Great Capitol Hill Gardens

Variety and contrasts are at home on Capitol Hill

Combined and individually, 12 and 14 Fifth St. NE, work together.

The Two-for-One Garden Is a Study in Bipartisanship
Two properties at 12 and 14 Fifth St. NE have made a practical practice of the old saw of making lemons out of lemonade. There is one entrance from the street to the properties. This brick walkway that divides in front of the two houses giving the residents separate access to their homes. This is perhaps the only area that splits in this garden.

The garden is a study in yin and yang, balance and counterbalance. It is a true study in collaboration and compromise. An exercise and experiment in what works, what works well, and what can be mixed and blended yet still keep its own distinctiveness and prideful vigor.

There are many things in this garden that should not work, yet they do. A frighteningly gray yet starkly beautiful eucalyptus pops up behind a classic iron urn. The urn is filled with coreopsis and creeping Jenny. The creeping Jenny has spilled out of the urn and now threatens to overtake the stone pathway. A stone pathway that leads to nowhere yet amazingly adds function and form in an otherwise random display of garden chaos.

The begonias struggle to frame perennials that stretch and push and by their very nature are frameless and unruly. Hydrangeas strive for prominence while azaleas refuse to let go. Viburnum and camellia wait in the wings, tall yet not imposing but always demanding of a gardener’s attention.

A false cypress jumps out of a bed of dwarf Mondo grass, creating a contrasting view to the low yet impressive show of the dark green grass. Coneflower forms an enveloping skirt around the base of a classic rose, whose loud swan song reminds us that all summers must turn to fall and that all gardens have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Planters are placed along pathways less for their beauty than for the importance of their presence. They remind us of mobility and a plant’s ability to adapt to external influences while maintaining its true form and function in a foreign place.

A dogwood grows in the shadows of a larger tree and in front of the obligatory garden bench. Not the best place for a young tree, however, for this tree has started to lean and grow toward the light instead of living in the shadows of its less-than-perfect garden space.

Petunias race across the ground in a competition against themselves, their only desire being to bloom unchecked till the first freeze. They are quite the showoff of the plant world but rarely ever harmful to their fellow plants.

This garden mixes in a little bit of everything, then adds a touch of magic that explodes across a gold tapestry of joint addresses, mixed mindsets, and multiple strong opinions. It occupies a space that though closed in and compromised is filled with kinship and grace, a lesson perhaps best delivered to and learned by our Capitol Hill policymakers. Good show.

Front view of 600 6th St. SE

Kaleidoscope Garden Where the Edge Is Not Always at the End
600 Sixth St. SE is a garden that is a study of gardens. Principles and ideas blend to make a splish-splash, combo-pack garden whose ideas should not function together yet do. Brick walkways sway and bend, not taking a formal approach, forcing visitors to meander into this slice of Alice’s garden.

Stones and hardscape carry this garden to a place that is dangerously close to the brink, then snatch it back to showcase yet another element of beauty and grace. The mature magnolia fills the Sixth Street side of the house and dwarfs the understory garden. Its gray trunk demands calmness in a garden filled with kaleidoscope colors of red, pink, white, and green.

Spent candytuft softens the stone borders, and lace leaf maple stretches away from a shrub rose. A variegated American holly collides with a white hydrangea to soften the corner of the intersection of Sixth and Independence. A deciduous hibiscus hangs its dinnerplate-size blooms over the pointed pickets of an historic Capitol Hill iron fence, softening the sharp lines while daring to upstage its only supporter if only for a fleeting moment. Ice plant and dianthus crawl and infiltrate the spaces between the rocks.

Geraniums and other annual flowers make sure there’s connection between the flowering seasons of each individual perennial, adding a connection to the blended bloom power for the garden. A tall cypress flanking the door adds asymmetrical beauty to the garden’s randomness. Hydrangeas, liriope, arborvitaes, shrub roses, and a towering Hinoki make the neighboring home disappear and force you to go back and see what you have missed in this magically unexpected garden. Blending the unexpected.

A Tree Does Not Grow on the Corner of Ninth Street SE
A tree box at Ninth and South Carolina Avenue SE is an unexpected look at what neighborly effort can produce. In the shadows of one of the early and controversial condo converts on Capitol Hill – during the early 90s, when no one could believe a developer was actually going to convert a church into condos and have folks buy them – grows a micro garden that is a tribute to the resilience of the Hill. Flowers fill a space where foot traffic and pup paws most likely interlope on a regular basis.

This garden is an experiment with a lesson in survivorship. A honey, it stops the car. I have to catch a picture of it. The coneflower and Russian sage collide and climb upon each other in a display of beauty and grace. They have demonstrated strength in numbers and unity to create a fortress of beauty and grace in a space where most folks are at a loss to make even monkey grass grow. Resilient yet showy.

A welcoming garden with elegance and function at 900 East Capitol Street.

An Exercise in Showmanship
The garden at 900 East Capitol St. NE sprawls and wraps around a magnificent home. It is meticulously cared for and caringly maintained by Capitol Hill gardener Leslie Sharp. The garden has a lawn that unifies the spaces. The shrubs, laid out as a perimeter garden, accentuate the repetition of texture and color.

The fountain is magnificent and helps to ground the grandeur of the home to the garden. Crape myrtles add a distinctive pop of color and a nod to everything summer in Washington. Statues, juxtaposed into the garden’s borders, are not overwhelming. Instead they add a bit of balance to the gentle landscape. A gem magnolia creates a balance and reduces the forebodingness of the entry.

Well done and beautifully maintained, a gem on East Capitol Street and a restrained example of how well-executed design can be your most elegant welcome mat. Showy without the fussiness.


Derek Thomas, “The Garden Guy,” principal of Thomas Landscapes, is an accomplished garden designer. His designs have appeared on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal” and the DIY Network; his garden segments can be seen on YouTube. He has contributed garden segments to Fox5 in Washington and is a contributor to the Smithsonian’s garden programs. Reach him at or 301-642-5182. Find and friend us on Facebook at Facebook/Thomas Landscapes. Follow us on Twitter @ThomasGardenGuy for great garden tips.