20 Years of Capitol Hill Gardens

“A New Garden Ethic” by Benjamin Vogt offers a philosophical backbone to garden making.

I moved from Mount Pleasant to North Carolina Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets, just west of Lincoln Park, 20 years ago. Since then it’s been an honor to consult with about 200 Capitol Hill residents and see dozens of my garden designs installed by many local talented contractors and artists.

Much has changed since then. The Hill has noticeably gentrified, and the climate has become warmer and more erratic. We better understand our waters, including the Chesapeake Bay and our local rivers, and some important local and regional regulations and programs are in place to improve water quality, including DC’s Riversmart Homes.

Through technological advances like GPS, powerful cellphone apps and the proliferation of citizen science, we know more about ecology, which may be defined as “the scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interaction” (http://www.caryinstitute.org/). We know more about the critical relationship between pollinators and native plants, and how the ornamental plants we introduce into our gardens don’t or do foster positive interactions between other life forms – insects, fungi, birds, fish and mammals, besides ourselves.

As Benjamin Vogt (pronounced “vote”) writes in his new book, “A New Garden Ethic,” our gardens “cannot be solely or primarily for humans. We need places that provide habitat for people and other species so that we interact with wildness once again.” Vogt advocates gardens supportive of all life forms, both above and below the soil, including those we may not be aware of or know anything about.

Being Better Garden Consumers and Producers
Fortunately for clients of design services, the Hill and greater DMV have access to a large and highly educated design community that in some ways leads the nation in ecological landscape design and, more broadly, landscape architecture. Significantly, many of our local institutions are also national in scope, like the US National Arboretum, the US Botanic Garden, the American Horticultural Society and more. This brings tremendous resources into our local gardening community.

Today, more native plants are available at local garden centers including Frager’s and Ginkgo Gardens. We accept a more relaxed garden appearance, which provides better food and habitat for wildlife, and we plant ground-cover plants as a “green mulch” in place of mountains of mulch or crew-cut lawns. We have become aware of environmental impacts of harmful new insecticides like neonicotinoids (https://xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/).

With knowledge comes responsibility. For example, you may like the red berries of the Asian nandina, but knowing that they are harmful to cedar waxwings you may opt instead for the native winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), whose similar red berries offer better nutrition for birds, including the waxwing (http://nc.audubon.org/news/winterberry-%E2%80%93-irresistible-birds-and-people).

A new generation of garden books offer titles that speak to the big changes we have seen in nature around us. They include “Cultivating Chaos” by Jonas Reif and Christian Kress, “Garden Revolution” by Philadelphia designer Larry Weaner with Thomas Christopher, “Planting in a Post-Wild World” by DC area landscape architects Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Add to this list Vogt’s “New Garden Ethic,” which provides a deeply cultural and psychological exploration of the act of garden making against the backdrop of mass extinctions and likely irreversible climate change.

To the question, “Is it magical thinking to believe that our postage-stamp-sized urban gardens can have a positive environmental impact on a larger scale?” Vogt says, “not necessarily.” The author, a Ph.D. in creative writing, is walking his talk, leaving academia three years ago to start a natives-only residential garden design company. His fresh approach as an outsider dives deeply into our all-too-human reactions to frightening news about sea-level rise, bomb cyclones, wildfires and mudslides – we bury our grief.

Rather than brush aside this sadness, Vogt wants it to “quickly feed defiant compassion, to carry us into real, actionable solutions that radically and fundamentally change how and why we live on this planet. Let’s harness sadness to help us learn,” he urges. Seen this way, planting a garden becomes an existential declaration of solidarity with all life forms – a radical act.

Cheryl Corson (center) demonstrates singing bowls and forest bathing for the Capitol Hill Garden Club in November 2017. Teresa Speight is on the right. Photo: Capitol Hill Garden Club.

Vogt’s book is good early spring reading before you run to a local garden center or the annual plant sales at the National Arboretum and the American Horticultural Society’s River Farm, both in April. What you choose to plant matters. Vogt’s book leaves plant lists to others. What his book does is help wrap your head around the deepest meanings and functions of garden making and the status of the native/cultivar/non-native plant debate as discussed by many of the top players in the horticultural, design and environmental fields. He provides an environmentally ethical structure around which you can make informed decisions.

Vogt advocates both a top-down approach, challenging plant growers and retailers to make more responsible choices, and a bottom-up approach, speaking right to homeowners. He believes that gardens can “heal our broken bonds to nature and to one another. Gardens [are] activism as surely as any art form, and as surely as any mercy we might bestow on one another in times of sorrow or anger.”

Changing How I Work
This way to questioning the how and why of garden making has influenced my thinking and consequently the direction of the business I founded in 2003, Cheryl Corson Design. I will continue accepting a limited number of design commissions each year, while focusing more on writing, teaching and lecturing. After writing for the Hill Rag for 10 years, the last four of them monthly, I will appear as an occasional guest writer going forward.

When people learn I am a landscape architect they often smile and say how nice it must be to work outdoors. The reality is that most landscape architects like me spend an awful lot of time sitting behind a set of large double computer monitors, creating electronic drawings with complicated software. I have decided that it’s time to get back outside.

I am becoming a Peter Hess sound-massage practitioner (www.relaxwithsound.com) and will offer what are known as “sound baths” to individuals and groups, both indoors and outdoors, as a way of connecting with nature. This work will combine the Japanese concept of forest bathing, “shinrin yoku” (www.shinrin-yoku.org), with the beautiful sounds of therapeutic Peter Hess singing bowls which are handcrafted in India. We will also explore tree health and healing using methods taught by Dr. Jim Conroy, the “tree whisperer” (www.thetreewhisperer.com/about/professional-services/).

Most importantly, we will leave our flat screens to reconnect with the physical world and reawaken our senses. Gardens emerging from this way of being may be places of even greater delight to all living beings.

Online garden software and apps proliferate, and citizen science can help us map plant species and track things like water quality and butterfly migration. Let’s keep the best features of the internet but return to our gardens and wilder spaces beyond. If we do, a butterfly effect could occur – small changes resulting in large differences in a later state. Through our gardens we may actually change the world.


Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect and writer and a long-time dirt gardener. She is author of the “Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Manual for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” (2017). Keep in touch for gardens or sound massage at www.cherylcorson.com or 202-494-5054.