Colonial Williamsburg Landscapers Take Advantage of Off-Season for Updates to Gardens, DoG Street

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The Governor's Palace formal gardens were the site of some landscaping renovations this winter. (Courtesy Joseph Straw/Colonial Williamsburg)
The Governor’s Palace formal gardens were the site of some landscaping renovations this winter. (Courtesy Joseph Straw/Colonial Williamsburg)

Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg may notice some changes to the historic area’s landscaping as the flowers start to bloom and the trees sprout their leaves this spring.

Colonial Williamsburg has traditionally used the quiet season in January and February – when tourism is at its slowest and numerous attractions are temporarily shut down – to work on maintenance and landscaping projects, and this year was no exception.

The major areas of focus for Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of landscape services, were the Governor’s Palace formal gardens and the curbs along Duke of Gloucester Street.

Throughout the first quarter of the year, operations staff and contractors set to work in the formal gardens of the Governor’s Palace. Several features in the garden were causing maintenance issues for both other plants and the building itself.

The beech trees along the center footpath on the north side of the garden, which Viancour estimates were between 5 and 10 years old when they were planted in the 1940s, were removed because they had grown so large their canopies were shading the smaller plants beneath them, stifling their ability to thrive.

“People forget trees are living organisms like us. They have a finite time,” Viancour said. “A building, if you take care of it, will stay there forever, but these trees had reached the end of their time.”

Besides having visually grown out of scale with the rest of the garden, the trees’ extensive roots systems were starving other plants of water.

As they continued to compete with the beech trees for both sun and water, Viancour said the other topiaries and flowers were “literally and figuratively having the life sucked out of them” and were starting to decline drastically.

Though the health of the other plants in the garden was a major concern, the safety of the gardeners themselves trumped even that issue.

“Arborists are constantly evaluating our trees because safety is the number one concern with us,” said Viancour. “Some trees might look fine on outside but they are sick on the inside, and that poses a risk for dropping limbs and other safety problems.”

The landscaping department decided to replace the beech trees with flowering dogwoods, which also happen to be the state tree of Virginia. These trees are much smaller and will not compete with the surrounding plants, with the added bonus that the garden has clearer views that are more similar to how it would have looked upon its original planting.

“That whole garden was to reflect status for the governor. He wanted to show off his wealth through the garden,” Viancour said. “When you came out the back door [before we removed the beech trees] you couldn’t see the garden, and the governor never would have intended that. He wanted your mouth to drop open when you walked out of the door.”

Viancour is hopeful the flowers and topiaries that have struggled because of the beech trees will be successfully rehabilitated this spring and summer. If not, replanting them will be a project for next winter.

Tree and shrubs in the Governor's Palace garden underwent some maintenance this winter. (Courtesy Joseph Straw/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Tree and shrubs in the Governor’s Palace garden underwent some maintenance this winter. (Courtesy Joseph Straw/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Another change guests at the Governor’s Palace may notice is the removal of 12 columns of yaupon holly. The landscaping team removed two clusters of six plants they deemed overgrown.

One of the clusters of six has been replanted with younger, smaller versions of the same plants, but the other has been permanently removed because conservators determined their proximity to the building was trapping moisture and causing the building to deteriorate.

Though the major projects in the garden are mostly completed now, work continues on another landscaping undertaking over on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Long-term, incremental work began in January to repair and restore the grass plots between the sidewalks and curbs along the length of the street. This project also includes the reconditioning of some of the cobblestone gutters, which have become stained with soil runoff and eroded by exposed tree roots in some places.

Viancour estimates that each year Colonial Williamsburg will work on refurbishing just one section of the street, with this year’s work focusing on the block between Queen and Colonial streets in front of and across from the Prentis Store.

“We have to focus on one section at a time because of the scope of the work,” Viancour said.

Though some of the work there began as early as January, landscapers had to wait for the return of warm weather to continue with most of what needed to be done. Currently they are in the process of trying to re-establish grass between the street and sidewalk; work on the south side of that block is done and work on the north side begins this week.

Just one block of Duke of Gloucester is receiving this level of detailed attention this season, but one other major change has already taken place along the length of the entire street. Landscapers were out in January pruning the trees back so from any point on the street guests have a clear view all the way to both ends.

“Now, especially with the night lighting, it’s really neat that you can see the Capitol from Merchants Square,” Viancour said.

Viancour is excited for tourists and locals wandering downtown to take advantage of the nice weather to see the changes and updates her team has made to continuously improve the plant life in the historic area. She said she is thankful Colonial Williamsburg is willing to provide the resources and give the time and space needed in the off-season to make sure the landscaping is kept in top condition.

“We were able to be out there all day every day [during the limited programing time], which was huge,” Viancour said. “It let us get done what we need to do.”