Thursday, October 20, 2011

Glen Burnie Gardens

I rely a lot on perennial foliage for texture and pots, arbors and fences for height and structure in my garden.  So this time of year can be funny.  Everything gets a little fuzzy around the edges as it dies back.  The greens are muddier but won’t change to red, yellow or orange for several weeks.  There are a few blossoms still, but most have become seed heads and cones.  And even the shrubs have lost their perkiness.  Shapes are less defined, and plants kind of muddle together.

But now is an excellent time to consider texture in the garden, and Glen Burnie Historic House and Gardens in Winchester, Virginia, is a great place to find inspiration.

A lot of gardening books talk about the “bones” of the garden, meaning the hardscape and the buildings and plants that provide form and direction. Glen Burnie has great “bones”.  But today, I’m really thinking about texture and contrast in the garden… soft foliage next to pavement, bright color among dark ones, the movement of water in a static landscape… even light can create texture.

Glen Burnie is such a fine example for regular folks like us because 1) it is very beautiful and 2) it’s not overly grand.  The property was surveyed and settled by James Wood, an English immigrant, and his wife Mary, in the late 1730s, when the northern Shenandoah Valley was still the western frontier for most Europeans.  James was instrumental in the establishment of Winchester and a friend and colleague of the much younger George Washington.

The placement of the original Glen Burnie house is unknown.  Mary outlived James by decades, and their youngest son Robert only inherited the property in its entirety after her death.  He built the central portion of the existing house in the 1790s, and there is evidence of ornamental gardens as early as 1820.  In 1832, Catherine Wood, Robert’s daughter, married Thomas Glass, the grandson of Scots-Irish immigrants Samuel and Mary Glass, thereby linking two of the most prominent families in northwestern Virginia (and yes, creating the peculiar Wood Glass name).  Wood and Glass descendents have been active community leaders throughout Virginia’s history, but Glen Burnie basically remained a family farm, even as the family shrank.  In fact, by the time Julian Wood Glass, Jr. acquired it in 1955, the house had been vacant for decades.  Julian’s father had left Virginia in the early 20th century for Oklahoma.  His success in land and oil speculation enabled Julian, Jr. to transform the house, gather important family antiques and related art and create the Glen Burnie gardens.

The gardens are a rather modest six acres.  They are not replicas or even reinterpretations of 19th century gardens but are very livable, enjoyable modern spaces that compliment the historic house and showcase Julian’s collection of sculpture.  R. Lee Taylor assisted in the actual design and maintenance of the gardens.

Glen Burnie demonstrates really innovative uses of texture through plants, paths, sculpture, walls (including gates), structures, furniture and water.

Boxwoods are planted throughout the garden.  Some are allowed to become billowy clouds, some are sheared into tall hedges and some are clipped into pet-able parterres.  In all three cases, it is about creating visual and tactile interest.  Roses and dahlias are the two main blooming plants grown in the garden.  Obviously their colors provide a lot of contrast, but so does the complex layering of their petals.  They really stand out in the sea of green.  And finally, ornamental grasses provide softness and movement as well as different tones of green.

The Glen Burnie gardens were created for enjoyment, so there are paths everywhere!  Most are constructed out of brick from demolished Winchester buildings.  But there are also paths and steps out of rough-cut stone and concrete and bridges and walkways in wood.
These materials are very practical and we’re used to seeing them in gardens.  But the way they transition… one to another… makes everything more exciting.  You’re walking along and you think, “Oh, there’s a change here, I wonder what will happen next?”  Consider this pretty allée, which is essentially a giant path: it starts with a small stage of bluestone, then has a long stretch of lawn and as it reaches the house, stops at the brick path near the sun dial.

Julian compiled a wonderful collection of sculptures and really enjoyed viewing them in the garden.  Some are displayed in prominent, sun-filled locations.
Some are hidden away in grottoes and alcoves.
Some seem to be secondary to the surrounding gardens.
And some are placed for maximum appreciation of the art.
Even the planters are sculptural.
Obviously, these statutes are full of intrigue because of their shapes – most are in human or animal forms – craftsmanship and the little stories they bring to the garden.

Walls are another big part of Glen Burnie.  Some include gates like this red-painted Moon Gate in the Chinese Garden.
Or this iron gate that provides a glimpse of the family cemetery and another stone wall beyond.
Boxwoods, ornamental trees and pleached shrubs form tunnels and wall-like hedges throughout the garden.  Julian and Lee often “borrowed” walls from structures to create dramatic backdrops for sculptures or to transition from one garden to the next.  These walls provide contrast, color, height and definition.  Perhaps their most important asset is how they direct sunlight and shadows.

Glen Burnie includes several “folly” buildings, including a garage, pagoda, pink pavilion and colonnaded squirrel feeders.  They are great reminders that we always need protected spaces in the garden to rest, store things and entertain and that decoration and humor are vital additions to any part of our lives!  Plus these little houses become focal points in the garden.

Perhaps some of the furniture at Glen Burnie is more identifiable with the 1950s and 60s than the 1790s.  But I love the mixture of materials and styles.  Look at this bright white, vintage iron stool surrounded by mismatched antique bricks.

James Wood chose the Glen Burnie site because of its natural spring, and water continues to be a major element in the gardens.  Water features include this formal but intimate fountain, a picturesque pond and rills in the Chinese Garden.  Water provides an abundance of texture through its ability to reflect and illuminate.  Its movement creates sound and comfort.  And it attracts wildlife, which perpetuates more movement and sound.

These final pictures really demonstrate Julian and Lee’s talent for constantly layering plants, paths, sculpture, walls, structures, furniture and water and their skill in composing charming tableaux.  Here in the Water Garden:
in the Pink Pavilion’s Sunken Courtyard:
and from the Vegetable Garden, looking through the Courtyard to a small garden and the farmland beyond:
there are lots of inspired ideas we can use in our own gardens.

Glen Burnie Historic House and Gardens are usually open April through October, so there is still time to visit this year.  The gardens will definitely reopen in spring 2012, but the historic house will be undergoing restoration for the next several years.  Both are part of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, which is open year round.

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