Hallowed Ground

A succession of families has gotten their hands dirty at Oak Hill Farm, the estate of James Monroe, but it fell to the current owners to turn 3.5 acres of sprawling potential into a showplace. 

In the entrance hall of fifth U.S. president James Monroe’s former home, Oak Hill Farm in Aldie, hangs a watercolor of what his garden must have looked like while he lived there in the early 1800s: long beds of vegetables, low and leafy or staked, flowing down the hill from the gracious, five-columned back portico of the house. Gayle DeLashmutt, current owner with husband Tom, says it was what amounted to “a truck garden,” to feed the denizens of the plantation.

These days, the garden at Oak Hill nourishes the spirit more than the body, although it does keep Gayle in fine physical shape: She spends up to 30 hours a week, often in the company of her yellow Labradors, Biscuit and Maisie, tending what’s now an informally formal showplace. The 3 ½-acre, five-tiered bowl garden sinks down to a central birdbath, ringed by terraces brimming with a feast of color, form, contrast and texture. “I’ll just check every terrace and see what’s offensive,” says Gayle, “and see if I can take care of it.” Round heads of allium, purple or white, sway above feathery, lower-growing Ward’s yews. “I did this all by myself,” she says, indicating a shade bed of white bleeding heart, columbine, epimedium and bruneria tucked at the southeast wall of the garden, under an old crab apple and a couple of weeping cherries. Nearby, deep red, divine-smelling roses tumble over a wall.

Of course, there are nearly two centuries and a few owners between Monroe’s truck garden and today’s horticultural confection. The estate passed to the family of Confederate Lt. Col. John W. Fairfax (no relation to the Lord Fairfaxes of p. 128) in the 1850s, to Frank Littleton in 1920 and, finally, to Thomas N. DeLashmutt, Tom’s father, in 1948. The Tom H. DeLashmutts and their two daughters, India and Abigail, moved in 15 years ago, after the death of Mrs. DeLashmutt Sr. Each family made its own mark, and each built upon the work of those who’d gone before.

“When the Fairfax family owned it, it became more of a lady’s garden,” says Gayle. “The descriptions are ‘a gently sloping, southern-facing garden,’ and it was outlined in roses and lilacs.” Some of those lilacs remain.

It was Frank Littleton who laid the primary bones of the current garden, the formal brick terraces that make the bowl. Gayle describes Littleton as “a local fellow from Leesburg … he married a rich Yankee and managed to spend all of her money” between house and garden. “He got in the heavy equipment,” she adds. “He leveled it going east-west. And the beautiful walls—he was a man with a lot of vision and very good taste, and I think he probably designed it himself.”

Another Littleton contribution is the profusion of American boxwood—450 of them. Most edge the lawns flanking the garden to the east and west, separating them from the remaining 1,200-odd acres of the estate, and others add structure in the terraced garden itself. Now nearly a hundred years old, the box have grown so large that one can walk between them into what feels like a dark, cool room. In fact, Gayle keeps a hammock under one group at the garden’s rim. “It’s a wonderful little place,” she says. She calls it her secret garden.

By the time Tom’s parents bought the farm 60 years ago, much of Littleton’s glory was obscured; the garden was so overgrown that the couple enlisted one of their nephews to clear it. He spent most of that summer on a tractor. Remembering her mother-in-law, Gene DeLashmutt, a member of three garden clubs, Gayle says, “She tackled a huge job when they moved in. … She was so generous about sharing it with people, and so knowledgeable.” Under her stewardship, the garden grew.

It grew so much that, when the current residents moved in after Gene died, “Tom and I would stand at the arcade, and you couldn’t see down the garden,” Gayle says. “The view was all blocked off.” Ever mindful that they had moved into the hallowed environs of one of our founding fathers, the DeLashmutts were cautious at first about making changes. But one evening, some friends came to dinner—Tony and Nancy Reuter, avid gardeners. “I said, ‘You know, it’s driving us crazy, Tony—what do we do?’ And he said, ‘Get the saw out.’ And I’ll be darned if I didn’t wake up the next morning to the tune of the chain saw.” Tom was at work on the boxwood. “It was the best thing we did,” she says. “We weren’t sure if we could do it, if we were even allowed to do it. And then we just kind of opened it up.”

That first step led to more. “I’d been fooling around with the garden for a year before I realized that people would come out and go, ‘Hm, nice garden,’ and there was nothing to get them to make the effort to get down to the lowest terrace.” Her answer was Golden Vicary privet, shrubs that now stand in a glowing ring around the tall birdbath that anchors the garden center. Now, when one stands on the portico, the eye is pulled down the broad flagstone walkway toward the birdbath’s graceful form.

If the feet follow the eye to that center, the reward inside the privet is a recently added knot garden of tiny Morris Midget boxwood, planted in a series of intersecting angles around the foot of the birdbath. Until she had the idea for the knot garden, Gayle says, she hadn’t known what to do with the space, first trying a perennial bed, then a holding pattern of annuals for a time. “We’ve discovered that this is the coldest part of the garden, because the cold air sinks,” she says, “and I’ll lose dahlias down here way before I’ll lose them higher up.”

It’s been a process of experimentation, learning the garden and learning limits. Gayle knows when certain things are beyond her, such as the huge Cephalotaxis—a plum yew as wide as a two-car garage and almost as tall, festive with little fountains of new growth against its rich, dark green. It’s perhaps one of the biggest and best examples nationwide, she says. “I have an absolute artisan pruner coming, when he has a little more time later in the season, because I don’t want to mess it up.” The 12-foot, rich purple smoke bush across the way, however, Gayle takes in hand herself. “I had to whack the heck out of it last fall,” she says. Two staffers on the place do the mowing and heavy work. “I almost like tidying—pruning and weeding and things—more than planting, oddly enough,” she says. “I’m only clean today because it’s raining.”

She also enjoys working in her greenhouse, where sensitive dahlias and other perennials—as well as certain botanical Christmas gifts and the heirloom tomato plants Gayle starts for friends in spring—get their start. The elder Mr. DeLashmutt originally built it for his wife; the present owners rebuilt on the foundation of the original, updating and automating. Now, humidity magically spews from wall-mounted units, and the glass panels open when the sun comes out. “I told Tom, ‘My greenhouse is smarter than your Lexus,’” Gayle says.

Asked to characterize her aesthetic, she stops. “Oh,” she says. “I wouldn’t.” Her favorite thing in the garden? “It depends on what season it is. Last week [mid-May] it was the tree peonies, and next week it’s going to be the herbaceous peonies, and then the lilies and then the fabulous tomatoes. In the winter, it’s probably the yellow twig dogwood in the corner of the garden, and the Harry Lauder [walking stick bush] I have outside the kitchen window. And then I put in a ton of allium because my husband loves them.” In the shade garden, she pushes aside the large leaves of what looks like a huge, leggy hosta and says, “I have this guy here, my jack-in-the-pulpit.” Its head is still curled like a child’s fist under the shelter of its leaves. “Don’t you love it?”

Why all this effort? She takes a moment, then finds her thought: “I really do it for my husband, because this is his home, he was raised here, we’re here ….” When she speaks again, it begins as an almost conspiratorial whisper. “I’m the Yankee in the family, and I couldn’t just have it out here looking terrible. I couldn’t do it. The garden is a living, breathing thing. I guess that’s why I do it.”

Mr. Monroe, as she calls him, would be pleased, if not perhaps a little bemused by the petite blonde woman usually covered in dirt and brandishing loppers.

Although Oak Hill Farm isn’t open to the public, the DeLashmutts do share it in other ways. An educational program offered through the Mosby Heritage Area Association, of which Gayle just finished a term as president, sends school groups through. History groups and garden clubs also visit—Gayle is active in the Fauquier and Loudoun Garden Club, and the couple offers their home as a venue for the occasional fund-raiser. MosbyHeritageArea.org

(Originally published in the August 2008 Issue)

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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