Not far from busy Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., Loudoun County, Virginia, is known for its idyllic landscapes, historic gardens, and small town getaways. While only 25 miles from the U.S. Capitol, Loudoun County is a step back in time. Country roads and highways lead to beautiful estates with gardens, historic towns offer charm and discovery, country inns dot the landscape, scenic vistas abound, and over 50 wineries and tasting rooms will give you plenty of time to pause and savor your time in Loudoun County.
With over 520 square miles extending from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west to the Potomac River on the north and east, a good place to center a Loudoun County visit is in the county seat of Leesburg. This historic downtown, founded in 1758, with its brick buildings and small town charm is known today for its restaurants, cocktail and coffee bars, and chic and fun shopping. It’s also home to two of Loudoun County’s most famous estate gardens.
Morven Park was the estate and home of Westmoreland Davis, a former Governor of Virginia (1918-1922), and his wife Marguerite. Already an estate when the Davis’s purchased the property in 1903, they worked to transform the land into the legacy it is today for the community. With the iconic Davis mansion as the center, you can walk through formal gardens, picnic under historic trees, and hike miles of nature trails. The 1,000 acre park is also home to the world-renowned Morven Park International Equestrian Center, a natural since Loudoun County is the heart of horse country.
The historic gardens are mostly the work of Marguerite, and her pride and joy was the boxwood garden added in 1930. Over 1,100 English boxwoods were used to create the garden, at a time during a boxwood renaissance in America. Instead of planting young boxwood plants from local nurseries, the Davis’s purchased mature English boxwood from estates throughout Virginia. Over time, as boxwood blight decimated these English varieties, the shrubs have been replaced with American boxwood.
Another of Marguerite’s favorite gardens is the Sundial Garden with beds of bulbs in spring and annuals in summer and fall surrounded by a wall of boxwoods to create a garden room where she would sit and relax. Make sure to look at her sundial still there today – it was Marguerite’s favorite stop in the garden. Nearby, the Reflecting Pool Garden is flanked by white crepe myrtles at the entrance and magnolias at the far end. As you walk from the parking lot to the mansion, take notice of the 100 foot long garden bed overflowing with shade loving plants like Solomon’s seal and hellebores.
The magic of Morven is in the trees and the landscape. Be sure to look up as you explore the park. Willow oaks tower above, the magnolias are magnificent, and the linden, Norway spruce, American hornbeam, and dawn redwoods are impressive specimens in the park. Stand in front of the mansion (open for tours) for a panoramic view of the landscape. It’s said on a clear day you can see the Washington Monument in the distance.
The story of Oatlands Historic House & Gardens spans several families and started before the Revolutionary War. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s when the owner, George Carter, started to build his mansion and expansive 4.2 acre walled gardens. Much of the stone work is original in the walled gardens and includes terraces that cascade down the hillside adjacent to the house.
These terraces created by Carter are connected by a Grand Staircase made of stone with oyster shell landings and garden sections overflowing with colorful plants. Another original structure was installed in 1810; a multi-level greenhouse with two fireplaces that now is the second oldest greenhouse in the U.S. Two 140 year old Japanese maples flank the back side entrance to the greenhouse.
After the terraces, another important element of the garden’s design is the extensive use of boxwood hedges and parterres and fine-graveled walkways edged with flowers and exotic trees. Some of these boxwood are now over 200 years old. Carter also preserved many of the native trees on the land and added even more like bald cypress and Osage orange.
One hundred years after George started the garden, Mr. and Mrs. Eustis of Washington, D. C. purchased the property in the early 1900s, and began work to restore and add to the gardens that fell into disrepair. Edith Eustis added more parterres and filled these with tulips, peonies, irises, lilies, and a range of summer and fall blooming plants. The terraces were restored and expanded. A rose garden was installed. A bowling green was created with tall hedges of euonymus and oriental arborvitae with an ornamental gate leading to the tea house beyond. More trees were planted on the grounds, including three atlas blue cedars (Cedrus altantica).
Today, the house and garden’s preservation is managed as a National Trust Historic Site. The key to visiting Oatlands is to take your time to discover the beauty of this historic garden. Explore the various garden rooms, and take note of the garden’s uniqueness from the white wisteria and grand magnolias, to the mass plantings of daffodils and daylilies along the main wall, and the extensive use of color as you walk the Grand Staircase. Along the way, there are plenty of places to sit and enjoy this most magnificent creation started over 200 years ago.
A new generation of garden visionaries is making an impact on Loudon County’s landscape. You probably have seen the work of Hope Flower Farm and Winery owner Holly Chapple in magazine photos or maybe you attended one of the weddings or events where she created the magnificent floral displays. As the daughter of parents who owned the local garden center in Leesburg, Holly grew up around plants. Fast forward to today and she is one of this country’s celebrated floral designers, best known for her work using old-fashioned flowers.
In 2015, Holly and her husband purchased a farm with several historic buildings as a place to manage her wedding and event business and to teach floral design to her avid followers. In 2020, when Covid hit and the wedding and event business went dark, she opened the farm and its flower fields for the public to enjoy. Today, she has 2000 peonies planted, several thousand dahlias, zinnias, and cosmos, with more to come. During the growing season, you can purchase flowers or cut them on your own. There are garden display beds to enjoy and even a gift shop of garden items. A winery was added and a series of events are offered from Dahlia Days (September 23-24) and a Fall Fest (October 21-22) to a tulip festival and peony festival in the spring, among the many monthly events to enjoy on the farm.
When Cyndie and Peter Rinek built their home in these Blue Ridge foothills, Peter was already a landscape architect who made sure to incorporate his work into the home’s exterior. Cyndie loved lavender and started collecting lavender plants. Today, Blooming Hill Lavender Farm & Gift Shop is a four acre farmlet with 1,000 lavender plants and some 100 varieties grown here. The spectacular blooms are on display from June through July, when you can cut your own.
And when the lavender isn’t in bloom, there are still gardens to see – a knot garden near the house, an herb garden, and a parterre on the side of the house filled with perennials and lavender. They also offer lavender-inspired and infused talks, teas, and tours to groups and individuals.
At other times, Cyndie also makes and sells a range of lavender products in her gift store on the property, along with lavender plants that you can purchase. Cyndie knows her lavender and is happy to help you find the best type for your garden. ‘Ana Luisa’ is known for its oil. ‘Imperial Gem’ makes a great tea. ‘French Field’ is a perfect cut and come again. ‘Melissa’ is good for cooking. ‘Grosso’ is tried and true and is credited with bringing lavender back into popularity. The farmlet is open to the public Fridays and Saturdays from the beginning of April through the beginning of December.
The National Botanic Garden
The National Botanic Garden in nearby Chantilly, Virginia, is a garden created by the vision of Peter and Beata Knop. Sited on the 1,000 acre farm of Peter’s family on the edge of Dulles Airport, the two have sculpted the land, using recycled and donated materials to form the foundation, and created a 250 acre garden treasure out of nothing but flat farmland.
Part botanic garden and part sculpture garden showcasing Beata’s monumental works of art, the National Botanic Garden is unlike most gardens you have seen. Upon entering the garden gates, various walking paths wind through the garden sections.
The Kyoto area has intricate stone terraces leading up the hillside and a serene, curving stream flowing down. Shade loving plants abound here, along with a large bamboo forest with shoots used to feed the pandas in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The sculpture “The Form” placed at the bottom of the hill is made of recycled concrete. The Japanese tea house building is for the stream’s water pumps.
Hobbit Town is made from recycled materials to resemble the Hobbit houses in the “Lord of the Rings.” These surrounding gardens are mostly xeric; the cactus garden has some 200 varieties on display. The large stone pavilion was a former barn and is now where many of the garden’s events are centered. A mix of shade and sun loving gardens abound here along the winding pathways, with more of Beata’s sculptures on display.
The lake area is another gathering spot with a curved wall amphitheater offering a place to sit and listen to musicians and to gaze across to the islands that dot the water. There is even a castle structure under construction, a decorative “folly” to enhance the garden’s natural landscape. More garden sections are in development as Peter and Beata expand their amazing vision that combines nature and art. Local zoning restricts the number of days when the garden can open to the public. Upcoming dates are September 6-10, October 7-11, and November 6-12.
Connecting with Nature in Loudoun County
Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve is a 695 acre preserve in central Loudoun County and is designated a Virginia State Treasure. And for good reason. It’s a showcase of the Virginia Piedmont from the woodlands that surround to the 5 acre meadow of wildflowers and the creeks and ponds.
The visitors center is the former stone farmhouse of the original family who purchased the land from Oatlands owner George Carter. There are over 20 miles of mowed hiking trails on the property. You could spend a day exploring, or take a quick stroll. Either way, you’ll be amazed at the plant and nature diversity found in this part of the county.
Where to Stay in Loudoun County
Stone Gables Bed & Breakfast near Leesburg is one of the last remaining stone gabled barns in Loudoun County. Originally built in 1823, owners Leslie and Wayne have transformed this former hay and dairy barn into a stunning four bedroom luxury bed and breakfast, while still preserving the wood beans and stone walls that give the structure its unique character.
From the hearty breakfast offered each morning, to the swimming pool (in season), fireplaces in cool weather, and beautiful gardens and expansive grounds to stroll, you’ll want to settle in and thoroughly enjoy this amazing inn and surrounding countryside.
Where to Dine & Wine in Loudoun County
There are so many dining options in Loudoun County that you can hardly make a wrong choice. From downtown Leesburg and its multitude of options to the Village at Leesburg, there is a restaurant with every style of menu. One restaurant to be sure to add to your visit is Magnolias at the Mill in the charming town of Purcellville. Located in a renovated former grain mill, the restaurant uses locally grown produce and offers an extensive wine list.
And as for wineries, with over 50 in the county, there is a selection for every taste. One of the newer ones is Endhart Vineyards, situated on 46 acres of rolling green hills. There are also 30-plus craft breweries in the county to taste and enjoy.
For more information, visit www.visitloudoun.org.
Featured photo – An Oatlands Garden / Beverly Hurley