Eric Liskey

Washington: Founding gardener

I vacationed with the family in Virginia last week, and took in some of the tourist sights. Among them, Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home. It’s one of the premiere historical destinations on the East Coast, for good and obvious reasons. (If you haven’t seen it, put it on  your list — it’s first-rate.)

Washington is THE giant of American history, with a pretty impressive resume — defeatin’ the British, becoming the first president, stuff like that. So it’s not surprising that some of his other talents have gotten overlooked. I discovered during my visit to Mt. Vernon that he was quite a progressive farmer and horticulturist. Granted, he was away most of the time and so others did the actual work of tending the property and gardens (not that you would expect otherwise, given Washington’s wealth and status). Nevertheless, he took a keen  interest in plant varieties, propagation, and landscape design. We know this because Washington’s voluminous writings have been almost entirely preserved, and in them we discover his meticulous instructions—one of Washington’s trademarks—to his plantation overseers.

Washington's rebuilt greenhouse, with gardens

Washington had an intense desire for self-sufficiency, for himself and for America. In that day, that meant independence not only from British political domination, but from British commercial domination as well. (England was the source of so much of what American’s consumed, a dependency Washington wished to bring to a halt.) This motivated Washington to make Mt. Vernon as self-sustaining as possible. Among other things, it led him to a peculiar interest in saving seeds, as well as soil enrichment. He understood—in an era when most planters simply farmed the ground until it was exhausted and then moved on—that soil needed replenishment and crops needed to be rotated. One of the more interesting sights at Mt. Vernon (interesting to gardeners, at least) is a composter. It’s a reconstruction of the original, where he composted plant material, animal waste, and even human waste. He was quite a recycler. “George Washington” and “sustainability”: Two phrases you don’t normally see in the same sentence! But you should.

Jefferson’s Monticello is better known for its gardens  than Mt. Vernon, but I thought the latter, together with its demonstration farm was quite beautiful and just as impressive. Some might argue that point, but who cares. If you’re ever in Virginia, see them both!

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