Thursday, May 14, 2020

George Washington: Farmer, Horticulturist, & Landscape Gardener bitten by the Botany Bug

George Washington by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851

George Washington: Farmer  
Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) Ch 10  
The Horticulturist & Landscape Gardener

Washington's work as a horticulturist prior to the educating influences of the Revolution was mostly utilitarian. That he had a peach orchard as early as 1760 is proven by an entry in his diary for February 22: "Laid in part, the Worm of a fence round the Peach orchard." Just where this orchard stood I am not quite certain, but it was probably on the slope near the old tomb.

He learned how to propagate & "wed" his own trees & in 1763 was particularly active. On March 21st he recorded that he had "Grafted 40 cherries, viz 12 Bullock Hearts, 18 very fine May Cherry, 10 Coronation. Also grafted 12 Magnum Bonum Plums. Also planted 4 Nuts of the Mediterranean Pame in the Pen where the Chestnut grows--sticks by East. Note, the Cherrys & Plums came from Collo. Masons Nuts from Mr. Gr[een's.] Set out 55 cuttings of the Madeira Grape."

A little later he grafted quinces on pear & apple stocks; also he grafted "Spanish pairs," "Butter pears," "Bergamy Pears," "Newtown Pippins," "43 of the Maryland Red Strick," etc., & transplanted thirty-five young crab scions. These scions he obtained by planting the pumice of wild crab apples from which cider had been made. They were supposed to make hardier stocks than those grown from ordinary seeds.

He grafted many cherries, plums, etc., in March, 1764, & yet again in the spring of 1765, when he put English mulberry scions on wild mulberry stocks. In that year "Peter Green came to me a Gardener." In 1768 & 1771 he planted grapes in the inclosure below the vegetable garden & in March, 1775, he again grafted cherries & also planted peach seeds & seeds of the "Mississippi nut" or pecan.

Long before this he had begun to gather fruits from his early trees & vines. Being untroubled by San Jose scale & many other pests that now make life miserable to the fruit grower, he grew fine products & no doubt enjoyed them.

...by 1768 was beginning to think of beautifying his grounds. In that year he expressed a wish that he later carried out, namely to have about his mansion house every possible specimen of native tree or shrub noted for beauty of form, leaf or flower.

Even amid the trials of the Revolution this desire was not forgotten. In 1782 he directed Lund Washington, his manager, to plant locusts & other ornamental trees & shrubs at the ends of the house. He wrote that such trees would be more likely to live if taken from the open fields than from the woods because the change of environment would be less pronounced. To what extent the work was carried I have been unable to ascertain, for, as elsewhere stated, very little of his correspondence with his manager during these years survives.

He returned from the Revolution with a strong desire to beautify his estate, a desire in part due no doubt to seeing beautiful homes elsewhere & to contact with cultured people, both Americans & foreigners. One of his first tasks was to rebuild & enlarge his house. From a small house of eight rooms he transformed Mount Vernon into the present large mansion, ninety-six feet & four inches long by thirty-two feet in depth, with two floors & an attic, an immense cellar & the magnificent portico overlooking the Potomac. The plans & specifications he drew with his own hands, & those who have visited the place will hardly deny that the mansion fits well into its setting & that, architects tell us, is a prime consideration. The flagstones for the floor of the portico he imported from Whitehaven, England, & these still remain in place, though many are cracked or broken.

The portico runs the entire length of the house, is over fourteen feet deep & its floor is one hundred twenty-four feet ten & one-half inches above high water-mark, according to calculations made by Washington himself. From it one commands miles of the Potomac & of the Maryland shore & there are few such noble prospects in America. Washington owned a telescope & spy glasses & with them could watch the movements of ships & boats on the river. The portico was a sort of trysting place for the family & visitors on summer afternoons & evenings, & some of the thirty or so Windsor chairs bought for it are still in existence.

This was the second time our Farmer reconstructed his house, as in 1758-60 he had made numerous
alterations. In 1758 he paid John Patterson £328.0.5 for work done upon it, & the whole house was pretty thoroughly renovated & remodeled in preparation for the reception of a new mistress. In March, 1760, we find the owner contracting with William Triplett "to build me two houses in front of my house (plastering them also) & running walls to them from the great house & from the great house to the washouse & kitchen also." By the "front" he means the west front, as that part toward the river is really the rear of the mansion. Hitherto the house had stood detached & these walls were the originals of the colonnades, still a noticeable feature of the building.

Owing to the absence of a diary of his home activities during 1784 we can not trace in detail his work that year upon either his house or grounds, but we know such facts as that he was ordering materials for the house & that he had his French friend Malesherbes & others collecting vines & plants for him.

With January 1, 1785, he began a new diary, & from it we ascertain that on the twelfth, on a ride about his estate, he observed many trees & shrubs suitable for transplanting. Thereafter he rarely rode out without noticing some crab, holly, magnolia, pine or other young tree that would serve his purpose. He was more alive to the beauties of nature than he had once been, or at least more inclined to comment upon them. On an April day he notes that "the flower of the Sassafras was fully out & looked well--an intermixture of this & Red bud I conceive would look very pretty--the latter crowned with the former or vice versa." He was no gushing spring poet, but when the sap was running, the flowers blooming & the birds singing he felt it all in his heart--perhaps more deeply than do some who say more about it.

On January 19th of this year he began laying out his grounds on a new plan. This plan, as completed, provided for sunken walls or "Haw has!" at the ends of the mansion, & on the west front a large elliptical lawn or bowling green such as still exists there. Along the sides of the lawn he laid out a serpentine drive or carriage way, to be bordered with a great variety of shade trees on each side & a "Wilderness" on the outside. At the extreme west, where the entrance stood, the trees were omitted so that from the house one could see down a long vista, cut through the oaks & evergreens, the lodge gate three-quarters of a mile away. On each side of the opening in the lawn stood a small artificial mound, & just in front of the house a sun-dial by which each day, when the weather was clear, he set his watch. A sun-dial stands on the same spot now but, alas, it is not the original. That was given away or sold by one of the subsequent owners.

This same spring our Farmer records planting ivy, limes & lindens sent by his good friend Governor Clinton of New York; lilacs, mock oranges, aspen, mulberries, black gums, berried thorns, locusts, sassafras, magnolia, crabs, service berries, catalpas, papaws, honey locusts, a live oak from Norfolk, yews, aspens, swamp berries, hemlocks, twelve horse chestnut sent by "Light Horse Harry" Lee, twelve cuttings of tree box, buckeye nuts brought by him the preceding year from the mouth of Cheat River, eight nuts from a tree called "the Kentucke Coffee tree," a row of shell bark hickory nuts from New York, some filberts from "sister Lewis." His brother John sent him four barrels of holly seeds, which he sowed in the semicircle north of the front gate; in the south semicircle, from the kitchen to the south "Haw ha!"; & from the servants' hall to the north "Haw ha!"

Nor did he neglect more utilitarian work, for in April he grafted many cherries, pears & other fruit trees. Such work was continued at intervals till his death.

In raising fruit, as in many other things, he was troubled by the thieving propensities of the slaves. September tenth of this year he records that because of the scarcity of apples & the depredations that were being committed "every Night upon the few I have, I found it necessary (tho much too early) to gather & put them up for Winter use."

The spring of 1785 proved an exceptionally dry one & he was forced to be absent from home several days, leaving the care of the trees & shrubs to his careless lazy servants. He records that they said that they watered them according to directions, but he seems to doubt it. At all events, "Most of my transplanted trees have a sickly look.--The small Pines in the Wilderness are entirely dead.--The larger ones in the Walks, for the most part appear to be alive (as yet)--almost the whole of the Holly are dead--many of the Ivy, wch. before looked healthy & well seem to be declining--few of the Crab trees had put forth leaves; not a single Ash tree has unfolded its buds; whether owing to the trees declining or any other cause, I know not.... The lime trees, which had some appearance of Budding when I went away, are now withering--and the Horse chestnut & Tree box from Colo. Harry Lee's discover little signs of shooting.--the Hemlock is almost entirely dead, & bereft of their leaves;--and so are the live Oak.--In short half the Trees in the Shrubberies & many in the Walk are dead & declin[in]g."

Nevertheless he refused to be discouraged & proceeded to plant forty-eight mahogany tree seeds brought by his nephew, George A. Washington, from the West Indies. He also set out a "Palmetto Royal" in the garden & sowed or planted sandbox trees, palmettos, physic nuts, pride of Chinas, live oaks, accacias, bird peppers, "Caya pepper," privet, guinea grass, & a great variety of Chinese grasses, the names of which, such as "In che fa," "all san fa" "se lon fa," he gravely set down in his diary.

The dry weather continued & presently he notes that all the poplars, black gums & pines, most of the mulberries, all of the crab apples & papaws, most of the hemlock & sassafras, & several of the cedars are dead, while the tops of the live oaks are dead but shoots are coming up from the trunks & roots. The Chinese grasses are in a bad way, & those that have come up are almost entirely destroyed either by insects or drought. None of this grass survived the winter, though he took the trouble to cover it with straw.

During the fall of 1785 & spring of 1786 he sowed the lawn with English grass seeds, replaced the dead trees in the serpentine walks & shrubberies, & sent two hundred & fifteen apple trees to his River Plantation. He made the two low mounds already mentioned & planted thereon weeping willows. He set out stocks of imported hawthorns, four yellow jessamines, twenty-five of the Palinurus for hedges, forty-six pistacia nuts & seventy-five pyramidical cypress, which last were brought to him by the botanist Michaux from the King of France. As 1786 was one of the wettest summers ever known, his plants & trees lived better than they had done the preceding year.

During this period & until the end of his life he was constantly receiving trees & shrubs from various parts of the world. Thus in 1794 he sent to Alexandria by Thomas Jefferson a bundle of "Poccon [pecan] or Illinois nut," which in some way had come to him at Philadelphia. He instructed the gardener to set these out at Mount Vernon, also to sow some seeds of the East India hemp that had been left in his care. The same year thirty-nine varieties of tropical plants, including the bread fruit tree, came to him from a well wisher in Jamaica. At other times he sowed seeds of the cucumber tree, chickory & "colliflower" & planted ivy & wild honeysuckle. Again he once more planted pecans & hickory nuts. It can hardly be that at his advanced age he expected to derive any personal good from either of these trees, but he was very fond of nuts, eating great quantities for dessert, & the liking inclined him to grow trees that produced them. In this, as in many other matters, he planted for the benefit of posterity.

In order to care for his exotic plants he built adjoining the upper garden a considerable conservatory or hothouse. In this he placed many of the plants sent to him as presents & also purchased many others from the collection of the celebrated botanist, John Bartram, at Philadelphia. The structure, together with the servants' quarters adjoining, was burned down in December, 1835, & when the historian Lossing visited Mount Vernon in 1858 nothing remained of these buildings except bare walls crumbling to decay. Of the movable plants that had belonged to Washington there remained in 1858 only a lemon tree, a century plant & a sago palm, all of which have since died. The conservatory & servants' quarters have, however, been rebuilt & the conservatory restocked with plants such as Washington kept in it. The buildings probably look much as they did in his time.

One of the sights to-day at Mount Vernon is the formal garden, which all who have visited the place will remember. Strangely enough it seems impossible to discover exactly when this was laid out as it now stands. The guides follow tradition & tell visitors that Washington set out the box hedge, the principal feature, after his marriage, & that he told Martha that she should be mistress of this flower garden & he the master of the vegetable garden. It is barely possible that he did set out the hedges at that time, but, if so, it must have been in 1759, for no mention is made of it in the diary begun in 1760. In April, 1785, we find by his diary that he planted twelve cuttings of the "tree box" & again in the spring of 1787 he planted in his shrubberies some holly trees, "also ... some of the slips of the tree box." But of box hedges I can find no mention in any of the papers I have seen. One guess is about as good as another, & I am inclined to believe that if they were planted in his time, it was done during his presidency by one of his gardeners, perhaps Butler or the German, Ehler. They may have been set out long after his death. At all events the garden was modeled after the formal gardens of Europe & the idea was not original with him.

East of the formal garden lies a plot of ground that he used for agricultural experiments. The vegetable garden was south of the Bowling Green & separated from it by a brick wall. Here utility was lord & a great profusion of products was raised for the table. Washington took an interest in its management & I have found an entry in his diary recording the day that green peas were available for the first time that year. Evidently he was fond of them.

The bent of our Farmer's mind was to the practical, yet he took pride in the appearance of his estate. "I shall begrudge no reasonable expense that will contribute to the improvement & neatness of my farms," he wrote one of his managers, "for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, & everything trim, handsome, & thriving about them; nor nothing hurts me more than to find them otherwise."

Live hedges tend to make a place look well & it was probably this & his passion for trees that caused Washington to go in extensively for hedges about his farms. They took the place of wooden fences & saved trees & also grew more trees & bushes. His ordinary course in building a fence was to have a trench dug on each side of the line & the dirt thrown toward the center. Upon the ridge thus formed he built a post & rail fence & along it planted cedars, locusts, pines, briars or thorn bushes to discourage cattle & other stock. The trenches not only increased the efficiency of the fence but also served as ditches. In many places they are still discernible. The lines of the hedges are also often marked in many places by trees which, though few or none can be the originals, are descended from the roots or seeds of those trees. Cedar & locust trees are particularly noticeable.

In 1794 our Farmer had five thousand white thorn sent from England for hedge purposes, but they arrived late in the spring & few survived & even these did not thrive very well. Another time he sent from Philadelphia two bushels of honey locust seed to be planted in his nursery. These are only instances of his activities in this direction.