By Karen Cauthen Ellsworth

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Magnolia, photo courtesy of the Garden Club of Virginia.

From its inception nearly a century ago, the Garden Club of Virginia has highlighted policy issues directed at the environment and sustainability.  Its 47 member clubs are comprised of more than 3,300 volunteers.  They have long advocated to conserve natural resources, plant trees and promote environmentally sustainable gardening.  The Garden Club of Virginia encourages the use of native plants.  Gardeners everywhere know that setting plants in the proper location reduces maintenance and watering requirements, and eliminates or reduces the need for and use of commercial pesticides and fertilizers.

A native landscape does not need to be mowed like a conventional lawn, reducing the demand for non-renewable resources and improving water and air quality. Landscaping with wildflowers and grasses improves the ecosystem. Birds, butterflies, bees and other plants are attracted to these plants, enhancing biodiversity. “One has only to drive by a Kudzu infested roadside to understand how invasive plants rob native plants of their natural habitat,” notes Tuckie Westfall, Conservation Chairman of this statewide organization.

Renowned for its popular Historic Garden Week, the nation’s only statewide house and garden tour, the Garden Club of Virginia celebrates the beauty of the land, conserves the gifts of nature and challenges future generations to build on this heritage. This fundraiser began when a flower show organized by Garden Club of Virginia volunteers raised funds to save trees planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. More than 80 years later, proceeds from local Historic Garden Week tours continue to fund the restoration and preservation of nearly 40 of the Commonwealth’s significant historic public gardens, two annual research fellowships, as well as a new initiative with Virginia’s state parks.

This spring, there are four tours involving seven clubs in the Northern Virginia area alone.

Old Town Alexandria – Saturday, April 23

Overlooking the Potomac River and within view of our Nation’s Capital, Old Town was only the third city in the country to create a historic district to preserve its downtown.  Today, it has 4,000 buildings with this designation. The leisurely walking tour includes five homes with small, urban gardens and admission to several nearby historic sites including the Carlyle House Historic Park. When British merchant John Carlyle completed his riverfront house in 1753, this was the grandest mansion in the new town of Alexandria. The Garden Club of Virginia restored the front landscape to the mid-18th-century period using proceeds from past Historic Garden Week tours. “On the day of the tour, visitors can purchase herbs, native plants and crafts on the grounds of this landmark property,” says Catherine Thompson, one of the Chairmen for the Old Town Alexandria tour. “Mount Vernon brings plants from the estate gardens to sell and many of those are native Virginia species.” George Washington’s estate is also a restoration project of the Garden Club of Virginia.

Winchester – Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24

Going out of town, this rural tour showcases four estates dating from 1782 to 1993. “Visitors might not realize that their ticket purchase helps to preserve and restore historic gardens in the immediate area. Take a side trip to the State Arboretum of Virginia and experience one of the nearby gardens that Historic Garden Week has helped to sustain and grow,” explains Anne Buettner, one of the Tour Chairmen for the Winchester-Clarke County tour. The 175-acre Historic Blandy Experimental Farm at the State Arboretum is in nearby Boyce.  It contains over 5,000 woody trees and shrubs from around the world. A property of the University of Virginia since 1926, it is currently operated under its department of Environmental Services. Stone walls along Dogwood Lane that once led to the manor house of the original farm were rebuilt in 2004 by the Garden Club of Virginia using proceeds from past tours. Walking trails wind through the property, including the Native Plant Trail where visitors will see early blooming spring ephemeral wildflowers like bloodroot, bluebells and trillium. These harbingers of spring are followed by violet, wild geranium, wild blue phlox and mayapple.

Middleburg – Sunday, April 24 and Monday, April 25

Nestled against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this tour features four estates all located within the 18,000-acre Crooked Run Rural Historic District just to the west of Middleburg. “Thanks to the stewardship of local land owners, thousands of acres are protected by privately held conservation easements providing for lasting enjoyment of our architecture and rural beauty,” notes June Hambrick, President of the Leesburg Garden Club and Tour Chairman for the Middleburg tour. “Visitors and residents alike rejoice at the sight of stone walls, grazing horses and cows, century old oaks, rock roads and homes of our Founders here, all within 50 minutes of the Capital beltway,” she points out. GCV members are very active in community-based environmental groups working with the citizens to conserve land, protect air and water quality and restore wildlife natural habitat. “These efforts are crucial to maintaining a cherished way of life in this part of Virginia,” notes Sally Fletcher, Historic Garden Week District Chairman in Northern Virginia.

Falls Church – Arlington – Tuesday, April 26

Back inside the Beltway, Falls Church is a small city, two miles square.  Full of history and charming urban gardens, Arlington borders Falls Church on the east. Featured gardens on this Historic Garden Week tour include four 100-year-old holly trees, mature boxwoods delineating garden rooms, an herb garden and a garden of Victorian era plants. Landscaping choices have meaningful effects on local populations of birds and the insects. Situated in a 38-acre wooded stream valley, Gulf Branch Natural Area in Arlington preserves and protects wildlife habitat.  This suburban park is a sanctuary for a surprising number of plant and animal species and is a nearby attraction for gardening enthusiasts. On tour day, a naturalist will be available to talk with visitors about bees, one of our local pollinators, and they can experience the observation beehive. Without native plants our native bees could not survive. Many people don’t realize that honey bees are not native to America; they came with the European colonists and then quickly spread over the continent.

“The best way to protect our bee population is to educate people, which is what we are doing by promoting the Gulf Branch Nature Center,” explains Tricia Goins, Tour Chairman for the Arlington/Falls Church tour.  “We want to encourage people to plant native plants to help our population of bees.  The Gulf Branch Nature Center provides a beautiful, natural, green space – a place where our neighbors can learn how to create one in their own gardens.”

In his book Garden Tourism, Richard W. Benfield notes, “More people travel to gardens in America than visit Disneyland and Disneyworld combined.” Approximately 30,000 people will visit sites across Virginia over eight consecutive days this April. Clearly, gardens are important and provide a unique educational opportunity for organizations like the Garden Club of Virginia to educate the public on the value of native plants and beneficial horticulture. While the primary motivation for attending Historic Garden Week is typically to enjoy the spectacular private homes and gardens that are open exclusively in support of its mission, there are additional benefits.  “We estimate that over 2,000 flower arrangements will be created to decorate homes featured on Historic Garden Week this spring.  Using native and seasonal flowers is a point of pride for our club members since most of the plant materials come directly from their personal gardens,” explains Meg Clement, this year’s State Chairman.  “Our arrangers also participate in flower shows around the state so they bring a lot of experience and knowledge to the process.”

Visit www.vagardenweek.org for a complete tour schedule, to purchase tickets and for details regarding itineraries and Garden Club of Virginia current restoration sites.  Karen Cauthen Ellsworth is the Director of Historic Garden Week.