The small gardens of Colonial Williamsburg

Editorial Staff Art

By THOMAS J. WERTENBAKER; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, October 1954.

The woods near Williamsburg are glorious in April and May with the crimson magenta flowers of the Judas tree, and the white and pink of the dogwood. The sweet smelling honeysuckle covers fences, embankments, and stumps. And everywhere in the town itself one can note along streets and lanes, or peeping from behind fences, the lovely pink and crape myrtle, the white or crimson pink flowers of the rose Sharon, the white viburnum clusters, the white mock orange, the brilliant scarlet of the double flowering pomegranate, and, among many others, the little New Jersey tea.

Fig. 1 “Pleasure garden” of the Bryan house. Four rectangular beds balance a central square whose corners indent four enclosing beds, all edged with box. Beds surrounding central square have ground covering of hardy periwinkle and bushes are clipped in formal designs; outer beds have dwarf apple trees in corners. Peach trees line walks east and west. 

In the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg the landscape gardeners took it for granted that plants native to Virginia had been used in the old gardens, and correspondence of Virginia naturalists and gardeners with those of England indicated that some imported flowers were used as well. Thus they had a wide range from which to choose. They might place here the Jamestown lily, acres of which grow wild on the island in the James where the English made their first permanent settlement; here the colorful tulip, brought from the East to Holland, and thence to England, and from England to Virginia; the gladiolus, considered “worthy of a place in every garden”; the blue, or white, or purple iris; the meadow lily, native to Virginia, whose yellow flowers spotted with black become popular in England; here the red, white, or purple scillas; there the autumn crocus; everywhere snapdragons, China asters, larkspurs, sweet peas, poppies, marigolds, hollyhocks.

Fig. 2 A boxwood hedge encloses a circle of tulips and redbud in the Orlando Jones garden.

The landscape gardeners gave careful consideration, also, to the selection of non-flowering shrubs with which to line the garden walks and flower beds. They knew that in England boxwood laurel, holly, and yew had been used, though they could not be certain that the colonial Virginians had been successful with them all; but they had abundant evidence that holly, beech, and especially boxwood had been in common use. Everyone who has ever visited Williamsburg remembers the smell of the box. Most of it was transplanted from deserted farms in the back country, for it was a cardinal principle of the restoration that what was beautiful or of interest elsewhere must not be destroyed, so the glorious box of the old Virginian estates could not be considered.

Fig. 3 The Deane garden shows what success can be had with formal design in a small space. Brick walks lead between central beds and enclosing parterres, both lined with box and planted with periwinkle and early spring bulbs; sweet gums on either side frame an attractive vista.

Just as every planter built his house in the latest English style, furnished it with English tables and chairs, clothed himself after the manner of the Londoners, so his ambition was to create a garden after the English formal mode. He may have visited the gardens at Hampton Court, or King’s Weston; perhaps he had pored over Johannes Kip’s English Houses and Gardens,fascinated by its engravings of formal gardens. However, complete the information at hand concerning the materials which had been employed in Williamsburg, the gardeners could not proceed until they had determined the type of design into which they had been worked, and this led to a study of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English garden design.

Fig. 4 White picket fences at either side and at rear add to the effect of topiary work and box-bordered parterres in the garden of the Alexander Craig house. The fences are essential to the success of the small gardens, and the Restoration has faithfully used authentic designs. 

This mode received its greatest inspiration from France. The French designer Le Notre was well known in England, where the fame of his masterpiece, the gardens of Versailles, had spread far and wide. John Rose, gardener-in-chief to Charles II, who had studied under Le Notre, employed a number of French gardeners at Hampton Court and St. James’s Park.

Fig. 5 The Coke-Garrett house has a town garden in a rural setting; the meadow view gives pleasant contrast to symmetrical parterres and box hedges.

Late in the seventeenth century, English gardeners were strongly influenced also by the Dutch mode, especially in the increased use of topiary work. Topiary, the practice of cutting and training trees and shrubs into fantastic shapes, had been known to the Romans and was restored to fashion in Italian Renaissance gardens. In Holland the love of flowers coupled with the more formal Italian influences resulted a charming style of enclosed geometrically-designed gardens with colorful flowers, topiary work, and tiny garden houses. Even under the most favorable circumstances, topiary bears the stamp of artificiality; but in Virginia it was restrained, and the figures of ducks, foxes, and dolphins common in Europe that were never seen there.

Fig. 6 Serenity is the keynote of the Wythe house garden. Here, looking down the long vista of the mall, one sees peach trees beyond and a charming summer house at the end, all skillfully offset by the white fences and outbuildings.

In restoring the large gardens at Williamsburg the landscape architects were greatly aided by the archaeologists, who uncovered paths, steps and wall foundations; however, with the exception of fence holes, time had obliterated most of the physical evidences of the small gardens. Their location had to be determined by old maps or letters and manuscripts. When clear evidence was lacking, the designer turned to surviving southern colonial gardens.

The average householder did not permit the smallness of his lot to keep him from having a garden. If the frontage on the street was too narrow, he could place the garden in the rear of the lot, perhaps near the stable yard, or back of the out-of-doors kitchen. Many of the small gardens in Williamsburg are in plain view from the Duke of Gloucester Street, some may be seen from one of the side streets, others are hidden from the casual visitor. But wherever one goes in the restored areas one sees them, perhaps over a picket fence, perhaps down a little-frequented alley. All are beautiful.

Fig. 7 Colonial gardeners appreciated the decorative possibilities of fruit trees, distributing them in such gardens as this Market Square Tavern instead of planting orchards in small town lots.   

Despite they uniform adherence to formal design, each garden has its own individuality. In some the feeling is of serenity, in others, seclusion. Perhaps a vine-covered wall, a high hedge, a row of trees, a kitchen or stable shelters the garden from the gaze of passerby and permits the owner, after the day’s work is done, to enjoy a few moments in privacy. But in all the gardens, even the very small, the formal design, the clipped hedges, the topiary work, the brick or marl walls, the rows of trees, give an air of dignity. The Williamsburg cabinetmaker, or storekeeper, or blacksmith could take pride in the fact that his garden, within its restricted area, was essentially like that of a member of the council of state or even of the Governor. And today the visitor to Williamsburg marvels at the stately beauty of the Palace gardens; but his interest in the small gardens is more personal, because he realizes that some one of them would fit perfectly into his own back yard.