Secrets in the Soil

For years, researchers have been studying Mount Vernon’s Upper Garden, trying to crack a mystery: what plants and flowers did George and Martha Washington plant there in the 1790s?

They’ve been digging again at Mount Vernon. For the last five years, Esther White, director of archaeology, and her team have been sifting through the soil in the property’s Upper Garden searching for clues about its original layout and plantings. The result? Plans for a revamped Upper Garden—set to debut in April next year—that will more accurately than ever before represent how it would have looked in the 1790s when our nation’s first president updated the space.

The biggest revelation from the current dig is the shape and location of the Upper Garden beds. The earliest photographs of the garden, circa 1900, show crescent-shaped beds that follow the arc of the garden wall. As recently as 1985, when the Victorian-era rose gardens were removed, researchers believed that the crescent beds were original to Washington’s day. However, current archaeological excavations date the crescent beds to the mid-19th century when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association first began restoring the property. In those early years, the Association wanted a beautiful garden that reflected favorably on the stature and historic importance of George Washington: They were less interested in historical accuracy.

Though researchers also attempted to identify the flowers the Washingtons may have grown by analyzing clues in the soil, and though some evidence was found that ornamental plants including asters, saxifrage, lilies and ranunculus might have been present, the mystery of what George Washington grew in his Upper Garden beds lingers. Researchers have pored over Washington’s notebooks, farm accounts and journals. He kept copious records about trees, shrubs and edible plants on the estate, but recorded nothing about annuals or perennials. He just wasn’t that into flowers.  

Accounts from visitors before 1790 describe the Upper and Lower kitchen gardens, but refer only to fruits and vegetables. But historians know that, later in the 1790s, flowers were planted. How? Because Mount Vernon’s records of the period include debit accounts for “sundrie flower seed bought for Mrs. Washington,” and visitors to Mount Vernon during that decade described seeing flowers in the Upper Garden in their letters and journals. One notable visitor, English architect Benjamin Latrobe, wrote in his journal in July 1796: “On one side of the lawn is a plain Kitchen garden, on the other side a neat flower garden laid out in squares, and boxed with great precission [sic].” 

Latrobe’s journal entries about his visit to Mount Vernon have been a rich resource for researchers. A particularly scathing entry highlights a duality in Washington’s approach to landscape design. Latrobe wrote: “For the first time again since I left Germany I saw here a parterre, clipped and trimmed with infinite care into the form of a richly flourished Fleur-de-Lis: The expiring groans I hope of our Grandfather’s pedantry.” As Latrobe observed, on the one hand, Washington was steeped in the classical tradition of ordered, symmetrical and formal design. On the other, Washington was aware that the latest trend for English country estates was to create more natural picturesque landscapes with serpentine paths and informal plantings. He wanted to be in step with the latest fashions.

To help him in his mission to update the look of his estate, Washington sent to England in 1758 for a copy of Batty Langley’s book New Principles of Gardening, a best-selling how-to book of the time. Langley, a maven of taste, advocated a more romantic natural style of landscaping instead of the strict formality and symmetry that were popular during the 17th and early part of the 18th centuries. Langley advised, “In the Planting of Groves, you must observe a regular Irregularity; not planting them according to the common method like an Orchard, with their Trees in straight lines … but in a rural Manner, as if they had received their Situation by Nature itself.”

Inspired by Langley’s advice, Washington had the entrance road to Mount Vernon rerouted in 1786.  Originally it ran in a straight line to the front courtyard along the central axis of the mansion. Where the road had been, Washington created an open space with a swath of lawn he called his Bowling Green. On both sides he planted groves of trees so he had an uninterrupted view across grass from his front door westward, framed on either side with his “wilderness” of trees.  This design is the iconic view of the mansion we have today.

The Upper and Lower Gardens were also part of Washington’s 1786 garden overhaul. Revamping the matched rectangles that intruded into the main view from the house, Washington had each walled garden space reshaped into the form of curved shields and relocated them behind the groves of trees that run along the front drive. These were his kitchen gardens, and recent research indicates that the beds were shaped and planted in straight lines, efficient for the important job of providing fresh fruit and vegetables for the household.

Yet it is clear that by the 1790s the Upper Garden also had flowers.  Perhaps the handsome, two-story brick greenhouse, which was finished in 1789, inspired the more ornamental direction the Upper Garden began to take.  Or perhaps Martha requested the flowers. Reading the documents, a picture emerges of George Washington—fascinated with trees and large-scale landscaping, while Martha was ordering flower seeds to beautify the upper kitchen garden and to provide flowers for the house.

When it is unveiled next spring, the newly planted Upper Garden will consist of two large rectangular beds and two shield-shaped beds that follow the lines of the space. These beds will be bordered with low, tightly clipped boxwood hedges. Immediately inside the boxwood will be a three-foot border of flowers interspersed with fruit trees. Rows of vegetables will fill the middle, and make a bull’s eye within the square.

Though state-of-the-art techniques have been used for the archaeological work at Mount Vernon over the last five years, the staff is well aware that what is considered good science today may be obsolete tomorrow. “Our knowledge today may be laughed at 150 years from now,” says White. She and her team have been careful not to disturb most of the garden space; once a dig disturbs the soil, it is destroyed for future research. Because of this, 10 percent of the older soil has been taken out, mapped and recorded. Ninety percent of the garden was left untouched for future generations to research. The plan is to build up and level off the garden by one foot, especially in the lower areas, in order to preserve what’s underneath.

Nevertheless, when the newly laid out and planted Upper Garden is revealed next year, it will be the most accurate representation to date of what the garden was like in the 1790s when George Washington himself walked its paths.  If he could return, he would feel right at home. • 

Note: The Upper Garden is closed for restoration work and should reopen around October 4th.

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