The Formal Garden is enclosed by buildings and white washed stone walls
This past April, I was fortunate to visit the Oak Spring Garden Foundation with one of my gardening clubs. I say fortunate because the estate is not open to the public yet. They have just started to open to gardening clubs by lottery, with a limit of three clubs per year. Because they could only accommodate 30 people and very few cars, we carpooled on a misty Friday morning to Upperville, Virginia. The short trip put us in horse country, very remote with no other property in sight.
Bunny and Paul Mellon
The Oak Spring Garden Foundation was established by Rachel Mellon, known as “Bunny,” before she died in 2014 at the age of 103. Bunny was born to a wealthy family in New Jersey. Her grandfather was the inventor of Listerine and founder of Lambert Pharmacal Company. She married Stacy Barcroft Lloyd Jr. in 1932, divorced him in 1948, and married Paul Mellon. Paul, a recent widower and son of Pittsburgh financier Andrew W. Mellon, had already purchased the estate then known as Rokeby.
Espaliered fruit tree
Bunny and Paul renamed the 4,000-acre property Oak Spring. This was a working farm, with cattle raising, thoroughbred horse breeding and racing, fox hunting, and gardening. They also owned residences in Cape Cod and Nantucket, Massachusetts; New York City; Washington, DC; and Antigua. Together they were very interested in collecting artwork, much of which has now been donated to museums. Bunny was a keen gardener and landscape designer. She was especially interested in the art of pruning and topiary. Bunny was friends with Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy and redesigned the White House Rose Garden and redesigned the White House East Garden that was later dedicated to and renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. She actually designed other gardens as well including the gardens of her other properties. Bunny liked all things French and was an avid collector of horticultural books and manuscripts. She amassed a collection of 16,000 books, manuscripts, and botanical artwork now housed in a singular building on the property. Today, this library is open by appointment for researchers and scholars but the Foundation is digitizing some of the collection. Several books have been written about Bunny. Paul, who predeceased Bunny at age 91 in 1999, wrote an autobiography.
Part of our tour was to see the Oak Spring Garden Library but we were not able because of the humid weather. Angie Ritterpusch welcomed us and although she showed us other parts of the estate, this article is solely about the gardens.
We gathered under the famed crabapple allee, with our umbrellas and boots. The allee, made up of Mary Potter crabapples trained to arch over and create a tunnel, connected the Formal Garden with the Lord & Burnham Victorian-style greenhouse. Horticulturist Judy Zatsick led us through a large wooden gate into the walled, formal garden (see video below). It was like stepping into a forgotten secret garden that flourished during war-torn France. Evidence of time passed was reflected in the white washed walls, the lichen encrusted trees, and the old brick paths. Bunny’s garden was restrained and purposeful. The half-acre was a composite of many, small garden beds enclosed by stone walls and small buildings, such as the basket house and guest houses. The land was laid out in three levels ascending (from the gate) to the back of the house.
We immediately walked towards the backside of the house and on to the Sunday Kitchen Patio, which afforded us the view of the Formal Garden and the greenhouse in the distance. From there we could see the three levels and the central axis path that went directly from the house to the gate as well as a parallel path to the left side of the enclosed garden. Because it was spring, pansies, tulips, aquilegia, viola, and daffodils were blooming. The fruit trees had greened up and there were large hostas, untouched by deer. You would think that with their wealth the garden would be ostentatious but it wasn’t, it was relatively formal because of its geometric design and symmetry. However, the plantings made it simple and delightful. The garden encapsulated Bunny’s motto that “nothing should be noticed and nothing should be obvious.”
Sunday Kitchen Patio
The Sunday Kitchen Patio was a brick-laid patio directly off the house and kitchen. There was a small dogwood tree and seating area with a narrow bed of irises. From there we stepped on an old circular millstone down to the next level, the Upper Terrace. The Upper Terrace was paved with fieldstone so old that plants grew in the cracks. There was a small White Garden and a Rose Garden off to the side.
Square Garden in foreground with Upper Terrace in background
Using the main axis, we descended down stairs to the Middle Terrace. The paths were paved with fieldstone. The Square Garden on the left was a square patch of lawn. The Tea Garden and Butterfly Garden were on the right. The Tea Garden was full of herbs for making tea and the Butterfly Garden had butterfly shapes in the ground with plants to color the wings. Descending down stairs again was the Lower Terrace with gravel paths. On the left and right were large vegetable and herb gardens with a wishing well. Throughout the formal garden were espaliered fruit trees on the walls, cordon-style fruit trees to border the small gardens, a few clipped trees as well as large old trees.
East Vegetable Garden with Croquet Lawn on right
On the perimeter were more garden spaces such as the croquet lawn, pantry garden, and shade bed. This is the type of garden where you could spend a lifetime exploring and enjoying each small space, differentiated by plants, season, and light. Bunny’s design motto was that “Nothing should stand out. It all should give the feeling of calm. When you go away, you should remember only the peace.”
Oak Spring Garden Foundation
Bunny established the Oak Spring Garden Foundation so her library, gardens, and home would be a resource for those who love horticulture. The vision is to host scholars, writers, artists, and interns to not only learn about horticulture but also to learn from her library of over 16,000 original manuscripts and books.
View of South Vegetable Garden from Basket House
The Foundation also hopes to serve as a site for academic conferences. The Foundation mission is to support and inspire fresh thinking and bold action on the history and future of plants, including the art and culture of plants, gardens, and landscapes. Access to the gardens and library is by appointment only. In 2020, the Foundation plans to open the gardens to the public for Virginia Historic Garden Week, which takes place in April/May.
Formal Garden map, courtesy of Max Smith and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation