Since 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has funded and provided the best care possible for the expansive lawns, the beautiful historic gardens, and the 140-foot-tall trees that tower over the estate. Some of these historic trees were planted during Washington’s lifetime. It wasn’t until 1785, after the Revolutionary War, that Washington began a conscientious effort to incorporate the landscapes he had seen on his many travels into his designs at Mount Vernon.
On January 12, 1785, Washington wrote, “Road to my Mill Swamp, where my Dogue run hands were at work & other places in search of the sorts of Trees I shall want for my walks, groves and Wildernesses.” As well as selecting trees, Washington also oversaw their care, as he wrote in his diary on March 3, 1785: “Employed myself the greatest part of the day in pruning and shaping the young plantation of trees.”
The days of Washington personally caring for the plants at Mount Vernon, along with enslaved workers and hired gardeners, are long gone. Today, the work is entrusted to a highly skilled and dedicated team at Mount Vernon that keeps a watchful eye over the entire estate every day of the year. This is an enormous and significant responsibility that is fraught with challenges.
Nature often presents unforeseen events that impact the carefully protected grounds of Mount Vernon. Lightning is a major threat to our original and historic trees. Critical to their continued health is repairing and updating previously installed lightning protection and installing more protection systems in trees of importance. This work was begun under the direction of Thomas Edison and must continue into the future. We learned an unfortunate lesson during the summer of 2013 when an 18th-century tree, not in a location that would have warranted lightning rod cables, took a direct lighting strike and did not survive. Our new approach is to protect all significant trees with lighting rods regardless of their height and location. We know that trees cannot live forever, but with this project, we hope to prevent nature from taking them before their time.
In March 2014, the declining “swamp chestnut” oak collapsed ahead of plans for removal in 2015. Although not part of George Washington’s landscape design, this tree has been a staple of the Mount Vernon landscape for over two centuries.
As part of maintaining our trees, we must prevent them from having a damaging or negative impact on areas of the estate. In particular, there are dozens of trees clustered along the hillside leading from the Mansion to the Potomac River’s edge. As the trees grow taller, they begin to block the magnificent view from the piazza. To prevent this, the trees must be monitored, trimmed, and sometimes removed to maintain this famous and extraordinary view.
Washington's view of the Potomac River (Ron Hirshon)
Completing the Garden Design
Research conducted while restoring the upper garden to its original 18th-century appearance revealed the design would not be complete without espaliered fruit trees (trees trained to grow flat against a wall or upright support). Eighteenth-century horticulturists advised surrounding the quarters of gardens with espaliered fruit trees. In the case of the upper garden, the trees would have separated the flowers for enjoyment from the vegetables for the table.
Learn more about the upper garden at Mount Vernon.
We have contracted with a grower to graft and train 50 six-arm apple and pear espaliers with the goal of planting them in the garden in 2017. This addition will provide visitors with a more accurate representation of Washington’s garden and what his guests famously reported following their afternoon strolls.
Your generous donation today will help Mount Vernon carry on the work that George Washington started in 1785, preserving and protecting Mount Vernon’s historic landscape through research, exploration, and sound gardening practices.
Replanting the Boxwood
Much of George Washington’s landscape has been painstakingly restored, but there is always work to be done and new details to be discovered through ongoing research and horticultural investigation.
After years of boxwood trials in the upper garden, a “cultivar” was chosen that had the closest appearance to an English boxwood, the plant of choice for edging garden beds in the 18th century. Unfortunately, due to its susceptibility to disease, English boxwood can no longer be grown at Mount Vernon. After the restoration of the upper garden in 2011, three thousand edging boxwoods were planted around the garden beds. Sadly, the cultivar began to fail. A new boxwood cultivar has been selected that we are confident will succeed, but we now have to replace all of the failed edgings with the new variety.
With the new boxwood edgings in place, visitors will enjoy an enhanced experience in the upper garden as they stroll through Washington’s carefully planned paths and tree-lined lanes.
Detail of boxwoods in the upper garden.
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