A highlight from 125 - Cultivating History: Exploring George Washington's Mount Vernon Garden - Dean Norton


The Garden Question is a podcast for people that love designing, building, and growing smarter gardens that work. Listen in as we talk with successful garden designers, builders, and growers, discovering their stories along with how they think, work, and grow. This is your next step in creating a beautiful, year -round, environmentally connected, low -maintenance, and healthy, thriving outdoor space. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or an expert, there will always be something inspiring when you listen to The Garden Question podcast. Hello, I'm your host, Craig McManus. Dean Norton fell in love with the Mount Vernon Estate Gardens 53 years ago and never left. After receiving a degree in horticulture from Clemson University, he began his career as the estate's boxwood gardener. The historical gardens of the first president of the United States, George Washington, became his responsibility in 1980. His promotion to horticulturalists allowed him to apply the latest plant science and horticultural management techniques for historical gardens. Dean has devoted considerable time to researching 18th century gardens and gardening practices. He has received awards for conservation from the DAR and the Garden Club of America, as well as the Garden Club of America's Elizabeth Craig Weaver Proctor National Medal. He is an honorary member of the Garden Club of Virginia and the Garden Club of Providence. He has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Washington College, serves on several historic property boards, and lectures nationally and internationally. This is Episode 125, Cultivating History, Exploring George Washington's Mount Vernon Garden, with Dean Norton, an encore presentation and remix of Episode 64. Dean, why did General George Washington, the first president of the United States, garden? Well, he really gardened for necessity. The earliest gardens were called gardens of necessity for health and survival. Of course, the most important plant to be planted within a garden were vegetables, something that you were going to have at the dinner table to eat. Vegetables were huge to him. Even during the Revolutionary War, he wanted to make sure that his troops were getting as many vegetables as they could whenever possible. I would not actually call him a gardener per se, but for a year and a half, he became a designer. He totally redid his country seat from a very simplistic design to one following naturalistic design principles. Then that landscape were four very fine gardens that he oversaw. What story does the Mount Vernon Garden tell? Tell us the story of a man that wanted his gardening world to be complete, I would say. He had a very small botanic garden, which he fondly called his little garden. When he was here on site, he was typically doing that work himself on his knees, planting seed and seedling saplings. He kept such good records in that little tiny garden that we were able to recreate that quite nicely. His earliest gardens were a fruit and nut garden and a kitchen garden, but when he changed his design, the kitchen garden remained as it is. The fruit and nut garden became a pleasure garden with vegetables in there as well, which is kind of an interesting combination. He had a vineyard for a while, but the grapes failed, and that became a fruit garden and nursery. The nursery was for plants that he could grow to plant on other areas of the estate and also to grow things just for collection of seed. What is today's mission for the garden? Today's mission for the garden is interpretation. We are trying to share with our visitors what life was like in the 18th century, why these gardens were important. Certainly after 1785, the gardens took on a new role, which was for people to come when he had created here at Mount Vernon. The story of gardeners themselves, the gardeners that Washington hired through the Articles of Indenture, also the enslaved gardeners that worked with the professional gardener to cultivate till to harvest. It's a great story. It's one that we thoroughly enjoy telling. Gardening really hasn't changed much from the 18th century, so the more we're out there digging in the earth, we think of those gardeners from the past. Today's visitors, how do they respond? I'll tell you what, when they come through the gates and they get to the Bowling Green Gate and see the house for the first time, that's exactly what they were expecting to see, this beautiful house that Washington lived in. But then the further they go into the landscape, they're really totally blown away by the amount of landscape and gardens that Washington had. They weren't expecting that at all. I think the gardens are well received, and I think that the stories we tell throughout the estate in so many different areas are certainly appreciated by our visitors. The garden's been there for about two and a half centuries. You've told us that there's four gardens that make up the Mount Vernon Garden. Could we walk through each one of those and you tell us about them? Sure. The panic garden is a simple garden, very small. It was intended to plant things that Washington was not familiar with, although sometimes other things that he knew quite well ended up in there as well. He received 500 Chinese seed, which he planted in one of the beds. None of them came up. So actually, we could show one of the beds with nothing but bare dirt and we would be exactly correct. That was his playground, and he truly loved getting plants he wasn't familiar with and planting them in there, and he did most of the work in there himself. There was an area that he started a vineyard, hoping to get some grapes for making wine, but that failed. That four -acre area became a fruit garden and nursery. Washington kept such good records that the fruit trees are planted exactly as he describes in that particular enclosure. Part of it is a nursery as well, where he grew trees and shrubs, also some other grasses and things just for the collection of seed. The kitchen garden was the first garden laid out in 1760, and that has been cultivated as a kitchen garden since 1760. It's never changed in its purpose, which is the only garden like that on the estate. Both the kitchen garden and fruit nut garden were an acre in size, so that's a significant garden. The nut garden changed from a garden of necessity to a pleasure garden, and that was meant to be the aha moment. When people were strolling around the Bowling Green, they could look through that gate, they saw a beautiful conservatory. The idea was to walk in there and just enjoy the beauty of the flowers, and those flowers were there for their enjoyment and not for their use. I think his gardening world was quite complete. You said the conservatory, would that be the greenhouse? That's correct. It had a greenhouse that he copied from a lovely property called Mount Clare, just to the north of Baltimore. The owner was Margaret Carroll. He asked for permission for some information, and she was thrilled and gave him all that he needed, even his first plants for his collection, to get his greenhouse started. I started studying that greenhouse in pictures. When I think greenhouse, I think a glass top or a plastic top or something like that, and this was constructed quite different. Could you tell us about how it was constructed and it was heated? The greenhouses in the 18th century typically just had glass panes on the south side, this was southern exposure. Also typically they were triple home windows, so you could open top and bottom to allow for good air circulation. This was quite modern, very good. It had a vaulted ceiling, so hot air didn't get trapped up at the corners. It had a wood door on the west side of the structure to keep afternoon sun from coming in. It was too hot. A glass door on the east side to allow morning sun in. It had shutters that closed very tight, so in the wintertime when you got whatever heat you could get from the solar energy, you could close those shutters and retain the heat overnight. It was heated by a stove room on the opposite side of the structure. The fire pit was quite low, and that hot air and smoke would go underneath the slate floor in the greenhouse and then rise up along the back wall and out the chimney. It was very efficient. It housed the semi -tropical plants and citrus trees in the winter. Not for them to continue to fruit, so he had lemons and limes and all that. Just to keep them alive in the wintertime. In all these gardens, he's combining beauty with necessity. How did he accomplish that? The one garden that really does that beautifully is the upper garden, or pleasure garden. He wanted a pleasure garden. He wanted the aha moment when someone walked into there. It's a 10 -foot -wide path, edged in boxwood with this greenhouse at the end. He was concerned, though, in that he didn't want to lose a lot of space to the growth of vegetables, which were still the most important plant that he grew on the property. 18th century horticulture said, look, George, you can do both. Plant your vegetables and then surround them with a border of flowers. The border could be three feet, five feet, whatever you so decide. It's the border that's actually the pleasure garden. So you're really not losing that much space to growing vegetables. How did Washington change his gardens to enhance Mount Vernon's natural beauty? He adopted the naturalistic style. There are four key elements of that. The curve line is nature's gift, management of surprises, random planting, and hidden barriers. If you can do those four things, you're well on your way to a wonderful naturalistic design. The management of surprises, the curve line helps you with that. Around each bend, you can do something different. The book that he's learning all these techniques from was written by a gentleman named Batty Langley. He wrote the book in 1728 called New Principles of Gardening. Washington purchased it in 1759. Langley goes in, he says, once you've seen one quarter of your garden, you should not have seen it all. There's nothing more shocking and stiff than a regular garden. He said every garden must have good shade. If you have to walk more than 20 paces in full sun, your walk is not worth it. Washington really took all these thoughts and comments to heart and made sure he put trees on either side of his serpentine avenues. Around each bend, he added shrubberies in wilderness areas and groves. It really was a complete landscape, and it was all just trying to stay within the qualifications or the requirements of a naturalistic garden. There are many historical events that took place away from Mount Vernon. For long periods of time, Washington was gone. How did he stay in touch with his garden and its growing? Much to his demise, much to our benefit, Washington, during the 45 years he lived here at Mount Vernon, he was away for 16 years, only visiting his house a couple times during all that time. When he is away, he's communicating with the land manager with lengthy letters, three, four, five pages long, giving him instructions to do this, make sure that is done, have you planted this, I want to try to do this next. We have that exchange of letters. Gives us a tremendous advantage in being able to represent Mount Vernon as accurately as we do in today's world. You should be considered the current garden overseer, but there's been many that have come before you. Have you got any good overseer stories about your predecessors? Yeah, there's some. I'm number 37. I don't know if that number is exactly correct, but I'm honored to be the current gardener, whatever number I am. They were all pretty competent in their practices. Washington called one clever because he was so good at grafting trees. Probably one of the cutest ones is when Washington's trying to hire a gardener. He's writing to his land manager saying that the gardener should not have any children, but if he does, only one, but certainly no more than two. He just keeps going on and on, giving almost any option possible for the gardener. He was always looking for the Scottish gardener because they were some of the best. I'm thrilled to be following in the footsteps of so many great gardeners. I hope that I'm continuing their tradition of maintaining a beautiful Mount Vernon. Tell us about the people that worked in the gardens during Washington's time. He hired gardeners under the Articles of Indenture, so they would come over, he would pay their way, and they would have to work that to pay Washington back. Some of them stayed for many years. There was a German gardener named John Christian Eller who was here for a number of years. They had a bit of a falling out, but apparently after Washington passed away, he actually returned because there is something in the notes about a German gardener saying that he used to work here. There is one from Holland, England, and then of course you had your Scottish gardener at the very end of his life, which Washington said that he was dedicated, sober, passionate about his work, and that in short, he's the best hired servant I've ever had. What makes it even better is that he says he has never been happier. I think that's really wonderful, and it certainly rings true for me. For being here at Mount Vernon as long as I have, my life here as a gardener has been a very happy experience. What did the garden go through between Washington's death and until the time it was bought by its current owners? It started to fall and disappear rapidly. Visitors' accounts have been occurring since Washington lived here. People visiting, and they write in their diaries or letters to friends, which is tremendously valuable to us, for that is our Polaroid to the past. Washington died in 1799, and visitors in 1801, 1802 are saying that it's deteriorating, it doesn't look anything like it did during Washington's time, so things just started to fall apart a little bit. You didn't have the money, you didn't have the dedication maybe to do as well. Not to say that work wasn't being done and things weren't being cleaned up as best as possible, but definitely it was noticeable to visitors that it was in a bit of disarray. When the Ladies Association purchased the property in 1858, things started to change, of course, quickly. And of course, Mount Vernon is in their hands today, it's a beautiful, beautiful site. Did they buy it from the family? They bought it from John Augustine Washington, the fourth Washington that owned the property before it was sold to the ladies. It cost them $200 ,000, and with that they received 200 acres, where others said you should take everything down but the mansion, because that's all that's important. They made the decision that they wanted to keep everything that was there during Washington's time, which was absolutely the right thing to do. We have all the outbuildings. It's an amazing opportunity for visitors to come to see an estate, a plantation, as it was during the time of the owner. Are there new discoveries being made through modern archaeology and research, or do you feel like you've re -established everything there? No, there are new discoveries all the time. It's amazing. Archaeology, the science, is becoming more and more exact all the time, with radar and LiDAR flyovers and just all these wonderful techniques that they now have. We're still finding letters that we didn't have before. Eventually we may find the plan that Washington did for the Bowling Green. We have the plan's key that is in his hand, but we don't have the actual plan itself. You can never write the final chapter in this adventure that we're in here from Washington's time till now. We try to represent things as accurately as we can, but we may find a new letter or something that will totally alter our interpretation of what we were using or going on to create an area that we thought was accurate, but new information may change that, and we will go back and make those changes so that it's historically accurate. Where did Washington acquire his plants? Initially, the landscape was completed by nothing but trees and shrubs that he found in his wildernesses surrounding Mount Vernon. So it's certainly a native landscape, and he identified these plants in the wintertime by structure and bud and had them dug and brought back. He did say that he was looking for exotics. He loved plants of all sorts. Now, we don't know if an exotic to him was Mexico or South Carolina, but what we do know is he said he wanted plants outside of his geographic area. People sent him gifts of plants often. Also he ordered from three of the principal nurseries of the time, John Bartram in Philadelphia, William Hamilton in New York, and Prince on Long Island. He ordered a lot of these plants and that he was experimenting with and putting within his landscape. I heard a story about a Franklin tree. Was that ever a part of the estate? The Franklinia, I think it was actually ordered from Philadelphia, and we've tried to grow them any number of times. We can't get them to survive. They're very finicky. They need to be in a spot they're really happy with, and so far we haven't found that spot on the estate, unfortunately. What's the significance of the Bond Plan? A gentleman named Samuel Vaughan visited Mount Vernon in 1784, I think it was, or 83. He was a landscape designer. He did a good bit of work up in the Philadelphia area, actually did some work around Independence Hall. He came and visited Mount Vernon, and in his sketchbook drew the plan of the estate, and then went back to Philadelphia. We drew a beautiful big plan that was very, very accurate. Washington said that you've drawn my estate accurately except that you've enclosed the view with trees, and so the only problem that Washington states is when looking from the house down the Bowling Green, down a vista to the forest beyond, there were two willow mounds that were planted on the Bowling Green. They weren't meant to act as punctuation points. No planting would occur within that, so you had a wide open view to the west. Whatever reason, Vaughan decided to draw trees all in there. In Washington's eye, it was all correct except for that. So it's a beautiful plan, archaeologists have used it, and all the buildings that he shows on that plan are where they find them when they dig in the soil. So he was recording the existence and not proposing new things. There's been some debate about that because Vaughan was a designer, and some say, well, how do we know that this is something Washington had, or was Vaughan drawing what he thought it should be? The written account seemed to support what Vaughan was drawing was accurate. So it's all about interpretation. We could look at two passages somewhere and interpret it both totally differently. I think the Vaughan plan is amazing. I think it's as accurate as we can possibly get. You've mentioned the Bowling Green a couple of times. What grass did they use in the Bowling Green? Their grass was called goosegrass or speargrass. They also had rye, and it's even bluegrass. It was a very coarse grass. Coarse grass was kind of important, actually, because they mowed it with the English sigh, and a very fine -bladed grass would be very difficult to cut with that implement, whereas the wider -bladed grass, they could cut quite nicely if they had a good sharp edge on their sigh, and the sickle, of course, would have been the weed eater. The Bowling Green was meant for games and entertaining and would have been mowed on a regular basis, rigged, rolled, and mowed right up until you may have a drought or something where the grass would stop growing, just like we have in an experience today. What variety do you grow there now? Weeds. It's just, I'm serious. It looks great from a distance, but if you walk up on it, it's just clover and creeping Charlie, and if it's green, I'm fine. We don't want to use chemicals on the lawn. We have a lot of visitors, a lot of children running around, so it's just as natural as possible. We overseed and everything, but no, just don't look too closely. Well, that'd be more accurate to the period, I guess. You know, I don't know. It'd be interesting to see the grass back then. It was maintained in a way that it was intended for them to bowl. They had lots of games with the hoops and other things, so it was used a great deal as a green for entertaining. How do you cut it now? Oh, we have John Deere's to go 13 miles an hour. It's pretty nice. You know, front deck mowers, it's great. Is that a reel? No, my goodness, no. Years ago when I started, our only riding mower was a Toro reel. Now, nothing against Toro, okay, but that thing never worked. Poor man that was operating, he was a World War II vet, and he was always in the shop just standing here waiting for his mower to work. So no, it's not a reel. My dad had a reel mower, and he was always working on it too. My dad's way to fix anything was with a screwdriver, not to actually tighten any screws. He would just beat on it. He was so upset. You've got the serpentine pass. What materials did they use? It was a combination of gravel and clay, pea gravel, smaller grade gravel, and it was cobblestone up around the circle in front of the mansion. Washington said if he could find any alternative form of paving, he would certainly use it because gravel roads were constant maintenance of raking, rolling, adding new gravel to keep them from being muddy all the time. That's exactly what was used in the gardens as well, was a gravel type path. Is that gravel mine from the Potomac? Washington talks about a gravel pit. It would seem as if they got a lot of it from the Potomac, and they would have sifted it to get the right size stone that they wanted. I think there were a couple sources, but not real clear on it. What kind of staff does it take to maintain all this? In horticulture, my responsibility has to do with anything that deals with chlorophyll and manure. The gardeners, just like in the 18th century, they said a garden an acre in size will require one full -time gardener, and so every principal garden we have is one full -time gardener working in that spot. Then we have a swing gardener that does all the smaller gardens and helps in the other gardens as well. We have a landscape gardener that takes care of all the non -exhibition areas. It's truly bare bones. We have some summertime help, college students, some high school. College students love it. We give them as much opportunity to learn whatever they want if they want to work in the greenhouse or use equipment. It's a really great program that we have for that. Then we have our livestock crew. We have five full -time livestock employees that maintain the genetic line of three very rare breeds, and those animals are here for interpretation as well. One thing I just want to share is that Mount Vernon is a very special place. People come and they don't leave real quickly. I've got almost 53 years. Our five livestock staff combined have 92 years of service here at Mount Vernon. It's just truly amazing. Wow. What type of livestock? We have a milking red devon, beautiful reddish -brown cow, aussebal island hogs, hog island sheep, and a Narragansett turkey. So all these are on exhibition at our Pioneer Farmers site, which is a site that we created in the 1990s down near the river. That's a site where we interpret Washington the farmer. That's the livestock's playground. They get to take the animals down there, the oxen, the horses, and work the fields. So it's really very exciting. It helps bring the estate to life. Are you taking the manures and the straw and things like that and using it in compost, or how does that all work? 100 percent. That's all we use. We have huge piles that we are able to windrow with using a manure spreader. We always have these windrows, just these lines of the material that is whipped around by the manure spreader. The row is about maybe eight feet wide, ten feet wide, and it's about six feet high. The oldest windrow is used as the fertilizer used in the gardens. And once that's gone, we windrow the next row over to aerate it again. We just always have a source of compost that we can use in the gardens, and it just works out beautifully for us. How long does it typically age? It doesn't take long, really. We have a pile that's been here for so long that even stuff that is not that old, maybe three months or so, when you mix it up with the other, it turns out very, very well. In the 18th century, Washington would take manure from the stables and just put them in a dung repository for a fortnight or two. You're only talking two or four weeks, and then they thought it was readily available for the gardens. So it was much more rapid for them than it is for us. Are there any special approaches that you take to maintaining a historical garden? The approach to maintaining a historic garden really is visual. We want them to see a garden that is planted in the manner that would have been in the 18th century. We want them to see what an 18th century garden looked like. As far as our actual practices, it is really no different than what would have been going on in the 18th century. Our tools may be a little sturdier, a little nicer, rakes, shovels, soil life, and everyone has one of those on their bill. You can do anything with those. As far as planting, we're definitely concerned about height derangement more than color coordination. We want to make sure the plants we plant are appropriate to the 18th century. Paths, the box which should be trimmed, are very short. They were never intended to be a backdrop for perennials, just as a border. That's the main thing. We want it to look right. The way we take care of it, that hasn't changed for 250 years. What are your biggest challenges with the garden? People, compaction, really the damage that comes from, especially kids, I used to share that the worst pest we can have is a child that's been on a bus for five hours from somewhere, gets here and the chaperones go, go, go, and they just start running. Back when we had big boxwood, they would just go and run and jump in and break a branch of a 150 year old boxwood within 10 seconds and that's hard to control with any kind of spray or whatever. But I developed to have a hard trap that was a bit larger. I found out I put an iPad or something in there, I could catch five or six at a time and I would let them off at the West Gate. The chaperones would eventually find them, but at least we got them out of the garden.

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