On The Road in The Majestic Gardens of Virginia
Molly Beauchemin, Editor-in-Chief
An interesting thing about central Virginia is that it is often referred to as “the Eden of the East Coast”. The Shenandoah valley is lush with beautiful, dense, old-growth forest interpersed with idyllic farms and majestic views of the misty Blue Ridge Mountains. There are peach orchards, vineyards, horse farms, and hidden creeks with amazing trails for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, running, and cliff jumping for those who are so inclined. It is, in my opinion, one of the most gorgeous parts of the country– its the “California” of the East Coast, with a preponderance of restaurants that locally-source all of their meat, seafood, fruit, veg, and dairy.
Alas, I have a bias: when I was a student at University of Virginia, I used to study in a hammock under the cherry blossoms in the University’s European gardens. On the weekends I’d hike humpback rock at dawn and watch the sunset with my friends. We went wine-tasting in fall and strawberry picking in the spring (we also picked peaches and apples, depending on the month). We had picnics in the gardens at Monticello (that’s a picture of it above) and did yoga in the old growth forests of the Rivanna Trail. My memories of UVa are pure bliss. My parents would make excuses to visit me just so that they could buy Dan’s Jam at the Charlottesville Farmers Market, and when two friends of mine hiked the Appalachian trail, they stopped only in Charlottesville because its the only place in the country where its possible to camp, fish, raft, and go hot-air ballooning in rustic Appalachia and still have time to go to a James Beard-nominated restaurant at night. (Charlottesville has more farm-to-table restaurants than any other city in America, I learned.)
All of this is to say that I thoroughly explored the natural landscape of Virginia when I lived there, and the best part of Virginia Garden Week was finally making it to those niche estates and residences that I never got a chance to see when I was a student. I used to drive the back roads of Ablemarle County musing about the horse farms and gorgeous brick homes up on the hill, but I never got to go on the property. Traipsing around the pools and espaliered tulip beds in front of the open-air chimney on one residence was divine; elsewhere, a waist-high raised-bed vegetable garden blew my mind with its visual intrigue. Everywhere, Redbud and Lilac and Magnolia and Dogwood and Cherry blossom and Crabapple were blooming, a warm breeze rustling the tree boughs as other Virginia Garden Week visitors snapped pictures and gasped at their beauty. We drove off the estates and across the same vineyards and horse farms where I used to roam as a student, and as the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains, if only for a second, it felt like I had never left.
Our first Garden Collage Road Trip was to explore the Virginia Historic House and Garden Tour. We took the train (to the delight of our European contingent) to Charlottesville, which was a surprisingly easy and relaxing way to arrive from New York– but the real treat was being able to look out on the hills covered in flowering native Redbud and Dogwood trees. The further we moved South, the more Spring seemed to emerge.
After this long New York winter, the warm Virginia air and smell of freshly-cut grass was intoxicating. There’s a certain magic surrounding the spring garden; a sense of renewal, anticipation, and excitement. There’s also a mystique surrounding what blooms in the spring, because it’s ephemeral. Certain trees and shrubs bloom early and wilt before the summer, and the train is a prime way to observe these changes when they appear for a limited time each year.
We arrived in Virginia just in time to see beds of colorful tulips, the rather odd Fritillaria, the beloved Hellebores, sturdy Hyacinth, romantic Bleeding Hearts and Bluebells, and even an enchanting swath of forget–me-nots nestled in the roots of towering Oak.
Lilac and Viburnum bushes were a nice reminder that many of Virginia’s best garden are old estates of plants with a deep history– heritage heirlooms wrapped up in narrative. For me, the gardens we visited exemplified The Old South. The Federal Style home made of local clay bricks, the expansive estates named after families with long, tree-lined driveways brought to life for me the southern vibe that you can only observe in this part of the country. Mature trees, shady, moss-covered brick walkways lined with Azaleas, family-style swimming pools (not the Olympic-size ones we are used to seeing today)….these older gardens got their charm from landscape, rather than expansive flowerbeds. I saw some fabulous gates and brick walkways, and walls and stairs were just as I imagined: aged and covered in moss in all the right places. My favorite estates were thoughtfully-designed and welcoming in a genteel way. A flowering Redbud here, a few Dogwoods there, and the well-placed towering Southern Magnolias – subtle, elegant, and never showy. Without a doubt our quick trip to Virginia made me want to explore further. Another visit is in our future – there is so much more to see!
Zoe Camp, Content Strategist
Plants typically serve as the primary attraction in any destination garden– but what about the animals? Chickens, cows, and horses play an important role in shaping rural landscapes by fertilizing the soil, eating insect pests, and just generally giving life to the garden. At one of our tour stops at a private residence in Orange County– a spacious manor flanked by humble rows of Redbuds and peaceful groves– I found myself drawn not to the flora, but the fauna: namely, the twenty or so chickens running around the property. These weren’t your typical white hens, either; the aviary array comprised speckled Plymouth Rock and Ancona chickens, chocolatey Rhode Island Reds, and striking Sussexes. Most impressive of all was the gigantic, twenty-pound white rooster, who looked pretty silly with proud ruffled feathers and tufted talons (as a somewhat imposing bird roughly the size of three or four hens, however, he wasn’t exactly looking to be pet; he regarded me with a cold, beady-eyed stare). I sat in the grass, transfixed, watching the birds scratching and pecking around the yard. Every so often, they’d sit down between the bushes and shrubs, adding some feathery flair to the pastoral landscapes. I’m happy I got a chance to see these adorable garden dwellers up close and personal, doing what they do best: pecking their way through the garden, and tending it in the process.
Lena Braun, Marketing Director
Ya’ll have to know that this was my very first time in Virginia, but my friends in New York perfectly prepared me for the fashion aspect of this trip. Some jokingly told me to bring pastels and preppy outfits, while others urged the importance of plaid shirts. I was prepared with a little bit of everything as we arrived in sunny Charlottesville, which was rich with green and healthy-looking trees. Redbud trees (or Cercis canadensis, which are native to the South) were just starting to bloom, adding a pink pop of color to the landscape.
Anyone planning to attend Garden Week should definitely rent a car for the week in order to see as many diverse garden as possible. Every estate in the county is different: My personal highlight was the 500-acre Verulam Farm Estate, which boasts elegant Jeffersonian architecture that overlooks the romantic Blue Ridge Mountain skyline.
I skipped the beautiful brick home situated at the entrance and walked around to a Croquet Court bounded by old oak trees. (The configuration was designed by renown landscape architect Charles Gillette, who is credited with creating the “Virginia Garden”.) One of the oaks had a long swing that evoked some precious childhood memories for me as it dangled in the spring sun. I wandered through the site’s connecting brick paths to arrive at an absolutely stunning Pool House, one of the major treasures of the property that abuts the cute geometric pond above. Veluram Estate has great energy: there’s a sense that the owners really value nature and worked to craft their garden out of the native landscape– it was imperfect perfection. Some of the stones along the pathways were overgrown with moss and in some cases wild weeds bloomed freely. The plants were incorporated with rare sensibility, and nothing is more compelling than that.
Laura Braun, Designer
“Hello y’all – how are y’all folks doing?” As a European, I found this greeting rather unusual: a new tone of voice, a new pronunciation and a new attitude. Welcome to Virginia!
We stayed at an adorable Bed & Breakfast in Charlottesville called the South Street Inn. Prior to the trip, I’d never stayed in a bed and breakfast, and I was taken aback by all of idiosyncrasy. While I was trying out the white rocking chair on the porch, I surveyed the idyllic small-town scenery. The manager and staff were incredibly caring; I assume that is the famous Southern hospitality everyone kept referring to prior to my trip.
A couple sat down to join us on the porch one night and quickly sparked a conversation. They asked us how farmers’ markets in Berlin differed from the one in Charlottesville, about everything from the offerings to the approach to recycling. It’s amazing how nature knows no nationality, and we learned a lot from each other, comparing our cultures in the process.
The warmer temperatures and fresh air made for a good change of pace from New York City life. Looking back at the last days, filled with meetings in NYC, constant cacophony and generally grumpy New Yorkers (since spring seems to be postponed this year,) Charlottesville felt like an idyllic haven, a welcomed change. I loved the cherry blossoms at Morven Estate— the way they fell in my hair and contrasted with my typically-dark Berlin clothing. The hills of fresh green grass, the colorful bursts of Redbud, the picturesque mountains, and omnipresent tulips were merely a bonus– there were so many different colors and shapes. Whether you’re a European or a tried-and-true American, Virginia Garden Week has something for everyone.