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A Williamsburg Perspective on Colonial Gardens

from The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, written by M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell

colonial garden

Gardens have always been an important aspect of the Williamsburg scene, both in the eighteenth century and today when at least three generations have come to appreciate this town and its gardens as an integral part of America's historical heritage. Colonial Williamsburg's political and historical legacy is well known, but despite its popularity, relatively few realize that in addition to being an important political and cultural center in eighteenth-century Virginia, Williamsburg was a center of gardening activity.

In the eighteenth century, Williamsburg was the capital of the largest, wealthiest, and most populous of the colonies and the center of cultural life in Virginia. But compared to Philadelphia or Charleston, Williamsburg remained a small, but beautiful, green country town. During the Revolution, the Virginia capital was moved to Richmond because it was felt that Williamsburg was too vulnerable to attacks from the British. With this move Williamsburg slowly changed into a quiet town that time and development seemed to forget. While few of the public buildings survived, many of the old homes and shops remained in use into the twentieth century.

Due to its prudent town plan, Williamsburg did not grow with the same hodgepodge disorder of the earlier Jamestown settlement. Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson's plan for Williamsburg was laid out around an orderly grouping of public buildings, each relating to the others in a spacious overall scheme. Characterized by its broad, straight streets and its impressive public buildings, the new capital had distinctly urban qualities. Its baroque-style vistas pulled the public buildings into the landscape, and the useful open spaces reflected current European city planning trends. Nicholson's early eighteenth-century plan is still largely intact, and Williamsburg today demonstrates how well conceived his planning vision truly was.

It is a credit to the conservative English taste of Williamsburg's gardeners that this small Virginia town had some of the best examples of Anglo-Dutch gardens in the colonies. This garden style, characterized by geometric symmetry within an enclosed space, was common in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Historical evidence suggests that the emerging trend toward naturalistic gardens in contemporary England did not appeal to the settlers in Virginia. To those Virginians, a natural landscape did not need to be re-created; there were ample reminders of that at every turn. To them, a garden was nature tamed, trimmed, and enclosed within a fence or hedge. The colonists tended to create the gardens they remembered, or their parents remembered, in the England of William and Mary. Consequently, these styles persisted longer in America where they had been adopted than in England where they had been fashioned.

The first gardens of any size or consequence in Williamsburg were at the College of William and Mary, in "the college yard" at the east front of the oldest structure, the Wren Building. This decorative, formal garden filled with topiary may have looked out of place in the predominately natural landscape of Virginia, but judging from surviving eyewitness accounts, this was certainly an appealing garden. This garden disappeared not long after the Revolutionary War.

The real greening of Williamsburg began when Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood arrived in 1710. Embarking on a path that would ultimately compromise his relationship with the House of Burgesses, he undertook at great expense the task of building a monumental garden at the governor's mansion. For elegance and extravagance, nothing in the colony exceeded the governor's gardens, and the reconstructed gardens have been enormously influential in telling the history of American colonial gardening.

For Spotswood, gardens were synonymous with civilized and elegant living, and his garden designs were traditionally formal, geometric, and well balanced. This is the conclusion we can draw from a copperplate engraving discovered in 1929 by a Colonial Williamsburg researcher in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, about 190 years after it was originally executed. This "Bodleian Plate" was of paramount importance in guiding the garden restoration efforts at the Palace.

Restoration of Williamsburg's gardens

The story of the beginning of Williamsburg's restoration is well documented in the annals of the American preservation movement. In 1926, Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, then the rector of Bruton Parish Church, was able to fire the imagination and enthusiasm of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller agreed to finance Dr. Goodwin's vision of returning the city of Williamsburg to its eighteenth-century appearance. From the very beginning, Williamsburg's restorers appreciated the importance of reconstructing the gardens and greens, as well as the houses and shops.

When the restoration of Williamsburg began, there was little physical evidence remaining of eighteenth-century gardens. Here and there, for instance, surviving bits of holly and boxwood hedges suggested the bare bones of former garden layouts. It was evident that considerable research would be necessary to re-create the landscapes of the colonial town. Vital research was gathered from private and public sources both in America and abroad. Additional information pertaining to the arrangement of gardens and outbuildings was revealed through research into old tax records and insurance policies, which frequently included sketches of the layout of lots. Descriptions of the city occasionally appeared in the surviving travelers' accounts, letters, and journals. Explorers and naturalists also had kept detailed records of plants found growing in Virginia and neighboring colonies.

Archaeological excavations were undertaken to locate buildings and potential landscape features such as outbuilding foundations, brick and marl walks, paved service areas, and old wall and fence lines. In some cases, walkways uncovered beneath the surface suggested the former layout, including the garden axis and the size, shape, and alignment of planting beds.

A number of surviving eighteenth-century maps have verified the layout and growth of the town. The most useful has been the circa 1782 "Frenchman's Map," apparently drawn by a French officer for the purpose of billeting troops after the victory at Yorktown. In addition to showing streets and buildings accurately, this document provided detailed information about fence lines and delineates what appear to be trees at several locations.

Of primary importance during the early days of the restoration was the work of the Foundation's first landscape architect, Arthur A. Shurcliff, a pivotal figure in the development of the discipline of landscape architecture in America. Shurcliff was an internationally known landscape architect, uniquely qualified to play a leading role in the restoration. A resident of Boston, Shurcliff had studied under Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., and helped to lay out the plans for Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

Shurcliff wrote that the re-created gardens were intended to "recall the period of the ancient dwellings and the old city itself." He quickly realized that local landscape traditions differed from those of other regions, as did the plants that were typically used. Much of his work was based on a careful, thorough study of surviving southern plantation homes and gardens, and of colonial Virginia gardens and homes in particular. Shurcliff's examination of some thirty-eight different colonial sites, combined with documented original garden designs, served as the precedents for the re-created gardens.

Through his research into colonial garden design, Shurcliff came to realize the value of the surviving eighteenth-century plans drawn by Claude Joseph Sauthier of North Carolina colonial towns and their gardens. Sauthier, a French landscape gardener who came to North Carolina in 1767, surveyed and drew plans for several of that colony's towns. Sauthier's plans included detailed renderings of intricate urban garden layouts, and established that their designs followed similar schemes and patterns typically seen in seventeenth-century English gardens. The style and pattern of these North Carolina gardens were Shurcliff's inspiration for several of Colonial Williamsburg's colonial revival gardens.

After World War I, a renewed interest by the American public in our colonial past began to give rise to the preservation of old homes and the veneration of all things "colonial." American history teaching became focused on the "Founding Fathers" with decidedly nationalistic and patriotic enthusiasm. Historic sites and house museums followed this trend, combining a unique blend of historical evidence and nostalgia to make the colonial past more appealing and attractive. This period has become known as "colonial revival" in the preservation movement as well as in decorative arts and design. Thus, these period gardens are considered to be colonial revival since they present a 1930s and 1940s view of our past created in spite of mounting evidence that most colonial gardens were simple, functional, and even somewhat bare.

Colonial Williamsburg bears the burden of criticism that the restored town appears too neat and clean, too "spick-and-span," and too manicured to be believable. In the beginning, Colonial Williamsburg was primarily an architectural restoration, and curatorial work at that time emphasized "high-style" design whether it be in decorative arts or garden design. Today, as a result of ongoing research, more emphasis is placed on social history showing how the colonists lived and worked as a community. Williamsburg today is much more than a shrine to the pretty things of the past, and this thinking certainly now translates into how the gardens are currently presented. Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area is a compromise between historical authenticity and common sense, between brutal realism and gentle ambience, between being a moment in time in the eighteenth century and being nearly three hundred years old.

Research into the gardens of Williamsburg has been actively pursued since the earliest days and it continues today. Archaeological research techniques have changed dramatically and little modern landscape archaeology has been completed in the Historic Area. New information continues to surface, often prompting a reconsideration of features of the town and its gardens.

Williamsburg garden designs

There is no "typical" colonial Williamsburg garden. Then, as today, gardens were as varied as the people who created and tended them. The re-creation of a period garden is not a simple task. The actual trees, shrubs, and flowers that filled these gardens long ago have disappeared from the landscape, but we have clues as to how many of the properties were laid out and the kinds of plants grown in the gardens. While these places are re-creations, they convey the spirit and character of the eighteenth century.

In many ways the organization of a property followed the dictates of the climate. Outbuildings seldom were connected to the house in this region where the winters are mild, and where the warm, humid summers make ample air circulation vital. The kitchen and each domestic service was usually given its own separate building with its own outside work space.

Probably most of Williamsburg's town gardens were the gardens of the colonial urban merchant or tradesmen classes with small backyard orchards and/or vegetable gardens planted with herbs and flowers scattered throughout. Secondary in importance and position to the kitchen yard, the garden was usually midway between the yard and the stable and paddock at the back of the property. As a general rule, service walks were laid to connect work areas in the most direct fashion, while the layout of walks in the gardens was typically geometric and balanced. "Necessary" houses, or privies, were usually located on a boundary of the garden--at the side or rear. There may have been a small orchard of fruit trees if space was available.

Garden features and details

In surviving records there are only limited references to elaborate garden features or ornaments in Williamsburg's original gardens. From several sources, including archaeological remains, there is evidence that the Governor's Palace gardens had elaborate gates, decorative vases, steps, seats, garden houses, and enclosing walls. Such decoration was rare in the smaller gardens that achieved interest with shrubs and colorful flowers. Little evidence has been found of lead figures or fountains such as those found in European gardens. Water as a garden feature, such a vital element in English gardens of the period, was virtually unknown in Williamsburg's gardens except at Governor Spotswood's canal and fish pond.

Fences, so commonly seen in Williamsburg today, were actually required by colonial law to be built around each lot. An act of the General Assembly of 1705, intended to protect the gardens from stray horses and cattle, required the owner of every lot on Duke of Gloucester Street to "inclose the said lots, or half acres, with a wall, pales, or post and rails, within six months after the building, which the law requires to be erected thereupon, shall be finished." The minimum height of the fence was set at four and one-half feet and many were built higher. Brick walls with molded brick copings were not common around private houses but were usually confined to enclosing the grounds of public buildings.

colonial building and garden

Post and rail fences and picket fences were typical for private gardens. The "worm" or "snake" fence, frequently used to enclose fields in rural areas in and about Williamsburg, was made by laying rails in zigzag fashion without the need of posts. This was the ubiquitous "Virginia rail" fence which appeared as early as 1632 at Jamestown and continued in common use in Virginia until replaced by the invention of barbed wire.

Work yards were often surfaced with a combination of materials including brick laid in patterns--basket weave, running bond, and herringbone--or in an irregular, crazy-quilt pattern of brickbats. Garden paths were commonly surfaced with marl or gravel. Brick and even crushed shells were occasionally used.

Plants in colonial gardens

By and large, the plants found in the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg are those native to the tidewater area or those introductions made by 1780. North America's contributions to the gardening world are chiefly its trees, flowering shrubs, and vines. American wildflowers have become essential perennials and annuals in flower borders around the world. The English colonists brought with them all manner of seeds, bulbs, and roots of their favorite flowers from back home, so their gardens became an amalgamation of those Old World favorites and the native plants they had found in the New World.

In the eighteenth century, the colonists carried on an extensive exchange of plants and horticultural information with the homeland. Much of what is known about plants available in Williamsburg's colonial times comes from correspondence about this exchange. John Custis, a prominent citizen of Williamsburg, corresponded for twelve years with Peter Collinson, the amateur English naturalist. Their letters are filled with the details of the joys and trials of the exchange of plants across the Atlantic. English gardeners were eager for the new American plants--exotics like black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, and the fall-blooming aster--that became popular in all of Europe. Likewise, literally hundreds of plants came to America from Europe. Some, like yarrow and daylily, escaped into the wild and have become thoroughly naturalized wildflowers of the American landscape. The majority of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and flowering bulbs came to Virginia from the Old World where they had been grown in English gardens for hundreds of years. Additionally, some vegetables native to Central and South America, such as potatoes and tomatoes, were introduced to North America and Virginia via Europe where Spanish and Portuguese explorers had taken them in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

There is still much research to be done on the history of ornamental plants grown in colonial Virginia gardens, for there will always be the source yet to be researched. References to plants in the seventeenth and eighteenth century are hampered by the unsystematic naming of plants before the Linnaean system of Latin genus and species names was established in 1753. Even more of a challenge is trying to match the proper genus and species names to the more colorful and unusual common names given to plants in colonial times. Since the planting of the first re-created gardens at Colonial Williamsburg, many plants have been added to the plant palette and more than a few have been deleted because of newly acquired information.

boxwood in a colonial garden

As summer days lengthen, Williamsburg's gardens, like other old Virginia gardens, take on a depth of greenness all their own. The source of this serenity is often the boxwood, and it is the plant, above all others, that people typically associate with Williamsburg. Boxwood has proven itself the Virginia gardeners' best evergreen friend, withstanding winterkill and summer burn alike. While interesting when precisely trimmed in formal parterre gardens, boxwood is at its best when left to grow naturally into undulating and billowing masses.

Among the native ornamental trees available to gardeners of the eighteenth century were the dogwood, redbud, magnolia, and catalpa, all renowned for the beauty of their flowers. Commonly used trees that provided shade were the elm, chestnut, poplar, sycamore, oak, and pecan.

Fruit trees were very important in Williamsburg's early gardens. Fruits were eaten fresh, cooked, or preserved. The fruits of the Old World were in great demand and were usually grown in quantity. Fruits had been useful to the settlers of Virginia who found a natural bounty of grapes, and wild strawberries, huckleberries, blackberries, and raspberries that soon found their way into the garden. The native tree fruits proved to be less useful: the crab apple was small and bitter, the wild cherry was practically worthless, and the plum was inferior in quality to European varieties. The apple, quince, plum, pear, peach, cherry, apricot, and nectarine were all introduced from Europe.

In tribute to Williamsburg's vegetable gardening heritage, we like to remember that John Randolph, a distinguished Virginian and resident of Williamsburg, wrote the first American book on kitchen or vegetable gardening. John Randolph was the king's attorney and was dubbed "John the Tory" because of his loyalist sympathies. Randolph's Treatise on Gardening, modeled on a similar manual by English nurseryman Philip Miller, was printed in America in 1788, four years after his death. Prior to that, only books written for English gardeners and the British climate had been available in the colonies, and thus provided little help with the particularities and peculiarities of this climate.


The plants and re-created gardens in Williamsburg reflect the legacy of the early plantsmen. These colonial revival gardens, an important chapter in American garden history, have been enormously influential on garden design since the 1930s. These gardens capture the spirit and character of the finest eighteenth-century colonial gardens. Today, we face a reevaluation of many of these gardens, based on new research findings and techniques. Colonial Williamsburg's educational mission advocates that we go even further in re-creating noteworthy early gardens as more details become available. Where this is appropriate and well documented, changes will occur. With well-considered changes, we can depict more realistically what current research suggests is historically accurate. In the meantime, these beautiful green gardens will mature and grow more beautiful with each passing year.