The Rose Garden at Virginia’s Mount Sharon
High on a hilltop in Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it occupies the second highest point in the county. The magnificent estate 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.
ABOUT MOUNT SHARON
Part of a land grant made by King George in the early 1700s, Mount Sharon had been in the hands of the same family for generations when in 1995, Charlie Seilheimer and his wife Mary Lou bought the property. At the time of their purchase, the 77.5-acre former plantation included a Georgian-style brick home and traces of a garden dating back to the late 18th century. The terraced space included a 450-foot boxwood ‘hall’ stretching from west to east off the back of the mansion.
View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from atop Mount Sharon
AN EYE TOWARDS PRESERVATION
Time had taken its toll on the property and by 1995, much of it was in disrepair. Nevertheless, the Seilheimers pledged to preserve what they could while vastly expanding the garden. To educate themselves, the couple traveled widely, conducting research into Italian, English and French garden styles. They brought their new found knowledge back to the rolling hills of central Virginia.
Today, Italian urns and other European artifacts embellish the garden
To transform their vision into reality, the Seilheimers hired Charlottesville-based landscape architect Charles Stick. Together, the three formed what Mary Lou refers to as a ‘great collaboration.’ That is to say, if they couldn’t all agree on something, they didn’t do it.
Specifically, the couple tasked Stick with creating a new garden founded on the old one, to include the renovated central ‘boxwood hall.’ While he framed the rooms, they would help ‘paint them’ using specimen trees, masses of shrubbery and thousands of flowering plants. Perhaps most importantly, the trio concurred that the Virginia countryside would always remain the focus of the project.
View into the formal rose parterre with Virginia countryside beyond
In the end, the garden grew to encompass 10 acres embellished by the finest quality garden structures, sculptures, water features and accessories assembled from all over the world. It took five years to develop.
TOURING MOUNT SHARON
On the morning of our visit, we were met by Mary Lou Seilheimer herself, outfitted in sensible garden shoes and a straw baseball cap. As we gathered under a giant tulip poplar, she explained that this and other towering specimens native to the estate were over 250 years old.
Indeed, the magnificent poplars, along with acres of 100-year-old American boxwood and black walnut trees, form the bones of this centuries-old garden. A hallmark of the property, they make a dramatic statement against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
One of many centuries’ old tulip poplars on the property
IT ALL BEGINS AT THE WEDDING GATE
All visits to Mount Sharon begin at the ‘Wedding Gate,’ which is easily recognizable by its pair of brick pillars and giant boxwood balls. As we passed under a wrought-iron arch, Mrs. Seilheimer divulged that the couples’ daughter was married in the garden. And just beyond, a plaque commemorates the date.
The Wedding Gate at Mount Sharon
By way of introduction, Ms. Seilheimer explained that the garden functioned a lot like a house. For instance, each space was separated by ‘walls’ of trees, hedges and other structures. Not only was there a formal entry and ‘foyer’, but there was also a series of 10 rooms, each with its own name and character.
THE KNOT GARDEN
First on the tour was the ‘foyer’, a tightly controlled space consisting of a pair of knot gardens typical of the Elizabethan period. Identical in size but dissimilar in design, the square boxes enclose interwoven patterns of contrasting plants. The ‘threads’ of bright green box and crimson barberry are pruned at varying height levels, creating the illusion that one passes under another.
The Knot Garden
Turning left, we passed through a small garden of spring blooms, the focal point of which was a medium-sized tree with a rounded crown. Mrs. Seilheimer explained that the tree, known as yellowwood, produces beautiful panicles of fragrant, white flowers in late spring. At the time of our visit, it had just finished blooming. But, its branch structure still left plenty to admire.
A LAWN BUILT FOR PARTIES
Winding our way past a fountain, we entered a vast open space where our path cut across a large, formal lawn. At an earlier time, this area was reserved for croquet, but nowadays it functions as a place for outdoor parties. To the left, a tall hedge of Nellie Stevens hollies provides a natural ‘wall’, while a simple white bench furnishes the sole ornament.
White bench silhouetted against a hedge of Nellie Stevens hollies
Meanwhile to the right, the lawn continues uninterrupted towards the horizon. Here, the ‘walls’ of the garden are formed of a double row of Trident maples. Edged with clipped box, the evenly-spaced trees appear to diminish in size as they recede into the distance.
Double rows of Trident maples border the lawn
While at the far end of the lawn, a geyser fountain shoots plumes of frothy white water high into the air.
The croquet lawn
Two groups of pyramidal arborvitae, located on either side of the fountain, complete the walled sanctuary. While serving to narrow the view, the evergreens are also meant to trick the eye into believing that the lawn drops off a cliff at the end of the garden.
Stick designed this tiny garden with its Eros statue in a part of the property located furthermost from the house. And in so doing, he established a long axis from one end of the garden to the other. In particular, he modeled the space after the Roman exedra, a small niche used in ancient times for rest and contemplation.
Eros statue surrounded by boxwood
Built around a bluestone and brick patio, the round garden room calls to mind the four points of the compass. An unusual variety of boxwood encircles the statue. Maintained in a fluffy, wave-like style, the 35-year-old specimens were propagated from a sprig of ‘Kingsville’ boxwood given to the owners by a friend.
A stone bust of Jefferson
Tucked into the hedge enclosing the space are niches designed to house busts of the four founding presidents from Virginia. Washington and Jefferson feature prominently, however, the other two spaces are empty. Apparently they are still on the lookout for the other two. Indeed, Mrs. Seilheimer joked that they had recently taken out an ad for Madison and Monroe in the local papers.
A GRAPE ARBOR MODELED AFTER DC’S DUMBARTON OAKS
This grand wood arbor modeled after the wisteria arbor at Washington, DC’s Dumbarton Oaks provides shade just adjacent to the pool deck. Just like the one at Dumbarton, it is covered with the opulent purple flowers of sweet-scented wisteria.
The arbor sits poolside at Mount Sharon
THE PERENNIAL BORDER
The perfect complement to the aqua-toned swimming pool, the mostly-blue English-style perennial border is accessed through a white lattice pavilion. Blue colored flowers abound in an eclectic mix of delphiniums, false indigo, catmint and salvia juxtaposed with the lavender blooms of H.F. Young ‘Queen of the Vines’ clematis. The bright yellow rose, ‘Graham Thomas’ provides a bright counterpoint to the mostly cool palette.
The perennial border
THE ROSE GARDEN
However, the real surprise awaits around the corner where, all of a sudden, the visitor find himself overlooking an astonishing sight. Stretched out below is an enormous rose garden composed of symmetrical parterres enclosed by tall yew hedges.
Descending a flight of stone stairs, our group entered this ‘room’ via a pair of wood pergolas.
Stairs down into pergolas
In addition to providing some welcome shade, the graceful cedar structures were smothered with 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 onto a terraced lawn centered on a round pool and geyser fountain. The symmetrical parterres fan out on either side of this broad green walkway.
Stick dubbed the Rose Garden the ‘Garden of Four Seasons’ because of its Italian statuary. These include four large stone female figures that guard the entrances to each of the gardens.
Most likely from two different sets, the impressive sculptures were chosen for their large scale. According to Mrs. Seilheimer, this was essential ‘to hold down the space.’ Besides, the couple fell in love with the kindly expressions on their faces.
Standing atop their simple cement spools, the sculptures clearly prevail over the garden, while adding a contemplative dimension to the rose-filled parterres.
One of the Rose Garden parterres
THE OCTAGONAL TERRACE
At the far end of the Rose Garden is a secluded terrace that affords 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 that flank steps leading 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.