Virginia: Showcasing public and private gardens

Overlooking the broad back lawn of Monticello, I easily imagine Thomas Jefferson on his knees planting tulips in one of the beds bordering the winding sidewalk. He stands with dirty hands and stained knees and admires the beauty of his handiwork.

Jefferson loved gardens, both ornamental and vegetable, and added nature’s beauty to the designs of the Virginia state capitol, the University of Virginia Rotunda and, of course, his masterpiece, Monticello. 

“Though an old man, I am but a young gardener,” he bragged.

As home of the palatial estates of the nation’s first patriots, presidents and millionaires, Virginia upholds Jefferson’s ideal of showcase gardens. Each year in April when the blossoms reach their peak, 250 gardens from the Atlantic to the Appalachia invite the public to share their splendor.

During the statewide rites-of-spring celebration, now in its 77th year, Richmond is ground zero for garden extravagance. When the city’s gardens, parks and estates burst into bloom, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens shines like a crown jewel.

“Ginter Botanical Garden has one million flowers in bloom during Garden Week,” our guide, Linda Miller, says.

Looking around at the multi-hued mass of tulips, irises and daffodils carpeting the beds and the rows of azaleas, roses, hawthorns and redbuds bordering the walkways, it’s obvious she’s not exaggerating.The entrance walkway leads past a central fountain toward a classical Victorian glass conservatory with columns and a domed roof. Massive drifts of tulips border the picturesque walk. 

“This is our ‘tulip catalogue,’” Miller tells us. “We plant 18,000 tulips with selections from hundreds of varieties. Visitors can see the color variations and how the tulips respond to our climate. People pick their favorites and write down the names.”

Virginia’s Garden Week began in 1929 when eight garden clubs from across the state joined to raise funds to restore some of the state’s historic gardens. Today, 47 clubs with 3,300 volunteers participate.

“Local clubs in each town organize tours of homes with outstanding gardens, furnishings, restorations and art collections,” Suzanne Munson, director of the Garden Club of Virginia, says. “We start with a lynchpin property and try to get others within walking distance, so we won’t have to use shuttles. Each tour includes 10 homes and refreshments or lunch.”

The 2010 Garden Week, April 17-25, will include more than 24 tours across the state, featuring private homes from the Colonial era, American Revolution, Civil War, Victorian period and contemporary times. “Many of the tours feature special events,” Munson says. “Some include flower-arranging demonstrations, musical ensembles, fashion shows and lunches.”Since its original tour, the Garden Club of Virginia has raised $12 million and restored more than 40 historically significant gardens. The club’s landscape architects and restoration experts renovated the grounds of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Wilson and gardens at historical churches, courthouses, plantations and estates. Besides the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Garden Club assisted the gardens at Maymont estate, the most visited public park in Richmond.Maymont preserves the property of James Dooley, who made millions rebuilding the rail system of the war-torn South. With 100 acres of landscaped grounds on the shores of the James River, the park includes the mansion, Italian and Japanese gardens and cacti, herb, daylily, butterfly and English-walled gardens. Sitting on the highest of the hills, the classic Romanesque-Revival mansion is furnished with the glittering opulence of an age that considered conspicuous extravagance a social requirement. Tours showcase the carved woodwork, stained glass, art and statuary, wall tapestries and European-period furnishings that attest to Dooley’s social status.

The Dooleys surrounded their house with an arboretum of more than 200 species of trees and shrubs from around the world. Towering trees shade the path to the Italian garden, which spreads across a terrace overlooking the James River. Tulips, irises and petunias color patterned beds of red, white and blue, and a Renaissance-style pergola anchors a vine-shaded walkway.

A 45-foot waterfall cascades over a natural granite cliff and flows into the lake of the Japanese garden. Azaleas, rhododendrons, redbud trees and a moon bridge accent the paths. The estate also includes a zoo with 700 native animals, a children’s farm and a nature center with environmental education programs.

Symmetrical flower beds surround Monticello and add nature’s splendor to its classical design. Colorful gardens accent the front and rear entrances and border the red cinder walking paths behind the home.

In the distance, Jefferson’s other masterpiece, the University of Virginia Rotunda, peeks through the trees. Jefferson designed walled gardens for the professors’ pavilion homes along the campus mall. During Garden Week, special tours open the “secret gardens” to the public.

“The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” Jefferson wrote. 

Many of the plants he brought home from his European travels remain garden mainstays. He planted 450 varieties of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Starting 400 years ago, with the first flowerbed in the struggling Jamestown colony, gardening remains one of Virginia’s proudest traditions. And, Garden Week showcases the state’s premier examples of nature’s colorful springtime display.

George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.

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