Behind the Private Gates, Design, In the Garden


Bunny Mellon’s Oak Spring Garden

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If you are as committed a garden aficionado as I am, Oak Spring garden is a mecca on your short list of stops. Last month, on April 19th, I had the very distinct pleasure of visiting this creation nestled in the hunt country of Virginia, an hour outside Washington, DC. The fact that this garden is only open 2 days out of the year for visitors made the anticipation even greater!

Bunny Mellon, peerless stylemaker, noted art collector, and philanthropist, lived a life of privilege mixed with sadness, as presented in Meryl Gordon’s biography, Bunny Mellon, the Life of an American Style Legend. But what resonated for me after reading this tome was the role that the garden and all things floral played in her peace of mind and continuing renewal. For have we all not learned over these past 2-3 years that renewal is what a garden affirms?

Perhaps the most iconic image at Oak Spring is the ‘Mary Potter’ crab tree tunnel as shown in my feature image. Blooming at exactly the time that this garden is open, the image in person is even more breathtaking–long, bountiful and floriferous — enhanced by an underplanting in a yellow, blue and white scheme. In her own words, Mrs. Mellon reminisced, “Children often find their symbols of stability and peace among the daily presence of things they love; for me they were apple trees.”

Of the many gardens Mrs. Mellon created over her long life (she passed away at 103!), including the Rose Garden at the White House, this one-half acre was her most personal. It is a study in simplicity and understatement, two key hallmarks of her style. The home and outbuildings are designed to resemble a French country hamlet, constructed of thick, local stone with uneven coatings of white lime wash affording another level of charm.

There’s a singular experience when walking through the garden of a “dirt gardener,” as I respectfully call them. You can sense their passion seeping up from the dirt, feel the love and soul that was affectionately invested over many hours. In Bunny Mellon’s case, a lifetime! Here, cottages and pavilions…

join terraces and gardens via simple stone paths laid out in grids.

One terrace has a butterfly bed outlined in old bricks.

Tulips, so prolific at this time in a Virginia spring, were given both their own beds as well as being planted as border details along the narrower beds…take note of the low espalier of apple that acts as a formal note around the larger beds.

Appealing vignettes caught my eye at every turn…a rill, with an antique birdcage at the end…

a metal bench nestled into a bank of creeping phlox…

an espalier, one of four, along a whitewashed wall with a border mix of daffodils and tulips running the length of the space…

a weathered wooden bench encircling a tree.

And a singular wooden container, designed at Oak Spring, that recalls in its scalloped edge and metal strappings the sense and sensibilities of Mrs. Mellon. As she was known to say,” This garden is made of love…and details.”

For years I had savored two books that comprised selections from her Oak Spring library...Sylva, Rare Books on Trees(1989) and Pomona, Rare Books on Fruits. (1990). It was a long time to have admired and taken inspiration from such a notable, dedicated gardener. The opportunity to finally see her creations in person is a memory I shall long cherish. In keeping with Mrs. Mellon’s devotion to the world of plants, the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (OSGF) now provides research, workshops, and conferences to share learning experiences in and from the garden. I can’t think of a better place to hone your gardening skills.

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

12 thoughts on “Bunny Mellon’s Oak Spring Garden

  1. I only really got to know who Bunny Mellon was about 5 years ago. This post is such a delight! Thank you!

  2. As well as Pomona, FRUIT, I also treasure a third, and my favorite, An Oak Spring FLORA by Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi. My partner worked with Mrs. Mellon’s daughter Eliza for quite some time at Oak Spring after her accident, and was privileged to know Mrs.Mellon and experience her devotion to her daughter, as well enjoying the beauty of her surroundings. She would often send him home with cheese from the farm. I will share your photos with him, as I am sure it will bring back many memories of his many trips to her farm.

  3. I had the privilege of touring Oak Spring last year during Virginia Garden Week. It remains one of the most beautiful and peaceful gardens I have ever experienced. Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos.

  4. The timing of this post has serendipitously coincided with a new program called “The Garden Chronicles” streaming on the Magnolia channel (found on Discover +) Mrs. Mellon’s Oak Spring and our own Blithewold were selected as for as the pilot episodes! Quite a compliment given they had gardens from all over the country to choose from. I encourage you to watch. The episodes are short, only 10 minutes long. Even so, the production crew captured both the spirit and the beauty of these special places. The episodes are simply stunning!

  5. It is so fabulous in the photos, that being there in person on one of the only 2 days a year it is open, must have been incredible. What a gift for planning and design Bunny had! A spectacular treasure of a garden.

  6. Thank you, Bettie for this expert tour! A bucket list visit for me, for sure!! So fun to see it through your lens. xx Caitlin

  7. What a deliciously intimate look into a life through gardens. Wish I could just be the creeping phlox in those gorgeous terraces.

  8. I was pinching myself years ago when I got to drive by the locked gates during Garden Week of Virginia. Probably would have swooned had I been allowed inside.

  9. Bettie …As always, such a lovely break in my “on line” day…Bunny Mellon’s garden is now one of my favorites, SECOND ONLY to the lower garden at Parterre !! Thank you again !

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