foxes nesting in it.

The property has 47 taxa of oak in its collection. “In a way, it serves as the bedrock to what gives FSI a sense of place. At this institute of American diplomacy, the collection features the United States’ national tree and includes a native oak grove and foreign collections.”

Darren kindly posed for this shot featuring his hat from Jellito Seeds, where our Allen Bush once worked and where guest Ranter Mary Vaananen still does.

A big thanks to Darren for the tour and more importantly, for the incredibly impactful work he’s doing there at FSI. And thanks to Ed for inviting me to tag along.

All that and Female Code Breakers, Too

Off-topic but of so interesting to me:  During World War II, the Army took over Arlington Hall, the junior college for women then on the site, and “put more than 10,000 women to work there, breaking enemy codes. There, they used math and patterns to decode intercepted enemy messages. The women of Arlington Hall and a similar Navy facility in Northwest D.C. ultimately contributed to the breaking of several key codes, including the famous German Enigma machine, the Japanese Navy’s fleet code, the cipher used in communications from Japanese diplomats, and the code used by Japanese supply ships in the Pacific.” Source.