I spent yesterday morning at The Bishop’s Garden of the National Cathedral. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never visited this popular Washington garden before.
I’m sorry I waited so long. The place has the beautiful patina of an old piece of silver.
The partially walled space was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. as a private garden for the Bishop. But in 1916, Florence Brown Bratenahl, the wife of the Dean, took over the garden’s installation and re-worked the plan for public access, opening it in 1928. She was the cathedral’s Landscape Designer from 1927 to 1936. Today, the garden is maintained by the All Hallows Guild, which Mrs. Bratenahl founded.
The garden sits on the south side of the cathedral immediately off an access road and parking area. One parking space actually blocks a bit of the Norman-style arched entryway.
On stepping inside, however, you are immediately enveloped by the long branches of an old weeping cherry and encounter the first of many antique boxwoods.
In the 1920s, Mrs. Bratenahl brought in mature boxwoods from George Washington’s Hayfield Manor, from the Ellersbee Plantation in Virginia, and from other historic sites in the region. I wasn’t able to discover from online research how many of the current bushes are from this time.
Original or not, however, they are very, very old and I like the way many have limbed up and split open at their centers, creating spaces through which other plants have grown. (I believe I was also seeing some of the damage caused by the huge snows we had here in 2010.)
This lovely garden contains almost every shade and shape of green leaf, set against aged bark and moss-grown stone — all beautifully punctuated, but not overtaken, by the flowers of old-fashioned perennials, annuals, and herbs.
My only real reservation about the design was the central rose garden, which I think has too many brightly colored, glossy-leafed hybrid teas. I would prefer to see bushes with more subtle appeal and interesting foliage.
The fact that the south side of the garden is open to a parking lot for St. Alban’s School is really too bad as well. In Olmstead’s original plan, I believe that area merged into woods and a stream. However, one of the gardeners working there told me that there are plans to put in some kind of view barrier, probably a tall hedge, possibly as early as this fall.
Please enjoy the gallery below. Click on any thumbnail photo below to scroll through all the enlarged pictures.