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Editorial: 'America's Largest Open House' — Historic Garden Week 2021
Historic garden week 2021

Editorial: 'America's Largest Open House' — Historic Garden Week 2021

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Historic Garden Week 2021, the nation’s only statewide house and garden tour, begins Saturday, April 17. This acclaimed event features more than 100 spectacular private and public gardens and landscapes throughout Virginia, from the Eastern Shore to Roanoke. We asked Karen Cauthen Ellsworth, director of Historic Garden Week, about this year’s horticultural happening.

Historic Garden Week often is called “America’s Largest Open House.” How did it start?

The inspiration began in 1927 when a flower show sponsored by the Garden Club of Virginia (GCV) raised an impressive $7,000 to save some of Thomas Jefferson’s mulberry trees at Monticello. The following year, the GCV was asked to help landscape Kenmore in Fredericksburg, the former home of George Washington’s sister. Club members invited their friends to visit Virginia in the last week of April in 1929 for a “pilgrimage” to tour historic homes and gardens. They published an illustrated guidebook that sold for $2. The event was a resounding success. Today, Historic Garden Week hosts upward of 25,000 people — in nonpandemic years.

In 2020, the Garden Club of Virginia canceled Historic Garden Week because of COVID-19 — only the second time in your long history. What sort of protocols will be in place this year? And what’s been the effect of the pandemic on planning for the event?

We’ve made plans to provide an exceptional tour experience while complying with COVID-19 mandates. Safety protocols include fewer tour tickets available for sale, a timed-entry format, a face-mask requirement and social distancing. To ensure a touchless experience, tickets only are available via our website (; several tours already have sold out. While there are three tours taking place in Richmond, there are also tours nearby at the James River Plantations, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg and in Petersburg.

In the past, we included many homes on the tour, but this year the tours will emphasize outdoor spaces and gardens. We are, after all, the Garden Club of Virginia.

With the pandemic keeping so many people more at home, are you seeing a renewed interest in gardening?

Yes! And it’s not only the typical perennials and annuals, but people also are really interested in native plants, which are beneficial for pollinators and adapt well to the effects of climate change. Early in the pandemic, food insecurity was an issue, so vegetable gardening has received a lot of focus and is a part of many of our tours. Gardening is, quite literally, grounding. Being outside, getting your hands dirty and watching new growth provides a sense of accomplishment. It’s also restorative to the mind and spirit.

How many tours, garden clubs and people are involved in this year’s Garden Week?

This April 17-24, the Garden Club of Virginia is offering 25 tours in communities across the state. All 48 GCV member clubs encompassing 3,400 members participate in some way. We are a volunteer-driven organization, and our members have a long history of organizing and mobilizing. From getting up early to set up directional signage (our signature green arrows) to creating the estimated 1,000 floral arrangements that will decorate featured properties, to serving as hosts, creating nametags and distributing posters, their efforts are critical to ensure that guests enjoy the tours.

This year, we are excited to showcase 102 private gardens, in addition to private homes and historic sites. In Richmond, four local GCV member clubs coordinate the tour (The Boxwood Garden Club, The James River Garden Club, Three Chopt Garden Club and The Tuckahoe Garden Club of Westhampton), and they also partner with Historic Richmond, which is hosting the Church Hill tour this year. Sixteen local homeowners generously have prepared to open and showcase their gardens. Dozens of loyal advertisers and sponsors provide financial support. We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of our friends and supporters who make this event possible.

How are homes and gardens picked for the tours?

Club members serve as the impetus for leveraging relationships in their communities, and each club determines which homes and gardens will be on the tour. They often secure commitments from homeowners a few years in advance. We encourage the clubs to select homes that showcase a variety of architectural styles and design features. Our April 20 tour in Hampton Gardens includes landscapes that incorporate native plants, pools, decorative ponds, fountains and sculptures. The Church Hill and Monument Avenue tours include several homes that were slated for the 2020 tour, and the homeowners enthusiastically agreed to open their properties this year instead. Guests will enjoy verdant courtyards, urban gardens and the splendid architecture unique to these historic districts.

What are some top highlights this year?

Floral arrangements are a Historic Garden Week “fan favorite” and this year will be no exception. Our club members have been planning spectacular and unique outdoor floral designs that complement the homes’ garden features. The Richmond tours are partnering with other local organizations this year, too. Tuesday’s tour in Hampton Gardens features Wilton House Museum, a GCV restoration site, and Tuckahoe, the recipient of a GCV landscape architectural grant. As a part of Wednesday’s Church Hill Tour, Capital Trees is hosting a tour of the nearby Low Line. And on Thursday, tour guests are invited to visit the Branch House Museum and grounds, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where special activities are planned. Also, GCV’s very own Kent-Valentine House at 12 E. Franklin St. will be open from 10 a.m. to noon on Friday. This historic landmark and gracious home also serves as our headquarters, and we welcome visitors. Tickets are not required.

How will the proceeds be used from this year’s tours?

Proceeds from tours have funded the restoration and preservation of 50 significant historic public gardens and landscapes since 1929. In Richmond our projects can be found at sites such as Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Maymont and the Executive Mansion.

Proceeds also fund an annual fellowship in landscape architecture, and funded a five-year project with Virginia State Parks, which the GCV helped to establish in the 1930s. This major gift provided for 54 grants to state parks for projects such as wildflower walks, natural children’s play areas and pollinator gardens.

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