Grand estate maintained with historical sensitivity and modern tools

The Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont is a 27-acre historic estate in Fredericksburg, Va., which is maintained as a public memorial to the famous painter who once owned the property, as well as a place for public recreation.

Back in the heyday of grand American estates, it wasn’t unusual for entire teams of servants and staff to be employed to look after the upkeep of homes and properties. Outside of a select few, those days are over. So, what about those large estates that remain public gardens or museums? How can a much smaller modern-day crew be expected to do the work that was once done by dozens of workers? That’s exactly the challenge facing the team at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, located in Fredericksburg, Va. The 27-acre country estate (, once home to famed impressionist painter Gari Melchers, is now open to the public so they can see the working studio as it existed in the 1920s.

An important part of that experience is the opportunity to see and tour the landscape surrounding the home and studio, explains Beate Jensen, buildings and grounds preservation supervisor. “We’ve found that once people go through the house and museum, they might feel that they’ve seen it all, but they keep coming back for the grounds, because they’re constantly changing.”

The house was originally built in the 1790s. “But, the period we interpret today is when Gari Melchers and his wife Corinne lived here,” explains Jensen. That period began in 1916 and extends a decade past Melchers’ death in 1932. In 1942, Corinne deeded the estate to the commonwealth of Virginia, and one of her wishes was that the property would serve as a memorial to her husband. “She also wanted it to serve as a place that people in the area could come for recreation,” adds Jensen. “She wanted it to almost be like a park, and that really struck me; that’s what I use for my guidance to steer what I do with the grounds here.”

Immediately around the house and outbuildings are a series of formal gardens. “We have lots and lots of documents, photographs and plans of these, so we really have tried to restore them to the period,” Jensen states. It’s not an easy job to maintain these in historical fashion, but there is plenty of guidance to follow, she adds. “I don’t have to guess how they were.”

The history of the rest of the grounds is a little more of a mystery. When Jensen arrived nearly 12 years ago, the surrounding woods were “completely overgrown” she recalls. “You couldn’t physically walk through them, and we had two large fields that had been pastureland and which were just mowed three or four times a year,” explains Jensen. She decided to develop those fields into native grasses. She began clearing the woodlands of invasive species and installing a network of walking trails – about 1.5 miles – through the woods. “The trails are something we added, but I think it fits with [Corinne’s] vision, and they’re very popular,” says Jensen. “Once a month, the master naturalist gives a guided woodland tour, and people come often to walk on their own.”

It remains the lawns and gardens around the house that continue to attract the most attention. Keeping these areas immaculately maintained is a daily challenge. Especially since Jensen is the only full-time, year-round groundskeeper. There is a year-round, part-time groundskeeper and a part-time, seasonal staffer. “The two of them basically mow,” says Jensen. Keeping up with all the mowing is, by itself, a challenge. “About four years ago, we got a zero-turn mower, and that has made a huge difference,” she emphasizes. Prior to that, the lawns were mowed with a residential-grade lawn tractor, which was slow and prone to breakdowns. Before that, the lawns were mowed with push mowers.

A limited staff must care for the extensive gardens and grounds. The addition of a zero-turn mower has improved productivity greatly, explains Beate Jensen, buildings and grounds preservation supervisor at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont.

The addition of the John Deere zero-turn unit has dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to mow the lawns, freeing the limited staff up to do other work, says Jensen. “We have some very tight areas to mow around the gardens, so the zero-turn is terrific. Getting enough money to buy equipment is always a problem, but we’re hoping to be able to buy one more zero-turn mower,” Jensen says.

Jensen says the goal is to keep the lawns looking good with minimal inputs. “We had a nutrient management plan made up through the state a few years ago. We follow that and try to be very low on phosphorus and nitrogen. We don’t do everything every year; we do it as it’s needed,” she explains. There is an irrigation system, installed by the Garden Club of Virginia, that covers the main parts of the lawn. “That was put in about 10 years ago, and it has made a very big difference,” Jensen points out.

There are weddings and other events held in the gardens from time to time, so compaction of the lawns in that area is a concern. “We usually core aerate every fall, and then overseed,” says Jensen. “If we do any fertilization, we would also do that in the fall.”

The seed used in the overseeding is Winning Colors from Roxbury Mills, a tall fescue described as “an ideal choice of grass seed for cool-season applications. It also holds up well under southern heat, drought and it is disease-resistant (including brown patch). Winning Colors has excellent density, texture and dark green color.” The versatility is important, as the transition zone climate in Virginia includes stifling hot summers and occasionally snowy winters.

The flower gardens are an important part of the property, says Jensen. The website for the Melchers property describes the landscape design as Georgian, “based on symmetry and geometry, represented at Belmont in the four parterre beds on the south lawn. Triangular beds edged in boxwood house roses, annuals and tulips. Stone benches and oak trees at the south and north of the house form the starting and ending points of an axis that runs through the house and garden.”

Jensen tends to the flower beds. “Weeding is the most time-consuming task,” she says, “and there are some areas around the edges where I use a preemergent herbicide.” Again, Jensen points out, this approach helps get the job done with limited staff. “We’re not fully organic here, but we try to start with organic approaches, and if they don’t work, we work our way up to other solutions.” Two areas of the property, a butterfly garden and a vegetable garden, are maintained organically, she adds.

The Melchers were particularly well-known for their rose gardens, a fact that Jensen has tried to honor over the years. “I’ve used the information available to gather all of the varieties they had that are still available. They’re really beautiful in the spring,” she says. “I also have tried to plant bulbs every year throughout the spring, which also really makes things look terrific in the spring.”

Trees are showcased during tree tours. “We don’t have enough people to maintain them the way I’d like to,” Jensen says of the many trees and shrubs on the property. The boxwoods are pruned annually with hand pruners, and when possible, teams from Bartlett Tree Experts are brought in to assist with this task. “They’ve helped us institute a boxwood management plan, because we have a root rot problem here in Virginia, and we don’t have the ability to spray here,” says Jensen. “We don’t have the time or equipment, so it’s nice to be able to hand that one job off to someone else, and I think the boxwoods are now starting to look a little bit healthier.” The Bartlett crews have also been called on to assist with the trimming and maintenance of larger trees.

The leaves from the trees are collected in the fall and composted. “I compost a lot here, and I use it,” says Jensen. “We put manure on the landscape beds twice a year, in the spring and fall. And, sometimes even use compost and really well-rotted horse manure on the lawns. We have a couple of real trouble areas on the lawn, but after three or four years, the compost and manure is really turning that around.” That’s one of the many historical touches the Melchers surely would appreciate.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.