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The Greenest Garden in Washington

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The British poet Alexander Pope once observed that, "All gardening is landscape-painting." But today's gardeners need to be environmental stewards as well as aesthetes.

The single largest contributor to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is chemicals applied to lawns and farms. To do our bit to combat this trend, the British Embassy adopted an organic approach to management of the Residence garden on Massachusetts Avenue in July of 2009. It has not been an easy task -- certainly spraying weeds is faster than plucking them by hand. But the extra work makes for a more responsibly and sustainably run garden.

In order to reduce the amount of water we use, we have installed a 1,700-gallon cistern. The cistern is the central part of our grey water system, collecting rainwater that we then use in the greenhouse and elsewhere. The rainwater provides our plants with nutrients and minerals that are deficient in tap water. The water is heated by a solar collector over the garden office, which has allowed us to cut back on the energy used by a conventional hot water heater.

We're cutting down our chemical use, too. An integrated pest management approach is helping reduce our dependence on pesticides and herbicides: we check plants for bugs before they're introduced to the greenhouse, and use horticultural oil and soap to eliminate the pests that make their way in. We now compost all weeds, branches, appropriate kitchen waste, leaves and grass clippings. This has reduced our contribution to landfills considerably.

Reducing what we take of public resources, and decreasing the chemicals we put into the air and water, stems from our goal of being a responsible member of the DC community.

As well as being a good neighbour, we want to be an active participant in DC's verdant gardening scene. Our new rain garden slows down water flow across the property, so more water soaks into the soil. This reduces runoff onto Massachusetts Avenue, and helps us keep Winston Churchill's feet dry where he stands at the edge of the property. District of Columbia ordinances require properties to have some form of runoff control, and rain gardens have sprung up as a low-cost, aesthetically pleasing option.

One of the other trends taking root around DC is the rise of beekeeping. President and First Lady Obama brought bees back to the White House grounds, and the Fairmont Hotel boasts two hives on its roof. We recently added two hives of our own, and can see what all the buzz is about.

But the grounds are more than just pretty to look at: they are home to a working, functional kitchen garden as well. Our bees both pollinate the plants around the grounds, and provide honey that we use in the Residence. Among the many varieties of trees we have fruit-bearing apricot, apple and pear trees. We grow herbs and spices, greens and fruit, like figs and alpine strawberries -- all used by our kitchen.

While we greatly enjoy the things we get out of the Residence gardens, what's gone into it tells some of the story of the UK-US relationship. We exchange ideas, and sometimes even plants, with the US Botanical Garden. The bay leaves in the kitchen garden came from plants at the White House. And the hyacinth bean climbing the brick wall of the Residence comes from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, where Jefferson (an avid gardener) first introduced the plant to the United States.

In many ways, gardening has much in common with diplomacy. The seeds you plant take careful care and cultivation to turn out well. Nothing is the same from year to year. You learn from what works -- and what doesn't -- to know better what to do the next time. And the end goal of your work is a productive area where all things have a chance to grow and thrive.

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