Kevin Dowd worked his way up a rope tossed into the more than three-story black maple tree, climbing almost to its pinnacle.
The tree was one of three trees in need of pruning adjacent to the Sweet Briar College mansion, its branches threatening the historic structure. The arborist with Bartlett Tree Service was one of several who dedicated a day to service last week to correctively prune three trees adjacent to the house.
The work is part of a partnership with the Garden Club of Virginia and the college to preserve and protect the historic plants around the Italianate Villa.
It is one of nine projects preservation projects across Virginia in which the company and the club have partnered.
Dylan Kerl, an arborist with Bartlett Tree Service, said the company has had a long standing relationship with the Garden Club of Virginia, born out of keen interest of both organizations in protecting trees and plants.
“We appreciate what they do for trees and plants and we wanted to give back and help out with restoration sites in Virginia,” Kerl said.
The Garden Club of Virginia has been involved in restoration efforts of the grounds around the Sweet Briar Mansion since 2008, and its work has helped manage the boxwoods and create the brick turnaround, parking area and overlook, said Betsy Worthington, chairwoman of the club’s restoration committee.
“I think in Virginia we have been blessed that we have so many historic properties,” she said. “One of the requirements of the restorations done by the Garden Club of Virginia is the restoration of public gardens to share our heritage.”
The Sweet Briar College project began in February, when representatives of the company and the Garden Club’s restoration committee evaluated the health of trees around the historic mansion. From there, the company identified the pressing needs to address during the day of service, created an inventory of the plants and drafted a three-year maintenance plan for the college.
“We have cared for the trees and shrubs at the Sweet Briar house for quite a few years off and on,” Kerl said, adding the company, the club and the college all have celebrated more than 100 years of service.
“These trees are much, much older than any of us alive today and they will outlive us with continued care,” Kerl said. “Trees and plants are really important to the college and to us at Bartlett. Our goal is to be stewards of these plants.”
The day of service corresponded with the Garden Club of Virginia’s 100th anniversary. The organization’s biggest fundraiser, Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, was canceled this year due to COVID-19 concerns. Worthington said as a result, the club is focused on projects already underway — the carriage turnaround at Poplar Forest and the Reveley Garden at William & Mary — as well as maintaining gardens they’ve already restored.
“There are no new projects but it gives us time to reflect,” Worthington said. “Once a project becomes a restoration garden, it stays in our system.”
Claire Griffith, senior director of alumnae development and relations at Sweet Briar College, noted the historic nature of many of the plants surrounding the historic mansion, including the huge boxwoods that came from Kew Gardens in England.
“The garden is very special as a place for reflection and for entertaining. ... It’s important to keep something like that crape myrtle, which is so pretty but still gets into the balcony and the gutter system and all,” Griffith said, noting the tree will return refreshed next year.
Griffith said maintaining the historic boxwood garden, one of the largest in the state, is no small task, involving lots of pruning and spraying.
“Being in the Garden Club isn’t just about pretty flowers — that’s great,” Griffith said. “It’s about restoration, renovation, conservation, and promotion of horticulture. It’s very important, Once you lose it, it’s very hard to get back.”
Paul Munn, horticulturist for Sweet Briar College, said Bartlett has treated a number of the historic boxwoods, but the ones behind the house haven’t been treated in a few years and have developed a leaf miner problem that crews now are working to protect before pruning on those bushes can commence.
“Lots of the trees and shrubs are significant from a horticultural standpoint,” Munn said.
Munn said the Garden Club of Virginia is donating a mexican Skutchii maple tree to the college — a type of drought resistant sugar maple.
Griffith mentioned the college’s new apiary, for which they have the aspirational goal of creating a bee highway between pollinator gardens the garden clubs are planting in Lynchburg and the college.
In addition to the pollinator gardens and apiary, the college has planted a vineyard, with aspirations to sell the grapes on the wholesale market in a few years. A new 27,000-square-foot greenhouse has just been completed on campus and a small garden offers planting space for the college community.
“There’s so many things we can do together with showing young women the possibilities going forward,” Griffith said.
The Virginia Museum of History and Culture has an exhibit depicting historic garden restorations by the Garden Club of Virginia, which is set to open next month.
Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.