George Washington, Gardener
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
George Washington created a fine landscape and beautiful gardens, but he hired trained gardeners to maintain them. Washington's first gardener was hired in 1762. In 1771 he again looked for a gardener and wanted a "Man that will labor hard, knowing at the same time how to keep a Garden in good Order and Sow Seed in their proper season." Washington continued, "In short a good Kitchen Gardener is what I want."
As Washington redesigned the landscape, the gardens became more specialized and he looked for gardeners with a more diverse skill set. In 1788 he wanted "...a complete Kitchen Gardener with a competent knowledge of Flowers and a Greenhouse." Washington gave his gardeners a free hand in their activities as long as they submitted weekly reports and provided the fruits and vegetables he needed for the table.
View of the decorative boxwood designs in the Upper Garden at Mount Vernon. (Rob Shenk)
Washington created an ornamental landscape or "pleasure grounds" for the enjoyment of visitors and residents of Mount Vernon. At the center of the design is a large, guitar-shaped bowling green surrounded by a broad, serpentine gravel path to guide visitors as they meandered through the pleasure grounds. The highlight of any tour was the upper garden, which opened off the bowling green. From 1763 to 1785, the space served as a fruit and nut garden, but when Washington redesigned the space in 1785 he planted flowers within the enclosure. A pleasure garden was a must-have for any genteel estate, but Washington would not allow too much precious space be expended on ornamental plants without a practical purpose. He followed the advice in an 18th-century gardening dictionary suggesting that if you did not have the acreage, you could combine pleasure with necessity. The flowers in the upper garden were planted in the border that surrounded the vegetable beds. Benjamin Latrobe wrote in his diary in 1796, "On one side of this lawn is a plain Kitchen garden, on the other a neat flower garden laid out in squares, and boxed with great precision." Walking the garden paths, one visitor wrote that they saw a "great variety of plants and flowers, wonderful in appearance, exquisite in their perfume and delightful to the eye..."
With a change of landscape coming and the addition of flowers in the upper garden, Washington was intent on adding a special structure to this particular garden: a greenhouse. He had admired Mrs. Margaret Carrol's greenhouse at her home, Mt. Clare, near Baltimore, and requested information for his construction. She to not only shared information about her structure but also plants from her collection. Washington was thrilled and accepted her offer of plants, for he had recently hired a gardener "who professes a knowledge in the culture of rare plants and care of a green-house." The greenhouse kept tropical plants warm in the winter and served as a gallery of plants for the delight of Washington's guests. In the spring, the gardeners moved the plants out into the upper garden for the duration of their growing season. One guest wrote in 1799, "I saw there English grapes, oranges, limes and lemons in great perfection as well as a great variety of plants and flowers, wonderful in appearance, exquisite in their perfume and delightful to the eye..."
George Washington’s Greenhouse is not only the second largest building at Mount Vernon, but it is also one of the most advanced greenhouses of its time. (Rob Shenk)
One of the earliest horticultural entries in Washington's diary is dated March 24, 1762, when he recorded the receipt of cherry trees from his neighbor Colonel George Mason of Gunston Hall. Fruit trees were frequently mentioned in his diaries as a large quantity of fruit was desired for meals, preserves, and for making cider. In 1785, George Washington removed fruit trees from the upper garden to make room for vegetables, flowers, and 215 apple trees were received from a Major Jenifer. Washington planted trees within the garden enclosures and a fruit garden just below the Mount Vernon kitchen garden. He also added orchards to the outlying farms. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches, and apricots were the standard fruit trees grown at Mount Vernon. Washington's gardeners also grafted and trained these trees as espaliers, a method of training trees to grow on trellises or on brick walls. Apple and pear espaliers were planted on the interior of the garden around garden beds and the stone fruits such as peaches, cherries, and apricots were "nailed to the wall" by his gardeners. A visitor in 1782 observed, "There is an immense, extremely well-cultivated garden behind the right wing. The choicest fruits in the country are to be found there."
Aerial view of the Lower or Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon – land that has been cultivated for food for over 260 years. (Dean Norton)
Martha Washington once wrote that vegetables "were the best part of living in the country." This produce was raised primarily in the kitchen garden. In the 18th century, every home outside the city had a vegetable or kitchen garden as these plots were necessary to supplement the diets of their inhabitants. In addition to the kitchen garden, the cultivated fields and every garden except the botanical garden contained vegetables. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington encouraged his troops to eat vegetables and even to plant them if time allowed. As one 18th-century horticulturist said, "A Kitchen-garden may be said to be the most useful and consequential part of gardening." Mount Vernon's kitchen garden has the distinction of never changing in its purpose. Since 1760, the kitchen garden has been cultivated continuously for the production of vegetables, and it still is today.
Washington made many references the botanical garden during his lifetime and often called it "the little garden by the salt house," or rather fondly, his "little garden." The seeds, nuts, and seedlings which were planted there were gifts from friends or ordered from nurseries and acquaintances. One of the more unusual offerings was hundreds of Chinese seeds that were sown in one quarter of the garden. Unfortunately, none of them sprouted. One of Washington's goals for this cultivated space was to see if particular plants would be able survive the harsh climate of Virginia. Washington was quite exact with his personal plantings, as shown in his diary entries. On the April 7, 1787, he recorded, "In my Botanical garden in the Section immediately adjoining to, & west of the Salt House I sowed first 3 rows of the Kentucke clover 15 inches apart and next to these 9 rows of guinea grass in rows the same distance apart."
Washington hired professional gardeners to tend the garden enclosures. Though at first he just sought a good kitchen gardener, by 1797 Washington searched for an individual that "ought to be a good Kitchen and Nursery Gardener; to have some knowledge of a Green & hot house, and how to raise things in hot beds." The gardener had a free hand to tend the plants, but Washington expected weekly reports to record the activities accomplished. Gardeners' duties have not changed for over 200 years: they planted, staked, weeded, harvested fruits, berries and vegetables and collected seed for sowing the following year. Accounting for their days, gardeners reported passing time "By Pruning of Gooseberry, & Currant Bushes & Pruning of fruit trees--Say Apple trees," "By Digging, Sowing pease, Spinage, & planting Onions," and "By Diging & dressing the flour plots in the high Garden, Stakeing peas, weeding carrots, Onions." At night, the gardener continued to improve his skills by reading and studying garden books of the period.
The Gardener’s House at Mount Vernon was located adjacent to the Upper and Botanical gardens on the Estate. (Rob Shenk)
Manure, compost or dung was considered necessary to all soils. It was the salvation for soils robbed of their fertility and viewed as a material to improve all plants. In April 14, 1760, Washington described in his diary an experiment to determine the best compost for plants. He set up a box with 10 apartments, each containing 3 peaks of earth from the farm. The first box was the control, and to the others he added equal amounts of compost, dung, or mud from the creek, which he referred to as "Black Mould." In each division, three grains of wheat, oats and barley were planted at equal distance and depth. The results from the experiment showed that the best compost was the hardest to come by—the Black Creek Mould. Of all the dungs, horse manure was considered the best, but dung from cow, oxen, hog and sheep all had their good qualities and were suggested for use. There was a warning about pigeon and chicken manure because it was very hot and could burn plants. When it was to be used, it was suggested to use half as much of that material than the others. Depending on the use, manures could be used fresh but very often the manures, even human, were meant to go through a heat or decomposition of upwards to a fortnight or two weeks before it was used. Washington's interest in manures and compost and their importance is obvious in a letter he penned to his friend George William Fairfax requesting that he find Washington a farm manager: "above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold."
George Washington was an avid reader of gardening books and the latest scientific advances in gardening.
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Garden tools have not changed much from the eighteenth century, but they were as critical to a gardener then as they are now. In Elysium Britannicum, prolific writer John Evelyn (1620–1706) wrote about the practice of gardening sketched the tools of the trade. Evelyn declared, "Gardining ... hath as all other Arts and Professions certaine Instuments and tooles properly belonging to it." The three most important garden tools were the spade, the shovel and the rake. The spade was used for turning the ground and making it smooth, the shovel for throwing earth out of trenches and ditches, and the rake for keeping the garden tidy. Another critical implement was the pruning knife, as it was said that there are, "a hundred occasions in the way of Gardening to make use of it." Other gardening tools that would have been found in the gardeners' tool house at Mount Vernon were garden shears, long pruners, baskets, water cans, pick axes, a ladder, and a stone roller. There are frequent mentions in Washington's gardeners' weekly reports to raking and rolling the garden paths. In Le Jardinier Solitaire, by François Gentil & Louis Liger (1706), the authors wrote, "As a Soldier can't fight without his Arms, so a Gardner can't work without proper Tools. The one is as necessary as the other."
Frames and bell glass were used to protect tender or new plantings from cold temperatures. Frames could vary in size and were either portable above-ground structures or more permanent frames that covered a two foot deep pit. Southern-facing, the frames had slanted fronts covered with sashes or windows. These sashes could slide open in order to vent heat on a hot day. A hot bed created with composted manures enabled gardeners to plant in the winter months. Directions for creating hot beds could be quite specific, but in essence the hot bed comprised a layer of composted dung with a layer of good garden soil on top. The continuing decomposition of the dung kept the top layer of soil, where seeds were sown, at a relatively constant 70 to 80 degrees. Using hot beds, gardeners could have planted spring crops like cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, and artichokes as early as January.
Bell glasses, also called bell jars, were used to protect tender plants during the cold frosty evenings. They were usually only used at night, but on a particularly cold day the bell glass might be retained and vented by placing a piece of wood or brick under one side of the glass.
Aerial view of George Washington’s Lower or Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon. Come on out and visit these beautiful and historic gardens that are at the very center and heart of the Mount Vernon Estate. (Dean Norton)