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Book Review: A Guide to Smithsonian Gardens

A Guide to Smithsonian Gardens
Written by Carole Ottesen
Published by Smithsonian Books, 2011

Reviewed by Risa Edelstein

As a landscape designer, I try to visit gardens every season both for inspiration and fresh ideas. A few years ago, I was in Washington with colleagues, and we got to see some of the gardens in the city including the natural landscape that surrounds the National Museum of the American Indian. A Guide to Smithsonian Gardens describes these and other Smithsonian landscapes with wonderful detail.

Designed by a Native American architect, the National Museum of the American Indian soars into the sky like a rock formation you’d expect to see in the Midwest. A roaring waterfall on the East side of the building is constructed with 350-year-old limestone from Minnesota and is one of the focal points of the museum’s design. The surrounding landscape pays homage to this stone in that the gardens use native plants and were designed to represent familiar habitats such as forest and wetlands.

This is just one of many gardens included in this book about all of the gardens that are considered part of the Smithsonian botanic collection. With beautiful photography and wonderful descriptions of each, it is enough to make the reader yearn to spend a few days in Washington, DC in order to visit them all. The gardens vary greatly – and being able to go to one city in order to see so many different types of landscapes in a short period of time adds to the appeal. From the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to the Heirloom and Victory Gardens, there is something to inspire every designer.

The Smithsonian gardens represent a vast range of styles. While some of the gardens are somewhat formal and traditionally styled, including parterre gardens with clipped box as well as a rose garden, there is plenty to inspire the ecological designer. From native plants to edible gardens to natural landscapes, I am encouraged that ecological gardens are truly becoming part of the accepted urban landscape.

The book details over 10 gardens and includes wonderful historical photos and facts about each one. The author includes a mix of horticultural and architectural information that help to make this book a great travel companion to anyone planning to visit DC in the near future.

About the Author

Risa Edelstein trained as an ecological landscape designer at the Landscape Institute of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. She is a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, accredited with NOFA as an organic landcare professional, and the current President of the Ecological Landscape Alliance. Risa may be contacted at or