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Colonial Williamsburg
by Daryl Pulis

If you're looking for a vacation idea, try Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg. You're probably familiar with its history. It was settled in 1699 after the folks in Jamestown, the first colony and capital of Virginia, got tired of slapping mosquitoes and battling the illnesses that came with living in a swamp. The higher ground, fertile soil, and moderate weather helped make it the largest and richest British colony. Williamsburg was a hotbed of pre-Revolutionary politics, and George Washington and others gathered there to debate the Stamp Act and Independence.

You might not know that Williamsburg was also a hotbed of horticulture. Because of the status and wealth of many of its residents, plants and plantsmen were imported from England to provide the landowners with superb formal gardens filled with unusual plants. And because of the close ties between William and Mary and the Dutch throne, even the rare Tulips were planted in the geometrically perfect gardens.

Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg's gardens began in the 1920s. Archeological excavations showed where walks and fences were placed, and research into European gardens and surviving American ones gave the Landscape Architects the "bones" of the gardens. Most of the gardens were planted in the 1930's and 40's in the Colonial Revival style. This idealized and over-elaborate style was a nostalgic look at what might have been.

More recently, Landscape Archeology has helped uncover what truly was in the gardens in the 18th century. With radar, ultrasound, DNA sampling and other new tools added to simple detective work like sorting through old family letters, deeds, and receipts, new knowledge is emerging. In addition, continuing excavation turns up bits of old garden tools, buildings and household objects which are helping to solve the mystery. Because of that, many of the gardens are being returned to their 18th century state.

Several new garden tours have been designed around the new knowledge, too. I really enjoyed the "Gardens of Gentility" tour, which showed how the gardens of the gentry and the gardens of the "lower sort" differed. The gardens of the gentry were larger, of course, but were designed as pleasure gardens, filled with flowers and other ornamental plants, while those of the less affluent would have more vegetables, medicinal herbs, fruits, and animals for meat. In the early years of the colony, only the wealthiest had rare, imported plants. In later years, the "middling sort" or middle class could afford them, as the plants began to be propagated in Williamsburg instead of being imported.

Status was reflected in garden tools, too. While the poor folk only had straw caps to protect their plants, the wealthy had glass bell cloches to protect their vegetables from the cold. They also used elaborate hotbeds to start crops early. The hotbeds were wooden frames insulated with straw held by wattle fencing, and covered with a removable sash. In the winter, manure was heaped inside, and its heat would provide the warmth to get those plants off to a quick start. If the crop were melons, when the plants were large enough, they'd be moved out to special oiled parchment paper melon tunnels, which would provide the warmth needed to produce an early crop. Contests were held among the gentry to see who could produce the earliest fruits and vegetables. When you go to Williamsburg, don't miss the garden and it's interpretive guide at the Colonial Nursery. The costumed guide is an expert not only in garden tools, but also heirloom varieties of seed, some of which are available for sale.

With 175 acres and 100 gardens in the historic district, Colonial Williamsburg has a lot to see. For information and tour schedules, see www.colonialwillamsburg.org or phone: 800-HISTORY.

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