By Stephanie Cavanaugh
‘NEVER WEAR flip-flops in the garden,” says Chris Alvear, who skidded on a wet patch one day last year and broke his knee and his leg moving a this or that to there. Whoops.
Chris tends not just any garden. The spread in Southwest Washington DC that he shares with partner Ward Orem and their pup Gigi merges into a park that drifts down toward the Washington Channel, which bridges the gap between the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. To the right is the hurly-burly of DC’s renovated Southwest Wharf. Winding off to the left is the Washington Nationals Stadium, which curves into Yards Park, with its more neighborhood air. Straight ahead, the view from the Alvear-Orem deck is extraordinary.
The backyard was laid out by the late landscape architect Charles Turner, who lived there and was for many years affiliated with Oehme, van Sweden, the landscape architecture firm internationally known for naturalistic gardenscapes. Along the winding path are beds of grasses, hydrangeas and ferns. There’s an Oregon grape tree, witch hazel, a cherry and a fig. In spring there’s a flood of tulips and daffodils poking up amid the loosestrife and peonies. “A plant for every season,” says Chris. At the end of the path is a table and chairs, a place to sit and gaze back at the garden.
“Charles was up every morning at 7:30 to work in the garden,” says Chris, who does the same. “I go out there like he did. It’s like a family member that needs care.”
Chris has added some personal flourishes. Antique birdcages hang from trees, flirting with masses of cerise and fuchsia coleus below. A Picassoesque sketch hangs on a dividing wall, a flamingo poses amid
a bed of liriope. None of this is surprising: Chris, an artist himself, once owned Alvear Studio on 8th Steet SE, a shop of quirky art and jewelry and whatnots—which now find fabulous expression in the manic kaleidoscope of mannequins, deer heads, artworks, Siamese fighting fish and indescribable baubles that fill the house. But that’s another story: Currently Chris is the front-of-house manager of the Kennedy Center’s Roof Terrace Restaurant, under executive chef Jaime Montes de Oca Jr. Now undergoing a million-dollar renovation, the bar and restaurant will reopen next month.
Chris didn’t know much about plants before he and Ward moved in eight years ago, but he’s now surrounded by books and constantly assisted by the online gardening site Picture This, “the best thing ever for identifying plants, diagnosing problems and diseases,” he says. “It’s $19.99 for a year, and like a course in gardening.”
A glass wall divides the living room from the deck, crammed with flowers and plants and overstuffed furniture. Hovering above, a ledge holds massive pots of peppers and turnips, artichokes and tomatoes that he can pick from his office window. When the weather chills he’ll put up an 8-by-6-foot greenhouse with grow lights in the porte cochère, a place to winter over seedlings and more tender plants.
“Plants need you, and you need them. Sometimes I’m out here for five hours; you forget about where you are, you don’t think about what’s bugging you and you’re not on a treadmill.”
There’s a simple low fence around the garden, so passersby leading their pups to the park can see right in, and Chris and Ward can see past to that amazing river view. Few pass without remarking, and complimenting, which may be worth a broken leg or two.