ON SITE: The British embassy

Embassy Row, Washington, D.C. The words evoke images of diplomats, limousines and formal state ceremonies. Thus, you might expect embassies to maintain an especially attractive appearance. They are, after all, the official presence of sovereign states. Yet, a stroll down Embassy Row quickly shows that most embassy landscapes are not a high priority. The grounds of most are disappointingly simple, even neglected. Amid such scenery, the grounds of the British embassy are a refreshing respite from the surrounding mediocrity.

As you approach the embassy, an imposing bronze of Winston Churchill leaves little doubt about whose ambassador lives here. And once inside the embassy walls, the appearance is not unlike what you might expect of an English estate: classical columns, rose gardens and perennial borders. Ironically, the groundskeeper responsible for this piece of English heritage is Kerry Blockley, a native New Zealander (well, New Zealand is part of the Commonwealth). Assisting him is American Sandy Flowers.

Blockley has been maintaining and improving the embassy grounds for most of his working life, creating a landscape he unabashedly feels may be the best of any embassy. A quick look around tells you that this is no empty boast. The embassy's 8 acres--a remarkably large piece of land in Washington, D.C.--include ornamental plantings that comprise more than 2,000 azaleas, as many perennials (consisting of about 100 varieties), 1,200 roses and several thousand annuals in addition to about 60,000 square feet of perennial ryegrass turf. Plant connoisseurs will feel at home here.

Blockley works to add accents that grab the visitor's attention. He's training hornbeam trees to form a "circle in the round," or aerial hedge (see photo, page 52). A small Japanese garden is another specialized project Blockley is developing. And what formal landscape would be truly complete without a water feature? Seemingly anticipating the question, Blockley had one under construction at the time of my visit.

When he's not busy designing and planting gardens for the Crown, Blockley performs less glamorouswork, as any groundskeeper inevitably must. Wild strawberry, clover and nutsedge are persistent turf weeds, so pest controls are as necessary here as anywhere else. Blockley uses Dow AgroSciences' Confront for broadleaf weeds and Monsanto's Manage for the nutsedge, getting good performance from both. Though not necessarily averse to synthetic products, Blockley exclusively uses Nature Safe 8-3-5 on his turf. Combined with aggressive aeration, the turf thrives with this program. Although Blockley doesn't use a turf pre-emergent, he sees little trouble from annual weeds.

Excessive wear is a problem for heavily used turf areas on the embassy grounds. To alleviate such problems, Blockley uses Turface and Profile, both clay-based granular products, as soil amendments. After aerating compacted turf areas, he topdresses with these products, filling the aeration holes. These pockets act as reservoirs, supplying roots in the surrounding soil with oxygen and moisture. Granular clay-based products are, Blockley feels, superior to sand as amendments because the clay granules provide similar structure and aeration but hold far more nutrients and water.

Greenhouses and interiorscaping also fall under Blockley's responsibilities. Among other things, Blockley uses the greenhouses for rotating interior plants, including orchids, ferns and other tropicals. Additionally, he grows some of the embassy's bedding, although he outsources most of it.

Many historically significant events undoubtedly occur behind these walls, most about which we'll never hear. However, the grounds here also hold some more visible history. In the days following the tragic death of Princess Diana, crowds quietly gathered at a hastily erected shrine outside the embassy walls. Peoples' obvious affection for the late princess makes more significant a maple tree ceremonially planted by Prince Charles and Diana on these grounds before their divorce. Thanks to Blockley, that tree grows in surroundings fit to honor royalty.

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