The Gardener's Royal Plot
At the Ambassador's Residence, Jim Adams Prepares for the Queen

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

This is how you plant a tree for a queen: Measure the root ball carefully, drag the dead-weight bundle into its planting hole, cut back the wire basket holding the burlap, and leave just enough of the soil backfilling undone for the tree planting ceremony.

Jim Adams is preparing to do this for Queen Elizabeth II's impending state visit to Washington. The horticulturist at the eight-acre garden at the British Embassy residence will be on hand next Tuesday as Her Majesty symbolically installs a hybrid English oak on the south lawn. "She'll have some ceremonial soil throwing," he said, looking at the little orange flag that marks the tree's permanent home. "I'm not going to give her the bolt cutters and tell her to cut the basket off."

This may take a degree of self-control for Adams, who hates to see idle hands in the garden.

In the 18 months since he took charge of the garden around the stately redbrick palace by Sir Edwin Lutyens, Adams has set about revitalizing one of the highest profile gardens on Embassy Row. He has hired other gardeners, enlisted a cadre of keen-as-mustard volunteers, and set about imbuing his army of cultivators with energy and enthusiasm that are almost a match for his own.

A slight, boyish-looking native of Michigan, Adams is mindful of the iconic place of the garden in British mythology, and yet he is reviving a tired landscape in a way that is neither strictly British nor distinctly American. It is, however, entirely Jim Adams. His style is a Type A blend of organization and inspiration, and those who have seen Adams's work elsewhere have little doubt that the ambassador and his wife, Sir David and Lady Catherine Manning, have got themselves one helluva gardener.

"I think he's one of the best plantsmen in the country," says Derya Samadi, one of his assistants, "and they're lucky to have him here."

Adams, 40, is working furiously to prepare the garden for the royal visit. Any dead branches have been excised in recent weeks. A medlar fruit tree that blew over in a summer storm and refused to leaf out will be grist for the chipper before the official festivities are held. The cool and warm greenhouses are stuffed with perennials, annuals and tropicals that Adams and his staff have been nurturing through the winter; they will be used to decorate the garden, the residence and containers on the south-facing terraces of the residence portico.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip begin their official tour in Richmond on Thursday and conclude the visit May 8, hosting a dinner for President and Mrs. Bush at the residence. Monarch and consort will hold a Buckingham Palace-style garden party May 7 for embassy staff. The tree planting is scheduled for the next day.


Adams learned his gardening at Michigan State University and then interned at such horticultural jewels as the Chicago Botanic Garden, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., and the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. He worked at the National Arboretum for more than 12 years, the last nine as curator of the arboretum's central landscape attraction, the five-acre National Herb Garden.

In his own tiny back yard on Capitol Hill, he uses a warm microclimate and perhaps a little bit of global warming to try plants considered dangerously tender for the Washington winter, including hardier varieties of gardenias and palms.

He laughs when people ask whether he's trying to create an English-style garden in Washington. He is inspired by great gardens in North America and Britain, he says. What is left unsaid is the slim chance of someone so versed in his repertoire copying a given style or the work of another gardener or another age. In his hands, the National Herb Garden became a highly crafted cottage garden, with poppies and larkspur blooming with antique varieties of roses, among other attractions.

This is Adams's forte, says Andrew Bunting, curator of the Scott Arboretum. "A cottagey feeling but having tidy maintenance, which if you can pull it off makes for a very effective garden, and that's sort of the hardest type of gardening," says Bunting, who hired Adams as a curatorial intern in 1993.

Adams is not so much panicked by the royal visit as energized by it. "Jim feeds on that," says Bunting. "I don't think he's ever daunted."

In fact, the preparations are merely a blip in a much grander five-year plan that Adams has forged for the revitalization of a sprawling landscape. He takes pains not to criticize the work of his predecessors. Bunting says that "pre-Jim, it's a complete hodgepodge of not very well-executed gardens. You put them all together and it makes for an even more disjointed garden."

Adams spent much of his early tenure clearing out overgrown vegetation, including a far end of the property featuring a bamboo screen that had grown to cover a quarter of an acre. He has proven, if nothing else, that both running bamboo and ivy that is smothering old trees can be conquered if you have the will.

There is something ironic about Adams asking the Mannings if he can rid them of their English ivy, but this dull and old-fashioned ground cover has morphed into a monster in the mid-Atlantic region, as the birds spread the seeds into woodland where the vine becomes a serious weed. "The ambassador and his wife are very supportive of not displaying plants that are invasive," says Adams, who has also weaned the garden off its chemical dependencies. The ivy took over a secluded corner of the grounds dominated by four tulip poplars, now relieved of their ivy mantles. Adams waits for the severed, dead vines to fall on their own as he plans the creation of a natural-looking woodland glade of bulbs and perennials. Nearby, beneath a row of old yews, he plans a planting of snowdrops, cyclamen and other spring ephemerals.

On the west side of the residence, a formal path ends in a rose garden that Adams intends to replace with a decorative herb and vegetable garden. Everywhere he looks, he sees new opportunities. The dogwood allee needs freshening with a ground cover, a path needs to be established around the periphery of the property to bring some coherent circulation, a fishpond needs major reworking.

You get a sense that if Adams had a fairy-tale choice between being a prince and a gardener, the decision would be easy. At the arboretum he worked for the federal government; now he works for the British government and, by extension, for the queen. "I guess I have the best job in that government," he said. "I get to garden."

Sometimes with the boss.

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