A 15th century manor house with stately gardens resides over a verdant, historic Virginia neighborhood
Windsor Farms is a unique and verdant residential community in Richmond, Va. Tucked away on the northern bank of the James River, the community, planned in 1926, is home to Agecroft Hall, a transplanted Tudor mansion and a showcase of gardens and lawns. With its historic and professionally preserved rooms, it dates back to the 15th century.
The relationship between Agecroft, maintained as a museum and theatre venue since 1969, and the rest of Windsor Farms is fascinating. Richmonder Thomas C. Williams bought the 15th century mansion at an auction in 1925 and had it dismantled, crated and shipped to Richmond. He had wanted homes in Windsor Farms to follow its Tudor style, but as the neighborhood grew, the Colonial and Cape Cod styles became more popular. The result is an anachronism: the privately funded historic property sits amid relative modernity.
Although the buildings you see throughout the neighborhood are not uniform, the Windsor Farms area shares considerable green space, including the wide medians and extensive yards bordering the wagon-wheel roads that wind through the area. Lots within the neighborhood range from less than an acre to 23 acres. It takes a lot of behind-the-scenes green industry know-how to preserve the green tranquility of the streets around Windsor Farms. This includes a number of landscaping firms.
Change is the only constant here
Carl Dempsey is the maintenance supervisor at Ed’s Landscaping, a company that handles its share of work at Windsor Farms. With 31 years in the business, Dempsey has seen a lot of change in the neighborhood.
A view of Agecroft Hall from the front gate.
Agecroft Hall is a Tudor-style estate currently on the James River in Virginia, United States, though originally built in Pendlebury, Lancashire, England in the late 15th century. It is now operated as a museum. It was the home of Lancashire’s Langley and Dauntesey families before falling into disrepair at the end of the 19th century. In 1925, it was sold at auction. Richmonder Thomas C. Williams Jr. purchased the structure, had it dismantled, crated and shipped across the Atlantic, and then reassembled in a Richmond neighbourhood known as Windsor Farms. Its original position was in the Irwell Valley (Agecroft, Pendlebury) close to Agecroft Road (A6044) between Lumns Lane to the west and the Manchester to Bolton railway line to the east.
What’s planted on Windsor Farms’ properties, says Dempsey, is now up to the homeowner. Previously, there were stricter guidelines on everything from vegetation to roofing materials. Changes in the 1980s, however, left most landscaping issues to be decided by individual property owners.
Ed’s Landscaping handles new planting as well as rejuvenation of older plants, along with maintenance of grasses and other green elements of the properties. Dempsey says some property owners struggle with the time and cost of taking good care of their properties. “People are trying to watch their dollars,” says Dempsey, noting that as some of the old money flows out of the neighborhood, younger property owners may face harder decisions about upkeep and other costs of ownership for these older homes. As a consequence, they often don’t make wise choices when it comes to selecting a contractor.
Black-eyed Susans flourish on the sunny side of the sunken garden.
Experience is key
Going with an inferior shop, says Dempsey, can ruin a property. Responding to the threat of low-price, less-experienced contractors, Dempsey provides recommendations on cost cutting, for example, replacing some mulching with lower-cost options.
Less-experienced landscapers also mow too much, and they typically mow lawns too low, says Dempsey. The fescue grasses commonly used in the residential area should be cut higher – 2 inches in the spring and fall and 3 inches in summer, especially when they’re in shade. Cutting fescue too low stresses it. Keeping the mowing height right, he says, lets the grass use its own natural air-conditioning system, where air between the longer grass blades is significantly cooler than the air above it.
Another area Dempsey focuses on is the pruning of the various trees and shrubs that fall within the purview of the conventional landscaper. While the towering old growth that dots the neighborhood requires specialized contracting, it’s not uncommon for landscapers to tackle the crepe myrtles and other tall plants like the Nellie Stevens holly shrub, a plant that’s relatively easy to prune and can stand tall enough to provide an effective hedge. Dempsey chooses to prune in late winter to give the trees and shrubs more of a chance of shrugging off the “wounds” that the cutting requires.
While Dempsey and others work on keeping up appearances and preserving greenery around the residential neighborhood, others focus on the specific needs of the Agecroft property, where public gardens and other parts of the landscaping need to meet certain standards.
The “diva” green space
Annette Tomes is part of the gardening department at Agecroft, and is in charge of making sure that these outdoor areas are ready for touring every year.
Part of this strategy, says Tomes, is taking an “annual approach.” In other words, planting everything new each year in certain areas of the gardens. One of these is the large sunken garden, which she calls the “diva” of Agecroft’s green space. Patterned after the Hampton Court Palace in England, which Tomes has visited to do plant research, the sunken garden contains walls of American boxwood and various flowers.
Masses of colorful tulips announce spring’s arrival, and summer annuals keep the gardens at Agecroft Hall ablaze with color throughout summer. Two tiers of beds surround a pool, with entrances and exits on each side of the rectangular space for classic “quaternion” symmetry. The sunken garden presents a unique growing challenge. The symmetrical sides of the garden that are respectively shaded and sunny for most of the day, meaning that plants there must be able to the withstand summer’s heat and humidity.
“It’s been a struggle to find that balance,” says Tomes, pointing to the coleus, one of the shade plants that has proven itself in the space. On the sunny side of the garden clusters of black-eyed Susan (tiger eye gold) have worked well. Tomes noticed these plants in commercial displays around Richmond before putting them in. Says Tomes, “It’s something I’ll definitely use again.”
Managing the gardens
While Agecroft does get some plants from local establishments, the staff grows about 80 percent of what it uses on-site, with cold greenhouses providing off-season shelter. “Everything is in a rotation,” says Tomes, adding that the garden budget allows for two full-time staffers and an additional 1,000 hours of part-time help per year. In addition to the sunken garden, several other garden spaces present more of a variety of plants from various time periods. An adjacent “knot garden” combines straight, trimmed lines of winter savoy and lavender with crimson pygmy dwarf barberry, a name that Tomes says is a misnomer. “It’ll get as tall as you let it get,” says Tomes of the colorful plant.
Keeping the barberry in line is just one part of a concerted effort to keep the gardens looking great, and many of these plants are regularly lightly pruned, with a hard prune in late winter. Tomes says more aggressive trimming could hurt some of the decorative herbs and other plants, like those in the Tradescant Garden, an area named for a wealthy importer. This garden has marigolds grown from seed, amaranth, and other bright flowers like cockscomb and canna lily.
Other items in this garden are native to Virginia, like spiderwort and the bright red cardinal flower. Nearby, the gardeners keep more prosaic plants like sage, hops vines, oregano, thyme and parsley, along with some period herbs, like tansy, which Tomes says was often mulled in wine in the centuries before it was recognized as a poisonous plant.
From planting and pruning to picking the right items for each of the garden spaces, Tomes says managing the Agecroft gardens keeps her out in the sun, which she enjoys.
Mark Dyson, buildings and grounds supervisor at Agecroft, stays equally busy maintaining more than 7 acres of hedge, turfgrass and beds. Dyson says the historic design of the property presents challenges, such as putting together a long-term plan to manage the property’s mature, overgrown trees, and keeping aggressively growing ornamentals under control. Dyson’s team recently cut back a row of crepe myrtles by about one-third to prevent them from suffocating smaller plants.
A grounds staffer cleans up beds beyond the sunken garden.
“It’s a fine line,” says Dyson of decisions to remove or alter some plants to save others. “That’s the biggest line that we have to face.”
Dyson uses a combination of grasses for the rolling lawns of Agecroft, but primarily Kentucky bluegrass, fescues and bermudagrass, depending on the amount of sun or shade respective parts of the common grounds receive. When Dyson and his crew aren’t tending to the wide grassy areas, they’re raking out beds or keeping quick-growing installations in line.
Even in the harsh temperatures of the Virginia summer, Agecroft’s greens look great, and so do most of the lawns around the privately owned homes. Despite its piecemeal beginnings, the neighborhood manages to exude an atmosphere that naturally leads visitors into the one-of-a-kind historic house and garden that’s one of Richmond’s best-kept secrets.
Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust and many other venues.