In the Garden

Estate Planting

A Virginia garden carries on a horticultural legacy

Photo: John M. Hall

A thatched roof complements the stone storage shed in Jean Perin's garden.

When Jean Perin aimed to buy a house on a forty-two-acre corner of the Mellon estate, the storied two-thousand-acre Upperville, Virginia, property owned by the billionaire art patrons Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, she was asked to write a personal letter to the notoriously private heiress. “It was just a matter of me passing her test,” Perin says.

When it came to remaking the parcel’s landscaping, however, Perin needed no such approval, even though her new neighbor was famous for her extensive gardens and horticultural acumen (she redesigned the White House Rose Garden for her close friend Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961). “I did my own thing and thought Bunny would approve,” says Perin, an interior designer who consults on historic homes.


The core of the house started off as a log cabin, used as a hunting box before Mrs. Mellon (who died last year at 103) relocated it about a quarter mile to its current location via flatbed truck in 1955. An addition was made for two of Mr. Mellon’s secretaries, who resided there for decades.

“The ladies weren’t into landscaping, so there was nothing here but a plain yard,” says Perin, who since buying the property in 2004 has also added rooms to what she now describes as her clapboard cottage farmhouse. “It was a blank slate.”

Woven willow hurdles set off a raised bed for nepeta; the bench is modeled after an antique found on the Eastern Shore.

Photo: John M. Hall

Weaving a Spell

Woven willow hurdles set off a raised bed for nepeta; the bench is modeled after an antique found on the Eastern Shore.

Not for long. The home’s add-on footprint created a series of exterior pockets, and Perin transformed each one. “There are ten garden areas that all have their own design, but they also all flow one to the other,” she says.

Within an overarching scheme of green and white, richly rendered in boxwoods, hellebores, Tiarella, Miss Jekyll vinca, viburnum, and hydrangea, there are plenty of eye-catching features. The pathway to the home is a mosaic created to resemble a tree, designed by Perin and installed by New Ravenna Mosaics, a handmade tile studio run by Sara Baldwin in Exmore, Virginia. Nearby sits a stone “storage shed” as beautiful as it is practical, complete with a thatched roof by Virginia-based master thatcher Colin McGhee. There’s also a stunning outdoor shower with American hornbeam trained over a stainless-steel domed cage.

Although each spot has its own unique character, the combined effect conveys a sense of European orderliness that still exudes Southern grace and welcome. “I like an informal elegance,” Perin says.

Other charming elements include the thigh-high raised bed for nepeta blooms, covered in woven willow hurdles, giving the impression that a fairy-tale giant dropped his flower basket. Oversize urns and animal

A metal fountain sits on a compass rose crafted from fieldstone.

Photo: John M. Hall

A metal fountain sits on a compass rose crafted from fieldstone.

statuary of whippets, swans, and squirrels populate every pocket of the garden, including a bulbous metal fountain on the south terrace (a favorite cocktail-party spot) that gurgles atop a compass rose patterned from long cut strips of fieldstone.

Out where the back gardens yield to grass and just beyond the fence next door, what is that very long, very straight strip of pavement? “Oh, that’s the Mellons’ private runway,” Perin explains. It hasn’t been quite as busy since Bunny Mellon died. “It’s the most beautiful runway I’ve ever seen,” Perin says of the airstrip flanked by rolling fields, with the lush backdrop of the Blue Ridge to the west. “They could land twenty jets a day and I wouldn’t care.”