This event has since been cancelled for 2020

By Patrick Mulrooney | Photos by Missy Janes

The upcoming Virginia Garden Tour is known for featuring an impressive collection of gardens that are both visually impressive and hold a strong connection to Virginia’s past. Right at home on this tour, with its ancient boxwood hedges and its historical ties to Chief Justice John Marshall, is Ashleigh.

Built in 1860 for the granddaughter of John Marshall, Ashleigh sits atop 100 acres of rolling hills and forest in Northern Fauquier County. Built in Greek Revival style architecture, Ashleigh’s gardens complement the orderly, formal style through its use of clipped boxwood and symmetrical layout. In 2017, the house was purchased by former Missouri governor Matthew Blunt and his wife, Melanie.

Upon entering the driveway, guests are guided between dwarf boxwood shrubs down a gently curving gravel road. On the right is a view of rolling fields and Paris Mountain on the horizon. An impressive stand of old hardwoods crowning the hill up ahead suggests that there is a rich history associated with this house.

In front of the house, a driveway circle features four holly trees, still laden with their winter fruit and freshly clipped into identical forms. Poking up around their feet are multitudes of grape hyacinth bulbs standing above a lush tangle of Vinca groundcover. An 8-foot hedge of American boxwood borders the driveway area and acts as a windbreak from the fields to the north.

“It is a privilege to be surrounded by our beautiful landscape. Working with the Land Trust of Virginia we were able to place Ashleigh under a perpetual easement that will protect the historic characteristics of the property and ensure the land is preserved for a farming and forestry forever,” says homeowner Matthew Blunt. 

Looking out from its Doric columns and nestled into the landscape with English boxwood on all sides is the house; a one-story structure with three bays, flanked by two-bay wings on either side. Its lines are clean and its stucco is smooth, encouraging the garden to be of a similar character. To the left, underneath towering oaks and sweet gums, a wide stone platform invites guests to enter the garden.

The first vista of the garden at Ashleigh is stunning: The allee, with its 8-foot laurel hedges, guides visitors through a bright mixed border where alliums, tulips, Narcissus, hellebores and peonies dazzle in the spring and are gradually replaced by Kalimeris (a Japanese aster), garden phlox and iris, among many others, throughout the summer. Complementing the architecture of the house, walkways were designed to be wide and open to convey a sense of calm. There are no winding woodland paths here as the three large “rooms” of this garden are better suited for entertaining.

“The croquet lawn would be beautiful for a wedding,” Melanie Blunt says. A longtime gardening enthusiast, she is now a member of the Piedmont Garden Club and president of the Middleburg Garden Club. When Matthew and Melanie Blunt purchased the garden in 2017, the garden needed a little bit of work. “It was lovely and relatively well-cared for, but it needed some work to return it to its original glory,” Melanie Blunt says.

This was great news for BJ Fleming, owner of Naked Mountain Gardeners, who has been working on the property on and off since the mid-90s. “There was a lot of restoration work to be done, a lot of pruning of trees and shrubs,” says Fleming. “We came back in fall of 2019. Only one gardener had been on staff for a few years and things needed some work.”

In addition to maintenance, Fleming is also carrying out the installation of landscaping around the new features, which include a 100-foot long fountain and a new pergola, which joins the three garden rooms together under a wisteria-lined path. The fountain was designed by landscape architect Barry Starke of Earth Design Inc., who is well-known for his work on the 1978 renovation of Maymont Gardens in Richmond, Va. The pergola is new, but it is clear that the wisteria is not. Working around the old vines was a challenge the Blunt’s were willing to take on in preparation for the tour.

(Above: New at Asheligh Estate: a 100-foot long water feature that includes three fountains, designed by Barry Starke at Earth Design Associates, Inc. Photo by Patrick Mulrooney taken in February 2020.)

Perhaps the biggest news since the Blunt’s took ownership is the addition of the property to the Land Trust of Virginia, which will protect the property in perpetuity.

The Middleburg portion of the tour includes Ashleigh, Oak Spring, White Hall and Elysian Fields Farm. Visit vagardenweek.org for more. ML

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.