The Heirloom Garden in early fall

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During the last week of September, I took a walk around the Heirloom Garden of the Museum of American History and was filled — once again — with admiration for the Smithsonian Institution’s horticulture division.

The garden — huge, raised planters, all the way around the building — contains a mix of open-pollinated plants cultivated in America prior to 1950. The perennials and annuals are anchored by crape myrtles and a variety of shrubs.

The space is very large, open, and — at the south entrance — crowded with tourists. Still, the beautiful long borders, which were being allowed to fade with fall naturally, offered a surprisingly intimate and even soulful experience.

You can see more Heirloom Garden pictures here.

One would have thought, (so cunningly the rude
And scorned partes were mingled with the fine,)
That Nature had for wantonesse ensude
Art, and that Art at Nature did repine;
So striving each th’ other to undermine,
Each did the others work more beautify;
So diff’ring both in wills agreed in fine:
So all agreed through sweete diversity,
This gardin to adorne with all variety.

— Edmund Spenser, from “In the Bower of Bliss”

The heirloom garden

On a hot day in early August, I visited the Heirloom Garden of the National Museum of American History* and took a lot of photos,  but because of our move, I never had time to post them.  Now that it is seed-ordering time in the U.S., I thought they might be inspirational.

(Click on any image above to scroll through larger photos.)

The garden — huge, raised planters, all the way around the museum building — contains a mix of open-pollinated plants cultivated in America prior to 1950 (heirlooms). The plantings are anchored by crape myrtles and a variety of shrubs.

The colorful annuals, perennials, bulbs, and herbs are all so familiar, but  the combinations are often surprising.  It’s a splendid ode to the flower gardens of our grandparents.

The museum pipes in a selection of American music from speakers set in the planters (in fake rocks).  Normally, I would find this annoying, but in the already noisy, wide open site, it actually drew me in to the garden and enhanced the experience.  And their selection is excellent — folk, jazz, blues, musicals.  The planters are raised about 3′, which also helps the plants compete for attention in the immense space.

By late summer, the flowers were being allowed to grow a little leggy and fade naturally, which added to the various forms and tones of the groupings.


*The Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., has eight beautiful gardens (ten if you count the inner courtyards of the Freer Gallery and Museum of American Art).