On the Job: New Gardens Head at Dumbarton Oaks

Jonathan Kavalier, director of gardens and grounds at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Peggy Sands.

Jonathan Kavalier, the new director of gardens and grounds at Dumbarton Oaks, took up his post just as the gardens at the Harvard University-owned research library and museum in Georgetown were reopening after nine months of reconstruction.

“We had to replace the entire 100-year-old water system, made out of deteriorating lead pipes that ran under a good portion of the gardens and lawns,” Kavalier told The Georgetowner during a garden walk-through. In addition, several of the fountains were converted to self-sufficient recirculating water systems and the north garden’s drainage runoff was reconfigured. All that trenching work, some of it with a new air-powered drilling and spading process called air spacing, caused some damage to plants and landscaped areas that the new director is now dealing with.

But it was clear that Kavalier did not find the work at all onerous. “I am so lucky that Dumbarton Oaks Garden has a phenomenal gardening staff,” he said. “Some have been here 30 years and are experts in plant and soil maintenance and enhancement, planting and pruning.”

The staff of three specialist crews of gardeners and horticulturalists meets at 7 a.m. each morning with Kavalier, who drives in from his home in Vienna, Virginia. They are guided in all their work by the plans and writings of Beatrix Farrand, the first and arguably the most famous American woman landscape designer. Original Dumbarton Oaks owners Robert and Mildred Bliss commissioned Farrand to design the entire grounds of the estate in 1921.

“It took almost 15 years, but she kept notes that are wonderfully insightful and helpful to this day,” Kavalier said. “Farrand gave us the iconic garden designs and color patterns for the various garden areas at Dumbarton, but she was also very clear that she knew that garden conditions and even plants change over time. While she didn’t use the words ‘climate change,’ the garden plans left much flexibility for its future gardeners to replace original plants with new species evolving because of changing conditions.”

Kavalier grew up gardening in Bethesda, Maryland, with his father, a doctor whose sole garden passion was azaleas. Longing for variety, after graduating with a degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin, he spent two years in Madagascar, an East African island nation where 90 percent of the plant life does not exist anywhere else.

Returning to D.C. in 2008, Kavalier worked on the garden management staff of the Smithsonian and the Capitol until his longtime friend Gail Griffin, gardens and grounds head at Dumbarton Oaks since 1997, encouraged him to apply for her job.

Now, one of the big events he must start planning for is the garden’s centennial in 2021.



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