Janice F. Booth
for What’s Up? Magazine, Sept. 2019
Autumn is fast approaching; schools are opening, and our gardening tasks are abating…at least for a few weeks. Now’s a perfect time to plan a few day trips to gardens that may inspire us as we plan next spring’s garden. Some of us have been to Pennsylvania’s grand gardens of the Brandywine Valley and Philadelphia’s Main Line. We’ve explored the District’s Dumbarton Oaks, Hillwood Gardens, the National Arboretum, and National Conservatory. We’ve taken the garden tours of Annapolis.
Now might be the time to wander down into Virginia and explore the historic and lush gardens of the south. Let me suggest some gardens with historical significance and gardens that invite the whole family, with lots for children to enjoy.
So, grab your notepad and sunhat, and let’s get started.
First and most notable of Virginia’s historic gardens are those associated with palatial homes and famous figures we can recognize from our American history textbooks. I’ll mention briefly Mt. Vernon, Monticello, and Williamsburg and then move on to other, less-renowned sites.
Mt. Vernon House & Gardens, just outside the District of Columbia in northern Virginia, interests gardeners and history buffs alike. This National Historic Site was the residence of George Washington from 1754 on. The estate includes the restored, expansive gardens designed by our first president. There are acres of garden areas, which include vegetables, fruit, experimental botany, and flowers. An avid horticulturalist, Washington’s vision for the gardens was influenced by the English landscape designer Batty Langley. Much of the estate is wheelchair accessible, and there are lots of places to stop, rest, and observe. If you haven’t been, go! mountvernon.org
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, outside Charlottesville, reflects Jefferson’s creativity, fascination with the horticultural sciences, and love of nature. As an added bonus, you can see the creative vision of Capability Brown, whose gardens and philosophy of garden design moved mid-18th century England away from classicism to a romantic, and more natural appearance. Jefferson based the designs for his gardens, orchards, and wooded areas on Brown’s designs. The grounds of Monticello include eight acres of orchards, which Jefferson called his “fruitery,” and a thousand-foot-long vegetable terrace. Autumn is a particularly good time for a visit; the Thomas Jefferson Foundation sells seeds collected from their gardens. monticello.org
The third of these historical giants is Colonial Williamsburg. Founded as a settlement in 1633 and rebuilt and restored by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1926, the Colonial-style village includes 25 public gardens and 75 additional gardens that can be toured by appointment. There may not be much that will surprise you among the gardens, but you will get a vision of Colonial garden design. You’ll probably want to spend more than a few hours—perhaps a few days touring—Colonial Williamsburg. colonialwilliamsburg.com
Agecroft Gardens: While Agecroft Gardens is not technically historic itself, it is the 20th century reconstruction of 15th and 16th century English country life. In 1925, industrialist Thomas C. Williams, Jr. bought a 15th-century English manor house. He had it deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt near Richmond. The 23 acres of gardens surrounding the house are Tudor in design, and include a “knot garden,” in which boxwoods have been grown and shaped into a square knot, and another garden inspired by famed 17th-century garden John Tradescant’s designs—worth the trip for those interested in historical garden designs. agecrofthall.org
Berkeley Plantation: Now here’s an intriguing historical site. The first Thanksgiving in 1619 was celebrated here—just over one year before the now-famous Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth Colony. (President Lincoln signed a proclamation in 1863 establishing Thanksgiving day as a national holiday.) Two presidents were born here: William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, and Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president. Today, you can wander over 10 acres of formal gardens, including the Boxwood garden with 100-year-old specimens. There are convenient benches where you can rest and admire the vistas. berkeleyplantation.org
Gunston Hall Gardens: Virginia Declaration of Rights: Established in 1755 as George Mason IV’s ancestral home. George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights that was eventually incorporated in the United States’ Bill of Rights. Currently, there are 550 acres of grounds replete with hiking trails where visitors are encouraged to wander. Look for the garden’s highlights, like the Boxwood Allée, or alley, planted by George Mason IV. gunstonhall.com
Montpelier Gardens: The family home of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, dates back to 1773. In addition to the two acres of formal gardens, there are miles of hiking trails that crisscross the estate. The nine miles of trails are not arduous, and they wander past Civil War archeological remains. Keep an eye out for birds; there are said to be more than 100 species of birds spotted in and around the gardens. montpelier.org
Oatlands Plantation: Established in 1789 by George Carter, the gardens of Oatlands were typical of the Tidewater region of Virginia, formal and terraced. In 1903, William and Edith Eustis purchased the plantation and began restoring the gardens to the grandeur seen today, complete with a reflecting pool, parterres, arches, and statuary. oatlands.org
The next gardens may not have the historical impact, but you’ll find they have their own particular charms.
Blandy Experimental Farm and State Arboretum of Virginia: Blandy Experimental Farm is a 700-acre research field station. The arboretum, which occupies 172 acres, contains over 5,000 trees and shrubs, including a 300-tree ginkgo grove and plants from around the world. The Garden Club of Virginia manages the arboretum. Overseen by the University of Virginia, the farm offers classes and guided walks. Check their website for dates and times. blandy.virginia.edu
Maymont Gardens and Manor: Located in Richmond, this 100-acre estate reflects the glories of the Gilded Age in America. There are bison and deer grazing in the meadows, as well as a petting zoo and nature center if you want a closer look at nature. Maymont offers carriage rides and tours of the mansion, giving you the opportunity to imagine how it might have felt to be the owner of all you survey. This garden is particularly delightful for a multi-generational adventure. There’s lots of activities for the children, while the elders enjoy less strenuous encounters with the manor house and garden’s treasures. maymont.org
MacCallum More Museum & Gardens: Last, but not least, this tiny jewel of a garden is a particular favorite of mine. You can wander the winding paths of the garden’s six acres, and around every corner you may discover a statue, a fountain, an architectural feature, or cluster of interesting plants and shrubs to capture your imagination. Anachronistically, the museum houses a large collection of Native American artifacts purchased by the home’s owner, William Hudgins. mmmg.org
Norfolk Botanical Garden: Established in 1938, the gardens include three acres of children’s gardens and a “museum for plants.” In addition, there are specialty gardens; Japanese, rose, and desert plants among others. Ninety-five species of birds and 30 types of butterflies have been sighted within the gardens. A tram takes visitors on guided tours around some of the 175-acres, a fun way to explore the Botanical Garden if you have a tired group. norfolkbotanicalgarden.org
Whether you’re interested in garden design and want to study the 17th-century work of Tradescant or Brown’s renowned 18th-century gardens, or if you simply want to admire the visions of those who loved their gardens, any of these Virginia gardens will delight and inspire you.