Correction to This Article
A Sept. 30 Style article and graphic on the new National Garden on the Capitol grounds misstated the name of the sponsor of the site's Butterfly Garden. The funds were raised by National Garden Clubs Inc. and its affiliated local clubs and members.

National Garden Blooms At Last

(Melina Mara - Twp)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

Washington awakes today to a brand-new attraction on the edge of the Mall, a three-acre celebration of American horticulture called the National Garden. A more fitting name, perhaps, might be the jack-in-the-box garden -- it appears to have sprung from nowhere.

The first privately funded project on the Capitol grounds, the $11.5 million attraction occupies what was the last unused parcel of land on the north side of Independence Avenue. It is next to the U.S. Botanic Garden's conservatory and across Third Street SW from the National Museum of the American Indian.

The garden functions as an outdoor annex to the conservatory, and its features include a formal rose garden; an ornate, submerged mosaic; and a sophisticated display of rare native flora from the mid-Atlantic region.

Its completion has been under wraps, and few outside a small circle of donors and dignitaries realized it was about to open. The fence screening was removed midday yesterday after a private ceremony in which first lady Laura Bush cut a ribbon. Other private events have been staged this week, but reporters were not given an official tour until yesterday afternoon. It opens officially tomorrow, although the Botanic Garden will unveil the new garden for a family festival today that is open to everyone.

The gyrations over its birth, however, are nothing compared with its tortured gestation. Almost 20 years in the making, the project has had its share of setbacks, including sluggish fundraising, the death of the director of the nonprofit group established to raise money for the garden, the loss of one of its leaders, Teresa Heinz (to husband John F. Kerry's presidential campaign), engineering challenges created by the site's location above the I-395 tunnel and costly delays associated with post-9/11 security requirements.

The garden's origins date to 1986, when Mary Johnston, wife of then-Louisiana Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, succeeded in getting Congress and the president to declare the rose as America's national flower. She had been appalled by a move to bestow that honor on the marigold.

Johnston then recruited Heinz and B.A. Bentsen, wife of then-Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, to push for a rose garden next to the Botanic Garden, which grew into the idea of a National Garden in which the rose garden would be one element.

The biggest hurdle was a funding shortfall of several million dollars. In a watershed moment three years ago, the design and construction team, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman and trustees of the National Fund agreed to trim costs by eliminating a proposed building called the environmental learning center, fancy paved paths and other infrastructure, and to build the cheaper version in phases.

This, in turn, coincided with fresh leadership for the fundraising group -- Leone Reeder, a leading light in the garden club movement, and Jim Hagedorn, head of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. The revitalized project attracted major donations from Deere & Co., the Kluge Foundation and others to allow the completion of most of the garden, including the First Ladies Water Garden and the Regional Garden of native flora.

"It's been quite an odyssey," said Hantman.

So what's the garden like? With so many disparate elements and players in the design (including the three winners of an early design competition), its biggest challenge, arguably, is in maintaining a clarity of vision.

The entrance from Independence Avenue presents the visitor with a broad avenue of American hornbeam trees that, in time, will be clipped to form an imposing tunnel. This takes you past the rose garden, beautifully executed but truly a horticultural period piece rooted in the 19th century and the notion that stiff modern rose bushes needed to be grown in isolation. Turn left by a ceremonial lawn and past some unfamiliar but handsome conifers -- pond cypress, the more attractive cousin of the bald cypress -- and you get a sense that there is a level of horticultural deftness to the entire garden. The First Ladies Water Garden is an eye-catching terrace in which granite mosaics submerged in water have been formed into motifs recalling quilt patterns familiar to Martha Washington. But the patterns of the granite and the sound of water in a sunken terrace recall too the idea of a Persian garden, an interesting concept given current U.S.-Iranian relations.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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