By Dean Norton
When the first spring bulb fades and is ready to be pulled the gardeners know they are already behind in their gardening chores. This will be the status quo until fall arrives. After three seasons of growth bringing with it hard work, heat, mini droughts, much sweat, some tears and a little bit of blood when the leaves start to change and begin to fall the gardeners breathe a sigh of relieve. They know they made it through yet another growing season and it is nearly time to put the garden to bed for its winter rest.
Dean Norton, Director of Horticulture at George Washington's Mount Vernon, describes all the important tasks and activities taking place during the early winter days. Think his team is taking the season off? Think again!
It is not that the gardener can now go into hiding to drinking coffee and hoard donuts, their winter work is about to begin. The winter season is the time to prepare for next year’s garden. Although this work is not as high stress as gardening during the actual growing season the gardeners know as did their counterparts in the 18th century the work done in the winter is critically important to a beautiful and abundant spring garden.
One gardening activity that begins when the first flower starts to fade is the collection of seed. Seed is collected from most all of the annual, perennial and biennial plants. A great deal of that seed is used by Mount Vernon’s gardening and greenhouse team to start next year’s plants and the rest is collected, cleaned and packaged by volunteers and staff to be sold in our own gift shop.
George Washington was a firm believer in collecting seed. He mentions the activity and its importance repeatedly in his diaries. On October 26, 1786 Washington wrote in his diary, “Ordered a piece of ground to be prepared in the Neck on which to transplant Turneps for the purpose of saving seed,” On June 1, 1794 he wrote to his manager William Pearce about the White bent grass “the Seeds of which I sent you last Spring. Endeavor, however, to save all the Seed you can from it,” and again in 1794, August 10th writing to Pearce he wrote, “Desire the Gardener to save as much Seed as he can from the everlasting Pea, in the Vineyard.” Washington felt once you had acquired a plant you should never have to seek or buy it again.
Before the garden is totally cleared and cleaned we make sure all seed needed is collected and at times we pull the entire plant, such as beans, and place them in our production greenhouses for drying. Each week volunteers come in to assist us in cleaning all types of seed. As far as the beans go once the pods are dry the volunteers pull the beans from the plant and then separate the seed from the pod.
Dean Norton, Director of Horticulture at George Washington's Mount Vernon, talks about the historical importance that George Washington placed on obtaining ongoing supplies of seeds and the methods used today to continue this practice today.
In the flower beds all annuals are pulled, all perennials are cut back, roses and shrubs are pruned. It is now time to divide perennials. Dividing of perennials is done for two reasons, to control their spread or to encourage better growth and bloom. Some of the plants we divide are Purple coneflower, black eyed Susan, lambs ear and daylilies. Two of the principle perennials we divide, peonies and irises, are mentioned in in Philip Millers Gardeners Dictionary, 1763.
A Purple Cornflower in bloom in the Upper Garden at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
When discussing irises Miller states, “These sorts are generally propagated by parting of their roots. The best time to remove and part the roots is in autumn.” He goes on the say, “All those sorts which spread by their roots, should be transplanted every other year, to keep them within their bounds, otherwise they will spread so much as to become troublesome.”
Peonies multiply quickly and will become weak bloomers if not divided. Miller says that peonies “… are propagated by parting their roots, which multiply very fast. The best season for transplanting them is toward the latter end of August, or the beginning of September…” Indeed the best time for dividing irises and peonies would be late August and early September, but sometimes the gardening team at Mount Vernon look at gardening rules as mere suggestions and continue to divide through October.
It is now time to accomplish the final clearing of the flower beds; removing weeds and debris in preparation for the planting of spring bulbs. Our goal is to have all of our bulbs in the ground before Thanksgiving. In Philip Millers Gardeners Kalendar, 1775 he suggests during the months of October/November to, “Finish planting all sorts of flower roots, designed to be put in the ground before Christmas…” Some of those flower roots or bulbs he mentions are tulips, crocuses, jonquils, hyacinths and Narcissus.
After we clean up the beds we lay out the bulbs where we want them to be planted and as a team dig them in. Once planted we move on to fall and winter activities but can’t wait for the bulbs to begin to sprout in March and April.
With bulbs in the ground and winter really starting to set it is time to get to work in the areas cultivated for vegetables. Digging and composting the earth is probably the most important task accomplished by our gardening team, for responsible management of the soil is the key to healthy plants and successful gardening.
Heirloom seeds are collected from the gardens and grounds at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and cleaned and packaged by hand. They are available for purchase from the Shops at Mount Vernon.
The importance of digging was certainly recognized by the authors of horticultural dictionaries. These books were in George Washington’s library and were studied by his gardener in the evening after gardening all day. In the Universal Gardener and Botanist, 1778, written by Thomas Mawe and John Abercrombie in their section on digging they say that digging of the earth “gives it a sort of reprise to recruit new vigor in its vegetative quality…that will produce crops the more abundantly, and in perfect perfection.” In Philip Millers Gardeners Dictionary, 1763, presses the point that no time should be lost in starting your digging in the fall, “there should be no time lost in preparing it, that it may be exposed to the frost in Winter, which will help mellow it; besides, if the frost continue long, it may prevent working till the season be too far spent for planting in the Spring, whereby a whole season will be lost.” This is so very true! A winter that brings rain, snow and ice can set you back tremendously come spring.
Digging of our vegetable beds begins in fall and continues until the end of the year. We dig one shovels depth. Working the soil in this way aids in keeping the soil workable while maintaining the soil structure. The practice of digging would not be complete without the addition of compost.
Thomas Mawe states that, “compost is proper for the improvement of the land.” He goes on the say that it “is necessary to all soils, to repair them when exhausted by the growth of vegetables, and to cure the defects of soils naturally bad…” Washington certainly concurred with Mawe as far as the importance of compost/manure for he expressed in a letter to George William Fairfax on June 30, 1785 looking for a new land manager, that he wanted one that was “Midas like, one who can convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.”
After a bed is dug several inches of compost, generated on site by our own animal dungs, vegetable matter and from the cleaning of all of the animal pens and stalls, is spread over the ground allowing it to work into the soil naturally by the freezing and thawing process. Not all beds are dug each year, but all beds do receive their annual dose of compost. The lower or kitchen garden has been in constant cultivation for 253 years. The vegetables that were once harvested for the Washington’s and their many guests are now harvested and primarily taken to the local bank. Approximately 6,000 pounds of vegetables are donated each year.
The Mount Vernon Horticulture Team getting ready to apply compost to one of the Lower Garden beds. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Gardening is a year round activity. The work done by the estates gardening team during the winter is all important and what guarantees the bountiful and beautiful gardens Mount Vernon’s guests see throughout the growing season.