It’s summer 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 big news is that the garden on his estate, Mount Vernon, in Virginia, is still here. It is visited by about a million people a year.
The garden today is similar to the one that Washington enjoyed. A team of experts worked hard to recreate it as it was in 1787. How did they do it?
Historians learn about the past by studying primary sources. That’s something that was created at the time. They also turn to artifacts like letters, diaries, or items like farming tools. Nature can also be a primary source.
The General’s Garden
Writing tells us a lot about the past, but not everything. It can only tell us what the writer thought was important. Have you ever kept a diary? What 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, there were few written records. Washington kept notes on what was being planted. 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. They were planted in patterns. This formal garden provided a space for Washington to entertain guests.
He had a large garden just for food, too. Fruits and vegetables grew in the lower garden.
Washington used a small garden as a laboratory. He tested different plants to see if they could thrive in Virginia's soil.
Lastly, Washington’s failed attempt to grow grapes resulted in a fruit garden and nursery instead of a vineyard.
The lower garden was used to grow most of the food for Mount Vernon.
Tending the Garden
Washington did not tend to these gardens all by himself. About 90 enslaved people tended the land for him.
These gardeners also kept lists because some were able to read and write. They made drawings of what was planted, when, and where.
Today, historians checked other sources, too. They looked at the soil itself.
Scientists at Mount Vernon can analyze soil to learn about its fertility. The ability of the soil to sustain plant growth. This can indicate why Washington grew certain kinds of crops—and why he used the farming techniques that he did. But a team of researchers wanted to know more!
In a letter from 1798, a friend sent Washington a few scarlet alpine strawberry seeds.
The team worked to make the garden as historically accurate as possible. They started with a series of plans drawn by Samuel Vaughan. He was an English merchant who visited Mount Vernon in 1787. From this research, they could tell that the garden, regrown in 1985, was not accurate.