Historic Garden Week
Every scene needs to have all five senses mentioned in it in order to be complete. But how can an author research the tastes, scents, and textures for centuries-dead plants? Many of these varieties are no grown and often the species have disappeared, too. Books provide words and sometimes pictures but that’s not the same as sniffing a rose, biting into an heirloom tomato, or rubbing a leaf of lamb’s ear between one’s fingers.
Thankfully, gardeners also love to explore the past. Even better, many enjoy restoring historic gardens and introducing others to their glories. Virginians celebrate spring with Historic Garden Week, when historic and modern gardens are thrown open to raise money for historic conservation. It’s affiliated with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, which showcases America’s best private gardens.
This year’s 78th Historic Garden Week offers many spectacular gardens from April 16th – 23rd, all of them open rain or shine. Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home at Tuckahoe Plantation with its spectacular garden is a special feature. Highlights of the more than 250 attractions available, including an early 19th century mountain top village and the grand Victorian townhouses along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, can be previewed here. Each region of the state offers its own calendar of events, such as this one for Alexandria and Northern Virginia. (I used last year’s highlights to research my April release, THE SHADOW GUARD, which involves one of Virginia’s historic estates.)
Of course, some historic districts – like Williamsburg – and great estates – like Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece at Monticello – are regulars. Every year, I swear I’ll spend an entire week at Williamsburg savoring all of the glorious gardens and filling up gigabytes of disk space with photos! And every year, I’m so overwhelmed by all the options that I wind up flitting from place to place, if the weather’s good. If the weather’s bad, I pick out a single favorite and head there.
Mount Vernon’s gardens are a fabulous time capsule. Great care has been taken to keep everything the way it was in the late eighteenth century, when George and Martha Washington lived there, down to the views across the Potomac River. Even the trees on the far side of the river are the same species as Washington knew. He’d also recognize the dumb beasts laboring on his land, since they come from breeds who served there in his day, even when some varieties only have a few hundred individual animals left. (His current female guests’ attire might startle him, though.)
The General’s special delight was the upper garden, or house garden. Ever a pioneer in agricultural matters, his design was influenced by some of England’s most leading-edge designers. The flowers he grew here were featured in many letters and bloom again today – larkspur, foxglove, crown imperial, cardinal flower, jasmine and guelder roses. Their color and scent is overwhelming on a fine day. Even in winter, the boxwood hedges that Washington planted to border the flower beds still provide enough structure and enough of that distinctive tangy sweet boxwood fragrance to evoke his era.
Martha Washington was much more interested in the lower garden, or kitchen garden, which yielded most of the herbs and vegetables used by the estate. It too has been restored using design books studied by the General and is worked using techniques he would have recognized. It’s a brick-walled, sunny spot, placed close to the stables with its infinite supply of manure. Here beds edged with low-growing herbs produce asparagus, beets, beans, and other vegetables, while apple and pear trees form waist-high fences.
Finally, there’s the “little garden” where Washington grew seeds, many of them rare and unusual which had been sent to him by admirers from far away, including foreign countries. There’s also the fruit orchard, which in the spring is alight with blossoms.
The gardens are very popular, especially in spring and summer, yet I can always find a quiet corner, thanks to their eighteenth century design. (Ah yes, plotting inspiration!) I can sniff flowers, measure dimensions – it’s very cozy between planting beds! – and study the varied colors of heirloom vegetables. It’s bliss for a historical author.
Where do you go to research the five senses, as a historical author? Is there any particular sense that you like to focus on?