Garden tour reveals Colonial secrets

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How many of you were able to get out for Historic Garden Week in Virginia? Our landscape architect Phillip Merritt helped out this year by leading a tour through three gardens in Colonial Williamsburg.

St. George Tucker House

Henry St. George Tucker was a celebrated lawyer and judge in Williamsburg, but there was more to him than is generally known. For one thing, St. George Tucker was an avid gardener, and his garden designs include walkways, drainage paths, and plants that were unusual for the time. St. George Tucker was known, by the way, for several firsts in Williamsburg. He built the town’s first bathroom, installing a copper bathtub (with a drain) into a dairy barn behind the house and piping heated water into it. In his home, he invented what’s called an “earth closet” that used a steam engine-driven water pump.

Modern archeological techniques were used to reconstruct the layout and plant species of the original garden behind the house. Surprisingly, the evidence revealed that St. George Tucker even grew palm trees in the garden! It makes sense when you consider that he came to Williamsburg via the Bahamas.

The current plantings in the garden include columbine, tulips, and dame’s rocket, which were in bloom on our visit there. A bit later in the season you can find blooming swamp roses.) In the front of the house there were German irises, Spanish bluebells, and apple mint. This house is generally not open to the public, so you’ll want to sign up for a tour there in the future.

Brush-Everard House
Close by the St. George Tucker House is the Brush-Everard House, built by Williamsburg’s first keeper of the Magazine. The Brush-Everard is known for harboring the city’s oldest boxwood. Even since the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began in the 1930s, experts have tried to maintain the health of this and surrounding boxwoods. A new challenge came in 2003 with Hurricane Isabelle, long recognized as the costliest and deadliest hurricane to date. Isabelle took out several of the ironwoods that had been planted to help shade the boxwoods.

Colonial Williamsburg horticulturalists are deliberating ways to preserve the boxwood. Current plans call for a lattice screen that would gradually allow the shrubs to adapt to their now sunnier spot.

The boxwoods are of the English variety (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruiticosa’) and originally lined an old garden path. As sometimes happens, they were left untrimmed and overtook the original garden beds, making the center gate obsolete. Plants that were in bloom for the tour included daffodils, Spanish bluebells, Carolina cherry laurel, nannyberry viburnum, and medlar, a popular Colonial fruit.

Custis Tenement
John Custis was an avid plantsman who corresponded with Peter Collinson, a very important nurseryman in London. He was known throughout the colony for the impressive garden he kept around his house on Francis street. For the tour we visited the Custis Tenement, a reconstruction of one of his rental properties.

Though not immediately apparent, the diamond-patterned garden at the side of the Custis Tenement is a modified version of a British Flag. Like many of the Colonial Revival gardens that are scattered around Colonial Williamsburg, its inspiration came from old garden plans like those of Claude Joseph Sauthier, who sketched garden layouts in North Carolina during the 18th century.

At the Custis Tenement, the beds were filled with a mix of annuals and perennials including germander edging, tulips, garden pinks, and foxgloves. The dark leaves of smoketree also added some oomph to the beds. And if you looked carefully you could see two small bulbs that grow throughout CW, star of Bethlehem, and spring star flower.

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