Ornamental Separator

Garden Getaway

These mainstays are part of the Historic Area’s garden geometry — and it’s a beautiful lesson

In the early days of spring, the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg could almost be mathematics equations. Because they are not competing with the showy flowers of the season, the varied shapes, angles and dimensions of the plants and embellishments stand out against a backdrop of new greenery. These mainstays are part of the Historic Area’s garden geometry — and it’s a beautiful lesson.

Laura Viancour is director of Landscape Services for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

1. Diamond-Shaped Bushes

The Bodleian Plate, a copperplate engraving from about 1740 that was discovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, shows diamond-shaped parterres in the ballroom garden and oval-shaped parterres in the forecourt of the Governor’s Palace. Today they are planted with American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens).
(Photo by Tom Green)

2. Chinoiserie Bridge

The canal and fishpond on the west side of the Governor’s Palace are original 18th-century garden features. The chinoiserie-style bridge that crosses the south end of the canal reflects that style’s popularity in the 18th century due to the rise in trade with East Asia, especially China.
(Photo By Tom Green)

3. Brickbat Sidewalk

The paving behind the Everard House is laid with the original brick discovered during early Restoration excavations. In the 18th century, brick paving would have been made primarily with “brickbats” or broken pieces of brick.
(Photo By Tom Green)

4. Triangular Beds

Landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff turned to the maps of French cartographer Claude Joseph Sauthier, whose 1769 maps of North Carolina towns detailed garden layouts. These were the inspiration for a pattern and style of today’s Custis Tenement garden. The formal paths, made of crushed shell and brick, create triangle-shaped parterres.

(Photo By Dave Doody)

5. Corkscrew Bush

Topiary, the art of training plants into decorative shapes, reached its height in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The American boxwood specimens in the rear of the Orlando Jones garden are the only corkscrew-shaped topiaries in the Historic Area.

(Photo By Dave Doody)

6. Sundial

The Palmer House pleasure garden features one of two sundials displayed in the Historic Area. The Palmer House — an original building — and its gardens are referenced in several historic documents including a May 1862 letter written by Gen. George B. McClellan when the house served as a Civil War headquarters: “I have taken possession of a very fine old house which Joe Johnston occupied as headquarters. It has a lovely flower-garden, and conservatory.”

(Photo By Tom Green)

7. Pollarded Vitex

On the north and south sides of the Elizabeth Carlos garden are pollarded chaste-trees (Vitex agnus-castus). Pollarding is an ancient method of pruning that created an annual harvest of branches for wattle fences, basket weaving and firewood. Pollarding is done in modern horticulture to limit the area of top growth or to increase flowers on plants that bloom on new wood.

(Photo By Tom Green)

8. Topiary

True topiary is rarely seen today because of the continual care and special pruning skills that are required. Simple algebra is used to create attractive topiary specimens such as the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) in the center of the Campbell’s Tavern garden. The dimensions of the spaces are as important as the dimensions of the foliage layers.

(Photo By Dave Doody)

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