May 27, 2024

Exploring the Walled Garden at Oatlands

Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site in Virginia, began as a land grant from Robert “King” Carter—who owned 300,000 acres and enslaved approximately 3,000 people from the Northern Neck to west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia—for his son Robert II.

In 1798, George Carter, Robert II’s son inherited the land and in 1804 began construction on the Federal-style mansion using bricks made by enslaved people (in the 1800 census it was recorded that the number of individuals enslaved by George was 17). On the east side of the mansion a walled terraced garden slowly developed with various areas for trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Not unlike other terraced gardens of the same time period—such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello—it was both impressive and utilitarian.

View of the main home at Oatlands from the walled garden. The building has scaffolding over its facade.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

A view of the east elevation of the mansion at Oatlands.

In 1903, a hundred years after the mansion was built, the home was purchased by Edith and William Corcoran Eustis. Where Beatrix Farrand and Ellen Biddle Shipman were working as the first female landscape gardeners and architects, Edith Eustis took on the role for the gardens’ restoration and re-visioning herself. From structural repairs to plant selection, the garden was reborn under her considerable creativity and skill. Terraces that once held kitchen gardens became “boxwood-lined parterres full of fragrant and colorful flowers such as tulips, peonies, iris, and lilies.

Edith's most significant change however, came when she extended the garden to the south and east, wrapping it around the hill on which the mansion sits. It was a masterstroke by an undeniably creative amateur, and underscores what makes the Oatlands gardens so enjoyable: yes they are expansive, but there’s an intimacy. They are personal.

As Edith said in a 1923 publication Historic Gardens of Virginia, “When the present owners bought it—not from the Carters—but from one who had not sensed its beauties, the Oatlands garden was falling into ruins; bricks were crumbling, weeds crowding the flowers and yet the very moss-grown paths seemed to say, 'We are still what we were.' It was a thankful task to restore the old beauty, although the thoughts and conceptions were new, but they fitted it, and every stone vase or bench, every box-hedge planted, seemed to fall into its rightful place and become a part of the whole. Certain improvements were made—improvements the old designer and builder would have approved; fruit trees, hiding huge box and yew, were cut down, and a rosary laid out as a counterpart to the box-grove. It was not always easy to get the right effect.”

Explore the garden through this photo essay and see how it has evolved and changed over time.

Looking down onto one of the bricked areas in the Oatlands Walled Garden.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

A view of the upper terraces of the garden.

Entry to the walled garden located on the east side of the mansion in a break in a long ballustrade that provides glimpses of the broader landscape of Oatlands, with direct views of some of the upper terraces.

View of the stairway in the walled garden covered by greenery shaped in an archway.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

The tunnel of American boxwoods lining the east-west stone staircase.

As visitors enter the garden the travel down a stone staircase that runs from east toward the western edge of the garden. The tunnel of American boxwoods creates a sense of transportation, where pockets of dappled light slip through the leaves, building upon the overall feeling of entering a meditative space.

View of a blossoming tree in one of the secluded spaces in the walled garden at Oatlands. The viewer is looking at it through the entry way which is framed by hedgerows.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

View of the weeping cherry tree in one of the garden alcoves.

The cozy atmosphere of the garden is furthered by pathways that take visitors through the various terraces and into different individual garden rooms each with their own look and feel. On the left, a weeping cherry tree nestled within a one of the individual secluded alcoves. Further travels along the staircase have visitors passing a humble herb garden and the Reflecting Pool with a sculpture called "The Fawn" by Attilio Piccirilli.

View of one of the pathways in the walled garden at Oatlands. On either side of a green path there are hedgerows leading to an arched entryway.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

The boxwood allee looking toward the tea house.

As part of her garden re-visioning and extension, Edith incorporated containers, allowing for quick seasonal change, brought in statuary and ordered the construction of a summer pavilion or ‘tea house’, underscoring the idea that these were gardens to experience, not pass by. The 'tea house' is located at the end of the Bowling Green, an allee of boxwood—previously a vegetable garden—a long vibrant path lined by both eunonymus and oriental arborvitae hedges.

View of one of the edges of the garden at Oatlands through a the enclosed seating area.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

View of the Wedding Parterre from the tea house.

Visitors can stop for a brief respite in the tea house, the addition of which increased the footprint of the garden, and also opened a viewshed across the Oak Grove, changing the dynamic of the gardens’ progression and offered the opportunity for new horticultural spaces. In the spring the grounds are verdant, as vibrant and variegated shades of green overlap one another creating a gorgeous display.

View of the Oatlands Garden with a sundial in the middle of the frame. It is on a a tan bed of stones and overlooks the expansive grounds of the historic site.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

This terrace is known as the Sundial Terrace for the sundial that was added by the Eustises.

One of the Eustis era additions of the garden is the Sundial Terrace. This space is surrounded by four Southern magnolia trees and four English yews. The branches reach out to wonder creating a rectangle path of shade with the sundial in the center tracking the hours as they pass by.

View of the walled garden at Oatlands.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

A view of one of the upper parterres.

View of one of the areas of the walled garden with blooming flowers and bushes edging the area.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

Looking south from one of the upper parterres.

As visitors make their way back up to the top of the garden they pass through some of the upper terraces, smaller ornamental gardens with pathways to explore the variety of plants and flowers. These spaces provide benches to rest weary legs or pocket sanctuaries for those looking to stray from the main pathways.

The walled garden at Oatlands, like many historic landscapes, changes with the seasons. Visitors to the site can be sure to see a garden preserved to honor the full history, design, and philosophy of the site while also experiencing new plantings over the course of the year.

Additional contributions to this piece were by Lori Kimball senior manager of programs and Laura VanHuss, interim director of Oatlands.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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