The Great Gardens of Capitol Hill

Garden Spot

519 East Capitol St SE. A private retreat in a public space

This has been a year climate extremes. Seventy-degree weather during February followed by an April that resembled the end of November. May and June brought us the onslaught of monsoons and July baked for a week and then surprised us all with fall temperatures.  Gardens were confused then lovely then challenged then just went in to a stasis on nothingness.  In spite of their owner’s best intentions and care, plants dropped leaves and shriveled up faster than a holiday wreath on a warm winter day.

The gardens that have made my cut after this outrageously irrational spring and summer are those that looked good in June and still look great now. These are the gardens whose caretakers have read the books and applied the methods of the year round garden and therefore have a splendid garden in every season, not just April and June--gardens whose beauty is in intricately balanced in the plants, structure and design.

100 5th Street NE

This corner garden is lush and inviting; a center path shoots the visitor off the cement slab of the front door and winds you through a garden of form and function. The window boxes drape the windows and soften the expansive brick walls. The pencil hollies vie with the Kousa dogwood and acuba for prominence. The phlox shoots out in front of the Victorian urn while the urns colors of begonia and Swiss chard compliment the drab green of a dracaena. Evergreen hedges act as sentries along the path to soften the transition of house to path to garden. On the garden floor, hostas and Heuchera collide with the wispy texture of Japanese runner grass and Lenten rose.  Camellia and holly, viburnum and Liriope bask in the shade of a mature sand cherry. The rear garden gets structure and formality from the sentinel row of mature pencil holly. Well planned, perfectly executed. 

519 East Capitol Street SE

Perched at the intersection of 6th and East Capitol Street this garden is one that has matured into a whimsical juxtaposition of shapes and structure. Columnar euonymus wisp wildly at their tips, while pencil holies have been clipped like a retro high-top fade haircut of the eighties. The flagstone patios and paths intersect at various angles and the border of planters is eclectic and reminiscent of a collector’s specimen garden.  The dogwood adds an anchor to the brick and flag patio and the large maturing southern magnolia is tucked away on the side garden adding an area of dense shade to a sun-filled corner. Azalea and spiraea mix with dianthus and phlox to give textured variances. Japanese maples, roses and hyacinth bean vines gently push the bounds of the fence and add a welcome feel to a structured yet whimsical maturing corner garden. A garden that is both interestingly attractive and classically inspired.

1107 East Capitol Street SE

When a front garden has limited space the use of planters and containers add to what can be grown in an otherwise challenging space. When the planters break away from the utilitarian and become the design a challenging space is conquered.  This front garden has taken the cement stairs and lead walks’ heaviness and softened it by adding chunky planters overflowing with delicate caladium and ferns in an unexpected urban meets tropical splash of hotness. The results are welcoming and electric. This front garden is Capitol Hill charm meets New York City glamor.    

303 South Carolina Ave SE

Long front gardens can be challenging. Especially in Capitol Hill where the space is an oversized rectangle that many times gets over-planted in an attempt to hide the box.  Specimen gardens are difficult to execute and many times they can go really nursery tag sale-ish as the specimens compete offensively. Not the case of the garden at 303 South Carolina. The garden is a wonderful exercise in restraint and design. The flow is purposeful and the garden rooms break up the rectilinear space with an artistic ease. Evergreens are placed for prominence and structure. The Hydrangea adds an unexpected focal point while balancing the weeping spruce and Japanese inspired granite lantern. Large stones resemble a rockslide and the pom pom topiary’s precise pruning balances the drifts of color that are splashed throughout the garden. A chunky stone path and random river pebble garden round out the unexpected design elements that, through the right amount of restraint, have made this garden a showstopper.

154 11th Street SE

The corner of 11th and Independence is an interesting exercise in design individuality. The homes front is on 11th street and if it were not on the corner it would blend in with the rest of the block. However the Independence Avenue side of the home is the part where the house goes wonderfully rogue, breaking away from the safety of the block.  Two fabulous porches run the length of the house and give two unique perspectives to take in both the gardens and the Hill. The garden flows wonderfully back to a mature specimen crape myrtle. The flagstone path has a keyhole design that houses a focal urn. The roses and herbs, anemone and yews flow throughout the garden with ease. In this garden, plants fit in their spaces and their spaces are fitting for them. There is a comforting casualness and a maturity and strength that is often missed in a large wrap around garden. The stone and plant balance is correct and the movement of the design is impeccable. This garden is exciting in any season of any year. A true experiment into a gardener’s garden, very well done.  

Derek Thomas is principal of Thomas Landscapes. His garden designs have been featured on HGTV’s Curb Appeal, and Get It Sold. His weekly garden segment can be seen on WTTG/Fox 5 in Washington. He can be reached at www.thomaslandscapes.com or 301.642.5182.

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