The Washington Post
Best gardens photo
(Lilypons Water Gardens by Katherine Frey/The Post)

Best gardens

Amy Orndorff  |  Updated 09/17/2012

There are few better places to truly lose oneself than in the Washington area's amazing gardens. You may have gone past the signs indicating where they are, but do you actually stop to smell the roses? Perhaps it's time. View photos of the top gardens


Brookside Gardens

Wheaton, MD

Founded in 1969, the gardens mix perennial favorites (tulips, azaleas, roses) with newer gardening innovations (rain gardens, nature walks).

Brookside's first landscape architect, Hans Hanses, came from Germany and adored the hardscapes of the time. This design is represented in the Trial Garden, which has raised brick beds and is near the conservatories. He eventually created a Japanese-style garden forming rolling hills and an island.

More modern additions include a rain garden, labyrinth and bald cypress grove. Another newer feature is the Woodland Walk, a boardwalk that meanders around the outer edge of the park so visitors can pass through the native flora in its natural setting.


Ladew Topiary Gardens

Monkton, MD

The Ladew Topiary Gardens, just north of Baltimore, have been named "the most outstanding topiary garden in America" by the Garden Club of America and have been featured on the pages of Vogue and the Anthropologie catalogues.

All of the grandeur -- more than 150 living sculptures, 15 garden rooms, a swimming pool -- of this unique garden could come only from an equally unique man.

Harvey Ladew spent his exorbitant wealth traveling the world, throwing lavish parties and generally living large among friends who included Charlie Chaplin, Cole Porter and Somerset Maugham.

Drawn by its fox-hunting scene, Ladew moved in 1929 from Long Island to Maryland, where he bought the 250-acre estate and eventually created the extensive gardens.

Take note of the fox-and-hounds topiary between the parking lot and garden entrance. When on a fox hunt in England, Ladew saw something similar and committed himself to re-creating it at his marvelous estate.


Green Spring Gardens

Alexandria, VA

If a little education could help turn your brown thumb green, find a class that fits your needs here. From sessions on container gardens to landscaping with shade-loving plants, there is instruction for all interests and ages.


River Farm

Alexandria, VA

Once owned by George Washington, the mansion and its grounds are set on a bluff overlooking a meadow that leads to the shores of the Potomac River. Perhaps the most popular nook on River Farm's lush 25 acres is the children's garden. As visually beautiful as a garden for grown-ups and as interactive as a playground, juice box-toting tots can spend afternoons squirming through the "Bat Cave," playing house in the Little House on the Prairie Garden and getting lost in the maze garden while parents picnic nearby.


Oatlands Plantation

Leesburg, VA

An immediate standout for its striking view of Bull Run Mountain, the Oatlands Historic House and Gardens was once the home of the prominent Virginian plantation owner George Carter and his family.

Don't miss the banana trees. Seemingly out of place, the trees are period appropriate in the second oldest greenhouse in the country.

What might surprise some visitors is the number of sculptures in the gardens, thanks to David Finley, the first director of the National Gallery of Art, who married one of the Eustis daughters.

Each terrace is lovely in its own way, and the best way to take it all in is to walk counterclockwise around the outer edge of the gardens. As you venture down the stone stairs, to your right are themed beds of yellow and red; to your left, boxwood parterres stretch the length of the terraces. At the bottom of the terrace is a boxwood parterre that serves as an aisle when the estate hosts weddings.

Head back up the hill to a tea house that has one of the most picturesque views of the grounds. In one direction you see the mountains and, to the other, an expansive bowling green ending in a reflecting pool.


U.S. Botanic Garden

Washington, DC

Tucked away in a back corner of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory, America's 50th state is represented in all of its blooming glory. Unlike any other ecosystem on the mainland, Hawaii's flora is made up of rare and endangered plants you can find only on the islands -- and in this collection. The exhibit even has a mock lava flow.


Constitution Gardens

Washington, DC

Constitution Gardens is easy to miss if you are heading to the Mall's bigger and better-known monuments and memorials. But this little island holds a subtly beautiful shrine to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Each signer, grouped by home state, is represented by a stone inscribed with his signature, occupation and city of residence.


National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and Ice Skating Rink

Washington, DC

Every Friday evening in the summer the sounds of jazz can be heard coming from the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. The concerts bring in top jazz names (last year included Chuck Redd and Origem) and this year kicks off with the Tom Principato Band on May 25. Although you can't bring alcohol in, drinks are served within the garden.


Folger Shakespeare Library

Washington, DC

Knot gardens -- short, well-trimmed plants that form a geometric design -- were especially popular during the age of Queen Elizabeth I, and it is easy to see why they continue to be installed in modern gardens. The Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Garden has a perfect example, made ever more special by the fact that its plants are mentioned in Shakespeare's works or were popular during his time.


Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

Washington, DC

When setting up her grand gardens at Hillwood, Marjorie Merriweather Post saw each themed space as an outdoor room, an extension of her lavish mansion. Directly outside her front door is the Lunar Lawn, which Brian Barr, director of horticulture there, calls "the greatest of the great rooms." Thousands of seasonal flowers line the edge of the crescent-shaped space that offers unparalleled views of the Washington Monument.

The grandiose greenery includes a rose garden (designed by Perry Wheeler, who had a hand in the White House Rose Garden), an 18th-century-style French parterre -- the formal low-growing garden with walls of English ivy, boxwoods and a water feature in the center, separated by gravel paths -- and even a putting green.

Not to be missed is the Japanese-stylegarden. Perfect for a lovely stroll, the garden features a babbling brook and mimics a Japanese mountainside with pines, maples and azaleas.


National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Washington, DC

Chaucer called the Virgin Mary "the flower of flowers," so it is only fitting that a garden for her here is filled with plants associated with her, whether by name (pansy is "Our Lady's Delight"), color (white camellias for her purity) or legend (bleeding heart).


Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Vienna, VA

Lovers of all things local will take a shine to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. Visitors can explore the regional highlights in the Potomac Valley Collection, walk along the Virginia Native Tree Trail and take a seat in the Hillside Gazebo, which is surrounded by native shrubs.


Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Washington, DC

Here, bald eagles rule the sky, waterlilies of all colors and sizes blanket the ponds and dragonflies flitter about. This is the National Park Service's only space dedicated to cultivating water-loving plants.

The ponds feature hearty waterlilies, lotus and tropical waterlilies. The waterlilies usually begin blooming in mid-May and are followed by the lotus (mid-June) and the tropical waterlilies (mid-July).

The park's more than 30 acres of freshwater tidal marsh teem with rich wildlife. The ecosystem, rich with plants and wildlife, is especially popular for bird watchers. The osprey is one of the many birds that can be spotted, especially in the summer and fall, and one of the few that has been confirmed as nesting in the park. Songbirds, beavers, turtles and butterflies all call the area home.


London Town and Gardens

Edgewater, MD

This garden's exceptional peony collection is diverse in its forms and colors. The show runs from late April through June.


Gunston Hall Plantation

Mason Neck, VA

Libraries have nothing on the grounds at Gunston Hall if you crave a silent place to relax with a book. Benches abound under shady magnolia trees, on the viewing mounts that overlook the Potomac River and even near the cemetery. Best times to get a little peace and quiet? Weekday afternoons after school groups have left.


Enid A. Haupt Garden

Washington, DC

A visit to Washington isn't complete without a walk through all the Smithsonian museums, but the experience really begins just outside the museums' doors. The landscaping is created so the outside is as informative as the inside. For example, the National Museum of American History features an heirloom garden and victory garden. Perhaps the most lovely are the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden and the Enid A. Haupt Garden, both of which host weekly tours from May through September.


U.S. National Arboretum

Washington, DC

The National Arboretum packs thousands of trees in its 446-acre campus in Northeast. Among the mammoth trees are some smaller, but no less spectacular, specimens. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is home to more than 150 trees that have been tamed over decades (in some cases, centuries) of maintenance to invoke natural settings in miniature.


Mount Vernon

Alexandria, VA

While digging through diaries of people who visited Mount Vernon in George Washington's time, Dean Norton, the director of horticulture, found that four things were typically mentioned: what they ate, whether they met the general, the breathtaking view of the Potomac River and the posh landscaping. It is easy to see why the last item made the list when you visit the upper garden. Painstakingly restored by Norton and his crew, visitors can admire the fleur-de-lis-shaped boxwoods and observe the annual and perennial flowers that made up Washington's garden.


Lilypons Water Garden

Adamstown, MD

With its pastoral setting and countless ponds, Lilypons Water Gardens is more than a market for waterlilies, lotus and bog plants; it is a destination for picnickers, birdwatchers and people looking for a pleasant stroll. It is 250 acres of greenery, with 80 percent of the plants they sell grown in-house. The lilies usually have their peak bloom all summer -- Memorial Day through Labor Day -- but with the warm winter, experts say they won't be surprised if it arrives early


Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Garden

Washington, DC

Dumbarton Oaks has a rich history of bringing contemporary art into its gardens, and the latest installation by Xavier Perrot and Andy Cao truly sparkles. "Cloud" is a mammoth, Swarovski crystal-dripping display in the Arbor Terrace that drapes over a reflecting pool and resembles an abstract chandelier. Passersby can stand under the creation and watch as the light catches each drop, with dazzling results.


Tudor Place Historic House and Garden

Washington, DC

There's perhaps no better place to stop and smell the roses than at Tudor Place Historic House and Garden. The Japanese Tea House is next to the Rose Arbor, which features yellow roses.


Glenview Mansion

Rockville, MD

Before 1975, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were buried in Rockville Cemetery, behind Glenview Mansion. (They are now buried in Rockville's St. Mary's Cemetery.) A Gatsbyesque air surrounds the mansion and its grounds, and it is easy to imagine the six-acre space, with its formal garden, bowling green and ornate rose garden, playing host to raucous parties.


Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

Winchester, VA

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley 's Glen Burnie Gardens is home to three allees -- long hallways that connect one landscape to another with trees or tall shrubs as walls. The Grand Allee is particularly interesting because the trees at one end were planted closer together, tricking the eye into thinking that the allee is longer than it is.


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