In 1982, the five-acre garden at Oatlands was a tangled mass of overgrown boxwood, weeds and plants dying from neglect. Members of the Oatlands Board of Trustees had nearly despaired of finding anyone willing to take on the challenge of restoring it to its original beauty.

Then they met Alfredo Francesco Siani, 62, a retired Alitalia Airlines executive whose first love in his native Naples was horticulture. Siani came to the United States to work for the Italian tourist industry in New York, then worked his way up the corporate ladder of Alitalia, ending up in Chicago as Midwest regional manager.

Meanwhile, the window boxes at his apartment were so jammed with plants that his wife complained she couldn't see out. Clearly, something had to give.

"I decided that either I would give up the corporate life right then and do what I wanted or I never would," he said.

Living in the United States taught him that a man is free to do what he wants, he said, and that people would judge him only on how well he does it, not on his class or status.

So in 1976, he left Chicago and came to Loudoun County because, he said, a visit with friends there two years earlier had prompted him to "fall in love with this blessed land," with its verdant hills and vistas. Siani studied horticulture for several years and was working in a nursery when Agnes Harrison, wife of Oatlands President B. Powell Harrison, discovered him and persuaded him to come to the estate.

"The mess {in the garden} really scared me," he recalled. "But I was attracted to the challenge." Soon he was frantically pulling up 15,000 tulip bulbs, clearing bush, building paths and reading everything he could find on the original garden.

Oatlands is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation off Rte. 15, six miles south of Leesburg. Its 231 rolling acres house a Greek revival mansion built by George Carter in the early 1800s, a carriage house and several smaller buildings, including some brick slave quarters. Oatlands was purchased around 1900 by Corcoran Eustis, whose wife Edith agreed to buy the house, local history has it, having seen only the garden.

Elizabeth Carter enjoyed her husband's garden, but it was Edith Eustis who truly loved it. Much of what Siani has done, he said, is based on Edith Eustis' voluminous writings on the subject, photographs and paintings she commissioned and even a map he found in a book Edith Eustis contributed to.

Today the garden is a walled, terraced beauty, glowing with the soft colors that give it its romantic soul, with inviting shaded paths, a tranquil reflecting pond, carved teak benches, two nearly 200-year-old clay pots and a stone vase Siani found last year when plumbers were digging to install a restroom for the handicapped. An herb garden is fragrant with lavender, a rose garden bursts into 500 early blooms in June and neatly trimmed boxwood, yews and stately oaks frame everything, Siani said, "as a woman's hair frames her lovely face."

Is his work finished?

"If I am good," he said of his chosen vocation, "I will never be satisfied."