The lure of a formal garden


Our recent Thanksgiving trip yielded a few horticultural observations, among many other holiday experiences. We had the pleasure of having a private tour of the gardens at the former John Kluge estate, Morven, thanks to Marie Schacht of the Events staff there. Mr. Kluge gave Morven to the University of Virginia (UVA) in 2001. It is thousands of acres of field, woodland, and other infrastructure in the rolling countryside of Albemarle County, Virginia. Mr. Kluge, who died in September, relinquished his life estate to UVA in 2006.

Thomas Jefferson bought a portion of the vast tract (some of which UVA divested responsibly to endow estate maintenance) in 1795 for his adopted son, William Short. Recent discoveries by university document researchers indicate Jefferson’s intriguing intention of using the property to develop a non-slave-dependent agricultural economy.

Jefferson managed the property, renting small plots to a number of tenant farmers. They utilized crop rotation methods developed by Jefferson to restore the soil from the detrimental effects of tobacco and corn crops. Unfortunately this paradigm failed to become firmly established before Jefferson’s financial difficulties intervened, and in 1813 he deeded the property to David Higginbotham.

Twentieth-century owners Charles and Mary Stone reworked the gardens adjacent to the Federal-style house (circa 1820) with the landscape architect Annette Hoyt Flanders in 1930. Mary Stone opened the formal gardens to visitors of the first Virginia Garden Week in 1933, and Morven has remained open to the public for every Virginia Garden Week since.

The Formal Garden, largely unchanged from this era, now represents one of the few intact gardens from the 1930s. In the mid-1990s, Mr. Kluge, along with his wife, Tussi, commissioned the building of a four-acre Japanese garden and house in a location near to, yet secluded from, the Formal Garden, using traditional construction techniques and incorporating plants indigenous to both Japan and North America.

The Formal Garden occupies a position with a magnificent prospect west to the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Symmetrical grass walks and parterres — edged with box and abundantly planted with spring bulbs, annuals, and herbaceous perennial — frame this view and form multiple axes and sub-axes, some of which terminate in sets of brick steps that facilitate the changes in grade. Different garden rooms are created by a variety of shrub borders and a long rustic arbor of roses and grapes, which is underlain by brick walks and brick-edged beds.

In late November the grounds are dominated more by broad-leaved evergreens and boxwood than by floral effects. Over the decades these boxwood hedges, initially planted as small ball-shaped plants, have grown to be a billowing presence quite different in feel from the originals. A variety of box species is used, including “Sempervirens” (English), pointy-leaved, so-called American, and high tree-form boxwoods.

When we visited, the gardeners were performing maintenance consisting of thinning and “plucking” the box, which is an enormous task in a garden with such extensive boxwood plantings. Tons of leaves are harvested and composted each fall. The parterres had just received their planting of bulbs for next spring’s spring garden tour extravaganza. Mark your calendars if you plan to be in the vicinity — Saturday, April 16, 2011.

Plucking boxwood

Should you wish to pluck your own boxwood here on the Vineyard, the pluckings, done at this time of year, are invaluable for kissing balls, wreaths, and other holiday decorations.

Stephen D. Southall of English Boxwoods of Virginia is the source of the following information:

Plucking, the selected removal of small stems from boxwoods to facilitate air circulation, light penetration and inner growth of leaves, is an integral part of any preventive maintenance program for boxwoods. When carried out on a regular basis, this process promotes the health of a plant by allowing the sun to penetrate and air to circulate within the body of the plant.

Boxwoods grown in the direct sun have a greater need for thinning than those grown in partial shade. The sun-grown plants tend to develop very dense, thick foliage, which prevents the light and air from entering the plant. Often when opening and observing these plants, one finds piles of dead leaves caught in the middle of the plant and aerial roots that have developed because of the moisture held by the dead leaves.

Plucking allows light to penetrate and leaves to develop deeper within the plant. A depth of six to eight inches is not at all uncommon for a healthy plant and may even extend 12 inches deep on boxwood that is 30 inches in height and diameter.

Thin evenly over the entire surface of the plant and continue until the exterior texture of the plant is very loose. This looseness provides pathways for light and air. Also, compared to plucking, which facilitates the inner growth of leaves, shearing only promotes outer growth. Shearing also destroys the natural appearance of boxwoods by creating a very smooth, manicured look, which is very different from the traditional, cloud-like textured appearance of boxwood.

Good-looking oak

Walking with a friend around her neighborhood in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, yesterday, we spotted a shapely tree almost fully clad in lustrous bronzed, dead leaves. It reminded me of the copper tree, in the fairytale where the hero serially encounters trees with leaves of copper, silver, and gold.

It looked like a beech, crossed with a chestnut, with oak terminal buds. As we inspected it, peering up questioningly, a jogger ran by and called out helpfully, “shingle oak!”

“Thanks,” I answered, “but what’s the binomial?”

The man, head scratching: “Quercus acutissima?” Turns out this Asian oak is the sawtooth, not shingle, oak. It would be a handsome addition to Island gardens. Look for it at Polly Hill Arboretum.