Aerial view of the Lower or Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon – land that has been cultivated for food for over 260 years. (Dean Norton)
On August 19, 1776, just prior to the encountering the main force of the British Army, George Washington penned a letter to his land manager directing the planting of groves on either side of the house. This is the first written account of landscaping at Mount Vernon. Washington would spend the next eight years away from his beloved home, winning independence from the British Empire. One year after returning home from the Revolutionary War, Washington turned his attention to improving the landscape that surrounded his country seat. He knew that many would make the trek to see his home and he wanted those visitors to be impressed with what they saw. In 1796, he wrote to his farm manager about a visit home from Philadelphia, “During my stay at Mount Vernon I expect much company there, and of the most respectable sort, it would be pleasing to us therefore to find everything in order.” Later that same year, Washington wrote to his nephew, “my house, I expect, will be crowded with company … as the ministers of France, Great Britain, and Portugal, in succession, intend to be here—besides other strangers.”
Washington turned to gardening dictionaries and calendars written by Philip Miller, chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, as well as dictionaries on gardening and botany by horticulturists Thomas Mawe and John Abercrombie. These publications and a design book written by architect and landscape designer Batty Langley would give Washington the information he needed to break from the formality of early colonial landscapes and create a new naturalistic style that would be enjoyed by his family and his many guests.
View of one of the landscape illustrations in Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Washington looked to English architect and landscape designer Batty Langley’s book, New Principles of Gardening, published in 1728, as his textbook. Langley claimed he would demonstrate the laying out and planting of features in the landscape “After a more Grand and Rural Manner, than has been done before.”
Langley was a proponent of the naturalistic landscape, a picturesque style fashionable in England. In January of 1785, Washington began the task of re-landscaping Mount Vernon in a more naturalistic style, doing away with the geometric layout that had been there before. Roads and walls were removed and gardens and landscapes were reconfigured.
Detailed view of the Samuel Vaughn plan showing Mount Vernon’s landscape in 1787.
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
In 1792, while Washington was in Philadelphia serving as president, he renewed his interest in the landscape surrounding his home and purchased 210 plants in 106 varieties from John Bartram’s nursery in Philadelphia. These plants arrived at Mount Vernon with a note to the gardener containing the most detailed instructions of any of Washington’s landscape improvements.
The large variety of plants were intended to be used to create 6 ovals on the west lawn, “two large ovals and at the ends four small ones.” Plants in the ovals were arranged according to height: “Putting the tallest, always, nearest the middle, letting them decline more into dwarfs towards the outer parts.” The only exception to that rule was in the larger ovals where two loftier trees could be planted at each end. In keeping with naturalistic landscape designs in each oval feature, Washington instructed that “no regularity may be observed in planting.”
Most plantations were located on the river because water travel was the best and most reliable way to transport goods to market. Yet few estates had as commanding a view and received so many glowing, descriptive accounts as did the view from Mount Vernon across the Potomac River. Washington himself wrote, “no estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this.” The two-story piazza with its 30 Windsor chairs was an ideal location for visitors to relax and enjoy the beautiful view. British architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe wrote, “Towards the East of the Mansion Nature has lavished magnificence, nor has art interfered but to exhibit her to advantage … Down the steep slope trees and shrubs are thickly planted. They are kept so low as not to interrupt the view but merely to furnish an agreeable border to the prospect beyond.” Latrobe’s 1796 drawing provides a rare, intimate view of the Washington family on the piazza and a glimpse of the magnificent prospect. Eighteenth-century visitor John Hunter recorded in his diary that “The situation of Mount Vernon is by nature one of the sweetest in the world, and what makes it still more pleasing is the amazing number of sloops that are constantly sailing up and down the river.”
Aerial view of Mount Vernon overlooking the nearby Potomac River. Mount Vernon and its famous piazza were oriented to take full advantage of this beautiful view. (Virginia Tourism Corporation)
You can still find trees at Mount Vernon that were planted in Washington’s time (Rob Shenk)
When Washington needed trees and shrubs for planting his new landscape at Mount Vernon, he needed to go no further than the surrounding forest.
On January 12, 1785, Washington recorded in his diary, “Road to my Mill Swamp, where my Dogue run hands were at work & to other places in search of the sorts of trees and shrubs I shall want for my walks, groves, & wildernesses.” On his first tree-tagging trip he found elm, ash, maple, poplar, sassafras, dogwood, fringe and redbud trees. From January of 1785 until the middle of 1786, his diaries are full of his plant explorations and details of his landscaping accomplishments. He planted aspen trees along the serpentine avenues, dogwood, maple, poplar, and mulberry in the shrubberies, and wagon-loads of Virginia pine in the wilderness areas. Washington’s excitement with his progress is evident in his diary entries, and with great satisfaction he recorded on March 3, 1785, “Employed myself the greatest part of the day in pruning and shaping the young plantation of Tree & Shrubs.”
One of the many gravel walk ways – this one found within the Upper Garden at Mount Vernon (Rob Shenk)
In The Universal Gardener and Botanist (1787), lawns were lauded as “add[ing] to the grandeur of the garden and beauty of the mansion,” which the bowling green certainly does at Mount Vernon. Gravel walks were praised as “great ornaments to the gardens as well as the most useful kinds of walks for common walking.” But both required weekly maintenance.
Lawns were to be mowed once a week. Prior to mowing, the lawn would be poled with long tapered pliable poles, 15 to 18 feet in length, rolled across the ground The purpose of the poling was to “break and scatter the worm-casts about.” Earthen mounds left by worms were considered unsightly. If the lawn was damp, it was suggested to roll the lawn with a wooden roller so that the earth that had been scattered would adhere to the roller “and render the surface perfectly clean.” Mowing would occur at least once a week using a scythe. Stone rollers would have been used occasionally “to press down all inequalities close, so as to preserve a firm, even, smooth surface.” Similarly, gravel walks required weekly required raking and rolling. The rolling would be repeated “till the surface is rendered perfectly compact, firm and smooth; and if after the first shower of rain, you give it another good rolling, it will bind like a rock.” Washington’s gardeners frequently recorded in their work diaries the dressing, sweeping, and raking of the gravel walks in the gardens. New gravel was added throughout the year.
When Washington redesigned the landscape at Mount Vernon following the Revolutionary War, he planned for a deer park to be sited between the Mansion and the river. In October of 1785, he recorded that he “Measured the ground which I intend to inclose for a Paddock, and find it to be 1600 yards.” Next, he needed deer. He planned to stock the paddock with English and native deer and he also received deer from several of his friends. Benjamin Ogle sent six fawns from his park of English deer. Set in a natural setting the deer park was intended to inspire and renew the Washington family and their guests’ social and psychological well-being.
The paddock fell into disrepair during Washington’s lengthy absence during the war and presidency. In 1792, the deer park was removed and a serpentine wall built in its place. That August, he wrote to Richard Chichester, “I have a dozen deer (some of which are of the common sort) which are no longer confined in the Paddock which was made for them, but range in my woods, & often pass my exterior fence.” Washington never hunted deer for his table, nor did he allow deer to be hunted on his property.
At most plantations, natural views could easily be destroyed by the fencing necessary to keep farm animals away from the house and gardens. Washington’s solution was to use ha-ha walls, a common feature in British naturalistic landscape design. A ha-ha wall is a sunken wall with a turf ditch on the pasture side. The wall served to keep domesticated animals safely in the pasture, but their boundary was concealed. As a visitor looked away from the Mansion, they saw a pastoral scene with animals grazing in the distance, but the wall did not interrupt the view beyond.
Washington created three ha-ha walls in 1785. They were located to the north and south of the east lawn and another was created to the west. A fourth serpentined ha-ha wall was built later, directly to the east of the house, after the paddock constructed for deer had fallen into disrepair. Beyond adding natural beauty to Mount Vernon’s landscape, the ha-ha walls separated the working farm from the family’s living area or pleasure grounds that Washington had created for the enjoyment of his family and guests.
View of one of Mount Vernon’s Ha-Ha walls which artfully kept animals from wandering up onto the Bowling Green. (Rob Shenk)
Washington achieved this effect by layering different varieties of trees and shrubs at different points on the landscape. Close to the Mansion, he planted locust groves, which framed the house and acted as a screen between the plantation’s work areas and the family’s living area. Shrubberies, a popular feature in English landscape design, were planted on either side of the bowling green where the serpentine path curved inward. The shortest plants were placed in the front, and the tallest in the rear, with the arrangement designed to feature each plant’s foliage and blooms. Washington planted locust, sassafras, live oak, and willow trees in his shrubberies. Where the lawn widened, Washington planted wildernesses with labyrinthine paths within. When visitors strolled the gardens, these areas provided the opportunity explore and hold private conversations.
Many visitors recorded their reactions to the landscape and gardens at Mount Vernon, providing a unique record of Washington’s design. In The American Geography (1786), Jedidiah Morse compared “the whole assemblage” to “a rural village—especially as the lands in that side are laid out somewhat in the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass grounds, ornamented with little copses, circular clumps and single trees.”
In April of 1791 William Loughton Smith described “two pretty gardens separated by a gravel serpentine walk.” Two years later, Winthrop Smith recorded “the various Avenues are as artfully continued as in a limited Area to afford the most delightful promenades.” In 1799, the Reverend John E. Latta was delighted by “a great variety of plants and flowers, wonderful in their appearance, exquisite in their perfume and delightful to the eye.”
That same year, John Searson was so moved that he wrote a poem entitled Mount Vernon, A Poem. It concluded with the following verse:
The walks well-gravell’d, smooth’d and very neat,
And ev’ry scene this season quite complete.
A garden useful will be e’er admired,
And what’s more pleasant than a walk retired?
The west front of Mount Vernon by the artist Edward Savage. This painting, circa 1787-1792, is the earliest known image of the Mansion (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)