Home & Design

Green Acre: Shangri-La on the Potomac

In all this heat things still flourish at this Capitol Hill house because the plants were chosen, by garden designer Gary Hallewell, to be self-sustaining and heat-resistant. He also designed the lanai. The renowned landscape firm of Oehme, Van Sweden designed the pool and patio. / Photo above and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

IT’S HOT OUT. Perhaps you’ve noticed. It’s never been so hot, they say. And dry. While the actual temperatures are merely 96, 97, 98, the “feels like” temperature in Washington DC hit 108 yesterday. It will be so again today, and tomorrow. 

Though every day the weather people say it’s going to rain, heavily, stormily, so be prepared . . . nothing happens. The middle of the country may be awash in violent storms, but here it’s hard to think. To breathe. 

I’m standing in a garden a few blocks from the US Capitol. There’s an extremely dead tree in a large pot on the terrace. Smaller pots have limp and shriveled flowers. The owners moved to Colorado weeks ago to be closer to family, and no one has been here to do the watering.  

Yet, everything that’s not in a pot is flourishing. A fountain of lavender waves scented stems over the edge of the swimming pool, as does a bed of catnip beside it. Crape myrtles are tossing off flowers, shading a dining table, hydrangeas are blooming their heads off, and waterlilies are flowering in the currently koi-less koi pond. They seem to be, somehow, thriving on a little neglect.  

It takes a few moments to reattach my jaw.  

Phyllis Jane Young, the Realtor who’s handling the property—built in 1837 and one of the oldest houses on Capitol Hill—is here to size things up. I’m here to take photos of the garden for ads, which is one of the other things I do when not writing. In a few weeks, when the rooms have been painted and the furnishings fluffed, I’ll shoot the interior.

“What did I tell you, honey,” she says, with a laugh. “It’s Shangri-La!”  

No kidding. 

I creep around the sides of the pool, attempting to stay off the plantings, which border the sides from walls to water’s edge, looking for the perfect angle for my shot, hoping to fall in.  

Please let me trip. Not that anyone but us would see. There are only a few neighboring homes that could offer a peep, and the inhabitants are probably off doing something Vital for the National Well-Being. 

The pools and patio, with dining area and outdoor shower, were designed 30-some years ago by landscape architects Oehme, Van Sweden, famed for their use of self-sustaining grasses and perennials for private homes and clients like the Chicago Botanic Garde and the New York Botanical Garden.

Garden designer Gary Hallewell took over the job when the pools and hardscape were completed, installing the plantings and constructing a lanai, with automatic screens from Clear View in McLean, Va., that are so fine they’re scarcely visible, offering views of the pools and patio. “It’s nice to be rid of mosquitos at the press of a button,” he told me. 

Born in Yorkshire, England, Hallewell is a civil and structural engineer who got into garden design after a move to the States, falling in love with Capitol Hill, if not our gardens. Now retired, he’s still passionate about plants and design.

“No one here buys a plant that’s not in bud or flower,” he chided in a lengthy phone call that bounced in subject from building bridges in Cameroon, to the first indoor tennis court in Qatar, to the Korean Spice viburnum and the daphne, both splendidly fragrant in late winter, and too rarely planted here—if you can even find them in garden centers. 

“I was staggered by the bursts of color here that begin in May . . . and then nothing,” he said. “In October, plants move out, pumpkins come in and then there’s Christmas, when 90% of plants do best being planted in October and November.

“People think [that schedule] normal. Where I was from, there are flowers throughout the year.”

Though he says nurseries have become slightly better, most still cater to homeowners hungry for spring color and builders needing to quickly fill a lot with greenery, so the selection is often meager, with little variety and a sad lack of scent.  

No meager variety here. In addition to the lavender and catnip bordering the pool are drifts of purple coneflower, toad lily, hosta, daylilies, hydrangeas, ferns and crape myrtle. Edging the patio are heavenly bamboo, ivy-leaved cyclamen, pink muhly grass, toad lily, dogwood, and Russian sage.

“I treat every garden as if it’s my own,” he said. “Creating a “tranquil, fragrant, peaceful area, with something in flower every day of the year.

“A place to drink good wine and enjoy.”


One thought on “Green Acre: Shangri-La on the Potomac

  1. Maggie Hall says:

    Oh, to have a garden/yard for Gary Hallewell to work his magic on!
    # A Yorkshire man on The Hill! Gary if you read this….I’m from Cleckheaton.

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