Brookside Gardens, Jewel of Montgomery County

Brookside Gardens

Nestled in the sprawling suburbs of Washington DC, Brookside Gardens is a beautiful collection of well-manicured gardens and open spaces. Brookside is named after the numerous winding streams and brooks that pervade this area. The site has grown from its original 25 acres and conservatory in 1969, to a sizeable 50-acre site with multiple venues and displays. Originally known as the Stadler Nursery, Brookside Gardens was purchased by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) in 1965. It took four years to re-develop the site as a favorite local public garden. The MNCPPC commissioned landscape architect Hans Hanses to create the original garden designs. Using techniques, Hanses learned while studying in Europe, notably Germany and Switzerland, Hans developed plans that were more concerned with aesthetics than conventional formulas. In designing Brookside Gardens Hans’ philosophy was to focus on garden creations that local people would recognize and be able to copy. He did this by incorporating flora that was readily attainable, and suitable for the Washington DC region. Both formal and informal areas of Brookside Gardens are divided into smaller, intimate “rooms” defined by walls, shrubs, or trees. Contrasts of color are used in building materials as well as plants for dramatic effects. The results are a beautiful public garden that has boasts year-round interest for families and gardeners alike.

Brookside Gardens’ Early Years

On July 13, 1969, Brookside Gardens opened to the public in the corner of Wheaton Regional Park. A success from the start there were some 35,000 visitors in the first year, with just ten employees manning the gardens. At this time Brookside Gardens consisted of a smaller 25-acre site with three formal gardens, a Wedding Gazebo, an Azalea Walk on the brow of the hill, plantings around the entrance, and the Conservatory. The Conservatory complex housed office space, a horticultural library, a sub-tropical display house, and a smaller propagation glasshouse that produced plants for indoor and outdoor displays.

Creation of the Gude Garden

A new phase of development started in 1972. The MNCPPC installed several new gardens, including the Fragrance Garden, the Gude Garden, and the Rose Garden. Taking several years to fix, a Trial Garden (for testing new annuals) and an Aquatic Garden were added later. With its beautiful mix of color and textures, the Gude Japanese Garden offers landscape photographers a subject of considerable depth and variety. Comprising of bamboo, carefully placed stonework, dogwoods, and a Japanese tea house set beautifully at the edge of a large lake, the Gude garden exemplifies the Japanese garden style. The Gude Japanese Garden is named after prominent local nurseryman Adolph Gude and dedicated by his son, Congressman Gilbert Gude. Construction work on the Gude Garden began in 1972. It sits at the far end of the Brookside Gardens site, with its subtly rolling hills and cooling clear ponds. Reached by bridges and stepping stones, the wooden Japanese Tea House forms the central focus for the garden with the surrounding dogwoods, maples, bamboo and conifers tied to together by with curving paths Other developments during the 1970s saw:

  • An extension of the Azalea Walk, making room for additional shade plants while providing vistas over the Aquatic Garden ponds
  • The addition of an impressive Viburnum Collection
  • The creation of a Winter Garden to display cold-season fauna
  • In October 1978 the first Brookside Gardens Chrysanthemum Show was held in the Conservatory
  • Severe winters in the late 1970s killed much of an early Camellia Garden developed on the site. Brookside Gardens is working with the National Arboretum to introduce more hardy Camelia variants into the gardens

Wings of Fancy, Brookside in the 1990s

In 1997 two favorite annual events were added – the Wings of Fancy Live Butterfly Exhibit and the Garden of Lights. Popular with visitors, and children, in particular, is the annual Wings of Fancy exhibit. Open during the summer months the exhibit is housed in one of the two conservatories at the top of the gardens. On entry, the staff describes the exhibit and the lifecycle of the butterflies. Inside, you stroll around the conservatory as the many colorful butterflies fly, feed and drink, often resting on unsuspecting visitors. The species in the exhibit are varied in size, color, and origin.

Here we see a Parthenos Sylvia taking a drink. The Parthenos Sylvia or ‘Clipper’ butterfly genus consists of some differently patterned subspecies. They are found primarily in rainforests in South and South-East Asia, often close to rivers. Native to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaya, Philippines, and New Guinea fit in well in the Brookside conservatory which houses numerous tropical plant species including banana, giant bird of paradise, and Calliandra (Powderpuff tree). The Brookside Gardens Visitor Center was opened in 1998 after a generous donation by Elizabeth Turner. The center houses a variety of functions including a shop, information desk, and horticultural library. Most of the center provides a focal point for the gardens and a place to cool off during the height of the summer.

Master Plan for the Future

At the north edge of the lake, Between the Visitor Center and the Gude Japanese Garden lies the Reflection Terrace. A serene stone memorial carved into the natural landscape, provides a natural quiet space for contemplation. Dedicated on October 1, 2004, the Reflection Terrace commemorates the victims of the 2002 sniper shootings in Montgomery County. Despite the longevity and popularity of Brookside Gardens, the organization never rests on its laurels. In 2001 the MNCPPC approved a 20-25 year master plan. According to a contemporary article from the now-defunct Maryland community media outlet The Gazette:

Expansion and renovation plans in the next several decades are outlined in the Brookside Gardens master plan. The master plan will be implemented in four phases over the next 25 to 30 years in five-year increments and is expected to cost $30 million – Vismara [Director]

According to the Brookside Gardens’ website, this plan was broken down into several phases: Phase One – Reinforce the Visitors Center as the heart of Brookside Gardens. Create a welcoming arrival area with site-specific artwork. Achieved by the renewal of the Gardens’ main entrance. Phase Two – Expand the parking lot and improve stormwater management. Phase Three – Focus on stabilizing the banks of the two streams that act as boundaries for the Gardens. Allow for new ornamental plantings to take advantage of the beautiful stretches of water that affirm the name “Brookside Gardens.”  

    Today, Brookside Gardens has grown to 54 acres. There are 20,000 plus plants in 32 acres of cultivated gardens. In 2016 some 400,000 plus people visited the Gardens. Most of all, Brookside is a beautiful oasis in a Washington DC suburban neighborhood. A joy to visit any time of the year.

Current features include:

  • Aquatic Garden – an architectural gazebo accompanied by water-loving plants with two ponds
  • Azalea Garden – Azaleas thrive in the Washington DC area. This garden exhibits over 300 varieties of azaleas and 2,000 plants
  • ‘Wings of Fancy’ Butterfly Garden – During summer only
  • Children’s Garden
  • Conservatories – seasonal displays and special exhibits
  • Fragrance Garden
  • Gude Garden – Japanese-style garden
  • Maple Terrace – raised beds within a planting of ‘Suminagashi’ Japanese maples
  • Perennial Garden – wisterias, roses, jasmine, buddleia, and Prunus x
  • Reflection Terrace – a memorial to the victims of the October 2002 Washington D.C. area sniper attacks
  • Rock Garden – spring-flowering bulbs with grasses and conifers
  • Rose Garden – all types of roses, including hybrid tea, rugosa hybrids, Grandiflora, English, miniature, floribunda, shrub, groundcover, polyantha, climber, Gallica, hybrid musk, and the garden rose
  • Trial Garden – spring-flowering bulbs, then summer displays of new and unusual plant varieties
  • Woodland Walk – forested wetland
  • Yew Garden – a garden room within yew hedges

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