A Colonial Times Inspired Garden in Old Town Alexandria

April 4, 2017 | Gardens, Historic Finds

Our client had a vision for this beautiful fenced garden on a corner lot in Old Town Alexandria, with plants and walkways inspired by the American colonial period. The lot, adjacent to her historic residence, was once home to a 1920’s stucco-covered storefront with eight garage bays, which included a delicatessen and dry-cleaners.

The process of building the garden took three years from start to finish, including obtaining Old and Historic Alexandria Board of Architecture Review approval, re-routing utility lines, creating a grading plan, and conducting an archaeological dig.


The brick walkway that was once an alley to the main house was re-laid. Inspired by a Mount Vernon barn, the homeowners selected an “old-looking” oversized brick handmade by a Carolina brick company to build the garden’s walkways. The homeowners kept the property distinct from their own lot and first added separate electric and water lines underground. Utilities on the side of the house were also brought underground or low-to-ground as the home’s façade could now be made beautiful for public view.


The picket fences were also inspired by George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. A notch instead of a bulge made the carpenter’s template more efficient. The dutch elbow locks, handmade by a company in Philadelphia, are replicas of the locks of homes built in the same time period (the 1830’s).


An annual corkscrew white and purple vine, the vigna caracella, graces the picket fence three seasons of the year. The redolent vine was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s.


All light fixtures are reproductions of fixtures that would have been used in the 1830’s. The plants chosen for the garden would have been used in colonial times. The Franklin tree (to left of the shed in picture above) is a difficult tree to keep healthy, but has a beautiful white blossom in winter. The tree is now extinct in the wild; it was brought north from the Altahama River in Georgia by colonial great gardener John Bartram.  Other plants include the “new dawn” rose, a Montmorency cherry tree, and an American Quince tree, originally from Asia/Middle East. (The quince fruit is high in pectin, and was once used regularly to make jellies and jams.)


Before excavation began, the homeowners contacted Alexandria Archaelogy to register the property as a Civil War site. There was no development on the land in the 1790’s, and soldiers used the land as an encampment. Glass jars on the gardener’s shed shelves now contain dozens of clay marbles and pipes and whiskey bottles; Union officer jacket buttons; and underwear “presser” buttons. These small objects and two privies were among the many discoveries in the surface material.  Milk glass eggs once used to encourage chickens to lay eggs and barrel chimneys from a meat packing plant on the river were also uncovered.


Black wig apples and Heritage crabapples, cardoons, leeks, cherry tomatoes, chives, red peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and broccoli all grow in this plentiful garden.

A recycled Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrel collects rain water and creates a point of interest.


Photography by Greg Hadley

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