Mount Sharon: Finding Gold In The Hills Of Orange, Virginia

Mount Sharon Rose Garden/Photo: Here By Design

The Rose Garden at Virginia’s Mount Sharon

High on a hilltop in beautiful Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it sits on the second highest point in the county. The magnificent property, which includes a brick house in the Georgian Revival style, is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go.

The gardens are part of a large estate owned by Mary Lou and Charlie Seilheimer, who purchased the property in 1995 partly for its extraordinary views of the countryside. The house, which is framed by centuries’ old trees and acres of mature boxwood, affords breathtaking views of the rolling hills of the Piedmont Plateau and one of the best vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the region.

At the time of the Seilheimers’ purhase, the 77.5-acre estate also included the remnants of an earlier garden dating back to the late 18th and 19th centuries. Part of a thousand-acre land grant made by King George to the Taliaferro family in 1725, the terraced garden had been built along an axis and included a 450-foot allée of 20-foot American boxwood that stretched from west to east off the back of the mansion.

Although most of the garden was in disrepair, the Seilheimers knew that they wanted to significantly expand the garden. They traveled widely, conducting extensive research into Italian, English and French garden styles and bringing their impressions home to Virginia. To execute their vision, they hired Charles Stick, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect known for “designing properties for private individuals.” Together, the three formed what Mary Lou called a “great collaboration” with the understanding that if they didn’t all agree on something, they didn’t do it.

A view through the gazebo at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

The Seilheimers asked Stick to create a garden based on the axis of the original garden, including a central ‘boxwood hall.’ He would frame the rooms and they would help paint them, while ensuring that the magnificent Virginia countryside remained the primary focus of the design.

The finished product, which grew to encompass 10 acres, would be embellished by garden structures, sculptures, stairways, benches and water features. It took over five years to develop.

 

The Tour

We were met by Mary Lou Seilheimer herself, dressed in no-nonsense gardening clothes, complete with sensible shoes and straw baseball cap (in contrast to many of us who were dressed for a garden party.) As we gathered under the leafy canopy of a towering old tree, she explained that the enormous tulip poplars we saw shading the property were over 250 years old.

Centuries’ old tulip poplar

The magnificent poplars, along with acres of 100-year-old American boxwood and black walnut trees, form the bones of the garden and are a hallmark of the property.

 

The Wedding Gate

Visitors to Mount Sharon enter through the ‘Wedding Gate’, which is flanked by a pair of enormous clipped boxwood. The couples’ daughter was married in the garden. A plaque on the threshold commemorates the date.

Entry gate to the gardens at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

As we passed under the wrought iron arch, Mary Lou explained that the garden was set up like a house, with a formal entry, foyer and a series of 10 garden rooms, each with their own names and individuality.

The Knot Garden

First on the tour was a garden room designed to act as the ‘foyer’, a tightly controlled space consisting of a pair of knot gardens in the Elizabethan style. The gardens were matching in size, yet dissimilar in design, and featured intertwined ‘threads’ of ‘Green Gem’ boxwood and Crimson Pygmy barberry forming low hedges at varying height levels.

Elizabethan Knot Garden/Photo: Here By Design

Turning left, we passed through a small garden full of spring blooms whose focal point was a medium-sized tree with a broad, rounded crown. Mary Lou explained that the tree, known as a yellowwood, put on a brilliant spring show every year with its panicles of fragrant white flowers. Unfortunately it had just finished blooming, though its branch structure still left plenty to admire.

Spring garden

Yellowwood tree/Photo: Here By Design

Yellowwood tree

Croquet Lawn

Winding its way past a small fountain, our path led us into a vast open space, where it bisected a formal green lawn. Mary Lou explained that the lawn had originally been intended for croquet playing, but nowadays it functioned more as a space for hosting large outdoor events. On the left was a rectangular lawn bordered by a tall clipped hedge formed of Nellie Stevens hollies. A small white painted bench provided the sole ornament, standing in silhouette against the glossy dark green foliage.

White bench silhouetted against green hollies/Photo: Here By Design

White bench and Nellie Stevens hollies

On the right hand side and facing the countryside, a large green lawn unfurled towards the horizon. The lush carpet was bordered on either side by double rows of Trident maples that rose up out of beds edged by ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood.

At the far end the garden, an elegant geyser fountain shot plumes of frothy white water into the air while beyond stretched stunning views of the Virginia countryside.

The croquet lawn at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

The croquet lawn

Of particular interest in this garden are the two groups of tall pyramidal arborvitae site on either side of the fountain. Mary Lou explained that Stick had placed them there deliberately to narrow the view and trick the eye into believing that the lawn dropped off the cliff at the far end of the garden.

The Exedra

Stick designed this little garden with its Eros statue in a part of the garden located furthermost from the house, and in doing so, established a long axis from one end of the garden to the other. He modeled the space after the Roman exedra, a small niche with raised seats used in ancient times for rest and contemplation.

Eros statue surrounded by boxwood/Here By Design

Eros statue surrounded by boxwood

The round garden room (which Stick preferred over rectangular because it encouraged people to move around), is built around a bluestone and brick patio suggesting the four points of the compass. Encircling the statue is an unusual variety of boxwood, maintained in a fluffy, wave-like form. Mary Lou explained that she had propagated the 35-year old specimens of ‘Kingsville boxwood’ herself from a sprig given to her by a friend.

A stone bust of Jefferson

Tucked into the hedge enclosing the space are four niches meant for the four Virginia founding presidents. Busts of Washington and Jefferson feature prominently, while the other two spaces remain empty. Mary Lou quipped that that they had recently taken out an ad looking for Madison and Monroe.

Grape Arbor

This grand wood arbor modeled after the arbor at Dumbarton Oaks provides shade just adjacent to the pool deck. It is covered by wisteria.

 

The Perennial Border

The perfect complement to the blue water of the pool, the mostly-blue English-style mixed border is accessed through a white lattice pavilion. Blue colors abound with an English-style mix of delphiniums, false indigo, catmint and salvia highlighted by the lavender blooms of H.F. Young ‘Queen of the Vines’ clematis and the bright yellow rose, Graham Thomas.

English-style perennial border at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

Mount Sharon perennial border/Photo: Here By Design

The perennial border

Rose Garden

But the real surprise waited just around the corner, where we suddenly found ourselves on a grassy knoll overlooking an astonishing rose garden composed of a pair of symmetrical parterres enclosed by tightly clipped yews.

View of Rose Garden at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

Descending a flight of stone stairs, we passed under the welcome shade of a pair of wooden pergolas.

Stairs into Rose Garden at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

Stairs to pergolas

View inside pergola/Photo: Here By Design

The cedar structures were blanketed with soft pink roses and bright white clematis.

Pergola covered with roses at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

A pair of Chinese Chippendale style pagodas adorned each end of the garden.

Clematis blooming the Rose Garden at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

Midway through the pergolas, we turned left and descended again onto a bright green terraced lawn centered on yet another fountain.

Stick dubbed the Rose Garden the ‘Garden of Four Seasons’ for its Italian statuary, which includes four large stone statues of female figures that flank the entrances to the garden parterres.

Statues in the Rose Garden at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

Mary Lou explained that they selected the statues for their large scale, which was ‘important to hold down the space’ as well as for their kindly expressions. The impressive sculptures most likely came from two different sets.

Close-up of one of the statues at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

The sculptures on their spool-like bases certainly held their own in the vast space, while adding a contemplative dimension to these astonishing gardens.

View across Rose Garden at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

One of the Rose Garden parterres

Octagonal Terrace

At the far end of the rose garden and just north of the house, is a secluded terrace affording a broad view of the mountains. The octagonal, bluestone terrace is surrounded by sitting walls backed by azaleas, boxwood and ornamental trees. A pair of turkey sculptures adorns two small piers flanking steps down onto the lawn.

Turkey garden ornament at Mount Sharon/Photo: Here By Design

An interesting feature of this garden is that when viewed from the house, the sitting walls are brick, while when viewed from the lawn, they are green with shrubbery. Just one of countless details that went into the making of this magnificent garden.

For more information on Mount Sharon, click here for the National Park Service Register.

 

How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

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Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But the case may be different when it comes to a child’s love for her mom. One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis was born in 1864 in Grafton, West Virginia. When her mother died in 1905, she made a solemn vow while standing over the gravesite. On that day, she pledged to devote her life to establishing a nationally recognized day to honor mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.

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Anna Jarvis

Ann Reeves Jarvis and the Mother’s Day Work Clubs

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had sacrificed a lot for her children. She had raised her family during the Civil War period and had suffered frequent hardship and loss. Of the 11 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases common at the time, including measles, typhoid fever and diphtheria.

In the late 1850’s, in the hopes of improving sanitary conditions to combat such devastating illnesses, Jarvis created the Mother’s Day Work Clubs.

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Ann Reeves Jarvis

The Mother’s Day Work Clubs were a series of coalitions of mothers located in small towns across West Virginia. The clubs raised money for medicines, placed women helpers with families whose mothers were bedridden and inspected food and bottled milk intended for children. The clubs provided much-needed strength and support to area communities that had been devastated by loss.

During the Civil War, Jarvis refused to take sides and urged her Mothers’ Day Work Club members to stay neutral. In their supplemental role as volunteer nurses, the Club’s mothers cared for wounded soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies, providing food and clothing to the many men who were stationed in the area.

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U.S. Army Center of Military History

Following the war, the Clubs continued to be a unifying force in a divided nation. In 1868, Jarvis organized Mothers’ Friendship Day, which was centered around picnics and other pacifist activities. The events brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.

Anna Jarvis and the white carnation

Shortly after her mother’s death, Anna organized a memorial to honor her. She held it at her mother’s church, St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all the mothers in attendance. Similar events took place later in the afternoon in Philadelphia, where Anna lived at the time.

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With this unofficial inauguration of the Mothers’ Day movement, Anna began an intense letter writing campaign, reaching out to every state governor and national or local figure she judged to be important. By 1909, largely as a result of her campaign, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, had begun holding Mother’s Day celebrations. In 1912, Anna formed the Mother’s Day International Association to encourage further international recognition of the day.

Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made things official. He signed Proclamation 1268, which created a national Mother’s Day “as a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” The second Sunday in May was set aside as the official day of celebration and the wearing of a white carnation, symbol of love and good luck, became a tradition.

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Proclamation 1268 establishing an official Mother’s Day

The controversy over printed cards

Anna Jarvis’ original vision was for Mother’s Day to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families (this is why Mother’s takes the singular possessive and not the plural). She imagined it as a time when millions would visit their mothers and pen personal, hand written notes expressing their love and affection.

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With the official recognition of the holiday, though, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more incensed as she watched Mother’s Day drift further and further away from her original idea. And, nothing upset her more than the growth in popularity of the printed Mother’s Day card. She wrote,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. 

By 1920, Jarvis had become so upset over the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she launched a campaign to abolish the holiday. Declaring Mother’s Day a failure, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to stop what she saw as an attempt by others to profit off of the day.

In 1923, she filed suit against the then Governor of New York, Al Smith, over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the court rejected her plea, she formed a protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She devoted the remainder of her life to fighting against the very day she had established.

Jarvis died, childless, in 1948 at the age of 84. She was buried next to her mother in Philadelphia.

 

Carnations

One hundred years later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on and carnations have become the official Mother’s Day flower.  In Jarvis’ day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red carnations have been added to the mix. According to FTD’s Mother’s Day Flower Guide, pink carnations represent love and gratitude while red carnations signify admiration. Nowadays, white carnations are reserved for honoring a mother who is no longer living.

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Despite Jarvis’ later efforts, every U.S. president since 1914 has issued an official Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation recognizing and honoring America’s mothers. And today, the custom is celebrated all over the world (albeit on different days.)

On a personal note, I like receiving printed cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, but have to agree with Jarvis that nothing beats a hand-written note from your child. I’m lucky enough to receive such letters each and every year.

Wishing all of you a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this historic French garden. Continue reading

Lily of the Valley: The Official May Day Flower

The bells of lily of the valley

It was the beginning of May and I can still recall the sound of running footsteps on the stairs of my apartment building. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. This was Paris in the 1980s, and I had just received my first brin de muguet. The sweet-smelling blooms were none other than lily of the valley; a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May. Continue reading

Trade In Your Lawn For A Low-Maintenance Meadow Garden

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A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work

These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The suburban meadow offers a beautiful solution to this problem. Continue reading

5 Ways You Can Honor Our Planet on Earth Day

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It’s been a while now since Earth Day first made its debut on April 22, 1970. I vaguely remember the strangeness of being let out of school to pick up trash in the nearby woods. The idea seemed entirely foreign to us at the time, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our garbage on the ground. Hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading

In Praise of Redbud

Eastern redbud, Cercis Canadensis

I never fail to smile when the first magenta flowers of Eastern redbud appear in my area. Blooming with abandon at forest edges, along roadsides and in gardens, the showy tree produces a sharp color contrast that immediately distinguishes it from other trees in the landscape. One of my friends (a redbud-lover) always exclaims “Redbud!!” when her own specimen bursts into bloom. That seems to me the most fitting way to describe the flowering of this upbeat ornamental tree. Continue reading

Bridging the Gap: DC To Build First Elevated Park On 11th Street Bridge

Washington, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park/Photo: OMA + OLIN Anacostia Crossing

There’s a new movement afoot that aims to turn old infrastructure into public parks, breathing new life into spaces that have long since been neglected or forgotten. Of these, the transformation of an old rail line into a 1.5 mile landscaped park on Manhattan’s West Side (the High Line) is perhaps the most well known. Now comes Washington, DC’s own variation on the theme: the 11th Street Bridge Park, the city’s first elevated park that will soon be floating above the Anacostia River. Continue reading

All’s Fair At Macy’s 44th Annual Spring Flower Show

Revolving carousel at Macy’s Spring Flower Show

New York City’s Macy’s Day Parade is an American fall tradition with its festive floats, high school marching bands and trademark balloons. But until this weekend, I had never heard of another spectacular show sponsored each spring by the 100-year-old department store. That is, the Macy’s Flower Show; a show so big that it transforms an entire floor of the giant Herald Square building into a veritable garden extravaganza. Continue reading