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 occupies the second highest point in the county. The magnificent estate, which includes a large, redbrick 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.
About the estate
The classical-style gardens are owned by Mary Lou and Charlie Seilheimer (founder and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty Corporation) who purchased the remnants of an old plantation in 1995. At the time the property was acquired, the 77.5-acre estate also included traces of an earlier garden dating back to the late 18th century. Part of a land grant made by King George to the Taliaferro family in 1725, the terraced garden was built along an axis and included a 450-foot allée of gigantic American boxwood. The 20-foot hedges 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. The Seilheimers were determined, however, to preserve what they could while significantly expanding the garden. To educate themselves, the couple traveled widely, conducting extensive research into Italian, English and French garden styles. They brought their impressions, along with many decorative accents, back to their new home in Virginia.
Today, Italian urns and other European artifacts embellish the garden
The couple chose Charles Stick, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect known for “designing properties for private individuals,” to execute their vision. Together, the three formed what Mary Lou refers to as a “great collaboration”. The rules were clearcut: if they didn’t all agree on something, they simply didn’t do it.
Stick was tasked with creating a new garden based on the axis of the old one, to include a central ‘boxwood hall.’ He would frame the rooms and they would help ‘paint them’ with unique trees and wide swathes of shrubbery and flowering plants. The primary focus of the design, however, would remain the magnificent Virginia countryside.
View into the formal rose parterre with Virginia countryside beyond
The finished product would grow to encompass 10 acres embellished by the finest quality garden structures, sculptures, stairways, benches and water features assembled from around the world. 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 shading the property were over 250 years old.
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.
One of many centuries’ old tulip poplars on the property
The Wedding Gate
Visitors to Mount Sharon enter through the ‘Wedding Gate’, which is flanked by a pair of enormous boxwood spheres. The couples’ daughter was married in the garden. A plaque on the threshold commemorates the date.
The Wedding Gate at Mount Sharon
As we passed under the wrought iron arch, Mary Lou explained that the garden at Mount Sharon was set up like a house. It had a formal entry, foyer and a series of 10 ‘rooms’, each with their own name and character.
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 matched 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.
The Knot Garden
Turning left, we passed through a small garden bursting with spring blooms. The 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 show in late spring with its panicles of fragrant, white flowers. At the time of our visit, it had just finished blooming although its branch structure still left plenty to admire.
The yellowwood tree contains a yellow dye that colors its heartwood and is the reason for its name.
Winding our way past a small fountain, we entered a large open space, where our path 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 side of the path was a rectangular lawn bordered by a tall clipped hedge formed of Nellie Stevens hollies. A small white wooden bench provided the sole ornament.
White bench silhouetted against a hedge of Nellie Stevens hollies
On the right hand side of the path, an expansive green lawn unfurled towards the horizon. The lush carpet was bordered on either side by double rows of Trident maples planted in simple mulch beds edged with clipped boxwood. The regularly-spaced trees appeared to diminish in size as they receded into the distance, leading the eye deeper into the garden.
Double rows of Trident maples border the lawn
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 space are the two groups of tall pyramidal arborvitae sited on either side of the fountain. Mary Lou explained that Stick 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 property 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 prefers over rectangular because it encourages 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 propagated the 35-year old specimens herself from a sprig of ‘Kingsville’ boxwood given to her by a friend.
A stone bust of Jefferson
Tucked into the hedge enclosing the space are four niches designed to house busts of the four founding presidents from Virginia. Washington and Jefferson feature prominently, but the other two spaces remain empty. Mary Lou quipped that that they had recently taken out an ad for Madison and Monroe.
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 also covered with the opulent purple flower clusters 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 colors abound with an eclectic 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 high grassy knoll overlooking an astonishing sight: A rose garden composed of symmetrical parterres and enclosed by tightly clipped yews.
Descending a flight of stone stairs, we passed first under the welcome shade of a pair of wooden pergolas.
Stairs down into pergolas
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 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 guard the entrances to the 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 the kindly expressions on the faces. The impressive sculptures most likely came from two different sets.
Standing on their spool-like bases, the sculptures certainly held their own in the vast open 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.