Learning from the Lawn

The gardens tell us how Washington used his land. He grew crops. He planted exotic flowers. He showed off his wealth and power. What else can we learn by studying the land? Let’s look at Washington’s bowling green.

A bowling green is an area of closely mowed grass. The one at Mount Vernon looks like a huge front lawn. That may not seem like a big deal. Yet, in the 18th century, land was expensive and precious. Most people used their land for other purposes, like farming.

Washington, however, chose to keep
a tidy lawn rather than cultivate it with crops.
It showed visitors that he had more than enough land and money. He could even set aside some land just for show. This is another example of nature acting as a primary source. It tells us about a person, a place, and a period in time.

Now look more closely. Remember, in Washington’s time, there were no lawn mowers. Who kept the lawn so neat? It fell to Washington’s enslaved laborers to drag a heavy roller across the grass and then use a blade to cut it by hand. This required a lot of physical labor.

Mount Vernon's bowling green is a large, manicured lawn.

a view of Mount Vernon from above

Learning from the Land

When I visited Mount Vernon, I looked closely at the gardens. I learned about the history of the place through them. Yet, the gardens are only a starting point! I could also look at the fields, the orchards, and the river there to get more clues.

Primary sources come in many forms. Now you know how nature and the natural landscape can be used to learn about the past.