Historic Garden Week: "The spring advances—The flowers are blooming—the trees changeing green." – Dolley Madison, April 1818


April 21-28, Montpelier will celebrate the Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week along with sister historic sites and landmarks across the commonwealth. The Orange County Tour, entitled “Mr. Madison’s Neighborhood,” includes stops at James Madison’s Montpelier, Somerset Plantation, Mayhurst Inn, and Woodley. Similar in architectural design to Montpelier, Somerset Plantation was the home of Sarah Macon, James Madison’s sister, and her husband, Thomas Macon. The Mayhurst property, formerly known as Howard Place, was the residence of the Madisons’ friends and neighbors, Charles and Jane Taylor Howard. It was the Howards who owned Fanny Gordon, the wife of Madison’s slave Paul Jennings, and their five children. Col. John Willis then commissioned the current structure on the eve of the Civil War. Woodley was the home of Madison’s brother Ambrose and his wife Mary Willis Lee. The two wings at Woodley were added by Madison’s favorite niece, Nelly Madison Willis. Our friends at the James Madison Museum are also holding a plant sale from April 28 -29 with a guest lecture by Dolley Madison scholar, Holly Shulman, on the 29th. This year, Earth Day 2012 also falls handily within Garden Week and offers a time to celebrate nature’s beauty while being mindful of the continual need for environmental stewardship.

Both James and Dolley Madison were avid gardeners. They cultivated flowering plants and fruit trees, developed formal landscapes, and tended to the plantation agriculture of Montpelier. Great niece Mary Cutts described the former president as “fond of Horticulture,” taking particular pleasure in his “twins”—two tulip poplar trees on the back lawn—and picking figs and grapes from the garden.1 A two-week span of unseasonably warm weather in 1825 prompted Dolley to her garden where she heard birds reemerging from their winter dormancy, singing “their summer song.”2 In early April 1831, Dolley wrote of the beautiful Virginia weather, suggesting the “garden and grove begin to charm me with musick & flowers.”3 Dolley was so passionate about gardening, she went so far as to name the buds of her Cape Jessamine plants after loved ones, notably Madison and Payne Todd.4

Madison was, in many ways, ahead of his time, particularly regarding his views on environmental conservation. In his now famous 1818 presidential address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Madison called for environmental protection, acknowledging that humans’ ability to deplete resources far exceeds nature’s ability to replenish them: “With so many consumers of the fertility of the earth, and so little attention to the means of repairing their ravages, no one can be surprised at the impoverished face of the country; whilst every one ought to be desirous of aiding in the work of reformation.”5 Montpelier’s old growth forests are a living testament to Madison’s ideology.

We wish our readers and visitors a wonderful, verdant Historic Garden Week and happy Earth Day. We hope that you are, as the Madisons were, “like the birds”—“busy in Sun-shine, hope, and Spring Weather.”6


1. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 38-39. 

2. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, January 22, 1825, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

3. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Elizabeth (Betsy) Coles, April 8, 1831, Private Collection. 

4. Cutts Memoir, 39. 

5. James Madison, Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle Virginia, May 12, 1818, box 2, folder 9: 1818, James Madison Papers, MS 1833, New York Public Library, New York, New York. 

6. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Edward Coles, March 6, 1832, box 1, folder 30, Edward Coles Papers, MS C0037, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey.






Montpelier Staff