flowers in George Washington's garden

It’s a beautiful summer day, and I’m standing in the middle of George Washington’s garden. I don’t think he’d mind. He’s been dead for more than 220 years. The bigger news is that the garden on the estate of our first president is still here and blooming. I’m not the only visitor. Mount Vernon, located about
28 kilometers (18 miles) outside of Washington, D.C., is visited by about a million people every year.

The plants, flowers, bushes, and trees that are in the garden today are similar to those that Washington planted when he lived here. A team of researchers and archaeologists worked hard to recreate the garden as it was in 1787. It was no easy task. How did they know what to plant?

Historians learn about the past by studying primary sources. That’s something that was created at the time under study. Often historians turn to artifacts like letters, diaries, manuscripts, maps, or items like clothing or jewelry. But, did you know that nature can also be used as a primary source?

The General’s Garden

Written documents tell us a lot about the past, but not everything. They can only tell us what the writer thought was important enough to record. Have you ever kept a diary? What sorts of things did you write down? What did you leave out? I’m guessing your diary only told a piece of your story.

In the case of Mount Vernon, historians did have a lot of written records. Washington kept notes on what was being planted back home, even when he was a general fighting in the Revolutionary War. We know that there were four main gardens on the grounds.

At the center of each upper garden planting bed, Washington installed rows of vegetables. 

These upper garden boxwoods were sculpted into fancy shapes.

The upper garden was filled with flowers, bushes, and exotic trees that were planted in patterns. It had fruits and vegetables hidden in the center. This formal garden provided a beautiful space for Washington to enjoy and entertain guests.

Running so large an estate meant that Washington had a lot of mouths to feed. So, he had a large garden just for food, too. Fruits and vegetables grew in plenty in the lower garden.

Washington used his small botanic garden as a laboratory. It’s where he tested different plants to see if they could thrive in Virginia's soil. Friends and admirers would send him seeds, bulbs, and cuttings from all over the world to test.

Lastly, Washington’s failed attempt at a vineyard turned into a fruit garden and nursery. Grapes did not thrive there, but other fruits did.

The lower garden was used to grow most of the food for Mount Vernon.





map of Mount Vernon

Tending the Garden

Washington did not tend to these gardens all by himself. About 90 enslaved people tended the land for him. Although most enslaved people were illiterate, Washington’s gardeners could read and write. They kept detailed lists and made drawings of what was planted, when, and where.

Washington closely supervised these lists. But historians turned to other sources of information to verify the written records. They looked at the soil itself.

Scientists at Mount Vernon can analyze soil to learn about its fertility. This can reveal clues about Washington’s farming techniques. It can also indicate why Washington grew certain kinds of crops at Mount Vernon.

a drawing of alpine squill wildflowers

In a letter from 1798, a friend sent Washington a few scarlet alpine strawberry seeds.

Jason Boroughs, Mount Vernon’s historic archaeologist, has spent a lot of time digging in the dirt. Mount Vernon’s team of archaeologists and researchers spent five years in Washington’s upper garden.

The team worked, surveying, excavating, and analyzing the garden to make it as historically accurate as possible. They started with a series of plans drawn by a man named Samuel Vaughan. Vaughan was an English merchant who visited Mount Vernon in 1787. They consulted Vaughan’s plans then looked at the garden itself. It had been regrown in 1985, but they could see that what had been planted wasn’t historically accurate.