Fifty years ago this year, the Mary Washington House’s garden as we know it today bloomed for the first time.
The Mary Washington House garden is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with special pricing for admission and a new exhibit that covers the history of its garden with historic images, news clippings and even new paintings of the space, according to Washington Heritage Museums Executive Director Anne Darron.
The current garden design was a gift from the Garden Club of Virginia in 1969. The revitalization included planting period-correct perennials, transplanting existing circa 19th-century English boxwood shrubs, and the additions of the privy and well cover, Darron said.
The complete overhaul of the garden to an American Colonial space is a mature garden now, which museum gardener Jeanette Rose tends. The grand crepe myrtle that flashes pink in the summer was just 6 feet tall when planted in 1969, but now towers over visitors, according to Rose.
A walk through the garden with Rose reveals that the hackberry tree, which stands tall at the back of the garden, was similarly planted in 1969, but is established. The flexible wood was a popular one in Colonial times, used for fishing rods, and because of its fast growth.
Rose has watched these plants grow and come into their own in the nine years she has worked there.
Other plants native to Virginia are present in the garden: yucca, oak leaf hydrangea, viburnum, service berry and redbuds. A kitchen garden hosts vegetables that were popular in Mary’s day: lettuces, beets, carrots and beans. And along the perimeter are grapes and pears, since Mary was known to have some fruit trees and vines.
Likewise, herbs are interspersed with blooming purple spiderwort and irises of different colors near the exterior kitchen. Rose noted that the herb garden as we know it is a modern invention. In Colonial times, they simply would have been grown where they thrived, in harmony with the rest of the planting.
They all exist in the symmetrical garden, which has squares of planting around a central lawn.
The lawn was designed at the center because, as Rose said, they know from historical records Mary Washington entertained on one often. The centerpiece of that lawn is the one thing “Mary definitely touched,” an Aquia stone pedestal that now has a sundial atop it.
And of course, the garden has shifted since 1969 as shade trees grew, other spots became more sunny and certain plants overtook others in the constant jostling of seasonal blooming.
Campanula, better known as chimney flower, invaded at some point, but was allowed to stay by Rose, since it was also popular during Colonial times and is common in the Fredericksburg area.
The Garden Club has also made changes. An arbor was installed 20 years ago and replaced two years ago. Rose explained that a relationship with the Garden Club of Virginia is one that keeps giving, and they hope to celebrate that through the exhibit.
She said the exhibit contains images many volunteers and employees have never seen, making it a completely new viewing experience for visitors.
She hadn’t seen the image of the original dedication in 1969 before, but the scene shows “it was a big deal.” Charles Street was closed in front of the museum and chairs spanned the museum’s entire length in the road to accommodate the hundreds that came to view it.
The exhibit includes photos such as that of the dedication, postcards and memorabilia of the garden dating from 1935 to the present.
Also featured will be paintings created during a recent visit to the garden by the Fredericksburg Plein Air Artists. Re-enactors from the Rappahannock Colonial Heritage Society will be there Saturday, as well. According to Darron, the exhibit will be open weekends through May, and is the first of its kind to be held in the recently renovated 19th-century portion of the Mary Washington House.
Admission to the exhibit is included with the tour of the Mary Washington House.
The garden continues to be a spectacle, and a group effort. Along with Rose, volunteers helps rake, prune and weed the space. And the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Presentation helped re-create the images and design the installation for the exhibit.
The way a garden is a community effort was something then-director Betsy Houston understood in 1966, Rose said, when she called on the Garden Club of Virginia to renovate the space. In approving the application, The Garden Club called upon landscape architect Ralph Griswold to manage this project, who was assisted by W. Thomas Borellis, according to the Garden Club of Virginia’s records. In the absence of documentary or archaeological evidence, these landscape architects developed a plan based on evidence of Mary Washington’s “habits, her likes, and her needs in a garden.”
The result is a garden that re-creates an earlier time in the same space. It is a labor of love for Rose, the local volunteers and the Garden Club of Virginia that they hope to share through the exhibit.