Secret gardens, grazing Thoroughbreds, topiary versions of a fox and hounds and, given some more warm days, bursting dogwood.

It will all be on the agenda next week as part of Virginia Historic Garden Week, a series of home and garden tours throughout the state anticipated every year by garden lovers, antique admirers and the just plain curious.

"We know one of the reasons that people come is that they are curious to see how people live in the, quote, Hunt Country," said Dootsie Ferguson, cochairman of this year's Fauquier-Loudoun counties' tour, which will throw open the doors of some of the area's sumptuous showplaces.

The tour, arranged by the Fauquier-Loudoun Garden Club, is one of 32 state-wide that are opening 187 private homes and gardens. The money raised through ticket sales during the week is used by the Garden Club of Virginia to restore public gardens at such places as Gunston Hall, Woodlawn Plantation and Monticello.

Charlotte Massie, editor of the extensive garden week guidebook, which details all 32 tours, said the Virginia event is the oldest and largest garden tour in the country and often draws gardeners from France and England as well as busloads of visitors from Texas and Pennsylvania. Last year, said Massie, more than 35,000 people bought tickets, raising $200,000 for the garden restoration fund.

The Fauquier-Loudoun Garden Club has been planning its tour for over a year, and through the persuasive efforts of Ferguson and cochairman Kitty Lee Pritchett has assembled a varied group of homes and gardens, most of which have never been open to the public.

"We call everybody we know who might have a great house," said Pritchett. "And the owners are usually very cooperative. We have volunteers in every room to give historical details, and the club does fresh flower arrangements to decorate the houses as well."

The houses don't need much decoration, however. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the six homes and two gardens that will be open for oohing and aahing next Sunday and Monday provide a rare peek into pastoral lifestyles. Wandering the winding lanes that lead the tour from Marshall to Rectortown to Upperville, the split rail fences, boxwood paths, country smells and dulcet accents of the natives can provide a refreshing change from city hubbub.

Marly, an 1816 brick and stone house, sits atop a sloping hill not far from Marshall. Hebe Waters has opened the first floor of her home to visitors, who will be able to inspect a chair in the entry hall that belonged to President Benjamin Harrison. Although a misbehaving horse recently trampled a few of her melon-colored tulips, Waters said she hopes to have some left for viewing.

Betty and Robert Morf have owned Pennygent Farm for 25 years. The 250-acre estate has a meat house, a spring house, a well house, a friendly cat named Star and a breathtaking Blue Ridge backdrop. According to Betty Morf, the farm's original 1840s three-room house has had several additions. She is doing her best to coax a magnolia and crab apple into bloom by Sunday.

Pulling into Blue Ridge Farm, visitors will pass a discreet sign saying "Stables." There is no doubt that this is a premier Thoroughbred breeding farm, a 575-acre tract owned by the Grayson family. Three homes and gardens on the farm will be open for the tour. The main house, built of fieldstone in 1935, is full of early American antiques, duck decoys, Oriental rugs and blue-and-white china. Also open will be Fountain Hill, originally owned by a Revolutionary Army soldier, and Stone House, two old structures joined by an airy living room.

Nearby, the interior of Polk-A-Dot Farm, built in 1837, will be open as will the colorful gardens at Maidstone Ordinary.

Fallingbrook is the estate of Jeanne and Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins. A sycamore-lined driveway leads to the Cooke's French chateau, the jewel in the center of sloping terraced formal gardens. Although the house itself will not be open for the tour, hours could be spent wandering the gardens, which feature unusual topiary work by gardener Richard Wines.

Wines said the past winter did some of the most extensive damage to boxwoods and other plants he has seen in his 27 years as gardener at the estate. But the novice observer will find it hard to tell that, looking at the dolphins, buffalos, bears and hummingbirds carved of yew and hemlock. The estate has a number of special gardens--including the Zoo, Spiral Garden and Card Garden--but the prize is the Secret Garden, where a plaque next to an ornate door reads, "This door will open at a touch to welcome every friend."

The secret behind the door is worth the hour's drive to the country.