No one is certain what the grounds of Woodburn, the governor’s house, looked like in 18th century Delaware.
Charles Hillyard III, who built the Georgian-style mansion in 1798, left no detailed seed lists nor did his neighbor to the east, John Dickinson. And old photographs of the property show little of the grounds.
But for first lady Carla Markell, the revival of the gardens at Woodburn isn’t a restoration. Instead, it’s all about creating a public space that is cost-effective, low-maintenance and with a classical, long standing feel to it that matches the period of the house.
“I was very sensitive about making any changes about anything” with either the building or the grounds at Woodburn, she said. “I wanted to make sure we did it right.”
So Markell called on experts every step of the way as she worked first on the home interior and now on the gardens.
With the gardens, she started with Paul Redman, director at Longwood Gardens.
Redman recommended she talk to Rodney Robinson, a Wilmington-based landscape architect.
Then, Markell decided to contact former first lady Elise duPont, whose garden Markell said she admires, and she also recommended Robinson. So on a hot day during the summer, Markell and Robinson met on the grounds of Woodburn.“He said: ‘Oh my, this is a garden in distress,’” Markell recalled. A fountain on the grounds was more a Victorian style than 18th century, the English boxwood shrubs were dying and a lift elevator that provided access for people with disabilities was unsightly. And there was no shade on a hot summer day.
Robinson came up with a vision for Woodburn that kept the collection of governors’ trees in place, salvaged materials like flagstone for new uses and created a new [accessible] ramp with landscaping. Some of the boxwood that was still healthy was saved and a new, low fence was added to link Woodburn with the adjoining state building Hall House so the two buildings form one campus.
“It brings the whole property together,” Markell said.
The garden and grounds work is a public-private partnership that includes a matching $100,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation and other private gifts, she said.
“Mrs. Markell asked me to look at the entire landscape,” Robinson said. “There’s quite a nice collection of trees and we knew that we had to work with them.”
Rather than remove everything, Robinson said, “we did a lot of editing.”
“We wanted the plantings to be simple and elegant and not over-planted,” he said. In addition, the main driveway has been moved because it was crowding the house.
Much of the entrance, fencing and site work has already been completed. But over the next few months, two new gardens and additional landscaping will emerge on the grounds. Much of the work is expected to be complete by spring.
Robinson said the old garden was a formal rose garden. The problem, he said, is that roses tend to be high maintenance. In addition, many of the older boxwood plants were in poor condition. A shallow pool in the garden was leaking.
“We took all of that out,” he said.
Two new features will replace the old formal garden.
A traditional, late colonial style “parterre” garden with four equal quadrants will be planted. Four flowering crabapple trees will anchor each of the quadrants and they will be surrounded by flowering perennials, said Ken Darsney, the state horticulturalist for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.