April Abode: A formal parterre dresses up a country garden

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A bluestone path leads visitors down a long axis straight to the front door, diving the formal garden down the middle as it goes, while another perpendicular path forms a cross. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler A bluestone path leads visitors down a long axis straight to the front door, diving the formal garden down the middle as it goes, while another perpendicular path forms a cross. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler

The solidity of the wide brick house off Garth Road is broken in just one place: Look in the front door, and your gaze can travel all the way through the back of the house to the distant mountains. It’s a moment in which the landscape asserts itself, thanks to the placement of a large glassed-in rear porch. “I fell in love with that view,” says the owner of the day in 2014 when she first glimpsed it.

But she knew that the landscape design around the house was not framing that view the way it should. “We needed a better approach,” she says. A new parking court made way for a big change: The lackluster front garden became a showpiece, with walkways that magnify the impact of the mountain vista.

A bluestone path leads the eye (and the feet) down a long axis straight to the front door, dividing a formal garden down the middle as it goes. Another perpendicular path forms a cross, sectioning this boxwood-framed area into four quadrants. Though the owner, at previous residences, had had gardens in a looser English cottage style, this one is a classic geometric parterre.

The garden is a feast for the eyes year-round: Peonies give color in early summer and daisies in mid-summer; hellebores light up in late winter next to the graceful skeletons of last year's sedum. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler
The garden is a feast for the eyes year-round: Peonies give color in early summer and daisies in mid-summer; hellebores light up in late winter next to the graceful skeletons of last year’s sedum. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler

“The brick walls were here; we worked within it,” she says. “It’s a real perennial garden. There’s always something to look at.”

Each quadrant is anchored by a Cornus constellation dogwood and bordered by boxwoods. Within these outlines, a riot of blooms fills the space and the calendar: Tall Annabelle and paniculata limelight hydrangeas along the far edges, then lavender, penstemon, bee balm and toad lilies. White hyacinths fill the small squares around each central dogwood; baptisia and butterfly weed attract pollinators. Peonies give color in early summer and daisies in mid-summer; hellebores light up in late winter next to the graceful skeletons of last year’s sedum.

This formal garden is impressive in itself, but what really sets it off are the looser plantings along the driveway and in the other beds near the house. The owner and her husband have named their property Choill Mhor—Gaelic for “Great Woods”—in honor of the forest that surrounds the home and lawn. To approach the house by car is to wind through a section of forest that, when they first arrived, was riddled with invasive species.

Throughout the garden, sculptures, birdbaths and containers provide moments of interest to break up swaths of green. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler
Throughout the garden, sculptures, birdbaths and containers provide moments of interest to break up swaths of green. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler

“In two and a half years you can really clean a place up,” says the owner, who was keen to learn which of the established plants were natives and which didn’t belong. Japanese stiltgrass, a common invasive that was prevalent in these woods, was the major nemesis. After removing the stiltgrass, she had dozens of native dogwood and redbud trees planted along the edge of the woods, to be visible from the driveway. Thousands of daffodils bring early-spring color and resist hungry deer, too.

An original garden shed was covered in vines; she restored it as a functional shed and a focal point beneath mature magnolia, pine, holly and cryptomeria trees. Nearby planting beds feature epimedium ground cover and fringe trees for summer interest, with more daffodils and hellebores for late winter and spring.

On the west side of the house, impressive oaks and poplars provide the structure while newly planted dogwood and redbud promise to bring color and delicacy to the landscape. A pollinator garden, rescued from a tangle of bramble, now hosts echinacea, rudbeckia, bee balm and oakleaf hydrangea. Aster, too—“Boy, did it perform!” enthuses the owner.

A towering grandiflora magnolia anchors the side yard. “You just work around those,” the owner acknowledges. Same with the red oak on the back side of the house, which sports a dreamy wooden swing and marks the beginning of the property’s best feature: a mowed allée leading downhill to a small lake.

At the uphill end, she planted a shade garden with ghost ferns, lady ferns, Solomon’s seal and bleeding hearts. More ferns, plus azaleas and Japanese maples, fill in planting beds on this, the north side of the house.

Here and there, sculptures, birdbaths and containers provide moments of interest to break up the swaths of foliage and color. Just outside the kitchen door is an herb garden (in winter, filled with pansies and camellia), as well as a fringe tree that attracts finches to enliven the morning coffee ritual inside. Espaliered pear trees mark an arched breezeway connecting the patio to the pea-gravel parking court.

It’s a lovely place to stroll, and a lovely to view, too, from indoors—especially from the glassed-in porch, which the current owners use as a dining room. The mountain view can be part of every meal.

Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler
Midway. Photo: Catriona Tudor Erler

A walk among the flowers

In addition to Choill Mhor and the usual suspects, such as Morven Estate and the University of Virginia’s Pavilion gardens, this year’s Historic Garden Week (April 22-29) features four other Charlottesville and Albemarle residences open for tours.

Southfield

Over the past 17 years, the owners of this 20-acre property have added outbuildings, hardscaping, an infinity-edged pool and gardens in every direction. The landscape includes many unusual native and non-native plants, winter flowering shrubs and winding paths toward water features at various points.

Midway (above)

As per the original blueprint of this Albemarle landscape, laid out by designer Charles Gillette in 1936, a portion of the garden is dedicated to a selection of roses that blooms in a continuum of intense to pale color. Don’t miss the house, too: an early 19th-century farmhouse on a former hemp, flax and tobacco plantation.

The Laing House

Many years of living in Asia and England influenced the owners of this wooded property off Ridge Road, which features a Georgian-influenced home filled with Asian artifacts and furnishings, as well as an extensive art collection. Surrounding the house are informal gardens developed over the last nine years that feature Japanese maples and azaleas, spring bulbs and a double-blossom dogwood.

Fox Ridge

An active equestrian farm on 280 acres, this Farmington Hunt Club property boasts a 200-year-old log cabin, a cemetery dating to the late 1700s and the main house, a Neo-Georgian structure built in 1945. Find a boxwood parterre garden, vegetable garden and arrays of hellebores, hostas, daffodils and lily of the valley.

Visit vagardenweek.org for more information.

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