Profile: The Show Must Go On

Behind the scenes with Betsy Hamilton as she prepares for the Garden Tour.

“I like to share my garden with people because I spend a lot of time out here,” says Hamilton, a small, spunky woman who has tended the garden since her days as a young bride in the house 46 years ago.

Back then, she saw the expertise of landscape designer Charles Gillette firsthand. His talent had spread across Highland Road and, indeed, into the yards of many of the homes around the same age as the Hamiltons’ 1936 white brick Georgian.

Gillette designed the gardens as outdoor rooms with brick walkways leading through them, onto the slate patio overlooking the slope of the yard and back to the garage, a haven of roses. Though Hamilton puts a lot of toil into the gardens, she gives Gillette all the credit. “Everything I’ve done is a hodgepodge,” she says. “Everything he’s done is lovely.”

But she’s probably selling herself short. Like therapy, she says, like baking bread, Hamilton’s work in her garden has brought her a lot of joy as she has tinkered with Gillette’s designs. And it’s quite a design: straightforward, accessible and elegant.

And, at the moment, understated. Which will change as the time draws near for visitors (who bring some thirst, the Garden Club hopes, as the Hamilton home is the designated lemonade depot for this part of the tour).

The brick walk leads from the round garden room bordered with hostas (“a white garden,” as Hamilton calls it) past a fountain in the center, between the shoulders of two looming American boxwoods and onto the slate patio. It continues down to where the silent beds of bulbs lie in wait and to an area bordered by a white picket fence.

Though Hamilton doesn’t say so, this part of the landscape seems to be the spiritual center of the gardens. A honeysuckle twined around the fence, she says, was given to her by a friend who died 20 years ago. It is, for her, a flowering, sweet-smelling memory of a bygone friend.

Inside the gate, bordered by the fence and the wall of the garage, is the rose garden — some 125 plants, by Hamilton’s count. “This is where I go to church,” she says, pointing to a small model of a chapel, bird-sized, on a pole at the edge of the garden. She says crowds make her claustrophobic, so she does her worship out here amongst a congregation of Lady Banks and Ballerina roses. She prays here, she says with a laugh, “And my husband goes to church and prays for me.”

The largest roses are espaliered up the wall of the garage, which hides her reserves: topiary roses, ranks of Iceland poppies, Columbine, white and pink oleander, all of which will find their places on the stage of her landscaping before the show starts. “The process takes a long time,” she says, “and you have to do everything in stages.”

There’s a lot of scrambling around in the days leading up to, and including, the tour. Though the house isn’t open to the tour this year, Hamilton says she’s spent previous years throwing things under beds and reminding her husband, Alexander Hamilton IV, to clean up after himself. The outside of the house is enough to keep her busy, and with the inside … well, Hamilton still remembers the endless parade of high heels marching through during the tours of the 1960s.

Once she has everything placed, it’s up to Nature to make sure the camellia and dogwood and pink azaleas down near the pool do their thing on cue, to make sure the tulips in their multitudes behave, and, perhaps most worrisome to her, to keep the rain away, at least for the sake of the refreshment stand. As for Hamilton herself — who, it’s been said, isn’t a fan of crowds — with her work done, she enjoys other landscapes during the tour. “I go play golf.” HS

Historic Garden Week in Virginia, sponsored by The Garden Club of Virginia, is April 22-29. For a complete list of events and tour stops, visit You can also call (804) 644-7776 for more information.


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