Let the Garden Gazing Begin!! It's Historic Garden Week in Virginia


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It’s that time of year again! I’m getting ready to head down to Virginia for my favorite week of the year—Historic Garden Week in Virginia (“HGW”). Or, “Garden Week”, as most of us call it. Garden Week never fails to be spectacular in every way. Only the Nantucket House and Garden Tour can rival it. How lucky am I to be involved in one way or another with both tours? Extremely. And I don’t take it for granted!

©betsygibsondesign Don’t Forget Your Tickets!!

©betsygibsondesign Don’t Forget Your Tickets!!

Not My Typical “Garden Week” Posts…

Though I usually take my fellow garden tour lovers through my “must see” picks (and describe each must see property and its history in great detail!), this year I’ve decided to focus on historic properties that you might like to pop into as you tour the HGW properties throughout the Commonwealth. These are places you may have seen before during your travels but may not have had an opportunity to see in full bloom! I’ll call them “Bonus Sites” or sites that are “Beyond the Homes and Gardens”. In other words, keep your Guidebooks close to you or consult www.vagardenweek.org for full tour details and schedules—and anything else you might need to know during your time touring, because I’m deviating from my typical post! Also, please note that the descriptions of the properties and their histories within this post come from memory and general common knowledge to the extent possible but also contain material taken from the websites of the individual properties themselves, as well as from one external site—another blog that you’ll see cited within the text. After all, there are only so many ways to say “The house was built in xxxx by SoandSo and was restored in xxxx by SuchandSuch”. So I extend my thanks in advance for the excellent websites that provided me with details beyond those extracted from my memory bank!

©BetsyGibsonDesign Gardens outside of Phi Beta Kappa Hall at the College of William and Mary, 2018.

©BetsyGibsonDesign Gardens outside of Phi Beta Kappa Hall at the College of William and Mary, 2018.

Finally, just an additional few comments about the Guidebook published by the people who have poured their blood, sweat and tears into these tours through the years—the members of the Garden Club of Virginia (“GCV”): please be sure you read and follow the Tour Guidelines that are laid out at the front of the book, and definitely take a look at the color coded key to HGW symbols. These will tell you whether something is a walking tour, whether shuttles are available, where refreshments are to be found, and what tours are history versus garden-centric. Among other things! It’s a fantastic resource that I hope you will use and keep. I must have at least a dozen of them from years gone by. I love them!! So...let’s go!






Built in 1665, Bacon’s Castle is the oldest brick dwelling in North America, and it boasts the largest known 17th Century garden in America, as well. Though owned by a merchant called Arthur Allen, the house, which is always cited for its triple stacked chimneys, lost the Allen name after it was occupied by Nathaniel Bacon and his men for several months during what came to be called “Bacon’s Rebellion”. “Bacon’s Castle” stuck, and the house was never called the Allen Manse (or the Allen Anything!) ever again. After the house was acquired at auction in the 1970s, the GCV worked with Bacon’s Castle to restore the gardens of this fascinating house listed on both the Virginia and National Landmark Registers. Please see www.preservationva.org for further details about this property and its hours, rates, etc.

WikimediaCommons, Bacon’s Castle

WikimediaCommons, Bacon’s Castle


Smith’s Fort Plantation was the site of Capt. John Smith’s “new” fort, built directly across the James River from the original fort at Jamestown. This new fort was built in 1609 but was apparently quickly abandoned because of an infestation of river rats. (I used to swim for the James River Country Club River Rats, and I can tell you that “river rats” were—and are—definitely a “thing”….I just had no idea that they existed back in the 1600s. But why not, right?)

After the land had been abandoned by Smith, it was later given to John Rolfe by Chief Powhatan as a dowry for Pocahontas’ hand in marriage. While records show evidence of several structures having been erected on the land at different points, the most recent structure, and the one that was restored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the early 1930s with the GCV doing their best garden restoration work on the site in 1936, was built in the mid 1700s. The property is now owned by Preservation Virginia. For more information, please see www.preservationva.org .

Capt. John Smith’s Coat of Arms. (Source: Burton, Alma  Builders of Our Nation,  Chicago: Eaton and Company, 1914. Public Domain)

Capt. John Smith’s Coat of Arms. (Source: Burton, Alma Builders of Our Nation, Chicago: Eaton and Company, 1914. Public Domain)

Old Town Alexandria

Mount Vernon

Just under 10 miles south of Alexandria on the George Washington Parkway sits Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon is another of the Virginia landmarks with which I fell in love as a little girl.

As we all know, Mount Vernon was the home of George and Martha Washington from the end of the Revolutionary War until Washington became President in 1789. The house had several outbuildings and various outdoor spaces, including gardens that Washington himself designed and redesigned; expansive lawns; and groves of trees. If nothing else, it is clear that Washington was an excellent steward of his home and the land around it.

The home, owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, has been restored and maintained throughout the years with acute attention to detail. With the GCV’s help, the landscaping features and designs on the property have also been restored. And full disclosure here, as with the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, about which you’ll read when you get to the “Staunton” section of this post, my father (Robert S. Roberson) served on the Virginia Governor’s Board of Visitors to Mount Vernon when I was a child. So I did spend more time at the site than maybe the typical little kid. But I know that my father’s service on the boards of so many historic sites has absolutely instilled in me my love of (obsession with?) historic houses and my interest in their restoration, maintenance and ongoing preservation, as well as my love of their gardens and grounds and my resulting fascination with conservation history. (Thanks, Dad!)

Please see www.mountvernon.org for more details.

Mount Vernon. Public Domain Image.

Mount Vernon. Public Domain Image.


James Madison’s Montpelier

I can never get enough of our Founding Fathers’ properties, and James Madison’s Montpelier is no exception. Though not born there, Madison grew up at Montpelier, lived in the house with his wife Dolley and died there after an illustrious career in public service. As most people know, Madison was nicknamed the “Father of the Constitution”—he put forth the initial drafts of the Constitution (his Virginia Plan) and later, while serving in the House of Representatives, introduced the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). A believer in the separation of powers and oversight through a system of checks and balances, he was also a true believer in individual human rights, including, of course, the freedoms of speech, religion and press. Of course, Madison is also known for having served as secretary of state under Jefferson and then, himself, becoming the fourth American President. However, he also served in one more very important role, though one not widely publicized. Madison served as Rector of the University of Virginia, which had been founded by his close friend and colleague, Thomas Jefferson. Obviously, if you read my blog, you know that anyone involved with the founding or the early years of the University is of great interest to me!

Photo ©Billy Hathorn, Entrance to the Gardens at Montpelier.

Photo ©Billy Hathorn, Entrance to the Gardens at Montpelier.

The House: The house, which was acquired in 1984 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has recently undergone an extensive $25 million renovation. The renovation was more of a restoration in my eyes, as it involved the removing of all of the additions or other changes to the house made by the duPonts and any of the intervening owners between the Madison and duPont families. The house has now been restored to its 1800s state.

The Montpelier Website: The Montpelier website, which can be found at www.montpelier.org offers a comprehensive history and description of Madison’s garden, and what I don’t remember about the gardens and landscape generally, I have taken from the site directly in order to bring you as comprehensive (yet brief!) look at what you might expect to see at Montpelier.

The Gardens and Grounds: During Garden Week, Montpelier’s Gardens and Grounds are open, and visitors are free to wander and enjoy the blooms, the trees and the wide open space.

Garden gate. ©James Madison’s Montpelier (Pinterest)

Garden gate. ©James Madison’s Montpelier (Pinterest)

Like many of his friends and colleagues in and around Virginia, Madison’s garden contained a mixture of flowers, shrubs, fruit trees and bushes and—of course—vegetables. Unlike the other gardens, however, his original gardens were thought to have been designed by a French landscape designer called Charles Bizet. Originally from France, Bizet is known to have made his way to Virginia by 1810. Somehow, he met James Monroe, who introduced him to James and Dolley Madison. The timing was perfect, as the Madisons were just beginning to think about the garden designs at that time. According to an article on the TimberPress website (www.timberpress.com), Bizet was commissioned to design a formal garden for the family, and the result was a terraced garden in the shape of a horseshoe and located near to the house. Bizet also made his way to Monticello for seeds, which he likely used in Madison’s gardens or possibly for the White House gardens, as he was heavily involved in designing and installing the gardens in Washington, DC. once President Madison took office. As I have learned from reading Andrea Wulf’s terrific book, The Brother Gardeners, it seems likely that Bizet procured seeds that had originated with John Bartram from Philadelphia. (As a side note, since we’re discussing early American botanical leaders, my “Little Mountain” scarf collection, which can be found in the “Products” section of my website, was inspired by the early plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables grown at Monticello, including the 16th Century heirloom Florentine Tulip, sometimes known as the Woodland Tulip or the Urumiya Tulip, the Tree Peony, the Viola, the Cabbage Rose and more! It’s my first foray into design, but I’ve already got lots of coordinating patterns that look great as pillows, and I’ve got preliminary sketches for several other of my favorite historic gardens. Exciting stuff!).

The formal garden originally designed by Bizet seems to have been restored to some degree after William duPont purchased the house in 1901. William’s wife, Annie duPont, decided to reinstate what had once been a formal garden, and she did so by clearing away the overgrown flora and by reinstalling the terraces and adding a variety of plants, flowers and trees. Charles Gillette, who also (apparently, though I cannot find independent verification of this) worked on Woodrow Wilson’s garden design, was instrumental in the duPont restoration of the Madison garden. Among other things, he designed the perennial beds under the watchful eye of Annie duPont’s daughter, Marion duPont Scott.

In addition to the gardens, Montpelier is well known for its thousands of undisturbed natural acres. It is home to an almost 200 acre old-growth forest containing several different species of trees. The forest was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1987 (Source: NPS) and is an excellent example of a mature and undisturbed forest with trees dating back 300 years or more.

Montpelier Purchased by the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

In 1984, Montpelier was purchased by the National Trust, and soon thereafter, the GCV began a garden restoration. During this same time period, the Club was also involved in one of the several UVA Pavilion Gardens restorations. With the Montpelier garden restoration, the GCV utilized the catalogue of duPont plantings to bring the garden back to its 1900s state. Of course I have been to Montpelier several times, and I would urge you to take some time to see these magnificent gardens for yourself. You’ve got 2,650 acres of open land, almost 2 acres of gardens and 8+ miles of walking trails to explore!

Conservation and Preservation at Montpelier:

There are a few things about Montpelier that go beyond the house and grounds that make it a special place—one that I hope represents the way that all of our historic properties will begin to be viewed and stewarded going forward.

Because over 700 acres of the property are protected under four different conservation easements (as a lawyer, and an ardent supporter of protecting our lands and wide open spaces…we have lots of conservation easements in my neck of the woods outside of Boston…I have a “thing” for conservation easements. I LOVE them!!!). These easements signify to me not only a general dedication to conserving the land as it was and will be as it evolves over time, but also the fact that Madison’s values regarding the land and how it should be used, protected and revered are still upheld. In fact, Montpelier held a “Design Congress” in 2016 with renowned architects, biologists and environmentalists in attendance. The purpose of the Congress was to focus on the ways that Montpelier could continue to evolve in its environmental consciousness going forward. To me, that places Montpelier at the top of the list in terms of Historical Landmark properties that are working to be sustainable in all that they do. They have repurposed outbuildings, as some of my other favorite houses have done, but they have also put tremendous thought into how to expand to meet the demands of the modern tourist without expanding and creating new structures. The Director and Board stress the importance of “place” and of preservation. The President and CEO of The Montpelier Foundation, Kat Imhoff, has stated that “one of the things that might be most important about our work is the land conservation and stewardship that we’re doing at Montpelier.” I happen to agree with Ms. Imhoff, and I think that she and her staff are setting a high bar and leading by example for other land rich and historically important “house and grounds” destinations.

James Madison’s Montpelier. Federal Highway Admin, DOT. Public Domain.

James Madison’s Montpelier. Federal Highway Admin, DOT. Public Domain.


Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum:

Originally incorporated in 1938 as the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation, the house that was the birthplace of the 28th President of the United States was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and came to be known thereafter as the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Though open to the public beginning in 1941, it has only been since the mid 1960s that the Library has become such a tremendously important resource for scholars, students and tourists alike. The website is extremely informative (it certainly helped me in writing this particular section of the post, as I’m not nearly as well versed on the later presidents as I am on the early ones!) Please check it out at: www.woodrowwilson.org

The House:

The birthplace and first home of Woodrow Wilson is a two story Greek Revival mansion that had originally belonged to the First Presbyterian Church of Staunton. Though it is not clear when the Wilson family purchased the property, they did own it in 1856, the year of President Wilson’s birth.

The purpose of the original Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation and now the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum was (and is) to preserve and maintain the birthplace of President Wilson while also upholding the values so important to him as a person and a leader. Both Foundations have been up to the challenge. (Disclosure: My father, Robert S. Roberson, serves on the Board of the WWML)

John D. Crowle Jr, “West View of Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace,” 1940 November 11, WWPL0580, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Photo Collection,  Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia .

John D. Crowle Jr, “West View of Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace,” 1940 November 11, WWPL0580, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Photo Collection, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.

The Gardens:

The GCV installed the garden behind the Historic Manse and has undertaken several restorations since their first foray into bringing the original gardens back to life. Unfortunately, my research has provided conflicting details of the various GCV restorations and installations, and so I am unable to give you any concrete facts about the gardens. All I can say is that you must see them!!

Unknown, “Manse Garden Beds on the Northern End with Apple Trees in Full Bloom,” No date, WWPL0560, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Photo Collection,  Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia .

Unknown, “Manse Garden Beds on the Northern End with Apple Trees in Full Bloom,” No date, WWPL0560, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Photo Collection, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.


George Washington’s Office

This is a quick must see—George Washington’s office was located in the center of Winchester—in a log cabin, no less—during the mid 1750s. Check out the website for more detailed information: www.winchesterhistory.org

State Arboretum of Virginia, Rt. 50

I hate to admit that I had no idea that this incredible looking 175 acre site even existed. I spotted it in my friend’s Insta posts and could not believe it! I must have known about it at some point, because how could it have escaped my attention…?

The Arboretum is a GCV restoration site, like the other sites in this post, and it is technically called The Historic Blandy Experimental Farm, c. 1825. It is lined with original stone walls, much like the walls we have up here in New England (including in front of and to the side of my house!), and though I’m fairly certain, based on my experience with these incredible walls, that they were in somewhat decent shape—it’s amazing how these walls hold up and hold their lines through the centuries—the walls along the lane from the manor house to the farm were rebuilt in 2004.

I’ll be putting this property on my list for sure!! Whether I’ll get there tomorrow, I doubt, as I am flying in from freezing and rainy Boston mid-morning tomorrow and will likely be so tired that I’ll just want to check out the tours that require the least walking!! (Shhh!!!) But I’ll get there at some point during my trip down. If you want to check it out, please visit the website at www.Virginia.edu/Blandy .



xo, betsy