- Author: Erin Mahaney
While visiting family in Fredericksburg, Virginia, one chilly February, they took me to Chatham Manor, where they had raved about the gardens. Because it was February, there wasn't much to see but the structure of the dormant garden. It looked so promising, however, that I decided to plan a future visit for the spring or summer so that I could see the gardens at their full bloom. I finally made it back this May, and the gardens were well worth the wait.
Chatham Manor is part of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The historic Georgian manor and surrounding grounds has an interesting and complicated history, not the least of which includes its proximity to Civil War battles. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Walt Whitman all made it to Chatham Manor.
The restored colonial revival gardens date back to the 1920s. They were designed by one of America's most prominent female landscape architects, Ellen Biddle Shipman. She designed an intricate enclosed garden with walkways, statuary, trees, and parterre beds (individual planting beds bounded by clipped hedges then filled with plants). The National Park Service began to restore the 1920's garden in the 1980's. Today, the gardens are supported by the Friends of Chatham, who contract for a professional gardener with knowledge of historic gardens and who are attempting to maintain and enhance the gardens. I have to wonder what the gardens would look like without their support.
We arrived a little early for most of the roses, but we were treated to masses of peonies, columbines, and irises. While some of the garden beds were quite formal, it wasn't stuffy at all. Instead the overall impression was an intriguing mix of formality and lushness. One of my favorite locations was a garden wall with statuary and climbing roses. It was absolutely charming.
The grounds also include four trees, including two catalpa trees, which are referred to as “witness trees” because they date back to the Civil War. They are broken and gnarled, and they provide a somber reminder of the site's history.
As a side note, I liked one of the roses so much that I asked the Chatham gardener for the name. He didn't know it, but he was able to provide enough information to start the hunt. I then asked a fellow Master Gardener, who of course, knew the right person to ask with the Sacramento City Rose Garden, and I had my answer within hours even though I was thousands of miles away. Master Gardeners are terrific sources of information!
Of course, we can't travel to every historic garden across the United States, as much as we may wish we could. But my visits to Chatham made me realize how important volunteers – including gardeners – are to the restoration and maintenance of such sites. Even on a smaller scale – a school garden in Benicia or a civic garden in Fairfield – gardeners can make a difference!