The wealthy create their own worlds, realms apart from the rest of us but often close enough to let us see what we’re missing. The robber barons inhabited imposing city mansions and filled them with riches. Their country houses were conspicuous palaces for entertaining.
At Oak Spring, the Upperville, Va., estate of banking heir Paul Mellon and his wife, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the environment is quite different. Their secluded, gambrel-roofed stone house is comfortable but far from grandiose. Inside, you might take it for a mid-century custom home in McLean or Bethesda, except for the painted blue interiors and stenciled flooring, which lend extra refinement. Then there are the paintings.
The cozy living room was once filled with a dozen pieces of priceless art, now replaced with convincing copies of the originals, which have been donated to museums.
Above the mantel hangs van Gogh’s “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” which the Mellons chose to enjoy unframed, stapled on the side, just as Vincent had left it. (They gave the original, now framed for public viewing, to the National Gallery of Art.)
It is this ungilded approach that seems to have run through the Mellons’ lives. Paul Mellon, who died in 1999, was a fox hunter, horse breeder, art collector, philanthropist and Anglophile. Bunny Mellon was a gardener and a landscape designer, an antiquarian book collector, a Francophile and Best Friends Forever with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
I am here to write about the garden, but you cannot comprehend the exterior of Oak Spring without knowing that the Mellons’ respective aesthetic passions were for their own pleasures and enrichment, not to demonstrate their cultivation to others. The few honored guests were told to leave their cameras behind.
“People who knew Mr. Mellon for a long time never got in the house or further than the hallway,” says Peter Crane, president of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. “They were very private people.”
The task of preserving this legacy has fallen to Crane as head of the foundation Bunny Mellon established to use the now-700-acre estate and its riches as a center of plant-related study.
The garden is central to this mission, but reviving it is a harder task than might be imagined. Over a lifetime — she died in 2014 at the age of 103 — Mellon amassed a library of rare garden books. The Oak Spring Garden Library represents a well of horticultural and botanical knowledge that spans the hemispheres and the centuries; the earliest books date to the 14th century. The manuscripts, prints, herbals, florilegia and the rest don’t just record Western civilization, they are a part of it. To Mellon, they existed beyond their cultural importance; they were operating manuals for her garden.
She discovered ancient horticultural techniques that still applied, not least in the espaliered and cordoned fruit trees that would have been familiar to 17th-century gardeners at Versailles (where, incidentally, she helped restore the 23-acre potager garden with her friend, the couturier Hubert de Givenchy).
And yet Mellon herself left very little to describe what she was doing at Oak Spring, or the effect she was seeking. Crane says she was too absorbed in the process of gardening to document it. We must get our cues from the space itself.
When you observe Bunny Mellon’s garden, it is clear that this is no traditional Virginia allusion of redbrick and boxwood. It is something more European in feel. To the side of the house, to the north, there is a necklace of subordinate buildings tied together with a garden wall. The effect is of a cluster of rooflines, dormers and chimneys that suggests a French hamlet, belying its formation in the 1950s. The walls of the buildings and the garden enclosure are of large stone blocks, whitewashed and patinated. They seem rustic and playful without ever losing their sense of heft and solidity.
A straight path through three descending terraces provides the spine of the walled garden, but each level has its own hierarchy of lateral garden spaces. The dominant feature closest to the house is a flagstone terrace, broad and stark, softened by the herbs and little flowers that erupt from the joints.
The middle terrace consists of several parterre gardens dominated by the Square Garden, a lawn with flower borders. The lower terrace is a potager, a French vegetable and herb garden that combines utility and beauty with singular Gallic panache.
The main path is offset from the middle of the walled garden, and the imbalance adds drama and interest to the spatial composition. But this tension is heightened by a large sunken garden on the east side of the potager, developed as a croquet lawn. It is overlooked by the porch of an adjoining guesthouse, which provided a viewing gallery for the croquet.
The half-acre walled garden forms one of three major elements that make up the bulk of Mellon’s ornamental garden. The second is a lavish tunnel of clipped crab apples that connects the formal garden to the third major element, her greenhouse.
The crab apple allée is long, high and wide; Mellon had a real eye for proportion and scale. Its confidence makes it a signal feature of the spring, when its pink blossom buds open white, and again in the autumn, when it is covered in marble-sized red fruit.
Pruned skillfully over many decades, the trees in winter have taken on a stubby tracery that can only come from such time and attention. The allée is almost 130 feet long and the trees — 30 on each side — grow up and across a metal arbor. She chose the cultivar Mary Potter, a “must-have” new variety when it was planted here in the late 1950s.
The greenhouse consists of a central pavilion from which two glass wings extend. The floors are set below ground level for winter insulation, and each glasshouse is, essentially, a corridor set between growing beds and benches with an angular glass dome at each end.
It exudes a refinement but has the feel of an honest working greenhouse, not a dazzling conservatory. There are clear indulgences, however. A pair of exterior reflecting pools add elegance. And for an elaborate finial atop the greenhouse, Mellon turned to her friend, the French jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger, to create a bountiful, sprawling floral arrangement, executed in lead by Robert Bradford. Within the pavilion, essentially a salon and potting shed, the wooden paneling and cabinetry are painted in a series of trompe l’oeil murals depicting books, baskets, pots, postcards, garden tools, watering cans — all redolent of a quirky and very personal collector’s cabinet. They were painted by the French artist Fernand Renard.
Amid the smell of citrus blossoms and scented geraniums and herbs, Mellon lingered here from September to May in what must have been a blissful retreat. She grew herbs such as rosemary, thyme and santolina into potted lollipops — “standards” to gardeners. Clipping them became aromatherapy, and they reminded her of her beloved medieval and Tudor gardens, so well documented in her books. She called her standards “herb trees” and shared them with family and friends; they became her gardening trademark.
This was never a low-maintenance garden — that would defeat its purpose — and with her team of gardeners and for over half a century she orchestrated each growing season with painstaking care. She made changes big and small until she had a garden with details in every corner and bed. For all its detail, “nothing should be noticed,” she would say. In the apple orchard at Oak Spring Farm, fallen fruit would be removed before lawn mowing and returned afterward, according to the recently published “The Gardens of Bunny Mellon” by Linda Jane Holden and Roger Foley.
You might think that a garden made with such exacting devotion would go on forever, but when Crane came to it five months after Mellon’s death, “I thought it was very sad,” he says. Her day-to-day connection to the garden had ended a decade or more before.
“My memory of it was that the [fruit tree] cordons and espaliers were basically dead and needed replacing, that the garden had a lot of weeds and was pretty much on its last legs,” Crane says. “The structure, of course, was still there.”
British-born Crane — Sir Peter Crane, fellow of the Royal Society — came to Oak Spring with an illustrious career as a scientist, academic and administrator, including director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London, director of the Field Museum in Chicago and dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is still an active evolutionary botanist, traveling the world in search of plant fossils.
The allure of the position, he says, was the ability to be in on a cultural organization at the beginning and to set its direction.
Oak Spring, which is funded by an endowment from Bunny Mellon, is not open to the public but functions as a center of study inspired by Mellon’s love of plants. It holds symposiums and workshops and opens the library to researchers (and is developing general online access). It has residency programs for scholars and artists as well as horticultural interns.
The brood mare barn and several of the guesthouses have been converted into apartments for scholars. Crane plans to use the adjoining Rokeby Farm, where Mellon had a cutting and vegetable garden and a series of greenhouses, as a center of agriculture with special focus on Appalachian agrarian traditions and endangered heritage crop varieties.
“We are not about creating a shrine to Mrs. Mellon or to Mr. Mellon,” Crane says. “Our job is to understand them in creative and imaginative ways.”
So it wasn’t enough simply to revive a moribund garden. Crane needed someone to get inside the mind of Bunny Mellon so that all the garden decisions would be informed. And he knew exactly where to turn.
When Crane headed the Royal Botanic Gardens (in the early 2000s), he wanted to shake up the running of Wakehurst, a satellite location south of London that includes an Elizabethan mansion, ornamental gardens, meadows and woodlands, and the world’s largest wild plant seed bank.
He installed one of Kew’s up-and-coming talents, Andy Jackson, as director of Wakehurst, where Jackson oversaw the creation of a visitors center and the revival of horticultural collections. He also put Wakehurst on a much firmer financial footing through the simple (and in some quarters, extremely unpopular) introduction of parking fees.
“They were getting 400,000 visitors a year by the time I left, and Andy was in charge of all of that,” Crane says.
Jackson is now Oak Spring’s head of horticulture and landscapes, though he spends most of his time in the United Kingdom.
Jackson is a pensive guy. When I asked in a telephone call whether he thought Bunny Mellon obsessive in her attention to detail, there was a pause at the other end of the line that seemed to reach across the entire North Atlantic. “The one example you sometimes hear from her garden staff is that she asked them not to [prune] anything thicker than her thumb without her being there,” he told me. The rule arose after she once left instructions to trim a branch off a tree that was then felled in her absence. The incident left her grief-stricken, he says.
Jackson visits Oak Spring regularly. He has spent many hours observing the garden, finding clues to its development (Mellon reworked areas over the years), reading the old books that influenced her thinking, and studying her correspondence, handwritten notes, plans and period photographs.
Crane has hired a new head gardener, Judy Zatsick, and Jackson has given illustrated talks to the gardening staff to instill a deeper understanding of Mellon’s planting sensibilities.
The walled garden, while typically French, is rooted too in English medieval gardens, which were always close to her heart. She was also influenced by a pioneering landscape architect, Ellen Shipman, a formalist who favored the strong axial layout adopted at Oak Spring.
Shipman — and Mellon and her architect H. Page Cross — understood the key relationship between the house and its immediate exterior spaces. The entire walled garden at Oak Spring is in a conversation with each of its seven integrated buildings, which range from the main house to a jewel-like stone cottage named the schoolhouse.
Apart from the armature of the walls and the layout of the paths, terraces and subgardens, Jackson began to see design elements that were much more ethereal but no less important. Mellon planted a sycamore tree alongside the library building, and he realized that it was chosen because its bark — white, flecked with darker colors — mirrored the weathered patina of the painted brick walls of the library. “The two are so harmonious,” Jackson says, “it’s like a work of art.”
Moreover, Mellon was using shapes, particularly the branch architecture of trees, to compose with light and shadow. Within the walled gardens, trees were chosen for their strong forms — hardy orange and American holly, for example — and along with the espaliered fruit trees were shaped to produce sculptures whose shadows would project onto the enclosing white walls, moving and elongating with the sun.
“She loved to see dancing shadows on hard surfaces,” Jackson says. “I realized that this was somebody with an exquisite understanding of light.”
Trees in the broader landscape were similarly shaped. In the apple orchard, branches were pruned in a way that suggests the contorted beauty of van Gogh’s orchard paintings. Distant shade trees and big hollies were shaped as well, mounded as if to echo the domes of the little herb trees in the greenhouse. From key vantage points — in the walled garden looking out and the little patio on the other side of the house, where the Mellons would take their evening cocktail — the sightlines were directed with woodland plantations.
The other element central to her design sensibilities, Jackson realized, was the sky, and this was manifest in the way a specimen tree was pruned to create a branch tracery, or the pruning of vines and shrubs to leave a space between the plant and the wall, or the time she once took down a shade tree that had stolen too much light. The moment is captured in a photograph. “She has a big smile on her face as the tree is being cut down,” Jackson says.
The garden also had its less controlled flower borders, and wildflowers were allowed to seed themselves in certain crevices. Jackson wants to restore that tension between control and wildness but in a way that Mellon approached it — that is, curated chaos.
A painting holds a moment forever, but gardens cannot be frozen. Nature is too restless. What Jackson and Crane are trying to capture is the essence of Bunny Mellon’s gardening life, not her garden itself. Both of them are keenly aware that for all the control she exerted here over decades, she expressly did not tell her successors what to do. “She gave freedom for those that followed her,” Jackson says, “and all she asked is that we use their house, garden and library to inspire and educate, particularly around plants.”
Jackson says he is not yet halfway along his journey of understanding this creation.
Neither he nor Crane met Bunny Mellon, and their comprehension of her gardening ethos, thus, is more divined than ordained. But there is one abiding observation. “She writes in really passionate ways, with love coming through,” says Jackson. “You get the feeling that she gardened with her heart as well as her eye.”
Adrian Higgins is the gardening columnist for The Washington Post. He will host a live Q&A at noon Thursday. You can submit your questions now.