Art & Design Magazine

Smithsonian Horticulturalists Talk About American Art's Flora

By Americanart

Melanie Pyle and Joel Lemp are horticulturists with Smithsonian Gardens, and they lead tours through the garden growing in American Art's Kogod Courtyard. The natural beauty of the plants complements the art in our museum so well. This spring they will lead tours through the courtyard on Thursday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. and Thursday, May 22 at 2:30 p.m.. Katie Crooks, public program coordinator, spoke with Pyle and Lemp about the gardening at the Smithsonian.

Garden tour of Kogod Courtyard

Smithsonian Horticulturalist Joel Lemp talks about the flora in American Art's Kogod Courtyard.

Eye Level: Most people don't think of gardens as museums, but Smithsonian Gardens is an accredited museum; how is that possible?

Melanie Pyle and Joel Lemp: Smithsonian Gardens received this high honor last year because of its commitment to public, service, professional standards, accountability, excellence in education and continued institutional improvement. We are one of only 25 public gardens in the country to have achieved this.

To make our gardens truly successful, SG collaborates on a daily basis with the museums. There have been additional collaborations in developing specialized gardens such as the Bird and Butterfly Gardens on the grounds of Natural History, the Victory and Heirloom Gardens surrounding American History and the NMAI's native gardens. The multiple festivals hosted by the American Indian Museum are further examples as is our bi-annual orchid exhibit through which we have partnered with Sackler/Freer, the Environmental Research Center, and several departments of the Natural History Museum. Our education department collaborates with all the units, blending the missions and exhibits of the museums and the gardens.

Overall we design and maintain the exterior and interior gardens of 12 museums as well as the Smithsonian's support facility. The Kogod Courtyard houses the Smithsonian's only interior landscape which makes it such a special place!

EL: It must be challenging gardening in the Kogod Courtyard; how do you choose the plants that go into it?

P & L: The low light levels and restrictive growing space of the planters present the biggest challenges for the horticulturists. Caring for the large trees successfully under these conditions has become a foremost task for Smithsonian Gardens' staff. The Interiors' Section horticulturists select plants for the Courtyard based their ability to survive the challenges of an indoor environment. They are largely tropical varieties which tend to perform best in low light situations and generally have the same growing requirements.

EL: Wow, it sounds like you all really know your stuff. What does it take to be a horticulturist at the Smithsonian?

P & L: Most of the Smithsonian Gardens' horticulturists have at a degree in horticulture or plant related sciences or a combined equivalent of relevant work experience and education. There are SG internships offered throughout the year which is an excellent way of deciding whether to pursue a career in public gardens.

EL: Of all of the plants you take care of, what is the easiest and what is the hardest to care for and grow?

P & L: In our experience, the Dracaena or "corn plant" varieties seem to withstand the challenges of indoor growing the most successfully. They can survive with minimal light and watering. The plants we have the most difficult time with are plants requiring higher levels of light such as black olive trees.

EL: Do you have any tips for people who are limited to gardening indoors? There are a lot of apartment dwellers (like me!) who read this blog.

P & L: For successful long term gardening, it is essential to choose the right plant for the right space. Tropical plants are the best for indoors and can take the lower light conditions. Proper watering is essential as over watering is the number one mistake made with indoor plants. When in doubt, let it go another day.

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