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On Va. Tour, Gardeners Think Small

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C07

Roaming the side yard of one of Alexandria's oldest homes yesterday, Jeff and Mary Wagner Ginger were hunting for tips for their townhouse garden back home in Chicago.

The couple, who were married in Old Town seven years ago, return each spring during Virginia's Historic Garden Week. Last year, the Gingers decided to try out an idea they saw on display during the show -- growing a boxwood in an urn to make better use of their small space.

The fundraising historic tour takes visitors through a walled-in garden on Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

"In the Midwest, they say don't leave plants in containers above ground in the winter, but ours did quite well," Mary Wagner Ginger said. "It's our little bit of Alexandria in Chicago."

Hundreds of home and garden lovers from across the Washington region and beyond converged in Alexandria to peek behind the doors of some of the city's historic houses and pick up gardening ideas at the kickoff of the 72nd annual garden week, sponsored by the Garden Club of Virginia.

Other events across the state will feature estate gardens and large sweeping yards -- houses on several acres are included on the Fairfax club tour Friday. But many gardeners, like the Gingers, came to Alexandria looking for advice on how to beautify the small spaces tucked behind their condominiums and townhouses.

"It's amazing what they do with just a little space here," Jeff Ginger said.

Tourgoers gawked at the narrow space behind a house on Queen Street, which features what might be the world's smallest swimming pool -- more for wading or sitting than for laps. And they marveled over the subtle tones of Betty Spar's 16-by-20-foot evergreen garden on Wolfe Street, heavy with Asian influences.

"The small gardens are really fabulous, but you have to know what you're doing. They can look just awful," Mount Vernon resident Wendy Mercer said.

The Alexandria event is hosted by the Garden Club of Alexandria and the Hunting Creek Garden Club. The two groups boast about 100 members and are involved in preserving homes and gardens. Among the highlights of this year's tour is a white clapboard house on Prince Street, completed in 1772, that is one of Alexandria's oldest buildings. The house is full of perfectly preserved period antiques, including a 73-note piano from 1810 played for visitors yesterday by restoration expert Jim Davis, clad in period garb.

Proceeds from the tours statewide, including an event in Leesburg on Friday, go to maintaining the commonwealth's historic gardens.

"These clubs have evolved from ladies getting together to make pretty flower arrangements to real activist groups for conservation efforts," said Cathy Tyler, who chaired the Alexandria event with fellow resident Mary Rupp.

Spar has lots of advice for owners of small gardens. She should: She's a professional horticulturist and administrator of the U.S. Botanic Garden. Gardeners need to work from a plan in a small garden and must be vigilant about pruning and trimming, she said.

"Control is key," she said. "It can get away from you very quickly, and then it looks like a mess."

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