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The Story Behind K Street’s Magical Fairy Garden Tree Box

A Golden Triangle contest placed beautiful pollinator gardens around DC's downtown. Here's how one of them came together.

Photographs by Andrew Beaujon.

A hedgehog reads a book. Two fairies balance on a seesaw with a snail atop its fulcrum. A butterfly alights on a playful fawn’s nose. Just your average everyday scene on K Street.

The whimsical installation occupies a tree box outside 1900 K Street, on the southwest corner of K and 19th streets, Northwest. It’s a building owned by Nuveen Real Estate and managed by Hines where two big law firms have offices.

Other pollinator gardens are sprinkled around downtown DC because of the annual “Golden Streets” contest held by the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District. This year, the BID partnered with Smithsonian Gardens, which manages the museums’ grounds and constructs “exhibition gardens” around the Mall, among other tasks. Earlier this year, Smithsonian supervisory horticulturist James Gagliardi did a presentation about pollinator gardens for property managers in the BID, which encompasses a roughly turkey-shaped hunk of downtown roughly from 16th Street, Northwest, near the White House to the south side of Dupont Circle, to around 21st Street, Northwest.

About 60 people turned out for the presentation, Gagliardi tells Washingtonian, far more than he or the BID expected. He explained the significance of pollinator gardens and suggested plants to incorporate in tree boxes for the BID’s annual contest. Gagliardi has been a judge in previous years, but says this is the first time he got to influence what get planted. Smithsonian Gardens planted pollinator gardens as examples at two small parks: Longfellow Park, at Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street, and James Monroe Park, at Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th Street.

Longfellow Park, which was abuzz in pollinators when Washingtonian visited last week.

The contest is one of the “fun parts of our job,” says Paige Furcal, 1900 K’s property manager. The building has had a pretty good run in previous Golden Triangle contests. It won first place for a tropical gardens theme that featured a real pineapple plant (which Furcal says they ate later in the year) and second place for an Arabian-themed garden for a “gardens around the world” theme last year.

For this year’s box, Furcal says, they figured, “everyone’s going to be doing bees, so let’s think of some other pollinators.” So assistant property manager Sara Fabian “came up with the idea that maybe fairies are pollinators.”

Furcal and Fabian turned to Mary McDermott of the Chapel Valley Landscape Company, who designed the previous winning entries, to execute the idea. “I thought this would be a great idea,” McDermott says, “because it shows you can have pollinator plants in every garden.”

Indeed, Gagliardi says, the idea behind the contest is to show people what they can do in their gardens at home, no matter how much space they have. Pollinators, which include bees as well as butterflies and bats are responsible for a third of all US agriculture. Some are endangered, and many of their populations may be in decline.

Gagliardi judged this year’s entries alongside Dumbarton Oaks horticulturist Luis Marmol and NBCWashington meteorologist Amelia Draper. “I’ve walked around for years and judged [the boxes] without anyone listening to me,” Gagliardi says. “It’s very hard when you want to give a trophy to everyone.” 

In the end, the judges picked four first-place winners. Best in Design went to 888 17th Street, Northwest. Best in Sustainability went to 1900 M Street, Northwest. Best New Entry went to 1999 K Street, Northwest. And Best Tiny Tree Box went to 1717 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

1900 K Street, alas, won nothing this year, a situation Furcal, Fabian, and McDermott are taking in stride. As usual, the boxes near the building will be replaced with mums this fall and pansies this winter. This was McDermott’s first fairy garden, and she says that when the figures arrived at her house, her husband laughed about the figures. Now: “We’re going to do a fairy garden in our house next year,” she says. “He’s really into it.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.