George Washington Estate Herbal Pursuits

The History Behind the Prolific Mt. Vernon Gardens

| February/March 1998

  • Illustration by Gayle Ford
  • Rigid formality dominated Mount Vernon’s landscaping, which is re-created there today as Washington maintained it. These artist’s renderings show an overview of the grounds and details of the Upper Garden, which was devoted to flowers for pleasure, fragrance, flavor, and medicine. Among the flowers planted here are late spring bloomers such as foxgloves, blue false indigo, sweet rocket, Oriental poppies, calendulas, and roses. In the summer and fall, love-lies-bleeding, globe thistle, globe amaranth, wild bergamot, catmint, nasturtiums, and many other plants flower with abandon.
    Photography by Anybody Goes

  • Illustrations by Gayle Ford
  • A nasturtium still blooms in a hand-­colored engraving from a book owned by George Washington, The Botanical Magazine, now housed in the research library at Mount Vernon.
    Illustration Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies ­Association
  • A portion of the Upper Garden as it looks today.
    Photography Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies ­Association

As I work in my garden in Alexandria, Virginia, I can see sunlight dancing off the waters of Little Hunting Creek and beyond them a few acres of woods that separate me from one of America’s preeminent historic sites: George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

The Washingtons were people of the land. Washington’s great-grandfather acquired the property, then called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, in 1674—8,000 acres stretching about 10 miles along the Potomac River. When Lawrence, George’s elder half-brother, inherited the plantation, he renamed it Mount Vernon in honor of a British Admiral Vernon, whom he had served under in the 1740s in the Caribbean. George inherited the land when his brother and sister-in-law died.

The land on which my house stands was once part of the Mount Vernon estate, and I sometimes feel that I’m under Washington’s influence, even his instruction. My spade occasionally unearths a hint of history—a piece of handmade iron harness, a shard of pottery with mottled blue and green stripes. I like to imagine that they date from Washington’s time.

Some of the oak trees in my ­wooded neighborhood are nearly 200 years old. A slave graveyard once lay across the street where the land slopes down to a spur of Little Hunting Creek, one of several graveyards on the five working farms into which Washington divided Mount Vernon for easier management. The human remains have been removed to a memorial site on the estate, which comprises about 200 acres today.

George Washington was at heart a farmer. His passion was agriculture, and Mount Vernon was his laboratory and his lifelong love, as many of his writings attest. At Washington’s insistence, his remains and those of his wife, Martha, were interred in the soil of their beloved Mount Vernon.

Washington the Farmer

George Washington kept copious records. His files include planting experiments, a botanical test garden, as well as correspondence with friends and acquaintances in America, France, and England arranging for shipments of non-native species that might thrive in Virginia’s moderate climate. He even noted day-to-day events in the garden, writing in his diary on May 25, 1785: “Had Peas for the (first) time in the season at Dinner.”

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