Monday, October 21, 2013

Halloween Corn Maze Alternative: The U.S. National Arboretum

Living in the nation's capitol during the federal shut-down made it clear how much we value the national parks and museums that welcome visitors free of charge, in exchange for a wealth of value.
While the Smithsonian museums and Skyline Drive reopened to the usual flood of tourists last week, one of our  most alluring living museums remains eerily quiet. At the risk of giving away one of the Capitol's best kept secrets, I feel compelled to shout that the United States National Arboretum is open, for free, year round! I've rarely spotted more than a few dozen people ambling among the azaleas, biking the rolling park roads, or marveling at the 100-plus year old Bonsai trees. Though the Arboretum is a little off the beaten path, there's ample free parking. It's a 10-minute drive from the Capitol and about 30 minutes from Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

Last Saturday was a perfect October day for leaf-peepers and pumpkin-seekers. We opted to skip the traffic clogged ex-urbs and headed for the National Arboretum. We pulled in at 9:00am to a nearly empty parking lot. A security guard eyed our daughter's scooter and told us it wasn't allowed in the park. Bikes are welcome, however, and there's a tram that offers a guided tour around the 446-acre campus. Walking is clearly the best way to experience the winding paths of Fern Valley, the enchanting Asian Collection, and spring-blooming Azaleas. We began our tour in the herb garden, where signage explained traditional medicinal uses. Pollinators were hard at work, filling up on late-season nectar.

Exiting the herb garden, we followed meadow-mowed paths to the National Capitol Columns. Originally intended for the Capitol building, the locally-quaried Corinthian columns proved out of proportion for the Capitol dome. They were added to the Arboretum's ellipse in 1984. The columns face a quiet reflecting pool and are surrounded by meadow grasses and flowers that offer an unusual urban habitat for native insects and mammals. Watching kids dart through the high-mowed paths made me think of the corn mazes we weren't really missing.

Moving on to Fern Valley, with its eery natural decay, clinched our fortuitous choice to stay local rather than embark on a "haunted" trail. Migrating birds landed on wobbly seed pods, filling up for their long
journey. Tufts of cottony milkweed stuck to our hair and clothes. The Native Plant collection, with its seamless transition from meadow to woodland habitat always inspires my home landscape.

As luck would have it, we wandered into the Washington Youth Garden, just in time for the Annual Garlic Planting Party. That's right - plant garlic in time for Halloween! With free lunch provided by Chipotle, a delectable mint infusion prepared by the Youth Garden Manager, green tomato pie courtesy of the garden staff, and a very unusual squash pie, we were in Eden! Loe and behold, we even discovered a corn and tall grass maze. This lovely little spot invites children to smell, touch, dig, leap across logs, and play a large wooden xylophone. Though our daughter was still energized after several hours of walking, snapping photos, sniffing, hopping, and eating, we opted to leave on a high note. We'll save the remainder of this enchanting secret garden for another fresh, cool day.


  1. Thanks for posting about our Garlic Planting Party and sharing the word about the Washington Youth Garden. We're going to post your blog on our Facebook Page ( this Saturday morning - and we hope you'll come back soon!

    1. Thank you! We plan to visit the Arboretum spring, summer, fall, and winter to see how the landscape changes throughout the year. I'm literally bursting with ideas from the Washington Youth Garden that I can bring to my own school - from the living wall to the natural instruments, and all the delicious food growing in between.

    2. Brenda,
      As Charla already said, we're so glad you found our Garlic Party and that we found your blog post. As you may know, we are an independent non-profit and must raise all of our own funds. Would you help spread the word about our current campaign on Indiegogo? Here's the link:
      Support from garden enthusiasts like you and your readers makes all the difference in sustaining this special place!
      Thanks so much! I'd be happy to provide additional information if you email me at