I have a problem leaving my garden in the spring—even if the weather is chilly and rainy. At the moment a familiar scene is being reenacted in my plant holding area, where root bound potted specimens are crying out to be freed from confinement. My back porch is loaded with seedling trays full of tiny plants that have been hardened off, and are yearning to break out of their tiny cell packs. My kitchen is littered with packets full of the seeds that will go into seed trays as soon as the hardened off seedlings are planted. Chickweed grows apace in the back yard, and a groundhog the size of a beaver is frolicking regularly among my specimen plants.
In spite of all that, I left last week to spend five days in balmy floriferous Virginia. Every spring for the past 71 years, the Garden Club of Virginia has sponsored “Historic Garden Week” at the end of April. During that time, homeowners and institutions all over the state open up their gardens and buildings to tourists. The homes and gardens on display are a mix of old, new, large, small, conventional and far out. There are an impressive number of things to see every day of garden week.
Some people spend Garden Week cris-crossing the state trying to get to as many sites as possible. Since I had my long-suffering husband and twelve-year-old child in tow, I restricted myself to the Williamsburg area. That way we had something for everyone—history and relaxation for my husband, shopping opportunities for my daughter, and plenty of gardens and history for me.
In terms of modern landscape plantings, it is hard to beat the grounds of the Williamsburg Inn and Lodge. Abundance is evident everywhere. It must have taken ten greenhouses worth of pansies and violas just to supply the various beds around the lodging buildings. Clumps of Helleborus x hybridus and Helleborus foetidus (the unfortunately nicknamed Stinking hellebore), all in flower, were everywhere. I have never seen such large-scale use of this distinctive shade lover in institutional planting schemes. Whoever designed the beds used hellebores the same way that many people use hostas. I have resolved to install similar clumps of these striking plants in my own shade beds.
Even if you have never been to the restored section of Williamsburg, you have probably seen pictures of its gardens. These plots, which have been recreated on an ongoing basis since the 1930’s are, like all gardens, works in progress. Since the beginning of the restoration of Williamsburg’s historic buildings and grounds over sixty years ago, ideas of what colonial gardens really looked like have changed. Most of the gardens in the historic district are undoubtedly neater and prettier than their colonial era counterparts, with many more ornamental plants than our forbearers would have had. Since my last visit to the restoration fifteen years ago, there has been an increased emphasis on kitchen gardens, with small plots of various vegetables and herbs enclosed in simple raised beds. I was especially interested in the garden of Biblical herbs maintained by the venerable Bruton Parish Church.
When most people conjure up an image to fit the word “plantation”, they envision something white with a wide veranda and imposing columns—like Tara in “Gone With The Wind”. In reality plantations came in many sizes. We visited Bel Air, one of the oldest surviving 17th century frame structures in Virginia, and found a cozy farmhouse surrounded by a small, well tended garden, and acres of farmland that are still under cultivation. The garden, combining herbs with ornamentals, was similar in nature and composition to some of those behind various tradesmen’s houses in Williamsburg.
We also saw Evelynton Plantation, a 1930’s recreation of what the owners and their architect thought an 18th century plantation should be. The architect had previously done work on Carter’s Grove, one of the grandest Tidewater plantations, so Evelynton’s house and garden fit in nicely with the area’s older structures. The grounds of the estate are splendid, with the long vistas and allees of mature trees that were an integral part of 18th century English estate architecture. There is also a flower garden, where I saw something that I have long admired and coveted: a “Lady Banks” rose. The Lady Banks (Rosa banksia lutea) is a climber that flourishes in the South, and is frequently trained to grow up trees. The specimen at Evelynton had scaled an old tree, and its pale yellow blossoms cascaded back down to earth on long canes. If I wanted to arrange a spectacle like that, it would take years. Besides, my USDA Zone 6 garden is at the outer limits of Lady Banks’ hardiness range, and she may be banned in this state because of her rapacious growth habits.
Historic Garden Week in Virginia is all about verdure and variety. I returned with lots of inspiration, as well as a few souvenir plants from the Colonial Nursery in Williamsburg. I am going out into the rain now to plant some hellebores.