Written by Bill Kent | Photos by Shannon Ayres
Karla Etten has taken up riding again. She had two horses while growing up in the District’s Tenleytown neighborhood, and lately has taken a few lessons.
But it’s hard for her to find the time. After three years of dreaming, planting, trimming, and potting-up, Etten has opened a nursery and flower farm on 7.5 acres where Hulberts Lane meets The Plains Road.
Called Etten’s Eden, the nursery is intentionally easy to miss. Etten had the land graded not to disturb views from neighboring farms. “I want everything I’m doing to fit right in with what’s already here,” she says.
A small sign leads you through a fence toward a greenhouse and a cluster of hoop houses. Radiating outward is a crescent of potted plants and trees, some on tables, others enjoying the shade under towering hickories.
The first indication that Etten’s Eden is different from other nurseries and garden centers sits a few yards past the van that is acting as Etten’s office. A group of potted shade trees nestle against a gently terraced hill, enfolding casual arrangements of outdoor couches and tables, where, Etten hopes, customers, riders passing through, and attendees at the on-site workshops she will host at the end of this month can relax and enjoy the sight and aroma of plants in bloom.
“So much of this is still a work in progress, but that’s the way gardens are. You’re never really finished. There’s always something more to do.” A certified Virginia Master Naturalist and Master Gardener, Etten says her best moments tend to happen when she reaches a stopping point, steps back, and admires how beautiful a garden can be.
She wants to complement the outdoor seating area with some kind of tea and snack shop on the premises — further encouragement for people to linger and chat. “A garden should be shared,” she feels.
A garden can also make a statement. Most of the 3,000 plants Etten currently offers are locally grown. “At least 70% of the flowering plants used by florists and for sale in supermarkets and garden centers come from overseas. We can’t grow them all here, but we can grow more locally, grow what is more likely to respond well to the climate and soil, have it available at the peak of their beauty and get it to florists faster. That makes for fresher, longer lasting arrangements.”
Etten raised most of her stock from seed and clippings on the grounds of her Ashburn home, which is distinguished from its neighbors by an in-ground koi pond, a feature she added “because they are simply beautiful, and not all that difficult to maintain.”
The daughter of a lobbyist and an editor of the Kiplinger Letter, Etten became a gardener because she liked being outdoors better than being in. She fell in love with Middleburg at around the same time. “We had a vacation home at the Bryce Resort and we would stop in Middleburg along the way. We’d eat at the Coach Stop or the Red Fox Inn. I never rode in Middleburg, but I wanted to, because so many people on the streets dressed as if they’d just got off a horse.”
She pursued a career with a national travel agency, where one of her tasks was booking airline tickets for the U.S. Marshals. “I remember having to explain to the airlines why the marshals needed all three seats in the row. Two for the good guys. One for the bad guy in between.” Inspired by her grandmother, a statistician for the Pentagon, she joined the CIA, where she met her husband, Peter Etten (whose last name derives from the Dutch word for “eden”), an intelligence industry contractor. “We were set up!”
She learned the value of having a beautiful garden when her family, which includes their son Evan, sold their previous home in Fairfax. “The buyers were so taken with my garden that they paid asking price. It was the first inclination I got that surrounding yourself with beautiful plants could have a practical benefit.”
After moving to Ashburn, Karla wanted to enroll Evan in the Hill School. On their first visit to the school, Karla says she “was absolutely knocked out” by the school’s 28-acre Polly Rowley Arboretum. “The planting, and [the] way you come into it, the scale, the sense of peace, everything about it is just magnificent.”
Evan began his studies, which “put Middleburg back on the map for me,” Etten continues. “I appreciated the Arboretum even more as the seasons changed. It is a masterpiece of garden design.”
Bob Dornin, the Hill School’s grounds supervisor, remembers many conversations with Etten about the Arboretum. “She picked up on the Arboretum’s emotional element. You get a great feeling when you walk through it.”
When Etten told him she dreamed of having a nursery as beautiful as the arboretum, Dornin gave her some advice: “Buy an articulated tractor. You’ll need it.”
Already a member of the Loudoun County Wildlife Conservancy (“When you’re a gardener you can’t help but care for living things,” she adds), she was asked to contribute an item to a Hill School fundraiser. “The Conservancy had put me in charge of their Bluebird Trails, which is a program with maps where you can see bluebirds throughout the county. I had learned how to put up bluebird boxes along the trails, so I donated a bluebird box with the promise of installing it. Harriet Condon bought it, and when I saw her garden, I was so impressed.”
Condon invited her to the Upperville Garden Club and “I started to meet people who loved flowers and gardening. I had taken courses in it, but these people really knew their stuff.”
Within five years Etten volunteered with the Upperville, Middleburg, and Leesburg clubs, the Blandy Experimental Farm and Virginia State Arboretum, and Oak Springs, which, she says, “was a revelation.” Her two favorite gardens are Oak Springs and the Rowley Arboretum.
Equestrian, artist, flower arranger, and previous Upperville Garden Club president Barbara Sharp says, “Karla has a vision and her knowledge is huge. Her interest in native plants is spot-on and her energy is phenomenal. We have done arduous work together — cutting and arranging flowers for 10 hours at a time. And then she was right back to tending her plants.”
Some of which have been in arrangements by two-time Best-of-Loudoun florist Angela Rabena. “Karla has been a source of fresh local flowers on several occasions. It is from local growers that unique flowers are typically found. Flower growing is not my forte. I am envious of how she can put something in soil and propagate a new plant. I hope to learn more from her once she has more time.”
Purcellville flower grower Page Smithers considers Etten a colleague, not a competitor. “I met her about a year ago and we’ve been friends ever since. We’re both certified American growers, in that we belong to a national organization that seeks to get more attention for American-grown agriculture. You can get a great feeling of accomplishment from flower growing, but it is incredibly hard work. And that’s when everything is going right. When you have a year like we just had, with high heat, drought, flash floods, humidity, bugs everywhere and deer eating your blooms, it feels close to impossible.”
When Etten told Smithers she had bought the land for her nursery and was determined to open in time for the fall planting season, “I said, ‘Do you realize what you’re getting into?’ She said she did, and that this was something she had to do because it was so beautiful. And it is.”
“It helps if you’re a workaholic,” Etten says. Standing on a grassy hill above the hoop houses, Etten points to where she hopes to break ground before the first frost on a three-bedroom house that, like so much of her Eden, is a dream in progress. She can see it perfectly: a modest two-story, energy-efficient structure designed to harmonize architecturally with the farm houses and horse barns nearby.
With her nursery up and running, she moves toward what will be her family’s eden, which will include another koi pond. “Here’s where I hope one day — don’t ask me when — to sit with a glass of wine and love it all.” ML
Published in the October 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.