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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
The perennial border
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.
Descending a flight of stone stairs, we passed under the welcome shade of a pair of wooden pergolas.
Stairs to pergolas
The cedar structures were blanketed with soft pink roses and bright white clematis.
A pair of Chinese Chippendale style pagodas adorned each end of the garden.
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.
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.
The sculptures on their spool-like bases certainly held their own in the vast space, while adding a contemplative dimension to these astonishing gardens.
One of the Rose Garden parterres
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.
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.