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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

America’s First Gardening Presidents

What do Presidents have to do with gardening? Well, as it happens, America's first and third Presidents George Washington (1732-1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were avid farmers and gardeners, Washington at Mount Vernon and Jefferson at Monticello.
Mount Vernon in 1807.
First published in "The Stranger in America,"
by Charles. W. Janson.
Courtesy of New York Historical Society

Washington inherited Mount Vernon, located along the Potomac River in Virginia, in 1754 and landscaped 500 acres of the 8,000 acre estate. His diaries and letters reveal how he planned the grounds which included kitchen, flower and parterre gardens, an orangery or greenhouse and a small botanical garden that was used for experimenting with various plants.

 Jefferson chose to build Monticello on a mountaintop (Monticello means “little mountain”) overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Coastal Plain of Virginia. He kept an extensive garden journal from 1766 to 1824 which has served as an invaluable record for the restoration of his gardens as well as other Colonial-era gardens. The style of both Washington and Jefferson’s gardens embraced the 18th century English manner of ornamental landscaping called fermee ornée which combined the garden and picturesque landscape into a harmonious whole.

Vegetable garden at Monticello.
Garden Club of America Collection
Archives of American Gardens

While both Washington and Jefferson were heavily involved in the plans for their gardens, their civic duties (including their two terms each as President) kept them away from their homesteads for long periods of time. Despite these political obligations, both held a deep love for the land as evidenced in their writings. Washington wrote, “…to be a cultivator of Land has been my favorite amusement” and Jefferson, writing to artist Charles Wilson Peale stated, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no comparable to that of the garden. I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

If you are wondering about America’s second President, John Adams, he too was a gardener and farmer -- just not on the same scale as Washington and Jefferson.

The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens includes historic glass lantern slide images of both Mount Vernon and Monticello that underscore the role that garden clubs played in the historic preservation of these properties. Many of the Mount Vernon images included in the Smithsonian's online catalog were published in the Gardens of Colony and State by Alice G. B. Lockwood.

For archival material on Mount Vernon and Monticello, see the Mount Vernon's Library and Special Collections and Thomas Jefferson's Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

-Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

1 comment:

  1. I loved this discussion of Washington and Jefferson. They showed how deep the English style of gardening lies in the American psyche. The use of the lawn, the emphasis on the picturesque, and the ferme orne reflect English garden writers of the 18th century.