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When Garden Tours Are More Scenic Than Scintillating

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page H01

On Saturday, the 72nd Historic Garden Week in Virginia begins, when close to 200 private homeowners will fling open their garden gates and house doors to crowds of paying voyeurs. Over the course of nine days, as many as 40,000 people will trek to more than 250 of the state's private homes and gardens and historic landmarks.

Organized by the Garden Club of Virginia and its local chapters, the week generates funds to pay for the restoration of historic landscapes, and most of the tourists will find the outing a pleasurable homage to spring in the Old Dominion. But it would be a stretch to regard this venerable event as one of deep, instructive value to the world of horticulture.

The Stuart House, a Staunton landmark. Pretty gates and historic architecture define a venerable Virginia tour, but the landscapes can be green and passive. (Prewitt Scripps)

Some of the properties may be jewels of plantsmanship, but most are unlikely to get the creative juices going for hard-core gardeners. In years past, at least, a lot of the landscapes have been, frankly, not terribly interesting. I once drove 150 miles to write about properties in Tidewater, only to find them all uninspiring. Nice houses in scenic locations -- what a real estate agent would call prime waterfront -- but very little by way of genuine plant artistry.

What might one hope for from a good garden tour? In England, private gardens are opened at various dates under the National Gardens Scheme. The charity's local representatives work from a uniform standard: The size of a landscape is not important, but a garden and its plantings should be engaging enough to hold a visitor's attention for 45 minutes, often achieved through an interesting collection of certain plants, such as hostas, ferns or hepaticas (www.ngs.org.uk).

The prospects for Virginia's Historic Garden Week, where a 45-minute rule doesn't exist, are far more hit-or-miss.

Often, the range of plants is limited and a few play big roles, including tulips, boxwood, dogwoods and azaleas. Mulch is ubiquitous.

As I thumb through the brochure this year, I find a few descriptions intriguing. There's the garden with plantings of mountain laurel, ferns, and bog plants in a natural marsh in Suffolk; and an Arts and Crafts house in Leesburg whose garden includes camellias, daphnes, lilacs and an assortment of perennials. The White garden in Gloucester seems an azalea lover's paradise. Others, even presented in their most flattering light, do not seem worth the gardener's effort. In one garden, "azaleas, boxwood and tulips provide a lovely setting for birdbaths and marble statues." Or another: "A tangle of wisteria brings nature right to the front door." Some have "secret gardens." And others have really secret gardens -- there is no mention of the house's surroundings at all.

After a few years of writing about Historic Garden Week, it dawned on me that the problem wasn't with "America's oldest and largest" tour of private properties, but my notion of what it was.

"The tours are house and garden tours," said Suzanne Munson, the event's Richmond-based executive director. "Sometimes the house is more prominent than the gardens, and vice versa." The qualifying factor in selecting a venue is whether "the property is of interest to the public," she said.

The week consists of three dozen tours put together by a committee of local garden club members, www.vagardenweek.org.

Ellen Penick, who created a nationally publicized lakeside garden in Caroline County (opened for garden week in 1998), said that most of the properties are skewed toward the house, not the garden. Of a past tour in Richmond, she said, "I can remember one old house, and there's no garden. There's grass and boxwood and that's it." When she ventured north to Warrenton, however, she found a group of worthy landscapes created by "a concentrated group of people who are interested in gardening." Penick has since sold the property and moved to Richmond.

Pamela Harper, a gardener and garden book author in Seaford, Va., said in her experience, the "real gardens" on the tour are "few and far between."

Most of the visitors, perhaps, have already figured that out. The pleasure of viewing lovely houses and their furnishings, of taking a day off from the routine, of traveling with friends -- all that may suffice, especially because at this time of year, a freshly mown lawn and a flowering dogwood may be enough to capture the glory of the season.

"I think a majority just want a day out," said Harper.

A garden tour modeled more closely on the English version marks its 10th anniversary this year. The Open Days tours, held from April through October, are organized by the Garden Conservancy, and the gardens in 21 states are selected for their high quality.

And though the event is based on the English model, it has become a testament to the depth of quality in American gardens, said Laura Mumaw Palmer, the program's director. "We are looking for, certainly, fabulous, well-maintained gardens with interesting elements of design," she said. "We also look for variety and gardens that inspire people."

The conservancy, based in Cold Spring, N.Y., is offering 450 gardens this year from California to Maine, but none in the Washington metropolitan area. This is not for want of good gardens, said Palmer, but of local scouts and volunteers.

In previous years, the Open Days event has introduced visitors to some wonderful local gardens, including the Northwest garden of Florence and Stockwell Everts, where a steeply rising hillside was converted through toil and patience into a serene shade garden leading to a handcrafted Japanese teahouse; and, in Arlington, the garden of designer Tom Mannion, who turned an older suburban lot into a landscape of many "rooms" and plant displays that would measure up to the 45-minute yardstick with no problems.

Mannion said he hadn't been on a Virginia garden week tour, but notes that sometimes you just don't know how visiting another's garden will affect you. He recalls a New York tour where he entered a garden and instantly found it dull, "and two garden designer friends spent hours in that garden taking notes, so it's hard to predict."

Mannion offers another valuable morsel of advice: "I have never regretted spending a day looking at other people's gardens," he said. "I find it to be very illuminating and instructive."

Washington Walks offers tours throughout the District. Now through Oct. 31, take two-hour walks, rain or shine, in various neighborhoods of the city. Meet outside Metro stations. Fee: $10 (kids $5). 202-484-1565. www.washingtonwalks.com/walking-tours.html.

Choose among 55 District neighborhoods to tour this weekend with Walking Town, DC. On Saturday, with starting times between 8:45 a.m. and 4 p.m., and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., choose among free tours, held rain or shine, ranging from 45 minutes to three hours and led by professional guides or neighborhood volunteers. www.culturaltourismdc.org.

Virginia's Historic Garden Week runs Saturday through April 24 at locations around the state, including Alexandria (Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 703-838-4994 or 703-329-6935), Winchester (Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 540-542-1326), Leesburg (Sunday and Monday; 703-771-2170 or 800-752-6118), Fredericksburg (Tuesday; 540-373-1776), Warrenton (Wednesday and April 21; 540-341-3432), Warren County (April 23; 540-635-4841), Fairfax (April 22; 703-978-4130) and the Eastern Shore (April 23; 757-331-2247). See private properties open for visits throughout the day (hours vary). Fees vary. www.vagardenweek.org.

Georgetown House Tour on April 23 from noon to 5 p.m. features eight houses east of Wisconsin Avenue. 3240 O St. NW. Fee: $45. 202-338-2287 or www.georgetownhousetour.com.

White House Garden Toursare offered on April 23 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and April 24 (noon to 4 p.m.). See the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Rose Garden, Children's Garden and South Lawn of the White House. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free, but tickets required (timed distribution at the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion, 15th and E streets, beginning at 7:30 a.m.).

Folger Shakespeare Library holds its annual Shakespeare's Birthday Open House on April 24. From noon to 4 p.m., see the reading room's 16th-century tapestries, "Seven Ages of Man" stained-glass window and paintings depicting scenes from the Bard's plays; the Elizabethan Garden is also open with exhibits from the library's collections. 201 East Capitol St. SE. Free (charge for food and drink). 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu.

Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood is the subject of 90-minute Saturday tours from April 30 to October. Meet at 10 a.m. from the seated-lion sculpture in the west quadrant of Mount Vernon Place (between North Charles and Monument streets), Baltimore. Fee: $8; reservations required. 410-605-0462. www.mvcd.org.

Clara Barton's home at Glen Echo Park will be open April 30 for a lamplight tour from 7 to 9 p.m. For all ages, Victorian-style lamps glow in room settings during tellings of Clara Barton's life and times. Free. 5801 Oxford Rd., Glen Echo. 301-492-6245. www.nps.gov/clba.

Takoma Park House and Garden Tour on May 1 from 1 to 5 p.m. features self-guided looks into more than a dozen properties in either Takoma Park, Md., or the Takoma section of Washington. 7006A Carroll Ave. (301-270-1884) or 7042 Carroll Ave. (301-270-3138), Takoma Park. Fee: $15 (advance discount). www.historictakoma.org.

Capitol Hill House and Garden Tour on May 7 and 8 features 13 residences at 10 addresses ranging from contemporary to classic. Capitol Hill Restoration Society kiosk at Eastern Market. Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 on tour days. 202-543-0425. www.chrs.org.

Historic Harbor House Tour in Baltimore on May 8 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. features a self-guided walk including 13 Fells Point houses and the Maritime Museum. 808 S. Anne St. or 701 S. Broadway, Baltimore. Fee: $15. 410-675-6750.

"Just Gardens" will be held on May 13 and 14, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, featuring seven country gardens in Northumberland County in Virginia's Northern Neck. Greenpoint Nursey, Main Street, Kilmarnock, Va. Fee: $15 ($12 in advance via P.O. Box 429, Irvington, Va. 22480). 804-435-1271.

The Georgetown Garden Tour on May 14 (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) features private gardens typically crafted during a three-decade span in the 20th century, including Victorian yards converted to Colonial-inspired spaces by prominent landscape architects and designers. The tour, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is sponsored by the Georgetown Garden Club. Fee: $30, advance discount $25. 202-965-1950. www.gtowngarden.org.

Fairlington home and garden tour on May 14 includes 18 homes open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Fairlington Community of Arlington. South Fairlington Community Center, 3308 S. Stafford St., Arlington. Fee: $10. 703-379-6860 or 703-379-7256. www.fairlington.org.

Peerless Rockville's Homes and Hospitality Tour on May 21 presents hors d'oeurves and live music at residences in two Rockville neighborhoods. Visit at your own pace from 4 to 8 p.m. 107 Wickwood Dr. (King Farm) or 709 Grandin Ave. (Rockville Park). Fee: $45. 301-762-0096. www.peerlessrockville.org.

North Beach House and Garden Tour on June 5 from 1 to 5 p.m. features a dozen properties in North Beach in Calvert County, Md. St. Anthony's Catholic Church, 8816 Chesapeake Ave., North Beach. Fee: $10. 301-812-0044.

Tour watershed-friendly gardens on June 5 at sites in Arlington County and Falls Church. From 1 to 5 p.m., residential and public properties will be featured to highlight the benefits of landscaping designed to retain rainwater. Also featured are rooftop rainwater-collection systems and backyard wildlife habitats. Free. 703-228-6427. www.arlingtonenvironment.org.

J.J. McCoy

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