Secret Gardens

With a little digging, Virginia yields five unexpected gems.

As garden visitors know, the state’s showstoppers, like Norfolk Botanical Garden, Lewis Ginter in Richmond, and the State Arboretum in Boyce deserve their place in the limelight. But look a little deeper. These lesser-known gardens are equally welcoming, each fascinating in its own way. As gardens open for tours during Historic Garden Week in April, these five properties offer serious springtime inspiration.


A staggering explosion of botanical diversity.

When Bernice and Armand Thieblot stumbled across a Wall Street Journal ad for an old soapstone quarry in rural Schuyler, the site ticked all their boxes. Set on 440 acres, “Paradise Found” conjured images of the magnificent Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, sunken within a massive limestone quarry. Inspired by the possibilities, the Thieblots bought the property and hatched a retirement plan from their home in suburban Baltimore.

After heavy mining in the 1970s, the quarry had been used as a dumpsite. And dumpsite it was. Beginning in the 1990s, the Thieblots spent years “casually tidying up,” as Bernice puts it; hauling out rusted appliances, box springs and mattresses, car parts, clothes, and shoes—quite literally, by the ton. By 2014, with the cleanup behind them, the couple retired full-time to Schuyler, intent on creating a public garden in what was once the largest soapstone repository in the world. Over three years, they would add more than 50,000 native plants, divided among 30 galleries, to the 40 acres they’d earmarked for gardens. They placed the remaining land in a conservation easement to protect it from future development.

Opened in 2017, the Quarry Gardens offers a staggering explosion of botanical diversity. “It’s ‘subtle gardening,’” says Bernice, explaining the absence of traditional beds, borders, or plant ID markers, “and all very natural.” Rustic trails meander over hillocks and through dense tree canopies. Giant reefs of soapstone signal the property’s six quarries, and piles of boulders, left behind from the quarry’s heyday, dot the landscape.

Today, the Quarry Gardens contain the largest documented number of Virginia native plants of any botanical garden in the state, with an astounding 14 eco zones and seven conservation areas. “The land is very folded with great variations in elevation, aspect, exposure, and moisture,” Bernice explains. “And the close juxtaposition of soapstone against other bedrocks means we have both basic and acidic soils.”

Ultimately, location explains the gardens’ extraordinary variety. “Because the gardens are just where the Blue Ridge and the Piedmont meet,” Bernice says, “it’s a place where plant species from both regions can thrive.” Open by appointment, April through October.


A rich tapestry of plants, history, and people.

Roger Foley


The Anne Spencer garden in Lynchburg, Virginia, May, 2013

In the garden behind her home on Lynchburg’s Pierce Street, Harlem Renaissance poet and civil rights activist Anne Spencer created a salon. There, the great minds of her day—including Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B DuBois, and Thurgood Marshall—would gather in her own “she shed.” The small cottage, named Edankraal, was situated amid the riotous vines, rambling roses, and colorful beds and borders of this ever-evolving garden.

Spencer’s mother was thought to be the daughter of a Southern aristocrat. Her father was born into slavery. A valedictorian, she graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary and often wrote about her profound connection to nature, as well as the divisions she saw in the South. In her garden, Spencer found both solace and inspiration. Her work earned her a place in Norton’s Anthology of Poetry and secured her position as a major literary and cultural figure of the 1920s and ‘30s.

A rich tapestry, the Spencer garden weaves plants, history, people, and place into a deeply intimate space. Spencer’s favorite color, robin’s egg blue, is painted on fences and arbors and the sprawling pergola her husband, Edward, built for her, now one of the garden’s most recognizable features. Her favorite pink rose still blooms here today, scrambling up and over a vivid blue fence. Beginning in the 1980s, the garden underwent a restoration thanks to Lynchburg’s Hillside Garden Club with support from the Garden Club of Virginia and the Spencer family.

Anne and Edward’s granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester now serves as executive director of the Anne Spencer Museum and Garden. She points to a concrete bench at the edge of the pond, where her grandparents would sit together in the evenings. Dranny and Pop, as she called them, “watched Prince Ebo, a gift from W.E.B. Dubois, spit water from his mouth and the purple martins’ ariel moves as they looked over the garden they’d created.”

Tours of the house and cottage are available from April through October, with advance reservations. But the garden is open daily, from dawn to dusk. If you’re lucky, Spencer-Hester may be your guide. The property is open during Historic Garden Week on Tuesday, April 26.

EYRE HALL, Northampton County

Synchronized blooms ensure color nearly all year long.

In springtime, when more than 5,000 tulips are at their peak, Eyre Hall on the Eastern Shore is simply spectacular. The 18th-century house overlooks Cherrystone Creek, with sweeping views that stretch to the Chesapeake Bay. Visitors approach down a mile-long cedar line lane, packed with sand and crushed oyster shells.

Around 1800, John and Ann Eyre enclosed a two-acre garden, topping brick walls with white pickets. The series of garden rooms there feature English-style beds and borders, orderly pathways, and shaded areas brimming with hostas, ferns, pachysandra, and hellebores; many of the boxwood are thought to be original. Benches invite wandering guests to pause and soak it all in.

Head gardener, Laurie Klingel, synchronizes bloom times at Eyre Hall to ensure color nearly all year long. In spring, thousands of naturalized daffodils create meandering yellow rivers, with flowering perennials, annuals, trees, and shrubs on parade. Camassia, with its tall stems and dainty lavender florets, makes a show now, too. It’s the plant made famous by Sacagawea, who reputedly kept the Lewis and Clarke team alive by encouraging them to eat its nutrient-packed bulb.

The property, nearly three centuries old, is a private home, occupied by the eighth generation of Eyres. The original orangery, one of only three remaining in the state, stands in regal ruins nearby. A family cemetery provides clues to Eyre Hall’s residents, dating back to Thomas Eyre who landed in Jamestown in 1622.

Fancy new perennial cultivars share garden beds with older varieties, and ancient crape myrtles seem to quietly conduct the whole symphony. “They stand like proud sentinels over the garden, yet they impart warmth and wisdom that only comes from old trees,” says Klingel. “Twisted, gnarled, weathered and worn, they continue to age with true Southern grace.” The garden is a “seamless marriage of old and new that exists in absolute harmony with neighboring ancient trees and centuries-old boxwood,” she says. “It’s a unique reminder that at Eyre Hall, history continues to unfold.” The gardens are open to visitors year-round. The house, a private residence, will be open Saturday, April 30, during Historic Garden Week.


A living classroom planted by students, volunteers, and garden faculty.

Virginia Tech’s Hahn Garden took root in 1984, driven by the university’s horticulture faculty. “It’s a living laboratory,” says Hahn Horticulture Garden Director Scott Douglas. “And that enables Tech to better serve the landscape, nursery, and public horticulture sectors.”

In just six acres, visitors will find perennial borders, water gardens, and shade gardens; display beds were planted by students, volunteers, and garden faculty. The garden’s pergolas, walls, and bridges were built by Tech students studying landscape construction.

The garden showcases hundreds of woody and herbaceous plant species from around the world. Visitors will see a “hot” perennial border, a spectrum mixed border, a conifer display, a xeriphytic garden of succulents that have adapted to dry habitats, along with a stream garden and waterfall. A meadow garden features native perennials, grasses, trees, and shrubs planted in the sweeping “New American Garden” style.

Douglas says herbicides are used only minimally, with insecticides and fungicides not at all. “All leaves, branches, and other plant debris are chopped and used as mulch or composted,” he says. The garden also enriches the community, offering seminars, speakers, symposia, hands-on workshops, garden walks, plant sales, and art installations.


An ad hoc series of gardens created over 30 years.

Perry Mathewes

“We’ve done a lot of tinkering since the gardens opened to the public,” says Perry Mathewes, Director of Gardens at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. The Glen Burnie Gardens were designed by Julian Wood Glass, Jr., the last descendent of the original owners of the 18th century house, when he moved there in the 1950s with his partner, Lee Taylor. Together, the enthusiastic amateur gardeners, inspired by their extensive travels, began laying out a series of garden rooms, which remained in constant flux depending on their changing tastes. “The landscape is more of an ad hoc series of gardens created over 30 years,” he says.

Mathewes and his team addressed the gardens’ pathways and steps to better facilitate public access and anchored the statues in the sculpture garden. A replanting program was introduced to manage plant decline. The result, thanks to careful planning, preserves the soul of the gardens and their creators. “We’re trying to carry their spirit of experimentation forward,” says Mathewes, “but the gardens are being used very differently now.”

The result is relatable for both serious gardeners and the uninitiated. Gardens of all kinds—rose, perennial, parterre, knot, herb, vegetable, sculpture, and more—are packed seamlessly into seven acres showcasing seasonal plantings.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.

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