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Sowing the seeds of liberty

Our founding fathers’ passion for gardening

Created date

May 24th, 2011

While commanding troops through the worst of the Revolutionary War, George Washington kept close tabs on his beloved garden back home at Mount Vernon. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams grew frustrated at the glacial pace of trade negotiations they were conducting in England, they took a much-needed break through the British countryside, touring gardens in search of ideas and inspiration for landscapes in the newly formed U.S. James Madison s fascination with agricultural innovations made him one of the most respected farmers in early America and his belief in conservation made him the nation s first environmentalist. As Andrea Wulf makes clear in her fascinating new book, Founding Gardeners (Knopf, $30), gardening was more than a hobby for America s founding fathers. For them, the garden and landscape of their new nation was everything, embodying their passion, their livelihood, their politics, and their pleasure. How to make use of the fertile new land they lived on was of the utmost concern. Jefferson, for example, was determined to see the new nation become an agrarian republic and was forever preoccupied with finding crops that would thrive and allow the burgeoning nation to prosper. Throughout his life, Jefferson collected seeds and cuttings of promising plants and generously shared them with everyone he encountered.

Retiring to the garden

What was especially fascinating aboutFounding Gardenerswas how, despite all of their achievements and success, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison dreamed of retiring to their gardens; and upon leaving public life, each devoted himself to the land. I am constantly in my garden, Jefferson wrote when he retired to Monticello, exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington. Adams, whose lifelong fascination with fertilizer is detailed in the book, called himself the Farmer of Stony Field when he retired, adding that he had made a good exchange of honor and virtues, for manure. James Madison is described as looking forward to putting on his old gardening trousers, which were so worn that they were patched at the knees. When he did retire, Madison and his famous wife, Dolly, enjoyed their garden so much, a friend described them as like Adam and Eve in Paradise.

Mount Vernon

George Washington was also happy to trade the stress of public life for the ease of retirement. He spent his later years carefully monitoring his vast estate and the design of the landscape surrounding Mount Vernon. Wulf says that his very last correspondence was a 19-page report to his estate manager with instructions on crop rotations and manures. Contemporary visitors to Mount Vernon have long enjoyed touring the property s beautiful gardens. Over the years, however, some elements of those gardens strayed from Washington s original plan. When a gigantic boxwood hedge in the upper garden died a few years ago, it left a large space to fill. Mount Vernon s horticulturists saw that as an opportunity to restore the garden to Washington s original vision. They embarked on a three-year, forensic-style study of the upper gardens. It was really a complicated dig, say Dean Norton, Mount Vernon s director of horticulture. They were looking for a different type of soil or anything that would indicate how the garden originally looked. For example, we suspected that the original paths were ten feet wide and the archeology confirmed that. George Washington s Upper Garden at Mount Vernon reopened to visitors on May 20 with a new design that accurately reflects its appearance in 1799. The restored garden is both creative and practical, just as it was during George Washington s time, with three large planting beds for produce framed by beautiful flowering trees and perennials. We had so much information historical documents and eyewitness accounts of the time but the real picture was always a little fuzzy, says Norton. Archeology brought everything into clear focus, helping us realize what that garden really did look like in the 18th century. This is really the first time that people can see the garden as Washington and his gardener intended it to be. ' '

Touring the gardens

  • Mount Vernon, in Alexandria, Va., is open daily. In addition to gardens, visitors can tour the mansion to see original furnishings and mementos of Washington s distinguished career, visit his tomb, and explore a museum with numerous interactive displays about Washington. General admission is $15 ($14 for people 62-plus). The first floor of Mount Vernon is accessible, but some of the outdoor space includes steep or uneven terrain. Guests with accessibility questions should go to the guest services desk in the Ford Orientation Center. For more information, call 703-780-2000 (
  • Montpelier, James Madison s home, is in Orange, Va., two hours from Washington, D.C. Admission is $16. Admission includes a guided tour of the Madison home and access to the 2,650-acre gardens and grounds. The first floor of the mansion is wheelchair accessible. The garden is terraced, but can easily be enjoyed from the top tier. For more information, call 540-672-2728 (
  • Peacefield, John Adams home, is in Quincy, Mass. Part of the National Park Service, admission to Peacefield is a bargain at $5. National Park passes are accepted. Admission includes a two-hour tour of the three homes on the property. For disabled access, call ahead at 617-773-1177(
  • Monticello, Thomas Jefferson s home, is in Charlottesville, Va. Ticket prices vary seasonally between $17 and $22. Admission includes a tour of the first floor of the house and gardens. Open daily, but hours vary so check the website ( For questions about accessibility, call 434-984-9880 or email