Mount Vernon: George Washington’s landscaper

Updated Oct 11, 2019
Photo: PixabayPhoto: Pixabay

We all know George Washington. He was our first president, a great general, an ardent patriot and visionary founding father. And he was a landscaper, though maybe not in the modern sense of the profession.

But it’s interesting to note that of all his accomplishments, Washington always considered himself first and foremost a farmer. He was also passionate about the grounds surrounding his Mount Vernon estate near Washington, D.C.

Mount Vernon was Washington’s pride and joy. It was also a showcase estate for the young nation’s most prominent leader. In 1798, for example, Mount Vernon played host to more than 600 overnight visitors.

So it was crucial for the estate to produce enough food to feed all those guests – but Washington was determined that it ranked in appearance with the finest gardens and courts in Europe. To do this he read and researched landscaping and corresponded with experts around the world, constantly striving to improve the grounds surrounding the mansion. Visitors from around the world commented in letters and journals on the beauty and grace that defined Mount Vernon.

Those same letters and journals, as well as Washington’s extensive writings, are important sources for preserving the grounds around Mount Vernon today. The estate’s director of horticulture, Dean Norton, draws heavily on them as he seeks to authentically recreate Mount Vernon as it appeared in the late 18th century.

Norton maintains an almost mystic connection to Mount Vernon’s grounds. “It’s my life,” he freely notes. Norton started as a grounds man when he was 16 and he is still here.

“I was fortunate enough to have the former horticulturalist take an interest in me and encourage me to pursue a degree in his field,” he says. “And when he retired, I stepped into his shoes. I met my wife here, and my four daughters look on this place as their backyard. I love it here.”

Norton’s passion for Mount Vernon is readily apparent. Just like the mansion’s famous founder, he likes to ride the grounds early in the morning – although Norton opts for a utility vehicle instead of on horseback as Washington would have.

“Washington was a stickler for detail,” Norton notes. “And that’s why it takes a very special person to recognize and to pay attention to the detail I look for every day when I walk around.”

Norton picks trash up off a gravel walkway and then points to a vein of dead branches in a boxwood shrub near the mansion.

“When you develop a good crew – which we have – you get a lot of work done and make the estate look really good. But there’s a drawback: Once everything’s in great shape, it doesn’t take much to make it look bad. One dead branch really stands out. But if there were a lot of dead branches, well, not many visitors notice. But I do. And Washington would’ve nipped it off or told somebody to take care of it. He wanted his home to look pristine, and he hired people he felt could make that happen. And he was disappointed when it didn’t.”

Commercial solutions for a historic site

Mount Vernon is host to more than 1 million visitors a year. So Norton’s nine-man crew must work quickly and be as invisible as possible in order to maintain the historic feel that makes a Mount Vernon visit so memorable.

“We used to start at 7:30 a.m. – the estate opens at 9 a.m. – but we got smart,” Norton says. “Since we can do anything we want, use any type of equipment we want as long as there are no visitors on the grounds, we decided to start at 6:30 a.m., which gives us 2 1/2 hours to do whatever we want – which is great.”

Keying in on speed and efficiency has led Norton and his chief groundskeeper to use many of the same solutions residential and commercial landscapers use.

“You live and die by the equipment you have,” Norton notes. “We’ve got to work fast, make it look as good as possible and get out of there.”

One of the best moves Norton says they’ve made was to buy a landscape trailer that carries their trimmers, mowers and other gear on one platform. Now they can drive right up to the mansion grab the equipment, get the work done and get out of there.

Norton’s crew already uses diesel-powered John Deere 935 tractors to cut grass, but is considering adding zero-turn mowers in the near future.

A perennial mystery

Unlike many memorial sites, Norton is not so much interested in color and ambiance in his plantings as he is in historical accuracy.

“The landscape is a fairly easy thing to duplicate because Washington referred often to the trees and shrubs he was planting,” Norton explains.

But, Norton is quick to note, flowers are a different story. “In all of the historical documents, there are only five or six flowers mentioned,” he says. “And none of those are mentioned directly by Washington.”

In most cases, it’s writings by visitors to the estate who reference flowers. But Washington, Norton says, was a farmer first, a landscaper second, and not a self-professed gardener at all. The ornamental nurseries were left in the hands of hired experts – usually Scottish gardeners who were considered the best in the business in the 18th century.

“We’re not really sure how much Washington cared about flowers,” Norton admits. “But we do know that if he was going to have a garden it was going to be well-tended because the idea was to impress his guests.”

Norton feels a real passion for Mount Vernon and looks hard to find similar sentiments in his employees.

“I can teach someone grounds keeping or horticulture skills,” he says, “but you can’t teach passion. We’re the caretakers of a very special place. I remind my workers to work really hard. But I also remind them to take a few minutes to look at what you’ve done, soak it in and relish it. We do good work here, and I think if General Washington returned today, he’d be very pleased with how we’ve maintained his home.”

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