Tour a Classical Virginia Garden
A Charlottesville, Virginia, master gardener and her architect husband transform their landscape with the time-honored tenets of classical garden design.
Stunning Virginia Garden
A proper upbringing is one way to describe garden design tradition in Virginia. Its symmetrically planned allées and vista views have a pedigree back to the ancients. Who can argue with several millennia of success or Jefferson's own lasting local touch? Not Brooke and Madison Spencer, a Charlottesville couple trained in classicism. She has a horticultural design business, Cory Spencer Partners, and he is a University of Virginia-trained principal at Madison Spencer Architects. Their shared history inspired plans for the one-bedroom ranch home Madison renovated for their family. "His plans informed my vision for a garden," says Brooke. "As soon as he added a pediment to the house, I could justify a Classical garden."
The property also came with its own set of quirks. So many rabbits claimed these 9 acres of country that previous owners merrily named the place "Rabbit Run." Brooke gave them a beautiful place to roam by extending the garden on axis from the front door. She made sure the scale, colors, and furnishings (such as gravel paths and trellising) flowed into the landscape. At the end of a 300-foot garden path sits a stunning pavilion, where the couple dines and entertains. As for those rabbits, they are fewer in number now that the Spencers' beagles are on patrol each day. However, every night, the rabbits emerge from the hedges near the pavilion. It's an enduring presence that can only be described as magical.
The Big Idea Similar to a folly, "the pavilion is a strong visual element that draws the eye to the long view and makes you want to stroll the garden to go see it," Brooke says. The couple considered the idea of designing it with a dining room, kitchen, pantry, and bath but opted to have a single room for dining with a fireplace and five French doors (two on the sides). "The challenge was getting the scale right," says Madison. "Its 15- by 25-foot size was extrapolated from an heirloom hunt table we wanted to place against one wall."
The Plants A 12-foot-tall clipped European hornbeam hedge surrounds the pavilion. Potted 'Fastigiata' boxwoods and 'Henryi' clematis trained on tuteurs frame doors.
The Details At night, the glow from uplights placed in the reflecting pools seems to ripple with the water's movement against the pavilion's walls.
The Reflecting Pool
The Big Idea Brooke removed a seventies-era swimming pool when she bulldozed an acre for gardens. She used the depression at its deep end to make a reflecting pool. The sound of a trickling fountain is an audible enticement to enter the garden here and explore farther.
The Plants Water lilies, lotuses, underwater anacharis, and water hyacinths thrive in the 22-inch-deep reflecting pool, keeping the water cool while removing the nitrogen that the goldfish and frogs leave behind.
The Reflecting Pool
The Details Madison designed a double reverse curve for the pool's composite limestone coping. Brooke emphasized the effect of concentric pool ripples from the splashing fountain with an ever-widening progression of circles in the grass lawn, pea gravel path, and surrounding planting beds.
The Parking Court
The Big Idea When Madison gutted the ranch house, he delivered a Classical pediment to the facade. Its presence gave Brooke access to a style and vocabulary of design elements she uses often in her work. She made a formal plan with a main axis centered on the front door. "The garden is tied to the house in calculated proportions," says Brooke. "It's a Classical plan that extends the garden toward a very long view."
The Details A gravel drive of local "Monticello mix" river stone eases the edges of the driveway into the planting beds, lending a soft look. For continuity, pea gravel is a fixture in the garden, repeated on all of the paths.
The Parking Court
The Plants Brooke mimicked wall trellises flanking the front door with a latticework pattern of 'Justin Brouwers' boxwoods in the beds. She planted bulbs—snowdrops, Spanish bluebells, tulips, and alliums—among the boxwoods for a continuous spring show. Styrax trees, short in stature, maintain the scale.
The Garden Path
The Big Idea A 100-foot-long pea gravel walk exits the pool circle to extend the garden's axis from the house. A visiting friend, British garden designer George Carter, suggested linear plantings of boxwoods along the path to reveal a Greek key motif. It animates the straight-away and incorporates yet another element of Classical design.
The Details Brooke and Madison determined the proper size of the Greek key indentations to accommodate a pair of McKinnon and Harris benches, made of aluminum in Richmond.
The Garden Path
The Plants Brooke impressed the linear pattern of the Greek key motif on either side of the garden path with a march of 'Justin Brouwers' boxwoods and then let loose with billowy layers of perennials and shrubs, including lamb's ears, 'Screaming Yellow' false indigos, and drifts of peonies. Peonies that grace the borders include 'Rosea Plena,' 'Nymphe,' 'Monsieur Jules Elie,' and 'Festiva Maxima.' Disease-and borer-resistant 'Aurora' dogwoods, coveted for their large spring flower bracts, dot the borders on each side.