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 the estate
Part of a land grant made by King George to the Taliaferro family in the early 1700s, Mount Sharon is a former plantation. In 1995, Founder and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty Corporation Charlie Seilheimer and his wife Mary Lou bought the property. At the time of their purchase, the 77.5-acre estate included a Georgian-style brick home and traces of a garden dating back to the late 18th century.
Built along an axis, the terraced space featured a 450-foot allée of gigantic American boxwood. The ‘boxwood hall’ stretched from west to east off the back of the mansion.
View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from atop Mount Sharon
An eye toward 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 impressions, along with some decorative accents, back to their new home in Virginia.
Today, Italian urns and other European artifacts embellish the garden
After an exhaustive search, the couple chose Charles Stick, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect to execute their vision. Together, the three formed what Mary Lou refers to as a ‘great collaboration.’ In other words, if they couldn’t all agree about something, they didn’t do it.
The Seilheimers tasked Stick with creating a new garden founded on the old one, to include the renovated central ‘boxwood hall.’ While he framed the rooms, the couple would help ‘paint them’ using specimen trees, masses of shrubbery and thousands of flowering plants. They made sure to agree, however, 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 around the world. It took five years to develop.
We were met by Mary Lou herself, dressed in sensible garden shoes and a straw baseball cap. As we gathered under the canopy of 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 the garden. They are a hallmark of the property.
One of many centuries’ old tulip poplars on the property
The Wedding Gate
Visitors to Mount Sharon enter first through the ‘Wedding Gate’, which is flanked by a pair of enormous boxwood balls. The couples’ daughter was married in the garden. Just beyond, a plaque commemorates the date.
The Wedding Gate at Mount Sharon
By way of introduction, Ms. Seilheimer explained that the garden functioned like a house whose spaces were separated by ‘walls’ of trees, hedges and other structures. Not only was there a formal entry and foyer, but 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.
Winding our way past a fountain, we entered an open space where our path cut across a formal lawn. At an earlier time, this area was used for croquet, but nowadays it functions as a space 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
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 little garden with its Eros statue in a part of the property located furthermost from the house. 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 with seats used in ancient times for rest and contemplation.
Eros statue surrounded by boxwood
Built around a bluestone and brick patio, the round garden room suggests 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 Mary Lou by a friend.
A stone bust of Jefferson
Tucked into the hedge framing the space are four niches designed to house busts of the four founding presidents from Virginia. Washington and Jefferson feature prominently, however, the other two spaces remain empty. Mary Lou quipped that that they had recently taken out an ad for Madison and Monroe in the local papers.
This grand wood arbor modeled after the wisteria arbor at Washington, DC’s Dumbarton Oaks provides shade just adjacent to the pool deck. Like 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 cool palette.
The perennial border
The Rose Garden
However, the real surprise awaited just around the corner where, all of a sudden, we found ourselves on a grassy knoll overlooking an astonishing sight. Stretched out below us was an enormous formal rose garden composed of symmetrical parterres and walled by tightly clipped yews.
Descending a flight of stone stairs, we entered the ‘room’ via a pair of wood pergolas.
Stairs down into pergolas
In addition to providing welcome shade, the graceful cedar structures were covered 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 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. The female figures guard the entrances to each of the parterres.
They selected the statues in particular for their large scale, which according to Mary Lou, was ‘important to hold down the space.’ Moreover, they fell in love with the kindly expressions on their faces. The impressive sculptures most likely came from two different sets.
Standing atop their 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
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.