Cynthia Kling steps deep into Bunny Mellon's Oak Spring Garden in Upperville, Virginia, and uncovers the style icon's inimitable ideas.

Clouds of upright perennials in purple tones catch the eye in the English section of the garden.
Robbie Caponetto

In the horse country of Upperville, Virginia, there appears to be a small French village down one lane. A low fieldstone house opens onto a walled garden. Inside, you are greeted by lavender, daisies, cabbages, and an old wishing well. Weeds skip around lollipop-shaped trees, while meadowlarks stop for sips of water. Is it another entry into Alice's Wonderland? Nope. It's Oak Spring, the home of Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who was known as a brilliant tastemaker, designer of White House gardens, wife of billionaire art collector Paul Mellon, and a best friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Having visited Oak Spring Garden, I now think of her as a champion rule breaker. This ½-acre tiered garden is a mix of cottagey English and formal French with a smidge of fairy dust thrown in. Had anyone ever put these styles together and made them work before? Not to my knowledge.

At the top level, Johnny-jump-ups, fleabane, and wild strawberries grow in the cracks between fieldstones and create a slightly wild, casual feeling. How do they survive the heat? "Love, water, and organic fertilizer like Neptune's Harvest," says J.D. Tutwiler, Bunny's longtime gardener. She fed these sweet interlopers to encourage them. She was famous for her original ideas, but I have to ask if she ever got her hands dirty.

He guffaws. "She was never without her pruners and twine," he replies. The rambling boxwoods are trimmed to look natural. To keep these picky shrubs healthy, Bunny taught Tutwiler to remove a few branches here and there to create holes to let in the sunlight. You don't notice because of their shapes, but they contrast with the tall oaks that are pruned into lollipops outside the walls, creating a great view. Within, smaller vistas are made by placing interesting containers or stone gargoyles down pathways and in dark corners. The bounteous beds are filled with plants like poppies, pansies, petunias, columbines, and mint (which was an important ingredient in her iced tea). All are inexpensive choices and great self-seeders, so there isn't much replanting needed every year.

There is definitely a "more is better" philosophy at play here, but discipline is what keeps it from looking weedy or out of control. To mix styles and designs, Bunny considered every plant and twig and then clipped or placed so nothing ever stood out too much—not even the weeds. When Bunny's voice rang out asking "Who moved my dandelion?" the gardeners trembled.

The upper levels have an English look, but a few steps down, it becomes classically French. Symmetry, geometry, and order rule. Here, lettuces, Brussels sprouts, and kale are laid out on the diagonal, spaced widely to create a mosaic of giant vegetables. Along the walls, fruit trees have been bent into elegant forms. The pièce de résistance, at the lower edge, is a 125-foot allée of crabapples underplanted with (gasp!) white impatiens. Why the shock? This flower is the jelly doughnut of the gardening world—sweet and common. Hoity-toity types would never use it. But aristocratic rebel Bunny and her buddy Mrs. Onassis abhorred conventional thinking and never worried about what was "not done." However, Bunny's real brilliance shines when one considers her choices. You might expect to see rare collectibles or plants that were hauled down from the Himalayas. Not here. She understood what worked in her area and used those old reliables in unusual ways to get the look she was after—graceful beauty mixed with a sense of long ago and far away.

Although Bunny died in 2014, she left instructions to preserve her home, garden, and botanical library into perpetuity as the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (open to visitors by appointment only), dedicated to facilitating scholarship and dialogue for all things plant related. In case you can't go in person, we've unearthed the best of Bunny's surprisingly simple garden ideas for you to use at your own home.

What's Growing

1. AMERICAN HOLLY, pruned in winter, sets up the round shapes that punctuate the garden.

2. "KINGSVILLE DWARF" BOXWOOD, favored for its small size, grows to 1 ½ feet tall. Unclipped, it has a lovely undulating shape.

3. "HIDCOTE" LAVENDER surrounds the wishing well and thrives in well-drained, gritty soil and hot sun.

4. THE HERB GARDEN, planted on a grid system, contains thyme, santolina, cumin, rosemary, chives, and French marigolds.

5. BACHELOR'S BUTTON, a self-seeding annual, grows beside a vegetable bed.

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