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Washington weeded here.

George Washington took an immense pride in his 8,000-acre estate, Mount Vernon, situated high above the Potomac River in northern Virginia- he man ed his lands ener- getically and knowledgeably. A visitor to the estate in 1785 described his host in a way that might surprise many: "His greatest pride is, to be thought the first farmer in America. He is quite a Cincinnatus."

And of himself, the first president of our country said, "Agriculture has ever been the most favorite amusement of my life." Some may well be surprised at George Washington's passion for horticulture and for gardening-but they are not gardeners, surely. And they are not farmers.

A stroll along the paths and through the gardens of Mount Vernon reveals to a visitor, today, a plan that worked well in the 18th century and enchants visitors still. George Washington was his own landscape architect, and the plants and trees he chose were carefully selected and tended to. They are beautiful, still; several are, in fact, the very trees the general planted.

All his life he was especially impressed by the majesty of trees, and his writings often reveal his dee interest in growing things. He once wrote of his delight in "making improvements on the earth," and even at age 16, while surveying in the wilderness, he wrote in his journal, [S]pent the best part of the Day admiring the Trees & the richness of the Land."

Many a majestic tree catches the eyes of the visitors to Mount Vernon; on a steamy summer's day, their shade is admired as well. A look skyward from the serpentine paths leading to the mansion reveals the extraordinary size, and beauty, of a white ash or a tulip poplar. Many of those trees remaining from the time of the Washingtons were planted in the year 1785. And other huge specimens are the offspring of trees the general planted.

Washington planted his property with 100 varieties of trees and shrubs, including such exotics as pomegranate and Japan allspice. His greenhouse provided shelter for many a tropical plant, including lemon, lime, banana, and coffee plants. The botanical garden, too, was often filled with experimental plantings. Washington tried his hand at raising cayenne pepper, guinea grass, and such peculiarly named plants as bird pepper, birding grass, and painted lady pea.

The upper and lower gardens grew flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs; these gardens are quiet, lovely, and filled to brimming with plants George Washington would have selected during his 42-year reign at the plantation. There's cockscomb, eye-catching and in startling good health, as well as marigolds, crown imperial, asters, larkspur, and an odd little flowering plant named love-lies-bleeding. Fruit trees trained on espaliers proliferate, today as in the 18th century, and eggplants grow right next to the French artichokes, okra, and lavender.

George Washington's diaries are full of the details of his gardens, from the planting schedules to the condition of the produce to the extreme weather the seeds often had to withstand. An entry from one of his diaries reveals the impersonal manner he used in his jottings, but at the same time the words would be music to a farmer's ears. Only four lines were written on Friday, July 31, 1761:

Sowd turnips-upon which fell a heavy Rain immediately-so

that they were neither Rakd nor harrowed in-the seed I mean. In a few days they came

up very thick and well.

George Washington seemed to have understood the nature of the land as the best of our farmers and gardeners do today . But even our national hero and first president had his gardening difficulties; not every planting was successful, and usually the weather was at fault. In the spring of 1792, 196 plants were delivered to Mount Vernon from a nursery in Philadelphia. In the autumn 39 more had to be purchased to replace those lost during a long, hot summer.

Still, who can deny that summers are a lovely time in a garden? The growth is lush, the displays are lavish, and there's a stillness about a summer garden that does not exist in the other seasons.

And when the heat of summer is at its muggy worst and when the haze in the sky turns a summer's day oppressive, then that is the time to stroll through a peaceful garden any garden. When we need a little something extra, well, that's when a garden seems to be the most giving.

The folks with the green thumbs know that there's something universal in every garden, an ambience made up mostly of feelings. Others sense it too-not just gardeners. A formal and well-tended garden gives comfort to many, and for some, so does a wild garden. There are feelings of whimsy and gentleness present in gardens. Some gardens offer a refreshing escape from a busy schedule or troubled thoughts or, simply, offer a feeling of peace.

Feelings. That's what gardens are all about. George Washington felt the pleasure of the garden deep in his soul. And when we breathe in the life of a garden, any garden, we each understand the nurturing offered there -and we become aware that there could be a bit of the Cincinnatus in each of us.

When you visit

Mount Vernon Mansion is just 15 miles form Washington, DC. Take the "South to Mount Vernon" exit off the 14th Street Bridge and follow the George Washington Memorial Parkway the entire 15 miles. Just 7 miles south of Washington you'll pass through the historic seaport town of Old Town Alexandria; this is a lovely place to visit and dine. The Mount Vernon Estate is open every day of the year. The hours form March through October are 9 to 5; and from November through February, 9 to 4 daily/ Ther's a snack bar at the entrance as well as an elegant restaurant. Cruise to Mount Vernon if you'd like. The Spirit of Mt. Vernon leaves Washington from Pier 14 & Water Street SW and travels the Potomac River from DC to Mount Vernon in spring, summer, and early fall.

For Further Information

Mount Vernon can be reached by calling 703-780-2000. For information on touring in northern Virginia, contact Alexandria Tourist Council, 221 King St., Alexandria, VA 22314. In Fairfax County, Virginia, write the Office of Tourism and Visitors Services, 8300 Boone Blvd., Suite 450, Vienna, VA 22180. In nearby DC write the Washington Convention and Visitors Association, 1575 I St. NW, Suite 250, Washington DC 20005.

Additional Reading?

A book titled The Gardens & Grounds at Mount Vernon (How George Washington Planned and Planted Them), by Elizabeth Kellam de Forest, is available from the museum shop at the estate. Write: Mount Vernon Museum Shop, Mount Vernon, VA 22121.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:gardens of Mount Vernon
Author:Lopez, Jane Ford
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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