As a young surveyor and before serving as our country's first president, George Washington developed the ability to measure up a landscape and to take advantage of its natural features. He also had an eye for spatial awareness. Washington learned by observation, by reading, and by the study of new styles of landscape design.
Later, he put those skills to use creating a landscape plant for his now-historic home, Mount Vernon in Fairfax, along the banks of the Potomac River, according to Mount Vernon curators.
The public can see Washington's vision and purpose for the estate's grounds in a new exhibit "Gardens & Groves: George Washington's Landscape and Mount Vernon." The exhibit includes five 18th-century views of Mount Vernon – oil paintings of the river and land fronts of the mansion. Two special drawings that detail the layout of the grounds will be on view through Sunday, Aug. 17, while the entire exhibit can be seen until January 2016.
"These artwork records record details of the landscape we would not otherwise know, information that continues to inform our ongoing research and restoration efforts," says exhibit curator Adam Erby.
Built in stages 1758-1778, Washington's estate and its gardens are owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which was founded as a preservation group in 1853.
When George Washington returned to Mount Vernon after the American Revolution, 1775-1783, he found the estate needed extensive repairs and improvements. The buildings and grounds surrounding the mansion lacked a cohesive design because they had happened over time out of necessity rather than beauty, according to curators. Instead, he wanted a plan for "pleasure grounds" that enhanced the site's natural beauty, which featured the crest of a hill overlooking the Potomac River.
Three of the four primary gardens — the upper or pleasure garden; the fruit garden and nursery; and the botanical garden — have all been restored to their 18th-century appearance, using recent research and archaeological evidence as guidelines.
"The lower or kitchen garden remains as it was implemented in 1937, based on research at the time and its design is reflective of the Colonial Revival landscape movement," says Dean Norton, director of horticulture
Washington included a modern greenhouse in the upper garden, according to curators.
Completed in 1789, the building housed his semi-tropical and tropical plants during winter months. In the spring, container plants were put out in the garden. Tall triple-hung windows allowed beneficial southern light, and could be opened to allow good air flow. A heating system with a stove room on the north side of the greenhouse attached to a series of flues that ran under the stone floor, heating the floor of the greenhouse.
The lower or kitchen garden was the first space created in 1760. It was a garden of necessity, benefiting survival and good health. For 254 years, vegetables, fruits and berries have been cultivated within those garden walls.
The upper garden began in 1763 as a fruit and nut garden but became a pleasure place when Washington began his new landscape plan. Pleasure gardens — plots of flowers were grown for beauty and not for use — were not that common in the 18th century. Even in Washington's pleasure garden, flowers were only grown in borders that surrounded larger beds of edibles.
The botanical garden was Washington's own experimental space. He fondly called this small space his little garden and kept detailed records as to what he planted and where, according to curators. The space was intended to try out different types of plants that might be "Virginia-proof," or could survive the harsh conditions of both winter and the summer.
The area known as the fruit garden and nursery began as a failed attempt at a vineyard, according to curators. Today, fruit trees are planted in the arrangement that Washington recorded in his diaries. The nursery area was where plants that required more space were planted: grasses, vegetables and ornamentals.
At age 16, in his "Journal of my Journey over the Mountains" he wrote "… about 4 miles higher up the river we went through the most beautiful Groves of Sugar trees & spent the best part of the Day admiring the Trees and the richness of the land."
Washington loved nature and upon return from the Revolutionary War he decided to mimic nature by creating a naturalistic garden. He spent 18 months on the design. Once it was completed, he returned to his passion — farming — and let the gardeners he hired take care of day-to-day maintenance.
Through his letters and diary entries, Washington left a great deal of information about his plans for Mount Vernon Estate. And there are a few drawings, for example, the arrangement of greenhouse spaces and the ha-ha wall (a landscape barrier that keeps grazing animals from entering turf spaces) on the east lawn.