By Will Schick | [email protected]
For more than 90 years, Virginians have been opening their homes and gardens to the public for a week in the spring. From April 17 to 24, garden clubs across Virginia will be providing specialty programming for visitors at historic homes and gardens in an event known as Historic Garden Week.
In Alexandria, this year’s tour, which takes place on April 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will be different because of COVID-19. The event will consist only of exteriors. Participants will be given maps and directions for a self-guided walking circuit of more than a dozen homes. Called “A Spring–time Stroll: Doorways of Our Past and Future,” the tour features a variety of floral arrangements and outdoor installations along the route.
Lisa Mountcastle, a 20-year member of the Garden Club of Alexandria, said she has always found it amazing that this local tour has a national following.
“We literally have people come from across the country every year specifically for this tour,” Mountcastle said. “I have had nice interactions with people who come from Indiana or, you know, somewhere in the Midwest or Maine every year for this garden tour.”
The purpose of the event, according to the Garden Club of Virginia, is to help preserve the state’s historic gardens. During the past 50 years, Historic Garden Week is estimated to have had an economic impact of more than $518 million, according to its website.
The Garden Club of Alexandria and the Hunting Creek Garden Club, which are local co-organizers for Garden Week in the city, have sought to preserve the spirit of this annual tradition while also taking precautions due to COVID-19.
In non-pandemic years, the tours consisted of both gardens and the interiors of homes, which are normally filled with floral arrangements made by garden club members. In previous years, participants were led on docent-guided tours which took them inside of five historic residential homes and gardens.
According to the event organizers, in years past this event generally sold 1,000 tickets, and tickets were also sold at various sites on the same day. This year, however, tickets for the event were sold in advance and capped at 240 participants, which is nearly a three-fold decrease from previous years. Tickets sold out in a matter of days.
Bob Phillips, a local resident and member of the I Love Alexandria Facebook group, said he loves the annual outing through Alexandria’s Old and Historic District.
“I’ll be attending the Old Town and James River legs of the tour. Look forward to it every year,” Phillips commented on a group post about this year’s tour.
In accordance with rules established by the Garden Club of Virginia, homes are not allowed to appear on the tour twice within 10 years, which prevents the same homes from being featured repeatedly and keeps the tour fresh every year.
Four different historic sites in Alexandria are also part of the walking tour: St. Paul’s Church, the Ramsay House, the Lee-Fendall House and the Athenaeum. At the Lee-Fendall house, staff will also be providing talks on native and medicinal plants they have in their garden.
Those who managed to buy tickets before the event sold out will receive free admission to the grounds of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and a 50% discount on general admission tickets during Historic Garden Week.
For both the Garden Club of Alexandria and the Hunting Creek Garden Club, this week’s events represent just one part of what they do all year long. Both clubs put on events throughout the year to help promote conservation and build community within Alexandria.
During the pandemic, both clubs organized Lewis Miller-inspired floral flashes in spaces throughout the city to raise the spirits of the city’s first responders and help spread positivity. These elaborately designed flower arrangements are meant to be encouraging pops of color that animate their viewers.Both clubs boast approximately 50 to 60 members, who come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences but share a passion for conservation and gardening.
Although tickets to Alexandria’s Historic Garden Week tours are sold out, visitors walking through Old Town will still be able to see the public floral arrangements and enjoy the spring weather.
“We want to see this go off as well as we can. … You know, it’s a gift to the community. It’s a beautiful day. Everyone can enjoy the weather whether you’ve bought a ticket or not,” Mountcastle said.