February is when we honor the presidents of the United States for their many accomplishments and sacrifices for our country. While President Bush has indicated he does not grow broccoli in the vegetable garden at the White House, many previous presidents have been involved in agriculture and horticulture.
Washington's birthday reminds us of the great work that he did for our country. I recently made a delightful visit to his estate at Mount Vernon. It was a great experience from both a horticultural and historical perspective. Washington was an avid devotee of the study of agriculture and, at one time, his estate was over 8,000 acres divided into five farms.Washington once wrote, "My agricultural pursuits and rural amusements . . . have been the most pleasant occupation of my life and the most congenial to my temper, not withstanding that a small portion of it has been spent this way." Throughout his life he was an agricultural pioneer, constantly experimenting with new crops and techniques to improve agricultural productivity.
He understood the importance of soil improvement and eventually abandoned tobacco (the principal cash crop in Virginia) because it depleted the soil and provided no food. After he abandoned tobacco as a farm crop, he shifted to grain and other food crops and developed a thriving agricultural enterprise. He experimented with fertilizers and crops and tested as many as 60 different new crops in his fields and gardens.
The Mount Vernon gardens produced an abundance of fruits, vegetables, herbs and other edible crops. One early visitor describes the beautiful greenhouse as a "complete green-house, which at this season is a vast, great source of pleasure. Plants from every part of the world seem to flourish in the neatly furnished apartment."
In addition to the greenhouse, beautiful espalier fruit trees grace the garden. Strawberries, raspberries, grapes and gooseberries are grown. Washington maintained an experimental garden for growing new plant varieties brought to him by the many visitors he received as general and as president.
Mount Vernon today has beautifully restored gardens and greenhouse areas. The gardens were restored and are maintained by the Mount Vernon Lady's Association of the Union and are open for public tours. They are a short distance from Washington D.C., and are easily reached by the Washington Metro Bus Lines and various tour companies.
Another interesting presidential garden to visit is the Thomas Jefferson Gardens at Monticello. Jefferson once wrote, "I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well-watered and near a good market for their production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."
The site of Monticello was neither fertile nor well-watered, and when Jefferson built his home there, there was no nearby market for produce. Nonetheless, he was very devoted to his garden, and later in his life a letter to a friend said, "though an old man I am but a young gardener."
Monticello is located near Charlottesville in the hill country of Virginia. It is easy to drive to, but the public transportation is difficult. The gardens and homes have been restored and are maintained by the University of Virginia. Both are open to public tours. The home is a delight to visit, and some of the trees planted by Jefferson still survive. The gardens are planted with historically appropriate varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Jefferson's garden office has also been restored. It is a small building in the middle of the vegetable patch and was a favorite place to spend time writing and reading.
Jefferson recorded a great deal of information about his horticultural endeavors. He was one of the first meteorologists and regularly recorded weather conditions, temperatures and other pertinent data. He recorded the bloom dates of ornamental and fruit trees and planting and harvest dates of other crops in his garden. At one time he was experimenting with more than 60 varieties of beans in his gardens, and he kept extensive notes on varieties, production problems and other pertinent data.
Jefferson concluded that he could save a great deal of labor in the garden by constructing it on four levels. He clearly understood the value of soil improvement because he records the first level had 60 to 70 loads of manure prior to tilling. His diary showed he planted almost 400 fruit and shade trees of all varieties. His gardens were well-organized, and the terraces or levels were designated for fruits, roots and leaves. The fruit section was not an orchard but grew vine crops, including cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, peas and beans. The roots included carrots, beets and onions. The crops on the leaf level included lettuce, spinach, broccoli and cabbage.
Jefferson also used many ornamental plants, but kept fewer accounts on these. Later, as the founder of the University of Virginia, he promoted academic training in the botanical and horticultural sciences.
Washington and Jefferson may seem far removed from today's gardeners. One seed company that counted both presidents as customers is still in business. Landreth Seeds has been in business since 1784. Catalogs are available by sending $2 to Landreth's Seeds, 180-188 W. Ostend St., Baltimore, MD 21230.
Other presidents, no doubt, had favored agricultural enterprises, but Washington and Jefferson were the most innovative. President Bush's last name has a good horticultural ring, but he alienated the nation's broccoli growers with his comments. His wife has done her part to help promote the horticultural industry. In fact, the Barbara Bush rose was introduced this year.
Mount Vernon and Monticello and their gardens are fitting memorials to those early presidents who promoted horticulture as their vocation and hobby. As we remember and honor former presidents and their political prowess, it's nice to remember each had personal interests and accomplishments that made them even greater.