Update on Friendship Garden

Contributed by Ellen M. Spencer,

Chairman 2001-2015

June 2015

When NGC considered completing the area around Arbor House, they felt that it was important to keep within the same landscape genre.  OvS was approached and agreed to develop the garden addition in the style that now had become their trademark.  The garden was funded by donations from all 8 regions of NGC.  Benches commemorating those regional donations were placed throughout the garden.  A utility shed (so attractive that it was almost immediately termed a pavilion) was constructed for the protection of gardening tools and umbrellas.  Signage on that building gives the history and mission of NGC as well as the composition of the NGC regions.  The garden also includes one of only four sculptures at the USNA.  Split Ritual, by Beverly Pepper, who still creates magnificent pieces of art despite her advancing years, is a handsome focal point. Although it does not represent anything so mundane, visitors like to think it replicates four iron garden tools!  They are all 10 ‘ tall, however.


Former NCAGC President and NGC Central Atlantic Regional Director, Gene Miller, chaired all the funding for the garden.  She arranged to withhold a substantial portion for maintenance, including the cost of a summer intern working in the garden 2 days per week.  The maintenance fund that she established was transferred to NCAGC to manage in 2006, because in part, of its proximity to the garden.  As we know, gardens are not static.  Some plants/shrubs/trees grow faster than others and soon where once there was sun, there is now shade.  Some specimens, despite an attempt to plant in ideal conditions, actually react poorly to the environment or get overtaken by fast-growing neighbors.  


In short, 25 years later, Friendship Garden is looking tired, sparse and even somewhat neglected. Three years ago NGC and NCAGC agreed to budget $135,000 to update/renovate the garden.  To keep the integrity of Friendship Garden, OvS was again contacted and after three long years a plan is approved with the hope planting will start at the end of the summer with the completion date estimated to be “before frost”.


This new garden will have many more sun-loving plants than the original garden.  It will also

incorporate more native shrubs and pollinators.  The emphasis will still be on sustainability and low maintenance, so that the visitor can use the suggested plant material with ease in his or her own garden.  Watch The Capital Gardener for periodic news and details of the final completion.


Donations (particularly memorials and honorariums) are encouraged to offset accelerating replacement and maintenance costs.

Friendship Garden is the one-acre garden located beside and behind Arbor House.  It was a National Garden Clubs project, starting in 1989 and completed in 1991.  Three years earlier the garden in front of Arbor House had been the joint project of the Arboretum and the landscape architecture firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates (OvS).  Its design was unique for the time in that it utilized masses and sweeps of plant material and required only minimal care.  The philosophy was to create a garden that would appeal to an average homeowner with limited time and resources.  Plants included were relatively available, did not require staking, spraying and deadheading, and were attractive 12 months of the year. Jim van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme became famous for this type of design, labeled the New American Garden.

Chapter I:  History of

Friendship Garden

   Specifically herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses, evergreen ground covers, and small shrubs and trees (over 200 varieties in all) were chosen for all-season interest.  Local nurseries and suppliers provided the plants below cost.  Planting was in the New American style for which Oehme, van Sweden is famous.  Masses in drifts and waves were used to replicate a naturalistic look and to highlight the diversity of plant material.   Under plantings of 30,000 spring flowering bulbs, donated by the Dutch Gardens of the Netherlands and the Daffodil Mart in VA made the garden even more spectacular.   Two ribbons of turf grass encourage the visitor to leave Arbor House’s stone patio and explore the length of the garden borders.

   Since its inception $250,000 has been raised for the garden.  In addition to the plant material, teak garden benches (one for each NGC region), teak patio furniture and market umbrellas have been added to entice visitors to stop, sit and reflect.  Donations continue to this day and are placed in an interest bearing account at NGC headquarters. The yearly interest from this fund pays for maintenance by a part-time garden intern, working in close association with Lynn Batdorf, the curator.   The landscape architects have donated their time and expertise since the beginning, returning each year to survey the project and suggest improvements.

   Friendship Garden, located on two acres to the left and rear of Arbor House, has become a popular destination for NCAGC members, the Arboretum staff and the tens of thousands of Arboretum visitors each year.  Next time you visit the Arboretum for a Council, District or General Meeting make it a point to enjoy some time in Friendship Garden.  It is our jewel in the Arboretum crown.      

      She converted to iron as her medium of choice, because the weathered finish conveyed a natural, earthy feeling.  She began enlarging her sculptures, giving her strong elemental, monumental shapes a decided linear quality.   Those qualities, combined with an emphasis on the textural quality of the piece, are all present in Split Ritual.

     Ms. Pepper’s works have been shown in museums, galleries and public sites in the U.S. and throughout Europe.  She is represented in the major collections of governments, universities, corporations and private citizens the world over.

     Whether you are sitting on the patio behind Arbor House or are rounding the corner from the side gardens, Beverly Pepper’s handsome sculpture makes a statement.  It was installed in 1992 and is located on a grassy hill, some distance from the end of the perennial borders.  There are four distinct shapes, each 10 feet high, forming the sides of an 8 foot square and connected by an iron base.  While not intended to replicate anything specific, many believe the ductile iron shapes represent large versions of sculpting tools.  The artist preferred to view them as totemic sentinels forming a spiritual altar.  It was a way of expressing her belief that the human spirit will prevail despite the threat of nuclear and racial holocausts.  It is a philosophy to which all of us can relate after September 11th.

Chapter II: Split Ritual

    Those initially involved with Friendship Garden felt that the space demanded an important piece of sculpture.  Gene Miller (Friendship Garden Chairman 1989-2001) and her committee reviewed possible designs through the research of Jim Truelove (then editor of Garden Design and now author/publisher in the fields of art and architecture), Wolfgang Oehme, and Jim Van Sweden.  Beverly Pepper’s Split Ritual was chosen because its size, scale and “message” were appropriate for the location. The cost of the sculpture was underwritten by a very small group of dedicated National Garden Club members, leaving undisturbed the general funds raised for the garden.

    Born in 1924 in New York, Beverly Pepper’s career as a sculptor has spanned forty years. Originally a painter, she turned to sculpture, because she felt its three-dimensional form provided a better vehicle for displaying power and emotion. Early works were in wood, then stainless steel, and they were always abstract.  In the 1970’s Pepper was influenced by environmental art, becoming associated with the Earth Art Movement.

Chapter III: Friendship Garden House

   The building was placed off to the side of Arbor House behind a perennial border in a grove of tall white oaks.  Shuttered panels are located on either side.  One contains a listing of the NGC regions and states, and the other details the purpose of the garden, itself. Large double doors at the rear open to the interior storage area. The front elevation faces Friendship Garden.  Its generous eave provides a canopy for built-in bench seating.  In summer, the bench is flanked by containers of caladiums.

   Lethbridge donated his services to the project that, at a cost of $27,000, may be a bit ambitious for most residential properties.  In fact some have called the shed a monument to the art of gardening and referred to it as a garden pavilion. Adrian Higgins, now garden editor of The Washington Post but in 1991 senior editor of Garden Design, believed its classic lines would “inspire home gardeners to think more about the aesthetics and siting of outbuildings” - essential in good garden design. On your next visit to the Arboretum, explore the exterior of Friendship Garden House, sit on the bench under the canopy, and enjoy the garden from yet another point of view.

   During discussion of the proposed design of Friendship Garden, it was suggested that a garden shed (later called Friendship Garden House) be incorporated into the plan.  Originally the objective was to provide convenient storage for garden tools and equipment.

    During discussion of the proposed design of Friendship Garden, it was suggested that a garden shed (later called Friendship Garden House) be incorporated into the plan.  Originally the objective was to provide convenient storage for garden tools and equipment.

     The Washington architect chosen for the project was Christopher B. Lethbridge.   He took the concept of a tool shed a step further, creating a structure which would “add something to rather than intrude upon” the garden.  Twelve-foot square, the building is clad in tongue-and-groove cedar boards, capped with a cedar-shake roof and mounted with four copper “bulls-eye” dormer windows.  The construction materials were designed to weather, allowing the structure to age gracefully while requiring minimum maintenance.

  Friendship Garden was the project of Martha Smith, NGC President in 1989-91.  The establishment of a garden at the USNA fulfilled her desire to increase visibility for our national organization and its purpose by installing a garden that could become a residential model and would emphasize to the public what could be achieved in the home landscape.  She envisioned a space, which not only would promote gardening but also would emphasize the use of good design.  At the suggestion of Dr. Marc Cathey, then USNA Director, the noted landscape architects, Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, were engaged to create the design and supervise the installation.  Plants were selected which required a minimum of pruning and staking, no deadheading or pesticides, and only limited water and fertilizer.

   Dr. H. Marc Cathey, former Director of the US National Arboretum (USNA) and current President Emeritus of the American Horticultural Society (AHS), added that the affect of rain ice and snow on this plant material “darkens, lightens and encrusts the plants with an ever changing patina of textures and reflections”.

    The USNA was approached by the both Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden with the idea of creating a prototype garden at Arbor House.  Once the caretaker’s cottage,  this rather ordinary ranch-style house would be transformed into something more appropriate for what was then the Educational Center.  Since the designers believed that a garden’s goal was “to welcome and entertain” at all times of the year, what better place to illustrate this concept!  By placing tall plantings along the road, by introducing  sweeps of perennials (first one kind, then another) and by softening the edges of walks and walls with cascading plants they would divert attention from the structure, bringing the focus “down to the ground plane.”  Further, doing this in a residential setting in a public place would show visitors how the concept could work for them as well.

     The Arboretum, under the direction of Dr. Cathey, agreed, and in August 1987 the garden officially opened in conjunction with a meeting of the Perennial Plant Association.  It was highly acclaimed at the time, and its design remains just as important today.  The design was donated as was all the plant material, thanks to Andre Viette, Kurt Bluemel, and Bluemount Nurseries as well as Babikow Greenhouses.  Even the pavers for the walkways were donated by the New York Avenue Development Co.  The cost to the Arboretum was a mere $8,000.  The New American Garden, however, only reached the front elevation of Arbor House.    In 1989 National Garden Clubs, Inc. decided to fund the completion of the original design around the house.  Over the years the entire area has been called Friendship Garden.  Current signage doesn’t make a distinction, but technically the original front garden is The New American Garden, the innovator of it all.

Chapter IV: The New American Garden

1985 Oehme, van Sweden and Associates had initiated what has become a trademark of their landscape designs.  The New American Garden, as it was called, replaced the traditional turf grass and foundation plantings with drifts of perennials, bulbs, and ornamental grasses along side under story trees and shrubs.  These plantings by their size, form, foliage, bark, flowers and fruit provided year-round interest and drama.  

     Previous chapters have described the New American Garden as well as the Friendship Garden.  There is a third garden, however, which is located between the two on the R Street side of Arbor House.  It is the Baker Garden, and it preceded the others.  It was dedicated in 1981.

     Robert Lewis Baker’s death at 39 deeply saddened members of the Landscape Design Council (LDC).  Dr. Baker had worked and studied at the US National Arboretum and had lectured at Landscape Design Study Programs for 11 years.  Dr. Baker was a graduate of Swarthmore and received his MS and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Maryland, where he became Asst. Professor of Horticulture and Associate Professor of Botany.  Gardens for him were an art form, and anyone attending his lectures was aware of his artistic search for the perfect combination of color, form and texture.  A Baltimore native, his own garden on Federal Hill, was a small repository of unique specimens, displayed in pots of varying heights to maximize space.

     After his death members of the LDC elected to memorialize Dr. Baker with a garden incorporating his ideas and principles.  Plants were chosen with great care to include his favorites - astilbe, azaleas, corylopsis, clematis, josta, hydrangea petiolaris, and, of course, potted cultivars.  Gi Adams and Marion Caldwell devised the original plan, and funding was provided by donations from friends, associates, Dr. Baker’s students, and lectures sponsored by Landscape Design Council.  Friends, Brookside Gardens, the US National Arboretum and Dr. Baker’s family also contributed plants.  Divisions and cuttings from Dr. Baker’s garden were even included.  His booklet on small city gardens was used as a guide.  In it he favors low walls for small gardens, and one is incorporated into this garden.

     Landscape Design Council also contributes $500 yearly to the maintenance of the Baker Garden.  Don’t visit this exquisite garden without taking the opportunity to sit on the bench in the shade.  You’ll learn a lot about Dr. Baker by way of his favorite plant selections.

Chapter VI: The Baker Garden

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3

     When George Lahr retired in 1951 they moved to Washington where her gardening activities increased exponentially.  She became president of her garden club and the first District I Director for the NCAFGC.  She was a charter member of the Arboretum Volunteer Guide Service and she, along with her husband, worked tirelessly in Fern Valley.  For years, as an accredited flower show judge, she lectured, gave demonstrations, and arranged flowers in the meditation chapel at Suburban Hospital.  She worked on 31 Christmas Greens Shows in a variety of chairmanships.  She was an active member of GROW and SOME.  She set up area collection centers where gardeners could take surplus produce for distribution to the needy and faithfully worked the Arboretum’s Country Garden harvesting vegetables for the hungry.  A talented artist, she illustrated USNA publications and designed the NCAFGC President’s pin.

     When she died in 1986 friends and associates in the NCAFGC and at the Arboretum contributed funds honoring her memory.  Kay had studied with John Cavanaugh, an accomplished Washington DC sculptor, and they had become good friends.  The Federation felt that his Demeter in hammered lead would be an appropriate tribute and chose the staging and the placement of it.  For its part the Arboretum established the Lahr Symposium on native plants.  Monies from that Symposium fund a Fern Valley intern.

     Our Demeter, like Kay, is diminutive in stature, but her presence is impressive.  She reminds us that the care and nurturing of gardens pays big dividends in knowledge and friendship, as well as in beauty.

Chapter IV: Demeter

    Who is Demeter?  And why is she sitting in the New American Garden?  Demeter in Greek mythology was the sister of Zeus and the mother of Prosephone.  For our purposes, however, she is immortalized because she was the Goddess of Agriculture, affectionately called Mother Earth.  At the Arboretum she sits atop a pier, slightly belows eye level, among nandina and adjacent to the tree peony, ‘Prosephone’.  Her placement in the garden honors the dedicated contributions of Kay Lahr, a member of the Garden Club of Chevy Chase, whose volunteer activities at the US National Arboretum spanned over 30 years.

    Kathleen Pawle Lahr was born in London in 1905.  Her father was an actor and moved the family to the US when he was cast in the movie, David Copperfield.  Although trained as a nurse Kay preferred writing and produced two novels before her marriage in 1937 to George Lahr, a chemist with E. I. duPont.  Living in Wilmington, DE, she took horticulture courses there and at the Barnes Arboretum in PA, with Laura Barnes.  One of the lecturers was Dr. Henry Skinner, then Director of the Morris Arboretum and later USNA Director.

Chapter 5 Chapter 4 Chapter 6

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National Capital Area Garden Clubs, Inc.

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