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The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene

April 2, 2014

Ha-ha! The secret wall revealed

I went to visit the Governor’s Palace to observe, now that it is unoccupied after Lord Dunmore’s hasty retreat, if the gardens have suffered in the current confusion.  The gardener, a Scotsman by the name of John Farquharson, who has chosen to support the patriot cause rather than follow his master into exile and infamy, has assured me that he will continue to maintain the gardens, even in his reduced situation, so that the grounds may be suitable for a governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia should one be named.

The park as seen from the Palace garden

The park as seen from the Palace garden

We took a walk together to view the park which lies on the north side of the property and adjoins the garden through a most ingenious device known as a ha-ha.  This affords the illusion that the gardens and countryside are one continuous vista when, in fact, on closer approach a wall is revealed that separates the countryside and the depredations of unfettered nature from the garden.   The most unusual name is said to derive from the surprise visitors experience when they top the small rise and “ha-ha!” the wall is discovered.

Ha-ha walls, which seem to be a French invention, were embraced by English garden designers earlier in this century to provide panoramas of untamed nature and to relieve the monotony of the formal gardens of our ancestors.  Horace Walpole, the famed English historian, claimed that it was William Kent who “leaped the fence and saw that all of nature was a garden.

The ha-ha wall revealed.

The ha-ha wall revealed

Governor Sir William Gooch upon his arrival in Williamsburg in 1727 wrote to his brother Thomas in England to describe his new home as containing a “handsome garden, an orchard full of fruit, and a very large Park, now turn’d to better use I think than deer, which is feeding all sorts of Cattle, as soon as I can stock it.”  Deer parks are a common feature of English country homes and they are almost always contained by ha-ha walls so I am sure the Governor, Sir William, was well familiar with the device but what is most surprising is his preference for cattle over deer to stock the park.  It is, perhaps, a testament to the American spirit that even an English Governor expresses a preference for practicality over pomp.



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  1. Good morning Wesley,
    Another fine article for reading and learning. I’ve seen that wall and was never told that that type of wall had a name.
    When I look at the various webcams, I see the trees are getting fuzzy and are getting ready to put forth their leaves. Spring is finally coming to CW. With the trees leafing out, our view of Duke of Gloucester Street will soon be more difficult.
    Here in the Chicago area we go from 65 one day to the 40s for several days then 50s and maybe 60s then 40s again. Temperatures at night are still in the mid to upper 30s. I think it is still to cold to plant even peas and root vegetables. The soil in my containers is still quite hard or wet from rain, depending when I look. My containers are in the sun. At what temperature would you suggest I try to start planting? And what vegetables should I start with?
    The onions I tried to over winter appear to have not made it. They are very soft, but some of them are starting to show green shoots. Should I leave them to grow again? Or start new ones?
    Thank you for all you do.
    Your humble student,

  2. Dearest Christine,

    I fear your onions are ruined for even if you do allow them to grow they will shoot straight to flower and seed with the first warm weather. Replant with seeds or sets once the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Seed gives you a wider choice of varieties but requires four months from planting to bulb formation so are best started in the conservatory in northern climes and then transplanted to the garden. Sets will give a much earlier harvest but may be subject to bolting. Occasionally you will find onion transplants at local nurseries.

    I would advise that you sow your peas, radish, spinach and broad beans as soon as you can work the soil. Follow with parsnips, carrots, beets and chard two or three weeks after and potatoes that week after that. No reason to rush the warms season plants such as tomatoes, peppers, squash and beans until night time temperatures remain above 60 degrees.

    With all hopes for a fertile soil and a mild season,
    Wesley Greene

    • Dear Wesley,
      Thank you for your never ending patience of my gardening questions.
      The forecast for the month does appear to have the temperatures improving. By next Sunday, the 13th, I may have the pleasure of digging in the dirt. I do hope so.
      Have a great weekend.
      Your humble student,

  3. How timely this article was for me. Had read about hahas but didn’t quite understand. Last week we visited CW and made a point of finding this spot. Delightful! Now I can say that I know what a ha ha is.
    Love reading your blog. Thank you.