The first was a cool, foggy weekend at Rehoboth. The second was a warm, sunny, two-night excursion by train to Charlottesville. Not surprisingly, I ran into several Baltimore visitors, including a family with four children at Monticello.
I went down, because my niece graduates from the University of Virginia in May. I hadn’t seen Monticello in 50 years. My niece and I have a tradition of visiting historic houses to celebrate Christmas and birthdays. Going to Monticello was a gift from her and my sister. A behind-the-scenes tour of the second and third floor and the lower level was a bonus gift. My niece accompanying me was too. She’s visited Monticello many times in her four-year study of architecture, yet she graciously said that she always learns something new and that seeing Jefferson’s system for collecting rain water on the mountaintop helped give her more ideas for her final design project for a ceramic water filter factory in South Africa.
Everything at Monticello seemed new to me. I’d forgotten most everything since my childhood visit. That my niece and I were interested in the gardens would have amazed my mother and grandmother, who took me and my sister there the first time. While everyone was an organic gardener in Jefferson’s pre-chemical-spray era, his practices of using native species and fertilizing with rich organic materials to encourage growth and prevent disease are foundations of sustainable practices today.
Jefferson also envisioned his “academical village” in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, as an “expanse of lawns and trees.” While that village now bears a resemblance to a small city, “the lawn” and surrounding gardens showcase a series of restored
, complete with many native trees. With the blooming season about four weeks ahead of schedule, redbuds and dogwoods bloomed as I wandered in and out of garden gates to intimate walled gardens.
Antiquity had been preserved at every turn, not only in the adjacent brick buildings and serpentine walls but in garden ornaments: statues, an antique astrolabe, a cast iron capital and the remnant of Jefferson’s attempts to use carved Virginia stone atop the columns on surrounding buildings. While the stone proved too difficult to sculpt for capitals, it now enhances the 21st century wanderer’s connection to the past.
So do the plantings common in 18th century gardens, including sweetgum, magnolia and tulip trees, English boxwoods, mountain laurel, beautyberry and wisteria. Among many trees and plants blooming this March at U.Va. and at Monticello were grape hyacinths, daffodils, parrot tulips, hellebores, violas, viburnums, native Virginia bluebells, rosemary and Albemarle Pippin apple trees, one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites.
As Mr. Jefferson so encouraged, lifelong, intergenerational learning continued this week in Charlottesville.