July 15, 2024
Plant swaps, Flower Mart and garden festivals in the D.C. area

The cherry blossoms have had their moment, but they’re not the only sign of spring in Washington. Over the next few weekends, numerous events will let plants take center stage. There are opportunities to browse for flowers and herbs and find the perfect addition to a container garden, but also to celebrate spring in the great outdoors. There are tours of historic gardens and events targeted at the littlest green thumbs. Some sales offer heirloom plants, while a garden festival includes live music at a rooftop beer garden.

Gardening was an unexpected beneficiary of the pandemic, with interest in plants skyrocketing around the globe. As people begin to emerge from isolation, gathering in public with friends and strangers, plant swaps and sales offer a much-needed sense of community, while also brightening windowsills and backyards. Here’s a look at what’s ahead.

Orchids: Hidden Stories of Groundbreaking Women” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Courtyard: Smithsonian Gardens and the U.S. Botanic Garden have once again joined forces for an orchid exhibition in the Kogod Courtyard. This year’s displays focus on women’s history with orchids: scientists who recorded the plants’ taxonomy, explorers who traveled the world to find new species, artists who captured the beauty of the flowers from 17th-century China to 20th-century America. While circumnavigating the eight marble planters in the airy courtyard, visitors learn about naturalist Mary Vaux Walcott, called “the Audubon of botany,” whose watercolors of wildflowers are in the American Art Museum’s collection, and see the delicate orange flower named after her. (She’s not alone in that honor: One planter holds orchids named after celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and “The Golden Girls” actress Estelle Getty.)

This is the 26th orchid exhibition, and the Smithsonian has wisely chosen to bring it back to the Kogod, where it first popped up in 2019. The curvaceous glass roof shows off the orchids in their best light, and the setting is both intimate and informal. The planters encourage visitors to get up close to their favorite flowers, making photos that much better, but don’t be surprised if there’s a tourist perched on the edge of a planter, scrolling through their phone after a tough day of sightseeing. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. gardens.si.edu. Free.

American Horticultural Society Spring Garden Market at River Farm: It makes sense that the American Horticultural Society would have a plant sale — “our vision is a land of sustainable gardens,” the organization says — and beyond browsing more than 40 vendors selling plants, garden accessories, pots and art, visitors can also ask questions of the society’s “master gardeners.” The best part, though, is exploring the society’s headquarters at River Farm. The 27.6-acre site along the Potomac River, once owned by George Washington, includes perennial gardens, a children’s garden and a wildlife-friendly meadow. An exhibition of garden-themed paintings by local artists is on display in the manor-style Estate House. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ahsgardening.org. Free admission; parking $20 per car.

Gardener’s Focus Tour at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens: If you’re in search of seasonal ideas for sprucing up your garden, look no further than Jessica Bonilla, the director of horticulture and former head gardener at Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood estate. These 45-minute tours, led by Bonilla, focus on Hillwood’s spring garden displays, with tips on garden design and planting. Tours are limited to 20 participants, and tickets can be claimed at the visitor center on the morning of the tour. A different series of tours will be offered in May. 2:30 p.m. on selected days. hillwoodmuseum.org. Tour fees are included in the suggested donation ($5-$18) for admission to Hillwood.

White House Spring Garden Tours: The most exclusive garden in town isn’t in a park or on the Mall — it’s at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. The White House opens the grounds twice a year for self-guided tours, offering access to the famous Rose Garden, the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and the White House Kitchen Garden, as well as trees on the south grounds. Note that the garden tours are different from regular White House tours and do not allow visitors to enter the White House. Free timed entry tickets are required, and are given away from a tent near the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion at 15th and E streets NW beginning at 8:30 a.m. each day. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and each person can claim only one ticket, so all members of a group must be present if they want to tour together. A limited number of tickets are available, so early arrival is strongly suggested. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. nps.gov/whho. Free.

Montgomery County Greenfest at Brookside Gardens: This Earth Day celebration aims to please the youngest gardeners. In addition to plant and tree giveaways, it features tree climbing, games, face painting, a musical instrument petting zoo, children’s yoga and programming at the Brookside Nature Center. Parents can browse arts and craft vendors, including green businesses and nonprofits, and get lunch from food trucks. A free shuttle runs between the gardens and the Glenmont Metro station. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. montgomerycountygreenfest.org. Free.

Leesburg Flower and Garden Festival: Since 1991, the streets of Leesburg’s downtown historic district have been turned over to gardeners, landscapers and vendors for a two-day Flower and Garden Festival. In addition to more than 125 vendors selling everything from plants to patio furniture, the festival includes a landscape design competition; live music; a children’s area on the town green with musicians, magicians and puppets; and a rooftop beer garden at the town parking garage with local wine and craft beer. Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. leesburgva.gov. Free.

Mount Vernon Historic Plant and Garden Sale: Ever wanted to boast that your boxwood shrubs or southern magnolia tree was propagated from one growing on George Washington’s estate? The annual plant sale at Mount Vernon is your chance. Held at the estate’s greenhouses, it includes heirloom vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers, ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees, some of which are designated “General’s Choice” if they were propagated from cuttings or seeds at Mount Vernon. (The Mount Vernon website has more details and a list of available plants.) Visiting the plant sale does not require purchasing a timed entry ticket for the first president’s historic home. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. mountvernon.org. Free.

Plant swap at 3 Stars Brewing: 3 Stars Brewing buzzes on the last Sunday of the month, and it’s not necessarily because of the IPAs. Over the course of the afternoon, around 250 people will cruise through the Takoma brewery’s taproom, carrying cuttings of jade plants and potted monsteras, stopping at other customers’ tables to ogle the flowers and succulents on display, and sipping a beer while thinking about whether they’d like to take that gold dust croton home.

Lyn Holland, the events manager at 3 Stars, grew up surrounded by plants in England and Wales, but she didn’t rediscover her love of gardening until the middle of 2019. “I had an elderly dog that was suffering, and I knew he wasn’t going to last much longer,” she says. “I was getting pretty depressed, so I decided to channel myself into growing more plants.”

She reached out on Nextdoor to see whether any neighbors would be interested in propagating and sharing cuttings but didn’t get much of a response, so she decided to host a swap at the brewery in November 2019 and see what happened.

Holland’s manager expected 10 or 15 people for the plant swap — a nice little bump on a pre-holiday Saturday. In the end, around 95 people perused the plant swap tables, Holland says. “Some of them were just regulars that wandered in and were like, ‘Oh, I like plants,’ and kind of poked around and walked away with some free stuff.” In the days after the swap, Holland started a Facebook group for 20 attendees to post updates about the plants they’d picked up, or to “share wisdom” about soil or getting rid of bugs. “DC Plant Swap and Chat” had around 400 members before the pandemic. Then interest in plants exploded, and the group now has more than 8,700 followers and an average of 10 posts per day.

Here’s how a swap works at 3 Stars: Holland says the most dedicated regulars show up half an hour before the event begins to scope out tables and set up their displays of plants, extra pots and other accessories, such as tags. Then plant lovers begin to circle the room, looking for plants on their wish lists, or just admiring the orchids or the shape of a cactus.

“Basically, it’s an adult science fair,” says Ryan Jones, one of the administrators of the Facebook group. “You set up your own little booth and invite people to come over to see what you have, and just engage with them.”

Still, it can be intimidating for beginners, with a first-day-of-high-school level of nervousness. What if I don’t have a plant to swap? What if the plant I brought isn’t cool enough? What if no one wants to trade with me?

The secret for shy first-timers is the free table, where swappers just drop off plants or supplies they don’t want. Anyone can grab anything off the table, no questions asked. The selection of freebies becomes increasingly crowded in the afternoon, as swappers weigh whether they really want to carry all their plants home, and whether it would just be easier to leave them for someone else to take.

Then again, organizers say the way to get the most out of a swap is to be friendly, even if you don’t have anything to trade. If newcomers see a plant they admire, Jones says, ask the person behind the table about it, because most gardeners love to share stories and knowledge. Danielle Harvie, another of the Facebook group veterans, says she usually brings “10 or so plants just to give away. I have so many.” Getting involved with the group, she adds, “can be as simple as just showing up. People like me are bringing plants just to share with you.”

This friendliness and sense of community are what Holland and other swappers say can be more important than plants. Over the course of the pandemic, they arranged for one-on-one swaps around the holidays (dubbed “Secret Planta”), held fundraisers for Black Lives Matter and served as a conduit for people who needed a human — or plant — connection. As the swap’s popularity has grown, 3 Stars has fully embraced its status among the plant-curious crowd. There have been classes organized with local nonprofit Cultivate the City covering topics such as how to make a kokedama, or Japanese “moss ball” (April 10, $35), or taking care of carnivorous plants and bog gardens.

Whether you have dozens of plants at home, got into gardening during the pandemic or are thinking about taking the leap after seeing friends’ succulents on Instagram, the atmosphere at 3 Stars welcomes all. “You don’t have to have plants,” Holland says. “You don’t have to have knowledge, you don’t have to have anything. You can just come in, meet people, and nine times out of 10, you’re going to walk away with more knowledge, new friends, new acquaintances and a little plant of some kind from the free table.

“Try something new. It’s good for the soul. Terrible for the fingernails.” 1 to 6 p.m. on the last Sunday of the month. 3starsbrewing.com. Free.

More resources for plant swaps: Look at the calendar of events published in Washington Gardener magazine (washingtongardener.blogspot.com); search out local garden clubs, which often host their own swaps and events, through the website DCgardens.com; or check Facebook for plant groups.

Friends of the National Arboretum Garden Fair and Plant Sale at the National Arboretum: A fundraiser for the nonprofit Friends of the National Arboretum, this event at the arboretum’s visitor center has vendors selling plants — but also plant-inspired jewelry, orchid supplies, ceramic pots, local hard cider, garden decor and much more. The ARTboretum area offers crafts, a plant giveaway and activities for children 11 and younger, and the Washington Youth Garden has information about honeybees. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (FONA members can enter at 8 a.m.) fona.org. Free; registration required for ARTboretum.

Return of Flower Mart at Washington National Cathedral: The first Flower Mart at Washington National Cathedral was held on the Pilgrim Steps in May 1939. Over the next eight decades, only World War II was able to pause the festival. That changed in 2020, and again in 2021. But this year, the two-day festival is back, with its floral displays, 1890s carousel, live performances and, of course, dozens of vendors selling plants, plant-related accessories and other merchandise. Organizers are looking forward to once again “gathering as a community, and knowing you’re raising money for a good cause,” says Carrie Tydings, a member of the cathedral’s All Hallows Guild.

The guild was founded in 1916 to support the upkeep of the 59 acres of grounds surrounding the neo-Gothic church, such as the Bishop’s Garden, and Flower Mart has long been its primary means of fundraising. In the central Flower District, vendors sell bonsai, orchids, peonies and other plants, alongside tables full of garden accessories. Cathedral horticultural staff are on hand to answer questions and offer guidance, whether that’s for container gardens or for expansive grounds. Additionally, Flower Mart has vendors selling cut flowers. While most plant markets focus on living plants, Tydings points out that “Flower Mart almost always falls on Mother’s Day weekend,” and thus there’s an opportunity to grab a bunch of flowers to bring to mom. For those who’d rather look at plants than grow them, there’s the International Floral Display, with designs sponsored by embassies from around the world. Thirteen participated in 2019; Ukraine is among the entrants this year.

Flower Mart’s appeal extends beyond gardeners, though: There’s the carousel, with music from a brass-piped Wurlitzer; live music and dance performances; carnival games; food vendors; white elephant and book tents; and a concert performed on the cathedral’s 53-bell carillon. The only favorites from previous years that won’t be back in 2022 are the Tower Climb, which took visitors up 333 steps into the cathedral’s tower, and Tea in the Tower, which offered classic English tea with a view. Perhaps they’re a reason to look forward to 2023. Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. allhallowsguild.org. Free admission; extra charges for carousel and other rides.

William Paca Garden Plant Sale at the William Paca House and Garden: The garden sale at Annapolis’ historic William Paca House and Garden is impressive for its scale: Last year, more than 8,000 plants were propagated and grown by volunteers, documented in a 72-page sale catalogue full of advice about care and planting. Some, such as the snail vine or varieties of hydrangea, would have been familiar to Paca and other signers of the Declaration of Independence; others are much newer cultivars. Similar to Mount Vernon, some plants are propagated from plants in Paca’s two acres of restored gardens; these are marked in the catalogue. The pandemic has necessitated some changes: Timed entry tickets are required, and members of the public can begin registering on April 22. (Historic Annapolis members sign up on April 20.) It’s worth noting that Saturday’s sale is usually much busier, and more casual gardeners may enjoy visiting on Sunday, even if there’s less selection. Plants remaining after the in-person sale will be sold online beginning May 16, to be picked up at the garden. Proceeds from the sale benefit the William Paca Garden, as they have for more than 40 years. Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. annapolis.org. Free; registration required.