High on a hilltop in Orange, Virginia, there’s an historic 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 club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go.
ABOUT MOUNT SHARON
Part of a land grant issued by King George in 1725, Mount Sharon remained in the hands of the same family for centuries. In 1995, Charlie and Mary Lou Seilheimer purchased the property. At the time, the 77.5-acre plantation consisted of a Georgian-style brick home and traces of a garden dating back to the late 18th century. This included a magnificent, 450-foot boxwood ‘hall’ that stretched from west to east off the back of the mansion.
View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from atop Mount Sharon
Time had taken its toll on the property and by 1995, much of it was in disrepair. Nevertheless, the Seilheimers vowed 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 newfound appreciation home to the rolling hills of central Virginia.
Today, Italian urns and other European artifacts embellish the garden
AN EYE TOWARDS PRESERVATION
To transform their vision into reality, the Seilheimers hired renowned landscape architect Charles Stick. The couple tasked Stick with designing a new garden for Mount Sharon centered on the old boxwood ‘hall.’ While he framed the rooms, they helped ‘paint’ them with broad strokes of specimen trees and high profile plants, including thousands of ornamental shrubs and an incalculable number of flowering plants.
View into the formal rose parterre with Virginia countryside beyond
In the end, the garden grew to encompass 10 acres embellished with structures, sculptures, fountains 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.
These magnificent poplars, along with acres of 100-year-old American boxwood and black walnut trees, form the bones of the centuries-old garden. A hallmark of Mount Sharon, 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 distinguished by its pair of brick pillars and giant boxwood balls. The Seilheimer’s daughter was married in the garden. Just beyond, a plaque commemorates the date.
The Wedding Gate at Mount Sharon
In essence, the garden takes the form of a house. Each space is separated by ‘walls’ of trees, hedges and other structures. Not only is there a formal entry, but there is also a series of rooms, each with its own charm 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 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. At the center was a medium-sized tree with a rounded crown. Mrs. Seilheimer explained that the tree, known as a 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 large outdoor parties. To the left, a tall hedge of Nellie Stevens hollies provides a solid 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, a double row of Trident maples forms the walls of this section. 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
At the far end of the lawn, a geyser fountain shoots plumes of frothy white water high into the air.
The croquet lawn at Mount Sharon
Two groups of pyramidal arborvitae, located on either side of the fountain, narrow the view at the end of the hedged sanctuary. They are meant to trick the eye into believing that the lawn drops off a cliff at the end of the garden.
THE MOUNT SHARON EXEDRA
Stick sited this tiny garden with its Eros statue in a part of Mount Sharon located furthermost from the house. In so doing, he established a long axis from one end of the garden to the other. He modeled the space after the Roman exedra, a small niche used in ancient times for rest and contemplation.
Eros statue surrounded by boxwood
Constructed around a bluestone and brick patio, the round garden 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, but the other two spaces are empty. Apparently the couple is still on the lookout for the other two. Mrs. Seilheimer joked that they had recently taken out ads for Madison and Monroe in the local papers.
AN ARBOR MODELED AFTER DC’S DUMBARTON OAKS
Adjacent to the family pool is a grand wood arbor modeled after the famous arbor terrace at Washington, DC’s Dumbarton Oaks. It is covered with the opulent purple flowers of sweet-scented wisteria, just like at the museum.
The arbor sits poolside at Mount Sharon
THE PERENNIAL BORDER
The perfect complement to the aqua-hued swimming pool, Mount Sharon’s 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 yellow rose, ‘Graham Thomas’ provides a bright counterpoint to the mostly cool palette.
The English-style perennial border and gazebo
THE MOUNT SHARON ROSE GARDEN
Still, the real surprise awaits around the bend where, all of a sudden, one finds oneself overlooking an astonishing sight. Below is a classic rose garden. Composed of symmetrical parterres, it is walled by enormous yew hedges.
Descending a flight of stone stairs, our group entered the rooms via a pair of wood pergolas.
Stairs down into pergolas
During the hottest months, the graceful cedar structures provide some welcome shade. At the time of our visit, they were smothered with pink roses and white clematis.
A pair of Chinese Chippendale-style pagodas adorn each end of the garden.
Midway through the pergolas, you can turn left and step down onto a terraced lawn. At the far end is a small pool and geyser fountain. The symmetrical parterres extend outwards 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 the gardens.
According to Mrs. Seilheimer, the couple chose the impressive sculptures for their large scale, which was essential ‘to hold down the space.’ And they also 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 Mount Sharon’s rose garden is a secluded terrace that affords a broad view of the mountains. The octagonal, bluestone patio includes a half-circle of 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.