A symphony, a painting, a poem, a garden … however you describe it, Waterperry Farm is a masterpiece.
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The entrance to the rose garden at Waterperry Farm.
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Mandevilla boliviensis (white mandevilla) grows in a stone urn.
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Past the reflecting pool, Japanese maples and stone steps lead in to the butterfly garden where afar-off goldenrain tree stands behind a wooden viewing bench.
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Marjorie Fair and Nur Mahal roses in front of the glass conservatory Kane added to the farmhouse.
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The fountain at the center of the yew garden.
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Katherine Kane with Eartha.
Standing amid a profusion of blooms in the formal rose garden of Waterperry farm, one would never guess that the entire area used to be a bull pen (complete with bull). When owner Katherine Kane and husband Olin West, a psychiatrist, first purchased 60 acres of gently rolling fields and woods in Free Union in 1990, the area was a working farm known as Braeburn (in a nod to the previous owners’ Scottish heritage), outfitted with a dairy barn, milk house and, of course, the aforementioned pen. Now, Waterperry Farm is an astounding set of mature gardens—a testament to patience, art and vision.
Relocating from the small hamlet of Katonah, New York, to Virginia, the 64-year-old Kane says she was immediately struck by the “painterly” qualities of the Virginia landscape. “It’s the light here I especially love. The way the mountains run toward the north, and the way our farm is situated, it makes for the loveliest light.” She began to collaborate with Rockingham County-based landscape architect Rachel Lilly, who understood Kane’s artistic ambitions for the farm and had experience working on large-scale projects, including the restoration of the Gillette gardens at Blue Ridge Farm in Albemarle County in 2002.
Kane decided to name the property after the Waterperry School, a horticulture school for women that operated from 1932-1971 in Oxfordshire, England. “I loved the idea of a horticulture school for women at a time in Europe when the field was seeing only men,” says Kane. Much of Waterperry is styled in a mixture of two English garden traditions: the cottage garden, with its informally laid-out plantings that brim with mixtures of different cultivars; and the naturalistic landscape garden, marked by wide pastoral vistas set against stands of trees and bodies of water. But the symmetrical designs and hardscapes of formal French and Italian gardens (and even some Asian influences) are also very much in evidence. Kane has designed not strictly in line with a single style, but according to her singular vision—one that incorporates hand-picked elements from many approaches to highlight the natural beauty of the Piedmont countryside.
It’s no coincidence that Kane often describes her garden in terms of other arts—music, literature and painting—given her background. As a young woman growing up in New Rochelle, New York, she trained in modern dance (serving an apprenticeship in the New York City studio of choreographer Merce Cunningham). She attended Manhattanville College, where she graduated with a BA in English literature, later earning an MFA in creative writing from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. Kane sees her gardens as a natural extension of her artistic endeavors: “As a writer or a garden designer, it’s about facing a blank page all the time, and I guess I like it. That empty canvas.”
The main house faces east, framed behind by the panoramic backdrop of the Blue Ridge. The formal gardens are aligned to the south along the axis of the house. Kane has planned and planted so that a single clear sightline stretches from the French doors of the kitchen out through rose and yew gardens, across a reflecting pool and down the green lane of a butterfly garden, ending at a wooden bench that faces the house.
“The critical thing about garden design is having defined spaces,” says Lilly. The rose garden is the closest of the formal gardens to the house. Kane notes that while she heard dire warnings about Virginia’s red clay, which can be too acidic for many plants, the rose garden’s former purpose left it with a fertile bed of dark, rich soil. Paths of finely crushed white quartzite (the same “path mix” used at Monticello and in UVA’s serpentine gardens) cross between beds of Fantin Latour, Perdita and other roses, and perennials like Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low,’ and Dianthus ‘Bath’s Pink.’
In the yew garden, white crabapples and traditional English yew hedges encircle a small fountain. The yews were a passion project for Kane, who planted them immediately following the creation of the rose garden. “Although we don’t live in England, I was determined to plant yews. We have to coddle them,” she says, “but they’re worth it.” All the stone and grass walkways are edged with Pennsylvania weatherface (a type of sandstone) installed by mason Chuck Metz, who is one of a three person part-time team employed by Kane to attend to garden upkeep along with full-time farm manager Ray Brooks.
Past the yew garden, Prunus okame (a hybrid of the Formosan and Fuji cherry trees) surround a shallow square reflecting pool. Facing out from the house, one sees the flaxen conflagration of a distant Koelreuteria paniculata (goldenrain tree) twinned in the pool; looking in toward the house, the reflected view displays the watery echoes of stately upright ash and maple trees.
Japanese maples—Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’—stand guard on either side of a flight of stone steps that lead from the reflecting pool into the butterfly garden, a long grass walk bordered by the sentinel spires of tall conical boxwoods. Staggered plantings of cultivars like Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon,’ and Sedum erythrostictum ‘Frosty Morn’ are carefully spaced: “It’s like music—you have to have themes repeating, like when you hear a beautiful piece of classical music, it comes back to a melody that you wanted to hear again,” explains Kane.
Kane has planted Cedrus deodara (deodar cedar) and crepe myrtles, even a stand of Cupressus arizonica (Arizona cypress). “I tried to bring in some rarer specimens,” she says. Of particular note is a Parrotia persica (Persian Ironwood) that produces small dark scarlet flowers in late winter, and a Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura), a native of Japan with papery peeling bark and leaves that smell of cotton candy and crème brûlée when they are ready to fall in autumn.
Throughout Waterperry, Kane has considered not just one moment’s viewing, but the life of the garden: “The thing about planting is the orchestration. What blooms together with what and for how long; and then, what will follow to fill the gap?”
Nearer to the house, a shade walk provides a cool respite from summer days. To provide vertical texture, lower-level plants, including Polygonatum biflorum (Solomon’s seal) and various Hosta (plaintain lilies), are mixed with overhead pines. “Learning when to go vertical is important in design,” explains Kane. “You want to vary heights, and another thing you want to have is texture in your foliage. You can’t depend on things always being in flower.”
In 2007 and 2008, she began to make substantial modifications to the northern portion of the property, where the vista is centered on a large pond. Originally just 1/8 acre, Kane enlisted the help of Nelson county-based Ron Bush of Virginia Irrigation and Pond (known as the “Einstein of ponds”) to expand the pond so that it now covers about an acre. A natural spring was enlarged to create a series of small waterfalls where Kane has planted an Asian-influenced stream and bog garden, lining the banks with Pinus mugo (mugo or mountain pine) and Juniperus procumbens (dwarf Japanese juniper). A new driveway along the loblolly pines and the dam of the pond provides a wide view of the grounds and house that seems to expand slowly as you approach, what Lilly calls “an ever-changing curve.”
During 25 years of careful cultivation, Waterperry Farm has changed and grown, and more modifications are planned. Kane plans to add an events business—after several years of planning, the farm anticipates being able to book weddings in the gardens as early as 2016.
Kane has always understood the need to plan ahead, and her gardens reflect that understanding. For Kane, ever the artist, the maturation process has been a joy: “Seeing trees and plants mature—it’s as good as seeing your children grow. It’s a thrill.” WaterperryFarm.com