Signs of spring in Washington, D.C., are usually marked by specific events, namely the day the nearly 1,700 cherry trees bloom around the Tidal Basin. The season is eagerly anticipated but hard to pinpoint due to weather inconsistencies. Wondrous blossoms are also observed from gardens all over Washington, D.C., especially on the National Mall, where there are 10 Smithsonian Gardens open to the public and free to explore. Each one has unique characteristics that make them worth a visit when in our nation’s capital.
The following list begins at The National Museum of African American History and Culture. It continues north up the National Mall (on both sides) toward the Capitol Building. This is only a suggested route; you can tour the gardens in any order and visit as many as you like. Each one is open daily, but check the Smithsonian website for any change in status or holiday closures.
1. National Museum Of African American History And Culture Landscape
In keeping with the green grass and sweeping, open vista of the National Mall, the designers of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Landscape wanted to embrace those views by incorporating meandering paths around the unique structure of the NMAAHC building. In the beds around the trails are plantings, including trees native to the Southeast and perennials in various blue, purple, and white hues. Most noteworthy is the lawn planted with over 450,000 purple crocuses that are breathtaking when in bloom, symbolizing hope and new beginnings.
Pro Tip: Visit the Sheltering Branches, an outdoor exhibit showcasing the live oak, an evergreen native to the Southeast. It is a habitat for living organisms and an enduring symbol for African Americans, representing safety, strength, and resilience.
2. Common Ground: Our American Garden
At the National Museum of American History, you will discover how plants play an essential role in America's story. In Common Ground: Our American Garden, you will find a fascinating experience at the south entrance of the museum facing the National Mall. The raised beds feature flowers, herbs, and various plants to honor memory, healing, discovery, and ingenuity. In the Memory garden, the plants that natives and newcomers shared for food are presented as part of our collective heritage. In the Healing garden, we learn how plants have been passed down throughout our collective history to craft medicines. We learn that many cultures brought plants to our shores in the Discovery garden, and botanists are still finding new species today. The Ingenuity garden focuses on plants applied in unusual ways to solve 21st-century problems. The beds include golden sedge, columbine, and sweet woodruff. There are also 500 Mexican feather grasses and more than 1,500 flowering perennials such as Echinacea, bee balm, catmint, blanket flower, and butterfly weed.
3. Victory Garden
Just around the east side of the National Museum of American History is the Victory Garden, similar to those grown during World War II. The "heirloom" vegetables and flowers in the rotating beds come from species available during the 1940s. This carefully researched experience was implemented to reflect what would have been planted in window boxes and community gardens at the time. Victory gardens were planted to support the food supply for civilians and troops during the war. It was a massive effort that involved the government, private industry, seed companies, schools, and the public, who learned how to plant and grow vegetables during the war.
Pro Tip: Visit the outdoor exhibit, We Need You! It showcases native wildflowers that attract pollinators to help us grow food. If you plan to grow vegetables in your own garden, learn which native wildflowers to plant in your beds.
4. Pollinator Garden
The Pollinator Garden can be found along the east side of the National Museum of Natural History. Its purpose is to educate us about how much we need pollinators to grow our plants. Insects such as butterflies and bees, as well as hummingbirds and small mammals, help our flowers and food grow. Flowering plants rely on pollinators for fertilization. Once a butterfly habitat garden, it re-opened in 2016 with funds from the Garden Club of America. These funds allowed the garden to triple in size to showcase the diversity of pollinators. All of the plants, grasses, and trees are primarily native to attract these critical partners.
Pro Tip: Visit Bug BandB, an exhibit that combines larger-than-life sculptures to explain the vital role insects play in our ecosystem. The structures are made out of natural materials and are gorgeous as well as educational.
5. Enid A. Haupt Garden
Across the Mall between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Avenue, the Enid A. Haupt Garden is three gardens that span four acres. The Parterre, the Moongate Garden, and the Fountain Garden combine to reflect the surrounding museums' culture and architecture. The gardens are actually roofs of the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The Parterre is a manicured, formal garden that changes shape every few years and is inspired by the Victorian era. The Moongate Garden, designed by Jean-Paul Carlhian, is inspired by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. Its design uses water and pink granite to take visitors to a relaxing place. The Fountain Garden, also designed by Carlhian, is modeled after the Court of Lions at Alhambra, a 13th-century Moorish palace and fortress in Granada, Spain.
Pro Tip: Visit the Key to the Forest outdoor exhibit, which highlights tropical plants and feels like a world away.
6. Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden
The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden offers a vibrant display in front of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. It is a four-season garden that focuses on roses but includes other plantings that support relationships between pollinators and people. The garden was a gift from the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund and underwent renovations in 2016 to feature disease-resistant roses (all own-root) and companion plants.
7. Mary Livingston Ripley Garden
The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is only one-third of an acre. Still, its quiet beauty has become a respite for many in the city. Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen's vision incorporated a curvilinear design with raised beds to feel informal and intimate. Mrs. S. Dillon Ripley proposed putting a fragrant garden on the Arts and Industries Building's eastern border instead of a parking lot, and it was adopted. Today, people, plants, and pollinators mingle in perfect harmony, enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
Pro Tip: Visit the outdoor exhibit, Homes, to discover how you can create a habitat in your own garden. You will get fantastic gardening ideas for your own beds here too.
8. Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is actually two gardens. One is the landscape surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum; one is the backdrop for a rotating collection of modern art housed outdoors across Jefferson Drive. The sunken open-air gallery, cut into the National Mall, utilizes plants to provide a “lush backdrop” and divides Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s world-renowned collection of sculptures into “rooms.” This garden creates a peaceful place to contemplate the work 14 feet below the surface of the Mall. It is a beautiful place to visit in any season.
Pro Tip: One of the sculptures is actually a living tree. Yoko Ono's Wish Tree for Washington, DC, a kousa dogwood, can be found along the sunken garden's northern wall. Every summer, visitors may write wishes on tags and hang them from the tree. These tags are collected and sent to Ono's Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland, to join millions of other wishes from around the world to become part of Ono's global peace project.
9. National Air And Space Museum Landscape
The Landscape at the National Air and Space Museum is incredibly diverse. It includes over 2.5 acres of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. As of this writing, the west side of the building is under construction and closed. The Northside is right off the National Mall. It features the Flight Garden, an exhibit with various plants and flowers that attract pollinators. The garden also has descriptive panels that explain how birds, insects, and seeds have inspired flight. If you travel to the east side, you will see the meadow garden with perennials, including coneflowers and sunflowers. The Tropical Bed is astounding because it has three types of hardy palms and a banana tree that can survive in the Mid-Atlantic climate.
Pro Tip: There are so many mature trees at this museum with lush shade gardens underneath them. These include varieties of hostas, hellebores, ferns, and hydrangeas. It may give you shade gardening inspiration.
10. Native Landscape At The National Museum Of The American Indian
The Native Landscape at the National Museum of the American Indian is an extension of the experience inside the building, meant to recall the time before European contact. The grounds include four distinct themes, including Woodlands, Wetlands, Eastern Meadow, and Traditional Croplands. These landscapes are set against the curved pathways that wind around the building and its gentle water features. The experience feels meditative. More than 33,000 plants (150 species) native to the Piedmont Region were planted over 15 years ago. Now mature, they attract migratory birds and wildlife. The plantings demonstrate how Native Americans used each specimen for food, fiber, dye, medicines, ceremonies, and building materials.
Additional Pro Tips
The National Mall is flat, but it could take several hours and miles to complete the full tour with stops at each garden. If you stay for several days, you might want to break the itinerary up to visit a few each day. Or just visit the gardens that appeal to you. There are public restrooms and food trucks parked by the Washington Monument for breaks and refreshments. The museums are closed, but the museum website links are included for each garden to check for up-to-date information. Spring is a gorgeous time to experience Washington, D.C., a city bursting with color.