The Williamsburg Garden in 5 Steps

Quincunx of Landersheimer Hhsen KurfürstlGart, 1725

The Colonial Williamsburg Garden is, more than any other period or regional garden, the gardening tradition from which the American garden ascends, and by which Lowes and Home Depot continue in business.  What is this tradition: The fruit of earth urged from nature, bound into manageable geometries of fence-tight yards.

Alike all traditions, the Williamsburg tradition is born of a tradition, the Georgian, itself of the Palladian tradition, a tradition best exemplified in William & Mary’s Dutch Garden at Palais Het Loo, a Classive garden, Italian Baroque in exuberance, punctilious Dutch in plan.  Though neither so grand nor so dear as Het Loo, Williamsburg gardens exhibit the Dutch–Italian family DNA, honestly, modestly, and tellingly, Britannically.

Alike Williamsburg’s Hippodamian (grided) street plan, bilaterally punctuated by magisterial authority, the Williamsburg kitchen garden is orderly, grided, hierarchical, and beautiful, friendly to human reason and to those predictables that lend pleasure to the eye.


Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Palais Het Loo


Typically, a kitchen garden will occupy some portion of a half-acre lot; will be geometrical, bilateral, symmetrical; will boast ornamentals, edibles, medicinals; will be bounded by hedges, fences, walls; will be punctuated by topiaries, benches, garden sheds that show themselves a happy family to the house.

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Antique print of Utrecht Castle gardens.

Always, the beds, lawns, walkways are shaped neat and neighborly.  Williamsburg boasts formal, pleasure, and kitchen gardens in dozens.  Bryant House, Blair House, Prentis House are favorites; Bruton Parish Cemetery too is a garden, singled from all of Williamsburg to be featured in The Historic Gardens of Virginia.  Each garden has its season, some gardens have two, and of these, you will have favorites.  My favorites are pictured in these comments.

Then too, Williamsburg offers the exemplary Colonial Garden and Nursery where interpreters will offer advice on all that is the Georgian garden.  Here, you will find heirloom plants, period tools, traditions of horticulture, et cetera.  Below, you will find in outline the 5 steps to creating your own 18th Century Williamsburg Garden.


The Williamsburg Garden in 5 Steps


I. Geometry:

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Williamsburg Garden 1, Geometry. image credit: M. Curtis

Pretend your garden exists on grid paper.  You might by pencil or pen fancy a design upon grid with ruler, triangle, compass, and French curve.
Take the view from above, the bird, the God, or the ladder view.
Build your design upon a quincunx, “a four-square pattern of some geometric form (squares, rectangles, triangles, et cetera) with a fifth, centered form (which might be a circle).
The central form can offer a picturesque object (sundial, statuary, ornamental, et cetera).
The four paths radiating from the center will define, divide the four squared quadrants.
Best that each formed quadrant mirrors the others.
Each quadrant is the plantable area.
I recommend walkway paths at least 2’ between plantables; 3’ is preferred; 4’, if you’ve space.
The paths might be of gravel, shell, or brick.  Brick is the most expensive, least in need of care, and most honorable, though each can be well laid, if bordered.

II. Enclosure

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Williamsburg Garden 2, Enclosures. image credit: M. Curtis

Best to enclose the garden with fence or hedge.
If a hedge, boxwood is best.  I prefer English boxwood trimmed to palm height so that the hand might joy when palming the boxleaf carpet.
If a fence, a well-built fence of red-brown or white or beige, as house color or backyard neighborhood suggest.
Then, if brick, some bond that invites patterned variation in color … to reflect nature’s variable wonder, yet with the consistency of human intention disciplined to excellence.
The garden might want a simple bay or two, yet I prefer gates, as gates discourage ravagers.  The gate might be simple or ornate or dear, as best suits material and design.
However enclosed, the garden shall want a four-mirrored arrangement, borders that please bilateral geometry.
The simplest gardens can be bordered with twig trellis or wattle fence.
And then, with balance in symmetry you might flank the gate with ornamental trees or topiary.

III. Topiary

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Williamsburg Garden 3, Topiary. image credit: M. Curtis

Here, let Plato be your guide: create only those forms that can exist by straightedge and compass, cube, pyramid, circle, cone, cylinder.
Boxwood, laurel, holly, privet best lend themselves to topiary formation.
The topiary might be arranged in allée, foursquare, or spaced specimen.
Simply, any bearing tree or bush might be trained, fig, for instance, as I have done.  Too, espalier makes an excellent low-border enclosure.
If impecunious, twig tripods will serve … as I have done.
Topiary wants trimming on its schedule, not yours.  Be diligent.
Then too, an excellent effect can be achieved in rows planted parallel, supported by column and vault that will allow branch and stem to tie themselves into canopy.

IV. Plants

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Williamsburg Garden 4, Plants. image credit: M. Curtis

Whichever suit your taste, want, or need.
If of 18th Century taste, common edibles might be


common ornamentals might be,


and for medicinals,

Lady’s Mantle,

To frustrate pests, intermingle edibles, medicinals, and ornamentals.

V. Structures

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Williamsburg Garden 5, Structures. image credit: M. Curtis

Most gardens will like their gardeners to employ tools; each employment wants a tool; each gardener wants a tool that extends man’s body, hammer for fist, saw for teeth, rake for fingers, et cetera.  Gardeners are of no value when damaged by ill-use, and worse, garden tools seldom survive the season when homeless exposed.  Best to honor tools with a house, a garden shed suited to the life of tools.
The garden shed will like to enjoy features of the house, not to appear orphan or interloper.  If your house is Early Georgian, the shed should be Early Georgian.  If the house is white, most often best the shed is white, if of brick, et cetera, as budget and taste will suggest.
Could be some folly in variation will give pleasure; if so, as in life, pleasure in moderation, perhaps a refinement of imperfect beauty.


Most important: Allow the structure to admit its purpose, in sympathy with Horatio Greenough who insisted that a form suit its function; in obedience to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio who asserts, a structure must exhibit three qualities, firmitas, utilitas, venustas, id est, a structure must be solid, useful, beautiful.


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The Williamsburg Garden in 5 Steps

Williamsburg Garden 5 Steps

Bereacux of Groene Luft-Prielen


Featured image: Squerries of Westram in Kent.


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