Reviving the Bishop’s Garden at Washington National Cathedral

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist July 10, 2013

In a corner of the Bishop’s Garden below the Washington National Cathedral, a yew tree is growing back from the shock of its life: Now just four feet tall and covered in fresh growth, it offers little apparent evidence of the trauma it faced in September 2011 when a crane toppled and smashed the yew and a great deal more.

The crane had been called in to make emergency repairs to the cathedral, badly damaged in a rare earthquake the week before. Now clothed in scaffolding, the Gothic landmark will take several years to repair.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

But for the garden, long cherished as one of the capital’s gentlest horticultural enclaves, the yew offers a symbol of recovery. This spring, three reworked subgardens were unveiled, including a space that had been lost for years to overgrown shrubbery; a key entrance was rebuilt; and the gardeners started replacing tired plantings.

The earthquake did little damage to the garden itself, but when the crane turned turtle days later, the boom smashed the Norman arch entrance and destroyed the old border trees that gave the garden its uppermost enclosure. The crane’s counterweights became airborne and landed on stone pillars and took out an old magnolia tree. The boom also smashed into Herb Cottage, formerly a gift shop for the garden’s stewards, the All Hallows Guild.

It was weeks before Joe Luebke, director of horticulture, and his crew could get into the garden. When they did, they found a landscape whose character had changed dramatically. No longer a place of enclosure and shelter, the Bishop’s Garden seemed to carry the whole weight of the battered cathedral now towering above it.

Cathedral stone carves have fashioned stone replacements for damages to the building from the 5.8 magnitude earthquake in the D.C. area from August 23, 2011. (Mike Ruane/The Washington Post)

The crane calamity capped a series of setbacks in the Bishop’s Garden, which was built and planted in the early 20th century as a private enclave for the bishop but soon opened to the public. Its designers, principally Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Frances Bratenahl, wife of the first cathedral dean, employed English boxwood and yew as green architecture and used early architectural elements, sculptures and other artifacts donated by George Gray Barnard, a medievalist whose collection furnished the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York.

The Bishop’s Garden has been a favorite of professional gardeners and landscape designers for a long time, because its intricate network of paths, resting points, framed views and changes of elevation combine all the attributes that make for a good garden.

If you are looking for inspiration to rework your own outdoor space, the Bishop’s Garden is the place to go, even in its afflicted state. Light, shade, mystery, enclosure, vistas, circulating paths — all these essential elements of garden design are here to please and instruct. The use of medieval structures and forms could become something ersatz, but they manage to rise above that. One of the sweetest corners of the garden is the Norman Court, whose intimate beauty includes a new stone-carved plaque of thistles in honor of the Scottish gardener here from 1961 to 1992, Peter McLachlan.

When I asked landscape architect Michael Vergason to reflect on the powers of the Bishop’s Garden, he gave me a list: “age, intricacy, detail, and there’s a certain ruinous quality about it. It has an ancient feel.”

To me, it has an ageless sense of early Christianity.

But old gardens need revitalizing, even without the trauma that visited this garden.

A few years ago, the original yew trees on the south side of the rose garden began to decline. This was a bit of a shock, because in the English churchyards that helped inspire the Bishop’s Garden, yews can live a thousand years. Then the boxwood that form the bones of the garden declined, too. English boxwood is valued for its billowing form, fine texture and sense of age, but it can be notoriously difficult and sickly, especially when planted in a hot, sunny site.

As hedges died back, Luebke had the soil tested and found high levels of a root pest called a nematode that was attacking the stressed shrubs.

In 2010, Snowmageddon dumped tons of snow on the garden, breaking up more of the boxwood. And for good measure, the garden’s long and showy perennial border was reaching the end of its natural life and in need of wholesale replanting.

Then came the earthquake and the toppling crane. “The Furies are here,” thought Luebke.

But the calamaties served as a catalyst for a rejuvenation that was already in an early stage: The cathedral and guild had engaged Vergason to rework the rose garden, whose rectangular lawn forms the central spine of the whole garden. At one end stood a medieval-style herb garden around an ancient font. At the other was a contemporary 1960s sculpture named “The Prodigal Son.” Members of the guild’s garden committee wanted to replace the sculpture with a 9th-century English cross — a wayside shrine for pilgrims — that had been placed near the perennial border.

In designing the move, Vergason and colleague Melissa Gildea reworked the bed receiving the cross to better define its floor plan, which mirrors the curved east end of the cathedral, the apse. Moving a tall, ancient carving required special bracing and another crane for its safe relocation. “You can imagine the angst of moving it,” said Peggy Steuart, chairman of the garden committee. As she saw it sway beneath the crane, “my blood pressure went up.”

“The Prodigal Son” was moved to a lower terrace, in a cozy corner sheltered by a large cherry tree that survived the misfortunes of a counterpart above that was felled by the crane.

One of the biggest changes to the Bishop’s Garden is an area once called the Memory Garden and rechristened as the Finial Garden. The snow has smashed the boxwood that filled this space: Vergason devised a small, stepped hillside enclave defined by a lawn. The focal point is the beaten-up finial that stood on the southwest corner of the Central Tower, toppled in the quake. As Vergason points out, if the Memory Garden needed something to remember, the quake presented it.

Luebke said he hopes to start the replanting of the perennial border this fall. Meanwhile, he has replaced ailing English boxwood with modern varieties developed to look like the classic box but with more vitality.

One of his favorites is called Green Beauty, an English box lookalike that grows to five feet after 20 years. He also replaced the huge old American holly near the Norman Court with a large specimen that itself was toppled in a storm last summer. It has since been replaced with a smaller American holly that will be allowed to develop a good root system before it grows large.

The unremitting calamities might force observers to think that Providence had it in for the Bishop’s Garden.

The cathedral vicar, Jan Naylor Cope, says she visits the garden when she can to decompress and soak up its meditative qualities. Rather than view the setbacks as a curse, she thinks of the events of 2011 as a kind of miracle. “If the earthquake had lasted 10 more seconds, the damage would have been monumental,” she said. “There were 300 people in the cathedral who got out.” No one was seriously injured when the 500-ton crane fell over.

The damage to the Bishop’s Garden “was like having a family member wounded,” she said. The battering, she said, reminds us of the imperfections of the world, but the destruction could have been far worse. “I consider all of that a miracle,” she said.

As all gardeners know, the act of gardening is an exercise in the future and, sometimes, a lesson in the limits of one’s own powers. As Luebke said, “It’s about faith, ultimately.”

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