Mount Vernon's New Old Garden

Digs & Discoveries September 1, 2011


For at least the past century and a half, those strolling the grounds of George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens have gazed upon historical inaccuracy. Until recently, the property's one-acre-large, Gothic arch-shaped Upper Garden did not appear as it was in 1799, when the first U.S. president passed away at his home. It had become a maze of narrow paths and, especially in recent years, its design aesthetic was hostage to overgrown, aging boxwoods. While its caretakers have tried to ensure that everything displayed at the estate is as it was when Washington died, when it was discovered that the boxwoods were first planted in the 1800s, Dean Norton, Mount Vernon's director of horticulture, recalls, "We suspected we had gotten many features in the garden wrong."

Six years ago, Norton began work to return the garden to the layout it had when Washington was on his deathbed. The team who helped solve that puzzle was made up of archaeologists led by Mount Vernon's director of archaeology, Esther White. By excavating a corner of the garden and investigating soil as she went down, White uncovered the 1799 configuration of the planting
beds and pathways.

White carried out digs starting in 2005, eventually excavating roughly 15 percent of the plot. Six inches down, she and her team found traces of the garden George Washington might have tended. (Like many founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Washington was an avid gardener.) Two and a half feet below that were disturbances in the soil that indicated there had once been rows of two-foot-wide squares dug into the earth—the remains of the mid-eighteenth-century fruit tree nursery that Washington planted over. By mapping soil quality, layers, and trenches over time and inputting them into geographical information systems (GIS) technology, White accurately tracked the evolution of the garden's layout over two centuries.

"GIS allowed us to see the framework of the paths," says White. Prior to the archaeological work, the garden had crescent-shaped patches of plantings at the top of the arch. From White's analysis, it turned out the crescents were not an original part of the garden. They had superseded long, linear rows in the nineteenth century. "The 1799 beds were large and rectangular," says White. So, they've returned.

Today's configuration is the seventh of the garden's lifetime. The GIS work also directed them to trim back the boxwood fringe that overwhelmed the area and narrowed footpaths to three feet wide. Today visitors can stroll three 10-foot-wide paths through the garden and around its perimeter. White also wanted to know what plant species Washington had cultivated, but she hit a snag. Analysis of pollen and phytoliths (microscopic silica crystals left behind by certain plants) indicated that the soil was marred by an overabundance of clay, so White couldn't tell which plants should be there. "We are still in the process of analyzing soil chemistry data, but the high clay content can present problems," White says. "Clay has an acidic pH which eats away at microscopic pollen grains. So this is something for future study."

Norton replanted three beds largely with sweet william, snapdragons, violas, and other flowers surrounding rows of vegetables—cabbage, onions, beans, and more. Until White is able to get more information from the soil, the crew at Mount Vernon won't know if they are right. "Washington's diaries and writings, visitors' accounts, gardeners' weekly reports, and eighteenth-century gardening books began to give us a picture of how the garden looked," he explains. "Then archaeology provided us with the ability to adjust the focus and to say, 'Aha! George Washington's Upper Garden as it was in 1799.'"

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