History blooms for Virginia's Garden Week

Image: Part of the garden at the Tuckahoe Plantation in Richmond, Va.
The garden at the Tuckahoe Plantation in Richmond, Va., will be featured during this year's 75th Historic Garden Week in Virginia.Lisa Billings / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dr. Herbert "Hobie" Claiborne spent most of one spring of his early childhood riding in the front seat of his grandmother's limousine, tagging along when she called on owners of stately gardens across Virginia.

Dressed in black straw hats and chokers with cameos around their necks, his grandmother, Frances Archer Christian, and her good friend Suzanne Williams Massie successfully persuaded friends and acquaintances to open their homes and grounds to the public for the first Historic Garden Week, he recalls.

"Nobody much wanted to challenge the ladies of the generation," said Claiborne, now 84, whose home is on this year's tour. "They were the children of the Civil War and nothing could stand in their way."

That event, held in the spring of 1929, helped the Garden Club of Virginia raise more than $14,000 for the relandscaping of Kenmore, the Fredericksburg home of George Washington's sister, Betty Washington Lewis. Since then, it has become what's called America's Largest Open House, raising nearly $13 million for historic garden-restoration projects statewide.

In its 75th year — no tours were held during World War II — Historic Garden Week continues to combine Virginia history and architecture with the beauty of spring blooms and greenery. More than 200 gardens and homes will be open April 19-27 for the event, which drew about 30,000 visitors last year, Historic Garden Week executive director Suzanne Munson said.

"Virginia is just a treasure trove of beautiful gardens, old and new," Munson said.

Some visitors make Garden Week the focus of their spring trips to Virginia, while others take detours to the homes and gardens while visiting nearby historic sites.

Marty Viser, 39, plans to attend her first Garden Week with a group from the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C. The group's excursion will include a visit to Charlottesville's Garden Week sites and an option to go to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Among the tour-goers will be a Mint curator who will help describe the showcase homes' art collections, she said.

"It's just a beautiful state, easy to access, plenty of things to offer — the mountains, the coast," she said of Virginia. "Being outside in the springtime is beautiful."

Among the state's notable Garden Week sites are the University of Virginia Pavilion homes and gardens (April 22) in Charlottesville, and Auburn (April 26), an 1824 Federal-style plantation on the banks of the North River in Gloucester County once owned by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In northwest Virginia's hunt country, Rockburn Farm (April 20-21) features an 1828 manor house with a formal walled garden on a 132-acre estate where Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby was nursed back to health after being injured. Alexandria's tour includes admission to Washington's home at Mount Vernon and six Old Town homes, including the Georgian, built in 1787 for Washington's wartime physician and private secretary.

A number of historic plantations along the James River also will be featured, including Shirley Plantation — occupied by the 11th generation of direct descendants of Edward Hill, who established his 450-acre tobacco plantation in 1638 — and Tuckahoe Plantation, Thomas Jefferson's boyhood home.

In several regions, hotels and inns are offering Garden Week packages. On Virginia's Eastern Shore, for example, the Cape Charles Hotel Historic Inn is offering weekend getaway deals starting at $279 that include lodging, breakfasts, tickets to the area's April 26 garden tour and admission to a local art show.

In Richmond, Claiborne and his wife, Kitty, will open their home and gardens on April 24. Their brick Georgian Revival features 18th-century furniture, paintings from the Hudson Valley School and prominent artists, and antique Chinese porcelain. The expansive back yard features pastel azaleas, boxwood hedges, a weeping cherry and two crape myrtles, most planted in the early 1960s after the couple and their children moved in.

The Claibornes' home is among several stops on the Windsor Farms tour, one of three walking tours offered in the capital city. Windsor Farms is patterned after an English village and features gardens designed by noted Southern landscape architect Charles F. Gillette. Among other projects, Gillette, who died in 1969, also designed the grounds of Agecroft Hall and Windsor House, two Tudor manors reassembled in the neighborhood from original centuries-old structures in England.