Skip to main content

An interview with the authors of The General in the Garden the latest publication by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association available for purchase today.

What was your inspiration for writing The General in the Garden?

The book began as a companion piece to our current temporary exhibition, which is called Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Landscape at Mount Vernon, and is on view in our museum galleries through May 2016. Our goal in both of these projects is to help our visitors better understand the beautiful grounds that they encounter at Mount Vernon, first by learning to identify the specific elements that make up the landscape (such as the vistas, the bowling green, the gardens, etc.) and then by learning about how these elements were created by George Washington and the Mount Vernon slaves. As we worked on the publication, we realized that we had additional stories to tell about the landscape, for example, how it has evolved since Washington’s death, how it has been preserved by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association since 1860, and how archaeology has provided exciting new information about the upper garden.

Susan Schoelwer - Editor

Robert H. Smith Senior Curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon

Purchase the General in the Garden

We think of Washington as a general, a president, and a leading farmer. Did he really have time to also be interested in gardening and landscape design?

I don’t know if he had the time for it, but he certainly made the time.  When Washington arrived back at Mount Vernon in December of 1783, he had a lot on his plate, and it really took him the next year to sort out all of his business affairs that he had neglected for 8 long years.  But somehow during that time Washington was also thinking about remaking the landscape.  Washington’s letters to Tench Tilghman about the greenhouse were written in 1784, so we know the plan was being developed.  By January 1785, George Washington had formulated a complete design concept, and it is clear from the pace of the work that he was simply implementing his design that year rather than thinking it out as he went along.  That is why the landscape is so cohesive, symmetrical, and balanced.  At the very same time, Washington was working on finishing the New Room which was only a shell of a space when he returned.  These two major projects completed the Mount Vernon landscape and Mansion and they seem to have been long on his mind, but he wasn’t able to begin work until 1785.  By the time Washington went to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, he was largely done with his work on the landscape.  That is what remains in place until 1799 and is what we interpret today.

Adam T. Erby

Associate Curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon

Learn more

Vaughan Plan

Where did Washington gain his inspiration for the landscape designs that he employed at Mount Vernon?

To me figuring this question out was one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition and book.  For many years, scholars have attributed Washington’s inspiration for his landscape design to a pattern book or two, but it was much more complicated than that.  George Washington had just spent 8 years away from home during the American Revolution, and while he probably wasn’t constantly thinking about landscape design, he certainly saw the gardens of many elite Americans.  These were experiences that would later shape his own landscape design.  Unfortunately, Washington didn’t systematically write down what he saw and whether he liked something or not, so it is difficult to say exactly which landscapes influenced him.  We do know that he was influenced by Margaret Tilghman Carroll’s greenhouse, because Washington wrote to her nephew, his former aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman for notes and drawings of her greenhouse.  Washington based his greenhouse on hers outside of Baltimore.  And Washington did use books.  I would say the one he used most frequently was Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary.  Written by the head of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, this dictionary provided practical advice on caring for different plants.  This is the only book that we can say for sure that Washington used as we have notes he took from it on transplanting trees.

Adam T. Erby

Washington was clearly interested in developing interesting and beautiful views at Mount Vernon. How did he physically shape the landscape that we see today?

The most striking instance of Washington shaping the landscape is the view towards the Potomac River from the piazza.  This view might look natural to our eyes and that is what Washington intended, but it is not.  This was a lot of effort that went into constructing this view.  First, George Washington had a ha-ha wall or walled ditch constructed just below the sight line.  The wall prevented animals from getting onto the lawn, and Washington maintained trimmed grass to its edge giving the illusion that the manicured lawn continued down the hill.  Second, the trees are maintained at a very specific height so as not to block the view, and Washington cut a vista or clearing between trees at the center of this view, providing a little more of the river view.  Third, the enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon graded the hill just in front of the piazza, and created a slight dip between the two knolls exposing the river just a little more and providing a pleasing sweep to the hill.

One prominent feature of Washington’s design that is almost forgotten today is the large lawn that makes up the bowling green.  We are so accustomed to seeing evenly trimmed grass on a golf course or in a public park that this sort of green space means little to us now, but in the eighteenth century, ornamental grass was expensive and having the labor force to maintain it implied wealth.  The bowling green was one of the most frequently mentioned landscape features at Mount Vernon during George Washington’s life.  This was before the invention of lawnmowers, when all grass was cut with a scythe.  The enslaved workers at Mount Vernon probably would have cut the grass once every two weeks.  Imagine how long that would take and the strength involved to swing a blade back and forth all day.  At the time, there were few lawns like this in America.

Adam T. Erby

View of the Potomac

Bowling Green

Who worked the gardens at Mount Vernon?

George Washington always seems to have had both a hired gardener and two or three enslaved gardeners working at Mount Vernon.  The earliest gardeners likely grew up in the colonies and did not participate in any sort of formal apprenticeship system.  They were fruit and vegetable gardeners who were able to learn their trade here in Virginia.  When Washington installed the greenhouse, all of that changed.  There were few greenhouses here in the United States and even fewer gardeners who knew how to operate one.  So Washington hired a gardener from Bremen in modern day Germany to come over and run his garden.  The man’s name was Johan Christian Ehlers, and when he arrived in 1789, he spoke no English.  Washington’s farm manager sent him a letter in New York explaining the situation and requesting a German to English dictionary to help Mr. Ehlers.  His wife Catharine came over several years later and she oversaw the work of the enslaved spinners and weavers at Mount Vernon.  But Johan Ehlers had a little bit of a drinking problem that he never could kick, and Washington thought this hampered his productivity.  By the end of the presidency, George Washington was fed up and he fired Ehlers.  Washington wrote to a friend in Scotland requesting that he find him a Scotch gardener because he believed that “generally speaking, they are more orderly & industrious than those of other nations.”  Washington hired William Spence on the recommendation of his friend, and Spence served at Mount Vernon for the remainder of the General’s life.

Adam T. Erby

How exact are the gardens today as opposed to the gardens Washington designed and enjoyed?

All four of the principal gardens on the estate have been researched and restored/replanted:

  • the upper or pleasure garden
  • the lower or kitchen garden
  • the botanical garden
  • the fruit garden and nursery

The lower garden was the first outdoor space that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association researched and recreated in 1937.  It was accomplished during what was called the Colonial Revival period.  Colonial Revival gardens are known for being based as much on beauty as historical accuracy.  The lower garden at Mount Vernon is an excellent example of a formal English kitchen garden, but it is doubtful that Washington would have had such an ornamental garden that would not have better utilized the space for more efficient and maximum yield of vegetables, fruits, and berries.  At this writing the garden will continue to be represented as the Colonial Revival garden created in 1937.  As it stands it represents an important moment in the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association history and a significant landscape movement within the country.  The other three gardens are so accurately represented that if George and Martha Washington were to return they would feel right at home.  

Dean Norton

Director of Horticulture at George Washington's Mount Vernon

How many individual gardens are at Mount Vernon and their uses?

The four principal gardens are mentioned above.  The lower or kitchen garden was the first to be created in 1760.  It was intended to be a garden of necessity, necessary for survival and good health.  It is unique for its purpose has not changed since Washington’s time.  For 254 years vegetables, fruits, and berries have been cultivated within the garden walls. 

The upper garden began in 1763 as a fruit and nut garden.  With the landscaping changes that occurred when Washington returned from the Revolutionary War the upper garden’s purpose changed to that of a pleasure garden.  Pleasure gardens, gardens where flowers were grown for their beauty and pleasure and not for use, were not that common in the 18th century.  Even in Washington’s pleasure garden the flowers were only grown in borders that surrounded larger beds of vegetables.   Even though the upper garden was a highlight of an 18th century stroll around the estate’s grounds Washington made it clear to his land manager that vegetables were the more necessary part of gardening and that the flowers should not overshadow the cultivation of produce grown for the family kitchen.  This garden beautifully combined pleasure with necessity. 

The botanical garden was Washington’s own experimental space.  He fondly called this small space his little garden and kept detailed records as to what he planted and where.  The space was intended to try out different types of plants to see which might be Virginia-proof, or in other words, what plants could survive the harsh conditions of both the winter and the summer.  This enclosure was intended to grow plants that did not require much space.

The area known as fruit garden and nursery began as a failed attempt at a vineyard.  Once the grapes failed the four-acre fruit garden and nursery was created.  Today the fruit trees are planted in the arrangement that Washington recorded in his diaries.  The nursery area was where plants that required more space were planted and they included grasses, vegetables and ornamentals. 

Dean Norton

Lower Garden

Upper Garden

Peaches from the Fruit and Nursery Garden

What are some of the more clever landscape designs and techniques employed by Washington at Mount Vernon?

Washington was very interested in vistas and being able to show the command and control that he exercised on his landscape. We can see these results in the expansive bowling green, the view to the west gate and the regularity and order of the plantation's core. Unfortunately, Washington did not physically shape any landscape himself. He used the strength of Mount Vernon's large enslaved workforce to fill and level the grounds and clear trees to ensure the views were maintained.

I love the ha-ha wall and am continually amazed by the simplicity and effectiveness of this device in keeping animals away from the Mansion while maintaining the beautiful view down the south lawn or west front.

Esther C. White

Director of Historic Preservation at George Washington's Mount Vernon

Ha Ha Wall at Mount Vernon

For guests of Mount Vernon, what do you wish they would see and appreciate with regards to the estate’s gardens and landscape?

I wish our visitor had a better view of the evolution of the landscape and a way to view Washington's home through his eyes.  It was undoubtedly a work in progress for him, as well as a labor of love.  Today it often resembles a place frozen in time, or at least packaged neatly without the complexity and rough edges that a large working farm can often resemble -- especially one from the 1700s.

Esther C. White

Support Mount Vernon

Purchase a copy of The General in the Garden, and help support Mount Vernon's Historical Preservation.

Buy Now