What Lies Over the Garden Wall?

A couple in Leesburg drew inspiration from some of Virginia’s finest 18th-century gardens to create a hidden paradise and win a longstanding battle with some very determined deer.

The centerpiece of Samarate, Dick and Judy Mazzucchelli’s 15.3 acre property in Mount Gilead, near Leesburg, is not the house itself. Though their story-and-a-half, double-pile, Williamsburg-style home is both impressive and welcoming, the focal point of the estate—named after the owner’s ancestral home in Northern Italy—lies 200 feet east of their backdoor at the end of a brick walkway, which descends through three landscaped terraces. It is the Mazzucchellis’ magnificent walled garden.

Inside the 100 by 120-foot walls is an upper-tier pleasure garden of parterres separated by boxwoods and a central gravel walkway, and a lower tier utilitarian garden where Dick, 74, grows fruits and vegetables. The two tiers and various “rooms” work as individual panels, but also come together to form one united space that pays homage to landmark 18th-century Virginia gardens like Eyre Hall on the Eastern Shore, George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Northern Virginia, and the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. The Mazzucchellis’ walled garden is a marvel of expertly integrated inspirations; and it’s all thanks to some very determined deer.

Dick Mazzucchelli and the deer have a longstanding disagreement over who gets to eat his vegetables. When he and Judy, 73, retired in 2000—Dick from Gates, Hudson & Associates Inc., the Fairfax-headquartered commercial real estate firm he co-founded with two partners in 1980, and Judy after 24 years as a hospital volunteer—they were looking forward to long, happy days tending to—and eating from—a plentiful vegetable garden. However, the local deer population staged regular raids, trampling the garden and eating the foliage on the Mazzucchellis’ potato plants, tomato vines, pepper plants and more.

Initial efforts to defend the patch included an 8-foot high fence made from the kind of wire used in vineyards, but even that proved no match for persistent antlers. “We knew we needed to do something a little more permanent,” says Dick. And so the Mazzucchellis began to plan a deer-proof garden in the Colonial style that would complement their home.

Such an undertaking required expert help. Dick knew of Lisbeth Prins, 52, owner of the now 30-year-old Plant-A-Plant Landscaping Company through her sponsorship of Keep Loudoun Beautiful—the volunteer group of which Dick is both board member and treasurer. Prins and her company received a Keep Virginia Beautiful Award for her work in 1999, and she was familiar with the early to mid-18th century style the Mazzucchellis were looking for. On their first meeting, the Mazzucchellis knew it was meant to be when Prins pulled up in her car and out jumped Golden Retriever Amos, the mirror image of the Mazzucchellis’ own Retriever, Cody. A quick comparison of canine family trees revealed that Cody and Amos were in fact brothers. Amos has since passed away, but Cody is now a stately 14 years old and happy to get up and wag his tail at visitors to Samarate.

After some preliminary planning work, Prins believed that the smaller-scale walled garden the Mazzucchellis were planning to build close to their backdoor would not make the grade. Literally. “The walls would have had to step too rapidly because of the grade of the garden,” Prins explains. “And there was also a hedgerow that Dick wanted to keep. So we looked at different sites.” The Mazzucchellis mulled over Prins’ advice and then decided to go for it. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to do this thing, we’re going to do it on a grander scale,’” says Dick. “And then it evolved into something bigger and better.” And so by mid-2008, plans were drawn up for a Colonial era-inspired garden, with an upper tier pleasure garden and a lower tier vegetable garden, surrounded by a wall modeled after the one at Mount Vernon. The plans required altering the grade of the garden using industrial-sized construction equipment, relocating the drain field to make room and bringing in 100 yards of soil that Prins calls “the Mazzuchelli blend.” Planting began in earnest in spring 2009.

The first thing you notice about the Mazzucchellis’ garden is, of course, the wall, which stands 7-and-a-half-feet tall with three 30-inch drops to accommodate the grade of the land. The large mahogany gates at either end—the only way in or out of the garden—feature a solid panel designed so that a mature deer can not see through, or over, and be enticed by what’s on the other side.

The wall was built using a brick called “Jefferson Oversize,” which is about a half-inch taller than a standard wall brick and manufactured by the Salem-based company, Old Virginia Brick. These are arranged in the Flemish bond pattern (alternating headers and stretchers) that was common in the 18th century. The wall is topped by a coping—a nod to the wall surrounding the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg—which features an overhang which is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also redirects rainwater to prevent it from soaking into the brick.

It was important to both the Mazzucchellis and to Prins that the garden be more than a facsimile of its 18th-century inspirations. The goal, says Prins, was “incorporating the key elements of the things that [the Mazzucchellis] liked from each garden.” For example, they decided against using ivy, which has grown to cover the walls at Mount Vernon. “We wanted to break the walls up, but not cover them up,” she explains, and her solution was to plant boxwoods right next to the foundation, which leaves just enough brick visible from the outside while providing a preview of what can be found inside.

The Mazzucchellis gave Prins a book, Washington’s Historic Garden at Mount Vernon by Mac Griswold, to use certain photographs as a reference, but Prins deliberately didn’t open its pages until after the garden was complete. “I didn’t want to keep opening books and get off-track,” she confides, “because it’s more about the feeling of space. A photo is just one aspect, one shot. When you’re in a garden it’s the whole space that has to work, not just a vignette.” Prins’ sense of space is apparent throughout. Crepe myrtles create what she calls “the umbrella effect,” hanging just over your head, while short Sylvester tulips—as found at Monticello—are planted in front of the beds to create a stepping effect.

The upper tier pleasure garden is divided into two “rooms” by a central brick-lined walkway. The room to the left, inspired by the famous gardens at Eyre Hall in Northampton County, is a grass panel with a Brandywine maple tree at its center, with boxwood hedges and multiple varieties of crepe myrtle. The red of the dynamite and the blue hues of the raspberry sundae, for example, represent Dick and Judy’s respective favorite colors, both of which pop because of the whites, pinks and yellows Prins has added to the color wheel. The result is an aesthetically pleasing collaborative compromise, perhaps illustrating why the Mazzucchellis have been married an impressive 51 years. “And we’re still talking,” says Judy with a smile.

To the right is a series of parterres  lined with holly, with a Japanese Snowbell tree at the center of each section. Around the walls are subtle, playful touches like ivy grown in the shape of window frames and a boxwood cut into the shape of a flower basket—inside which Judy plans to place “something showy” this spring—adding just the right amount of frivolity to the elegance and order.

The lower tier of the garden is separated from the upper tier by a 30 inch-high dry stack wall made using stone unearthed on the property, as is the large stone seat that serves as a resting spot while gardening. This helps to create a microclimate in the lower tier, perfect for growing. The lower tier is smaller—measuring 40 feet by 100 feet—but contains seven rectangular beds where Dick grows a variety of vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, squash, peppers, Swiss chard and pole beans, which the Mazzucchellis regularly transport directly to the kitchen. “I roast the vegetables together a lot,” says Judy. “It’s easy to do, and it brings the flavor out of every vegetable.”

Perhaps the most recognizably Colonial aspect of the garden may be the octagonal building in the southeast corner. Measuring 10 feet in diameter and rising above the garden with a bell-shaped tower, this wasn’t just inspired by the four similar buildings at Mount Vernon; it was actually constructed using a 1956 plan that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association generously shared with the Mazzucchellis. “It was just one sheet,” recalls Dick, “but it was enough for us to scale it.” The Mazzucchellis hired Rob Whitaker of Fine House LTD in Strasburg to re-create the profile of the bell-shaped roof and elaborate cornice features, with the iconic “fish scale” shingles being soaked overnight (so they would bend to the roof’s shape) and then installed by Cedar Shakes & Shingles Inc. of Manassas.

At the top of the garden is a wooden bench, which was intended as a place for the Mazzucchellis to sit in the evenings and admire their garden. “We were going to come out every day and enjoy a glass of wine on that bench,” remembers Judy. “And that has happened maybe once!” Dick concurs: “Well, you go down there, and you see things that need to be done. You get caught up in it, so you want to go and get your hands dirty.” That’s the thing with gardens; they just keep growing and changing. “It’s also a learning process,” Dick says. “We’re learning more and more about the plants and how to cultivate them, and it’s the same in the vegetable garden. As Jefferson said, ‘Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.’”

So no time for wine, but the couple are able to sit on the bench with a cup of coffee most mornings and watch the spectacular sunrise over Hogback Mountain, and both Dick and Judy agree that the work in the garden isn’t really work, but pleasure. “The garden has been a very special thing in our lives,” says Judy. “We really are excited about it.” Fortunately, those deer don’t know what they’re missing.

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