Slow evolution: On an Albemarle property, global ideas take root

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The gardens developed organically over the years; beds that were once exposed to the sunlight are now partially or fully shaded by matured trees, the very ones that drew the owners to the property to begin with. Photo: Virginia Hamrick The gardens developed organically over the years; beds that were once exposed to the sunlight are now partially or fully shaded by matured trees, the very ones that drew the owners to the property to begin with. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Most gardens reflect a gardener’s care and dedication. At the Albemarle home of Lucy and Robert Huff, the landscape is also, in a sense, a gallery of souvenirs. The couple have amassed not only plant specimens given as gifts by family and friends, but garden concepts collected on their travels. Ideas from around the world find their echoes in this genteel, wooded landscape.

The Huffs bought the property in 1988, though Lucy has family roots here going back generations. Forested then, it now includes a generous stretch of open lawn behind the house, framed by mature hardwoods and naturally occurring dogwoods—the trees that initially attracted them to this spot, says Robert.

Coming from a family farm where they were accustomed to caring for a large vegetable garden, they initially started to plant ornamentals in beds near the house—Delaware Valley white and Schroeder pink azaleas, plus some 15-year-old English boxwoods they’d moved from another farm.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

“It was very hands-on,” says Lucy, remembering the time she planted a hillside full of ivy only to have it destroyed by deer. The couple eventually decided to invest in both a deer fence and the design services of landscape architect Ian Robertson.

The master plan Robertson drew in those early days included stone retaining walls he laid himself, a small water feature and lots of roses around the border of the rear brick patio. But the gardens have continued to develop organically over the years.

One long-term change has resulted from the growth of those lovely old trees: Beds that once received lots of sun are now in partial or full shade. One perennial bed now includes astilbe and bleeding heart; another, formerly overflowing with roses, now focuses more on ornamental lilies.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

For the last four years, garden designer Leslie Harris has come on board to help maintain and develop the garden, helping to reimagine some of the now-shaded beds that Robertson had designed nearly three decades ago. “It allows me to enjoy the garden more, without feeling I can never get it all done,” says Lucy, who describes the relationship as a partnership in which ideas and caretaking responsibilities can be shared. “Lucy has fantastic ideas and a very good eye,” says Harris.

The Huffs’ travels have provided inspiration on many counts. Sunflowers pay tribute to fields where they biked in France, and daffodils recall a swath of narcissus that inspired Wordsworth in England. The berries of nandinas give dramatic red color in late fall, something that struck the Huffs on a visit to Berkeley Plantation on the James River.

Certain moments in the garden recall the homeowners’ various travels. Japanese influences from Butchart Gardens in British Columbia find a home in the rear section of their landscape; a rose arbor and lamppost by Stokes of England were inspired by a trip to France. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

In France, Lucy saw and photographed a lamppost that ended up inspiring a whole suite of custom ironwork by Stokes of England: a rose arbor, a trellis, lighting sconces and, of course, a lamppost. The rose arbor rises above an outdoor table placed on a circular terrace, made of cobblestones removed from an old street in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood.

After touring Butchart Gardens in British Columbia in 2004, the Huffs wanted to add a Japanese garden to the rear section of their landscape, and Robertson obliged. It boasts a variegated weeping dogwood, a tabletop Korean pine, Japanese maples with miniature mouse ear hostas peeking from underneath and other Asian ornamentals presided over by a Japanese-style gate. A bluestone walk leads through painted Japanese ferns, mondo grass and sedum.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

The Huffs seem to know and appreciate every plant on their property. A big tulip poplar near the front corner of the house “is a fantastically beautiful thing when it blooms,” says Robert fondly. Nearby, a yellowwood tree makes plumes of white flowers in spring, and a pair of limbed-up dogwoods shade the house in summer but let sun through in winter, explains Lucy.

A couple of unusual trees, like a deodar cedar and a pink Kousa dogwood, help to bring scale and interest to the lawn space as it stretches back from the herb garden off the house’s rear patio. Yet some of the greatest pleasure of this landscape comes from those familiar natives that were here even before the Huffs arrived. Robert gestures to a row of tall dogwoods that, at the moment, form an unassuming row at the edge of the woods, behind lilacs and rhododendrons. “In spring, he says, “it’s just an array of white.”

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