Mount Vernon, the estate of our country’s first president, consists of more than six acres containing four separate gardens. George Washington used these gardens to test new varieties of plants, produce food for the kitchen, and provide lush flower displays.
During the late 1700s, the upper garden became flower beds laid out in squares edged with boxwood and surrounded with fruit trees, shrubs, roses, annual and perennial flowers. Currently on display in the center of each large bed are many types of cultivated vegetables.
President Washington designed a formal boxwood French fleur-de-lis to be added to this area. It is speculated that this was to thank France for coming to the aid of America in the Revolutionary War and to honor his friend Marquis de Lafayette.
The sunny kitchen garden was located behind the stables, which provided a never-ending manure supply. Presently this display area contains seasonal beds of lettuce, onions, beets, artichokes, beans, spinach, asparagus, and low-growing herbs.
Much of George Washington’s personal time was spent experimenting with plants. For example, he had a small enclosed garden where he quietly tested previously untried seeds, tending them as they grew and journaling the results. Friends and admirers occasionally sent him seeds for study.
After the Revolutionary War, he developed a nursery where he planted wheat, other grains, grasses, and varieties of vegetables. His sole purpose of this was to produce seeds for his farm so that it could become self-sufficient.
Later, President Thomas Jefferson added to the horticultural knowledge of his time. Monticello, his expansive estate, was a living laboratory of mainly vegetable gardens, perfect for this compulsive keeper of records. Over 300 varieties of more than 90 different plants were grown. Included were some considered “exotics” of their time, including chickpeas, eggplant, sesame, kale, and tomatoes. Orchards contained more than 170 varieties of fruit trees and grapes.
Meticulously documented by Jefferson were: proven planting procedures, recommended distance between the rows, when the first buds appeared, along with precise harvesting methods and times. Found in his many journals are also references of his garden failures. In one entry he stated that if he failed 99 times out of 100, “that one success was worth the 99 failures!”
Thanks to these two early presidents, as well as the many volunteers who have kept their gardening interests alive, we can still visit these horticultural laboratories. Demonstrated is the evolution of many of the same edible and ornamental plants grown today. Or why not consider celebrating Presidents Day by simply enjoying a quiet walk through a local public garden?
Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.