Dani Alexander is the National Garden Club representative to the Friendship Garden. Read her account of volunteering to plant its newest iteration, designed by Phyto Studio.
At 9am, it was already sweltering at the United States National Arboretum Friendship Garden. I looked down at a flat of plugs of Viola sororia. The leaves were supple and tender, desperate for a drink. It was like looking in the mirror. I, too, was already drooping.
Claudia West, however, was like the pots of pink astilbe: bright, upright, smiling, and ready to get to work. A native of Germany and Principal of Phyto Studio, Claudia has a work-ethic and presence that inspires. I immediately perked up, excited to get fresh compost under my fingernails.
As a recent transplant to DC, a landscape architect with a nascent practice, and a new member of the Capitol Hill Garden Club, I am somewhat surprised to find myself in the position of being the new National Garden Club representative to the Friendship Garden. Until I arrived to volunteer with its replanting by Phyto Studio, I had yet to visit this garden. Its history is as rich as its soil. It is a National Garden Clubs project and began in 1989 intending to create a four-season interest garden that would appeal to the average homeowner. Initially designed by landscape architects Oehme Van Sweden, it marked a new era in planting styles, deploying plants in large drifts that required low maintenance.
The garden continues to be revolutionary in its current edition through Phyto Studio’s update. Claudia, with her two Partners Thomas Rainier and Melissa Rainier, promotes cutting-edge sustainable planting practices in several ways and have done so now for over a decade. In their book Planting in a Post-Wild World, Claudia and Thomas outline their philosophy of resilience through horticultural and design methodology, case studies, and planting recommendations. It is both a highly technical and expressive approach. Focusing on layers of planting and plant sociability, they construct gardens and landscapes that are balanced in their environmental and artistic performance. For each section of the Friendship Garden, a different composition of plants will suppress weed growth, adapt to microclimates and highly localized soil conditions, create habitat for pollinators, and provide color and sculptural interest for human visitors. Claudia takes an educational approach, and often directed us to take two seemingly similar cultivars to very different locations based on just a hint more shade or sun.
After our orientation to the planting operations, Melissa and Thomas joined the fray. The smiles on their faces reflected the joy of pleased practitioners watching their vision come to life. I know that joy well.
The number of species baffled. The volunteers and I often dashed back and forth with our noses to the ground, searching for not this cultivar of this species or that cultivar, but yet a different one entirely. As most were in their plug stage of development, with only an inch or two of baby leaves sprouting from their surface, they appeared identical to the untrained. And yet Claudia and Melissa seemed to know them like the faces of old friends.
At the end of our work, we marveled at the newest iteration of The Friendship Garden. All gardens are a process and labor of love, and so thus begins a new cycle of this one's life. All gardens need advocates as well, and I am sure, as visitors are entranced by the remarkable qualities of this garden, it will have many. I am thrilled to serve as one of its stewards in the coming years.