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Protecting a Legacy of Planned Wilderness at Dumbarton Oaks Park

Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy tackles both natural and invasive threats to the original wilderness garden.

The reverence in Rebecca Trafton's voice and the joy with which she walks about Dumbarton Oaks Park imbues the 27-acre naturalistic park in Georgetown with a sacredness often reserved for places of worship.

During a 90-minute tour of the park last week, she fretted over a dropped tissue, unleashed dogs and the emerging menace of yet more invasive weeds, creeping their way up a dogwood tree, the way a church keeper might obsess over the cleanliness of a robe or the polish of a chalice.

Trafton, a landscape architect and founder of the board of directors for Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, has made it her mission to stir within others the feelings she has for this small section of Rock Creek Park and to convert those feelings into action.

The gardens of Dumbarton Oaks and Dumbarton Oaks Park were once all connected in 53 acres owned by Mildred and Robert Wood Bliss.

The gardens' design was created and executed by Beatrix Farrand, the first female American landscape architect and a friend of the Bliss family.

"This garden was a work of art. If this was a jeweler, she'd be using gem stones and pearls and gold and silver and platinum. This is the palette that she's working with," Trafton explained, gesturing to the plants and trees of the garden.

The Blisses later split off the land, donating part to Harvard University and part to the National Park Service.

As just one small section of the 3,100 acres Rock Creek Park, Dumbarton Oaks Park has been under-funded and has fallen into neglect as resources were poured into more immediate and complicated road and bridges projects.

Trafton calls Dumbarton Oaks Park the "poor step-sister" of Dumbarton Oaks, which is owned and privately maintained by Harvard University.

But in 2011, the poor step-sister got a benefactor: the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy was founded in partnership with the National Park Service with the mission of restoring and preserving Farrand's natural garden.

In its signature project, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy is taking on the effects of stormwater run off and invasive plant species.

The conservancy is currently vying for funds through the Partners in Preservation program to help execute elements of that project.

Farrand's design involves built elements, circulation elements and the use of a "plant palate" expressed from the tallest beech tree all of the way down to the Virginia blue bells that carpet the ground in early spring.

The falls capture a natural stream and take it through a series of step downs until it dissolves once more into a natural creek body. The varying heights from which the water fell was Farrand's "way of making music," explained Trafton.

But stormwater runoff has damaged and crumbled stone work and undercut the musical falls that Ferrand designed.

Some of the plant palate, brought in by Farrand, includes invasive species. The conservancy has tasked itself with finding similarly shaped and colored plants to create the same effect and replace the invasive species.

"We're trying to stay true to the spirit of Farrand's original design while incorporating 21st century sustainability practices," Trafton said. 

You can still vote for the project through the Partners in Preservation competition wp.me/p3mcIu-6b through May 10.

If you want to get involved, Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. there is a cleanup and invasive species removal event. Saturday from noon to 2:30 p.m. you can join the Georgetown Garden Tour in the park for a docent-led tour.

Learn more about Dumbarton Oaks Park and Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy: http://dopark.org/.

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Anne Symmes May 09, 2013 at 02:30 PM
Beatrix Farrand's work is so important to our national heritage. Hurray for Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy for working to save this legacy!

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