Tuesday, December 20, 2011

George Washington - Founding Native Gardener

I am NOT a history buff. Trying to wade through the details of what happened ages ago, regardless of the impact those events had on present day life, isn’t something that would normally hold my attention. The same is true of most biographies. So before I picked up Andrea Wulf’s book, Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, I have to admit that I knew very little about George Washington, other than the fact that he was the first president of the United States. But now I feel as if I know the man intimately. Why? Because now I know how he felt about his gardens.

“His love for his country was deeply rooted in his passion for nature, agriculture and gardens.” To me, one of the best ways to get to know someone is to walk with them through their gardens, listening to their stories of how they discovered certain plants, the struggles and secrets they have learned in growing them, and why they particularly like one species over another. Ms. Wulf has provided all of that information, not just about George Washington, but about some of the other Founding Fathers of our country such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. But nothing in this book is as staid or boring as many history books. Wulf is an elegant writer that brings the details of history to life through the eyes of devoted and dedicated gardeners who seemed to be forever planning their gardens, even when miles away fighting for our country. “…the condition of his soil and the new shoots of spring were far closer to Washington’s heart than any strategy of war.”

In 1776, while Washington is preparing to defend Manhattan from 32,000 invading British troops, Wulf writes: “Washington brushed aside his generals and his military maps, sat in the flicker of candlelight with his quill and wrote a long letter to his estate manager and cousin Lund Washington at Mount Vernon, his plantation in Virginia. As the city braced itself, Washington pondered the voluptuous blossom of rhododendron, the sculptured flowers of mountain laurel and the perfect pink of crab apple. These “clever kinds[s] of Trees (especially flowering ones,” he instructed, should be planted in two groves by either side of his house.”

Wulf goes on to describe WHY thoughts of his garden were so dominant in Washington’s mind. Washington was planning an American Garden. “Washington’s new garden was to be truly American, a radical departure from the traditional colonial plots, for it was the first ornamental garden to be planted almost exclusively with native species.”

“Only American natives should be used, he instructed, and all could be transplanted from the forests of Mount Vernon. As the young nation faced its first military confrontation in the name of liberty, Washington decided that Mount Vernon was to be an American garden where English trees were not allowed.” So Washington’s “native” garden was as much a political statement as it was for any other reason.

I had never really thought of state or country loyalty when listing all the benefits of native plants. (I prefer them primarily for their ease of maintenance and wildlife value.) But if you are a history buff, an avid gardener, or both, I encourage you to read Founding Gardeners, or give it as a gift to the good little gardeners on your list. And once you receive it, I encourage you to go outside, find a quiet spot, and allow yourself to be immersed in the history of our Founding Gardeners.

“Washington recommended that the troops make “regimental Gardens” in order to produce vegetables for army rations and also because he believe it would be healthy and comforting for his men – what we would call therapeutic.”

Now its your turn to answer the question. Why do you have native plants in your landscape?

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