Gunston Hall to Open Restored Garden Oct. 7

Gunston Hall to Open Restored Garden Oct. 7

American statesman George Mason not only authored several documents that rejected Great Britain’s rule and created a new democratic nation, he even asserted American independence in designing his garden. Mason’s garden is an “Americanized version of a traditional English walled garden,” with some elements of Italian villa and theater set designs, say Gunston Hall officials. The restored, 1780s garden will open to the public on Oct. 7. 

Mason was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Fairfax Resolves and Virginia’s constitution. He refused to sign the U.S. Constitution because it had no Bill of Rights. The Masons’ son, John, described the garden as a place of “meditation,” so it was likely here that George Mason pondered the colonies’ predicament and framed some of the fundamental principles of American democracy, still enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

At a September 28 reception, hosting the Board of Regents and other guests, Executive Director Scott Stroh called the garden “a retreat, a place of reflection where Mason cemented enlightenment principles.” 

For the plantation’s enslaved people, it was not a respite of peaceful contemplation. They only entered the space to work.

Bringing History Alive

The garden project took two decades of archaeological research, planning and fund raising. No written plan from Mason’s time exists, but some of his and John’s letters and seed orders offer hints. The lead archaeologist, Dave Shonyo, found ungerminated, 18th century seeds in the plot. 

Owners following the Masons made many changes. In 1880, it was a pear orchard; in the 1920s, a plowed field. In the 1950s, it was intended as a “colonial revival” garden, but “was not fact based,” said Shonyo.

The one-acre plot of four rectangles today has vegetables, ornamental plants and small apple trees. Eventually, it will have over 80 different perennial flowers and bulbs, over 30 types of annual flowers, 34 different vegetables, 16 apple varieties and roses common in the 18th century. The Masons collected seeds, cuttings and plants “from around the Atlantic world,” notes a press release. Vegetables grow in the center and ornamentals along the sides, typical of the 1700s according to landscape historians.

In Mason’s day, plants bloomed from March and to the first killing frost. The Masons also used hotboxes with glass tops and decomposing manure to raise the soil temperature and extend the growing season. With hotboxes, wealthy colonials could eat foods like kale, collards and chard in the winter while the less affluent likely ate salt pork and cornmeal, one panel explains.

Visitors this fall can see vegetables like okra, chard, tomatoes and squash and herbs, including borage and fennel. Among fall-blooming plants are amaranths, celosias, coneflowers and asters.

The Masons grew Hewe’s crab apples and Newton pippins. Today’s caretakers are using free-standing espalier to shape the trees.

Gravel walks separate the four sections and one-foot-or-so boxwoods line the central corridor and the mansion walkway. The Masons fenced the garden to keep out wildlife and free-roaming cows, sheep and pigs. The fence also separated beauty from the labor in the nearby kitchen yards. 

The Glave and Holmes architectural firm prepared the garden’s master plan and Rob McGinnis was the landscape architect.

At the Sept. 28 event, Stroh called the opening a “monumental occasion.” Virginia regent and Arlingtonian Ann Taylor Schaeffer visited Gunston Hall frequently growing up and sees Gunston Hall as “one of the most fabulous historic houses in the United States.” 

Del. Kathy Tran commented, “Gunston Hall is a hidden treasure, waiting to be discovered. The restoration of the garden is a perfect opportunity to learn about George Mason and our history.” 

Holly Dougherty, President of the Mount Vernon-Springfield Chamber of Commerce, concurred: “George Mason was a central figure because what he wrote ensures our liberties. The garden will draw more people to his home to learn about him and his contribution to the Bill of Rights.”