Preserving history

Story by Kristi Hendricks
Photos courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

“When looking at the garden, I see friends. There are few professions or hobbies quite like that. When a friend shares seeds or plants, you often think of that person while watching the plant grow in your own garden.”

This is how Laura Viancour, landscape director, views the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (CW) and her own garden. As we sat in her cozy office watching the snow swirl and fall outside her window on a cold day in January, she talked about working with the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg for nearly 36 years. A flurry of phone calls during the interview provided reports of snow accumulation and landscape conditions in the historic area. 

Laura stops by the Alexander Craig garden to enjoy a thriving cluster of tall garden phlox, her favorite CW perennial.

Originally from the Philadelphia area, Viancour fell in love with Colonial Williamsburg on a trip to Williamsburg with her parents. She immediately knew that she wanted to go to a college in Virginia for a better chance at employment there.

This strategy worked after she earned a degree in forestry and horticulture from Virginia Tech. Starting as a gardener, she soon gained the experience essential to advance to her favorite position, that of creating garden programs focused on interpretive education. Today’s CW garden tours are a result of her desire to offer guests a better understanding of the gardens.

Since transitioning to management, Viancour says she once again enjoys working in her own garden. Reflecting on her career choice, she always wanted to be involved in growing plants, not their destruction. As a child, she loved playing outside in neighborhood woodlands. This passion for nature grew into a profession.

Viancour offers comfort in knowing conditions are never perfect. Always expect the unknown – whether it’s the weather, insects, or blight.

Viancour developed an appreciation for fragrance in the garden from her grandmother. Her mother provided a wonderful example of the kind treatment of others like you want to be treated yourself. Both influences, she said, have had a positive impact on her approach to landscaping work with CW.

In her own garden, she enjoys colorful fall foliage, herbs, fragrant plants, and growing food not only for her family but also for the birds. She loves enticing black-capped chickadees to her backyard and watching the antics of these energetic Virginia natives.

While pulling books by favorite authors from her reference library, Viancour expresses appreciation for naturalist Douglas Tallamy’s efforts to sustain wildlife using native plants, herbalist Steven Foster’s work with useful plants, and the late Pennsylvanian gardener Joanna Reed of Longview Farms, who emphasized the importance of seasonal plantings and functional design, just like the colonists, according to Viancour. 

One lesson learned from her studies is the need to amend Tidewater soil, which contains an abundance of clay and sand. In her own garden, she adds leaf compost as mulch for shrub areas and horse manure compost for rotating vegetable beds. CW is now recycling leaves and lawn debris rather than sending this useful, nutrient-rich material to the landfill.

Whatever is blooming captures attention, and questions are often asked about the less commonly found trees in CW, such as the state champion Compton oak (Quercus x comptoniae) on Nicholson Street and crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) by visitors from farther north. 

Laura advocates growing heirloom roses such as ‘Rosa Mundi’ and R. ‘Celsiana’ because of their fragrance, low maintenance, and hips that add vibrant color to the landscape and food for birds during the winter.

Touring CW’s gardens, Viancour discusses expanding the use of plants native to the mid-Atlantic region. Visitors also learn about defining and using space in the garden to their advantage. Guests find the “Meet the Gardener” program useful in developing their own best practices.

She recommends closely observing your garden to find suitable solutions. Viancour offers comfort in knowing conditions are never perfect. Always expect the unknown – whether it’s the weather, insects, or blight. CW confronts soil compaction, threat of monoculture disease, and plants that have outgrown their intended purpose.

There is the constant challenge with maintaining 80-plus-year-old historic gardens to look authentic to their time and place. Yet Viancour says the future of CW landscaping is both interesting and exciting as they focus on transitioning and restoring gardens to their earlier appearance and reintroducing plants that have not been readily available in the past.

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