Springtime at Tuckahoe

The beloved boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson blooms fresh each year in spring. Paula Steers Brown visits a private farm with a very public mission.

The carriage drive off River Road in Goochland County is a mile-long, cedar-lined road that leads to the back entry of Tuckahoe Plantation, boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson. Since the James River was the main highway in the 1700s, the “front” door was considered the one facing the river. The drive, lined with daffodils trumpeting spring, comes right up to the back door of the distinctive H-shaped frame house begun in 1715 by Thomas Randolph on a serene bluff overlooking the river.

At most of the James River plantations, the garden spaces were on the front or the back, but at Tuckahoe, a boxwood maze was planted on the East and became an extraordinary garden feature. An 18th-century boxwood walk still commands attention as a major axis while it also captures the imagination as The Ghost Walk of local lore. As a young girl, Chief Justice John Marshall’s grandmother was made to marry an elderly minister when she had run off with the man she loved, the caretaker of Tuckahoe. Legend has it that the ghost of the unhappy bride still walks the grounds in search of her lost love, her crying sometimes heard on the wind. When the current owners’ uncle died at a young age, his mother, Mrs. N. Addison Baker, asked famed landscape architect Charles F. Gillette to design in his honor a Memorial Garden, which was situated at the end of the boxwood walk, lending further distinction to the property.

Ownership of the plantation is a family affair; keeping such a business viable in today’s world is an exercise in creativity as well as a labor of love. One of the current tri-owners, Jessie Thompson Krusen, has written an excellent monograph on Tuckahoe that started as her senior thesis at Wellesley. Niece Carey Thompson Viego was the architect-in-residence who oversaw the restoration of the house for the family. She worked with conservationists, architectural historians and contractors.

Other owners, Tad and Sue Thompson, who moved their young family into the home in 1977, appreciate the historians and landscape professionals who have been so generous with their suggestions and their support of Tuckahoe over the years. Even famed Jeffersonian biographer Dumas Malone made the trip to Tuckahoe in his ripe old age, to lend advice. “They all recognize it as a special place, as part of America’s heritage,” says Sue Thompson. “You can tell people really care.” She emphasizes how important it is that the next generation cares as deeply that the house and the land around it be preserved. Virginians can take heart that there are easements on 300 of the 649 acres so that land can never be developed.

In the meantime, creative ideas for making the most of the house and garden abound. The Old Stable on Plantation “Street” has been converted into a rustic reception area for business meetings and bridesmaids’ luncheons, offering a deck that has a view of the pond. Movies have been made at Tuckahoe, from the official Colonial Williamsburg orientation film The Story of a Patriot starring Jack Lord in the 1950s to Ken Burns’ program on Jefferson. Now open to the public for weddings, memorable family events can take center stage in the gardens.

In June 2005, the owners’ families assembled as Anne Taliaferro Thompson got married under the great old limb of the hackberry tree below the Memorial Garden. Sue observes, “It’s a simple country site. It has a warmth and a really happy feeling about it. I think you can feel the history and the welcome.” Large white tents anchor receptions overlooking the James, but there are also sites on the property where the actual ceremony can be effective, such as the crape myrtle allée below the Gillette garden. Even the fields can be booked, and what could be more refreshing for office employees than having their corporate events in a hayfield? The Collegiate School has their Oyster Roast there, and St. Bridget’s used it recently to host their Silent Auction. Tuckahoe always welcomes school tours. It has been the recent site for a benefit dinner reception for the Massie Cancer Center and for a luncheon for Friends of Crossover Ministries.

An able staff assists the Thompsons. Stefan Crawford, who has gardened at Tuckahoe for 17 years, is sometimes awed by the scale of his tasks: One year Tuckahoe was given 10,000 bulbs, each of which he still vividly remembers planting. Beth Roane, hostess, and housekeeper Evelyn Harris give excellent tours, and Hannah Warfield works in the gardens with a distinct passion.

Tuckahoe has benefited from Sue’s devotion and expertise in horticulture. When they moved to Tuckahoe in 1977, all of the old box was totally dead, having fallen victim to the “English Box Decline.” She planted a line of shrubs to mirror The Ghost Walk and to accent rectilinear spaces in the vegetable garden (where vegetables were known to have been grown in the past). She planted the pear trees cordoned onto rail fences to define the Vegetable Plots. Her effort has been to develop the axiality of the space. She explains, “The early Colonial years were about clearing land and wanting to bring order. They tried so hard to keep the forest out—they didn’t worry about a natural landscape look. Tuckahoe is a good example of this early approach to the landscape.”

The pleached arbor of European hornbeams makes a shady tunnel hedged by blue Caryopteris, adding further to the linear drama. As the long rows of annuals—zinnias, snow-on-the-mountain, giant cockscomb, cosmos, giant allium—mature into a great cutting garden, flowers become available for sale to the public. A riot of summer color, Thompson says, “They are a happy crop.” Herbs thrive in the Vegetable Plots, including various basils, parsley, cilantro, dill, nasturtium and marigolds. Edible produce includes onions, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, Indian corn, cabbage, peppers, Swiss chard, lettuces, arugula and a number of beet cultivars as well as a root vegetable called “salsify” (also known as Oyster Plant), which the Thompsons recommend: “Just peel it, slice and sauté.” Some of the harvest they eat, and some they sell.

The area that has many old-fashioned flowering deciduous shrubs features three of the original cultivars of flowering quince. When Sue cuts the branches and forces them, the flowers come out white, but when they bloom naturally on the shrub they bloom a soft pink. There is a lilac row, mock orange, spirea, butterfly bushes, prolific purple vitex and doublefile viburnum. An ancient wisteria arch graces the walk from the Old Kitchen Garden, which boasts a magnificent old Corylus avellana “Contorta” (Harry Lauder’s Walkingstick) and a fragrant old-fashioned cultivar of witchhazel that perfumes an entire room with a tiny blooming twig.

Flowering branches are important components for large-scale arrangements for the house and the garden functions, so the succession of bloom throughout the seasons is vital. Two of Sue’s favorite shrubs are daphne and poet’s laurel, an old plant that is outstanding in arrangements. “I don’t restrict the plant palette to 18th-century varieties, but I like to use plants that work in the landscape and that are reflective of the period—I steer away from the modern-looking ones.” She also treasures the few sweet peas that come in the spring. “I love them because they are so fragrant and because when I was about 5 years old, my father gave me an Easter corsage of sweet peas.”

She also adores the spring ephemerals: “I just like little plants. I love shady maidenhair ferns and other little plants that grow in a woodland setting, but that’s not what I get to garden with most of the time—I get long, linear plots.” What else is special about Tuckahoe in the spring? “It’s so promising! The weeds are not bad yet. The spring color scheme is pleasing—the lavender is just starting to bloom along with rosemary and the antique and English roses. The peonies are glorious, and things like arugula are out that you don’t get later. They are just tender and good.”

For the first time this year, an event is planned on the Sunday of Mother’s Day from 1-6, when people can come to Tuckahoe, tour the house, have refreshments (lemonade and cookies) “and have us cut a bunch of Tuckahoe peonies for a Mother’s Day bouquet.”

– Originally published April 2006

– See TuckahoePlantation.com for details of seasonal events.

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