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Dean Norton, the Director of Horticulture at Mount Vernon, discusses the gardens and planting operations.

Dean Norton in one of the gardens at Mount Vernon.
Dean Norton in one of the gardens at Mount Vernon.

Dean Norton and Dr. Joe Stoltz explore all of the work that goes into maintaining the historic and modern gardens and landscape at Mount Vernon. Below is only part of their conversation. You can hear the full interview in an episode of Conversations at the Washington Library.

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What is your background?

I started at Mount Vernon as a paper picker. The horticulturist that was here took a liking to me, encouraged me to continue down a road to get a degree in horticulture. I attended Clemson University and got a degree in horticulture. I came back and started my horticultural task here at Mount Vernon as a boxwood gardener. The gardens were full of English boxwood. Then the horticulturist retired, and in 1980, I was promoted to horticulturist, and here I am. June 23rd, this next year will be 50 years.

What is horticulture and especially what is horticulture at a historic site?

Well, whether it's at a historic site or modern day, horticulture really hasn't changed from Jesus Christ’s time. It is working the earth, knowing soils, planning, and watering. Horticulture is the art and science of the cultivation of plants, and that's what we do here. I went to school to learn about horticulture, but certainly not about history. That's not part of horticulture, but when you end up at a historic site like Mount Vernon, it comes with the territory. Here, it’s all about trying to recreate what George and Martha Washington had 200 and some odd years ago. Our job is to try to recreate those historic areas, landscapes, and gardens, as they would have been during that time. 

How do you go about learning what was grown here during Washington’s life?

We have to start with the primary documentation, and Mount Vernon is rich with letters, diaries, accounts, and ledgers. It's incredible. So, you start with that, but that’s just part of the story. Then you need to understand, read, and study the books that Washington read. What was he learning? What was he getting out of those books? And not just that, what were his neighbors doing? What were they reading? What was influencing him? Because it just wasn't encapsulated here at this little property. It was the entire east coast.

It wasn't until 1785 that Washington decides to re-landscape Mount Vernon. He just had gone through eight years of retreats and a few battles won here and there, and before that, traveling to Williamsburg seeing some wonderful gardens there. He was really starting to gather tremendous information as far as what he may want to do with his country seat when he returned home. Of course, what really started all that is he had won our independence. People wanted Washington to be king. And he was big on first impressions, so he needed to create a landscape that was more fitting to the man he had become. He had to take all these ideas and all of a sudden put thoughts to ground and make that happen.

That's what we do. We try to gather all that information to have a complete understanding of the principles and practices of the 18th century. Then we take those things that he actually mentions himself and put that into the mix, and come up with something that we believe is as accurate as possible. None of that can occur without the support of archeology, because they're the only ones that are going to find what may be left in the ground, so we need their support as well.

Washington looked to English architect and landscape designer Batty Langley’s book The New Principles of Gardening (MVLA).

How does archaeology play into historic horticulture?

Archeologists are looking for postholes, paths, wall remains, and fence post remains, so at least we can start understanding the actual enclosure. What was the size? What were the bones of the garden? Then beyond that, and I think they will concur with this, that garden archaeology is not easy, because they're not looking for physical items necessarily. They're looking for different soil horizons, and that's hard. When they were digging the upper garden, back 10 years ago or more, they found every horizon of every different garden. But that didn't come without digging it for a year or two before they could really even start to recognize them, so it’s really, really difficult. You've got to have the knowledge base before you can even begin. Then things start to make sense.

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How have you rehabilitated Mount Vernon’s gardens in the past 50 years?

We’ve researched and worked to restore or make more authentic every garden enclosure, with the exception of the kitchen garden. The vineyard enclosure, which we call the fruit garden and nursery now, didn't exist. We were able to recreate that wonderfully.

The botanical garden, that was just a very small garden up near the house. It was a matter of just doing the research. Because Washington was so specific and so detailed about that, which he was about things he was really most interested in or that were new and different to him. That was just a matter of getting some plants out that didn't belong, and bringing new ones in that did.

Now, the upper garden was the most significant, I would say. Five years of archeological work, a lot of research, and working with other professionals in the field. That was tremendously exciting to see an 18th-century pleasure garden, basically the rebirth of that enclosure right in front of your eyes. I think if George and Martha Washington were to come back, they would feel quite comfortable in that space.

Now the archeologists are digging in the south grove, and once that's all done, hopefully, we can recreate that. That’s the most exciting thing. It always involves the research, it always involves going back to the records, and who can't get lost in them when you start reading? It's fascinating.

I always say that you can never write the final chapter in anything we do because they're still discovering new letters, maps. Who knows what we may still find? Archeology too has gone from bulldozer work looking for foundations, to microscopes and phytolith studies. It's just amazing.

Washington's Botanical Garden.

Mount Vernon's Upper Garden.

What else is Mount Vernon’s horticulture staff responsible for?

I think, one of the principle reasons the horticulture staff is here is to observe and protect the landscape and the garden, to maintain them in a professional manner. I also want people to know that we not only take care of the historic core, we take care of landscapes around facilities, museums, administration buildings, this library, which is a four-acre site, and that's another 3,500 trees and shrubs that are under our watchful eye.

I just want folks to know when they come here, when they are walking up to our main gate, and when they step through that gate that they will see a landscape that Washington himself would be very proud of. It’s all managed by a professional staff, that every tree and shrub is under our care. We want this to be a pristine site that people feel very comfortable in, feel very proud of, and of course, when they get to the historic core, feel that it's represented in a very honest fashion to the time. I'm very proud that we provide the carpet, for the mansion and the outbuildings, and our staff is just really, really passionate and proud to do what we do.


Plant Finder

Better identify the names and details behind the amazing array of flowers, plants, shrubs, vegetables, and trees that you see at Mount Vernon.

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