Visit DC’s wonderful public gardens on transit
Our region is lucky to have over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap! Visiting a public gardens can refreshing your mental, spiritual, and physical being. Here’s a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.
The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens. Yes, there is green space on the National Mall and it is not all lawn! The Smithsonian Gardens are made up of 12 distinct spaces — from a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History to the contemporary, sunken Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
All are free to all visitors, and many host educational programming and docents give regular tours. One of the most informative tours is hosted by Horticulturist Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October.
Getting There: Take Metro to the Smithsonian station or any of the surrounding metro stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator, 70 Metrobus lines, and 30 Metrobus lines.
The US Botanic Garden
Also on the National Mall and easily accessible is the US Botanic Garden. Along with the adjoining National Garden, Bartholdi Park, and Capitol Grounds, it has administered through the Architect of the Capitol and is not part of the Smithsonian as is commonly assumed.
The Botanic Garden is one of the few tourist sites open on both Christmas and New Year’s Day. Over the past few years, it’s become more and more crowded on those dates as the secret has spread, so go early and be prepared to stand in line to view the annual holiday garden railroad display.
Getting There: Take Metro to the L’Enfant station or any of the surrounding stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator and 30 Metrobus lines, which stop in back of the Botanic Garden. Often I take the Red Line to Judiciary Square and walk across the Mall rather than switch trains.
Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery
If you want to avoid crowds, try the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays timed around Easter, but come back in late May/early June for stunning roses and later in the summer for tropical gardens that include a few palm trees.
Getting There: I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk up the steep hill along Quincy Street to get to it, but there are a few buses that get you closer (the H6 and the 80).
The National Arboretum
Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. The Arboretum was closed three days a week due to the recent sequester and budget cutbacks, but thanks to fundraising by the Friends of the National Arboretum, the grounds are now back open every day of the year except December 25.
The Arboretum is under the US Department of Agriculture and its mission has been more one of research than of public outreach and education, but with a new director just named that has given local gardeners hope of great things to come. The grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.
Getting there: There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but that service was infrequent and then was cut entirely a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance. (A bus route from the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station would be a dream…)
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. If you go on a weekday, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself.
This is the true hidden oasis of the city — a former waterlily nursery now a national park. It is also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct sun and are best viewed in mid-day during July-August.
Getting there: You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.
The Bishop’s Close at the National Cathedral
The Bishop’s Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. The secluded, walled garden is on the south-facing side of the Cathedral and is downhill from it as well, giving it a great perspective on the building.
The garden itself is sunny and bright to support the roses and English-style perennial borders, but there are some shady quiet spots for contemplation, quiet reading, and reflection.
Getting there: Take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.
Outside of DC
Farther afield, both Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria are free and run by their local county parks systems. Both take an effort to access by a combination of Metro and local bus systems, but are worth it for an afternoon outside of the city. Better access by transit would increase the usefulness and value of both of these gardens to their surrounding communities.
Getting there: Go to Brookside by taking the Red Line to Glenmont and walking one mile along Glen Allen Road. To get to Green Spring, take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street and then transfer to the 29N bus towards Vienna. Get off at Little River Turnpike and Green Spring Road.
A new local nonprofit, DC Gardens, sprung up last spring to bring the profile of local public gardens in the DC region to the attention of both out-of-town tourists as well as to those who live here and only think of DC garden tourism as a once a year trip to see the Tidal Basin’s cherry blossoms in bloom. On the site, you can view many of our public gardens month-by-month and learn what events, festivals, and activities are going at each.
A version of this post first ran in May 2015. With the summer weather back and in full effect, we thought it an opportune time to spread the word again!