Gratitude for Gardens on the Hill

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Couvillion’s friends and family provide clippings for plants that she nourishes along with tropical plants and herbs.

November is a season of thankfulness and gratitude. As we harvest the last of the summer and fall crops, the colors and greenery give way to falling leaves and more monotone colors. It is a chance to see the bones or structure of our gardens and be thankful for all the beauty the garden has given us over the year.

Gardens on the Hill come in different styles. There is the formal English or Victorian style. Think boxwoods and geometric designs with flowers. Then we have the cottage style full of black-eye Susans, oak leaf hydrangeas, hostas and herbs. There are tropical gardens and what I call organic natural gardens. All together, they make the Hill one of the most charming neighborhoods in DC.

Brandi Couvillion, here with her dog Chablis, has created a garden that encourages friends and neighbors to stop and sit awhile in the verdant green space.

For some people planning a garden, the best option is to hire a professional landscaper or horticulturist. Collaborating with the homeowner, the professional develops a plan and, in just a few days, turns over the soil and plants thousands of dollars’ worth of trees, shrubs and flowers. These gardens tend to be more formal and are often stunningly beautiful.

But some properties, often rental ones, feature a more naturalistic design, with different layers developed over time. These gardens can range from an artless jumble to a well-thought-out look. Seats and tables may be carefully placed to encourage friends and neighbors to stop and enjoy the informal space.

Over the years, two dazzling organic gardens have evolved on the Hill at a rental home on North Carolina Avenue SE and at an apartment building on 12th Street SE near Lincoln Park. Tended by the residents of the buildings, the gardens started out with bare soil and a handful of ivy or struggling rosebush plants.

New Orleans Charm

The garden began as a patch of dirt and grass five years ago. Photo: Archives of the building

The first organic garden is in the 900 block of North Carolina Avenue SE. It is hard to miss the house, as it is painted an unusual olive green and yellow. It rests on a typical Hill lot with a long front yard. Brandi Couvillion, her husband and their 15-year-old dog Chablis have lived in the multi-unit home for the past four years. Couvillion moved here from New Orleans, leaving behind a rambling Victorian home and garden.

She first gardened in the back of the house. But two years ago, the family moved to the top floor and lost access to the back. Not to be deterred, Couvillion gained access to the front garden. “I wanted to create a space that people would like to congregate in,” she says. The front garden space has two sitting areas, one around a firepit and the other with café-style table and chairs. “I am looking forward to the cooler weather when we can get out and use the firepit.” 

Yellow mums and native grasses are surrounded by pots of herbs and asters.

“As a renter,” Couvillion remarks, “I haven’t wanted to invest much money into the space, but I still want to have a special space with some character.” She uses pots, including the plastic pots the plants arrive in. “I have over 50 plants in my apartment,” she explains, “so my better pots are inside.” She is a believer in generational gardening, taking cuttings from family and friends, growing the plants and sometimes returning new cuttings to the original donor. It is an inexpensive way to have many great plants and bring a feeling of home to your garden.

Couvillion, a jewelry artist at the Torpedo Factory, has a mantra, “Jewelry weaving the poetics and place with the fabric of time.” This philosophy is reflected in her organic garden, full of rosemary, ivy and tropical plants. She regards the garden as meditative, a place to quietly putter around. “I grow my herbs from seeds,” she says, “because I love to see the life of a tiny plant take off.”

Each side of the apartment building’s gardens has a different feel and character, reflecting the gardeners’ personalities.

A Garden Collection of Pots

A second organic garden is a few blocks away at the 50-unit apartment building off Lincoln Park on 12th Street. It is blessed with several active gardeners, who tend to a double garden separated by the sidewalk and stairs leading to the front door. The residents have even brought flowers and herbs to the fifth-floor rooftop, where the view of the city is breathtaking. The gardens have a variety of shrubs and plants, while magnolia trees provide shade.

The current garden began five years ago with a volunteer who had previously had an active container garden but had not actually worked with plants in the soil. A second gardener, Rose Marie Althuis, joined the effort after she moved from Connecticut. “I had a very large garden in my previous home,” says Althuis, “and really missed getting out gardening. So, I was thrilled to be given permission to help with the front garden.”

Besides the many hours the volunteers give, they purchase all the plant material and pots themselves. Both gardeners say they garden out of love and as a peaceful escape.

Rose Marie Althuis is one of several gardeners working to bring color and life to the front of their 12th Street SE apartment building.

The garden has come to feature a plentiful array of pots. Althuis says that the pots help get around the awful clay soil. When she started to garden here, she thought a young man in the area could help her turn the soil over, but even with his help it was a challenge. Thus the pots. Frager’s brings the larger pots to Althuis, who does not own a car. The garden is full of potted plants with other plants like mums and hydrangeas in the ground.

The potted plants can be easily moved around, trial and error style, until they find the right spot. Sometimes a plant might need different light or would look better nestled with another plant and needs to be moved. Besides the flowering plants, the gardeners put in kale, cherry tomatoes, grapes and herbs. They like to experiment with plantings to keep the garden fresh with something new each season.

Althuis relies on her gardening experience growing up on a farm in Michigan and her time spent cultivating a large garden in Mystic, Connecticut. “I am adjusting to the more southern climate of DC,” she says, “which is fun because the weather is milder and I can try many more plants.” The television show “Gardeners World,” produced by the BBC and shown in the US on Amazon Prime, has been helpful as well.

If you look closely, you will find that this organic garden is full of little surprises. It is a great example of a community effort driven by people who love to garden. It is a gift not just to the apartment dwellers but to the entire neighborhood.

Variety is the spice to our lives. And these wonderfully unique gardens reflect Capitol Hill’s embrace of the personal styles of many kinds of gardeners. We are blessed to be surrounded by such variety.

Rindy O’Brien’s own garden is a mix of formal and cottage. Contact Rindy at rindyobrien@gmail.com.