Sure, the cherry blossoms are nice — a fleeting profusion of delicate pinkness — but aren’t they a bit tyrannical? When it comes to Washington flowers, the cherry blossoms tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room.
Susan Harris wants to spread the oxygen around.
“People just assume after spring there’s nothing to see,” said Susan, a retired garden writer and the organizing force behind DCGardens.com, a new Web site that promises to show what’s in bloom in the Washington area at various times throughout the year.
“The tag line is ‘Beyond the cherry blossoms,’ ” said Susan, who lives in Greenbelt (after gardening for years in Takoma Park).
DCGardens.com debuted last week. The site focuses on a dozen “destination gardens,” including such well-known spots as the National Arboretum, Dumbarton Oaks and Brookside Gardens, and lesser-known places such as the Franciscan Monastery and the Smithsonian’s collection of gardens. When the Web site is totally built out, it will have photos from each garden for every month.
“The idea is that if your mother’s coming to visit in September, here are things she might like to see,” Susan said. The site will also list garden-related lectures and other activities.
Susan said Washington’s gardens get short shrift. “In the East, the Philadelphia area is considered the mecca of American gardening, with Longwood and all the things the Duponts did,” she said. “Well, in D.C., we have gardens that compete with theirs.”
The problem, as Susan sees it, is that our gardens have to compete with so many other attractions — all those museums. Even many locals aren’t familiar with them.
“I think our gardens stack up amazingly well,” she said. “The real advantage — and shock to people from out of town — is that ours are free.”
The Web site is a work in progress and a largely volunteer effort. They still don’t have photos or videos of every garden for every month, something they’ll be busily compiling this year. (They’ve launched an IndieGoGo campaign in the hopes of raising $25,000 to hire a freelancer to keep the site updated.)
Susan knows from gardening. Growing up near Richmond, she watched as her grandmother and mother both coaxed beauty out of the raw earth. The DCGardens.com project has taught her a little something about marketing — and about the sort of photography her Web site needs to lure people.
“Close-ups don’t attract people to gardens,” she said. “We’re telling [photographers] don’t give us that stuff. What attracts people to gardens are longer shots that give you a sense of space. Showing visitors in the shots is a very positive thing.”
Susan found her photographers using a very simple method: Whenever she was in a garden and saw someone taking a picture with a big, expensive camera mounted on a tripod, she walked up and tried to recruit them. That’s how she found Damien Harvey, whose day job is making TV ads for politicians. Susan conscripted Damien in the fall after pouncing on him at the National Arboretum.
Damien told me he got into flower photography after getting sick of taking pictures of monuments. “You can only take so many of those,” he said. The Upstate New York native was drawn to the Arboretum because he needed a dose of autumn.
“Because I’ve always lived downtown in D.C., I never had a sense of fall, just kind of concrete and steel,” he said. Floral photography is “a wonderful way to get outside and to enjoy nature.”
Damien prefers tight close-ups of flowers, the kind of macro photography that reveals odd structures and abstract whirls of color.
“I have an older brother who’s a professional photographer,” Damien said. “He shoots in a journalistic style. If I asked him to take a picture of a flower, he’d barf.”
Damien is tasked with photographing Mount Vernon and Green Spring Gardens in Fairfax County. He knows he’ll have to change his painterly style.
“The hardest part is to take pictures that give the viewer a sense of what it looks like in its entirety,” he said. “That’s the thing that I’m working on this year with these pictures: How do you give a sense of perspective of a garden? How do you show someone a picture that makes it so interesting that they want to be there?”
And after all, that’s the whole point. Looking at a photo can only approximate the garden experience. With our long winter hopefully behind us, now’s the time to start planning a trip to Eden.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.