Explore Oatlands’ historic garden…
Explore Oatlands’ 4 1/2 acre walled garden at your leisure with the purchase of a Grounds Pass or guided Mansion Tour. For a more in-depth experience, book a guided Garden Tour. Visit the Admissions and Tours page for more details and availability.
Enjoy this recent poster display and read further to learn more about the garden including research by Oatlands’ resident historian and archivist, Robert Ray.
About the Garden
A Historic Garden
Two centuries ago, George Carter designed and built Oatlands House and Garden. In the style of Tidewater Virginia and its English antecedents, Carter placed his formally organized garden near his house. The structure of the garden is comprised of terraces carved into the hillside to provide level areas for abundant plantings of fruit and vegetables along with trees, shrubs, and flowers. Even now, Carter’s steps and landings provide access to these same terraces. Cut from locally quarried stone, these steep steps are major axial walkways. The East-West Axis of the garden begins when exiting the east door of the mansion.
A Garden of Old Secrets
Nearly a century after George Carter began the construction of Oatlands, Mr. and Mrs.William Corcoran Eustis of Washington, D. C. purchased the property as their country home in 1903. In spite of the garden’s neglected state, Edith Eustis saw the garden ruin as a quiet, still, mysterious place harboring “old secrets” that inspired her to fill Carter’s terraces with boxwood-lined parterres full of fragrant and colorful flowers such as tulips, peonies, iris, and lilies. Romantic plant containers, statuary, and structures were added.
A Walled Garden
Carter constructed and planted his garden with self-sufficiency and beauty intertwined. As one meanders through the garden, sweeping views of the surrounding hills and woods may still be seen even though the garden perimeter is enclosed by the Garden Dependencies together with the Garden Wall. Built with brick fired on the plantation and indigenous stone, the structures define the outer perimeter of the garden and shelter the garden plants.
A Renewed Garden
The bowling green and the reflecting pool share one long terrace with the teahouse acting as one terminus and the young fawn statuary as the other. The rose garden and a memorial to a daughter of Mrs. Eustis also became garden elements. Under her care, Carter’s terraces were revived with ornamental charm typical of the Colonial Revival Style popular in her time. Edith Eustis took pleasure in transforming Carter’s garden. In 1923 she stated, “It was a thankful task to restore the old beauty, although the thoughts and conceptions were new, they fitted it. And every stone vase or bench, every box-hedge planted, seemed to fall into its rightful place and become a part of the whole.
The Evolution of the Gardens at Oatlands
Robert Ray, Resident Historian and Archivist
George Carter’s Garden
In 1810, with the construction of Oatlands mansion nearly complete, George Carter began work on a garden that would be a complement to the high style of his new home. While there are only scant records of his plans for the garden, we know something of how it was arranged based on photographs and reports for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. George began by excavating the steep hillside to the east of the mansion to create a series of descending terraces facing to the south and east that would form the core of his formal garden. To the west of this excavation, George had a monumental stone retaining wall built that leveled the lawn in front of the mansion and concealed the garden below. To the north and east, a stone wall, capped with brick, was constructed to protect the garden spaces. The descending terraces were connected by a Grand Staircase that ran along the north-south axis of the garden parallel to the stone retaining wall. The steps of the staircase were formed from heavy blocks of the local grey traprock and the landings in between were laid with crushed oyster shells. A second, narrower staircase made from the same materials, ran west to east from the mansion to the bank-style barn at the bottom of the hillside. At the same time, George had a greenhouse built to the southwest of the mansion out of stone and brick, presumably used to for vegetables and flowers for the garden as well as for tender plants that couldn’t survive the cold Virginia winters.
George Carter’s inspiration for the layout of his formal garden was undoubtedly influenced by the gardens of wealthy landowners in the Tidewater region where he grew up. The 18th century gardens in the Virginia colony reflected an adaptation of the fashionable formal garden style from Europe to the hilly terrain of the Tidewater region, with the mansions placed on the top of a hill and the gardens cascading down the slope in a series of terraces grass-ramped “falls” with connecting stone staircases. While this “falling garden” style was not adopted by George Carter’s father, Robert Carter III, at Nomini Hall, where the garden was on a level plain surrounding the house, his great-uncle, Landon Carter, created a fine example of the style at his plantation, Sabine Hall. The mansion at Sabine Hall (built 1738-1742) was placed on the top of a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River, and the garden, also designed by Landon Carter, cascades down the hillside to the river in a series of 6 connected terraces laid out in elaborate geometric patterns. George Carter would have been familiar with this garden – and others like it – from his childhood, and he may have drawn his inspiration for his own garden from them.
The plantings in George Carter’s garden also followed the prevailing style in the Virginia colony during the 18th century, the French Formal Garden, or jardin à la française. This formal garden style – fashionable throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries – was modelled on celebrated Italian Renaissance gardens such as Boboli in Florence and the Villa Borghese in Rome. The style was copied and developed for aristocratic houses throughout Europe and culminated in the expansive French gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles from which the style gets its name. The layout of these gardens was based on symmetry and the principle of imposing order on nature, and one of the distinctive features of the style was elaborate geometric patterns of boxwood-edged parterres and fine-graveled avenues filled with flowers and exotic trees. We know from later accounts that George Carter’s formal garden incorporated many of these elements.
Edith Eustis, who restored the Carter garden in the 20th century wrote the following about the use of boxwood in the garden:
“He [George Carter] planted box – the American tree-box – seeing, with the eye of a prophet, the time when those dark branches should meet over a descending path, forming an archway of rare beauty. He planted it, also, by the side of a steep staircase opposite brick buildings used as tool and lumber-rooms, now long since crumbled into soil and, surrounding the vault where he was to be laid. But he did not neglect the English hedge-box, either; and his grandchildren tell of places where the box edging set off, to their best advantage, roses and other vari-colored flowers.”
George Carter also incorporated exotic (for the time) European trees into the landscape, including an English oak (Quercus robor), and a European Larch (Larix decidua). The beauty of the garden – and its Italian style — were admired by Amanda Edmonds, a young woman who visited the garden on July 20, 1860 and wrote in her diary:
“We had a charming ride to Oatlands. Flower gardens were lovely; it is a perfect Eden on earth. I have dreamed of Italian scenery, but never thought to realize any thing that could compare with my imagination. The gardens are laid off beautifully and studded with every variety of shrubbery and evergreen. Every thing so tastefully arranged.”
George Carter remained a bachelor throughout the time he was building his mansion and developing his garden, and only married in 1832 at the age of 59. He married Elizabeth Osborne Lewis, a thirty-nine year old widow who was an acquaintance from Loudoun county. Four years later, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, George Carter II, and with the birth of his heir, George made a final addition to the formal garden. In 1836, the Carter Crypt was constructed at the bottom of the garden, and a grove of tree-boxwood, Norway Spruce (Abies picea) and white pine (Pinus strobus) were planted on the terrace above it. Until the mid-20th century, this grove marked the lower limit of the formal garden at Oatlands.
Drawing, perhaps, from the English Landscape garden style that was popular in Great Britain during the 18th century, George Carter laid out the grounds around his mansion with great care. He preserved specimens of native trees including tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), red and white oaks, shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and incorporated more unusual trees such as bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Osage orange (Maclura pomifera). Beneath these trees, he planted little groves of tree-boxwood making for a pleasing balance of shade and private spaces around the mansion with expansive views out to the surrounding countryside.
The Carter Garden in Transition
George Carter died in 1846, leaving his estate to his wife, Elizabeth, who lived in the house and managed the property until the start of the Civil War. That she maintained her husband’s garden during this time is evident from Amanda Edmond’s account of the garden in 1860, sixteen years after his death. Elizabeth Carter decamped from Oatlands in October 1861 – having been warned of an impending battle near Leesburg – and the plantation briefly served as headquarters for the Confederate army. In 1862, Elizabeth sent her eldest son George back to Oatlands to oversee the property, but the plantation failed to produce enough food to support the servants and enslaved that remained, and, over the following decades, it fell into decline. George Carter II and his wife tried to revive the estate with various ventures during the Reconstruction, one of which was to open the mansion as a boarding house. During this time the terraces in the formal garden we given over to producing fruits and vegetables for the guests. Ultimately, in 1897, George and Kate were forced to sell the mansion, and it was purchased by the founder of the Washington Post, Stilson Hutchins, who bought the property purely as an investment and rarely visited it.
The Eustis Garden
In 1903, Hutchins sold the property to William and Edith Corcoran Eustis, and the couple took it upon themselves to restore the mansion and its garden. From 1903-1904, the Eustises repaired the great retaining wall and capped it with a wooden balustrade the design of which was taken from the same architectural pattern book that George Carter used to design the mansion 100 years earlier. The Eustises restored the stone staircases and crumbling brickwork in the formal garden clearing the way for the new garden. She hired John Leland Talbot to help restore the garden, and together they completely cleared the formal garden leaving only some of the Carter Era tree-boxwood flanking the east-west staircase, an arbor of white wisteria (Wisteria floribunda “Alba), the English Oak, and the European Larch [1904 photo here].
Reminiscing about the restoration of the garden, Edith Eustis wrote:
“When the present owners bought it – not from the Carters – but from one who had not sensed its beauties, the Oatlands garden was falling into ruins; bricks were crumbling, weeds crowding the flowers and yet the very moss-grown paths seemed to say, “We are still what we were.” It was a thankful task to restore the old beauty, although the thoughts and conceptions were new, but they fitted it, and every stone vase or bench, every box-hedge planted, seemed to fall into its rightful place and become a part of the whole. Certain improvements were made – improvements the old designer and builder would have approved; fruit trees, hiding huge box and yew, were cut down, and a rosary laid out as a counterpart to the box-grove. It was not always easy to get the right effect.”
The descending terraces were ploughed and restored, and guided by the accounts of George Carter’s grandchildren, she recreated George Carter’s boxwood parterres on the terraces.
Ms. Eustis restored the greenhouse, and used it to propagate the boxwood for the hedges. She filled the parterres with all sorts of flowers and flowering shrubs: roses, larkspur, iris, pinks, lilies, cosmos and chrysanthemum for color; heliotrope and mignonette for fragrance; barberry for winter interest. To this she added stone vases and benches, an old Venetian well head, a sundial, and sculptures to serve as focal points for each vista in the garden.
Having restored George Carter’s garden, she also added to it, extending the garden to the south and east. She added an additional terrace to the south that offered an unobstructed view of the Oak Grove that she particularly admired. To the east, over what was previously a vegetable garden, she created the Bowling Green, a long stretch of greensward flanked by euonymus hedges (Euonymus japonicus) and oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis), capped at the south end with a latticed Tea House. Beyond the screen of oriental arborvitae, she laid out the rose garden:
“Then the rose garden with its background of tall box and pine, in an enclosure of dark-green fencing, cedar posts and chains, overhung with Dorothy Perkins roses, cannot be seen until you turn a corner and are on it unawares.”
The Eustises also added decorative trees to the grounds around the house, including the two Japanese maples (Acer palmatum “Dissectum”) that were planted in front of the greenhouse, the three majestic Atlas Blue Cedars (Cedrus altantica) and several European Beeches (Fagus sylvatica).
The Oatlands Garden Today
Edith Eustis died in 1964, and a year later the mansion and gardens were donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation by her daughters Margaret and Anne. In the 55 years since then, the garden has continued to evolve. The terraces remain as they were originally laid out by George Carter, and some of the boxwood parterres have been preserved. The garden still has its charming little corners: the reflecting pool, shadowed by a grove of mature tree-boxwood, the Sundial terrace shaded by its four Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), and the four English yews (Taxus baccata “Repandens”), once a low-growing accent at the base of the retaining wall, but now a forest of twisted trunks culminating in cascading green foliage. As the garden continues to evolve the philosophy remains to preserve and showcase the horticultural gems from decades past, and plant new things for the enjoyment of the decades to come.