From lambs and chicks to the vibrant splashes of color exploding in our more than 30 historic gardens—spring has arrived here in the colonial capital! While we’re unsure if and how this week’s frost will affect our blooms (we’ll keep you posted!), we can offer you a glimpse at how these gardens usually look and why they are considered must-sees for many employees and loyal guests.
There’s a reason you’ll see “historic” used to describe our gardens. Our horticulturists and researchers collaborate each year to present an abundance of flowers, herbs, and trees that are all period authentic. The seasonal flower beds are designed to complement our existing landscapes and architecture.
We have almost 90 acres of beautiful gardens, and quite a few are off the beaten path. Which 10 should you add to your list for your next visit? I posed that very question to our blog readers as well as my co-workers across the Foundation. The emails and pictures started flooding my inbox. Here’s what they had to say—along with a little history for good measure.
Before I get started, I should give you an update to Bassett Hall—which traditionally gets quite a bit of attention each spring. We’re told some hungry deer got the best of this year’s flowers! But no worries. We have a perfect backup to add to the mix. Just keep scrolling…
#1 Governor’s Palace
Robin Kipps from the Apothecary says this is “definitely” on her Top 10 list. Many of you said the same. Styled after nothing less than the gardens of Hampton Court, these 10 acres behind the Palace resemble English estates during the reign of King William III and Queen Mary II.
You may notice something missing if you visit this year. In January, during our off-season, some of the sick beech trees were removed. The gardens’ 12 yaupon columns had also grown beyond scale, and were obstructing the views of the Palace. Those have also been taken down. We think the changes look great! What about you?
But back to the history. There are a couple original features from the 18th century that remain including the falling gardens (terraces), and the canal. You can get lost in the beauty once you step into the ballroom garden. Keep in mind that the tulips have already opened up, so if you haven’t been there yet this season, you may want to stop by soon (and don’t forget your camera!).
#2 Orlando Jones House
This garden is located next to the Armoury and is based on the 1745 advertisement from the Virginia Gazette that indicates one existed at the time. Landscape Architect Arthur A. Shurcliff designed the garden in 1939 and it has remained virtually unchanged since that time.
It’s a close second to the Palace when it comes to recommendations from Colonial Williamsburg employees. Rhiannon Redding who works in the President’s office says, “It’s the perfect place to get away from everyone because it has these benches that tuck into the boxwood and you can’t be seen if you’re sitting down.” She and her husband also jokingly refer to it as the “almost garden” because when they were dating she always secretly wished he would propose to her in that spot. But… he popped the question in September, well after the flowers had bloomed. In the spring, you’ll usually find white tulips growing. Master Blacksmith Ken Schwarz describes it as “an elegant and under-appreciated spot that offers a bit of quiet solitude in the middle of a bustling town.”
#3 Taliaferro-Cole House
Kristy Engel from the Basketmaker says this is her absolute favorite! She isn’t alone. It’s located behind the Candlemakers and Joiners and we confirmed—it’s by far one of our most photographed gardens.
Thomas Crease, a professional gardener in 18th-century Williamsburg lived on this site for a total of 35 years and the topography is largely unchanged from his time there. The garden consists of three separate rectangular areas enclosed by fencing, each planted for a different purpose.
#4 Custis Tenement House
This is supervisor of stables Karen Smith’s favorite spot. She and her horse John are pictured here in a sea of colorful foxgloves. You’ll find this impressive garden just past the Colonial Nursery (on the same side of DoG Street).
Because of the scarcity of archaeological evidence of a colonial-period garden on this site, landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff again turned to Claude Joseph Sauthier’s 18th-century maps for a pattern and style for the present garden. One of its unique features is the formal paths made of crushed shell and brick.
#5 The Colonial Garden & Nursery
This garden is across from Bruton Parish Church and displays many rare and unusual varieties of heirloom roses and fruits. We were just there last week and noticed quite a few rare tulips this year! This garden plot features examples of culinary, medicinal, and household herbs used by colonists in the 1700s. Apprentice Joiner Amanda Doggett says of our Historic Gardeners, “Watching Jen and Emily transform that little patch of Earth never ceases to amaze me.”
Sarah Nerney in Corporate Archives agrees, writing, “I also love the Colonial Garden because even in the winter, things are growing. And Jen Mrva has taught me so much about her plants!”
#6 Alexander Craig House
Gardens and outbuildings were mentioned in recorded deeds for this original house located next to Raleigh Tavern.
Today, the pleasure garden with seasonal color provides an attractive foreground to the orchard’s fruit trees, pleached arbors, and the original brickbat paths.
#7 George Wythe House
Facing the Palace, this original house and its garden will be on the left side of the Palace Green. Surviving letters reveal Wythe was interested in fruit culture, although his wife was in charge of the kitchen garden.
Today a kitchen garden, orchard, and service yard flank each side of the pleasure garden. And be on the lookout! There’s a good chance you’ll spot Sir Thomas Grey on any given day, inspecting the latest blooms.
#8 Christiana Campbell’s Tavern
This semi-secret oasis happens to be one of my favorites! Arthur A. Shurcliff’s successor, Alden Hopkins, designed this beautiful pleasure garden to the right of the tavern. I find it one of the most peaceful places in the Historic Area and there are even a couple of benches if you want to get lost in a book.
The geometric pattern of this garden features nine planting beds with a tiered yaupon holly topiary in the central circle (which is pretty impressive!). You’ll also find flowering dogwoods, oak leaf hydrangeas, Eastern red cedars, and an array of heirloom daffodils—another favorite of mine.
#9 John Blair House
The Blair House is on the end of DoG Street, closest to Merchants Square, and beside the Bruton Parish Shop. Through much of his life, John Blair, Sr. kept a diary in which he recorded his interest in gardening. In May 1751, he loaned Peyton Randolph his gardener, of whom “Mrs. Randolph gave a fine account.”
The kitchen dooryard is designed as a small herb garden, reminiscent of the “physick” gardens popular in the 17th century. Those herbs were used for both their flavors and their fragrances.
#10 Coke-Garrett House
This is another garden a little off the beaten path. It’s around the corner of Nicholson and Waller Streets. The Coke-Garrett House was described in the 18th century as a “long frame house” with “beautiful gardens surround[ing] the estate.” Today, stately evergreens, nut trees, and old boxwood enclose the area behind the house and lead down a grassy ramp to a flower border on the lower garden level.
Now the big question: When will all these flowers bloom? Manager of Landscape Services Laura Viancour tells us April is best for bulbs like our tulips. May and June should be the time to see our perennials and flowering trees. We’ve included a more detailed list below.
APRIL: violets, tulips, daffodils, dogwoods, shadbushes, crab apples, roses, lilacs, and peonies
MAY: hydrangeas, irises, oriental poppies, peonies, dogwoods, and red buckeyes
JUNE: American Wisterias, pomegranates, magnolias, daylilies, garden phloxes, and Stokes’ asters
Remember, you’ll need a Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket to explore the majority of these gardens. If you want to explore on your own, pick up a map at our Colonial Nursery and inside the Visitor Center. Please share your pictures on social media using #ColonialWilliamsburg and #CWGardens.
A special thank you to Wayne Reynolds, Cindy McEnery, Randy Yohe, Anita Parker, Sarah Nerney, Fred Blystone, Jerry Gammon, Bob Langer, Gonnie Heuvel Lewis, and Kristy Engel for the images featured above. Below are even more pictures sent in by employees and our Making History blog readers!