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Washington's Failed "Vineyard Inclosure"

While George Washington's grape-growing efforts in the early 1770s gave the locality its name, that endeavor quickly proved to be unsuccessful.

The area continued, however, to function as host to a great variety of plant material, and by 1785 it served as a repository for live oaks, horse chestnut trees and treebox, as well as for grasses and grains. Visitors to Mount Vernon can see the site today which is called the Fruit Garden & Nursery.

Surely a huge delicious fruit like this was worth waiting for: it took several years for the tiny saplings that Washington planted out to begin to bear.
Surely a huge delicious fruit like this was worth waiting for: it took several years for the tiny saplings that Washington planted out to begin to bear.
In 1786, four squares were developed within the Vineyard Inclosure and designated a "fruit garden". With its development came a great influx of fruit trees of all varieties including the Newtown Pippin, Maryland Red Streak and Gloucester White Apples; Amber and Green Gage plums; Chantilly and Two Pound Pears; Heath Peaches; and Mayduke and Carnation Cherries.

The Vineyard Inclosure served a variety of functions in addition to the growing of fruit. In 1793, Washington explained to his estate manager, Anthony Whiting, that the botanical garden near the greenhouse was to receive plants that "required, but a small space for their cultivation. And what is called the Vineyard Inclosure, was designed for other articles of experiment, or for seed which required still greater space before they were adopted on a large scale ..."

Diagram from The Complete Farmer, 1755 (Wikimedia)
Diagram from The Complete Farmer, 1755 (Wikimedia)
Records also indicate the Vineyard Inclosure served as an area for the collection of seed, an important practice in United America because of the difficulty and expense of obtaining seed. Several types of vegetables, including pumpkins and lemon carrots, along with various grass crops were grown in the Vineyard Inclosure for their seed production.

During the 1790s, Washington was also desirous that part of the Vineyard Inclosure be appropriated to raising any and all kinds of plants fit for hedging or to repair hedges. Hedges, also known as live fences, were trees planted closely in a line along the perimeters of the fields to act as a barrier to animals which might ravage the crops. They often were planted in conjunction with a ditch to make a more effective boundary. Within the Vineyard Inclosure various types of trees were started from seed or cuttings and were later transplanted out to surround his fields as live fences.

Virtual Tour

Explore the Fruit Garden & Nursery at Mount Vernon.

Developing the Vineyard

Washington's writings reveal that the development and use of the Vineyard Inclosure paralleled what was described by horticultural experts of the day as the appropriate principles and procedures for the establishment of a nursery. The following is an excerpt taken from Abercrombie and Mawe's, The Universal Gardener and Botanist (1778), a book owned by Washington and which may have assisted him in designing the Vineyard Inclosure:

NURSERY, a most useful district of gardening, appropriated for the raising and nursing all sorts of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to a proper growth, for supplying and recruiting the different gardens, orchards, plantations, & c...

A fence around the whole ground is necessary: this may either be a hedge and ditch, or a paling;... The ground must then be all regularly trenched one or two spades deep ... Then, having trenched the ground, proceed to divide it by walks into quarters, and other compartments; a principal walk should lead directly through the middle of the ground, which may be from five to eight or ten feed wide according as it shall seem proper for use or ornament, having a broad border on each side: another walk should be carded all round next the outward boundary ... next the fence all the way, then may divide the internal part by cross walks, so as to form the whole into four, six or eight principal divisions, which are commonly called quarters.

One or more of the divisions must be allotted for a seminary, i.e. for the reception of all sorts of seeds, for raising seedling plants to furnish the other parts; ...

Another part of the Nursery-ground should be allotted for stools of various trees and shrubs, for the propagation by layers... The other principal division, therefore, of Nursery-ground, is for the reception of the various sorts of seedling-plants from the above seminary-quarters; also for all others that are raised from suckers, layerers, cuttings, & c...

In distribution of all the various sorts of plants in the Nursery, let each sort be separate: the fruit-trees should generally occupy spaces by themselves; the forest-trees, & c. should also be stationed together; all the shrub-kind should also be ranged in separate compartments;...

Fruit Trees

Within the Vineyard lnclosure, George Washington planted fruit trees in four divided squares:

  • he planted vegetables to raise seed for later sowing in large quantity;
  • he planted the seeds, cuttings, and seedlings of a variety of trees for the development of hedging materials;
  • he cultivated various legumes and grass crops for the collection of seed;
  • and he experimented with many seeds and plants given to him as gifts.

Washington laid out and planted the area, so visible in its location, in an organized and methodical fashion, relying on his horticultural reference material as a guide.

The Vineyard Inclosure was an area of evolving purpose with extensive plantings which played a key role in the horticultural history of Mount Vernon.