Adrian Higgins: Vegetable Garden Returns to Dumbarton Oaks

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 15, 2009

The renowned garden at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown is celebrated as a work of art, the perfect union of landscape design, craftsmanship and horticulture.

I've felt for years, though, that the garden was missing one essential element: a vegetable garden. Happily, that has been fixed. A band of volunteers, with the staff gardeners, are reflecting on their first season of raising salad greens, beans, lettuces, tomatoes, okra and more in one of the garden's most serene spaces, a large terrace anchored by a pair of distinctive clay-tiled pavilions.

"It's not a part of Dumbarton Oaks that anybody really thinks about," says Mary Oehrlein, a preservation architect and one of the volunteer gardeners. "It was something productive as well as beautiful. It was nice."

The terrace was created in the 1920s as a kitchen garden. Soon after Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who had developed the garden around their imposing brick mansion off R Street NW, turned the property and their art collections over to Harvard University in 1940, the vast vegetable garden was deemed too labor-intensive to continue, seeing its swan song as a World War II victory garden.

This was not unusual. When so many old estates became house museums after World War II, the poor old, demanding vegetable garden was at the very bottom of the list of features to revive. Both Monticello and Mount Vernon were two obvious exceptions, where the kitchen gardens, or potagers, were seen as important elements to display and have been nurtured for years.

At Dumbarton Oaks, a number of factors came together to bring back the vegetable garden. An urban planner named Suzanne Allan asked Gail Griffin, the director of garden and grounds, if Dumbarton Oaks had a volunteer gardener program. It didn't, but Griffin set about establishing one that began in late spring of last year. Soon volunteers from the ranks of two dozen recruits began showing up on Saturday mornings to divide perennials, weed beds and do some light pruning. Over the winter, as the campaign to get a vegetable garden at the White House was in full swing, Griffin was reading a biography of Alice Waters, and the notion of reviving vegetable growing at Dumbarton Oaks "just kind of bubbled up," she said.

For years, the kitchen garden was a place to grow hundreds of chrysanthemums used in the garden for fall display, and most of it is still used for that purpose. The vegetable garden was created at the north end of the terrace, in nine rows each measuring four feet wide and 21 feet long.

The pavilions, with their distinctive bell-shaped roof lines, are modeled on 17th-century versions that the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand saw at a country house in Scotland.

The original enterprise "was a huge garden," said Oehrlein, typical of a large estate that employed a lot of people. "You couldn't go to the supermarket and buy your vegetables," she said. "If you didn't grow it, you didn't have it."

The downsized version, thus, was not an attempt to restore the garden to its 1930s heyday, a feat that would have been difficult not just because of its original size but also because of the paucity of planting records (in contrast with the decorative gardens). And yet, the effort was "reviving something that used to be there," says Oehrlein.

Emily Rogers, an intern who recently completed a master's degree in landscape architecture, spent the summer both working in the garden and researching its origins. It gained publicity in 1943 as a wartime victory garden. "We think 1944 was the last year vegetables were grown," said Rogers, who found a letter in which the research institution's first director wrote that "the expense and labor is not worth the return in kind."

This year's volunteers double-dug the beds in April, a labor-intensive technique that cultivates the soil down to about 24 inches, and found a welcoming sandy loam with traces of native oyster shells. They amended it with compost. Most of the vegetables excelled, in rows that included spring radishes followed by beets, peppers after peas, and a summer and fall harvest of garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, okra and beans.

Griffin found the fingerling potatoes "just wonderful." A quick crop of garlic proved a winner. Harvested in July, it can be planted in the spring or, better yet, the previous fall. "It was incredible," says Allan. "I love to cook, and I have never had garlic that fresh." The cucumbers got powdery mildew and the hornworms found the tomatoes, but on balance the first year was a resounding success. The produce was divided among the volunteers, staff and Dumbarton Oaks' private cafeteria.

Spurred by the first season's results, the gardeners have already put in fall and winter crops, including lettuce, spinach, chard, leeks and garlic. There are plans to add three more rows next year. The vegetable garden's return, albeit reduced from the original's harvest, "is wonderful," said Rogers. "There were a number of rewarding aspects to it. One was the involvement of the volunteers."

"It takes the property back into looking like an estate," said Griffin. "I hadn't anticipated that the functional look could be so appealing."

The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks are open Tuesday through Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. Admission is $8. Enter on R Street NW at 31st Street. Winter hours, from Nov. 1 to March 14, are 2 to 5 p.m., and admission is free.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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