I know something about the magic of urban courtyard gardens. I live on West Avenue.
Richmond is known for many wonderful garden tours, but there's something about the one on West Avenue that's different, almost enchanting. Just ask Thea Martin, co-chair of the 2011 Garden Tour and a resident of this leafy, one-way, three-block street nestled next to VCU.
"When you step through a gate from a cobblestone alley filled with trash cans, you find yourself in another world," says Martin. That world includes courtyards unexpectedly replete with gurgling fountains, moss-dappled statues, shady seating areas and gracious greenery.
This year's tour, the neighborhood's 71st, was held April 30, and a record 50-plus gardens were open for public viewing. Gardeners and lovers of design found much that inspired them here and in the gardens on neighboring Park Avenue. "It takes a good deal of thought and creativity to maximize such limited space," says Tim Feehan, mayor of the West Avenue Improvement Association, the group sponsoring the event. "It's very challenging," co-chair Alison Kent adds. "Courtyard gardens require a lot tending to make plants thrive with little light or soil."
It doesn't take a lot of tending, though, to get West Avenue neighbors together. We close a block and take to the street for seasonal barbecues, Halloween, an oyster roast or a visit from Santa. There's also the pre-garden-tour Flag Parade.
The street's children — West Avenue's nickname has long been "Stork Alley" — gather an hour before the event to march, bike or scooter along to deliver flags to the homeowners whose gardens have won awards.
Three independent landscape designers served as judges this year. They follow guidelines conceived by Charles Gillette in 1966, when he helped West Avenue residents establish judging criteria. Prizes were awarded in categories such as best front yard, best tree box or most improved. Jean and George Longest won the biggest award — the Sweepstakes (Best Overall).
Has my garden ever won? Not even close. Our courtyard is under design, and I'm hoping it just might earn a "most improved" ribbon next spring. Then, you must come and see it.