Virginia Garden Week: An Insider’s Recap

What is Historic Garden Week in Virginia and what is all the hubbub about? I’ve had so many people outside of the state of Virginia ask me that question in the last several months as I’ve worked on prepping my own home and garden for my tour date, as well as prepping a few of my clients. In short, it’s a week-long affair spanning across the state encompassing multiple towns, hundreds of garden clubs, and thousands of volunteers. The Garden Club of Virginia sponsors the event and proceeds fund the restoration and preservation of Virginia gardens as well as funding research fellowships in landscape architecture. I guess I’m a Garden Week veteran of sorts as I’ve had my house open for tour four times (in three different houses) and helped dozens of clients prepare for their tour dates. I’ve learned the ropes and wanted to share the backstory of what goes into prepping for an event like Historic Garden Tour in Virginia.

Historic Garden Week co-chairs begin early mapping out cities and tour routes. Ideally, tour dates have homes located in clusters suitable for pedestrian traffic or quick shuttle bus rides. Homeowners are asked if they would consider opening up their homes as far as three years in advance. Having this lead time is helpful in multiple ways. If you plan to do any major planting or landscape design changes in your garden, 3 years gives you time to prepare, and time for your plants to establish themselves and fill out a bit. I’ve been longing for a parterre garden in the center of my back lawn for a long time and Garden Week gave me the perfect excuse. You can see in the images below that having time for plantings to mature is important, the 1st image being my parterre garden on installation and the 2nd image, two years later during last week’s garden tour.

And make no mistake, this is also definitively a house tour. In prepping for that aspect, there are the basic household improvements on like power washing, touch-up painting and then there’s always the fluffing of the interiors. This year I had two clients open on the same tour date as my own home so we have had our Garden Week “to-do” lists in action for a few years. The final flurry of the week before involved a fair amount of running house to house, restyling bookshelves, installing new curtains and artwork, having chandeliers cleaned, silver polished, etc. Meanwhile you are dodging the landscapers, mulch trucks, and window washers at every turn.

The Flower Ladies (as I called them) start to call you about six months in advance. Different Garden Clubs are assigned to different homes. They’ll want to do a walk through to establish a traffic flow in your house for tour day. There’s also a brief interview with the Garden Ladies in charge of gathering the info on your house such as the architectural history of the house and garden, as well any interior points of interest such as special antiques and artwork. A description of your house is published in the Garden Week booklet and this gives the docents volunteering in your house on tour day (1 per room and several in the gardens) information to share with visitors.

Another group of Flower Ladies will visit a few months out to review your personal likes and dislikes of plant material for the interior arrangements. They will also help strategize as to which flowers and which containers will land where. The goal of the Garden Club is to use only native blooming plant material from Virginia and if you are lucky, and Mother Nature cooperates, there will be a bounteous supply of dogwood, rhododendron, azalea, peonies, daffodils and tulips.

Flower Ladies unloading their goods:

This year I had a particularly creative group of volunteers designing the flowers, all from the James River Garden Club. My favorite creation was the “FlowerFall” arrangement in front of my mantle in the den. These talented women created strands of roses to drape from the mantle by stitching them together with needle and fishing line.

Another special arrangement was the rectangular flower garden on my kitchen table.

And clearly I was heard by all when I voiced my love of pink roses and peonies:

Garden Tour Day is highly civilized. My tireless landscape team was there at daybreak dead-heading and blowing the terraces.

The Flower Ladies don’t forget the outside either….more beautiful flowers on my front porch:

Volunteers arrive at 9am to set-up and the tour runs from 10am until 5pm. Lines begin forming early and the event runs like a well-oiled machine so that by day’s end, thousands have enjoyed the tour.

My client’s spit-spot facade and terrace on the morning of Garden Tour:

I snuck upstairs after the tour opened and enjoyed a hot bath, and later a celebratory wine lunch with my landscape designer 🙂