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History

In 1771 Washington wrote in his diary “Finished planting the Grape Cuttings in the Inclosure below the Garden.” He hoped to grow winter and summer grapes of both native and imported varieties. Unfortunately, the vineyard did not flourish and over the next 25 years the field between the Stable and New Tomb was transformed into a fruit garden and nursery by Washington.

As early as 1785 Washington recorded planting live oaks in “a Nursery in my Vineyard” implying that at this date the field was still home to grapes as well as being used to nurture young plants. At this time Washington was in the process of increasing the number of fruit trees in the field. In 1786, many trees arrived from his nephew William Washington and he wrote in his diary where these were planted. This document is an important clue as to what was in the fruit garden and how the rows of trees were configured.

Washington’s diary records the trees were organized into four quadrants: north east, north west, south west and south east, with up to nine rows of trees in each square and numerous cross walks. Cherries, pears, apples, plums, and walnut were some of the varieties planted in the field which was divided by a ditch and bank.

Washington referred to this space as a “fruit garden” rather than orchard. Period texts suggest that fruit gardens had more confined spaces and often incorporated walls. We don’t think the vineyard inclosure ever had walls, but we do think the section devoted to these fruit trees was rather small, about an acre in size. Perhaps this is the reason that Washington called the space a fruit garden rather than an orchard.

While walls were not used here, we know a series of ditches, wooden fences, and live fences or hedges bounded and separated areas of the field. A post and rail fence was erected around the field in 1790. By 1792, Washington again sought to reconfigure the vineyard inclosure instructing his manager that, “the old ditch and bank which splits this inclosure in two is to be levelled, and the trees, except here and there one, taken away.” Washington was changing parts of the field to nurture “plants fit for hedging, or to repair hedging” but continued to have fruit trees in much of the field.

He was a supporter of “live fences” at the plantation, closely planted trees sometimes with a ditch and bank.  Raising them in the inclosure ensured a supply for his five farms. Washington suggested weeping willow, yellow willow or Lombardy Poplar, as possibilities for “a live fence” to “form one side of the fence to the Vineyard Inclosure.” He hoped the live fence would eventually take the place of the wooden fence. It appears this live fence ended up being locust, as Washington approved both thorn locust and honey locust being planted.

The vineyard inclosure served multiple functions for Washington’s plantation. It contained grapes, a variety of fruit trees, grasses, and a nursery for live hedging and other experimental plants. While the historical documentation about this field is extensive, it does not answer all the questions concerning the size, appearance and uses of the field. Archaeological excavations were undertaken from 1988 until 1991 to help unravel these mysteries and today a reconstruction graces the field between the stable and tomb.