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About the Kitchen Gardens

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When Beatrix Farrand began her first designs for Dumbarton Oaks in 1922, she searched for the most level expanse of land to serve as the kitchen garden. The former chicken yard and hen house near the northeastern corner of the property proved to be perfect. Here she planned an estate garden in the English tradition. The inclusion of a kitchen garden was especially important to Farrand’s design as she saw the beautiful yet utilitarian space as unifying the whole scheme of terraces, house, and wilderness. Her first drawings divided the space into a grape arbor, frame yard, espaliered fruit trees, and vegetable garden to the east, with an arboretum to the west and a north-south walkway cutting down the center. A flower cutting garden eventually replaced the arboretum, as the western side of the kitchen garden proved too small for a proper arboretum.

During the years of Bliss residence, the kitchen garden provided flowers for the house and fruit and vegetables for the estate. It began as an economical set up, but in the 1940s, the transition to Harvard necessitated a change. A reduced garden staff as well as better prices for market produce prompted Dumbarton Oaks Director John Thacher to begin plans to discontinue the vegetable garden. After consultation with Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand, he made the decision final in 1944. However, before removing the vegetables altogether, the kitchen garden served for two years, 1942–43, as a model Victory Garden to help the war effort.

The frame yard was also suppressed in 1949, which opened much of the kitchen gardens up for redesign. In the 1950s, Mildred Bliss commissioned Robert Patterson to draw plans for new garden rooms that could replace the empty vegetable garden and frame yard. Patterson drew designs for a fragrant Garden for the Blind and a Byzantine Garden, but neither design was ever realized. Among other reasons, the kitchen garden site proved particularly unsuitable for the Garden for the Blind due to its extreme remoteness.

After almost sixty years of serving other purposes, the vegetable garden returned to vegetables in 2009, and has been replanted successfully each year since by garden staff and interns. The cutting garden continues to serve fresh flowers to the house, and the grape arbor and fruit trees remain as Farrand designed. In the summer of 2012, garden staff and interns excavated the pit house on the northern edge of the former frame yard. The pit house may be rebuilt in coming years and returned to its original use.