For a quiet, serene, and renewing summer getaway, treat your family to a visit to the Quarry Gardens at Schuyler, 30 miles south of Crozet and just west of Scottsville in Nelson County. Touring the 34 galleries of local native plants that border the still waters and sheer rock faces of two 90-foot-deep former soapstone quarries, you will feel as if you are a world away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The two miles of trail are surrounded by huge soapstone boulders, steps, and tables. As you walk through the 40 acres of peaceful forest, hearing only bird whistles and frog croaks, you will be delighted by the sight of blooming trillium, coreopsis, wild geranium, cranefly orchid, mayapple, and Carolina rose, to name only a few. Not to mention the darting skinks, frogs, and bass swimming beneath the water lilies in the quarry, as well as unseen foxes, bobcats, snakes, raccoon, and deer. The gardens are open April to November, but the best bloom times are late April/early May and late August/early September—which means now! Visits are by appointment only, and the personal, 1½-hour presentation and tour shared by owners Bernice and Armand Thieblot reveal their passion and depth of knowledge, not only of native flora and fauna, but of the history of the soapstone industry in Schuyler.
The Thieblots purchased the 600-acre decommissioned Schuyler soapstone quarry property (not far from the Waltons Mountain Museum) in 1991 as a weekend getaway from their home in Baltimore. After retirement from their higher education design consulting firm in 2013, and inspired by a visit to the Butchart Botanical Garden at the site of a former limestone quarry in Vancouver, British Columbia, they set about to restore and preserve the rare native plant communities already in place and to introduce additional native plant species endemic to within 15 miles of the site. “We needed a project. We found a second career,” observed Bernice Thieblot. They placed a conservation easement on a 400-acre buffer and dedicated 40 acres of gardens, centered around the old quarry pits. Working with Devin Floyd of the Center for Urban Habitats in Charlottesville, they surveyed the native plants already growing, designed the various plant communities, and began removing invasives.
The Quarry Gardens opened in the spring of 2017 and now consists of a loose chain of 34 designed galleries along the main trails including prairies, butterfly and pollinator gardens, an amended wetland, three vernal pools, barrens, a fern gully, and a waterside talus. According to their website—which includes a database of all the plant species present—“the goal of the gardens is to protect, advance succession, and build out native plant communities in 14 ecozones and 7 conservation areas found immediately surrounding the quarry pools.” The nonprofit Quarry Gardens was designated a Virginia Treasure by then Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2016, was featured on VPM’s Virginia Home Grown in May 2020, and was added to the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Registry in September 2020. Member volunteers, VNPS enthusiasts, and master naturalists help to maintain the gardens.
Our tour began in the large and well-planned Visitor Center, built in a converted Quonset hut originally used for storage, and featuring a small auditorium, a slideshow of native plants and birds, an operating model of the 17-mile-long Nelson and Albemarle Railroad which transported stone from the plant, and restrooms. After a professional video orientation, we all donned wireless earphones that picked up the narration of Armand and Bernice through microphones they wore as they led our tour—an effective way to communicate with a crowd (10-15 people per tour) while walking in large spaces. First, Armand used the model train to demonstrate the history of the soapstone industry in Schuyler, the soapstone capital of the world since the 1890s.
Picking up a walking stick from the handy collection that stood by the door, we followed Bernice outside to walk the woodchip-covered trail around the two quarries, and through the wide array of ecosystems representing a variety of soil types, which contain the largest documented number of Virginia native plants of any botanical garden in the commonwealth. We saw rare and delicate wildflowers such as rue anemones, wild ginger, bluets, pussytoes, cardinal flower, and Solomon’s seal. The natural wildness and beauty brought joy to our hearts and peace to our souls. We ended back at the Visitor Center for a stop at the gift “shop,” where items such as Bernice’s beautiful Seasons at the Quarry Gardens book, illustrated with photos of its bountiful plant and insect life, are offered for free with a suggested donation.
Victory Hall Opera recently performed “Soundflight” at the Quarry Gardens, in which singers performed outside from various vantage points around the quarries, and the audience spread along the trail enjoyed the sound reverberating from the rock walls.
Visit quarrygardensatschuyler.com to make an appointment and plan your tour, which costs a modest $10 per person or $5 per child aged 10 or under. As the website advises, “The main trail is just under a mile in length, with no paved surfaces. There is a 60-foot difference in elevation, made somewhat easier to navigate by 163 rock stairs, and no fences—so this is not a place for flimsy shoes, strollers, pets, or loose children.”
Planting natives benefits our environment by supporting the birds, insects, and other wildlife that evolved along with them. If you’d like to start your own native plant garden, you may purchase many specimens at Hummingbird Hill Native Plant Nursery in Free Union or Little Bluestem Nursery in Afton.