Explore Washington D.C.

Escape Plots: D.C.'s Secret Gardens

Five off-the-Mall oases offer tranquility and botanical delights

City bustle gives way to serenity in five secluded gardens, from private playgrounds of the wealthy to havens inspired by Shakespeare and religious devotion.

Historic

In Georgetown’s genteel precincts, find a rare gem: an intact, urban Federal-period property. The home of Martha Washington’s granddaughter Martha Custis Peter, Tudor Place and its five-plus acres look much as they did centuries ago. A sundial from Scotland’s Crossbasket Castle, the ancestral home of the Peter family, anchors the geometric knot garden where heirloom roses perfume the air. A pair of matching greyhound statues graces the adjacent bowling green, and closer to the manse, English boxwood (some of it original) grows in an elegant emerald ellipse.

1644 31st St. NW, 202.965.0400

The bowling green at Tudor Place
The bowling green at Tudor Place (Courtesy Tudor Place)

Elegant

Nearby is Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard museum and botanical study center once the home of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. And certainly bliss accompanies those exploring hillside terraces that hold wisteria-draped stonework, colorful pebble designs and 900 roses in pink, red, yellow and orange. “Wilder” zones include a crabapple orchard and a forsythia dell. Wilder still? The contemporary art that occasionally pops up amongst the shrubbery.

1703 32nd St. NW, 202.339.6400

Dumbarton Oaks
Dumbarton Oaks (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Luxurious

Three-and-a-half miles north, Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens seems fit for a queen. Indeed, owner Marjorie Merriweather Post was as close to royalty as an American can be. The cereal heiress decorated her mansion with Russian imperial art and her 13-acre grounds with lavish “living rooms” in distinct styles. A Japanese garden conjures a Zen-like state with a stream that cascades through maples and azaleas, while the formal French parterre summons Versailles with its pools, statues and scroll-shaped boxwood. From the "lunar" lawn, glimpse the Washington Monument above the tree tops.

4155 Linnean Ave. NW, 202.686.5807

Hillwood's mansion and lunar lawn
Hillwood's mansion and lunar lawn (Courtesy Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens)

Dramatic

Steps away from the political power plays on Capitol Hill, William Shakespeare has inspired a plot. At this premier center for study of the Bard, Folger Shakespeare Library, a wrought iron fence wraps a 16th-century-style landscape. Many plants here factor in the playwright’s works. Take, for example, Ophelia’s mad scene speech in "Hamlet": “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” This herb and other flora popular during the Elizabethan era—lavender, creeping thyme, English ivy—fill a knot garden and flower beds. Consider a stroll along the walkways as prologue to a play in the Globe-like theater. Also here: the First Folio of Shakespeare on display in the Great Hall. Free garden tours take place the first and third Saturdays at 10 and 11 a.m.

201 E. Capitol St. SE, 202.544.4600

Folger's Elizabethan garden
Folger's Elizabethan garden (Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library)

Spiritual

On the high ground of Mount St. Alban, plants at the Washington National Cathedral reach heavenward. For the stone-walled Bishop’s Garden, opened to the public in 1920, designer Frederick Law Olmsted took inspiration from Europe’s medieval churches. In 2011, a crane brought in to repair earthquake damage to the building fell into the garden, destroying some of its vegetation and structures. Now the “resurrected” Eden, rededicated in 2013, soothes harried souls once again with roses, 15th- and 16th-century bas reliefs, Bible-referenced flora (cedars, fig trees) and monastic herbs. In the northeast corner, a redesigned area recalls the quake’s wounds with a decorative finial, shaken loose from the central tower, as its centerpiece. And longtime traditions continue like the annual Flower Mart in May, which features garden tours, elaborate floral arrangements by embassies, music and rides on a 100-year-old carousel.

3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202.537.6200

The Bishop's Garden at Washington National Cathedral
The Bishop's Garden at Washington National Cathedral (©John Simmons)