WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Anyone who has seen winter-weary Bostonians dragging their shivering bodies into the New England Spring Flower Show each March, desperate for the smell of a fresh blossom or at least the look of a green leaf, should know about Virginia's Historic Garden Week.
The Boston show brings together myriad local garden clubs and horticulturists to force New England's greenery to early bloom for the sake of local sanity, while just one month later the whole state of Virginia opens its gardens and brings out brilliant floral displays for one week of garden mania. This year's Garden Week is April 16-24.
The whole state takes part in this massive show. Better still, Virginia doesn't have to force its flowers. The state is considerably farther south (Zone 6 and 7 in horticulture parlance) than Massachusetts (
When we arrived in Virginia last April, our eyes, attuned to the bitter Boston winter color scheme of black, white, and gray, were opened wide to the colors of a Southern spring even before we started the scheduled garden tours. Purple wisteria, in full color and growing wild, dripped from trees along the road. Dogwoods, azaleas, lilacs, and tulips were in bloom. Variegated orange and white pomegranates, which do not grow in Massachusetts, were flowering. One historic garden featured 1,000 anemones, in varying shades of pink to red, all in bloom.
The country's oldest and largest house and garden tour program, initiated by The Garden Club of Virginia and beginning its 72d season, also includes house tours, historic home visits, guided walks, garden discussions, and demonstrations.
Roam the state and spend the whole week looking at beautiful homes and gardens; each day a different area is pinpointed. On April 20, for example, eight houses, gardens, and one church will be open in the village of Yorktown. Many of the buildings now surrounded by gardens were the settings for the Colonies' momentous Revolutionary War victory over British forces in autumn 1781. Festivities will include performances by the Fifes and Drums of York Town and demonstrations by the York County Master Gardeners.
Williamsburg is one of the towns being featured April 19. We made a one-day concentrated visit to the houses and gardens of Colonial Williamsburg the last time we went to Virginia Garden Week. The tour included contemporary private homes, historic homes and gardens that are part of the 18th-century living museum, and several refurbished rooms in the beautiful Williamsburg Inn, which had been decorated with stunning fresh flower arrangements around every corner. Kitchens at the inn provided a sample of their creations. As if in a movie, croquet players dressed in white were in a competition on the bowling green out back. We were allowed into the floral studio of the historic hotel, where the staff were creating arrangements for the rooms and dining tables, and into the design studio, where the concepts for the redecoration of the interior of the Regency-style inn were developed.
The beauty of seeing Williamsburg during Garden Week is that, while all the flowers are out, most of the tourists are not. The visitors who crowd the streets during school vacation week in March and later in the summer are not around, and the streets are wide open to stroll and see gardens, even those not on the scheduled tour. Gardens around the historic area of Williamsburg were designed to coordinate with the topiary, fences, and buildings of the 18th century. Our tour leader was a volunteer garden enthusiast trained by Colonial Williamsburg's garden professionals. The price of the tour included an escorted walking tour of the gardens in the east end of Colonial Williamsburg.
Even before Garden Week begins, Williamsburg holds its 59th Colonial Williamsburg Garden Symposium next weekend. Called ''Inspiring Ideas for the Home Gardener," the symposium will explore the multiple roles of the modern home gardener, primarily those of plantsman and designer. Horticulturists will cover basic garden design and recommend plants that will inspire attendees to create a new path, try alternate plants, or simply improve their soil. Speakers include Gordon Hayward, Fine Gardening magazine contributing editor; Andre Viette, horticulturist and host of the national radio program ''In the Garden;" and Richard Bitner, garden writer and Longwood Gardens continuing education instructor.
This year's Garden Week spans the early 17th century through the early 21st. While all the garden clubs of Virginia combine this week, likewise all sections of the state benefit: Proceeds from Garden Week help the Virginia Garden Club restore and preserve the state's historic gardens, among other things. They have documented and restored famous gardens from Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, which was planted according to an 1807 plan Jefferson dated in his own hand, and Gunston Hall, George Mason's home that includes some boxwood the 18th-century statesman is believed to have had planted. Properties in this year's tour include a number of historic James River plantations. Among those not normally open to the public are Belle Air and Westover, each furnished with museum-quality antiques and surrounded by old and lovely gardens. Tuckahoe Plantation, a boyhood home of Jefferson with exquisite gardens, also will be open.
Jefferson tried, unsuccessfully, to grow grapes for palatable wine at Monticello. Today, with the help of vinifera vines, or European cuttings grafted onto American rootstock, Virginia is producing European-style wine. We toured the Williamsburg Winery to prove for ourselves that wine made in Virginia is as palatable as city officials claim. The winery is just outside the historic area of town, on what is called the Wessex Hundred, because in the days of the English settlement, this parcel was judged to be able to support as many as 100 families by farming. When Peggy and Patrick Duffeler purchased the then-abandoned farmland in 1983, and planted several acres of chardonnay grapes in 1985, it was the first vineyard planted in the Williamsburg area since Colonial times.
Virginia wine was a good accompaniment to the lunch we had at the Gabriel Archer Tavern next to the winery. The Trellis Restaurant offers a complete menu of 20 Virginia wines for $22.50 to $44 per bottle.
Julie Hatfield is a freelance writer in Boston.