A Gracious Formal Garden

“My husband, Madison, is an architect. Whenever he finds a fixer-upper, he asks me if I can make the garden work,” says landscape designer Brooke Spencer. “If it’s a yes, we buy the property.”

Several years ago the husband and wife team purchased a 1950s ranch in the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other than location, one of the main attractions of the house was its five-acre lot.

“It was mostly hilly, heavily wooded and completely overgrown with poison ivy, kudzu and bamboo,” recalls Spencer when she finished remodeling the house and was able to focus on the garden. 

Furthermore, there were miscellaneous outbuildings in various states of disrepair on the flat end of the property. These were taken down to clear the area for landscaping.

“My thinking was to create a destination that pulled us—and our guests—out into the landscape. We needed a place to go, a reason to get outside and walk through the five acres,” says Spencer.

She came up with the idea of creating a dining pavilion separate from the main house, where the couple could host dinner parties, as well as spend time together with their family. To get there, everyone had to walk through what became known as Rabbit Run.

“We wanted to build the dining pavilion as if it had been there for hundreds of years, so we only used ancient building techniques and solid masonry construction,” Spencer adds of the stucco, plaster and marble structure that now stands at the end of garden.

Now that she had her destination, Spencer designed three 100-foot-long connected outdoor "rooms" to get you there: Circle, Long and Pavilion gardens. 

“Rabbit Run is actually 300 feet long. No one wants to look at a 300-foot garden,” says Spencer, “which is why I divided it into three intimate ‘rooms’.”

From the main house, a pair of limestone stairs lead up the side of a stone retaining wall to the Circle Garden. The Circle Garden was built on the raised topography—a large circular reflecting pond sits at its center surrounded by rounds respectively of lawn; a pea gravel path, which breaks off into the Long Garden; and an outer rim of boxwood.

“Just like the bubbler in the center of our pond, I wanted to create these concentric circles of landscaping,” adds Brooke of her design.

Plantings here include dogwood and stewartia trees, as well as thistle, hardy hibiscus and trailing peonies. Annuals perk the space up in season. The overall floral palette is of pinks and whites.

Next comes the 100-foot Long Garden, with its cropped lawn bordered on either side by a 10-foot hornbeam hedge, creating a sense of intimacy.

“I also did a Greek key pattern, with low boxwoods inset with garden benches, on either side of the walking path,” adds Spencer.

At last, a pair of obelisks, each trailing with clematis, mark the entrance to the Pavilion Garden itself. Here, a circle of plantings matches the exact diameter of the Circle Garden’s pond. Beyond is a bluestone terrace for outdoor seating, and at last, the dining pavilion.

“Rabbit Run is the antidote to the sterile lawn,” says Spencer. “It’s a reason to head outside and interact with nature.” She pauses and then adds, “The gardens take you not only away from the house, but...by walking through the gardens and meandering down the paths to the dining pavilion, you really leave the modern world behind.”