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How to achieve the Colonial Williamsburg garden look

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http://hamptonroads.com/2012/10/how-achieve-colonial-williamsburg-garden-look

How to achieve the Colonial Williamsburg garden look

By Krys Stefansky
The Virginian-Pilot
© October 8, 2012

In the 1700s, more geometry was in play in Colonial Williamsburg than the orderly grid of streets lined with squares or rectangles of half-acre lots.

Behind the town’s individual garden gates lay flower beds, vegetable gardens, lawns and walkways, many carefully arranged in neat shapes that created balance, symmetry and a predictable beauty.

Colonists certainly had other things to think about besides topiaries and garden benches painted to match their houses. But the landscaping style they knew were the gardens either they or their ancestors had left behind in Europe.

By copying the details of those elaborate and formal installations, even on a much smaller scale, they telegraphed to visitors a civilized message about how well they were doing here in the Colonies.

“In the 18th century, gardens reflected status,” said Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of landscape services. “King William and Queen Mary had both loved horticulture. And here, Governor Spotswood thought the gardens should be grand.”

By the 1700s, London fashion had moved on to more naturalistic landscapes. But, when he arrived in Williamsburg in 1710, Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood lavished attention on the garden surrounding the governor’s mansion to make it look like a palatial European estate. Hedges enclosed these formal gardens and shrubbery was clipped and sheared into complicated shapes.

Today, at nearly every time of year, the gardens big and small re-created in Colonial Williamsburg from evidence found in old documents or archaeological digs draw crowds of enthusiasts.

When they leave, many visitors want to take what they’ve seen home with them. Remembering certain key elements will help a home gardener achieve the Colonial look and transform a little corner or an entire yard into a nod to the past.

Geometry

Colonial-era garden beds were built on a “quincunx:” a pattern of four squares or rectangles, and a fifth, or center, compartment. Today’s small lots are easy to divide up this way. To make a plan, stand at an upper-story window.

Taking a birds-eye view is both practical and of the period.

“Gardens were designed to be viewed from above,” Viancour said, indicating the second-floor windows of the Governor’s Palace, where the wealthiest spent time. This grand garden was the one the gentry would have emulated in their smaller parcels of land nearby.

Garden design can be very simple: a square space, enclosed by a fence, one boxwood in each corner and a lawn in the center. The overall effect is very green and serene.

“Boxwood is pretty much Williamsburg,” Viancour said. “King William liked boxwood, sempervirens ‘Suffructicosa’.”

Mirroring is important: What happened on one side of a garden was mirrored or reflected on the other. So, if three trees or shrubs lined one property line, the same would be repeated on the opposite side.

Garden designers of the time created an axis with walkways – a center walkway with crosswalks. The walk provided a place to stroll as well as divided the garden into small, plantable sections. Paths were grassy, gravel, or paved with crushed shells.

And since being able to have a garden reflected a person’s social status, the use of brick could also be a clue about owner’s wallet.

“Bricks were sometimes used as edging,” Viancour said. “They were often broken pieces of brick but, still, it showed they could afford it.”

Enclosure

Hedges or fences enclosed or compartmentalized gardens. They defined spaces, kept unwanted animals out and divided flower gardens from vegetable gardens.

Fencing, more costly than live hedging, was built and painted to be similar to the house or main structure immediately nearby. Beauty and harmony were created by using similar materials. Simple garden benches, also painted to blend with the existing color scheme, were an architectural element as well as a place to rest or admire the view.

Brick walls were also typical of the time. They were expensive but, just like today, required no maintenance once installed.

Ornate gates provided a way in and out of a garden and were sometimes flanked by single trees, answering the need for balance and symmetry.

Topiary

Vertical interest came from clipping a hedge into a formal shape or pruning plants into gumdrop or ball shapes. They would also have signaled to passersby that the owner of a Colonial garden could afford help.

Large columnar shapes, yaupon holly, can be seen in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace. In a more modest garden, that sort of vertical accent might have been created by a repetition of fig or other fruit trees on either side of a garden space.

Pleached arbors, or young American beech saplings, for example, planted in two parallel rows, then woven together and where they met overhead, were another feature that required establishing, then maintaining. Their need for regular pruning by a gardener again certainly reflected an owner’s status.

“You could take this idea,” Viancour said, indicating a long arbor, “and make it smaller for a home garden and use just two trees.”

Or, as in Colonial times, plant a simple allee – two rows of trees to walk between.

Espalier, a gardening technique in which plants are trained against a vertical surface, was common in England at the time. It would have been done here to take advantage of the warming effect of the wall as well as to show affluence, since a gardener would have constantly had to keep the plant in check.

And even though today’s gardeners can buy all kinds of statuary or birdbaths to decorate their spaces, garden ornaments were not common in the average Colonial garden.

Only in the lavish garden of the Governor’s Palace did urns or stone finials top brick columns or line a path.

“You had to have resources,” Viancour said, for luxuries such as these.

The gentry’s twig trellises, wattle fences, and twig tripods provided vertical accent and plant support or containment in their small gardens. All are easy and inexpensive to copy today.

And bell jars were a practical element that protected tender plants at night but, today, would have the effect of a quaint and useful garden ornament.

Plants

“There was a big, active plant exchange in the 18th century,” Viancour said.

Getting plant cuttings or slips or even seeds from a friend or neighbor was less chancy than waiting for seeds to arrive by boat. “They had to rely on someone to ship seed over here. Seeds were often eaten by rats or damaged by saltwater before they arrived.”

Colonists mingled edibles and ornamentals, Viancour said. They did not segregate plants, which still helps today with pest problems.

Flower beds mixed colors and fruit trees did double duty as small shade trees outside of vegetable gardens.

Krys Stefansky, krys.stefansky

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Written by vaphc

October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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