Great Gardens of Capitol Hill

Photograph By
Melissa Ashabranner, Derek Thomas, Dax Coley

903 9th St NE

The gardens in this year’s Best Gardens of Capitol Hill roundup are both a nod to the past, to give us a chance reflect on what garden grandeur is, and a look to the future, when garden plants are becoming chosen for water conservation and the busy lives of their owners. Traditional gardens are a Capitol Hill mainstay. Lush, overflowing gardens filled with winding, meandering pathways and well-thought-out elements, they create a sense of space and a reflection of time. They are the elegant gardens, whose contents are beautiful yet needy, grand in substance while desirous of lots of attention and almost constant care. Then there are the new, more minimalist gardens that take into consideration the strain that many of today's stressors have placed upon our desire to garden. Not to mention the gardener’s desire for a worry-free, clean, and self-sustaining plot of land. This year marks the 10th year of my reflections on gardens and the grandeur of Capitol Hill. So it is fitting that we reflect and look forward.

646 East Capitol St. NE

This garden is a lush reminder of times gone by. Rectilinear gravel paths create a grotto-ish effect. The perennials are well chosen for their lush, multi-textured, multicolored, intertwining foliage. The plantings are perfectly timed so that everything, from sweet woodruff to sage, thyme to woodland ferns, oak leaf hydrangeas to flowering trees, has its time and importance in this very well designed collision of sensual stimulations – like a paint chart where differing shades of green in their proper time will have floral effects exploding atop and ablaze in a showman’s show. This riot will last long into the summer, with each participant breaking way and giving props to yet another important showoff performer. The center urn takes us back to a time when gardens were the welcome mat of every home, and the brick walkway and brick defining border along the gravel path remind us of the time when carriages rode down East Capitol Street and folks … well they took the time to speak not into phones but to each other and admire and give praise to the Capitol Hill gardens and gardeners.

804 East Capitol St. NE

Discarding as an exercise many of the garden principles from the last century, but with sharp duality expertly mixing these very themes and the connectivity of gardening practices like a gardening savant, the garden comes forth with easy, stressless flow. The house has a very interesting side yard, while the front garden is wide and strapping. This double-wide front garden is built around an easily flowing, random stone path that winds through the front yard to the side and creates spatial relations for crape myrtles and English boxwoods. Prominence is achieved by a large Kousa dogwood that perfectly accents the strong white fence that runs east to west along the side yard and divides the garden’s public front from its private rear. The perennials are multiple: Euphorbia, coneflower, Mexican feather grass, Oriental lilies, alliums – a colliding, kaleidoscopic, Rembrandt-inspired tapestry. Traditional irises meet nontraditional creeping thyme, and drought-resistant succulents clashing with water-hungry columbine and sweet William make the mix sweet. The importance of this garden is in its study of a time when springtime walks meant more to us than the news of the most recent Metro train breakdown.

154 11th St. SE

Wow, wow, wow! Roses and barberry, clematis and primrose, a huge crape myrtle giving a grounding effect to the fabulous, two-story New Orleans revival side porch. The pathways combine seamlessly with the foundation evergreens, giving this garden prominence and importance in every season. Contrasting colors and eccentric, heterogeneous ease make this garden one to be remembered and to look forward to year after year. The roses sprawling over the fence take away the harshness of wrought iron and remind us why we love the history and allure of Capitol Hill. Add this to your garden walks from season to season, and the reasons why the Hill is dear to us all will be given the proper punctuation.

903 9th St. NE

This garden is a modern minimalist’s dream. The walkway is a unique take on a Celtic pattern; the brick wall is made from tumbled bricks that are intended to simulate an aged warehouse pattern. The wall was designed in a unique yet functional form. The center of the garden is home to a young dogwood, and at its base lie rows of Mexican feather grass, bookended Hinoki cypress planted to the southwest, and contorted filbert done in a red planter for just the right amount of pop. A wonderful rusted relief planter frames the two front windows right above the solitary ice cream table. The planter that divides and screens the neighboring property has beautiful purple grasses and trailing sweet potato vine. The planter adds whimsy with its letters and numbers, and there's an espaliered holly along the north fence. The black and blue sage is a welcome background for people and hummingbirds. A planter filled, indeed overflowing, with sedum is a pacesetter in this water-wise garden of the future. This garden’s beauty lies in its textured grasses, specimen evergreens, forgiving sedum, and unique square within a square flow: artistically done, water-wise, and forgivingly green.

1002 I St. NE

This is one of my favorite styles of garden. Mix in a little bit of this and a little bit of that and the garden becomes complete. Loads of annual color blend with just a pop of whimsy to give an easy flow. This unassuming gardener’s garden is a nod to the sprawling petunia-, geranium-, and coleus-filled gardens of the 1970s when we unabashedly and unashamedly planted annuals upon annuals, and each garden was another explosion of color without form, without rhyme, without reason, just joyous. “I think this was before reality TV started to tell us what to think.” The garden has an overgrown yet beautifully flowering sentinel of an old rose that is a perfect backdrop and screening to the front porch. The nondescript planter is filled with fun coleus and accenting pink petunias. The sprawling purple and white striped petunias form a lush, colorful, soft carpet. Nice. Very, very nice.

I look to the future, when water and other resources become ever more costly. Our gardens must change to meet this need. We must keep the past, love the present, and embrace the future. Gardens like life are in constant flux, and those that are remembered today will be cherished tomorrow. Keep gardening and never stop loving the craft of the garden. Enjoy.

1002 I St. NE.
804 East Capitol St. NE.
646 East Capitol St. NE.
154 11th St. SE.

Derek Thomas is principal of Thomas Landscapes. His garden designs have been featured on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal” and “Get It Sold.” As The Garden Guy, his garden segments can be seen on Fox Five. He can be reached at or 301-642-5182. You can find and friend him at Facebook/Thomas Landscapes. Follow on Twitter @ThomasGardenGuy for great garden tips.

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