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Gardens and Groves

Special exhibit showing from
FEBRUARY 22, 2014 through JANUARY 10, 2016
Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at Mount Vernon

Explore Washington’s design and see how he created the sweeping lawns, groves of trees, walled gardens, serpentine paths, and the views of Mount Vernon we enjoy today.

Discover Washington the Landscape Designer

Countless photographs testify to the beauty of Mount Vernon’s landscape. Two hundred years after its creation, it continues to delight. Although the beautiful gardens, sweeping lawns, and inviting paths seem perfectly natural, these features were all carefully planned by George Washington. When he returned to Mount Vernon after the American Revolution, General Washington found the estate in need of extensive repairs and improvements. The buildings and grounds surrounding the Mansion lacked an overall design, having evolved over time with an eye more for practical function than beauty.

George Washington

Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1830
Oil on canvas

“From the clangor of arms & the bustle of a camp—freed from the cares of public employment, & the responsibility of Office—I am now enjoying domestic ease under the shadow of my own Vine, & my own Fig tree; & in a small Villa, with the implements of Husbandry & Lambkins around me…”

– George Washington to Adrienne,
Marquise de Lafayette, April 4, 1784

“In a word the garden, the plantations, the house, the whole upkeep, proves that a man born with natural taste can divine the beautiful...”


Washington's Design

Between 1785 and 1787, George Washington completely transformed Mount Vernon’s grounds into a landscape very similar to the one that survives today. During this break from public affairs, few days passed without the General working on the landscape. To update Mount Vernon, Washington had his free and enslaved workers install such picturesque features as sweeping lawns, groves of trees, curving paths, vistas, and hidden walls (called “ha-has”). From laying out paths to tagging trees for transplanting, the General was involved in every aspect of designing and installing his gardens and grounds.

Travel Journal

By Samuel Vaughan,
June-September 1787

George Washington’s friend, Samuel Vaughan, recorded the Mount Vernon landscape in this travel notebook when he visited in 1787. The drawing delineates the major elements of George Washington’s pleasure grounds, with a numbered key along the bottom that identifies specific landscape features.

“...impress it on the gardener to have every thing in his garden that will be ne[ce]ssary in the House keeping way — as vegetable is the best part of our living in the country.”


Washington's Gardeners

To build and maintain Mount Vernon’s pleasure grounds and produce gardens, George Washington required the labor of both free and enslaved workers. As Washington developed his landscape between 1785 and 1787, he directed the work of the “Mansion house people,” the enslaved persons on the home farm, as they transplanted the trees, built the brick walls, and graveled the serpentine walks.

East Front of
Mount Vernon

Attributed to Edward Savage,
ca. 1787–1792, Oil on canvas

In the earliest known view of Mount Vernon from the east, the artist captured the short-lived “paddock of deer,” inside the picketed fence in the left foreground. The fence was not visible from the yard, creating the intended illusion that the deer roamed wild.

Bequest of Helen W. Thompson, 1964

West Front of
Mount Vernon

Attributed to Edward Savage,
ca. 1787–1792, Oil on canvas

To modern eyes, this painting simply captures the Washington family enjoying the bowling green in front of their home. To 18th-century viewers, the broad and even swath of green grass would have vividly conveyed a sense of the Washingtons’ wealth, enabling them to afford the upkeep of such a lawn.

Bequest of Helen W. Thompson, 1964 [H-2445/B]

View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza

Drawn by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796, Ink and watercolor on paper

This unique scene captures the Washington family taking tea on the piazza, enjoying the respite provided by George Washington’s carefully staged, picturesque river view. No other image conveys so vividly the importance of the Mount Vernon landscape to George Washington—offering quiet repose and the grandeur of nature to invigorate the father of his country.

Purchased with funds provided in part by an anonymous donor, 2013 [W-5307]

“The garden is very handsomely laid out in squares and flower knots, and contains a great variety of tree[s], flower[s] and plants of foreign growth collected from almost every part of the world.”


Preserving the Past

Today, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association presents the landscape as it appeared in 1799,
the last year of Washington’s life.

Flower Pot Fragments

England or America, 18th century, Terra cotta

Clay flower pot fragments were excavated from the upper garden, where they likely held small plants that were moved out of the greenhouse during the warmer months of the year. Several of the pots had molded rims and geometric patterns incised on their sides, adding visual interest. Such utilitarian objects rarely survive, and the example shown here is an original fragment found in the upper garden.

Mount Vernon Archaeology Collection [Old Collection, 44FX762/43, 44FX762/99], (Found at Mount Vernon)

Watering Pot

Made in France or England, 18th century, Copper, iron

Before hoses and sprinklers, George Washington’s gardeners watered his gardens by hand with watering pots like this one, which they filled nearby. Likely one of the several watering pots that Washington ordered from London in 1760, this original example has weathered from its bright copper color through many years of use.

Gift of Thomas Blagden, 1916 [W-1052/B]

Garden Roller

England, 18th century, Stone, iron

Mount Vernon’s gardeners used this heavy stone roller to firm and flatten the soil of the bowling green, making the grass easier to cut. They also rolled the gravel in the serpentine paths, crushing and killing any weeds that might have popped up and maintaining a uniform surface.

Gift of Lawrence Washington, 1894 [W-1147]

Exhibit Details & Dates

Exhibit showing February 22, 2014 — January 10, 2016
in the F.M. Kirby Foundation Gallery at Mount Vernon

In this special exhibition, we invite you to join us in exploring George Washington’s creation of this picture-perfect setting. Discover the ideas that shaped his vision and inspired the landscape at Mount Vernon.

Buy Tickets

Admission to “Gardens & Groves”
is included in purchase of General Admission Tickets.

This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of:

-The Life Guard Society of Historic Mount Vernon

-Dr . Scholl Foundation

-Nimick Forbesway Foundation

-Stella Boyle Smith Trust

-Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon

-Anonymous Donors