flowers in George Washington's garden

It’s summer. I’m standing in George Washington’s garden. I don’t think he’d mind. He’s been dead for more than 220 years! But the garden is still here. It’s on his estate, Mount Vernon, in Virginia. The garden today is a lot like the one our first president enjoyed. How did researchers find out what to plant?

They learned about the past by studying primary sources. That’s something that was created at the time they are studying. They also turned to artifacts like journals or farming tools. Nature can also be used as a primary source.

The General’s Garden

Writing can tell us a lot about the past, but not everything. In the case of Mount Vernon, there are few written records. Washington kept some notes. We know that there were four main gardens on the grounds.

Washington added rows of vegetables to each planting bed.

Boxwoods were cut into fancy shapes.

The upper garden was filled with flowers, bushes, and exotic trees. This formal garden provided a space for Washington to entertain guests.

Fruits and vegetables grew in the lower garden. This garden was just for food.

Washington used another small garden as a laboratory. He tested different plants to see if they could grow well in Virginia’s soil.

Lastly, Washington had a fruit garden and nursery. He wanted to have a vineyard. But grapes did not grow well on his land.

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





map of Mount Vernon

Tending the Garden

Washington did not tend to these gardens alone. Enslaved people worked the land for him. They were able to read and write. So they also kept lists and made drawings of what was planted.

Researchers today checked the written sources. They checked other sources, too. They looked at the soil.

At Mount Vernon, scientists can analyze soil to learn about its fertility. This can tell why certain kinds of crops grew at Mount Vernon. It can also give clues about Washington’s farming practices. Researchers wanted to know more!

a drawing of alpine squill wildflowers

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

The garden was regrown in 1985, but it was not like Washington’s garden. The team wanted to make the garden look like the original. They looked at a series of plans drawn by a planter named Samuel Vaughan. He visited Mount Vernon in 1787.