Garden Party Virginia: With spring just around the corner, Loudoun County prepares to show its true colors.

March 11, 2001|By Barbara A. Noe | By Barbara A. Noe,Special to the Sun

Weeks before the new leaves unfurl and paint winter's brown landscape Kelly green, Loudoun County heralds the arrival of spring as gloriously as anywhere in Virginia.

Sometime later this month or early in April, fruit trees -- pear, peach, plum, apple and especially cherry -- blossom in pastel pink and white puffs. Lacy dogwoods and brilliant redbuds splash shadowy woods, and dainty toothworts, Virginia bluebells and aptly named spring beauties blanket the ground.

But what distinguishes springtime in this northern corner of Virginia is its gardens. All kinds of gardens -- the bewitching house gardens of Purcellville, Waterford, Middleburg and Leesburg; the array of blossoms grown in the county's splendid flower farms, where you can pick your own fresh bouquets; and the grand estate gardens of Morven Park and Oatlands.

As Virginians, Loudounites have had a penchant for gardening since Colonial times. Early settlers appreciated and cultivated fine gardens, taking advantage of the fertile land and natural profusion of spring displays, especially the abundance of flowering trees.

Barbara Holland, who moved to Loudoun County in 1990 after inheriting her mother's summer house, sums it up nicely in her book, "Bingo Night at the Fire Hall": "Psychologists keep urging us to feel good about ourselves, to cultivate our self-esteem, to remind ourselves in the mirror daily that we are good people, worthy people. Down in the [Loudoun] valley, they do it with gardens. ... They have done what their forebears did. ... When they look in the mirror, they feel just fine."

Just 75 miles west of Baltimore, this area promises an ideal weekend getaway year-round, but particularly in April and May. After a day of garden visits and scenic touring along pastoral lanes, you can dine at one of the county's fine restaurants -- some feature seasonal menus that capitalize on locally grown herbs and vegetables. Then fall asleep in one of a long list of B&Bs or inns, many of which harbor gardens of their own.

Colorful Leesburg

Seventeenth-century Leesburg is a good place to start. The town developed around the white-pillared buildings of Courthouse Square, shaded by oaks and elms. From here radiate quiet lanes where overflowing flower boxes splash colors on neat federal and Colonial houses, and stamp-size plots hide behind picket fences.

Betty Flemming, curator of the Loudoun Museum, tipped me off to the two or three blocks of Cornwall Street directly behind the Laurel Brigade Inn, where clouds of color front nearly too-perfect houses. "The rhododendron," she says, "is fantastic."

Flemming is responsible for the little herb garden beside the Loudoun Museum. She organized the Goose Creek Herb Guild in 1980, a group of people interested in learning how to cultivate herbs. The garden grew from there.

"You'll laugh at how I scrounged the wonderful boxwoods," she says. "I was driving home one day and saw a bulldozer digging them up and putting them in a pile. You'd pay $400 for these boxwoods at the nursery. So I slammed on the breaks, asked to talk to the boss, and told him I was the curator of the Loudoun Museum and that we were building a garden. 'Little lady, you can have them all,' he said."

The boxwoods surround the herbs -- including two old-fashioned varieties of lavender, lemon balm and oregano -- along with irises, azaleas, shade trees and a sundial dedicated to Flemming's oldest daughter, who died last year.

"It's not a fantastic garden," she says. "It's a sweet garden. A labor of love that's very much enjoyed by the community and visitors to the community." She suggests that people visit in late April, when flowers spangle all the herbs.

On the northern edge of town is a 1,200-acre estate, Morven Park. The two-story Greek Revival house once belonged to Westmoreland Davis, Virginia governor from 1918 to 1922. Out back, the perfectly manicured gardens, set off by wrought-iron gates and surrounded by original brick walls, showcase impressive boxwoods. There isn't a profusion of spring color here, but the flowering cherry trees are magnificent. For me, the best part is the sense of the languorous Old South that invades my senses upon alighting at the parking lot in the shade of pungent saucer magnolias -- it's a scene straight out of "Gone With the Wind."

A gorgeous drive north of Leesburg along Route 662 brings you to the hamlet of Waterford, another inviting place for a springtime promenade.

Quakers from Pennsylvania founded the town in 1733, and it appears that not much has since changed. Big trees shade quiet streets and centuries-old houses, and the gardens are wonderful. (The fact that Waterford is a featured town in this year's Virginia's Historic Garden Week should tell you something. Four private houses with gardens, as well as an arboretum, will be open to the public April 22 and 23. It's a rare opportunity to sneak a peek in this normally secluded community.)

Oatlands Plantation

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